Advertisements

The Post and a “Tweet” and a Twist in the Russia Story

Over the weekend there was another big Washington Post scoop, another blast of “tweets” from President Donald Trump, and yet another intriguing twist in the ongoing story about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
The Post’s big story was about how President Barack Obama reacted to the intelligence community’s alarmed reports that Russia was meddling in various ways with the American presidential race, all in favor of Trump and by the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it seems to support an unnamed administration official’s conclusion that “We choked.” Although Obama ordered that “cyber bombs” be planted in Russian computer systems to be set off if needed, and confronted Putin about the matter at an international summit, the article notes that Russia suffered only “largely symbolic” economic sanctions for its attempt to sabotage an American election
Trump has previously expressed doubt about whether Russia did anything at all in the election, saying that the e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and disseminated by Wikileaks could have been the work of anyone from the Chinese to “some guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds,” but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at Obama. “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of Nov. 8 about election meddling by Russia,” Trump “tweeted,” adding “Did nothing about it. Why?” Continuing the theme, he later “tweeted” that “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!”
Which makes for an interesting twist in the longer-running story, or at least in the way Trump tells it. Instead of continuing to cast doubt on the conclusions of 15 separate intelligence agencies, and the findings of his own Central Intelligence Director, and scoffing at anything at all that runs in The Washington Post or contains anonymous sources, Trump is now outraged that Russia did indeed try to help him get elected and wants the public to direct its outrage at Obama for allowing it to happen. One of the shriller right-wing talk radio hosts we scan across while driving was making essentially the argument a week earlier, and the fans calling in all found it very convincing, but we wonder how it will play with anyone other than Trump’s most loyal supporters or Obama’s most determined critics. It also invites arguments that Trump will have trouble “tweeting” his way through.
The Post’s story was a novella-length opus, so we’re guessing that Trump’s notoriously short attention span didn’t get him to the part where it did a pretty good job of answering the question about why the Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully. As the reporters document, the intelligence was incomplete about the Russians’ capabilities and what might be provoked, the sanctions imposed after Russia’s violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia didn’t leave many more options, and like most Americans Obama incorrectly assumed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway. We’ve spent the last 10 years criticizing Obama and are as eager to take another swipe at his sorry presidency as anyone, but in this case we can’t think of anything he might have done that would anyone.
As if to further confuse the issue, Trump also “tweeted” that “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?” We’re not at all clear how quashing any effort Russian effort to get Trump elected would have helped Clinton, and we can’t imagine anything that Obama might have done that would have pleased Trump. A White House address warning that the Russians were actively working to elect Trump would surely have been scoffed at by Trump, even with the 15 intelligence agencies all backing it up, and given the suspicious mood of the electorate we doubt that any of Trump’s supporters would have believed a word of it or cared much even if they did. Even now, we suspect most Trump supporters are outraged that Obama let Putin do all those nasty things that Trump previously said he might not have done.
Today’s a new day, and we expect that the White House communications team will be explaining how the “tweets” speak for themselves but don’t necessarily mean what they say. An earlier Trump “tweet” following a Washington Post story about Trump being investigated by a special counsel on possible obstruction of justice charges griped that he was being investigated because he’d fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director because of a recommendation by the man who was investigating him, which was wildly wrong on several levels, and by the weekend one of his lawyers was on all the shows insisting that Trump was not under investigation by anyone. This is a common post-“tweet” occurrence, and you can between that Mike Huckabee’s daughter or some other spokesperson will be explaining how Trump still doesn’t necessarily believe in that Russian meddling that he was blaming Obama for.
They’ll pretty much have to, because all the questions that reporters might not be allowed to recorded are going to about what the Trump administration is doing about Russia’s meddling in the election. Until The Washington Post provided an opportunity to attack Obama with it Trump had never definitively acknowledged that Russia had done anything untoward during the election, his transition team made an aborted effort to lift all those largely symbolic sanctions, even the Senate’s Republicans felt obliged to vote for legislation that would not allow Trump to ease the rest of the sanctions, and there are all those other Russian ties and undisclosed meetings between Trump’s close associates and everything else about that Russian meddling that Trump seems have at long last acknowledged.
These days Obama seems to be enjoying his post-presidency a lot more than Trump seems to be enjoying his presidency, and we think he’ll happily accept history’s verdict that he did choke in one of his final crises so long as Trump is lured into admitting that the Russians connived to help his campaign. How Trump responds to that fact is likely to be far more important to how history eventually regards him.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

