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The Washington Post vs. The National Enquirer

The publishers of The Washington Post and The National Enquirer are currently feuding, and it’s as tawdry a spectacle as you might expect.
Jeff Bezos owns the eminently respectable Washington Post, and he also owns the retailing giant Amazon.com, which makes him one of the richest men in the world, and thus it has been widely reported in the Post and elsewhere that his recent divorce was the most expensive in history. A fellow with the unfortunate name of David Pecker owns the notoriously yellow National Enquirer, and naturally the inquiring minds of its supermarket readership wanted to know all about that. In January the tabloid known for its short attention span-sized stories ran an 11-page story about Bezo’s affair with some other big bucks businessman’s wife, and it somehow included some daringly salacious text messages Bezos had sent to his apparent paramour. Bezos didn’t deny go iit, although he unleashed some high priced lawyers to find out how the tabloid had acquired his legally-protected private texts, and for the moment the advantage seemed to belong to Pecker.
On Wednesday, though, Bezos blasted back that Pecker had tried to blackmail him with “intimate photos,” and offered an e-mail “confidential & not for distribution” e-mail sent by Chief Content Officer of The National Enquirer’s parent company to Bezos’ lawyer. The e-mail discloses that “in addition to a below-the-belt selfie — otherwise colloquially known as a ‘d*ck pic’ — The Enquirer obtained nine further images.” The e-mail goes on to describe some more tame “selfies” of Bezos but also a photo of his alleged paramour “smoking a cigar in what appears to be a simulated oral sex scene,” as well as other salacious shots. Bezos isn’t denying any of it, but instead has stated that “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.” Despite the admitted personal cost and embarrassment the photos do indeed seem to threaten, we think the advantage now clearly goes to Bezos.
The tawdry backstory to all this makes it all the more embarrassing for Pecker, and has some embarrassing political implications for President Donald Trump. Pecker and the president are good buddies, and The National Enquirer has a long history of running stories about Trump’s political opponents — including the fanciful claim that Republican primary opponent Sen. Ted Cruz’ father was in on the assassination of President John Kennedy– and it has since struck a cooperation deal with an investigation into the tabloid’s efforts to squelch stories about Trump’s alleged affairs with a pornographic video performer and a nude model, and whether or not that violated campaign finance laws. Bezos’ Post has been less friendly to Trump, who daily fulminates about their damnably factual accounts of his administration and frequently threatens new taxes and Post Office regulations against Amazon.com.
It darn sure looks as if Bezos was cheating on his wife with some other big bucks businessman’s wife, and that they took some embarrassing “selfies” along the way, but the other players in this tawdry tale don’t come off looking any better. Bezos is far richer than than both Trump and Pecker combined, even after hat that record multi-billion dollars divorce settlement, and despite the best efforts of Pecker it darn sure looks as if Trump has prolifically cheated on all three of his wives, and who knows what Pecker has been up to, and Bezos hasn’t been forced into any cooperating witness arrangements with the feds, so we figure Bezos is better able to absorb the personal costs and embarrassment of this tawdry affair.
In any case, we’ll rely more on The Washington Post than The National Enquirer for news about the Trump administration, and expect that  it will also be plenty tawdry.

— Bud Norman

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Blind Loyalty and Its Perils

