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Democracy Theater

Trump Maladministration

I’ve written in the past about managed democracy, which is a political system that is ostensibly a democracy but which is actually being controlled and managed by some sort of oligarchy. As part of that I wrote in May 2016 about the remarkable fact that our two major political parties had two massively unpopular front-runners in the presidential election:

What we’re seeing is a symptom of managed democracy, a term usually aimed at Vladimir Putin’s Russia but which, many argue, describes the United States.  In a paper about managed democracy in Russia, we find,

According to Tretyakov’s definition, managed democracy is a democracy (as there are elections, voters have alternative options, there is media freedom, leaders are changing), but it is corrected by the ruling class (or rather that part of it that holds power).

Put another way, this is why we can’t have nice things. We aren’t really in charge.

See also “They Aren’t Listening to Us” (May 2014) and “Rats and Lifeboats” (May 2017).

Today let me call your attention to “America’s Heart of Darkness” by Elizabeth Bruenig at the Washington Post. She writes that like the character Charles Marlow in Conrad’s novel, at least some Americans have seen the heart of darkness at the center of U.S. politics.

Marlow’s is a civic kind of going mad, where the veil is lifted from politics and what lies beneath makes participation in ordinary political life with a quiet mind impossible. By the time he returns, what once seemed placid and unremarkable seems sinister and false — and it is.

We’re about there, I think — perhaps not every single one of us, perhaps not just yet, but the conditions are right and the summer is long. The entire 2016 episode has been, in some sense, an introspective journey into America’s own innermost parts, with Donald Trump’s victory prompting a nervous self-inventory of what we value, whether our institutions work and to what degree we ought to trust one another. The full contents of that inward odyssey have yet to unfold. But on the question of institutional functioning, the news is unequivocally grim. Like Marlow, even after this particular chapter has ended, we are likely to find ourselves changed by what we’ve seen.

Whether national politics were ever really open and honest is a debatable point, of course. Before we went to a primary system, the old method of choosing presidential nominees at big, messy national conventions was often accused of being corrupt and undemocratic. Deals were made in smoke-filled rooms and, voilà, here’s your ticket. But we got some pretty good presidents out of those smoke-filled rooms. I’m old enough to remember watching those conventions on television, and in retrospect they seem more honest and transparent than what we’ve got now.

Bruenig writes (as I have written in the past) that we may never know if the Russians really did change the outcome of the election. And we still don’t know if Donald Trump was conciously aware of and complicit in the Russian interference. But those are secondary considerations.

The primary things are these: It just wasn’t that hard for a foreign power to tinker with our deliberative democratic process, which suggests that it just isn’t that hard, full stop, for anyone to tinker with our deliberative democratic process. And if Trump’s campaign played along, those who benefited when he won don’t really seem to mind. Republicans will issue all sorts of official-sounding tweets and news releases decrying the subversion of America’s hallowed institutions, but they’ve got their tax cuts and Supreme Court seats, and they’re not going to initiate impeachment proceedings or primary Trump come 2020. A neutral observer couldn’t be blamed for concluding that the rich and powerful people who contend for control of the country don’t much care how public offices wind up in their hands, so long as they do.

Donald Trump is an abomination. He’s a walking moral cesspool. He is clearly unfit for office. He’s safe, for now, because the elites find him useful. Because he is also a moron he probably doesn’t realize he’s just a tool. But he is.

And this is true across the board. Those emails the Russians loosed upon the electorate were damning precisely because they revealed a similar scheme operating in miniature during the Democratic primary campaign: The supposedly neutral DNC functioned as more or less a Clinton campaign organ, subsisting off Clinton campaign funds and musing behind the scenes about targeting then-primary contender Bernie Sanders for being a secular Jew, how best to discipline his campaign for complaining about the DNC’s partiality and, ironically, how to properly dispel the appearance of a DNC conspiracy against Sanders.

The gravity and legality of the two exercises in meddling differ, certainly. But they both operate to wound our faith in democratic legitimacy.

A lot of commenters to this article are sputtering about false equivalence. But of course I agree with Bruenig. Hillary Clinton’s nomination was a done deal months before the primaries started, a fact that has been publicly confirmed in many ways. What the Democrats did to railroad Clinton’s nomination makes the smoke-filled rooms at the old national conventions seem downright guileless and innocent.

In particular, it was ghastly to me the way that a generation of left-leaning voters was relentlessly punched down on for month after month because they refused to accept the decision of the powers that be, and to this day most of the progressive young folks I communicate with are, at best, massively ambivalent about the Democratic Party. They don’t like it much, and they don’t trust it, but most have accepted they have no alternative but to work through the Democrats to defeat Trumpism. A loud minority still refuse to have anything to do with Democrats, however.

So, damage was done. The sputterers need to realize and admit this. A big reason a lot of us who are Democratic voters are twitchy about “centrism” and “pragmatism” is that these are code words for accepting the manipulation. And let’s not kid ourselves that if Hillary Clinton were president now the government would be working for us. It would be less awful in many ways, yes, and we’d have gotten much better SCOTUS nominations. But anything we, the people might want that the elites don’t want to give us would still be off the table.

Mass media is complicit in all this, of course. News coverage helped Trump become acceptable as POTUS. They played him up because he was good for ratings. And then they normalized him. Television political coverage never goes deeper than the superficial and the sound bite, and most people get nearly all their information on candidates from television (or, worse, social media). The well-known information on Trump’s long history of dishonest business deals and ties to the mob were never explained to the American television news audience.

See an old Salon article from 2026, by Ted Morgan: “This isn’t how a democracy should work.”

