Lazy Saturday Reads: Gorilla TV

Patrick, a lowland gorilla, at the Dallas Zoo watching a National Geographic special on gorillas on T.V.

Good Morning!!

For the past few days, the media and we political junkies have been obsessed with the new book by Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. TV talking heads have spent hours discussing the whether Donald Trump is temperamentally and cognitively fit for the office he holds. Of course most of us concluded during the 2016 campaign that he was not. But now Trump himself has definitively answered the question in one of his morning tweet storms.

Oh. Ohhh-kaaay. I’m convinced. Are you?

One person who apparently will defend Trump until the bitter end is Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

Share Blue: Sarah Sanders: Americans who aren’t “celebrating” Trump are “mentally unfit.”

Donald Trump and his allies are fiercely resisting the allegations in Michael Wolff’s explosive new book, “Fire and Fury,” that Trump lacks the basic mental competence for the day-to-day functions of the presidency — a question that even before the book’s release, was being hotly debated.

But White House attempts to beat back the allegations are not going well.

Appearing on Fox News to discuss the book’s charges of Trump’s unfitness, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders essentially resorted to the argument of “I know you are, but what am I?”

KILMEADE: That’s the president’s position on that. What’s yours?

SANDERS: Look, I think it’s absolutely insane to think all of these individuals, reporters and others, who suddenly have a medical degree and think that they can diagnose somebody, many times who they’ve never even had a conversation with. It’s absolutely outrageous to make these types of accusations, and it’s simply untrue, and it’s sad that people are going and making these desperate attempts to attack the president. What I think is really mentally unstable is people that don’t see the positive impact that this president is having on the country. The economy is booming, we’re crushing ISIS, day after day things are getting better for Americans all over this country. And I think it’s really sad that these people don’t see that, and that they’re not celebrating and trying to join in the president’s efforts to turn our country around.

A slightly more intelligent response to the book from David Remnick at The New Yorker: The Increasing Unfitness of Donald Trump.

What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.” Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill. At enormous venues around the city, he is said to have sung, danced, and played the water organ for many hours—but not before ordering the gates locked to insure that the house would remain full until after the final encore. Driven half mad by Nero’s antics, Romans feigned death or shimmied over the walls with ropes to escape.

Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament. He has always craved attention. Now the whole world is his audience. In earlier times, Trump cultivated, among others, the proprietors and editors of the New York tabloids, Fox News, TMZ, and the National Enquirer. Now Twitter is his principal outlet, with no mediation necessary.

The President recently celebrated the holidays at Mar-a-Lago, the Domus Aurea of Palm Beach, and nearly every day, before setting out for the golf course, he thumbed his bilious contempt for . . . such a long list! Science itself did not escape his scorn:

In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!

Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life.

Click on the link to read the rest.

Trump is at Camp David right now with his cabinet (except for Jeff Sessions, who has been frozen out) and Republican leadership supposedly to discuss the administration’s agenda for the coming year.

Last night Rachel Maddow suggested that perhaps Sessions was left out because the rest of the Trump crowd might be planning to fire him.

Other Twitter folks think it’s because Sessions might interfere with the planned activities.

The New York Daily News: Jeff Sessions not invited to Trump meet, as EPA chief Scott Pruitt reportedly voices interest in attorney general post.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is one of the few cabinet members who will not attend an inner-circle legislative meeting hosted by President Trump this weekend, fueling speculation about growing tensions between the two men.

Meanwhile, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who will attend the meeting at Camp David, indicated this week that he’d be willing to lead the Justice Department, according to a report.

Pruitt has been telling close associates at the EPA that he would be up to fill Sessions’ shoes if Trump gives him the boot, one person familiar with the matter told Politico….

Trump’s weekend meeting will focus on national security, immigration and economic legislation priorities for this year, according to a White House statement. In addition to Pruitt, the sit down will be attended by senior House and Senate Republicans as well as a majority of Trump’s cabinet, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Sessions’ absence is particularly conspicuous since an attorney general is usually deeply involved in the issues that will be discussed during the Camp David rendezvous.

Kumbuka the gorilla may have been recaptured – but Donald Trump is still on the loose | The Independent

I hate to say this, but I almost think Sessions would preferable to Scott Pruitt as Attorney General.

Philip Ewing at NPR: The Russia Investigations: Sessions On Edge, Bannon Exiled And Internecine Combat.

Following the heavy cyclone of news this week, dawn in Washington, D.C., on Saturday found Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the slippery sand — and that could also mean peril for Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.

An explosive New York Times scoop revealed that Sessions tried to smear then-FBI Director James Comey before he was fired. The report, by Michael Schmidt, also said President Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to lean on Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe, and when Sessions did recuse, the president fustigated him. Sessions offered to quit but Trump said no.

So not only is Sessions persona non grata with the president — that’s been the case for months. Now the public and people inside the Justice Department know Sessions was actively trying to undermine his own FBI director, as part of a pattern of conduct directed by Trump — who himself had asked Comey to lay off then-national security adviser Mike Flynn, then fired Comeyetc.

Ewing notes that Pruitt has been angling for Sessions’ job, apparently thinking Trump’s AG could be gone soon.

What does it all mean? Sessions has been in hot water before with Trump but came through it, in part thanks to steadfast support from his longtime allies in the Senate. How strong is that firewall now? Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has said he had no plans to confirm a new attorney general. And Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., has threatened to hold up all Justice Department nominees after Sessions rescinded earlier permissive guidelines on marijuana enforcement.

So if Sessions were to go for real this time, Trump might not be able to quickly and easily appoint someone else — someone not recused from the Russia probe — to wrangle the Justice Department on the president’s behalf. But if the political dynamics change, that could change the play for the White House. As NPR’s Carrie Johnson has reported, replacing the leadership at Justice is one way that Trump could try to control or get rid of Mueller.

Meanwhile the Russia investigation continues, along with the GOP’s efforts to interfere with it. A few updates:

LA Times: Mueller calls back at least one participant in key meeting with Russians at Trump Tower.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has recalled for questioning at least one participant in a controversial meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016, and is looking into President Trump’s misleading claim that the discussion focused on adoption, rather than an offer to provide damaging information about Hillary.

Some defense lawyers involved in the case view Mueller’s latest push as a sign that investigators are focusing on possible obstruction of justice by Trump and several of his closest advisors for their statements about the politically sensitive meeting, rather than for collusion with the Russians.

The Times agreed with its source not to name the individual who has been called back for more questioning.

Investigators also are exploring the involvement of the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who did not attend the half-hour sit-down on June 9, 2016, but briefly spoke with two of the participants, a Russian lawyer and a Russian-born Washington lobbyist. Details of the encounter were not previously known.

It occurred at the Trump Tower elevator as the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the lobbyist, Rinat Akhmetshin, were leaving the building and consisted of pleasantries, a person familiar with the episode said. But Mueller’s investigators want to know every contact the two visitors had with Trump’s family members and inner circle.