The Sessions Sessions and All That

The administration of President Donald Trump is like that weird drawing in which some people see a beautiful young lass and others a wrinkled old hag, or that great Japanese movie “Rashomon” where the sordid tale is told and re-told by varying accounts to no definitive conclusion.
Shown the same endlessly replayed footage of Trump pushing his way past the Prime Minister of Montenegro to the front of a diplomatic photo-op, some cringe in embarrassment at a stereotypically ugly American behaving boorishly in front of the the other countries while others perceive an alpha male at long last asserting America’ss dominance on the world stage. The endlessly replayed footage of Trump’s cabinet members taking turns offering fulsome praise for the boss struck many as slightly North Korean in creepiness and was greeted as a great gift by all the late night comics, but a lot of the commenters at the bottom of the Trump-friendly news sites found it touching. People read the same words and abbreviated semi-words in every presidential “tweet,” but some readers discern only self-destructive blather while others discover a subtle literary and political genius.
So it is with the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which some see as fake news made up by sore losers who hate America, and others regard as the most diabolically treasonous plot by a self-interested scoundrel since Aaron Burr, but in any case is undeniably the big story of the day. The latest installment in that Rorshach Test of a story was Tuesday’s testimony before a Senate committee by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and how that went depends on who you listen to. The right-wing talk radio hosts and all the commenters at the bottom of the Trump-friendly news sites thought that Sessions emerged as triumphant from the grilling as Shadrack, Meschach, and Abendego coming out of the fiery furnace, but the fake news had enough real footage and backstory to make it look bad to everybody else.
The last time Sessions testified before a Senate committee was during his confirmation hearing, and he wound up volunteering some arguably inadvertent but inarguably innate statements about his recent contacts with Russian officials, which led to him recusing himself from anything having to do with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, so his second time around was being widely watched. There were more questions about the previous testimony, along with some questions about other contacts with the Russians that have since been alleged, and some brand new questions about why Sessions signed off on the firing the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was investing the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, despite his avowed recusal from anything having to do with all that.
Sessions handled it pretty well for most of the seven or hours of hot light interrogation, but even such a seasoned lawyer and politician had some awkward sound bites. He confirmed the fired FBI guy’s story about Trump ordering everyone else out of the room before a private meeting in which the fired FBI guy says the president asked for his personal loyalty, dodged a question about the fired FBI guy’s request that the Attorney General prevent any further private meetings with the president, and further declined to talk about all the recent leaks and “tweets” that suggest Trump isn’t pleased with Sessions’ performance as Attorney General. All in all, it was enough to fill a news cycle for people who see things that way.
Sessions also steadfastly declared in his defiantly Confederate accent that neither he nor Trump had anything to with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which was endlessly replayed by the right-wing talk radio shows oft-quoted by the commenters at the Trump-friendly news sites, and despite all the suspicions that were raised nobody had that much-anticipated sound bite to prove that he was lying about that central fact of the story. Sessions was long a member of the same World’s Greatest Deliberative Body as his Democratic interrogators on that Senate committee, and for whatever it’s worth he’s proved as honorable over his long career as any of them, so we can see how some people see it a certain way. Some of the Republican Senators helped out, too, while others seemed to be hedging their bets, and we really can’t blame any of them of for any of it.
These days we’re watching it all from the sidelines, where we’re pretty much contemptuous of all the players and have no dog in the fight except for truth, justice, and the American way, and from our perspective they didn’t really nail Sessions or Trump on anything but significant but it does look pretty darned bad. The likelihood is that the Senate and House and FBI and special counsel investigations will continue, along with all the knowledgeable named and unnamed sources in the mainstream press and the speculative deconstruction of it all on right-wing talk radio and the comments sections of Trump-friendly news sites, and that a certain portion of the country will see a pretty young lass while the other sees an ugly old hag.
So far the sees-it-san- ugly-old-hag contingent seems in the majority of American public opinion, and most of the rest of the world sees a stereotypically ugly American rather than a dominant alpha male, and in the end that might matter more than truth, justice, and the American way. Elite opinion on both the right and left and around the the globe especially is critical of Trump, which only hardens the certainty of the talk radio hosts and those Trump-friendly commenters, who do have a good case to make about how the elites have screwed things up, but we’re not at all convinced that anybody’s going to do a much better job of stewarding a multi-trillion economy and a darned complicated geo-politcal situation than the people with the credentials.
There’s plenty of story left to be told, from all the varying accounts, so we’ll await the inevitably indefinite resolution.

