Chillin’ with Villains

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is notorious for going on camera and defiantly declaring that up is down and black is white. That’s pretty much her job. But she won’t say unequivocally that there’s no tape of Trump using a racial slur because she’s knows there’s a distinct possibility the tape will surface:

The Trump people must be shitting themselves, wondering what bit of audio Omarosa Manigault Newman will drop next. She already caught Katrina Pierson in a big fat lie today.

Meanwhile, Manigault Newman claims she’s been interviewed by Mueller and says Trump definitely knew in advance about the hacked emails from the Clinton campaign:

It would be hilarious and fitting if an ugly beef with his former reality TV villain — plus an association with living comic book villain Roger Stone — is what finally brings Mango Mussolini down. I don’t say it will — just that it would be both hilarious and fitting.

In related news, the Manafort trial is almost over — the defense rests without calling any witnesses, and Manafort declined to testify, so only closing arguments are left (I think). Any predictions?

Open thread.

Banana Republican Purge

Peter Strzok was formally fired on Friday. Here’s an excerpt from The Post:

FBI agent Peter Strzok fired over anti-Trump texts

The FBI has fired agent Peter Strzok, who helped lead the bureau’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election until officials discovered he had been sending anti-Trump texts.

Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s lawyer, said FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich ordered the firing on Friday — even though the director of the FBI office that normally handles employee discipline had decided Strzok should face only a demotion and 60-day suspension. Goelman said the move undercuts the FBI’s repeated assurances that Strzok would be afforded the normal disciplinary process.

“This isn’t the normal process in any way more than name,” Goelman said, adding in a statement, “This decision should be deeply troubling to all Americans.”

Trump is handling the news with the circumspection and class you’d expect:

So, he’s hoping to parlay the Strzok firing into a termination of an investigation into his campaign and its involvement with a hostile foreign power and a reopening of a completed investigation into a former political opponent. I assume that even the professionals who were appointed by Trump (Wray, Rosenstein, etc.) will continue to pretend their toddler boss isn’t smearing shit on the wall and allow the relevant investigation to proceed and the concluded one to remain closed.

That’s how it works when the Trump-appointed bosses of the national security agencies occasionally emerge to assure us they’re aware that Russia is engaged in information warfare with the US even though their boss and an increasing number of Congressional Republicans keep sending “Do you like me? Yes. No.” notes to Putin. It’s an awfully thin reed to hang one’s hopes on, though.

The Post article says Strzok’s termination was ordered on Friday, although the news only became public today. Maybe that explains Trump’s weird tweet on Saturday:

By the way, the language Trump uses regarding Lisa Page is beyond creepy, not to mention dangerous and hypocritical. People are supposed to be allowed to have private political opinions in this country, and it’s gross and inappropriate that an infamous serial philanderer who is known to pay off porn film actors, Playboy playmates, etc., would use his office to publicly harass a private citizen this way.

I realize the larger issue is that law enforcement officials should be able to have private opinions without threat of being purged by an unhinged narcissist in the Oval Office, Banana Republic style. But the persecution of Page is noteworthy in its own right; she hasn’t been a public employee for a while now and was not central to the investigation, but Trump continues to publicly shame her.

So, we continue the march toward nuclear-armed Banana Republic status. Just another day ending with “y.”

Class VI Rapids Ahead in Bullshit River

Ezra Klein published an interesting piece in Vox today arguing, among other things, that Aldous Huxley’s dystopia resembles our current state more than Orwell’s did. Klein cites Neil Postman, whose “Amusing Ourselves to Death” came out in 1985:

In his classic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman wrote of the difference between George Orwell’s and Aldous Huxley’s visions of fascism.

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information,” wrote Postman. “Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Postman’s warning rang out in a different era. He worried over the rise of television, not Twitter; he was reacting to Ronald Reagan, not Donald Trump. And yet the facts of our age are more absurd and insulting than anything Postman prophesied.

The truth IS out there — it’s just a small, shiny pebble that is obscured by a river of bullshit. Klein says what many of us have argued for a couple of years now: the mainstream media’s approach to covering Trump is a failure, and unless they consciously make better choices not only about how they cover things but what to cover, democracy is in serious peril.

Klein acknowledges the complexity of the problem, including the click-driven media of which Klein himself is a part:

That’s particularly true in the hypercompetitive enclaves of cable news and social media, where only the most attention-grabbing, conflict-rich content thrives. The media has no problem ignoring the president when what he says is boring or predictable. It’s when he’s outrageous or absurd that the “breaking” banners light up. That’s an awful incentive structure, as Trump’s gleeful manipulation of our attention has shown.