That’s interesting. So did Ivanka get advance notice of the meeting? And did her father send her down to exchange “pleasantries” with her brother’s guests?

Good old George Papadopoulos is still in the news. Sydney Morning News: ‘Romantic encounter’ set off Australia’s role in triggering Donald Trump investigation.

It was a chance romantic encounter by George Papadopoulos that set in train the events that led to the Australian government tipping off Washington about what it knew of Russian hacking efforts to swing the US presidential election.

Fairfax Media can reveal a woman in London with whom Papadopoulos became involved happened to know Alexander Downer and told the Australian High Commissioner about Papadopoulos, a newly signed staffer for Donald Trump. Downer, being a canny diplomat, followed it up and arranged a meeting with the young American, who was mostly living in London at the time.

What followed was the now infamous May 2016 conversation over many glasses of wine at the swanky Kensington Wine Rooms, during which the 28-year-old Papadopoulos spilled to Downer that he knew of a Russian dirt file on the rival Clinton campaign consisting of thousands of hacked emails.

That night was a key moment that helped spark the FBI probe – since taken over by respected former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel – into possible Trump campaign collusion with the Kremlin, including its hacking of the Democratic National Committee.

Read more at the link.

The Trump campaign’s digital director sent out a series of interesting tweets yesterday. Natasha Bertrand wrote up the story at Business Insider: Trump campaign digital director: ‘Not one person made a decision’ without Kushner and Eric Trump’s ‘approval.’

The digital director of the Trump campaign said Friday that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and son Eric Trump “were joint deputy campaign managers” whose “approval” was required for every decision before the 2016 election.

“Nobody else. Not one person made a decision without their approval,” the digital director, Brad Parscale, tweeted. “Others just took credit for this family’s amazing ability. I’m done with all these lies. They will be embarrassed!”

Kushner was Parscale’s “patron,” according to a person familiar with the campaign’s inner workings, which could explain their closeness.

Kushner got Parscale hired, the person said, “despite the fact that a number of people in the campaign wondered whether he had any idea what he was doing.”

“He’s Jared’s boy,” the person added. “I had [campaign] deputies telling me they couldn’t question anything the guy did or said, and they were unhappy about that.”

But Eric Trump? Who knew he was so central to the operation?

Parscale’s tweet also raises new questions about how involved Kushner and Eric Trump were in episodes that have drawn the most scrutiny from investigators probing the campaign’s ties to Russia.

Those include agreeing to with the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and other Russian nationals at Trump Tower in June 2016; green-lighting a trip to Moscow for Carter Page, an early campaign aide, in July 2016; and altering the GOP’s Ukraine platform during the Republican National Convention that month.

Page told the House Intelligence Committee last year that days before the convention, Corey Lewandowski, then the campaign manager, gave him permission to travel to Russia. Lewandowski has denied that, but Page has said he has emails to prove it. It is not clear whether Lewandowski consulted with Kushner beforehand.

Parscale’s statement also raises questions about what Kushner and Eric Trump knew about George Papadopoulos, the former campaign aide who was charged late last year with making false statements to the FBI.

Interesting. On the GOP obstruction side:

The New York Times: Republican Senators Raise Possible Charges Against Author of Trump Dossier.

More than a year after Republican leaders promised to investigate Russian interference in the presidential election, two influential Republicans on Friday made the first known congressional criminal referral in connection with the meddling — against one of the people who sought to expose it.

Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a senior committee member, told the Justice Department that they had reason to believe that a former British spy, Christopher Steele, lied to federal authorities about his contacts with reporters regarding information in a dossier, and they urged the department to investigate. The committee is running one of three congressional investigations into Russian election meddling, and its inquiry has come to focus on, in part, Mr. Steele’s explosive dossier that purported to detail Russia’s interference and the Trump campaign’s complicity.

The decision by Mr. Grassley and Mr. Graham to single out the former intelligence officer behind the dossier infuriated Democrats and raised the stakes in the growing partisan battle over the investigations into Mr. Trump, his campaign team and Russia.

The Senate Judiciary Committee effort played into a far broader campaign waged by conservatives to cast doubt on the Trump-Russia investigations, and instead turn the veracity of the dossier and the credibility of its promulgators into the central issue.

The story goes on to describe other GOP attempts at obstruction and distraction–including efforts to once again investigation Hillary Clinton.

USA Today: FBI documents: Andrew McCabe had no conflict in Hillary Clinton email probe.

FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whom President Trump has blamed for influencing the decision not to criminally charge Hillary Clinton for her use of private email server, did not oversee that inquiry while his wife was running for state office in Virginia as a Democrat, according to bureau records released Friday.

The internal documents, published on the FBI’s website, support what the bureau has asserted previously: that McCabe had no conflicts when he assumed oversight of the Clinton investigation. His role began in February 2016, following his appointment as deputy director and three months after his wife, Jill McCabe, lost her bid for a state Senate seat.

McCabe has been repeatedly targeted by Trump and some Republican lawmakers, who accuse the long-time FBI official of exerting undue and partisan influence over the Clinton probe.

As recently as last month, Trump seized on McCabe’s role in the Clinton inquiry and his wife’s political bid, noting that Jill McCabe received nearly $470,000 from a political action committee associated with Clinton ally and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Have a great weekend, Sky Dancers! What stories are you following today?

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Tuesday Reads: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Breton Children Reading, Emile Vernon, 1913

Good Afternoon!!

Thank goodness the “holidays” are almost over now, and soon a new year will begin. What will 2018 bring? Will Trump continue his goal of destroying democracy or will we somehow manage to keep it alive? First we have to get through the journalistic ritual of looking back over the year that is ending.

Eugene Robinson posted his evaluation of 2017 last night: Trump’s first year was even worse than feared.

Grit your teeth. Persevere. Just a few more days and this awful, rotten, no-good, ridiculous, rancorous, sordid, disgraceful year in the civic life of our nation will be over. Here’s hoping that we all — particularly special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — have a better 2018.

Many of us began 2017 with the consoling thought that the Donald Trump presidency couldn’t possibly be as bad as we feared. It turned out to be worse.

Did you ever think you would hear a president use the words “very fine people” to describe participants in a torch-lit rally organized by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan? Did you ever think you would hear a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations thuggishly threaten that she would be “taking names” of countries that did not vote on a General Assembly resolution the way she wanted? Did you ever think the government of the world’s biggest military and economic power would reject not just science but also empiricism itself, preferring to use made-up “alternative facts” as the basis for major decisions?

We knew that Trump was narcissistic and shallow, but on Inauguration Day it was possible to at least hope he was self-aware enough to understand the weight that now rested on his shoulders, and perhaps grow into the job. He did not. If anything, he has gotten worse.

Read the rest at The Washington Post.

Paul Krugman still has hope: America Is Not Yet Lost.