New York City attorney Michael Cohen, who once handled such sensitive legals chores as making hush money payments to pornographic video performers and Playboy models while pursuing multi-million dollar Moscow real estate deals for longtime client and then-citizen Donald Trump, was sentenced to three years in federal prison on Wednesday on various confessed federal charges. As bad as that sounds for now-President Donald Trump, the rest of the sordid details are even worse.
Some of the charges sending Cohen to prison are about some relatively small time scams involving New York City taxi medallions and routine tax evasions that have nothing to do with Trump, but he’s also pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations committed in the course of making those hush money payments to silence Trump’s alleged mistresses, and to lying to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Russia in order to be consistent with the lies Trump was telling the public. Trump’s remaining loyalists on talk radio and one of the cable news channels are spinning it as best they can, and Trump himself is claiming complete vindication, but the president won’t come out of this spin cycle smelling clean.
Trump is now claiming that his six-figures payments to the porno performer and the nudie model were a “private transaction” involving private funds, and obviously had nothing at all to do with the presidential campaign he was waging at the time, and were therefor entirely legal, but a federal prosecutor considered it a crime and a federal judge accepted a guilty plea on the charge from the very same lawyer that Trump once entrusted with such sensitive legal chores, so we have our doubts about Trump’s legal theory. Even if it was quite legal and no big deal, as Trump claims, an objective observer is left wondering why Trump chose to lie to the American public about  it while aboard Air Force One that he had nothing to do with it and was indeed entirely unaware of the payments.
Which leaves us all the more doubtful about Trump’s claims he never cheated on his third wife with either that porno performer or that nudie model, especially after his past boasting about all the fabulous babes he’s bagged in his tabloid-fodder infidelities against his first two wives, and although such hound dog behavior is not illegal it is the sort of thing that Republicans used to find objectionable.
Nor is it illegal to pursue a multi-million dollar real estate deal with an adversarial dictatorship while also pursuing the presidency of the United States, and so far as we can tell it’s legal to tell the American electorate a brazen lie that no business deals of any kind are being pursued with adversarial governments during presidential campaign, but that’s also the sort of thing that Republicans used to find objectionable. Cohen’s confession that he was pursuing a Moscow Trump Tower deal at Trump’s request while Trump insisted he wasn’t should be considered skeptically given his confessions to various perjuries, but the very fastidious prosecutor investing the “Russia thing” and the sentencing judge wouldn’t have given it credence without corroborating evidence, which we assume was obtained during raids on Cohen’s home and office and favorite hotel room. Trump is already arguing that it’s another legal and no big deal thing that he nonetheless chose to lie about, which might eventually prevail in a court of law, but it doesn’t make him look very good in the court of public opinion.
Which makes all the rest of the developments in the “Russia thing” look a lot less like a “WITCH HUNT!” and a “HOAX!” than a serious legal matter deserving thorough investigation. One of Trump’s former campaign managers is already in jail while awaiting sentencing on various charges including his work as an unregistered foreign agent for a Russian-aligned government, with Trump “tweeting” about his courage for not cooperating with the feds, and the special counsel investigating the “Russia thing” is recommending and Trump’s former campaign foreign policy advisor and his first administration’s national security advisor get off with no jail for several serious admitted felony charges because of his fuller cooperation with the investigation. Trump and his loyalists are already arguing that it’s entirely legal to pursue business deals with an adversarial foreign dictatorship while running for president and brazenly president and brazenly lying about it, and that might yet prevail in a court of law, but we’d like to think that some rump faction of the Republican party will join the rest of the court of American public opinion in taking a dimmer view of such behavior.
Cohen showed up in court for his sentencing accompanied by a pretty and youngish wife limping in a crutch and a couple of cute kids, and although we consider ourselves rock-ribbed law-and-order Republicans our occasionally bleeding hearts had some sympathy for him. Trump has “tweeted” attacks on his longtime attorney for being “weak” and “stupid” in the half-hearted cooperation with the special counsel, and Cohen even had to plead to guilty those charges. “Recently the president has tweeted a statement calling me weak, and it was correct,” Cohen told the court. “But for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.” He went on to say that he had trusted Trump’s moral compass more than his own, and that the personal failing that led to to his upcoming three years of imprisonment was “blind loyalty to Donald Trump.
There are persuasive arguments to be made for many of Trump’s policies, given that the unemployment rate is unusually low and the stock markets are still ahead of when Trump won office, despite the past year’s gains being largely wiped out by his stupid trade wars and the swelling national debt and the inevitable slight rise in interest rates, and of course those damned Democrats are as bad as ever. By now only the weak and stupid will blindly trust Trump’s character, however, and although they won’t likely run afoul of the law for doing so we expect they’ll also be judged harshly by history.

