Donald Trump

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Trump hit the iceberg today and Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the band that played on.

Whether American democracy itself winds up collateral damage to the hulking political scandal that’s just begun taking on water—the biggest breach of ethics in the history of American governance—is still TBD. A constitutional crisis is as likely than anything else. But it’s important to remember that while Trump was the absolute worse roll of the dice (and loaded dice, at that), it was the house that was crooked. Nearly 63 million citizens cast a ballot for a bigoted, incompetent, money-laundering game-show host, and that’s a deep indictment on many of our systems—political, educational, media, etc. Even if we remain standing during Trump’s ignominious fall, we’ll continue wobbling on the precipice unless some deep fixes are enacted.

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It’s an American tradition to rehabilitate crooks and liars of years gone by who are no longer in possession of power to do grave damage, making them seem harmless in their dotage: Nixon, Kissinger, Goldwater, etc. The latter politico, the architect of society-busting Reagonomics, was sometimes seated next to Jay Leno in the 1990s, apparently humbled as he shared anecdotes. It’s not likely he’d changed; we’d just forgotten. 

The same tendency is at play with more recent goats, including George W. Bush, an interesting outsider artist who broke the world through incompetence and dishonesty, and John Boehner, the former teary-eyed and often destructive Speaker, who is his retirement is willing to say shitty things about shitty Republicans in between Marlboro drags and coughing fits. Some in the media and populace applaud because he was never as bad as Trump, but let’s recall that he was one of the agents who led to our current calamity.

From Tim Alberta’s fascinating Politico profile about Boehner at rest (or as close to it as he can manage): 

A bipartisan group of eight senators had crafted a comprehensive immigration bill that appeared to have support in the House GOP. But in June, when the Senate passed it—68 to 32, with 14 Republicans voting yes—House members found themselves under siege from constituents and conservative groups. The fatal flaw: It provided a path to citizenship, albeit a winding one, for people in the country illegally. Many conservatives could support a path to legal status but not citizenship; Democrats, on the other hand, essentially took a citizenship-or-nothing approach. Boehner was boxed in: He wanted immigration reform, and personally didn’t mind citizenship—especially for minors brought to the U.S. unwittingly. But putting the bill on the floor meant it might pass into law with perhaps as few as 40 or 50 of his members voting yes. Conservatives would never forgive him for overruling the vast majority of his membership. Looking back, Boehner says not solving immigration is his second-biggest regret, and he blames Obama for “setting the field on fire.” But the former speaker doesn’t mention the nativist voices in his own party that came to dominate the debate, foreshadowing the presidential campaign three years later. Ultimately, the speaker’s immigration quandary boiled down to a choice between protecting his right flank and doing what he thought was right for the country—and Boehner chose the former.

It wasn’t the only time. That summer, conservatives were also getting an earful about the Obamacare exchanges opening on October 1. House Republicans had voted repeatedly to repeal the law but the Senate refused to act, and their constituents, justifiably, wanted to know why Obamacare still existed when they had been promised otherwise. “Somehow, out on the campaign trail, the representation was made that you could beat President Obama into submission to sign a repeal of the law with his name on it,” Cantor says. “And that’s where things got, I think, disconnected from reality.” (In Ohio, listening to his pals groan about Obamacare, Boehner explains why his former colleagues haven’t repealed it: “Their gonads shriveled up when they learned this vote was for real.”)

Republicans’ penchant for overpromising and underdelivering would ultimately enable the ascent of Donald Trump, who positioned himself as a results-oriented outsider who would deliver where politicians had failed. In the shorter term, it invited something less dramatic: a government shutdown. Eager to demonstrate that all options were being exhausted to defeat Obamacare, Ted Cruz in the Senate and conservatives in the House concocted a plan: Because the government needed new funding on October 1, the same day the exchanges would open, they would propose funding the rest of the federal government—while defunding Obamacare.

Boehner objected. Not only would Democrats never go for it; Republicans would be blamed for the resulting government shutdown. “I told them, ‘Don’t do this. It’s crazy. The president, the vice president, Reid, Pelosi, they’re all sitting there with the biggest shit-eating grins on their faces that you’ve ever seen, because they can’t believe we’re this fucking stupid.’” (Boehner, at one point, surprises me by saying he’s proud of Cruz—whom he once called “Lucifer in the flesh”—for acting responsibly in 2017. Do you feel badly about calling him Lucifer, I ask? “No!” Boehner snorts. “He’s the most miserable son of a bitch I’ve ever had to work with.”) 

After railing against the defund strategy, however, Boehner surveyed his conference and realized it was a fight many members wanted—and some needed. Yielding, he joined them in the trenches, abandoning his obligations of governance in hopes of strengthening his standing in the party. But the 17-day shutdown proved costly. Watching as Republicans got butchered in nationwide polling, the speaker finally called a meeting to inform members that they would vote to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. “I get a standing ovation,” Boehner says. “I’m thinking, ‘This place is irrational.’”•

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It’s one thing to respect those in the military and quite another to be required to pretend generals are sacred. There’s no way around stating the obvious that yesterday Gen. John Kelly behaved like an arrogant, rude, dishonest bully. Funny that when he’s overtly disdainful of the country, which he was, it’s considered patriotic, but when black NFL players politely dissent, it’s treason.

Masha Gessen has an essay in the New Yorker which refers to Kelly’s undemocratic press briefing as one that “could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like.” The writer employs ominous terminology, deeming such a turn of events as a “nightmare scenario.” You’d think she’d be pleased, since as recently as April she thought a military coup likely preferable to four years of our Simon Cowell-ish strongman. It was then she had the following exchange with Yana Kuchinoff of In These Times:

Question:

The presidential election has sparked a conversation about the role of the CIA and FBI, and some liberals in the United States have taken a political position that even a CIA coup against Trump would be welcome. How should the Left approach the interference by organizations like these?

Masha Gessen:

If suddenly, tomorrow, there’s a military coup, that may not be a horrible thing. I sort of agree with some people who say, “Anything is better than him.” In a static imagination, where we go directly from here to there, anything is better.•

Maybe there’s no better-or-worse scenario? There’s a good chance we’ve already experienced a non-military, enemy-enabled coup and changing it into a uniform might produce less damage in some ways and more in others. In fact, it’s possible we could get the worst of both worlds, with some grotesque hybrid of Trump and generals trying to clamp down on our freedoms. It’s the least likely scenario, but it can’t be dismissed.

Gessen’s opening:

Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like, for it was in the logic of such a coup that Kelly advanced his four arguments.

Argument 1. Those who criticize the President don’t know what they’re talking about because they haven’t served in the military. To demonstrate how little lay people know, Kelly provided a long, detailed explanation of what happens when a soldier is killed in battle: the body is wrapped in whatever is handy, flown by helicopter, then packed in ice, then flown again, then repacked, then flown, then embalmed and dressed in uniform with medals, and then flown home. Kelly provided a similar amount of detail about how family members are notified of the death, when, and by whom. He even recommended a film that dramatized the process of transporting the body of a real-life marine, Private First Class Chance Phelps. This was a Trumpian moment, from the phrasing—“a very, very good movie”—to the message. Kelly stressed that Phelps “was killed under my command, right next to me”; in other words, Kelly’s real-life experience was recreated for television, and that, he seemed to think, bolstered his authority.

Fallen soldiers, Kelly said, join “the best one per cent this country produces.” Here, the chief of staff again reminded his audience of its ignorance: “Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any of them. But they are the very best this country produces.”

The one-per-cent figure is puzzling. The number of people currently serving in the military, both on active duty and in the reserves, is not even one per cent of all Americans. The number of veterans in the population is far higher: more than seven per cent. But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.

The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom. No Soviet general would have dared utter the kind of statement that’s attributed to General George S. Patton: “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.”•

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From to Rev. Ike to Dr. Phil to President Trump, America has embraced mountebanks of many types, from religion to medicine to politics, asking only that they be skilled at satisfying our hunger to turn every last thing in the country into entertainment.

Norman Vincent Peale, a pastor and peddler of positivity, fit somewhere into that paradigm, offering a malleable feel-good philosophy that encouraged personal fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice, a faith that was a forerunner of the type of prosperity gospel favored by mansionaires like the Osteens. It’s no wonder Donald Trump worshiped so devoutly at his altar. In fact, Peale presided over the serial groom’s first nuptials.

Oddly, the pastor spent the pre-WWII era worried that a demagogic faux populist would be elevated to the Oval Office, not realizing, of course, that one of his future parishioners would come closest to filling the bill. Despite his fear of American Fascism, it’s no sure thing that Peale would have been aghast at Trump’s ascent. The religious leader himself was known for some bigoted views and was deeply offended by the New Deal and any social programs aimed at mitigating the suffering of desperate Depression-ites. Was he so pliant that he could have twisted himself into a Trump supporter? No way of knowing, but he certainly played an important role, willingly or not, in the development of the Worst American™.

A concise rendering of the Trump-Peale connection by Michael Kruse of Poitico:

He was born into a house that Norman Vincent Peale helped build.

Peale’s cheery, simple tips allowed Trump’s father to alleviate his anxieties and mitigate the effects of his innately awkward, dour disposition. Emboldened, Fred Trump banked hundreds of millions of dollars building single-family houses and then immense apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs. Peale appealed to the elder Trump, too, because both men embraced conservative, right-wing, us-versus-them politics—an important but often forgotten portion of Peale’s M.O.

A generation down, Peale appealed to Donald Trump because Trump idolized his father, and because what Fred Trump drilled into his most eager, most ambitious, most like-minded son—be a killer; be a king; be a winner, not a loser—is what made that son so receptive to the teachings of Peale. Born in 1946, Donald Trump’s childhood was spent in a house with white columns and nine bathrooms and a live-in maid and chauffeur in Jamaica Estates, Queens. Sometimes, when it rained or snowed, he did his paper route from the back of his father’s limousine.

Peale, known as “God’s salesman,” reached the peak of his influence in the heart of Trump’s childhood, preaching in the 1950s to millions of people on Sundays at Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan as well as through a syndicated newspaper column, radio and television shows, his Guidepostsmagazine and a spate of books that were self-help trailblazers—first and foremost, of course, The Power of Positive Thinking, his defining work and wild bestseller that came out in 1952. It offered chapters such as “Believe in Yourself,” “Expect the Best and Get It” and “I Don’t Believe in Defeat.” “Whenever a negative thought concerning your personal powers comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive thought,” he wrote. “Actually,” Peale once said, “it is an affront to God when you have a low opinion of yourself.”

Peale was far from universally popular. One psychiatrist dubbed The Power of Positive Thinking “saccharine terrorism.” And during the 1952 presidential campaign, the Democratic nominee made his feelings plain. “Speaking as a Christian,” the brainy Adlai Stevenson said at a Baptist convention in Texas, “I would like to say that I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling.” But Peale permanently altered the way many Americans worship. His was a precursor to the prosperity gospel espoused today by, say, the toothy Joel Osteen. “By repeatedly equating business acumen with piety, uncertainty with religious doubt, and personal and cultural failure with godlessness, Peale and his admirers helped to redefine religious Americans as socially superior winners,” Northwestern University English professor Christopher Lane wrote in his 2016 book, Surge of Piety: Norman Vincent Peale and the Remaking of American Religious Life.

What Peale peddled was “a certain positive, feel-good religiosity that demands nothing of you and rewards you with worldly riches and success,” said Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse, the author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. “It’s a self-help gospel … the name-it-and-claim-it gospel.”

A pair of articles follow from 1935 editions of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in which Peale warned of the rise of an American Mussolini.

