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Happy Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day in France, and it’s a big deal over there. The holiday celebrates the date in 1789 when French revolutionaries stormed the notorious Bastille prison where political dissidents were being held, which proved a turning point in the civil war that toppled the despotic monarchy of Louis XVI, and July 14 still stirs a feeling of liberte, egalite and fraternite in French hearts in much the same way the Fourth of July makes Americans feel proud of their revolution.
The French Revolution didn’t work out quite so well as the American one, however, what with the Reign of Terror that shortly followed and the dictatorial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte that quickly ensued and all the wars that inevitably resulted. We can well understand why the French are still relieved to be rid that Louis XVI fellow, who really was a particularly despotic monarch, but we’re harder pressed to see how they think it all worked out well enough to celebrate. The French eventually settled into a reasonably peaceable and productive democracy, with scientists who pasteurized milk and painters who created that awesome Impressionist stuff and a military that maintained a profitable empire in Africa and Asia, but they had a bad 20th century. At this point in the 21st century they’ve arrived at a Bastille Day with French President Emmanuel Macron sharing the stage with American President Donald Trump.
Trump was ostensibly given the seat of honor because this Bastille Day coincides with the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, one of the two times in the 20th century when America’s military might came to France’s rescue, but we assume there were other reasons as well. Franco-American relations have been complicated as far back as the XYZ Affair, and in the age of Macron and Trump it’s all the more complicated. At first glance the two leaders seem polar opposites of one another, but on closer inspection bear some unsettling similarities.
Trump ran on a nationalist and isolationist and protectionist platform, Macron on a platform of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation and free trade. On the campaign trail Trump frequently cited France as an example of what America shouldn’t be doing with its immigration policy, usually citing a friend “Jim” who had ceased his annual vacations to the country because “Paris isn’t Paris anymore,” and Macron has been one of the European leaders frankly talking about the need for a post-American world order. During Macron’s race Trump “tweeted” some friendly words about Macron’s opponent, who was from a Vichy-derived nationalist and isolationist and protectionist party that was also backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and we’re sure Macron would have preferred Trump’s opponent, whose myriad flaws are surely well known to our American readership. They’ve also clashed over the Paris Climate Accord, with Trump ending America’s support because “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” and Macron quickly exploiting the European backlash by promising to “Make the planet great again.”
Trump’s a 71-year-old political neophyte with a 47-year-old photography model wife, Macron’s a 39-year-old career civil service technocrat with a 64-year-old school teacher wife, the former is more quintessentially American than we’d like to admit, and the latter is Frenchier than any self-respecting Frenchman would want to admit, so it does seem an unlikely pairing on a Bastille Day stage. Still, as the dined together with their spouses at a reputedly swank restaurant beneath the Eiffel Tower the two leaders probably found they had much in common.
Macron won election as the leader of his own newly-created and defiantly disruptive party, much as Trump did, and he prides himself on a pragmatism unmoored from any coherent political ideology, much as Trump does. Both are friendly to business interests and averse to needless government regulations, except for some disagreements on immigration policy they both take the same tough-on-terrorism stands, and we guess they’re both equally eager to make sort of deal about something or another. Macron shares Trump’s tastes for fancy dinners and big military parades, too, as well as the same distaste for all the constitutional restraints and constant press criticisms that stand in their way of getting things done. Macron has recently proposed doing away with a third of the French Parliament’s deputies, which is bold even by Trump’s standards, and the French press has likened him to “Sun King” Louis XVI by calling him the “Sun President,” which is about as harsh as anything the American press has yet come up with against Trump.
The two leaders agreed to disagree about the Paris Climate Accord, which will probably help both with their domestic political audiences, but didn’t announce any noteworthy agreements. Nothing was expected for the old Franco-American relationship celebrating Bastille Day and the centennial of America’s entry into World War I and world leadership, though, and the two leaders got along well enough that something good might come of it. Our guess is that Macron is pragmatic and unprincipled enough that he’s trying to find a sweet spot between an increasingly isolated but still significant America and the post-American European alliance he’ll be talking up again tomorrow, and our faint hope is that the savvy real estate developer Trump will hold his own in the negotiations.
The trip obliged Trump to take a couple of questions from the American press, and naturally one of them was about those e-mails his son released about a meeting he and Trump’s son-in-law and campaign manager had with someone they understood to be a Russian lawyer offering help in the election from the Russian government. Trump’s rambling reply described his son as a “good boy” and “young man” who didn’t do anything that wasn’t usual in American politics, but Trump’s son is the same age as the French President, whose leadership Trump had just effusively praised, so it was a bad setting for the argument. Macron declined the opportunity to gripe Russia’s meddling in his country’s past election, and although that was a characteristically shrewd French diplomatic move we’ll leave it to our Francophile friends to guess how that plays with his domestic political audience.
Both Trump and Macron will be back at the mercy of their domestic political audiences by Monday, if not sooner, and we expect the mobs of both countries will eventually grab the metaphorical pitchforks and storm the metaphorical Bastille against the both of them. Although we admit that both of them were arguably preferable to the people they ran against, we still don’t have much regard for either of them, and at this point we’re only rooting for France and America.

