Q-razy

Trump Maladministration

To me, the most bizarre belief of the QAnon hoax is that the military chose Trump to be president. This is from a fascinating interview with a real-life QAnon believer in the Washington Post.

The Clintons, he said, “subverted” Barack Obama, whose presidency, according to QAnon, caused mounting dissatisfaction in the military, where Burton has been led to believe the seed of “Q” was planted.

“Apparently military brass in the Pentagon got sick and tired of it, and they found a candidate that they could discuss everything with,” Burton said. “And apparently they went to Trump and asked Trump to run.”

I asked him why these renegades chose Trump. “They probably thought he would win,” he said.

Or, maybe it’s this part:

The Russia investigation is a sham. It’s actually a cover story for special counsel Robert Mueller and Donald Trump working together to expose thousands of pedophiles hidden in plain sight — including Hillary Clinton (and Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama), who will soon be under arrest. (Or perhaps already have been and are on their way to Guantanamo Bay.)

Another theory is that the Clintons and Obamas are under a weird house arrest, even though they travel a lot, and must wear ankle bracelets. Also, too:

The GOP lost the Alabama special election for Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat on purpose — a plan devised years ago to reveal the use of fraudulent voting machines and, ultimately, take down none other than George Soros. Or the Rothschilds. Or the Illuminati.

Conspiracy theories about George Soros are a whole genre in themselves, of course. A few months ago I started seeing references to the Rothschilds in social media posts and thought I was hallucinating. But no, we don’t have enough curren craziness but must resurrect 19th century conspiracy theories. And who knows how old the hoaxes about the Illuminati have been in circulation.

But talk about crazy —

And there’s no White House chaos at all; in fact, despite legal scandals and special counsel investigations and bile-laden tweets, everything, absolutely everything, is going just as Donald Trump intended it. …

… [QAnon] has one overarching — and, if you’re a Trump supporter, hopeful — message: Donald Trump is in complete control. Of everything.

Which begs the question — if he has all this control, why evey play games? Why not just use executive power to smite his deep state enemies?

It doesn’t seem to matter that Q’s prophecies don’t come  true.

In a posting on November 1, 2017, Q said that on November 3 and 4, John Podesta, chair of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, would be arrested, military control would take hold, and “public riots would be organized in serious numbers to prevent the arrest and capture of more senior public officials.”

And who is Q? Maybe Trump himself. Or, maybe John F. Kennedy, Jr., faked his own death in order to establish himself as Q. Yeah, that makes sense.

Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964:

The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.

Now we’ve evolved to a new level in which the government is still evil (except for the military part), but Trump is some kind of messiah figure come to save it. I have noticed that in the theorists’ addled brains Trump is not part of “the government.” If anyone tries to reason with any of them, they often retort something along the lines of “Oh, you believe THE GOVERNMENT story, huh?” If you point out to them that Trump is part of THE GOVERNMENT, and in fact is in charge of it, that visibly disorients them.

The Hofstadter article reminds us that the extreme right has believed since the end of World War II that the U.S. government has been infiltrated by evil people trying to undermine America, and so in some ways the “deep state” isn’t anything new.  It used to be Communists, of course. I’m not sure all the conspiracists agree who the deep state serves. Many put Them — whether liberals, radical jihadists, homosexuals, whatever — all in the same camp, as illogical as that may be.

Is it worse now than it used to be? The crazies used to believe that Dwight Eisenhower was working for the Communists. But now we have social media, which tends to act as a feedback loop that drivess people further and further into the fever swamp.

Hofstadter:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Let’s just say that this all bears watching. If something happens that forces them to face reality — Bob Mueller exposes Trump as a traitor, say — they could get very dangerous.

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Trump Panic

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Yesterday’s tweet in which Trump demanded (even though he did say “should”) that Robert Mueller be fired has cranked the Russian collusion drama up to another level. Do read:

Josh Marshall, I Don’t Buy This Explanation

Paul Waldman, Trump’s impotence on the Mueller investigation is driving him batty

Margaret Hartman, Team Trump’s Explanations for Mueller Tirade Make Less and Less Sense

 

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The Trump Vs. Koch Smackdown

Trump Maladministration

Trump may change his tune very quickly, but as of today he’s at war with the Koch Brothers.


We may learn some day that Stephen Miller is the true author of all of Trump’s tweets. Otherwise, Trump certainly is a really stupid judge of which fights to pick. As Charles Pierce said, the Koch brothers “can buy and sell him back two generations.” If Trump makes Republican candidates for office choose between him and the Kochs, I believe most would choose the Kochs. They owe the Kochs a lot more favors.

