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The Much-Ballyhooed IG’s Report and the Brouhaha About the “Russia Thing”

A much-anticipated report from a Justice Department inspector general was released on Thursday, and for now President Donald Trump and his die-hard defenders are having great fun with it. The report is harshly critical of the Federal Bureau of Investigation director that Trump fired, includes some further suspicious e-mails between two outspokenly anti-Trump FBI employees briefly involved in the ongoing investigation into the “Russia thing,” and otherwise provides fodder for the “deep state” conspiracy theories that Trump and his die-hard defenders are counting on.
In the infuriatingly long run of the investigation into to the “Russia thing,” however, it doesn’t at all vindicate Trump.
The inspector general’s report is critical of fired FBI director James Comey for breaking with longstanding agency policy by publicly acknowledging an investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices, and publicly chastising her for “extreme carelessness” even as he declined to recommend a prosecution on the legal standard of “gross negligence,” and then publicly announcing the investigation was once again underway after some of those e-mails turned up on the computer of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was the husband of long-time Clinton aide Huma Abedin and was being investigated for sending lewd photos of his private parts to underage women. Candidate Trump praised Comey’s “courage” for breaching longstanding agency policy during the campaign, nobody believed President Trump’s short-lived explanation that he fired Comey for being so unfair to Clinton, and by that very evening he was admitting to Lester Holt’s national television audience on the National Broadcasting Company that he was thinking about Comey’s ongoing investigation into “this ‘Rusher’ thing with Trump and Russia” when he decided on the firing.
By now every talk-radio listener or Fox News viewer knows that FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who were reportedly carrying on an extra-marital affair at the time, had exchanged texts and e-mails about how awful candidate Trump was, but they probably don’t know that love-birds also had some equally harsh things to say about Clinton and her openly socialist primary opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders. We don’t approve of their reportedly illicit relationship, although we hate to see that redound to the benefit of the boastfully adulterous Trump, and except for the foul language we can’t say we much we disagree with any of the opinions they texted or e-mailed, There was some previously texted and e-mailed conversation about a “secret society” that would provide an “insurance policy” in the unlikely case of a Trump presidency, and the IG’s report had him assuring his lover that Trump wouldn’t win, but at this point in the Trump presidency that seems the false bravado of a petty bureaucrat, and not the stuff of a “deep state” conspiracy.
More importantly, when special counsel Robert Mueller took over the “Russia thing” investigation in the wake of Comey’s firing he immediately demoted both Strzok and Page from the matter because of their e-mails and texts, and the numerous indictments ad several guilty pleas he’s already won are untainted by any of this. The e-mail chain Donald Trump Jr. released where he responded to an offer by a Russian music publicist he knew to be a Russian operative offering that adversarial government’s help in the election by saying “I love it” still exists. The Trump campaign’s past foreign policy advisor and the Trump administration’s since-fired Trump administration national security advisor’s guilty plea to lying about his dealings with the Russkies has yet to be pardoned. The Trump campaign’s fired campaign manager is still fighting charges of illegal dealings with the Russkies, among other things, and Trump’s longtime lawyer is likely to be charged any day now about his deal to pay off a porn star on a Delaware shall company that also had some Russkie-linked company deposits on its ledger.
If there’s a “deep state” conspiracy afoot here, it seems such an inept work of petty bureaucrats that Trump and his die-hard defenders shouldn’t mind. The much-anticipated IG’s report finds that the fired Comey acknowledged and re-eacknowledged a federal investigation into Clinton’s “extreme carelessness” and then announced it was renewing the investigation after some salacious e-mail’s on a close aide’s pervert husband’s laptop, which Trump lauded as courageous at the time and surely did the awful Clinton’s candidacy no good. At no point did the fired FBI director publicly divulge there was also a ongoing investigation into the conformed-by-all-the-intelligence-agency’s conclusion about Russian meddling on in the election of Trump’s behalf and a few of his campaign’s and administrations past high-ranking officials who had previously been suspected of being too friendly with the Russkie, which did o harm at the time to Trump. It all wound up with the presidency of Trump, which no one can deny, albeit with all the lingering doubts about it.