From May 27, 1935:

From March 11, 1935:

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The truth was supposed to set us free.

There are more facts readily available to people in our age than ever before. It’s not even close. But the powerful tools that disseminate these bits of knowledge can also be repurposed to obliterate truth, to make all things seem equal, to even make the worse seem the better.

Prior to social media going viral, America already had built an infrastructure amenable to disinformation and conspiracy theories, with Fox News and right-wing radio not selling conservative policy but offering distortions and racial dissension. The Internet immensely broadened the stage for such ill-intended players, making room for Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos to deliver a meteoric impact on the center from the deepest and darkest corners of the fringe. Donald Trump was even able to exploit this new abnormal to activate a racist base all the way to the White House, with, of course, copious aid from Russia.

In regards to those Russians: We pale in comparison to them in weaponizing the new Information Age, as Putin’s Kremlin, a regime leading its country into many other kinds of disaster, has been able to successfully use our inventions to organize the new rules of engagement, utilizing social media not only to spread messages helpful to its cause but also in mobilizing the complicit and unwitting in other nations to do its bidding. It’s a virtual-and-actual hybrid aimed at disturbing the world, and even the Kremlin has to be shocked by how wonderfully well it’s worked thus far. It couldn’t have occurred without numerous Americans in high positions being duplicitous, but it also wouldn’t have been possible without our new tools.

The opening of Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times Magazine piece “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War“:

One morning in January 2016, Martin Steltner showed up at his office in the state courthouse building in western Berlin. Steltner, who has served for more than a dozen years as the spokesman for the Berlin state prosecutor, resembles a detective out of classic crime fiction: crisp suit, wavy gray hair and a gallows humor that comes with having seen it all. There was the 2009 case of the therapist who mistakenly killed two patients in an Ecstasy-infused session gone wrong. The Great Poker Heist of 2010, in which masked men stormed a celebrity-studded poker tournament with machetes and made off with a quarter-million dollars. The 2012 episode involving the Canadian porn star who killed and ate his boyfriend and then sent the leftovers home in the mail. Steltner embraced the oddball aspect of his job; he kept a picture of Elvis Presley on the wall of his office.

But even Steltner found the phone calls he received that morning confounding. They came from police officers from towns far outside Berlin, who reported that protests were erupting, seemingly out of nowhere, on their streets. “They are demonstrating — ‘Save our children,’ ‘No attacks from immigrants on our children’ and some things like that,” Steltner told me when I met him in Berlin recently.

The police were calling Steltner because this was ostensibly his office’s fault. The protesters were angry over the Berlin prosecutor’s supposed refusal to indict three Arab migrants who, they said, raped a 13-year-old girl from Berlin’s tight-knit Russian-German community.

Steltner, who would certainly have been informed if such a case had come up for prosecution, had heard nothing of it. He called the Berlin Police Department, which informed him that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl had indeed gone missing a week before. When she resurfaced a day later, she told her parents that three “Southern-looking men” — by which she meant Arab migrants — had yanked her off the street and taken her to a rundown apartment, where they beat and raped her.

But when the police interviewed the girl, whose name was Lisa, she changed her story. She had left home, it turned out, because she had gotten in trouble at school. Afraid of how her parents would react, she went to stay with a 19-year-old male friend. The kidnapping and gang rape, she admitted, never happened.
 
By then, however, the girl’s initial story was taking on a life of its own within the Russian-German community through word of mouth and Facebook — enough so that the police felt compelled to put out a statement debunking it. Then, over the weekend, Channel One, a Russian state-controlled news station with a large following among Russian-Germans, who watch it on YouTube and its website, ran a report presenting Lisa’s story as an example of the unchecked dangers Middle Eastern refugees posed to German citizens. Angela Merkel, it strongly implied, was refusing to address these threats, even as she opened German borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants. “According to Lisa’s parents,” the Channel One reporter said, “the police simply refuse to look for criminals.”

The following day in Berlin, Germany’s far-right National Democratic Party held a protest at a plaza in Marzahn, a heavily Russian neighborhood. The featured speaker was an adult cousin of Lisa’s, who repeated the original allegations while standing in front of signs reading “Stop Foreign Infiltration!” and “Secure Borders!” The crowd was tiny, not much more than a dozen people. But it was big enough to attract the attention of RT, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, which presents local-language newscasts in numerous countries, including Germany and the United States. A crew from the network’s video service, Ruptly, arrived with a camera. The footage was on YouTube that afternoon.

That same day, Sputnik, a brash Russian-government-run news and commentary site that models itself on BuzzFeed, ran a story raising allegations of a police cover-up. Lisa’s case was not isolated, Sputnik argued; other refugee rapists, it warned, might be running free. By the start of the following week, protests were breaking out in neighborhoods with large Russian-German populations, which is why the local police were calling Steltner. In multiple interviews, including with RT and Sputnik, Steltner reiterated that the girl had recanted the original story about the kidnapping and the gang rape. In one interview with the German media, he said that in the course of the investigation, authorities had found evidence that the girl had sex with a 23-year-old man months earlier, which would later lead to a sexual-abuse conviction for the man, whose sentence was suspended. But the original, unrelated and debunked story continued circulating, drawing the interest of the German mainstream media, which pointed out inconsistencies in the Russian reports. None of that stopped the protests, which culminated in a demonstration the following Saturday, Jan. 23, by 700 people outside the Chancellery, Merkel’s office. Ruptly covered that, too.

An official in the Merkel government told me that the administration was completely perplexed, at first. Then, a few days later, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, held a news conference in Moscow. Bringing up Lisa’s story, he cast doubt on the official version of events. There was no way, he argued, that Lisa left home voluntarily. Germany, he suggested, was “covering up reality in a politically correct manner for the sake of domestic politics.” Two days later, RT ran a segment reporting that despite all the official denials, the case was “not so simple.” The Russian Embassy called Steltner and asked to meet, he told me. The German foreign ministry informed him that this was now a diplomatic issue.

The whole affair suddenly appeared a lot less mystifying. A realization took hold in the foreign ministry, the intelligence services and the Chancellery: Germany had been hit.

Officials in Germany and at NATO headquarters in Brussels view the Lisa case, as it is now known, as an early strike in a new information war Russia is waging against the West.•

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Some perfectly bright people, like Matthew Yglesias, cling to the notion that Donald Trump must be very intelligent despite all evidence to the contrary, because he and his have avoided prison despite the dubiousness of their “business deals,” and Trump was even able to weasel his way into the White House. I, however, instead see a remarkably dumb and damaged person who wasn’t long ago checked into the Graybar Hotel along with some of his nearest and dearest because of an American failure to curb criminal activity of the white-collar variety. That’s due to how riddled by money our political system has become.

Just this week, a joint report by the New Yorker, ProPublica and NPR revealed how the two elder Trump offspring were on the verge of being indicted for fraud in regards to Trump SoHo when family lawyer Marc Kasowitz visited DA Cyrus Vance Jr., a politician the attorney has supported financially. That the case almost immediately went away is less a sign of innocence than a sign of the times. The putrid paterfamilias himself never being placed in a pen for his exorbitant money laundering and numerous other offenses isn’t a display of his effectiveness but of our societal failure. 

As far as Trump landing in the Oval Office by hook or especially by crook, it probably wasn’t any native genius that enabled him to run a Bull Connor-as-a-condo-salesman campaign aimed at the worst of us and, quite possibly, to conspire with the Kremlin in upsetting our democracy. Let’s not confuse pathological shamelessness with intelligence. There will always be terrible people who disgracefully attempt to bilk a system. A culture that allows them to thrive is corrupt and…moronic.

Two excerpts follow.

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From “Is Trump a Moron? Duh.” by Max Boot in USA Today:

Trump journeyed to Puerto Rico on Tuesday to try to dispel that image. Again, it was a comedy of errors. The most widely seen picture from the trip showed Trump throwing paper towels at hurricane survivors as if they were seals receiving fish from a trainer. Trump refused to meet with Cruz, leading to more quotes from her lambasting him. “This terrible and abominable view of him throwing paper towels and throwing provisions at people, it does not embody the spirit of the American nation,” she said.

Wait. Trump wasn’t done.

At a news conference at an Air National Guard base in Puerto Rico, the president lauded the Coast Guard as “special, special, very brave people.” Then he turned to a man in uniform and asked, “Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?” His response: “Sir, I’m representing the Air Force.”

Mixing up Coast Guard and Air Force uniforms is understandable for a newly elected president with no military experience; it’s less excusable after more than eight months in office.

At this same briefing, Trump also said, in that tone-deaf way of his, “You can be very proud. Everybody around this table, and everybody watching, can really be very proud of what’s taken place in Puerto Rico,” because fewer people died than during Hurricane Katrina. So Puerto Ricans should be proud of the catastrophe engulfing them because other disasters were even worse? It’s like telling New Yorkers that they can be proud that 9/11 didn’t kill as many people as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Little wonder that only 32% of respondents in a recent poll approved of Trump’s handling disaster relief in the U.S. territory. His overall approval ratings aren’t much higher.

The real scandal isn’t that Trump’s secretary of State called him a moron. It’s that his job performance lends so much credence to that description.•

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While Tillerson is right in his gauging of Trump’s idiocy, he probably should look in the mirror when tossing around the m-word given how abysmally he’s performed as Secretary of State. From 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s job is at imminent risk.

In the wake of Wednesday’s NBC News report that Tillerson had called President Trump a “moron” in July, the Secretary of State was forced to give an unusual and bizarre press conference in which he denied any intent to leave. But when the Washington Post spoke to 19 current and former White House officials about the controversy, the clear consensus was that TIllerson is not likely to survive such public reports of insubordination.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. The consensus among foreign policy observers is that Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state as been an unmitigated disaster.

“Tillerson would be at or near the bottom of the list of secretaries of state, not just in the post-Second World War world but in the record of US secretaries of state,” says Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO — whose nomination was initially greeted warmly by prominent foreign policy hands — has failed to wield any significant influence in internal administration debates over issues like Syria, North Korea, or Russia.

His push to slash “inefficiencies” in the State Department and seeming disinterest in working closely with longtime staff were even more damaging. By failing to get people into vital high-level posts and actively pushing out talented personnel, he ended up making America’s response to major crises incoherent and weakening the State Department for a “generation,” according to George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders.

This can’t all be blamed on Tillerson: Even a skilled and experienced diplomat would have had trouble maintaining influence in the chaotic Trump White House, where people like UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and Jared Kushner wield major influence and foreign policy is often made by tweet.

Yet both nonpartisan experts and high-ranking State Department appointees in the past two administrations believe he personally deserves much of the blame.

“I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we’ve had,” Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst secretary of state in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era official who worked on Israel-Palestine issues.•

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The modern Republican Party used to claim to stand for certain principles—fiscal responsibility, military might, small government—which turned out to be very negotiable. Money and power by any means were really all that mattered. It’s certainly not the only party to covet such things, but the GOP has distinguished itself by securing those rewards by any means necessary—even by traitorous behavior.

Trump began working from the Kremlin playbook early in the campaign, but it was after his dubious election that he fully drew equivalence between the White House and the Kremlin. “You think our country’s so innocent?” he asked during an interview Super Bowl Sunday, which makes even more ridiculous his intolerance of African-American NFL players practicing their First Amendment rights. Of course, the U.S. isn’t so innocent, but until Trump the country wasn’t in cahoots with Putin’s murderous mafia state nor a test case for authoritarianism. That shift was the handiwork of not only Trump but numerous high-profile Republicans.

