Beyond Summary

Executives and government officials don’t read reports. They read executive summaries, usually one paragraph. They get the general idea, and if something puzzles them they’ll ask a staffer about that. Those poor nobodies have to read the whole damned report, carefully, and understand the why and how of all the details. They’ll answer any quick question with a quick answer. That’s it. Executives and government officials are there to lead, not read. And of course no one reads PhD dissertations, no matter how groundbreaking. Universities publish volumes and volumes of Dissertation Abstracts – the topic and the conclusion. Any good stuff will eventually pop up in a newspaper or magazine – coffee (or wine) is actually good for you, or it isn’t, or the South actually won the Civil War. Journalists will read the full dissertation and explain that, in simple terms. There’s always a way to get the general idea. That will generally do.

That’s the way to cover Donald Trump now. Things are moving too fast, or spinning out of control, so here’s the executive summary for Thursday, May 25, 2017 – just one more day of things falling apart.

One paragraph will do:

Trump’s second try at a travel ban was shot down in the courts again. Once again the courts noted what he had been saying about Muslims all along. Then it was Brussels. Trump finally met with NATO – which Trump had said was obsolete, and then said wasn’t obsolete, but then hedged on that. They weren’t sure which Donald Trump would show up. The original Donald Trump showed up and appalled them, and scolded them, and scared the shit out of them. They know they cannot depend on America now. His staff tried to clean that up – he didn’t mean that – but later in the day he declared that Germany was evil. They sold too many cars here. He’d stop that. No more German cars in America – and along the way, at a photo op, he shoved the guy from Montenegro aside and struck a frowning Mussolini pose for the cameras. He was the big man – and then, late in the day, both the Washington Post and NBC reported that the FBI had his son-in-law “under scrutiny” – and that would be Jared Kushner, the young real estate heir, his chief advisor, the only person in the White House he seems to trust, now in charge of everything from fixing things with Mexico and China to ending all the nonsense between the Israelis and Palestinians, finally, once and for all, and completely overhauling the entire federal government in his spare time. Jared may have been playing footsie with the Russians, or maybe he knew who was, or maybe “financial crimes” were the issue – getting even richer selling his influence. No one knew, but this was trouble. Oh, and along the way, the first instance of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians was exposed.

That’s the executive summary. For many, that will do – this is madness – but the devil is always in the details. George W. Bush found that out. He received a presidential daily briefing on Aug. 6, 2001 – “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US” – and Ron Suskind reported that he then told the CIA briefer “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

It’s probably best to know the details, and the last item can go first:

A Republican political operative in Florida asked the alleged Russian hacker who broke into Democratic Party organizations’ servers at the height of the 2016 campaign to pass him stolen documents, according to a report Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.

In return, that operative received valuable Democratic voter-turnout analyses, which the newspaper found at least one GOP campaign consultant took advantage of the information. The hacker went on to flag that same data to Roger Stone, a longtime confidant of Donald Trump who briefly advised his presidential campaign, and who is currently under federal investigation for potential collusion with Russia.

The Wall Street Journal’s report presents the clearest allegations to date of collusion between people connected to Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Okay, that’s one guy in Florida, perhaps not a big deal, but there was the travel ban:

Describing President Trump’s revised travel ban as intolerant and discriminatory, a federal appeals court on Thursday rejected government efforts to limit travel to the United States from six predominantly Muslim nations. Attorney General Jeff Sessions quickly vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court.

The decision was the first from a federal appeals court on the revised travel ban, which was an effort to make good on a campaign centerpiece of the president’s national security agenda. It echoed earlier skepticism by lower federal courts about the legal underpinnings for Mr. Trump’s executive order, which sought to halt travelers for up to 90 days while the government imposed stricter vetting processes.

The revised order, issued on March 6, “speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus and discrimination,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., concluded in its 205-page ruling.

The rest of the item covers the details of that 205-page ruling, but it was the same as the first time around – this was a Muslim ban, as Trump had promised many times. Trump wasn’t fooling anyone. This may go to the Supreme Court. He won’t fool them either. This was theater, for his base. He gets to play martyr for the good (white Christian) guys, his base, and they get to hate the courts, and the whole judicial system, and maybe the government entirely. That’s the point. He wins by losing. He’s a clever man.

The NATO meeting was a bit of theater too:

President Trump exported the confrontational, ­nationalist rhetoric of his campaign across the Atlantic on Thursday, scolding European leaders for not footing more of the bill for their own defense and lecturing them to stop taking advantage of U.S. taxpayers.

Speaking in front of a twisted shard of the World Trade Center at NATO’s gleaming new headquarters in Brussels, Trump upbraided America’s longtime allies for “not paying what they should be paying.” He used a ceremony dedicating the memorial to NATO’s resolve in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States as a platform to exhort leaders to “focus on terrorism and immigration” to ensure their security.

And he held back from the one pledge NATO leaders most wanted to hear: an unconditional embrace of the organization’s solemn treaty commitment that an attack on a single alliance nation is an attack on all of them.

Instead, European leaders gazed unsmilingly at Trump while he said that “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying,” and that they owe “massive amounts” from past years – a misstatement of NATO’s spending targets, which guide individual nations’ own domestic spending decisions.

Josh Marshall has the full details of that misstatement and that had an effect:

The harsh tone had a toll, as Trump was left largely on his own after the speech as leaders mingled and laughed with each other, leaving the U.S. president to stand silently on a stage ahead of a group photo.

And then there was the clean-up:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, traveling with the president, played down the absence of Trump’s formal commitment to security guarantees during the speech, saying that there was no question of U.S. support for NATO and all of the obligations that are entailed in membership.

“Having to reaffirm something by the very nature of being here and speaking at a ceremony about it is almost laughable,” Spicer said after the speech.

Amy Davidson didn’t think that was laughable:

In Brussels on Thursday, as he stood at a rostrum at a ceremony in front of the new NATO headquarters, Trump had, to his left, a mangled girder from the World Trade Center; to his right, broken slabs of the Berlin Wall, both of which were being dedicated as memorials; and, behind him, the leaders of the twenty-seven other countries in the alliance. One of them, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, had just delivered remarks that served as a reminder that, until she was thirty-five years old, she had lived behind that wall, and had been part of the civic movement that peacefully reunified Germany. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, who had introduced Merkel, noted that she had been among the crowds filling the streets of East Berlin on the night the Wall came down…

He had just come from Saudi Arabia, Trump told the NATO leaders, in a brief speech. “There, I spent much time with King Salman, a wise man who wants to see things get much better rapidly.” That meeting had been “historic,” Trump said. The “leaders of the Middle East” had promised him that they would “stop funding the radical ideology that leads to this horrible terrorism all over the globe.” So that should take care of the problem.

He did not define “radical ideology,” or acknowledge that he was praising a monarch in what seemed to be an attempt to put the assembled elected leaders of democracies to shame. Trump’s world view seems to combine a distaste for Islam with a predilection for monarchs of any background – for anyone with a decent palace, really. In viewing his world travels, that mixture can be confusing, but it should not be mistaken for a sign of budding tolerance. (As has been widely noted, Trump once called Brussels a “hellhole,” on account of its large number of immigrants – many of whom came from countries whose repressive leaders had joined him at the summit in Riyadh. He has said similar things about Paris: “No one wants to go to Paris anymore.” When Trump was in Riyadh, though, he couldn’t stop talking about how fancy the new buildings were.) He did express his sympathy to Prime Minister Theresa May, of the United Kingdom, who was also in attendance, for the Manchester attack (“terrible thing”), and called for a moment of silence to honor the dead. But he quickly moved to chastising the leaders for not having taken seriously enough the need for building walls, rather than taking them down.

It seems he got everything backwards:

European leaders were reportedly hoping for an affirmation of Article 5 in Trump’s remarks; they didn’t get it. In general, the approach of his hosts on this trip seems to have been to hope very much that he doesn’t actually break anything. Remarks have been kept short, flattery long – a reminder, as with the international and unmerited fêting of Ivanka, of how Trumpism lowers the level of dialogue all around. Trump does like it when people give gifts (though he may not have appreciated it when Pope Francis, at the Vatican, handed him a copy of his encyclical on climate change), and so he thanked the 9/11 Museum, in New York, which had donated the girders, and Merkel, as a representative of Germany, for donating the slabs. He spoke a few sentences about the memorials’ symbolic power. But, as he looked around at the new headquarters, he seemed, again, to be dwelling on a different definition of a value.

“And I never asked once what the new NATO headquarters cost,” he said, as if he should be thanked for that act of restraint. “I refuse to do that. But it is beautiful.” It was not, perhaps, what Trump would have built. But what would have been the price of that?

Everyone knew what was going on:

Nicholas Burns, who was the US’s ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush, said it was “a major mistake” for Trump to not “reaffirm publicly and explicitly” the US’s Article 5 commitment to NATO.

“I was the US ambassador to NATO on 9/11 and remain grateful for the unstinting support given to America by our European allies and Canada,” Burns said on Thursday. “Trump is not acting like the leader of the West that all US presidents before him have been dating back to Truman.”

Richard Haass, a former US diplomat who has been the president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003, said on Twitter that Trump’s “overly solicitous treatment” of Saudi Arabia stood in contrast to his “public lecturing of NATO allies,” which Haass called “unseemly and counterproductive.”

Ivo Daalder, the US’s ambassador to NATO from May 2009 to July 2013, said Trump’s reluctance to commit to the guiding principle was “a major blow to the alliance.”

“Putin will be thrilled at Trump’s refusal to endorse Article 5,” said Tom Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe and a fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution. “Unimaginable under any other president.”

After Trump called NATO “obsolete” in a January interview, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Moscow “shares Trump’s opinion that NATO is a remnant of the past.” (Trump said later that he called NATO obsolete “without knowing much about NATO.”)

Still, some officials worried that Trump could one day strike a bilateral deal with Moscow that would affect NATO’s interests, Politico reported.

Putin was no doubt thrilled, and as for that photo op, where Trump shoved the guy from Montenegro aside and struck a frowning Mussolini pose for the cameras, the video says it all – or maybe J. K. Rowling does – “A narcissist’s nightmare: the biggest stage in the world and he’s never felt smaller.”

Those are the details not in the executive summary, but there are more details:

President Trump on Thursday attended a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, where he apparently decided to air his grievances over Germany’s trade surplus with the U.S. “The Germans are evil, very evil,” Trump reportedly complained in the meeting, attendees told German newspaper Der Spiegel. “Look at the millions of cars they sell in the U.S. We’ll stop that.”

Der Spiegel reported that EU Commission leader Jean-Claude Juncker disagreed with Trump, defending the merits of free trade for the global economy. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman notes that depending on the translation, Trump may have been calling the Germans merely “very bad” and not “very evil.”

Trump wants a new trade deal with Germany, but Kevin Drum notes this:

When are the Trumpies going to learn that they can’t do a trade deal with only Germany? It’s the whole EU or nothing. Last month we heard reports that Angela Merkel had to tell Trump a dozen times before he finally got it, but it sounds like he’s already forgotten.

Josh Marshall expands on that:

Was this really a misunderstanding or a bullheaded effort to make a point?

It harkens back to the line the Trump brain trust was pushing last December and January, which was that they intended to pursue a plan of breaking up the EU, using a newly Brexited UK as their tool to tear it apart. This was clearly back in a period of maximal Trumpite triumphalism, when they fantasize about rolling the whole world before their ‘revolution.’

Times change; reality intrudes; compromised advisors are tossed aside.

But this cluster of signs and provocations suggests strongly that we are still in the same place, still in a position where the President of the United States is actively seeking to undermine NATO and – through different modalities and for slightly different reasons – the EU as well.

And that points in only one direction:

Each of these aims, each of these goals lines up more or less perfectly with the strategic ambitions of the Russian Federation, which sees NATO as a bulwark of Western/US military strength hemming Russia in behind borderlands it sees as within its proper sphere of influence and with the EU, representing a liberal internationalist order which it has set itself against. A lot of this thinking comes from the Steve Bannon “nationalist” part of the Trump crew, though Trump has espoused elements of this vision for years. That group, in turn has deep ties to various European rightist parties which share this anti-NATO, anti-EU, politically illiberal stance. Many or most are funded by Russia. Whether or not this is being done on Putin’s behalf, it clearly lines up within Putin’s and Russia’s aims. Putin wants a fragmented Europe; Trump does too.

And that leads back to Jared Kushner:

Investigators are focusing on a series of meetings held by Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and an influential White House adviser, as part of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and related matters, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Kushner, who held meetings in December with the Russian ambassador and a banker from Moscow, is being investigated because of the extent and nature of his interactions with the Russians, the people said….

FBI agents also remain keenly interested in former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, but Kushner is the only current White House official known to be considered a key person in the probe….

In addition to possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, investigators are also looking broadly into possible financial crimes – but the people familiar with the matter, who were not authorized to speak publicly, did not specify who or what was being examined.

Something is up:

In early December, Kushner met in New York with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and he later sent a deputy to meet with Kislyak. Flynn was also present at the early-December meeting, and later that month, Flynn held a call with Kislyak to discuss U.S.-imposed sanctions against Russia. Flynn initially mischaracterized the conversation, even to Vice President Pence – ultimately prompting his ouster from the White House.