Auguste reading to her daughter, by Mary Cassatt

Donald Trump has been every bit as horrible as one might have expected; he continues, day after day, to prove himself utterly unfit for office, morally and intellectually. And the Republican Party — including so-called moderates — turns out, if anything, to be even worse than one might have expected. At this point it’s evidently composed entirely of cynical apparatchiks, willing to sell out every principle — and every shred of their own dignity — as long as their donors get big tax cuts.

Meanwhile, conservative media have given up even the pretense of doing real reporting, and become blatant organs of ruling-party propaganda….

What we’ve seen instead is the emergence of a highly energized resistance. That resistance made itself visible literally the day after Trump took office, with the huge women’s marches that took place on Jan. 21, dwarfing the thin crowds at the inauguration. If American democracy survives this terrible episode, I vote that we make pink pussy hats the symbol of our delivery from evil….

Let’s be clear: America as we know it is still in mortal danger. Republicans still control all the levers of federal power, and never in the course of our nation’s history have we been ruled by people less trustworthy.

This obviously goes for Trump himself, who is clearly a dictator wannabe, with no respect whatsoever for democratic norms. But it also goes for Republicans in Congress, who have demonstrated again and again that they will do nothing to limit his actions. They have backed him up as he uses his office to enrich himself and his cronies, as he foments racial hatred, as he attempts a slow-motion purge of the Justice Department and the F.B.I.

I count it as a good sign that journalists are coming right out and calling Trump a wannabe dictator. Also a good sign: both Robinson and Krugman acknowledge that if we are to survive Trump, women’s leadership will be the reason. How ironic that a woman had to be excoriated and mocked by abusive male journalists for this awakening of women’s power to happen.

Jan Van Eyck – Madonna with the Child Reading (1433)

It’s also a good sign that journalists finally recognized the Russian threat, although this only happened after a monster was installed as POTUS. Yesterday The Washington Post published a breathtaking analysis of what the Russians accomplished last year and the danger they still pose to our democracy: Kremlin trolls burned across the Internet as Washington debated options. Here’s a brief excerpt; please go read the whole thing if you haven’t already.

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions. Top U.S. policymakers didn’t appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement, a fear of making matters worse or a misguided belief in the resilience of American society and its democratic institutions.

One previously unreported order — a sweeping presidential finding to combat global cyberthreats — prompted U.S. spy agencies to plan a half-dozen specific operations to counter the Russian threat. But one year after those instructions were given, the Trump White House remains divided over whether to act, intelligence officials said….

The miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia that left the United States vulnerable to Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential electiontrace back to decisions made at the end of the Cold War, when senior policymakers assumed Moscow would be a partner and largely pulled the United States out of information warfare. When relations soured, officials dismissed Russia as a “third-rate regional power” that would limit its meddling to the fledgling democracies on its periphery.

Senior U.S. officials didn’t think Russia would dare shift its focus to the United States.

“I thought our ground was not as fertile,” said Antony J. Blinken, President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state. “We believed that the truth shall set you free, that the truth would prevail. That proved a bit naive.”

Much more at the WaPo link.

From former CIA Deputy Director and Acting Director Michael Morrell: Russia never stopped its cyberattacks on the United States.

Every first-year international-relations student learns about the importance of deterrence: It prevented a Soviet invasion of Western Europe during the height of the Cold War. It prevented North Korea from invading South Korea in the same time frame. Today, it keeps Iran from starting a hot war in the Middle East or other nations from initiating cyberattacks against our infrastructure.

The Reader, by Federico Zandomeneghi (Italian, 1841)

And yet, the United States has failed to establish deterrence in the aftermath of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. We know we failed because Russia continues to aggressively employ the most significant aspect of its 2016 tool kit: the use of social media as a platform to disseminate propaganda designed to weaken our nation.

There is a perception among the media and general public that Russia ended its social-media operations following last year’s election and that we need worry only about future elections. But that perception is wrong. Russia’s information operations in the United States continued after the election and they continue to this day.

This should alarm everyone — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. Foreign governments, overtly or covertly, should not be allowed to play with our democracy.

Read about the continuing threats from Russia at the WaPo link.

At the Columbia Journalism Review, Jonathan Peters reports on the work of NYT master’s student to examine Trump’s Twitter attacks on the media.

Trump’s prolificacy on Twitter is well documented, and some of his press-related tweets have captured vast public attention. For example, Trump tweeted in July a doctored video in which he wrestled a man whose head had been replaced by the CNN logo. It got hundreds of thousands of retweets.

Off Twitter, of course, Trump has waged a rhetorical war on the press, threatening to sue various newspapers and calling journalists “the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” all while characterizing as “fake news” any story he dislikes.

That’s what prompted an NYU master’s student to start tracking Trump’s tweets critical of the press. “I took it on as a labor of love and hate, and I suffered through his tweets every few days to log them,” says Stephanie Sugars, who is pursuing a joint MA in journalism and international relations. “It seemed important to maintain a record of what has appeared to be a deliberate and sustained campaign to discredit the media as an institution.”

By Zulia Gotay de Anderson

Sugars was working as a researcher at the Committee to Protect Journalists last spring when she created the Trump-tweet spreadsheet that she recently shared with me. She was helping to launch a website that documents press freedom incidents in the US. (CJR is a partner.) Originally, she and others at CPJ thought it would include not only arrests and equipment seizures but also anti-press social media posts.

“That just wasn’t manageable,” Sugars says. “We decided to pare the site back and not focus on tweets. I kept up with the spreadsheet, though, and continued to add to it, even after leaving [CPJ] when my term as a researcher there ended.”

Peters then assigned his students a the University of Georgia to “review the spreadsheet and to help me identify notable items and trends in the data.” Read the rest at the CJR link to see the results.

One more interesting read: could Ivanka be in trouble with the law? GQ: Ivanka Trump’s Old Jewelry Business Is Now Caught Up in an Alleged Fraud Scheme. Author Ben Schreckenger begins by asking, “Why do people looking to launder money seem to find Trump family businesses so appealing?”

Throw a dart at a map of the world and there’s a solid chance it will land near a spot where a Trump family business has allegedly gotten caught up in a money laundering scheme.

There’s Panama, where the Trump Ocean Club is said to have washed dirty cash for Russian gangsters and South American drug cartels. There’s Azerbaijan and the Trump Baku, where the money allegedly being laundered was said to belong to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. And of course, there’s the Trump Soho in Manhattan, a magnet for money from Kazakhstan and Russia, and a property that one former executive on the project now calls “a monument to spectacularly corrupt money-laundering and tax evasion.”

In each of those cases, the Trump Organization has denied any wrongdoing and has sought to distance itself—and the Trump family—from the property, saying they merely licensed ​the Trump name. But as it turns out, it’s not just Trump-branded real estate developments that perhaps have attracted the wrong kinds of money.

