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Russia is common thread between Trump’s Ukraine and Syria problems

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Just as the furor over Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation subsided over the summer, two new international storms engulfed the White House.

On Ukraine, President Donald Trump’s use of diplomatic pressure to damage a 2020 election rival have House Democrats poised to impeach him. On Syria, his green light for Turkey to attack American-aligned Kurdish forces has roiled Republicans, too.

The simultaneous spectacles may confuse average Americans who pay scant attention to foreign affairs. In fact, they contain a common thread.

In each case, the president has helped Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has helped him for years with money and political support. They represent different chapters of the same story.

The Republican president’s alignment with Moscow – unthinkable to an earlier generation’s GOP – is familiar enough to blend into the 2019 background. Yet it represents a rare consistent theme of Trump’s late-life turn to politics.

Before Trump sought the presidency, his children publicly identified Russians as key financing sources for the family real estate business. A Russian oligarch paid Trump $95-million for a Florida mansion he’d bought for less than half that price; another Russian linked to organized crime became a partner in the Trump Soho project.

As a 2016 candidate, Trump hired a campaign chairman who had advised a Putin-allied Ukrainian leader, and a national security adviser who later lied to federal investigators about conversations with the Kremlin’s ambassador. Both men, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, have plead guilty to felonies.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia—which attacked Ukraine after the leader Manafort advised was ousted from power in 2014—interfered in the 2016 campaign to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

As president, Trump fired the FBI director leading an investigation of Putin’s actions. He embraced the former KGB agent’s denial of election meddling over the findings of his own intelligence experts.

After one private meeting with Putin, Trump took his interpreter’s notes. He has taken a series of actions – from imposing tariffs on close allies to criticizing NATO to abandoning international agreements – that advance Putin’s objective of weakening Western democracies to enhance Russian power.

The twin storms now swirling around Trump fit this pattern.

On Ukraine, Trump’s means and ends both aid Russian interests. Through his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Trump has sought to absolve Moscow by alleging that 2016 election interference originated with Ukrainian attempts to aid Hillary Clinton.

Law enforcement officials arrested two Giuliani associates yesterday, charging that they funneled illegal campaign contributions to a Republican Congressman who sought the firing of a U.S. diplomat who resisted Giuliani’s effort. According to a charging document, money for the scheme came from a Russian identified only as “Foreign National 1.”

Ukraine has been under Russian attack since 2014. While asking its new president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden, Trump held up military aid and delayed a meeting Zelensky wanted to project solidarity against Moscow’s aggression.

On Syria, Trump announced a withdrawal of U.S. troops near the border with Turkey. Republicans and Democrats alike warned that the move exposes Kurdish forces – America’s allies in the fight against ISIS – to slaughter by the advancing Turks.

But it also expands the influence of Russia, for which Syria represents a foothold in the Middle East.

“A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran and the Assad regime,” tweeted Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

Since Trump remains overwhelmingly popular among rank-and-file Republicans, McConnell remains his ally against Democratic impeachment attempts. And though hawkish resistance to Moscow was a decades-long staple of Republican politics, Trump’s stance has not damaged his intra-party popularity.

To the contrary, Trump-era Republicans have grown friendlier to Russia than Americans overall. From 2014 to 2018, the Gallup Poll found, the share of Republicans viewing Russia as an ally nearly doubled to 40% from 22%.

“The way he has made Republicans think cozying up to Russia is OK is one of his amazing sleights of hand,” says Bruce Jentleson, a Democratic foreign policy specialist at Duke University.

Trump has not persuaded all Republicans. Sixteen prominent conservative lawyers this week called for House action on impeachment on grounds that Trump’s actions “undermine the integrity of our elections, endanger global U.S. security and defense partnerships, and threaten our democracy.”

One of them, Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General Charles Fried, told MSNBC last night: “This man terrifies me.”

Hours before he spoke, five European ambassadors asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn Turkey’s move into Syria. Russia, and the Trump administration, blocked their effort.

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I’m sorry for election defeat

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Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his house in north London on January 16, 2019.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS | AFP | Getty Images

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn apologized Sunday for this party’s crushing defeat in the British general election but defended his campaign, which failed to resonate with the party’s working-class base, as “one of hope rather than fear.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won 365 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons in Thursday’s landslide election. Labour took 203 seats, its worst total since 1935.

“I’m sorry that we came up short and I take my responsibility for it,” Corbyn wrote in a letter published in the left-leaning Sunday Mirror newspaper.

Corbyn, who has faced fierce criticism from within his own party in the aftermath of the electoral carnage, has said he will step down as Labour leader after a “period of reflection.” The process of choosing a replacement will begin early next year, but some have called for Corbyn’s immediate resignation.

“I remain proud of the campaign we fought. I’m proud that no matter how low our opponents went, we refused to join them in the gutter,” Corbyn wrote. “And I’m proud that our message was one of hope, rather than fear.”

Corbyn’s policies failed to energize voters weary of more than three years of political wrangling over Britain’s divorce from the European Union. Johnson’s campaign, meanwhile, revolved around three words: His pledge to “get Brexit done.”

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Jan. 31.

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Boris Johnson can turn his victory into history if he can save the UK from division

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Buckingham Palace where he will seek permission to form the next government during an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Downing Street on December 13, 2019 in London, England.

Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

It is just the sort of script one might expect from Boris Johnson, one of the most enigmatically fascinating personalities of our times.

Prime Minister Johnson – who famously craves both public attention and a place in history – won the former and a shot at the latter through a British election victory this week that was the most convincing conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. To save the United Kingdom itself, however, he must reverse course, or at least amend direction, on much of what he has said and done to win in the first place.

