WASHINGTON, July 31, 2019 — Since becoming President in 2017, Donald Trump has frequently used his bully pulpit to draw attention to Americans held captive abroad by repressive regimes, and on occasion, to bring them home. But not every case is treated equally.
One of the first such successes of his presidency came in April 2017, when his administration convinced Egyptian dictator Fattah el-Sisi to allow Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi to return home after three years in custody on trumped-up human trafficking charges. Trump celebrated Hijazi’s return with her during a meeting in the Oval Office — complete with reporters and television cameras.
Just over a year later, in the weeks preceding his first meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump traveled to Joint Base Andrews in the wee hours of the morning to welcome home three Korean-Americans who’d been sentenced to hard labor.
And around that same time, he began tweeting about Andrew Brunson, an American missionary who’d been held by the Turkish on espionage and terrorism charges, and whose case he’d pressed during a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When Erdogan’s government released Brunson in October 2018, Trump welcomed him back with another Oval Office photo opportunity.
Most recently, Trump was prevailed upon by First Lady Melania Trump and rapper Kanye West to press Sweden’s government to release Rakim Mayers, a New York-born rapper who goes by the stage name A$AP Rocky.
In a phone call last week, he appealed to Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven to release Mayers, even offering to pay his bail. But when his offer fell on deaf ears, Trump lashed out at Sweden for not releasing the 30-year-old, who charged with assault after he and his entourage were captured on video allegedly punching and kicking a man who he claimed was following him.
“Give A$AP Rocky his FREEDOM. We do so much for Sweden but it doesn’t seem to work the other way around. Sweden should focus on its real crime problem!” Trump tweeted on July 25.
Meanwhile, Paul Whelan has lingered a Russian prison for nearly seven months
While Mayers’ case has captured the president’s attention, one American whose case has escaped it is Paul Whelan, a 49-year-old Michigan man who has been in a Russian prison for just under seven months.
A former police officer, Whelan is employed by auto parts maker BorgWarner as its chief security officer. He was arrested on December 28 while visiting Moscow for a wedding, and was subsequently charged with espionage.
Although Russian authorities have accused Whelan of working for the Central Intelligence Agency, intelligence community veterans say a person with his background would never be recruited as a covert intelligence agent.
Coincidentally, his arrest came two weeks after a Russian citizen, Maria Butina, pleaded guilty to being involved in an organized plot, sponsored by Russian government officials, to gain influence with National Rifle Association and Republican Party officials.
Russian officials have, at times, suggested that Whelan could be exchanged for Russians held on criminal charges in the United States, including Butina and Konstantin Yaroshenko, who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of drug smuggling charges.
But unlike Mayers’ case — or those of Hijazi, Brunson, or the Korean-Americans formerly held by the Kim regime — Whelan’s case has, for the most part, unfolded without a word from the president of the United States.
In the nearly seven months since Whelan’s arrest, Trump has addressed his case publicly just once in January, when, prompted by a reporter’s question, he replied: “we’re looking into that.”
But the President has not spoken publicly about Whelan since then, and, according to White House sources, has not raised the issue during any of the myriad phone calls or meetings he has had with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an interview with BeltwayBreakfast, Whelan’s twin brother David said it’s “really hard to know” his brother’s case has not brought about the same sort of response from President Trump.
“It’s not clear to me why the administration speaks out on the half of some detainees and not others,” he said.
What role is the State Department playing in the Paul Whelan case?
While David Whelan praised the current U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, for keeping him and the rest of Paul Whelan’s family informed about his brother’s condition, he explained that other than a single meeting between his and Paul’s sister Elizabeth Whelan and National Security Adviser John Bolton, his family has gotten little in the way of information about what, if anything, is being done to bring his brother home.
According to Ms. Whelan, that June meeting was the culmination of six months of attempts to establish a dialogue between the Whelan family and NSC officials.
Ms. Whelan explained that she first reached out to Fiona Hill, then the NSC’s Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs in January of this year, shortly after he brother was captured.
“I sent information [to Hill] via the contacts I had, not expecting that she was going to suddenly jump on a plane and go and try to get Paul out, but I wanted it on her radar that this situation was going on,” said Ms. Whelan, a Martha’s Vineyard-Based painter. She added that unlike advocates of other Americans who’ve been held abroad during Trump’s presidency, she and her siblings have elected to work quietly.
“We have taken a particular tack through this entire scenario, of not being a family that goes in…banging on desks,” she said.
