Jared Kushner’s Unparalleled Corruption

There’s probably no easier way to make money than to be a close relative of a high elected official. We don’t have to dig back that far for examples. Before he went into politics, George W. Bush dabbled in the oil business, and failed, but he kept failing upward because his daddy was President of the United States. The name “George Bush” was worth something on a letterhead, even if Bush himself wasn’t much to brag about. So the boy stumbled and failed upward into cushier positions and bigger money. “Whenever he’s struck a dry hole, someone has always been willing to fill it with money for him,” it says here. He’s remembered by one executive who gave him a high-level position that he added “no value” to the company but was good for telling dirty jokes at board meetings.

I wrote about Hunter Biden and his Ukraine job back in 2019, before the infamous “I would like you to do us a favor” phone call between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky. And before Hunter Biden’s laptop became the Great White Whale of right-wing politics. Like George W. Bush before him, Hunter Biden was paid outrageous amounts of money so that the Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma could put the name “Biden” on its letterhead. What Hunter actually did in the job, I do not know.

At one point, you might remember, the job of Vice President Joe Biden and Hunter Biden’s Burisma gig came within a degree of separation. The European Union and the United States came to the conclusion that Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, was corrupt and needed to go. Vice President Biden was sent to Ukraine to deliver the message “that the West wanted Shokin gone or else loan guarantees would be held up, and Shokin was, in turn, fired,” it says here.

“But Shokin, of course, didn’t want to go down on the theory that he was corrupt or incompetent,” the Vox article continues. “So he started offering another theory: he was fired for going after Burisma by Joe Biden operating on behalf of Hunter Biden.” Whether firing Shokin made any difference to Burisma isn’t clear; stories conflict. But this is how Hunter Biden got on Trump’s radar, and how the name “Hunter Biden” became fixed in right-wing mythology, right up there with “Hillary Clinton” and “George Soros.” Merely to say a name is to evoke unspeakable evil; no evidence or even a coherent story of what the evil is need be given.

But now we get to Jared Kushner and the $2 billion payment from Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman that I mentioned in the last post.

Kushner is a guy so good at failing up he makes George W. Bush look like an amateur. I have looked at Kushner’s career and have yet to find an example of him not screwing up, even when he made money. He turned the once-hip New York Observer into an advertising circular for the Upper East Side, for example. (See also I worked for Jared Kushner. He’s the wrong businessman to reinvent government.) He nearly destroyed the family real estate business by sinking $1.8 billion into the purchase of 666 Fifth Avenue, the Titanic of white elephants, right before the 2008 financial sector meltdown. There is copious evidence that U.S. foreign policy was manipulated to put pressure on Qatar investors to bail out Kushner and take the building off his hands.

In the Trump Administration, he was given a huge portfolio of tasks, of which he accomplished nothing measurable that I can see. The Middle East peace plan? Seriously? The archive of articles about how Jared screwed up the covid response could fill libraries. See, for example, How Jared Kushner’s Secret Testing Plan “Went Poof Into Thin Air” in Vanity Fair. Jared’s efforts to obtain ventilators and other covid medical supplies in 2020 were a master class in incompetence, if not worse. See, for example, How Kushner’s Volunteer Force Led a Fumbling Hunt for Medical Supplies. I still think Jared and other Trumps were engaged in profiteering when people’s lives were on the line.

So Jared is, basically, a walking screw-up who has never had to face the consequences of his own incompetence. In that, he’s a lot like his father in law.

No reasonable person expects Jared’s new private equity firm to be a roaring success. MBS’s financial advisers thought Kushner’s firm to be a joke. Some of the $2 billion is being held until Kushner hires a “qualified investment team,” which apparently Kushner hadn’t thought of before asking for investments. And by all accounts the Saudi investment is about all the money Jared’s start-up can boast. But MBS must think the money is a good investment. Especially when there’s a chance Donald will be elected to another term. See:

Ryan Bort, Rolling Stone, Gee, Wonder Why Mohammed Bin Salman Personally Intervened to Give Jared Kushner $2 Billion

Steve Benen, MSNBC, Why Jared Kushner’s Saudi Arabian money is impossible to defend

Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer, Did Jared Kushner just get a $2 billion bribe?

