The week ended with distractions:
President Donald Trump said on Friday that National Football League (NFL) players who do not stand for the national anthem should be suspended for the season without pay.
The comments come a day after the NFL and the union representing its players said they were working on a resolution to the league’s national anthem policy.
The policy, which was announced in May, followed Trump’s denunciation of pregame protests which were intended to call attention to what critics say is often brutal treatment of minorities by U.S. law enforcement.
Trump and others have blasted the gesture as a sign of disrespect to the U.S. flag and the military.
Everyone had forgotten about this. Trump brought it up again. That might get people to stop wondering about what’s really up with him and Putin. Remind them to wonder about this. These are disrespectful uppity black folks. American heroes didn’t die for the flag to have these overpaid young black bucks disrespect that very flag – or our American heroes died to protect the right of any citizen to have his or her say, to peacefully protest the action, or the inaction, of their government, and it’s their government too. Which is it? That’s something to talk about. So the question is whether professional football, now the ultimate American sport, now that baseball has become an even slower and more boring game than it already was, should be played by real Americans, played only by straight white evangelical Christian men who are registered Republicans and NRA members. Trump hasn’t said that yet, but if people keep wondering about him and Putin, which seems likely, that could be next Friday’s tweet. If a distraction falls to distract, pump up the volume. Play the music louder. Expect that.
And then there was this:
Two months before the 2016 election, longtime Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen secretly taped a conversation with the then-GOP presidential nominee about whether to purchase the rights to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal’s account of her alleged extramarital affair with Trump, according to three people familiar with the conversation.
The recording, which Cohen made surreptitiously in Trump Tower in early September 2016, was seized by federal agents who are investigating Cohen for potential bank and election-law crimes, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.
Trump and Cohen’s discussion came a month after AMI, the parent company of the National Enquirer, bought the rights to McDougal’s story for $150,000, then shelved it.
In the 90-second conversation, Cohen can be heard urging Trump to consider buying the rights to McDougal’s claims to better “control” the story, according to people familiar with the exchange.
That was something else to talk about, and everyone did. This is the second woman. Karen McDougal, the Playboy centerfold, is not Stormy Daniels, the porn star, and Trump said he know nothing about this. This is proof he did, but that may not matter. Some in his base will understand. Anyone would lie in this sort of situation, and this only reinforces the idea that he’s one cool stud of a man – he can have any woman he wants. He’s a winner, and he’s rich enough that he can pay off anyone he wants. Anyone who has a problem with that is a loser – their problem is their pathetic envy of a better man. And his lies are damned impressive. He can fool anyone. That makes him a winner. That’s what you want in a president.
Of course there is the issue of campaign finance violations. He can pay off anyone he wants – it’s a free country – but he has to report those payoffs as campaign expenses. He didn’t here – but that’s no big deal. He pays a small fine and says he’s sorry. There is, however, the political issue. Would he be president if he hadn’t paid off McDougal and Daniels? He kept voters in the dark. He didn’t play fair. It’s not just that the Russians helped him win. He may be an “illegitimate” president because of this too. That may worry him – and there are other legal issues – possible fraud against McDougal in either Trump or the National Inquirer buying her story only to bury it – and wire fraud and perhaps money laundering. He could be tried on all that, but only after he’s left office. Sitting presidents cannot be tried for anything like this. That assures a stable government. That also means that this was a distraction:
In a statement Friday, President Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani confirmed the recording’s existence and said no payment was ever made. He said the conversation does not pose any legal jeopardy for the president.
That’s not quite so, but the FBI didn’t leak the existence of this tape to the press. They don’t do such things. The general consensus seems to be that Giuliani probably leaked the existence of this tape to the press, as a distraction. This wasn’t about Putin at all. This was a brilliant distraction. Stories of sleaze and sex and big money are always a distraction, particularly with they don’t really matter much at all. Others may go to jail. Trump isn’t going to jail. He’s a stud.