— Bud Norman

Something Called Emoluments

The vast forces arrayed against President Donald Trump opened yet another line attack on Monday, with the attorneys general of Maryland of Washington, D.C., alleging in court that the president’s ongoing profits from his private enterprises is a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. That might well be a bit over the top as a legal position, but it’s a pretty savvy political argument, and we’re surprised they hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
The emoluments clause prohibits all public officials up to and including the president from accepting any “present, Emolument, Office, or title, of any kind, from any King, Prince, or foreign State,” and those attorneys general figure that all the money Trump has lately been raking in from foreigners at his still openly held properties in Maryland and Washington, D.C., violates that. It’s a tricky legal argument, as there’s not a lot of precedent to go on, but that’s because no previous president was raking in profits from his private enterprises while serving as president, so we can see how it’s a tempting political argument.
Meanwhile, the bigger attack on Trump has to do with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which is moving along on the recent testimony of a fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director and perhaps with today’s testimony by the recused-from-whole-mess Attorney General, and those attorneys general will probably help with that. Part of the intrigue in that whole thing has also has something to do with Trump’s much-boasted-about far-flung business empire, which he has declined to fully explain through tax returns and other routine presidential disclosures, so this imbroglio might well spill into the other.
Trump’s lawyers aren’t used to these kinds of political intrigues, and neither is he, and so far the courts haven’t been sympathetic to him, but we expect the lawsuits won’t outlast his presidency. He’ll need some good some political arguments to make his presidency last, though, and so far he’s had trouble coming up with them.