Newt Gingrich, that erstwhile commie-baiter, flipped even earlier, throwing the Statue of Liberty under the bus in a German magazine interview when asked about Russian interference in our election: “Well, as you know, Obama was even eavesdropping on your chancellor. You know, countries often do such things. I know of nothing the Russians did which had any effect on the American election.”

Those are just two examples of GOP making excuses for Putin. Manafort, Sessions, Flynn, Kushner may also be complicit. The same goes for everyone at Fox News and Breitbart who suspiciously parrots RT talking points, and Mitch McConnell, who preferred squelching news about Kremlin interference during campaign season.

America, for all its flaws, is not Russia under Putin, and while making it so may not have been the goal of every Republican elected official as it was for Trump, too many were willing look the other way for a chance at money and power. The GOP is now the party of complicity.

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The opening of journalist Yulia Latynina’s Moscow Times report on the escalating Russian violence that forced her from her homeland:

In July, someone released some sort of gas into our family home.

For about a week, Russian police held watch near our house. When they left I felt at ease, thinking the attackers had considered it a signal. But apparently they didn’t.

In August they set alight my car, which was parked near the house. My father doused the flames so that the house wouldn’t catch fire. Had the car exploded it would have cost him his life. So we left. I cannot risk my parents’ lives.

I don’t think the goal was to kill me or my parents, but once the ball starts rolling such attacks can have unforeseeable consequences. I left because I was horrified by people’s lack of responsibility.

My departure from Russia comes as a surprise — even to me. I always laughed at those who, seven or eight years ago, said Russia was a dangerous country and that Putin was worse than Stalin. Because this was not the case.

Russia was a very violent country in the 20th century. If you compare that to Stalin, we were living in vegetarian times. Putin was never worse than Stalin and he still isn’t.

When Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006 we journalists understood this to be an exception — she had been investigating Chechnya. There were cases where people were poisoned, like Alexander Litvinenko, but we understood that he was a former KGB agent and Putin regarded him as a traitor.

There were highly suspicious cases too: the death of Stephen Curtis during the Yukos trial, or the death of Alexander Perepilichny. The death of Sergei Yushenkov belonged to the category of freak accidents and if it said something about Russia, it was that unbelievable things happen.

Those were deaths, killings, murders. But every time you could account for it and explain why it happened.•

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Jesse Ventura has decried how stupid Americans are, but without so many dummies, would he even have a career?

Pat Buchanan has been called the precursor to Trump because of their shared white nationalist platforms, but Ventura is more precisely the orange supremacist’s spiritual forefather despite being five years his junior. Like Trump, Ventura crawled from the wreckage of U.S. trash culture, pro wrestling and talk radio, to win a major public office (Minnesota governor) by utilizing off-center media tactics to portray himself as some sort of vague “outlaw truth-teller” while running against the “establishment.” He was an “anti-candidate” who made politics itself and the mainstream media his enemies and the public got swept up in the rebellious facade of it all. His great joy in the process seemed to be that his upset victory, to borrow a phrase from Muhammad Ali, “shocked the world,” as if surprise and entertainment were the goals of politics and not actual good governance.

After a dismal term in office, Ventura bowed out of politics and fashioned some sort of career from Reality TV (just like Trump), peddling asinine conspiracy theories (another thing he shares with Trump) and making appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show (yet one more similarity with Trump.) He did these things in part to make money but also because he’s an exhibitionist in need of a surfeit of attention. Sound familiar?

Now both men seem to have the same boss—an often-shirtless guy named Vladimir—as Trump suspiciously refuses to say a bad word about the adversarial nation that greatly helped his candidacy, and Ventura has decided to marry his egotistical horseshit to anti-Americanism on RT, Putin’s propaganda channel. The checks must be clearing because the fake wrestler announced on the inaugural episode that Russian interference in our election is fake news. “Where’s the proof?” Ventura asks. He’ll no doubt remain in a state of disbelief even should Robert Mueller provide copious documents and recordings. The murderous dictator that employs him will demand it.

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An excellent Daily Beast report by Ben Collins, Gideon Resnick, Kevin Poulsen and Spencer Ackerman uncovered another aspect of the Kemlin’s extraordinary influence on the U.S. election, in the form of the Facebook group “Being Patriotic,” which promoted pro-Trump rallies in numerous U.S. cities. The opening:

Suspected Russia propagandists on Facebook tried to organize more than a dozen pro-Trump rallies in Florida during last year’s election, The Daily Beast has learned.

The demonstrations—at least one of which was promoted online by local pro-Trump activists— brought dozens of supporters together in real life. They appear to be the first case of Russian provocateurs successfully mobilizing Americans over Facebook in direct support of Donald Trump.

The Aug. 20, 2016, events were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump!” and they were billed as a “patriotic state-wide flash mob,” unfolding simultaneously in 17 different cities and towns in the battleground state. It’s difficult to determine how many of those locations actually witnessed any turnout, in part because Facebook’s recent deletion of hundreds of Russian accounts hid much of the evidence. But videos and photos from two of the locations—Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs—were reposted to a Facebook page run by the local Trump campaign chair, where they remain to this day.

“On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the streets of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!” read the Facebook event page for the demonstrations. “Our flash mob will occur in several places at the same time; more details about locations will be added later. Go Donald!”

The Florida flash mob was one of at least four pro-Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton demonstrations conceived and organized over a Facebook page called “Being Patriotic,” and a related Twitter account called “march_for_trump.”  (The Daily Beast identified the accounts in a software-assisted review of politically themed social-media profiles.)

Being Patriotic had 200,000 followers and the strongest activist bent of any of the suspected Russian Facebook election pages that have so far emerged. Events promoted by the page last year included a July “Down With Hillary!” protest outside Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, a September 11 pro-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, simultaneous “Miners for Trump” demonstrations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in October, and a pro-Trump rally outside Trump Tower last November, after his election victory.•

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Donald Trump explicitly deputized his supporters during the campaign to commit violence in his name, promising to pay their legal fees. As many of his past contractors could have warned them, even with a signed contract this vow wasn’t worth much. Nobody got too caught up in the fine print on the march to Election Day, however, as nearly 63 million Americans looked the other way, pretending a vicious, white-nationalist campaign wasn’t what was occurring. Perhaps some were fooled. Most were not.

Seemingly beholden to the Kremlin, Trump recently stumbled upon some perfectly Putin-like thugs when the absolute worst of the Goy Division descended upon Charlottesville to preach hate and commit a murder. He’s since doubled down on his support of these racist miscreants and others who reenacted Kristallnacht, claiming “many sides” deserve blame, further normalizing the aberrant behavior of his goon squad and encouraging them to further brutish intimidation.

Soon thereafter, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the country’s most obvious symbol of bigoted lawlessness, and authorized state and local police forces to load up on military-grade weapons, which he may believe will provide him with a second unit to take down resistance by force. Whether these departments actually allow themselves to be used in this fascistic manner is questionable at best, but these are clearly the actions of an aspiring autocrat, one who believes he will soon need to protect his power with force. The orange supremacist hopes to provoke a Constitutional crisis and political unrest, then use these conflicts of his own making to rationalize even greater savagery to quell them.

· · ·

In “Trump’s Hoodlums,” Masha Gessen’s latest New York Review of Books piece about our imperiled democracy, she writes that the President, now surrounded by generals-cum-babysitters who run the Administration like a “large family-owned business after the patriarch has developed dementia,” has begun to place his trust in hooligans, militias and extrajudicial actions. The opening: 

Turn on Russian television any day of the week and you are certain to stumble upon a show in which a group of people who appear to be regular citizens (that is, they have no uniforms or government-issued documents) stage a raid of one sort or another. They barge into a store or a restaurant, for example, and demand to see employees’ identity documents, the storage area, or the cooking facilities. Without fail, they find violations of laws or regulations: the staff, natives of Central Asia, don’t have work permits! The store stocks vodka bottles with no alcohol-tax stamps affixed to them! The cook doesn’t cover her hair! At the end of the show, the raiders often pass their tearful, terrified victims to uniformed law enforcement officers, who sometimes appear less than enthusiastic about the task being handed to them.

These raiders have no official titles or legal powers. What directs their actions are the militant rhetoric and the promise of broad impunity that emanate from the Kremlin—and, of course, the glory and recognition of being on television. YouTube and RuTube contain a trove of other vigilante videos, including of self-appointed vice squads who beat up gay men or suspected drug dealers on camera.

Sometimes these vigilantes get in trouble with the law: occasionally a murderer of gay men is caught and jailed, and once in a while a vigilante-gang leader is reined in, though his partners in crime continue to roam free. But in general, the arrangement is low-risk for the perpetrators and convenient for the Kremlin. Vigilantes work fast. Russian law enforcement is not exactly subject to a lot of institutional constraints, but it can be sluggish, and it carries out violence in a dragged-out, bureaucratic way. The vigilantes, on the other hand, make a spectacle of their work, creating the sort of generalized dread on which autocracies thrive. At the same time, vigilantes, who work in small clumps, do not pose the sort of threat to the autocrat that powerful institutions of state sometimes can.

Putin did not invent vigilantes, of course: autocrats frequently rely on delegating violence to extralegal actors or, as in the case of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, on the willingness of law enforcement officers to carry out extralegal violence in exchange for the promise of impunity. Duterte has made this promise explicit; more often, incitement to violence contains a tacit guarantee of protection.

Over the last two weeks, we have seen Donald Trump send out both kinds of signals to the vigilantes of his own choosing.•

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In the 1990 wake of Donald Trump’s scandalous divorce and financial cratering, Liz Smith, who used the hideous hotelier for cheap, titillating content long before cable news did, wrote off his lifelong dream of acquiring the White House: “It appears Donald Trump will never be President. He can be a lot of other important things, but not the chief executive of the U.S., unless, of course, the next few generations of Americans produced are mutants with very brief memories.”

Judge for yourself if nearly 63 million of your fellow citizens fall into that unfortunate category, but Trump achieved his goal, even if it was a hostile takeover, with not only Russian interference and FBI incompetence aiding our fall from grace and into the gutter, but seismic changes in technology, media, politics and entertainment enabling the whole sordid mess.

Before a Trump presidency could became a reality, the scenario of a deeply bigoted, braggadocious, misogynistic, ignorant, money-laundering sociopath and low-brow entertainer ascending to the highest office in the land had to seem possible. That it did to so many speaks to the crumbling of our norms. 

· · ·

In “Why There Won’t Be a German Trump,” a Spiegel essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit, the writer argues that his country’s different mindset and its rigid party control over candidates negates the political “freak factor,” making it almost impossible for a lone wolf who’s crazy as a loon to succeed at the highest level. That’s likely true for now, though given enough time, anything is possible. An excerpt:

Politics emerges in the “realm of possiblity” that societies construct for themselves. What do people imagine? What kinds of leaders do they think are possible? The realm of possibility is a product of real experiences as well as that of visions, fantasies, stories and dreams. What’s crucial is the height of the wall separating reality and dreams. If it is high, the potential space is small — and vice versa.

An American film called Miss Sloane, a portrait of an ice-cold lobbyist in Washington, is currently showing in German theaters. It’s a powerful movie that will leave viewers with the impression that its depiction is, in principle, an accurate one. That the fight for majorities is carried out ruthlessly, often with lies used as weapons. The reality under Trump is being compared to “House of Cards,” a series about a brutal politician who manipulates his way into the White House.

Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became a politician. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler, which is to say a showbiz star, before he became the governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an actor before he became the governor of California and now he is once again an actor. Donald Trump was the lead character in a reality show before he became president. These men moved from a pseudo reality into a political reality. The American wall is low, if it exists at all — the worlds of reality and dreams flow into one another. The Hollywood dream factory is part of the truth, but it is an invented one. President Trump is the product of an enormous realm of possibility.•

There are also political lies in Germany, but not such an intense interdependence between fictional narratives and reality. Here, realism is a long-scorned and underdeveloped art form. Politics is considered too boring to produce grand narratives, a fact that keeps Germany’s realm of possibility relatively small. Someone like Trump isn’t imaginable because we haven’t seen anything like him in a movie or on a TV screen. And then there’s the fact that grand narratives, whether real or not, arise out of megalomania — something that has been viewed with intense skepticism in Germany since 1945, with good reason.

Germany has a different concept of reality than the U.S., a clear separation between the spheres of dreams and politics, a high wall that makes political reality a bit more reliable and more serious.•

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Yesterday’s insane, impromptu press conference by Donald Trump in the lobby of a gold, gaudy building he named for himself, was in TV trope terms “the reveal,” that moment when the Ku Klux Kardashian openly admitted his allegiance to hate groups. He’s never been shy about his bigotry, but this time he fully pulled the death from inside his belly and laid it in an open casket for the whole world to view. That is was all done within earshot of a crumpling John Kelly, a square-jawed man of Apollonian abilities who was somehow supposed to steady the chaos, makes clear that the new Chief of Staff is engaged in an unwinnable war, an Afghanistan of the mind. 

The bizarre scene reminded of the many failings of American society that brought us to this point, in which Trump is merely the ugliest imaginable result of our decay but not its cause. It also brings to mind a passage from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America:

Our age has produced a new kind of eminence. This is as characteristic of our culture and our century as was the divinity of Greek gods in the sixth century B.C. or the chivalry of knights and courtly lovers in the middle ages. It has not yet driven heroism, sainthood, or martyrdom completely out of our consciousness. But with every decade it overshadows them more. All older forms of greatness now survive only in the shadow of this new form. This new kind of eminence is “celebrity.”

The word “celebrity” (from the Latin cekbritas for “multitude” or “fame” and “celeber” meaning “frequented,” “populous,” or “famous”) originally meant not a person but a condition — as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the condition of being much talked about; famousness, notoriety.” In this sense its use dates from at least the early seventeenth century. Even then it had a weaker meaning than “fame” or “renown.” Matthew Arnold, for example, remarked in the nineteenth century that while the philosopher Spinoza’s followers had “celebrity,” Spinoza himself had “fame.” …

His qualities — or rather his lack of qualities — illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event.•

Trump certainly runs afoul of the “neither good or bad” rule, neutral he is not, but Boorstin wrote his book in 1961, long before the Murdoch family spent two decades screaming “fire!” in a crowded theater, not in any way representing a conservative political viewpoint but instead packaging and selling white resentment and fake news. James and Lachlan are supposedly different from their dad, but they’ve shown the willingness to peddle Seth Rich conspiracies and describe Joe Arpaio as “colorful” rather than criminal. There are many other causes of our cultural rot–ceaseless deification of celebrity, Reality TV, the decentralization of media–but without the Murdochs, there would be no Trumps–at least not in the White House.

· · ·

In the Financial Times, Edward Luce asserts that America isn’t likely done administering self-inflicted wounds. The columnist explains why he believes the GOP family has been slow to act on its Nazi-friendly father, and I will offer one more possibility: Trump’s inner circle may not be peculiar in the upper reaches of the party for being dirty with Kremlin money. His ouster may accelerate a broader fall.

From Luce:

With some honourable exceptions, such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, Republicans are not ready to stand up to the president. Even Mr Ryan, whose condemnation of white supremacism was unequivocal, refrained from criticising Mr Trump directly. Others rushed to his defence. “President Trump once again denounced hate today,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!” By even-handedly condemning the “alt-right” and the “alt-left”, Mr Trump was upholding American values, you see. In addition to bad apples, the far right included some “very fine people”, said the president.

Republicans are paralysed on two counts. First, the party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves. His victory was the logical outcome of the party’s “southern strategy”, which dates from the late 1960s. The goal has been to siphon off southern whites from the Democratic party. Most Republicans have preferred to keep their tactics genteel. The signal of choice has been the dog whistle rather than the megaphone. Thus, in one form or another, most Republican states are reforming their voter registration systems. The fact that such laws disproportionately shrink the non-white electorate is an accidental byproduct of a colour-blind crackdown. Even without proof of widespread fraud, voter suppression has plausible deniability. Over the years, the same has applied to various wars on crime, drugs and welfare fraud, which were never discriminatory by design. Mr Trump has simply taken that approach into the open. He is the Republican party’s Frankenstein. The age of plausible deniability is over.

The second Republican problem is fear. Because of gerrymandering, most Republicans — and Democrats — are more vulnerable to a challenge from within their ranks than to defeat by the other party. As the saying goes, American politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately that gives the swing vote to the most committed elements of each party’s base. Though Mr Trump’s approval ratings are lower than for any president in history, he still has the backing of most Republican voters. Any elected Republican who opposes Mr Trump can be sure of merciless reprisal. It is a rare politician who would invite vilification from their own side.

Where will this end? The realistic answer is that Republicans will hide under a rock until they suffer a stinging defeat in next year’s midterm elections. But a defeat in 2018 is far from assured. Even then, it would have to be on a grand scale to reverse America’s deep forces of polarisation. Mr Trump will probably serve out his term.

The more worrying answer is that US democracy is heading towards a form of civil breakdown.•

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Rupert Murdoch is receiving plaudits for reportedly urging Donald Trump to dismiss Steve Bannon from his Senior Adviser role. That speaks to how despised the depraved white nationalist is because the Fox News founder deserves no congratulations, not after he and his family have for more than two decades paved the way for Trump, Bannon, Miller and Gorka, continually stoking the fears and resentment of many Caucasians in the country, selling a race war with the same alacrity they use to hawk gold coins. Cliven Bundy and Birthers have been the heroes of this 24/7 cable drama and black Presidents and Santa Clauses the villains.

The Murdochs could successfully trade in hate for the same reason Trump was able to peddle his ugly Make America White Again campaign: Throughout our history, there have always been many receptive ears in the U.S. just waiting to be told that what ails them is a black or brown person. From George Washington to George Wallace to George Zimmerman, we’ve never had a single true system of justice in the nation because most haven’t wanted one.

While the worst among us have always existed and, to some extent, always will, it was Trump’s words that unloosed such demons. While institutional racism was clearly in effect, the militia-level hatemongers usually had to watch their step, cowed somewhat by social shaming that attended such crude and open bigotry. But While President Obama appealed to the best in Americans (even on those occasions when it didn’t seem to be present), Trump encouraged the worst impulses, not only for his own political gain, as is often pointed out, but because he truly shares the views of white nationalists. 

As Edward Luce of the Financial Times began warning in the summer of 2015, even if Trump should fall — and he will, if far too late — the hatred he’s rallied will not so easily recede. Saturday’s violence in Virginia by a rabid welter of hoods, swastikas and torches received a response from the highest office in the land with dog whistles, not a commanding rebuke, which will only further abet their mindset. Charlottesville, I’m afraid, is likely prelude.

Two excerpts follow.

· · ·

From Audie Cornish’s NPR interview with New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb:

Question:

You’ve said that what happened in Virginia was not the culminating battle of this conflict between racial supremacists and civic society, but you call it a tragic preface to more of the same. What do you mean by that?

Jelani Cobb:

I think that these forces feel victorious. When we saw them marching in large numbers, and then the following day, in a kind of regimented form, in the city of Charlottesville. What comes out of that is a feeling of invulnerability, and having come out of the woodwork and having seen others of like minds, would they then be content to going back to making racial humor on the Internet? I don’t think that will happen. We are likely to see them want to do bigger things, more spectacular things, things to inject themselves even further into American consciousness, and they now likely feel like they’re in a position to do that.•

· · ·

From Brennan Gilmore’s essay at Politico:

What we witnessed Saturday was the terrifying but logical outcome of our escalating, toxic politics of hate. I’ve seen it happen before. Serving in the Central African Republic in 2012, I saw political leaders use hatred and “othering” as instruments to gain political power. As a result, within months, Christians and Muslims, peaceful neighbors for decades, turned against each other. I saw the same thing happen when I served in Burundi, where Hutus and Tutsis made giant strides toward reconciliation after a horrifying history of mass atrocities, only to be manipulated, divided and turned against one another yet again.

America is not Africa. But watching this past election cycle in the U.S., my stomach churned as I saw some of these themes repeating themselves. Looking back now, I can see it was leading toward a cycle of conflict that, once started, is hard to break.

Many Americans like to think that this kind of thing can’t happen here—that American exceptionalism immunizes us from the virulent racism and tribalism that tear apart other countries far, far away. But we’re more susceptible than we’d like to think. …

Some may say that what happened in Charlottesville was not a big deal because it was a relatively small-scale event. And that’s true: Of all the race-based terrorist attacks in recent history, it was neither the largest nor did it produce the highest casualty count. After witnessing Nazis, self-declared militias and “private security forces” carrying assault rifles alongside state and local police (thanks to Virginia’s permissive gun laws), I can honestly say it could have been tragically worse.

But just because the white supremacists numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands, doesn’t mean the movement can’t quickly spiral out of control.•

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Harry S. Conman spent part of his day dangerously baiting Kim Jong-un, a guy who murdered his own half-brother with a nerve agent, saying of his North Korean counterpart that “if he utters one threat, in the form of an overt threat…he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.” Either Trump’s bluffing and will be in a weakened position when his bluff is called, or he means it and lots of people will die horrible deaths and not just in North Korea.

Three notes of hope that we may avoid Armageddon: 1) Trump is a cowardly bullshit artist, 2) The coterie of generals in his midst may overrule him even if that’s not Constitutional, and 3) Kim Jong-un, despite the fratricide, may not be nearly as crazy as he’s made out to be. Evil beyond belief, for sure, but perhaps very calculated and focused on his personal survival. Let’s hope.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything now underway, Washington Post North Korea reporter Anna Fifield is answering questions about the fraught situation. A few early exchanges follow.

________________________________

Question:

How much NK talk is normal saber-rattling? 

Anna Fifield:

A lot of this is normal April/August saber-rattling.

The wild card this time is not North Korea, but Donald Trump. Trump is acting in ways that are different from his predecessors — look at the repeated threats on twitter in the last few days — and the North Koreans are not quite sure what to make of it.

The chances of misinterpretation/accidental conflict are significant — and much more likely than a deliberate start to a war from either side.

One important thing to note: North Korea has said it will retaliate IF the United States strikes it. It’s not threatening to go first. And the U.S. would probably only strike (a pre-emptive strike) if it saw an imminent threat to the nation or its allies.

So deterrence remains the best option for everyone.

________________________________

Question:

If North Korea collapses what would happen to there current nuclear arsenal?

Anna Fifield:

That’s a great question and we simply do not know the answer. A lot would depend on how it collapsed. An outside invasion would be very different from, say, a military coup. If there was a coup from within, we could expect the generals to retain control of the nuclear weapons. But imagine if there was a sudden collapse and we saw nuclear scientists taking off over the Chinese border with suitcases full of fissile material. Scary stuff.

________________________________

Question:

How likely is Kim Jong Un to accept a deal where he hands over power in North Korea in exchange for exile, a guarantee of no harm or prosecution, and a life of luxury for himself and his generals in China?

Anna Fifield:

Well, no one is offering him that kind of deal — that we know of. I think Kim knows that his life would be much worse if he were not the leader of his own totalitarian state, regardless of whether he’s living in a gated compound in Beijing or if he’s in a worse situation.