Thanks to an overlooked filing made in federal court this past summer, we can now add a jewelry business to the list of Trump family enterprises that allegedly served as vehicles to fraudulently hide the assets of ultra-rich foreigners with checkered backgrounds. In late June, the Commercial Bank of Dubai sought—and later received—permission to subpoena Ivanka Trump’s now-defunct fine jewelry line, claiming its diamonds were used in a massive scheme to hide roughly $100 million that was owed to the bank, according to filings at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Read the rest at GQ.

What else is happening? What stories are you following today?


Tuesday Reads: Last Week’s White House Chaos Isn’t Over Yet

Trump Chaos

Good Morning!!

This week is on track to be as insane as last week in the Trump White House. Yesterday retired general John Kelly was sworn in as chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus. Kelly apparently accepted the job from hell on the conditions that the entire WH staff would report to him and on the dismissal of Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. But those stories were eclipsed last night by a Washington Post story about how Donald Trump Jr.’s initial statement about his June 9, 2016, meeting with Russian government representatives was formulated.

The Washington Post: Trump dictated son’s misleading statement on meeting with Russian lawyer.

On the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany last month, President Trump’s advisers discussed how to respond to a new revelation that Trump’s oldest son had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign — a disclosure the advisers knew carried political and potentially legal peril.

The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged.

But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed.

Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had “primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children” when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations. The statement, issued to the New York Times as it prepared an article, emphasized that the subject of the meeting was “not a campaign issue at the time.” [….]

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.

As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III looks into potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.

Trump’s direct involvement in composing his son’s false statement could be more evidence of obstruction of justice.

Although misleading the public or the news media is not a crime, advisers to Trump and his family told The Washington Post that they fear any indication that Trump was seeking to hide information about contacts between his campaign and Russians almost inevitably would draw additional scrutiny from Mueller.

Trump, they say, is increasingly acting as his own lawyer, strategist and publicist, often disregarding the recommendations of the professionals he has hired.

“He refuses to sit still,” the presidential adviser said. “He doesn’t think he’s in any legal jeopardy, so he really views this as a political problem he is going to solve by himself.” [….]

Because Trump believes he is innocent, some advisers explained, he therefore does not think he is at any legal risk for a coverup. In his mind, they said, there is nothing to conceal.

That’s idiotic. Even if there is no underlying crime, which is unlikely, Trump’s behavior demonstrates obstruction–and that’s a separate crime

This morning NBC news has more details on the Scaramucci firing: What Really Happened to Anthony Scaramucci.

Two sources close to President Donald Trump said Scaramucci’s profane remarks last week to The New Yorker magazine “disgusted” and “offended” some close to the president, including Melania Trump, and — crucially — Ivanka Trump, who had initially advocated for Scaramucci’s hiring.

Scaramucci was ousted Monday, the first day on the job for Trump’s new chief of staff, the retired Marine general John Kelly.

One source said both Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner supported Kelly and his move to dismiss Scaramucci.

And it wasn’t just the expletive-filled interview: Some in the West Wing believe Scaramucci overplayed his hand altogether, believing he could do no wrong in the eyes of the president.

While the White House didn’t initially decry Scaramucci’s vulgar comments to The New Yorker, by Friday the president was getting an earful from confidantes outside the administration. The blowback built. Even for a president who’s no stranger to salty language, Scaramucci’s interview, with its f-bombs and anatomical references, apparently came off as too lowbrow.

By mid-morning on Monday, Scaramucci was sacked and Kelly, a 40-year Marine, had conveyed to the rest of the staff that the chain of command now runs through him.

Any bets on how long that will last? Can Kelly really block Ivanka and Jared from walking into the oval office?

John Podesta, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton offered advice to Kelly: don’t take the job. The Washington Post: The best advice I could have given to John Kelly: Don’t do it!

First, discipline. There’s no doubt the decision to replace Reince Priebus with Kelly was based on the hope that a former four-star Marine general could get this menagerie in line. You don’t have to compare the Trump White House to no-drama Obama or the buttoned-down Bush operations to know there is simply no precedent in modern history for the current White House culture of factionalism, infighting and lack of respect among senior staff members. Of course, most of Trump’s team are simply modeling their behavior on that of the boss. His demeaning treatment of Priebus and Attorney General Jeff Sessions signals that there are no boundaries in Trumpland, leading to the unprofessional actions of now-former communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Indeed, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders informed the public that the president “encourages” such behavior.

Kelly is walking into a White House that looks more like a cock fight than an episode of “The West Wing.” (See Mooch, you can use that word without being profane.) The White House culture will have to be shaken to its core. Kelly must be able to fire anyone at will, including to enforce a no-tolerance policy for behavior unbecoming a senior government official. Scaramucci’s departure Monday is a good start, but Kelly will have to keep a tight rein on a White House staff that is used to few boundaries. And if there is going to be an exception for Trump’s relatives, Kelly should get an explicit commitment that even Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump report through him — no end arounds.

The most difficult discipline problem for Kelly, though, will not be the staff but Trump himself. Early signs are not auspicious. The day after appointing Kelly, Trump ranted on Twitter against Senate Republicans for failure to pass their horrific health-care bill, which would have denied care to millions of Americans and raised costs for millions more. I have no doubt that Kelly, unlike Priebus, can say no to power, but whether power will listen is another matter.

Read about Kelly’s two other major tasks at the WaPo link.

Trump spent the weekend trolling Senate Republicans for their failure to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but Politico reports that Trump’s tweets aren’t having much effect: Republicans ignore Trump’s Obamacare taunts.

Senate Republicans have no plans to revive their party-line attempts to repeal Obamacare this summer, despite President Donald Trump’s increasing frustration over the chamber’s failed attempts last week to gut the law.

“Until somebody shows us a way to get that elusive 50th vote, I think it’s over,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican. “Maybe lightning will strike and something will come together but I’m not holding my breath.” [….]

For one, they’re down one vote in the short term, with Sen. John McCain being treated for cancer in Arizona.

But as the collapse of the repeal effort in the Senate last week showed, even with McCain the GOP majority is so narrow that it may never be possible to pass major, partisan health care reform through the chamber. That increasingly appears to be the case despite White House efforts to promote a bill by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would send federal health care funding to the states in the form of block grants.

Privately, Republican aides said there is essentially no chance McConnell will take another shot at repealing Obamacare soon. On Monday, there was discussion among Senate staffers of a “hard pivot to tax reform,” one Senate aide said.

JULY 31: Jared Kushner… arrives in the Capitol Visitor Center to participate in a lecture series with Hill interns on July 31, 2017. Congressional aide Katie Patru, appears at left. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Foreign Policy reports that Jared Kushner made “off the record remarks” to Congressional interns yesterday, and they quickly obtained notes from the meeting. Anyone who doesn’t believe Kusher is the leaker, please raise your hand.

Kushner to Interns: Trump Team Too Disorganized to Collude With Russia.

Donald Trump’s election team could not have colluded with Russia because they were barely talking to each other, according to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top White House advisor.

“They thought we colluded, but we couldn’t even collude with our local offices,” Kushner told congressional interns during a private talk at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington on Monday afternoon….

