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When Silence Would Have Been Golden

President Donald Trump mostly spent his extended holiday vacation on the golf course or at fancy dinner parties, but he couldn’t keep from making some news. He had the usual number of insulting “tweets,” several insulting sound bites, and sat down for an impromptu interview with The New York Times that still worth noting after several days.
The interview is so full of eyebrow-raising quotes that one hardly knows where to begin, but we might has well start with the one that got the most attention from the media during a slow and little-watched news cycle. Asked an inevitable question about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the last presidential election, Trump surprised many by saying that “It doesn’t bother me, because I hope he’s going to be fair. I think that he’s going to be fair. There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
Which is surprising because Trump has frequently characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and “witch hunts” are by definition unfair, while his most loyal allies in Congress and the conservative media have lately maintained that the investigators are biased and out to get the president. Perhaps it was a holiday spirit that had Trump so hopeful about Mueller’s fairness, perhaps he was taking the high road with confidence his surrogates would take the low, and he perhaps he believes that Mueller might as susceptible to flattery as himself, but in any case it provided fodder for speculation.
When asked about the possibility of re-re-opening an investigation former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices Trump replied that “I have absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I will be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved in this particular matter.” Which is worrisome on a number of levels.
Aside from the fact that a President of the United States speaks such un-parseable English, there’s something chillingly Nixonian about Trump’s insistence that he can use federal law enforcement to persecute his political enemies, and something more chilling yet about his apparent confession that isn’t do so only in hopes of currying favor with the special counsel. Just in case a reader might reach a more generous interpretation, Trump also had some strange praise for former Attorney General Eric Holder that made his rather authoritarian views of presidential power explicitly clear.
“I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that — I will say this: Eric Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had — not made up problems like Russia collusion, these were real problems — when you look at the things they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
Aside from mangled syntax and the failure to recall the name of the “Fast and Furious” scandals or come up with any other of the many Obama scandals, Trump is saying that his predecessor committed serious crimes and was allowed to do so by an Attorney General who put personal loyalty ahead of loyalty to the rule of law, and that he wishes his own Attorney General were just as unethical. All of Trump’s allies in Congress and the conservative media used to loathe Holder for doing what Trump respects, and when they get back to work today it will be interesting to see if they recant their past criticisms. We’re sure they’ll come up with something to say, and fully expect that their ongoing attacks on Mueller’s character will continued despite Trump’s hopefulness for fair treatment.
There was plenty of Trump’s widely-ridiculed braggadocio, too, as he claimed Chinese President Xi Jiping treated him “better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” that he understands tax law “better than the greatest CPA” and the details of health care policy “better than most.” He also claimed to have vaulted candidate Luther Strange from fifth place to second after endorsing in his Alabama’s Republican primary for a Senate race, even though there were only three major candidates in the race, and the numbers he claimed in Strange’s surge were simply made-up. As usual he could not get through an interview with about bragging about his electoral college victory, which as usual he claims is much harder for a Republican to win than the popular vote, even the Republicans are three-and-two  in the past five electoral votes but only one-for-five in the popular vote.
Trump also used a barnyard epithet to describe the Democrats’ opposition to the tax bill, while unnecessarily insulting potential Democratic ally Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that Trump claims to have single-handedly restored to economic greatness.
The weirdest part, though, was Trump’s prediction that the mainstream media — those “very bad people” and purveyors of “Fake News” who have been Trump’s favorite target since he launched his campaign — are going to carry him to an easy reelection victory in 2020. “Because without me, their ratings are going down the tube. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times but the failed New York Times. So basically they have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please don’t lose Donald Trump.'”
Which is to say that the American public only reads or watches the news to hear about Trump, and will lose interest in public affairs all together if he’s not around, and that’s pretty arrogant even by Trumpian standards. He also expects that the news outlets that have seen their readerships and viewerships rise with the constant criticisms of Trump will commence six months of unrelenting praise so that they can go back to luring readers and viewers once he’s safely re-installed in office, which strikes us as worrisomely crazy even by Trumpian standards.
Trump is probably lucky the interview was published when people had better things to do than read or watch the news, but today the holidays are over and the government is back to work and people will once again be paying attention. Our advice is that he avoid impromptu interviews for a while.

