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Through Hell and High Water, “Russia” Persists

Throughout all the hurricanes and mass murders and threats of war, the “Russia” story persists. On Wednesday the Senate’s intelligence committee made clear that it’s not going away soon.
The eminently Republican chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina told an unusual press conference that “There is consensus among members of staff that we trust the conclusions of the (intelligence community assessment),” which concluded that the Russian government attempted to affect the past presidential election by hacking information from the Democratic party, promulgating false propaganda through the internet, and an apparently unsuccessful effort to manipulate vote-counting in several states. He also admitted that “the issue of collusion is still open.”
President Donald Trump has expressed doubt that the Russians did anything untoward at all, argued that even if they did other countries probably did as well, and repeatedly sworn that in any case he and his campaign didn’t have anything to with any Russians. Almost all of which, alas, has lately been so thoroughly disproved that even the Republicans on the Senate intelligence agency vow to continue the investigation.
You still have to rely on those intelligence officials to believe that Russia that hacked the Democratic party’s computers and leaked all those e-mails, but Trump’s own Central Intelligence Agency director agrees and by now only Trump and his most die-hard supporters doubt it. Facebook and Twitter now acknowledge that their popular social media services were extensively used by Russian interests to spread false stories clearly intended to harm the Democratic campaign. Also, Trump’s own Homeland Security Secretary has recently and belatedly advised 21 states of Russian attempts to infiltrate their computer system, then clarified that in two of them Russians had attempted to scan other state networks. At this point the intelligence community is look pretty intelligent, and so far they aren’t mentioning any other countries that might have similarly meddled or acting as if it’s no big deal if they did.
Hurricane winds and sniper fire swept away many of the headlines, but the past weeks have also brought documented news that Trump was pursuing a business deal in Moscow during his campaign, his campaign manager was offering briefings to Kremlin-connected Russians, and Trump’s son and son-in-law and former national security advisor and various other administration officials have been updating their security clearance forms with numerous meetings with Russians that they had previously forgotten to mention. Throw in the Trump campaign’s conspicuously Russia-friendly rhetoric, the way those Russian propagandists seem to know exactly which counties and precincts to target in the states Trump narrowly won to give him an electoral majority, along with all the other news that has been piling up over the past months, and even such an eminently Republican sort of fellow as Sen. Burr has to concede that the question of collusion is still very much open.
The Senate’s investigation will continue, and there’s a special counsel on the job who has a reputation for doggedness and has already executed a no-knock warrant on that former campaign manager and seems to have some serious goods on that former national security advisor, so we’ll venture to guess that the “Russia” story will persists through the coming storms and crimes and the rest of the governmental fiascos.

— Bud Norman

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Two Tales of One Speech

President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language  editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.

— Bud Norman

Another Twist in the “Russia” Story

President Donald Trump has had a couple of relatively good weeks of news coverage, to the point we were all set to write about his so far so good performance at the United Nations, but at the last moment we noticed The New York Times’ scoop about the office of the special counsel into “Russia” informing Paul Manafort that he’s about to be indicted. If true — and to those who have been following the “Russia” story closely it seems all too plausible — that means many bad weeks of news coverage for Trump no matter how well everything else might turn out.
Even if you haven’t been following the “Russia” story very closely you probably know that Manafort was once Trump’s presidential campaign chairman, and has long boasted of his lucrative lobbying efforts on behalf of some of the world’s worst foreign leaders, including the Ukrainians tied to their country occupying Russian government. You might also know that as campaign chairman he sat in with Trump’s son and son-in-law in a meeting with a Kremlin-tied Russian lawyer and another Russian long suspected of laundering Russian mob money through American real estate holdings and a couple of other shady Russians, a meeting Trump’s son has acknowledged he arranged with the clear understanding that it would involve the transfer of information from the Russian government’s ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign. It was also widely reported that the special counsel had enough dirt to convince a federal judge to issue a rare “no-knock” search warrant on Manfort’s home to seize evidence relevant to an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, so unless you haven’t been paying any attention at all an imminent indictment shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Still, it’s a significant development in the “Russia” story. Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer once described Manafort as “someone who played a limited role in the campaign for a short time,” but Manafort’s title in that limited role was “campaign chairman” and he served in that capacity until the press revealed his undisclosed business dealings with the Russkies themselves, and Spicer was last seen at the Emmy Awards doing a comedy routine that basically admitted he outright lied about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Unless you’re the most strident sort of supporter of Trump, the imminent indictment of a former Trump campaign chairman on charges related to “Russia” isn’t the “nothing burger” that Trump’s most strident supporters always claim. At the very least, Trump will have to explain why he ever hired the guy as a campaign chairman in the first place, given all the bragged-about dirt already known about him.
At this point we guess Manfort’s high-priced lawyers are advising him to spill whatever beans he has on the Trump son and son-in-law who were also indisputably in on the meeting with the Kremlin-tied lawyer and suspected Russian-mob-money-laundering Russian and the other two shady Russians, and whatever he might have on the even higher-ups. Given the loyalty Trump has shown to him, we don’t expect that Manafort will go too far out of his way to be loyal Trump or any of his kinfolk.

