Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House

September 21, 2018
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Review of Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, by Luke Harding
When I returned from a teaching assignment in Moscow recently, I found Luke Harding’s book waiting for me.  My visit had taken place as relations between the UK and Russia were at a low ebb.  With hindsight, I am rather glad I had not travelled with Collusion as my reading material.
The author has established himself as a leading investigative journalist.  His success might be measured by two movies made from his earlier books, one on Julian Assange and other on Edward Snowden, two of the great whistle-blowers of our times. His credibility as an informed source is strengthened though his expulsion by the Kremlin for his efforts during his time as foreign correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with The Guardian newspaper.
An unfinished drama
Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, deals with an unfinished story, the rise and potential fall of the 45th President of the United States. Nearly a year after publication, the broad analysis remains fresh, and a useful piece of reporting of a drama still awaiting its denouement.
In real-life, a ‘did he or didn’t he‘ thriller, is morphing into a ‘will he or won’t get impeached‘ one, as the indefatigable investigator Robert Muller picks off individuals closer and closer to the President who are reluctantly seeking plea bargains to reduce criminal charges. Parallels with Nixon’s Watergate affair are obvious.
The book opens with a visit by Harding to a secretive organisation in the intelligence gathering business, aka private spying services. It was gaining unwanted notoriety for what became known as The Steele Dossier. Harding was there to meet its author, Christopher Steele.  The dossier was at the time allegedly circulating in Russia’s security agency the FSB, a post-Gorbachev  mutation of  the venerable KGB, as well among Western intelligence groups, and the leaky world of international journalism.
The Steele Dossier
The dossier, according to Harding  ‘would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of ..collusion with a foreign  power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime – vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key aspects unprovable – was treason.’
The information collected by Steele attracted wealthy clients, seeking it as possibly damaging to Trump’s campaign. Then the unverified material was published on-line with only minor redactions, days before the new President’s inauguration. The genie was out of the bottle. The dossier assessed the evidence as pointing strongly to a acceptance by Trump’s  closest associates of a flow of intelligence from Russian sources. Furthermore the Russians were believed to have compromising materials including the sexual frolics which become one of the lascivious shorthands for the possible blackmail.
Trump’s reaction introduced a pattern repeated through his presidency. The use of twitter as his communication medium of choice. The rejection of adverse reporting as fake news (or, in its emphatic capitalized form, FAKE NEWS!).
The episode sets the scene for the book. Much of the subsequent material will be familiar for those who have followed the daily docudrama. Familiar, although bewildering in the the large and shifting cast, although the story-line is comfortingly unchanging.
The two narratives 
Throughout the book, I found myself disentangling two narratives. The first is the story assembled from the facts as recorded by the author.  It tells of a President increasingly mired in controversies and attempts to defend the indefensible. The broad thrust of this narrative mostly fleshes out the explosive Steele dossier.
It portrays a blustering and impulsive President, concealing his financial status and dubious personal and commercial activities, quick to dismiss staff, and railing against his enemies.
One of the more egregious firings was of FBI chief James Comey.  He was abruptly fired at a distance. Hearing the news in public, Comey believed it to be a joke at first. Ironically Comey’s firing was a factor in the arrival of special investigator Robert Mueller, who had been Comey’s predecessor at the FBI. Mueller has become Trump’s nemesis, In this narrative, a year after the book was published, he is patiently collecting evidence against a range of Trump’s close associates and family.
The second narrative is a near mirror-image of the first.  It is mostly reactions to developing adverse news stories. The rebuttals come from President Trump and spokespersons. It draws on claims that enemies of the state, are engaged in a malevolent conspiracy to besmirch the President, through the so-called  ‘deep state’.
The enemies are led by Crooked Hillary, the Mainstream Media with the exception of Fox  News, and the despicable Special Investigator.
It is tempting but simplistic to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Or, as some commentators have noted, we may have increasingly to accept relativism rather than certainties in a post-truth world.
With the benefits of hindsight
One of the problems of an account of a contemporary political issue, is that events can quickly render conclusions failing to anticipate the twists in the dramatic arc of the story.
Nearly a year on, Harding’s conclusions have stood the test of time.
Mueller has succeeded in  gaining convictions for key aides mentioned as targets in Collusion. Significantly, most tof them have been ‘flipped, (seeking modest sentences in exchange for collaboration with the justice system.) The book ends with criminal charges against Paul Manafort, the most knowledgable of Trump’s aides about the impeachable activities of the President.
Fake News?
I found Collusion a well-researched account, drawing on a wealth of personal investigations by the author.
The drama continues. My suspicion is we will have to await a few important and unexpected twists to this fascinating tale of leadership. Maybe, as Harding comments about the Steele dossier, the alleged crime of collusion is in certain key aspects unprovable.

