Pretty Illusions

It’s Biarritz in the twenties, shortly after the War to End all Wars ended nothing, or ended everything. The Great War had created a Lost Generation – those who survived who would never believe anything ever again, but would do their best, even if they knew that their best would mean nothing. That was the one last honorable thing to do, and Ernest Hemingway wrote about nothing else. That’s what The Sun Also Rises is all about – from Paris to Pamplona to San Sebastian and then, at the end, across the border to Biarritz, ending with this:

A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Hemingway’s Jake Barnes knew better. Illusions are pretty. So are delusions. They’re not real, but they are pretty, for what that’s worth, which is nothing. And what did Donald Trump say to those who voted for him? “We could have had such a damned good time together!” What did those who voted for him say back to him? “We could have had such a damned good time together!”

That was the idea. He was going to fix everything. He was going to drain the swamp, whatever that meant He was going to build that wall. He was going to repeal Obamacare and replace with something would be far better and far cheaper and would cover absolutely everyone. He was going to tax the rich, even himself, and give everyone else a big tax break – and he’d put Hillary Clinton in jail. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would settle everything between Israel and the Palestinians, for the first time since 1948 or so – and Trump himself would stick it to China, and even our allies, on trade. TPP was gone and NAFTA would follow and maybe NATO too. No one would take advantage of us ever again, and he’d tear up that nuclear deal with Iran – which he did, along with the Paris climate accord. All the other presidents before him had been “stupid” but he’d be smart, and he’d sit down with that Kim fellow and make him give up his nukes, and win the Nobel Peace Prize for doing that. Only he could do all of this – no one else – and America would have a damned good time.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Donald Trump may have created another Lost Generation. The car slowed suddenly:

President Trump on Thursday pulled out of a highly anticipated summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, accusing the North Koreans of bad faith and lamenting that “this missed opportunity is a truly sad moment in history.”

The president made his announcement in a remarkably personal, at times mournful-sounding letter to Mr. Kim, North Korea’s leader, in which he cited the North’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” in recent public statements as the specific reason for canceling the meeting.

The letter wasn’t mournful-sounding. It was mawkish. “Oh, Kim, we could have had such a damned good time together!”

Trump dictated the letter himself – no diplomats or national security advisors involved at all – and in it he hinted that if Kim didn’t do the right thing now – if Kim misbehaved – we’d wipe him and his stupid little country off the face of earth, because our nukes are awesome and his are tiny little things. Trump said that would be a shame. He’d hate to do that, but he could, but Kim could make it all better and love him again.

The letter was a bit of an embarrassment – sentimentality mixed with threats of nuclear war – and remarkably adolescent. High school boys write this sort of thing all the time, to that girl that got away – but without threats of nuclear war. Call me. Write. Trump actually said that.

But things were not going to work out:

The mixed messages were in keeping with a diplomatic gambit that had an air of unreality from the start, when, in early March, Mr. Trump spontaneously accepted Mr. Kim’s invitation to meet – an acceptance that North Korea did not even publicly acknowledge for several days.

As the date for the meeting drew closer, American and North Korean officials staked out deeply divergent positions on how quickly the North should surrender its nuclear arsenal. North Korean officials failed to show up for a planning meeting last week in Singapore, snubbing a White House advance team led by the deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin.

The White House, which seemed ill-prepared for a long negotiation, began to have second thoughts. By Thursday, after a North Korean official labeled Vice President Mike Pence a “political dummy” and threatened a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown,” there seemed little rationale for the encounter, beyond Mr. Trump’s desire to make history.

“I believe that this is a tremendous setback for North Korea and, indeed, for the world,” a resigned-sounding president said at a bill-signing ceremony. But he added, “If and when Kim Jong-un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting.”

He might get the girl, and his Nobel Peace Prize, back. North Korea declared that it was willing to give him the “time and opportunity” to reconsider his decision. They were toying with the moony teenager in the White House, but this was a mess:

South Korea, which was caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s decision, may opt to continue its own diplomacy with Mr. Kim, opening a rift with its ally. Mr. Trump did not warn South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, of his decision, even though the two leaders met in Washington on Tuesday… The cancellation creates a crisis for Mr. Moon of South Korea, who said it was “disconcerting and very regrettable.”

China, the linchpin of any sanctions campaign, may relax its pressure on the North, particularly because it was Mr. Trump, not Mr. Kim, who pulled the plug on this effort. Moreover, threats of military action against the North may be harder to justify at a time when Mr. Kim and Mr. Moon are talking about a new era of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

There’s much more detail – Trump decided to cancel the summit because he thought Kim was going to cancel first and that would be an embarrassment – John Bolton and Mike Pence hated the whole idea they were the ones that torpedoed the whole thing on purpose, saying nasty things about Kim – and so on and so forth.

No one on the administration would ever openly admit any of that. Those who leak such things to the press, even if they are true, have their own agendas – knocking off rivals or whatever – but Matthew Yglesias gets to the heart of the matter:

Why did so much of the media and the political system insist on taking President Trump’s Korean nuclear diplomacy so seriously in the first place?

The factors that led to the collapse of the summit were there from the beginning. The only thing that ever seemed remotely promising about it was Trump’s say-so, but Trump’s say-so is meaningless. Not only is he a person who makes factual misstatements and lies, but he’s a person who has gotten ahead in life through extensive use of bullshit, leaving in his wake a trail of broken promises.

From his unpaid bills to contractors to his scam university to his brief period ripping off the shareholders of his eponymous company, this is what Trump does: He exploits normal human nature to sucker people into trusting him, and then he exploits his own ever-growing fame and power to get away with breaking the rules.

In fact, Donald Trump may have created another Lost Generation that will never believe anything ever again:

He never delivered his much-promised plan to release a “terrific” Obamacare alternative that would cover everyone. Instead, he backtracked on his promise to protect Medicaid from cuts. He never took on the National Rifle Association. He never delivered a solution for DREAMers, and, of course, Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall.

He’s dropped the promise to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare. He dropped the promise to break up big banks. He dropped the promise of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. He dropped the promise to develop a tax program that would leave the rich paying more. And, of course, his version of “draining the swamp” has brought a level of corruption to official Washington that would have embarrassed the congressional barons of the Gilded Age.

This is not controversial. Everyone in the Washington and media elite knew this but set aside all the evidence to believe that Trump is someone else and might actually take negotiations seriously and usher in a major diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.

Yglesias says that everyone should have known better:

A good clue that we were being set up is that not only is the Trump administration’s North Korea policy being headed up by Donald Trump, but it has been conducted so far like you would expect a bullshitter to conduct policy.

The key turnabout in the region, after all, has come from the fact that Trump decided to make a large, unilateral concession to the North Koreans. As Josh Smith and David Brunnstrom reported for Reuters in March, “for at least two decades, leaders in North Korea have been seeking a personal meeting with an American president,” and across all that time, American presidents have been saying no.

“North Korea has said these things before,” Mark Dubowitz of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies told them. “Kim Jong Il wanted to meet with President Clinton.”

That’s all Kim wanted and Trump took the bait:

Trump, perhaps wisely and likely under the influence of South Korea’s new progressive leader Moon Jae-in, decided to reverse longstanding US policy and make this concession to Pyongyang. They planned to meet in Singapore on June 12. It wasn’t an absurd thing to try, and it’s certainly a good deal less absurd than Trump’s previous policy of berating the North Koreans with inflammatory tweets. Republicans would, of course, normally slam a Democratic president who decided to do this. But there are worse sins than hypocrisy in this world, and the Nixon-to-China dynamic could be beneficial here.

Except rather than defend the president’s dovish new direction, Republicans – including the White House itself – spun the meeting as a concession by the North Koreans.

“Trump’s Tough on North Korea Approach Is Working,” according to a press release from the Republican National Committee, and this kind of spin got picked up everywhere from Fox News to local television stations.

When a notorious liar does something dramatic and new and immediately tries (poorly) to cover up what it is that he’s doing, a sensible reaction would have been to become alarmed and suspicious – not to suddenly become credulous and naive.

It was pretty to think so, so they thought so:

Much of the US national security establishment decided to simply block out everything they have learned from everything Trump has ever done in his career in business and politics.

Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the US foreign service who capped his career with a stint as the No. 3 person at the State Department under George W. Bush, for example, told CNBC when the meeting was announced that “President Trump has kept Kim Jong Un off balance” and “I think this is positive that the president and Kim Jong Un are going to turn toward diplomacy because we were headed for a collision with North Korea.”

Back in the real world, meanwhile, Trump wasn’t a master strategist keeping the North Koreans off balance. He’s an erratic guy with poor impulse control and little understanding of issues who does things like blurt out that Americans held captive in North Korea and sentenced to serve in labor camps received “excellent” treatment from the regime that used them as hostages.

Yglesias, however, is fine with what happened:

It’s good that Trump gave up the ghost here rather than trying to fake his way through a summit. But it’s critical that the country’s political and media establishment try to actually learn its lesson here. Trump lies about a lot of things. He talks nonsense constantly. And while those of us who don’t work in the White House can’t stop him from doing those things, we can certainly cover him as a habitual liar and bullshitter rather than waking up each morning like we’ve never seen Trump in action before.

Now we know better, and David Sanger seems to agree:

Mr. Trump approached Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader, as if he were a competing property developer haggling over a prized asset – and assumed that, in the end, Mr. Kim would be willing to give it all up for the promise of future prosperity. So he started with threats of “fire and fury,” then turned to surprise initiatives, then gratuitous flattery of one of the world’s more brutal dictators.

“He will be safe, he will be happy, his country will be rich,” Mr. Trump said of the North Korean leader on Tuesday, as he met again with Moon Jae-in, the over-optimistic South Korean president whose national security adviser predicted, that same day, it was “99.9 percent” sure that the summit meeting in Singapore would go ahead.

But it was already becoming clear to Mr. Trump and his team that the techniques involved in negotiating real estate do not translate easily into negotiations over nuclear weapons.

This is a different thing:

Mr. Kim needs money, investment and technology, for sure. But more than that, he needs to convince North Korea’s elites that he has not traded away the only form of security in his sole control – the nuclear patrimony of his father and his grandfather.

“For them, ‘getting rich’ is a secondary consideration,” said William Perry, the former secretary of defense and one of the last people to negotiate with the North over peace treaties, nuclear disarmament and missiles – in 1999, when he was sent out as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy. “If I learned anything dealing with them, it’s that their security is pre-eminent. They know we have the capability to defeat them, and they believe we have the intent to do so.”

“And the only way to address that,” Mr. Perry, now 90, said this week in Palo Alto, Calif., as the North Koreans were issuing their latest threats, “is with a step-by-step process, exactly the approach Trump said he did not want to take.”

All the other presidents before Trump had been “stupid” but he’d be smart, but he wasn’t smart enough:

Other complications prevented the talks from making it far enough to even discuss those issues. As the two leaders circled each other over what long-range goals they would agree to in Singapore, it became increasingly clear there were forces at work in both capitals that had a strong interest in failure.

The creators of North Korea’s nuclear and missile forces are the country’s true elite, celebrated as the heroes who keep America at bay. To lose their arsenal is to lose their status and influence.

Trump, however, has a different view of status and influence:

Even before he came to office, Mr. Trump complained – accurately – that the incremental approaches pursued by his predecessors had failed.

He inherited a North Korea that had exploited the United States’ distraction during Iraq, Afghanistan and the Iran negotiations, and managed to build 20 to 60 nuclear weapons. The North had paid almost no price. So Mr. Trump did what he learned to do in the New York real estate market: Make maximalist demands, inflict pain and then begin a negotiation.

But his “fire and fury” approach resulted in reactions he had never seen in the private market.

Sanger and Yglesias agree. This was never going to work, and then there’s Slate’s Fred Kaplan:

Trump may think that Kim will now come crawling back to the table, but this is a dubious proposition. First, Kim’s negotiator had already threatened to pull out, saying that there was no point talking if Trump endorsed John Bolton’s public comparison of North Korea to Libya, a country whose voluntary surrender of its nuclear program led to a Western-backed ouster of its leader, followed by his brutal murder.

Second, Kim doesn’t need this summit. He has already, deceptively or not, cultivated the image of a peace-seeker, through a charm offensive that began with his New Year’s Day message and continued through the Winter Olympics, his own summits in China and South Korea (the first meetings with those countries’ leaders on their territory), his offer to meet with Trump, his suspension of nuclear and missile tests (though only after announcing that he now had a viable nuclear arsenal), and proposing “denuclearization” (though with a vague timetable and the usual caveats).