Her low-key approach paid off in April, when she connected with Hill’s deputy, Joe Wang, eventually leading to the meeting with Bolton. “We knew that there were a lot of meetings coming up of a global nature where Paul could be discussed, and we wanted the State Department continuing to bring Paul’s name up and try to move something.”
Following that meeting, on June 16 Bolton Tweeted: “Had a productive meeting Friday with Elizabeth Whelan on how to support her brother Paul, who is imprisoned in Russia. Russia has provided no evidence of wrongdoing.”
Put on display in a Moscow courtroom, Whelan himself suggests to Trump: ‘Tweet your intentions’
Soon after this brief interaction in early June, Paul Whelan was brought before a Moscow courtroom on June 20. Speaking from a behind a glass cage in that Moscow courtroom, Whelan shouted for Trump to intervene on his behalf.
“Mr. President, we cannot keep America great unless we aggressively protect and defend American citizens wherever they are in the world,” various media outlets reported. “Tweet your intentions.”
Whelan had requested of the Russian judge that he be released from prison and placed under house arrest instead; the judge denied that request.
But when it came to President Trump’s meeting with Putin at this year’s G20 summit on June 28-29, Ms. Whelan said her interactions with NSC officials did not give her the impression that the president would bring up her brother’s case during his one-on-one meeting with the Russian leader.
“I had no expectation necessarily that President Trump himself was going to bring it up,” she said. I felt that if President Trump had not [already] said something, the likelihood of him suddenly saying something at G20 might not be that large.”
Video of the start of Trump’s meeting with Putin at the G20 summit showed him joking with the Russian dictator about Russia’s meddling in American elections. White House readouts of the meeting did not indicate that Whelan’s case was one of the subjects discussed.
State Department says it continues to be engaged to ensure humane treatment for Whelan
A State Department spokesperson said that the department remains in regular contact with the Whelan family and will continue to press for fair and humane treatment, due process, and access to appropriate medical care. They also said that the department urges the Russian government to guarantee a fair and transparent judicial process without undue delay, in accordance with its international legal obligations.
Further, the spokesperson said that the department has protested to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Paul Whelan’s mistreatment while in custody, and that they have asked Russia to investigate these allegations and ensure Mr. Whelan’s safety and security.
Consular officials conducted the embassy’s 11th prison visit this month to Whelan since he was first detained.
But will Donald Trump say or Tweet something about Paul Whelan?
Although the Whelans asked to meet with the president, Ms. Whelan said she did not expect their request to be granted. Still, she said she remains grateful for the opportunity to meet with Bolton, who, according to a senior administration official, has been “intimately involved” in efforts to free Paul.
“The administration feels that in this particular instance, diplomatic means are the best course of action,” the official said.
“Ambassador Huntsman is engaged, and Ambassador Bolton is deeply engaged. They’re in constant communication with the family as well,” the official said.
But David Whelan disputed the official’s representations of Bolton’s involvement. “It’s different from how I would have characterized any NSC communication with the family,” he said.
Not all Americans who are held captive abroad and treated equally
The Whelan family’s predicament is compounded by a quirk in federal law which means not all Americans who are held captive abroad are treated equally.
When an American is taken hostage by terrorists or a transnational criminal organization, an Obama-era Executive Order, Executive Order 13698, provides a mechanism to marshal the full resources of the United States government in order to bring that person home.
According to former National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, the impetus for the 2014 Executive Order was a rash of kidnappings and murders perpetrated by the then-ascendant Islamic State terrorist organization.
ISIS, Price said, was “a challenge unlike others we had faced in the hostage-taking realm, because it rose to new levels of brutality in its operations.”
“The understanding was that with a terrorist group like ISIS, there needed to be better coordination between and among all the instruments of government,” he said.
“The point of the executive order was to effectuate information sharing between and among instruments and government — military intelligence, diplomacy, treasury, and law enforcement — and with the family, because another realization that we came to is that in some of these cases, the family members weren’t getting adequate updates on the status of their loved one to the extent of what was known, and regarding what the U.S. government was doing in order to try to bring about the relief and the safe recovery of their of their loved ones.”
Executive Order 13698 also established a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, whose responsibilities include the coordination of diplomatic engagements “regarding cases in which a foreign government confirms that it has detained a U.S. national but the United States Government regards such detention as unlawful or wrongful.”
In failing to raise the Whelan case publicly, is Putin’s Russia being given special treatment by the Trump White House?
But according to David Whelan, he and the rest of his family have been led to believe that Paul’s case is not one that would be handled by the SPEHA because he is being held in a Russian prison, not an ISIS spider-hole.
“My understanding is that in order to engage things like the [SPEHA],the term ‘hostage’ has a very specific meaning,” he said, which excludes anyone held in a country “that nominally has the rule of law.”
