Driven to Distraction

The week ended with distractions:

President Donald Trump said on Friday that National Football League (NFL) players who do not stand for the national anthem should be suspended for the season without pay.

The comments come a day after the NFL and the union representing its players said they were working on a resolution to the league’s national anthem policy.

The policy, which was announced in May, followed Trump’s denunciation of pregame protests which were intended to call attention to what critics say is often brutal treatment of minorities by U.S. law enforcement.

Trump and others have blasted the gesture as a sign of disrespect to the U.S. flag and the military.

Everyone had forgotten about this. Trump brought it up again. That might get people to stop wondering about what’s really up with him and Putin. Remind them to wonder about this. These are disrespectful uppity black folks. American heroes didn’t die for the flag to have these overpaid young black bucks disrespect that very flag – or our American heroes died to protect the right of any citizen to have his or her say, to peacefully protest the action, or the inaction, of their government, and it’s their government too. Which is it? That’s something to talk about. So the question is whether professional football, now the ultimate American sport, now that baseball has become an even slower and more boring game than it already was, should be played by real Americans, played only by straight white evangelical Christian men who are registered Republicans and NRA members. Trump hasn’t said that yet, but if people keep wondering about him and Putin, which seems likely, that could be next Friday’s tweet. If a distraction falls to distract, pump up the volume. Play the music louder. Expect that.

And then there was this:

Two months before the 2016 election, longtime Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly taped a conversation with the then-GOP presidential nominee about whether to purchase the rights to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal’s account of her alleged extramarital affair with Trump, according to three people familiar with the conversation.

The recording, which Cohen made surreptitiously in Trump Tower in early September 2016, was seized by federal agents who are investigating Cohen for potential bank and election-law crimes, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.

Trump and Cohen’s discussion came a month after AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, bought the rights to McDougal’s story for $150,000, then shelved it.

In the 90-second conversation, Cohen can be heard urging Trump to consider buying the rights to McDougal’s claims to better “control” the story, according to people familiar with the exchange.

That was something else to talk about, and everyone did. This is the second woman. Karen McDougal, the Playboy centerfold, is not Stormy Daniels, the porn star, and Trump said he know nothing about this. This is proof he did, but that may not matter. Some in his base will understand. Anyone would lie in this sort of situation, and this only reinforces the idea that he’s one cool stud of a man – he can have any woman he wants. He’s a winner, and he’s rich enough that he can pay off anyone he wants. Anyone who has a problem with that is a loser – their problem is their pathetic envy of a better man. And his lies are damned impressive. He can fool anyone. That makes him a winner. That’s what you want in a president.

Of course there is the issue of campaign finance violations. He can pay off anyone he wants – it’s a free country – but he has to report those payoffs as campaign expenses. He didn’t here – but that’s no big deal. He pays a small fine and says he’s sorry. There is, however, the political issue. Would he be president if he hadn’t paid off McDougal and Daniels? He kept voters in the dark. He didn’t play fair. It’s not just that the Russians helped him win. He may be an “illegitimate” president because of this too. That may worry him – and there are other legal issues – possible fraud against McDougal in either Trump or the National Inquirer buying her story only to bury it – and wire fraud and perhaps money laundering. He could be tried on all that, but only after he’s left office. Sitting presidents cannot be tried for anything like this. That assures a stable government. That also means that this was a distraction:

In a statement Friday, President Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani confirmed the recording’s existence and said no payment was ever made. He said the conversation does not pose any legal jeopardy for the president.

That’s not quite so, but the FBI didn’t leak the existence of this tape to the press. They don’t do such things. The general consensus seems to be that Giuliani probably leaked the existence of this tape to the press, as a distraction. This wasn’t about Putin at all. This was a brilliant distraction. Stories of sleaze and sex and big money are always a distraction, particularly with they don’t really matter much at all. Others may go to jail. Trump isn’t going to jail. He’s a stud.

But there’s still Putin. Jennifer Rubin offers a short list of the issues there:

The indictment of 12 Russians involved in hacking Democrats –

President Trump’s boorish behavior at another meeting with allies (with particular venom directed toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May) –

Trump’s stunning agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian interference in our election followed by a transparent lie to run from his betrayal –

Trump’s denial that Russian interference remains an ongoing threat (followed by another transparent lie to conceal this absurdity) –

The utter lack of knowledge as to what, if anything, Trump promised Putin (given Republicans’ objections to calling translators to testify) –

A new invitation from Trump for Putin to visit Washington (Goodness knows what other acts of betrayal will occur) –

The White House’s seeming willingness to hand over former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul for Russian authorities to question, followed by a walk-back when, for once, Senate Republicans unanimously declared with their Democratic colleagues that this would never take place –

She voices what many see in spite of the odd distractions:

The issue is no longer “merely” whether Trump colluded with the Russians and committed obstruction of justice, but whether he is a clear-and-present danger to the United States. The conclusion should be obvious: Giving aid and comfort to our biggest geopolitical foe and engaging in private sessions that may compromise American interests even further are together now our greatest security threat. Impeachment is a political question with grave implications for our political system. But when the president’s conduct poses a threat to the nation, removal of the president who poses the threat may be essential.

There’s more talk of that now even if that may be unlikely, but it shouldn’t be unlikely:

The Republican Party and its many apologists can no longer say “but judges” or “but tax cuts.” Absolutely nothing justifies a president’s betrayal of American interests and abject violation of his oath. Rather, it is their insistence that it is “all worth it” – to support and stand by Trump – because of the Supreme Court, taxes or deregulation that has brought us to the point where the president is a serial violator of human rights domestically (unable to repair in a timely fashion the wretched decision to separate children from migrant parents), and an international ally of American enemies. It is not an exaggeration to say a party that continues support for Trump is anti-American.

Rubin is a bit strident, but that’s the talk in the air, and Philip Bump reviews that talk:

There has been a remarkable and growing collection of national security veterans who have raised questions – some in stark terms – about President Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a sitting member of Congress and veteran of the CIA, became one of the most significant volunteers for that cadre on Thursday with an essay published by the New York Times.

“Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the CIA I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people,” it begins. “I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”

Hurd’s concerns spiked following Trump’s meeting with Putin on Monday. Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russian operations, also identified that meeting in Finland as having boosted his concerns.

“From a counterintelligence perspective, something is going on behind the scenes,” he wrote on Twitter. “Before Helsinki I was less sure; post Helsinki, I feel sick.”

But wait, there’s more:

A number of more prominent individuals were on record with concerns well before this week. Retired general Barry McCaffrey tweeted in March that he had “concluded that President Trump is a serious threat to US national security.” Trump “is refusing to protect vital US interests from active Russian attacks,” McCaffrey wrote, adding that “it is apparent that he is for some unknown reason under the sway of Mr Putin.”

But wait, there’s Trump:

There is Trump’s constant lack of interest in offering criticism of Putin. On Thursday he celebrated a Fox News clip that he suggested showed him “recognizing Russian meddling MANY TIMES.” The reality is that his acceptance of Russia’s role in 2016 has almost always been grudging and rarely has encompassed Putin’s involvement directly – despite his apparently having been shown, weeks before taking office, specific evidence reinforcing both of those things.

Forget those overpaid young black bucks disrupting the flag and the seemingly true tales of sleaze and sex and big money. That’s a distraction. Something else is going on. On the other hand, former CIA counterintelligence officer Jack Devine concluded after watching the Helsinki press conference that there is no way that the president is an “agent” of the Russian government. He explained that to the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson:

The proof, he told me, was right in front of us. If Trump were truly serving as a Russian intelligence asset, there would have been an obvious move for him to make during his joint press conference with Putin. He would have publicly lambasted the Russian leader, unleashing as theatrical a denunciation as possible. He would have told Putin that he may have been able to get away with a lot of nonsense under Barack Obama, but all that would end now: America has a strong President and there will be no more meddling. Instead, Trump gave up his single best chance to permanently put to rest any suspicion that he is working to promote Russian interests.

There’s something wrong here:

Devine was the supervisor of Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who pleaded guilty, in 1994, to spying for Moscow, and he oversaw the investigation of Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence officer who confessed, in 2001, to being a double agent. Hanssen, for instance, was like Trump, narcissistic, with a broad set of grievances about the many ways that his special qualities were not being recognized. But, unlike Trump, he harbored those grievances quietly and found satisfaction in secretly upending the system in which he operated. Trump shows no signs that he can be gratified by secret triumphs. He seems to need everyone, everywhere, to see whatever it is that he thinks deserves praise. His need for public attention is a trait that would likely cause most spies to avoid working with Trump.

In short, as an “Agent” of the Russian government, Trump is hopeless, and Martin Longman adds this:

Instead of being a direct agent, he is probably just afraid of what the Russians have on him and is mostly concerned not to provoke anyone who might be able to expose him…

When he was pursuing real estate deals, he may have had people advising him on what to say that would please Russians in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. I am quite certain that Putin greatly enjoyed Trump’s Birther exploits, for example. But now that he is president, how is Trump getting the information he needs to make sure he aligns himself with Russia’s interests? Are his sporadic one-on-one meetings with Putin sufficient for this purpose?

Trump is hopeless, but of course he’s still useful:

We can get bogged down in definitions and semantics that don’t actually make a bit of difference in the real world. If we can’t tell the difference between how Trump is acting and how an agent would act in terms of the actual results, then it doesn’t really matter how formal the arrangement is or how best to describe it.

He’s quite obviously doing Russia’s bidding and he’s doing it with a level of sophistication that he is not capable of conceiving or executing on his own. That’s the important thing.

And then there’s Henry Kissinger:

I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.

And then there’s Andrew Sullivan:

It is possible, is it not, that Donald Trump simply believes what he says…

Everything Trump did in Europe – every horrifying, sick-making, embarrassing expostulation – is, in some way, consistent, and predictable, when you consider how he sees the world. It’s not a plan or a strategy as such. Trump is bereft of the attention span to sustain any of those. It is rather the reflection of a set of core beliefs and instincts that have governed him for much of his life. The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.

And they are, at root, the same as those of the strongmen he associates with and most admires.

That’s the accident here:

The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be generous to its defeated foes? When you win, you don’t hold out a hand in enlightened self-interest. You gloat and stomp. In Trump’s zero-sum brain it makes no sense. It has to be a con. And so today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.

There’s nothing in it for him to like. It has empowered global elites over national leaders; it has eroded national sovereignty in favor commerce and peace; it has empowered our rivals; it has spread liberal values contrary to the gut instincts of many ordinary people (including himself); it has led the U.S. to spend trillions on collective security, when we could have used that wealth for our own population or to impose our will by force on others; it has created a legion of free riders; it has enriched the global poor at the expense, as he sees it, of the American middle class; and it has unleashed unprecedented migration of peoples and the creation of the first truly multicultural, heterogeneous national cultures.

He wants to end all that. He always hated it, and he never understood it.

In fact, he never could understand that:

That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength – not endless bullshit sessions at multilateral summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.

And that means that Vladimir Putin in the coolest guy in the room:

This is why he has such a soft spot for Russia. Its kleptocratic elites see the world in just the same way. And if you wanted to undo the international system created by the U.S., an alliance with Russia is the first step you’d take. Aligning with Moscow against London, Berlin, and Paris is critical to breaking up multilateral institutions like the EU and NATO. Trump is not reticent about this. His trip to NATO included the first-ever threat by a U.S. president to walk away from it entirely, and to condition Article 5 on prompt payment of dues. His visit to the U.K. began with an attempt to undermine the government of Theresa May for her attempt to prevent the hardest of Brexits. He backs the new populist anti-immigrant government in Rome, because it too threatens a common European migration policy. And he is indifferent to Russian meddling in Western elections and media because it is designed to aid exactly those forces that Trump supports, from Brexit to Le Pen, and the Trump wing of the GOP which is now, of course, simply the GOP.

That means that Trump is an “agent” for no one but himself:

Why are we then searching for some Rosetta stone to explain his foreign policy? Some evidence of his being a Russian asset? Some bribe? Some document or email proving his fealty to Moscow? Yes, it’s perfectly possible that he knowingly accepted Russian help in defeating his opponent in the last election, and is even now encouraging Russia to help him again. But that’s simply the kind of unethical thing Trump has done for years, without batting an eyelid. He sees no more conflict here than he did in seeking Russian funding and German loans for his businesses.

It seems to me he is maddened by the Mueller investigation not just because it may cast some doubt on the legitimacy of his election, but because it has impeded his attempt, alongside Putin, to reconstruct a new world order on nationalist, rather than internationalist lines. And that was one of his core goals as president. As for the danger to him by the Russia scandal, I doubt Trump is nervous. His base has already been taught to ignore whatever the “angry Democrats” convened by Mueller find. And he knows he is immune to impeachment, because his cult followers control a third of the Senate for the foreseeable future. What he wants from Putin is simply what he has always said he wanted: an alliance to advance his and Putin’s amoral and cynical vision of world politics.

Trump then is not working “for” Putin at all. He simply wants to “be” Putin:

Putin fascinates too, of course, because of his “very strong control” of his country. It’s how Trump instinctively feels a country should be run. The forms of democracy exist, but one party controls everything, and one boss controls the party. The press is either compliant or openly propagandistic. Massive spending on hard military power is the core source of pride. Fossil fuels provide the entire economic base. Putin acts with impunity on the world stage, invading Crimea, all but annexing parts of Ukraine, poisoning enemies in England, devastating civilians in Syria, discrediting his democratic rivals – all of it amounting to Trump’s wet dream of what being a strongman is. Putin mirrors Trump’s domestic politics as well: the cultivation of the religiously orthodox and the socially conservative in defense of a kleptocratic cult.