— 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

Swimming in a Flood of News

The news comes at a fast and furious rate in the age of President Donald Trump, but Wednesday’s pace was downright discombobulating. Some bigger than usual bombshells about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia came not from anonymous sources somewhere in the bureaucracy but rather from four under-oath high level figures, here in Kansas the more conservative sort of Republican economic philosophy took a hard hit, and just to the south the University of Oklahoma’s longtime football coach unexpectedly up and quit.
The most attention was paid to the written testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, which confirmed all those previously anonymously-sourced stories that Comey says Trump had expressed a hope that the FBI would relent in its investigation of Trump’s fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and had asked for a pledge of loyalty to the president. As far as Trump’s most strident critics are concerned that’s sufficient for an impeachable obstruction of justice charge, which seems a bit of an overreach, for now at least, and Trump’s staunchest supporters are claiming vindication by Comey’s admission that he had indeed assured Trump on three separate occasions that the president wasn’t being investigation as an individual, as Trump had noted in Comey’s termination letter, which is not likely to make anybody but other staunch Trump supporters feel good.
Comey will provide oral testimony and answer questions from Republicans and Democrats today, and Trump’s staunchest supporters should be ready with some better arguments. All of the broadcast networks will be televising the Senate hearings live, just like in the Watergate days, and the bars in Washington, D.C., are opening early and offering such specials as “covfefe cocktails” for the expected audience, and the story Comey will tell is far more fascinating than anything that’s going on in the pre-empted soap operas.
Comey’s seven pages of written testimony, apparently backed up by some very contemporaneous notes he’d written on the way home from his encounters with the president, include some novelistic but believable details.
He recalls a moment during a private presidential dinner when “the president said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” Comey later recalls that “Near the end of our dinner, the president returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo that I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
Today’s rating-grabbing telecast will likely include further literary flourishes, along with Republicans and Democrats and Trump’s most strident critics and staunchest defenders understanding the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but our guess is that Trump should ready himself for another bad news cycle. Comey’s recollections are apparently backed up by provably contemporaneous notes, and all the dialogue does seem to have a certain verisimilitude about it, based on what we’ve seen of Comey and Trump. Although Comey has infuriated Democrats by announcing an investigation of the Democratic nominee during the late stages of the campaign and infuriated Republicans by failing to lock her up, at least his bipartisan honesty has never been questioned, while Trump has undeniably been caught in some whoppers. Even if the public does accept Comey’s version of events it’s still an overreach to make an obstruction of justice case, given the different interpretations of “honest loyalty” and almost anything else Trump says, but it’s going to be hard to make Trump look good.
You might not have seen it floating by in the flood of news, but The Washington Post had also reported in a mostly-anonymously-sourced story that Trump had also asked a couple of other top-notch national security types to push back against that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and two of them gave under-oath testimony to that pesky Senate committee. National intelligence director Dan Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, both denied they had ever been asked by anyone to do anything untoward, but when the questions got more specific they declined to answer, and at one point Coats freely admitted he didn’t have any particular legal basis for not answering. Even the Republicans seemed peeved by the arguable contempt of Congress, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, taunted by Trump as “Little Marco” during their primary duel, made some good points.
All that is obviously getting in the way of Trump’s infrastructure and health care reform and tax reform agenda, and the tax reform part of the agenda took way out here in Kansas. Enough establishment-type Republicans joined with the Democrats to override the staunchly anti-establishment Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a tax increase, which pretty much brings to an end the tax-cutting program that Trump is proposing. Economics is a complicated science, and there’s an argument to be made that the Kansas economy wouldn’t have thrived any better under the tax-and-spend schemes that have harmed so many blue states, but the Brownback tax cuts inarguably haven’t produced the economic growth that was promised and we’ve even lagged behind the Obama-era overall economy, and the state’s school and social service funding were getting down to the bare bones that alarm even such old-fashioned Kansas Republicans as ourselves, so of course even the national press is gloating. The old-fashioned establishment sorts of Republicans around here arguably acquitted themselves in the matter, but Trump shouldn’t count on them having his back in the coming news cycles.
It was such a busy day we’re still not sure why Bob Stoops relinquished control of that OU Sooners football team, which looks to have another exciting and maybe even championship season coming up. Over the years he’s infuriated Sooners fans with some inexcusable bowl game losses and then delighted them with some chapionship-trophy-hoisting upsets, but he’s got Kansas State ties and seems a decent sort of fellow and after 18 years he’s leaving his successor a much better team than the one he inherited, so we wish him well in his future endeavors.
As for all the rest of these characters in the news these days, we’re wishing all them and all the rest of us our best.