Imagine if Trump had gone ahead with the summit, which was scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, and Kim hadn’t shown up, still protesting Bolton’s remarks. Trump could have touted himself as the real peace-seeker. He could have invited the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and perhaps China to come along and, in lieu of the scheduled summit, held a security conference, to discuss further steps to contain and isolate Kim’s regime. It would have been a double win for Trump.

Isn’t it pretty to think so? Sure, but forget that:

Trump’s big mistake was accepting Kim’s invitation to a summit without first discussing its potential risks and opportunities with people who know something about these things. His second, bigger mistake was hyping expectations, tweeting that a peace treaty was on the horizon and that he should win the Nobel Peace Prize simply for agreeing to meet. These absurd remarks only heightened his own stake in the summit’s success – and Kim’s leverage in the negotiations.

Many observers, especially in Japan, may have heaved a sigh of relief Thursday morning, as they feared that Trump was so eager for a deal that he might accept a bad one.

That won’t happen now, but this might:

Trump cannot resume his “fire and fury” campaign to pressure Kim to disarm through military threats – at least as long as Kim continues to suspend tests and persuades his neighbors that, hey, he tried to make peace but these dangerous, unreasonable Americans backed off. Moon – who is very keen on promoting North-South détente – may now move toward a separate peace, independent of whatever Washington wants. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who fears both Pyongyang’s aggression and Trump’s isolationism, may feel compelled to find his own way through the shoals as well, possibly building his own nuclear deterrent. Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose relations with Trump had begun to fray, may have mixed feelings – pleased at the shrinking of U.S. influence in the region, nervous about Kim’s ambitions, which he may have hoped the summit’s outcome would help contain.

Kaplan is not impressed with Trump:

By canceling his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, President Donald Trump has proved his lack of skill as a negotiator, handed the world’s most brutal dictator a win, and further isolated the United States as a world power…

First, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which had been working quite well, thus alienating the United States from its European allies, whose leaders had co-signed the deal, and whom he is now also threatening with economic sanctions if they try to keep the deal going. Now he cancels a summit, which never had the slightest chance of producing the results he hoped for (North Korean disarmament, a peace treaty, and gobs of contracts for U.S. firms to turn the communist dictatorship into a capitalist paradise) but which could have resulted in modest, useful steps toward a relaxation of tensions.

Trump, however, is not into modest, useful steps toward anything at all. He’s bold. He doesn’t play be the rules. That’s a good thing. “We could have had such a damned good time together!”

Hemingway’s Jake Barnes knew better. Everyone should know better now.

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A Sickness of the Spirit

Societally, the country has bottomed out. Societally, the country has been reduced to arguing about stupid stuff:

The chairman of the New York Jets said he will pay the fines for players on his team who protest during the national anthem hours after the NFL announced a new policy penalizing players who do so.

Jets chairman Christopher Johnson told Newsday that he never wants “to put restrictions on the speech of our players.”

Fine, but this is professional football. In the great scheme of things, if there is one, professional football hardly matters. George Will once said this – “Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” On the other hand, George Orwell once said this – “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”

So maybe this is war without the shooting, or with this kind of shooting:

The NFL announced the new policy earlier Wednesday, saying that teams can avoid fines by allowing players to stay off the field during the anthem.

Those who remain on the field will be required to stand during the anthem and will be penalized if they protest.

“Do I prefer that they stand? Of course. But I understand if they felt the need to protest,” Johnson said.

“There are some big, complicated issues that we’re all struggling with, and our players are on the front lines,” he continued. “I don’t want to come down on them like a ton of bricks, and I won’t.”

And he’ll face the wrath of his family:

The Jets are owned by Johnson’s brother, Woody Johnson, who has been on leave since he was appointed by President Trump to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Britain. Christopher Johnson is serving as acting owner of the team.

This whole thing may be moot of course, because no Jets players knelt in protest during the anthem in the last NFL season and there was only this:

Christopher Johnson stood on the field and linked arms with Jets players during the national anthem last year after Trump attacked players for kneeling during the anthem.

“It was an honor and a privilege to stand arm-in-arm unified with our players during today’s National Anthem,” he said in a statement at the time. “We are very proud of our players and their strong commitment to work in our community to make a positive, constructive, and unifying impact.”

But they were all standing, weren’t they? This is an argument about what didn’t happen last year and probably won’t happen this year. This is an argument about nothing, or it’s an argument about respect – for the flag and for the country, and for the troops, and thus for one’s fellow citizens. After all, black men and women, and their children, have been treated by the federal government, and state governments, and by the local police, and by their fellow citizens, with the utmost respect since the end of the Civil War – or close enough – and these black football players should be fined for not showing respect for that. They don’t agree. Christopher Johnson doesn’t agree. No one agrees. Trump supporters, and Donald Trump himself, only know that this is personal – someone is disrespecting them and that makes them very angry.

These black football players are very angry too, but this is only football, and they have options. They can stay in the locker room for the anthem. They can kneel out on the sidelines during the anthem and pay the fine – they’re rich enough and would be seen in the black community as heroes – or they can stand for the anthem and bow their heads and raise a black-gloved fist like Tommie Smith and John Carlos did during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. They’d still be standing and the NFL couldn’t slap them with any fine. They may have other options. Who knows?

Societally, the country has been reduced to arguing about what a few professional athletes might or might not do in a brief moment before a football game that settles nothing about anything in the real world, and arguing about tweets:

Apart from the man himself, perhaps nothing has defined President Trump’s political persona more than Twitter.

But on Wednesday, one of Mr. Trump’s Twitter habits – his practice of blocking critics on the service, preventing them from engaging with his account – was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Manhattan.

Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, addressing a novel issue about how the Constitution applies to social media platforms and public officials, found that the president’s Twitter feed is a public forum. As a result, she ruled that when Mr. Trump or an aide blocked seven plaintiffs from viewing and replying to his posts, he violated the First Amendment.

Okay, maybe this does matter a bit:

If the principle undergirding Wednesday’s ruling in Federal District Court stands, it is likely to have implications far beyond Mr. Trump’s feed and its 52 million followers, said Jameel Jaffer, the Knight First Amendment Institute’s executive director and the counsel for the plaintiffs. Public officials throughout the country, from local politicians to governors and members of Congress, regularly use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to interact with the public about government business.

“This ruling should put them on notice, and if they censor critics from social media accounts used for official purposes, they run the risk that someone will sue them and win,” he said of public officials.

In short, Trump is tweeting for official purposes and he is everybody’s president, and while he may want to shut down the Washington Post and CNN he can’t just censor his critics, but he does want to:

Asked whether the administration would unblock the users or appeal the ruling, Kerri Kupec, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s civil division, demurred from making any specific pronouncement. “We respectfully disagree with the court’s decision and are considering our next steps,” she said.

The country will be been reduced to arguing about this now. Every American has the right, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, to speak freely, but no one is guaranteed the right to an audience – or something. Choose sides. This will get hot.

Matthew Yglesias, however, notes what remains quite cold:

A majority of Americans – 59 percent – say in a new survey that Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia and the 2016 campaign has not yet uncovered evidence of any crimes, even though in reality, Mueller has already obtained five guilty pleas and 17 criminal indictments.

That’s according to a new survey from Navigator Research that looks at Americans’ view of the probe and ought to reshape the debate over the Russia investigation’s role in both media coverage and Democratic Party messaging.

It won’t, but this did happen:

Michael Flynn, former national security adviser and a key Trump campaign surrogate, pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal investigators in December.

Rick Gates, a top aide on the Trump campaign and a longtime business partner of Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to false statements and one count of conspiracy.

George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser on the campaign, pleaded guilty to false statements.

Alexander van der Zwaan, a London-based Dutch attorney, pleaded guilty to making false statements about his contacts with Gates and an unnamed Ukrainian.

Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies have been indicted on conspiracy charges, and some on identity theft charges, related to Russian social media and hacking efforts.

Richard Pinedo, a California resident, has pleaded guilty to an identity theft charge related to the Russian indictments.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chair, is facing two separate indictments – one in DC about conspiracy, money laundering, false statements, and failure to disclose foreign assets; and one in Virginia about tax, financial, and bank fraud charges.

Yglesias sees this:

One can interpret this pattern of behavior in a few ways. One is that Mueller is steadily putting in place the building blocks of a huge, mafia-style takedown that will end with Manafort “flipping” under pressure and new indictments coming against members of Donald Trump’s family and damning evidence about Trump himself. Another would be that when placed under a microscope by an aggressive prosecutor, several Trump aides turn out to have been involved in financial malfeasance only loosely related to the Trump campaign and Trump himself did nothing wrong. But there is definitely evidence of crimes – including some serious ones – by a range of figures, some Russian and some Americans and some working at a very high level in Trumpworld.

Yet despite what most Americans perceive to be a very steady drumbeat of Trump-Russia news, the majority of the public is completely unaware of these critical facts.

Yglesias worries about that, but maybe the majority of the public is obsessed with those kneeling black football players and Trump blocking rude tweets in response to his rude tweets – nothing is quite normal anymore – or maybe the majority of the public is now numb. That’s what Josh Marshall sees:

We need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.

This is what Marshall sees as the confusion:

“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.

One reason that “norms” aren’t laws is that sometimes new or unique sets of facts create situations in which they do not or cannot or should not apply. But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.

So, Trump abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes is not normal at all, and there’s more:

I’ve noted something similar about the language of “conflicts of interest.” I have heard many people claim that that $500 million Chinese state loan to a Trump Organization partnership development in Indonesia is a “conflict of interest.” Whether or not you think that is the best example there are many others to choose from. Plug in whichever story you choose: Jared Kushner hitting up the Qataris for loans for his family business empire while supporting a blockade of their country or pressuring foreign government and political groups to use the President’s DC hotel or a million other examples.

These are not ‘conflicts of interest’. A ‘conflict of interest’ is a case in which the nature of a situation makes it impossible for a person to separate their personal interests from their public responsibilities (or to appear to do so). All previous Presidents put their private wealth into blind trusts. We assume they weren’t going to try to directly make money off the presidency. But they wanted to remove any question of it and avoid situations where their own financial interests would bump up against their public responsibilities.

What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes…

Marshall doesn’t like how everyone seems to have become numb to that:

You might say, “Well, wait. He hasn’t been charged with a crime yet.” Or “We don’t know yet whether he’s committed a crime.” Please. That’s highly dubious on its own terms. But obstruction of justice statutes universally do not require proof of an underlying crime. You’re not allowed to stymie or obstruct a lawful criminal investigation. The effort to do so generally speaks for itself in creating a presumption of guilt.

As is often the case with Presidents, this goes beyond mere statutes: the point is the substance of obstructing justice which the President is not only clearly doing now but has been doing more or less openly for more than a year.

This is more important than those NFL fines or what Trump does or does not do with rude tweets, but Marshall sees what is happening:

The other problem with “norms” – perhaps the really critical one – is that they can easily sound like some precious bureaucratic niceties which simply aren’t that important… ornate concepts from a world of foreign or elusive proprieties. Who before Trump talked so much about “norms”? It can all sound frivolous and precious. Maybe you need a President who will upset the apple cart a bit and try new things?

Again, we’re confusing the issue. It’s not norms. The President is trying to obstruct and stymie and hamstring a lawful investigation into his own crimes and those of his associates: by repeatedly lying, firing and threatening to fire people, intervening in law enforcement decisions in his own interest, fabricating fake stories to impede the investigation. The list goes on and on and even those who know better are becoming inured to it.

The President is in the midst of a massive, more or less public and months-long effort to cover up his own crimes and the crimes of his associates. That’s really clear-cut. It’s obvious to anyone why that’s not okay. So we need to state that clearly so everyone will know what is at stake. Otherwise, everything becomes a blur. We lose the thread, the significance.

But there are those kneeling black football players!

Forget them. Sam Stein reports this:

In highly charged and notably ominous terms, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) on Wednesday laid bare his fears about the damage Donald Trump was inflicting on the office he holds, and called out his fellow Republicans for lacking the spine to fight to it.

“Our presidency has been debased by a figure who has a seemingly bottomless appetite for destruction and division and only a passing familiarity with how the Constitution works,” Flake declared, according to an advanced copy of the commencement address he was delivering to graduates of the Harvard School of Law. “And our Article I branch of government, the Congress, is utterly supine in the face of the moral vandalism that flows from the White House daily.”

Flake can say that. He’s retiring from the Senate and had said such things before, but he went further here:

“All is not well,” Flake told graduates at one point, “We have a sickness of the spirit.” At another moment, he openly wondered whether, societally, the country had bottomed out.