Noting that Russia is not known for having much in the way of an independent criminal justice system, Whelan differentiated his brother’s case from that of Mayers.
“I would say that Sweden has a much stronger case for saying they have a rule of law than Russia does,” he said.
Why is the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs in Sweden?
But one person who doesn’t appear to accept Sweden’s case for having established rule of law is President Trump, who this week sent Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O’Brien to Sweden in support of Mayers.
O’Brien, who was in a Stockholm courtroom on Tuesday for Mayers’ trial, told CNN that he was there to “support the members of the family and the American citizens.”
Asked to weigh in on why Mayers’ case seems to have attracted President Trump’s attention while his brothers has not, David Whelan lamented the fact that “there seems to be a need to have celebrity or have some sort of angle in order to get the wheels of the government to move.”
However, he declined to opine on why the President might have decided to send O’Brien to Sweden, when his own family has not been given access to the same level of support.
“One of the things that every family that’s involved in this sort of situation realizes is that some things happen in the open and some things happen behind the scenes. If the administration chooses to use one tool in one particular case and doesn’t in another, it doesn’t necessarily make us feel that Paul isn’t getting the attention he needs.”
“But I would convey to [Trump] my concern that Paul has been in a Russian prison for seven months, and that the American government has not taken a public stance that they’re going to bring him home.”
Price criticizes Trump for special treatment of an American rapper Mayers in Sweden
Price, the former NSC spokesman, did comment on O’Brien’s involvement in Mayers’ case. Price is currently Policy Director at National Security Action.
Mayers’ case, Price said, is not even in the same category as what was envisioned for the SPEHA’s portfolio.
“it is very clear cut that what is happening to [Mayers] is part of a judicial proceeding in a country where rule of law is not only established, but is ingrained in the system,” he said.
“So this is not something that was ever envisioned by the executive order. Nor I think was it something that had ever been envisioned in any other realm other than the Trump administration.”
Price said the President’s use of the SPEHA “reinforces the message that we’ve long known, which is that President Trump places his own personal and political interests above those of the American people. And in this case, he’s placing his personal and political interests above people like Paul Whelan.”
“The fact that he is attaching his name, imprimatur and tools of government which weren’t even designed and envision for a case like this suggests that to him, this is good politics as he is under fire for racist statements and racist actions,” he said.
“For him to champion this particular case — which most accounts is proceeding through a well-established judicial system — makes a mockery of legitimate efforts, most of which go on in silence, to free Americans held unjustly, whether it’s by a state or a non-state actor.”
The White House did not respond to repeated queries as to what had prompted President Trump to dispatch O’Brien to Sweden, whether Trump was even aware of Whelan’s case, or if he would be sending O’Brien to Russia to advocate for Whelan’s release.
The State Department did not respond to repeated inquiries as to whether President Trump’s decision to send O’Brien to Sweden represented an expansion of his portfolio or a change in U.S. policy towards Americans held on criminal charges abroad.
Trump Administration and Its Enablers Attempt to Smear Civil Servants, Not Political Holdovers
After two weeks of hearings which revealed President Donald Trump’s attempt to force Ukraine’s government to announce sham investigations into conspiracy theories meant to exonerate Russia from having interfered in the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden’s family, it’s now a foregone conclusion that Democrats will eventually vote to approve articles of impeachment against a president for only the third time in American history.
When the House reconvenes in December, the task of crafting those articles will fall to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and his staff. They will have a lot of material to work with, mostly testimonial evidence from career foreign service officers, civil servants, foreign policy experts, and even an active duty Army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
But rather than accept the testimony of these largely nonpartisan public servants, Republicans have endeavored to shoot the messengers.
Lt. Col. Vindman, who emigrated here as a child from the Soviet Union and who has literally bled for his adopted homeland (earning a Purple Heart in the process), was recently branded as “Vindictive Vindman” by first-term Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Other witnesses, like Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, have been branded as “Never Trumpers” by the president himself. And the Intelligence Community whistleblower whose complaint touched off the entire impeachment inquiry has been labeled — without evidence — a “Democrat operative” by Trump defenders such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member.
Some observers may see the constant counterpunching and impugning of witnesses’ motives as just another part of Republicans’ strategy to defend President Trump. But it’s not.
It’s much more frightening than that.
The attempt to smear these nonpartisan civil servants is part of a long-running attempt by Trump and his allies to delegitimize the entire concept of a non-partisan civil service.
