Advertisements

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

Advertisements

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

The Second Day of the Comey Firing

Tuesday’s big story about President Donald Trump firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey inevitably led to a lot more stories on Wednesday. None of them made anyone look very good, but on the whole Trump seems to have had the worst of it.
There’s a strong case to be made for the firing of Comey, whose erratic performance over the course of a crazy election year outraged Democrats and then Republicans and then Democrats again, but that was lost in the blizzard of new bulletins. The New York Times reported that Comey’s firing came shortly after he requested more resources for an ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and its possible collusion with Trump’s campaign, The Washington Post reported that Trump was furious that Comey hadn’t corroborated his “tweeted” claim that President Barack Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower, and everybody was reporting that some prominent Republicans were also declining to come to Trump’s defense.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration struggled to amount a defense of its own. White House press secretary Sean Spicer was spotted hiding from reporters behind some bushes before offering a few answers that suggested he hadn’t been expecting Tuesday’s announcement or Wednesday’s revelations, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attributed Comey’s firing to the “atrocities” he’d committed while investigating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices, and occasional spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s first response to a montage of candidate’s Trump’s effusive campaign trail praise for how nicely Comey had handled the matter was to remind her questioner that Trump won Michigan. They all rightly noted that most Democrats were eager for Comey to be fired until Trump did it, but it’s hard to believe that Trump did it for the reasons the Democrats wanted, and at this point there seems plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
Trump himself, who only had an ill-timed meeting with a high-ranking Russian official on the daily schedule, spent much of Wednesday “tweeting” schoolyard taunts against his Democratic critics. He responded to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer by “tweeting” that “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.’ Then acts so indignant.” After Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal appeared on a cable news show offering his own criticisms, Trump responded that “‘Richie’ devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history. For years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam — except he was never there. When caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness … and now he is judge & jury. He should be the one who is investigated for his acts.”
Trump is inarguably right about Schumer’s past criticisms of Comey, but Schumer is surely entitled to “tweet” back a taunt about Trump’s past praise, although we’d advise to him avoid any insulting nicknames. Trump’s also inarguably right that Comey was caught lying about his service record seven years ago, and although we don’t recall him “crying like a baby” he did indeed offer an apology that the voters of his state apparently accepted, and as much as we also dislike the guy we can’t see why a further investigation is now warranted. In any case, making these Democrats look bad doesn’t Trump or his decision to fire Comey look any better. The only “tweet” that made an affirmative case for firing said “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Democrat and Republican alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me.”

That’s not a bad summation of the case, which requires more characters than “tweeting” allows to be persuasively made, but it’s hard to imagine when things might calm down over the next four years or anytime in the coming millennia when everyone will be thanking Trump for anything. Trump’s most die-hard supporters will dismiss anything from “The New York Slimes,” but the paper’s report has four on-the-record congressional sources, including a Republican, hasn’t been denied by anyone at the White House, and anyone who isn’t a die-hard Trump supporters will likely find that it raises some interesting questions that Trump and his spokespeople will have trouble answering. The talk radio hosts and their listeners will dismiss anything from “The Washington Compost,” but even they won’t believe that Trump wasn’t angry about Comey not going along with wiretapping claim, or mind if that was a reason for firing, and everyone else will note that nobody has come forward to corroborate those damning “tweets.” Some of the Republicans who are distancing themselves from the matter are running for re-election in jurisdictions where Trump is not popular, and given the latest national polls more are likely to follow.
Still, Trump was inarguably within his legal rights to fire Comey, and did have reasons for doing so that all those Democrats had previously agreed with, and it might yet work out for the best, and it’s also possible that Trump or someone speaking on his behalf will effectively make those arguments. If he thought the decision would be immediately met with bipartisan praise he was clearly wrong, though, and if he thought it would put an end to all that chatter about the Russians meddling in the election and the Trump campaign being somehow involved he was even more wrong. The next news cycle is going to involve a lot of explaining, and the one after that will also be troublesome.
Up next is Trump’s nominee to replace Comey, and whoever that turns out to be is going to be subjected to such severe scrutiny he or she is unlikely to come out of it looking pristine. If he or she seems the least bit interested in revisiting Clinton’s e-mail practices or entirely dismissive of the idea that Trump’s campaign might have been involved in Russia’s role in the past election that’s going to be a public relations problem for Trump, and if they aren’t that’s yet another problem. All those questions about Russia won’t go away until they’re definitively answered, which will require answers from someone who’s somehow untainted by all of this and has been given access to all the tax returns and financial disclosures and immunity-granted testimony that might involved, and at this point we can’t imagine who that person might be.