— Bud Norman

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Christmas Eve at Mar-a-Lago

There’s a longstanding tradition that forbids American politicians from making news on Christmas, but President Donald Trump pays no heed to to even the most admirable longstanding traditions. He mostly kept to the golf course and family gatherings over the long weekend at his profitable Mar-a-Lago resort, and reportedly got a national security briefing and tended to some other presidential business, but of course he couldn’t resist a few controversial “tweets.”
Trump “tweeted” some effusive praise for the military, which does indeed deserve it, but he couldn’t help taking some undue credit for their recent successes. He also “tweeted” a “Merry Christmas” message, which American presidents have conveyed to the people long before the advent of “Twitter,” but as usual he took undue and downright blasphemous-to-our-ears credit for Christmas. For Christ’s sake — and in this case we mean that both literally and reverently — we’re quite sure the holiday would have survived without Trump.
Even on a busy Christmas Eve filled with golf and family gatherings and national security briefings, Trump still found time to criticize a high-ranking and soon-to-retire Federal Bureau of Investigation official for having a wife a who once ran for office as a Democrat, with the usual implied aspersions on the FBI in general, and that ex-FBI head honcho currently running a special counsel investigation of the “Russia thing” in particular. Perhaps it’s because he was haunted by an especially scary ghost of Christmas future, but Trump had to bring up the “Russia thing” even on Christmas Eve.
There’s never a day of the year when Trump isn’t talking about “fake news,” and even the Christmas spirit one feels on Christmas couldn’t keep him from “re-tweeting:a picture of him with a squashed bug labeled “CNN” on his show and  “tweeting” a gripe about the “fake polls” that show both him and his recently-signed tax cuts as widely unpopular. That apparently includes all the polls, as even the outlier Rasmussen Reports has his approval ratings well in the very low 40s and well under water, but we doubt Trump will convince a majority of Americans that a majority of their fellow Americans actually quite like him.
Trump didn’t take advantage of a congressional Christmas recess to fire that ex-FBI guy heading the special counsel investigation of the “Russia thing,” and the economy is humming along nicely, and so far there are no mushrooms clouds on the Korean Peninsula, and we suspect Trump would be polling better if he’d lay off the “tweets,” at least on Christmas Eve.