However, the Kochs are sitting on a lot of their money in this election cycle. Jane Coaston writes for Vox:

The tweets come a day after representatives of the Koch network — founders of the Cato Institute, one of the main funders behind the Tea Party movement and a major force in GOP politics over the past decade — announced that the group will not support North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer in his incredibly tight race against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. …

… the Koch network — which, despite a contentious relationship with Trump, had previously voiced support for the president’s tax bill and other planned legislation — is pushing away from not just Trump but the GOP, with founder Charles Koch telling reporters at that weekend event that his groups had made “mistakes” and that he has “regrets” about the one-party focus the network has had in past elections.

Specifically, while Koch-connected groups have worked closely with the White House on issues like criminal justice reform, the Koch network is unhappy with the GOP’s handling of two specific policy areas: trade and immigration, issues on which the Kochs’ libertarian leanings cause them to break with the administration. …

… Koch network groups had planned in January to spend as much as $400 million on the 2018 midterms — including $20 million on selling the GOP tax cuts to voters.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the Kochs put much more money into state-level candidates and legislative initiatives than they do presidential politics. If you control most of the states, who needs the feds?

Steve Bannon, who controls absolutely nothing, issued a laughable warning:

“You take Koch money, it’s going to be toxic. We are going to let people know that if you take Koch money there’s a punishment,” Bannon, former chief White House strategist and Trump campaign chief executive, told CNBC in an exclusive interview. “If you take money from people who are against the president and are looking to put a knife in the back of the president, you are going to pay.”

So are they going to get money from Trump or Bannon instead? Fat chance.

This particular tiff, by itself, may go nowhere. But I suspect that someday, when historians are investigating the smoldering ruins of Trumpism, pissing off the Kochs will be identified as an accelerant.

See also Philip Bump,   Trump’s two-track strategy: The rich get richer, and the poor get distracted. Also Greg Sargent, In a new tweetstorm, Trump gives his voters the middle finger.

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Mnuchin Wants Another Tax Cut!

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This just in, from the New York Times:

The Trump administration is considering bypassing Congress to grant a $100 billion tax cut mainly to the wealthy, a legally tenuous maneuver that would cut capital gains taxation and fulfill a long-held ambition of many investors and conservatives.

What the bleep? The executive branch can’t change tax law, can it?

Steven Mnuchin,

Let us not forget that Mnuchin is a parasite who made a bundle foreclosing on people during the 2008 meltdown.

the Treasury secretary, said in an interview on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting in Argentina this month that his department was studying whether it could use its regulatory powers to allow Americans to account for inflation in determining capital gains tax liabilities. The Treasury Department could change the definition of “cost” for calculating capital gains, allowing taxpayers to adjust the initial value of an asset, such as a home or a share of stock, for inflation when it sells.

Even I can figure out that if you’ve got rising inflation and low capital gains rates, you could erase a whole lot of  profit for tax purposes.

“If it can’t get done through a legislation process, we will look at what tools at Treasury we have to do it on our own and we’ll consider that,” Mr. Mnuchin said, emphasizing that he had not concluded whether the Treasury Department had the authority to act alone. “We are studying that internally, and we are also studying the economic costs and the impact on growth.”

Would this provide economic stimulus?

 Independent analyses suggest that more than 97 percent of the benefits of indexing capital gains for inflation would go to the top 10 percent of income earners in America. Nearly two-thirds of the benefits would go to the super wealthy — the top 0.1 percent of American income earners.

Nope, probably not.

Making the change by fiat would be a bold use of executive power — one that President George Bush’s administration considered and rejected in 1992, after concluding that the Treasury Department did not have the power to make the change on its own. Larry Kudlow, the chairman of the National Economic Council, has long advocated it.

Larry Kudlow is the moron who declared a month ago that the U.S. deficit was going down. Grover Norquist also thinks this is a great idea.

“This would be in terms of its economic impact over the next several years, and long term, similar in size as the last tax cut,” Mr. Norquist said, suggesting that making the change would raise revenue for the government by creating new economic efficiencies and faster growth. “I think it’s going to happen and it’s going to be huge.”

He and others said last year’s tax cut would also pay for itself, but despite strong economic growth, corporate tax receipts have plunged and the deficit has soared.

Sober people with calculators weigh in:

According to the budget model used by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, indexing capital gains to inflation would reduce government revenues by $102 billion over a decade, with 86 percent of the benefits going to the top 1 percent. A July report from the Congressional Research Service said that the additional debt incurred by indexing capital gains to inflation would most likely offset any stimulus that the smaller tax burden provided to the economy.