— Bud Norman

Reality Winner and the Winners of Reality

The great British novelist Evelyn Waugh used to come up with some of fictions’ most fascinating characters and give them the most delightfully ironic names, but we doubt even he could have invented a sweet-faced multi-lingual 25-year-old Air Force veteran and outspoken liberal and alleged national security secrets leaker called Reality Winner. In the age of a reality show president and his reality show presidency, though, such an unlikely character with such an improbable name is an actual person in the news.
Winner has been arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with handing a purloined National Security Agency document about Russia’s meddling in the past American presidential election, and the rest of the story is believable only because no one could have made it up. It’s a mere subplot in a broader storyline about what President Donald Trump calls “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” which was already darned complicated, and Winner’s tale complicates it further.
So far all we know about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia comes courtesy of people with access to information to information they have leaked to the press, and what has then been confirmed the administration’s legally plausible but not altogether reassuring claim that the information was illegally obtained. Some of the damaging and inadvertently verified information has apparently come from the feuding innermost circles of the top-most Trump administration, most of it seems to have come from the permanent government bureaucracy and the holdovers from the President Barack Obama administration that are hanging around while the Trump administration gets around to filling that remaining 78 percent of appointed positions they’ve yet to name a nominee for, and for now there’s no telling where the rest of it has come from. Except for the administrations claims that the sources are all fake and must be immediately be locked up, we’d be inclined to dismiss it all as fake news.
The Trump administration has vowed to plug all those leaks, for principled reasons of law enforcement as well as naked self-interest, but so far the only alleged leaker they’ve nabbed is the aforementioned and improbably named Winner.
In the inevitable Facebook photos of a 25-year-old she looks like one of those beguiling young hipster women who hang around The Vagabond hipster bar where we argue with a gray-ponytailed but right-wing hipster friend of ours, and from the inevitable Facebook postings she seems to share the same fashionably left-wing political opinions. Unlike most young woman of our acquaintance, though, she’s fluent in the languages of Farsi, Pashto, and Dari, only two of which we were even previously aware of, and instead of going to college she volunteered her linguistic skills to the Air Force. After an honorable discharge Winner and her hard-to-find skill set found work with a private data-analysis company that contracted with the National Security Agency, where her impeccable Air Force record earned her a high security clearance, and at that point she allegedly came across an NSA document about how the Russian meddling had extended to the point that they tried to influence some local-level vote-counting.
She’s alleged to have copied the document and passed it on to an internet news site called The Intercept, which we had also previously never heard of, and so far as we can tell that’s why she’s the first alleged leaker to be nabbed. So far even the most sympathetic press accounts don’t do her legal case much good, noting that the neophyte leaker seems to have used office copy machines with their hidden code words and made other rookie mistakes, and they unhelpfully note all those Facebook posting about her disdain for Trump, and without drawing any conclusions we’d advise she hire a better attorney than the Trump administration is able to retain these days.
Trump’s stalwart defenders will be pleased that at least one of those leakers has been allegedly nabbed, and hope that others will be deterred from releasing any further discomfiting information, but no matter Winner’s fate they might still come out losers. The charges against Winner were discovered when the Intercept news site submitted its documents for government verification, which were duly confirmed in order to bring the charges, and so far a lot of leaks from more-savvy sources have been similarly confirmed. It doesn’t amount to anything undeniable, not yet, but there’s still a torrent of leaks from the feuding innermost circles of the White House and the vast bureaucracy that’s still unmanned and all the rest of it.
Should Winner be proved guilty of the charges alleged against her she’ll deserve the prison time that entails, as far as we’re concerned, yet we’ll hope her youthful idealism will carry through the consequences. As always we’ll be hoping that reality ultimately wins, which it always does, eventually, but in these days of reality shows days there’s no telling.