Our news media, television in particular, work at two levels simultaneously. One level is cultural. This is where market-driven news accentuates its entertainment value, seeking to maximize audience or readership by grabbing attention with all the devices common to entertainment. News stories are brief, dramatic fragments; they accentuate eye-catching imagery, conflict, and personalities. They play on our emotions, but tell us almost nothing about why the world is the way it is.

The other level is ideological, or political.  This is where the mass media are corporate institutions that reflect the consensual and competing views of elites who dominate our politics.  This is where Democrats and Republicans “debate” political issues, where they tell us how to interpret the world.  It is definitely not where more fundamentally critical, or outsider, views are taken seriously.

News media set the parameters of allowable political thought, and that has become a very, very narrow range of thought. And as much as I do like to watch the nightly MSNBC lineup for the latest dirt on Trump, they’re in on it, too, at least as far as the Democrats are concerned.

So here we are. We have a monster for a president, and Washington collectively lacks the political will to admit it and remove him from office. Yesterday the cable shows were all playing a tape of Michael Cohen and Trump talking about how they would hush up an affair with a model. Watch this change nothing. Today there are headlines about how Trump plans to go forward with 25 percent tariffs on close to $200 billion in foreign-made automobiles, and “advisers” are scrambling to stop him.  But, bleep it, the Constitution gives Congress the power to determine tariffs, not the president. There is obviously no national security issue that justifies Trump’s tariff policy.

Where is Congress? Not only do they not remove him from office, they step aside and let him do whatever he wants, no matter how damaging it is. It may be that the only thing that will stop him is if the monied elites who actually run things decide he’s more trouble than he’s worth. Then something nasty will be slipped into Trump’s filet-o-fish sandwich, because Mike Pence is a model tool, a tool’s tool. A Disney animatronic president couldn’t be a more reliable tool.

I can remember earlier times, when our revered historical figures were presented as virtuous and wise. They were honest and kind and never told lies. And yeah, a lot of that amounted to glossing over a lot of flaws. But that was the ideal that we at least paid lip service to. With Trump, there are no ideals and no virtues, just endless sleaze.

Back to Bruenig.

This particular horror — Trump and his failures, whatever ridiculous thing he has said or done today, whatever international incident he causes on Twitter tomorrow, however authentic the next panic is — will pass. What will last is the frank revelation of a point that, while ugly and dark, is at least true: You really don’t have the choices you ought to in American democracy, because of decisions made without your consent by people of wealth and power behind closed doors. It’s possible to continue to participate in a democracy after that. But not with a quiet mind.

I hold on to a faint hope that American democracy can be reformed and given back to the people. Campaign finance reform, voting rights guarantees, ending political gerrymandering, and some other steps would do it, and those things are possible. At least, they aren’t like spinning straw into gold or walking on water. But it’s going to take a hell of a fight.

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Moving to the Left

Trump Maladministration

If pearl clutching were an Olympic event, American political pundits would own the podium. Over the past several days I’ve seen one op-ed after another warning Democrats to not move too far left and lose the midterms and 2020.

And it’s not just Democratic Party centrists. Paul Waldman writes today about the warnings coming from outside the party — James Comey, for example.

Paul Waldman:

What the concern trolls are advocating is that Democrats go back to being afraid of their own shadows the way they were for so long, convincing themselves that the American public is extremely conservative and if they don’t become more like Republicans then they have no hope of winning. It’s a belief shared by pretty much every losing Democratic presidential candidate for the last few decades; all of them radiated a sense of insecurity, apologizing for their beliefs and those of their party. It’s something Republicans never do.

My quibble with this is the assumption that Democrats ever stopped being afraid of their own shadows. When might that have been? It certainly wasn’t in 2016. Clinton was the ultimate “safe” candidate, from the perspective of the Democratic establishment. The only difference was that Clinton didn’t apologize for her beliefs; she simply failed to articulate any sort of vision or direction for the future of the country at all.

Matt Taibbi wrote a few days ago,

The notion that Democrats need to look and act more like Republicans to win elections has been practically a religious tenet in Washington for more than 30 years. From the embrace of NAFTA to welfare reform to triangulation to repealing the Glass-Steagall Act to slobbering over Wesley Clark (instead of opposing the Iraq war) to hiring infamous Republican media hitman David Brock, this soul-sucking drift has been sold to voters as an electorally necessary compromise. …

… This is the Democratic Party that lost the presidency in 2016 to a crypto-fascist game-show host with near-record negatives – only ex-Klansman David Duke in 1992 was a more roundly-despised candidate than Trump – and legislatively has for a decade now suffered mass losses on the national and state levels.

Here are some true words on the past several decades of politics in America, in a nutshell:

When the Democrats abandoned their reliance on labor in the Eighties, and began to be funded by the same big companies that backed Republicans, our politics devolved into a contest between two employer-supported factions. Neither really cared about the numerical majority of poor or working-class voters, so they had to get creative with their politics.

The Republican pitch was an open con: the CEO sect hoovering Middle American votes by trotting out xenophobic Bible-thumpers who waved the flag and pretended to love beer, chainsaws, snowmobiles and shooting foreigners, while mostly just deregulating the economy.

The Democratic pitch revolved around social issues like choice and was far less transparently fraudulent. But the party’s proponents had one bad habit that kept putting them in a hole. Repeatedly, when asked to make policy changes favored by sizable majorities of Democratic voters (and often by majorities of all voters), party leaders said: We can’t do that: we need to win!

Taibbi recalls, for example, when a majority of Democratic voters oppose the invasion of Iraq, but 29 Democratic senators voted to let Bush invade, anyway. That was an act of political cowardice that, ironically, hurt the political careers of the cowards more than it helped. Yes, John Kerry and, eventually, Hillary Clinton got Democratic presidential nominations, anyway; even so, those votes in October 2002 would haunt them the rest of their careers. They would have been better off, politically, listening to Democratic voters and voting “no.” I strongly suspect that if Kerry had voted “no” in 2002 he’d have beaten Bush in 2004.

