Tuesday Reads: More Trump-Russia Shoes Drop (and Other News)

Good Morning!!

Breaking News Update: This story broke while I was writing this post:

NBC News: Cleveland Facebook Killer: Steve Stephens Dead in Car After Pursuit by Pa. Police.

The nationwide manhunt for Steve Stephens, the man accused of posting video of a murder to Facebook, ended Tuesday when his body was found in a vehicle in Erie, Pa., police said.

Pennsylvania State Police confirmed to NBC News that Stephens had been spotted by Pennsylvania State Police shortly before 11:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. After a brief pursuit, police said Stephens shot and killed himself.

A couple more shoes dropped this morning in the endless Trump-Russia saga.

Bloomberg reported more details about Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s involvement in the campaign and transition. Bloomberg’s sources tried to downplay the notorious Seychelles meeting between Prince and a Putin aide and confidant and claimed it had nothing to do with Trump. Prince was often in Trump Tower, but was sneaked in through the back way to avoid being seen.

Yet over a two to three month period around the election, Prince met several times with top aides as the incoming government took shape, offering ideas on how to fight terror and restructure the country’s major intelligence agencies, according to information provided by five people familiar with the meetings. Among those he conferred with was Flynn, a member of the transition team who joined the administration and was later dismissed, some of the people said. He discussed possible government appointees with people in the private sector, one person said. Prince himself told several people that while he was not offering his advice in any official capacity, his role was significant….

The meetings occurred in Trump Tower, the administration’s transition office in Washington and elsewhere, according to people familiar with them. In one informal discussion in late November, Prince spoke openly with two members of Trump’s transition team on a train bound from New York to Washington. He boarded the same Acela as Kellyanne Conway and they sat together. Joining the conversation at one point was Kevin Harrington, a longtime associate of Trump adviser Peter Thiel who is now on the National Security Council. They discussed, in broad terms, major changes the incoming administration envisioned for the intelligence community, as recounted by a person on the train who overheard their conversation.

The article also discusses Trump’s involvement with Peter Thiel who, along with Prince, made large contributions to a PAC run by Robert Mercer (who got Bannon and Conway involved in the Trump campaign).

A longtime critic of government defense and security policies, Prince advocated a restructuring of security agencies as well as a thorough rethink of costly defense programs, even if it meant canceling existing major contracts in favor of smaller ones, said a person familiar with the matter.

Newsweek has a story on Steve Bannon’s ideological ties to Russia.

Bannon, a former banker turned film producer and right-wing polemicist, has praised not only Putin but also a brand of Russian mystical conservative nationalism known as Eurasianism, which is the closest the Kremlin has to a state ideology. Eurasianism proclaims that Russia’s destiny is to lead all Slavic and Turkic people in a grand empire to resist corrupt Western values. Its main proponent is Alexander Dugin. With his long beard and burning blue eyes, Dugin looks like a firebrand prophet. His philosophy glorifies the Russian Empire—while Bannon and the conservative website that he founded, Breitbart News, revived the slogan of “America first,” which Trump later adopted in his campaign….

Yet Bannon and Dugin have common cause in the idea that global elites have conspired against ordinary people—and the old order must be overthrown. “We have arrived at a moment where the world is discovering a new model of ideologies. The election of Trump shows that clearly,” Dugin tells Newsweek.

Bannon, in turn, seems to admire Dugin—as well as Putin’s Russia—for putting traditional values at the heart of a revival of national greatness. “We, the Judeo-Christian West, really have to look at what [Putin] is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism,” Bannon said at a Vatican-organized conference in 2014. “When you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of [Putin’s] beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism.” Bannon declined to respond to Newsweek’s questions about his position on Russia and Dugin.

Bannon and Dugin’s speeches and writings indicate that their common enemies are secularism, multiculturalism, egalitarianism—and what Dugin calls the “globalized and internationalist capitalist liberal elite.” In both Bannon’s and Dugin’s worldview, the true global ideological struggle is between culturally homogenous groups founded on Judeo-Christian values practicing humane capitalism on one side and, on the other, an international crony-capitalist network of bankers and big business.

Bannon’s fix for the world is to revive the nation-state—precisely what Putin’s Kremlin is promoting as it backs anti–European Union candidates from Hungary to France. “I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing,” Bannon told an audience of Catholic thinkers at the Vatican by video-link from the U.S. in 2014. “Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism. [People] want to see the sovereignty for their country; they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan–European Union, or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up, where freedoms were controlled at the local level.”

It’s not clear to me how Bannon can accept the obvious “crony-capitalism” of the Trump family crime syndicate.