But there’s still Putin. Jennifer Rubin offers a short list of the issues there:
The indictment of 12 Russians involved in hacking Democrats –
President Trump’s boorish behavior at another meeting with allies (with particular venom directed toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May) –
Trump’s stunning agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian interference in our election followed by a transparent lie to run from his betrayal –
Trump’s denial that Russian interference remains an ongoing threat (followed by another transparent lie to conceal this absurdity) –
The utter lack of knowledge as to what, if anything, Trump promised Putin (given Republicans’ objections to calling translators to testify) –
A new invitation from Trump for Putin to visit Washington (Goodness knows what other acts of betrayal will occur) –
The White House’s seeming willingness to hand over former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul for Russian authorities to question, followed by a walk-back when, for once, Senate Republicans unanimously declared with their Democratic colleagues that this would never take place –
She voices what many see in spite of the odd distractions:
The issue is no longer “merely” whether Trump colluded with the Russians and committed obstruction of justice, but whether he is a clear-and-present danger to the United States. The conclusion should be obvious: Giving aid and comfort to our biggest geopolitical foe and engaging in private sessions that may compromise American interests even further are together now our greatest security threat. Impeachment is a political question with grave implications for our political system. But when the president’s conduct poses a threat to the nation, removal of the president who poses the threat may be essential.
There’s more talk of that now even if that may be unlikely, but it shouldn’t be unlikely:
The Republican Party and its many apologists can no longer say “but judges” or “but tax cuts.” Absolutely nothing justifies a president’s betrayal of American interests and abject violation of his oath. Rather, it is their insistence that it is “all worth it” – to support and stand by Trump – because of the Supreme Court, taxes or deregulation that has brought us to the point where the president is a serial violator of human rights domestically (unable to repair in a timely fashion the wretched decision to separate children from migrant parents), and an international ally of American enemies. It is not an exaggeration to say a party that continues support for Trump is anti-American.
Rubin is a bit strident, but that’s the talk in the air, and Philip Bump reviews that talk:
There has been a remarkable and growing collection of national security veterans who have raised questions – some in stark terms – about President Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), a sitting member of Congress and veteran of the CIA, became one of the most significant volunteers for that cadre on Thursday with an essay published by the New York Times.
“Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the CIA I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people,” it begins. “I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.”
Hurd’s concerns spiked following Trump’s meeting with Putin on Monday. Steven Hall, the CIA’s former chief of Russian operations, also identified that meeting in Finland as having boosted his concerns.
“From a counterintelligence perspective, something is going on behind the scenes,” he wrote on Twitter. “Before Helsinki I was less sure; post Helsinki, I feel sick.”
But wait, there’s more:
A number of more prominent individuals were on record with concerns well before this week. Retired general Barry McCaffrey tweeted in March that he had “concluded that President Trump is a serious threat to US national security.” Trump “is refusing to protect vital US interests from active Russian attacks,” McCaffrey wrote, adding that “it is apparent that he is for some unknown reason under the sway of Mr Putin.”
But wait, there’s Trump:
There is Trump’s constant lack of interest in offering criticism of Putin. On Thursday he celebrated a Fox News clip that he suggested showed him “recognizing Russian meddling MANY TIMES.” The reality is that his acceptance of Russia’s role in 2016 has almost always been grudging and rarely has encompassed Putin’s involvement directly – despite his apparently having been shown, weeks before taking office, specific evidence reinforcing both of those things.
Forget those overpaid young black bucks disrupting the flag and the seemingly true tales of sleaze and sex and big money. That’s a distraction. Something else is going on. On the other hand, former CIA counterintelligence officer Jack Devine concluded after watching the Helsinki press conference that there is no way that the president is an “agent” of the Russian government. He explained that to the New Yorker’s Adam Davidson:
The proof, he told me, was right in front of us. If Trump were truly serving as a Russian intelligence asset, there would have been an obvious move for him to make during his joint press conference with Putin. He would have publicly lambasted the Russian leader, unleashing as theatrical a denunciation as possible. He would have told Putin that he may have been able to get away with a lot of nonsense under Barack Obama, but all that would end now: America has a strong President and there will be no more meddling. Instead, Trump gave up his single best chance to permanently put to rest any suspicion that he is working to promote Russian interests.