This is America First, in which Trump and America are indistinguishable, and in which Russia is the most natural ally.

 So don’t be distracted:

This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America – like NATO and NAFTA and the EU. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak. Trump is simultaneously vandalizing the West, while slowly building a strongman alliance that rejects every single Western value. And Russia – authoritarian, ethnically homogeneous, internally brutal, internationally rogue – is at its center. That’s the real story of the last week, and at this point, it isn’t even faintly news.

That lets Trump off the hook. There’s no treason here. Trump is not a Russian agent. There no need for him to attack uppity black football players. There’s no need for Rudy Giuliani to change the subject to sleaze and sex and big money and then say no one can touch Trump anyway. Or maybe there is. Trump wants to be just like Putin. There are worse things than treason.

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America, Now With Two Governments

“Now, on the St. Louis team we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third.”

That’s how the famous Abbott and Costello comedy routine opens. It’s great fun and Time named it the Best Comedy Sketch of the 20th Century. The earnest but hapless Lou Costello just wants to know who’s playing first. That is Who playing first. What? No, he’s playing second – and so on and so forth. Bud Abbott explains it all. Lou Costello doesn’t get any of it. He just wants to know who is doing what – but he’s on first base. Why? No, he’s playing right field. Lou Costello never does know what’s going on. That guy is on second of course.

Lou Costello is the Everyman figure here. Life is like that. Those in charge explain just who is doing what and none of it makes sense. Who’s on first? Who’s in charge of what? No one will ever know. That’s funny. Existential despair can be funny – Samuel Beckett made a career of that – but that’s no way to run a government. The people should know who’s on first.

That’s getting harder to know:

The White House announced Thursday that Vladimir Putin has been invited to Washington this fall, even as leaders in Washington tried to fully understand what happened when President Trump and the Russian leader met earlier this week in Helsinki.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the planned visit in a tweet, saying that national security adviser John Bolton extended the invitation and that “discussions are already underway.”

That surprised Trump’s own government:

As the late afternoon tweet landed, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats was on stage at the Aspen Security Forum in the middle of an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who broke the news to him. Coats, clearly surprised, took a deep breath.

“Say that again,” he said. “Did I hear you?”

She repeated the news.

“Okaaaay,” Coats said. “That’s going to be special.”

Trump’s director of national intelligence wasn’t even in the game, he only thought he was:

Coats said he would have advised against Trump and Putin’s private meeting in Helsinki, which worried U.S. security officials because no notes were taken and only two interpreters were present, but that he had not been consulted. Underscoring how little is known about the meeting, Coats acknowledged that he has not been told what happened in the room. Asked whether it was possible Putin had secretly recorded the more-than two-hour meeting, Coats answered, “That risk is always there.”

Trump saw things differently:

“The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media,” Trump wrote in a morning tweet. “I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed.”

Trump was saying that the Fake News Media – the Enemy of the People – had failed to report the wonderful details of his Helsinki meeting with Putin, details even his own government didn’t know – which no one knew or was allowed to know. The Fake News Media had failed the people, again, but the real problem was this:

Inside the White House, Trump’s advisers were in an uproar over Coats’s interview in Aspen, Colo. They said the optics were especially damaging, noting that at moments Coats appeared to be laughing at the president, playing to his audience of the intellectual elite in a manner that was sure to infuriate Trump.

“Coats has gone rogue,” said one senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment.

But then they reconsidered:

After Coats indirectly rebuked Trump’s Helsinki performance on Monday, senior administration officials were concerned that the intelligence director could perhaps resign and so implored Trump to reassure Coats and calm the waters. Trump tried to do just that on Wednesday in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor, singling out Coats by name for praise. A transcript of the president’s interview was sent to Coats to ensure the director of national intelligence saw the comments, the senior official said.

But that sort of thing has a short shelf life:

White House aides are worried that Trump will interpret the comments by Coats as a personal betrayal, since they came so soon after the president praised him. Explaining that Trump does not take kindly to slights and that he nurses grudges, one official predicted that Coats’s Aspen interview could bother the president more than the many ethical blunders of Scott Pruitt, who was ousted as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

Daniel Coats, if he is on first in this game, won’t be there much longer, but now everyone is Lou Costello:

On Capitol Hill, where the reaction to Trump’s shifting stances on Russia’s role in the election has ranged from mild disapproval to accusations of treason, lawmakers on Thursday gave the president a legislative rebuke – albeit a toothless one.

On a 98-to-0 vote, the Senate approved a measure telling Trump not to honor a request by Putin that would have allowed Russian officials to interview Americans targeted by Moscow, including former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, in exchange for making Russian intelligence officers indicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe available for questioning. The White House caused an uproar on Wednesday when it said the president and his team would discuss the request rather than dismissing it out of hand.

Just before the vote, Sanders said Trump did not agree with Putin’s request but described it in friendly terms, saying it “was made in sincerity.”

They thought THEY were on first here, but Trump preempted them. Putin made a really sincere effort here, but Trump, sadly and with real regret, had to turn down his offer. Those folks on Capitol Hill weren’t even in the game – they never were – and that means everyone has to watch what they say:

As fallout from the Helsinki summit entered its fourth day, some administration officials walked a fine line between affirming the intelligence community’s findings and steering clear of saying anything that might embarrass Trump personally.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the audience at a separate Aspen Institute appearance that “it would be foolish” to think that Russia is not continuing to target the United States. But she also appeared to push back against the notion that Russia’s 2016 interference was specifically aimed at helping Trump.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure were to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen said, adding that the “overall purpose” of Russia’s actions was to “get us all to fight against each other.”

That’s what Trump says. That’s not what all of our intelligence agencies have been saying for the last eighteen months. It seems we have two governments.

That’s what the team at NBC’s First Read is saying:

One aspect of what’s made Donald Trump’s presidency so jarring, so chaotic and often so confusing has been the two parallel administrations – what Trump says, and then what everyone else in his administration says.

One example:

Trump: “So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said on Monday in Helsinki.

FBI Director Christopher Wray: “My view has not changed, which is that Russia attempted to interfere with the last election and that it continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt at the Aspen Security Forum.

And on who’s the bad guy here:

Trump: “I hold both countries responsible,” the president said on Monday. “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish.”

Ambassador Jon Huntsman: “I think the bigger picture is we need to hold the Russians accountable for what they did, their malign activity throughout Europe as well. That’s a part of the conversation that needs to take place,” he said on “Meet the Press” last Sunday.

First Read offers other examples but it comes down to this:

Despite whatever Trump says, these officials get to operate in a parallel administration – as if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were president.

Indeed, this is something that NBC’s Benjy Sarlin observed during the 2016 campaign: Then-running mate Mike Pence was allowed to operate in a parallel universe: He released a statement praising the Khan family; he denounced name-calling; he acknowledged Barack Obama’s birthplace before Trump did; and he released his tax returns.

So if it worked in 2016 it can work in a presidency – at least when it comes to administration officials having to answer tough questions.

Paul Waldman extends that thought:

Some countries have a head of state and a head of government, one official whose role is largely ceremonial and one who actually runs things. Before he took office, Donald Trump apparently believed the presidency was more the former; he admitted that he thought holding the most powerful position on Earth would be less work than running a midsize real estate and brand-licensing company.

A year and a half into his presidency, one has to ask if we’d be better off if we all agreed to have Trump do some ribbon-cutting, hold rallies for his rabid supporters and leave the governing to people who have some clue what they’re doing.

Is that absurd? That may be happening already:

If you’re a top Trump official, it has become a significant part of your job to assure people that they can ignore the insane things that come out of your boss’s mouth on any given day.

When they do that, they’re essentially trying to head off the tragic consequences of Trump’s ignorance, incompetence, malice and bad faith – consequences that in many cases are still hypothetical. For instance, Trump has made clear his utter contempt for NATO, arguably the most successful military alliance in human history, which has required administration officials to repeatedly take steps to reassure our understandably unsettled allies that we won’t be withdrawing any time soon. But for the moment the alliance still stands, and Vladimir Putin has not yet attempted to test it by invading a member nation.

They should do more of that:

In some cases, perhaps Trump’s aides should just let Trump say what he wants but not treat his statements as requiring any kind of action on their part. When Trump demands a private meeting with Putin without any aides present, and then the Russians say afterward that Trump made “verbal agreements” on some kind of military cooperation, the best answer for American officials might not be to scramble to figure out what the hell Trump agreed to, but just to act as though the whole thing never happened. Chances are that he’ll forget about it in a day or two anyway, once a celebrity says something on Twitter that gets him mad.

In short, let him pretend to be president and carry on as usual:

When Trump ludicrously claims that he has been tough on Russia, there’s a way in which he isn’t wrong. He has personally been a pathetic supplicant to Putin, but the administration has taken steps to punish Russia for its transgressions, imposing sanctions and expelling Russian diplomats. These steps have sometimes taken place over Trump’s objections, but they did occur.

So what we see is a constant tug-of-war between Trump and many of the people who work for him, in which they try to get him to read a briefing book or moderate his fawning over Putin, which he resists, but they often find ways to do the same things on policy that they would have done even if the president himself were more reasonable.

But pretending won’t always work:

In many areas, Trump’s rancid impulses are being put into direct practice. On immigration, for instance, the administration is enacting a series of policies to restrict legal immigration, shut America’s doors to asylum seekers and treat immigrant families with uncommon cruelty. These are expressions of Trump’s white nationalist philosophy, and they’re happening partly because it’s one of the few policy areas he actually cares about and demands action on, and partly because the people constructing those policies, like Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, are just as hostile to immigrants as Trump is, if not more.

Not only that, there are areas where Trump’s indifference to the task of governing means that policies wind up being more extreme than they would otherwise have been. For instance, in previous Republican administrations it was common practice to find a moderate Republican who enjoys walks in the woods to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; while there would certainly be a deregulatory agenda carried out, they would attempt to show voters that they weren’t actively trying to poison our air, land and water. There may have been doctrinaire anti-environmentalists installed in the agencies, but the president’s broader political concerns would have provided at least some moderating influence.

But since Trump doesn’t care one way or other what the EPA does, the ideologues are left to do whatever they want.

So we do have two very real governments. Who’s on first? Who knows? Waldman says that’s a scary thought:

We still have a system in which the president is supposed to be running the government. As time goes on, more and more people in this administration may decide that they can ignore what the president says or does and carry out whatever policy they think is best. There are times when that could save us from catastrophe, and times when it could make things much worse.

Bret Stephens has an answer to that:

Before the word “resignation” became a euphemism for being fired, it connoted a sense of public integrity and personal honor. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, showed both qualities when they resigned from the Nixon administration during the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, did likewise when he resigned during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.

Assuming Mike Pompeo and John Bolton still have their own senses intact, they too should resign following the epic disgrace of the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki on Monday. So should their senior staff.

And no, Bret Stephens is not some wimpy liberal:

I’ve known both men for years, respect them, and wrote friendly columns when they took their current jobs. I share many of their hawkish views, and have applauded some of the administration’s controversial foreign policy decisions, particularly the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

But enough is enough:

I’m also cognizant of two factors weighing against resignation. First, cabinet members and other senior White House officials owe a president deep loyalty whatever their policy differences – the sort of loyalty George Marshall showed when he declined to resign as secretary of state despite his fierce opposition to Harry Truman’s decision to recognize Israel.

Second, whoever succeeds Pompeo or Bolton could very well be worse. Secretary of State Newt Gingrich? National Security Adviser Sebastian Gorka? Why not? For an administration whose core values are personal toadyism and ethical elasticity, they’d be perfect.

Yet those considerations do not relieve Pompeo, Bolton and their staff of three higher duties: the Constitution, to which they swore an oath; the country, to which they pledge allegiance; and their conscience, to which they ultimately must account.

So, in a way, this should be easy:

No, Donald Trump is not guilty of “treason,” a word that’s been bandied about much too loosely this week. Treason is narrowly defined in the Constitution for a good reason, and its promiscuous misuse only helps the president’s defenders paint opponents as hysterics and ignoramuses.

Trump’s behavior in Helsinki is, however, another vivid reminder of his manifest unfitness for office. That’s true whether the behavior is best explained as a matter of moral turpitude or mental incompetence – of his eagerness to accept the word of a trained liar like Vladimir Putin over the consensus assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies, or of his inability to speak coherently at a critical moment in his presidency.

Simply put, don’t encourage the guy:

By continuing to serve the president, Pompeo and Bolton and their top aides are not – as they doubtlessly tell themselves in humiliating moments like this one – cleaning up after him. They are covering up for him.

In short, stop doing that:

Right now, Bolton and Pompeo are parties to a Russia policy they would never otherwise advocate and cannot possibly defend in light of their public views. This means that they are either violating their principles, or had none to begin with.

If it’s the latter, by all means they should stay put and enjoy the aphrodisiac of power for however long it may last. If the former, then the only decent course is to resign. The sooner they do it, the more they can preserve of their honor.

And they will soon be tested:

Vladimir Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to Donald Trump at their summit this week to hold a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it, according to two people who attended Putin’s closed-door speech on Thursday.

