Sean Penn says he regrets El Chapo interview, which “failed.”

Penn stopped by CBS to chat with Charlie Rose this morning, where he declared that his article “failed” at furthering the conversation about the War on Drugs. But the failure wasn’t because of his turgid prose, or the murky ethics of interviewing a fugitive and letting him review the article before publication. No, instead it was because readers just didn’t get it and preferred to talk about boring old “ethics.” 

“I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute to this discussion about the policy on the War on Drugs,” he said. You can watch Penn rationalize his decisions and ask actual journalists for their “journalist license” on 60 Minutes this Sunday or on Charlie Rose on Monday.

October 16, 2018

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James Mattis refuses to take Trump’s bait and holds on tight to his job.

In the 60 Minutes interview that aired on Sunday, President Donald Trump made some statements that seemed designed to provoke his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. Asked about Mattis’ view that alliances like NATO are needed to help prevent World War III, Trump huffily responded, “Frankly, I like General Mattis. I think I know more about it than he does.” When queried about whether Mattis would be staying on the job, Trump gave an answer that was far from reassuring: “I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you wanna know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”

Interviewed by reporters on Monday, Mattis tried to defuse the president’s words. Mattis claimed he was “proudly apolitical” since joining the Marine Corps at age 18. He indicated that he saw his job was to serve the elected commander in chief. “I’ve never registered for any political party,” Mattis said, adding that he and Trump “never talked about me leaving ... We just continue doing our job.”

Although Mattis’ words were meant to be reassuring to those who see him as a pillar of sanity in a chaotic administration, the fact remains that he and Trump are not speaking from the same script. At some point, the discrepancy between Mattis’s view of himself as a loyal team player and Trump’s suspicion that the Secretary of Defense is “sort of a Democrat” is likely to lead to a real rift. Mattis might be intent on keeping a tight grip on his current job, but Trump’s remarks still foretell an eventual departure.

October 15, 2018

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The Saudi-led coalition, with American aid, is driving Yemen toward a massive famine.

Humanitarian organizations monitoring the civil war in Yemen are warning the country could be engulfed in one of the largest human-created famines in history if fighting continues between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels (who are supported by Iran). The situation is dire because the conflict now centers on the port city of Hodeidah, an essential entry point for food shipments. Twelve million people could be at risk. With American support giving them command of the air, the Saudi-aligned coalition forces have wreaked havoc on Yemen’s infrastructure and shown little regard for civilian life.

“Civilians in Yemen are not starving, they are being starved. Let it be known that the worst famine on our watch is wholly man-made by Yemen’s local conflict parties and their international sponsors,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, in a statement.
“Yemen has long been bombarded with air strikes and subjected to strangling tactics of war. Mass starvation is a deadly byproduct of actions taken by warring parties and the Western nations propping them up. The way the war is waged has systematically choked civilians by making less food available and affordable to millions of people.”

Lise Grande, the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, echoed these concerns. “I think many of us felt as we went into the 21st century that it was unthinkable that we could see a famine like we saw in Ethiopia, that we saw in Bengal, that we saw in parts of the Soviet Union—that was just unacceptable,” she told the BBC. “Many of us had the confidence that would never happen again and yet the reality is that in Yemen that is precisely what we are looking at.”

Chris McGrath/Getty

Report: Saudi government is preparing to claim Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was a bungled kidnapping.

CNN is reporting that the Saudi government might be on the verge of a substantial admission in the case of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared on October 2. Previously the Saudi government asserted that Khashoggi had left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on that date. Now, the news network reports:

According to two sources, the Saudis are preparing a report that will acknowledge that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death was the result of an interrogation that went wrong, one that was intended to lead to his abduction from Turkey.

One source says the report will likely conclude that the operation was carried out without clearance and transparency and that those involved will be held responsible.

If accurately reported by CNN, the new Saudi government line makes no sense. After all, if they had kidnapped Khashoggi and brought him back to Saudi Arabia, what would they have done with him there? Would they really have been willing to eventually release a critic of the regime who would be able to present a horrific tale of abduction? And, in any case, kidnapping a critic of the regime seems only slightly better than outright assassination.

Last Friday, former Australian diplomat Anthony Bubalo in The New Republic explored the possibility that this was an abduction that went awry and noted that it still sent a message of intimidation to the Saudi diaspora:

Arresting a critic or forcibly returning them home sends a clear message to others, including any rivals in the royal family, that no dissent will be tolerated. Even exile will not keep you safe. This may have been the plan with Khashoggi, with something in the abduction going terribly wrong. But if the intent from the outset really was to kill Khashoggi then it would seem to go beyond just an effort to intimidate critics. It would seem to reflect such a thin-skinned vindictiveness and caprice as to send an entirely different—and from the crown prince’s perspective, not entirely helpful—message to the people around him: that no-one is safe while the crown prince’s power remains so untrammeled.

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Trump’s fantasy painting is a throwback to the age of representational kitsch.

The 60 Minutes interview with President Donald Trump revealed an unusual piece of decor news: a painting by Andy Thomas called “The Republican Club” which shows a slimmed down Trump playing poker at a table with some of his illustrious (and sometimes infamous) GOP predecessors including Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.