Kushner also met in December with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank, which has been the subject of U.S. sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In addition to the December meetings, a former senior intelligence official said FBI agents had been looking closely at earlier exchanges between Trump associates and the Russians dating to the spring of 2016, including one at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Kushner and Kislyak – along with close Trump adviser and current attorney general Jeff Sessions – were present at an April 2016 event at the Mayflower where then-candidate Trump promised in a speech to seek better relations with Russia.

This looks bad, but the possible financial crimes intrigue Aaron Blake:

This isn’t just about whether Kushner or anyone else facilitated collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign; indeed, the two meetings he had with Russians that have been spotlighted actually came in December, after Trump was elected. Federal investigators appear to be cluing on some other potential crimes that may or may not be related to that…

“You’ve seen it in countries all over the world where they’ve appointed family members, whether it’s their son, daughter, in-laws – it provides for tremendous opportunities for corruption,” Shruti Shah, an international corruption expert at Coalition for Integrity, told HuffPost last month. “People who want to curry favor find their way to provide favors to family members as a way to get closer to the person in power.”

Added Gerald Feierstein, a former top State Department official and ambassador to Yemen in the Obama administration: “For many countries and governments, certainly in the Gulf, in the Middle East, they would recognize this pattern immediately. I think that they would find it completely normal that leaders mix personal business interests with government affairs and would use family members in various official responsibilities.”

Kushner has already come under scrutiny for his family possibly benefiting personally from his proximity to his leader-of-the-free-world father-in-law. His sister earlier this month mentioned Kushner’s advisory role in the White House while pitching Chinese investors on a New Jersey housing development.

Okay, this may be about no more than young Jared working on getting even richer selling his influence with his old man to the highest bidder. This may not be about Russia at all and thus not be all that bad – but it’s bad enough. There are various devils in the details. One is as bad as another – and one should always pay attention to the details. Executive summaries don’t tell the whole story. That’s why chief executives often seem so clueless. We seem to have one of those now.

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Judging His Judgment

Late last year the Washington Post offered a list of the ten books on leadership to read in 2017 – including Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace of all things. Donald Trump would laugh. That’s not him, and he’s now the president. He leads the nation and he leads his party, even if many Republicans find him an embarrassment. Civility isn’t his thing. Civility is political correctness. He hates political correctness. Just enough voters in just the right places hated political correctness too. There’s no point in being nice to anyone. Civility is for wimps. Civility is for losers. Call a spade a spade, and yes, spade is another word for nigger. Let the snowflakes clutch their pearls. Leaders tell it like it is.

Just enough voters in just the right places believed that, and that’s another way of saying they trusted his judgment. He was an embarrassment of course. His endless impulsive tweets caused no end of trouble – his anger and resentment and whining were excruciating – but his heart was in the right place. They also knew that there would be no wall, and that Mexico would never pay for such a thing, and he really wasn’t going to rid America of Mexicans and Muslims and gays, or put Hillary Clinton in jail. As many have said, they took him seriously but not literally. His heart was in the right place. You don’t have to like the guy. You don’t have to respect the guy – he was a crass fool a lot of the time. You just have to trust his judgment – and he was going to get rid of Obamacare once and for all. Well, maybe he wasn’t – but he was going to try.

At the moment that’s not going well:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday said the path forward for the legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare remains unclear, adding that he is unsure at the moment how such a measure will secure the requisite 50 votes from the GOP’s 52 senators.

“I don’t know how we get to 50 (votes) at the moment. But that’s the goal,” McConnell (R-Ky.) told Reuters in an interview. He said passing a repeal-and-replace measure, a campaign promise of GOP lawmakers for more than seven years and a key plank of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, remains a top priority.

Work on repeal-and-replace legislation had already begun in the Senate well before the House managed to pass its own bill, dubbed the American Health Care Act. Multiple GOP senators have said that they do not intend to take up the House-passed measure but will instead work on approving their own bill.

Okay, write off the second House bill – there weren’t enough Republican votes to even hold a vote on the first one – and write a Senate bill – and because civility is for losers, don’t work with fools:

McConnell told Reuters that he does not intend to reach out to any Democrats in order to pass the Senate’s version of the healthcare bill because the gulf between the two parties on the issue is too great to overcome.

McConnell’s heart is in the right place too, if he has one, but Jonathan Swan and Mike Allen report this:

Republican leaders are coming to the bleak conclusion they will end summer and begin the fall with no major policy accomplishments. Privately, they realize that it’s political malpractice to blow at least the first nine of months of all Republican rule, but also realize there’s little they can do to avoid the dismal outcome.

In fact, they see the next four months as MORE troublesome than the first four. They’re facing terrible budget choices and headlines, the painful effort to re-work the health care Rubik’s Cube in the House (presuming it makes it out of the Senate), a series of special-election scares (or losses) – all with scandal-mania as the backdrop.

Trump’s impulsive uncivil leadership style seems to be the problem, as Sean Sullivan reports here:

It’s a simple question, but for Republicans in Congress, it’s not an easy one.

Do you trust President Trump’s judgment on major decisions?

“I’m not answering questions like that,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) after hopping off an underground tram shuttling him from the Capitol to his Senate office building. “That’s ah…” He trailed off as he walked toward an elevator.

Four seconds later, the easygoing Arizonan picked back up: “The president is overseas. I don’t think we’re allowed to ask any questions while the president’s overseas.”

His party doesn’t trust his judgment:

Flake was one of a dozen Republicans from across the ideological spectrum asked this week to reflect on Trump’s judgment. Most of them weren’t eager to address the subject head-on. They diverted and demurred. They paused contemplatively before answering. Some grew visibly uncomfortable. Others declared their conviction in Trump – but then qualified their words or expressed confidence in the people around him.

They’d talk about McMaster and Mattis – Trump’s two generals, his national security advisor and his secretary of defense – and leave it at that. No one else in the White House seems to have any experience in how things really work, in the real work beyond New York real estate and whatever it is that Goldman Sachs does. They’re all new to this. Still, McMaster and Mattis would save the day.

That, however, isn’t working out:

When Trump revealed highly classified information to two Russian officials in the Oval Office earlier this month, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency, according to a Washington Post report earlier this month.

And when Trump asked the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election, both refused – deeming the appeal inappropriate, according to another Post report this week.

GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, have labored to project at least some semblance of unity with the White House over the first four months of Trump’s presidency, in hopes of salvaging their legislative agenda.

But now, amid a Russian meddling probe that has reached a current White House official and questions about whether Trump tried to stifle that investigation that unity appears to be faltering.

The only thing to do is put a brave face on this:

“I thought the president gave a great speech in Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, deflecting a direct question about the president’s judgment. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman wasn’t willing to comment more broadly.

“Those kinds of questions are no…” he said, going silent for five seconds before concluding that he was facing a “gotcha” question.

The question of the soundness of Trump’s judgment seems to be a difficult question for these guys, but not all of them:

One popular approach: List some facts about whether Trump can do what he is doing, rather than opine on whether he should do what he is doing.

After chewing over the question of whether he trusted Trump’s judgment on big domestic and national security decisions as he descended an escalator, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used this strategy.

“He has the responsibility and so therefore, ah, I respect the result of the election. I respect the constitutional authority that he has.”

That won’t wash, not with what Nancy Youssef reports in BuzzFeed:

Pentagon officials are in shock after the release of a transcript between President Donald Trump and his Philippines counterpart reveals that the US military had moved two nuclear submarines towards North Korea.

“We never talk about subs!” three officials told BuzzFeed News, referring to the military’s belief that keeping submarines’ movement stealth is key to their mission.

While the US military will frequently announce the deployment of aircraft carriers, it is far more careful when discussing the movement of nuclear submarines. Carriers are hard to miss, and that in part, is a reason the US military deploys them. They are a physical show of forces. Submarines are, at times, a furtive complement to the carriers, a hard-to-detect means of strategic deterrence.

Trump, new at the job, didn’t seem to realize that, or much of anything:

According to a transcript of the call, released Wednesday, Trump called Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte April 29 to discuss, in part, the rising threat from North Korea. During that call, while discussing ways to mitigate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions, Trump said: “We have two submarines – the best in the world – we have two nuclear submarines – not that we want to use them at all. I’ve never seen anything like they are but we don’t have to use this but [Kim] could be crazy so we will see what happens.”

During the same call, Trump also called the North Korea leader a “madman with nuclear weapons” and celebrated Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” even as the Filipino leader has supported the alleged extrajudicial killing of 8,000 people since taking office in June, part of his purge to rid his nation of drugs. Duterte has bragged about committing murder himself, called former President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and once threatened to suspend the bilateral agreement between his nation and the United States that allows US troops to visit the Philippines.

“Keep up the good work, you are doing an amazing job,” Trump told Duterte during the call.

That’s a judgment call – Duterte has bragged about committing murder himself – and that’s bad judgment. The whole thing was bad judgement:

By announcing the presence of nuclear submarines, the president, some Pentagon officials privately explained, gives away the element of surprise – an irony given his repeated declarations during the campaign that the US announces far too many of its military plans when it comes to combatting ISIS.

Moreover, some countries in the region, particularly China, seek to develop their anti-sub capability. Knowing that two US submarines are in the region could allow them to test their own military capabilities.

Finally, it is unclear why Duterte would need to know the specific number of subs in the region. The Philippines is not a part US military efforts to deter North Korea so why would Duterte need to know such details?

Donald Trump is an impulsive guy. That’s the only answer, and that’s trouble:

The reason behind the April 29 call is unclear. It began with Trump congratulating Duterte on his approach to tackling illicit drugs in the Philippines before discussing the emerging North Korean threat. It ended with Trump repeatedly urging Duterte to visit him in Washington.

“If you want to come to the Oval Office, I will love to have you in [the] Oval Office. Anytime you want to come,” Trump said, according to the transcript, later adding: “Work it out with your staff. Seriously, if you want to come over, just let us know.”

Most of our government is now explaining to Trump, slowly and carefully, using small words, that’s beyond unwise. Maybe he’ll get it, but that’s not all:

Theresa May will confront Donald Trump over the stream of leaks of crucial intelligence about the Manchester bomb attack when she meets the US president at a NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday.

British officials were infuriated on Wednesday when the New York Times published forensic photographs of sophisticated bomb parts that UK authorities fear could complicate the expanding investigation into the lethal blast in which six further arrests have been made in the UK and two more in Libya.

It was the latest of a series of leaks to US journalists that appeared to come from inside the US intelligence community, passing on data that had been shared between the two countries as part of a long-standing security cooperation.

A senior Whitehall source said: “These images from inside the American system are clearly distressing to victims, their families and other members of the public. Protests have been lodged at every relevant level between the British authorities and our US counterparts. They are in no doubt about our huge strength of feeling on this issue. It is unacceptable.”

Now our whole government is as careless and impulsive as Donald Trump:

Only hours earlier Amber Rudd, the home secretary, had rebuked the US security services for leaking the bomber’s name to American media before it had been made public in Britain, but her warnings appeared to have had no impact.

“I have been very clear with our friends that that should not happen again,” Rudd had said.

Theresa May will confront Donald Trump over this. He’ll stare blankly at her. What’s the problem? Leaders tell it like it is. The government he leads tells it like it is. Get over it, you silly woman.

And here at home, of course Obamacare will be gone, replaced by something wonderful – insurance for all, cheaper for everyone and covering everything. That was not a judicious thing to say, repeatedly, and now that’s gone south too:

Health-care legislation adopted by House Republicans earlier this month would leave 23 million more Americans uninsured by 2026 than under current law, the Congressional Budget Office projected Wednesday – only a million fewer than the estimate for the House’s previous bill.

The nonpartisan agency’s finding, which drew immediate fire from Democrats, patient advocates, health industry officials and some business groups, is likely to complicate Republicans’ push to pass a companion bill in the Senate.

The new score, which reflects last-minute revisions that Republicans made to win over several conservative lawmakers and a handful of moderates, calculates that the American Health Care Act would reduce the federal deficit by $119 billion between 2017 and 2026. That represents a smaller reduction than the $150 billion CBO estimated in late March, largely because House leaders provided more money in their final bill to offset costs for consumers with expensive medical conditions and included language that could translate to greater federal spending on health insurance subsidies.

There’s no getting this right. There’s only this:

Instead of addressing the future number of uninsured Americans under the Republican plan – projected to immediately jump in 2018 by 14 million – House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Wednesday chose to focus on the CBO’s estimate that premiums overall would fall under the AHCA.

“This CBO report again confirms that the American Health Care Act achieves our mission: lowering premiums and lowering the deficit,” Ryan said in a statement. “It is another positive step toward keeping our promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.”

That’s not quite true:

Congressional analysts concluded that one change to the House bill aimed at lowering premiums, by allowing states to opt out of some current insurance requirements, would encourage some employers to maintain coverage for their workers and get younger, healthier people to buy plans on their own. But those gains would be largely offset by consumers with preexisting conditions, who would face higher premiums than they do now.

“Their premiums would continue to increase rapidly,” the report found.

The CBO estimated that states seeking waivers to strip the ACA’s “essential health benefits” would affect roughly one-sixth of the population and that obtaining maternity coverage outside a basic plan, for example, “could be more than $1,000 per month.”

Sarah Kliff makes it simple:

There isn’t any magic to how the Republican bill cuts premiums. There is not a secret plan in here to lower the price of doctor visits or get people to use less health care. There is a plan to make health insurance so expensive for people who are sick and people who are old that they can no longer afford it.