There’s something wrong here:
Devine was the supervisor of Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who pleaded guilty, in 1994, to spying for Moscow, and he oversaw the investigation of Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence officer who confessed, in 2001, to being a double agent. Hanssen, for instance, was like Trump, narcissistic, with a broad set of grievances about the many ways that his special qualities were not being recognized. But, unlike Trump, he harbored those grievances quietly and found satisfaction in secretly upending the system in which he operated. Trump shows no signs that he can be gratified by secret triumphs. He seems to need everyone, everywhere, to see whatever it is that he thinks deserves praise. His need for public attention is a trait that would likely cause most spies to avoid working with Trump.
In short, as an “Agent” of the Russian government, Trump is hopeless, and Martin Longman adds this:
Instead of being a direct agent, he is probably just afraid of what the Russians have on him and is mostly concerned not to provoke anyone who might be able to expose him…
When he was pursuing real estate deals, he may have had people advising him on what to say that would please Russians in general and Vladimir Putin in particular. I am quite certain that Putin greatly enjoyed Trump’s Birther exploits, for example. But now that he is president, how is Trump getting the information he needs to make sure he aligns himself with Russia’s interests? Are his sporadic one-on-one meetings with Putin sufficient for this purpose?
Trump is hopeless, but of course he’s still useful:
We can get bogged down in definitions and semantics that don’t actually make a bit of difference in the real world. If we can’t tell the difference between how Trump is acting and how an agent would act in terms of the actual results, then it doesn’t really matter how formal the arrangement is or how best to describe it.
He’s quite obviously doing Russia’s bidding and he’s doing it with a level of sophistication that he is not capable of conceiving or executing on his own. That’s the important thing.
And then there’s Henry Kissinger:
I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.
And then there’s Andrew Sullivan:
It is possible, is it not, that Donald Trump simply believes what he says…
Everything Trump did in Europe – every horrifying, sick-making, embarrassing expostulation – is, in some way, consistent, and predictable, when you consider how he sees the world. It’s not a plan or a strategy as such. Trump is bereft of the attention span to sustain any of those. It is rather the reflection of a set of core beliefs and instincts that have governed him for much of his life. The lies come and go. But his deeper convictions really are in plain sight.
And they are, at root, the same as those of the strongmen he associates with and most admires.
That’s the accident here:
The post-1945 attempt to organize the world around collective security, free trade, open societies, non-zero-sum diplomacy, and multicultural democracies is therefore close to unintelligible to him. Why on earth, in his mind, would a victorious power after a world war be generous to its defeated foes? When you win, you don’t hold out a hand in enlightened self-interest. You gloat and stomp. In Trump’s zero-sum brain it makes no sense. It has to be a con. And so today’s international order strikes Trump, and always has, as a massive, historic error on the part of the United States.
There’s nothing in it for him to like. It has empowered global elites over national leaders; it has eroded national sovereignty in favor commerce and peace; it has empowered our rivals; it has spread liberal values contrary to the gut instincts of many ordinary people (including himself); it has led the U.S. to spend trillions on collective security, when we could have used that wealth for our own population or to impose our will by force on others; it has created a legion of free riders; it has enriched the global poor at the expense, as he sees it, of the American middle class; and it has unleashed unprecedented migration of peoples and the creation of the first truly multicultural, heterogeneous national cultures.
He wants to end all that. He always hated it, and he never understood it.
In fact, he never could understand that:
That kind of complex, interdependent world requires virtues he doesn’t have and skills he doesn’t possess. He wants a world he intuitively understands: of individual nations, in which the most powerful are free to bully the others. He wants an end to transnational migration, especially from south to north. It unnerves him. He believes that warfare should be engaged not to defend the collective peace as a last resort but to plunder and occupy and threaten. He sees no moral difference between free and authoritarian societies, just a difference of “strength,” in which free societies, in his mind, are the weaker ones. He sees nations as ethno-states, exercising hard power, rather than liberal societies, governed by international codes of conduct. He believes in diplomacy as the meeting of strongmen in secret, doing deals, in alpha displays of strength – not endless bullshit sessions at multilateral summits. He’s the kind of person who thinks that the mafia boss at the back table is the coolest guy in the room.
