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Sensemaker: Paper cuts

Sensemaker: Paper cuts

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Olaf Scholz said Germany would send tanks to Ukraine (more below).
  • Rupert Murdoch scrapped plans to re-merge Fox and News Corp.
  • Kyodo Senpaku, a Japanese whaling company, started selling vacuum-packed whale meat from vending machines.

Paper cuts

Classified papers have been taken from the Indiana home of former US vice president Mike Pence after his lawyers reported their existence to the FBI “out of an abundance of caution”. President Biden has suffered a similar embarrassment: so far this month his lawyers have owned up to three batches of classified documents found variously at his home and a DC think-tank, instead of at the National Archives where they should have been.

So what? Precisely. Misplaced secret documents are becoming as commonplace as coffee makers in the homes of former senior US officials. “Happens all the time,” Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive (not the same as the National Archives) tells the BBC. 

No one is alleging malice in the Pence or Biden cases, much less criminal intent. US administrations generate millions of secret papers every year and it’s inevitable that some end up in the wrong place in the quadrennial upheavals caused by elections. 

That doesn’t mean they can’t be political dynamite. The salience of the Pence and Biden stashes derives from the much bigger one found when federal agents raided Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion last summer. The questions they pose are:

  • Does this hurt Pence’s chances as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination?
  • Does this expose Biden and his family to a whole new level of scrutiny from congressional committees now run by Republicans?
  • Does this let Trump off the hook, at least as far as “Documentgate” is concerned?

The answers are yes, yes and, effectively, yes. Taking them in turn:

  • When Trump’s house was raided, Pence was asked if he too had taken secret papers home with him from the White House when they should have been securely archived. He replied: “I did not.” 
  • When Biden’s lawyers found papers dating from his time as vice president at the Penn Biden Center in Washington they waited two months before admitting it. Since then more classified papers have been found in the Biden family home in Delaware, some in a box marked “Important Doc’s [sic] + Photos” left open on a table as Biden’s son, Hunter, prepared for his nephew’s birthday party, according to the New York Post. James Comer, new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has requested visitor log details from both places. 
  • When Trump learned about the Biden papers he recorded a fundraising video accusing the president of weaponising the Department of Justice “to go after me for the very crime he actually committed”. Legally, there are differences. Politically, he has a point.

To be clear: the Trump case involves hundreds of documents rather than a few dozen. He faces a criminal investigation because of the volume of papers involved and the 18 months he spent obstructing the National Archives’ efforts to find out what he had and get it back. There is no chance of a criminal investigation in Pence or Biden’s case. 

But whether to indict Trump under the Espionage Act is ultimately a political decision for Merrick Garland, the Attorney General. He is a Democrat appointee who knows any case against Trump would have to beat back defence claims of politically-motivated prosecution to succeed in court. 

A recent ABC/Ipsos poll found 50 per cent of Americans think Biden’s wrongdoing in the case of the missing documents is equally serious or more serious than Trump’s. 

To note: Trump’s biggest legal headache by far is in Georgia, where prosecutors could decide today whether to charge him with seeking to overturn the result of that state’s 2020 presidential election. And he has another political challenger in former Secretary of State and CIA director Mike Pompeo, slimmed down by a remarkable 41 kilos in six months.


Nigeria v Quinn
It’s day three in London of a High Court case that could cost Nigeria a third of its foreign currency reserves. The case involves a little-known oil and gas company called Process and Industrial Development (P&ID) which claims Nigeria reneged on a deal to provide free gas in return for construction of a gas plant for power generation. Arbitration in 2017 led to a $6.6 billion award in favour of P&ID which with interest come to $11 billion and which Nigeria is refusing to pay. Its lawyers say the deal was struck with multiple bribes and intent to defraud. P&ID has no known assets other than the award, Bloomberg reports, but the prospect of a big win has attracted a $45 million investment from VR Capital, a hedge fund. P&ID is registered in the British Virgin Islands and co-founded by an Irish former pop band manager named Michael Quinn. Whatever the verdict, expect appeals.


Ninety seconds to midnight
The US-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved its Doomsday Clock ten seconds closer to midnight, from 100 to 90, because of the “terrible risk” of escalation in Russia’s war on Ukraine. According to the bulletin, humanity has never been closer to self-destruction. The clock takes into account pandemics as well as weapons of mass destruction but regards the nuclear threat as paramount, and the risk right now of escalation in Ukraine by “accident, intention or miscalculation” as very serious indeed. The clock’s most relaxed reading ever was 17 minutes from midnight, immediately after the end of the Cold War. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Oz booze ban
How much does alcohol influence a community? Australia’s Alice Springs may hold the answer. Controversial restrictions on alcohol sales there were abruptly ended last summer as they were deemed racially discriminative – a fifth of Alice Springs’ 25,000 people are Indigenous Australians. Since then, alcohol-related harms have skyrocketed. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has responded with immediate restrictions on the sale of takeaway booze. He’s also announced more than A$25 million for community services and police operations. Indigenous community leaders say the crisis stems from “chronic and systemic neglect” of remote communities – not just drink. The big picture: the government is set to hold a referendum on whether there should be an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. If passed, Aboriginal people would be recognised in Australia’s constitution and given the right to consult on any policies affecting them. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Tanks to Ukraine
For three-quarters of a century a self-denying ordinance in the use of military force has been a central plank of German foreign policy. Hence in large part Berlin’s reluctance to send tanks to Ukraine, which ended at last today. Chancellor Olaf Scholz authorised delivery of 14 Leopard 2 tanks but he will also lift a re-export ban so other countries that have them can send them. That includes Poland, the Baltics and Spain. The US has also signalled it will send Abrams M1 tanks despite claiming until now that technical factors make them inappropriate. In fact, one expert says, they’re “damn good tanks” whose gas turbines can run on any fuel. Moscow has condemned what it calls a “blatant provocation”. The questions now are: how many tanks, how fast, where to and with what effect on the battlefield as the mud begins to thaw? President Zelensky wants 300. He won’t get that many for a long time if at all, but 25 January could still go down as a turning point.


Prigozhin v Bellingcat
What was Rishi Sunak thinking when he allowed British lawyers to fly to St Petersburg to meet Russian lawyers for Yevgeny Prigozhin, then Putin’s chief enforcer, in 2021? The answer is probably nothing. Sunak will no doubt claim he was unaware of what was going on. But, as chancellor of the exchequer, he was responsible for the enforcement of UK sanctions that personally targeted Prigozhin as head of the Wagner Group, whose mercenaries have left a trail of destruction across Africa and most recently have laid waste to Soledar in eastern Ukraine. Despite those sanctions the Treasury gave lawyers from Discreet Law, a London firm, permission to meet Prigozhin’s legal team to discuss efforts to sue the founder of Bellingcat, the open-source intelligence analysis platform that has broken multiple stories about Prigozhin. The case collapsed last March but the questions for Sunak linger. OpenDemocracy has the scoop

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Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Phoebe Davis. 

Photographs Getty Images

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