There are more rumors than ever going around that indictments could be coming out of the Trump-Russia investigation, and it’s difficult to know what to believe. I’m just trying to be patient and keep an open but skeptical mind. I did come across a couple of interesting pieces on Rudy Giuliani and Carter Page respectively. They are both too long and complex to excerpt, but here are the links:

Grant Stern at The Stern Facts: Is Rudy Giuliani The Mastermind Behind The Trump Russia Dossier’s Massive Oil Deal?

From Bright Young Things, an interview with Carter Page that contains quite a bit of background information: A Conversation with Carter Page.

Also, Boris Epshteyn has a new gig on conservative radio: Sinclair Announces the Addition of Boris Epshteyn.

On the Kleptocracy front, Ivanka is reportedly cleaning up in the meetings she’s been attending.

The Associated Press: Ivanka’s biz prospers as politics mixes with business.

SHANGHAI (AP) — On April 6, Ivanka Trump’s company won provisional approval from the Chinese government for three new trademarks, giving it monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand jewelry, bags and spa services in the world’s second-largest economy. That night, the first daughter and her husband, Jared Kushner, sat next to the president of China and his wife for a steak and Dover sole dinner at Mar-a-Lago….

As the first daughter crafts a political career from her West Wing office, her brand is flourishing, despite boycotts and several stores limiting her merchandise. U.S. imports, almost all of them from China, shot up an estimated 166 percent last year, while sales hit record levels in 2017. The brand, which Trump still owns, says distribution is growing. It has launched new activewear and affordable jewelry lines and is working to expand its global intellectual property footprint. In addition to winning the approvals from China, Ivanka Trump Marks LLC applied for at least nine new trademarks in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Canada and the U.S. after the election.

The commercial currents of the Trump White House are unprecedented in modern American politics, ethics lawyers say. They have created an unfamiliar landscape riven with ethical pitfalls, and forced consumers and retailers to wrestle with the unlikely passions now inspired by Ivanka Trump’s mid-market collection of ruffled blouses, shifts and wedges.

Using the prestige of government service to build a brand is not illegal. But criminal conflict of interest law prohibits federal officials, like Trump and her husband, from participating in government matters that could impact their own financial interest or that of their spouse. Some argue that the more her business broadens its scope, the more it threatens to encroach on the ability of two trusted advisers to deliver credible counsel to the president on core issues like trade, intellectual property, and the value of the Chinese currency.

Some updates on the situation in North Korea:

Vanity Fair: Donald Trump Stumbles Toward War In East Asia.

How President Donald Trump intends to resolve the growing North Korean crisis remains unclear, though whether that is by design or reflects a lack of a coherent foreign policy is a matter of some debate. Over the past several weeks, as Kim has moved aggressively to advance his nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration has telegraphed a wide range of possibilities as to how the U.S. might respond. Last month, during his first major diplomatic tour of Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that “the policy of strategic patience has ended” and that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea. On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence repeated that line while making a surprise appearance on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two countries, which have been locked in a military standoff since the suspension of the Korean War in 1953. “North Korea will do well not to test his resolve or strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region,” he added.

While the era of strategic patience may be over, the Trump administration is clearly taking some kind of strategic steps. Last week, the president announced that he had ordered an “armada” of military ships, including the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson and several nuclear submarines, to sail toward North Korea. NBC News reported that the National Security Council had presented Trump with a list of potential responses to North Korea, including moving missiles to South Korea or outright assassinating Kim. And while the White House quietly dismissed a subsequent report that Trump was prepared to launch a pre-emptive conventional strike if Kim reached for the nuclear trigger last weekend, as he had been expected to do, the president warned that the North Korean problem “will be taken care of” one way or another. On Monday, Pence also said that the U.S. would be open to securing the region “through peaceable means, through negotiations,” suggesting that Trump may be coming around to Beijing’s way of thinking.

The ambiguity of Trump’s warnings, combined with the credible threat that he might be crazy enough to see them through, has yielded some results. China appears to be working more closely with the U.S. then before to increase pressure on Kim—cooperation that Trump suggested on Twitter that he had bought by backing away from labeling China a “currency manipulator.” And Kim seemed to have called off his expected nuclear test—for now.

Is Trump embracing Nixon’s “madman theory” of foreign policy, or is he just plain crazy? It seems kind of a dangerous policy when you’re facing off against another madman.

A couple more links:

The Guardian: US military considers shooting down North Korea missile tests, sources say.

Vox: An expert warns that a preemptive strike on North Korea would lead to “very big war.”

What stories are you following today?