Philip Bump, Washington Post, You say a president’s relative is part of iffy international deals?

As unfair as it might be, there is nothing illegal about a company giving a big job to the unqualified child of a president or vice president, just so a name will be associated with the company. On its face there’s nothing illegal about Mohammed bin Salman giving Jared Kushner’s firm $2 billion. But I really don’t want to hear another word about the damn laptop. The Right won’t shut up about it, of course. They are certain that, somehow, some terrible thing will be found on it that will snag President Biden as well. It hasn’t been found yet, even though the contents of the laptop have been meddled with by many right-wing hands already. But it must be there. Meanwhile, MSB’s $2 billion are not a problem. Right.

See: https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2020/09/jared-kushner-let-the-markets-decide-covid-19-fate

Talking Tough to Putin, and Other News

By his own account, the Chancellor of Austria, Karl Nehammer, had a “tough” conversation with Vladimir Putin today. The Guardian:

Austria’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, has said he told Vladimir Putin that “all those responsible” for war crimes must be brought to justice and warned that western sanctions would intensify as long as people kept dying in Ukraine.

After becoming the first western leader to hold face-to-face talks with the Russian president since the invasion of Ukraine, Nehammer said his trip to Moscow was not “a visit of friendship” and that the two had had a “direct, open and hard” conversation.

Austria is not a member of NATO and is militarily neutral, but Nehammer said his country would not be “morally neutral” as Bucha and other atrocities come to light.

I had hoped Nehammer would have told Putin that Russia is losing the war Putin started. We keep hearing that Putin’s people don’t tell him how badly his military is fumbling in Ukraine, even as it engages in war crimes. It’s less of an army than a mob with long-range artillery cover.

How is Putin losing? We learned today that Sweden and Finland could be joining NATO soon, so if one of Putin’s goals was to weaken the influence of NATO, he’s botched that one rather badly. NATO is suddenly relevant again. Russia has warned Sweden and Finland against joining NATO, but did not specify what consequences might be in store for those who draw Russia’s wrath. It’s possible Sweden and Finland are not terribly worried.

The one person who has soured on NATO is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is kind of done waiting for “diplomacy” to have any results

Meanwhile, CNN Business reports that Russia has defaulted on foreign debt.

Worth reading: ‘This Was Trump Pulling a Putin’: “Amid the current crisis, Fiona Hill and other former advisers are connecting President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to Jan. 6. And they’re ready to talk.” Mostly Fiona Hill, though.

In other news

I can’t bring myself to read this because it might drive my blood pressure up again against doctor’s advice. Andy Kroll at Rolling Stone, How Joe Manchin Knifed the Democrats — and Bailed on Saving Democracy.

Trump’s endorsement of Dr. Mehmet Oz for U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania has Trumpworld in an uproar. Do read this; it’s hysterical, in its way.

Today we also learned that, six months after the Trump Administration (mercifully) ended, Jared Kushner’s brand new private equity firm, Affinity Partners, secured a $2 billion investment from a fund led by Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This was after all of MBS’s financial advisers told him it was a bad idea. The New York Times:

Those objections included: “the inexperience of the Affinity Fund management”;the possibility that the kingdom would be responsible for “the bulk of the investment and risk”; due diligence on the fledgling firm’s operations that found them “unsatisfactory in all aspects”; a proposed asset management fee that “seems excessive”; and “public relations risks” from Mr. Kushner’s prior role as a senior adviser to his father-in-law, former President Donald J. Trump, according to minutes of the panel’s meeting last June 30.

Jared has a long-established record of screwing up, so MBS may be throwing away his $2 billion. Like I care.