— Bud Norman

Mulling the Matter of Mueller and Trump

President Donald Trump and his lawyers and all his unpaid supporters in congress and the Trump-friendly media seem quite cocky that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election will completely vindicate Trump of any wrongdoing, but just in case they also want you to know that Mueller fellow can’t be trusted.
There’s an obviously coordinated effort by Trump administration and family members and the more loyal congressional Republicans and Fox News and several prominent talk radio hosts afoot to discredit Mueller and his staff, and it’s lately intensified. Donald Trump Jr. recently warned the “USA Student Action Summit” of college-aged Republicans that “there are people at the highest levels of America who don’t want America to be America.” Some Republican congressmen are calling for a special counsel to investigate Mueller’s special counsel investigation, citing some leaked e-mails and other evidence they believe prove it’s all what Trump himself often calls a “witch hunt.” The Fox Network’s “Judge” Jeanine Pirro wants unnamed-but-Mueller-affiliated peopled hauled off “in cuffs,” and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Mark Levin have lately spent most of their combined nine hours of broadcasts on a local talk radio station casting further aspersions on Mueller and his fellow investigators.
They always note that several members of Mueller’s team have given generous campaign donations to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, which is undeniably true and worth noting, but they never note that so did Trump’s top lawyer Ty Cobb and favorite daughter Ivanka Trump and that idiot husband of her’s who’s somehow a top senior advisor to the White House in charge of solving everything from America’s opioid crisis to Middle East peace, and that Trump himself was once a generous funder of Clinton’s senatorial campaigns and the Clinton family foundation that his supporters now want to investigate. They relish in the suspiciously leaked e-mails between a couple of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were having an adulterous sexual relationship and sharing sharply anti-Trump sentiments, but they rarely acknowledge they also shared anti-Clinton and anti-Bernie Sanders and anti-pretty-much-everyone-else sentiments, and that Mueller reassigned both of those bitter agents as soon as he got wind of their outspoken political opinions.
The Trump apologists have some outraged and undeniably true allegations about the past administration’s tapped phones calls of Trump campaign and administration officials, but they don’t mention that the phones being tapped belonged to Russian officials, which Republicans and other conservatives have always wanted tapped. They might have some plausible legal arguments that the Americans on other side of those conversations shouldn’t have been “unmasked,” in the legal jargon, but they’d just wind up making the argument that it’s a bigger scandal that attempts to track a political nominee’s possible collusion with a Russian plot to affect an American presidential election is more abhorrent than the plot itself.
We’ve been Republicans long enough that we still feel the pain of President Richard Nixon going down for his ultimately undeniable misdeeds, and we assess the current situation accordingly. Given how complicated this is, our instinct is to take measure of both Trump and Mueller by some blind test of the two Republicans.
One of the two is a life-long Republican. He was born into a fairly well-to-do family as the son of a high-ranking DuPont executive, and excelled as a student and athlete at the rigorous prep school he was able to attend, and his high marks earned hi admission to Princeton, where he graduated with honors and bachelor’s degree in political science while starring on the lacrosse team. After earning a master’s degree in international relations from New York University he volunteered for service in the Marine Corps and won numerous combats medals including the Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War.
After Vietnam subject A earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, and after three years of distinguished service to a prestigious law firm in San Francisco commend a distinguished career of public service as a U.S. attorney in northern California. In the Reagan year of 1982 he was moved over to the Massachusetts district, where he enhanced his reputation by uncovering all sorts of Democratic misbehavior there. After another brief but noteworthy stint in Boston’s private sector he was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was unanimously confirmed the senate, and served another two years in the post at the request of Democratic President Barack Obama.
He’s also been a lifelong Republican all along, and been married to the same woman, and is not only an Eagle Scout but generously endows a college scholarship for other Eagle Scouts, and as lifelong Republicans and improbable Eagle Scouts we can’t help but like the guy.
Subject B was a Democrat and an independent and Reform Party candidate before becoming the winning nominee and putative leader of the Republican party. He’s the son of a multi-millionaire real estate mogul who was once arrested in a Ku Klux Klan riot, and he was such a proudly defiant punk his father sent off to a military school, where he did well enough in sports but was such a middling student that he wound up at Fordham University for two years. His rich dad made enough contributions to the low-level Ivy League University of Pennsylvania that he was admitted there, and would always lie that he graduated from it’s more prestigious master’-level Wharton School of Business. After that a doctor found some bone spurs that prevented him serving in the Vietnam War but didn’t seem interfere with his much bragged-about-golf game, and he went on to a much-bragged about fortune in real estate and reality television that he freely brags was facilitated by political bribes, and survived several bankruptcies and lawsuits about his penchant for not paying bills and currently has an undeniably odd relationship with his third wife and a penchant for gratuitous insults to fellow Republicans.
Even the blind know by now that Subject B is the President of the United States and the putative leader of our Republican party, but if it comes down to who you’re gonna believe we can’t help a certain affinity for Subject A in our blind test. We’ll let them sort out their arguments in the court of public opinion and the inevitable courts of law and hope that some semblance of our old-fashioned Republicanism survives this awful mess.

