On the one hand, it’s a police state. On the other hand, they gave him a lot of dates.
In a Monday morning appearance on CNBC, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross touted that, during President Trump’s visit Saudi Arabia, “there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there.”
Pressed by the anchor, Becky Quick, that the lack of protests could be attributable to Saudi Arabia being a police state where protesting is banned, Ross brushed it off.
“The mood was a genuinely good mood,” Ross said. As proof he offered that Saudi state security personnel gave him “two gigantic bushels of dates,” which Ross said was “a from-the-heart, genuine gesture.”
A recent study by Human Rights Watch found that Saudi Arabia “continued arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents.” According to the report, in 2015, “over a dozen prominent activists convicted on charges arising from their peaceful activities were serving prison sentences.”
One dissident, Waleed Abu al-Khair, is serving “a 15-year sentence imposed by Saudi Arabia’s terrorism court that convicted him in 2014 on charges stemming solely from his peaceful criticism in media interviews and on social media of human rights abuses.”
Another writer, Zuhair Kutbi, was jailed after “he discussed peaceful reform proposals in a TV interview.”
Saudi courts have sentenced two men to death and five others to long prison terms after trials that made a mockery of due process. Authorities charged all seven following protests by members of the Shia minority in 2011 and 2012 in Eastern Province towns that resulted in hundreds of arrests.
Ross’ comments were eerily reminiscent of comments by the Saudi ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al Mouallimi, who insisted that if you ask the Saudi people, they would overwhelmingly support their government.
Reminded by anchor Al Jazeera host Mehdi Hasan that advocating for a change in government is illegal, Al-Mouallimi just repeated his point.
Trump himself has attacked the activities of protesters in the United States, calling their activities after the election “unfair.” In a court filing, Trump’s lawyers argued that protesters have “no right” to express dissent at his campaign rallies.
The U.S. and Russia slammed each other Tuesday in a rapidly intensifying war of words over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, with the White House press secretary using a bungled Hitler analogy and Russia’s president bringing up the futile U.S. hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
The verbal showdown was the latest sign that President Donald Trump’s administration is stepping back, for now, from its hopes of improving U.S.-Russian relations following Trump’s decision to stage a missile strike on Syria’s regime because of its alleged use of chemical weapons. The heated rhetoric also further raised the stakes for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he meets with officials in Moscow, where he landed Tuesday.
The White House demanded that Russia stop disputing the reality of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s recent use of poison gas to kill dozens, and it warned Assad not to make any more such moves. At one point, White House press secretary Sean Spicer cast Assad as being worse than Adolf Hitler, who, Spicer claimed incorrectly, had never used chemical weapons.
“In this particular case, it’s no question that Russia is isolated. They have aligned themselves with North Korea, Syria, Iran, and that is not exactly a group of countries you are looking to hang out with,” said Spicer, who, after being questioned, acknowledged he’d misspoken about the Nazi ruler.
Earlier in the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared the U.S. accusation that Assad used chemical weapons to its futile hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Putin also said Moscow had information that some Syrian elements were planning to stage chemical attacks to provoke more U.S. missile strikes against Assad’s regime. America needs to be careful about overreacting to false flags, the Russian president warned.
In 2003, “a military campaign started in Iraq, and it ended with the destruction of the country, the growth of the terrorist threat and the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist organization on the international scene, no more and no less,” Putin said, Russian media reported. “The same is happening now.”
But U.S. officials said Tuesday they are increasingly certain that the Assad regime was behind the recent gas attack, and that they also believe they have identified the strategic rationale behind the move.
In a document provided by a senior White House official, the U.S. estimates that between 50 and 100 people, many of them children, died in the chemical weapons attack, and that hundreds more were injured.
“The United States is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack, using the nerve agent sarin, against its own people in the town of Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib Province on April 4, 2017,” the document states. “We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure … Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack.”
The White House also warned that further chemical weapon attacks will be met with a severe response.
