When Things Actually Fall Apart

When things fall apart they look like these two nuggets from a survey at the end of the recent Yale CEO Summit in Manhattan:

President Trump: Three in four CEOs said they often apologized to their international business partners about the president’s messages. Eighty-seven percent said Mr. Trump’s negotiating style had cost the nation the trust of its allies, and three-quarters felt he wasn’t leading effectively on issues critical to U.S. national security.

A Recession: Almost half of the respondents thought the U.S. could wind up in a recession by the end of the month. The greatest threats to U.S. markets, 67 percent said, are U.S. political instability and trade negotiations.

Or things look like this:

Two benchmark U.S. stock indexes are careening toward a historically bad December.

Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 are on pace for their worst December performance since 1931, when stocks were battered during the Great Depression. The Dow and S&P 500 are down 7.8 percent and 7.6 percent this month, respectively.

Or things look like this:

Congressional Republicans struggled Monday to find a way to persuade President Trump to back off a public threat to shut down the government over border-wall money, staying largely in the dark over the impasse that could halt pay for hundreds of thousands of federal workers by the end of the week.

At the White House, Trump has remained disinclined to support even stopgap measures that would keep federal government operations running for a week or two, told by his closest advisers that he would have even less leverage when Democrats take control of the House next month. Trump is also bolstered by support of rank-and-file Border Patrol agents, whose union leader told the president in a recent Oval Office conversation that they would back a wall-induced shutdown if the dispute came to that point.

All that has left Republican lawmakers – eager to avoid a shutdown – unsure whether Trump would ultimately come around to at least one option that would end the impasse before Friday. Without a resolution that the president could sign before midnight Friday, roughly 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed or forced to work without pay in a partial shutdown that Trump has already – and proudly – claimed as his own.

They’re hoping he’s not that dumb, and they’re planning on that:

Trump has told people around him that he is frustrated that he does not have much leverage in the fight, and two presidential advisers said a shutdown was unlikely because there was no way the president could win. The White House plan is to not shut down the government, both of these people said.

“He’s not going to get $5 billion for the wall,” one of these people said. “They can say on TV all they want that it’s going to happen, but it’s not going to happen.”

The White House’s legislative affairs team has devised a plan to keep the government open, two of the people said, even as administration officials such as senior adviser Stephen Miller are touting a hardline position on immigration and threatening a shutdown on television.

Forget the bullshit – there’s reality – and there are the realists:

Confident that they will skirt blame for any government shutdown, Democrats have become more hardened in their resolve to deny Trump the additional border security money that he called for in a string of weekend tweets. No substantive discussion has occurred between Democrats and Trump since last week’s Oval Office meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), although their respective staffs have continued to talk.

Pelosi, who is poised to take over the House speakership in about two weeks, and Schumer have offered the White House two options that they say can pass Congress: Funding the one-quarter of the government at risk of a shutdown at current spending levels through the end of the fiscal year, or full funding for all the relevant federal agencies except the Department of Homeland Security, which would operate on a one-year “continuing resolution.”

Meanwhile, on the other side:

Senior Senate Republicans held a series of meetings Monday in the office of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) but had little insight as to what Trump would actually do – or sign.

Asked what kind of spending bill Trump would support, Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) responded: “We don’t know that.”

A Monday evening meeting of McConnell and his top deputies also yielded little, with senior Republicans unaware of where exactly the White House stands. During the meeting, McConnell told other GOP senators that he had no information, and – referring to the White House – said “we’re waiting for them,” according to a senator in attendance.

They may have to wait quite a bit, and Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, sees the problem here:

There is an inherently parental role to being president of the United States. The person holding that office is supposed to know more than we do about dangers facing the country and the world, and is entrusted with making the appropriate decisions to keep us safe and secure. The president is supposed to keep us from falling. What happens when the president is the biggest child in the room — any room? It upends the natural order of things as surely as if a child’s parents started throwing tantrums and talking like a second-grader.

That can’t be good:

I’m not sure the country has fully comprehended the damage being done by a president who misbehaves so frequently, it’s a news story when he doesn’t. Globally, the United States has lost its power, its aura of seriousness and decisiveness that once made autocrats hesitate before crossing us. Now we are a country that can’t seem to stand up to a ruler who orders the murder and dismemberment of a dissident who was a legal U.S. resident or call out Russia’s intrusion into America’s democratic process. Children know how to scream and sulk; they don’t know how to take control and restore order. They don’t know how to plot out a responsible position and then act on it. A child occupies the White House, and the world knows it.