A source provided a copy of written notes on Kushner’s talk and question-and-answer session to Foreign Policy.

For investigators attempting to determine whether Trump’s associates knowingly worked with Russia to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a defense claiming chaos and confusion might be the key difference between criminal behavior and incompetence.

As chaos reigns in the White House, Russia is continuing to threaten its neighbors. The New York Times: Russia’s Military Drills Near NATO Border Raise Fears of Aggression.

WASHINGTON — Russia is preparing to send as many as 100,000 troops to the eastern edge of NATO territory at the end of the summer, one of the biggest steps yet in the military buildup undertaken by President Vladimir V. Putin and an exercise in intimidation that recalls the most ominous days of the Cold War.

The troops are conducting military maneuvers known as Zapad, Russian for “west,” in Belarus, the Baltic Sea, western Russia and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The drills will feature a reconstituted armored force named for a storied Soviet military unit, the First Guards Tank Army. Its establishment represents the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that so much offensive power has been concentrated in a single command.

The military exercise, planned for many months, is not a reaction to sweeping new economic sanctions on Russia that Congress passed last week. So far, Russia has retaliated against the sanctions by forcing the expulsion of several hundred employees in American diplomatic posts in the country.

But the move is part of a larger effort by Mr. Putin to shore up Russia’s military prowess, and comes against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive Russia. Beyond Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election in support of the Trump campaign, which has seized attention in the United States, its military has in recent years deployed forces to Syria, seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, rattled the Baltic States with snap exercises and buzzed NATO planes and ships.

Read more details at the link.

Finally, Talking Points Memo has an interesting post about Trump’s Russian mafia pal Felix Stater: Stinger Missiles And Shady Deals: Ex-Biz Partner To Trump Has A Tall Tale To Tell.

In December 2015, an Associated Press reporter asked Donald Trump why he had appointed Felix Sater, a man who’d been convicted for stock fraud, his senior advisor. “Felix Sater, boy, I have to even think about it,” Trump told the AP. “I’m not that familiar with him.”

The feeling is not mutual.

“My last Moscow deal [for the Trump Organization] was in October of 2015,” Sater recalled. “It didn’t go through because obviously he became President.” Sater had told the New York Times that he was working on the deal that fall, but over the course of several conversations with TPM, he gave a slightly more detailed timeline. “Once the campaign was really going-going, it was obvious there were going to be no deals internationally,” Sater said. “We were still working on it, doing something with it, November-December.”

That deal was for “The Trump Tower, to develop in Moscow.” It was a similar proposition to the one Trump himself tried to broker with the Agalarovs, a family of vastly wealthy Russian oligarchs who brought Miss Universe 2013 to Moscow and were behind the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting between the President’s oldest son and an attorney said to work for the Russian government. Sater said he never worked with the Agalarovs on a Moscow deal for Trump, but did work with others who he declined to name. Those aren’t Sater’s connections, he said. “That’s not me. I don’t work with them and I’ve never worked with them.” When asked who he was working with, Sater chuckled. “A couple of people I’d like to continue working with, and that’s why I don’t want their names in the newspaper. People say, ‘I care about you and love you but why do I need my name in the press?’”

The Trump Organization did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TPM. But to understand Trump and the type of people his real estate empire did business, it’s worth trying to understand Sater, the Russian-American émigré whose connections span not only the worlds of Russian and Italian organized crime—which Sater said are in part a result of not being able to find legitimate work after two criminal convictions—but the FBI and, now, the presidency.

Read the whole thing at TPM.

What stories are you following this morning?


Lazy Saturday Reads

Key West Chairs, Dorine MacLauchlan

Good Afternoon!!

Another huge story broke last night at the Washington Post, and this one appears to have been leaked by people in the intelligence community or the White House who are trying to damage Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions discussed Trump campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence intercepts show.

Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions — then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump — were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials both in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.

One U.S. official said that Sessions — who testified that he has no recollection of an April encounter — has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said that the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.

Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions during the 2016 presidential race, contrary to public assertions by the embattled attorney general, according to current and former U.S. officials.

The Goldfish Window, Childe Hassam

Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s accounts of two conversations with Sessions — then a top foreign policy adviser to Republican candidate Donald Trump — were intercepted by U.S. spy agencies, which monitor the communications of senior Russian officials both in the United States and in Russia. Sessions initially failed to disclose his contacts with Kislyak and then said that the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.

One U.S. official said that Sessions — who testified that he has no recollection of an April encounter — has provided “misleading” statements that are “contradicted by other evidence.” A former official said that the intelligence indicates that Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.

Current and former U.S. officials said that assertion is at odds with Kislyak’s accounts of conversations during two encounters over the course of the campaign, one in April ahead of Trump’s first major foreign policy speech and another in July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention.

It would be interesting to know who leaked this–could it possibly have come from Michael Flynn? In any case, this is highly sensitive information that the Post reportedly had in June but held it until last night.

The Post also published a damaging story about Jared and Ivanka’s lies of omission: In revised filing, Kushner reveals dozens of previously undisclosed assets.

Jared Kushner failed to disclose dozens of financial holdings that he was required to declare when he joined the White House as an adviser to President Trump, his father-in-law, according to a ­revised form released Friday.

separate document released Friday also showed that Kushner’s wife, presidential daughter Ivanka Trump, had been paid as much as $5 million from her outside businesses over an 84-day span this spring around the time she entered the White House as a senior adviser and pledged to distance herself from her private holdings.

Saturday Afternoon, William Gunning King

Kushner’s new disclosure, released by the White House, detailed more than 70 assets that his attorneys said he had inadvertently left out of earlier filings. The new document comes as the presidential aide faces increasing scrutiny as part of investigations into alleged Russian influence in the 2016 campaign….

The new filing reveals Kushner’s past and current investments in an array of entities, including a real estate trading platform now valued at $800 million in which he continues to hold a large stake. He and his wife also disclosed that their contemporary art collection is valued at between $5 million and $25 million.

Kushner’s financial disclosure has been updated 39 times since his first filing in March.

From today’s New York Times: Ivanka Trump Received at Least $12.6 Million Since 2016, Disclosure Shows.

Ivanka Trump or her trust received at least $12.6 million since early 2016 from her various business ventures and has an arrangement to guarantee her at least $1.5 million a year even as she serves in a top White House position, according to her first ethics disclosure made public late Friday.

The report was released alongside an updated filing by her husband, Jared Kushner, who is also serving as a top adviser to President Trump. It shows that the couple benefit from an active business empire worth as much as $761 million to them, an arrangement that ethics experts warn poses potentials for conflicts of interest as the couple have been given a wide-ranging portfolio of government responsibilities.

Ms. Trump, who resigned from nearly 300 leadership positions at various entities within the family real estate businesses and at her fashion brand, has continued to receive millions of dollars from both streams, including more than $2.4 million from her stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington and more than $2.5 million in salary and severance from the Trump Organization.