Kim’s number one priority — the whole reason for the nuclear weapons, the personality cult, the brutal system — is staying in power. And he’ll do anything to hold onto it, as we saw with the way he got rid of his uncle and half brother.

________________________________

Question:

If KJU goes what will replace the regime?

Anna Fifield:

We have no idea. A military junta like in Myanmar? Gradual economic reform without political change like in China? An American administrator like in Iraq? Re-unification with South Korea? We have no idea how this regime would come to and end and what would come next.

What I would note though is that we are in a historically abnormal situation. Korea was one for thousands of years, so the division of the last seven decades is a blip in history and almost all Koreans, North or South, pine for the day when they’re one again. It constantly amazes me how similar North Koreans and South Koreans remain today, despite more than 70 years of enforced separation.

This is a tragedy. One people divided by an arbitrary line.

________________________________

Question:

Why hasn’t North Korea suffered from the same internal strife that usually plagues regimes like this? Coups, ambitious generals — the Kim dynasty seems to be effectively immune to it. Is the dynasty’s hold over its population so absolute that even during times of mass starvation the military or other political factions will be unable to even attempt to seize power from Kim?

Anna Fifield:

The North Korean regime keeps such a tight grip on the population that people are afraid to question or criticize the regime to anyone except their closest family members — and sometimes not even to them.

If you criticize Kim Jong Un or suggest that he’s unfit for the job in any way, you could be banished to the countryside if you’re an elite in Pyongyang; you could be executed by anti-aircraft gunfire, as Kim had done to several top officials, including his own uncle; or you could be sent to a re-education or labor camp, forced to dig holes or break rocks for hours and hours a day, with nothing more than a bowl of thin soup made from salt and corn for your meals. Sometimes whole families are punished for one person’s actions.

All this has served as a good incentive for people to keep their mouths shut and their heads down. Plus, outside Pyongyang, most people are too busy trying to feed their families to think about political activity.

People who become disillusioned enough with the regime to act usually defect rather than rebel.•

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According to a new BuzzFeed News article by Ryan Mac, Peter Thiel is now privately concerned that the Trump Administration is inept and may end in disaster. What was your first hint, Dr. IQ?

What’s most worrisome about the Silicon Valley “genius” who staunchly supported both Iraq invasion and the Trump campaign, isn’t that he didn’t notice how incompetent his candidate was, but that he truly believed this President and Bannon and Miller would successfully carry out a deeply bigoted, sociopathic agenda. That says as much about Thiel as it does about Trump.

When, oh when, will Americans stop equating those with wealth with those with wisdom?

Mac’s opening:

Donald Trump’s most prominent Silicon Valley supporter has distanced himself from the president in multiple private conversations, describing at different points this year an “incompetent” administration, and one that may well end in “disaster.”

Peter Thiel’s unguarded remarks have surprised associates, some of whom are still reeling from his full-throated endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention. And while the investor stands by the president in public — “I support President Trump in his ongoing fight,” he said in a statement to BuzzFeed News — his private doubts underscore the fragility of the president’s backing from even his most public allies. Thiel’s comments may sting in particular in the White House as they come amid a series of hasty and embarrassed departures from the Trump train, as conservative voices from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to the floor of the US Senate have begun to distance themselves from the administration.

Thiel’s views remain private — but various disparaging comments were recounted to BuzzFeed News by three separate sources, and others who subsequently confirmed those accounts. These people requested anonymity for fear of damaging personal relationships and possible retribution.

While Thiel told Trump that he is off to a “terrific start” at a White House event in June, his previous statements to friends and associates did not reflect that sentiment. In half a dozen private conversations with friends that were described to BuzzFeed News dating from spring 2016 to as recently as May, Thiel, who served on the Presidential Transition Team Executive Committee, has criticized Trump and his administration and developed increasingly pessimistic feelings about the president.

The sources who talked with BuzzFeed News spent time with Thiel in private group settings before and after the election at his homes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii, engaging in candid discussions on the PayPal cofounder’s politics and his backing of Trump. At one event with friends in January 2017, Thiel said of Trump’s presidency that “there is a 50% chance this whole thing ends in disaster,” according to two people who were in attendance. In other conversations, he questioned the president’s ability to be reelected.

Thiel, through a spokesperson, did not deny any of the quotes attributed to him by his friends and associates when approached by BuzzFeed News.

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Trump should fear cases being built against him by Robert Mueller and state Attorney Generals, but perhaps what should horrify him most is a case of buyer’s remorse on the part of the Kremlin.

The Putin-Trump bromance was never about any personal respect–at least not on the part of the Russian dictator. Sanctions by America and European nations stemming from the aggression against Ukraine have done serious damage to the country’s banking sector. Strong, often-illicit support for Trump by the Kremlin was supposed to harm the U.S. at the minimum and potentially elect a friendly and compromised figure–which, amazingly, is what happened. The more successful outcome was supposed to result in the removal of all sanctions.

As has happened so often with Trump in his business career, his payments have thus far not yet materialized. Even worse for his budding relationship with the murderous dictator, the President was cowed into signing a fresh sanctions bill that had overwhelming bilateral support. In addition to Dmitry Medvedev lashing out at the Trump’s “total impotence,” Putin’s propaganda outlet RT also struck back.

Here’s RT strongly supporting Trump’s Youngstown yuckfest on July 26, prior to his reluctantly signing a bill enacting new sanctions against Russia.

Today, just after the bill signing, RT published a strikingly critical opinion piece by John Lee that would have been right at home in Mother Jones. 

Whether this essay is a stern warning to Trump or a “Dear John” letter, time will tell, but any revenge on Trump by the Kremlin will be executed in such a way as to most injure America, not just its President.

Two excerpts from Lee’s op-ed:

When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States we clung to fragile hope. We hoped he could morph from the wild, aggressive and boorish candidate into a moderately good president.

After he vanquished Hillary Clinton, I was one of those who hoped that he might bring a fresh approach to politics in a stagnant, divided and risk-averse Washington. He couldn’t really be that bad, could he?

Millions of American voters and I were wrong. He really is that bad.

It seems an eon ago if we cast our thoughts back to the turn of the year, but there was actually some optimism about the Trump presidency.

When Bill Clinton’s Democratic presidency was engulfed in controversy almost 20 years ago, the Republicans unsuccessfully tried to have him impeached. The savage battles that raged over Clinton – a president who embarrassed the nation – poisoned Washington. DC became rabidly bipartisan and never recovered its moderation. Democrats opposed Republicans and vice versa for the sake of it. And nothing could be done, business ground to a halt. President Barack Obama, though in comparison to Trump a credit to his country, never fulfilled his promise. The Republicans blocked his projects. He failed in his promise to fix broken politics.

Trump capitalized on this paralysis. In the post-crash recovery, the forgotten white working man turned to Trump and voted for him, to expel the establishment candidate Hillary Clinton and her like from Washington. Many minority groups backed Trump too.

Last year Republicans secured majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Trump had everything going for him.

Perhaps he could drain the Washington swamp.

Perhaps he could bring a businessman’s efficiency to getting Washington working again. Most of all he promised to drain the swamp. Perhaps Trump, outsider with no political experience, could finally fix American politics in a way that Obama couldn’t.

This week, barely eight months after Trump’s inauguration, the poll ratings of the reality TV star turned president hit rock bottom. Trump isn’t great on detail, but the former TV personality will understand ratings.

Now 61 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing. The national poll was conducted by the highly regarded Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and is fascinating when you drill down into the numbers. It is an appalling indictment of the US Commander in Chief that 62 percent believe Trump is not honest.

And, most damagingly, 50 percent of white voters with no college degree disapprove of the president. Since seven percent didn’t express an opinion in this section just 43 percent approve of him.

Not only is America as a whole resoundingly turning on Trump, his key support base the blue collar worker of the Rust Belt is turning on him too.

America, that brash nation, is embarrassed. A majority of respondents said they were embarrassed by their president.

Now in the latest round of leaks, it appears he can’t even observe decorum in what are supposed to be routine phone calls with world leaders.

The broken politics of Washington’s near past is now being shattered under Trump.

· · ·

One is tempted to call Sean Spicer Trump’s “long serving” Communications Director such is the impact he has made. Spicer only lasted 183 days. I met him at the White House during the St Patrick’s Day Irish American event, and even then he looked haunted. He got off to a rocky start when he tried to defend Trump’s strange claims about the crowd at his inauguration and didn’t recover. He had become a feature of the Saturday Night Live comedy TV program in that short time. Quite something for a press officer.

Spicer opposed the appointment of Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramucci as another Communications Director.

Scaracmucci, a New York financier who is friends with Trump, opposed Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Priebus was fired. Former Homeland Security chief John Kelly was brought in to replace Preibus. He demanded Scaramucci be got rid of so the Mooch was fired after ten days.

In those ten days, Scaramucci had brought further shame and dishonor to the White House with an expletive filled interview with a journalist.

As I watch this ludicrous, juvenile farce play out it occurred to me that all these people have become household names.

I asked myself a question. Had any of Barack Obama’s communications directors made any impact on US national consciousness or the global media landscape? Do you recall Obama’s communications directors Ellen Moran, Anita Dunn, Dan Pfeiffer, Jennifer Palmieri or Jen Psaki with any great alacrity? But the world knows Spicer and the Mooch.

Similarly Preibus and John Kelly are now well known. Obama’s three chiefs of staff – Bill Daley, Jack Lew and Denis McDonough were, well, hardly known outside political circles.

It is because the White House has become a grotesque, excruciating freak show that these people and their infighting and tit for tat leaking are receiving any notice. The circus and its clowns are important for two reasons. Firstly, because they represent the president, leak on his behalf and defend his behavior and twitter rants. And secondly, they represent the type of management style he favors.•

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You could ask why the Murdoch family would doing something as crazy as allowing Fox News to become the de facto state-sponsored propaganda outlet for Trump, akin to what RT is for Putin, but this is the same clan that kept Roger Ailes in control of the cable channel as he continually attempted to use its green rooms as his own personal Plato’s Retreat. Much like the President himself, the Murdochs have been operating so dishonestly for so long, the pointer on their moral compass may be permanently broken.

In a legal sense, however, these recent machinations are a step beyond other predations they’ve enabled and lies they’ve aired in the past. If Robert Mueller’s investigation proves that not only did Sean Hannity and others at Fox collaborate with the White House on the ugly Seth Rich fan fiction but the company also coordinated stories with Russian agents to benefit Trump and the Kremlin, there will be hell to pay and no out-of-court settlements will do.

One way or another, the Trump gambit will end ruinously for Robert, James and Lachlan, unless the orange supremacist manages to end U.S. democracy and become the nation’s first authoritarian ruler. Seriously, that’s the best-case scenario for them! 

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From a John R. Schindler Observer column:

The Trump administration has started employing Chekist-style disinformation to protect itself from the increasingly serious KremlinGate investigation. An unpleasantly illustrative case that has just come to light is that of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in Washington, D.C. in July 2016. His killing remains unsolved; there has never been any reason to think it was anything more than a tragic, random late-night shooting of the kind that happens in our nation’s capital more often than it should.

Nevertheless, for nearly a year, pro-Trump mouthpieces have parroted a fact-free conspiracy theory that Rich—not Russia’s intelligence services—was the “real” source of the purloined DNC emails that were disseminated in the summer of 2016 by Wikileaks, to Hillary Clinton’s detriment. Julian Assange has repeatedly hinted that Rich was his source and that the young man was assassinated by a vengeful Clintonian hit-team, without offering any evidence.