— Bud Norman

After the Storms, the Gathering Drip, Drip, Drip

Hurricane winds and epic flooding on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have blown most of the rest of the news off the cable news channels for the past couple of days, with President Donald Trump’s recent dalliance with the Democrats grabbing the rest of the attention, but the steady drip, drip, drip of leaks about “Russia” have continued.
It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as the saying goes, and the recent natural disasters and self-inflicted political disasters have at least served Trump well by largely blowing away some of the recent revelations. Right around the time Hurricane Harvey started battering Houston and environs it was revealed that Trump had signed a letter to build a Trump Tower in downtown Moscow in late 2015, which was right around the time he was starting to campaign for president and saying suspiciously nice things about the Russian government and indignantly denying that he had any business dealings with anyone in Russia. This doesn’t look good, even if the die-hard supporters can insist it’s not at all illegal, and it would have looked a worse if there had been room for it on the front page.
There’s also recent news that the son of retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former top campaign foreign policy advisor and a transition team member and briefly the national security advisor, has also come under the scrutiny of the special counsel investigation that seems to be coming along at a brisk pace. The elder Flynn is already in legal jeopardy for failing to disclose his lucrative earnings as an agent for foreign governments in Turkey and Russia, as well as conflicts of interest regarding the advice he gave Trump on issues involving Turkey and Russia, and at the very least his failure to disclose this on his ever-updated security clearance forms. It was bad enough to get Flynn kicked out of the Trump administration after less than a month on the job, although questions about why he was there in the first place will continue to linger, and it’s bad enough to drag his son into the mess.
The son has long been on the father’s payroll as a chief of staff, even though hi most impressive credential seems to be an associate’s degree in golf course management, and he was already a controversial figure in his own right. He got kicked off the Trump campaign after he “tweeted” about the nutcase “Pizzagate” conspiracy that had Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton running a satanic child sex-abuse ring in the basement of a Washington pizzeria, and has apparently been knee-deep in his father’s begrudgingly disclosed dealings with foreign governments. His dad’s lawyer has stated that his client has “a story to tell,” presumably about people even more high up than a national security advisor, and will be willing to tell in exchange for immunity, and we imagine the downright Trumpian go-after-the-families strategy that the special counsel is pursuing will probably make him all the more willing.
Trump’s own son got dragged before a congressional investigative committee to talk about that meeting in Trump Tower he agreed to with a Russian lawyer that he understood to be a representative of the Russian government and its ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign, which also included four other Russians with ties to alleged money laundering schemes and other Russian mischief, as well as Trump’s son-in-law and campaign chairman, but at least it was in a closed session. There were leaks of of the testimony, of course, which of course had Democrats grousing that it should have been televised, so Trump is also feeling the pressure of when they come after your family.