Putin wants a bit more of that sovereign nation, and he said Trump agreed to this. No one else was in the room. No one took notes. There’s no record of what was said. Trump cannot prove that he didn’t agree to this, and Putin says he’s being reasonable here, but he knows better:

Details of what the two leaders discussed in their summit in Helsinki, Finland, remain scarce, with much of the description so far coming from Russia. While Putin portrayed the Ukraine offer as a sign he’s seeking to bring the four-year-old crisis to an end, a referendum is likely to be a hard sell with Ukraine and its backers in Europe, who remain committed to an 2015 European-brokered truce deal for the Donbas region, parts of which are controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

White House officials are still checking with Trump. You said what? You agreed to what? You did what?

No one knows. Trump may not remember. Trump may not care. Putin is on first:

Putin’s proposal would call for a vote conducted under international auspices by the residents of the separatist territories on their status, the people said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the details of what Putin said about Ukraine at the summit, saying only, “Some new ideas were discussed. They will be worked on.”

Bolton and Pompeo will have to deal with this:

Putin’s proposal will alarm Ukrainian officials after Trump last week appeared to leave open the possibility of recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which triggered the crisis that led to fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Ukraine has offered the areas autonomy under its rule and backs the deployment of international peacekeepers in the region.

But that’s not Russian rule:

The U.S. and the European Union have repeatedly accused Russia of sending troops and weapons to support separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia denies the charge, though Ukraine has captured a number of Russian soldiers and weaponry on its territory.

Putin pointed to a 2014 referendum, which wasn’t internationally recognized, that was held in Crimea to justify Russia’s annexation at his press conference with Trump after the summit in Helsinki on Monday. “We believe that we held a referendum in strict compliance with international law,” he said. “This case is closed for Russia.”

Of course that’s bullshit:

Leaders of so-called rebel republics in Donetsk and Luhansk held referendums in May 2014 that declared independence. The votes were rejected as illegal by the U.S. and the European Union, while Ukraine called them a “farce.” Russia said at the time that it “respects” the votes, which showed as much as 96 percent support for breaking away from Ukraine.

Of course Russia respects that vote:

Last year, Putin angered his Ukrainian counterpart, Petro Poroshenko, by signing a decree recognizing passports and other documents issued by the separatist governments in Luhansk and Donetsk, which have already declared the ruble their official currency.

If a referendum was held in rebel areas of eastern Ukraine, “the result would be the same as in Crimea,” which voted to join Russia, Igor Plotnitsky, who was then leader of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, told Russian state-run RIA Novosti news service in March last year.

Which of our two governments will handle this? There’s Donald Trump, who doesn’t consider the rest of his own government the real government. He’s the real government, so let Putin have eastern Ukraine and whatever else he wants. He’s a fine fellow. And there’s Bolton and Pompeo and Daniel Coats and Congress and everyone else. They seem to think the real government isn’t one man, just as the Constitution says.

Who’s on first? Who knows? We’re all Lou Costello now, but this isn’t funny.

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The Days of Confusion

This used to be easier. Everyone knew what Ronald Reagan wanted to do – reduce the role of the federal government in just about everything and lower taxes on those who create wealth and prosperity – large corporations and the wealthy. He’d free big business to do what big business was supposed to do – make the nation rich. He also had little use for the poor and for minorities of any sort. They were kind of beside the point. And he’d stand up to the “evil empire” – the Soviet Union at the time. This was standard Republican stuff.

The first George Bush wasn’t much different, but the Soviet Union was gone. He assembled an actual broad international coalition of allies and tossed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait – and then he went back to reducing the role of the federal government in just about everything and lowering taxes on the rich. The second George Bush was a bit more scattered. He talked about “compassionate conservatism” – maybe the poor and minorities deserved a bit of consideration – but he stopped talking about that after he was elected. He had needed a few of their votes. He got those votes and moved on – and then he had to deal with the 9/11 attacks. He started two wars to deal with that – but in the background he was freeing big business, in his years the financial industry, the big banks, to do what they were supposed to do – make everyone rich and fat and happy.

That didn’t work out. The economy collapsed. It was almost the thirties again, but no one should have been surprised. This was standard Republican stuff.

Democratic presidents go the other way. Johnson had his Great Society thing – Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start and all the rest, and all the civil rights acts. The federal government could be useful. The poor and minorities deserved consideration. They had an actual right to that. This was standard Democratic stuff. Bill Clinton added his neoliberal twist to that – free big business to do what big business was supposed to do, but use the resulting prosperity to help everyone, not just the wealthy. That left Republicans befuddled. He was a friend to them, and a foe. That guy even managed to do the impossible. He came up with a balanced budget, of all things, working with John Kasich, an obscure Ohio congressman at the time. He also left the second George Bush a surplus, not a deficit, and a booming economy. He did Johnson’s Great Society one better, and of course Obama had Obamacare – because we’re all in this together, and Americans have each other’s backs. That too was standard Democratic stuff. There were no surprises.

And then there’s Donald Trump, now a fiscal and social conservative, although he was never either of those before. He mouths the words but doesn’t seem to understand them. He sticks up for the little guy but stuffed his cabinet full of Goldman Sachs kinds of guys. He loves free trade but has started a trade war with everyone in sight – tariffs on everyone and everything – to bring them all to their knees. Reagan had his “evil empire” but Trump’s evil empire is Canada and Mexico and the EU and China, and Japan and sometimes South Korea. This is a trade war against our allies and those who would be our allies. They’re all evil, but Russia isn’t. This is all part of putting America First, to make America Great Again.

No one knows what that means now, other than this has something to do with white resentment and xenophobia – every other nation on earth has been laughing at us behind our back – they’re all out to get us. They’ll be sorry – but not Russia. Russia is not part of that evil empire.

This has surprised everyone. This has led to confusion. This has led to this:

For the third straight day, President Trump cast doubt on whether he views Russia as a threat, despite warnings from his own government that Moscow continues to target the United States with hostile actions.

Trump triggered a new uproar Wednesday morning when he appeared to suggest that Russia is no longer seeking to interfere in U.S. elections – prompting the White House to assert hours later that his words had been misconstrued.

This was a mess:

At the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House, a reporter asked Trump, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?”

“Thank you very much. No,” Trump responded, shaking his head.

“No? You don’t believe that to be the case?” the reporter said.

“No,” Trump repeated.

He went on to say that no president has been tougher on Russia than he has. “I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media,” Trump told reporters.

He had told Putin to cut it out and Putin caved. Putin said he’d cut it out. Putin does what Trump says – period. The meeting was private – just the two of them – but that problem had been solved, or not:

Trump’s remarks again appeared to contradict his top advisers on the threat posed by Russia, just one day after he said he accepted the conclusion of U.S. intelligence officials on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.

More than two hours later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sought to quell the latest controversy, saying Trump was saying “no” to whether he would take further questions – not to whether he thinks Russia continues to target the United States.

No one should believe what they saw and heard and what’s on tape, but these are the days of confusion:

On Tuesday, he attempted to clarify that he accepts the intelligence community’s conclusions about Moscow’s role in the 2016 campaign but added caveats suggesting that other nations or actors may have been involved. His comments Wednesday morning further muddied his stance.

By late Wednesday, Trump was again addressing the issue, saying in a CBS Evening News interview that he had warned Putin in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki that the United States will not tolerate any further interference by Russia.

“I let him know we can’t have this. We’re not going to have it, and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Trump said.

But it may have been someone else, not Russia, which prompted a bit of friendly advice:

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), a leading Republican foreign policy voice, said he spoke with Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats on Wednesday afternoon about continued Russian efforts to target the United States. He urged Trump to explain the discrepancy between his own statement and Coats’s warning.

“I would ask the president to explain to us why he thinks the intelligence community is wrong about this,” Graham said. “If you’re wrong about this and we don’t act, that’s going to define your presidency.”

But there was the CBS interview:

Trump was hesitant to say whether he thinks Putin is lying about Russia’s actions.

“I don’t want to get into whether or not he’s lying. I can only say that I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted,” he said.

And it may have been someone else, not Russia – so he won’t call Putin a liar – but Putin is lying, because he has confidence in our intelligence agencies. What? He’d rather not talk about it.

Everyone is confused now, and there is more to this:

Two days after President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian officials offered a string of assertions about what the two leaders had achieved.

“Important verbal agreements” were reached at the Helsinki meeting, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, including preservation of the New Start and INF agreements, major bilateral arms control treaties whose futures have been in question. Antonov also said that Putin had made “specific and interesting proposals to Washington” on how the two countries could cooperate on Syria.

But officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military, scrambling since Monday to determine what Trump may have agreed to on national security issues in Helsinki, had little to no information Wednesday.

This was a one-on-one meeting. There was a translator on each side but Trump had insisted no one from our government be allowed to sit in – no aides – no experts – no one – and no one to take notes. There would be no record of anything that was said. No one would ever know what was said, what was agreed to or not, so the Russians jumped on this. They said what was said. They said that Trump had agreed to all sorts of things, and they know that he won’t call any of them liars. There would be no way to prove that they were lying anyway. They screwed him over, but he had set himself up.

This was unfortunate:

At the Pentagon, as press officers remained unable to answer media questions about how the summit might impact the military, the paucity of information exposed an awkward gap in internal administration communications. The uncertainty surrounding Moscow’s suggestion of some sort of new arrangement or proposal regarding Syria, in particular, was striking because Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, is scheduled to brief reporters on Syria and other matters Thursday.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not attend Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting with Trump and has not appeared in public this week or commented on the summit.

Mattis may be in a dive bar somewhere, drinking heavily, because it was all confusion:

Trump continued to praise his private meeting with Putin and an expanded lunch with aides as a “tremendous success” and tweeted a promise of “big results,” but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the administration was “assessing three takeaways,” which she characterized as “modest.” They were the establishment of separate working groups of business leaders and foreign policy experts, and follow-up meetings between the National Security Council staffs of both countries.

That’s what she says, but the Russians now could say that Trump agreed that the United States would leave NATO by next Tuesday, and agreed that Crimea was always a part of Russia anyway, so they can stay there, and that the Brighton Beach neighborhood in Brooklyn is really part of Russia, because everyone there does speak Russian after all. Can he prove he didn’t agree to that?

This was a mess:

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders listed a number of topics that had been discussed, including “Syrian ­humanitarian aid, Iran’s nuclear ambition, Israeli security, North Korean denuclearization, Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea, reducing Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, and of course your favorite topic, Russia’s interference in our elections.”

But while Trump told lawmakers this week that he and Putin had made “significant progress toward addressing” these issues and more, neither Sanders nor any other U.S. official from Trump on down has offered specifics on what was accomplished on those subjects beyond what she called “the beginning of a dialogue with Russia.”

Trump was screwed:

At the Russian Foreign Ministry, spokeswoman Marina Zakharova said that implementation of summit agreements had already begun. “A lot of what the president of the Russian Federation talked about is now being worked through,” she said. “Relevant instructions are being carried out, and diplomats are beginning to work on the outcomes.”

They are? That’s news to our side. What has Trump done? No one knows. No one will ever know, and there’s this:

For the second consecutive day since he broke with America’s spy agencies over Russia’s election meddling, President Donald Trump on Wednesday will not get an intelligence briefing…

Trump’s public schedule typically begins with a late-morning intelligence briefing in the Oval Office after his “executive time” in the White House residence, during which he tweets while watching cable news. He also uses that time to call lawmakers and friends, aides say.

The official guidance for Tuesday also did not include an intelligence briefing. Those sessions typically include senior intelligence leaders briefing Trump on the top threats and developments from around the world, which can change in important ways from day to day.

The two briefing-free mornings come after Trump on Monday publicly broke with his director of national intelligence, former Indiana GOP Sen. Dan Coats, on foreign soil by siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s version of events over Coats and other senior intelligence officials.

He doesn’t want to hear any more about any of this, and the feeling may be mutual:

Two White House officials had not responded to an inquiry about the lack of briefings on the president’s public schedule. But James Clapper, a former DNI, warned earlier this week that the Helsinki spectacle could lead intelligence leaders to withhold sensitive information from Trump.

They tell him about Russia. He gets angry. Why bother? But there may be something more here. Clapper is hinting that they won’t tell Donald Trump certain highly sensitive things they know, because he’ll ring up Putin and tell Putin everything as soon as they leave the room. He’ll burn their sources. Their sources will be arrested and executed. Donald Trump is now a risk to national security.

That concept is a bit confusing, but so is this:

President Trump, who rattled U.S. allies at a NATO meeting last week, voiced concern in a television interview broadcast this week that sending troops from the alliance to defend an “aggressive” Montenegro could result in World War III.

Trump was asked about Montenegro, which joined NATO last year and has a population smaller than that of the District of Columbia, during an interview with host Tucker Carlson broadcast Tuesday night on Fox News.

Trump was just doing his thing:

Carlson pressed Trump on the purpose of the alliance, which was created in 1949 to protect the United States, Canada and a host of Western European nations from Soviet incursion. The organization calls for member nations to come to the aid of any ally that is attacked.

“Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked in the interview, which was recorded Monday after Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Helsinki.

“I understand what you’re saying; I’ve asked the same question,” Trump responded. “You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. But that’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.”

He knew nothing about NATO before. He knows enough now. NATO is stupid – but Montenegro isn’t stupid:

In 2016, the chief prosecutor in Montenegro accused Russian nationalists of backing an alleged coup attempt that included plans to assassinate the nation’s pro-West prime minister over his government’s attempt to join NATO. Russia denied involvement.