“The Assad regime’s brutal use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and poses a clear threat to the national security interests of the United States and the international community,” the document states. The U.S. and its allies “must demonstrate…that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons will not be permitted to continue.”
Without giving details, the document also promised that “the United States intends to send a clear message now that we and our partners will not allow the world to become a more dangerous place due to the egregious acts of the Assad regime.”
The assessment in the document and sharp words from the White House were the latest in a remarkable turn for the Trump administration, which took office hoping to find common ground with Russia, especially when it came to fighting the Islamic State terrorist network. Trump himself had, during his presidential campaign, said the U.S. should stay out of the Syrian conflict between Assad and rebel forces trying to oust him.
But Assad’s decision to use chemical weapons rattled Trump, who authorized last Thursday’s missile strike on a Syrian airbase after being taken aback by images of children suffering from the gassing. While the Republican president himself has stayed largely quiet about Russia’s role, his aides have slammed Moscow repeatedly in the days since. To a degree it has given the Trump administration a bit of political breathing room amid allegations that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to help Trump, who, throughout the campaign, spoke warmly of Putin.
Assad has been fighting rebels since early 2011, a conflict that has left an estimated half-million people dead and given space for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to flourish on Syrian territory.
Russia, along with Tehran, has militarily backed the Syrian regime for years, while using its veto on the U.N. Security Council to shield Assad from international reprisals. In the most recent case, Russia has refused to accept that Assad’s forces dropped the gas bombs on Idlib, alleging instead that rebel forces had stored the chemical weapons in a warehouse struck by regime bombs.
But the Trump administration has dismissed that theory.
“Russia’s allegations fit with a pattern of deflecting blame from the regime and attempting to undermine the credibility of its opponents,” said the document provided by the White House official. “Moscow’s response to the April 4 attack follows a familiar pattern of its responses to other egregious actions; it spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusions and sow doubt within the international community.”
Putin said Russia wants an international investigation into the Idlib attack. Past international investigations into such chemical attacks have laid most of the blame on Assad, but Russia has downplayed the findings and shielded him from U.N. sanctions.
The Syrian regime began using chemical weapons during the presidency of Barack Obama. Despite having a “red line” on the use of such weapons, Obama ultimately decided not to pursue a military strike against Assad. Instead, the Obama administration and Russia helped orchestrate a 2013 deal that was believed to have removed most — though possibly not all — of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Trump administration officials have criticized Russia, which promised to serve as a guarantor of the agreement, for not keeping Assad in line on it. Several of the chemical attacks reported in Syria since 2013 involved chlorine, whose status under that deal is a bit murky. But the attack in Idlib province is believed to involve sarin, which was supposed to have been removed.
The chemical attack drew international outrage, while Trump’s decision to rain missiles on a Syrian airfield in retaliation last Thursday garnered tremendous support. Aside from Russia, however, Iran and North Korea criticized the U.S. move.
Tillerson is due to meet Wednesday morning with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It was not clear if he would meet with Putin at all. If the Russian president decides not to meet with Tillerson on what is his first trip to Moscow as secretary of state it would break tradition and could further deepen the U.S.-Russia turmoil.
WASHINGTON—After ordering the first U.S. military attack against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, President Donald Trump held a press conference Friday to express his full confidence that the airstrike had completely wiped out the lingering Russian scandal. “Based on intelligence we have received over the past several hours, the attack on the al-Shayrat air base in Homs has successfully eliminated all discussions and allegations about my administration’s ties to the Russian government,” said Trump, adding that at approximately 4:40 a.m. local time, 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. naval ships obliterated all traces of the widespread controversy in news outlets across the media. “Ordering this strike was not a decision I took lightly, but given that it was the only way to decisively eradicate any attention being paid to congressional investigations into possible collusion between key members of my staff and high-ranking Kremlin officials, I decided it was a necessary course of action. If we learn that any remnants of this scandal remain after this attack, I will not hesitate to order further strikes.” Trump went on to say that he is leaving the option open for a potential ground invasion of Syria if any troubling evidence emerges that the Russian government manipulated the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
[MARCH 21, 2017 – ABCNEWS.COM – FILED UNDER REAL NEWS]
There, indeed, was an FBI wiretap involving Russians at Trump Tower.