Others get that:

Democrats and their allies have pilloried the American Health Care Act as a massive tax cut for the rich paid for by ripping away coverage from low-income Americans. Polling has shown the bill to be deeply unpopular, and Republicans have weathered combustible town hall meetings filled with angry constituents,

Democrats immediately blasted the bill in response to the much-anticipated CBO findings.

“No wonder the Republicans were afraid of the CBO analysis,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip. “Trumpcare 2.0 will still force millions of Americans to lose their health insurance, raise premiums, and put critical health care services beyond the reach of hard-working families. All of this to give a GOP tax cut to the wealthiest.”

“Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans want to bring us back to the days when health care was only for the healthy and wealthy,” echoed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in a statement. “This is President Trump’s and House Republicans’ brave new world. Less health care, less money in their constituents’ pockets.”

That’s painfully obvious now, but as David Weigel reports, those who ask about that will pay a price:

Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in Montana’s special congressional election, was accused Wednesday night of assaulting a reporter for the Guardian who had been trying to ask him a question. Gianforte, who is seen as the slight favorite in a race that ends Thursday, left what was supposed to be a final campaign rally, at his Bozeman headquarters, without making remarks.

The Gallatin County sheriff’s office said Wednesday evening that it was “currently investigating allegations of an assault involving Greg Gianforte.” At a press conference, Sheriff Brian Gootkin said that witnesses were still being interviewed, and that four other people had been present for the incident.

In an audio recording published by the Guardian, the reporter, Ben Jacobs, can be heard asking Gianforte to respond to the fresh Congressional Budget Office score of the American Health Care Act, a bill Gianforte has said he was glad to see the House of Representatives approve. According to Alexis Levinson, a reporter for BuzzFeed, Jacobs had followed the candidate into a room where a camera was set up for an interview, before the event began.

Asking about the new Congressional Budget Office score of the American Health Care Act set this Republican off:

“We’ll talk to you about that later,” Gianforte says in the audio.

“Yeah, but there’s not going to be time,” says Jacobs. “I’m just curious about it right now.”

After Gianforte tells Jacobs to direct the question to his spokesman, Shane Scanlon, there is the sound of an altercation, and Gianforte begins to scream.

“I’m sick and tired of you guys!” Gianforte says. “The last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here! Get the hell out of here! The last guy did the same thing. Are you with the Guardian?”

“Yes, and you just broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.

“The last guy did the same damn thing,” Gianforte says.

“You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses,” Jacobs says.

“Get the hell out of here,” Gianforte says.

After that, Jacobs can be heard on the tape promising to contact the police, which he did.

Donald Trump is not the only impulsive guy around, and even Fox News was not on his side:

In an article published Wednesday night, Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna wrote that Gianforte punched Jacobs after pulling him down.

“Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Acuna wrote. “At no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”

And then there’s civility:

Gianforte’s Democratic opponent Rob Quist heard about the incident while holding one of his final pre-election events at a campaign office in Missoula. After it wrapped, and before the audio was published, he told reporters that he would not comment on what happened.

“That’s a matter for law enforcement,” he said. “I’m just focused on the issues that are facing the people of Montana.”

Quist has mastered civility – maybe he read that odd leadership book – but that may not matter:

Some Democrats quietly fretted that the alleged assault would not change the race – or would help Gianforte with his base. Last month, a voter at a Gianforte town hall pointed out a reporter in the room; then, according to the Missoulian, the voter called the media “the enemy” and mimed the act of wringing a neck.

“It seems like there are more of us than there is of him,” commented Gianforte.

Gianforte may win this by being Donald Trump – even if he was formally charged with misdemeanor assault later that evening – but Nate Silver reports on some odd data:

A widely held tenet of the current conventional wisdom is that while President Trump might not be popular overall, he has a high floor on his support. Trump’s sizable and enthusiastic base – perhaps 35 to 40 percent of the country – won’t abandon him any time soon, the theory goes, and they don’t necessarily care about some of the controversies that the “mainstream media” treats as game-changing developments…

But the theory isn’t supported by the evidence. To the contrary, Trump’s base seems to be eroding. There’s been a considerable decline in the number of Americans who strongly approve of Trump, from a peak of around 30 percent in February to just 21 or 22 percent of the electorate now. (The decline in Trump’s strong approval ratings is larger than the overall decline in his approval ratings, in fact.) Far from having unconditional love from his base, Trump has already lost almost a third of his strong support. And voters who strongly disapprove of Trump outnumber those who strongly approve of him by about a 2-to-1 ratio, which could presage an “enthusiasm gap” that works against Trump at the midterms. The data suggests, in particular, that the GOP’s initial attempt (and failure) in March to pass its unpopular health care bill may have cost Trump with his core supporters.

In short, they took him seriously but not literally. His heart was in the right place – but now they don’t trust his judgment. More and more of them are not taking him seriously or literally. Nate Silver is right, no one expected this, and that could lead to all sorts of things.

Andy Borowitz suggests this:

Donald J. Trump’s foreign trip hit a snag on Tuesday, when the remaining countries on his itinerary announced that they would rather “wait a month” and meet with the next President instead.

“It makes no sense for us to roll out the red carpet for Trump when there is going to be a completely different guy in the White House in a month,” Hendrik van der Valde, a travel minister for the Belgian government, said. “We very much look forward to hosting the next U.S. President, be it Mike Pence or Paul Ryan or whoever.”

Citing the exorbitant costs of hosting a President, the Belgian said it “would be insane” to spend such sums on someone who “only has a few weeks left” in office.

“When a President comes to your country, you have to feed not only him but a whole plane full of people that he brings,” the minister added. “Jared Kushner, for example, eats a ton, and no one even knows what he does.”

That’s satire. Or it’s not. When no one takes a leader seriously or literally, that leader’s days are numbered. One can hope.

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No Free Lunch for You

On May 17, 2012, Mitt Romney said a few things that finally surfaced on September 17, 2012, when excerpts from a video recorded on hidden camera were published by Mother Jones. Romney, speaking at a private fifty-grand-a-plate fundraiser at hedge fund manager Marc Leder’s mansion in Boca Raton, was caught on tape saying that forty-seven percent of Americans are useless parasites, who think the government owes them something, as if this is some sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble, when these losers should take care of themselves, damn it. They have no sense of personal responsibility and never will have – they are simply morally inadequate. Maybe they were born that way. There was no point in trying to get their vote. He didn’t want their vote anyway.

Those remarks were meant to be private, but it’s just as well that they surfaced and were discussed endlessly. They clarified matters. One side did hold that government is not some sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble. It can’t be, if freedom means anything at all. Government exists to provide the freedom to succeed, or fail, and then gets out of the way – or it should. There’s no free lunch. Deal with it.

Obama, however, had run on the idea that our government really is sort of cooperative where everyone chips in to cover those who run into trouble – we’ve got each other’s backs. He’d been saying that since 2004 when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention in Boston, where John Kerry was nominated. Some called that socialism, the most evil thing any American could ever propose, while others called it patriotism and a sense of community, a sense that we’re one people, almost family perhaps.

Obama won that argument in 2008, but the nation was still split on that. Four years later, Romney’s comments on that one odd evening, made in private, made the two ways of looking at government explicit. Romney tried to walk those comments back a bit but got all tongue-tied the more he tried. He wasn’t heartless. He understood that “those people” were in trouble. He’d make sure they got jobs, or something, but the damage was done. It’s hard to go back and obfuscate what you just made quite clear.

Romney’s gripe was with the loathsome forty-seven percent, the poor and working poor who paid no federal income tax – the morally reprehensible takers. It wasn’t fair. The people who had made something of their lives had to pay for everything, and it was time for the “takers” to pay up. The people who had made something of their lives were getting ripped off. This was theft from the job creators, the makers, the doers – the morally responsible folks who had been rewarded for their moral responsibility with the hard-earned comforts of life. That had to stop. Ayn Rand said so. And Mitt Romney lost the election.

This argument will never end, of course, because it’s being made again:

The Trump administration is billing its budget as a plan to “reform the welfare system” and replace “dependency with dignity of work,” while saving $274 billion over 10 years, according to a four-page memo obtained by POLITICO.

The White House budget, to be released Tuesday, will suggest taking an ax to safety net programs like food stamps and popular family benefits like the child tax credit, in order to achieve the ambitious goal of balancing the federal budget over a decade.

So, morally reprehensible dependency will be replaced by the dignity of work, assuming there are jobs for everyone, and on schedule, the budget was released:

President Trump on Tuesday proposed dramatic changes to the role of the federal government, issuing a budget plan that culls or eliminates numerous programs that the White House says are a waste of money or create too much dependency.

Some of these programs – including Medicaid and the modern version of food stamps – provide benefits to up to a fifth of all Americans, and the breadth of the cuts has rattled lawmakers from both parties who have warned that the reductions go too far.

For Trump, his $4.094 trillion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in October marks his first exercise in spelling out – in great detail – how he wants the government to change. White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney called the plan a “Taxpayer First Budget,” and he said they worked to jettison any spending that they felt they could not defend. In total, this meant roughly $3.6 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years.

That’s the Romney argument, framed as Taxpayers First – the makers not the takers – but all will be just fine:

These cuts, White House officials said, would usher in a sustained period of strong economic growth that would increase wealth, create more jobs and reduce poverty.

And in the meantime:

Funding for Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income Americans and many people in nursing homes, would be cut by more than $800 billion over 10 years. Funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a modern version of food stamps that provided benefits to 44 million people in 2016, would be cut 29 percent. In many cases, a higher burden of paying for anti-poverty programs would be shifted away from the federal government and onto the states.

Mulvaney said too many of these programs spend other people’s money. He said the government should show “compassion” for low-income Americans but it should “also have compassion for folks who are paying for it.”

Call it Romney’s Revenge, or like Jamelle Bouie, call it a scam just like Trump University:

If you followed Trump’s presidential campaign, you might assume that his budget would reflect his promise to put “America first,” with a focus on ordinary people and their needs. Indeed, along with attacks on Muslims and immigrants, Trump made specific promises: That he would provide cheaper, more comprehensive health care; that he would protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; that he would raise wages and provide new jobs. People believed him, and millions backed his campaign, confident that he would steer government for their benefit.

This was a scam too. There is no relief coming. No help with health care or jobs. Instead, if Trump and his team could govern by fiat, they would siphon trillions of dollars from the federal government to fill the coffers of the wealthiest people in the country, breaking his promises and immiserating millions of low-income and working Americans of all political stripes.

That’s out there in plain sight:

President Trump’s budget includes roughly $2.5 trillion in cuts to anti-poverty programs, spaced out over a 10-year period. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – otherwise known as “food stamps” – loses $191 billion. Between the Republican health plan – included in the proposal – and a set of additional cuts that reduce eligibility and shrink year-over-year funding, Medicaid loses nearly $1.5 trillion, or just more than 47 percent of its budget over the next decade, an unfathomable blow to low-income families, children, and the elderly.

There’s that forty-seven percent again and then there’s this:

The earned income tax credit and child tax credit – which provide needed relief to millions of working families – lose $40.4 billion. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, “welfare,” loses $21.6 billion, further slashing an already stingy and tough-minded program. Disability insurance and Supplemental Security Income, two key parts of Social Security that provide assistance to poor seniors and people with disabilities, lose $72 billion. On top of all of this, Trump’s budget makes substantial cuts to job-training programs, rental assistance, heating assistance for the elderly, education, and projects at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as funding for rural health and substance-abuse programs. It doesn’t just slash the social safety net; it douses it in fuel and sets it ablaze.

And of course this is a Tea Party thing:

Trump’s budget is the brainchild of Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. Prior to his service in the administration, Mulvaney was a congressman, representing the 5th District of South Carolina and leading the House Freedom Caucus, which he co-founded. More than anything else, this proposal reflects the cruel, Ayn Randian ideology that animates the Freedom Caucus and the larger Tea Party movement. To use the language of a somewhat younger Paul Ryan, it takes from “takers” and gives to “makers,” a fact Mulvaney neither hides nor shies away from.

“This is, I think, the first time in a long time that an administration has written a budget through the eyes of the people who are actually paying the taxes,” he said.

Somewhere, in Utah or out here in La Jolla, Mitt Romney is smiling:

Every working American contributes to the federal government, whether through payroll taxes or income taxes. But Trump and Mulvaney’s plan is to relieve the wealthy of their share. Next to the cuts, the centerpiece of this budget is a $3 trillion to $7 trillion tax cut for the richest Americans that lowers the individual rate, repeals taxes on investment income, ends the alternative minimum tax – which limits the deductions wealthy people can take – and slashes corporate taxes, as well as creating a massive new loophole for wealthy owners of partnerships and “sole proprietorships,” like incidentally, Donald Trump.

This may be classic scam:

Millions of Americans cast their ballots in November thinking they’d get the best possible “deal” from a hard-charging president who cares about people like them. What they will receive – or at least, what he wants to offer – is highway robbery. He will pick their pockets to give benefits to his wealthy backers. It is shocking, but it’s not a surprise. This is who Trump was when he ripped off his contractors; it was who he was when sold a scam university to hopeful, desperate people; and it is who he is as president of the United States. Unfortunately, we now have to live with it.

Jordan Weissmann, however, doesn’t blame Trump:

For starters, there’s a good chance our president doesn’t really understand the contents of the proposal going out under his name – recall that this is the man who couldn’t even be bothered to learn what was in the House healthcare bill he lobbied for. Trump won’t even be in the country when the budget is released. While that may just be a timing coincidence, it also feels aptly symbolic of the president’s personal investment in the proposal. It seems highly unlikely he truly cares much about whether most of the budget’s contents pass.