“This is it, if you have been wondering what the bottom looks like,” he said, per his prepared remarks. “This is what it looks like when you stress-test all of the institutions that undergird our constitutional democracy, at the same time. You could say that we are witnesses to history, and if it were possible to divorce ourselves from the obvious tragedy of this debacle, I suppose that might even be interesting, from an academic perspective. The way some rare diseases are interesting to medical researchers.”

But it’s still a sickness of the spirit, and E. J. Dionne reports that someone is working on that:

Maybe it takes a royal wedding to offer lessons in what a good sermon sounds like. Maybe it takes one of the world’s most elitist institutions – a monarchy, for goodness’ sake – to provide a view of Christianity rooted not in conservative cultural warfare (or unrelenting support for President Trump) but in an egalitarian love that will “let justice roll down like a mighty stream.”

And the Most Rev. Michael Curry, who preached for a royal couple and the world last Saturday, isn’t finished with us yet. On Thursday, a group of Christians will march to the White House for a candlelight vigil inspired by a declaration titled “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”

The presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, Curry is a prime mover of a statement suffused with a sense of urgency about “a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government.”

Someone wants to fix things:

While Trump lurks behind almost every paragraph of this passionate assertion of faith, he is never mentioned. This reflects the desire of the endorsers to focus on what it means to proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” The opening paragraph makes this clear: “We believe the soul of the nation, and the integrity of faith, are now at stake.”

At a time when social media and email inboxes bulge with manifestos about the dangers posed by Trump, “Reclaiming Jesus” is distinctive: Its vision contrasts sharply with the approach taken by Christians who are invoking religious arguments in apologetics for a president whose actions and policies seem antithetical to almost everything Jesus taught.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical Christian leader and the declaration’s main drafter, credited Curry for encouraging his colleagues to speak out. “The two of us talked and prayed about this for months before inviting a group of elders to join us for a retreat on Ash Wednesday” to discuss “a theological and biblical statement.”

And it’s quite a statement:

If “each human being is made in God’s image and likeness,” then Christians have a duty to repudiate “the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership.” A belief that “we are one body” requires opposition to “misogyny” and “the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women.”

Because “how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ,” Christians must oppose “attacks on immigrants and refugees” and “cutting services and programs for the poor” accompanied by tax cuts “for the rich.”

The final three assertions were especially pointed about the unnamed president. Because “truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition,” Christians should stand against “the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.” It notes that “Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination.” This means resisting “any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.”

And then there’s this:

The declaration’s most barbed conclusion comes from Christ’s injunction to “go into all nations making disciples.” This, the signatories say, “demands a rebuke to ‘America First’ as a theological heresy.”

“While we share a patriotic love for our country,” they add, “we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal.”

Trump will no doubt call Wallis and Curry fools who don’t know a thing about real Christianity, but Dionne wonders about that:

The battle within Christianity (and not just in the United States) can be defined in many ways. It is at least in part between those who would use faith as a means of excluding others on the basis of nation, culture and, too often, race, and those who see it as an appeal to conscience, a prod to social decency – and, yes, as an invitation to love.

But there are those kneeling black football players!

Forget those kneeling black football players, and Trump’s tweets. Outrage at that sort of thing has numbed us all to the fact that societally, the country has bottomed out. Flake spoke of a sickness of the spirit. That seems about right, and those NFL fines won’t cure that. Now what?

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Duty, Honor, Country

There was that graduation at West Point long ago. Colin Powell spoke – he was fine. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and we had no enemies now. In fact, our idea of how societies should be organized had won. Our form of democracy was the only thing that actually worked. Francis Fukuyama had called it The End of History – but we would still need a military, and need thoughtful military leaders, to keep the peace and manage things and inspire others. That was Powell’s message, and those young men and women were amazing – Duty, Honor, Country – the real deal. They could pull that off.

Everyone should attend a graduation at West Point, especially those of us who were part of the late-sixties long-haired left who had turned into middle-aged bleeding-heart liberals. Powell and Fukuyama were wrong. Saddam Hussein soon tried to grab Kuwait and had to be tossed out of there – and later September 11 happened and we had our wars. We’re living through what had to follow those – perpetual proxy wars all across the Middle East, where our friends are sometimes our enemies and our enemies are sometimes our friends, with associated terrorist attacks around the world. That means that Powell was actually right. We need thoughtful military leaders more than ever. There’s a lot to sort out, that won’t stay sorted out. Attend a graduation at West Point. There’s hope.

There’s also Donald Trump, and there’s another graduation at hand, and there’s Stephen Wrage, a professor in the political science department at our Naval Academy in Annapolis. He says Trump has made this graduation different:

The day it was announced that President Trump would speak at the U.S. Naval Academy graduation, I received startling emails from several midshipmen, written to my private email account from their private accounts. One message said: “We are under no obligation to clap for Donald Trump. Trump wants the image of young service members cheering him on and we can deny him that image.” Another proposed an online petition on social media, pledging not to applaud Trump at commissioning. There were four more with similar themes: “We are taught selflessness; he practices narcissism.” “If he is a role model, it is only in the exact opposite.”

This sort of defiance was new to me, even after 25 years of teaching at the academy. Their complaints centered on the president’s character.

Wrage worked that out. The midshipmen agreed that there’d be no protests or anything that would ruin the day. Trump himself would have to do that, and they do know what to do:

The midshipmen found a better model in Defense Secretary Jim Mattis – a better model of a leader and a better way to conduct themselves. At Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting, when he went around the table demanding expressions of adulation, Mattis didn’t comply. The retired Marine Corps general performed what one mid admiringly called “the Mattis sidestep.” Mattis countered with respect for the people he leads: “Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense. We are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military, so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength.”

The midshipmen will sidestep Trump.

They will show no sign of disrespect, and neither will anyone else:

Trump is needy, and military events such as the parade in Paris excite him. There are some midshipmen who will be thrilled by him, and some parents from red states will be tempted to treat the ceremony like a rally, but most will sense how much the day means to their daughters and sons and will restrain themselves. Some faculty will want to turn their backs or walk out when Trump speaks, but most who would protest will just stay home.

There is no question, however, how the officers whom the midshipmen report to will behave: They will offer the quiet deference they owe to the office of the president. They speak with full academic freedom in their classrooms, but they maintain military decorum at a ceremony.

There is duty and honor and country. Those don’t require cheering. Those are quiet virtues, and Wrage adds this:

Decades later, officers remember their commissioning. One Marine I know recalled whole passages he heard from the speech at his graduation in 1993, 25 years ago. That year, John McCain came to speak and, as they say, he killed it.

McCain told them, “As ensigns and second lieutenants, the character of the young sailors and Marines entrusted to your care will be formed in large part by their appreciation of your character. You are where leadership begins. You are the models who stand just past the sergeants and chiefs, and those under your command will derive from your behavior the direction of their own lives. Their firm respect for you, on which their lives and our security will depend, will be determined by how faithfully you keep, on duty and off, the code you learned here.”

McCain was telling them something they had learned every day for four years. Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Martin E. Dempsey tweeted a similar message just last week: “Character matters. Always. In everything. Period.”

Trump had better not try that:

When McCain said it, it was unforgettable. If Trump says the same things, the midshipmen will cringe. They know about Trump’s bone spurs. They know what McCain suffered in Hanoi, and they know Trump told Howard Stern that risking sexually transmitted diseases “like a great and very brave soldier” was his “personal Vietnam.”

McCain even addressed the matter on the minds of many midshipmen right now: how to respond to a president morally unfit to command. Bill Clinton, who had taken office just four months before, was scorned by many academy graduates for taking ROTC support but evading service. McCain said, “When the American people elect a leader to govern the affairs of our great nation, our respect for their authority must remain inviolate – for it is that respect from which our profession derives so much of its nobility in a democracy. Your commanders and instructors have worked hard to impart these lessons to you.”

The world changed – all of this is harder now – but these young men and women won’t change:

In Annapolis, Trump won’t find sycophants such as the ones he packed into his Cabinet. He will find officers. That’s what the Naval Academy produces. They will show the measured respect his office requires, but he shouldn’t imagine that he is leading them. Trump is no McCain. The word “character” should be off-limits for Trump.

There’s hope, and there’s still John McCain:

Republican Senator John McCain rips into President Donald Trump in his new book The Restless Wave, accusing him of not caring about Russian election interference while questioning his general convictions.

“Trump seems to vary from refusing to believe what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing to just not caring about it,” McCain wrote.

Taking aim at one of Trump’s primary slogans, McCain added that there’s nothing “America First” about “taking the word of a KGB colonel over that of the American intelligence community.”

But wait, there’s more:

In addition to attacking Trump on the issue of Russian election interference, McCain went after the president’s core beliefs.

“I’m not sure what to make of President Trump’s convictions,” McCain wrote. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values.”

In the Arizona senator’s view, Trump seems to “mock the idea that America has any business at all promoting its values abroad.”

But wait, there’s more:

McCain wrote that Trump’s “lack of empathy” for refugees is particularly “disturbing.”

“The way he speaks about them is appalling, as if welfare or terrorism were the only purposes they could have in coming to our country,” the six-term senator added.

McCain said Trump essentially mimics “autocrats” in his attacks on the free press and he further accused the president of showering “some of the world’s worst tyrants” with praise, including Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump’s apparent disregard for human rights is especially unsettling to McCain.

“The world expects us to be concerned with the condition of humanity. We should be proud of that reputation. I’m not sure the president understands that,” he wrote…

McCain graduated from Annapolis. So did his father, the admiral. There is duty and honor and country, and then there’s Donald Trump.

Donald Trump doesn’t get some basic stuff about this country, as Erik Wemple reports here:

President Trump routinely attempts to convince his followers that the media is out to get him; that it doesn’t actually have any sources for all those White House scoops; that it lies; that it’s the enemy of the people; that it traffics in “fake news” – among other offenses carefully outlined in tweet after tweet. Sometimes the fake-news smear is conveyed in all-caps, connoting seriousness.

Ah, but it’s all a show. That’s what the president reportedly told Lesley Stahl of CBS News before her interview with the president-elect shortly after his victory in November 2016. In a conversation with Judy Woodruff for the Deadline Club Awards 2018, Stahl mentioned her conversation at Trump Tower with the politician prior to the interview.

She reported this:

At one point he started to attack the press. And it’s just me and my boss and him, and he has a huge office. And he’s attacking the press, and there were no cameras, there was nothing going on. And I said, “You know, that is getting tired. Why are you doing this? You’re doing it over and over, and it’s boring, and it’s time to end that, and you’ve won the nomination. And why do you keep hammering at this?” And he said, “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe it.”

That was two years ago. He never stopped hammering at this – the press is the enemy of the people (and him) – and that might explain this:

Urged on by influential figures such as U.S. President Donald Trump, a growing number of world leaders are openly encouraging hostility toward the news media as journalists across the globe face increasing animosity for their work, according to a report by an international press watchdog organization.

That is the conclusion from the 2018 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, or RSF. The annual ranking, released on Wednesday and which also showed a big decline in freedom of speech across the world, dropped the U.S. two positions from its 2017 position, to No. 45 overall.

Things were bad here but now they’re two places worse:

“More and more democratically elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion,” RSF said in a statement accompanying the release of its rankings. “A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters as ‘enemies of the people,’ the term once used by (former Soviet leader) Joseph Stalin.”

These folks must have been talking to John McCain and for the record:

Much like in 2017, European nations dominate the RSF rankings for having the most press freedom. Norway ranked No. 1 and Sweden finished No. 2 in the list.

Both of those nations are high-tax “socialist” nations with virtually free universal health care and free college and first-rate infrastructures, and vibrant capitalist economies where entrepreneurs find it easy start any kind of business and make a lot of money, and rate at the top of all those “happiness” indexes too – or as American conservatives call them, hellholes. That may be because they have the most press freedom. People there can say anything they want.

We’re leading the charge in the other direction:

Statements by Trump are also responsible for the decline in media freedom around the world, the organization said. After Trump called CNN a fake news organization, some Libyan media outlets questioned the cable network’s report on modern slave auctions in the country last year.

“The U.S.’ decline in press freedom is not simply bad news for journalists working inside the country; the downward trend has drastic consequences at the international level,” RSF said. “‘Fake news’ is now a trademark excuse for media repression, in both democratic and authoritarian regimes.”

Earlier this month, April Ryan – the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and a political analyst for CNN – said she had received death threats after asking press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether Trump had considered resigning.

In that case, some of Trump’s civilian supporters took him far too seriously about this stuff, but Trump is playing with fire here, and the administration’s war on the press is real enough:

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency barred reporters from three news organizations, allegedly shoving one out of the building, after they had sought to cover a meeting attended by other journalists Tuesday.