“It is unlikely, however, that a significant, or any, effect on economic growth would occur from a stand-alone indexing proposal,” the report said.

Of course it won’t. But, you know, I really want Mnuchin to push for this so that it gets in the news and everybody hears that the Trump Administration is pushing for another giveaway to the rich. Because tax cuts for the rich are unpopular with voters. This is from June 2018:

This month, an NBC/WSJ poll of registered voters in swing congressional House districts found that a candidate’s support for the tax law passed in December might cost them in this November’s election.

Forty-two percent of voters were less likely to vote for a candidate who supported the tax law compared to 36 percent who said that they were more likely. That difference might seem small but in a highly competitive House race, it’s huge.

I also want The Creature to keep threatening to shut down the government if Congress doesn’t fund his fool wall. And then I want to see lots and lots of ads juxtapoxing Trump’s threats with videos of him swearing Mexico will pay for the wall. Even the Democrats ought to be able to use this nonsense to club the entire Republican party to death.

See also Paul Krugman, Trump’s Supreme Betrayal.

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Trump Lies Like a Rug

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What Trump (or some designated flunky) tweeted this morning:

What A.G. Sulzberger says what happened:

My main purpose for accepting the meeting was to raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric.

I told the president directly that I thought that his language was not just divisive but increasingly dangerous.

I told him that although the phrase “fake news” is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists “the enemy of the people.” I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.

I repeatedly stressed that this is particularly true abroad, where the president’s rhetoric is being used by some regimes to justify sweeping crackdowns on journalists. I warned that it was putting lives at risk, that it was undermining the democratic ideals of our nation, and that it was eroding one of our country’s greatest exports: a commitment to free speech and a free press.

Throughout the conversation I emphasized that if President Trump, like previous presidents, was upset with coverage of his administration he was of course free to tell the world. I made clear repeatedly that I was not asking for him to soften his attacks on The Times if he felt our coverage was unfair. Instead, I implored him to reconsider his broader attacks on journalism, which I believe are dangerous and harmful to our country.

Sad!

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Stuff to Read

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Here are two opinion pieces to read together; they are saying about the same thing.

One, and IMO the better of the two, is Andrew O’Hehir, Democratic moderates fear the “socialist left” will wreck the party: They want to keep that gig.

Just a taste:

Hubert Humphrey, the leading Democratic moderate of Hillary Clinton’s youth, would find little to object to in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, beyond the labeling on the package. (Once the Happy Warrior figured out what ICE and super PACs were, and what they had done to America, he’d go out and ring doorbells in her district.) Then again, Humphrey had no fear of open and often heated ideological conflict, which was a staple of Democratic discourse for decades and is exactly what the “democratic socialist” insurrection has reintroduced since 2016.

Those who shut down such internal conflict and purged the activist left from the Democratic Party, on the premise that it was the only possible way to win elections in a “centrist,” anti-ideological nation, have never faced the consequences of their historic blunder. They have lost repeatedly and on a grand scale, insisting every time that they really should have won — or in some other, better world, did win — and that whatever went wrong was somebody else’s fault. They are the ones who appear committed to an inflexible, dogmatic ideology that is out of step with political reality. They are surprised and outraged to learn that if they want to continue their losing streak, they will have to fight for it.

Two, Thomas Frank, Can liberals please work out how to win back the working class?

For all their cunning, Republicans are a known quantity. Their motives are simple: they will do anything, say anything, profess faith in anything to get tax cuts, deregulation and a little help keeping workers in line. Nothing else is sacred to them. Rules, norms, traditions, deficits, the Bible, the constitution, whatever. They don’t care, and in this they have proven utterly predictable.

The Democrats, however, remain a mystery. We watch them hesitate at crucial moments, betray the movements that support them, and even try to suppress the leaders and ideas that generate any kind of populist electricity. Not only do they seem uninterested in doing their duty toward the middle class, but sometimes we suspect they don’t even want to win.

Do read them both. Frank is perhaps a degree more “shrill” than I am, but I am not going to say he’s wrong.

Just this morning I saw a paid ad on social media with Nancy Pelosi asking for donations to help the Democrats “protect Obama’s legacy.” I wanted to throw rocks at her.  Not that I wouldn’t give a lot to just put everything back to where it was before Trump took office, but I always saw “Obama’s legacy” — which was mostly Obamacare — as just provisional, just a foot in the door that might be built into something better. But the establishment Dems want to sell it as the whole pie and not just a taste.