Which he can’t, because there isn’t any. This is just another absurd lie broadcast by a well-known Kremlin front, albeit a particularly nasty one that has tortured the grieving young man’s family. The story doesn’t end there, however. Fox News, too, gleefully parroted Assange’s lie. Here a preeminent role was played by Sean Hannity, a Fox News star plus a friend of Assange’s, who in mid-May broadcast fact-free assertions about Seth Rich and his alleged role in leaking DNC emails.

Rich’s enraged family denounced Hannity and threatened legal action, leading Fox News to take the rare step of retracting Hannity’s fabricated “bombshell” story. Yet the damage was done, and this became yet another case of Kremlin-backed disinformation transforming into a pro-Trump trope on the right-wing, despite there being zero evidence for its veracity. It should be noted that Moscow played a direct role in creating and spreading this noxious Rich mythology. Sputnik, the Kremlin propaganda website, actually cashiered one of its American reporters when he refused to go along with an obvious lie about the murdered young man.

It now turns out that Fox News, too, was complicit in spreading lies about Seth Rich to aid the White House. As reported by NPR, a lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, a former cop and sometime Fox News contributor, against the right-wing media giant, alleges that the network consciously spread lies about Seth Rich to help the president deflect attention from the Russia scandal—and that the White House was directly involved in this conspiracy to deceive the public.•

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Pretty much all credible studies show the crime rate among illegal immigrants in the United States to be lower than that of natural-born citizens, but people tend to fear what they don’t know most, so a QVC quisling like Donald Trump was able to successfully peddle his gutter-level demagoguery as if it were just another crate of mediocre steaks.

The leader of our country threw this same red meat to his base once again in a Youngstown rally a few hours ago, just a day after he managed to turn the Boy Scout Jamboree into something akin to an auto-da-fé. But if you’re a guy who spent the last two years projecting every last creepy desire of your own onto others, from accusing your opponent of rigging the election to calling undocumented immigrants sexual predators to decrying the “swamp” before causing it to overflow, the most unsettling thing you could possibly do would be to specifically detail bizarre child torture and murder scenarios that you believe are overrunning the country. An excerpt:

Donald Trump:

One by one, we are finding the illegal gang members, drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals, and killers. And we are sending them the hell back home where they came from. And once they are gone, we will never let them back in, believe me. 

The predators and criminal aliens who poison our communities with drugs and prey on innocent young people — these beautiful, beautiful, innocent young people — will find no safe haven anywhere in our country. And you’ve seen the stories about some of these animals. They don’t want to use guns, because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife, because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long. Well, they’re not being protected any longer, folks.•

I will never sleep again. 

Any working-class Republican hoping for more from Trump than talk of torches and pitchforks should be prepared to be disappointed. That’s all he has. Should he actually impact healthcare or tax reform in a meaningful way, it will be in a manner devastating to his most devout supporters–those who can least afford it. I’ve joked that I would play the world’s smallest violin for these folks if the GOP hadn’t just slashed the school music program, but this may be the first time in the history of American politics that a major political party has actively tried to kill off its base.

From Dake Kang’s Associated Press piece about struggling Youngstowners:

Judy Martin, 72, of McDonald, Ohio, “tosses and turns” in bed at night, wracked with leg pain and worried about her medical bills. 

Martin, a factory worker for 51 years, said she burned through her $20,000 in life savings on medical expenses a year after her retirement. She now relies on a monthly $1,500 social security check and Medicare subsidies, but still has to pay roughly $400 a month for medication and supplemental insurance.

“It feels like we’re getting punished as we’re getting older,” Martin said. “I earned my time out there. Here we are, stuck.”

Martin, who voted for Trump, “has faith” that Trump will make things more affordable for her, and is excited to hear what Trump has to say about health care when he comes to Youngstown, a 15 minute drive from her home. Though she won’t be there in person, she plans to watch his speech online and hear about it from her son who plans to attend.

“I believe that Trump can do it, and that he will take care of the little people,” Martin said.•

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Trump will eventually be flushed down the vortex along with other waste products swirling around him, I’m fairly certain at this point, but as an amateur student of human psychology I’d be fascinated to know if he’s fully wrapped his declining brain around this scenario. Is it within his mental powers to grasp that some combination of potential financial crimes, traitorous activity and obstruction of justice could end up with him laundering prison clothes rather than moneyAs I’ve mentioned, I don’t think America is saved when Trump is toppled, but his ouster is necessary if we’re to have a chance to rescue our Republic and reform our government. Or maybe we’ll end up in another Civil War. Either or.

Elizabeth Drew, the great correspondent of the Watergate Era, cautions that any Trump impeachment process must be a gradual and bilateral one. Of course, we live in a faster age and a far more divided one, so I don’t know if that’s possible. It’s not that I don’t think McConnell and Ryan and the rest wouldn’t kick a sad old goat from a cliff to save their own hides, but I’m not sure that if Russian collusion is proved that it doesn’t pull way more Republicans over the precipice than we can currently guess. The GOP will fight such an outcome with all it has.

In a New York column about Trump’s possible ouster, Frank Rich cites Drew’s work and compares the slow-forming Watergate inferno to the fire next time. An excerpt:

Here’s Drew describing a typical Watergate day: “The news is coming too fast. Faster and harder than anyone expected. It is almost impossible to absorb.” And here she is a week after Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned upon pleading no contest to charges of bribery and tax fraud: “The city seems to be reeling around amidst the events and the breaking stories. In the restaurants, the noise level is higher. At the end of the day, someone says, ‘It’s like being drunk.’ ” It already feels like that right now.

One could argue that the context is different today — that the America of 2017 is not the America of the early 1970s. We think of our current culture as being harder to shock, easier to distract, and more inured to crude public figures who violate traditional societal norms as unabashedly as Trump. This, in theory, would make him harder to dislodge than Nixon, whose sins would more easily scandalize a relatively innocent 20th-century citizenry. But even without the internet’s cacophony, Nixon faced a post-1960s America as factionalized, jaded, and accustomed to shock as our own: It had witnessed the assassination of two Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a complete overhaul of its mores as a consequence of a rising counterculture and women’s movement, and a domestic civil war precipitated by the catastrophe of Vietnam. The alarming toxicity of Trump has burst through the noise of our America much as Nixon’s did through his. And while the technology for delivering news makes it come faster and harder in 2017 than Drew or any of us could have anticipated in that day of daily newspapers and nightly news broadcasts, the onslaught of shocking developments felt no less overwhelming then than now.

Human nature hasn’t changed — not for those of us standing outside a teetering White House or for the cast of characters within. Much as Trump risked his presidency by empowering hotheaded ideologues like Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon, so Nixon’s White House had recruited the similarly reckless G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt to wage war on the president’s perceived enemies. As John A. Farrell writes in his new, state-of-the-art Richard Nixon: The Lifeboth of them were “wannabe James Bonds.” Hunt, an alumnus of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, was the prolific author of often pseudonymous spy novels, while Liddy was alt-right before it was cool: “a right-wing zealot, with a fixation for Nazi regalia and a kinky kind of Nietzschean philosophy,” who “organized a White House screening of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.”

Though there are a number of areas where the Nixon and Trump narratives diverge, in nearly every case Trump’s deviations from the Watergate model make it even less likely that he will survive his presidency.•

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While Trump’s Presidential victory was the result of accidents, miscalculations and, perhaps, treason, he wasn’t nearly as much an outlier GOP candidate as he was portrayed at the time. In fact, he was the logical culmination of a decades-long race to the bottom.

As Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich had spent a couple of decades selling “Family Values” hogwash they never cared about to Republicans in order to get tax breaks for wealthy donors, Trump peddled himself as an avenging patriot for struggling Caucasians in order to enact the same. It was merely a franker, more vulgar version of the same bullshit. A message for the White Working Class (which is where I’m from): Whenever a politician urges you to blame black or brown people for your problems, rest assured a white person will soon have his or her hand in your wallet.

Trump, I’m certain, ends in utter disgrace, but all of America may be headed for the same. That’s because treachery is widespread. Mitch McConnell ran interference on the investigation of Kremlin tampering during the election and the Ryan Congress has done its best to scuttle a real probe of collusion between Trump and Putin. Perhaps the traitors and their abettors are routed or maybe we lose democracy or end up in Civil War 2.0. Everything is now on the table.

Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan Administration domestic policy adviser, welcomed Trump’s odious campaign, believing it would end in crushing defeat, forcing the GOP to move back to the center. Instead of the tonic he hoped for, however, he and all of us were served another drink of poison. In a smart, searing Politico Magazine essay about the fall of his party (morally and intellectually, if not yet practically) Bartlett calls the rise of Trump a “natural outgrowth of 30 years of Republican pandering to the lowest common denominator.”

The opening:

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article for Politico endorsing Donald Trump for president. It was a tongue-in-cheek effort—I “supported” Trump only because I thought he would lose to Hillary Clinton, disastrously, and that his defeat would cleanse the Republican Party of the extremism and nuttiness that drove me out of it. I had hoped that post-2016, what remained of the moderate wing of the GOP would reassert itself as it did after the Goldwater debacle in 1964, and exorcise the crazies.

Trump was a guaranteed loser, I thought. In the Virginia presidential primary, I even voted for him, hoping to hasten the party’s demise. In the weeks before the November election, I predicted a Clinton presidency would fix much of what ails our country. On November 8, I voted for Clinton and left the ballot booth reasonably sure she would win.

Needless to say, I was as dumbfounded by the election results as Max Bialystock was by the success of “Springtime for Hitler.” For two months after Trump won, I couldn’t read any news about the election, and considered abandoning political commentary permanently. It wasn’t just that Trump disgusted me; I was disgusted with myself for being so stupid. I no longer trusted my own powers of observation and analysis.

Almost everything that has happened since November 8 has been the inverse of what I’d imagined. Trump didn’t lose; he won. The Republican Party isn’t undergoing some sort of reckoning over what it believes; his branch of the Republican Party has taken control. Most troubling, perhaps, is that rather than reassert themselves, the moderate Republicans have almost all rolled over entirely.

Trump has turned out to be far, far worse than I imagined.•

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In the immediate aftermath of the GA-06 defeat of Jon Osoff, who has charisma on loan from Martin O’Malley, Liberal Twitter exhorted Democrats to develop a clearer policy message. When trying to win votes, it’s better to be lucid (except when it’s not), but policy isn’t what elevated Trump to the Oval Office–he had none–or Karen Handel to Congress. In addition to Kremlin machinations and FBI blunders, what enabled the Klu Klux Kardashian to be elected was his peddling of a deeply racist, xenophobic message that found the ready ears of nearly 63 million citizens. If lots of people are voting to Make America White Again, sound fiscal policy won’t make a dent.

It’s not that Dems can’t defeat such ugliness at the voting both–they’ve done it before and even won the popular tally in 2016–but they need the right candidate more than anything else. Someone bold and broadly appealing whose authenticity is unquestioned. Easier said than done, I suppose. 

In the Slate piece “A GOP Without Fear,” Jamelle Bouie, who consistently rises above the clatter, argues that Republicans don’t fear the horrendous effects of a draconian reimagining of health care, the first attempt by either party to literally murder its base, since identity politics rule the day. In other words, you can’t fall from grace when grace itself isn’t valued.