The incident occurred at a summit on water contamination at the EPA’s headquarters in Washington called by the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt.

Reporters from CNN, the Associated Press and the energy and environment publication E&E News were prevented from attending the meeting, which included about 200 representatives of regulatory and industry groups.

AP reporter Ellen Knickmeyer tweeted that EPA guards grabbed a reporter by the shoulders and “shoved” the journalist out of the building. Knickmeyer declined to identify herself as the reporter, but AP later confirmed that she was the one excluded.

Scott Pruitt is more Trump than Trump dares to be. His guards grabbed the reporter by the shoulders and tossed her out, and then Scott Pruitt had second thoughts:

By midafternoon, the EPA reversed course and permitted Knickmeyer to cover the conference’s afternoon session. Knickmeyer said an adviser to Pruitt called to apologize to her and that officials were looking into the shoving incident, according to AP.

That wasn’t good enough:

In a statement, Knickmeyer’s boss, AP Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, called the episode “alarming and a direct threat to the public’s right to know about what is happening inside their government.” She added, “It is particularly distressing that any journalist trying to cover an event in the public interest would be forcibly removed.”

CNN reporter Rene Marsh was also prevented from attending, a network spokeswoman said, after “multiple attempts to attend.” The spokeswoman said EPA “selectively excluded” the network and others. “We understand the importance of an open and free press, and we hope the EPA does, too,” she said.

Don’t count on it:

Reporters and people at the EPA said agency officials have complained about the three news organizations in the past. The agency removed the AP’s environmental reporter, Michael Biesecker, from its master email list last summer after complaining about the fairness of Biesecker’s coverage of Pruitt, who has become embroiled in a series of ethical scandals.

This isn’t Norway or Sweden after all:

Although the White House and Trump administration agencies have generally accommodated reporters at public events, journalists protested last year when the White House barred reporters from several news organizations from an informal briefing. CNN, the New York Times, Politico, the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed were excluded from the meeting with then-press secretary Sean Spicer, who handpicked representatives from several conservative outlets. Time magazine and AP boycotted the meeting in protest of the exclusion of other news outlets.

That’s why the United States is in forty-fifth place in these matters, but Miranda Green reports on the particulars of this EPA event:

The meeting on Tuesday was significant due to the hot-button topic of PFAS [Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, hazardous chemicals linked to cancer] as debate rages between the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) over acceptable levels of the chemicals in drinking water.

Reports last week indicated that the EPA is fearing a “public relations nightmare” following expected new recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services that acceptable drinking water levels for PFAS are much lower than the EPA’s current standards. The chemical has been linked to thyroid disease and testicular cancer.

There are the EPA’s current standards. There is the science. Someone was going to ask Pruitt what he’s got against science. Pruitt didn’t want to answer that question, but there’s nothing new here:

The agency has come under fire in the past for limiting reporter involvement. The administration did not invite reporters to the agency’s rollout of its new science transparency rule at the end of April at EPA headquarters. Earlier in the month Pruitt also avoided reporter scrutiny by barring most outlets from attending a highly anticipated announcement at the White House that the administration would be reconsidering Obama-era vehicle emission standards.

Pruitt rarely grants one-on-one interviews with reporters outside of right-wing media or local outlets. Additionally, reporters are rarely notified of Pruitt’s meeting and trips outside of D.C., frequently only learning of them through his Twitter account.

It seems citizens don’t have the right to know what the government is doing, or not doing, about things that might kill them. There’s duty. There’s honor. There’s country. And then there’s Scott Pruitt, and behind him, Donald Trump. But there are still Annapolis graduates:

Amy McGrath, who packaged her biography as the first female Marine to fly in an F-18 fighter jet in combat with a powerful anti-Washington message, won the Democratic House primary in Kentucky’s sixth congressional district Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.

Ms. McGrath, 42, campaigned vigorously in all 19 counties in the district that stretch into deeply Republican rural areas, and was able to raise an extraordinary amount of money without the backing of national Democrats…

“Yes, I am a Democrat, but I am an American first,” she said.

She may go on to beat the Republican in the general election, because she’s an Annapolis gal:

McGrath’s service record has been at the center of her campaign since she entered the race with her viral introductory video, a two-minute biographical spot that doubled as a sort of superhero origin story for the Resistance crowd. In the video, McGrath, in a bomber jacket, explains that she grew up wanting to “fly fighter jets and land on aircraft carriers.” At the age of 12, she wrote to her congressman, senators, and the House and Senate armed services committees, asking them to lift the prohibition on female fighter pilots. Sen. Mitch McConnell never wrote back. Other Republicans told her “no.” McGrath would get her wish, though, just before she became an Annapolis cadet, when President Bill Clinton ended the ban.

“Democrats wanted to give me a chance, and all the Republicans wanted to say ‘No, you’re Amy, not Andy, go be a nurse,'” she told me.

Now she’ll do what she can to fix things in Washington. She has to. There’s duty. There’s honor. There’s country. And there’s Amy McGrath. And there’s hope.

And there’s the Annapolis graduation. Trump will speak. He’ll boast and brag and whine about this and that. The midshipmen will offer the quiet deference they owe to the office of the president, but no more. They’re the hope now.

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Too Much History

This isn’t Donald Trump’s penthouse with gold-plated everything high above Fifth Avenue. There are old copies of Foreign Affairs scattered around the apartment here in Hollywood. They’re depressing reading. There’s classical music on the radio all day – out of USC down near South Central, where the Watts Riots started long ago – and that helps a bit. But then there’s the History Channel, or the American Heroes Channel or whatever they’ve decided to call themselves now. It’s always a mistake to turn that on. Mussolini is still strutting around in his finely tailored military uniform with the riding boots. He postures and poses. His gestures are Donald Trump’s gestures. That’s depressing too. There’s too much history. Donald Trump will ditch the business suits one day. John McCain isn’t a hero, he was captured, and Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief after all. Expect the uniform, perhaps at America’s first Stalinesque massive military parade later this year. His base will love it.

There’s too much history. It happened in Italy long ago. It happened in Germany long ago. It happened here. Just enough Americans decided a blustering authoritarian was just what America needed – to slap our enemies around, and to slap our allies around too, to settle all domestic matters too – an unfettered strongman who would cut through all the bullshit – the niceties of government and the law – and just do what he said he’d do. Donald Trump did say “only he could fix it” – whatever “it” there might be – and that sounded wonderful to just enough Americans to get him elected. Americans chose this.

But maybe Germany is the wrong model:

President Donald Trump’s latest round of attacks on the FBI has left morale at the Justice Department at a new low, with officials bemoaning what they view as a full-frontal assault on their institution.

“It’s a deliberate campaign to delegitimize institutions where the people who are inside those institutions are professionals and giving up lots of money for the jobs that they’re doing and it’s extremely demoralizing,” said one current federal prosecutor.

“As my father used to say, history goes forward and backward. And things go backward when the trust in bedrock institutions – which are trustworthy, by the way – is diminished for the benefit of a few. It accelerates, and you wake up one day and we’re in Venezuela.”

Venezuela will do too. Dana Milbank agrees with that:

Right now the fear of the United States going totalitarian doesn’t feel quite right. This crowd is too clownish to be Stalinist. Rather, the United States is turning into a banana republic.

The president of the United States orders the Justice Department to investigate his political opponents. The Justice Department complies.

The president personally urged the postmaster general to double the rate it charges Amazon, apparently because he doesn’t like the coverage by the Washington Post, owned by Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos.

Trump settles a trade dispute with China on terms even his allies say are too favorable to the Chinese. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that a Chinese state-owned bank asked clients to pay $150,000 to attend a fundraiser with Trump.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatens to impose the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran. The French economy minister proposes that Europe fight the U.S. sanctions by compensating European businesses hurt by the sanctions.

Trump, only days after saying “everyone” thinks he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korea negotiations, receives a message from Pyongyang saying it would not give up its nuclear weapons and citing national security adviser John Bolton’s “repugnance.”

Milbank’s list goes on and on from there. It’s all banana-republic posturing and posing, without the snazzy military uniform, so far, but CNN reports on the limitations of that:

Administration aides have grown increasingly skeptical the summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will come to fruition amid harsh rhetoric from Pyongyang and concerns over the meeting’s agenda, officials and other people familiar with the matter said.

Even as teams of advance staffers survey ornate hotel ballrooms in Singapore for the June 12 encounter, some of the President’s advisers privately say the chances of the talks occurring grew slimmer after North Korea adopted a harsher tone toward the US last week and raised questions about Kim’s commitment to, and definition of, denuclearization.

Trump himself remains committed to meeting Kim, and there has not been any indication he is preparing to call off the meeting himself, the officials said. But the new developments have led to a renewed impression that the audacious diplomatic meeting may not be as likely to occur as it once seemed.

Kim is the problem, but so is Trump:

Trump administration officials have grown concerned that the President is overly eager for the summit to take place, increasing Kim’s leverage should the talks take place, US officials and a source close to the administration said.

South Korean President Moon said Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize. Senator Lindsey Graham said so too, as did everyone on Fox News. Trump really wants that Nobel Peace Prize. Kim said the summit was off if the United States went through with its annual joint military exercises with South Korea. Trump called off the part where our B-52 bombers fly around. Trump now calls the guy “Supreme Leader Kim” not “Little Rocket Man” – because Trump really wants that Nobel Peace Prize. Kim is laughing his ass off, so of course Trump administration officials are concerned, or in despair, as this is next:

The recent pangs of anxiety will come to a head on Tuesday when Trump meets in the Oval Office with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who some US officials believe oversold North Korea’s willingness to negotiate away its nuclear program. In March, Moon’s envoy told reporters in the White House driveway that Kim is “committed to denuclearization” and understood that joint US-South Korea military exercises “must continue.”

But statements last week from North Korea indicated otherwise.

No good will come of this:

If the summit is scrapped, the only alternative the President and his allies have floated is military action.

Late last week, Trump warned North Korea it could go the way of Libya and Iraq and be “decimated” if it refuses to strike a deal. The President’s allies parroted those warnings in recent days.

“President Trump told me three days ago that he wants to end this in a win-win way. He thinks that’s possible, but if they pull out, they play him, that we’re going to end North Korea’s threat to the American homeland in his first term and I’ll let you surmise as to what that might look like,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, an outspoken North Korea hawk, on Fox News Sunday.

If Trump doesn’t get his Nobel Peace Prize everyone in North Korea is as good as dead.

The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg adds more:

In March, Trump spontaneously accepted an offer, conveyed to him by a South Korean envoy, to meet directly with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. North Korea has sought a one-on-one meeting with a sitting American president for years, believing it would legitimate it as a global power, but previous administrations have refused. “No American president has ever agreed to meet a North Korean leader before because that is a huge concession in and of itself,” Robert Kelly, a political science professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, told me.

Nevertheless, credulous commentators praised Trump for bringing North Korea to the table, as if a seat at the table wasn’t what North Korea wanted all along. And pundits, including some who are broadly critical of the president, hectored us to give him credit.

In The Daily Beast, Rory Cooper asked us to entertain “the possibility that Trump actually is on the precipice of this type of geopolitical achievement.” Jeff Greenfield wrote an essay in Politico Magazine headlined, “Thinking the Unthinkable: What if Trump succeeds?” He urged those of us appalled by the president to “to consider seriously the proposition that this misbegotten president has somehow achieved an honest-to-God diplomatic success.”

What success? Kim already got what he wanted – a seat at the “adult” table – but Goldberg wonders who the adult here is:

Due to Trump’s ignorance and vanity, South Korea’s dovish leader, Moon Jae-in, has been able to manipulate him into a position where he might make concessions to North Korea that no other president would dare. Given the risk of war, Moon’s maneuvering has been admirable. “In South Korea, it’s basically an open secret that this whole thing is flattering Trump,” Kelly said. “It kind of amazes me that Trump’s staff hasn’t picked up on this.”

That’s all that Mussolini ever wanted too – he had to prove that he wasn’t a clown – and now Trump wants this summit meeting far too much

The U.S. government has even issued a commemorative coin about the summit featuring Trump and “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un face-to-face, signaling to the world that it’s now the American president who craves legitimation from the North Korean dictator.

Goldberg then points out the obvious:

Even a casual newspaper reader – which, of course, Trump is not – knows that when North Korea talks about “denuclearization,” it doesn’t mean unilaterally giving up all its nuclear weapons. A hastily arranged meeting between two bellicose egomaniacs, premised on a basic misunderstanding, is unlikely to resolve one of the world’s most intractable geopolitical conflicts; a flimsy agreement that roughly preserves the status quo seems like a best-case scenario.