Ms. Trump received about $1.7 million in payments from T International Realty, the family’s luxury brokerage agency, as well as two other real estate companies for various management, consulting and licensing work, the documents show, these companies all are one of the best because they use hoa software to keep themselves organized. Those payments, for work done in 2016, were based on the companies’ performance.

But going forward, she will receive fixed payments — a change that her advisers say was developed in consultation with the Office of Government Ethics to minimize her potential conflicts by removing her interest in how well her family’s business performs.

More at the link.

Brookside Park Pasadena on a Saturday Afternoon

I was really looking forward to seeing Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort testify publicly, but unfortunately it will be behind closed doors now. CNN: Trump Jr. and Manafort reach deal with Senate panel to avoid public hearing.

The leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee have cut a deal with President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort to avoid being subpoenaed for a high-profile public hearing next week, with the two men agreeing to provide records to the panel and to be privately interviewed ahead of any public session.

In a joint statement, panel Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Dianne Feinstein said, “(W)e will not issue subpoenas for them tonight requiring their presence at Wednesday’s hearing but reserve the right to do so in the future.”

Feinstein tweeted later Friday evening, “The Judiciary Committee will talk to Trump Jr. & Manafort before they testify in public, but we will get answers.”

Last week, Trump Jr. told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he would testify under oath about his recently revealed 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians, where he attempted to get dirt on Hillary Clinton.

But after the Senate Judiciary Committee invited him to attend a public hearing, the President’s eldest struck the agreement to avoid it, instead going behind closed doors.

Sources familiar with the matter say no date has been set for his and Manafort’s private interviews with the committee.

It seems as if Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr is getting more serious about his Russia investigation. Yesterday he publicly criticized House Intel chair Devin Nunes.

Talking Points Memo: Senate Intel Chair: ‘The Unmasking Thing Was All Created By Devin Nunes.’

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) on Friday accused his counterpart in the House, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), of creating a false narrative about Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice.

Madeline in a Wheat Field, Daniel Ridgway Knight

Speaking to CNN after Rice was interviewed by the panel in closed session, Burr said he asked no questions about whether she improperly requested and revealed the identities of U.S. individuals swept up in intelligence reports—an accusation Nunes has made repeatedly.

“The unmasking thing was all created by Devin Nunes, and I’ll wait to go through our full evaluation to see if there was anything improper that happened,” Burr told CNN. “But clearly there were individuals unmasked. Some of that became public which it’s not supposed to, and our business is to understand that, and explain it.”

With an assist from the White House, the House Intelligence chairman in March embarked on a one-man crusade to accuse Rice of improperly unmasking the identities of members of Trump’s campaign in intelligence reports. Though President Donald Trump said he believed Rice’s actions broke the law, bipartisan lawmakers who viewed the same classified reports from which Nunes drew his conclusions said they saw no evidence of wrongdoing. National security experts also told TPM that it was within Rice’s purview as national security adviser to request that names be unmasked as she tried to determine the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Nunes ended up temporarily stepping aside from the House investigation after ethics watchdogs accused him of improperly disclosing classified information in his public statements about Rice. He recently told CNN that he remains fully “read-in” to the House probe and never formally recused himself, however.

Trump has reportedly been asking his lawyers if he can pardon himself and members of his family and staff. Here’s a response in a Washington Post op-ed by Lawrence Tribe, Richard Painter, and Norman Eisen: No, Trump can’t pardon himself. The Constitution tells us so.

Saturday Afternoon, Mark Arian

Can a president pardon himself? Four days before Richard Nixon resigned, his own Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel opined no, citing “the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case.” We agree.

The Justice Department was right that guidance could be found in the enduring principles that no one can be both the judge and the defendant in the same matter, and that no one is above the law.

The Constitution specifically bars the president from using the pardon power to prevent his own impeachment and removal. It adds that any official removed through impeachment remains fully subject to criminal prosecution. That provision would make no sense if the president could pardon himself.

The pardon provision of the Constitution is there to enable the president to act essentially in the role of a judge of another person’s criminal case, and to intervene on behalf of the defendant when the president determines that would be equitable. For example, the president might believe the courts made the wrong decision about someone’s guilt or about sentencing; President Barack Obama felt this way about excessive sentences for low-level drug offenses. Or the president might be impressed by the defendant’s subsequent conduct and, using powers far exceeding those of a parole board, might issue a pardon or commutation of sentence.

Read the rest at the WaPo.

This has been an mind-boggling week for Trump Russia news. I’m kind of relieved to have the weekend to process everything, since I assume Trump will be golfing. Next week could be even worse. Will Trump try to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller? Will Jeff Sessions have to resign? We’ll have to wait and see.

What else is happening? What stories are you following today?


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?


Lazy Saturday Reads

Good Afternoon!!

First, a public service announcement: Dakinikat told me about a digital demonstration that is happening today called “Fire the Fool.” You can read about it at this website. It doesn’t seem to be getting any news coverage (I can find no articles on Google News), so I don’t know how successful it will be. I’m going to pass, but I encourage anyone who thinks it would be fun to join in. It can’t hurt. Here’s their statement of purpose:

#Flood45 is YOUR chance to make it clear that you are ready to FIRE THE FOOLS in government who have abandoned the most sacred American ideals!

Download the PINK SLIP graphic at the bottom of this page and fill out why you want to FIRE trump. Then on APRIL 1st, attach a picture or video of yourself holding the pink slip on twitter at 12PM EST with this tweet:

.@realDonaldTrump We the People are serving you with your termination notice. You represent nothing that we stand for. YOU’RE FIRED #Flood45

To download the graphics, point your cursor over the image and right-click OR control click. Select “save as” and type in the location on your computer you wish to save and you will have a printable graphic!

Have fun with it! We’ll be online all day sharing all the pics and vids that come scrolling through the feed.

This is going to be such a fun day where We the People deliver a powerful statement to those FOOLS in government who have chosen their party and pocketbooks over the needs and safety of the American people.

The group’s FAQ explains that this isn’t aimed specifically at Trump–on of my problems with the idea–and “fire the fool” applies to officials in either party. They also claim that the women’s march was not directed at Trump. That wasn’t my understanding. If so, why was it planned for the day after the inauguration? The FAQ also reveals that this group is based in Nevada, but no names are provided. There is also a list of speakers, but no information about when and where they will speak. Perhaps you have to sign up to find out. If anyone has more information, please post it in the comment thread.

One clever touch on the “declaration” page is a set of playing cards that depict members of the Trump administration. I’ve used some of those to illustrate this post.

Now on to today’s news.

Yesterday, the Guardian had an interesting article about former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn revealing new information on why the intelligence community was concerned about Flynn long before Trump appointed him the the top post.

US and British intelligence officers discussed Flynn’s “worrisome” behaviour well before his appointment last year by Donald Trump, multiple sources have said.