It’s a project that stems both from Trump’s obsession with loyalty combined with his misguided belief that federal employees work for him, and from his administration’s goal to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
It began shortly after Trump was sworn in on January 20, 2017, when his allies in conservative media began complaining about “Obama holdovers” serving on the staff of the National Security Council, and in places like the Defense Department, State Department, and pretty much every other executive branch agency.
These “holdovers,” Trump allies said, were to blame for many of the president’s failures, and were part of a Democratic “deep state” working to frustrate Trump’s goals.
The problem with that, of course, is that there is no such thing as a “holdover” — at least not the way Trump and his allies mean.
It is possible for an agency official to be a holdover from a previous administration. When President Obama was preparing to take office in January 2009, he asked then-Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain in his position.
Gates, a political appointee, was literally held over from the previous administration.
But that’s not what the term means to Trump and his allies.
To them, “holdovers” are the career civil servants and subject matter experts who keep the government running. Such people been a fixture in American government since 1883, when then-President Chester Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which created a competitive exam process for selecting government employees and made it illegal to fire them for political reasons.
Arthur was an unlikely booster for the idea of a professional civil service. He was a “stalwart,” part of a faction of the Republican Party that supported the “spoils” system, which gave the president — and the party controlling the White House — complete control of federal hiring. He was elected as James Garfield’s running mate to placate those Republicans who were concerned about Garfield’s potential for turning off the spoils system’s spigot of graft.
But the abundance of patronage jobs — and the president’s control over them — ended up costing Garfield his life in September 1881, months after he’d been shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a mentally ill man who’d attacked Garfield in a Washington, D.C. train station because he’d been denied the job of consul to Vienna or Paris.
The horror of Garfield’s assassination galvanized public support for a civil service bill, and Arthur — who’d been the subject of unfounded suspicions after his name was invoked by Garfield’s assassin — signed it.
Since then, nonpartisan civil servants have been a fact of life for presidents.
Most have understood that the career professionals who staff the executive branch departments have a vital function.
But not Trump.
For Trump, having served in government during Barack Obama’s presidency is enough to cast suspicion on any federal employee, and his suspicion of career professionals has extended throughout the executive branch.
At agencies large and small, policy planning meetings are routinely restricted to political appointees, and some policies — like the proposed (and dead-in-the-water) merger between the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration — have been designed to give the White House more control over hiring.
Many of those policies have not come to fruition, but the goal of getting rid of “disloyal” employees has now become an article of faith for Trump defenders.
A Senate trial will give Republicans yet more reasons to attack career professionals as disloyal.
The next election will determine whether punishment for “disloyalty” will become more than a conservative pipe dream.
Trump Still Wants Putin Back In G-7, Lies Repeatedly About Why Russia Was Suspended
WASHINGTON, August 20, 2019 — President Trump on Tuesday said he’d support allowing the G-7 to become the G-8 again by allowing Russia to rejoin the annual summit held by the leaders of the world’s seven largest advanced economies.
Speaking in the Oval Office alongside Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Trump repeatedly lied about how long Russia had been participating in the annual summit before its 2014 suspension from what had been the Group of Eight, as well as the reasons for the suspension.
“So it was the G8 for a long time, and now it’s the G7, and a lot of the time, we talk about Russia,” said Trump, who then suggested that it “would be much more appropriate to have Russia in” and return to the G-8 format.
“It should be the G-8 because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia,” he said. “So I could certainly see it being the G8 again, and if somebody would make that motion, I would certainly be disposed to think about it very favorable.”
Trump also falsely attributed Russia’s non-participation to nothing more than spite on the part of his predecessor, rather than a consequence of Russia illegally invading and occupying part of Ukraine.
“I guess President Obama, because Putin outsmarted him, President Obama thought it wasn’t a good thing to have Russia in. So he wanted Russia out,” he said.
None of the claims Trump made about Russia and the G-8 have any basis in reality.
Although he claimed that Russia had participated “for a long time,” the G-7 summit existed for more than two decades before Russia first became involved.
The first edition of what would become an annual affair took place in 1975, when the leaders of the world’s top six International Monetary Fund-ranked industrialized economies — France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — met in France.
Canada joined what had been known as the Group of 6 a year later, after which the annual meeting would be known as the Group of 7, or G-7, for the next 19 years.
Russia’s involvement dates back to 1994, when Russian officials met with G-7 leaders at a series of separate meetings after that year’s summit had concluded.
Boris Yeltsin, then President of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, attended the next three meetings as a guest, and in 1998, Russia became a full member of would then be known as the Group of Eight. The invitation was extended in spite of that country’s comparatively insignificant position among the world’s industrialized economies as a way to encourage Yeltsin’s efforts to transition Russia away from the Soviet model to a market economy.