— Bud Norman

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Another Bad News Cycle for Trump Jr.

There’s still no proof that the campaign of President Donald Trump was involved in the Russian government’s covert efforts to influence the past American presidential election, but it’s no longer possible to deny that at least three of its highest-ranking figures were willing and eager to be. The proof is contained in a chain of e-mails acquired by The New York Times, and if you don’t believe anything in “The New York Slimes” or the rest of the “lamestream media” you can read very same e-mails at the “Twitter” feed of Donald Trump Jr.
The e-mails detail the arrangement of a meeting at the Trump campaign’s headquarters in in June of 2016 between a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and campaign advisor Trump Jr., the president’s son-in-law and campaign advisor and current White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The New York Times first reported the meeting on Saturday, with Trump Jr. confirming it did happen but explaining that he had no idea who he was meeting with and understood it was all about Americans being able to adopt Russian orphans. On Sunday the paper further explained that Trump Jr. had been led to believe that the meeting was about information the Russian lawyer might provide to help the campaign, and Trump Jr. confirmed that he was disappointed it had turn out be Russian adoptions instead. On Monday the paper reported it knew of e-mails proving that Trump Jr. had been explicitly told the Russian lawyer was acting on behalf of the Russian government, and was offering information as part of the Russian government’s efforts to influence the campaign, and there was no response by Trump Jr.
After the paper called Trump Jr. for a response to an upcoming story that revealed further embarrassing details of the e-mails, which the paper now apparently possessed, Trump Jr. and his lawyer decided he might as well release them himself in advance of the story. With the special counsel investigating the Russia matter surely in possession of the e-mails he might as well have done so, but the contents still look pretty darned bad.
The first e-mail was sent a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, who represents a Russian pop star named Emin Agalorov, whose father, Aras Aragalov, is a billionaire and past business associate of the Trump family with direct ties to the Russian government that all of the Trumps were surely aware of. “Emin just called and asked to contact you with something very interesting,” Goldstone wrote. “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Trump Jr.’s e-mailed response to the explicit offer of assistance from a hostile foreign power, after forwarding the missive to Kushner and Manafort, was “Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” The e-mails also make clear that Trump Jr. scheduled the meeting with the understanding that the Russian lawyer was acting on behalf of the Russian government, and would provide information acquired from the Russian government’s ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign, and that Kushner and Manafort were also willing to attend the meeting.
None of which looks good for the Trump campaign or presidency, even if Trump Jr. did divulge the information before The New York Times got a chance to. Even The New York Times doesn’t allege that the meeting provided any useful information to the campaign, but even Trump Jr. is admitting that he’s disappointed about that, and it’s somewhat akin to a burglar pleading that he didn’t find anything worth stealing in the house he broke into. The story also raises the pesky matter of the Trump family’s business associations with Russian billionaires with the usual ties to the Russian times, and gives snarky pundits a chance to show the Emin Aragalov music video that the President of the United States appeared in. That Russian lawyer has the name and looks of a Ian Fleming villain, too, and her interest in that obscure Russian adoption issue is mostly about the sanctions that were imposed by the United State’s Maginstky Act against human rights violations, and the president has said on Fox News that America also does lots of killing and been open to relaxing all the various sanctions against the Russians, so it’s a hard story to spin.
The president hasn’t “tweeted” anything about it except praise of namesake son’s “transparency” regarding what The New York Times was about to report, but his official and unofficial spokespeople did their best to mitigate the damage. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders referred most of the questions during an off-camera press briefing to Trump Jr.’s attorneys, who were unavailable for comment, but all the right-wing radio talk shows we listened in on were talking about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign’s meeting with Ukrainian officials and speculating they’d set up poor dumb Trump Jr. with that ill-fated meeting with a Russian lawyer who turned out to a double-agent for the Democrats. Trump Jr.’s only interview about it was on the Trump-friendly Fox News network with the exceedingly Trump-friendly Sean Hannity, who allowed Trump Jr. to admit that the meeting wasn’t such a great idea in retrospect, but of course Hannity also preferred to talk about Clinton.
These days anything seems plausible, and we certainly wouldn’t put anything past that awful Clinton woman, but it’s hard to believe that she was shrewd enough to arrange a false flag meeting through Trump family connections that wasn’t revealed until nine months after an election she somehow or another managed to lose. Whatever nefarious deeds the losing candidate might have contrived, and we’re quite willing to believe anything you might come up, that doesn’t explain why the winner’s son and son-in-law and campaign manager were meeting with someone they understood to be an agent of a hostile foreign policy that they were told was meddling in an American election.
It’s also still quite plausible that President Trump didn’t have the slightest idea what his son and son-in-law and campaign manager were doing on his behalf, but at this point that’s not at all reassuring.