Goldberg is not impressed with that:

Of course, we all have a motive in playing along with the fiction that Trump has achieved a Korean breakthrough – it might stop him from starting a war. But it’s one thing to humor our idiot president, and another to let the gravitational pull of presidential power, and the deep desire for a minimally competent leader, warp reality. We all want to be open-minded, but con men should never be given the benefit of the doubt.

Goldberg sees two con men, but Richard Cohen sees a third, that “repugnant” one, and the word fits:

John Bolton is now President Trump’s national security adviser. He sits at Trump’s elbow. Bolton has restructured the National Security Council to match his views. He has laid out strategies to eliminate North Korea’s missile capacity and its nuclear program, including a preemptive strike. Bolton thinks North Korea inevitably lies. North Korea thinks Bolton is “human scum and a bloodsucker.”

I think it’s time to worry.

Of course it is:

How could anyone believe that the United States, the nicest of nations, would strike North Korea unprovoked? But Bolton has suggested there are ways to do that. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in August, Bolton outlined various military approaches, starting with a preemptive “strike at Pyongyang’s known nuclear facilities, ballistic missile factories and launch sites, and submarine bases.” In other words, war.

Bolton recognizes what would happen to South Korea as a result – and he’s sorry for that. But elsewhere he has written that the United States has to do what the United States has to do and cannot be constrained even by an ally. With Seoul within range of North Korean artillery – and the likelihood of taking out all its nuclear armed missiles uncertain – we are talking about huge casualties and immense devastation. Such a consequence ought to be out of the question.

It isn’t, and that’s a problem:

Bolton’s plans for North Korea have an underlying theme: The regime is illegitimate. Even his most benign plan, the wish that China ends the North’s misery and unites the two Koreas, means that Kim has to go, probably feet first. In other words, Kim would be fighting for his very life, not to mention the existence of a regime that has been in the family since his grandfather’s day. This approach is not going to encourage Kim to give up his nuclear weapons.

That’s the problem with posturing and posing, but that’s what Trump prefers:

Trump has cleaned house of moderates. Rex Tillerson is gone from the State Department, H.R. McMaster from the National Security Council, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is no longer phone monitor and Bolton now influences the flow of intelligence to Trump. In certain circles, Bolton has a reputation as a straight shooter. But retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, once Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has a different view of Bolton from their time together at the State Department. “He lied repeatedly during his time at State,” he says in the current New Yorker magazine.

Or he was posturing and posing repeatedly, which isn’t quite the same as lying. It’s worse, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did threaten to impose the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran. And the French economy minister did propose that Europe fight these strongest sanctions in history by compensating European businesses hurt by the sanctions. Pompeo did say he hoped that they would do that, but seems to be saying they’d pay the price if they did – no more trade or tourism with France or Germany, or maybe the end of NATO or something. He wasn’t saying, just yet.

He too was posturing and posing:

He insisted that Iran end all nuclear enrichment programs and close its heavy water reactor, saying it did not have the right to such a program. He also appealed directly to the Iranian people, suggesting they should reject the clerical government in Tehran, the capital.

“What has the Iranian revolution given to the Iranian people?” Mr. Pompeo asked at one point, and then offered an answer: “The hard grip of repression is all that millions of Iranians have ever known.”

Iran’s right to enrich uranium, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is debatable. More than a dozen countries in the world enrich uranium, with several doing so solely for civilian purposes, such as energy generation and medical uses.

But Mr. Pompeo’s speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation was intended to throw down the gauntlet against Tehran, piling on after President Trump’s withdrawal earlier this month from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated with world powers in 2015. While he did not directly threaten the use of military force, Mr. Pompeo said that if Iran restarts its nuclear program “we will respond.”

He also demanded that Iran admit to the military purposes of its now-moribund nuclear weapons program, end its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Yemen’s Houthis, and withdraw all of its forces from Syria.

“You know, the list is pretty long,” Mr. Pompeo conceded. But, he added, “We didn’t create the list. They did.”

And then he folded his arms across his chest, raised his chin and sneered, nodding his head, thinking he was on a balcony in Rome in 1937, in a well-tailored uniform.

Martin Longman sees that too:

These demands have their merits (although Iran does retain the right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes) but they amount to asking the Iranian revolutionary regime to abandon all its foreign policy objectives which no government would ever do. It’s not going too far to interpret that Pompeo is saying that sanctions will remain in effect until there is a change of regime.

To put this in other words, the point of the sanctions is no longer to contain Iran or to prevent them from building nuclear weapons or proliferating nuclear technology. The point is to force a collapse of the government.

Longman knows posturing and posing when he sees it:

If the Iranian people rose up and were willing to die in substantial numbers, this strategy could conceivably work without the U.S. or U.K. having to step in militarily. Of course, the regime survived an eight-year war with Iraq and it has survived isolation and sanctions in the past. It has easily quelled domestic uprisings.

Unfortunately, if we create the logic that only regime change can eliminate sanctions then we’re setting ourselves up to do the regime change ourselves. And I’m not convinced that killing a lot of people is the best way to free them from tyranny.

What’s even more problematic is that we have a tendency to ignore the fact that any truly democratic government in Iran would still have many of the same foreign policy objectives as the present government. A government truly responsive to the people would still cater to national pride and still see uranium enrichment as a national right. It would still be opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and still concerned to promote the interests of the global community of Shiites, whether they live in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Lebanon.

That leaves war, shock and awe and then sending in our troops, again, with the same result:

I don’t care for religious fundamentalists regardless of where they live, whom they govern, or what sect they belong to, so I have no love for Iranian regime and would be pleased to see them removed from power. I feel the same way about the Saudi Royal Family and the American Republican Party.

That I’d like to see something happen doesn’t entitle me to kill hundreds of thousands of people, however, and we should have learned by now that often what follows the fall of a terrible regime is worse.

Jennifer Rubin feels the same way:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was supposed to announce the Plan B for Iran – how we were going to fix the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by exiting the deal without our allies. Instead we got bluster and a wish list unattached to a coherent strategy for attaining our goal. The speech was mislabeled as “a new Iran strategy.” It was missing the strategy – a cogent explanation as to how we will unilaterally obtain what we could not when we had a united front.

This really was empty posturing and posing:

Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress was blunt. “It is delusional – the triumph of naive bluster over the hard-won experience of the unified effort it took with the rest of the world’s leading powers to get the 2015 deal,” he said. “There was a better pathway to strengthening the deal – one that strengthened support internationally and at home as well. But the formula Team Trump is using will weaken America’s hand on the nuclear issue and also will likely put us in a less advantageous position to deal with Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region and its support for terrorism.”

Why is that? Katulis argues that the all-or-nothing-with-no-leverage approach “further fragments political support at home for U.S. engagement overseas and created unnecessary ruptures with allies at a time when we need to build coalitions at home and overseas to get real results.”

Instead, we’ll get this:

In the short run, we can expect the European Union to negotiate with Iran to increase investment and support in order to keep Iran in the deal. The administration will then need to contemplate whether it is really willing to declare economic warfare on our own allies to force them out of a deal which, for now, Iran is in compliance with.

We’ve gone from a unified front against Iran to a unified front against President Trump’s harebrained scheme. One wonders how a future president is going to repair the wreckage of American foreign policy this president will leave behind.

But that’s what America chose. It happened in Italy long ago. It happened in Germany long ago. It happened here. There’s too much history.

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From the Comic to the Serious

That’s the problem with the New York Times and the Washington Post – no comics. The few people who still subscribe to newspapers, although they won’t admit it, go to the comic strip pages of the morning paper, first thing. It’s a comfort. It’s even more of a comfort on Sunday morning. Out here, the Los Angeles Times runs four full pages of comics, in color, on Sunday morning. They even run “Peanuts” – now in its eighteenth year of recycling old strips since the death of Charles Schulz, its only writer and illustrator. He died in 2000 but the strip refused to die. After all, in a way, Peanuts and Charlie Brown are America. That comic strip just has to be there. It’s a cultural anchor, and in fact, the recycled strips are important in their echoing timelessness. That’s the whole point of running them, and Charles Schulz had been recycling all along. He would fall back on tried and true formulas when his muse failed him, or he had a cold or was just grumpy and tired of the whole business. It would be back to Charlie Brown on the mound, losing another baseball game, or dealing with his absurdly recalcitrant kite, which always left him tangled in the kite string, hanging upside-down in a tree, or the real classic, running to kick the football only to have Lucy pull it away at the last moment. Charlie Brown would end up flat on his back as Lucy smugly walked away. That’s life.

The Los Angeles Times is the exception. Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post. He created and runs Amazon. He’s absurdly rich. He’ll pay for worldwide careful and reliable intrepid reporting, all in one place, out of his own pocket, until he can figure out a reasonable business model, if there is one, and there probably isn’t one. Jeff Bezos may not care. He seems to think there ought to be lots of carefully reported real news as it breaks, and still no comics. He’ll pay for news if no one else will, and who needs comics? He has Donald Trump:

President Trump has personally pushed U.S. Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com and other firms to ship packages, according to three people familiar with their conversations, a dramatic move that probably would cost these companies billions of dollars.

Brennan has so far resisted Trump’s demand, explaining in multiple conversations occurring this year and last that these arrangements are bound by contracts and must be reviewed by a regulatory commission, the three people said. She has told the president that the Amazon relationship is beneficial for the Postal Service and gave him a set of slides that showed the variety of companies, in addition to Amazon, that also partner for deliveries.

Despite these presentations, Trump has continued to level criticism at Amazon… Trump alleges that Amazon is being subsidized by the Postal Service. He has also accused the Washington Post of being Amazon’s “chief lobbyist” as well as a tax shelter… He says Amazon uses these advantages to push bricks-and-mortar companies out of business. Some administration officials say several of Trump’s attacks aimed at Amazon have come in response to articles in the Washington Post that he didn’t like.

And then he twirled the waxed ends of his black moustache – this was comic strip stuff – but there is the real world:

Trump’s aides have disagreed internally about whether Amazon is paying enough to the Postal Service, with some believing the giant commerce company should be paying more, while others believe that if it weren’t for Amazon, the Postal Service might be out of business, according to the three people.

Trump has met with at least three groups of senior advisers to discuss Amazon’s business practices, probing issues such as whether they pay the appropriate amount of taxes or underpay the Postal Service, according to the three people.

These groups include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Domestic Policy Council Director Andrew Bremberg.

The Postal Service does lose billions of dollars each year, but makes a ton of money on those Amazon deliveries. Trump saw an opening, and it doesn’t pay to disagree with him:

One of Amazon’s biggest defenders within the White House was Cohn, who had told Trump that the Postal Service actually made money on the payments Amazon made for package delivery. Cohn announced his departure from the White House in March.

Gary Cohn decided he didn’t want to work in a comic strip, and then there’s Lucy and the football:

The Trump administration has suspended its plan to impose sweeping tariffs on China as it presses forward with trade talks, a gesture that will temporarily ease tensions between the two nations but rapidly increase pressure on President Trump to secure the type of tough deal that he has long said is necessary to protect American workers.

Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, said on Sunday that the two countries had made progress as they concluded three days of intense trade negotiations in Washington late last week. The planned tariffs on as much as $150 billion worth of Chinese goods are off the table while the talks proceed, he said.

“We’re putting the trade war on hold,” Mr. Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday.

Lucy pulled the football away at the last moment and Charlie Brown ends up flat on his back:

Trade experts warned that the suspension of tariffs could undercut Mr. Trump’s leverage and thrust the United States back into the kind of lengthy – and ultimately fruitless – negotiations with China that have bogged down previous administrations.

This is “surprise” comic-strip chaos, but as Kevin Drum notes, the joke is on his base:

Apparently he’s “putting the trade war on hold” after getting a few vague promises from China to consider the possibility of maybe thinking about someday buying a little more stuff from the United States. No promises, but they’ll give it the ol’ college try. Punishing China was practically the only thing in Trump’s campaign arsenal that was truly directed at helping the working class, and now the negotiator-in-chief has suddenly given up on it. Poof. There’s literally nothing left in his agenda that would help the working class even in theory.

Jeff Bezos doesn’t have to run comic strips in the Washington Post with stuff like this, and neither does the New York Times. They can go with Trump’s tweets instead. The Guardian’s Edward Helmore recaps the Sunday funnies there:

Donald Trump attacked the New York Times on Sunday, after the newspaper said his oldest son and other aides met in August 2016 with a representative of two Gulf States offering to help the Trump campaign.

The Times said the emissary for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and another attendee at the meeting had co-operated with Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian election interference and links between Trump aides and Moscow.