But it was not placed at the behest of Barack Obama, and the target was not the Trump campaign of 2016. For two years ending in 2013, the FBI had a court-approved warrant to eavesdrop on a sophisticated Russian organized crime money-laundering network that operated out of unit 63A in Trump Tower in New York.
The FBI investigation led to a federal grand jury indictment of more than 30 people, including one of the world’s most notorious Russian mafia bosses, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. Known as the “Little Taiwanese,” he was the only target to slip away, and he remains a fugitive from American justice.
Seven months after the April 2013 indictment and after Interpol issued a red notice for Tokhtakhounov, he appeared near Donald Trump in the VIP section of the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump had sold the Russian rights for Miss Universe to a billionaire Russian shopping mall developer.
“He is a major player,” said Mike Gaeta, the agent who led the 2013 FBI investigation of Tokhtakhounov and his alleged mafia money-laundering and gambling ring, in a 2014 interview with ABC News. “He is prominent. He has extremely good connections in the business world as well as the criminal world, overseas, in Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, other countries.”
Gaeta, who ran the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime unit in New York, told ABC News at the time that federal agents were closely tracking Tokhtakhounov, whose Russian ring was suspected of moving more than $50 million in illegal money into the United States.
“Because of his status, we have kept tabs on his activities and particularly as his activities truly enter New York City,” Gaeta said. “Their money was ultimately laundered from Russia, Ukraine and other locations through Cyprus banks and shell companies based in Cyprus and then ultimately here to the United States.”
The FBI investigation did not implicate Trump. But Trump Tower was under close watch. Some of the Russian mafia figures worked out of unit 63A in the iconic skyscraper — just three floors below Trump’s penthouse residence — running what prosecutors called an “international money-laundering, sports gambling and extortion ring.”
The Trump building was home to one of the top men in the alleged ring, Vadim Trincher, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and received a five-year prison term. He is due to be released in July.
“Everything was moving in and out of there,” said former FBI official Rich Frankel, now an ABC News consultant.
“He would have people come in and meet with them. He would use the phones. He would also communicate, whether it was through e-mail or other communications through there,” Frankel said of Trincher. “His base of operations was in the Trump Tower.”
In court papers, the FBI described two years of intercepts of phone conversations and text message exchanges of the key figures in the gambling ring.
“Mr. Vladim Trincher was on one occasion intercepted speaking with a customer of the gambling operation who owed a debt of $50,000,” one court document stated. Trincher told the gambler about an enforcer who works with him named Maxin. On the recording, Trincher “threatens the customer that Maxin would come and find him, would come and find the money and that he should be careful, lest he be tortured and lest he wind up underground.”
Last fall, a Trump Organization spokesman told ABC News that Russians did not make up a disproportionate share of residents in Trump properties. Federal agents confiscated four units in connection with the poker ring: two in New York and two in Sunny Isles, Florida.
ABC News conducted a review of hundreds of pages of property records and reported in September that Trump-branded developments catered to large numbers of Russian buyers, including several who had brushes with the law. Russian buyers were particularly drawn to Trump licensed condo towers in Hollywood, Florida, and Sunny Isles. Local real estate agents credited the Russian migration for turning the coastal Miami-area community into what they called Little Moscow.
Trump Organization lawyer Alan Garten told ABC News at the time that the firm did not track the nationality of buyers and that the company rarely plays a role in recruiting buyers — a job typically left to developers that buy rights to use the Trump name. Neither Garten nor Trump Organization spokeswoman Amanda Miller responded this week to questions from ABC News about the 2013 poker raid.
Nor did they respond to questions about Tokhtakhounov, who, despite Interpol’s international red notice, is regularly seen in Moscow at popular restaurants and other public places. The poker case was not the first to target Tokhtakhounov. He was indicted years earlier in the United States, accused of paying bribes to Olympic judges so that Russian figure skaters would win gold medals.