Since joining the alliance, Montenegro has sent troops to a NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

Montenegro, once part of Yugoslavia, which was once a Soviet satellite nation, doesn’t want back in with that crowd. They have chosen sides. They’ll fight and die with us:

 On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to Twitter to rebuke Trump for his comments, noting that the Senate had supported Montenegro’s accession to NATO by a vote of 97 to 2.

“By attacking Montenegro & questioning our obligations under NATO, the President is playing right into Putin’s hands,” McCain wrote.

But it may be that Trump did agree that the United States would leave NATO by next Tuesday, in that meeting for which there is no record of anything that was said, and there’s this:

Trump and Montenegro have a bit of a history: The U.S. president appeared to shove Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic aside at a NATO summit last year, the first time the country was represented.

That clip got a lot of play. Trump did his best imitation of Mussolini – he shoved Markovic out of the way, almost knocking him to the ground, and did the Mussolini chest-out pose and sneer. That confused some people. That depressed most people. But that’s not all:

The White House said on Wednesday it is entertaining a proposal raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin to interrogate Americans in exchange for assistance in the ongoing US investigation into election interference, putting the White House at odds with the State Department.

Putin raised the idea in his summit talks with President Donald Trump on Monday, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. The Americans wanted for questioning by Moscow include Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, and American-born financier Bill Browder, who successfully lobbied the US government to impose new sanctions on Moscow.

Sanders indicated on Wednesday no final decision had been made but that the proposal was under consideration.

“The President’s going to meet with his team and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that,” she said.

The Russians actually want to try and then convict Browder and McFaul of crimes against the Russian state. Trump probably wouldn’t give them Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama but he might give them these two – fair is fair – or it’s not:

At the State Department on Wednesday, spokeswoman Heather Nauert offered a more forceful denunciation of the Russian allegations than her White House counterpart.

“The overall assertions that have come out of the Russian government are absolutely absurd,” Nauert said. “The fact that they want to question 11 American citizens and the assertions American citizens – we do not stand by those assertions that the Russian government makes. The prosecutor general in Russia is well aware that the United States has rejected Russian allegations in this regard.”

But Putin was just being reasonable:

On Monday, Putin suggested special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators could come to Russia to question the two dozen Russians that have been charged with interfering in the 2016 presidential election. But in return, Putin said he would expect the US to allow Russian investigators to question what he called fugitives on American soil.

“For instance, we can bring up Mr. Browder in this particular case,” Putin said. “Business associates of Mr. Browder have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States.”

Trump called the notion an “interesting idea” during his press conference with Putin in Helsinki.

The background of course:

Browder grew up in Chicago but gave up his citizenship nearly 20 years ago and is now a British citizen. His Russian associates uncovered a massive tax fraud scheme in Russia that was prosecuted in US courts. But Putin has accused Browder of perpetrating the fraud, which Browder denies. Nonetheless, Browder was tried in absentia and sentenced to prison in Russia, making him a fugitive of Russian law enforcement.

Russian media has said McFaul was named as a “person of interest” in the ongoing investigation into Browder and related matters. McFaul was US ambassador to Russia when President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, imposing harsh sanctions that Browder and McFaul supported.

Putin will have his revenge for these two messing up his personal finances:

In tweets this week, Browder denied Putin’s claim that he donated to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. He also noted that one of the other Americans that Putin wants to question is former congressional staffer Kyle Parker, who Browder said “single handedly drafted the Magnitsky Act that Putin hates so much.”

Browder was briefly arrested in Spain earlier this year, due to his criminal conviction in Russia, but was released after local authorities determined the Russian arrest warrant “wasn’t valid.”

Trump could fix that, but Spencer Ackerman notes this:

Current and former American diplomats are expressing disgust and horror over the White House’s willingness to entertain permitting Russian officials to question a prominent former U.S. ambassador.

One serving diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was “at a fucking loss” over comments that can be expected to chill American diplomacy in hostile or authoritarian countries – a comment echoed by former State Department officials as well…

Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Barack Obama’s national security adviser, tweeted that the lack of commitment to protecting McFaul was “beyond outrageous. Ambassador McFaul served our country honorably and with full diplomatic immunity. If the White House cannot defend and protect our diplomats, like our service members, they are serving a hostile foreign power not the American people.”

This is what is confusing here:

Ned Price, a former CIA analyst and spokesman for the Obama National Security Council, said Sanders’ comments made Trump look “even weaker” than during Trump’s Monday press conference with Putin…

“The president has first and foremost his interests at the top of his mind, as opposed to the government’s interests. That’s very clear over the past week and a half, between shitting on our NATO allies and kissing Putin’s ass,” the diplomat said. “He cares more about himself than the nation and any of us who serve it.”

The diplomat continued: “Either he’s compromised by Putin or he’s a pussy, in which case he should grab himself.”

That wasn’t very diplomatic, but these are the days of confusion. This used to be easier. Republican presidents did their Republican thing. Democratic presidents did their Democratic thing. But now, Donald Trump is doing his thing, and no one has any idea what he’s doing, or why. He may not know either. This won’t get better.

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A Pathologically Insecure Man Talking To Himself

America knew what it was getting with Donald Trump:

“You know, I’m, like, a smart person.” “I am a really smart guy.” “I’ve been known as being a very smart guy for a long time.” “I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” “I’m intelligent. Some people would say I’m very, very, very intelligent.” “And then people say oh, is he a smart person? I’m smarter than all of them put together, but they can’t admit it.” “My IQ is one of the highest and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.” “My two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top TV Star, to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius, and a very stable genius at that!”

America was getting an insure man:

“I was the best baseball player in New York when I was young.” “I always knew I was good. I was always good at it. I was the best athlete.” “I was always the best athlete, people don’t know that.” “I’ve won many club championships and I was always the best athlete.” “I was always the best player. Not only baseball, but every other sport too.” “I was good at wrestling. I was really good at football. I was always good at sports. I was always the best at sports.” “I had it [innate ability]. I always had it.” “I like being a great athlete.”

And there was this:

“My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.” “All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me, consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.” “I’m so good looking.” “I feel like a supermodel except, like, times ten, okay? It’s true. I’m a supermodel.” “Do I look a president? How handsome am I, right? How handsome?”

And there was this:

“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” “I have made myself very rich.” “I was always the best at what I did.” “I don’t think I’ve made mistakes.” “Everything I’ve done virtually has been a tremendous success.” “I was successful, successful, successful.” “I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency, by far. Nobody’s ever been more successful than me.” “I’ve been, you know, pretty successful in the courts over the years, I’ve been a very successful person, you can check – USA Today said, ‘he does great in the courts’ okay?” “If you don’t tell people about your success, they probably won’t know about it.”

And there was this:

“I’ve had a beautiful… I’ve had a flawless campaign.” “I won an election that should never be won, because the Electoral College is far harder to win than the popular vote. The popular vote, for me, would have been much easier.”

And this:

“I have more respect for women by far than Hillary Clinton has.” “Nobody respects women more than me.”

“I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

This is a pathologically insecure man talking to himself. This is also that loud and vulgar and loutish kid from Queens talking to the quiet and gentlemanly old money folks in Manhattan. He’s as good as them. He’s better than them. He’s better that everyone. He is. He really is. This was also the man who ran for president, and won – because he’s the most wonderful person who ever lived – and he can prove it – and he’s humble too. No one has EVER been better at being humble.

All of this was absurd. America shrugged. He wasn’t Hillary Clinton. He’d do, in spite of this nonsense. Everyone is insecure. Everyone says stupid things now and then. America could live with this. His pathologically insecurity was a quirk. His pathologically insecurity was harmless. It was actually charming, in a perverse sort of way.

And then there was his trip to Europe. He blew up NATO. He said the EU was our foe. He trashed Angela Merkel. He trashed Theresa May. He stood next to Vladimir Putin and said he believed him, not anyone in his own government. The trip was a disaster. Some spoke of treason, but he tweets, and he tweeted this:

While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way – the Fake News is going Crazy!

Scroll down the responses at that link. They’re not nice at all, but some agreed with him:

To President Donald Trump’s most ardent defenders in the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, the biggest problem with Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin was the press.

“Given the unfriendliness of the press to the president, why should we concentrate on the press conference?” Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) said at a press event Tuesday. “The summit in fact had the two world superpowers sit down and discuss in a civilized way for two hours privately, then two hours with staff, the wide gamut of issues that are important to this world. I call that a success. A successful summit.”

“And I disregard and discount anything that involves the mainstream media press,” he concluded…

“If there’s anything treasonous that’s gone on, it’s that active operation right now to sow distrust among our own nation in our duly elected president of the United States. It’s shameful,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) said of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election…

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) blamed reporters for asking questions that prompted Trump to deliver his Putin-friendly tirade against American intelligence, Hillary Clinton, and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

It was those damned questions, but there is this:

More than half of Americans disapprove of the way U.S. President Donald Trump is handling relations with Russia, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted after his controversial summit and joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But nothing’s that simple:

Trump’s performance at the Helsinki summit, where Trump refused to blame the Russian leader for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and cast doubt on the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies, did not seem to have an impact on his overall approval rating.

Forty-two percent of registered voters said they approved of Trump’s performance in office in the latest opinion poll, compared with a daily average of between 40 and 44 percent so far in July.

The poll found that 55 percent of registered voters disapproved while 37 percent approved of his handling of relations with Russia.

Among Republicans, 71 percent approved of his handling of Russia compared to 14 percent of Democrats.

He’s still the most wonderful person who ever lived, to them, and there’s this:

The poll also asked Americans whether they think authorities will find evidence of an illegal relationship between the Trump administration and Russia. A slim majority, 51 percent, said it was likely, while 77 percent of Democrats and 19 percent of Republicans did.

The same general split was true when asked if Trump or someone from his campaign worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Overall, 52 percent of registered voters agreed. But 81 percent of Democrats said that was true versus 19 percent of Republicans.

A slim majority, but a majority nonetheless, thinks there was something fishy going on. Time will tell. Robert Mueller will tell everyone, one way or another. That can wait.

That also doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. Others aren’t waiting. There’s Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, now president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group in the European Parliament. He says Europe isn’t waiting:

US President Donald Trump’s European tour, much feared by European leaders and NATO powers alike, was an unmitigated disaster. In Brussels, he slammed Germany and other countries for their lack of spending on defense and again questioned the role of NATO. In the UK, he trashed a sitting British Prime Minister and pushed for a disastrous hard Brexit. In Helsinki, he sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence agencies and failed to raise the concerns of European or NATO leaders.

They all know that the writing is on the wall:

For decades, US policy has been to underpin a rules-based world order and secure peace in Europe, in part through its military might; in part politically by supporting the creation of the European Union – a projection of traditional US values of liberty and democracy.

This longstanding policy has now been reversed. Historians will view this visit as the moment the post-1945 world order was upended.

Trump ended that quite dramatically:

Trump’s fawning press conference with Putin will unsettle many Europeans, in particular the people of Ukraine and those EU countries bordering Russia. Disgracefully, Trump failed to condemn Russian meddling in the democratic processes of free countries.

There was no insistence that the Kremlin desist from its hacking of European infrastructure; no demands that Putin be held accountable for the murder of British citizens on European soil; no warning that further assassinations on European soil will be met with renewed US sanctions. There was no rebuke to Putin for his murderous foreign policy in Syria, which has exacerbated Europe’s refugee crisis.

The Russian President was effectively given a free pass by a sitting US President to continue his hybrid war against the West.

And that means it’s time to move on:

Supporters of liberal democracy must now win the battle against political nationalism in Europe. By backing Boris Johnson and his delusional vision of a hard Brexit and seemingly motivating his ambassadors to promote nationalist movements in Germany, Trump is interfering in European politics with the aim of supporting right-wing populism, just as Russia does.

The European Union is Trump’s greatest foe, as he suggested in Scotland of all places, not because it is an economic competitor to the US, but because it is a project conceived to weaken the populist nationalism that his movement endorses.

So bring it on:

The battle is now on to defeat Steve Bannon’s sick dream of a right-wing populist revolution in Europe and a retreat to the murderous nationalism of Europe’s past. This ideological battle will not be won by placating right-wing populists, but rather by challenging their divisive narrative, tackling their tactics head-on and offering a positive vision of a more united, tolerant, free and democratic European continent based on values and fundamental rights.

European leaders must dare to offer a vision of a united Europe that can lead the free world.

Trump won’t lead the free would, so they will, and there was a small first step:

The European Union and Japan signed a landmark deal on Tuesday that will eliminate nearly all tariffs on products they trade.

The ambitious pact signed in Tokyo runs counter to President Donald Trump’s moves to hike tariffs on imports from many U.S. trading partners. It covers a third of the global economy and markets of more than 600 million people.

Okay, that’s not a small step at all. A third of the global economy and markets will trade back and forth, without tariffs at all, and the United States will be left out of all of that, with Trump pouting and making threats, while a third of the global economy grows and prospers and the United States doesn’t. Let the best man who ever lived pout:

“The EU and Japan showed an undeterred determination to lead the world as flag-bearers for free trade,” Abe said at a joint news conference with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Tusk praised the deal as “the largest bilateral trade deal ever.” He said the partnership is being strengthened in various other areas, including defense, climate change and human exchange, and is “sending a clear message” against protectionism.

America will proudly stand alone and be left behind, and the Guardian has more:

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and the EU leaders Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker sought to establish themselves as the flag-bearers of the free world, in response to Donald Trump’s show of apparent solidarity with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday… Tusk, the president of the European council and an outspoken critic of the Trump administration in recent months, was particularly keen to celebrate the shared values of the signatories, not only in terms of trade but also foreign policy.

