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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

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How “The Mooch” Screwed the Pooch, If You’ll Kindly Pardon the Expression

The administration of President Donald Trump was already the most compelling show on television, with enough back-stabbing palace intrigue and occasional nudity to make “Game of Thrones” look like a “Romper Room” re-run, but the addition of new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci will surely drive the ratings through the roof. Although he’s not yet been on the job for even a full week, on Thursday Scaramucci managed to grab all the headlines and the top of the news hour.
How he got the job in the job in the first place was already an interesting enough story, but on Thursday Scaramucci made it all the more intriguing with his “tweeted” threats of criminal action against a Politico reporter and his profanity-laden and tape-recorded tirade to a reporter from The New Yorker, along with all the disparagements of the rest of the Trump administration he made along the away. All in all, it was a pretty weird end to a first week of the job.
Scaramucci had gained a famously fabulous fortune on Wall Street, and been an outspoken critic of Trump right up until the point when Trump clinched the Republican nomination, but after that Scaramucci became an unabashed apologist for the eventual president. He even divested himself of a lucrative investment fund in apparent hopes of winning an administration post, but he found himself frozen out. Trump had campaigned in the Republican primaries on promise to destroy the Republican party’s establishment, but after he won the nomination he accepted the embrace of Republican National Committee chairman Rience Priebus, and after Trump’s unexpected electoral victory former Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer was installed as White House communications director and press secretary, and Scaramucci was left on the outside looking in.
Spicer did his best to bully the press into favorable coverage and defend Trump’s most indefensible claims, but his feeble efforts were effectively ridiculed on all the late night comedy shows, and Trump cut the cameras off his press conferences a few weeks ago and gave the audio-only spotlight to deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, so it was no surprise when he was eventually forced to resign. Despite having no relevant experience in politics or media relations other than his own life-long self-promotion Scaramucci thus wound up with the gig, which brings us to that manic-even-by-Trump-standards Thursday about the presumed leaker.
He responded to Politico’s scoop with a “tweet” that threatened to sic the Justice Department on whatever cad had leaked the now-confirmed information, and the reporter “tweeted” back that her only source was Scaramucci’s own public disclosure forms. Being new to the strange ways of the Washington cesspool, the Wall Street shark Scaramucci apparently didn’t understand that what he’d disclosed on his public disclosure forms would eventually be publicly disclosed, so we’d have to say he wound up losing round one in his war against “fake news.”
Scaramucci responded to The New Yorker “tweet” by calling up its intrepid reporter Ryan Lizza to demand the anonymous source, and at that point it really gets good. Perhaps it’s because he’s new to the strange ways of the Washington cesspool and didn’t realize that intrepid reporters don’t divulge their anonymous administrations sources and tape all their uninvited calls from identifiable administration officials, and that a president’s lunch with a media sycophant isn’t a state secret or really any big deal, but he wound up on a epic rant that has to be read to believed. As Eagle Scouts and evangelical Christians and old-fashioned establishment Kansas Republicans we have long maintained an editorial policy against profanity, and always added asterisks when the news of the day required it, but by now even such a genteel publication as The New Yorker can’t avoid it, and the age of “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump has already “schlonged” the standards of public discourse, so we’ll go right ahead and let Scaramucci speak for himself.
“Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoic,” Scaramucci said, mocking Priebus’ voice as he added “Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the same way I cock-blocked Scaramucci.” At that point The New Yorker politely and parenthetically noted that Priebus had declined to comment on the comment. If you’re following all the subplots closely you’ll have noted Scaramucci doesn’t have to report to the White House chief staff, as White House communications directors usually do, so he also promised that “I’m going to start ‘tweeting’ some shit to make this this guy crazy,” which was shortly followed by a “tweet” threatening to sic the Justice Department on the White House chief of staff.
“The Mooch” also opined on tape that “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the strength of the fucking president. I’m here to serve the country.” Which is weird enough even before you realize that Bannon represents the anti-Republican-establishment half of Trump’s team of rivals, and that Scaramucci had laid down a profanity-laden assault  to every part of the Trump administration except himself and Trump.
That’s your new White House communications director, however, and we’ll leave it to Sean Hannity and the Boy Scouts and evangelical Christians and establishment Republican types who are still on board the Trump train to defend it. He’s already got a lot communicating about “Russia” and the the the apparent failure of Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare to do, as well as all those administration jobs Trump hasn’t yet found anyone to fill, and from our Eagle Scout and evangelical Christian and old-fashioned Kansas Republican perspective he’s off to a bad start.