Ethics experts say that such a deal creates the appearance of potential payback for Mr. Kushner’s actions in the White House — or of a bid for future favor if Mr. Trump seeks and wins another presidential term in 2024.

Mr. Kushner played a leading role inside the Trump administration defending Crown Prince Mohammed after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that he had approved the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post and resident of Virginia who had criticized the kingdom’s rulers. …

… In Washington, Mr. Kushner had also helped broker $110 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia over 10 years. He helped protect those and other weapons deals from congressional outrage over the murder of Mr. Khashoggi and the humanitarian catastrophe created by the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen.

The Times also says that Jared has “signed up few other major investors.” Probably because other major investors would rather not lose their money.

Josh Marshall:

This is possibly the largest and most brazen instance of public corruption I’ve seen in twenty five years covering American politics as a journalist. And this is saying something since, as you know, public corruption has always been one of my greatest interests and consistent beats. We knew a relationship like this was building through the Trump administration. Trump’s son-in-law, callow and hungry, had taken over administration Middle East policy, in the expectations of the big money pay offs the Saudis especially but not only them could provide to the Trump-Kushner family. And here we are with what is certainly just one example of the pay off. We knew it was coming but the sheer scale of it, the sheer openness of it, is bracing to see.

You would think that Jamal Khashoggi deserves at least a plaque somewhere at Affinity Partners since he is probably more personally responsible for securing this $2 billion than anyone.

See also Dan Primack at Axios, Trump Alums Cash In on Saudi Ties. Steve Mnuchin also is starting a new private equity fund and received $1 billion from MSB. At least Mnuchin does have a record of making money, in part by kicking old folks out of their homes.

The Threat of the Pro-War Crimes Right

Ye shall know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:16, KJV)

I recommend The Russian Military Has Descended Into Inhumanity by Andrew Exum at The Atlantic. Exum is a former U.S. Army officer and scholar of the Middle East who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East in the Obama Administration. Exum notes that the Russian military has a long history of war crimes, but explains this is not because of Russian culture but Russian military culture. “Russia’s military, as we have seen these past five weeks, is a mess: Seemingly leaderless in Ukraine, it cannot even effectively maneuver against its opponent, much less carry out a coherent terror campaign against Ukrainian civilians,” Exum writes.

The U.S. military certainly has committed war crimes, he continues, but in two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan “the incidence of tactical units committing heinous crimes was lower, despite the duration of those wars, than that among Russian troops in a few weeks in Ukraine.”

There are several reasons for that disparity. First, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps are mostly led, at the tactical level, by a professional noncommissioned-officer corps—something Russia’s army largely lacks. I asked a friend who led a brigade in Baghdad during the surge of 2007 why we did not see more war crimes then, despite the intensity of the combat. “That’s all down to the junior officers and noncommissioned officers who led the infantry platoons and squads,” he replied. “Those young men didn’t allow it.”

Second, the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan was—often to the detriment of its war aims—quite isolated from the populations themselves. U.S. troops lived in remote outposts, which hamstrung their efforts to defend the populations from insurgents but also reduced the kind of contact between occupying soldiers and civilians that has led to crimes of intimacy in Ukraine: looting on one end of the spectrum, rape and murder on the other.

And third, the U.S. military prosecuted its own war criminals, or at least the ones who got caught. “Convicted war criminals such as Clint Lorance and Eddie Gallagher were turned in by their own men before being tried and convicted in the military justice system,” Exum said “The military moved, before others could move it, to enforce discipline within its own ranks.”

This last factor is the most important, according to Exum, because it reveals a military culture with a lower tolerance of criminal behavior toward civilian populations.