You might instead think of Trump’s first full budget – as is traditional for new administrations, the White House released a partial “skinny budget” in March – as a permission slip. It is essentially a stack of papers telling Republicans that they are free to go wild butchering essential pieces of the safety net in order to fund extraordinary tax cuts for the wealthy and increased defense spending…

He’s granting Paul Ryan permission to cut away. And that, ultimately, is what makes Trump’s budget so frightening. Even if the whole package probably isn’t going to become a reality, it’s still a sign that he won’t stop Republicans enacting whatever rash part of their agenda they manage to legislate. And while they may be more hesitant to pass dramatic cuts to some programs now that they’re actually in power and liable to suffer the electoral consequences – many come from farm states that tend to like food stamp spending, for instance – the GOP now has an empty suit in the oval office who’s apparently willing to bring their most extreme ideas to life. He might not even bother to read them first.

No one seems to have read this idea, as Jonathan Chait points out a problem with the basic math:

Trump has promised to enact “the biggest tax cut in history.” Trump’s administration has insisted, however, that the largest tax cut in history will not reduce revenue, because it will unleash growth. That is itself a wildly fanciful assumption. But that assumption has already become a baseline of the administration’s budget math. Trump’s budget assumes the historically YUGE tax cuts will not lose any revenue for this reason – the added growth it will supposedly generate will make up for all the lost revenue.

But then the budget assumes $2 trillion in higher revenue from growth in order to achieve balance after ten years. So the $2 trillion from higher growth is a double-count. It pays for the Trump cuts, and then it pays again for balancing the budget. Or, alternatively, Trump could be assuming that his tax cuts will not only pay for themselves but generate $2 trillion in higher revenue. But Trump has not claimed his tax cuts will recoup more than 100 percent of their lost revenue, so it’s simply an embarrassing mistake.

Mick Mulvaney now says he’ll look into that, but Chait Is not impressed:

It seems difficult to imagine how this administration could figure out how to design and pass a tax cut that could pay for itself when Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush failed to come anywhere close to doing so. If there is a group of economic minds with the special genius to accomplish this historically unprecedented feat, it is probably not the fiscal minds who just made a $2 trillion basic arithmetic error.

Ah, but there is another group of economic minds:

More than 35 American economists surveyed last week by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business disagree with a basic element of President Trump’s proposed tax plan: whether it will pay for itself. In an unusual display of unity, 100 percent of participating economists rejected the idea this week that Trump’s plans to drastically lower taxes on corporations, business, and individuals will create enough economic growth to offset the lost federal revenue and avoid adding to the national debt.

Michael Grunwald puts that a bit more colorfully:

I have a plan to dunk a basketball. First, I’ll grow a foot taller. Next, I’ll recapture the athleticism of my youth, so I can jump a lot higher. I didn’t say I had a serious plan – just a plan.

Today, the Trump administration released a plan to balance the federal budget over the next decade, and it’s no more plausible than my plan to become LeBron James. It does reveal the administration’s fiscal priorities, like deep cuts in spending on the less fortunate and the environment, no cuts to Medicare or Social Security retirement benefits, steady increases in spending on the military and the border, and an abiding faith in the restorative miracles of tax cuts for corporations and well-off families. But its claim to a balanced bottom line is based on a variety of heroic assumptions and hide-the-ball evasions, obscuring trillions of dollars’ worth of debt that it could pile onto America’s credit card.

That is an issue:

Budget proposals always involve some guesswork into the unknowable, and administrations routinely massage numbers to their political advantage. But this proposal is unusually brazen in its defiance of basic math, and in its accounting discrepancies amounting to trillions-with-a-t rather than mere millions or billions. One maneuver in President Donald Trump’s budget arguably waves away an estimated $5.5 trillion in additions to the national debt from tax cuts, nearly $20,000 for every American alive today, enough to fund the Environmental Protection Agency at current spending levels for nearly 700 years. Trump critics in the budget-wonk world are pointing to another $2 trillion of red ink as a blatant math error – or, less charitably, as an Enron-style accounting fraud.

Or it’s something else:

Ultimately, the Trump budget reads like a corporate prospectus for a shady widget manufacturer who claims that cutting widget prices will spark a massive surge in widget sales, while also promising major cutbacks in ineffective widget salesmen and unnecessary widget costs. It doesn’t pencil out. And it’s worth understanding the main reasons it doesn’t pencil out, because soon Republicans in Congress will get to use their own pencils.

Sure, but Republicans in Congress have whipped out their pencils – stop giggling at that image – and cannot make this work:

President Trump’s proposal to cut federal spending by more than $3.6 trillion over the next decade – including deep reductions for programs that help the poor – faced harsh criticism in Congress on Tuesday, where even many Republicans said the White House had gone too far.

While some fiscally conservative lawmakers, particularly in the House, found a lot to praise in Trump’s plan to balance the budget within 10 years, most Republicans flatly rejected the White House proposal. The divide sets up a clash between House conservatives and a growing number of Senate Republicans who would rather work with Democrats on a spending deal than entertain Trump’s deep cuts.

“This is kind of the game,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “We know that the president’s budget won’t pass as proposed.”

Horrors! They’re willing if not eager to work with Democrats on all this, because there are real horrors here:

Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), chairman of the hardline Freedom Caucus, said he was encouraged by early reports of new curbs on food stamps, family welfare and other spending. But he said he draws the line on cuts to Meals on Wheels, a charity that Mulvaney earlier this year suggested was ineffective.

“I’ve delivered meals to a lot of people that perhaps it’s their only hot meal of the day,” Meadows said. “And so I’m sure there’s going to be some give and take, but to throw out the entire budget just because you disagree with some of the principles would be inappropriate.”

There is going to be some give and take:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he backs Trump’s proposal for a temporary burst of new defense spending, which White House officials say would allow them to add 56,400 service members in 2018. But he worries that Trump would finance those increases by cutting critical programs like the National Institutes of Health.

“My number one goal is to have a more balanced budget,” said Graham, who also endorsed the idea of entering into spending talks with Democrats. “NIH is a national treasure, and it would be hurt, too.”

These two sound like Mitt Romney five years ago. He walked back that forty-seven percent thing. He wasn’t heartless. He understood that “those people” were in trouble. Say there’s no free lunch and some people will starve. Basic medical research into diseases that could kill us all, that private industry won’t do because there’s no money to be made in the generalized basic underlying research, is a good thing too. There are makers and takers – there always will be – but there’s common sense and common decency. Obama actually won that argument long ago. Donald Trump is about to discover that.

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Political Landscaping

A major terrorist attack has a masking effect – all other news disappears. The world is a dangerous place, more dangerous than it’s ever been – maybe. Hitler tried to eat the world. The Japanese tried to eat their half of the world. The Soviet Union had enough nukes to end the world, and we had even more. Danger is relative – but of course we need to do something. No one quite knows what that is, but this was Manchester and these are the British. They will no doubt “keep calm and carry on” – they always do – the legacy of the Blitz and all that.

Americans don’t “keep calm and carry on” – Americans fret – and President Trump has just thrown our lot in with Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf States, and Egypt, against Iran, those damned Shiites. This is a bit absurd – ISIS and al-Qaeda are Sunni terrorist groups. Iran fights them. Iran despises them. The government we settled for in Iraq is Shiite too – chummy with Iran now – so we spent two or three trillion dollars and sacrificed five thousand American lives to set up a Shiite government there. We created and now support an ally of Iran.

Oops. And now Iran has overwhelming reelected a moderate leader who wants to open up to the West and try to calm things down. Yes, Iran is a theocracy, but it’s also a democracy. Iran has elections. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. They don’t have elections. They never will – but we’ve thrown in our lot with them – and they’re Sunnis, like ISIS and al-Qaeda. ISIS and al-Qaeda get a lot of money from Saudi clerics and private citizens. Go figure – but something had to be done, and this was something, so President Trump did this – even if there’s something terribly wrong with that syllogism. We must do something. X is something. We must do X. Trump never took symbolic logic.

That is, however, the big story. This terrorist attack will eat up more than a few news cycles, but that only masks what’s really shifting here at home. It seems the Civil War is ending:

A Mississippi state lawmaker is under fire after calling for the lynching of leaders who supported the recent removal of Confederate monuments in Louisiana.

In a Facebook post published Saturday night, Mississippi Rep. Karl Oliver went on a diatribe about the controversial statues in his neighboring state, which have been taken down in recent weeks:

“The destruction of these monuments, erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific. If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED! Let it be known, I will do all in my power to prevent this from happening in our State.”

Fine, but on Monday afternoon his office issued this statement:

I, first and foremost, wish to extend this apology for any embarrassment I have caused to both my colleagues and fellow Mississippians. In an effort to express my passion for preserving all historical monuments, I acknowledge the word “lynched” was wrong. I am very sorry. It is in no way, ever, an appropriate term. I deeply regret that I chose this word, and I do not condone the actions I referenced, nor do I believe them in my heart. I freely admit my choice of words was horribly wrong, and I humbly ask your forgiveness.

The South will not rise again. Billie Holiday will not need to sing Strange Fruit again – which is fine, because she died in 1959 – and that wasn’t all:

The Supreme Court struck down two North Carolina congressional districts on Monday, ruling that lawmakers had violated the Constitution by relying too heavily on race in drawing them, in a decision that could affect many voting maps, generally in the South.

The decision was handed down by an unusual coalition of justices, and was the latest in a series of setbacks for Republican-led legislatures. In recent cases concerning legislative maps in Alabama and Virginia, as well, the Supreme Court has insisted that packing black voters into a few districts – which dilutes their voting power – violates the Constitution.

The South will not rise again:

The ruling on Monday was the second Supreme Court victory for North Carolina Democrats this month. Last Monday, the justices declined to hear an appeal of a decision that had struck down parts of a restrictive North Carolina voting law that, among other things, tightened voter identification requirements and cut back on early voting.

A federal appeals court had ruled that the restrictions were an unconstitutional effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The Supreme Court will soon consider yet another North Carolina election law appeal, this one from a federal trial court’s decision that found some of the state’s General Assembly districts had been tainted by unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.

The American “political landscape” is changing – no more trees with strange fruit, even metaphorically – and Mark Joseph Stern adds this:

The broad ruling will likely have ripple effects on litigation across the country, helping plaintiffs establish that state legislatures unlawfully injected race into redistricting. And, in a welcome change, the decision did not split along familiar ideological lines: Justice Clarence Thomas joined the four liberal justices to create a majority, following his race-blind principles of equal protection to an unusually progressive result.

That was odd, but maybe not that odd:

It may seem puzzling that Thomas, of all justices, cast the deciding vote to give the liberals a majority. But really, his vote should not have been a surprise at all. Thomas is arguably the most consistent justice on racial gerrymandering: He opposes it no matter its ostensible purpose. In the 1990s, Thomas disapproved of race-conscious redistricting designed to empower black Democrats; today, he objects to race-conscious redistricting designed to empower white Republicans. While liberals and conservatives switched sides, Thomas stuck to his guns. And on Monday, his consistency handed Democrats – and the principle of equality – a remarkable victory.

Things are setting down, and in more ways than one:

For the first time in its history, MSNBC ranked number one in both total viewers and the key adults 25-54 demographic during primetime for a full week among the big three cable news networks, according to Nielsen data.

For the week of May 15, MSNBC averaged 2.44 million viewers with 611,000 in the key demo from 8 p.m.-11 p.m., beating out CNN and Fox News in both measures. In total day viewership for the week, CNN has ranked number one in cable news among adults 25-54 for six straight days (May 14-19), marking the network’s longest winning streak in that measure in six years. Fox News finished first in total viewers with 1.5 million and second in the demo with 321,000. MSNBC was second in total viewers with 1.2 million total viewers and third in the demo with 281,000. CNN finished third in total viewers with 1.05 million but first in the demo with 353,000.

In addition, Fox News ranked number three in primetime in the key demographic for five straight days with 497,000 viewers, the longest streak at number three the network has had in that measure in 17 years, since June 2000.

That hurts, but this hurts even more:

Four primetime MSNBC programs were number one for the week in total viewers in their respective time periods: “The Rachel Maddow Show,” “Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell”, “The 11th Hour” and the midnight re-air of “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Maddow had the top ranked non-sports program in all of cable for the week.

The tall and cheery young lesbian nerd with her PhD from Oxford is killing it, and from Mashable there’s this:

The win also comes as scandal plagues Fox News. The channel is now without its most popular primetime host, Bill O’Reilly, who was unceremoniously let go after a recent series of sexual harassment allegations. The channel is also without Megyn Kelly, who was hired away by NBC. Fox News is also without its founder, the late Roger Ailes, who was also ousted following sexual harassment allegations.

MSNBC has taken advantage of Fox’s struggles as well as a particularly bizarre news cycle. With the Trump administration generating what feels like a scandal a day, the channel’s left-leaning coverage has become a destination for viewers.

Fox News, meanwhile, has done its best to shield its viewers from Trump’s missteps. It has instead been giving more time to conspiracy theories.

That is not going well:

Fox News staffers are growing increasingly dismayed as network star Sean Hannity and others continue to promote the unfounded conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered last year for talking to WikiLeaks.