Something is wrong:

A friend’s young son thought it was really funny when the president called someone “Horseface.” He giggled when he saw the president on TV telling a reporter that her question was “stupid” and that all her questions are stupid. Nine-year-olds should be able to look up to the president of the United States, not feel that the president is one of them.

And that’s not funny:

Adults who behave like children do adult damage. We’re starting to see some of that damage, most recently at the southern border. This president has slammed shut America’s door as loudly as a petulant child slams his bedroom door and shouts, “Go away.” The result is that thousands of migrants are living in squalid conditions just beyond the U.S. border, trying to keep babies from getting sick. This is adult damage, and there will be more.

People should have known better, but they didn’t know better:

Incoming White House acting-chief of staff Mick Mulvaney once said Donald Trump’s past words and actions would disqualify him from becoming president in an “ordinary universe.”

Mulvaney made the comments in a previously unreported October 2016 radio interview in which he also said Trump is not a role model and has said “atrocious things.” On October 7, 2016, a week before Mulvaney made the comments, the Access Hollywood tape of Trump making lewd comments about women, including bragging about grabbing them by the genitals, was made public.

“My guess is worse stuff is going to come out in the last 30 days,” Mulvaney said on October 13, 2016 on the Jonathon and Kelly Show, a South Carolina-based radio show. “They’ve got more videotapes. Everything the guy’s ever said is on a videotape or an audio tape. There is going to be some atrocious things that are gonna come out. That’s not going to make Hillary Clinton a good candidate for president.”

“Should either of these people be, be a role model for my 16-year-old triplets? No,” Mulvaney said. “In an ordinary universe, would both of these people’s past activities disqualify them for serving for office? Yes. But that’s not the world we live in today. The world we live in today, it’s either him or her and for me that’s still an easy choice.”

So, Trump was despicable and unqualified, but Hillary was worse? That may not be true:

Former FBI director James B. Comey accused President Trump on Monday of trying “to burn down the entire FBI” and charged that congressional Republicans were willing accomplices for failing to challenge him.

“The FBI’s reputation has taken a big hit because the president with his acolytes has lied about it constantly,” Comey told reporters, following his second closed-door interview this month with House lawmakers running a politically divisive investigation into how federal law enforcement officials handled probes of the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia ties and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

But Comey directed his vitriol not just at the GOP members of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, but at all Republicans – including retiring GOP lawmakers, such as Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who have openly criticized Trump but aren’t seeking reelection.

“At some point, someone has to stand up and face the fear of Fox News, fear of their base, fear of mean tweets, stand up for the values of this country and not slink away into retirement but stand up and speak the truth,” Comey said, without naming names.

The FBI didn’t break into Michael Cohen’s office. They had a warrant. And, as Aaron Blake explains, they’re not unfairly picking on General Flynn:

Trump backers last week found their (latest) smoking gun in a supposedly vast law-enforcement conspiracy to take down President Trump: A judge asked for more information about Michael Flynn’s guilty plea after Flynn’s attorney implied his client had been tricked into lying.

This was quickly and prematurely hailed as the event that could lay bare the whole tawdry affair. The Wall Street Journal editorial board and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) suggested that Flynn had been “entrapped.” Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro lauded Judge Emmet G. Sullivan as the man who could soon expose “prosecutorial misconduct” and throw out Flynn’s guilty plea. Mike Huckabee told Pirro that the Justice Department had been “sucker-punching a wonderful, fine public servant and military hero like General Flynn. It’s disgusting.”

Fine – Mueller released the transcripts of what was actually asked and answered, and he did this too:

Just two days later, the Flynn-as-innocent-dupe narrative suffered a major setback. In a newly unsealed document that comes a day before Flynn is due to be sentenced, Flynn’s business partner Bijan Kian has been charged with illegally acting as an agent of Turkey. Kian has also been charged with conspiracy for an effort to get Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, extradited from the United States. Erdogan has accused Gulen of fueling a 2016 coup attempt against him.

None of this is hugely surprising. Flynn’s original guilty plea a year ago noted that he lied to investigators about his work for Turkey – in addition to other lies.

Choose better heroes. And choose better allies:

On Monday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a pair of sweeping reports illuminating how effectively Russian influence operations weaponized social media during the 2016 presidential election, targeting groups like African-Americans, evangelical Christians and pro-gun activists to sow division, confuse voters and support the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. These reports showed conclusively that Russia’s Internet Research Agency used every digital attack surface available — whether it was Facebook or Instagram, where their posts got millions of interactions, or smaller social media networks like Vine and LiveJournal, or even networked video games like Pokémon Go.