And that means that Vladimir Putin in the coolest guy in the room:
This is why he has such a soft spot for Russia. Its kleptocratic elites see the world in just the same way. And if you wanted to undo the international system created by the U.S., an alliance with Russia is the first step you’d take. Aligning with Moscow against London, Berlin, and Paris is critical to breaking up multilateral institutions like the EU and NATO. Trump is not reticent about this. His trip to NATO included the first-ever threat by a U.S. president to walk away from it entirely, and to condition Article 5 on prompt payment of dues. His visit to the U.K. began with an attempt to undermine the government of Theresa May for her attempt to prevent the hardest of Brexits. He backs the new populist anti-immigrant government in Rome, because it too threatens a common European migration policy. And he is indifferent to Russian meddling in Western elections and media because it is designed to aid exactly those forces that Trump supports, from Brexit to Le Pen, and the Trump wing of the GOP which is now, of course, simply the GOP.
That means that Trump is an “agent” for no one but himself:
Why are we then searching for some Rosetta stone to explain his foreign policy? Some evidence of his being a Russian asset? Some bribe? Some document or email proving his fealty to Moscow? Yes, it’s perfectly possible that he knowingly accepted Russian help in defeating his opponent in the last election, and is even now encouraging Russia to help him again. But that’s simply the kind of unethical thing Trump has done for years, without batting an eyelid. He sees no more conflict here than he did in seeking Russian funding and German loans for his businesses.
It seems to me he is maddened by the Mueller investigation not just because it may cast some doubt on the legitimacy of his election, but because it has impeded his attempt, alongside Putin, to reconstruct a new world order on nationalist, rather than internationalist lines. And that was one of his core goals as president. As for the danger to him by the Russia scandal, I doubt Trump is nervous. His base has already been taught to ignore whatever the “angry Democrats” convened by Mueller find. And he knows he is immune to impeachment, because his cult followers control a third of the Senate for the foreseeable future. What he wants from Putin is simply what he has always said he wanted: an alliance to advance his and Putin’s amoral and cynical vision of world politics.
Trump then is not working “for” Putin at all. He simply wants to “be” Putin:
Putin fascinates too, of course, because of his “very strong control” of his country. It’s how Trump instinctively feels a country should be run. The forms of democracy exist, but one party controls everything, and one boss controls the party. The press is either compliant or openly propagandistic. Massive spending on hard military power is the core source of pride. Fossil fuels provide the entire economic base. Putin acts with impunity on the world stage, invading Crimea, all but annexing parts of Ukraine, poisoning enemies in England, devastating civilians in Syria, discrediting his democratic rivals – all of it amounting to Trump’s wet dream of what being a strongman is. Putin mirrors Trump’s domestic politics as well: the cultivation of the religiously orthodox and the socially conservative in defense of a kleptocratic cult.
This is America First, in which Trump and America are indistinguishable, and in which Russia is the most natural ally.
So don’t be distracted:
This is not treason as such. It is not an attack on America, but on a version of America, the liberal democratic one, supported by one of the great parties in America. It is an attack on those institutions that Trump believes hurt America – like NATO and NAFTA and the EU. It is a championing of an illiberal America, and a partnering with autocrats in a replay of old-school Great Power zero-sum politics, in which the strong pummel and exploit the weak. Trump is simultaneously vandalizing the West, while slowly building a strongman alliance that rejects every single Western value. And Russia – authoritarian, ethnically homogeneous, internally brutal, internationally rogue – is at its center. That’s the real story of the last week, and at this point, it isn’t even faintly news.
That lets Trump off the hook. There’s no treason here. Trump is not a Russian agent. There no need for him to attack uppity black football players. There’s no need for Rudy Giuliani to change the subject to sleaze and sex and big money and then say no one can touch Trump anyway. Or maybe there is. Trump wants to be just like Putin. There are worse things than treason.