David Atkins writes,

This week has seen a bonanza of concern trolling by centrist factions against the energy and activism coming from the left. The shocking election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th district was followed by the California Democratic Party’s endorsement of progressive challenger Kevin De Leon over longtime incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein. These two events have precipitated a frightened backlash among editorial boards, corporate think tanks like Third Way, and even public figures like James Comey and William Saletan who believe that the movement toward a bolder progressive agenda is bad for the country, heralding doom for Democrats in the midterms and in red districts.

The argument goes that if Democrats move too far to the left, then they won’t hold onto “the center” which presumably contains the majority of Americans. But this worldview stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the electorate, particularly the few remaining persuadable voters in it. It also represents a failure to grasp the reality of the movement, which is not so much about right and left, as it is about solving problems that the centrists in both parties have studiously ignored or avoided.

What about those “centrist” voters?

There are many kinds of cross-pressured voters. Some are the handful of vaunted fiscally conservative, socially liberal suburban centrists the Third Way puts on a pedestal. Some hate abortion but want higher taxes on the rich; some want low taxes but want to preserve a woman’s right to choose. These people are not more moderate than partisans, but rather have strong opinions on certain issues that force them to make a choice between two sides they like in some respects and dislike in others. A party typically loses as many of these cross-pressured voters as it gains by moderating its stances, which is part of why Republicans haven’t suffered from their march rightward.

But far more numerous are the disaffecteds who feel that neither party listens to their concerns or solves their problems. They are attracted to blunt-talking populists who promise to shake up a system that they believe is rigged and tilted toward the elites. This is why Trump did so well with right-leaning independents, and why Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama both performed so well with left-leaning independents. Many white independents who vote for both Democrats and Republicans tend to have prejudiced views on race and gender, but are willing to vote for Democrats and people of color because their economic concerns often outweigh their bigotries if their kitchen table issues are addressed in the right way.

In other words, listen to your voters, Dems.

It is very hard to argue that incremental centrism is the answer. On the contrary, most of these voters are desperate for solutions to problems that they believe both parties have ignored. What are these problems? In no particular order, we can name a few crises:

student debt crisis that threatens to destroy the future of an entire generation; a climate change crisis that could end civilization as we know it if bold action is not taken immediately; a housing crisis that is preventing young people in cities from building savings or wealth, or even living with dignity and being able to afford children; an automation crisis that has most Silicon Valley billionaires simply assuming the end of capitalism and promoting radical socialist policies just to keep the pitchforks at bay; an inequality crisis that will certainly destroy democracy itself if left unaddressed–not just by bringing up standards of living at the bottom and in the middle, but by actively bringing down and redistributing the wealth at the top; and so on.

And health care? Commiting to not cutting social security? A living wage for everyone with a full-time job? I sincerely believe taking a strong stand on these issues would bring a substantial number of the infamous white working-class voter into the Democratic fold, even those living in Trump country.

There’s an article I’ve been wanting to call attention to at Washington Monthly — “Winning Is Not Enough” by Paul Glastris. Why isn’t it enough? Glastris makes the case that Dems have a pattern of winning Congress and/or the White House when people get really fed up with Republicans, only to see that victory snatched away in the next election cycle. The Democrats need to think beyond taking back power; they also need to think about keeping it. They must do this because the Republican Party plainly has become undemocratic and is working to undermine the very supports of liberal democracy, to turn the U.S. into an authoritarian regime.

The dilemma for Democrats is that many of the issues that resonate with their base—gun control, racial justice, support for immigrants—hurt them in exurban and rural areas. That leads many moderates to advise downplaying “identity politics.” The problem with that advice is that, besides being wrong on principle, following it would risk alienating the base voters whose votes are crucial to winning.

How, then, do Democrats square that circle?

The answer is twofold. To maximize the voting power of its core supporters, the party must get over its squeamishness and aggressively push policies designed to raise turnout among young people and minorities. At the same time, to expand its geographic reach, it needs to introduce new ideas into its agenda that appeal both to the base and to rural and working-class whites, or at least to the persuadable among them, such as the millions who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016.

Fortunately, if Democrats do take back at least one house of Congress in November (and I’m well aware that this is far from guaranteed), they will have a powerful platform from which to formulate new ideas. The question is whether they will use that power shrewdly. The future of American democracy may ride on the answer.

And my fear is, even if Dems take back Congress in November they’ll do nothing in particular except issue a few platitudes about how “now is not the time” to do blah blah blah, and Republicans will win in 2020.

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The Carter Page FISA Application Dump

Trump Maladministration

The FBI released a redacted copy of the initial FISA application to conduct sureillance on Carter Page. What does it show us? For one thing, it shows us that Devin Nunes is a liar. ‘

This is from Lawfare:

Now we have some additional information in the form of the redacted FISA applications themselves, and the Nunes memo looks even worse. In my earlier post, I observed that the FBI’s disclosures about Steele were contained in a footnote, but argued that this did not detract from their sufficiency: “As someone who has read and approved many FISA applications and dealt extensively with the FISA Court, I will anticipate and reject a claim that the disclosure was somehow insufficient because it appeared in a footnote; in my experience, the court reads the footnotes.” Now we can see that the footnote disclosing Steele’s possible bias takes up more than a full page in the applications, so there is literally no way the FISA Court could have missed it. The FBI gave the court enough information to evaluate Steele’s credibility.

It is clear that the FBI had all kinds of reasons to think Carter Page was working for the Russian government.

Trump, of course, is claiming that the application vindicates him, which it does not. He probably doesn’t understand any of this. The man is as dumb as a sock.  But the GOP, of course, has a vested interest in keeping its base bamboozled, so they’re all on the bobblehead shows repeating the same old lies.