— Bud Norman

“Flipping” One’s Way to the Truth

Anyone who’s ever seen “The Godfather Part II” or countless other crime dramas well knows how federal investigations into criminal enterprises go. First they catch some low-level figure red-handed, then they offer a lighter sentence if he’ll “flip” with corroborated testimony about the next-higher player in the conspiracy, who in turn is caught dead-to-rights and offered a lighter sentence in exchange for corroborated testimony about the next guy, and the process continues until eventually the kingpin winds up on trial.
So it seems to be going with special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing,” which has already secured guilty pleas and corroborated testimony from three people associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign and his administration’s former national security advisor, as well as his longtime personal lawyer, and on Thursday The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s longtime personal friend who runs The National Enquirer has been granted full immunity from prosecution to join the witness list.
It’s an effective time honored investigative technique and cinematic plot line, long upheld by judicial precent and cheered by movie audiences, but Trump is now calling it a rigged system. Appearing on the Fox News Network’s “Fox and Friends” program, which should be the safest place for him in the  entire vast media spectrum, Trump wound up almost saying it almost should be illegal.
“I’ve seen it many times,” Trump said. “I’ve had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called ‘flipping’ and ii almost  should be illegal. You get ten years in jail, but if you make up stuff about people, in other words make up stories, they just make up lies … They make up things and they go from ten years to a national hero. They have a statue erected in their honor.”
All of which strikes us as hogwash, and conspicuously desperate hogwash at that. We’re not sure which of of Trump’s friends in the notoriously corrupt New York real estate business he’s seen involved in this stuff, but we assume he’s talking about some of the mobsters who were also represented by past Trump lawyer Roy Cohn, and we note that a number of them were put rightly put in prison after several plea agreements by Trump’s current lawyer and formerly formidable federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani. We also note that although a number of lower-ranking figures got off with light sentences in those cases, they always had corroborating evidence to go along with their admittedly dubious testimony that they’re weren’t making things up, and that none of them ever had a statue erected in their honor, and you’d need a very cynical view of the longstanding traditions of the American system of justice and the American way of doing things more generally to argue about the outcomes.
Although it’s only tangentially related to the “Russia thing,” Trump is apparently worried about the “flipped” testimony of his longtime personal lawyer and his longtime friend at The National Enquirer regarding some six-figures payments that were made during the campaign to a pornographic video performer and a former Playboy centerfold model who alleged they’d had sexual encounters with Trump shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child. Cheating on one’s wife isn’t a crime, and former President Bill Clinton and a few other predecessors have established a precedent that it’s not an impeachable offense, but in this case Trump’s former lawyer has pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws at the president’s request and with the president’s money, and in any case a pornographic video performer and a former Playboy playmate were indisputably givensix-figures hugh-money payments from Trump’s account it’s damned hard for a president to explain to a First Lady.
Longtime Trump lawyer and now=-confessed felon Michael Cohen also figures in the bigger “Russia thing,” as he was the admittedly and under-oath go-to guy for a Moscow skyscraper deal Trump was pursuing even as he promised the Republican primary voters he had no deals whatsoever going on with Russia. So far there’s no telling what he has to say about that, and he’s now a confessed felon, but after the special counsel investigation seized all the tape-recordings and documents and hand-written notes from his home and office and hotel room we expect they’ll have corroborating evidence. So far the public has already heard a leaked audio recording of Trump working out the details of the hush-money payments to the aforementioned porn star and Playboy model with his former lawyer, which Trump had repeatedly lied about having any knowledge of, and we expect that worse is yet to come.
There’s no denying that Trump’s former friends and lawyers and campaign officials and administration appointees are an unsavory bunch, and that their testimony shouldn’t be taken seriously without some convincingly corroborating documentary evidence, but we expect that evidence will be forthcoming, and even in the best-case scenario it looks pretty damned bad for Trump.

