Brazil has always been problematic. The first Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie was Flying Down to Rio in 1933 – still a hoot and filmed at the old RKO studios at Melrose and Gower, now part of Paramount Pictures. That would be RKO Radio Pictures:
The business was formed after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chain and Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) studio were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in October 1928. RCA chief David Sarnoff engineered the merger to create a market for the company’s sound-on-film technology, RCA Photophone… Howard Hughes took over RKO in 1948. After years of disarray and decline under his control, the studio was acquired by the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955. The original RKO Pictures ceased production in 1957 and was effectively dissolved two years later.
So, President Kennedy’s father’s movie studio made a cool film about Brazil, sort of, and then he and Sarnoff sold the studio to Howard Hughes, who ran it into the ground. Joseph P. Kennedy would go on to serve as FDR’s ambassador to Great Britain and the rest is history. And everyone forgot about Brazil. It didn’t matter. It never mattered.
And it still doesn’t matter. Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and explains what just happened:
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been called the “Trump of the Tropics” because of his aggressive populist style. He’s gone out of his way to praise and court President Trump, distinguishing himself among the world’s elected leaders in that pursuit. Monday morning, he learned what others who have tried to get close to the mercurial U.S. president have already grasped: The only people Trump treats worse than his enemies are his friends.
It was those predawn tweets from the lonely insomniac president that ended it all:
Bolsonaro’s rude awakening came from Trump’s unexpected tweets declaring that he was reimposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Brazil and Argentina. By all accounts, the Latin American countries had not been informed about this beforehand, nor had they been given any indication such a move might be forthcoming. Taken by surprise outside the presidential residence, Bolsonaro said he would “call Trump,” adding that he has “an open channel with him.”
But that may not be true now:
Bolsonaro will likely find himself in the same boat as others who thought their relationship with the president means more than it does. The list of former friends who are now public enemies is long and growing…
Bolsonaro’s Brazil has turned from a country often at odds with the United States to one of its firmest allies in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the eighth-largest economy in the world and is struggling to grow again after a serious recession from 2014-2016. It is in the U.S. interest to help Brazil grow and provide a counterweight to the populist and undemocratic socialism that always simmers just below the surface in Latin America.
Instead, Trump is treating Bolsonaro like he treats his senior staff with whom he has tired: Bad news comes via the morning tweet.
But by now Trump’s impulsiveness is legendary and what Olsen sees as dangerous:
Even his own staff doesn’t know what’s coming next. Markets and other nations that depend on the United States need some measure of predictability to plan accordingly. Rapid changes of policy unsettle these relationships and make it impossible to plan. Alternating between hugging and bullying his associates and business partners may have worked for Trump in his private and business lives, but they wreak havoc for the country in his public life.
Olsen also doesn’t understand why Trump is obsessed with the farm sector:
In his tweet, he said he was reimposing tariffs because Brazil and Argentina were weakening their currencies, “which is not good for our farmers.”
But what about the U.S. firms that import steel or aluminum from these countries, in part because they had been exempted from prior tariffs while steel and aluminum from China was not? They will now have a significant price hike in a key input material and might have to again switch their source countries, something that takes time and costs money. Don’t they deserve consideration, too?
Trump’s impulsiveness moots that question, and the world is now even more on edge:
Trump is flying to London today to meet with our 28 NATO allies. After this debacle, many world leaders are surely dreading his arrival, wondering whether a similar fate awaits them after he lands.
Who knows? David Nakamura and Anne Gearan provide additional detail to what is becoming a bit of a problem:
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who staked his political fortunes on close collaborations with Trump over nuclear negotiations with North Korea, is now facing the president’s demands that Seoul increase its payments fivefold to support U.S. troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has courted Trump relentlessly, with nearly four dozen meetings and phone calls and an elaborate state visit to Tokyo in the spring. But Tokyo was not spared from steel tariffs early in Trump’s tenure, and Trump contradicted Abe over the summer by refusing to declare North Korea’s short-range missile tests a violation of U.N. resolutions.