And yet, it’s damn hard to resist. It’s damn hard to resist because Trump’s behavior really is so outlandish, and because if everyone else is covering Trump’s latest comments you feel like you’re missing the story if you focus elsewhere, and because there really is audience demand, and because Trump rallies make for damn good TV segments and Facebook posts. And I say this as someone whose coverage is just as driven by these incentives as anyone else’s.

Trump knows all this, he is a genius at understanding the dynamics of press coverage, and it’s allowed him to hack the media brilliantly, to even make critical coverage part of his strategy and storyline. He controls our attention more effectively than any president in memory, perhaps than any president in history. But at what cost?

At the cost of our democracy, perhaps. The sensational content Trump produces via Twitter and his big fat mouth daily obscure more important stories, such as the fact that hundreds of immigrant children have been effectively orphaned by government agencies enacting a pointless and evil policy, the exponentially worse-than-Watergate Russia scandal, the administration’s historic levels of corruption and Trump’s manifest incompetence. I’m not 100% in agreement with Klein that Trump is a media genius whose actions, like saying outrageous shit at rallies, are deliberate tactics to hijack the narrative away from events like the Scott Pruitt public corruption flame-out.

IMO, it’s just as possible that events like the Pruitt flame-out, the Manafort trial, etc., trigger insecurity and a hunger for adulation in the brittle narcissist Trump, and his rallies are a way to feed that fragile ego. But in the end, I’m not sure the motivation really matters. The bottom line is, the fire-hose volume of outrages from Trump DOES obscure stories that would have buried a normal administration. Klein cites Postman again to identify the source of the problem:

“To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple,” Postman warned.

So, what to do? If we have to count on a click-driven media to reform itself by refraining from covering politics as entertainment, we’re obviously doomed. But we can work the refs, and working the refs sometimes works. For example, Alex Jones and InfoWars were kicked off YouTube, Facebook and Apple today. That’s a victory.

The very absurdities of the present age may serve as levers to effect change on the margins, or at least inspire more people to fire up their woefully disused bullshit detectors. For example, Buzzfeed is reporting that there’s a lot of evidence to suggest this QAnonsense that made headlines last week originated as a prank to make Trump supporters look stupid. Mission accomplished!

Now, no amount of debunking will unstupid people who think Alex Jones is credible source. No amount of coverage will knock sense into the empty heads people who believe Trump is on a secret mission to bust a global pedophile ring and reclaim U.S. democracy from a degenerate Democratic cabal. Those folks took the bus to crazy town on a one-way ticket long ago.

But there’s a chance that exposing the subterranean madness that is bubbling below the surface of what passes for mainstream conservative politics will be clarifying for people who don’t normally pay attention. And exposing how trolls manipulated Democrats and left-leaning unaffiliateds in 2016 can help us prevent a repeat in upcoming elections. Robby Mook has a piece in USA Today that speaks to that:

The Russians know there’s no better way to help Trump win re-election than divide Democrats and disrupt our primary. They will choose sides. They will seek to inflate divisions on race, gender and geography. They will trump up “scandals” and suspicions of “rigging.” They will infiltrate conversations in our Facebook groups and Twitter threads, and pollute our feeds with manufactured content. There’s no question it will happen. The question is: What will we do about it?

To be clear, I look forward to a sprawling, highly competitive presidential primary next year. A wide variety of choices and a spirited debate about the direction of our country is healthy and will produce the best candidate possible. We should welcome the differences in opinion and passions it will evoke. We just don’t want the Russians manufacturing ways to make it unnecessarily nasty or divisive.

Every Democrat considering a run for president needs to carefully consider where she or he will stand when Russian rumor mongering seeks to divide Democrats. If Russia attacks your opponent or promotes you, will you let it slide? Or will you speak out? Will you commit to ignoring stolen and leaked material? Will you be willing to call on supporters to shut down Facebook groups infected with agents posing as supporters?

Maybe Democratic candidates and leaders need to get together and come up with a pledge to that effect. What do you think?

Russiagate Open Thread: “GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY!”

And on a Sunday in August! It’s not like the man does anything resembling work on any day of the week, but can’t someone remind him that the little people need time off from this shite-geyser?