The Daily Beast spoke to nearly a dozen reporters, pundits, and hosts inside Fox News who all conveyed the same sentiment: Hannity is “embarrassing” the network, and the promotion of the Rich conspiracy theory is senselessly cruel to a grieving family.

“ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!” one Fox News political reporter, who says they are furious that the conservative cable-news giant is entertaining the conspiracy theory, messaged The Daily Beast when informed of recent coverage.

The whole thing was bullshit all along:

The theory that the Hillary Clinton political machine had Seth Rich, 27, murdered because he allegedly had contact with WikiLeaks has been fodder for pro-Trump trolls on Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter for months. No actual evidence exists proving the theory – beyond conspiratorial innuendo from trolls and Julian Assange – and Washington, D.C. police suspected that Rich was killed last summer in a botched robbery in the neighborhood.

And yet the conspiracy came back to Hannity’s attention last week when Fox regular Rod Wheeler, a private investigator allegedly hired by a Trump-supporting millionaire, claimed that proof existed of Rich’s contacts with WikiLeaks. Fox 5 D.C. ran with his assertion, as did FoxNews.com. Major players in viral conservative media including Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, and The Drudge Report immediately latched onto this as a smoking gun.

Hours later, the story began to crumble.

Wheeler since rescinded the claim after the Rich family sent him a cease-and-desist letter. The family, via a spokesman, has additionally pleaded with Hannity and others to stop “manipulating the legacy of a murder victim in order to forward their own political agenda.”

Now no one there is happy:

Multiple sources said that hard-news reporters and staffers at the network are aghast at the network’s ongoing coddling of the baseless story and wonder why it has been allowed to continue.

“The other reporters I’ve talked to about this are similarly pissed about the whole thing,” another Fox reporter said. “Some find it embarrassing, others downright heartless to spread this.”

“It’s just gross,” the reporter added.

The American “political landscape” really is changing:

Several staffers said there exists a general sense of exhaustion from the network’s endless stream of controversies, from sexual-harassment and racial-discrimination lawsuits to the scandal-plagued ousting of several executives and primetime stars.

“Mostly we’re keeping our heads down,” one politics reporter told The Daily Beast.

“I mean, have you seen some of the stuff we put on air?” the reporter continued.

Everyone has, but at least to mask all that they can report on the Manchester terrorist attack for a few days. Hannity will blame that on Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or Rachel Maddow – and fewer and fewer people will watch Fox News.

Many will still watch, but this will be hard to mask:

President Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials.

Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.

Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications with the president.

Yes, the Washington Post had another scoop:

Trump sought the assistance of Coats and Rogers after FBI Director James B. Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on March 20 that the FBI was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”

Trump’s conversation with Rogers was documented contemporaneously in an internal memo written by a senior NSA official, according to the officials. It is unclear if a similar memo was prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to document Trump’s conversation with Coats. Officials said such memos could be made available to both the special counsel now overseeing the Russia investigation and congressional investigators, who might explore whether Trump sought to impede the FBI’s work.

Trump seems to want to be impeached, or he has no impulse-control:

White House officials say Comey’s testimony about the scope of the FBI investigation upset Trump, who has dismissed the FBI and congressional investigations as a “witch hunt.” The president has repeatedly said there was no collusion.

Current and former senior intelligence officials viewed Trump’s requests as an attempt by the president to tarnish the credibility of the agency leading the Russia investigation.

Trump may have not thought about that, but he should have thought about that:

Senior intelligence officials also saw the March requests as a threat to the independence of U.S. spy agencies, which are supposed to remain insulated from partisan issues.

“The problem wasn’t so much asking them to issue statements, it was asking them to issue false statements about an ongoing investigation,” a former senior intelligence official said of the request to Coats.

But wait, there’s more:

In addition to the requests to Coats and Rogers, senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. The officials said the White House appeared uncertain about its power to influence the FBI.

“Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?” one official said of the line of questioning from the White House.

The answer was no, given this town’s history:

Trump’s effort to use the director of national intelligence and the NSA director to dispute Comey’s statement and to say there was no evidence of collusion echoes President Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA. Smith called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power.”

To be generous, maybe Trump didn’t realize that, but Kevin Drum isn’t generous:

Trump is not only corrupt, he’s an unbelievable moron. He personally asked the NSA director and the overall director of national intelligence to publicly weigh in on an ongoing investigation. Not only that, he basically asked them to lie, since they weren’t privy to what the FBI was doing. In what universe did Trump think that either of them would respond positively to such a blunt request? Or that this kind of thing wouldn’t leak?

What’s more, in addition to directly asking Comey to shut down the FBI investigation, he apparently had some of his aides call senior intelligence officers to ask them to intervene with Comey.

Drum sees two big questions here:

What is Trump afraid the investigation will find? Whatever it is, apparently Michael Flynn is afraid of it too.

When do the impeachment proceedings begin?

If there really are contemporaneous memos from Comey, Rogers, and maybe Coats, and if all three can be called to testify about their conversations with Trump, then what more do we need? This is Nixon-level stuff.

Callum Borchers, however, is not surprised by this:

Trump’s request might have been out of bounds, but it was not out of the blue. Asking others to do his dirty work has been the president’s MO since his first full day in office.

The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin reported in January that on the morning after Inauguration Day, Trump personally asked the acting director of the National Park Service to produce photos that would make Trump’s inaugural crowd appear as large as possible and combat the media’s (accurate) reporting that attendance had been smaller than it was for Barack Obama’s swearing in, in 2009.

When the New York Times and CNN reported in February that members of Trump’s campaign team had been in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials throughout the election, the White House asked the FBI and several lawmakers to push back on the stories. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees, agreed but the FBI declined.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged the request in a Feb. 27 press briefing, saying that the FBI “came to the conclusion that they did not want to get in the process of knocking down every story that they had issues with.”

Earlier this month, Trump enlisted Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to compose a memo that was later used to justify the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director. Multiple White House spokespeople told the media that Trump acted on Rosenstein’s recommendation; Then Trump admitted in an interview with NBC News that he “was going to fire Comey regardless of recommendation.” Rosenstein also told senators last week that he knew Trump’s decision had been made in advance.

Rosenstein might not have known that the White House would frame his memo as the catalyst for Comey’s termination, however. The Post reported that Rosenstein threatened to quit over the way his letter was presented to journalists, though he later denied that he contemplated resignation.

Borchers says it’s easy to see what’s going on here:

It all adds up to a pattern that is consistent with Trump’s fixation on loyalty. He wants and expects the people around him to defend him at every turn, even when it means misleading reporters and the public.

The good news is that several recipients of Trump’s requests have been principled enough to turn them down.

There really are those principled enough to do that, and Megan McArdle offers what a conservative now sees from inside Trump’s Washington:

I’d venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can’t, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers “have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.” They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.

They can also compare what they’re hearing to what they heard, both on and off the record, during the last Republican administration. Even in Bush’s final days, when the financial crisis was in full swing and his approval ratings hovered around 25 percent, there was nothing like this level of dysfunction inside the White House, this frenzy of backbiting leakage.

So even though they agree with conservative outsiders that the media skews very liberal, and take all its pronouncements about Republicans with a heavy sprinkling of salt, they know that the reports of this administration’s dysfunction aren’t all media hype. They have seen the media report on their own work, and that of their friends; they know what sort of things that bias distorts, and what it doesn’t. Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor. They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve – from the top on down – and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff – which is why the entire city, left to right, is watching the unfolding drama with mouth agape and heads shaking.

They see the current political landscape – a barren wasteland – and McArdle says they see something else:

Here’s the final thing that they know: that if you want to do anything big in Washington, there’s a lot of smaller stuff that has to happen first. You don’t write code or build a building without a lot of stuff that probably seems expensive and unnecessary to the customers, and our product requires similarly careful planning and management.

Some of the hoops that a president’s staff must jump through are legally required; some of them are simply necessary to make sure that your bill doesn’t explode on the steps of the Capitol, or die a gruesome public death in the Supreme Court. They include: appointing policy staff; deciding on policy goals, strategy and tactics; keeping the staff from descending into the infighting that inevitably besets any large organization; providing regular oversight of evolving policies to make sure they adhere to the president’s goals; setting up channels and a process to get input from Congress and legal advisers; writing a very detailed plan that provides guidance to staff and legislators, and reassurance to the public; and having your political and communications strategy lined up long before you roll out that plan. Insiders know that this process looks cumbrous and unnecessary to outsiders; they also know that getting majorities in Congress, and legislation that will survive a court challenge, is a Herculean task that cannot be completed without many thousands of people devoting many thousands of hours to these labors.

That’s not happening, because it can’t happen:

What conservatives in Washington also know is that the Trump administration hasn’t even completed the first step. And that political capital, vital to pushing a policy forward against the inevitably fierce resistance from special interests, is a rapidly depreciating asset. Which is why they know one more thing: that unless something changes, Trump poses no threat to the establishment, other than the same risk that they’d face from any ordinary Republican president — that the unpopularity of the man in the Oval Office will dribble down-ticket, and cost them seats in the next election.

And that’s that. There will be talk of that Manchester terrorist attack for a few days, but that will pass. The Brits will keep calm and carry on. Here, where no one is calm, and proud of it, what that event masks will appear again – a political landscape laid waste by Donald Trump. He was in the landscaping business all along – and he made Rachel Maddow a star. Things do change.

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A Royal Pain

The Dark Ages were dark. The Roman Empire had collapsed. Civilization had collapsed. There were raiding hoards everywhere – Visigoths and Vikings and whatnot – and all the knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome disappeared. Arab (Muslim) scholars saved the texts they could find and carried on – inventing algebra among other things – but everyone else was in the dark. No one knew anything – except what the Church said was so, and what the local king said was so – and neither could be questioned. They spoke for God – the local king was king by “divine right” after all – and heresy was punishable by death.

Don’t ask questions. And how was anyone going to learn anything anyway? Guttenberg and his printing press were a long way off. The Renaissance helped a bit – but that had more to do with the arts. The Reformation helped a bit – but that only slightly dislodged the authority of the Catholic Church, in favor of other Christians who would say that what they said was so and couldn’t be questioned. Blame Guttenberg for that. Too many Bibles had been printed in too many translations. That changed things. Zealots read those. Soon everyone was an authority, who spoke for God, and everyone else was a heretic. It was most unpleasant. The Thirty Years’ War was unpleasant. Things are still tense in Belfast.

Things didn’t change until The Enlightenment – the Age of Reason – roughly between 1715, the year that Louis XIV died, and 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. The idea was new. Reason was the primary source of authority and legitimacy, not the church or any king. Thoughtful men (and a few women) could figure out what’s what. Citizens could figure out the best way to run their own nation. This pitted individual liberty and religious tolerance against any absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, or any church. It was time for liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state – for a change. We put all that in our Constitution and the French put that in their Declaration of the Rights of Man of the Citizen – because the Dark Ages were finally over.

Cool – but the Dark Ages aren’t over everywhere. There are still absolute monarchies. There’s Saudi Arabia, run by one family, one king, where every minister of this or that is a son or brother or cousin or uncle of the king, except for a few absurdly wealthy businessmen, who keep the royal family absurdly wealthy. Saudi citizens don’t count. Women have no real rights – they can’t even drive – and criminals, and heretics, are stoned to death in the public square. Gay men are tossed to their deaths from rooftops. Don’t ask questions. The Dark Ages live on there. It’s as if the eighteenth century, and America, never happened.

Donald Trump may be out to prove that the eighteenth century, and America, never happened. Experts on authoritarianism are terrified by him – unless he’s too incompetent to pull it off – but everyone agrees he would be king if he could. That may be why his first state visit was to Saudi Arabia.

He felt comfortable, and they’re no dummies. They know the man. They treated him like a king:

Trump was received like visiting royalty from the moment Air Force One touched down in Riyadh Saturday morning, after an all-night flight from Washington, where he hoped to leave behind the growing Russia scandal threatening his presidency.

In a series of official arrival ceremonies – at the airport and the Royal Court palace – Trump, his wife, Melania, and an entourage including virtually his entire senior White House staff and some of his Cabinet, were serenaded by military bands, treated to a flyover of Saudi jets, feted in opulent palaces and given the undivided attention of King Salman, the ruler of this ultra-conservative Muslim nation.

As Trump arrived at Murabba Palace for a royal dinner, hundreds of Saudi men in long, white robes danced the Ardha, a traditional sword dance that is performed on Saudi National Day and in honor of special guests.

Trump, grinning broadly at the festivities, waded in and took a few obligatory dips in the dance. Several of Trump’s male aides, along with Salman, participated with more enthusiasm. Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross raised swords and linked arms with Saudis, chanting to the beat of feathered drums, while Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn also laughed and swayed.

American country star Toby Keith performed at a men’s-only concert in Riyadh on Saturday night, coinciding with Trump’s visit. As Trump and Salman were driven in a golf cart around the palace after dinner, the president trained his eyes on a jumbo screen playing the live concert.

The ebullient welcome reflected a kingdom eager to rekindle its relationship with the United States, and to use the visit to declare and solidify its own leadership role in the Muslim world.

They humored him:

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, rolled out the red carpet treatment in anticipation for President Trump and Melania Trump’s arrival early Saturday morning.

The luxury hotel projected portraits of Trump and King Salman onto the building, both images stretching five floors each. The Ritz’s decor features gold fixtures, a large lobby and other features similar to Las Vegas hotels.