— Bud Norman

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Trump’s Imperfect Storm

That whole “Russia thing” has lately merged with those porn star and Playboy playmate scandals, and it all seems to be closing in on President Donald Trump.
Trump’s longtime lawyer and sex-scandal “fixer” Michael Cohen recently had his office and home and hotel raided by the Justice Department, and is widely expected to be indicted soon, and Trump’s most longtime lawyer is advising him that Cohen is almost certain to start providing state’s evidence in whatever matters might arise from all the seized files and recordings and other potential evidence. The Federal Bureau of Investigation director that Trump fired has a best-selling book full of newsworthy allegations, with Trump offering explanations for the firing that contradict his past statements, and efforts by Trump loyalists to discredit James Comey have resulted in the leaking of some formerly classified memos he wrote after his conversations with the president that contain even more newsworthy allegations. Meanwhile, the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” that resulted from Comey’s firing, which has already secured several indictments and guilty pleas and has prominent Trump campaign and administration officials fully cooperating, plods irresistibly along.
Trump has now added former star federal prosecutor and legendary New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to a legal team that’s been depleted by defections and impending indictments, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has vowed not to allow a vote on a bipartisan bill that would prevent Trump from firing the Justice Department officials he needs to replace in order to fire the special counsel and perhaps end the investigation into the “Russia thing” altogether. According to all the opinion polls he also has the support of about four-fifths of the Republican party, as well as the fierce apologetics of prominent voices on the talk radio airwaves and other right-wing media, but he nonetheless looks outgunned on all fronts.
Giuliani was a formidable lawyer who locked up a lot of New York City mobsters back in the ’80s, and his three terms as Mayor of New York in the ’90s saw crime and tax rtes decline dramatically while employment and and tax revenues and general quality of life soared, and his response to the Sept. 11, terror attack on the World Trade Center made him a national hero and Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 2001, but since then he’s been on a long losing streak. A sex scandal ended his second marriage and commenced his third, and once upon a time in the Republican party that sort of thing combined with the Republican party’s former suspicion of smartypants New Yorkers doomed his presidential campaign in the good old days of 2008. He cashed in with some lucrative lawyering and lobbying and consulting, but he largely faded from the news until he remerged as an advocate for his fellow New Yorker and serial philanderer and far less qualified friend Trump, who by then was palatable to a plurality of the Republican party.
Giuliani told the press that he expects to negotiate a quick end to the various criminal and counter-terrorism investigations regarding the “Russia thing,” which suggests to us that his legal skills have rusted over the past few years, and that his losing streak is likely to continue.
McConnell says he’s not going allow legislation protecting special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired because he doesn’t believe Trump would ever be stupid enough to fire him, but that doesn’t do Trump much good. A credibly accused child molester that Trump campaigned for lost a seemingly safe Senate seat in Alabama, Arizona Senator and erstwhile Republican hero John McCain is busy battling brain cancer, so the Republican majority in the Senate is down to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence, and McConnell is reviled as the epitome of the “Republican establishment” by the party’s pro-Trump “burn it down” wing and quickly losing control of his fractious and increasingly Trump-averse caucus. You can call the Cable News Network “fake news” all you want, but unless you think they can produce computer generated images more convincingly than Industrial Light and Magic they taped a full dozen big-name congressional Republicans who wouldn’t say on the record that they’re on board with Trump’s reelection.
Even if McConnell does somehow allow the president to fire the people he needs to fire the special counsel and put an end to the whole “Russia thing,” McConnell is quite right that it would be a damned dumb thing to do.
That fired FBI director’s best-selling book and widely publicized book tour is getting mixed reviews, as his seeming mishandling of the undeniably difficult problem of presiding over investigations of serious allegations of criminal activity by both major party candidates during a presidential election has made him a hated figure on both ends of the spectrum, and that storm should soon pass. Those memos Comey wrote in the lead-up to his firing are likely be more troublesome when these matters enter a court of law, though, and for all his undeniable and admitted flaws we’ll find Comey a more credible witness when it inevitably comes down to that.
At this point we can’t imagine what might shake that four-fifth of the Republican party’s faith in Trump, but we notice that some of the right-wing talk radio hosts are fulminating about Trump’s betrayals of his non-interventionist promises with his missile strikes in Syria and a possible betrayals on building a border wall and deporting all the “dreamers” and waging trade wars around the globe. By now all but the most protectionist and isolationist Democrats still hate Trump as much as ever, a fifth of the Republican party and at least a dozen prominent congressional Republicans are outspokenly unenthused about him, and our view from the sidelines sees Trump taking a licking on all fronts.