Strong lede from Adam Davidson, at the New Yorker“The Day Trump Told Us There Was Attempted Collusion with Russia”:

August 5, 1974, was the day the Nixon Presidency ended. On that day, Nixon heeded a Supreme Court ruling and released the so-called smoking-gun tape, a recording of a meeting, held two years earlier, with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. Many of Nixon’s most damaging statements came in the form of short, monosyllabic answers and near-grunts—“um huh,” the official transcript reads, at one point—as he responds to Haldeman’s idea of asking the C.I.A. to tell the F.B.I. to “stay the hell out of” the Watergate investigation. The coverup is clearly of Haldeman’s design. Nixon’s words are simple: “All right. Fine.” Then, “Right, fine.”…

On August 5, 2018, precisely forty-four years after the collapse of the Nixon Presidency, another President, Donald Trump, made his own public admission. In one of a series of early-morning tweets, Trump addressed a meeting that his son Donald, Jr., held with a Russian lawyer affiliated with the Russian government. “This was a meeting to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics – and it went nowhere,” he wrote. “I did not know about it!”…

The tweet contains several crucial pieces of information. First, it is a clear admission that Donald Trump, Jr.,’s original statement about the case was inaccurate enough to be considered a lie. He had said the meeting was with an unknown person who “might have information helpful to the campaign,” and that this person “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children.” This false statement was, according to his legal team, dictated by the President himself. There was good reason to mislead the American people about that meeting. Based on reporting—at the time and now—of the President’s admission, it was a conscious effort by the President’s son and two of his closest advisers to work with affiliates of the Russian government to obtain information that might sway the U.S. election in Trump’s favor. In short, it was, at minimum, a case of attempted collusion. The tweet indicates that Trump’s defense will continue to be that this attempt at collusion failed—“it went nowhere”—and that, even if it had succeeded, it would have been “totally legal and done all the time.” It is unclear why, if the meeting was entirely proper, it was important for the President to declare “I did not know about it!” or to tell the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, to “stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now.”…

It was possible, just days ago, to believe—with an abundance of generosity toward the President and his team—that the meeting was about adoption, went nowhere, and was overblown by the Administration’s enemies. No longer. The open questions are now far more narrow: Was this a case of successful or only attempted collusion? Is attempted collusion a crime? What legal and moral responsibilities did the President and his team have when they realized that the proposed collusion was underway when the D.N.C. e-mails were leaked and published? And, crucially, what did the President know before the election, after it, and when he instructed his son to lie?

“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

I am not a lawyer, but this sounds pretty obstruction of justice-y to me:

And then there’s this tweet, one of a flurry the angry retiree sent out this morning while loafing in front of Fox News:

Until I got to the “TOTAL HOAX” part, I thought Trump was giving Putin his due: “Russian Collusion with the Trump Campaign” definitely is “one of the most successful in history,” if we’re talking about intelligence operations designed to undermine a foe. Russia succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. But Trump didn’t mean it that way, of course. He’s just incapable of identifying the subject of a complex sentence, one of his countless deficiencies, and thus this is a gaffe in the purest sense: a liar accidentally telling the truth.

Also, it’s weird that a degenerate who’s notorious for shagging multiple women while married to someone else (and then paying them off) plays the “lover” card so often in a flagrantly hypocritical attempt to shame other people who had an extramarital affair (and didn’t have to fork over hundreds of thousands in hush money). It’s a minor thing, but it’s creepy.

This is just a small sample of the shitgibbon’s Twitter output from the Golden Throne-Fox News Media Center of the White House before he deigned to start “work” just before noon today. He was probably tuckered out from leading that bizarre hate-fest in Tampa last night, which attracted deranged conspiracy theorists and garden-variety cultists from all over the state. I know I live among these whack-jobs, but it’s disturbing to see them on my TV in familiar environs.

Some days, I am tempted to tune it all out. It’s just too goddamned much. But the stakes are too high and the outcome too uncertain. So, 96 days to go. I’ll keep plugging away as best I can. You all hang in there too.

Open thread.

C.R.E.A.M. Open Thread: The Trial(s) of Paul Manafort

D.C., as the company town where politics is the monopoly, and its hometown the Washington Post, are of course engrossed by the details of Paul Manafort’s career. “From six homes to a city jail: Paul Manafort, who redefined lobbying, faces trial”:

On Tuesday, when his trial on bank and tax fraud charges begins in federal court in Alexandria, prosecutors working with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will seek to keep him behind bars.

For the first time, an investigation into Russian election interference that has operated largely behind closed doors will reveal some of its work. A conviction on the 18 counts brought against Manafort would add credibility to Mueller’s ongoing inquiry. Failure would underline the criticism he has received from President Trump and others who suggest that Mueller’s operation is a partisan “witch hunt.”