— Bud Norman

The Media and the “Mooch”

By now you’re probably already familiar with the name of Anthony Scaramucci, but if not you soon will be. He’s the fellow who’s been hired to head President Donald Trump’s communication office, which is the kind of tough gig that ensures a household name level of celebrity.
The Scaramucci show will replace the cancelled Sean Spicer program, which Trump once praised for its “great ratings” but eventually decided should only be done with the cameras off. Spicer’s first day on the job was devoted to insisting that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, which was easily disproved by an ample amount of photography and video tape and eyewitness accounts, as well as a common sense understanding that even the usual sorts of Republicans much less Trump aren’t going to outdraw the First Black President in the District of Columbia and environs, and it pretty much went downhill from there.
Spicer was every bit as rude and insulting and dissembling to the press as his boss could ever be, and the Trump show’s biggest fans seemed to love it, but it never translated in higher presidential approval ratings with the overall audience. Melissa McCarthy’s scathing and you have to admit pretty-damned-funny impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” was a far bigger hit, and is probably how he’ll be long remembered for the next 15 minutes, if that long, just as people still confuse Gov. Sarah Palin with Tina Fey’s scathing and you have to admit pretty-damned-funny “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of her. Trump had guest-hosted the long-running comedy during the campaign, and scored huge ratings and no doubt thought he killed, so we can see why he’d think that Spicer just wasn’t doing the old rude and insulting and dissembling shtick like a pro.
By this point Spicer’s already been out of the limelight for a conspicuous while, with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking his place at the White House briefings. She’s gotten slightly better reviews from the mainstream media, as she honeys her assaults on the media’s integrity with a soft southern accent and frequent theologically questionable allusions to the Christian faith she learned from her dad, humble country preacher and former Arkansas Governor and current talk show host Mike Huckabee, but it’s not so big with the fans that Trump has allowed the cameras to be turned back on. With Spicer’s resignation she’s now the full blown press secretary, but we expect that Scaramucci will be the bigger celebrity.
Scaramucci became fabulously wealthy wheeling-and-dealing on Wall Street, where he was fearfully known as “Mooch,” and except for a knack for publicizing himself he has no relevant experience in either politics or communications. That’s apparently considered a qualification to a president who became fabulously wealthy through various wheeling-and-dealings and has no other relevant experience for his current position Still, Trump is admittedly entitled to note that Spicer had previously been communications director the Republican National Committee, whose ratings are currently awful, so sometimes experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Scaramucci’s already had lengthy auditions defending Trump on all the broadcast and cable news shows, too, and he showed all the combativeness that Trump could hope for, as well a certain telegenic flair for it that Spicer never quite achieved and Sanders can’t even attempt.
Scaramucci wasn’t always on the Trump train, and in fact “tweeted” some sharp criticisms of the man right up to the moment that Trump clinched the Republican nomination, but since then he’s been as full-throated a defender as Trump could hope for. All those heretical “tweets” have now been removed and recanted and apologized for, and the leftward sides of the media are convinced that he’s the latest weapon of mass distraction Trump has deployed against them, but we think he might prove more savvy than they fear. A while back the Cable News Network had a big story about how Scaramucci was tied to some shady Russian deal, and it when it turned to to be all wrong and was removed and retracted and apologized for, with three resignations thrown in as well, all the Trump-friendly media went wild about “fake news” while Scaramucci simply “tweeted” that he accepted and appreciated the apology.
The previous expunged reservations about Trump and that reserved response to a story that Trump’s media tormentors also had to remove and recant and apologize for suggest some qualifications for the job, as far as we’re concerned. From what we’ve seen Scaramucci can reasonably confront the often questionable assumptions of an interviewer’s questions without being an utter jerk about it, which is a surprisingly crowd-pleasing shtick that Trump has never mastered, and although he’s a bit too close to that Gordon Gekko character in “Wall Street” for the late night comics to resist we doubt they’ll nail it quite like McCarthy did with Spicer.
As savvy as Scaramucci seems to be, though, we doubt it will suffice in his new and vastly-underpaid gig. He’s still expected to maintain with a straight face that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, and since then there have been lots of other things about the Trump administration that are equally defend, and more are sure to come. Sooner or later it all seems to wind up in congressional hearings and special investigations and court hearings where all those Democratic scandals and retracted news stories are not germane to the questions being asked, and the answers are under oath, and things are so crazy these days that the truth might yet prevail. He got off to a start by appearing on
Scaramucci’s first full day on the job had him telling CNN’s Sunday morning “State of the Union” show that Trump hadn’t yet decided about a pending bill that would impose sanctions on Russia and restrict the president’s power to to limit them, or that at least he didn’t know if the president had decided, and simultaneously Sanders was telling the American Broadcasting Company’s “This Week” that Trump was ready to sign the bill. On another channel one of the president’s lawyers was denying that the president’s legal team had ever given any thought to the presidential pardon powers that the president had just “tweeted” about. Scaramucci seems a savvy fellow, though, so there’s no reason to think it will be all downhill from here.