There’s also a noteworthy development that the powerful Facebook social media site has admitted it sold $100,000 of ad space to a Russian “troll farm” that targeted certain of its readers with dubious stories regarding Clinton’s fitness for the presidency and Trump’s unprecedented credentials for the job, which seems to corroborate the conclusions of all the intelligence agencies that the Russians tried to meddle in our election. A hundred grand of internet advertising buys a lot more than a similar amount spent on a broadcast network, given how the internet knows everything about everyone and can specifically target the most susceptible audience for any given messages, so it’s harder than ever for Trump and his most ardent supporters to deny that Russia played any role in the past election.
They used to grouse that the real scandal was that we only know about any of this if because President Barrack Obama tapped Trump’s phones at Trump Tower and led the “deep state” to stage a silent coup, but the past weeks have dealt a further blow to that silliness. Trump’s “tweeted” accusation about Obama ordering a tap on his phones was never backed up with any proof, but the past week brought quietly conceded admission that a White House ordered review found none of the top-secret warrants that would have been needed, but he’s long since shifted to the claim it was a broader pattern of surveillance that he was talking about. To his most ardent supporters that meant how Obama-era officials were eagerly leaking the intercepted conversations that Trump campaign officials were having with Russians tied directly to the Russian government, but that narrative also took a blow during the hurricane lull.
The chief villainess of the “deep state” conspiracy theory was Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, who stood accused of “unmasking” the identities of Trump campaign officials whose conservations with foreign officials had been intercepted by the intelligence community. The intercepts occurred because the government was taking an interest in the communications of foreign officials, and they just happened to involve some that occurred with Trump campaign officials, but Rice stood accused of “unmasking” the redacted identities of the people they were talking about. We’re no fans of Rice, who blatantly lied to the American people about the causes of the tragedy at Benghazi and advised all sorts of policies we though ill-advised, but we could never see why it was wrong for her to to ask which Americans the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates were talking to about setting up a back-channel of communications with the Russians, who turned out to be the next president’s son-in-law and most trusted advisor.
Even such a conservative talk radio hero as South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy had to admit that “I thought she gave a very good accounting of herself, frankly, and I’d be the first to say otherwise.” Rice was entirely within her rights as a national security advisor to ask how the Americans were on those tapes she was listening to, and for matter obliged by the duties of her job as a national security advisor, and so far no one is alleging that she illegally leaked information about what she had learned. Even if she did, we’re still grateful for the heads up.
By now these bombshells seem mundane, and there are always so many other natural and man-made disastors that Trump’s most ardent supporters and most strident critics can seize on, but the drip, drip, drip seems heading to flood levels.