Since he was appointed in May 2017, Mueller has charged 32 people, including 26 Russians and several people involved in the Trump campaign. Five people, including Manafort’s onetime business partner Richard Gates, have pleaded guilty. Manafort is the first to go to trial, and he faces a second court battle on related charges in D.C. federal court this fall…

Over a 40-year career, Manafort, 69, redefined and expanded Washington’s influence industry both domestically and internationally, parlaying successful campaigns into lobbying opportunities.

He gained respect early in his career by helping Gerald R. Ford survive the contested 1976 Republican National Convention — and then a reputation for cunning when he quickly shifted his loyalty to the president’s ascendant challenger, Ronald Reagan.

In 1980, his newly formed lobbying firm, with partners Charlie Black and Roger Stone, made its mark consulting for Reagan.

Manafort handled most of the firm’s foreign clients, and some leaders had reputations so dubious that one nonprofit group cited the firm as part of a “torturers’ lobby” for taking on violent dictators in Nigeria, the Philippines and Angola…

But by the mid-2000s, there were signs that his consulting ­career had slumped, and at times his finances appeared to be shaky. It was in Ukraine that he revived both — in ways prosecutors say violated the law. Out of $75 million that flowed to Manafort-controlled offshore accounts over 10 years, more than $18 million was “laundered,” prosecutors allege, with income concealed from the U.S. government that they say was used to pay for the former lobbyist’s extravagant tastes…

Bloomberg, on the other hand, is more interested in exactly what Manafort spent those purportedly dishonest dollars on…

The documentary linked below is almost 18 minutes long, but it’s a very brisk summary of what’s at issue today and in the coming weeks…

C.R.E.A.M. Open Thread: “A Theory of Trump Kompromat

Our own Adam Silverman and other knowledgeable cynics have been long said this, but the working theory that financial failures might be more embarrassing than sexual peccadilloes to Trump — and his handlers — is finally getting some traction among the Very Serious People:

There is no need to assume that Trump was a formal agent of Russian intelligence to make sense of Trump’s solicitousness toward Putin. Keith Darden, an international-relations professor at American University, has studied the Russian use of kompromat—compromising material—and told me that he thinks it is likely that the President believes the Russians have something on him. “He’s never said a bad word about Putin,” Darden said. “He’s exercised a degree of self-control with respect to Russia that he doesn’t with anything else.” Darden said that this is evidence that Trump isn’t uniformly reckless in his words: “He is capable of being strategic. He knows there are limits, there are bounds on what he can say and do with respect to Russia.”…

Trump has made a lot of money doing deals with businesspeople from the former Soviet Union, and at least some of these deals bear many of the warning signs of money laundering and other financial crimes. Deals in Toronto, Panama, New York, and Miami involved money from sources in the former Soviet Union who hid their identities through shell companies and exhibited other indications of money laundering. In the years before he became a political figure, Trump acted with impunity, conducting minimal corporate due diligence and working with people whom few other American businesspeople would consider fit partners. During that period, he may have felt protected by the fact that U.S. law-enforcement officials rarely investigate or prosecute Americans who engage in financial crimes overseas. Such cases are also maddeningly difficult to prove, and the F.B.I. has no subpoena power in other countries. If, however, someone had evidence that proved financial crimes and shared it with, say, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, other American law-enforcement officials, or the press, it could significantly damage Trump’s business, his family, and his Presidency.

Alena Ledeneva, a professor of politics at University College London and an expert on Russia’s political and business practices, describes kompromat as being more than a single powerful figure weaponizing damning evidence to blackmail a target. She explained that to make sense of kompromat it is essential to understand the weakness of formal legal institutions in Russia and other former Soviet states. Ledeneva argued that wealth and power are distributed through networks of political figures and businesspeople who follow unspoken rules, in an informal hierarchy that she calls sistema, or system. Sistema has a few clear rules—do not defy Putin being the most obvious one—and a toolkit for controlling potentially errant members. It is primarily a system of ambiguity. Each person in sistema wonders where he stands and monitors the relative positions of friends and rivals…

The scenario that, to my mind, makes the most sense of the given facts and requires the fewest fantastical leaps is that, a decade or so ago, Trump, naïve, covetous, and struggling for cash, may have laundered money for a business partner from the former Soviet Union or engaged in some other financial crime. This placed him, unawares, squarely within sistema, where he remained, conducting business with other members of a handful of overlapping Central Asian networks. Had he never sought the Presidency, he may never have had to come to terms with these decisions. But now he is much like everyone else in sistema. He fears there is kompromat out there—maybe a lot of it—but he doesn’t know precisely what it is, who has it, or what might set them off.
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