Trump’s claim that Russia’s suspension was initiated by then-President Barack Obama is also false.
The suspension began in March 2014, a month after Russian forces invaded Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. As a result of the invasion, which has been widely condemned by the international community, the leaders of what had been the Group of Seven canceled plans to attend that year’s G-8 summit — which Putin had been set to host.
While the assertion that subjects having to do with Russia are routinely discussed at the G-7 level is correct, those discussions most often concern efforts by the G-7 nations — six of which are NATO members — to counter Russian aggression.
Although the international community holds Putin responsible for Russia’s occupation of its neighbor, Trump has previously lied about his culpability and attempted to place the blame on Obama to justify allowing Russia to rejoin the G-8.
During a question-and-answer session with reporters last June, Trump said Putin “should be in the G8” and repeatedly accused Obama of having “lost Crimea.”
“President Obama lost Crimea because President Putin didn’t respect President Obama, didn’t respect our country, and didn’t respect Ukraine,” he said.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Rejects Linkage Between Donald Trump and Anti-Hispanic El Paso Killer
WASHINGTON, August 6, 2019 — White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley on Tuesday rejected the idea that President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric played any role in pushing a Texas man to drive to an El Paso Wal-Mart and open fire on the mostly-Latino shoppers inside.
“There are plenty of people in this country who commit acts of evil in the names of politicians, of celebrities and all types of things,” Gidley said while speaking to reporters outside the West Wing.
The alleged gunman, 21-year-old Patrick Crucius, posted a manifesto online before he allegedly shot and killed 22 people on Saturday.
In it, he claimed to be responding to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He also cited the March 15, massacre of two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, as an inspiration for his action.
The incident renewed questions over President Trump’s frequent use of anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric which have persisted since he opened his 2016 presidential campaign by attacking Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”
His attacks on immigrants were also featured prominently in the run up to the 2018 midterm elections, during which his campaign rally stump speech frequently included descriptions of “caravans” of migrants, which he warned would be allowed to bring diseases into the country of Democrats were allowed to take control of Congress.
Democrats, civil rights activists, and some Republicans have condemned Trump’s remarks as racist, and many observers have drawn parallels between his rhetoric and the views expressed in Crucius’ manifesto.
Other violent killers have invoked rhetoric from Donald Trump
Crucius is not the first violent actor to invoke Trump’s rhetoric.
Last fall, federal agents arrested so-called “MAGA Bomber” Cesar Sayoc after he sent pipe bombs to a long list of prominent Democrats and journalists.
In court documents, Sayoc’s attorneys said their client had fallen victim to the cult-like atmosphere of Trump’s campaign rallies and a steady diet of Fox News and pro-Trump internet conspiracy theories.
But Gidley denied there was any connection between Trump’s rhetoric and those violent actions, and suggested any attempt to link them was beyond the pale.
“It’s not the politician’s fault when someone acts out their evil intention,” he said before rattling off list of Democratic politicians whom the administration “would never blame” for various attacks allegedly carried out by their supporters.
“We would…never blame Barack Obama for the police shootings in Dallas,” Gidley added. “And quite frankly, it’s ridiculous to make those connect in some way. You have to blame the people here who pulled the trigger.”
But other Republicans did, in fact, blame Obama for the 2016 sniper attack that killed five police officers in Dallas, Texas.
During an appearance on Fox News, Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., blamed the shooting on “the demonization strategies that the Democratic Party uses on a regular basis.”
“I personally believe that what we saw in Dallas where a gunman shot at and killed law enforcement officers and Caucasians simply because they were law enforcement officers and Caucasians is in part because the Democratic Party strategy of demonizing the law enforcement community on the one hand, and also engaging in a strategy of racial division, where they try to get block votes from minority groups by trying to portray Caucasians as the enemy,” Brooks said.
Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, also blamed then-President Obama for the shootings at the time.
“The spread of misinformation and constant instigation by prominent leaders, including our president, have contributed to the modern-day hostility we are witnessing between the police and those they serve,” he said.
Trump, on the other hand, accused the press of fomenting violence in the wake of last year’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
During a question-and-answer session with reporters on the South Lawn last November, a reporter asked him about a poll which found that over half of Americans said he was encouraging political violence.
“You’re creating violence by your questions, you know,” Trump said. “And also, a lot of the reporters are creating violence by not writing the truth. The fake news is creating violence.”
“I’ll tell you what, if the media would write correctly, and write accurately, and write fairly, you would have a lot less violence in the country,” he added.