— Bud Norman

A Troubled Lawyer and His Three Clients

The news was once again jam-packed on Monday, and included a blowout win by The New York Yankees and a very slight uptick in the stock markets, but the two separate but perhaps related headlines that stood out for us involved Russia and Sean Hannity.
If you’ve been following the whole “Russia thing” subplot in President Donald Trump’s latest reality show, you’re already aware that he won the Republican nomination on a platform that was conspicuously more Russia-friendly than any Democrat had ever dared, with fulsome praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and disparaging comments about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that had long thwarted Russia’s ambitions, and news of Russia’s meddling on Trump’s behalf and frequent undisclosed but since acknowledged contacts took place between the Russians and the Trump campaign have been prominent in the media ever since. Lately Trump has been boasting that no president has ever been tougher on the Russkies than Trump, including Truman and and Kennedy and Ike and Nixon and Reagan and all those wimps who temporarily won the Cold War, but the very latest news still sounds suspicious to our ears.
Trump has by now accepted his own appointees’ to the intelligence agencies consensus conclusion that Russia did indeed meddle in the last American presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and he didn’t veto a Russian sanctions bill that was passed by a veto-proof bipartisan majority in both chambers of commerce. American troops recently killed a couple hundred Russians in the Syrian civil war theater, he’s launched two retaliatory strikes against Russia’s Syrian allies after their chemical attacks on civilians, and even named Putin in a “tweet” criticizing his support for a “Gas Killing Animal.” His currently unfilled State Department and a formidably led Defense Department a remarkably sound United Nations ambassador have announced tough sanctions on Russian oligarchs and promised a extended opposition to the Syrian dictatorship.
Which sounds good  to our old fashioned neocon Republican ears, except that we don’t believe a word of it. Trump only grudgingly acknowledged Russia’s meddling in the last election, and still insists that it was Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton who conspired with the Russkies to hand Trump his improbable presidency, clearly regards it as no big deal. He’s been pretty darned slow in enforcing that veto-proof bill he signed imposing Russian sanctions, too. His missile strikes in Libya have carefully avoided Russian casualties, and the two hundred or so Russians he killed were not Russian soldiers but rather mercenaries opposing the Syrian dictatorship, so the Russian government has not been upset by it. The Trump administration’s recent expulsion of Russian diplomats reportedly annoyed Trump, and by Monday he was walking back his stalwart UN ambassador’s tough talk about sanctions.
Meanwhile Trump is dealing with all the legal subplots about pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and the numerous women who claim in court filings and media interviews that Trump has groped them, and Michael Cohen, the lawyer and self-described “fixer” who long handled these sorts of problems for Trump has lately had no-knock search warrants executed at his home and office and most recent hotel room. There are also reports from the same newspaper chain which owes us a pension that the same lawyer was making contact with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign, and at this point both Trump and his longtime lawyer have some explaining to do.
As the court documents reveal, and the mainstream media have giddily disseminated, that Cohen’s main client was Trump. When he pressed in court he revealed that another client was a big Republican who had hired him to pay hush money to a big time Republican fund-raiser who had impregnated another Playboy playmate, and when pressed to name a third client he reluctantly named talk radio host and Fox News personality Hannity. The news broke while Hannity was on the radio waves, and he quickly emphasized that although he had sought Cohen’s legal advice it had nothing to do with paying off any playmates, pregnant or otherwise.
We’ll take the notoriously puritanical Hannity’s word for that, despite his apologetics for Trump’s many undenied and even boasted about adulteries, but we still got a chuckle out of it. Trump and Hannity and their hilariously incompetent lawyer are all properly embarrassed at the moment, as far as were concerned, and although there are many nits to be picked with the far more formidable legal teams arrayed against them, including that former Federal Bureau of Investigation director with the currently best-selling book, and given everything else it seems another bad cycle for Trump and his most die-hard supporters.

— Bud Norman

A Two-Front, or More, War for Trump

President Donald Trump spent some of the past weekend lobbing actual missiles at Syrian chemical weapons sites, and the rest lobbing rhetorical missiles at former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. In both cases, it remains to be seen how effective those attacks will prove.
The actual missiles lobbed into Syria were a justifiable response to a vicious dictatorship’s use of chemical weapons in its brutal prosecution of a civil war that America has reluctantly wound up in, as far as our old-fashioned Republican selves are concerned, and we were pleasantly surprised to note the strikes were carried out in coordination with the militaries of France and England the diplomatic approval of several other important allies. The last time Trump lobbed missiles at Syrian targets he got some rare bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls, but it didn’t deter the latest chemical attack by the Syrian dictatorship, and this time around some of his most vocal supporters are grousing about another one of those neo-con military-industrial complex establishment entanglements, so there’s no telling how it plays out now.
Trump had earlier “tweeted” the complete withdrawal of American forces from the entire Syrian civil war mess, claiming undue credit for the recent near-annihilation of the head-chopping and crucifying Islamist terrorist gang that had declared itself the Islamic State in much of Syria and Iraq, and he didn’t seem to mind that meant leaving the vicious Syrian dictatorship in permanent power to do what illegal atrocities it might. Nor did he he seem to mind that he was also allowing Syria’s equally odious dictator partnerships in Iran and Russia an extraordinary influence in the volatile and still strategically important region.
After the tear-jerking footage of the aftermath of the last chemical attacks were broadcast on all the networks, and the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and Berlin and in Trump’s own administration and the bipartisan press argued that such a cruel violation international law must be met with a forceful response, Trump was “tweeting” a warning to Russia to get ready for a strike by his “shiny, new and smart” missiles. This apparently took the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and the military brass in the Pentagon by surprise, so the next day Trump was “tweeting that the missiles might take a while, and the day after that we hit those Syrian chemical weapons sites. For now Trump has taken the position that America will sustain its diplomatic and economic as well as military influence in the region, but all reports suggest he’s been talked into that by by all those “deep state” and “New World” types, so those erstwhile non-interventionist talk radio hosts might prove more persuasive..
In any case the Syrian dictator is broadcasting images on the state-controlled Syrian media of himself walking calmly into work, visibly unworried by the paper tiger of the west’s ineffectual pinprick missile strikes, and on their state-controlled media neither Russia nor Iran seem at all unfazed, and despite the best efforts of Fox News and his most loyal talk radio allies Trump was unable to do the same.
Instead Trump spent much of the rest of the weekend “tweeting” insults about the FBI director he fired, calling him a liar and a “leaker” and “slime ball,” and otherwise undermine the credibility of Comey’s soon-to-published and already best-selling book. The advance publicity has already revived talk of Russian prostitutes urinating on one another in a Moscow hotel room at Trump’s request, the size of his hands and unusual hue of his skin, possibly impeachable attempts to obstruct justice, and counter charges by Comey that Trump reminded him of the organized crime figures he’d prosecuted earlier in his career, and it wound up hogging up much of the front pages and news hours from the missile strikes in Syria.
Our guess is that neither Trump nor Comey comes out of this battle metaphorically unbloodied. Comey did do some undeniably dumb things during his otherwise distinguished career, especially when he found himself directing the FBI at a time when both major party presidential campaigns were under investigation for some pretty appalling reasons, so the advance copies of the book are already getting some very mixed reviews from bipartisan media. On the other hand, many Americans will probably regard Comey as less a “slime ball” than the failed casino-and-strip bar magnate who’s also currently fending off legal problems with pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and various women who allege he groped them, not to mention all the creepy recordings from Trump’s appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and “Access Hollywood” and soft-core Playboy videos and his boasts in his best-selling self-help books.
Even if Trump succeeds in convincing his die-hard fans that Comey’s a a “leaker” and a liar and a “slime ball,” the increasingly scary investigation into the “Russia thing” by special counsel Robert Mueller that resulted from Comey’s firing continue. Despite attempts by Trump and his supporters to impugn the character of the Eagle Scout war hero with a distinguished and blessed by both parties career of public service leading that investigation, Trump’s “tweets” indicate he regards that investigation as a bigger deal than any old Syrian civil war.