— Bud Norman

Sometimes There Is Such a Thing as Bad Press

Donald Trump Jr. has been a big name in the news for the past few days, getting even more ink and airtime than his presidential eponym, but he’s surely not relishing the attention. All the stories have been about a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer closely linked to the Kremlin, and over the past few days they’ve become progressively worse.
It all started with a New York Times report on Saturday that Trump Jr., along with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with the aforementioned Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnistkaya, at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016. The Trumps’ most staunch defenders usually dismiss anything in “The New York Slimes” as “fake news,” which is often a plausible defense, but in this case the meeting was corroborated by a statement from Trump Jr., which described the meeting as a discussion about lifting a Russian ban on its orphans being adopted by Americans, but “did not address whether the presidential campaign was discussed.” Given that Trump Jr. had previously denied any meetings with any Russians during the campaign, and that he and those two other top Trump campaign aides and that Kremlin-linked lawyer would have been the only four people talking about the Russian adoption issue at the time, it looked bad.
On Sunday The New York Times reported that the campaign was indeed discussed at the meeting, and that in fact the reason for it was to hear some promised information from the Kremlin-linked lawyer that the campaign might use against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which looked worse. This blast of “fake news” from “The New York Slimes” cited five unnamed sources, three of them described as White House advisors, but it was also corroborated by a more forthcoming statement by Trump Jr.. In the statement, Trump explained that the promised dirt wasn’t delivered, that the conversation somehow turned to talk about the Russian adoption issue, and at that point he ended the meeting. “It became clear to me,” he wrote, “that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
On Sunday The Washington Post piled on with a story that the meeting had been arranged by a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, who represents a Russian pop star named Emin Agalarov, whose wealthy family is Kremlin-linked and has also done business with the Trumps. There was no statement from anyone named Trump in the story, but the deal to put the Trump name atop a Moscow tower had been publicly acknowledged by both parties. That’s not proof of anything nefarious, of course, but it also looks bad.
On Monday The New York Times was back on top of the story with a report that Goldstone had e-mailed Trump Jr. prior to the meeting to say that the promised dirt on Clinton was coming direct from the Kremlin as part of its efforts to help the Trump presidential campaign. There was no corroborating statement from Trump, whose newly-hired lawyer has probably advised him not to say anything, but if the e-mail does exist and the subpoena-powered special counsel gets his hands on it that will look even worse yet.
All the president’s spokespeople have done their best make it look better, but they’ve had a tough time of it. The original claim was that no one in the Trump campaign ever had any contacts with any Russians during the race, but since then a national security advisor has resigned and an Attorney General has recused from the whole matter and that son-in-law and past campaign chairman are both under investigation for their now-admitted meeting with Russians during the race, so that’s been abandoned. The next claim was that all the meetings were perfectly innocent, either momentary social encounters at cocktail parties or discussions by campaign associates in their other political or business capacities or high-minded talk about such non-campaign related things as Russians adoptions, but now Trump Jr. has admitted that at least on one occasion the campaign was quite willing and eager to talk with a Russian who might provide to help Trump win the election.
Trump Jr. is for now sticking to his story that he had no idea the Russian he met with had any ties to the Kremlin, and that he and two of Trump’s other closest advisors took time out of a busy campaign schedule to welcome her to Trump Tower with the hope she was getting her promised dirt from a clean source, but even if you buy that it still doesn’t make him look good. For now everyone Trump is insisting that no matter what went down the president didn’t have the slightest idea that his son and son-in-law and campaign chairman were having at a meeting a Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, but even if that’s true it doesn’t make him look any better.
For the moment the White House and its media allies are insisting that the bigger scandal is that fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who was fired because of his investigation of all the Russia stuff, had leaked classified information along with a much more widely noted claim that Trump had implicitly tried to quash an investigation about that national security advisor who had resigned over some undisclosed contacts with Russians. The president “tweeted” about how it was “Totally illegal!,” his indefatigable spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway kept trying to bring it up during her inquisitions on the cable news, and that was what all the right-wing radio talk shows we heard on our drive around town wanted to talk about. Their source is a report in The Hill, which is an inside-the-beltway establishment paper that also relied on unnamed sources for its scoop, but if they’d read all the way through they’d have noticed it only said some of Comey’s memos were classified, did not allege that the one he long ago admitted he leaked was one of them, and even in the worst case it isn’t nearly so juicy as what The New York Times and The Washington Post have been coming up with the past few days.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has been filling in for a while for the conspicuously absent White House press secretary Sean Spicer, even tried to claim in an another camera-free pressing briefing that it was more scandalous that people had leaked information about the Trump campaign’s effort to acquire leaked information from a Kremlin-linked lawyer. Three of those unnamed leakers were reportedly White House advisors, the denunciation basically confirmed the leaks, and Trump Jr.’s written statements to the press corroborated the worst of it, so it hardly seems a winning argument.
The already emerging next claim is that so what if the Trump campaign sought the help of the Russians to win the election. During the campaign Trump said he hoped the Russians would leak any of the e-mails they might have hacked from Clinton, and although he later said he was just joking it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear him say that so what if he wasn’t joking. There’s already talk in the Trump-friendly media about past Democratic efforts to get opposition research information from foreign governments or meddle in their elections, much of it provably true and some of it unproved but plausible, and as understandably cynical a nation as ours might just buy the argument that, c’mon, everybody does it.
We hope not. Whatever nefarious scandals the Democrats might have gotten away with in the past — and we’re sure there have been damned more than just a few — that doesn’t mean a Republican should get away with working with a business-connected foreign adversary to influence an American presidential election. So far there’s no definitive proof it happened, but by now we can’t take seriously anyone’s claim that there’s no basis for suspicion, and we’re hoping that the press and the congressional investigative committees and the special counsel will eventually let us know one way or another.