— Bud Norman

Hillary’s Back, and Nobody’s Got It

Hillary Clinton is back in the news these days, which we’d think that would be the last the place she’d want to be. She’s got a new book to plug, though, so we can well understand how she’d be glad of any publicity she can get. As a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and presumptive first woman President of the United States she’s understandably uncomfortable outside the spotlight, too, and after the past couple of years one can hardly blame her for wanting to get a few things off her chest.
We haven’t yet read Clinton’s book, and probably won’t get around to it for long while, but the publicity campaign’s shrewdly pre-released excerpts and the accompanying interviews with the author have been unavoidable, and they’ve all been undeniably newsworthy. The book is titled “What Happened” — we admire her restraint in not adding a certain common curse word, given the current degraded state of political discourse — and follows with a number of explanations that are likely to generate sales but won’t please any Republican and seems to have annoyed most of the Democrats.
These days most Democrats are understandably annoyed that Clinton is back in the news at all, given how she always reminds all those increasingly reluctant Trump voters why they voted for him in the first place. Nor does the growing base of her increasingly leftward party appreciate her criticisms of self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose criticisms of her lucrative relationship with Wall Street interests she blames for making Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” taunts seem plausible to the undecideds. She blames the Democratic establishment as well as its anti-establishment for her loss, admits to a couple of minor mistakes, and although she goes on with some very serious accusations against President Donald Trump she seems to be relenting her longstanding leadership in the Democratic party.
Although we’ve long loathed that horrible woman, from way back in the days when Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to his third wedding and praising her as the best Secretary of State ever, we regard her as a formidable foe and take due heed of a couple of her parting warnings. She truly was compromised by all that money she’d been paid by Goldman-Sachs and the rest of those Wall Street guys, and Trump didn’t need Sanders to tell him that, but a more honest Clinton would admit it and then note that Trump’s administration was as fully-staffed as ever by Goldman-Sachs guys, which might have helped stave off the leftward lurch in the Democratic party that might conceivably ensure a second Trump administration. Her conspiracy theories about Russia’s internet disinformation efforts being coordinated with domestic partisan agents lately don’t seem at all far-fetched, and we advise our Republican readers to take them very seriously.
As loathsome as she was, Clinton was always a formidable foe, so by  the same Republican instincts with which we regard all those fallen Confederates we wish her well, and won’t begrudge any small monument the Democrats might raise some day. We hope she’ll use those swollen book royalties to lavish gifts on her grandchildren and contribute to other worthy charities, and use that influence-peddling foundation of hers to good means, enjoy her walks in the upper state New York woods, and find God’s grace in those Methodist services she’s long attended. Should her admittedly impressive intellect and many years as a First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and presumptive first woman President of the United States yield any other noteworthy warnings, we’ll try to take note.
— Bud Norman

A Pre-Dawn Twist on the Russia Story

The latest intriguing twist in the ongoing story about “Russia” — if you know what we mean, and by now we assume you do — is the revelation of a pre-dawn raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the home of the one-time campaign chairman for now-President Donald Trump. It’s not clear what the G-men were looking for, and unlikely they’ll find that smoking gun Trump’s most bitter enemies are so ardently hoping for, but a pre-dawn raid is pretty darned intriguing nonetheless.