For Bolsonaro, a far-right leader who had patterned his campaign after Trump’s and aggressively sought to ingratiate himself with the White House, the tariffs represented an embarrassing reality check on his strategy of gambling his administration’s foreign policy largely on good personal chemistry with a president who craves validation – but who views virtually all relationships as transactional and, potentially, disposable.
All world leaders will now have to deal with that:
“This is a president who will develop close relationships but who will not necessarily be fully loyal to those close relationships,” said Fernando Cutz, a Western Hemisphere expert at the Cohen Group who served on the National Security Council under both Trump and President Barack Obama. “I don’t think Brazil understood that, but maybe they will now. I think this was a very big surprise to Brazil’s political system and its people. They really see Bolsonaro as a close friend of the president. This will feel like a pretty strong betrayal.”
But get used to that:
For Trump, “what takes precedence is what’s good for him personally and what increases his power,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. He pointed to Colombian President Iván Duque, who had a warm first meeting with Trump in February, only to be criticized a month later by the president in response to illegal drugs smuggled into the United States.
Duque has “done nothing for us,” Trump declared.
“All of a sudden Trump decides to do something, presumably for his own political benefit,” Shifter said. “One by one the Latin American presidents are learning that being a close ally of Trump doesn’t pay off and you can’t really rely that you’re going to get favorable treatment.”
In short, no one can rely on Trump’s word about anything, and he likes it that way:
Foreign-policy experts acknowledged that no U.S. president has based decisions solely on personal relationships over larger geopolitical concerns. But Trump has long placed an overriding emphasis on personal fealty to him, forcing fellow leaders into an uncomfortable choice over what tone to take in dealing with his administration.
Some leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto have at times struck a confrontational tone over Trump’s demands, provoking angry responses. Others, including Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have lavished Trump with praise and tied their administrations closely to his.
But nothing works:
In a warm bilateral meeting at the White House last spring, Trump pledged to support Brazil’s efforts to become a full member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Then Trump shocked the Brazilians and his own aides by suggesting that Brazil should become a member of NATO, an organization reserved for North Atlantic nations.
In August, with Brazil facing international condemnation for its handling of massive fires in the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro called Trump and persuaded him to represent Brazil’s position and push back against the criticism during the Group of 7 summit in France.
Trump agreed to that. Bolsonaro can burn down he entire Amazon rainforest and pave it over with asphalt. Trump was sending a massage the Climate Change crowd. They’re stupid and he and Bolsonaro can do whatever they damned well please. But that was about Trump, not Bolsonaro, so there was this:
On Monday, Brazilian officials struck a tempered tone on the new tariffs. In a statement, the Bolsonaro government said it will “work to defend Brazilian trade interests and to safeguard trade flows.”
In private, diplomats were dumbfounded, emphasizing that the country has sought to strengthen its currency, the real, against the dollar, contrary to Trump’s contentions.
But what can one say? The man is impulsive, and now the French know that:
The Trump administration said on Monday that a new French tax that hit American technology companies discriminated against the United States, a declaration that could lead to retaliatory tariffs as high as 100 percent on French wines.
It could also jeopardize international efforts to negotiate a truce on so-called digital taxes.
The announcement from the Office of the United States Trade Representative ended a months-long investigation into the French tax, which hits companies like Facebook and Google even though they have little physical presence in France. The investigation concluded that the tax “discriminates against U.S. companies, is inconsistent with prevailing principles of international tax policy and is unusually burdensome for affected U.S. companies.”
It recommended tariffs as high as 100 percent on certain French imports valued at $2.4 billion, including cheese, wine and handbags.
The administration suggested it could open similar investigations into digital taxes proposed by Italy, Austria and Turkey.
These countries want to tax companies doing business in their countries if those companies aren’t physically located there. Trump say that’s picking on America, on him, and he always hits back ten times harder:
The finding does not immediately impose tariffs on French products such as wine, which was already hit with a 25 percent tariff in October in a separate dispute, but it allows the president to impose them if and when he chooses. It could also upend an effort led by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to unite 135 countries around a shared system of taxing technology companies and other multinational corporations, which leaders had hoped would come together in 2020.
An escalation of tensions between France and the United States would complicate any resolution to those negotiations.