The issue of war crimes raises the question of how war came to have laws. It appears there have been broadly agreed-upon rules about conduct in warfare for some time. We see this in a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V, which features an invasion of France by England. When the soldier Bardolph was caught robbing a church in France and sentenced to be executed, King Henry says,

We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we
give express charge, that in our marches through the
country, there be nothing compelled from the
villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful language;
for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the
gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

The gentler gamester is the soonest winner. Henry’s aim was to rule France, not just destroy it, so it made sense to not piss off the locals. The real-world Henry was perhaps not so gentle. It’s recorded that during the seige of Rouen (1418-1419) he refused to let 1,200 civilians — elderly, women, children — evacuate so they could find food and survive. He instead forced them into a ditch between the lines, without food and exposed to the elements, until they died.

Still, if you intend to govern a people, good public relations doesn’t hurt. I have learned that our current international “laws of war” are loosely based on the Lieber Code, orders issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 that were drawn up by a Columbia College professor named Francis Lieber. The Lieber Code was designed to allow war to be both more humane and more terrible. It came about after discussions between Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan.

McClellan was determined to wage a textbook Napoleonic-style war of battles between armies on open ground that left civilians out of danger and the social fabric intact. Lincoln grasped what McClellan did not, that the war they had to fight could not be so limited. In the Civil War the lines between “soldier” and “civilian” had blurred. There was ongoing guerilla warfare among civilians and “irregulars” being carried out by the likes of William Quantrill and “Bloody Bill” Anderson. And Lincoln saw that the war would not end until it was brought home to the southern plantation class that had pushed for it to protect their “property.”

So, as the Union army took over former Confederate territories and engaged with civilian populations, the Lieber Code gave them parameters to work within.  See John Fabian Witt, Lincoln’s Rules of War:

The code reduced the international laws of war into a simple pamphlet for wide distribution to the amateur soldiers of the Union army. It prohibited torture, poisons, wanton destruction, and cruelty. It protected prisoners and forbade assassinations. It announced a sharp distinction between soldiers and noncombatants. And it forbade attacks motivated by revenge and the infliction of suffering for its own sake. Most significantly, the code sought to protect channels of communication between warring armies. And it elevated the truce flag to a level of sacred honor.

If the ultimate goal is to reunite the country, the defeated secessionists had to be willing to peacefully reunite instead of engaging in endless rounds of revenge and retribution. Cruelty and atrocities are not good strategy of war.

Which is why, to my mind, Putin has already lost. It may be that he will succeed in destroying enough of Ukraine and killing enough Ukrainians that it could be occupied by Russian church ladies and Boy Scouts. But good luck keeping it, Vlad.

But we’ve got something else to worry about. Going back to Andrew Exum at The Atlantic:

Our military’s culture of accountability took a blow when then-President Donald Trump pardoned both Lorance and Gallagher and was then cheered on by a morally loathsome minority of veterans and military fanboys who elected to side with Lorance and Gallagher against the many others in uniform who had testified against each man.

As Americans look at what is taking place in Ukraine, they should condemn Russia but also reflect on the efforts of a reactionary minority to excuse similar behavior in our own ranks. That we kept our military engaged in combat for 20 consecutive years without facing horrors on the scale that we are witnessing in this relatively short conflict in Ukraine is truly remarkable. But ensuring that will remain the case in future conflicts will take hard work and vigilance.

The “morally loathsome minority of veterans and military fanboys” seems a pretty good description of the mob that attacked the Capitol last year. We are dealing with an internal enemy that not only does not disavow cruelty; for them, cruelty is the point. As Adam Serwer famously wrote,

We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era. There were the border-patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down syndrome who was separated from her mother. There were the police who laughed uproariously when the president encouraged them to abuse suspects, and the Fox News hosts mocking a survivor of the Pulse Nightclub massacre (and in the process inundating him with threats), the survivors of sexual assault protesting to Senator Jeff Flake, the women who said the president had sexually assaulted them, and the teen survivors of the Parkland school shooting. There was the president mocking Puerto Rican accents shortly after thousands were killed and tens of thousands displaced by Hurricane Maria, the black athletes protesting unjustified killings by the police, the women of the #MeToo movement who have come forward with stories of sexual abuse, and the disabled reporter whose crime was reporting on Trump truthfully. It is not just that the perpetrators of this cruelty enjoy it; it is that they enjoy it with one another. Their shared laughter at the suffering of others is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump.