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Michael Cohen’s Tapes

Trump Maladministration

I wasn’t going to mention Michael Cohen’s tape of Trump discussing paying off a Playboy model, because, I mean, we know Trump is a dog. And it will make no difference to his base. There’s a chance the payment violated campaign finance law, of course. The most interesting part about it is that it involves the guy who owns American Media/the National Enquirer. The world would be a better place without the National Enquirer.

The real significance is that this is just the beginning. Manafort’s first trial is about to begin. There will be more trials. There will be a steady drip of revelations from now on. Charles Pierce:

My guess is that Cohen has tapes of everything. (If he’s smart, he does, anyway.) There will be a flood of them, sooner or later. I’ll let the legal ethics wonks parse out exactly how badly Cohen has blown up the canons of ethics. I suspect his law license is as far down his list of priorities now as it was when he was running clean-up errands. But he’s the first member of the inner circle to put a bargaining chip on the table. There will be other chips from other people. This is far from the last deal to go down.

Also:

If I’m the president*’s actual lawyers, I’m begging Rudy to stop helping now.

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Is U.S. Intelligence Treating Trump Like a Foreign Spy?

Trump Maladministration

In Charles Pierce’s words, last night “The New York Times took a 40-pound dunghammer to everything the president* has said on the subject of Russian ratfcking since election night in November of 2016 and left nothing but rubble behind.”

From the NY Times:

Two weeks before his inauguration, Donald J. Trump was shown highly classified intelligence indicating that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had personally ordered complex cyberattacks to sway the 2016 American election.

The evidence included texts and emails from Russian military officers and information gleaned from a top-secret source close to Mr. Putin, who had described to the C.I.A. how the Kremlin decided to execute its campaign of hacking and disinformation.

Mr. Trump sounded grudgingly convinced, according to several people who attended the intelligence briefing. But ever since, Mr. Trump has tried to cloud the very clear findings that he received on Jan. 6, 2017, which his own intelligence leaders have unanimously endorsed.

About the top-secret source close to Putin:

Ultimately, several human sources had confirmed Mr. Putin’s own role. That included one particularly valuable source, who was considered so sensitive that Mr. Brennan had declined to refer to it in any way in the Presidential Daily Brief during the final months of the Obama administration, as the Russia investigation intensified. Instead, to keep the information from being shared widely, Mr. Brennan sent reports from the source to Mr. Obama and a small group of top national security aides in a separate, white envelope to assure its security.

And the next question is, why make this public now? The answer is, as Kevin Drum says, it’s likely Trump burned those sources a long time ago.

The American intelligence community has been on edge over Trump practically from the start. But after Helsinki their hair must be on fire. This is basically a declaration of war against Trump, a public accusation that he’s known all along Putin ordered the election interference. One way or another, this is not going to end well.

Some people are alarmed.

Roll Call noted that the president’s intelligence briefings somehow dropped off the White House schedule for a couple of days.

For the second consecutive day since he broke with America’s spy agencies over Russia’s election meddling, President Donald Trump on Wednesday will not get an intelligence briefing.

The daily presidential guidance email sent out each evening by the White House initially featured only one item, an 11:30 a.m. Cabinet meeting. It was was updated Wednesday morning to include a 2 p.m. press briefing with Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Trump’s public schedule typically begins with a late-morning intelligence briefing in the Oval Office after his “executive time” in the White House residence, during which he tweets while watching cable news. He also uses that time to call lawmakers and friends, aides say.

The official guidance for Tuesday also did not include an intelligence briefing. Those sessions typically include senior intelligence leaders briefing Trump — and previous commanders in chief — on the top threats and developments from around the world, which can change in important ways from day to day.

There is an intelligence briefing on his schedule for today, and maybe there is an innocent explanation for the skipped briefings. But at this point it’s hard to believe anything can be innocent about the Trump White House.

Oh, and the punch line? House GOP refuses to renew election security funding as Democrats fume over Russian interference. Seriously. See also House Republicans defeat attempt to subpoena Trump interpreter.

Also, Washington is still trying to figure out what “agreements” were made at the surrender summit.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told reporters in Moscow yesterday that “important verbal agreements” were reached on a series of national security issues when the two leaders met one-on-one in Helsinki for more than two hours, joined only by translators. He mentioned the preservation of the New Start and INF arms control treaties and said Putin made “specific and interesting proposals” related to Syria.

“But officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military … had little to no information Wednesday,”Karen DeYoung, Missy Ryan and Anton Troianovski report. “At the Pentagon, as press officers remained unable to answer media questions about how the summit might impact the military, the paucity of information exposed an awkward gap in internal administration communications. … Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did not attend Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting with Trump and has not appeared in public this week or commented on the summit. …

The uncertainty surrounding Moscow’s suggestion of some sort of new arrangement or proposal regarding Syria, in particular, was striking because Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads U.S. Central Command, is scheduled to brief reporters on Syria and other matters Thursday. … Nonmilitary officials who were provided minimal, indirect readouts expressed confidence that no agreement had been struck with Putin on Syria, and that Trump — who early this year expressed a desire to withdraw all U.S. troops from that country — made clear to Putin that no American departure was imminent.

We’ll see. I want to link to a post written by Marcy Wheeler before the surrender summit.  “I believe Trump is cornered — has allowed himself to be cornered. And in spite of everything, Trump is prepared to go alone into a meeting on Monday with Vladimir Putin — the guy wielding both carrots and sticks against Trump — and make a deal.” And that deal probably involves Syria and Trump stepping aside to allow Russia to compromise U.S. intelligence. See also “At Helsinki Summit, Putin Re-enacts the June 9 Trump Tower Meeting.”

