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.