— Bud Norman

The Fall-out from Flynn’s Flip

The guy who was filling in for Sean Hannity on the radio Friday assured his audience that former national security advisor Mike Flynn’s guilty plea to a charge of lying the Federal Bureau of Investigation just goes to show how very weak is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing,” and Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz was saying the same thing. Pretty much everyone else thought it spelled big trouble for President Donald Trump, though, and despite our aversion to the conventional wisdom we’re inclined to agree.
The Sean Hannity show’s full time job these days is finding that elusive silver lining in whatever dark cloud hovers over the Trump administration, Dershowitz is by now more an instinctive contrarian than a serious scholar, and at this point the conventional wisdom is far more compelling. At the very least, Trump’s apologists have to admit that the man he chose as his most trusted foreign policy advisor has now confessed to lying to the FBI, and after all his other picks that have also been defenestrated and subsequently indicted it is increasingly hard to believe is campaign boasts that he only hires the very best people. There’s also ample reason to believe that Flynn is about to dish some serious dirt about that “Russia thing.”
Flynn’s frequently revised security clearance forms and belated admissions of well-compensated dealings on behalf of Turkey and Russia while working for the Trump campaign and then the administration, along with his recent admission of lying about it to the FBI, surely could have resulted in more serious charges, not to mention some scary and all-too-credible counts against his idiot son, who was kicked off the Trump transition team for some “tweets” about the far-fetched “Pizza-gate” conspiracy theory that Democratic presidential nominee was running a satanic child sex-abuse ring in the basement of a Washington pizzeria. To the Hannity guest host and the Harvard professor the fact that the Flynns are getting off light is proof that Mueller hasn’t got anything better, but the counter-argument that they wouldn’t have got such a sweet deal from such a shrewd dealer as Mueller without offering some useful testimony on the higher-ups is far more convincing.
A three-star Army general and one-time director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the administration of President Barack Obama, Flynn was Trump’s top foreign policy advisor during the campaign, held the same role during the transition, and was chosen as Trump’s national security advisor after the inauguration, so there aren’t a lot of higher-ups he implicate in exchange for such a seemingly sweet deal. The very short list would include Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was somehow the most senior and trusted of all those best people Trump promised to hire, and Vice President Mike Pence, who can rightly claim that he insisted on Flynn’s resignation after Flynn had lied to him, and of course Trump himself.
By now Trump’s team is describing Flynn as a former Obama appointee, which is undeniably true, but there’s also no denying that Obama later fired the guy, and personally warned Trump not to re-hire him in any capacity, and that shortly before she was fired by Trump a holdover Obama appointee in the Justice Department warned the White House that Flynn was under investigation and susceptible to Russian blackmail, and that Trump stayed loyal to his man fore more than two weeks after that until the free press made it impossible. Trump stayed somewhat loyal to Flynn even after that, and according to the sworn testimony of fired FBI director James Comey the president even urged that the FBI give his beloved general a pass, and it wasn’t until Flynn had clearly started to cooperate with the special counsel that the Trump team started damning him as an Obama appointee. Whatever dirt Mueller might dish on Trump or his son-in-law or vice president, Trump will have have to walk back a lot of previous praise for his most trusted foreign policy advisor.
Harvard’s Dershowitz makes a plausible argument that by confessing lies to the FBI he casts any evidence he gives from now on as suspect, and when Hannity gets back on the air he’ll no doubt take up the same argument, but we and by now pretty much everyone else will be more inclined to believe whatever testimony he gives to avoid all the more serious charges against him and his idiot son. The guy Trump chose as his national security adviser once worked for the Russian propaganda network Russia Today, led a standing ovation for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin at a Moscow dinner where he gave a speech, and explained to a congressional committee that he’d been paid by his speaker’s bureau rather than the Russian government, claiming not to know if the speaker’s bureau had been recompensed by the Russian government, but he was once a three-star Army general and a high-ranking Obama appointee, so there’s no telling how his testimony will play. Trump has consistently been as complimentary as Flynn to Putin’s dictatorship, with the same affinity to the increasingly totalitarian Islamic government in Turkey that Flynn worked for during for his tenure as national security advisor, and no matter how anti-climatic Flynn’s testimony might prove it doesn’t look good.
Meanwhile, the guy Trump once chose as campaign manager and his business partner are expensively contesting the special counsel’s charges regarding their own Russian business ties, Trump’s trusted senior advisor son-in-law has legal and financial and potentially Russian-related problems that are reportedly complicated by Flynn’s testimony in exchange for that sweetheart deal, and Trump’s own idiot namesake son is also reportedly in the special counsel’s crosshairs. Trump’s team is insisting this “Russia thing” will be finished year’s end with a complete exoneration, but at this point we doubt it.

