Don­ald Trump head­ing to China. Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los charged. Europe swing­ing to the right.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents The Week - Hamish McDon­ald

Don­ald Trump lurches off Air Force One in Bei­jing on Wed­nes­day in what will be por­trayed by the Chi­nese pro­pa­ganda ap­pa­ra­tus as the tem­plate for the glo­ri­ous cen­tury ahead: a ruler from a dis­tant land com­ing to pay trib­ute to the Mid­dle King­dom.

It won’t help that Trump him­self looks like a walk­ing ex­am­ple of Amer­i­can de­cline. Be­hind him is a chaotic Wash­ing­ton, with spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller mak­ing his first ar­rests over Trump ret­inue links to Rus­sian in­ter­ests and Trump’s own Repub­li­can Party riven by open crit­i­cism of the pres­i­dent’s be­hav­iour in of­fice. Ahead of him is Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping with the 89 mil­lion-mem­ber Com­mu­nist Party locked in adu­la­tion at the pro­fun­dity of his “Thought”.

The United States will of course sur­vive Trump and con­tinue to show the world cre­ative sur­prises, and as we’ve noted be­fore, Xi could soon find him­self faced with fi­nan­cial cri­sis and Ja­pane­ses­tyle long-term stag­na­tion in a mid­dlein­come trap. But for the mo­ment, Xi is likely to play Trump deftly with vague prom­ises of “win-win” eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion and to­ken trade ges­tures. The Las Ve­gas and Ma­cau casino mag­nate Steve Wynn is act­ing as Xi’s back chan­nel to Trump: the Chi­nese have got Trump’s mea­sure and know how to play him.

The Amer­i­can busi­ness lobby in Bei­jing is say­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion shows no signs of grasp­ing the sys­temic bias in China’s trade and in­vest­ment poli­cies, in­clud­ing own­er­ship lim­its in many sec­tors, in­ten­si­fied pro­mo­tion of state-owned en­ter­prises, and new reg­u­la­tions os­ten­si­bly for na­tional and cy­ber­se­cu­rity that re­quire sur­ren­der of source codes, po­ten­tially lead­ing to state­spon­sored piracy of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.

It will be Trump’s first visit to Asia as pres­i­dent, with stops also in Tokyo and Seoul, on the way to the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion sum­mit in Viet­nam next week­end. He’ll then call on his chum Ro­drigo Duterte in Manila be­fore head­ing home, leav­ing be­hind Rex Tiller­son to at­tend the se­cu­rity-fo­cused East Asia Sum­mit in a nearby Philip­pine city.

Our prime min­is­ter will be one of many re­gional lead­ers hop­ing to catch Trump’s at­ten­tion on the side­lines, in his case to men­tion that pesky deal to take some 1250 of the refugees ma­rooned on Manus Is­land and Nauru, as only 54 have been ac­cepted so far. Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton’s de­ci­sion to close the Manus camp this week, throw­ing the in­mates out into the lo­cal com­mu­nity, will not have made it any eas­ier for US of­fi­cials to step up the process. Un­less New Zealand steps in to ex­tract Aus­tralia from its em­bar­rass­ment again, as it did with John Howard’s “Pa­cific So­lu­tion”. Jacinda Ardern will re­peat Welling­ton’s of­fer to take some of the refugees when she meets Turn­bull in Syd­ney to­mor­row.

Pa­padopou­los now

Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion has prob­a­bly got be­yond the point where Trump can do much to stop it, much as he’s toyed with the idea of em­u­lat­ing Richard Nixon’s Satur­day Night Mas­sacre of Water­gate pros­e­cu­tors by sack­ing the for­mer FBI di­rec­tor.

Such an act would clearly raise the case for im­peach­ment on grounds of in­ter­fer­ing in the course of jus­tice, and de­stroy what re­mains of Trump’s as­ser­tions that he’s got noth­ing to hide, no connections at all with Rus­sia. Bre­it­bart News chief and for­mer White House strate­gist Steve Ban­non is said to be ad­vis­ing Trump to try nob­bling Mueller in other ways – cut­ting his bud­get, bad­mouthing him and be­ing dif­fi­cult with doc­u­ments – but that would look shabby, too.

Trump has also ex­plored his pow­ers of par­don, which are ex­ten­sive re­lat­ing to fed­eral of­fences, such as those against his for­mer as­so­ciates Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, who’ve both pleaded not guilty.

But most pres­i­dents leave par­dons to their last day in of­fice, so they can’t face im­peach­ment or ma­jor po­lit­i­cal fall­out. The charges against the two for money laun­der­ing, tax eva­sion and act­ing as the undis­closed agent of the Krem­lin’s favourite politi­cian in Ukraine are too se­ri­ous for even Trump to ex­cuse.