— Bud Norman

“Tweeting” Against the Tide

President Donald Trump’s “tweets” are clearly intended to convey cocksureness and toughness, and that’s how the die-hard fans see them. To our eyes they always look differently, and this past weekend’s voluminous output struck us as downright anxious and weak.
The most frequent of the topics Trump “tweeted” about was the Russia thing, of course. He gloated about the firing of a career Federal Bureau of Investigation official just 48 hours away from becoming eligible for a full pension, further impugned the character of the former FBI director he previously fired, and accused the bureau itself of widespread corruption in the process. Trump repeatedly “tweeted” about the special counsel’s investigation being a witch hunt — or “WITCH HUNT!” as he prefers to call it — and for the first time mentioned the name of Robert Mueller, the formidable former FBI director in charge.
The die-hard Trump fans will be pleased that “at least he fights,” as they always say, but we doubt that Mueller, a much-decorated combat veteran who once left a cushy California law practice to take on the crack cocaine dealers of Washington, D.C., is much intimidated by “tweets.” Mueller’s hunt has already yielded numerous indictments against 13 Russians and several figures close to Trump’s campaign and transition team and administration, along with a couple of guilty pleas, including one from Trump’s former national security advisor, and by now many Americans are waking up hopeful that more indictments and guilty will show up in the news.
Mueller has reportedly subpoenaed the financial records of the Trump Organization, the oxymoronic name of the president’s still wholly-owned international business empire, and God and Mueller only know what that’s likely to turn up. Our guess, based on what we’ve learned about Trump over the past several decades, is that it’s likely — oh, what the heck, standards of discourse being what they are these days, damned near certain — that there’s something pretty damned damning in those ledgers.
There are still laws on the books and an independent judiciary to enforce them, a Congress that plays some role, as well as a free press to let the public know how that turns out, and for now all of that is on Mueller’s side, so all a president can do is “tweet” about it. At least he fights, we’ll concede, but he so often leads with his chin.
There’s a convincing case to be made that the recently fired FBI official had it coming, as an independent inspector general appointed by President Barack Obama had concluded he’d been less than forthcoming on his dealings with the media during the bureau’s investigation of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, and Trump would have done well to let the “fake news” glumly report that exculpatory fact. Instead he issued that gloating “tweet” and extrapolated that it shows widespread corruption in the FBI and a rigged system that’s out to get him and that “Crooked Hillary!” is the one who should be locked up, not him. Which only fuels the “fake news” narrative that the firing was a brazenly vindictive political ploy to discredit a career civil servant and potential witness in the “Russia thing,” and intimidate any other possible witnesses, and unless you’re a die-hard fan it makes Trump look petty and mean rather than cocksure and tough.
We don’t expect any other potential witnesses will be much intimated. A couple of congressman have already offered the fired FBI official another 48 hours of gainful government employment so that he can qualify for his full pension, and he’s bound to find other opportunities. James Comey, that fired FBI director that Trump routinely impugns “tweeted” back that “Mr. President, the American people will hear my story soon. And they can judge for themselves who is honorable and who is not.” This is an apparent reference to a book by Comey to be released in mid-April, which is already an Amazon best-seller and moving up the charts since Trump’s “tweets,” and we expect he’ll make a convincing case for himself. Say what you want about that botched investigation of “Crooked Hillary’s” e-mails, which was as badly run as Trump Airline or the Trump Taj Mahal casino-and-strip-club, Trump is at a disadvantage in a contest of character.
The “fake news” have plenty of actual facts to rebut the rest of the president’s conspiracy theorizing, too. He “tweeted” that the House investigative committee on the “Russia thing” had exonerated him, but that was just most of the for-now Republican majority, with the Democrats objecting, and the Senate and special counsel and free press investigations are still underway. Trump once again “tweeted” about the undeniable fact that most of Mueller’s team are Democrats and have donated to Clinton’s past campaigns, but federal law prohibits hiring based on party affiliation or past campaign donations, everyone on the team has stellar credentials regarding such worrisome matters as money-laundering and several are fluent in Russian, and Trump’s own lawyer and Trump himself have contributed “Crooked Hillary’s” past campaigns.
Trump could impulsively “tweet” that he’s decided to fire Mueller, which you know he really really wants to do, but by law he’d have to get the deputy attorney general to do it, as the Attorney General has had to recuse himself from the whole “Russia thing,” and he’d probably have to fire the Republican guy he appointed to be deputy general and find somebody willing to go down in infamy to do the deed. Anyone old enough to remember the “Saturday Night Massacre” episode of the Watergate scandal knows how messy that can be, however, and although it’s frighteningly plausible we don’t see it ending any better this time around.