An excerpt:

It’s likely that Republicans know the bill is unpopular and are doing everything they can to keep the public from seeing its contents before passing it. As we saw with the Affordable Care Act, the longer the process, the greater the odds for a major backlash. But this presupposes a pressing need to pass the American Health Care Act, which isn’t the case, outside of a “need” to slash Medicaid, thus paving the way for large-scale, permanent tax cuts. The Republican health care bill doesn’t solve any urgent problem in the health care market, nor does it represent any coherent vision for the health care system; it is a hodgepodge of cuts and compromises, designed to pass a GOP Congress more than anything. It is policy without any actual policy. At most, it exists to fulfill a promise to “repeal Obamacare” and cut taxes.

Perhaps that’s enough to explain the zeal to pass the bill. Republicans made a promise, and there are forces within the party—from hyperideological lawmakers and conservative activists to right-wing media and Republican base voters—pushing them toward this conclusion. When coupled with the broad Republican hostility to downward redistribution and the similarly broad commitment to tax cuts, it makes sense that the GOP would continue to pursue this bill despite the likely consequences.

But ultimately it’s not clear the party believes it would face those consequences. The 2018 House map still favors Republicans, and the party is defending far fewer Senate seats than Democrats. Aggressively gerrymandered districts provide another layer of defense, as does voter suppression, and the avalanche of spending from outside groups. Americans might be hurt and outraged by the effects of the AHCA, but those barriers blunt the electoral impact.

The grounds for political combat seem to have changed as well. If recent special elections are any indication—where GOP candidates refused to comment on signature GOP policies—extreme polarization means Republicans can mobilize supporters without being forced to talk about or account for their actual actions. Identity, for many voters, matters more than their pocketbooks. Republicans simply need to signal their disdain—even hatred—for their opponents, political or otherwise. Why worry about the consequences of your policies when you can preclude defeat by changing the ground rules of elections, spending vast sums, and stoking cultural resentment?•

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I know, roughly, how it ends for Trump, but how does it turn out for America and the world? I often feel about humanity the way Lee Child does in a New Statesman interview:

Question:

Are we all doomed?

Lee Child:

Of course we are. Evolutionary history shows we’re a vicious bunch, clever but not clever enough. We’ll be done soon, and the planet will recover. Call it fifty thousand years, from the invention of language to extinction. A tiny blip.•

I’ll confine myself for now to the immediate disaster, even if it’s connected to the longer-term, climate-related one. We know five things:

  1. Russia aggressively hacked our election.
  2. The Kremlin wanted Trump to win.
  3. Team Trump had an extraordinary number of meetings during the campaign with dicey Russian figures and have repeatedly lied about the contact.
  4. Trump was eager to remove Russian sanctions.
  5. Trump desperately wants to preempt any investigation into the preceding factors.

If these were merely unusually suspicious but unrelated occurrences, Robert Mueller would be the person I’d want investigating me. He’ll get to the bottom of it and has the credibility to be believed despite the awful appearance if all involved are innocent. If I were guilty, wow, he’s the last person I’d want un-digging the grave.

No matter how things develop, the one thing we can be certain of is that Trump, a human being devoid of shame or decency, will make everything far worse than it need be. He’ll make sure that there’s copious collateral damage and it will be you and me.

Two excerpts follow.


The opening of Richard Evans’ first Foreign Policy piece, “The Madness of King Donald,” which provides historical context for moments when a leader has lost it:

Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has not been in office for very long, but already the contours and characteristics of his rule have become clear. Rather than govern conventionally, through officers of state appointed for their competence and experience and with the agreement, however reluctant, of Congress, he has chosen to gather round him an informal coterie of friends, advisors, and relatives — many of them, like himself, without any experience of government at all — while railing against the restrictions imposed on him by constitutional arrangements such as the independence of the press and the judiciary.

Trump’s entourage resembles nothing more closely than the court of a hereditary monarch, with informal structures of rule elbowing aside more formal ones. Trump did, after all, win widespread support in the electorate by promising precisely this: shaking up, bypassing or overthrowing the Washington establishment and trying something new.

The result, however, has been chaos and confusion, contradiction and paralysis. It has become clear that the president of the United States is someone who does not read his briefs; who does not take the advice of experts in the intelligence field or indeed in any other; who fires off brief statements without thinking whether they are consistent with his administration’s declared policies; who is seemingly incapable of putting together a coherent sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object; who is apt to give away state secrets to a foreign power; and who seems to have no respect either for the truth or for the Constitution (not least in respect of freedom of religion and freedom of speech). He may not be mad, but a growing number of commentators allege that Trump is suffering from dementia, or is mentally subnormal, or is suffering from a personality disorder of some kind.

In a situation where a head of state is incapable of carrying out his duties properly, what guidance can history offer us?•


In a smart blog post, Michael Dorf riffs on Thomas Nagel’s essay about consciousness “What Is It Like To Be a Bat?” in arguing that normal people lack the tool set to comprehend Trump. An excerpt:

Here’s my hypothesis: Normal humans are similarly unable to understand or explain what it feels like to be Donald Trump, because in some respects Donald Trump is different from normal humans, just as bats–in virtue of their ability to echolocate–are also different from normal humans.

I can illustrate the hypothesis with a recent example of Trump’s behavior. In the aftermath of the London Bridge and Borough Market attack, Trump tweeted “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!'” The tweet was indecent for two reasons: First, any reasonable human being would have expressed solidarity and sympathy; and second, the premise of the tweet–that Mayor Sadiq Khan said that Londoners need not be alarmed about terrorism–was false.

Khan had said that Londoners ought not be alarmed by the increased police presence they would see in the wake of the attack. When this was patiently explained, Trump did not apologize. Instead, he vented again, calling the clearly correct response a “pathetic excuse.”

If we were dealing with a normal human being–even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being–we might ask whether Trump deliberately misconstrued the original statement by Khan for some nefarious purpose, whether he somehow misunderstood the original statement by accident, or whether there is some other explanation for this bizarre and despicable behavior. But Trump is not a normal human being. He is not even a normal but evil, stupid, or ignorant human being. Trump is Trump. Asking what Trump was thinking or feeling when he decided to launch a patently unfair and grotesque attack on the Mayor of London while the latter was working to soothe and protect the people of London is like asking what echolocation feels like to a bat. The same appears to be true of much of Trump’s inexplicable behavior.•

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We’re doomed, Bill Kristol writes on Twitter, if Trump and Pence are all we have to offer. He was talking about the GOP, but the same might be said of the whole of America. This Administration has done permanent damage to the office of the Presidency, moving it into aberrant territory no matter how much we try to not allow its kleptocratic, sociopathic and autocratic nature be normalized. The power of the position allows it to define an awful lot. 

It has taken the Republican’s Constitution-defying rejection of Merrick Garland (orchestrated by McConnell but also supported by that great patriot McCain) to the nth degree. And it may only get worse. Newt Gingrich is now questioning whether Robert Mueller can really be true and impartial, a hilarious statement from that famously immoral, profiteering gasbag. It seems a trial balloon aimed at the eventual firing of the Special Prosecutor (and one that was echoed by Trump’s spelling-challenged lawyer). If that occurs, there should be no faith that Congress will act to protect us. The party is a now a safe distance beyond complicit.

Taking things a few paces deeper into Twilight Zone territory was today’s bizarre meeting in which Trump assembled cabinet members to rain down praise upon him, like Billy Mumy’s evil child demanding people think only “good thoughts” or they’ll wind up jack-in-the-boxes in the cornfield. Reince Priebus, an ambitious man with no shame, said “we thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda.” Somebody better get a saddle ready because a horse may soon be joining the Senate.

It wasn’t too long ago–four years to be precise–when perfectly bright and well–intentioned person like Bill Gates was decrying that the American President didn’t have more sway over the country. “Some days I wish we had a system like the U.K.,” he said, “where the party in power could do a lot and you know, you’d see how it went and then fine you could un-elect them.” He was speaking of President Obama, of course, and the problem with having such a deeply decent person like 44 in the Oval Office is it can make it difficult to envision about worst-case scenarios.

Two excerpts follow: One from Kristol in the Weekly Standard about the tidal wave of youth that may wipe out the GOP in coming elections, which is hopeful in believing we’ll continue to be free and democratic and not a dictatorship or interrupted by Civil War 2.0. The other by Jeet Heer of the New Republic looks at Trump as a capo with nuclear capabilities trying to run Washington the way Gotti ran Queens.


From Kristol:

Lost in the back and forth—and especially in the efforts to be somewhat reassuring—was the most notable finding in the poll. It had to do with age. Donald Trump’s job approval/disapproval was 40 percent, 54 percent among Americans 65 and over; it was an almost identical 39 percent, 55 percent among 50-64 year olds; it was slightly worse at 35 percent, 55 percent among those 35 to 49 years old; and among Americans 18 to 34, Donald Trump’s job approval was 19 percent approve, 67 percent disapprove, an amazing -48 percent.

Now we are not knee-jerk respecters of youth. We give no greater weight to the opinions of the young than to those of the old. In fact, we’re inclined to give them less, as the young lack experience, and experience is a great teacher. We would even go so far as to say that the overvaluation of the sentiments of the young may be one of the curses of our age.

On the other hand, one would have to be blind not to see the political risk for Republicans and conservatives in these numbers. First impressions matter. Most people don’t change their political views radically from the ones they first hold. For young Americans today, Donald Trump is the face of Republicanism and conservatism.

They don’t like that face. And the danger, of course, is that they’ll decide their judgment of Trump should carry over to the Republican party that nominated him and the conservative movement that mostly supports him. If he is indeed permitted to embody the party and the movement without challenge, the fortunes of both will be at the mercy of President Trump’s own fortunes.•


From Heer:

The mafia analogies aren’t just casual gibes, but speak to something fundamental in Trump’s background and character. In his younger days, Trump was mentored by Roy Cohn, a mob lawyer, and he consorted with criminals, notably convicted felon Felix Sater. Trump’s record shows “repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks,” David Cay Johnston, who has extensively investigated Trump’s mafia tieswrote in Politico last year, and “Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.”

It was perhaps inevitable that Trump would run into conflict with the likes of Comey, Bharara, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (whom Trump also fired, after she refused to defend his executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries). Trump supporters might dismiss these figures as Washington insiders—inhabitants of “the swamp”—but they are more accurately seen as representatives of the legal and administrative state. They are all experts in the law and bureaucracy; they know the rules, understand why the rules exist, and enforce them. In other words, they are the polar opposite of Trump, an anti-professional to whom laws were meant to be broken.

But the mafia shouldn’t be seen as the antithesis of government, and rather as an alternative apparatus. The mafia tends to thrive when the administrative state is weak or corrupt, and thus unable to protect and provide for its citizens. Trump’s message as an outsider candidate was that normal politicians were unable to protect ordinary Americans, in part because they were too hamstrung by laws and regulations. Like a mafia don, Trump promised he’d deliver for the people, even if it meant breaking the rules (as when he boasted he’d break the Geneva convention to fight terrorism).•

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As I stated earlier, the Comey testimony didn’t lead me to believe the GOP is serious about holding Donald Trump accountable for his actions–past, present or future ones. If anything, leading members of the GOP spoke publicly about the fired FBI director post-hearings like a spurned lover, bitter because he was dumped, not the target of obstruction of justice.

Lindsey Graham made him sound like Jean Harris: “Comey should be upset by the way he was fired. It was pretty tacky. Take this for what it’s all worth: A good man, Comey, who’s upset and in many ways, got a reason to be upset. But I don’t believe the president committed a crime.”

Maybe as Bill Kristol suggested in the top tweet, the hearings postmortem by Republicans was all a poker-faced show of solidarity performed on a stage that’s been set on fire, but Rick Wilson’s caustic take seems more likely.