Later on Sunday the president’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, told the Times that Mueller told the White House he intends to finish his investigation by 1 September this year. Giuliani told Fox News that Mueller had told him he wants to interview Trump in mid-July.

Opening his Sunday morning fusillade, Trump tweeted: “Things are really getting ridiculous. The Failing and Crooked (but not as Crooked as Hillary Clinton) @nytimes has done a long & boring story indicating that the World’s most expensive Witch Hunt has found nothing on Russia & me so now they are looking at the rest of the World!”

Trump here is the wildly unhinged comic strip (or comic book) villain. The New York Times is failing. It isn’t. The New York Times is crooked. How so? Hillary Clinton is even more crooked than the New York Times. What? What does that even mean? The New York Times looks at the rest of the world. Of course they do. That’s what they do. As for the story being long and boring, that depends on one’s attention span. Donald Trump’s is short. He may not have one. And as for Rudy Giuliani, he said Robert Mueller told him that – trust him in that – but Robert Mueller has said nothing. That’s not worth refuting and what Giuliani says doesn’t really matter. Rudy Giuliani doesn’t matter. Robert Mueller will keep doing what he’s doing. Rudy Giuliani is the over-eager comic strip chump here, but he always was a bit of a comic strip character. He became a parody of himself long ago.

But there’s a reason for Trump to get a bit unhinged here:

The Times reported that Donald Trump Jr met George Nader, the purported emissary; Joel Zamel, an Israeli specialist in social media manipulation; and Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater. The meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan “was convened primarily to offer help to the Trump team”, the paper said.

The offer met with Trump Jr’s approval, the Times said, and Nader later met with Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser also now cooperating with Mueller.

The Times said the emissary for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and another attendee at the meeting had co-operated with Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian election interference and links between Trump aides and Moscow.

Rudy Giuliani has been saying that none of this is really illegal – everyone (but him) misunderstands the US Criminal Code – but there’s more here:

Mueller has been looking into another meeting, in January 2017 in the Seychelles, that Nader and Prince held with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin.

The Times quoted a lawyer for Nader as saying he had “fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation and will continue to do so”.

Damn! That called for another dramatic unhinged tweet:

On Sunday, Trump’s tweet salvo contained a complaint that the Russia investigation would “put some hurt on the Republican Party” in the midterms. Inaccurately, the president called the investigation a “$20,000,000 Witch Hunt composed of 13 Angry and Heavily Conflicted Democrats and two people who have worked for Obama for 8 years”.

That was unhinged:

Mueller is a Republican appointed FBI director by a Republican president, George W Bush, and made special counsel by a Republican deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. Some of Mueller’s investigators are Democrats or have donated to Democratic campaigns.

The Virginia senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, discussed the reported Trump Tower meeting on CNN’s State of the Union.

“If the Times story is true we now have a second or maybe a third nation that was trying to lean in to this campaign,” he said. “I don’t understand what the president doesn’t get about the law that says if you have a foreign nation interfere with in American election it is illegal.”

No one understands what the president doesn’t get, but there’s that other comic book character, the classic clueless but puffed-up goofy son:

Donald Trump Jr was the central figure in another meeting at Trump Tower, in June 2016 with Russians including a Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. Told the Russians had incriminating information about Clinton, Trump Jr responded: “If it’s what you say, I love it.” Steve Bannon, formerly Donald Trump’s chief strategist, told the author Michael Wolff the meeting was “treasonous”.

This would be comic if it weren’t deadly serious stuff about, well, something like treason, but there was a final tweet:

Several media outlets, meanwhile, named an FBI source who allegedly informed on the Trump campaign. Trump duly tweeted: “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

That one moved from the comic to the serious. Julie Hirschfeld Davis, at the “crooked” New York Times, explains why this tweet is serious:

In ordering up a new inquiry, Mr. Trump went beyond his usual tactics of suggesting wrongdoing and political bias by those investigating him, and crossed over into applying overt presidential pressure on the Justice Department to do his bidding, an extraordinary realm where past presidents have hesitated to tread… Legal experts said such a presidential intervention had little precedent, and could force a clash between the sitting president and his Justice Department that would be reminiscent of the one surrounding Richard M. Nixon during Watergate, when a string of top officials resigned rather than carry out his order to fire a special prosecutor investigating him.

Trump is saying that he will order the Department of Justice to go after his political enemies, his political enemies in their own Department of Justice and its FBI – drop everything and do that now. Get them. If you refuse, resign. Jeff Sessions might refuse to use his Department of Justice to go after the political enemies that Trump imagines, or that Fox and Friends told him that might be out there, maybe. Jeff Sessions may have some principle left – but that would solve Trump’s problem with that guy, who quite publicly recused himself from all these Russia matters, infuriating Trump. Rod Rosenstein might do the same, refusing to carry out the president’s wholly inappropriate direct order, and then Trump would be rid of him too.

This would be a win-win for Trump, but there’s a way around that:

In response to Mr. Trump’s post, the Justice Department asked its internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, to expand its current inquiry into the surveillance of a former Trump campaign official to include the questions raised by the president.

“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who is overseeing the Russia inquiry, said in a statement.

In short, calm down, big guy, we’ll add that to the list of what the Office of the Inspector General is already working on – those guys are already in place – no big deal.

That might work, or it might not:

By handing the question to the inspector general, Mr. Rosenstein appeared to be trying to thread the needle, giving the president what he said he wanted without fully bowing to his demands.

But it was not clear whether that would satisfy Mr. Trump, who in February complained that it was “disgraceful” for the Justice Department to hand over the surveillance investigation to an inspector general who lacks prosecutorial power, saying it would “take forever” and suggesting that he was “an Obama guy.”

Trump is serious:

The president’s call came two weeks after he publicly expressed frustration with the Justice Department for failing to give Republican lawmakers documents they are seeking about the basis and findings of the special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to sway the 2016 election. The president said then that “at some point, I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”

Davis adds some perspective to that:

While most presidents who have faced investigations have responded with increased discretion to avoid being seen as trying to influence the outcome, Mr. Trump has dispensed with any notion that he is not trying to do so. He and his aides have branded the investigation a witch hunt and a hoax, called for an end to it, and tried to set its boundaries, and now the president has ordered a review of how it was handled.

“I can’t think of a prior example of a sitting president ordering the Justice Department to conduct an investigation like this one,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School Of Law. “That’s little more than a transparent effort to undermine an ongoing investigation.”

If Mr. Trump were to follow through with the demand, Mr. Vladeck added, “It seems to me that the recipients of such an order should resign – and that we’re heading for another Saturday Night Massacre.”

That didn’t go well for Nixon, but things are different now:

“This demand puts deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein in a difficult position,” Barbara L. McQuade, a former United States attorney in Michigan, said in a post on Twitter. “He can’t open an investigation based on a political demand, but if he refuses and is fired or resigns, he loses control of the Mueller investigation – maybe just what Trump wants.”

And the tweets didn’t stop:

Mr. Mueller himself is a Republican, as are several members of his staff, and the investigation is being overseen by Mr. Rosenstein, another Republican, who was Mr. Trump’s own choice to be deputy attorney general.

That did not stop the president from suggesting that the investigation was politically driven and should end.

“Republicans and Real Americans should start getting tough on this scam,” he tweeted on Sunday.

The Department of Justice will rid him of his political enemies, or else. And then he twirled the waxed ends of his black moustache and sneered, but Alberto Luperon reports that not everyone was laughing:

Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes is a friend of fired FBI Director James Comey. It’s old news to say he dislikes the president.

“I normally ignore presidential tweets,” he wrote in a thread Sunday afternoon. “This one requires attention, because it could genuinely produce a crisis with the Justice Department and the FBI.”

This isn’t the Sunday funnies:

Wittes said the president has the constitutional authority to make this demands, but it would still be too much for Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who recused himself from the Russia probe), Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and FBI Director Christopher Wray. He argued that neither of the three “can in good conscience comply with such an order.” Wittes called the president’s demand a “nakedly corrupt attempt” to derail a probe of himself at the expense of the source, and he suggested that both Rosenstein and Wray will resign rather than follow the order.

“In other words, this tweet is different from other Trump craziness tweets,” he wrote. “It’s one that promises a specific action on a specific date (tomorrow) with respect to a specific agency that will, if it takes place, precipitate a showdown.”

That’s when the comic turns serious. Trump’s wildly unhinged tweets are comic and sometimes comically incomprehensible, but this one is different. This time we’re all Charlie Brown.

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Disinformation Information

Everyone knew it would happen again. On average, these things happen once a week now – so it happened again. This time it was Texas:

A 17-year-old student armed with a shotgun and a pistol went on a rampage Friday morning at his school here outside Houston, killing 10 people – mostly students – before surrendering to the officers who confronted him, officials said. Ten others were wounded, including a school resource officer who was left in critical condition…

The trenchcoat-clad gunman – who police identified as student Dimitrios Pagourtzis – came into the first art classroom and began shooting.

The rest of this item from the Washington Post, like all the others, tells the story of this terrified student or that – where they were and what saw and how they felt – one by one – and quotes terrified parents too – to let readers get a feel for what happened. It’s solid reporting. It’s also voyeuristic. It’s titillating. Readers can imagine what it would be like for them if they were there. That’s exciting, and that’s a kind of pornography, about violence, not sex. It’s the safe secondary experience of the nasty real thing. The details here are news of course, but they’re so familiar to anyone who follows these things that they’re not worth repeating here. These things happen. Get your jollies elsewhere.

This seems more important:

Pagourtzis, who students described as a quiet loner, was held Friday without bond at the Galveston County jail, charged with capital murder and aggravated assault on a peace officer. It was unclear what motivated the attack, as authorities said it came without any obvious warning.

There were no “red flags” thus time, but there was this:

Pagourtzis made his first court appearance Friday evening, a little more than 10 hours after the massacre. He spoke quietly, saying “Yes, sir” when asked if he wanted a court-appointed attorney. After the brief hearing, Pagourtzis was led away.

Police said Pagourtzis gave a statement admitting responsibility for the shooting, according to a probable-cause affidavit filed in court. Pagourtzis told police that he went into the school wearing a trenchcoat and wielding two guns intent on killing people.

The affidavit, which identifies him as Dimitrios Pagourtzis Jr., states that the 17-year-old told police that “he did not shoot students he did like so he could have his story told.”

This, then, is a matter of competing stories:

Santa Fe High School, home of the Indians, had won a statewide award for its safety program. As an ominous precursor to Friday’s shooting, the school had experienced a false alarm about an active shooter in February, an event that attracted a massive emergency response and the chaotic arrival of fearful parents.

Many of the 1,400 students had staged a walkout April 20 as part of a nationwide protest against school shootings, part of a grass roots movement among young Americans in the wake of the February massacre of 17 students and staffers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. One sign carried by Santa Fe students during their April protest: “#NeverAgain”.

Four Fridays later, their school was attacked.

Pagourtzis had different story to tell, one that has been told over and over this year:

This was the 16th school shooting so far this year, according to a Washington Post analysis. That’s the highest number at this point in any year since 1999, the year of the Columbine High massacre. The Post’s analysis found that since 1999, shootings during school hours have killed at least 141 children, educators and other people, with another 284 injured.

The nationwide protest against school shootings has young Americans telling one story – everyone wants this to stop, or should – but there’s a competing narrative:

Experts on mass shootings note that the killers study their predecessors, copy their moves and even their fashion choices. The shooter at Santa Fe High appeared to copy elements of the Columbine massacre: a black trench coat, a shotgun, explosives.

More than 30 shooters have copied the Columbine killers, and admitted they’d done so, according to Adam Lankford, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama.

“This seems like actually a more extreme version because of all of the different elements that seem to be copied, from clothing to weapons and modus operandi in terms of planting bombs,” Lankford said. “It’s a form of celebrity worship. The celebrities in this case are celebrity killers – the Columbine killers.”

Pagourtzis didn’t shoot students he liked so he could have his “story” told, and a second Washington Post item covers his story:

He had no run-ins with police, was an honor roll student and had been praised for his defensive work on the junior varsity football team.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis, 17, projected a nondescript demeanor, a quiet loner who regularly wore a trench coat to school, even on scorching hot days. He had been bullied by classmates and coaches, one acquaintance said. And recently, he betrayed a growing darkness.

In the weeks before the shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, he posted a picture of a black t-shirt on his Facebook page emblazoned in white with a simple message: “BORN TO KILL.”

On the same day he posted the t-shirt photo, Pagourtzis uploaded a picture of a jacket adorned with several pinned symbols. In captions, he explained the significance of each: the Communist Party’s hammer and sickle representing rebellion, Nazi Germany’s Iron Cross representing bravery, the Japanese rising sun for the tactics of kamikaze pilots, the Knights Templar’s Baphomet for evil and the Cthulhu from science fiction for power.