— Bud Norman

Another Day of Foreign Intrigues

President Donald Trump’s first foreign tour has produced some notable but hard-to-explain successes, as well as some relatively minor but easy-to-ridicule missteps, but it hasn’t been able to keep what Trump calls “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia” out of the news.
While Trump was making what can be considered an inappropriately upbeat comment in the guest book of Israel’s holocaust museum, The Washington Post was running a story that he had asked national intelligence director Daniel Coats and National Security Agency director Admiral Michael Rogers to deny that there was anything to that whole Russia thing with and Russia. This might not be the evidence of obstruction of justice that so many of Trump’s critics have been hoping for, but it’s still far more inappropriate than what Trump wrote in that guest book, and noisily intruded on what Trump had surely hoped would be a much-needed favorable news cycle.
Trump and his most ardent defenders could have dismissed it as just another fake news smear from the “Washington Compost,” but Tuesday also saw the under-oath congressional testimony of former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan and the aforementioned Coats and Rogers, and it did nothing to undermine the story. Brennan not only declined to dismiss the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia but spoke at length about his certainty that Russia did indeed meddle in America’s latest presidential election and his concerns that some people in the Trump campaign were either wittingly or unwittingly involved. Both Coats and Rogers declined to either confirm or deny the Post’s latest big story, citing the now familiar reason that doing so would involve divulging classified information, which is not necessarily damning but not at all what Trump and his most ardent defenders wanted to hear.
That’s not to mention all the other ongoing news about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is still exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and resisting a congressional subpoena for his financial documents, which is not necessarily damning but never looks good, and it invites all the snarkier Trump critics to dredge up video montages of Trump saying that all the Hillary Clinton who staffers who the Fifth were clearly guilty and Flynn himself leading chants of “lock her up” at the Republican convention. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort remains under investigation, too, and The Washington Post is still claiming that some senior-level administration member who was a senior-level campaign staffer is as well, and all the talk is that it’s son-in-law. Fox News has also retracted a story about how a murdered 27-year-old staff at the Democratic National Committee had leaked all those e-mails during the crime, and Sean Hannity also agreed to back off the story at the request of the family, which was the last alternative theory to the idea that the Russians did it.
Trump’s embrace of a youthful Saudi king who so far seems genuinely committed to modernizing his kingdom might yet prove a diplomatic masterstroke, and it’s worth noting that the undeniably Islamophobic Trump seems to have a better rapport with at least the Sunni Muslim world than the embarrassingly Islamophilic President Barack Obama ever did. Given how much more troublesome the Iranian regime has been lately, the inevitable backlash from the Shiites might prove worth the provocation. Despite his clumsy attempts at holding hands with his wife and writing in guest books seems to have reassured the Israelis of America’s continued support for their survival, which is a welcome relief to them and ourselves after all the blatant offenses of the Obama years.
That’s all theoretical for now and very to hard to explain, though, and we expect that Trump’s best explanation will be that it was stupendous and the best and everyone says so. So far he’s handled his foreign adventure well enough, but the remaining itinerary includes plenty of opportunities for missteps, and even if he gets through that the Russia thing with Russia and Trump will likely still be there when he arrives home.

— Bud Norman

What Could Go Wrong?

President Donald Trump is now embarking on his first foreign trip since taking office, and we expect he’ll be glad to get out of the country. He’s spent the week griping to the graduates of the Coast Guard Academy that he’s been the most unfairly treated politician in all history, “tweeting” claims that the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s possible role in Russia’s election meddling are a “witch hunt,” and testily denying everything to a pesky pack of the press, so at least he’ll be able to change the subject for a while.
On the other hand, the conversation might well take another controversial turn or two before the nine-long-days trip is over. The celebrity apprentice president has already provoked controversies in his dealings with such friendly countries as Australia and Germany, which takes some doing, and the itinerary for his trip includes some far trickier encounters.
The tour starts out in Saudia Arabia, where the royal family has reportedly prepared to roll out $68 million worth of red carpet, which should be enough to satisfy even Trump’s sense of grandeur. So far Trump has been saying everything the Saudis want to hear about arms deals and their war in Yemen and other and other deals that are ¬†dear to their hearts, but he’s also the guy who called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and until recently he was a vociferous critic of the country, and his planned speech on Islamic radicalism will require more carefully diplomatic language than Trump is accustomed to using. A visit to Saudi Arabia is fraught with peril for even the most seasoned presidents, and Trump is seemingly still starting a learning curve.
The next planned stop is in Israel, which is always tricky. Trump has long been outspokenly supportive of the Jewish state, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he’s lately abandoned his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem and reportedly blabbed some top-secrets shared by the Israelis to the Russians, and has long habit of making stereotypical Jewish jokes in public. His daughter and son-in-law are both Jewish, which provides some cover for such japes, but we expect his aides will be nervous for the duration of the visit.
After that Trump moves on to Italy and the vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis. Back in the campaign the Pope opined that Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico wasn’t consistent with Christian values, Trump replied with characteristic bluntness that the Pope was “disgraceful” to say so, but both men are promising a friendlier conversation when they meet face to face. Absent any inappropriate jokes about a priest and a Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister walking in to a bar it seems a safe enough stop.
Next up is Belgium, where he’s scheduled to meet the king and queen and Prime Minister, and although they probably won’t be spending $68 million for the chat that should go fine. He’s also scheduled to meet the newly elected President of France, after Trump implicitly endorsed his Vichy-linked opponent in the recent French vote, as well as the president of the European Union, an institution both Trump and that Vichy-linked opponent have long outspokenly criticized, so that might also require more diplomatic language than Trump is used to using. There’s another meeting scheduled with the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has lately concluded is not “obsolete,” as he frequently described it during the campaign, but he’s still grousing that its members are mostly a bunch of freeloading deadbeats, so there’s no telling how that might go.
Trump’s European trip then returns again to Italy, where he’ll take his place along the leaders of the G7 nations, and we hope he won’t mind sharing the stage with all of them. All those countries have pretty pesky presses of their own, though, and the American media will also be on hand to egg them on, and at that point the conversation might well take any number of controversial turns.
There’s always a chance Trump will return home with a lot of brand new best friends, and that the media won’t find anything to criticize, but Trump being Trump and the media being the media that’s not the way to bet.