They know the man. He’s one of them. In the Los Angeles Times, Molly Hennessy-Fiske explains that:

While Trump has taken heat from Muslims in the U.S. for his anti-terrorism travel ban and his overtures to Israel, here in the Gulf, the conservative Arab sheikdoms are welcoming the new administration as a return to transactional diplomacy in the Middle East.

The White House they see now is presided over by a strong leader – a model that Gulf monarchs recognize from their own governing styles – and if Trump surrounds himself with business-friendly family members high in his administration, well, so do they.

This is about business:

Key to this weekend’s meetings with Trump and his team, as Arab leaders see it, will be identifying opportunities to do business and cut diplomacy deals.

Traveling with the Trump team will be dozens of U.S. business leaders, including the heads of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Dow Chemical and General Electric.

Nearly 40 heads of state from across the Islamic world, joined by Arab business leaders, are also expected to gather to see what Trump has to offer.

Saudi Aramco, the national oil giant that is preparing to open itself to outside investment for the first time next year, will be talking deals with U.S. oil services companies.

If so, screw the citizens:

Saudis, at least at the official level, appear eager to move past the Obama administration’s focus on human rights, including its frequent talk of promoting the standing of women in a kingdom where their ability to vote, run for office, own property, travel and even drive is less than that of men…

The president successfully hosted several Arab leaders earlier this year, including Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, a former general criticized for jailing dissidents and other rights violations.

“Trump is a welcome change from Barack Obama because he does not remind them, does not pressure them, about American values and ideas about human rights and democracy. This president is a hardcore realist: He just doesn’t care. This goes well with many leaders in this part of the world,” Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics said.

Trump has already impressed Gulf Arab leaders by escalating the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and supporting the Saudi fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Kevin Drum puts that this way:

As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, Trump’s anti-Muslim rabble-rousing is just red meat for the American rubes. They don’t take anything Trump says seriously, only what he does. And what’s clear is that (a) Trump’s personal brand of corruption is reassuringly Middle Eastern, (b) he hates Iran, (c) he’s not going to harass the Saudis over trivia like human rights, and (d) he doesn’t care how brutal they get in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

That’s it. That’s all they care about. Trump isn’t bringing in more business and he’s not selling them more arms. Nor is his actual policy toward Iran and Yemen more than a few degrees different from Obama’s. He’s just carrying it out with no strings attached. They like that.

They liked his big speech too, and Peter Beinart explains how odd that was:

Donald Trump appears to have envisioned his speech on Sunday in Riyadh as an answer to Barack Obama’s 2009 address in Cairo. And reading the two side by side is illuminating. The speeches differ in many ways, but none more striking than this: Trump’s speech was far more politically correct.

It seems that Obama was the blunt-truths guy after all:

“Political correctness,” as it is used in common parlance, means avoiding hard truths so as not to offend the people around you. And Trump made his hostility to political correctness a centerpiece of his campaign. Nowhere was this more evident than in his discussion of “radical Islam.” Again and again, Trump blamed America’s vulnerability to jihadist terrorism on President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s refusal honestly to speak about the pathologies of Muslims and Islam. At a Wisconsin town hall in March of last year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, “Do you trust Muslims in America?” Trump responded, “We have a problem, and we can try and be very politically correct and pretend we don’t have a problem, but, Anderson, we have a major, major problem.” In June, in defending his proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Trump declared that, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly” to keep America safe from terrorism.

But for all the pillorying Obama received for supposedly whitewashing the problems of the Islamic world his Cairo speech actually addressed them quite bluntly. Speaking at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University, Obama condemned Holocaust denial in Muslim countries, calling it “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” He denounced people who “threaten Israel with destruction” and “repeat vile stereotypes about Jews.” He highlighted the oppression of women in Muslim lands, declaring that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.” He referenced the Middle East’s economic failures, arguing that “no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work.” And in a clear challenge to his host, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, he insisted that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

In short, the eighteenth century and America and the Enlightenment actually happened, but don’t tell Donald Trump:

Trump criticized terrorist groups like ISIS for their “persecution of Jews,” and he condemned Iran for pledging “the destruction of Israel.” But since ISIS and Iran are Riyadh’s most bitter foes, those condemnations won’t have bothered the Saudi monarchs at all. Unlike Obama, Trump avoided the broader problem of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Islamic countries, a problem in which his Saudi hosts are deeply complicit. Nor did he even hint at the fact that Saudi Arabia still does not recognize Israel.

Trump didn’t even mention the words “democracy,” “liberty,” or “freedom.” To the contrary, in a sentence that will bring grins to autocrats across the region, he declared that, “We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be.”

Then what are we here for? Perhaps for this:

Trump did condemn “extremism.” But speaking in the country he has accused of complicity in 9/11, he did not once pointedly suggest that any Middle East regime except Iran’s might bear any responsibility for that extremism. Rather than suggesting, as both Obama and George W. Bush did, that the authoritarianism and corruption of Arab governments might have helped spawn groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, Trump reversed the causality. The Middle East’s “untapped potential” he declared, “is held at bay by bloodshed and terror.” And in so doing, he endorsed the agenda that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab dictatorships have been urging for years: Help us confront Iran and kill “terrorists” (which includes anyone who opposes our hold on power) and all will be well.

That’s how absolute monarchs talk to each other, but Beinart adds a twist to that:

Trump is a coward. He says wildly offensive things when the objects of his derision aren’t around, but crumples when he actually meets them. In his presidential announcement speech, Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists.” But when he sat down with his Hispanic Advisory Council, he proved “humble” and “conciliatory” and called mass deportations “neither possible nor humane.” During the campaign, he endlessly trashed Mexico’s government. But when he actually arrived in Mexico City last August, he declared the trip a “great, great, honor” and when President Enrique Peña Nieto asked him about his famous pledge, to make Mexico pay for a wall between the two countries, Trump refused to discuss the subject. During the campaign, Trump accused Black Lives Matter of being responsible for the murder of police, and described African American living conditions as hellish. But when he actually showed up at a black church in Detroit last September, he spent most of his time flattering his hosts. Trump’s speech, noted The Washington Post, constituted a “jarring shift in tone and message.” During the campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that China was manipulating its currency. But after meeting with China’s president, he acknowledged that was not true.

That means the Saudis should worry:

The Saudis appear thrilled that Trump was so conciliatory on his visit. They should enjoy themselves while they can. Americans have learned this about Trump: What he says to your face often bears no relationship to what he says behind your back.

Blake Hounshell at Politico says that misses the point:

The president who once accused Saudi Arabia of complicity in the 9/11 attacks praised its “magnificent” and “sacred land.” He looked comfortable trading pleasantries and sipping coffee with King Salman, the aging scion of the country’s founding ruler, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He soaked up the gaudy chandeliers, the gilded wall trimmings. Trump even bobbed up and down during the Ardha, the traditional sword dance that desert tribes once performed before they went into battle.

The images on TV and on Twitter looked like a Michael Moore fever dream – and Democrats couldn’t stop harping on the “curtsy” Trump made as he accepted an award from the Saudi king, just as Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did before him.

The pageantry was not subtle, but the real import of Trump’s visit, and especially his carefully crafted speech, was to announce a new alliance between America and the Sunni autocrats of the Arab world, aimed at Shiite Iran.

America has chosen sides here:

As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” he said. “And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”

All that is exactly the kind of rhetoric the Sunni strongmen of the region yearned for during the Obama years, when the United States dialed back its usual criticism of Iran as it pursued the much-maligned nuclear deal, while pressuring Arab leaders to respond to the demands of their people.

That’s all changed now, but not in a good way:

Parts of the speech could have been given by either of Trump’s predecessors – respectful language about religion, the observation that Muslims have suffered the most from terrorism, the patronizing evocation of past civilizational glories, like the pyramids. What was missing, though, was any sense of why Trump thinks terrorism is on the rise, and how he plans to combat it.

It was as if, as former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams put it, the terrorists were aliens from outer space, rather than the twisted product of broken societies that have yet to divine how to stop churning them out. “He offered no explanation of what was producing this phenomenon,” Abrams noted in an email to my colleague Annie Karni. “Trump had no theory, and therefore could not suggest what might be done to prevent more extremists from rising.”

Bush, and advisers like Abrams, had a theory – that a lack of freedom and human development had created a malignancy in the Arab world, which in turn was spawning religious radicalism and terrorists. Obama seemed to buy into the idea, too – just ask Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – though he sanded off the sharper edges of Bush’s rhetoric and lacked his messianic fervor…

Very little of any of it, as Trump suggested on Sunday, has seemed to work, and he promised to “apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment.” But he also warned several times that the United States wouldn’t be bearing any burden or paying any price to vanquish the terrorists that he had once boasted would be quickly and easily defeated. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” Trump said. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”

Trump is offering, in short, a war on terror without the pretense of idealism.

That may be why Anne Applebaum says that President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia was bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American:

It was a very strange choice for a first trip abroad. The past four American presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats, made their first trips to either Mexico or Canada, countries that are close trading partners, close allies, compatible democracies and of course neighbors. Trump chose, instead, to make his first presidential visit to an oligarchic kleptocracy which forces women to hide their faces and forbids them to travel without a male guardian’s permission.

And there’s this:

It was a very strange place to speak out against Islamist extremism. Although Saudi Arabia is afraid of some forms of Islamist extremism, it supports others. Saudi Arabia sponsors extremist Wahhabi mosques and imams all over the world; Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, as were 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

And there was that sword dance:

Every American president has met with his Saudi counterparts, and of course the stability of Saudi Arabia, as well as its oil, is an important U.S. security concern. But until now American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don’t endorse their culture. Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the delegation did exactly that, by participating in this sinister all-male dance.

And there was Ivanka Trump’s “outreach” to women entrepreneurs:

Saudi women must cover their heads and often their faces. They cannot drive cars, cannot (see above) travel without the permission of male guardians and are deprived of legal rights and education. In that context, Ivanka Trump’s promotion of female “entrepreneurs” looked like a cynical public relations gambit, which of course it was. The announcement that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will donate money to her fund was a “pay to play” far more blatant than anything Hillary Clinton ever dreamed of.

And then there was Rex Tillerson holding a news conference for foreign press only:

The U.S. press corps was not invited. Presumably this was because the White House doesn’t want Americans to find out what the president was doing in Saudi Arabia?

Don’t ask questions. Don’t expect enlightenment – this isn’t the age of reason after all. America has a king now – or at least a guy who would be king. He’s comfortable with that, and seems to be proud that the Saudis finally treated him right, as he should be treated. Expect him to comment on that. Donald Trump really may be out to prove that the eighteenth century, and America, never happened. Now he has everyone wondering if they did happen – or maybe he’s not a royal at all. Perhaps he’s just a royal pain in the ass, and America knows how to deal with those.

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The Hell of Other People

The Nazis were still in Paris, and at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, in May 1944, a new play by Jean-Paul Sartre opened – No Exit – where three characters find themselves waiting in a mysterious room. They’re dead. This is the afterlife. They’re being punished for the lives they’ve led – or for no particular reason – by being locked in a room together for eternity. The one line from the play that everyone remembers is “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – “Hell is other people” – and that’s that.

Jean-Paul Sartre was not a cheery fellow – existentialists are like that – and the play is seldom performed. People talk about it. No one wants to watch three characters ragging on each other for a few hours, until they finally realize that’s all there is to life – or death this case – or in Sartre’s view, both. Insults and ridicule are exchanged, and nothing changes. Nothing can change. There’s no exit from that – the end.

We’re stuck in this play of course. Maybe it was Fox News. Matt Taibbi blames Roger Ailes:

We are a hate-filled, paranoid, untrusting, book-dumb and bilious people whose chief source of recreation is slinging insults and threats at each other online, and we’re that way in large part because of the hyper-divisive media environment he discovered.

Ailes was the Christopher Columbus of hate. When the former daytime TV executive and political strategist looked across the American continent, he saw money lying around in giant piles. He knew all that was needed to pick it up was a) the total abandonment of any sense of decency or civic duty in the news business, and b) the factory-like production of news stories that spoke to Americans’ worst fantasies about each other.

Like many con artists, he reflexively targeted the elderly – “I created a TV network for people from 55 to dead,” he told Joan Walsh – where he saw billions could be made mining terrifying storylines about the collapse of the simpler America such viewers remembered, correctly or (more often) incorrectly, from their childhoods.

The damage was done, and one thing leads to another:

Ailes picked at all these scabs, and then when he ran out of real storylines to mine he invented some that didn’t even exist. His Fox was instrumental in helping Donald Trump push the birther phenomenon into being, and elevated the practically nonexistent New Black Panthers to ISIS status, warning Republicans that these would-be multitudinous urban troublemakers were planning on bringing guns to the GOP convention.

The presidency of Donald Trump wouldn’t have been possible had not Ailes raised a generation of viewers on these paranoid storylines.

And that makes for an odd obituary from Taibbi:

When Ailes died this morning, he left behind an America perfectly in his image, frightened out of its mind and pouring its money hand over fist into television companies, who are gleefully selling the unraveling of our political system as an entertainment product.

The extent to which we hate and fear each other now – that’s not any one person’s fault. But no one person was more at fault than Roger Ailes. He never had a soul to sell, so he sold ours. It may take 50 years or a century for us to recover. Even dictators rarely have that kind of impact. Enjoy the next life, you monster.