Serena Williams and the fight for tennis equality

September 10, 2018

Naomi Osaka, a new star of women’s tennis won the singles crown at the US Open of 2018. But the headlines were all about the losing finalist Serena Williams, and her battle with Umpire Carlos Ramos.

The match filled the front-page headlines as well as the sporting columns around the world. It captured triumph and disaster, Kipling’s two impostors long associated with tennis and sport. It was raw emotion mingled with tennis of the highest quality.

The setting: Male and Female GOATS.

Serena Williams is crowning a glittering career at the age of 37 by returning to competitive play less than a year after becoming a mother. One final goal eludes her. Winning her 20th singles title at a grand slam event. This would exceed the record set many years ago by the Australian player Margaret Court, and match her 24 total including doubles events.
It matters to Serena. Maybe to add weight to the claim by many players that Serena is the Greatest Of All Time Female (GOAT) tennis player, matching Roger Federer’s claims as the male GOAT. The debate is intensifying as both Roger and Serena find a resurgence in form at an age when less super-humans are planning their subsequent retirement plans.

Maybe the motivation is fuelled in part by a controversy over the stance of Margaret Court over Women’s rights, led by Billie Jean-King, a mentor of Serena Williams, and a formidable champion in her own right. Over time, Serena has also fought vigorously for equal pay and other forms of equality for women tennis players.

The young pretender

Facing Serena is Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old Japanese player little-known outside the world of tennis. Insiders, however, have noticed her arrival among a group of emerging young players who have been able to achieve grand slam tournament successes. This has been assisted by the interruption through Serena’s maternity period. Indeed, Serena faced Osaka shortly after return, in a tournament in Miami, and lost 3-6, 2-6, The loss was largely ignored as happening at a fortuitous time for the young Japanese player. This overlooked the unexpected recent result in winning her first senior event in the Indian Wells tournament.

The Serena Slam

Serena went close to achieving the exceptional feat of a clean sweep of grand slam events in the year 2015. She was already champion of three of the four annual tournaments, the Australian, French, and Wimbledon. The story began to reach beyond the tennis reports.
The climax was to be at the US Open, always held in early September. It became labelled The Serena Slam.
I remember it well, as I decided to follow the entire tournament as it unfolded, from Europe, taking as my theme the tensions facing sporting superstars. The story was as fascinating as I hoped. I wrote a book about it, titled Tennis Tensions. The tensions, as so often happens, upset the happy ending for Serena at the time. She went out at the semi-final stage. I suspect that this experience added to Serena’s motivations to end her career with a slam not a whimper.

The Osaka Serena match

The crowd had already delighted in an American success. In the mixed doubles, the ebullient  Mattek-Sands scraped though with partner Jamie Murray, providing  a satisfactory prelude to the main event.

The singles final started with the high-tension Flushing Meadows crowd in even more high-tension mood than usual. Overwhelming support for the last American hope of another victory of the tournament. Williams conceals any nervousness with customary ferocious body language which can reinforce feelings of inadequacy in opponents. But this opponent matches her in physicality and shot-making.

The unlikely starts to happen. Williams is rattled. Fails to deal with the aggression and sprays losing shots. Osaka plays with the freedom granted to the player no one expects to win. Breaks. Then breaks again to take the first set. Pundits expect Serena to reestablish the rightful order of things.

