Repub Evangelical Venality Open Thread: Sermons on Sunday, Bribes on Monday…

With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.

But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.

Their presence at the breakfast illuminates the way the annual event has become an international influence-peddling bazaar, where foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, diplomats and lobbyists jockey for access to the highest reaches of American power…

Lobbyists say the event has become even more of a coveted invitation in the Trump era, as foreign politicians scrambled to forge connections with a president who swept into office with few ties to the international community or Washington’s hierarchy of established foreign access brokers.

With its relative lack of diplomatic protocols and press coverage, the prayer breakfast setting is ideal for foreign figures who might not otherwise be able to easily get face time with top American officials, because of unsavory reputations or a lack of an official government perch, according to lobbyists who help arrange such trips. They also contend that it is easier to secure visas when the breakfast is listed as a destination.

At last year’s breakfast, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, posted a photo on Instagram of himself seated next to Andrei Makarov, a member of the Russian Parliament who had pushed for tax breaks for Russians who faced sanctions. A spokesperson for Mr. Grassley said that the senator poses for many photos with people he meets at a range of events…

[Is it *my* fault there so many grifters, crooks & criminals hanging around the GOP?, asks Chuck.]

The congressional co-chairmen of the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast, Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, and Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, praised the gathering as one of the most important annual events in Washington.

“It is unfortunate that some have attended the Breakfast in the past for the wrong reasons,” they said in a statement to The Times. “Nevertheless, we’re as committed as ever to ensuring that the 2019 National Prayer Breakfast is a success and follows the tradition of being nonpartisan and unifying.”…

Yes, there are Democrats involved with The Fellowship as well, more shame to them — although it can be argued there’s a considerable distinction between Yulia Tymoshenko and Mariia Butina. We really do need to pull back the tax exemptions for “non-profit” quasi-religious groups like this, and I say this as a person of faith.

Repub Venality Open Thread: As the Stomach Caucus Churns…

Outside reactions, maybe not all the Freedumb Caucus had hoped…

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Russian Interference Open Thread: Sen. Claire McCaskill Earns A “Prize”

And I do believe Sen. McCaskill is canny enough to turn this attempt into a weapon against the perennially dissatisfied Never-Dem “true progressives” who bitch more about her than her Repub opponents:

The Russian intelligence agency behind the 2016 election cyberattacks targeted Sen. Claire McCaskill as she began her 2018 re-election campaign in earnest, a Daily Beast forensic analysis reveals. That makes the Missouri Democrat the first identified target of the Kremlin’s 2018 election interference.

McCaskill, who has been highly critical of Russia over the years, is widely considered to be among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats facing re-election this year as Republicans hope to hold their slim majority in the Senate. In 2016, President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by almost 20 points in the senator’s home state of Missouri.

There’s no evidence to suggest that this particular attack was successful. Asked about the hack attempt by Russia’s GRU intelligence agency, McCaskill told The Daily Beast on Thursday that she wasn’t yet prepared to discuss it…

On Friday, Trump is scheduled to chair a meeting of the National Security Council on election vulnerabilities facing the midterm elections—amid persistent criticism, particularly after his Helsinki meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that he isn’t taking Russian interference seriously…

McCaskill is one of 10 Senate Democrats facing re-election this year in states that Trump won in 2016. Her likely Republican challenger is Josh Hawley, who currently serves as the state’s attorney general. Outside groups and campaign committees have spent more than $15.5 million against McCaskill so far…

I also assume we can count on Hawley to make a bad situation worse for himself, yes?

Much more, including details of the hacking methods, at the link.

Decompression Open Thread: PERFECT!

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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Friday Morning Open Thread: Ministry of Truthiness

Despite all the criticisms of her performance, Huckabee Sanders is an artist in her own Southern-Gothic niche. She was hired — and she does her job, in this context, brilliantly — to be the grim, dutiful Good Wife who insists that ERRYTHING IS JUST FAAAAHNE THENK YEW in front of the village congregation. Sure, the whole neighborhood knows that (behind the facade) ‘Daddy’ is a mean drunk who knocks her around and sleeps with hookers, the family business is forever teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, her kids are out of control and would be in jail or another institution if the local police weren’t cowed by or complicit in the ‘best families’ oligarchy… but as long as she can slab on enough pancake makeup and wear her ‘family’ pearls, the comforting clan mythology remains unchallenged. It’s not an easy living, but what alternatives does a past-her-prime good Southern girl with no education outside the conservative bubble have? Praise ‘Merican Jeebus for “tradition”, and don’t forget to vote Republican!

It is a well-worn cliché of the Trump presidency—which is also to say, it is a well-worn cliché about the Trump psyche—that, within a White House as vertically integrated as this one, loyalty counts above all. And Sarah Sanders, the press secretary who will have been on the job, this week, for one year—the White House announced her promotion to the role in July of 2017—performs that loyalty every time she meets the press.

This is a White House that prioritizes the scoring of points over the complexities of compromise. Sanders, on behalf of the president she works for—a happy warrior in a culture war that has found a front in the James S. Brady briefing room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—takes for granted an assumption that would be shocking were it not so common in the American culture of the early 21st century: There are things that are more important than truth.
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Russiagate / NRA Open Thread: Mariia Butina, ‘Manliness’ Enhancer…

… by any means necessary!

She gave the Repubs what they were looking for: Attention from a ‘hot chick’ who publicly admired their massive weaponry, political astuteness, and general VIRTUE. In the heat of the moment, it didn’t seem important to ask what she might be looking for in return…

It’s hard to tell how much of the story 29-year-old Russian graduate student Maria Butina told Americans about herself for years is real.

What is clear is that in Butina, the Russian government either found or created an irresistible persona for US conservatives. The story she repeated over years of speeches and interviews — of a scrappy girl from Siberia fighting for gun rights in Russia — was carefully calibrated to show a passion for self-defense, a yearning for America’s easy access to guns, and a hint of criticism of Russia’s own laws…

People who spoke to BuzzFeed News about their interactions with her, as well as a review of her interviews, writings, and extensive social media posts, paint a picture of someone who knew how to push all the right conservative buttons.

Hers was a startlingly effective performance.

By the time she appeared on the popular radio show of evangelical author Eric Metaxas, who later endorsed Trump and served on his evangelical advisory council, her life story — or at least what she said was her life story — rolled off her tongue with practiced ease.

“My story is simple — my father is a hunter, I was born in Siberia,” she explained in the July 2015 interview, echoing previous talking points in which she often drew parallels to parts of the US, like South Dakota, where guns are “necessary for survival” to defend lives and property.

“That seems appropriate, somehow,” Metaxas interrupted, sounding delighted, when she described founding her gun rights organization in a “Moscow version of a McDonald’s,” telling her friends “we need to fight for our gun rights.”

“Wow, I just love the idea of this,” he said. “To think…because you know, those of us in America can be very parochial, we forget that the fight for liberty goes on for all around the globe in different guises.”

Butina also seemed to know exactly what a conservative evangelical audience would want to hear, earnestly speaking about the growing number of churches in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “great history of Christian religion” that she had in common with US evangelicals, her audience.

“When we talk about Russian and American relationships, the main point is Christianity, in both countries,” she told Metaxas…
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