Taibbi sees the villain here. Maybe Ailes will end up spending eternity in Sartre’s room with no exit, ridiculing everyone in sight and being ridiculed right back, meaninglessly of course. That would be fitting. Hell is other people, but then so is life. Donald Trump’s single talent seems to be ridiculing everyone in sight, until they submit, but he is finding out that hell is other people. There’s James Comey and now Robert Mueller. Trump’s affection for all things Putin, and for Michael Flynn, keeps coming up, because the Russians did mess with our election, his election – and Trump has done all he can to shut down anyone looking into that. He fired James Comey, who was looking into that. That didn’t work. The assistant attorney general, subbing for Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from these matters because of his chats with the Russians during the Trump campaign, appointed Robert Mueller, who had headed the FBI for thirteen years, to look into this. There’s the matter of obstruction of justice. There’s talk of impeachment in the air. There may be no exit now.

There’s only a temporary exit – getting out of town for nine days. That trip just started and the first stop in Saudi Arabia, where Trump will give a major speech that will unify all Muslims against ISIS – with the United States in the lead. Saudi Arabia is fine with that, as long as Trump commits to wiping out Iran – those damned Shiites. ISIS is Sunni, but Saudi Arabia is willing to write off those brothers, if that makes Trump happy. It’s complicated, and complicated by Trump’s anti-Muslim talk for the last year and a half. They’ll write that off too – but the word is that Trump’s major speech is being written by Steve Miller, the young fellow who wrote Trump’s end-of-the-world “American carnage” inaugural address and wrote the first travel ban, which was shot down in the courts, because it was a Muslim ban. This could be problematic. H. R. McMaster, the brilliant general who somehow ended up a Trump’s national security advisor, will ask for final edits, but everyone remembers Trump saying, over and over “I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me!”

No one knows how this will go, and Trump often goes off-script. He might blurt out something about the real size of the crowd at his inauguration, as he sees it. He could bewilder the Saudis, but then it’s off to Israel. That’s easy. Benjamin Netanyahu hated Obama and Trump isn’t Obama. That minor incident of Trump bragging to the Russian about the great intelligence he got from what could only have been from an Israeli secret agent buried deep in ISIS – who may be dead now – will be papered over. Trump isn’t Obama. That’s enough – and then it’s off to Rome, to chat with the pope.

That could be awkward. Pope Francis has said Christians don’t build walls – and it was clear he was talking about the big wall Trump wants, that Mexico will pay for, somehow. Pope Francis shouldn’t have said that. Trump ripped the pope for questioning his faith. He was the Christian. The pope clearly wasn’t – but perhaps they’ll talk about the weather or something. That visit is ceremonial. The pope doesn’t have an army. How many divisions does the pope have? That’s what Stalin once asked. The answer is obvious.

Then it’s off to Brussels to meet with NATO – which Trump said was obsolete, and then said wasn’t obsolete, but then hedged on that. They’re not sure which Donald Trump will show up, and then it’s off to Sicily for the G7 meeting. That should be interesting. Trump will tell them that the old global economic order of trade agreements and cooperation is over. It’s “America First” now. He’s a nationalist, not an internationalist, so all previous trade agreements will be torn up. America will negotiate new trade agreement with other nations one by one – not with blocs like the EU or whatever – and no one will humiliate America ever again. Screw the rest of the world. America will never be screwed again.

Half of Trump’s cabinet is from Goldman Sachs and may try to talk him out of saying all that, but Trump has a bug up his ass about such things, or Steve Bannon does. And then it’s back home again.

This is the exit when there was no exit, but Mark Landler offers this perspective:

A cascade of damaging disclosures about the president and his relationship with Russia has shredded the White House’s narrative. Mr. Trump will go abroad on Friday less as an anti-Obama figure than as a latter-day Richard M. Nixon or Bill Clinton – a wounded president fleeing political storms at home for an uncertain welcome overseas…

“It’s a huge burden on the American psyche to have a president go abroad when a sword of Damocles is hanging over them at home,” said Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history at Rice University and an expert on the presidency. “It turns our president, instead of representing the best of America on the road, into a traveling can of worms.”

Mr. Brinkley likened the timing of Mr. Trump’s trip to a visit Mr. Nixon made to the Middle East in 1974 as the Watergate scandal was closing in on him, and Mr. Clinton’s trip to Russia, Britain and Northern Ireland in 1998 during the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

For his part, Mr. Trump, a confirmed homebody, has expressed dread about the trip, asking aides whether it can be shortened to five days from nine. His advisers concede that the intense schedule – dozens of interactions with leaders from the Middle East and Europe, over a range of delicate issues – could produce unscripted, diplomatically perilous moments.

He could brag about the size of his penis again, to the pope – there’s no telling – and he is a traveling can of worms. Hell is other people, and as it was wheels-up for Air Force One there was this:

President Donald Trump is facing new pressure over his decision to abruptly fire FBI Director James Comey after The New York Times revealed on Friday that the president told Russian officials in the Oval Office last week that Comey’s ouster takes “great pressure” off him.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has tagged a current White House official as a “significant person of interest,” The Washington Post reported on Friday. It did not name the official.

The two stories come after a week of damning revelations about the Trump White House, which is now engulfed in scandal and facing a special prosecutor. Trump admitted last week that he fired Comey in part because of the Russia investigation, blowing up the White House message that the firing was based on a Department of Justice recommendation.

Late Friday, came confirmation that Comey will also soon get to tell his side of the story: Leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee announced Comey will testify in a public sessions at a hearing after Memorial Day.

The hits just keep coming, but there was a response:

The new Times story cited a document that summarized Trump’s meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered a statement that did not dispute Trump’s quotes and instead presented them as the president talking frankly about the “pressure” Comey had put on Trump’s diplomatic responsibilities. He also attacked the leaks coming out of the U.S. government.

“The President has always emphasized the importance of making deals with Russia as it relates to Syria, Ukraine, defeating ISIS and other key issues for the benefit and safety of the American people. By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said in the statement.

“The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations,” he added.

Trump said James Comey was a nut job. That’s highly classified information? David French at the National Review is willing to dismiss half of this:

Of course investigators are going to interview White House staff as part of their probe. It would be shocking if they didn’t. The Post story is written using carefully chosen language – language that looks far more ominous to those who aren’t familiar with legalese. The bottom line? We don’t know have any idea whether this story matters.

French, however, rips into Sean Spicer:

It’s hard to think of statements better calculated to build the case that Trump fired Comey to disrupt the FBI investigation into his administration’s ties with Russia. As I’ve said before, no single piece of evidence has thus far been conclusive (and each piece is vulnerable to its own rebuttals), but the evidence taken together is starting to build a case that looks an awful lot like this: First, Trump – frustrated at the FBI’s investigation – strongly hinted to James Comey that he should clear Michael Flynn. Second, Trump got angry when Comey not only ignored his suggestion but instead publicly confirmed the investigation’s existence. Third, Trump terminated Comey in the hope that it would ease the pressure on his administration. Moreover, there’s evidence that he knew his actions were suspect. He allegedly asked the vice president and attorney general to leave the room before talking to Comey about ending the Flynn investigation, and when he fired Comey, he justified it with a blatantly pre-textual and false cover story.

This is a damaging portrait. If Hillary Clinton was faced with the same facts and allegations, Republican talk of impeachment would be thick in the air. As it is, impeachment talk from either side of the aisle is premature and overblown, at least so far. When witnesses actually get under oath – and the public sees actual documents – a very different picture may emerge. For now, however, there’s more than enough smoke not only to justify further investigation but to reinforce the wisdom of selecting a special counsel to conduct a competent, thorough, and reasonably independent inquiry. The Times story does not help Trump.

Trump said James Comey was a nut job, to the Russians. That’s the point, and now James Comey is going to testify to Congress in open session. That could blow this wide open.

Hell really is other people, even those who are on your side:

Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team, sources told CNN.

The conversations deeply concerned US intelligence officials, some of whom acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn, who was tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser, current and former governments officials said.

“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” one former Obama administration official said, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.

The conversations picked up by US intelligence officials indicated the Russians regarded Flynn as an ally, sources said. That relationship developed throughout 2016, months before Flynn was caught on an intercepted call in December speaking with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak.

This might be called a leak in the national interest by a frustrated intelligence community. Everyone should know about Flynn and Russia now. They knew long again. Perhaps that’s public service.

There seems to be no exit for Donald Trump, and the Daily Beast reports this:

The administration officials and West Wing aides who were left grounded stateside on Friday late afternoon couldn’t do much more than dodge questions and vent inflamed frustrations at their boss. (Senior staffers who escaped aboard Air Force One included Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks, press secretary Sean Spicer, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.)

“I’m glad I’m not on the plane so I could be here to answer your Russia questions,” a senior Trump administration official said, sarcastically, before abruptly hanging up.

Trump’s remarks quickly elicited groans, and some harsh words, from senior officials who did speak with The Daily Beast.

“If Donald Trump gets impeached, he will have one person to blame: Donald Trump,” one of those administration officials said.

It’s not just the intelligence community that’s leaking:

Trump’s repeated media missteps have frustrated even longtime supporters. “Every day he looks more and more like a complete moron,” said one senior administration official who also worked on Trump’s campaign. “I can’t see Trump resigning or even being impeached, but at this point I wish he’d grow a brain and be the man that he sold himself as on the campaign.”

Asked whether an administration staff change-up would ameliorate this latest crisis, a Republican source formerly involved with a pro-Trump political group told The Daily Beast, “Yes, if it comes with a frontal lobotomy for Trump.”

That’s harsh, but this is more measured:

David C. Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent in charge, said Trump’s comments demonstrated a profound inability to grasp the potential consequences of his words.

“In terms of potential criminal activity it’s amateur night at the White House,” Gomez told The Daily Beast. “These guys – and Trump especially- don’t know how to NOT implicate themselves.”

“On a big case like this, the ideal thing would be a wiretap on your number one subject,” Gomez added. “But in this case, you don’t need a wiretap. He just comes right out and says it.”

We may be in that Sartre play, if Ruth Marcus is right:

Trump himself is turning out to be the full-fledged disaster of our worst fears. He understands nothing and is uninterested in learning anything – not just the dreary substance of things such as tax reform but constitutional values, governing norms and the United States’ unique role in the world.

He sees things only through the distorting prism of an all-consuming ego. There is only one Trump instinct – “fight, fight, fight,” he said at the Coast Guard Academy – and one Trumpian dichotomy: friend or foe. He is impervious to embarrassment, no matter how blatant his falsehood. The stain of his behavior spreads to taint anyone within range.

The past few weeks have presented an alarming parade of proof. Authoritarianism? Trump summarily fired his FBI director over “this Russia thing” – after, according to reports, James B. Comey resisted Trump’s demand that he pledge loyalty and declined Trump’s importuning to drop the Flynn probe.

Trump met unapologetically with yet another dictatorial thug, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and remained shamefully silent as Erdogan’s security goons beat up protesters on U.S. soil. No surprise there, from the candidate who urged his crowds to “knock the crap out of” protesters and as president reportedly pressed Comey to jail reporters for obtaining leaks.

Overweening egotism laced with self-pity? Trump used the occasion of the Coast Guard graduation to lament his treatment – “No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

And on and on, spending eternity in Sartre’s room with no exit, with Donald Trump ridiculing everyone in sight and being ridiculed right back, meaninglessly of course, but the Sartre play did end:

It is impossible to know how this disastrous episode in our history will conclude, or how grave the damage will be. But an adage from conservative economist Herb Stein comes to mind: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop. This situation does not feel sustainable for a full four years.

The audience was glad when the Sartre play ended too. Hell is other people, and now, one in particular.

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In Like Flynn

It’s good to be an insider. You’re safe. No one can touch you. You’re “in like Flynn” – that’s how people put it. That, however, is an odd way to put it:

The rhyming phrase became associated with actor Errol Flynn, who had a reputation for womanizing, consumption of alcohol and brawling. His freewheeling, hedonistic lifestyle caught up with him in November 1942 when two under-age girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, accused him of statutory rape. A group was organized to support Flynn, named the American Boys’ Club for the Defense of Errol Flynn (ABCDEF); its members included William F. Buckley, Jr.

Let that sink in. Modern conservatism in the fifties was defined, if not established, by William F. Buckley, who cast out the John Birchers and the other conspiracy nuts. It was time to get serious. Conservatism was about free-markets and small government – the less government the better. It was a bit racist – Buckley vigorously argued for segregation – but that was a matter of states’ rights to him, and of traditions that should not be abandoned lightly. Barry Goldwater was aboard. He lost. Ronald Reagan was aboard. He won – and William F. Buckley was there to explain it all. Buckley was erudite – reporters had to look up those odd words he used – but he was the voice of the movement. He founded the National Review, and the Weekly Standard followed, to compete with it, to say the same things even better. Much of it was cold-blooded and nasty, but was said with elegance, and then the think-tanks sprang up – the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and at Stanford, the Hoover Institute. Herbert Hoover was the good guy. Franklin Roosevelt was the bad guy – he had created a culture of dependency, on government. So that was settled. Agree with it or not, Americans finally understood our sort of conservatism – from a guy who started out scoffing at the idea of statutory rape. Go figure.

That okay, because many others scoffed too:

The trial took place in January and February 1943, and Flynn was cleared of the charges. According to etymologist Michael Quinion, the incident served to increase Flynn’s reputation as a ladies’ man, which influenced the connotations of the phrase “in like Flynn”. Columnist Cecil Adams also examined the term’s origins and its relationship to Flynn. Many early sources, attesting the phrase, say it emerged as war slang during World War II.