For your daily dose of Why Trump is a Pile of Crap, do read ‘Deleted’ families: What went wrong with Trump’s family-separation effort.

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Trump Is Coming Apart

Trump Maladministration

Let’s review:

We still don’t know exactly who leaked the revelation that Cohen can testify that Trump knew about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting in advance, and why. There are all kinds of theories, including one that it came from Trump’s camp to take away Cohen’s biggest bargaining chip and/or diffuse the impact of what would inevitably come out, anyway.

Jonathan Chait writes that at least two other people had previously said Trump knew about the meeting in advance. Former Trump aide Sam Nunberg told Jake Tapper in an interview last March that Trump had been told. Also,

Steve Bannon has said the same thing. (“The chance that Don. Jr did not walk these Jumos up to his father’s office on the 26th floor is zero.”) This is obvious. In a loosely structured campaign, with people coming in and out of Trump’s office at will, and all of them desperately vying for the boss’s approval, the notion that they could set up what they believed to be a meeting that would deliver devastating dirt on Crooked Hillary and not tell Trump what they had done is preposterous.

See also Josh Marshall:

Two days before the Trump Tower meeting, on June 7th 2016, President Trump made a statement teasing a big speech with new dirt about Hillary Clinton that he said would probably happen on June 13th.

You can video of that statement here.

The speech never happened. It was supposedly delayed because of the Pulse Night Club massacre on June 12th. But it was never rescheduled. There was a different speech. But it seemed clearly not to be the one he promised on June 7th.

So, yeah, he knew about the meeting; he green-lighted the meeting; he was all in on colluding with Russia to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. That’s beyond doubt at this point.

Then there’s what happened in the aftermath of the Times stories breaking the news about the Trump Tower meeting that were published just over a year ago. Mueller’s investigators have focused closely on the fact that President Trump dictated a statement which was released in the name of his son Don Jr. about the meeting. It was a false cover story which quickly fell apart. He claimed it was about adoptions. How did he know about it? Well, it seems that he knew about it in advance. But there’s another thread to the story.

Trump dictated that false statement, with the cover story about adoptions only hours after he had a one on one meeting with Vladimir Putin (with no other US persons involved) which was apparently also about adoptions. As I explain here, if you put all this information together, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that not only did President Trump know about the Trump Tower meeting in advance but that he concocted his false cover story with the assistance of Vladimir Putin. See the details here.

After that ghastly spectacle in Helsinki, who can doubt that Trump is Putin’s poodle? Other than hard-core Trump cultists? Speaking of which,

Donald Trump’s historic unpopularity has yet to harden into conventional wisdom, even as he’s trailed previous presidents in job approval at nearly every point in his administration. Instead, mainstream pundits and reporters focus on his relatively high marks with Republican voters, convinced that this gives insight into his political standing.

But, as centrist Democrats keep reminding us, it’s those swing voters you have to persuade. You might remember that the day after the 2016 election, the New York Times ran an analysis showing that Clinton truly lost in the election in the rust belt:

The red indicates biggest change from Democrat to Republican votes from 2012.

A whole lot of what had been considered reliable Democratic precincts went to Trump in 2016. The latest polls show us that support for Trump has eroded in those same areas, big-time.

In Michigan, where Trump won by 11,000 votes, 54 percent of registered voters disapprove of his performance, compared to 36 percent who approve. In Minnesota, where he narrowly lost, 51 percent currently disapprove, compared to 38 percent who approve. And in Wisconsin, a state he won by 23,000 votes, 52 percent disapprove, compared to 36 who approve.

By wide margins, voters in these states want a Democratic Congress. They want that Congress to act as a “check and balance” on Trump. Despite the growing economy, few give him credit for economic improvement, and looking ahead to 2020, nearly two-thirds in each state say it’s time to “give a new person a chance” in the White House.

The hard Trump support is unwavering. But the “soft” support, the voters who maybe weren’t crazy about him but were even less crazy about Hillary Clinton, are getting over Trump now. Unfortunately, major news media still play along with a meta message that Trump is wildly popular with his base and is therefore untouchable.

But let’s now review what else we knew, as of yesterday.

One, Bob Mueller is still investigating. We don’t know what he knows.

Two, the Southern District of New York has subpoenaed Allen Weisselberg, who has managed money for the Trump organization since Donald’s daddy was in charge of it. Weisselberg probably knows more about Trump’s money and where it came from than Trump does.