— Bud Norman

<

Comey Still Won’t Go Away

Try as you might, there’s nothing to find in the news these days except President Donald Trump’s firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. A Cable News Network reporter tried to do a story on the Republicans’ proposed health care legislation, which was a big deal not long ago and is apparently still something that might happen, but the first question to a couple of politicians was about how Comey’s firing might affect the bill’s chances in the Senate, so of course the conversation never got around to anything else.
There are other things going on with the federal government, too, but for the moment the first thing to ask about almost any of them is how they’re affected by all this Comey business. The Democrats sense an opportunity to use the issue to thwart almost any Trump proposal, and Trump has been seemingly ¬†intent on gold-plating it for them. All the endless stories mention in passing that Trump is entirely within his legal rights to fire an FBI director for any old reason, and briefly acknowledge that both Democrats and Republicans have had their own reasons for wanting to do so over the past election year, but thus far the White House has struggled to make a convincing case of its own.
The official “you’re fired” letter from Trump himself said it was because of the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a newly-hired deputy attorney, who found Comey’s public comments regarding an investigation into the e-mail practices of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton late in the campaign had undermined the public’s faith in his ability, and the was the line that all the obviously unprepared spokespeople parroted the next two days. Those poor spokespeople had to respond to video montages of candidate Trump praising Comey’s “guts” for those same statements, though, and explain why Trump was suddenly so offended on Clinton’s behalf after leading so many rallies in chants of “lock her up,” so the first couple of news cycles went badly. They steadfastly insisted that the president had no choice but to accept the conclusion of that newly-hired deputy attorney general, and of course insisted that it had nothing to with the fact that Comey was heading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government’s meddling in the election.
Trump doesn’t seem the type to follow a newly-hired subordinate’s lead, though, and the Attorney General had promised to recuse himself from anything having to do with the Russian investigation that Comey was heading, and the idea that Russia had nothing to do with it was always going to be a hard sell. Thus Trump found himself sitting down with the National Broadcasting Corporation’s Lester Holt on Thursday and saying, in between frequent interruptions, that “Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” and that “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Russia and Trump is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should have won.'” He also described Comey as a “grandstander” and “showboat,” and the late night comedy show jokes about Trump describing anyone by those terms pretty much wrote themselves.
He also stated his ardent desire for a thorough and independent investigation of the Russia thing with Russia and Trump, but people will draw their own conclusions about that based on who he picks as Comey’s replacement. One hopes the Trump team will have a exceptionally strong pick and a better-planned public relations roll-out for that story, which is likely to be all that’s in the news for a while, if we’re lucky.

— 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