— Bud Norman

The Latest Attempt at an “Infrastructure Week” and All Its Distractions

Monday kicked off President Donald Trump’s second attempt at an “Infrastructure Week.” The first attempt was barely noticed because of all the coverage devoted to the congressional testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey and the usual “tweets,” and also because it featured grandiose promises but no plan. This time around is largely drowned out by the lingering fuming about the White House’s astoundingly tone-deaf and ham-fisted handling of a couple of alleged wife-beaters who were high-ranking staffers, but at least there’s a sort of specific plan to make America’s infrastructure great again.
The plan makes the grandiose promise to spend $1.5 trillion on a wide range of projects, but with the federal government throwing only $200 billion into the pot. The rest would supposedly come from municipalities, counties, states, and the private sector, but that’s a big supposition. Trump unveiled the proposal with a rambling impromptu rift that blamed President Barack Obama for his neglect of America’s infrastructure, of course, but also dishonestly derided President George W. Bush for lying America into the expensive Iraq War, and chided the “laziness” of every administration going back to President Harry Truman, who stupidly spent all of our war spoils on the Marshall Plan, which more sane students of world history now regard as the best investment America ever made.
Most municipalities, counties and states will surely plead poverty, and because they can’t just print money they’ll mostly have a valid point. As of now the interstate highway system and other major federal infrastructure are funded with 80 percent of the money coming from Washington and the rest paid for by the states, the Trump plan proposes that the states start picking up 80 percent of the tab, so it’s hard to imagine many Republican governors going along with that, and of course all the Democrats are also going to hate it. Trump fancies himself a master salesman, and his shtick works well enough with a plurality of voters, but persuading legislators and county commissioners and city councilmen to take the heat for tax hikes and cuts to other programs so he can take all the credit for a patched pothole is a very tough pitch.
As for the private sector, they’re long accustomed to getting paid for doing all the actual work on an infrastructure project rather paying for it. Perhaps they can be induced to pay in if in the payout is substantially greater, perhaps in the proposed form of toll roads or for-profit airports and parks, perhaps in the sorts of kickbacks that the Trump real estate empire boastfully used to pay off government officials, but although we’re by no means socialists we can’t see how the general public comes out ahead in that arrangement. Here in very busy-friendly Wichita the local government is quite fond of these sorts of public-private partnerships, and while they often work out well enough both the governmental left and the free-market far right agree they often favor the interests of certain public officials and their private sector partners more than the general public, and the centrists will likely agree that the Trump administration is more likely than most to seek self-interested deals.
The plan seems likely to face bipartisan opposition, especially at the statehouse and county courthouse and city hall level, and despite the ardent support of some government-savvy and well-connected contractors it will also face opposition from big time businesses, the last of the Tea Party will Republicans will balk at adding even another $200 billion to the $2 trillion dollar deficit that’s being projected for next for year. and all the Democrats will hate it on general anti-Trump principle. As for now it’s all being widely ignored by the rest of the country.
There’s still more talk afoot  about how the president expressed his heartfelt sympathy for a poor fellow whose two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend have accused him of domestic abuse and how he couldn’t get an FBI security clearance on account of the police reports and photographs that corroborated their allegation and thus had to be let go from his high-ranking position at the White House. The critics note that Trump has a longstanding habit of siding with political allies who are credibly accused of sexual misconduct, such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly and Steve Wynn and Mike Tyson and himself. His supporters note his stubborn insistence on due process for the accused, which is a a plausible enough argument. His critics note that he didn’t care much about due process when he was condemning political foes accused of sexual misconduct or charging Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad with complicity in the Kennedy assassination or leading “lock her up” chants against Hillary Clinton or calling for the execution of the “Central Park Five” even after due process had cleared them of all charges.
So far Trump’s critics have the better of the more attention-grabbing argument, and we think the damage done to the nation’s moral infrastructure will take more than a mere $1.5 trillion to fix.