Three, the emoluments lawsuit is going forward, as of now, and unless Trump’s lawyers can stop it will almost certainly lead to more revelations about Trump’s money.

Four, the New York Attorney General also recently filed suit against the Donald Trump Foundation, “accusing the charity and the Trump family of sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign.”

Meanwhile, Dems are looking pretty good to take back the House in the midterms, at least.

Even through it feels as if these things are happening with excruciating slowness, they are happening. I predict that from here on out, events and revelations will slowly but surely grind Trump to bits.

Update: See also the Putin Factor. This opinion piece argues that the Russians will not hesitate to finish Trump off by releasing whatever it is they have on him if they decide he is no longer useful.

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And Then This Happened.

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Cohen claims Trump knew in advance of 2016 Trump Tower meeting

Apparently there are big questions about who leaked this information, and why. But it’s being widely reported.

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Closing In

Trump Maladministration

Yesterday a federal judge got to issue the first ever opinion on a particular constitutional matter.

In the first judicial opinion to define how the meaning of the Constitution’s anticorruption clauses should apply to a president, Judge Peter J. Messitte of the United States District Court in Greenbelt, Md., said the framers’ language should be broadly construed as an effort to protect against influence-peddling by state and foreign governments.

He ruled that the lawsuit should proceed to the evidence-gathering stage, which could clear the way for an examination of financial records that the president has consistently refused to disclose. The Justice Department is expected to forestall that by seeking an emergency stay and appealing the ruling.

Greg Sargent wrote yesterday,

Two of the biggest stories in Washington right now — President Trump’s battle with lawyer Michael Cohen, and a federal judge’s decision to let a lawsuit alleging ongoing violations of the emoluments clause proceed — are both converging toward one endpoint. Both demonstrate the degree to which Trump places his personal interests before those of the American people, and both may shed light on that wretched reality in much more detail in coming days than Trump ever bargained for. …

… In that ruling, a federal judge denied Trump’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., which alleges that Trump, whose businesses are regularly patronized by foreign officials, is violating the Constitution’s ban on officials accepting emoluments from foreign governments. The court rejected Trump’s effort to define “emoluments” very narrowly, and instead accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that they constitute “profit,” “gain” or “advantage,” i.e., the sort of profits that go to Trump’s businesses. This means the case now moves forward to determine whether Trump reaped such profit, gain or advantage from foreign governments.

In an interview with me, Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is involved in the lawsuit, laid out the next steps: D.C. and Maryland will now seek discovery access to the financial records of Trump’s businesses — in particular, the hotel he owns in D.C. “We’re going to seek records to show what benefits and payments the president got, and that’s going to include extensive business and financial records,” Bookbinder said.

Of course, Trump’s lawyers right now must be looking for a Trump-friendly federal judge to issue a stay.

But if he fails, Bookbinder says, the discovery process could “prove that the president has been receiving payments,” demonstrating this in a new level of detail documenting “foreign officials staying at the Trump hotel,” which could in turn show that “the president is violating the constitution.”

There are all kinds of ways this could play out. The larger point is that Trump is now being squeezed on several sides — primarily by Bob Mueller, by the Southern District of New York’s Michael Cohen case, and now by this lawsuit. The New York Attorney General also recently filed suit against the Donald Trump Foundation, “accusing the charity and the Trump family of sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing and illegal coordination with the presidential campaign.”

Hey Donald — there’s no where to run to and no where to hide. And you can’t get out of this with a bunch of counter-suits.

Update: New stuff happening —

WSJ: Trump Organization CFO Subpoenaed In Cohen Probe

Veteran senior Trump Organization official Allen Weisselberg has been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury in the criminal probe of former Trump fixer Michael Cohen, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. …

…Weisselberg has worked at the Trump Organization since the 1970s, working his way up to become executive vice president and chief financial officer. He currently runs the business with Trump’s two adult sons. Weisselberg also served as the treasurer for the troubled Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was sued by the New York Attorney General for engaging in “repeated and willful self-dealing transactions to benefit Mr. Trump’s personal and business interests.”

 

Mueller Examining Trump’s Tweets in Wide-Ranging Obstruction Inquiry

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is scrutinizing tweets and negative statements from the president about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey, according to three people briefed on the matter.

Several of the remarks came as Mr. Trump was also privately pressuring the men — both key witnesses in the inquiry — about the investigation, and Mr. Mueller is examining whether the actions add up to attempts to obstruct the investigation by both intimidating witnesses and pressuring senior law enforcement officials to tamp down the inquiry.

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Democracy Theater

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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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