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Trump’s Retreat

Trump Maladministration

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, 1812

The full route may take a few more months, but I think it’s finally begun. Even the staid Business Insider is reporting that Trump is a “controlled spy.”

By now it’s clear that Trump was utterly gobsmacked by the reaction to the “surrender summit.” He probably still doesn’t understand what he did wrong. But he seems to think he fixed everything with his non-correcting correction yesterday, not noticing that nobody but his most besotted followers believed him. It certainly hasn’t stopped the criticism and speculation that Trump is working for Putin.

The Financial Times, also not exactly a left-wing rag:

Senior Republicans need now to step out of the shadow of Mr Trump — and remember their party’s honourable role in crafting the bipartisan foreign policy that saw the US through the cold war. The party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan should recoil at President Trump’s behaviour in Helsinki. It needs to rediscover its soul, before it is too late.

The Financial Times op ed is headlined “Trump, Putin and the betrayal of America.” Do read the whole thing.

Today, Captain Oblivious has gone back to bragging about his great success in Moscow. But now Moscow is sending out press releases about a “military agreement” reached in Helsinki. Say what?

Russia announced it was ready to pursue agreements reached by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump “in the sphere of international security,” though the White House and Pentagon would not confirm any agreements had been made or offer any details. …

… “The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation is ready for practical implementation of the agreements reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump in the sphere of international security achieved at the Helsinki summit,” Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday.

The Russian military “is ready to intensify contacts with the US colleagues in the General Staff and other available channels to discuss the extension of the START treaty, cooperation in Syria, as well as other issues of ensuring military security,” Konashenkov said.

Since nobody but Trump, Putin and the interpreters know what was said in the closed-door summit, nobody has any idea what the Russians are talking about. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen wants the U.S. translator to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what was said. Any senator who doesn’t support that proposal is a Russian tool, just like Trump. And Roy Blunt.

“Um…,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, pausing when asked if he wants to know what Trump said in the meeting. “I don’t understand the value of that two-hour meeting, but that’s the president’s decision to make not mine.”

You’re a senator, Senator. The Constitution says you have something to say about the president’s conduct of foreign policy. Remember?

Blunt, Devin Nunes, and some other obvious tools to the contrary, it’s clear the GOP establishment is shaken to its core by what happened in Helsinki. They may be more reluctant to cover Trump’s ass going forward.

Speaking of bare asses — A judge denied Paul Manafort’s request for a change of venue. More interesting, yesterday Bob Mueller asked a judge to grant immunity to five potential witnesses against Manafort so that they can’t plead the Fifth.

Manafort’s trial starts next week.

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The Fruits of GOP Health Care in Missouri

Trump Maladministration

Missouri is one of the states that didn’t expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and as a result its smaller rural hospitals are closing. The New York Times has a story about a woman, pregnant with twins, who went into early labor and suffered a four-hour road trip to get to a hospital that would accept her as a patient.

The hospital that had been nearly around the corner from her house had just closed. An emergency room 20 or so minutes away (on bumpy country roads, while the mother was in active labor) wouldn’t accept her because they weren’t set up for obstetric emergencies, apparently. The emergency room called for an ambulance, which arrived 25 minutes later, to take the mother to a medical center in Cape Girardeau, nearly 80 miles away. Fortunately, the twins were healthy after being delivered by c-section. But the mother ended up traveling about 100 miles to get to an obstetrician, bouncing around in car and ambulance while in active labor. Those of us who have given birth can appreciate what she went through.

I notice many commenters to the story criticize the mother for having children. Sorry; having babies is a basic human thing to do. The troglodytes want to simultaneously deprive women of a right to have babies and a right to abortion at the same time, it seems. Poor pregnant women must seem terribly inconvenient to them. And many commenters blamed her for voting for Trump. But the mother in the story is African American, which suggests to me a low probability that she was a Trump voter.

At some point, instead of blaming people for getting on with their lives in spite of dysfunctional government, we need to blame dysfunctional government. Indeed, we may need to do some basic rethinking about what government is for.  We seem to have forgotten something.

Small hospitals in poor rural areas live or die by Medicaid, so states that didn’t accept the federal Medicaid expansion killed their own hospitals. See, for example, “Lack of Medicaid expansion played part in Fulton hospital closing” in the Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, July 27, 2017.

When the owners of Fulton Medical Center announced Monday they would close the hospital because of mounting losses from uncompensated care and low patient numbers, they did not say it was because Missouri didn’t expand Medicaid.

They didn’t have to. The mayor of Fulton said it for them.

“That was one of the things they were hanging their hat onto to stop the bleeding and of course, that did not happen,” Mayor LeRoy Benton said.

The hospital lost $1 million between January and May, prompting University of Missouri HealthCare to put its minority stake up for sale and NueHealth on Monday to set Sept. 22 as the closing date. It will be the fourth rural hospital to close since advocates for Medicaid expansion began predicting that outcome if the state did not accept federal help to expand coverage for poor adults.

Now nursing homes are facing similar pressures. The uncertainty of federal health care policy as Congress debates repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid cuts, combined with cuts in state payments and a higher threshold to receive services, are straining the budgets of residential care facilities, said Nikki Strong, executive vice president of the Missouri Healthcare Association.

“We are looking at job losses all across the state,” Strong said. “Facilities have nowhere left to cut because they are currently underfunded. We are probably going to look at facility closures.”

The Fulton hospital was bought and saved at the last minute, but other hospitals around the state have closed, including the Twin Rivers Regional Medical Center that was a few minutes from the pregnant woman’s home.

Missouri has had a right-wing legislature for many years, and most recently they’ve been actively engaged in what I call the Kansas Two-Step:

One, cut taxes, especially for corporations, to attract job growth.

Two, cut essential services and education to make up the budget shortfall that inevitably follows, especially when the job growth doesn’t materialize.