— Bud Norman

In the Calm, Peaceful Eye of the Hurricane

According to The Washington Post, an anonymous White House official said that after the horrific mass shooting at a Florida high school on Valentine’s Day “A lot of people here felt it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled.” It’s a morbid thought, but there might be something to it.
Prior to the tragedy all the talk was about the departure of the staff secretary who’d been kept on the job even after the administration was made aware that he couldn’t get the security clearance needed for the job because two ex-wives were accusing him of physical abuse. That led to stories about the under-oath testimony by the Federal Bureau of Investigation director that the White House had lied about when the White House had been made aware, embarrassing questions about why so many White House officials can’t get a security clearance, another story about another accused wife-beater leaving his speechwriting job, and after days of praising his staff secretary the president being hectored by the press to at long last say that he doesn’t approve of wife-beating.
President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer also admitted he paid $130,000 to a pornographic film performer who had once alleged an affair with then-reality show star Trump but stopped doing so after the payment. Then there was the story that Trump’s friends at The National Enquirer paid big money for a former Playboy centerfold model for her own exclusive and unpublished story about an affair with Trump, which she alleges occurred around the same time as the alleged affair with the porn performer, which was just months after Trump’s third wife gave birth to his fifth child. There were also stories, perhaps related, about all the visible evidence of a frosty relationship between the president and First Lady.
Once upon a time in America such titillating tales of porn performers and Playboy models and a president would have crowded even the wife-beating stories with national security implications out of the news, but by now we have a First Lady who’s done some pornographic modeling of her own and a reality show president that no one, even his most evangelical apologists, looks to for moral leadership. The leftward media that once defended President Bill Clinton’s presidential peccadillos don’t want to seem puritanical about it, so they’ve mostly focused their attention on the possible campaign law violations that are clearly implied, and it’s not the big deal it would have been back in the good old days.
After the tragedy in Florida the “Russia thing” nosed its way back into the news. Special counsel Robert Mueller obtained an indictment against 13 Russians for fraudulently running an internet propaganda campaign during the last presidential campaign that was clearly designed to benefit Trump, which came after all of the Trump appointees to all of the nation’s intelligence-gathering agencies testified under oath that they were certain the Russian government had indeed launched a sophisticated effort to influence the presidential election that included hacking into e-mail accounts and trying to hack into state vote-counting computers and spreading propaganda.
The announcement of the indictment was read by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who is in the awkward position of overseeing Mueller’s investigation after the full-blown Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the “Russia thing,” and he stressed that only Russians were indicted and the indictment mentioned “unwitting” Americans who might have been involved. Trump and his apologists read this as vindication in the whole “Russia thing,” but that required Trump to acknowledge that Russia’s meddling wasn’t the hoax he’d long claimed.
This was followed 14 presidential “tweets” that would have dominated a day’s news cycle in the relatively recent past. Trump blamed the school shooting on the FBI’s obsession with the “Russia thing,” blasted his national security advisor for acknowledging Russia’s meddling in the last election without mention that Trump would have won anyway, and even described Oprah Winfrey as “insecure.”
It was all too much to follow over a long President’s Day Weekend, especially with all those remarkably eloquent and righteously impassioned kids telling all the cable news networks about the tragedy they lived through, and in an odd sort of way that does somehow seem to redound to Trump’s political benefit. Those poor souls in the White House communications team charged with spinning all the various scandals might well have felt able to take a federal holiday off on Monday.
They’ll have to be back on the job today, though, as it looks to be a brief respite. The alleged wives-beaters who gained entree to the White House are already long forgotten, but the hubbub about all the White House staffers without security clearance has prompted the chief of staff to impose a new rule that will likely demote senior advisor and ambassador-at-large and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. The possible campaign violations involved in those six-figure payouts to the porn performer and Playboy model might yet wind up in court, or under the special counsel’s scrutiny, and that will keep these otherwise boring stories in the news. Mueller’s indictment not only mentioned “unwitting” American participants in the Russian campaign meddling but also referred to “persons known and unknown to the grand jury,” which has an ominous ring about it.
That tragedy in Florida doesn’t seem to be redounding to the president’s political benefit, either. Those sympathetically grieving students are remarkably eloquent and appealing — we got choked up watching one respectful and well-groomed and well-spoken senior who has already signed up for Army service even though he looks and sounds like a college man — and so far they’re winning in the public opinion polls against Trump’s un-parseable and profane and Oprah-bashing “tweets.”
We hold out hope that some solution can be found to end the ongoing problem of mass shootings without infringing on the God-given and constitutionally-protected right for a citizen to protect himself, but we expect a lot of bad news before we arrive at that happy day.

— Bud Norman