Except it works out quite differently. Serena is now visibly unsettled. Ready to find pressure release valve. Which she does with misdirection of her energies towards the Umpire.

What follows is documented accurately in many reports. What is less clear is the assessment of what happens. Serena receives a warning for (illegal) coaching from her coach. Serena is incensed and demands an apology of the umpire.
Play continues, Serena is unable to gain control, loses serve, smashes racquet, receives a second correct code violation.
The match is drifting away, and Serena redoubles her invective directed at the umpire. Receives third correct code violation of loss of a game virtually gifting the match to her young opponent who manages to look as nothing untoward is happening, and it it is, it really is nothing to do with her. Remarkable composure.
No good can come of this.
The match still requires winning. Osaka finds the mental resources to finish with a strong service game. The match ends. Recriminations begin. What should be a joyous victory ceremony ends in tears from the winner. Serena pleads with the crowd that they treat the winner with respect.

The wider issue

The wider issue is hotly debated. Although the term debated is to strip what happened of its intense emotions and beliefs asserted.

Broadly, there is support for Serena, who states in her press conference she was fighting for women’s rights. Others, including Billie Jean King agreed that there are double standards at play. The alternative view is that the unfolding events left the Umpire with little choice.

Truly a dilemma of leadership. Perhaps it is the dilemma facing the umpire that offers most learning opportunities. What might have happened differently. Is it possible or desirable to ignore context? The context of the importance of the match? The long experience of a top umpire including Serena’s celebrity status, and at times her melt-downs at perceived injustices to her, and in her view to others?img_08401


Is Coca Cola a good match for Costa Coffee?

September 1, 2018

This week the most powerful global soft drinks conglomerate acquired the second largest chain of coffee shops in the world. A perfect match?

The announcement has been met with near-universal enthusiasm from business and financial commentators.

According to The Guardian, Alison Brittain, the chief executive of Costa Coffee’s owner Whitbread, said the coffee chain had been approached by a number of potential buyers but Coke’s desire to snap up the 4,000-store chain was a “dream deal” for investors.

“The other suitors weren’t wearing the right suit or driving the right car,” explained Brittain of the other approaches it received. “It’s Coke we decided to go up the aisle with, with a very large ring on our finger.”

 

There is an easy-to-understand logic in the move. There is growing movement against sugary drinks as a contributing factor in the growing problem of obesity (bad pun intended). Coffee, while still suspect for its caffeine, is successful in decaf versions with only a few pedants frothing at the mouth about oxymorons. Overall, Coca Cola is investing in a healthier future.
It avoids the years of denial required of the cigarette manufacturers over links between its product and assorted life-shortening impact on consumers.

Coca Cola Innocent

 

Smoothies

The logic adds to an earlier case studied in LWD and at the Alliance Business School’s Executive MBA programmes. Coca Cola revealed its longer-term acquisition policy when it snapped up Innocent, the environmentally fragrant smoothies business.

How to screw up a good deal

Superficially, then, it’s a good deal. Onward and upward. Whitbreads are making reassuring noises that they will spend the cash responsibly and not just in helping fat cats get fatter. Shareholders will benefit. Some money will go to plugging a hole in the pension funds. So at least employees will get some benefit (even if they were already entitled to negotiated pension rights.)

Leaders we deserve has examined similar acquisitions in which a larger organisation introduces a strategically promising unit to strengthen or diversify. The process is much loved in Business Schools for providing yet another case for the Mergers and Acquisitions component of its courses. Kraft/ Cadbury; Pfizer/Astra Xenica are two important heavyweight examples.

The received wisdom is to avoid messing with the brand assets of the acquisition. This is easier said than achieved, as some of the anticipated gains call for re-organisations, consolidation of back office staff and computer systems. It helps, if there is a rationale beyond rescuing an ailing brand by liberating its potential. In this, I leave readers to decide whether project Brexit might be an example.