Coming just 24 hours after Trump backed the Russian president over his own intelligence services at a summit in the Finnish capital, Tusk pointedly highlighted the continued support of Japan and the EU for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, whose Crimean peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.

Tusk said Japan and the EU were both firm in their support of the Iran nuclear deal, the joint comprehensive plan of action, which lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear expansion. Trump reneged on the deal earlier this year.

The rest of the world will move on:

Tusk said: “Politically, it’s a light in the increasing darkness of international politics. We are sending a clear message that you can count on us. We are predictable – both Japan and the EU – predictable and responsible and will come to the defense of a world order based on rules, freedom and transparency and common sense. And this political dimension is even more visible today, tomorrow, than two months ago and I am absolutely sure you know what I mean.”

Everyone knew what he meant:

Asked how he would respond to concerns that free trade could threaten jobs, Tusk responded: “Political uncertainty, tariff wars, excessive rhetoric, unpredictability, irresponsibility; they are real risks for our businesses, not trade agreements.”

He spoke of excessive rhetoric and unpredictability and irresponsibility. He didn’t mention Donald Trump. He didn’t have to, Trump doesn’t matter now:

Abe, an early visitor to Trump’s Mar a Lago resort after his election, did not address the Helsinki summit directly but told reporters that the trade agreement with Brussels “shows the world the unshaken political will of Japan and the EU to lead the world as the champions of free trade at a time when protectionism has spread.”

Juncker, the president of the European commission, added: “As far as we are concerned there is no protection in protectionism, and there is no unity where there is unilateralism.”

So they’ll just move on:

Once ratified by parliaments on both sides, the EU-Japan trade deal will eliminate about 99% of tariffs on Japanese goods, including on cars, from the eighth year after the deal is implemented, with tariffs scrapped on car parts immediately.

Japanese consumers will enjoy lower prices for European wines, pork, handbags and pharmaceuticals, should it come into force in 2019, as is expected. The two parties also signed an agreement to allow data to flow between the EU and Japan, creating “the world’s largest area of safe data flows,”

They’ve moved on, without us, and meanwhile, back at the White House, Gabriel Sherman reported that this was happening:

As he flew home from Helsinki on Air Force One following his disastrous press conference with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump reacted with surprise at the horror and outrage that was being expressed by much of the American political world. By the time he landed, the surprise had turned to anger. “He was enraged there was a lack of people out there defending him,” one Republican close to the White House told me. The mood among West Wing advisers was downright funereal. “This was the nightmare scenario,” another Republican in frequent contact with the administration said.

Trump had weathered epic crises of his own making before, from the Access Hollywood tape to Charlottesville to “shithole countries.” Each time he survived withering criticism by doubling down and counterattacking. But as he woke up Tuesday morning, Trump had to recognize that his embrace of Putin on the world stage was a crisis of a different magnitude, and he personally stepped in to try to manage the fallout.

But that was a reluctant step:

While National Security Adviser John Bolton, according to a source, thought Trump’s remarks were ill-advised, he believed that walking them back would only add fuel to the outrage-pyre and make the president look weak. But Chief of Staff John Kelly was irate. According to a source, he told Trump it would make things worse for him with Robert Mueller. He also exerted pressure to try to get the president to walk back his remarks. According to three sources familiar with the situation, Kelly called around to Republicans on Capitol Hill and gave them the go-ahead to speak out against Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan held televised press conferences to assert that Russia did meddle in the election.

And that was that:

Trump was boxed in. With seemingly only Rand Paul, Sean Hannity, and Tucker Carlson in his corner, Trump decided to backtrack. Appearing before reporters this afternoon, Trump blamed his comments on a grammatical mistake. “I would like to clarify, in a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,'” he said, reading from a statement. “The sentence should have been: ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.'”

Everyone has seen the tape from Helsinki. Putin said he didn’t do it. Why would he? “I don’t see any reason why it would be Russia.” Trump could change one word. He couldn’t change the context.

The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher saw this:

Trump saw that he had to respond to a torrent of criticism from his political base as well as from the opposition. But the way he delivered his statement of retreat was classic Trump, a dual message – a ritual statement of confidence in U.S. intelligence officials for those who insist that the president respect the nation’s systems and mores, but also winks and nods to those who like Trump expressly because he’s eager to smash china and topple tradition.

Trump decided to show scorn for what his stupid aides made him say, for what his really stupid government was making him say:

As he began to read his statement reversing what he’d said in Helsinki, Trump, who started his appearance with less formal comments about his European trip, made a show of demonstrating to the TV audience that he was now reading from a script.

Although he’d been speaking for several minutes, he abruptly changed to a more formal tone of voice, and said, “So I’ll begin by stating that I have full faith and support for America’s great intelligence agencies.”

He read from the paper: “Let me be totally clear in saying that – and I’ve said this many times – I accept our intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election took place.”

Then he looked up. Change of tone, to the casual Trump, the voice his followers know conveys his true feelings. And he interjected: “Could be other people also. A lot of people out there.”

And he was off, riffing as he had in Helsinki, once more re-litigating the 2016 election asserting that “there was no collusion at all, and people have seen that and they’ve seen it strongly.”

He would come back to his script, claiming that his error in Helsinki had been the misstating of a single word – “would” instead of “wouldn’t.”

And that was that:

He went on, but the signals had been sent, a quick wave of a white flag for those who insist on such things, and a zesty little aside, a wink and a nod, to those who needed assurance that their renegade president would never cave to the swamp dwellers, never back away from his commitment to blow up the old, failed ways of Washington.

Trump’s unscripted aside – “could be other people also” – and what appeared to be his handwritten addition on his script – “There was no collusion” – were reminiscent of other such winks that he has inserted into apologies to remind his followers that he will never be the kind of politician who is managed by staffers.

He is the best and richest and most humble person who has ever lived, after all, but Fisher remembers this:

“I think apologizing’s a great thing,” he said on NBC’s Tonight Show in 2015, “but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”

America shrugged. He wasn’t Hillary Clinton. He’d do, in spite of this nonsense. Everyone is insecure. Everyone says stupid things now and then. America could live with this. His pathologically insecurity was a quirk. His pathologically insecurity was harmless. It was actually charming – but now the rest of the world is walking away. The rest of the world will be fine without us. We’ll be on the outside looking in.

“Do I look a president? How handsome am I, right?” We may have made a mistake.

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Not Just a Coincidence

fDonald Trump went to Europe to blow things up. At the NATO summit he blew up NATO. Each NATO nation must pay its fair share. They’ve all agreed to increase their military spending to two percent of their GDP by 2024 – something that was worked out in the Bush and Obama years. Trump wants two percent in the next two years. He said he really wants four percent. He wants them armed to the teeth and full of nationalistic pride, and maybe then they’ll take care of themselves. What was ever in this for the United States anyway? NATO is a bunch of freeloaders and deadbeats, and Angela Merkel was a tool of Russia, by the way – but they were all deadbeats. The next day he said the EU is America’s greatest foe. Blow that up too. The EU is much like NATO – open trade and open borders and a common currency are a sort of civilian defense pact, assuring a united zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracies – a fine idea, for them. They were cheaters and deadbeats too. They sell lots of their stuff here but won’t buy our stuff. His massive new tariffs will take care of that. They’ll break up their “union” or he’ll ruin them. He wants the EU gone. Of course the UK wants out of the EU now. Trump will help. He told that May woman what to do – a hard exit – no trade or travel or diplomatic relations with the EU ever again, not until that “union” is dissolved. She disagrees. He called her a fool. Donald Trump blew up that “special relationship” America has had with England for generations – but that was what this trip was about, blowing things up.

That made sense to Donald Trump. Other nations, banding together for their common good, are other nations ganging up on America, even if as with NATO, they include America. Other nations, banding together, are a threat to America. Donald Trump said it would be America First now, so NATO and the EU must go – which, oddly enough, is what Vladimir Putin has been saying for decades. NATO and the EU must go. That’s a bunch of nations ganging up on Russia, a bunch of nations right next door, a quite real military and economic threat to Russia. He wants exactly what Trump wants. Trump is doing exactly what he wants – but that might be a coincidence.

That might not be a coincidence, given what happened in Helsinki, the final stop on his 2018 Destruction Tour:

President Trump stood next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday and publicly challenged the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election, wrapping up what he called a “deeply productive” summit meeting with an extraordinary show of trust for a leader accused of attacking American democracy.

In a remarkable news conference, Mr. Trump did not name a single action for which Mr. Putin should be held accountable. Instead, he saved his sharpest criticism for the United States and the special counsel investigation into the election interference, calling it a “ridiculous” probe and a “witch hunt” that has kept the two countries apart.

Mr. Trump even questioned the determinations by his intelligence officials that Russia had meddled in the election.

“They said they think it’s Russia,” Mr. Trump said. “I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia,” the president continued, only moments after Mr. Putin conceded that he had wanted Mr. Trump to win the election because of his promises of warmer relations with Moscow.

“I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia that was responsible for the election hacking, Mr. Trump added. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”

Anyone who had thought that the near-perfect alignment of his goals with Putin’s was a coincidence had to think again:

The 45-minute news conference offered the spectacle of the American and Russian presidents both pushing back on the notion of Moscow’s election interference, with Mr. Putin demanding evidence of something he said had never been proved, and Mr. Trump appearing to agree.

When asked directly whether he believed Mr. Putin or his own intelligence agencies about the election meddling, Mr. Trump said there were “two thoughts” on the matter: one from American officials like Dan Coats, his director of national intelligence, asserting Russia’s involvement; and one from Mr. Putin dismissing it.

“I have confidence in both parties,” Mr. Trump said.

That didn’t answer the direct question, but he had other things on his mind:

He then changed the subject, demanding to know why the FBI never examined the hacked computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, and asking about the fate of emails missing from the server of Hillary Clinton, his campaign rival.

“Where are Hillary Clinton’s emails?” Mr. Trump said.

He won’t let that go, but that hardly matters now:

His performance drew howls of protests from Democrats and some Republicans, prompting John O. Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Barack Obama, to suggest that the remarks warranted Mr. Trump’s impeachment.

“Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors,'” Mr. Brennan wrote on Twitter, calling the president’s behavior “treasonous.” “Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”

The House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, released a statement saying, “there is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy.”

And within hours, Mr. Coats issued his own strongly worded statement that contained an implicit rebuke of Mr. Trump.

“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy,” Mr. Coats said. “We will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”

So, Trump was wrong, or delusional, or kissing up to Putin, and his director of national intelligence may have to resign now, but no one expected this:

Some of Mr. Trump’s own advisers privately said they were shocked by the president’s performance, including his use of the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the special counsel investigation while standing beside Mr. Putin.

But they knew it was time to lay low:

Aboard Air Force One back to Washington, Mr. Trump’s mood grew foul as the breadth of the critical reactions became clear, according to some people briefed on the flight. Aides steered clear of the front of the plane to avoid being tapped for a venting session with Mr. Trump.

And this didn’t help:

“President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin,” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House who has advised Mr. Trump, said on Twitter. “It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected – immediately.”

That’s not going to happen, but Andrew Higgins and Steven Erlanger report on the winner here:

President Vladimir V. Putin did not get President Trump to endorse his seizure of Crimea, lift sanctions, to halt a new arms race that Moscow can ill afford or to cut a deal on any of the other issues that have so poisoned relations between Russia and the United States.

But Mr. Putin did get what he needed most from the meeting in Helsinki: a statement by President Trump that, whatever America’s intelligence community might say about meddling by Moscow in the 2016 election – and whatever the damage caused by Russian actions in Ukraine – Mr. Putin is welcome back in the club of global leaders.

While Mr. Putin seems to have secured no major concessions from Mr. Trump, state-controlled Russian news agencies, quoting the foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, declared their meeting was “better than super” and “fabulous.”

That’s because Putin was in control:

By turns somber and jocular, Mr. Putin commanded a news conference the two leaders held, with his mastery of policy details and theatrical flair – and by getting Mr. Trump to take his denials that Russia meddled in the 2016 election more seriously than the conclusion of United States intelligence agencies that it did.

Mr. Trump cut a less imposing figure, leaving Mr. Putin to explain American policy on Crimea, and nodding while the Russian president scoffed at accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow as “utter nonsense.”

Mr. Putin even brought along a soccer ball, tossing it to Mr. Trump after being praised for Russia’s success as host of the World Cup. “The ball is now in your court,” Mr. Putin said.

Here, little boy, take the nice ball and go play, and Trump did seem to be a little boy here:

Emerging from his one-on-one meeting with Mr. Putin, which was followed by a larger lunch meeting with advisers, Mr. Trump cited a litany of factors that he said had stood in the way of better relations between the United States and Russia. He blamed Democrats’ bitterness over having lost an election that they should have won, and Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

But Mr. Trump claimed to have defused all of that tension in a matter of minutes.

“Our relationship has never been worse than it is now,” Mr. Trump said. “However, that changed as of about four hours ago.”

Yeah, right, Putin just smiled, because he had this guy’s number, a guy who could easily be manipulated into insulting his own nation:

Mr. Trump began his day on Monday on Twitter, blaming American “foolishness and stupidity” for years of escalating tension with Russia, as well as the “Rigged Witch Hunt.”