I opposed Brexit on economic and political grounds yet, at the same time, Johnson might have the political flexibility, the intellectual chops and the Churchillian ambition to confound his critics along the five lines of action he must simultaneously pursue to find his historic place.

  • Most importantly, he’ll have to negotiate a “no-tariffs, no-quotas” trade deal by end-2020 with a European Union that he has disparaged, knowing that it by some distance is the U.K.’s major trade partner.
  • Second, he will have to rapidly restore external economic confidence in a country that has been suffering disinvestment, an economic slowdown, and doubts about its continued role as a European and global financial hub.
  • Third, he should still aspire to get a trade and investment deal with an impeachment-distracted President Trump. At the same time, he should share with voters how unlikely that will be and embrace what might be faster and easier opportunities in Asia, namely negotiating his way into the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
  • Fourth, he’ll have to abandon much of the populist rhetoric that got him elected and embrace his encouraging “One Nation” message of this week that could heal the country’s divisions – and perhaps also slow a European-wide and global populist trend.
  • Finally, he’ll need save the United Kingdom from unraveling by convincing Scotland and Northern Ireland of their future place – while heading off another Scottish independence referendum. A successful EU negotiation will help that.

Media pundits in recent months have compared and associated the rise of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump as populists who have turned their countries’ politics upside down. Yet the comparisons only go so far, given Boris’ bookish, multilingual, multicultural background and intellectual passion.

He was born in Manhattan as Alexander, then raised in Brussels until age 11, before being shipped to British boarding a year after his mother’s breakdown, a life richly chronicled by Tom McTague in The Atlantic last July. Somewhere along the way the quiet child became the boisterous, eccentric British Boris. He developed a comic demeanor, a disheveled mean (and mane), a rapier intellect with a taste for the classics, and an insatiable desire to be liked.

From all of this grew his self-proclaimed ambition to be “world king.”

“I often thought that the idea of being world king,” said his mother of her illness’ impact on Boris, “was a wish to make him unhurtable, invincible somehow, safe from the pains of life, the pains of your mother disappearing for eight months, the pains of your parents splitting up.” The biographer Sonia Purnell says Johnson told girlfriends that his way of coping was to make himself invulnerable “so that he would never experience such pain again.”

The Brexit referendum and— three years later— his election vote are part psychological and part political drama for Boris Johnson, the stuff of a West End musical. His Friday speech on the steps of 10 Downing Street showed how quickly he can change his tune from that of the campaign to one of governance.

Speaking to those voters who opposed him and wished to remain in the EU, he said, “I want you to know that we in this One Nation Conservative government will never ignore your good and positive feelings – of warmth and sympathy toward the other nations of Europe.”

He went further.

“As we work together with the EU as friends and sovereign equals in tackling climate change and terrorism, in building academic and scientific cooperation, redoubling our trading relationship…,” he said, “I urge everyone to find closure and let the healing begin.”

If the U.K.’s economy emerges as robust and healthy, other European countries might wonder about the value of staying in.

That will be easier said than done as Johnson will now have to decide what kind of U.K. he wishes to build – one more akin to its neighbors in the EU or one more resembling a low-tax, deregulated Singapore-on-Thames.

“Brexit will formally happen next month, to much fanfare,” writes the Economist, “but the hardest arguments, about whether to forgo market access for the ability to deregulate, have not begun. Mr. Johnson will either have to face down his own Brexit ultras or hammer the economy with a minimal EU deal.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, enamored by his colleague’s intellect and linguistic skill, has called Boris Johnson “a leader with genuine strategic vision” who should be taken seriously. This week he extended an olive branch while in Brussels, telling “British friends and allies something very simple: by this general election, you confirmed the choice made more than three years ago, but you are not leaving Europe.”

On the other hand, he has warned, the best way to reach the most ambitious trade agreement with the EU would be if the U.K. essentially says “we don’t want to change very much.”

So, the drama will continue. If the U.K.’s economy emerges as robust and healthy, other European countries might wonder about the value of staying in. If Johnson defines his country as too close to the European Union, irrespective of economic logic, his base may well ask what the past three years’ drama has achieved other than serving Johnson’s own political ambitions.

It’s time to raise the curtain on the next act.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.



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‘Historic’ deal with China will be good for global growth: Steven Mnuchin

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks to the news media after giving a television interview at the White House in Washington, December 3, 2018.

Leah Millis | Reuters

The “historic” phase one trade agreement reached Friday between the U.S. and China will boost global growth, according to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Speaking to CNBC’s Hadley Gamble at the Doha Forum on Saturday, Mnuchin said the partial deal would address a host of issues central to Washington’s trade agenda.

“This deals with intellectual property, this deals with technology transfer, it deals with structural agricultural issues, financial services are opening up, currency understandings, as well as a commitment to purchase U.S. agriculture and U.S. goods,” he said.

Mnuchin also dismissed the notion that the U.S. was pushing back on the rules-based trading system, arguing that a level playing field with China would benefit the global economy.

“For a very long period of time the U.S. was open to China, China was not open to the U.S. There were very strong restrictions and for the first and second largest economy in the world, there should be more trading back and forth and that’s what we’ve been working on, and I think these agreements will not only be good for the U.S., but will be very good for global growth,” he added.

Global stocks surged Friday as Washington and Beijing announced that the partial accord had been reached, averting the next round of U.S. tariffs after a bruising 18-month trade war.

U.S. and Chinese negotiators will now work toward setting a timescale to sign the agreement, which is still subject to legal procedures, with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer telling reporters Friday that the two sides would aim to ink the deal in January in Washington.

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