— Bud Norman

Another Episode of the Russian Soap Opera

Those afternoon soap operas usually have no appeal to us, but we found ourselves fascinated on Monday with the oh-so-slowly developing plot on that one about the Russians meddling in America’s most recent presidential election. On the latest episode they had a congressional hearing, with a former acting attorney general and a former director of national intelligence testifying, which might sound rather dry, but if you’ve been following the story closely there were a couple of subtle twists.
The stars of the episode were Sally Yates, a career Department of Justice lawyer who had risen through the ranks over 25 years and briefly filled in at the AG spot after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had served in a variety of high-level intelligence posts in all the administrations from President George H.W. Bush to President Barack Obama, which might also sound rather dry. Neither delivered the knockout blow that the Democratic characters asking the questions were clearly hoping for, but they shared some information that was pretty darned embarrassing to Trump, fared well against the more hostile questions asked by the Republican characters, and tantalizingly refused to divulge the still-classified answers to all the questions that every up-to-date viewer was asking.
Surprising no one, Yates testified she had warned the Trump administration that its pick for National Security Advisor, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Flynn, had been giving false information about his contacts with Russian officials to Vice President Mike Pence, who was then passing the same false information along to the public. Flynn offered his resignation after a mere 24 days on the job, which was quickly and gratefully accepted, but that was nearly two weeks after Yates gave them the heads-up that he was susceptible to Russian blackmail, and nothing about that story makes Trump look good. Since then it had been revealed that Flynn is also being investigated for illegal business dealings with foreign governments, both the Democratic and Republican ranking members on yet another committee have concluded Flynn probably broke the law, and however it turns out it won’t make Trump look any better.
Trump has “tweeted” in response that “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” all of which is true enough, but Flynn was also fired by the Obama administration, and it’s been widely reported that Obama personally warned Trump not to hire the guy. The White House press secretary acknowledged the accuracy of those reports, saying that Trump dismissed the suggestion, figuring Obama was merely sore about Flynn’s post-firing criticisms of the administration, which might have been at least partly true, and probably made Trump all the more eager to hire him, but that still doesn’t make Trump look good.
Yates was fired as acting attorney general after she refused to order her staff to defend Trump’s proposed ban on travel from certain Muslim countries, and although that had nothing to do with l’affaire Flynn all the Republican characters wanted to ask about that. As far as we’re concerned the travel ban was legally defensible, although she made a very lawyerly case to contrary that the courts so far seem to agree with, and in any case Trump was clearly within his rights to fire her for insubordination, which Yates frankly acknowledged, but we expect that only those viewers already rooting for the Republican side found her less credible because of it.
Trump had sent out a preemptive “tweet” to “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council.” The “W.H. Council” was apparently a reference to the White House counsel, and of course the Republican characters did ask if she had been an anonymous source for any of the news stories. She quickly replied “Absolutely not,” and if she was lying under oath she was remarkably confident about it. We expect that to most viewers she came off as poised, professional, and highly competent. For a 25-year veteran of the Justice Department she’s rather attractive, too, in a poised and professional sort of way, with a soft southern accent that doesn’t sound at all crazy liberal, and that seems to matter on these afternoon soap operas and ongoing reality shows.
Both she and the far less telegenic Clapper, who was there for some reason we never quite discerned, were also very poised and professional and competent-sounding as they dodged all the questions by explaining that an answer would require revealing classified information. That’s the juicy part, so the rote testimony was something of a teaser.
Flynn’s just a subplot is a far bigger story about how the Russians meddled in various ways with the past election, apparently working against Trump’s Democratic opponent, which by now all the intelligence agencies and Trump’s own intelligence agency picks and even Trump himself don’t deny, and all the investigations concern whether any of Trump’s people or perhaps even Trump himself had anything to do with it. That’s the most embarrassing thing about Flynn, and when you throw in the campaign chairman that Trump had to fire over possibly illegal dealings with the Russians and the current full-blow Attorney General who’s had to recuse himself from the ongoing because of his own unacknowledged contacts with Russians, and Trump’s past excuse-making for the Russian regime, the story seems likely to drag on.
The Republican characters were clearly annoyed by the continuing series, and asked a lot of questions about how all this embarrassing information has been getting out. Flynn and that campaign chairman and a former campaign foreign policy were all overheard by the intelligence agencies with they spoke with Russian operatives that were being tapped, and according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper a number of allied intelligences were also listening in and sending warnings back to the states, but American citizens who wind up thus being tapped are supposed to be kept anonymous, except in certain circumstances. There’s some argument about whether the “unmasking” of Trump’s associates met those certain circumstances, and how they wound up in the press surely involved a crime by someone or another, but so far none of the leaks have been denied, and they’re all pretty embarrassing and might add up to a far bigger crime.
The Republican characters were eager to know if Yates was aware of any information that would suggest any collusion between the Russian meddlers and the Trump campaign, and by now that’s surely what most viewers are asking, but the anti-climactic response was that an answer would require divulging classified information. Sounding very poised, professional, competent and downright non-partisan, Yates stressed that no one on the committee or anywhere else should make any assumptions, one way or the other, based on that non-answer, but the Democratic characters were clearly more pleased than the Republican.
We’ll keep following this very slowly-developing story and try not to make any assumptions how it turns out, but for now it seems likely to take a long, long time.

— Bud Norman