Trump is now won­der­ing what the third fig­ure’s co-op­er­a­tion with Mueller has opened up. Ge­orge Pa­padopou­los joined the Trump elec­tion cam­paign in March 2016 as a mem­ber of his for­eign pol­icy ad­vi­sory team. There are pic­tures of him sit­ting round a board­room ta­ble with Trump and other mem­bers.

For months af­ter that, Pa­padopou­los worked hard at get­ting the Trump cam­paign in con­tact with Rus­sian of­fi­cials, with the aim of ob­tain­ing dirt on Hil­lary Clin­ton via hacked emails and set­ting up a rap­proche­ment with Vladimir Putin. He even thought at one point he had a path­way via a niece of Putin, who turned out to be imag­i­nary.

Pa­padopou­los lied about all of this to Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion in March this year, then de­cided to sing when ar­rested in July. He was for­mally charged only on Oc­to­ber 5, plead­ing guilty to hav­ing lied to the Mueller inquiry. Mueller re­vealed this plea-bar­gain just one hour af­ter dis­clos­ing the ar­rests and charges against Manafort and Gates on Mon­day. Trump’s crow­ing on Twit­ter that their al­leged crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity pre­ceded his cam­paign was thus short-lived.

For many weeks, Pa­padopou­los has been ef­fec­tively an un­der­cover in­for­mant for Mueller, en­gag­ing other mem­bers of the Trump en­tourage in pos­si­bly in­crim­i­nat­ing email and tele­phone ex­changes, and may even have been wired up for face-to-face meet­ings. Per­haps he talked to Trump him­self. All the pres­i­dent’s men will be pon­der­ing if they should try to cut a deal, too.

Europe list­ing right­wards

If there was a con­sol­i­dated elec­toral swing-o-meter for Europe, it would have gone sharply to the right in re­cent times. The Euro­pean ex­per­i­ment in unity looks more and more frayed and even the in­ter­nal unity of some coun­tries is be­ing tested.

Over the past week, the gov­ern­ment of Cat­alo­nia has been dis­missed by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Madrid, and its lead­ers be­come fugi­tives. In Italy, vot­ers in the rich north­ern prov­inces of Lom­bardy and Veneto voted in ref­er­en­dums last month for more au­ton­omy and re­tain­ing a greater share of lo­cally col­lected taxes. Garibaldi’s work could yet come un­done, es­pe­cially as the Ital­ian run­ning the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank, Mario Draghi, is now hav­ing to slow the quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing that is pour­ing Ger­man sav­ings into the tot­ter­ing Ital­ian bank­ing sys­tem.

The far right is ris­ing in the for­mer Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian em­pire, fol­low­ing the as­cent of the anti-Mus­lim and an­ti­Semitic Vik­tor Or­bán in Bu­dapest.

Last month the 31-year-old

Aus­trian for­eign min­is­ter, Se­bas­tian

Kurz, led his cen­tre-right Peo­ple’s Party to polls that put him in prime po­si­tion to be­come chan­cel­lor, with the far-right Free­dom Party as coali­tion part­ner.

New bar­ri­ers to im­mi­gra­tion will be the cor­ner­stone of the al­liance.

Then in the Czech Repub­lic, the brash bil­lion­aire An­drej Babiš took his ANO party (the ini­tials stand for Ac­tion of Dis­sat­is­fied Cit­i­zens in Czech) to first place in that coun­try’s par­lia­men­tary elec­tions. Again, the main griev­ance he tapped was over the Euro­pean Union’s al­lot­ment of refugee quo­tas around mem­ber coun­tries. Babiš was asked to form a gov­ern­ment this week by Pres­i­dent Miloš Ze­man, but it will be a mi­nor­ity one. None of the other eight par­ties are ready to back him un­til he clears fraud charges over mis­use of EU sub­si­dies.

Ze­man dis­tin­guished him­self at a re­cent press con­fer­ence by wav­ing a replica AK-47 with the words “For jour­nal­ists” writ­ten on it. This was a few days af­ter a car bomb killed in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist Daphne Caru­ana Gal­izia in Malta. Pre­vi­ously Ze­man has re­ferred to jour­nal­ists as “ma­nure” and “hye­nas”. In May this year he joked at a joint ap­pear­ance with Putin that some of the at­tend­ing press needed to be “liq­ui­dated”. It’s a sorry pic­ture for an of­fice first adorned by the writer Vá­clav Havel.

Paul Manafort out­side court in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., on Mon­day.

HAMISH McDON­ALD is The Satur­day Pa­per’s world edi­tor.

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