They have no real interest in government or progress and especially not democracy. It’s all about the cruelty. Give them free rein, and none of us will be safe.

And here is a list of some of their leaders and “public intellectuals.” See also William Saletan, Who’s Soft on Russia? Meet the Republican Anti-Ukraine Caucus! and The Year in Hate & Extremism Report 2021 from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There’s one more name I want to call out: Charles Koch. Koch industries is still doing business with Russia. Koch will remain in business in Russia so that it doesn’t have to lay off Russian employees. So big of Charles. Koch’s company has also issued statements calling for the U.S. and EU to end the sanctions and give Putin a partial “victory” as part of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. So, one of the chief obstacles to a sane climate change policy is letting us know that his profits come before lives. Which is another kind of violence. But I think we all knew that about Koch already.

The Seige of Rouen (1418-1419)

War and Barbarity: Ukraine

The recent, horrific stories of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are deeply disturbing. See, for example, ‘This Is True Barbarity’: Life and Death Under Russian Occupation in the New York Times; and Has Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine? Here’s what we know. by Claire Parker in the Washington Post.

Of course, U.S. soldiers commit war crimes. We like to forget Fort Pillow, Andersonville, Wounded Knee, My Lai, Abu Ghraib. The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902, was a regular carnival of atrocities, which may be why no one talks about it much today. It’s also true that others have done terrible things — the Rape of Nanking; the Rape of Berlin. And, of course, war isn’t a necessary element of atrocities; the Holocaust is sometimes lumped with war crimes, but it wasn’t part of Germany’s war effort.

One of the reasons I so hate it when politicians so easily push for wars that aren’t really necessary is that there will always be some troops who will commit atrocities. These same individuals might have lived their whole lives without doing any physical harm to anyone. But in the chaos of war, when all the social structures of civilization are gone, and troops endure relentless stress and are witness to barbarities, some of them will sink to commiting barbarities themselves. This seems to always happen.

Of course, when nations are engaged in total warfare it can be hard to sort what actions are legitimate acts of war and which are crimes. The bombing of Dresden in World War II was never officially designated a war crime, for example; nor were the two atomic bomb drops in Japan. Acts of violence against civilians by an occupying army or against surrendered prisoners of war usually qualify. Most of the time which war crimes are prosecuted depends on who wins the war.

Regarding the Russians in Ukraine, Josh Marshall wrote,

These as yet very incomplete reports suggest a combination of two overlapping and reinforcing factors: one, a policy of organized terror aimed at a denationalization of Ukraine (some hint of the ideology here) and then second, poor discipline and the downstream effects of Russian military failure. In this latter case, as Russian troops failed in military terms they increasingly shifted to attacks on civilians.

In a book about the pysychology of war crimes, the authors suggest two common factors. One, the soldiers commiting the crimes are often demoralized and frustrated and looking for scapegoats. Two, leaders suffering from “malignant narcissism” may exploit the tribalism of the troops to “dehumanize” the enemy — including civilians and children.

Dutton, Boyanowsky and Bond quote a famous psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who referred to sadism as “the conversion of impotence into the experience of omnipotence”. Fromm contended that sadism produces an emotional high, because absolute control over another, exemplified by inflicting pain or humiliation, provides a unique sense of power. Total dominion over another creates an illusion of transcending the limitations of human existence. It becomes particularly addictive for anyone whose reality is ‘deprived of productivity and joy’.

And then some people are just “freaking evil.” That’s how Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL pardoned of war crimes by Trump, was described by his fellow Iraq War veterans. When the people who fought alongside you report your conduct to military authorities, you must be pretty twisted. So there’s always that.