They raised concerns about Flynn’s ties to Russia and his perceived obsession with Iran. They were also anxious about his capacity for “linear thought” and some actions that were regarded as highly unusual for a three-star general….

One concern involved an encounter with a Russian-British graduate student, Svetlana Lokhova, whom Flynn met on a trip to Cambridge in February 2014.

At the time, Flynn was one of the top US spies and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which provides information to the Pentagon about the military strengths and intentions of other states and terrorist groups.

Lokhova claimed to be writing a book about the GRU and said she had had access to the secretive spy agency’s archives, something that other historians say is “…basically impossible.” Flynn was quite taken with this woman and kept in touch with her for some time.

Flynn and Lokhova were introduced to each other at the end of a dinner attended by 20 guests who included Sir Richard Dearlove – the former head of MI6 – and Prof Christopher Andrew, the official MI5 historian.

Flynn says the meeting with Lokhova was “incidental” and lasted just 20 minutes. However, Andrew has said Flynn invited Lokhova to accompany him on his next official visit to Moscow to help with simultaneous translation. The trip fell through soon afterwards because of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Andrew wrote in the Sunday Times.

The Guardian understands Flynn and Lokhova remained in email contact, conducted through an unclassified channel. In one email exchange described by Andrew, Flynn signed himself as “General Misha”, Russian for Mike.

Lokhova also listed Flynn as one of four referees who would provide selective endorsements for her book, which is expected to detail how Russian spies penetrated the US atomic weapons programme.

Not 100 days into the Trump presidency, one thing is abundantly clear: it is completely unsustainable as it is operating today.

There are even rumblings in the seams of Washington that Trump may not last the summer, including Republican consultant Michael Steele, the former RNC chairman, reportedly telling clients to prepare for President Pence.

Indeed, something fundamental seemed to shift in the zeitgeist this week with General Michael Flynn’s Hail Mary offer to testify about Russiagate in exchange for immunity. The Senate intelligence community has already turned down Flynn’s offer, and it’s hard to imagine the House committee, led by the thoroughly compromised Devin Nunes, having the political capital to say yes. For the FBI to agree, Flynn would have to offer up someone bigger than him to make it worth the agency’s while. One wonders who that could be: Paul Manafort? He’s been around the political block much longer than Flynn and knows where more bodies are buried. Wouldn’t he be a better immunity target if you’re an elected Republican? Donald Trump? What would Flynn claim Trump personally did to advance Russia’s interference in our election, other than dutifully repeat Kremlin talking points, which we already know? Does he have some proof that Trump took a bribe? Broke a law? Made an incriminating phone call?

And if he doesn’t, what would be the point of merely hearing the “story he has to tell.”

Read the rest at the link above. Reid doesn’t even mention the “woman” problem, but there’s plenty else there that looks very bad for Flynn and Trump.

According to Politico, Trump is looking to “reorganize” his administration after the epic failure of the Trump-Ryan “health care” bill.

In interviews over the last week, several senior aides said they were carefully examining how the beleaguered administration functions as they weigh possible fixes. Among the top concerns: The circular firing squad continually playing out in the press pitting top aides against one another — a dynamic that one senior adviser described as increasingly unsustainable.

“It will have to either stop or there will have to be Motorcycle Accident Lawyer,” this person said, hinting that more serious changes would be made if the incessant shooting doesn’t end.

The discussions provide a window into an embattled administration that is scrambling to find answers. It’s also an acknowledgment that the White House is not the “fine-tuned machine” that Trump has sought to portray.

Of course the Trump gang claims there’s nothing to this story, but two top advisers were already shown the door yesterday. Boris Epshteyn left a few days ago. The other top adviser who’s leaving is Katie Walsh.

Walsh became the West Wing’s first casualty, when it was announced on Thursday that she would be departing to help run a pro-Trump outside group. Within the White House, the departure was seen as a blow to the influence of chief of staff Reince Priebus, who counted Walsh as a longtime lieutenant.

Those who have spoken with Priebus in recent days said he has expressed frustration with his own diminished power in the West Wing and with Walsh’s departure. One person close to the president described Walsh, who was an accomplished Republican fundraiser before becoming Priebus’s top aide, as the chief of staff’s “oxygen tank.”

White House aides strenuously deny that Priebus’s job is in jeopardy. But Trump, who churned through three campaign managers in 18 months, has a history of shuffling through top staff – sometimes abruptly. And one senior adviser said that aides with political and campaign backgrounds would gradually “fall off” and make way for others.

Read more at the Politico link.

More gossip from Politico: Kushner’s privileged status stokes resentment in White House.

In a White House where President Donald Trump commands reverence, Jared Kushner often refers to the president by one name: Donald. And while cable TV can dominate the president’s mood and set the agenda for senior administration staff, Kushner usually keeps his large flat-screen TV in his office turned off, a stark departure from other top aides.

Kushner, the president’s 36-year-old son-in-law and White House senior adviser, does essentially what he wants, having the benefit of not only Trump’s ear but — as a family member — his implicit trust.

That trust has resulted in a vast portfolio that so far includes negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, helping oversee relations with Canada, China and Mexico and, as of this week, reinventing the federal government through the new White House Office of American Innovation.

But Kushner’s status as the big-issue guru has stoked resentment among his colleagues, who question whether Kushner is capable of following through on his various commitments and complain that his dabbling in myriad issues and his tendency to walk in and out of meetings have complicated efforts to instill more order and organization into the chaotic administration. These people also say Kushner can be a shrewd self promoter, knowing how to take credit — and shirk blame — whenever it suits him.

“He’s saving the government and the Middle East at the same time,” one senior administration official quipped.

Much more at the link.

And from don’t forget “first lady” Ivanka’s role in the family kleptocracy: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Still Benefiting From Business Empire, Filings Show.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, will remain the beneficiaries of a sprawling real estate and investment business still worth as much as $740 million, despite their new government responsibilities, according to ethics filings released by the White House Friday night.

Ms. Trump will also maintain a stake in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. The hotel, just down the street from the White House, has drawn protests from ethics experts who worry that foreign governments or special interests could stay there in order to curry favor with the administration.

It is unclear how Ms. Trump would earn income from that stake. Mr. Kushner’s financial disclosures said that Ms. Trump earned between $1 million and $5 million from the hotel between January 2016 and March 2017, and put the value of her stake at between $5 million and $25 million.

The disclosures were part of a broad, Friday-night document release by the White House that exposed the assets of as many as 180 senior officials to public scrutiny. The reports showed the assets and wealth of senior staff members at the time they entered government service.

Read about all the other financial filings at the NYT link a above.

What else is happening. Plenty! Let us know what stories you are following in the comment thread below, and have a terrific weekend!


Thursday Reads: “That Was Some Weird Sh*t” — GW Bush

Good Afternoon!!

The quote of the day comes from George W. Bush and his immediate reaction to tRump’s Inauguration speech.