Paul Manafort was already providing plenty of intrigue in this whole “Russia” story. Long before he became the Trump campaign’s chairman Manafort was notorious for the millions he’d made lobbying on behalf of  despots such as the Philippine’s Fernando Marcos and Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, and The New York Times reported shortly before his resignation from the campaign that he’d also made an undisclosed $12.7 million secretly lobbying on behalf of the Russian-linked government in Ukraine. Since then it has also been reported that he’s somehow $17 million in debt to Russian interests, that his name kept coming up in conversations among Russian officials that various intelligence agencies here and abroad were monitoring, that he sat in on that meeting that Donald Trump Jr. arranged with a Russian lawyer on the clear understanding they would be getting help direct from the Russian government, and remained in frequent contact with the campaign even after his resignation.
Throw in a pre-dawn raid by the FBI, and it all looks pretty fishy. Some of the stories are anonymously sourced from outlets that Trump’s most faithful allies can dismiss as “The New York Slimes” and “The Washington Compost,” but the dictator-friendly lobbying business was publicly boasted about, the source for the meeting with the Russian lawyer was Trump Jr. himself, all those anonymous sources have lately been mostly confirmed by White House responses, and there’s nothing in Manafort’s biography that makes any of it at all seem implausible. The story about the pre-dawn raid is also anonymously sourced, but so far there haven’t been on-the-record denials, and if true it means that some federal judge somewhere agreed with a special counsel’s argument that there was credible reason to believe that evidence of a crime would be found at the home where the search warrant was issued. Although Manafort has provided numerous documents and sworn testimony to closed Congressional committees and various law enforcement officers, it also means a judge agreed that he could not be trusted to voluntarily preserve or hand over everything he had.
There’s nothing in any of the reporting to link Trump to anything Manafort might have done, except to the slight but nonetheless embarrassing extent that Trump did once hire the guy to be his campaign chairman, but there’s nothing in any of this that can help the president. If there is even the slightest link between Trump and anything Manafort might have done, Manafort now seems to have a compelling motive to cut a deal in exchange for any testimony he might provide about anyone higher up in the campaign he once chaired. He might yet prove completely innocent of any wrongdoing, or steadfastly loyal to the president who kicked him off a campaign, but the way things have been going for Trump lately we don’t think he can count on that. Trump’s general “Russia-schmussia-what’re-you-talkin-’bout?” defense isn’t holding up lately in the Congressional committees of special counsel investigations or public opinion polls, and there’s no way a pre-dawn raid on his former campaign chairman’s home is going to help.
Except with the hard-core fans, who will see it as further evidence that the deep state conspiracy to oust Trump is up to ever more nefarious deeds. They’re already convinced that special counsel Robert Mueller, a lifelong Republican who rose through the ranks of the Justice Department during two Republican presidents and was appointed director of the FBI by a third Republican president, is a tool of an establishment plot to destroy Trump before he can destroy it. They note the indisputable fact that Mueller’s team of highly-specialized investigators includes several who donated to campaigns of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but they ignore the indisputable fact that so did Trump’s own lawyer in this mess and Trump’s daughter and son-in-law and Trump himself, and they seem not to have noticed that Mueller’s hires are highly-specialized in money-laundering and Russian interests and other areas that seem ripe for investigation.
None of this yet amounts to that smoking gun that Trump’s most bitter enemies are so ardently hoping for, but all of it makes it harder for his most loyal allies to argue Russia-schmussia-what’re-you-talkin’-bout.”