One takeaway from these reports might be that the Russian influence campaign of 2016 was a freak occurrence enabled by a perfect storm of vulnerabilities: growth-obsessed social media companies, unsuspecting intelligence agencies and an election featuring two hyper-polarizing candidates, one of which had a Russian blind spot and an army of supporters willing to believe convenient lies and half-truths.

The other way to look at these reports, and probably a more accurate one, is that the 2016 election was the Pearl Harbor of the social media age: a singular act of aggression that ushered in an era of extended conflict.

The Washington Post sees no ambiguity here:

The Kremlin engaged in a coordinated campaign to elevate Donald Trump to the presidency, and this country’s technology companies were central to its strategy.

The Russia operation is staggering in its scale, precision and deceptiveness. Pages generated by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency elicited nearly 40 million likes and more than 30 million shares on Facebook alone, reeling in susceptible users with provocative advertisements and then giving them propaganda to spread far and wide. The aim was not to toss the country into tumult, but to put the preferred candidate of a foreign adversary in the Oval Office. All the while, Americans were entirely unaware of what was happening: What seemed like local Black Lives Matter activists were actually Russian trolls well-versed in the buzzwords of social justice. Ostensible patriots for Second Amendment rights were broadcasting from St. Petersburg.

Republicans have protested over the past year that election interference is neither unusual nor important. This week’s reports comprehensively put both arguments to rest. Russia waged an unprecedented campaign, targeting Americans across all segments of society, on platforms large and small. The studies do not even cover the entirety of Russia’s online tampering: The hack-and-leak operation that led to the release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s private emails, orchestrated by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, was another crucial salvo in a pro-Trump onslaught.

When things fall apart they look like this:

Months after President Trump took office Russia’s disinformation teams trained their sights on a new target: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Having worked to help get Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralize the biggest threat to his staying there.

The Russian operatives unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. One post on Instagram – which emerged as an especially potent weapon in the Russian social media arsenal – claimed that Mueller had worked in the past with “radical Islamic groups.”

Such tactics exemplified how Russian teams ranged nimbly across social media platforms in a shrewd online influence operation aimed squarely at American voters.

These guys are good:

The emergence of Mueller as a significant target also highlights the adaptability of the Russian campaign. He was appointed in May 2017 as special counsel to investigate allegations of Russian influence on the Trump campaign. In that role, he has indicted on criminal charges a Kremlin-linked troll farm called the Internet Research Agency and others affiliated with the disinformation campaign.

A Clemson University research team, not affiliated with either of the reports released Monday, found that the Russians tweeted about Mueller more than 5,000 times, including retweets first posted by others. Some called for his firing, while others mocked him as incompetent and still others campaigned for the end of his “entire fake investigation.”

Paul Waldman adds this:

It’s long past time when we stop talking about Russian “meddling” or even a Russian “attack” on our election, not because those characterizations are inaccurate but because they obscure the broader truth.

So let’s stop beating around the bush. The Russian government tried to get Trump elected, and Trump, his campaign, his close associates and even members of his family tried to help them. For all practical purposes, Russia was part of the Trump campaign. That is no longer in doubt. All we’re doing now is filling in the details.

That’s in the reports:

Depressing African American turnout was plainly a top priority for Russian intelligence. In other words, their efforts offered a short-term reinforcement of one of the core elements of the Republican Party’s long-term electoral strategy. The GOP tries to erect barriers to registration and voting that fall particularly hard on African Americans, and then the Russians sweep in to tell those same voters that they shouldn’t bother even trying to go to the polls, because it won’t make a difference anyway.

Whether or not the Russian officials managing this effort were in direct communication with the Trump campaign, they were certainly trying to push the same buttons.

Waldman says the proof of that is in an October 2016 article in which Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg got inside access to the Trump campaign’s digital strategy:

Instead of expanding the electorate, [Steve] Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans…

On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts” – nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as [Brad] Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”

Waldman:

Russia picked up on one of the most despicable – and effective – parts of the GOP strategy, understanding that it was where its help was needed and where it could have an impact.

When we speak now of “the Trump campaign” we have to think about it as something larger than just those people who were working at the Trump Tower headquarters. The Trump campaign was also the National Enquirer buying the silence of an (alleged) Trump mistress, attempting to knock off Trump’s primary opponents and spreading lurid rumors about Clinton to every American who ever stood in a supermarket checkout line. And the Trump campaign was Russian intelligence, echoing the campaign’s messages and working for both the short- and long-term goals the campaign had set out.

Now what are we going to do about it?

Who knows? Everything is falling apart. That’s what all this looks like.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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