That’s because Trump doesn’t give a shit about any shared system of taxing technology companies, but neither does France:
The French government approved a new “digital service tax” this year on online economic activity, which would hit large American tech companies widely frequented by French citizens. French leaders have expressed concern that their government has not been able to capture revenue from companies that sell or advertise online in France, a concern that is shared by a growing number of countries, including Britain and India.
President Trump’s trade representative responded to the French tax by opening the investigation into whether it unfairly targeted American companies.
Yeah, yeah, everyone is out to get us, and to destroy Trump, but Natasha Bertrand reports that may be a Trump delusion:
With the impeachment inquiry charging forward, President Donald Trump’s allies have defended his demand for political investigations from Ukraine by claiming that the government in Kyiv tried to sabotage his candidacy and boost Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“Russia was very aggressive and they’re much more sophisticated, but the fact that Russia was so aggressive does not exclude the fact that President Poroshenko actively worked for Secretary Clinton,” Republican Sen. John Kennedy claimed on Sunday in an interview with NBC, referring to the former Ukrainian president.
But the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee thoroughly investigated that theory, according to people with direct knowledge of the inquiry, and found no evidence that Ukraine waged a top-down interference campaign akin to the Kremlin’s efforts to help Trump win in 2016.
It seems that President Poroshenko wasn’t on the Clinton payroll, enthusiastically working for her for big bucks:
The committee’s Republican chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, said in October 2017 that the panel would be examining “collusion by either campaign during the 2016 elections.”
But an interview, that fall, with the Democratic consultant at the heart of the accusation that Kyiv meddled, Alexandra Chalupa, was fruitless, a committee source said, and Republicans didn’t follow up or request any more witnesses related to the issue.
There was nothing there:
The Senate interview largely focused on a POLITICO article published in January 2017, according to a person with direct knowledge of the closed-door hearing, in which Chalupa was quoted as saying officials at the Ukrainian Embassy were “helpful” to her effort to raise the alarm about Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort in 2016.
But they merely pointed her to the public information that Manafort was being paid millions by Putin’s guys in the Ukrainian government to keep them in the Ukrainian government:
“If I asked a question, they would provide guidance, or if there was someone I needed to follow up with,” she said at the time. She cautioned, however, that the embassy was “very careful” not to get involved politically because of the bipartisan support Ukraine has traditionally enjoyed from U.S. lawmakers. As the POLITICO article noted, there was “little evidence” of a “top-down effort” by the Ukrainian government to sabotage Trump’s campaign. And the article did not allege that Poroshenko “actively worked” for Clinton, as Kennedy claimed.
In short, there was a lot of nothing here:
Senate Intelligence Committee member Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, declined to comment on what the committee has or hasn’t investigated.
But he said in an interview that he’s “probably been to between 20-30 briefings and hearings on this subject of election interference in 2016, and I have never heard one word about any culpability on the part of Ukraine.”
“It has never been mentioned in any of the briefings I’ve had on the Intelligence Committee,” King said. He called the claims about Ukraine’s interference in 2016 “unfortunate” because “it muddies the waters,” and noted that Russia’s attempts to blame Ukraine are not inconsistent with its standard disinformation tactics.
And there was this:
The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in a bipartisan report – after conducting interviews of key individuals who have provided additional insights into these incidents – that Russia hacked the DNC, and agreed with the intelligence community’s 2017 assessment that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton.”
Two volumes of the committee’s final report, entitled “Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election,” have been released so far, and neither addresses the theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
But there is the matter of motive:
In Volume 2, which focuses on Russia’s use of social media to wage disinformation campaigns, the committee flagged another episode in which Russia sought to blame Ukraine for its own misconduct: specifically, the “menu of conspiracy theories and false narratives” Russia introduced in 2014 to account for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.
Russia has repeatedly pointed the finger at Kyiv, despite the conclusion by a team of international investigators that the plane was destroyed by Russia-backed Ukrainian separatists – aided by three Russians close to Russian intelligence services – operating in separatist territory using Russia-provided weapons systems.