The comment appeared to absolve Moscow of many irritants in the relationship with Russia, including the election hacking, the annexation of Crimea, Russian backing for rebels in Ukraine and for the Assad government in Syria, and Moscow’s suspected use of a nerve agent to poison people in Britain.

In fact, Russia’s Foreign Ministry recirculated the comment, chiming in, “We agree.”

This may not be treason, but this was embarrassing, and Jamelle Bouie notes how things have changed:

For the better part of his presidency, conservative commentators and provocateurs dogged Barack Obama with accusations of disloyalty and subversion, questioning his commitment to American exceptionalism and accusing him of being a secret agent for foreign powers. But Obama never did anything remotely as damning as Trump’s inexplicable defense of Vladimir Putin on Monday, when the sitting president publicly sided with his Russian counterpart over the findings of American intelligence…

At no point did Trump criticize Putin for his anti-democratic behavior – from killing journalists, critics, and opposition politicians to raiding the country’s wealth with impunity. At no point did Trump offer even a mild challenge to Putin, deferring to the Russian president at every opportunity. There’s a reason observers were appalled at his performance: President Trump behaved as a supplicant, absolving Russia of any responsibility for the documented attacks on American election infrastructure.

Trump’s performance was shocking enough to make mild-mannered lawmakers like Virginia Sen. Mark Warner furious with indignation. “For the President of the United States to stand next to Vladimir Putin – who personally ordered one of the largest state-sponsored cyber-attacks in our history – and side with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders is a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries,” said Warner in a statement.

That’s fine, but Bouie has seen stronger stuff:

Compare that to the rabid conspiracy theories that greeted Obama from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who devoted show after show to wide-eyed attacks on the former president. Even mainstream Republican figures, like Kevin Hassett, now chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2009 column that Obama was a “Manchurian candidate” giving the United States a “war on business” that could destroy the economy. Norman Podhoretz wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “as a left-wing radical, Mr.Obama believed that the United States had almost always been a retrograde and destructive force in world affairs.” There’s also Dinesh D’Souza, recently pardoned by President Trump, who pegged Obama as an “anti-colonialist” raging against “Western dominance,” and who sought to undermine the United States from within. Newt Gingrich endorsed this theory; as did David Koch, the conservative billionaire.

Where elites went, voters followed. In 2009, just 17 percent of Republicans said “Obama is a Muslim.” By 2010, it was 31 percent. As late as 2015, 43 percent of Republicans said Obama was a Muslim. An endless number of chain emails accused Obama of actively subverting the country, while a lucrative cottage industry of anti-Obama books and documentaries imagined elaborate conspiracies and detailed the president’s supposed plots against America.

None of this was true, and Obama ended his presidency without incident – except, of course, for the election of Donald Trump, who has publicly questioned American exceptionalism and given legitimate voices reason to question whether he’s in thrall to a foreign power.

But only one of these guys is white:

The anti-Obama animus had one obvious root: racial resentment. For millions of Americans, a black man in the White House was so upending – so destabilizing to their expectations of what America was – that they responded with primal anger, willing to believe anything about the man who sat in the Oval Office. Donald Trump powered his way to the White House on the strength of that anger, running as the savior of America’s racial status quo, and a promise to turn back that tide.

Many of those Americans surely believed that Obama was a Manchurian candidate of sorts. Now, faced with a president who is eager to please a hostile foreign power, they actively support the effort.

They’re supporting a Manchurian candidate, but James Fallows argues Trump is not that:

There are exactly two possible explanations for the shameful performance the world witnessed on Monday, from a serving American president.

Either Donald Trump is flat-out an agent of Russian interests – maybe witting, maybe unwitting, from fear of blackmail, in hope of future deals, out of manly respect for Vladimir Putin, out of gratitude for Russia’s help during the election, out of pathetic inability to see beyond his 306 electoral votes. Whatever the exact mixture of motives might be, it doesn’t really matter.

Or he is so profoundly ignorant, insecure, and narcissistic that he did not realize that, at every step, he was advancing the line that Putin hoped he would advance, and the line that the American intelligence, defense, and law-enforcement agencies most dreaded.

So he’s either a conscious tool or a useful idiot:

Those are the choices, though both are possibly true, so that the main question is the proportions. Whatever the balance of motivations, what mattered was that Trump’s answers were indistinguishable from Putin’s, starting with the fundamental claim that Putin’s assurances about interference in U.S. democracy (“He was incredibly strong and confident in his denial”) deserved belief over those of his own Department of Justice (“I think the probe is a disaster for our country”).

But that may not matter:

I am old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon telling lies on TV, about Vietnam in both cases, and Watergate for Nixon. I remember the travails and deceptions of Bill Clinton, and of George W. Bush in the buildup to the disastrous Iraq War.

But never before have I seen an American president consistently, repeatedly, publicly, and shockingly advance the interests of another country over those of his own government and people.

Trump manifestly cannot help himself. This is who he is.

He won’t change, so Fallows suggests others might want to change:

Those who could do something are the 51 Republican senators and 236 Republican representatives who have the power to hold hearings, issue subpoenas, pass resolutions of censure, guarantee the integrity of Robert Mueller’s investigation, condemn the past Russian election interference, shore up protections against the next assault, and in general defend their country rather than the damaged and defective man who is now its president.

For 18 months, members of this party have averted their eyes from Trump, rather than disturb the Trump elements among their constituency or disrupt the party’s agenda on tax cuts and the Supreme Court. They already bear responsibility for what Trump has done to his office.

But with every hour that elapses after this shocking performance in Helsinki without Republicans doing anything, the more deeply they are stained by this dark moment in American leadership.

David Frum agrees with that:

Denouncing the EU as a “foe,” threatening to break up NATO, wrecking the U.S.-led world trading system, intervening in both U.K. and German politics in support of extremist and pro-Russian forces, and his continued refusal to act to protect the integrity of U.S. voting systems – it adds up to a political indictment whether or not it quite qualifies as a criminal one.

America is a very legalistic society, in which public discussion often deteriorates into lawyers arguing whether any statutes have been violated. But confronting the country in the wake of Helsinki is this question: Can it afford to wait to ascertain why Trump has subordinated himself to Putin after the president has so abjectly demonstrated that he has subordinated himself? Robert Mueller is leading a legal process. The United States faces a national-security emergency.

Ezra Klein sees that:

At this point, we know an enormous amount about the connections between Trump and Russia, about Russia’s role in the 2016 election, about the Trump Organization’s efforts to hide its contacts with Russians, about Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation into the subject, and about Trump’s treatment of Russia and Putin and NATO since getting elected.

“Every single time we’ve heard of that the Russians reached out to offer something – dirt on Hillary Clinton, access to another trove of emails, secret meetings, back channels – the common theme of every single individual in Trump’s orbit was, ‘Yes. Help us out,'” says Susan Hennessey, a former National Security Agency official and the executive editor of Lawfare. “That is the really astounding picture that has emerged.”

The case that Trump sought to obstruct the investigation has passed an almost comical point of definitiveness. He fired the FBI director investigating him, publicly demanded his attorney general do more to protect him, and lied to the public about key events. So what are we still waiting to learn? What is it that we don’t yet know that would mean more than what we’ve already found out?

It’s time to act, but Klein wonders how:

The Trump campaign coordinated – privately or publicly or both – with Russia to steal documents from Democrats and win the election. In the aftermath, as president, Trump has pursued a pro-Putin foreign policy and fought efforts to investigate or punish Russia’s crimes in 2016. What is the remedy for that? And even if there was one, who has the incentive and credibility to impose it?

There may be no one:

Congressional Republicans know their future is tied to Trump’s survival. Anything that weakens his administration weakens their 2018 reelection prospects, their ability to fill judgeships, their ability to pass tax cuts. Their political lives depend on Trump’s political strength.

While it’s an interesting counterfactual to imagine the way the GOP would be reacting if all of these revelations were attached to President Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, it is fantasy to imagine they will do anything save protect Trump to the best of their ability.

Congressional Democrats don’t have the power to do anything right now, and as such are focused on taking back Congress in 2018. But even if they win the election, their priority will turn to retaking the presidency in 2020, and that’s going to mean focusing on health care and Social Security, not Russia and the 2016 campaign.

For that precise reason, the 2018 and 2020 elections cannot and will not act as a clear vehicle for accountability on Trump and Russia. From Supreme Court justices to tax policy to Obamacare’s future to environmental regulations, there is too much at stake in any given election, and there are too few choices available to voters, for them to answer a problem as complex and unusual as this one.

And forget the legal system:

There’s nothing necessarily illegal about Donald Trump publicly asking Russia to hack the Clinton campaign’s emails, just as there’s nothing illegal about him pursuing a stunningly pro-Putin foreign policy in the aftermath of receiving Russia’s aid. The actual hacking of the emails was illegal, but who’s going to hold Russia accountable for it? The Trump administration that asked for, and benefited from, their help?

The ridiculousness of both the question and the answer makes the point. Mueller’s indictments were announced just before Trump and Putin’s summit, and it first led to talk of whether Trump might cancel the meeting (of course he didn’t), and then speculation over whether and how he might confront Putin over Russia’s actions.

But everyone knows that Trump’s actual response to Russia’s intervention on his behalf has been gratitude and solicitousness – what other response is there to a world power doing exactly what you asked of them in a time of political need?

The President of the United States did stand next to Vladimir Putin, who personally ordered a massive state-sponsored cyber-attack on those same United States, and he sided with Putin over America’s military and intelligence leaders. That may be a breach of his duty to defend our country against its adversaries, but in a way, that’s understandable. He was grateful. That may be even quite legal. And he did go to Europe to blow things up, to stop all those nations from ganging up on us, to put America first. In a perverse way, that’s understandable. Trump is also doing exactly what Putin wants – but that might be a coincidence.

It’s not. There are no coincidences – not this time.

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Knowing the Neighborhood

Anything that lasts seventy-five years is what is – the way things are. European nations, armed to the teeth, full of nationalistic pride, do not go to war with each other. They’re not armed to the teeth. Their nationalistic pride now centers on soccer – which they persist in calling football – and on cheese. Stilton is not Roquefort, which is not Gorgonzola. Otherwise they get along just fine. NATO fixed that. That was a mutual defense fact, now grown to twenty-nine nations, to counter the Soviets, who seemed to be itching to roll back in and gobble up a few nations on the edge of things. Europe became, in that sense, one nation. The United States, as a charter member of this defense pact, would provide the military muscle. The United States had the resources to do that – they didn’t – and this was good for the United States. American power put an end to centuries of European war. The United States would not have to go in again, for a third time, to put an end to their wars which were ruining everything. They’d keep their militaries small, by design. The United States would carry the load, but that was a bargain. In return, the United States, and the world, got something it had never had before – a united zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracies.

The Soviet Union is long gone, but that still ticks off Vladimir Putin. A united zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracies is a threat to his Greater Russia. He could grab Crimea and much of eastern Ukraine – they hadn’t joined NATO yet – but he couldn’t grab anything else. NATO has Article 5 – any attack on one nation is an attack upon all. Europe did become, in that sense, one nation. Article 5 has only been invoked once. After the 9/11 attacks – on the United States – NATO sent troops to Afghanistan. They fought and died alongside United States troops. They’re still there. NATO did that once. NATO could do that again.

Enough has been said about Donald Trump’s visit to the NATO summit. He wants each NATO nation to do their fair share. They’ve all agreed to increase their military spending to two percent of their GDP by 2024 – something that was worked out in the Bush and Obama years. Trump wants two percent in the next two years. He said he really wants four percent. He wants them armed to the teeth and full of nationalistic pride. Let them take care of themselves. He said the United States never got a damned thing from this arrangement anyway. What was ever in this for the United States anyway? NATO is a bunch of freeloaders and deadbeats, and so on and so forth.

They humored him. They let him rant. And they’re worried.

They should be worried. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo by the totally obscure Gavrilo Princip, one of a group of six Bosnian Serb assassins. This was all part of a plan to break off Austria-Hungary’s south-Slav provinces, so one day there could be a Greater Serbia. This was a minor affair, but Europe at the time, from the Urals to the White Cliffs of Dover, was armed to the teeth. There was nationalistic pride. There were alliances of all sorts. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered them all and started World War One. World War One triggered World War Two. European nations, armed to the teeth, full of nationalistic pride, do go to war, ruining everything. Trump thinks NATO is stupid. Now they could do that again.

Someone realizes that:

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was in Norway over the weekend, a short hop from the site of President Trump’s Monday summit with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Helsinki. But often it seemed as though Mattis was inhabiting a distant world.

For much of the past week, amid Trump’s upbraiding of the NATO allies, his undermining of the British prime minister and his courting of Putin, Mattis has been nearly invisible. On the rare occasions he has spoken, the Pentagon chief did not refer to his boss.

Mattis traveled with Trump to the NATO summit in Brussels but remained offstage when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton joined Trump during the president’s impromptu news conference.

Mattis will work behind the scenes:

Even as senior Pentagon officials insist they have never been more united, Mattis often seems to be having a different conversation with allies than Trump. His defense strategy, published in December, stresses the importance of alliances, especially in Europe, and orders the U.S. military to ramp up its capabilities to counter the threat posed by Russia.

“Everyone can understand there’s very little upside for him to be seen in public, because even if he says reassuring things he’s going to be at variance with the president,” said Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official now at the German Marshall Fund of the United States…

Chuck Hagel, a defense secretary for President Barack Obama, said Trump’s statements – disparaging of NATO and alliance partners one moment only to lavish them with praise the next – put Mattis in an almost untenable position

“He can’t dismiss what the president said, so he’s got to finesse it,” Hagel said.