— Bud Norman

A Hard-Earned Vacation

Today President Donald Trump starts a planned 17-day vacation at his swank private New Jersey golf club, and we can hardly blame him for wanting to get away from the swamps of Washington, D.C., for a while. Thursday brought fresh leaks of some embarrassing phone calls Trump had with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia, as well as the news that the special counsel investigating the matter of what Trump now calls “Russia” has convened a grand jury, and that’s despite the best efforts of tough new chief of staff who was installed after a major administration shake-up and another week of rebukes by everyone from the Boy Scouts to America’s police chiefs to the Republicans in Congress.
The ostensible reason for the time away is that the White House is replacing its 27-year-old air-conditioning and heating system, and after the couple of sultry summers we’ve spent in Washington that seems plausible enough, although we’re not sure if President Andrew Jackson would have though so, and the timing does seem suspiciously fortuitous. Trump had long criticized his predecessor for spending too much time on golf courses, just as his predecessor had even more hypocritically criticized his predecessor for the same thing, and with his own private golf course being reimbursed by the government Trump will probably take an even worse public relations hit than either of them, but by now it could be a lot worse. If Trump can keep his thumbs gripped to a golf club rather than tapping out a “tweet” on his telephone, and stay away from interviews and otherwise avoid compounding his problems while his lawyers and remaining staff do their best to sort things out, that would probably be 17 days well spent.
The leaks about those embarrassing phone calls with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia had already been partially leaked way back in Trump’s second week of the job, but despite the momentary embarrassment Trump was able to dismiss them as “fake news” with with the politely oblique help of the other countries involved, and it was quickly forgotten in all the other news that kept coming. This time around there are full transcripts of the conversations, which are even more embarrassing in full context, and the White House is neither confirming nor denying their veracity, and neither are the other two governments involved, and by now the guy embarrassing himself on those transcripts sure does sound an awful lot like Trump.
The phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull reveals Trump trying to weasel out of a deal the United States had during struck his predecessor’s administration to take in 1,250 refugees, getting the numbers involved and other basic facts of the deal wrong along the way, frankly worrying how it would “It would make me look terrible,” and abruptly ending the conversation after saying that he’d had a much more pleasant telephone call that day with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Worse yet, as far as Trump’s most loyal supporters might be concerned, in the phone call with Mexican President Pena Nieto he seemed to concede that he’d never really meant all that campaign rhetoric about making Mexico pay for a wall across the entire southern border, but expected the Mexican government to play along with it for the ruse for a while. Nieto bluntly said Spanish equivalent of “nyet,” so far the Republican majorities in Congress have been similarly reluctant to cough up the funding for a border wall, and this is not a good time for people to be reminded about it along with all the further “fake news” leaks that can neither be denied by confirmed by the White House.
The leaks about the special counsel convening a grand jury to issue all sorts of subpoenas in that “Russia” investigation have also been neither confirmed nor denied by the White House, so they’re also looking pretty credible, and although you can spin it so it’s not such a bad thing there’s no way of making it out to be a good thing. That special counsel has a formidable reputation as a dogged but by-the-book investigator, and according to the book the paneling of a grand jury implies some pretty darned prima facie evidence that something fishy’s going on, and for now all questions about it are being referred to the president’s and his family’s and staff’s outside legal counsel.
Given all the other leaks about “Russia” that have neither been confirmed nor denied over the past eight months or so, and instead been to referred to all the various outside counsels that are now involved, we can easily understand why Trump is wanting some rest and relaxation on a familiar golf course. Someone pretty high up in Trump’s administration  is leaking the latest leaks, too, so all the more reason to take some time off from whomever that might be. We’re sure he’ll still be in constant communication with the rest of the executive branch while he’s contemplating a chip shot, just as his predecessors claimed to do, and we hope he at least breaks par.
According to some rather embarrassing leaks to Golf Magazine and Sports Illustrated, though, Trump is also  a notorious golf cheat who routinely claims to have broken par, and so far the White House neither confirms nor denies this.