The other essential functions of the legislature include thinking up damnfool ways to limit access to abortions while passing whatever “gun rights” bill the NRA is promoting. Oh, and protecting the rights of puppy mill owners. And that’s about it, as far as I can see.

But my next question is, why are obstetric services in particular hurt by hospital closing? Why wouldn’t an emergency room be prepared to deliver babies, even by c-section? The NY Times article doesn’t say, but I suspect the problem is that private for-profit insurance really does not like covering obstetric care and won’t unless forced to. Without some kind of mandate to cover it, pregnancy and maternity services are among the first considered “nonessential” and dropped by insurers. Apparently there’s no profit to be made from human gestation. Facilities that are mostly dependent on private insurance reimbursement may want to minimize the obstetric services they provide.

You’d think the allegedly pro-life state government would care about lowering Missouri’s above-average infant mortality rate, but I guess not.

You might remember we recently had a sudden change in the governor’s office. The new governor is Republican Mike Parsons. Here are some recent stories about him.

Parsons Signs Income Tax Cut.

Parsons Vetoed Program for Stroke and Heart Attack Victims.

Parson signs budget that blocks funding to Missouri Planned Parenthood clinics.

The Kansas Two-Step continues.

On a national level, of course, the Republican Party spent the entire Obama Administration claiming they had a better way to fund health care. Paul Ryan in particular had some nice talking points about “patient-centered health care” which, according to the details, basically meant getting government out of the way so that private insurers could make bigger profits by not paying for health care. But as we all remember when a Republican majority House and Senate had a clear path to passing any health care bill their black little hearts desired, they failed.

And, of course, who can forget this fool:

So many great options, he said. All of them involve weakening the Affordable Care Act without replacing it with anything. I notice he’s not talking about health care any more. On to bigger disasters!

I’m finally seeing some ads from Josh Hawley, the Republican running against Claire McCaskill. I’ve seen this one over and over and over —

OMG, we can’t have libruhls in charge of anything! That’s not Missouri’s way! Missouri’s way is to make a laboring woman suffer a four-hour trip to get to a hospital! Because we’re cutting back on health servvices! But rich people get tax cuts and we keep those puppy mills open!

The state is doomed.

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What About that Putin-Trump Presser, Eh?

Trump Maladministration

Possibly the dumbest reaction I’ve seen so far of today’s Trump debacle is from Ross Douthat.

While much of the world sputters in outrage and astonishment at Trump’s performance today, others of us are saying yeah, we told you so. He’s a stooge.

Jonathan Swan at Axios:

“I just have no words. As press in this room, we are all sitting in here speechless and stunned. Trump cast doubt over the U.S. intelligence community and endorsed Putin’s denial. Trump was given an opportunity to denounce the meddling and he didn’t; he just pivoted to lines about the missing server and Hillary’s emails. While Putin spoke forcefully, lying, Trump nodded along. There’s no way of sugar coating or spinning this.”

Jonathan Chait, At Summit With Russia, Trump Betrays His Country in Plain Sight

Standing next to Vladimir Putin, after a meeting Putin had requested, President Trump was asked by a reporter if he believed the findings of his own intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. He began by floating unfounded accusations that the FBI had ignored his opponent’s misdeeds. Then he proceeded to express his doubts. “All I can do is ask the question,” said Trump. “My people came to me, Dan Coats came to me, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin, he just said it’s not Russia. I’ll say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Trump told the world he trusts the denial of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin — the very man who did the deed! — over his own government’s intelligence. Trump can’t think of a reason why Putin would have interfered in the election. The fact that Russia has interfered in multiple elections, the fact its propaganda arm had broadcast its preference for Trump, the fact American intelligence concluded Russia intervened, that Robert Mueller has produced multiple indictments detailing evidence of this interference, all mean less to him than Putin’s say-so. Putin admitted at this press conference he wanted Trump to win.

Eric Levitz, Trump Endorses Putin Proposal to Have Russian Operatives Work on Mueller Probe

At the press conference hours later, Trump was asked whether he held “Russia at all accountable” for tensions between Moscow and Washington — and if so, to specify what precisely he held Putin responsible for.

“We have both made some mistakes,” Trump replied. But instead of naming a single, specific mistake that Russia had made (like, say, invading Crimea, or meddling in American and European elections, or, ostensibly, making a habit of launching botched assassination attempts with Soviet-era nerve agents on the streets of the United Kingdom), the president focused on the great mistake that America had made — when it chose to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“The probe is a disaster for our country,” Trump said. “I think it’s kept us apart, it’s kept us separated. There was no collusion at all. Everybody knows it.”

And yeah, Trump thinks this is a swell idea:

Trump went on to endorse Putin’s idea for how that probe should operate going forward: Russian law enforcement would agree to interrogate the 12 Russians that Mueller had indicted — and allow members of his team to observe those interrogations — in exchange for the United States agreeing to interrogate American intelligence officials whom the Kremlin has accused of committing crimes against Russia (with Russian law enforcement in the room).

Here’s a portion of the actual transcript:

A question for each president; President Trump, you first.

Just now, President Putin denied having anything to do with the election interference in 2016. Every U.S. intelligence agency has concluded that Russia did.

What — who — my first question for you, sir, is who do you believe?

My second question is would you now, with the whole world watching, tell President Putin, would you denounce what happened in 2016 and would you warn him to never do it again?

TRUMP: So let me just say that we have two thoughts. You have groups that are wondering why the FBI never took the server — haven’t they taken the server. Why was the FBI told to leave the office of the Democratic National Committee?

I’ve been wondering that, I’ve been asking that for months and months and I’ve been tweeting it out and calling it out on social media. Where is the server? I want to know where is the server and what is the server saying?