— 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

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

Sometimes There Is Such a Thing as Bad Press

Donald Trump Jr. has been a big name in the news for the past few days, getting even more ink and airtime than his presidential eponym, but he’s surely not relishing the attention. All the stories have been about a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer closely linked to the Kremlin, and over the past few days they’ve become progressively worse.
It all started with a New York Times report on Saturday that Trump Jr., along with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with the aforementioned Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnistkaya, at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016. The Trumps’ most staunch defenders usually dismiss anything in “The New York Slimes” as “fake news,” which is often a plausible defense, but in this case the meeting was corroborated by a statement from Trump Jr., which described the meeting as a discussion about lifting a Russian ban on its orphans being adopted by Americans, but “did not address whether the presidential campaign was discussed.” Given that Trump Jr. had previously denied any meetings with any Russians during the campaign, and that he and those two other top Trump campaign aides and that Kremlin-linked lawyer would have been the only four people talking about the Russian adoption issue at the time, it looked bad.
On Sunday The New York Times reported that the campaign was indeed discussed at the meeting, and that in fact the reason for it was to hear some promised information from the Kremlin-linked lawyer that the campaign might use against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which looked worse. This blast of “fake news” from “The New York Slimes” cited five unnamed sources, three of them described as White House advisors, but it was also corroborated by a more forthcoming statement by Trump Jr.. In the statement, Trump explained that the promised dirt wasn’t delivered, that the conversation somehow turned to talk about the Russian adoption issue, and at that point he ended the meeting. “It became clear to me,” he wrote, “that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
On Sunday The Washington Post piled on with a story that the meeting had been arranged by a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, who represents a Russian pop star named Emin Agalarov, whose wealthy family is Kremlin-linked and has also done business with the Trumps. There was no statement from anyone named Trump in the story, but the deal to put the Trump name atop a Moscow tower had been publicly acknowledged by both parties. That’s not proof of anything nefarious, of course, but it also looks bad.
On Monday The New York Times was back on top of the story with a report that Goldstone had e-mailed Trump Jr. prior to the meeting to say that the promised dirt on Clinton was coming direct from the Kremlin as part of its efforts to help the Trump presidential campaign. There was no corroborating statement from Trump, whose newly-hired lawyer has probably advised him not to say anything, but if the e-mail does exist and the subpoena-powered special counsel gets his hands on it that will look even worse yet.
All the president’s spokespeople have done their best make it look better, but they’ve had a tough time of it. The original claim was that no one in the Trump campaign ever had any contacts with any Russians during the race, but since then a national security advisor has resigned and an Attorney General has recused from the whole matter and that son-in-law and past campaign chairman are both under investigation for their now-admitted meeting with Russians during the race, so that’s been abandoned. The next claim was that all the meetings were perfectly innocent, either momentary social encounters at cocktail parties or discussions by campaign associates in their other political or business capacities or high-minded talk about such non-campaign related things as Russians adoptions, but now Trump Jr. has admitted that at least on one occasion the campaign was quite willing and eager to talk with a Russian who might provide to help Trump win the election.
Trump Jr. is for now sticking to his story that he had no idea the Russian he met with had any ties to the Kremlin, and that he and two of Trump’s other closest advisors took time out of a busy campaign schedule to welcome her to Trump Tower with the hope she was getting her promised dirt from a clean source, but even if you buy that it still doesn’t make him look good. For now everyone Trump is insisting that no matter what went down the president didn’t have the slightest idea that his son and son-in-law and campaign chairman were having at a meeting a Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, but even if that’s true it doesn’t make him look any better.
For the moment the White House and its media allies are insisting that the bigger scandal is that fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who was fired because of his investigation of all the Russia stuff, had leaked classified information along with a much more widely noted claim that Trump had implicitly tried to quash an investigation about that national security advisor who had resigned over some undisclosed contacts with Russians. The president “tweeted” about how it was “Totally illegal!,” his indefatigable spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway kept trying to bring it up during her inquisitions on the cable news, and that was what all the right-wing radio talk shows we heard on our drive around town wanted to talk about. Their source is a report in The Hill, which is an inside-the-beltway establishment paper that also relied on unnamed sources for its scoop, but if they’d read all the way through they’d have noticed it only said some of Comey’s memos were classified, did not allege that the one he long ago admitted he leaked was one of them, and even in the worst case it isn’t nearly so juicy as what The New York Times and The Washington Post have been coming up with the past few days.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has been filling in for a while for the conspicuously absent White House press secretary Sean Spicer, even tried to claim in an another camera-free pressing briefing that it was more scandalous that people had leaked information about the Trump campaign’s effort to acquire leaked information from a Kremlin-linked lawyer. Three of those unnamed leakers were reportedly White House advisors, the denunciation basically confirmed the leaks, and Trump Jr.’s written statements to the press corroborated the worst of it, so it hardly seems a winning argument.
The already emerging next claim is that so what if the Trump campaign sought the help of the Russians to win the election. During the campaign Trump said he hoped the Russians would leak any of the e-mails they might have hacked from Clinton, and although he later said he was just joking it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear him say that so what if he wasn’t joking. There’s already talk in the Trump-friendly media about past Democratic efforts to get opposition research information from foreign governments or meddle in their elections, much of it provably true and some of it unproved but plausible, and as understandably cynical a nation as ours might just buy the argument that, c’mon, everybody does it.
We hope not. Whatever nefarious scandals the Democrats might have gotten away with in the past — and we’re sure there have been damned more than just a few — that doesn’t mean a Republican should get away with working with a business-connected foreign adversary to influence an American presidential election. So far there’s no definitive proof it happened, but by now we can’t take seriously anyone’s claim that there’s no basis for suspicion, and we’re hoping that the press and the congressional investigative committees and the special counsel will eventually let us know one way or another.

— Bud Norman

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