— Bud Norman

Looking Forward to a Tricky Situation

President Donald Trump said in an impromptu news conference Wednesday night that he was looking forward to testifying under oath to special counsel Robert Mueller about the “Russia thing,” which is a perfect example of why he should be dreading such an ordeal.
Trump added that his eagerness was “subject to my lawyers and all that,” but his lawyers would have advised him not to volunteer for the grilling that they’ve surely been doing their best to avoid. They probably couldn’t find any legal grounds to spare Trump from testifying, and the political consequences for not doing so would be unavoidable in any case, but the self-proclaimed master deal-maker has just robbed his attorneys of whatever leverage they might had to negotiate any limits on the questions that can be asked. There was even talk about limiting the special counsel to written questions, which would have allowed Trump’s lawyers to vet the written answers, but that faint hope has now vanished.
Letting Trump spontaneously answer Mueller’s questions is potentially disastrous, given his well-known penchant for blurting out the most blatant and easily disproved lies, such as he did several times in that impromptu news conference. He also has an unfortunate knack for blurting out damning truths, such as when he disregarded the White House staff’s carefully worded lies about firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey because he had been so unfair to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign and told the National Broadcasting Company’s Lester Holt that he fired the guy because of the “Russia thing.” Worse yet, Trump also a worrisome cocksureness that he doesn’t need anybody’s advice and can talk himself out of any situation.
Trump has indeed talked himself out of a lot of tricky situations over the years, and he somehow talked himself into the White House, but he’s also wound paying out of many millions of dollars settling race discrimination and divorce and fraud and a wide variety of other lawsuits. The current situation is the trickiest Trump has ever faced, with far greater potential consequences and a far more formidable foe.
All the right-wing talk radio hosts and the rests of Trump’s apologists would have you believe that Mueller and his team of lawyers and investigators are part of a “deep state” conspiracy out to destroy Trump with “fake news,” but even if you believe that you have to believe he is formidable indeed. He’s a life-long Republican and long-married Eagle Scout whose reputation for boring probity was impeccable until recently, after earning a master’s degree he volunteered to the Marines and wound up earning medals for valor a Purple Heart in Vietnam before earning his law degree, and his career in public service saw him rise through the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI through both Republican and Democrats, culminating in his appointment to FBI director by Republican President George W. Bush and being re-appointed to an unprecedented second term by Democratic President Barack Obama.
The Trump apologists would also have you believe that Mueller’s team of lawyers and investigators are also a bunch of Clinton-loving conspiracists out to get the president for purely partisan reasons, and indeed some of them had contributed to her campaigns, just as Trump’s lawyer and family and Trump himself have done in the past, but they rarely mention that all of the staff have excellent credentials and much success in prosecuting such matters as money-laundering and Russian gangsterism and campaign law violations. The questions Trump will be giving spontaneous answers to will be carefully considered, expertly asked, and backed up by all they’ve learned from subpoenaed documents and the testimony from campaign and administration officials who have already been indicted or pleaded guilty to charges brought by the special counsel.
They won’t be so easily dodged as those less carefully considered and expertly asked questions he’s always getting from those pesky and relatively uninformed reporters, either. The Trump apologists usually respond to the most vexing questions about Trump by changing the subject to something that either Clinton or Obama had done, or ignoring it as “fake news,” or alleging that “deep state” conspiracy, but Trump will have no choice but to offer a real answer when he’s under oath. Taunting nicknames and assurances that “there was no collusion, everybody says so, that I can tell you, believe me” won’t help, either, in response to questions about a specific meeting with a specific person at a specific time.
Based on all the “fake news” stories by relatively uninformed pesky reporters that the White House has had to eventually admit are all too true, we expect some of those very specific questions are going to require a very carefully considered answer. Carefully considered answers aren’t Trump’s style, however, as he prefers to blurt out damnable lies or damning truths.
Our guess is that all the “fake news” outlets and other Trump critics are going to find something damnable or damning in the all-too-real transcripts of the testimony that will eventually be made public, and that the talk radio talkers and the other Trump apologists will dismiss what’s damnable as no big deal and and deny what’s damning as a “deep state” conspiracy. The rest of the country, by our best guess, will be skeptical of everything trump says except for the damning parts.
Which is not to say that Trump won’t eventually talk himself out of this mess. He’s talked and paid himself out of plenty of tricky situations before, and there’s a certain segment of the population that wouldn’t care if he went out and shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and a lot of the country doesn’t seem care about much anything political these days. No matter how damnable or damning Trump’s testimony under oath might be, we know a lot of people who will still be glad that at least Clinton isn’t the president.
Our old-fashioned Republican souls also shudder at the very thought of another Clinton presidency, but we still don’t think that a sometime Democrat and sometime Reform Party member and relatively recent Republican who is thrice-married and regales a Boy Scout jamboree with tales of orgies on yachts and dodged the draft and devoted his life to a ruthless pursuit of private gain and prides himself on flouting previous standards of probity is going to make America great again. We have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but we do know Trump is facing a more formidable foes than himself  in Mueller and the truth, and it’s a very tricky situation.