With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me, Dan Coates came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia.

I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be. But I really do want to see the server.

But I have — I have confidence in both parties. I — I really believe that this will probably go on for a while, but I don’t think it can go on without finding out what happened to the server. What happened to the servers of the Pakistani gentleman that worked on the DNC? Where are those servers? They’re missing; where are they? What happened to Hillary Clinton’s e-mails? 33,000 e-mails gone — just gone. I think in Russia they wouldn’t be gone so easily. I think it’s a disgrace that we can’t get Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 e-mails.

So I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

And what he did is an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that’s an incredible offer. OK?

The DNC servers were never missing, and I would point out that whatever might have been in Hillary Clinton’s emails doesn’t excuse Trump’s failure to defend the United States.

Paul Waldman, For Republicans, Russian sabotage of our elections is no big deal:

When it comes to Republicans, we’re faced with two related issues. First, there are members of their party who actively benefited from Russian manipulation of our election, and even sought out help that turned out to come from Russia, whether they fully understood it at the time. Second, much of the rest of their party is now arguing that it’s really no big deal if the Russians manipulate American elections, so long as the GOP is the one that benefits.

And today we got the extraordinary spectacle of the president of the United States standing alongside the Russian dictator, saying he takes that dictator at his word and belittling the investigation into Russia’s attack on American democracy. Which led the former director of the CIA to tweet this:

Oh, and this happened yesterday:

A Russian woman with close ties to the National Rifle Association was arrested Sunday and charged with “conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government,” according to a criminal complaint unsealed Monday.

Mariia Butina is accused of acting as an unregistered agent on Russia’s behalf between 2015 and 2017, in collaboration with “others known and unknown, including an official of the Russian Federation,” according to the complaint.

Butina is a former assistant of Alexander Torshin, a top official at the Russian Central Bank who is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for channeling money to the NRA to benefit Trump’s 2016 campaign. The pair have been under scrutiny by journalists and investigators for months, thanks to a bombshell January report in McClatchy that first revealed the FBI’s financial probe.

Butina and Torshin have close ties to the NRA, which is not named in the criminal complaint or supporting affidavit but is referred to as a “Gun Rights Organization.”

David Ignatius wrote this yesterday:

In putting all the detail into the indictment, Mueller was giving Russian intelligence a hint of how much America can see. But this public disclosure may mask much deeper capabilities — perhaps a capacity to expose many more layers of GRU military-intelligence operations and those by the Russian civilian spy services, the FSB and the SVR. American intelligence agencies rarely tip their hand this way by disclosing so much in an indictment; clearly they did so here to send messages.

Explains one former CIA officer: “Given that we clearly had so much of the Russian internal communication and cyber footprints, they must be asking what else do we have? Do we have communications between the units and more senior officers in the GRU? With the General Staff? With the Kremlin? With Putin? Probably not the latter directly, but the Russians are very bureaucratic and it’s hard for me to imagine there is not a clear trail of higher level approvals, progress reports, etc.”

Friday’s indictment is a legal document. But it’s also a shot across the Kremlin’s bow. The message is: If you don’t stop cyber-operations against the United States, we have the detailed information to identify and disrupt your intelligence services, officers, sources and methods. Mueller isn’t asking Russia to stop; he’s warning them of the consequences of going forward.

A lot of people have been assuming that Trump pooh-poohs allegations of Russian interference in the election because he fears it makes his administration seem illegitimate. After today I don’t see how anyone can assume that Trump wasn’t just plain compromised all along. Today was a big, fat, public quid pro quo.

Back to Ignatius:

The indictment also sends a message to President Trump and members of his entourage who are potential targets of Mueller’s probe: Here’s a hint of what we know; how much are you willing to wager that we don’t know a lot more about Russian contacts and collusion? For example, the indictment is a proffer of Mueller’s information about contacts between GRU cut-out “Guccifer 2.0” and Roger Stone, Trump’s friend and adviser. What else does Mueller have? …

… And here’s a spooky final question: How much has the intelligence community told Trump about its operations against Russia? If you were one of the American intelligence officers who helped gather the information that’s included in Friday’s indictment, what would you think about the fact that Trump has asked for a private meeting first with Putin?

And, of course, we don’t know what Trump and Putin said to each other behind closed doors today.

See also Charles Pierce, The Crisis Is Upon Us.

Update: John McCain’s finest hour?

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released the following statement today on President Trump’s meeting and press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki:

“Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.

“President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.

“It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout – as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience. But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties, and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.

“Coming close on the heels of President Trump’s bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today’s press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American Presidency. That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisors makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.

“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.”

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About the New Indictments

Trump Maladministration

Just saw this on my Facebook feed:

The Lawfare blog:

The timing of the indictment given the upcoming Helsinki summit is a powerful show of strength by federal law enforcement. Let’s presume that Mueller did not time this indictment to precede the summit by way of embarrassing Trump on the international stage. It is enough to note that he also did not hold off on the indictment for a few days by way of sparing Trump embarrassment—and that Rosenstein did not force him to. Indeed, Rosenstein said at his press conference that it is “important for the president to know what information was uncovered because he has to make very important decisions for the country” and therefore “he needs to know what evidence there is of foreign election interference.” But of course Rosenstein and Mueller did not just let Trump know. They also let the world know, which has the effect—intended or not—of boxing in the president as he meets with an adversary national leader.

Put less delicately: Rosenstein has informed the president, and the world, before Trump talks to Putin one-on-one that his own Justice Department is prepared to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, in public, using admissible evidence, that the president of the Russian Federation has been lying to Trump about Russian non-involvement in the 2016 election hacking.

Of course, a normal U.S. president probably would have called off the scheduled summit with the Russian president. You know, the summit in which only translators will be present so that nobody can know what Trump and Putin say to each other. That summit.  Trump’s only response so far has been to blame the hacking on Barack Obama.