— Bud Norman

A Bad Weekend in Europe

All the president’s men and women took to the Sunday news shows to talk up his dramatic trip to Europe, with breathless accounts of triumphs we very much wanted to believe, but from our perspective it seemed as slapstick a comedy as Chevy Chase taking the Griswold family on “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
The trip began promisingly enough in Poland, where President Donald Trump delivered an uncharacteristically coherent speech before a large and adoring crowd. In his address Trump robustly urged Poland to defend western civilization’s unique values against its enemies, specifically cited the revanchist Russian government’s recent intrusions into Ukraine and other parts of its former Soviet Union empire as an example, and explicitly reiterated America’s Article Five commitment in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to back it up, which had been conspicuously omitted from his last speech in Europe. Even the most Trump-wary conservative commentators effusively praised the speech, which they found a welcome change from the apologetically morally-relativistic and multi-culturalist pablum that President Barack Obama had spewed to foreign audiences over his eight years.
We probably typed as many column inches of annoyance as any of those commentators during Obama’s interminable time in office, and are still as annoyed as any Pole or Czech about him canceling the missile defense deal his predecessor had negotiated with Poland and the Czech Republic as part of his ridiculous “re-set” effort with the Russkies, so we’ll concede that Trump’s speech was a marked improvement. Still, we found ourselves short of being effusive about it. The crowd was large and unanimously adoring because Poland’s government has lately taken an authoritarian turn that does not tolerate dissent any more willingly than did its communist predecessors, so a truly robust defense of Western values should have made mention of that, and it pains us to admit that even Obama’s apologetic and morally-relativistic and multi-cultural speech in Poland at the end of his interminable term did so.
Whatever points Trump might have have scored for western civilization in that speech, he promptly threw them all away in an ensuing joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. The Polish government has lately been restricting press freedom in ways that Trump can only envy, and Trump expressed his sympathy for the cause by damning most American media as “fake news” before a worldwide media audience. He was particularly irked by the unfavorable coverage of the National Broadcasting Company, explaining it was because he once had a hit reality show on the network, and although capitalism is indeed a western value we don’t think that Trump strike quite the right balance with a free press.
Worse yet, Trump also advised his international audience that it can’t necessarily believe it anything it hears from America’s intelligence agencies. In response to a question from one of those darned NBC reporters if Trump accepted the conclusion of America’s intelligence community that Russia had meddled in America’s past presidential election, the winner of that election said that he thought they might have but so had other countries he wouldn’t name and other people he wouldn’t speculate about, and he recalled how they had been wrong about all sorts of things including an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program prior to the Iraqi war, and “nobody really knows for sure” what is true. During his winning Republican primary campaign Trump had alleged that Republican President George W. Bush knew from intelligence reports that there was no such program but lied the country into a disastrous war over it anyway, but the current story is that the intelligence agencies had knowingly misled him, and in any of the tellings of the story the Republican Party and America and its intelligence community and the rest of western civilization don’t look good.