And that is tricky:

The defense secretary has, at times, sought to “finesse it” by ignoring in public any presidential statements that seem to run counter to Mattis’ overall approach to the military. In Croatia, he touted “our shared democratic values” and the importance of “the rules-based international order,” a phrase that senior Trump administration officials tried to have struck from a communique at the Group of Seven summit in Canada last month. Trump was the only world leader who chose not to sign the group statement.

And Mattis dismissed out of hand the notion that the most tumultuous NATO summit in decades had been at all unusual. “A very hearty discussion,” he said of the two days of meetings with allies in Brussels.

And then he winked? He has issues with his boss:

Trump and Mattis’ differences were even starker on the subject of Russia and Putin. “I think I’d have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spend time together,” Trump said ahead of his meeting in Helsinki

Mattis, by contrast, described Russia and its leader as a force seeking “to undermine the fabric of nations whether through false news reporting, economic strictures and interventions.”

“They are not seen as helpful,” he told reporters on his way to Norway on Friday. “That would be probably the most polite way to describe it.”

Trump may now have to fire him, but Mattis will keep the NATO folks calm:

He praised the allies for their commitment to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic products on defense by 2024, never mentioning the 4 percent goal raised by Trump at NATO, a proposal that injected another element of uncertainty into the discussions.

Mostly, though, Mattis continued to strike a posture that was the tonal opposite of his boss. “I reiterate that I am here to listen,” he said in Zagreb. “You live here, and each of you knows this neighborhood best.”

Trump doesn’t know the neighborhood:

The EU is one of the biggest foes of the U.S., President Donald Trump said just ahead of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor in Scotland, released on Sunday, Trump was asked to identify his “biggest foe globally right now.”

“Well, I think we have a lot of foes. I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. Now, you wouldn’t think of the European Union, but they’re a foe,” Trump said.

He also named Russia and China as foes, but added “that doesn’t mean they are bad. It doesn’t mean anything. It means that they are competitive.”

“I respect the leaders of those countries. But, in a trade sense, they’ve really taken advantage of us and many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills,” he said.

He’s right. The EU and NATO are connected. The EU could be seen as an extension of NATO – open trade and open borders and a common currency are a sort of civilian defense pact, assuring a united zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal democracies too. That’s something else to tick off Putin – he wants the EU gone too – but this is a good thing for the United States. This is a good thing for everyone. That required an appropriate response:

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted in response: “America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.”

Of course the UK wants out of the EU but – as Emily Stewart notes – Donald Trump still doesn’t know the neighborhood:

When United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May and Donald Trump met Friday, the US president had a “suggestion” on handling Brexit negotiations. May revealed what it was Sunday: He told her to sue the European Union.

“He told me I should sue the EU – not go into negotiations. Sue them,” May said in an interview with the BBC. “Actually, no, we’re going into negotiations with them.”

This was odd:

It’s not clear how the UK suing the EU would really work. The BBC points out that it’s hard to really see any grounds for a lawsuit – the EU and UK haven’t struck a final deal on Brexit yet and the UK can’t exactly sue for a breach of an agreement that doesn’t exist:

“The UK and the EU have not reached a Brexit agreement yet, so there can be no action for breach of that agreement. Parties to a negotiation are under what are known as ‘procedural duties’ – for instance, to act in good faith. But it is very difficult to bring an action, within a negotiation, on that basis. Some would say that even attempting to do so would seriously harm the negotiation.”

During the BBC interview, May emphasized that beyond Trump’s lawsuit suggestion, he also told her not to walk away from talks during the press conference. “I want to be able to sit down to negotiate the best deal for Britain,” she said.

In short, Trump was being absurd, and she won’t be absurd:

May came to power shortly after the Brexit vote in 2016 and has taken a more moderate stance than some figures in the pro-Brexit camp. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, Brexit minister David Davis and Brexit undersecretary Steve Baker, earlier this month quit in protest of May’s actions. Last week, May released a white paper outlining a plan for the UK to exit the EU.

She’s not worried, but Anne Applebaum says she should be:

All of the views Trump expressed were in fact consistent with the previous actions of his administration. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, has recently met with pro-Brexit members of Parliament – in effect, a party within the Conservative Party – to ask how he could help their cause.

Behind the scenes, Trump’s team has lobbied Britain on behalf of Tommy Robinson, a violent white nationalist and co-founder of the fringe English Defense League, who is now in prison.

This open, partisan, U.S. intervention in British politics is unprecedented, going well beyond President Ronald Reagan’s political flirtation with Margaret Thatcher or President Bill Clinton’s friendship with Tony Blair.

Trump is supporting not the elected British leader but rather her internal party rivals as well as an extra-parliamentary racist fringe that has very little support in Britain but that matters to U.S. alt-right activists, the core of Trump’s base.

Trump may be working for Putin here, but Applebaum says Trump should be worried:

The real beneficiary of the White House’s British meddling could prove to be someone else altogether. Jeremy Corbyn, the farthest-left Labour Party leader in recent memory, has been consistently anti-American, indeed anti-Western, for more than three decades. This is a man who described the killing of Osama bin Laden as a “tragedy” and who has blamed NATO for the Russian annexation of Crimea. At least until now, these views have been important marks against him. But in an anti-Trump, anti-American Britain, maybe now they won’t be.

Actions create reactions. Angry language creates an angry response. And already, there’s a precedent. The president’s racist rhetoric has already helped elect a left-wing, anti-Trump leader of Mexico. Could Trump achieve the same in Britain?

Know the neighborhood. Things aren’t that simple. Andrew Sullivan, the American who was once a Brit, knows this neighborhood:

It’s worth remembering that May was always a centrist Tory, devoid of ideas or inspiration, but diligent, earnest, competent and, ahem, persistent. She’s not an ideologue. She had a reputation for steeliness and a mastery of her brief in her long stint at the Home Office, which oversees immigration, policing, counterterrorism, and other domestic policy. And she was long pragmatically in favor of remaining in the European Union, indeed voted to remain, even if she kept relatively quiet about it.

Since the referendum, she has never publicly disavowed her previous pro-EU position, even though the press has tried to coax her several times. And the only reason she ended up prime minister after the Brexit decision at all is because, after David Cameron quit, the candidates ahead of her to replace him, chief Brexiteers Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, knifed each other in the back and front so comprehensively that they both lost support. May emerged as the least objectionable alternative. So she became prime minister by default to execute a policy she didn’t believe in.

And that’s the problem here:

This was, as she understood, easier said than done. The country was deeply and evenly split, 52–48. The potential shift, if sudden and severe, could devastate Britain’s economy, at least in the short term, and arguably for much longer, as well as effectively end Britain’s status as a global power. Her own party had only a small majority in the Parliament, narrowing her space to maneuver even farther, and was itself deeply split over the form Brexit should take. And so she thought her best bet last year would be to throw the dice, call an election, and try to get a hefty mandate and a much bigger parliamentary majority that would give her the flexibility she needed at home, and the leverage she wanted with the EU. This wasn’t a crazy idea. She was 20 points ahead in the polls, at the time.

But it wasn’t to be. As we all discovered, she was a crap campaigner and in the end, the Tories lost their majority altogether. It seems to me that a hard Brexit effectively died that day. May didn’t have the popular mandate or the parliamentary votes to get what the right of her party demanded.

So she went with the “soft Brexit” option, and got this:

May’s final have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too compromise is not just unpalatable to Trump; it remains unacceptable to the EU (they’ve already said no countless times), unpopular at home (only 13 percent support it) and couldn’t get a majority in the Commons anyway. And so the real endgame comes into sight. Britain faces the prospect of the worst of all worlds Brexit – a staggering, chaotic, and catastrophic departure from the EU with massive collateral damage, an outcome now endorsed by a loathed American president.

And this is what Trump is endorsing:

Among the immediate doomsday possibilities the government itself is worried about in a crash exit are the effective, immediate collapse of the port of Dover – grinding trade to a halt – and the dispatch of thousands of electricity generators on barges in the Irish Sea to keep Northern Ireland’s lights on, because the province’s ability to share a single electricity market with the whole island of Ireland would end with an EU exit. Northern Ireland itself could explode in sectarian violence again if a hard border is erected between north and south, as it would have to be. Scotland would move toward independence. Critical shortages of food, fuel, and medicine would open up within two weeks, by the government’s own estimation. The military would have to be deployed to ensure transportation of essentials. Stocks and the pound would plummet. A steep recession at home, and maybe also abroad, could follow. It would be one of the most harmful things a democratic country ever did to itself, or to its neighbors.

So what happens when all this keeps coming closer and closer? Who knows? But with parliament deadlocked and the EU implacable, a simple solution could present itself as the only way out for a Tory Party desperate to keep Labour out of power: The transition period could be extended, and a second referendum called. On the ballot this time would be the two actual, non-fantasy options: a brutal exit, or remaining in the EU.

That may be the best choice here, and Kevin Drum adds this:

It’s remarkable how much hay the Brexiteers have made out of a 52-48 vote. The people have spoken! Brexit means Brexit! Total withdrawal or nothing! All this over 2 percent of a nonbinding vote that we now know was heavily sponsored and funded by Russia.

Ditto for the United States, which has gone haywire thanks to 1 percent of the vote in an archaic institution specifically designed to rein in majority rule – and yet, Donald Trump is practically a cult figure on the right and the tiny little Freedom Caucus utterly controls Congress.

The answer in both cases is an election. We’ll get our chance to toss out Trump’s Republican sycophants in November, and if Theresa May has any sense she’ll call for a follow-up Brexit vote for around the same time. It’s insane for Britain to lash itself to a sinking ship because of a razor-thin vote sponsored by a foreign power and based on lies that even the Brexiteers themselves have fessed up to.

Drum says this too:

For the first year after the Brexit vote, sentiment remained pretty even. But over the following year, as the real-world problems presented themselves in skull-crackingly concrete terms, the Leave vote plummeted by 5 points. This is what’s driving May’s insistence on a “soft” Brexit. Not only does she know that a hard Brexit would be catastrophic, she also knows that this would be impossible to hide. She’d end up leading Britain out of the EU under a thunderstorm of disapproval. It would be a bloodbath.

So call another referendum:

This is done all the time. In California, a big majority of voters passed a referendum in 1998 that essentially banned ESL education for Spanish speakers. Twenty years later we decided it hadn’t worked so well, so we repealed the ban by a landslide in another referendum… In 1865 we decided that slavery wasn’t such a good idea after all, so we passed the 13th Amendment. Politicians lose elections and then decide to run again. Taiwan got kicked out of the UN in 1971 by a huge majority. Democracy is messy, and do-overs happen all the time.

In the case of Brexit, we have (a) an explicitly nonbinding referendum (b) that passed by a hair (c) with the help of a foreign adversary, (d) and is causing tremendous problems. Theresa May would be well within her rights to call for a second referendum, perhaps with different options, in order to give British voters a second chance at something that’s going to have a heavy influence on their lives. And if the idea of just proposing a new referendum out of the blue still bothers you, I don’t figure it would take much for the Democratic Unionists to bolt the Tory coalition over some problem with the Irish border, which would cause the government to fall. Then we’d get new elections, and it would behoove whoever wins to give his new constituency another run at Brexit.

Just deal with it:

Democracy is messy. Sometimes it takes a few tries to get a consensus that works. At the moment, the evidence suggests that Brexit is on very thin ground with the British public, and it’s not as if it’s some kind of century-old precedent we’d be tearing apart. It hasn’t even taken effect yet. Given everything we now know about the covert Russian support for the Leave campaign; the flat lies the Leave campaign has admitted to campaigning on; and the dawning awareness of just how bad and protracted the problems with Brexit will be; it’s pretty hard to see the case against asking the voters to say Yes a second time.

There’s another way of saying that. Know the neighborhood. NATO solved a neighborhood problem. The European Union solved another neighborhood problem. Know the neighborhood. It’s a fine place. Don’t mess it up.

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A Clear and Present Danger

Tom Clancy spun a pretty good yarn in A Clear and Present Danger – a president issues an executive order to assassinate a whole lot of Colombian drug lords, without telling Congress, or Colombia, because a president can do that, if certain parties present “a clear and present danger” to the United States. That’s his call – except it really isn’t his call – but the idea is the courts can sort that out later.

Clancy’s president went too far. Franklin Roosevelt went too far with his public, not secret, executive order to send Japanese-Americans to internment camps in the middle of nowhere, because they presented “a clear and present danger” to the United States. That seemed like a good idea, at the time. Over time, that seemed like an awful thing to do – but there are secret executive orders. In 1953, Eisenhower ordered the CIA to work with the British to overthrow the newly-elected socialist government in Iran and bring back the Shah. The newly-elected socialist government in Iran presented “a clear and present danger” to the United States. Those guys were going to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and throw out the American and British oil companies. Iran would control who got what, and at what price. That was the clear and present danger. Eisenhower took care of that, in secret. But secrets don’t last. Iran has been our enemy ever since. It was the same with Nixon and Allende in Chili. The people overthrew Allende, and killed him, with Henry Kissinger’s help. Nixon and Kissinger denied everything. Eisenhower denied everything. But they had a fallback position. Certain parties present “a clear and present danger” to the United States. They did what had to be done.