Among other details you might not have heard, Maryland learned this week that its voter registration platform belongs to a Russian oligarch.

Speaking of Russian oligarchs, don’t miss the New Yorker article by Adam Davidson on Trump’s Scottish golf course, which is losing him tons of money:

This property has not received the attention it deserves. It is, by far, the biggest investment the Trump Organization has made in years. It is so much bigger than his other recent projects that it would not be unreasonable to describe the Trump Organization as, at its core, a manager of a money-losing Scottish golf course that is kept afloat with funds from licensing fees and decades-old real-estate projects.  …

… Using what appears to be more than half of the company’s available cash to purchase Trump Turnberry makes no obvious sense for any business person, but especially for Donald Trump. It is a bizarre, confounding move that raises questions about the central nature of his business during the years in which he prepared for and then executed his Presidential campaign.

The question about this and other Trump properties: “There simply isn’t enough money coming into Trump’s known business to cover the massive outlay he spent on Turnberry,” Davidson writes. So where did this money come from? If you keep reading, you will notice the word laundering does turn up quite a bit. See also “Trump’s Mystery Money.”

By all appearances, Trump is Putin’s tool.

See also:

The nation’s top intelligence officer said on Friday that the persistent danger of Russian cyberattacks today was akin to the warnings the United States had of stepped-up terror threats ahead of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That note of alarm sounded by Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, came on the same day that 12 Russian agents were indictedon charges of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Mr. Coats said those indictments illustrated Moscow’s continuing strategy to undermine the United States’ democracy and erode its institutions.

“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Mr. Coats said as he cautioned of cyberthreats. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”

What’s the Trump Administration doing to protect the voting system? Nothing at all, that I’ve heard.

Also:

In total, Friday’s announcement brought the count for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team to 191 criminal charges against 32 people and three Russian companies, including Trump’s former campaign head, Paul Manafort; Manafort’s assistant, Rick Gates; his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn; a foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos; and 25 Russian nationals. (In an investigation delegated at least in part by Mueller’s office to federal prosecutors in New York, FBI agents also raided the offices of Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, who has not been charged with anything so far.)

The end game, of course, is to weaken the U.S. and the European alliances. And it’s all going according to plan so far. See Amy Zegart, “The Self-Inflicted Demise of American Power” at The Atlantic.

Many experts believe the chief challenge of managing President Trump’s foreign policy is keeping Trump on message. They’re wrong. Trump isn’t misspeaking when he ignores his talking points, insults allies, or congratulates Putin on winning a sham election. He’s not veering off script when he declares that North Korea is no longer a nuclear threat just because Kim Jong Un posed for a photo in Singapore. Trump is actually on message nearly every day and in every tweet. It’s just not a message that most serious national-security experts want to hear. Deep in the recesses of our brains, we experts just cannot believe that an American president would pursue so many profoundly shortsighted policies—or that he would actually believe he’s doing a good job.

Trump has a foreign-policy doctrine, all right. He’s been advancing it with remarkable speed, skill, and consistency. Its effect can be summed up in one neat slogan: Make America Weak Again.

He’s going a heck of a job, folks.

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Happy Friday the 13th

Trump Maladministration

Cartoon by Bob Rogers before he was fired from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for being critical of Donald Trump.

What a day! The Creature makes a complete ass of himself in Britain, and then Bob Mueller indicts 12 Russians for hacking Democrats during the 2016 election campaigns.

Let’s start with the hack. Well, no, let’s start with the House. Politico is reporting that House Republicans are pushing to impeach Rod Rosenstein.

House conservatives are preparing a new push to oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to three conservative Capitol Hill sources — putting the finishing touches on an impeachment filing even as Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the 2016 election.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, in fact, had the impeachment document on the floor of the House at the very moment that Rosenstein spoke to reporters and TV cameras Friday. …

… Conservative sources say they could file the impeachment document as soon as Monday, as Meadows and Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) look to build Republican support in the House. One source cautioned, however, that the timing was still fluid.

After the spectacle Jordon et al. made of themselves yesterday you would think they’d all be a bit more humble, especially since somebody who is probably in the House now is in big trouble

A congressional candidate requested and received documents allegedly stolen from Democratic Party entities by Russian intelligence operatives during the 2016 election, a federal indictment filed Friday alleged.

The indictment brought by special counsel Robert Mueller alleges that the unidentified candidate made the electronic request on Aug. 15, 2016, and in return received “stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent.”

Oh,  my, I wonder who that is? And there’s more.

The indictment also mentions “Guccifer 2.0” sending documents to a “then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news” and to a reporter in August of 2016.

The lobbyist received 2.5 gigabytes of data stolen from the DCCC, according to the indictment, including “donor records and personal identifying information for more than 2,0000 Democratic donors.”

The details about this interaction align with the account of Aaron Nevins, a Florida-based Republican political operative who admitted to asking “Guccifer 2.0” for any stolen documents relevant to his state. Nevins told the Wall Street Journal that he received details about the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote strategy in Florida and other swing state, and posted it on his blog, HelloFLA.com, under a pseudonym.

“Guccifer 2.0” subsequently flagged the blog post to Trump ally Roger Stone, who said he did not share the stolen data with anyone.

And in a wonderfully juicy concidence, the Russians made their first attempt at hacking Hillary Clinton’s email server on the same day that Trump famously said “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” I guess they were listening.

In Britain (not “England,” Donald) The Creature denied trashing Prime Minister May even after the Sun posted the recording of the interview in which he trashed her. Smooth.

See also Charles Pierce, This Ongoing National Disgrace Is Perfectly Fine with Republicans in Congress. See also Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Rise of Radical Incompetence.

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