— Bud Norman

Another Day at the White House Communications Office

Every single day these days seems to bring another story that the beleaguered souls at the White House communications have to somehow explain. The latest comes courtesy of that pesky Washington Post, which reports that President Donald Trump blabbed some top-secrets to those two Russian officials he met with last week.
The Post was palpably disappointed to concede there’s nothing at all illegal about that, as any president has the clear authority to declassify anything he wants, but they nonetheless made a strong case that it was damned stupid. They didn’t divulge much of what was shared, except that it had something to do with the Islamic State, and that it was something that had been passed along from an allied country’s intelligence agencies, which might not be pleased that it was then passed on the Russians. Respected national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who replaced the currently scandalized-because-of-Russia Michael Flynn on the job, said that the story “as reported, is false,” but a few hours later the Post made a strong case that the rest of his statement wasn’t nearly so definitive, except for a clear denial that Trump hadn’t revealed the foreign source of any information or how they might have got it.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer eventually “tweeted” that the story is “100 percent false,” but by now most people don’t regard him as any more trustworthy than The Washington Post, and all but the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters will have to admit that it sounds like something he might do. By now the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters say it was actually another masterstroke of diplomacy, ensuring the promised rapprochement with Russia that will defeat the Islamic State, but at the moment that’s a hard sell and being made only on the far fringes of the media.
That meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister came the very day after Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director who was leading an inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and the only media allowed in the meeting was a photographer from Tass, which everyone old enough to remember the Cold War knows is a Russian propaganda outlet, and the pictures showed Trump looking far more happy and friendly than in any of those more photographed moments with Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May or the other world leaders have that lately passed through Washington. The FBI firing and all the glaring mismatch between what the White House communications said and what the president himself said the next day on television had already carried a bad news cycle for Trump through the weekend, so Monday’s story in The Washington Post was surely a strain on those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office.
They’ll surely do their usual yeoman’s work muddying the waters, though, and as usual they’ll make some perfectly valid criticisms of that pesky press, which never does get these things 100 percent right.  There’s something likely to be something else to come up today, though, and those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office aren’t the only ones dreading it.

— Bud Norman