The Daily Beast, however, interviewed far more of his friends – no one was bullying him and he was a fine fellow. He just decided, rather suddenly, to be the ultimate rebel. None of them saw this coming, but lots of curious and intelligent adolescents, deep into history, and trivia about history, and arcane symbolism, make that same decision every day – and now all that stuff is out there on the internet.

David French addresses that:

Why does this keep happening? Those who advocate for gun control have an immediate answer – the prevalence of guns in the United States. Yet guns have been part of the fabric of American life for the entire history of our republic. Mass shootings – especially the most deadly mass shootings – are a far more recent phenomenon.

Writing in 2015, Malcolm Gladwell wrote what I think is still the best explanation for modern American mass shootings, and it’s easily the least comforting. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, essentially he argues that each mass shooting lowers the threshold for the next…

The preparations for massacres are often extremely detailed. Shooters (and wannabe shooters) will often film videos, mimic the dress and poses of the Columbine killers, and otherwise copy the shooters who came before. Gladwell is hardly an NRA conservative – and he believes gun control “has its place” – but he also shares this grim warning: “Let’s not kid ourselves that if we passed the strictest gun control in the world that we would end this particular kind of behavior.”

There are young men in the grip of a terrible contagion, and there is no cure coming.

That terrible contagion is spread on the internet – everything about everything, true or false, is available to anyone, instantaneously – and much of it is misinformation. Much of it is cleverly manipulated misinformation, so this was inevitable:

In the first hours after the Texas school shooting that left at least 10 dead Friday, online hoaxers moved quickly to spread a viral lie, creating fake Facebook accounts with the suspected shooter’s name and a doctored photo showing him wearing a “Hillary 2016” hat.

Several were swiftly flagged by users and deleted by the social network. But others rose rapidly in their place: Chris Sampson, a disinformation analyst for a counterterrorism think tank, said he could see new fakes as they were being created and filled out with false information, including images linking the suspect to the anti-fascist group Antifa.

Pagourtzis wanted to tell his story – he really was the ultimate rebel now, finally, like those guys at Columbine – he had even planned to commit suicide to prove that – but now that’s out of his hands:

Some social media watchers said they were still surprised at the speed with which the Santa Fe shooting descended into information warfare. Sampson said he watched the clock after the suspect was first named by police to see how long it would take for a fake Facebook account to be created in the suspect’s name: less than 20 minutes.

“It seemed this time like they were more ready for this,” he said, “like someone just couldn’t wait to do it.”

Pagourtzis is up against a vast army now:

Facebook said this week it had disabled more than 500 million fake accounts on the social network in the first three months of the year, although it contended tens of millions more were probably still online.

Christopher Bouzy, whose site Bot Sentinel tracks more than 12,000 automated Twitter accounts often used to spread misinformation, said four of the top 10 phrases tweeted by bot or troll accounts over the past 24 hours were related to the Santa Fe shooting, reaching the top 10 within less than three hours. “That is significant activity for our platform,” he said.

The fake accounts included the name of Dimitrios Pagourtzis…

And now he loves Hillary Clinton, unless he doesn’t:

Several of the fake Facebook accounts named for the Santa Fe shooter were disabled within a half-hour on Facebook, but others could be seen popping up sporadically through Friday afternoon, including one fake profile that featured a banner from the campaign of President Trump.

There’s a lot of disinformation information out there, but it wasn’t all about Dimitrios Pagourtzis. There was a second example of that. Everyone “knows” that Obama placed an FBI spy on the Trump campaign staff, to ruin Donald Trump.

Everyone knows that? The New York Times, among others, reports this as disinformation information:

President Trump accused the FBI on Friday, without evidence, of sending a spy to secretly infiltrate his 2016 campaign “for political purposes” even before the bureau had any inkling of the “phony Russia hoax.”

In fact, FBI agents sent an informant to talk to two campaign advisers only after they received evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia during the campaign. The informant, an American academic who teaches in Britain, made contact late that summer with one campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, according to people familiar with the matter. He also met repeatedly in the ensuing months with the other aide, Carter Page, who was also under FBI scrutiny for his ties to Russia.

This was “spying” on the Russians, not Trump, but some don’t see it that way:

The role of the informant is at the heart of the newest battle between top law enforcement officials and Mr. Trump’s congressional allies over the FBI’s most politically charged investigations in decades. The lawmakers, who say they are concerned that federal investigators are abusing their authority, have demanded documents from the Justice Department about the informant.

Law enforcement officials have refused, saying that handing over the documents would imperil both the source’s anonymity and safety.

Democrats say the Republicans’ real aim is to undermine the special counsel investigation. Senior law enforcement officials have also privately expressed concern that the Republicans are digging into FBI files for information they can weaponize against the Russia inquiry.

And then there’s the Big Orange Guy, who gets his disinformation information from Fox and Friends:

Over the past two days, Mr. Trump has used speculative news reports about the informant, mostly from conservative media, to repeatedly assail the Russia investigation.

“Reports are there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. “It took place very early on, and long before the phony Russia Hoax became a ‘hot’ Fake News story. If true – all time biggest political scandal!”

Unless it isn’t:

One of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, acknowledged on Friday that neither the president nor his legal team knew with certainty that the FBI had implanted a spy in the Trump campaign, as he and the president had alleged.

“I don’t know for sure, nor does the president, if there really was one,” Mr. Giuliani said on CNN.

What? That doesn’t matter anyway:

No evidence has emerged that the informant acted improperly when the FBI asked for help in gathering information on the former campaign advisers, or that agents veered from the FBI’s investigative guidelines and began a politically motivated inquiry, which would be illegal.

But this was a tricky business:

Agents were leery of disrupting the presidential campaign again after the FBI had announced in a high-profile news conference that it had closed the case involving Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, according to current and former law enforcement officials.

After opening the Russia inquiry about a month later, they took steps, those officials said, to ensure that details of the inquiry were more closely held than even in a typical national security investigation, including the use of the informant to suss out information from the unsuspecting targets. Sending FBI agents to interview them could have created additional risk that the investigation’s existence would seep into view in the final weeks of a heated presidential race.

FBI officials concluded they had the legal authority to open the investigation after receiving information that Mr. Papadopoulos was told that Moscow had compromising information on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” months before WikiLeaks released stolen messages from Democratic officials.

The Russians were up to something, not Trump. They wanted to know what that was, and they wanted to know about this:

The informant also had contacts with Michael Flynn, the retired Army general who was Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser. The two met in February 2014, when Mr. Flynn was running the Defense Intelligence Agency and attended the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, an academic forum for former spies and researchers that meets a few times a year.

According to people familiar with Mr. Flynn’s visit to the intelligence seminar, the source was alarmed by the general’s apparent closeness with a Russian woman who was also in attendance. The concern was strong enough that it prompted another person to pass on a warning to the American authorities that Mr. Flynn could be compromised by Russian intelligence, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Two years later, in late 2016, the seminar itself was embroiled in a scandal about Russian spying. A number of its organizers resigned, over what they said was a Kremlin-backed attempt to take control of the group.

That had nothing to do with Trump, and Asha Rangappa, a senior lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale and a former FBI agent, says Trump should be happy with what did happen:

Trump and his backers are wrong about what it means that the FBI reportedly was using a confidential source to gather information early in its investigation of possible campaign ties to Russia. The investigation started out as a counterintelligence probe, not a criminal one. And relying on a covert source rather than a more intrusive method of gathering information suggests that the FBI may have been acting cautiously – perhaps too cautiously – to protect the campaign, not undermine it.

In short, this was for Trump’s own good:

As a former FBI counterintelligence agent, I know what Trump apparently does not: Counterintelligence investigations have a different purpose than their criminal counterparts. Rather than trying to find evidence of a crime, the FBI’s counterintelligence goal is to identify, monitor and neutralize foreign intelligence activity in the United States. In short, this entails identifying foreign intelligence officers and their network of agents; uncovering their motives and methods; and ultimately rendering their operations ineffective – either by clandestinely thwarting them (say, by feeding back misinformation or “flipping” their sources into double agents) or by exposing them.

That’s what was going on here:

By early summer 2016, according to the New York Times, the FBI had already identified at least four members of the Trump campaign with significant ties to or contacts with Russian intelligence. The next logical step in a counterintelligence investigation would be to discern what Russia was trying to do with those people. Sending a source to talk to suspected foreign agents such as campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos could illuminate whether these individuals were being developed – or even tasked – as intelligence assets for Russia. And that could have served to generate even more information: If the U.S. intelligence community had later picked up “chatter” on Russia’s end following these interactions, the FBI could have verified that these individuals were, in fact, in communication with Russian operatives…

Using a confidential intelligence source would have made sense if the FBI’s long-term strategy was to allow Russia to believe it was operating undetected and to collect intelligence on Russian methods.

That was the whole point, and Rangappa then points out the obvious:

The Trump administration’s assault against the FBI’s efforts to assess a national security threat posed by suspected foreign agents only raises more questions about what went on in 2016. Trump has repeatedly insisted that he is innocent of colluding with Russia and had no idea about his campaign staff’s Russia contacts. So he should be glad to know that the FBI appears to have been trying to thwart a hostile country’s efforts to infiltrate his campaign. That he and his allies in Congress do not even acknowledge that these individuals posed a national security threat and instead attack the FBI for apparently doing its job suggests that they would have been happy for whatever Russia was doing in 2016 to continue unimpeded.

Trump tells one story – everyone is out to get him. He’s been telling that story for two years now. He told America that everyone is out to get us. He told America to sneer at the rest of the world – to get angry and get tough. The world was laughing at America. He also said that the rest of America – the blacks and the gays and the urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and the goofy scientists and all “politicians” in general – was laughing at real Americans. Mexicans and Muslims were laughing at us too. Everyone is out get us, even our allies, and now his own FBI is out to get him. Rangappa tells another story – Trump has something to hide.

Everyone tells stories. Dimitrios Pagourtzis had his story – he was now the ultimate rebel, finally. Donald Trump has his story – everyone is out to get him. And now they’ve each lost control of their stories. That happens. Misinformation isn’t information.

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The Real Estate

Donald Trump will always be that insecure wannabe loutish guy from Queens who could never impress the old money in Manhattan, no matter how many gold-plated toilets he had installed in his gold-plated penthouse high over Fifth Avenue. He was still vulgar. Nixon had the same problem with the Kennedy crowd – those Ivy League bastards who, he thought, always considered him a rube. He’d show them. Overcompensation driven by insecurity drove Richard Nixon and then ruined him – as it could ruin Trump. Nixon had the Kennedy crowd. He hated them, because he thought they hated him. Trump has Obama and the pro-science, pro-facts, pro-thoughtfulness, pro-common-decency crowd. He hates them, because he thinks they hate him – and some do, but most are just exasperated.

Kevin Drum is one of those people:

Climate change is real. Demographic change is real. Artificial intelligence is real. Trump may be able to delay our reckoning with the future, but these are the things that are going to mold our next few decades no matter how much they frighten Trump’s base of white voters. Donald Trump, far from being the birth of something new, almost certainly represents the last gasp of the great cultural battle that began in the 1960s and is now, finally, almost exhausted.

In short, Donald Trump isn’t the problem. He’s the latest symptom of the problem – but about a third of the country still has a problem with those damned “coastal elites” and Hollywood stars and “experts” telling them what they should think and feel. To them, Donald Trump is a hero. Others have said that Donald Trump is “a stupid man’s idea of a smart man, a poor man’s idea of a rich man, and a weak man’s idea of a strong man” – but that may not matter. He won the presidency, and now that insecure wannabe loutish guy from Queens finally showed them all. He still has his gold-plated penthouse high over Fifth Avenue and now he has the White House too. He has the real estate that proves his awesomeness. He may get us all killed, but he has the real estate.

This presidency may be about the real estate, and those in New York remember how he showed them all. There’s Trump World Tower – 845 United Nations Plaza, just across the street from the modest blue United Nations General Assembly Building. It’s hard to miss and that’s the point – it was the tallest residential tower in the city when it was built – an 861-foot-high seventy-two story (ninety floors) black glass monster, towering over everything. It’s quite an erection, in all senses of that word, and what Trump did in 1999 led the city to revise every zoning resolution they had.