— Bud Norman

Bannon with Abandon

If you weren’t watching the continuous Florida storm coverage on all the cable news channels on Sunday evening, you might have caught former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s interview with the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes” program. We didn’t, as we were out enjoying the perfect weather we’ve been having around here lately, but of course we couldn’t avoid reading and hearing all of it on Monday.
Even after being fired or having resigned in order to better serve President Donald Trump from the outside, depending on which version of events you prefer, Bannon still has a knack for making news. He was a controversial figure as the “chief executive officer” of Trump’s campaign, even more so in his administration post, and got enough media attention that Trump was reportedly miffed about. To Trump’s most ardent supporters Bannon was considered the keeper of the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist faith that was going to make America great again, and to Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and right he was the authoritarian and alt-right quintessence of everything they hated about Trump.
His exit from the White House and his return to his previous gig of running the Breitbart.com internet news site was a big story before all the storms started, and even with the floods still rising in Florida his first on-air interview took up a full half of “60 Minutes.” He took full advantage of the opportunity to generate another days of news, of course, offering several opinions that will surely outrage Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and the right, which will surely gratify Trump’s most ardent supporters, but Trump himself also came in for some notable criticism.
Bannon said that Trump’s decision to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey was “the biggest mistake in modern political history,” so of course that got the most media attention. This does not strike us as much of an overstatement, especially by Bannon standards, and we note that he also said “worst political mistake ever” was too bombastic even for him, but it was still some criticism from Trump’s most ardent supporter that Trump’s most strident critics relished. Bannon explained that Comey’s firing was a mistake because it inevitably led to the appointment of special counsel James Mueller, who’s now conducting far more thorough investigation of “Russia” than the one Trump effectively stopped Comey from pursuing, so he’s implicitly conceding he expects that to turn out even worse than Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky business or the many other worst modern political mistakes.
Bannon also pledged to be Trump’s “wing-man,” though, so maybe he’s just trying to give some good advice about exposing oneself to enemy fire. In the rest of the interview he remained fiercely loyal to Trump’s agenda, at least the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist parts of it, and he vowed the mighty wrath of Breitbart.com and Bannon’s own media clout, and potentially the backing of his billionaire backers, against any Trump administration officials or any sorts of Republicans who won’t pledge their loyalty to whatever Trump might want to do at any given moment.
Even such a veteran interviewer as Charlie Rose seemed quite taken aback by it, which allowed Bannon to make specific threats and name specific names, and clearly explain his master plan to burn down the Republican party and raise a new nationalist and populist and all that party from the ashes. He dismissed the entirety of Republican party’s pre-Trump foreign policy and defense experts as “idiots” he “holds in contempt, total and complete contempt,” threatened primary challenges to any congressmen deemed unloyalw to Trump, cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan as people he’d like to get rid of, and accused the broader Republican “establishment” of “trying to nullify the election.” He also defined loyalty to Trump by “the Billy Bush day” standard, which means who was still loyally defending Trump when the entire nation heard the soon-to-be-president bragging on audiotape about how he could grab women by the wherever because he’s a star, and that’s a pretty high standard.
He also said he hoped all those “dreamers” who are suddenly the national sob story will be forced to “self-deport,” and we’re sure that Trump’s most ardent admirers loved every part of it, but we’re not sure what Trump made of it. Bannon also took aim at several Trump administration officials for publicly criticizing the president’s response to the violence that occurred during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying they should quit if they’re not entirely on board with whatever the president says at any given moment, but good look finding replacements who can meet that very high standard. He further took aim at senior White House advisor and jack-of-all-trades Jared Kushner, a Manhattanite and longtime Democratic donor and suspected globalist who frequently clashed with Bannon on such matters as nationalism and populism and the wisdom of firing Comey, but Kushner is also Trump’s son-in-law and we notice that he’s still working at the White House while Bannon isn’t, so that will likely play better with Trump’s most ardent supporters than Trump himself.
Bannon and his Breitbart.com and their billionaire backers have a limited influence in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to further fracture an already fractuous Republican party. There are a lot of Republican districts where Bannon’s efforts would only bolster a Republican incumbent’s chances in a primary, but there are others where the combined efforts of Bannon and Trump could find some true believer to knock off an office-holder who might otherwise have impeccable conservative credentials but doesn’t meet that “Billy Bush day” standard. In some cases this would lead to the election of some sane-by-Democratic-standards challenger, and maybe in enough cases to affect Democratic majorities in Congress that wouldn’t go along with any part of the Trump agenda now matter how far left might veer, but Bannon and other ardent Trump supporters can be consoled that at least we’d be done with that darned Republican establishment.
Both Trump and the “establishment” along with the rest of the country have recently survived two horrific hurricanes, though, and we expect most of us will survive the likes of Bannon as well.

— 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 Morning in Washington and an Evening in Wichita