Betty and Peggy were out of luck. Now Roman Polanski is out of luck – but that’s another story – but there’s also that other origin story:

In addition to the Errol Flynn origin theory, etymologist Eric Partridge presents evidence that it refers to Edward J. Flynn, a New York City political boss who became a campaign manager for the Democratic Party during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.

That works too. Boss Flynn’s Democratic Party machine exercised absolute political control over the Bronx – so the candidates he backed were almost automatically “in” no matter how hapless or sleazy they were.

It’s good to be an insider. Be as hapless or sleazy as you’d like. Knock yourself out. You’re safe, and as the Daily Beast reports, now it’s good to be Michael Flynn:

President Donald Trump pressured a “reluctant” Michael Flynn into accepting a job as the White House’s top national security official even after Flynn warned the president that he was under investigation over undisclosed lobbying on behalf of a foreign government, The Daily Beast has learned.

The president’s continued loyalty to his ousted former aide is so strong, in fact, that the two have remained in touch despite the potential that their communication could be portrayed as White House interference in a federal investigation.

Flynn is certainly “in” with Trump:

“He did not want to be national security adviser,” Michael Ledeen, a friend of the retired Army general, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “He didn’t want to be in the government. He wanted to go back to private life.”

“But Trump insisted on it,” said historian Ledeen, co-author of Flynn’s 2016 book The Field of Fight, their manifesto for defeating Islamic militancy. “He likes him, he trusted him, he was comfortable with him,” he said.

Flynn was “reluctant but honored” when offered the post, according to a senior Trump administration official, and only accepted it at the president’s urging.

A third source with direct knowledge of Trump transition team discussions confirmed that Flynn did not want the national security adviser post, though he claimed Flynn was instead hoping for a position in the intelligence community, preferably director of national intelligence or the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Nope, he got the top job, as being hapless and sleazy didn’t matter:

Trump’s pressuring of Flynn to take the job came even though Flynn had informed the Trump transition team that he was under active FBI investigation over undisclosed lobbying on behalf of a Dutch company – lobbying that, Flynn now admits, may have advanced the interests of the Turkish government.

Trump’s affinity for Flynn apparently led the president to urge former FBI director James Comey, before his firing last week, to drop or ease a federal investigation of Flynn, according to Comey’s written account of a meeting with the president.

That doesn’t matter either:

Trump doesn’t just hope that Flynn will beat the rap. Several sources close to Flynn and to the administration tell The Daily Beast that Trump has expressed his hopes that a resolution of the FBI’s investigation in Flynn’s favor might allow Flynn to rejoin the White House in some capacity – a scenario some of Trump’s closest advisers in and outside the West Wing have assured him absolutely should not happen.

Trump doesn’t care, but perhaps he should:

After less than a month on the job, Flynn resigned when it was revealed that he had failed to disclose conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington regarding U.S. sanctions against the country. Those conversations could feature prominently in ongoing FBI and congressional investigations into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Those investigations were why Trump’s White House attorneys warned him repeatedly against communicating with Flynn after his firing… Apparently, the president didn’t listen to his own lawyers.

The two have stayed in touch, according to a Yahoo News report Thursday, confirmed by multiple White House and administration sources.

That is a bit odd:

News that they remained in touch flatly contradicts repeated and adamant White House denials last week that Trump and his former national security adviser had been communicating since Flynn’s ouster. Multiple White House officials claimed to The Daily Beast that no such communication had occurred due to the intervention of White House attorneys.

Multiple White House officials were blindsided again, but Trump likes to live dangerously:

Trump’s apparent plea for the FBI to step back from its probe of Flynn set off allegations by congressional Democrats of potential obstruction of justice. Revelations that Trump has been in contact with Flynn – and openly mused about a new job for him – could add more heft to those allegations.

“The last thing [the White House] would want is an allegation of conspiracy, witness tampering, or coordination,” national security attorney Mark Zaid told The Daily Beast last week. “If Flynn is going to be indicted, or certainly under investigation, then I would want the president to be as far away from him as possible.”

Such conversations would create “huge issues,” according to Zaid’s law partner, Brad Moss. “Talking with witnesses got Nixon in trouble.”

The legal advice here is both sound and obvious. Don’t talk to this guy – not now. He’s that famous tar baby. The tar will stick to you, and of course things were getting worse for Flynn:

One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.

The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces that the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.

Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.

It looks of if Turkey got its money’s worth:

If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces – and which was his undeclared client.

Trump eventually would approve the Raqqa plan, but not until weeks after Flynn had been fired.

That hardly matters now:

Now members of Congress, musing about the tangle of legal difficulties Flynn faces, cite that exchange with Rice as perhaps the most serious: acting on behalf of a foreign nation – from which he had received considerable cash – when making a military decision. Some members of Congress, in private conversations, have even used the word “treason” to describe Flynn’s intervention, though experts doubt that his actions qualify.

Okay, his actions only come close to treason:

Flynn’s connections to Russia have been widely discussed. In 2015, he was paid more than $33,000 to speak at a gala dinner in Moscow where he was seated next to President Vladimir Putin. That alone may have exposed him to criminal charges: As a retired U.S. military officer, Flynn was required to seek permission to travel and to receive payment from a foreign entity, something the State Department and the Pentagon have told Congress he did not do.

But it is his paid work on Turkey’s behalf that offers the clearest evidence of his role as a foreign agent – and of his legal problems, since he did not declare his foreign agent status till weeks after he’d left the Trump administration. It was a fact Flynn disclosed himself in a declaration to the Foreign Agent Registration Unit of the Justice Department in early March. According to Flynn’s paperwork, he was paid $530,000 for work that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”

Someone needs to explain all of this to Donald Trump, very slowly and very carefully, so Trump gets it, and also explain, very slowly and very carefully, the matter of Fethullah Gulen, that elderly Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania:

Erdogan’s government suspects Gulen and his followers of masterminding a failed coup attempt last July. In the September meeting with Turkish officials, they discussed with Flynn how to remove Gulen without going through the extradition process, according to former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey. The idea was “a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away,” Woolsey told The Wall Street Journal.

In the disclosures filed by Flynn, the meeting was “for the purpose of understanding better the political climate in Turkey at the time.”

He lied, but he’s that kind of guy:

Flynn also wrote an opinion piece in The Hill on Election Day titled “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support,” slamming the Obama administration for not taking Turkey’s Gulen concerns seriously. He described Gulen as a “shady Islamic mullah” he compared to Osama bin Laden.

Nope, he’s an old man living in the middle of nowhere – that big empty space between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – who hasn’t been back to Turkey in many decades and makes no comments on what has been going on there at all. Flynn was just earning his keep.

This is an odd situation. As a young lad, William F. Buckley was defending Errol Flynn on that matter of statutory rape – it was “fake news” – it never happened – Betty and Peggy made it all up. As a seventy-year-old man, Donald Trump is defending Michael Flynn on the same grounds. None of this ever happened either.

Sure, but Kevin Drum offers this timeline:

August 9: Flynn is hired by the Turkey-U.S. Business Council for $600,000 to help repair Turkey’s image in the US. However, Flynn chooses not to register as a foreign agent on the pretext that he’s just lobbying for a business group that has nothing to do with the Turkish government.

November 18: Trump names Flynn as his National Security Advisor.

November 30: The Justice Department opens an investigation into Flynn’s lobbying activities. Flynn keeps this news to himself for over a month.

December: Flynn has repeated contacts with various Russian officials but doesn’t tell anybody.

January 4: Flynn tells the incoming White House counsel that he is under investigation. Nothing happens.

January 10: In a meeting with Susan Rice, Flynn puts the kibosh on an Obama plan to use Kurdish help to take the ISIS-occupied town of Raqqa – something that his erstwhile client Turkey is opposed to.

January 26: Acting attorney general Sally Yates warns the White House that Flynn has lied about his contacts with Russian officials, which may have compromised him. Still nothing happens.

February 9: The Washington Post reveals Flynn’s lies about his Russian contacts. Everything is now public.

February 13: Finally something happens. Trump fires Flynn.

February 14: Trump meets with FBI director James Comey and asks him to kill the investigation into Flynn.

March-April: Comey continues the investigation.

May 9: Trump fires Comey.

One thing leads to another, but Zack Beauchamp offers another timeline:

Trump has loved Flynn for a long time. In November, he loved Flynn enough to appoint him to be his national security adviser despite knowing that Russia had paid Flynn $45,000 to attend a dinner with Vladimir Putin. Trump loved him enough to keep him on despite, as the New York Times reported late on Wednesday, Flynn informing the Trump transition in early January that he was under FBI investigation for secretly lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government.

Trump loves Flynn enough to stick with him even after acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the administration, on January 26, that Flynn had lied to the vice president about his interactions with the Russian ambassador and could potentially be blackmailed by the Kremlin. Trump loves Flynn so much that even after he was finally forced to fire him for said lies on February 14, he defended the man’s integrity in a press conference.

“Michael Flynn – General Flynn – is a wonderful man,” the president said in a press conference on February 15. “I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media.”

Trump loves Flynn so much that the same day of that press conference, he ordered everyone out of the room after a top-level meeting on counterterrorism – except FBI Director James Comey. Trump then asked Comey, pretty bluntly, to drop the Flynn investigation.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according a Times piece published on Tuesday. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Despite the trouble all of this has caused him – despite the fact that his intervention with Comey is causing talk of impeachment from a handful of House Republicans – Trump still loves Flynn. It’s apparently one of the reasons his relationship with current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has been a bit sour.

“Trump, who still openly laments having to dismiss Mr. Flynn, has complained that General McMaster talks too much in meetings,” the Times’s Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush reported this week.

There’s just something about Flynn…

And that something is dangerous:

Think about the huge problems overwhelming the Trump administration right now. Roughly, there are two categories: the threat of impeachment over the Comey firing and the broader Russia investigation into whether Trump aides colluded with Russia during the campaign.

The first, of course, is directly a result of his intervention with Comey on Flynn’s behalf. Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at Notre Dame who was as assistant attorney general under George H. W. Bush, told my colleague Dylan Matthews that Trump potentially committed a crime punishable by two decades of jail time.

And that’s not all:

This allegation of criminal conduct on Flynn’s behalf is breaking the firewall of Republican support for Trump. Two Republican Congress members – Reps. Justin Amash and Carlos Curbelo – suggested that the president would have committed an impeachable offense if the account of Trump’s actions detailed in Comey’s memo is borne out. House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz, previously an incredibly reliable pro-Trump legislator, has asked for the FBI to turn over all of Comey’s memos about his meetings with Trump by May 24.

And that’s not all either:

The second issue – probes by the FBI and both houses of Congress into shady, undisclosed, and potentially illegal coordination by the Trump campaign with Russian intelligence – centers on Flynn as well.

Flynn is, by all accounts, one of the key sources of suspicion about the Trump administration and Russia. Flynn’s ties to Russia are longstanding and, according to a new Reuters report, persisted throughout the campaign. The FBI has records of 18 calls between the Trump camp and Russian state interests; Flynn called the Russian ambassador six times during the transition alone.

The FBI investigation into Flynn is gathering steam. CNN reported on May 9 that “federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records, as part of the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year’s election.” It’s clear that Flynn’s personal conduct is a key reason this investigation, so painful for the Trump administration, has become such a big deal.

Trump loves him some Flynn anyway, and Beauchamp offers one explanation for all this:

“Trump doesn’t like firing people, and never has, and has said so many times, mainly because in his mind dismissing somebody he has hired is an admission he made a mistake,” Michael Kruse writes at Politico. “This is why he so conspicuously dragged his feet before the firings of people like Corey Lewandowski and Flynn.”

This tic of Trump’s feels a bit Mafia-like: a sort of “keep it in the family” mentality, which in Trump’s case is often literal. He elevates his own children over more qualified people, in part, because he can be pretty sure that he can trust them to be loyal.

Flynn, for his part, appears to have earned this level of trust from the president. During the campaign, a time when virtually everyone in the national security community was shunning Trump, Flynn publicly and vocally allied himself with him. He did TV hit after TV hit defending Trump’s cozying up to Russia and hyper-aggressive stance on ISIS. He even ginned up “lock her up” chants during his speech at the Republican National Convention, putting whatever reputation for integrity he had on the line.

That’ll do. Flynn is in like Flynn, even if this makes no sense:

There is no rational, self-interested reason that Trump would stick with Flynn like this. It doesn’t look like Flynn had any damning information on Trump that an FBI investigation would uncover. As far as we can tell, no one has accepted Flynn’s offer to testify in exchange for immunity – which strongly indicates that he’s got nothing.

The only real explanation here is that Trump felt he was protecting a trusted ally. He felt like he owed Flynn his loyalty, and so asked Comey to lay off him and continued to support Flynn emotionally behind the scenes. It’s likely that Trump didn’t even understand what he was doing was dangerous – or, in the case of Comey, potentially illegal and impeachable. He just thought it was the protection he owed to a friend and royal subject.

This impulse – a kind of Trumpian noblesse oblige – is, viewed in a certain light, kind of admirable. Yet it may end up bringing Trump down.

That may be where this is headed. In February 1943, Errol Flynn was cleared of all charges – there had been no statutory rape. Donald Trump might not be so lucky. Someone was raped here. It was us.

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