This was an extension of previous arguments:

Modern First Amendment law can be said to have been born in a series of World War I era prosecutions for violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. The first of these cases, Schenck v United States, involved an appeal of the general secretary of the American Socialist Party, who had been convicted for distributing 15,000 leaflets to young men of draft age critical of the war effort and, especially, the draft. The leaflet urged readers to “Assert your rights. Do not submit to intimidation.”

Writing for the Court in Schenck, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes asked whether “the words create a clear and present danger that they will bring about substantive evils Congress has a right to prevent?” As used in Schenck, Holmes’s test seemed to demand little more than that the government show that the words in the leaflet had a bad tendency – no proof was demanded that the words actually persuaded anyone to evade the draft, or even that they were highly likely to have that effect. Schenck’s conviction was upheld.

Oliver Wendell Holmes came up with those magic words “clear and present danger” but nothing was settled:

In Abrams v United States we see the beginnings of a movement to a more speech-protective test. Although the Court majority voted to uphold the Espionage Act convictions of Jacob Abrams and other anarchists who distributed leaflets attacking the United States’ decision to send troops to Europe to defend Czarist Russia against the Bolsheviks, Justices Holmes and Brandeis published a powerful dissenting opinion. Holmes argued that the “silly leaflet” of “poor and puny anonymities” posed no real danger to U. S. efforts, and thus failed to present a “clear and present danger” that the government might be justified in trying to suppress. Writing that “the best test of truth is competition in the market” of ideas, Holmes urged his brethren to take their responsibilities to enforce the First Amendment more seriously.

They did. Since then the courts have been more Holmes and Brandeis than Oliver Wendell Holmes. Anyone can say this or that is “a clear and present danger” to the United States. Prove it.

First Amendment law changed, but everything changed. George W. Bush said that Saddam Hussein with his weapons of mass destruction was a clear and present danger to the United States. He had proof. He didn’t. Donald Trump says that the trade policies Canada and Mexico and China and the European Union present a clear and present danger to the United States. He has proof. He doesn’t. He makes up facts and figures. Some of their trade policies are a bit irritating – China plays fast and loose with intellectual property rights – but most of everyone’s trade policy is fine for both parties, and a bit boring. Donald Trump, however, says Russia meddling in our last election presented no problem at all – if that even happened. There’s no clear and present danger there.

Others in his administration contradict him:

The nation’s top intelligence officer said on Friday that the persistent danger of Russian cyberattacks today was akin to the warnings the United States had of stepped-up terror threats ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That note of alarm sounded by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, came on the same day that 12 Russian agents were indicted on charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Mr. Coats said those indictments illustrated Moscow’s continuing strategy to undermine the United States’ democracy and erode its institutions.

“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Mr. Coats said as he cautioned of cyberthreats. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

He sees a clear and present danger, but his boss remains unconvinced:

Coming just days ahead of President Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Coats’s comments demonstrate the persistent divisions within the administration on Russia – and on how hard a line that senior administration officials should take with Moscow on its cyberspace activities.

Mr. Trump has said he would raise the issue of Russian election interference with Mr. Putin during their meeting in Helsinki, Finland. And Mr. Trump regularly cites some strong actions his administration has taken to punish Moscow, such as expelling 60 Russians accused of intelligence activities. But Mr. Trump and the White House also routinely minimize information about the impact of Moscow’s cyberattacks and intrusion efforts on the 2016 election.

The government’s national security agencies, particularly the intelligence agencies, have been far more concerned about Russia’s 2016 interference campaign – and efforts still underway.

The rest of this item is a few thousand words of depressing detail – solid proof of a clear and present danger – but there was other proof:

A dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted Friday on charges they hacked Democrats’ computers, stole their data and published those files to disrupt the 2016 election – the clearest connection to the Kremlin established so far by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of interference in the presidential campaign.

The indictment against members of the Russian military agency known as the GRU marks the first time Mueller has taken direct aim at the Russian government, accusing specific military units and their named officers of a sophisticated, sustained effort to hack the computer networks of Democratic organizations and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced the charges at a midday news conference. Mueller, as has been his practice, did not attend the announcement. Court records show that a grand jury that Mueller has been using returned an indictment Friday morning.

The suspects “covertly monitored the computers, implanted hundreds of files containing malicious computer code, and stole emails and other documents,” Rosenstein said. “The goal of the conspirators was to have an impact on the election. What impact they may have had is a matter of speculation; that’s not our responsibility.”

The indictment comes days before President Trump is due to meet with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin in Finland. Rosenstein said he briefed Trump earlier this week on the charges.

Trump shrugged. He’ll meet with Putin anyway. Every single Democrat in Congress said that Trump should NOT meet Putin, not now. More than a few Republicans said the same thing. Trump will meet with Putin anyway, and there was this:

Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani said on Twitter that the indictments “are good news for all Americans. The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved.” He then called on Mueller “to end this pursuit of the president and say President Trump is completely innocent.”

Giuliani wasn’t listening to Rosenstein, who said no Americans were indicted “in this particular report” – a warning. Stay tuned. Others understood that:

“The detailed charges in this indictment make it unmistakably clear that the United States faces an aggressive, sophisticated adversary bent on using cyber means to subvert our democratic processes and institutions,” said David Laufman, a former chief of the Justice Department’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section. “Now is the time for unequivocal recognition of this threat by both the executive branch and Congress, and for a unified and well-coordinated commitment to confront it.”

And this was a detailed report:

The 11-count, 29-page indictment describes in granular detail a carefully planned and executed attack on the information security of Democrats, as Russian government hackers implanted hundreds of malware files on Democrats’ computer systems to steal information. The hackers then laundered the pilfered material through fake personas called DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0, as well as others, to try to influence voters.

One of their conduits, identified in the indictment only as “Organization 1,” was WikiLeaks, the global anti-secrecy group led by Julian Assange, according to people familiar with the case. The indictment describes WikiLeaks communicating with Guccifer 2.0 to obtain material.

On July 6, 2016, according to the indictment, WikiLeaks wrote, “if you have anything Hillary related we want it in the next tweo [sic] days prefable [sic] because the DNC [Democratic National Convention] is approaching and she will solidify Bernie supporters behind her after,” referring to Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). WikiLeaks explained, “We think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against Hillary… so conflict between Bernie and Hillary is interesting.”

WikiLeaks released nearly 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails on the eve of the convention later that month, providing an embarrassing look at party operations and attitudes toward the Sanders campaign.

Mueller has it all, and the connection to Republicans and the Trump campaign:

The indictment offers troubling new accusations about the extent of Russian hacking efforts and interactions with Americans.

“On or about August 15, 2016, the conspirators, posing as Guccifer 2.0, received a request for stolen documents from a candidate for the U.S. Congress,” the indictment states. “The conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.” The indictment does not identify the candidate.

The indictment also describes an online conversation between the GRU, posing as Guccifer 2.0, and a “person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump.”

People familiar with the case said that person is longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.

And there’s this:

The indictment also notes an interesting development on July 27, 2016 – the day then-candidate Trump gave a press conference declaring his hope that missing Clinton emails would be found and made public, saying: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

The indictment says “on or about” that same day, “the conspirators attempted after hours to spear phish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton campaign.”

Trump said, do it. They did it. Immediately – but perhaps that’s a coincidence. Perhaps it isn’t. That’s why Mueller wants to interview Trump. What were you thinking? That’s why Trump’s attorneys will never let him talk with Mueller. He might just say what he was thinking, but now he’s thinking this:

Mueller’s probe has come under sustained attack from Trump and at a press conference in England on Friday before Rosenstein spoke, the president again labeled the investigation a “witch hunt.”

“I think that we’re being hurt very badly by the – I would call it the witch hunt,” said Trump as he stood beside British Prime Minister Theresa May. “It really hurts our relationship with Russia.”

Rosenstein said of his decision to brief Trump, “It was important for the president to know what information we’ve uncovered because he’s got to make very important decisions for the country. He needs to understand what evidence we have of foreign election interference.”

There’s a clear and present danger. Trump shrugged, but Fred Kaplan says proof is proof:

The indictment confirms not only the broad outlines of the intelligence community’s 2017 report but also certain assessments, leaked to the press over the past several months, that had sparked controversy in certain circles. It states, for instance, that key purveyors of stolen emails – notably Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks, which claimed to be independent actors – were, in fact, fictitious covers “created and controlled” by the GRU conspirators. It also states that the hacking of several state election boards, and of contractors who verified voter-registration rolls, was also conducted by the GRU.

This leaves Trump few options:

It is inconceivable that Putin did not know about the GRU election meddling. (The U.S. intelligence community concluded, in its early-2017 report, that Putin directed the effort.) But that may not trouble Trump any more than it has in their previous conversations. At his press conference Friday in England, just hours before the indictment’s release, Trump said he would ask Putin whether he meddled in the election and Putin would likely say “No,” as he has in the past. Beyond that, he said, there’s nothing more to say. (In a June 28 tweet, Trump wrote, “Russia continues to say they had nothing to do with Meddling in our Election!” as if that settled the matter. He then went on to ask why no one was investigating Hillary’s Russia connections or the corruption of “Shady James Comey.”)

With the indictment in the news, just three days before his long-awaited, much-desired meeting with Putin, it might be a stretch even for Trump to leave matters there, much less to push for the “good relations” that he avidly seeks. Proceeding as planned, as if the indictment hadn’t happened, couldn’t help but raise questions – perhaps even among supporters – about his own complicity.

But there’s another option:

Trump could also use the news as an excuse to escalate his war on the Justice Department and to cite the indictment’s timing as evidence of efforts by the “deep state” to thwart his presidency and to embarrass him personally.

If he goes that route, he will be stepping into new realms of internecine conflict. The Justice Department could not possibly return an indictment of this sort – charging 12 individual Russian hackers by name – without close cooperation with several branches of the intelligence community, probably including the National Security Agency, which no doubt at some point hacked the hackers to see who was doing what.

There are no good options:

Rosenstein made one other intriguing remark. “I want to caution you,” he said, “that people who speculate about federal investigations usually don’t know all of the relevant facts. We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings.”

The investigation is taking – or has already taken – directions that no one on the outside knows. Those who still claim it’s a witch hunt or a boondoggle may soon find themselves embarrassed, or, in some cases, indicted themselves.

There is a clear and present danger here, to Trump, and his son, and Giuliani and more than a few others, but everyone should be used to this sort of thing by now. Jamelle Bouie explains why:

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and the prospect of a solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court have provoked a new kind of rhetoric from many Democrats. “If he proves as eager an executor of the president’s bitter campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade and sabotage Americans’ health care as his record suggests,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “a woman’s right to choose will be repealed and the health coverage and economic security of 130 million Americans with pre-existing conditions will be in grave peril.”

This is neither wrong nor hyperbolic… A generation after Republicans began to attack Democrats as essentially illegitimate, Democrats are now responding in kind, claiming Republicans are a genuine danger to constitutional government. Where the two parties once understood each other as legitimate alternatives in governance, they now increasingly view each other as outright threats to the constitutional order as they understand it.

Each side, now, says that the other side presents a clear and present danger to the United States, but only one side started this:

Although elements of this kind of rhetoric can be found in the 1970s and 1980s – notably Democrats’ crusade against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court – the true innovator was Newt Gingrich. As House Speaker after the 1994 midterms, Gingrich brought a philosophy of total war to the GOP. He cast the Clinton administration, and the Democratic Party at large, as something less than fully American. Embracing legislative brinkmanship and government shutdowns, Gingrich and his hard-right supporters blasted away at key norms of compromise and negotiation that helped Congress function. That scorched-earth approach to politics culminated in a bitter attempt to impeach President Clinton, who was cast as a threat to the republic itself.

And of course there was a reaction, and then a counter reaction:

Democrats and liberals in particular took their first serious move in this direction during the George W. Bush administration, filibustering judicial nominations, and adopting the language of acute constitutional threat in response to the most controversial elements of the “war on terror.”

But Republicans were one step ahead. Their innovation in 2009 was to embrace radical obstruction against Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, jettisoning any compromise or negotiation in favor of total victory. This was reinforced by a resurgent conservative grassroots that understood Obama and his brand of technocratic liberalism as a catastrophe for their vision of America. Conservative media figures like Glenn Beck denounced Obama as an incipient tyrant – Beck warned that universal health care would lead to a “fascist state” – while Republican politicians pandered to dark conspiracy theories about the president’s illegitimacy. The clear message, from the grassroots to the leadership of the GOP, was that Obama was an existential threat to the country, to be stopped by any means necessary.

That was tiresome. Anyone can say this or that is “a clear and present danger” to the United States. Glenn Beck can say anything he wants. Can he prove that? The conservative grassroots and Republican politicians can say anything they want too. Democrats and liberals are a clear and present danger to the United States. Can they prove that? Their “proof” turns out to be those FEMA reeducation camps for millions of conservatives and that child sex-trafficking ring run by John Podesta and Hillary Clinton out of a pizza shop in northern Virginia – and Benghazi or something.

They’ve got nothing, but Jamelle Bouie says that the other side actually has something:

Given Donald Trump’s demagogic racism, open corruption, and clear contempt for the institutions of American governance, Democrats have a better case for treating the current president as a threat to the political and constitutional order. Trump proudly defies the rules and norms of liberal democracy, demonstrating an authoritarian’s contempt for anything that might bind his will. Given that, it’s striking how few Democratic lawmakers have embraced the totalizing rhetoric and tactics deployed by Republicans under the previous administration.

Maybe they should do that. Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to the United States. The proof keeps piling up, but who can sign an executive order to take care of that?

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