New York Magazine:

The inauguration of Donald Trump was a surreal experience for pretty much everyone who witnessed it, whether or not they were at the event and regardless of who they supported in the election. On the dais, the stoic presence of Hillary Clinton — whom candidate Trump had said he would send to prison if he took office — underlined the strangeness of the moment. George W. Bush, also savaged by Trump during the campaign, was there too. He gave the same reason for attending that Bill and Hillary Clinton did: to honor the peaceful transfer of power….

Following Trump’s short and dire speech, Bush departed the scene and never offered public comment on the ceremony.

But, according to three people who were present, Bush gave a brief assessment of Trump’s inaugural after leaving the dais: “That was some weird shit.” All three heard him say it.

The “weird sh*t” has continued during the first weeks of the tRump presidency, and it’s likely to remain that way. Every day Americans are flustered by new revelations about Russia’s aid to tRump during the election campaign as well as tRump’s wacko tweets and executive orders. We’ve watched the House Intelligence Committee devolve into chaos as its chairman worked with the White House to sabotage his own committee’s investigation. Every day we witness Sean Spicer’s bizarre press briefings, in which he repeatedly attacks reporters and blatantly lies in response to their questions. We’ve even found ourselves in partial agreement with people like GW Bush and Dick Cheney.

Today the Senate Intelligence Committee is holding a public hearing on Russia’s involvement in the election (It’s on C-Span 3 right now). Will tRump try to compromise their efforts too?

CNN: Senate intelligence leaders: 20 people to be questioned, first hearing Thursday.

The Senate intelligence committee has asked 20 people to be questioned in its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the panel’s chairman said Wednesday.

“This one is one of the biggest investigations the Hill has seen in my time here,” Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said at a news conference with committee vice-chairman Mark Warner. Burr’s been in the Senate since 2005, and served in the House since 1995.

Burr and Warner say they have 20 witnesses they plan to interview and have scheduled interviews with five of them so far. The committee leaders said that they are happy that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort have agreed to testify, but they have not yet decided when they will bring them in.

“To date, we have made 20 requests for individuals to be interviewed by the committee,” Burr said. “As we stand here today, five are already scheduled on the books, and probably within the next 10 days the remaining 15 will have a scheduled date for those individuals to be interviewed by our staff. We anticipate inviting additional individuals to come and be interviewed, and ultimately some of those interviewed individuals may turn into private or public hearings by the committee, but yet to be determined.”

Among those the committee appears to have talked to: Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after he misled administration officials regarding his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

“It would be safe to say we have had conversations with a lot of people, and it would be safe to say Gen Flynn is a part of that list,” Burr said.

General Flynn has been talking to them? How very interesting. The Committee is also negotiating with Christopher Steele about testifying. He is the former British spy who compiled the famous Trump “dossier.”

There are new Russia stories out in the media too.

Sergei Millian

The Washington Post: Who is ‘Source D’? The man said to be behind the Trump-Russia dossier’s most salacious claim.

In June, a Belarusan American businessman who goes by the name Sergei Millian shared some tantalizing claims about Donald Trump.

Trump had a long-standing relationship with Russian officials, Millian told an associate, and those officials were now feeding Trump damaging information about his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Millian said that the information provided to Trump had been “very helpful.”

Unbeknownst to Millian, however, his conversation was not confidential. His associate passed on what he had heard to a former British intelligence officer who had been hired by Trump’s political opponents to gather information about the Republican’s ties to Russia.

The allegations by Millian — whose role was first reported by the Wall Street Journal and has been confirmed by The Washington Post — were central to the dossier compiled by the former spy, Christopher Steele. While the dossier has not been verified and its claims have been denied by Trump, Steele’s document said that Millian’s assertions had been corroborated by other sources, including in the Russian government and former intelligence sources.

The most explosive allegation that the dossier says originally came from Millian is the claim that Trump had hired prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and that the Kremlin has kept evidence of the encounter.

Read the rest at the WaPo.

BBC News: Trump Russia dossier key claim ‘verified.’ The subhead: “The BBC has learned that US officials “verified” a key claim in a report about Kremlin involvement in Donald Trump’s election – that a Russian diplomat in Washington was in fact a spy.” This is a long article, so please click on the link and read the whole thing. Here’s a taste:

The roadmap for the investigation, publicly acknowledged now for the first time, comes from Christopher Steele, once of Britain’s secret intelligence service MI6….At one point he wrote: “A leading Russian diplomat, Mikhail KULAGIN, had been withdrawn from Washington at short notice because Moscow feared his heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation… would be exposed in the media there.”

There was no diplomat called Kulagin in the Russian embassy; there was a Kalugin….

Mikhail Kalugin

If anyone looks like a harmless economist, rather than a tough, arrogant KGB man, it is the bland-faced Kalugin.

But sources I know and trust have told me the US government identified Kalugin as a spy while he was still at the embassy.

It is not clear if the American intelligence agencies already believed this when they got Steele’s report on the “diplomat”, as early as May 2016.

But it is a judgment they made using their own methods, outside the dossier.

A retired member of a US intelligence agency told me that Kalugin was being kept under surveillance before he left the US.

Read the rest at BBC News.

Is the tRump administration already failing? Ezra Klein writes at Vox: 70 days in, Donald Trump’s presidency is flailing.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump broke every rule of politics — and he won anyway.

He dominated the Republican primary by running against the Republican Party. He repulsed the GOP’s key leaders and emerged all the stronger for it. He delighted in conspiracy theories and schoolyard insults. He contradicted himself routinely, but managed to sell his flip-flops as evidence of pragmatism rather than proof of dishonesty. He knew nothing about policy, didn’t bother to learn more, and profited from the uncertainty about his true positions. His campaign was clearly assisted by Russian hackers, but the story was overwhelmed by the obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails.

And then, of course, there was the election itself — Trump trailed in the polls, barely built a field operation, lost the popular vote, and then won the presidency.

Like many who covered Trump, I found it hard, after all this, to predict the likely path of his presidency. Perhaps he could defy every norm and succeed there too. But with every day that passes, Trump is looking more bound by the political system he promised to upend. The outcomes we’re seeing look like what you’d expect from an inexperienced, unfocused president who’s more interested in tweeting out cable news commentary than learning about the government he runs and the policies he wants to change. Merely 10 weeks into his term, the processes, skills, and institutions Trump flouted as a candidate are breaking him as a president.

Read the the details of Klein’s argument at Vox.

Ivanka becomes “Assistant to the President”

I have lots of stories for you today; the rest will be links only.

Foreign Policy podcast: Has Moscow Already Taken Down the Trump Administration?

Newsweek: FBI Director James Comey Tried to Reaveal Russian Tampering Months before Election.

New York Times: Ivanka Trump, Shifting Plans, Will Become a Federal Employee.

Reuters: Seattle sues Trump administration over threat to ‘sanctuary’ cities.

NBC News: Hawaii Judge Extends Order Blocking Trump ‘Travel Ban.’

CNN: Trump’s Outlook Going from Bad to Worse.

What stories are you following today?