— Bud Norman

Just Another Manic Tuesday

The weather’s lately been great around here, the stock markets are up, the unemployment rate is down, and the casualties in America’s ongoing shooting wars are so low that most Americans have forgotten they’re still being waged, but pretty much everything else in the news these days is not helpful to President Donald Trump. Although leaked drip-by-drip there’s been an extraordinary amount news flooding forth lately, too, and much of it raises concerns even in the best of times.
On a by-now typical Tuesday the headlines included the revelation that Trump wrote the misleading statement his son released about the son’s and son-in-law’s and campaign manager’s already embarrassing meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign, and another one about a lawsuit alleging Trump’s involvement in a Trump-friendly media outlet’s propagation of a discredited story about how a murdered Democratic staffer rather than the Russians had hacked the Democratic party’s e-mails. There was some further fallout from a couple of speeches Trump gave way back last week, speculation about why Trump hasn’t yet signed the Russian sanctions bill that both chambers of Congress passed with veto-proof majorities, and stories about other acts of congressional Republican rebellion on issues from health care to tax reform, as well as all the latest followups about all the recent shake-up in the White House staff.
None of it will suffice to shake the faith of Trump’s most loyal supporters, but all of it requires some pretty creative explaining.
The previously-offered creative explanations for that already embarrassing meeting between Trump’s son and son-in-law and campaign and some Russian operatives already  required some especially creative re-explanation. When the broader story that the Russians were meddling in America’s election first surfaced the Trump campaign explained that it was just as likely to be some fat guy on his bed and that in any case it didn’t have anything to do with the campaign, and president-elect Trump’s transition team explained that none of them had ever had any meetings with any Russians. After that the administration’s national security advisor resigned after some Russian meetings were undeniably uncovered, the Attorney General recused himself from all Russia matters after some of his meetings were similarly disclosed, and then The New York Times reported about that confab between the president’s son and son-in-law and campaign manager, so further explanation was required.  A second consecutive daily New York Times scoop that the meeting was really about Russian government-provided dirt on the opposition wasn’t denied but was rather originally explained as a harmless few minutes in Trump Tower with some Russian lawyer or other the son didn’t know that turned out to be a boring conversation about Americans adopting Russian babies.
The offficial White House explanation to the second scoop was that it turned out to be a boring conversation about Russian adoptions anyway. Before The New York Times got a chance to unleash a third consecutive scoop with its leaked -emails, in the interests of “full disclosure” Trump’s son preemptively “tweeted” the entire e-mail chain that showed the meeting was set up by a music publicist Trump’s son knew to be a reliable lackey of a Russian oligarch he knew to be a reliable lackey of the Russian dictatorship, who was explicitly promising information that came directly from the Russian government’s efforts to support the Trump campaign.
None of that shook the faith of Trump’s most loyal supporters, who were satisfied that at least according the reporting Trump himself wasn’t tied to any of this nonsense. The Washington Postthen  won a victory in its newspaper war with the Times on Tuesday when it reported that Trump himself had drafted the son’s misleading original statement about the embarrassing meeting, though, and it was pretty much confirmed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and sometime spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway saying that Trump had only done “what any father would do.” We’ve been blessed with a far better father than was Donald Trump Jr., and we’re sure he would have sagely advised us admit all our embarrassing secrets before the New York Times got the chance to spill them, no matter what consequences he might endure as result, but we expect that Trump’s most loyal supporters will accept the administration’s latest explanation.
Right after The Wall Street Journal our father’s favorite source for news is Fox News, which is a defendant in that lawsuit about a story that blamed the hacking of the Democratic Party on a murdered staffer rather than the Russians. The plaintiff in the suit was one of the main sources for the story, which was quickly retracted by the network but continued to gain traction on one of its “opinion shows” and the host’s widely-heard radio show, and it also requires a lot explaining. There’s a lot of litigation to be done before it’s proved to any Trump supporter’s satisfaction that the president had anything to do with it, but we’ve heard enough of the apologetics on “Fox & Friends” and Sean Hannity to give the conspiracy theory at least  some credence. The rest of the network has pretty much piled on with the rest media atop the dung heap of recent Trump news, but all the intelligence agencies agree that it was Russia and not some 400-pound fat guy or whoever else was behind the undeniable election meddling, and The Washington Post’s latest scoop about that Fox News scandal seems to require some pretty darned creative explaining.
All the lesser blather about those weeks-old presidential speeches now pits the Boys Scouts of America and America’s police chiefs against the president, and Trump’s various feuds with the Republican congress are also out in the open, and all the Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare seem deader than ever, so there’s more explaining to do than even the combined efforts of Sanders and Conway are up to. Even Trump’s most loyal supporters can’t credit him with the great weather we’ve been having around here lately, and the gains in the stock market and unemployment pale in comparison to what was achieved despite the dreadful Obama years after the Great Recession, and despite the low casualties and gains against the Islamic State there’s reason to believe we’re losing ground to the Russians and their Iranian allies in our ongoing shooting wars, so it’s hard to shake a uncertain feeling about all the news.
Trump’s climate change skepticism seems at least momentarily vindicated, his free market inclinations are working out well enough though they aren’t yet  passed into law, and for now there aren’t any brand new shooting wars with more mass casualties. Everything else in the latest flood of news, though, despite the leak-proof nature of the latest White House shake-up, seems foreboding.