He showed them all. The thing was erected “as-of-right” – within the existing zoning and building regulations, so it didn’t require approval by all those pesky city agencies. Trump had assembled a whole lot of small contiguous lots and transferred their development rights to that stretch of First Avenue. No one had thought of that before. And then he just built the giant building. Nothing was approved by anyone. Naturally the project angered everyone in that quiet and dignified neighborhood in Manhattan, Turtle Bay. They fought him, trying to block construction. But they lost. The city then rewrote the zoning rules – no more swapping minor miscellaneous development rights with no hearings at all – but it was too late. Trump just grinned and sneered at his new neighbors.

One of those neighbors was Walter Cronkite, the retired anchorman for CBS News. In 1999 Cronkite told the New York Times that it wasn’t just him – the protest against this monster was “supported by a whole lot of less-than-wealthy folks, who are sharply offended by the unnecessary grossness of this project.”

Cronkite was right. Everyone hated the thing, and he had a special gripe. He lived in an elegant apartment on the twenty-fifth floor at 870 United Nations Plaza across the street – with neighbors like Truman Capote and Johnny Carson and Bobby Kennedy back then – and his view of the city disappeared. It was personal, but everyone did hate the thing. It was a big fuck-you to the city. It was finished in 2001. He may have been a stupid man’s idea of a smart man and a poor man’s idea of a rich man but no one could stop Donald Trump.

That may be why Donald Trump is a hero to the angry and resentful – Trump’s base of white voters in the fly-over states. The world has moved on. They seem to think that everyone else thinks they’re poor and stupid, and they’re sick and tired of being disrespected. Donald Trump is one of them. He has always showed them all that no “smart” people could stop him. Trump’s base would show them all too, and even if they know nothing about that Trump World Tower mess long ago, they do know that nothing can stop Donald Trump.

That’s still true, and it’s all about the real estate:

The government of Qatar bought a $6.5m apartment in one of Donald Trump’s New York towers soon after the dismissal of a lawsuit that tried to stop the president benefiting from such deals.

Qatar’s mission to the United Nations signed a deal for the condominium at Trump World Tower on 17 January, according to city records. The purchase means that the Middle Eastern state now owns four units in the building, for which it paid $16.5m.

On 21 December, a federal judge in New York had thrown out a lawsuit from ethics campaigners alleging that Trump was breaching the emoluments clause of the US constitution by collecting tens of thousands of dollars in charges from Qatar each year for the three apartments it already owned in the building.

So they bought a fourth one, to keep Trump happy:

Qatar’s new acquisition at Trump World Tower, which is in Manhattan’s Midtown East section, coincided with an intense lobbying campaign in Washington by the Qatari government amid a regional crisis that has pitted the Gulf monarchy against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Trump had sided with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their blockade of Qatar – even though our largest airbase in in the region is in Qatar along with CENTCOM headquarters. No one knew why, but now Qatar is wonderful again, and Trump is richer:

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which brought the lawsuit against Trump, said: “This plays to the central concern with the president’s refusal to divest from his holdings, that he would be susceptible to influence from foreign countries invested in his businesses.”

In an unattributed email, Qatar’s mission to the UN said the properties were used to house diplomatic staff close to the UN headquarters. “These apartments, plus the recent unit, were all purchased due to their location, nothing more,” the email said.

Yeah, sure:

The property bought by Qatar was touted as “truly top of the line”, offering its residents spectacular views along with the use of a spa and swimming pool. CREW’s lawsuit said the governments of Afghanistan, India, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were already paying more than $225,000 a month in charges for space in the building.

This is a big fuck-you to any citizens for responsibility and ethics in Washington, not just that pesky “smart” organization, and Donald Trump takes care of his own:

Michael Cohen, Trump’s embattled legal fixer, owned an apartment in the same building until October last year, when he sold it for $3.3m. Cohen’s wife’s parents own four apartments in the building, according to city filings.

This presidency may be about the real estate, and in more ways than one:

The company controlled by the family of the White House adviser Jared Kushner is close to receiving a bailout of its troubled flagship building by a company with financial ties to the government of Qatar, according to executives briefed on the deal.

Charles Kushner, head of the Kushner Companies, is in advanced talks with Brookfield Asset Management over a partnership to take control of the 41-story aluminum-clad tower in Midtown Manhattan, 666 Fifth Avenue, according to two real estate executives who have been briefed on the pending deal but were not authorized to discuss it. Brookfield is a publicly traded company, and its real estate arm, Brookfield Property Partners, is partly owned by the Qatari government, through the Qatar Investment Authority.

Qatar does want to keep Trump happy by keeping his daughter’s husband happy:

Charles Kushner and his son Jared, President Trump’s son-in-law and one of his key advisers, bought the office tower, which is between 52nd and 53rd Streets, 11 years ago for a record-setting $1.8 billion. But the building today only generates about half its annual mortgage payment, and 30 percent of the 41-story tower is vacant…

At the time they bought it, the building only generated enough cash to pay two-thirds of their annual debt payments. But they were betting on a quick turnaround and a big jump in rents.

They screwed up. They have a balloon payment of over a billion dollars due right now. Qatar will rescue them. The government of Qatar will expect something in return. That’s a problem:

The deal is likely to raise further concerns about Jared Kushner’s dual role as a White House point person on the Middle East and a continuing stakeholder in the family’s company. Mr. Kushner in February lost his top-secret security clearance amid concerns that foreign governments could attempt to gain influence with the White House by doing business with his firm. In January, the New York Times reported that his firm last year received a $30 million investment from Menora Mivtachim, a large Israeli insurer, just a few days before Mr. Kushner flew to Israel for his first diplomatic trip to the region.

Although he resigned as chief executive of the family’s company when he joined the White House in January 2017, Mr. Kushner retained most of his stake in the firm.

Trump’s angry and resentful base of white voters in the fly-over states won’t care about any of this. Trump and his son-in-law have outsmarted the “smart” people. That counts as a win for the unemployed steel worker in this or that Rust Belt city. The wars and sectarian spats in the Middle East don’t matter to them. That insecure wannabe loutish guy from Queens showed them all again. That’s a win.

That also might explain what Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold report here:

All through the hot summer campaign of 2016, as Donald Trump and his aides dismissed talk of unseemly ties to Moscow, two of his key business partners were working furiously on a secret track: negotiations to build what would have been the tallest building in Europe and an icon of the Trump empire – the Trump World Tower Moscow.

Talks to construct the 100-story building continued even as the presidential candidate alternately bragged about his relationship with Vladimir Putin and rejected suggestions of Russian influence, and as Russian agents worked to sway US public opinion on Trump’s behalf.

They were lying. This was always about real estate:

The tower – a sheer, glass-encased obelisk situated on a river – would have soared above every other building in Moscow, the architectural drawings show. And the sharply angled skyscraper would have climaxed in a diamond-shaped pinnacle emblazoned with the word “Trump,” putting his name atop the continent’s tallest structure.

Michael Cohen, the president’s embattled personal fixer, and Felix Sater, who helped negotiate deals around the world for Trump, led the effort. Working quietly behind the scenes, they tried to arrange a sit-down between Trump and Putin. Those efforts ultimately fizzled. But the audacious venture has been a keen focus of federal investigators trying to determine if the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.

That is the question:

Last month, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers peppered Sater for hours with questions about the Trump Moscow project. Sater testified that Cohen acted as the “intermediary” for Trump Moscow and was eager to see the deal through because he wanted to “score points with Trump.”

Sater also testified that Trump would regularly receive “short updates about the process of the deal.” Cohen has said that he briefed Trump three times on the deal, all before the end of January 2016.

And then there’s the big guy:

Special counsel Robert Mueller planned to ask Trump himself about his discussions with Sater and Cohen about the Trump Moscow project, according to the New York Times. One of Mueller’s questions was: “What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater, and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?” Additionally, Mueller intended to query Trump about any discussions he had during the campaign “regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin.”

Even before the appointment of Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, FBI agents investigating Russia’s interference in the election learned that Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow – and that some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling, according to two FBI agents. The agents declined to name those individuals. Both agents have detailed knowledge about the bureau’s work on the collusion investigation that predated Mueller’s appointment.

Something was up, and the cast of characters was odd:

Throughout the nine-month effort, Sater, who was born in the Soviet Union and worked for years as an undercover source for US intelligence agencies and the FBI, told Cohen he had connections to top Russian officials and businessmen: Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, brothers who grew up with Putin and were considered his “shadow cabinet”; Andrey Molchanov, a billionaire Russian politician Sater was introduced to by a close personal friend, who proposed building the tower on his property; and a former member of Russia’s military intelligence to whom Sater passed photographs of Cohen’s passport to obtain a visa.

Whatever the significance of the negotiations to the election, the men took measures to keep the plans secret. Text messages often ended with a simple “call me.” They communicated, at times, via Dust, a secure, encrypted messaging application. Sater once warned that they “gotta keep this quiet.”

They knew about the risks here, but there was nothing surprising here:

For three decades, Donald Trump came up short in Moscow.

The first attempt to build a signature tower in the Russian capital was in 1987, when he visited the Soviet Union to scout locations. In 1996, his company announced another “exploratory trip” that came to nothing. In 2005, he set his sights on an abandoned pencil factory before that deal flickered and failed. In 2013, after hosting the Miss Universe pageant there, Trump tweeted, “TRUMP TOWER-MOSCOW is next.”

His children tried, as well. Donald Trump Jr. visited six times during an 18-month period beginning in 2008, describing it as a “scary place” to do business because of what he saw as inherent corruption in Russia. During a 2006 visit, Donald Jr. was joined by his sister Ivanka and Sater, who said Trump Senior had asked him to chaperone. At the time, Sater was with a development company called Bayrock Group, which helped scout locations and secure financing for the Trump Organization’s licensing deals across the globe.

For Ivanka and Donald Jr., Sater arranged a tour of the Kremlin. Sater, as would be the case over and over in his life, had an inside connection. He phoned an old friend, a Russian billionaire, whom he knew through his Bayrock connections. The billionaire sent a fleet of cars and guards to escort them through the Kremlin, and when a tour guide pointed out Putin’s office, Ivanka Trump asked if she could sit in his chair at an antique desk. One of the guards said, “Are you crazy?”

“I said, ‘What is she going to do, steal a pen?'” Sater recalled. “He let us in. She sat behind the desk, spun in the chair twice, and that was that.”

And that was that:

The early months of 2016 were a crucial period, both for Russian meddling in the election and for Trump’s political ascendancy. In March, hackers later revealed to be connected to Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate – or GRU, the same agency that Sater’s source once worked for – gained access to thousands of Democratic National Committee emails. Those emails would later be published slowly, mainly by WikiLeaks, creating a steady drumbeat of negative press about Hillary Clinton.

By May, Trump had rocked the political world, beating more than 10 candidates to lock in the Republican nomination as he headed toward the convention in Cleveland. That same month, Sater surfaced again in texts and emails to pitch Trump Moscow.

That’s the scoop here. Cormier and Leopold plowed through thousands and thousands of documents – their piece is long and detailed. Planning for this Trump World Tower Moscow continued right up to the election. This was Plan B – the tallest building on the continent with a diamond-shaped pinnacle emblazoned with the word “Trump” on top if Trump lost – or maybe even if Trump won. He’d show them all – unless this was Plan A because everyone “knew” that Hillary Clinton would win. Donald Trump would win either way. It’s always about the real estate.

Martin Longman addresses that:

I’m not sure when Donald Trump and the people close to him started to believe themselves that they actually had a shot at winning the nomination, but the thought must have begun to occur to them as fall turned to winter in 2015. Actually winning was probably not part of the original plan. However, getting a Trump Tower built in Moscow definitely was.

And this was brilliant:

Simply by announcing his candidacy for president and getting a lot of news coverage, Trump was upping his chances of making licensing deals. There was a limited window on how long this opportunity would last, so there was a certain urgency to cashing in while the irons were hot.

And that’s what happened here:

Trump spent the summer and fall of 2015, telling anyone who would listen, that he had a great relationship with Vladimir Putin and that he was a great leader. He repeatedly suggested that he’d get along with Putin much better than President Obama had been able to and that this would be a positive for the country… What people didn’t know was that in this exact period of time, he had Cohen and Sater hammering out the details on a licensing agreement for this.

Longman just realized something. That wasn’t bold policy, a new way the United States should deal with Putin and the world. That was no more than marketing:

Trump’s primary interest in running for president was not originally to actually win either the nomination or the presidency. He spent his campaign basically auditioning for Vladimir Putin in the hope that he’d be able to put his name on the tallest tower in Europe.

And now Trump is stuck with being president. Damn, but he can still make real money at the other Trump World Tower, the one in Manhattan, and at his new hotel in Washington. Qatar has paid up. Others will too. And Trump’s base of angry and resentful white voters in the fly-over states will be happy too. No “smart” people can stop him, and that’s a comfort, and it was always about the real estate.

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