Excerpts follow from two articles, one which believes impeachment became more likely today and the second which relates the GOP desire to turn the page on the whole sordid mess.


From Richard Wolffe’s reaction in the Guardian:

The Republican reaction was as great a curiosity to behold as Trump’s infatuation with Putin’s Russia. As James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, told the Australian press this week: “I have had a very hard time reconciling the threat the Russians pose to the United States with the inexplicably solicitous stance President Trump has taken with respect to Russia.”

We all have had a really hard time with this one. No wonder Clapper also said that Watergate pales in comparison to Trump’s collusion with Russia and the firing of Comey.

And that’s where Trump made his biggest mistake. Because James Comey is an elite athlete of Washington and Donald Trump, well, isn’t.

Comey paces himself, warming up a day early with the release of his written testimony. Then he opens the proceedings with an off-the-cuff slam dunk on Donald Trump’s head.

He uses his team to leak his landmark memos about all those freakish meetings with Trump, knowing they will lead to a special counsel. He can play offense by assassinating Trump’s character. He can play defense by staying safely behind classified information and the integrity of FBI investigations.

And he can fake his opponents far better than they can. “Look, I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” he told the good senators in his best boy scout voice. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Lordy, we all hope there are tapes and memos between now and the end of the Trump era. In the meantime, there are dozens of lines of inquiry to keep Comey’s former FBI employees busy forevermore.

What, for instance, is the point of a back channel using Russian communications, like the one Jared Kushner apparently wanted to set up?

“I’m not going to comment on whether that happened in an open setting,” Comey began rather coyly. “But the primary risk is obvious. You spare the Russians the cost and effort to break into our communications channels by using theirs. You make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations. Then to use those to the benefit of Russia against the United States.”

And now, with the firing of Comey, Trump has made it a whole lot easier to get himself impeached.•


From a Politico piece by Burgess Everett and Seung Min Kim:

James Comey brought the biggest circus Washington has seen in years to the Capitol Thursday, confirming word-for-word the reports that President Donald Trump urged him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn and swear loyalty to the president. Comey even said he kept memos because he feared the president would lie about their conversations.

Republicans’ reaction? Essentially, a collective yawn.

“It’s sort of like the build-up to a big Super Bowl game and everybody gets disappointed. You saw the countdown on all the TVs,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who sat through most of the hearing in person even though he does not sit on the Intelligence Committee. “They were expecting a bombshell, what they got was a confirmation of what we knew already. There was very little new information.”

But do revelations from the former FBI director himself that Trump gave him “direction” to shut down an investigation into the former national security adviser or that Comey believes he was fired to derail the broader probe into Trump’s associates’ ties with Russia offer new reason for alarm?

“No,” Tillis said. “It’s like I keep on saying. Y’all think I’m a broken record. Let’s solve health care, let’s solve taxes, let’s move on.”•

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Terrorists act as they do, irrationally and violently, because they’re weak, and under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has become something of a de facto terrorist state (in addition to an autocratic one), even if many of its “imported” attacks are virtual. The Kremlin capo is a dumb thug leading his country into disaster, economic and otherwise, and only an utter buffoon could be impressed by his macho, swaggering incompetence.

Enter Donald Trump. The current American President has long been entranced by Putin’s “strength,” in part because he wanted to get his tiny fingers on lots of rubles and also because he’s a simpleton who can only comprehend blunt, overt behavior absent any subtlety. Only when compared to someone as gormless as Trump can Putin seem the mastermind. They are both worst-case scenarios for their countries.

“We imagine the villains of history as cunning strategists,” Masha Gessen writes in her New York Times op-ed, asserting that yesterday’s Fascist “geniuses” were actually figures who used enormous personalities, media savvy and fortunate timing to compensate for their many flaws. A close study of Trump’s most obvious twentieth-century predecessor, Benito Mussolini, reveals that Il Duce was a vulgar, murderous clown who couldn’t even make the trains run on time, despite the popular historical narrative. Gessen believes Trump’s ineptitude won’t ultimately be what prevents U.S. autocracy, should such an outcome be thwarted. It may even aid his attempt at authoritarianism, she writes.

As Jesse Ventura, another unlikely politician who ascended on persona and media know-how, used to say: “The scum always rises to the top of the water.” Well, maybe not always, but it’s often not the best and brightest who find themselves in possession of tremendous power. 

An excerpt:

A careful reading of contemporary accounts will show that both Hitler and Stalin struck many of their countrymen as men of limited ability, education and imagination — and, indeed, as being incompetent in government and military leadership. Contrary to popular wisdom, they are not political savants, possessed of one extraordinary talent that brings them to power. It is the blunt instrument of reassuring ignorance that propels their rise in a frighteningly complex world.

Modern strongmen are more obviously human. We have witnessed the greed and vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, who ran Italy’s economy into the ground. We recognize the desperate desire of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to be admired or at least feared — usually literally at his country’s expense. Still, physical distance makes villains seem bigger than they are in real life. Many Americans imagine that Mr. Putin is a brilliant strategist, a skilled secret agent turned popular leader. 

As someone who has spent years studying Mr. Putin — and as one of a handful of journalists who have had an unscripted conversation with him — I can vouch for the fact that he is a poorly educated, under-informed, incurious man whose ambition is vastly out of proportion to his understanding of the world. To the extent that he has any interest in the business of governing, it is his role — on the world stage or on Russian television — that concerns him. Whether he is attending a summit, piloting a plane or hang-gliding with Siberian cranes, it is the spectacle of power that interests him.

In the past few months, Americans too have grown familiar with the sight of a president who seems to think that politics consists of demonstrating that he is in charge. This similarity is not an accident (nor is it a result of Russian influence). The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.•

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Authoritarianism is, among other things, a revenge of mediocrity.

The bully with the biggest ego and largest pulpit appeals to a nation’s mean streak, seeking out those who’d rather cow than compete. Together they swing a hammer like a weapon rather than a tool, looking for a target to blame. Russia hacked the election (likely with some degree of collusion from the GOP) and the FBI acted foolishly on bad intel to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but there’s no avoiding the reality that nearly 63 million Americans found a tyrant enticing, many of them drawn in by his absolute worse qualities.

From Business Insider essay by Josh Barro, who recently recused himself from the Republican Party:

Yet here we are, with a Republican president who calls himself “the most militaristic person” despite avoiding the Vietnam War on account of bone spurs. A Republican president who takes credit for others’ successes and no blame for his failures. A Republican president who fires the FBI director because of an investigation into any wrongdoing of his associates and then blames his press secretary for people getting mad about it.

A Republican president who is twice divorced and gleefully recounted his philandering to the press, posing as his own spokesman. A Republican president who boasted to a casual acquaintance about his history of sexual assault — “when you’re a star, they let you do it” — and then excused those comments as “locker-room talk,” as though it were normal for a grown man who wished to be president to display the maturity and respect for women you’d expect from a caricature of a junior-varsity high-school football player.

This is not the behavior of a man. It is the behavior of a man-child. Donald Trump surrounds himself with fellow man-children who behave in a similar manner. And a great many American voters eat it up.

Why? Well, one reason is that many men in America right now have little to offer women. They do not live up to either to the old, chauvinistic standards for adult men or the new, egalitarian ones. They want what Trump has — the women, the money, the brass-plated apartment — without having to do better or be better to get it.

They think they’d be better off under a return to high-school norms, where men could “be men” but really be boys, and gain status through cruel dominance plays without bearing any real-life responsibilities.

This approach to life worked for Trump because he inherited hundreds of millions of dollars. But it is no way to run a country or a society — or a political party.•

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It’s been roughly two weeks since stunning news broke that Trump had fired James Comey. It may as well have been a decade.

Since then, Trump admitted in an TV interview that he canned Comey to end the Russian investigation, the FBI director produced a memo of a conversation in which the President asked him to let Mike Flynn off the hook and it’s been reported that the Administration prevailed upon the DNI and NSI directors to intervene on his behalf to end the inquiry. Complicating matters further, the Putin praiser shared secret intelligence with Russian representatives in the White House. 

If this nonstop turmoil seems like Watergate played out at warp speed, Elizabeth Drew, the political journalist who chronicled Richard Nixon’s disgrace, doesn’t believe potential collusion with a foreign adversary nor obstruction of justice will result in a speedy ending for our Kremlin-loving kakistocracy, even if that’s what the country dearly needs. She warns that progress to endgame may be grindingly slow and must be bipartisan, a trickier feat to achieve today than in the 1970s.

Three excerpts follow from Matthias Kolb’s long-form Süddeutsche Zeitung Q&A with Drew, conducted soon after Comey’s ouster.

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Question:

You know so many people on the Hill, in Washington Journal you describe how the different senators and congressmen talked to you about their thought process about how and when to criticize Nixon. Is this a similar situation?

Elizabeth Drew:

Not quite yet. If you took a secret ballot, Trump would be out. But it doesn’t work that way. I do know from various sources, most Republicans in the Senate want him out; they joke about it. I wrote that in a recent article.  The senators see each other in the gym or in the hallways and some weeks ago some Republicans  on the Senate floor were taking bets with each other over how Trump is going to be forced to leave office, not whether. Several sources told me about this. But they are not anywhere near… they are not ready for this.

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Question:

You have covered American politics and presidents for more than five decades. Has there been anything similar to that?  

Elizabeth Drew:

No, Ronald Reagan maybe. He was an actor who was not very verbal. Reagan spoke well and could read aloud smoothly what was written down for him. But he was not a thinker. Barack Obama was our most contemplative president, a real intellectual. Reagan was not and Trump is definitely not. Trump doesn’t like to read. He gets intelligence briefings which he doesn’t like. His staff asks people to present things to him in pictures, that is similar with Reagan. I remember an aide telling me that he tried to explain something to Reagan about the war on drugs, and he made it like a movie plot to get Reagan’s attention. Trump likes pictures, aides have to draw things. It is alarming. Trump has no attention span, he is very impatient.

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Question:

Will Trump stay in office for four years?

Elizabeth Drew:

From the beginning, I’ve thought that he wouldn’t last. He looks frustrated so much of the time. In his business, no one was in a position to block him.  He’s been going through a frustrating time. He’s lonely;  Mrs. Trump is apparently moving down here in the summer, but he’s not a quitter. And he likes being president; He said that the other day at this victory party at the Rose Garden after the House passed  the health care bill. You all saw the pictures, I’m sure. He said: “How’m I doing? I am president, can’t you see?” He will not give it up, I think. Things would have to become really bad. But I wouldn’t put any money on anything.       

Question:

If some younger reporters ask you for advice how to cover the Trump administration, what do you tell them? I took away from reading “Washington Journal”  that you should be skeptical about simple narratives and that historic events like Watergate could have gone a different way. 

Elizabeth Drew:

Watergate was not the simple narrative that many take it to be, nor will this be – however it turns out. and will never be. I tell those reporters: “Let it play out, don’t try to game it. Follow what is happening and watch for certain things.” I also tell my friends: Watch for certain things and be patient. Trump will be in trouble for firing Comey,  and it likely will build. Be careful and you have to be responsible with what you are writing. Watch the Republicans: He cannot be driven from office just by Democrats. Watch for key Republicans to say certain things that might signal that he is in serious trouble. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader, is important. I’m sure that he has in his head how he wants to handle this, but he won’t say much. He’s a careful and smart man who has been around for decades. If you hear criticism of the president by Mitch McConnell, he’s in big trouble. You can’t just rush a president out of office because you don’t like him. It doesn’t work that way and should not work that way. It must not be partisan because it otherwise will not be successful. It would tear the country apart.•

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