Putin needed distance from that. One should never shoot down a commercial airliner and kill two or three hundred civilians all at once. The Ukrainians did it!
Trump would surely buy that, but those Ukrainians can be sly:
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is taking his anti-corruption, pro-reform agenda seriously, with plans to boot more than 500 Ukrainian prosecutors from the governmental payroll by the end of the month.
And some of those prosecutors are directly tied to President Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and his pressure campaign to get Ukraine to probe the Biden family, one of Trump’s top 2020 political rivals. According to the Washington Post, a prosecutor named Kostiantyn Kulyk will be among the officials pushed out this month. Kulyk is one of the key Ukrainian officials who aided Giuliani is his effort to churn out fabricated dirt on the Bidens. The prosecutor has denied he ever met with Giuliani, but his ex-associates say he wrote a seven-page memo that Kulyk’s boss later handed off to Giuliani, according to the Post.
Kulyk was fired because he did not provide officials with proof that he took an exam that’s now part of the prosecutor review process across the country.
The message was clear. Hey, Donald, you want us to clean up corruption? We just did a bit of that! Rudy’s guy is gone!
But wait, there’s more. Nicole Lafond covers that:
With the firing of more than 500 Ukrainian prosecutors, several of whom played key roles in Rudy Giuliani’s pressure campaign, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent a message to President Trump – that his promise to root out corruption in Ukraine may be more important than pleasing Trump.
The subtle push-backs continued during an interview with TIME Magazine and several European outlets published Monday. While the comedian-turned-president didn’t outright break with Trump on any given topic, Zelensky created some noteworthy distance between his country and the White House’s stance on issues relevant to the impeachment probe.
He certainly did do that:
While he denied there was any quid pro quo associated with the withheld aid, Zelensky called out the U.S. for keeping aid from a country actively at war with Russia. Trump has made a number of claims about the hold on the military funds, initially suggesting he wanted European countries to pitch in more for Ukraine’s defense.
“Look, I never talked to the President from the position of a quid pro quo. That’s not my thing. I don’t want us to look like beggars,” Zelensky told TIME and others present for the interview. “But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying.”
Zelensky knows a jerk when he sees one, and there was this too:
Zelensky appeared to call out the U.S. and Republicans for peddling conspiracy theories about Ukraine and 2016 election. Conservatives have been arguing for years that Ukrainian officials worked with the Democratic National Committee to try to bolster Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone,” Zelensky said when asked about the U.S.’s role in peace efforts between Ukraine and Russia. “When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country that is the hardest of signals. It might seem like an easy thing to say, that combination of words: Ukraine is a corrupt country. Just to say it and that’s it.”
“But it doesn’t end there. Everyone hears that signal,” he continued. “Investments, banks, stakeholders, companies, American, European, companies that have international capital in Ukraine, it’s a signal to them that says, ‘Be careful, don’t invest.’ Or, ‘Get out of there.’ This is a hard signal.”
Zelensky would rather that Trump didn’t destroy his country that way, and there was this too:
Whether intentional or not, Zelensky warned against other global leaders using Ukraine as a “piece” on the chess board to use for their own political or foreign policy purposes. It might be a stretch to suggest that messaging was targeted at Trump or Giuliani, but it’s notable that he called out the type of behavior that’s placed Giuliani and his pressure campaign in Ukraine at the center of the Trump impeachment inquiry.
“First off, I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, to be on the chess board of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain… As for the United States, I would really want – and we feel this, it’s true – for them to help us, to understand us, to see that we are a player in our own right, that they cannot make deals about us with anyone behind our backs,” he said.
So, did Trump understand any of this? Of course not:
While speaking to reporters on Monday, President Trump argued the Zelensky interview offered him some sort of exoneration, telling reporters that the Ukrainian president said he did “absolutely nothing wrong.”
“If you noticed there was breaking news today, the Ukrainian president came out and said very strongly that President Trump did absolutely nothing wrong,” Trump said Monday. “That should be case over.”
Zelensky never says that.
That’s okay. Trump betrays everyone. That’s what strong leaders do? In private, diplomats are dumbfounded. But now everyone is dumbfounded.