— Bud Norman

Dueling Headlines

As usual in the age of President Donald Trump, there’s more in a day’s news than one can find time or space to comment on, and as always it’s hard to say what’s the biggest deal. On a typically busy Tuesday the two main contenders were the House of Representatives joining the Senate in passing a tough Russian sanctions bill that explicitly restricts Trump’s power to do anything about it, and the other was Trump’s rapidly escalating war of words with his own Attorney General, both of which are just subplots in the bigger ongoing story about what Trump now calls “Russia.”
The sanctions bill passed the House with a vote of 419 to three, which is a remarkably lopsided margin in these divisive and divided days, and a similar bill had already passed the Senate by a similar blow-out score of 98 to two, so whatever minor adjustments are made in the conference committee both the sanctions and the presidential restrictions will arrive on Trump’s desk with the same overwhelming bipartisan support. Trump can still veto it, but by now someone has probably explained to him that 419 to three and 98 to two are veto-proof margins would become law anyway, and he probably knows by instinct given all the other stories in the news lately it wouldn’t look good to be one of only six elected officials in Washington going soft on the Russkies.
On one of the Sunday morning shows newly-promoted White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was saying the president had decided to the sign the bill, while at the same the newly-appointed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was saying on another show that the president hadn’t yet decided, but we’ll wager a small amount that Sanders winds up being right. Signing the damned thing will probably infuriate Trump, as the bill represents an almost unanimous rebuke to the Russian-friendly foreign policy he campaigned on, and the restrictions on his presidential power will surely chafe at his neck, but not signing wouldn’t stop it from happening, and no matter how much the hard-core fans might love it the broader political consequences would be dire.
Those blow-out bi-partisan margins portend some perilous political consequences, as well. Trump’s ability to negotiate all those great deals with Russia he promised is for now and well into the foreseeable severely restricted, as all those campaign statements have not only left him isolated from our democratic western allies but also the domestic Democrats and Republicans who were elected with majorities by almost the entire country. Trump will probably “tweet” some insult at all of them, and his most hard-core fans will no doubt love it, but we doubt they’re tired of winning yet.
Which makes that escalating war of words between Trump and his Attorney General all the more portentous. Trump now regrets having hired Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he recused himself from anything having to do with that ongoing “Russia” storyline, and has not only “tweeted” about it and said so to The New York Times. He’s also “tweeted” his annoyance that Sessions hasn’t pursued criminal investigations against vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which candidate Trump promised to do and president-elect Trump said he wouldn’t do and President Trump is once suddenly very enthusiastic about.
Sessions was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, and we well remember how that “Make-America-Great-Again”-ball-cap-donning endorsement at a well-attended Alabama rally was touted to prove Trump’s true-blue conservatism, but on Tuesday Trump told The Wall Street Journal that “But he was a senator, and he looks at probably 40,000 people and says, ‘What do I have to lose?‘ So it’s not like a great loyal thing by that endorsement.” That 40,000 total was of course overstated by 100 percent, and there’s no telling how many of them were there to see the Senator they’d long voted for, but a president is entitled to his own conclusions. He followed that insult up with a brief news conference next to the President of Lebanon, where he declined to say if he was going to fire Sessions but added “time will tell.”
Which will probably please many of Trump’s most hard-core fans, but leaves Trump further isolated from the rest of the country. Sessions not only risked his Republican respectability with that endorsement, but he also gave up a comfortable lifelong seat in the Senate to serve in Trump’s cabinet, so the many kinds of conservatives who warmed to Trump’s candidacy only because of Session’s endorsement are not cheering his impending defenestration. Sessions was a hard-liner on illegal immigration back when Trump was hiring illegals and calling Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s mild “self-deportation” policies “mean,” and he was an unabashed Republican and conservative way back when Trump was donating to Democrats and trying to be cool, so Trump can’t count on his right flank’s loyalty in this skirmish.
Sessions has annoyed much of the libertarian and state’s rights sorts of conservatives by giving the cops wider latitude to seize your assets for whatever reason and cracking down on the states that take a lenient attitude toward marijuana use, both of which are far more annoying to us than his admirably ethical decision to recuse himself from “Russia” after giving false statements about it to the Senate. The left always hated the poor guy from get-go, caricaturing the unabashedly anti-illegal-immigration and Alabama-accented Jefferson Beuaregard Sessions III as an unrepentant Confederate racist, but in the war of words with Trump even they have his back. All those folks in the middle are probably wondering why Trump is so angry that his Attorney General isn’t on the job of squashing all the ongoing investigations in to that “Russia” thing, which leaves Trump rather isolated.
Perhaps Trump can “tweet” his way out of this mess, too, but it looks tricky. Sessions might make a final act of a obeisance by resigning, but there’s hope everywhere on both the right and left he’ll hold out to force Trump to fire him, and in any case it will be very interesting to see who Trump nominates next for such a thankless job and how that will play in Congress. The Democrats who are suddenly on board with Romney’s anti-Russian stand in the ’12 election are of course craven partisan hypocrites, which will surely be the main argument against them, but all those Republicans who are still on board enough to give that sanctions bill their vote are being quite  consistent in their convictions, so winning the argument with all of them will require more than 140 characters.

— Bud Norman