All of this complicated the next day’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, but naturally there was an attention-diverting “tweet” from the president early that morning. “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the (Democratic National Committee’s) server to the (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the (Central Intelligence Agency), Trump “tweeted” from Hamburg, Germany, adding “Disgraceful.” In case you don’t follow the news diligently, Podesta was the campaign chairman for vanquished Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, there was some fuss about her e-mails during that long-ago campaign, and even such Trump-wary Republicans as us are still annoyed about it. Not even such an eager-to-believe sycophant as Sean Hannity will buy that’s what everyone in Hamburg was talking about on the opening of a G-20 summit of the world’s 20 largest economies, though, and Podesta was not the head of the DNC and had no authority over it’s e-mail server, so he was thus was able to plausibly “tweet” back about a “whack job president,” and all the president’s men and women seemed relieved it was overshadowed by Trump’s much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with Putin.
Before they got around to that, though, the European Union and the Japanese government had announced negotiations on a free-trade agreement that was clearly a preemptive measure against the protectionist trade policies that Trump had run on in his winning presidential campaign. Trump had treated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a round of golf at his high-priced Mar-a-Lago resort, and boasted of their personal relationship, but Abe explained his participation in a treaty that will leave the United States automotive industry disadvantaged in the European and Asian markets by saying it demonstrates “a strong political will to fly the flag for free trade against a shift toward protectionism.” A few days earlier German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who now seems to speak for 18 or so — minus Russia — of the countries in the G-20, had stated that “whoever thinks that the problems of this world can be solved by protectionism and isolation lives under a huge misconception,” and Trump is clearly negotiating his art of the deal to make America great again from an isolated position.
Even that disaster was overshadowed by the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin, however, so all the president’s men and women did their best to spin that on on all the Sunday morning talk shows. They all noted that by all accounts Trump did bring up Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election, but Trump had already said that it was based on unreliable American intelligence and that everybody does it, and there was some discrepancy in the American and Russian accounts about whether Trump accepted Putin’s claim that Russia was entirely innocent in the affair. One of the only Russians in the meeting claim that Trump agreed, the American Secretary of State who was one of only three Americans in the meeting quite believably admit that Trump agreed the American media had overstated the extent of Russian meddling, and we assume that at least 19 of the G-20 reached their own conclusions.
We also assume that most of Trump’s die-hard supporters here in the USA don’t much care what a bunch of Eurotrash and Latin and Asiatic globalist opponents think, and take their opprobrium as a badge of honor, but in the long run it probably does matter. Negotiating all those great trade deals to make America great again with a now-unified front of 18 of the world’s strong economies seems trickier than ever, and here in the domestic politics of the USA Trump didn’t do much to quash all that press talk about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Over the same weekend The New York Times had Donald Trump Jr. admitting that he and the Trump campaign chairman attended a meeting with a Kremlin-tied lawyer in anticipation of possible dirt on the soon-to-be vanquished Clinton campaign, whose chairman had been undeniably hacked, even if that was Obama’s fault and not Putin’s, and any triumphs from Trump’s visit seem likely to get lost in the next news cycle.
Trump predictably skipped the traditional post-G-20 news conference but “tweeted” his own clarification of his meeting with Putin, unhelpfully explaining that he had already made his position on Russian meddling in the election clear, and added that he was working with Putin to create an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to prevent the sort of hacking that he may or not believe Russia perpetrated. Such Republicans as Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham and John McCain were showing up on the Sunday shows and “tweeting” their skepticism about such a proposal, with Rubio likening it to having Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad partnering in an anti-chemical weapons coalition,  a short time later Trump was “tweeting” his assurance that it wasn’t going to happen, and all in all it didn’t seem a very triumphant end to Trump’s European trip.

— Bud Norman