Unless you had the good fortune to be in Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday, where the all-time great gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples was wowing a vast and varied River Festival crowd under a starry sky on the banks of the Arkansas River, the big story of the day was probably the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation’s testimony before a Senate committee about that Russia thing with President Donald Trump and Russia. Much of it had already been leaked weeks ago and then confirmed by Wednesday’s written statement, but it was something to see a longtime public official coming right out and saying under oath and live on all four broadcast networks that the president is a liar, and by the end it was all the talk.
There was some new stuff, too, including James Comey’s admission that he leaked information to The New York Times through a law professor pal about his private conversations with the president, and Flynn’s claim that the president said he hoped the FBI’s investigation of the president’s recently fired National Security Advisor would wind up without any charges, and asked for the director’s loyalty. That was a big talking point on the conservative talk radio shows, who were more outraged about the leaking part than any of the rest of it, but we don’t expect that argument will resonate far beyond their audiences. Trump’s lawyer, the same guy who handled his divorces and bankruptcies, tried to impugn Comey’s testimony by noting that the leak occurred before the presidential “tweet” about possible White House that was given as the reason for the leak, which was reported as a fact on one of the conservative talk radio shows we heard on the way to the concert, but our reading of the published record suggests he was wrong about that.
Comey testified that “lordy” he hopes there are White House tapes to back up his sworn testimony and contemporaneous memos and administration officials who can back up corroborating details such as the president ordering everyone else out of the room prior to one uncomfortable meeting, so a lawyer more seasoned in these political matters might not have brought that up. Trump’s lawyer’s other big argument was that Comey confirmed Trump’s claim that he had been assured on three separate occasions that the president was under an individual criminal investigation, but by now it’s pretty clear that the FBI as well as the House and Senate Committees and a special counsel are investigating the heck out of Trump’s campaign and some very, very close associates. He also seemed pleased that Comey had confirmed there was no o evidence the Russians electronically altered any voting machines, but nobody ever said they did.
Having a longstanding public official testify on live television that the president is a liar is a public relations as well as legal problem, especially when more than 60 percent of the country had already concluded he was a liar on election day, which included a significant number of people who voted for him rather than his similarly distrusted Democratic opponent, so even the most seasoned lawyer would have his hands full. Trump claimed in a famously against-his-legal-interest interview with the National Broadcasting Corporation that he never asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty, although he immediately added that “It wouldn’t be a bad question to ask,” and that he never said anything that could possibly be interpreted as a request for leniency to Flynn, but by now no one finds it hard to imagine him saying either thing. Trump’s most strident critics will find it characteristically unethical and heavy-handded, and his most stance supporters will consider it just the kind of tough tactics against the hated establishment that they voted for.
There were plenty of intriguing questions that went unanswered, too, but the senators apparently learned more in closed session that followed. Questions that could not be answered without divulging classified information included: What Comey knows about the sanctioned Russian bank that the president’s son-in-law met with during the transition; was the FBI able to confirm any of the salacious allegations in a leaked dossier compiled by a British intelligence agent; does Flynn remain a central figure in an ongoing investigation concerning the Russians and the Trump campaign; was he aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the government that have not been acknowledged by the White House; several questions regarding recused-from-the-Russia thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and does Comey have reason to believe that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.
That’s a lot to ponder, but fortunately there was no time for all that when Mavis Staples was in town. The grand dame of gospel and soul is 77 years old, 67 years removed from her first classic recordings as the prodigy daughter of all time great gospel guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and lead singer of The Staples Singers, but we can testify that she’s as good as ever. She had a crack band and a couple of perfectly simpatico backup singers, her voice was full of the spirit and her joyous charm was irresistible. Her set dipped into that deep gospel vein that began her long career, slipped into the funky and danceable social justice soul songs that landed her top of the pop charts and continued her family’s ministry, and occasionally dipped into some surprisingly cutting-edge blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
She did such expected hits as “Come Go With Me” and “I’ll Take You There,” and although we were disappointed she didn’t do “Sit Down, Servant” or that spooky death song “I’m Coming Home” she did do “Wade in the Water” and added plenty of other heartfelt gospel and shouts of the savior’s name to the show, and it was a much-needed boost to our soul. We kept running into dear friends who aren’t so attuned the spirituality of Mavis Staples, but they all know good music when they hear it, and they shared our bliss in a very heartening way.
She also did a memorable rendition of “Shake a Hand, Make a Friend,” and at that point several thousand Wichitans seemed on very friendly terms with one another on a perfect summer evening on the banks of the Arkansas River. These annual River Festival crowds are a remarkable bunch, full of tattooed south siders in wife-beater t-shirts and east side corporate family guys in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts as well as housewives and hipsters from all over, all in search of turkey legs and Pronto Pups and bouncy houses for the kiddos and zip rides across the river for the teenagers and cheap entertainment for all. Lots of very fat people, no shortage of attractive young lasses in slutty short shorts and fashionably retro summer dresses, and all the race and class and gender and intersectionality a multicultural studies major could hope for.
We stood next to a woman in a hijab and her westernized-looking kids at a table where a guy was daring people to cover a red square with five smaller discs, had a pleasant interchange with a pretty young black woman whose view we had inadvertently blocked, and chatted briefly with a muscle-bound cop about how great the show had been. There were a lot of cops, too, probably a continued consequence of a few years back when they had a block party a little too far east on Douglas and close enough to the bars it went bad, but they all seem happily bored. Everyone was getting along, people were shaking hands and making friends, and there was great American music on a great American night.
The River Festival rolls on through Sunday, when they have the big fireworks finale, and they’ve got the estimable musical talents of Randy Newman scheduled for tonight, so if you’re in the vicinity of Wichita we urge you drop by and shake a hand and make a friend. Our best guess is that the president is a liar, and most of the country seems to agree, including a lot of the people who voted for him, and so was his arguably worse Democratic opponent, but we can testify that there is still great American music on great American nights out there.

— Bud Norman