The Daily Beast describes it as akitschy fantasy painting” and “an update to a best-selling image commonly found in tourist gift shops and online galleries.” While the painting is Trumpian in its gaudiness, it does reflect a wider tendency in political art to prize populist camp over modernist astringency. University of Wisconsin historian Patrick Iber describes the painting as “representational kitsch,” a style he says is now associated with Republicans but was once popular with political leaders of both parties. In fact, when the American government wanted to fund abstract art in the 1940s and 1950s as part of the Cold War, they had to do so secretly because of bipartisan political love of representational art.

In 1947, President Harry Truman reacted to a magazine article about expressionism by saying, “If that’s art, I’m a Hottentot.” In his 2001 book Before the Storm, historian Rick Perlstein suggests that one reason New York governor Nelson Rockefeller seemed out of place in mid-20th century Republican politics was his “passion” for modern art. In 1960, Rockefeller gave Richard Nixon a tour of his penthouse. According to Perlstein, “The centerpiece of the living room was twin fireplaces, the andirons custom-designed by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti, their mantels stretching nearly to the ceiling and painted with specially commissioned murals by Fernand Leger and Henri Matisse depicting languid female figures and sinuous plantlike morphs.” It’s perhaps not an accident that the Giacometti-loving Rockefeller never became president.

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Elizabeth Warren rebuts Trump’s “Pocahantas” attack with DNA evidence.

Even before he became president, Donald Trump has attacked the Massachusetts senator over her belief, via family lore, that she has Cherokee ancestry. He has repeatedly called her “Pocahontas,” including at an event honoring Navajo code talkers. For Trump, Warren’s claims are proof that she’s a phony, even though it was made clear back in 2012 that Warren had never used any claim about her heritage to advance her career.

On Monday, Warren, a likely 2020 presidential candidate, released a video about her Native American ancestry that included DNA evidence that suggests distant Cherokee heritage.

The video is calibrated to undercut Trump’s criticisms. “The president likes to call my mom a liar—what do the facts say?” Warren asks Stanford University Professor Carlos Bustamante, a geneticist who conducted the DNA analysis. Bustamante responds that the results “strongly suggest” Native American heritage. The video also features Warren discussing the president’s criticisms with her family in Oklahoma, where she is originally from. Relatives, including registered Republicans, dismiss it as “ridiculous,” a “bunch of crap,” and a personal slight against Native Americans and Warren’s mother.

The aim of the advertisement is twofold. First, it strives to undercut the “Pocahontas” attack. Republicans had long demanded that Warren take a DNA test to prove that she was Native American. That attack was always made in bad faith—particularly the baseless claim that Warren used her heritage for career advancement—and Republicans aren’t likely to give it up. But second, it ties Warren to the working-class Oklahoma roots one can expect her to lean on in a presidential race.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty

Trump suggests, without evidence, that “rogue killers” murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

In a press scrum outside the White House on Monday morning, President Donald Trump spoke about the murder of Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi, raising a strange theory of rogue killers. “I just spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabia citizen,” Trump said. “These might have been rogue killers.”

Trump frequently turns to hypothetical mode when dealing with crimes that could prove politically explosive. Alternative possibilities tend to muddy the waters. In 2016, he disputed the findings of intelligence agencies that blamed the hacking of the DNC on the Russian government by saying, “it could be Russia, but it could also be China, but it could also be lots of other people, it also could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired Sunday night, Trump said that there would be “severe punishment” if the Saudi government were responsible for the killing. But he also acknowledged that imposing economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia would cost America many lucrative armaments sales.

“I tell you what I don’t want to do,” Trump told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. “Boeing, Lockheed, Raytheon, all these com—I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that. There are other ways of—punishing, to use a word that’s a pretty harsh word, but it’s true.”

October 12, 2018

Republican candidate says he’ll “stomp” on his opponent’s face “with golf spikes.”

In the week since protests greeted Brett Kavanaugh’s historically narrow confirmation to the Supreme Court, Republicans have coalesced around a single talking point: Democrats are an uncivil mob. “Only one side was happy to play host to this toxic fringe behavior,” Mitch McConnell said on Thursday. “Only one side’s leaders are now openly calling for more of it. They haven’t seen enough. They want more. And I’m afraid this is only Phase One of the meltdown.” Donald Trump, who offered to pay for the legal fees of supporters who were arrested for beating up protest, has called Democrats “unhinged” and said that the party has “gone wacko.”

Scott Wagner, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, did not get the message that the GOP is now the party of patient, civil discourse. In a Facebook Live video, he threatened to stomp Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s face while wearing “golf spikes” if Wolf did not stop airing negative advertisements.

“Governor Wolf, let me tell you, between now and November 6th you’d better put a catcher’s mask on your face, because I’m going to stomp all over your face with golf spikes,” Wagner said in a two-minute rant. “I’m going to win this for the state of Pennsylvania, and we’re throwing you out of office.”

A spokesman for Wagner told PennLive that his rant was “not meant to be taken literally.”

Saul Loeb / AFP

Brett Kavanaugh isn’t an electoral boon for Republicans after all.

In the wake of the Supreme Court justice’s corrosive confirmation battle, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that the fight would energize Republicans ahead of the 2018 midterm elections next month. But a recent poll suggests that Kavanaugh himself is still deeply unpopular among Americans, and that expectations of a surge in GOP support have yet to come true.

Fifty-one percent of Americans opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation after it took place last Saturday, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released today. Only 41 percent of respondents backed him. That’s a higher level of support than in the days immediately after Christine Blasey Ford and Debbie Ramirez came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were in high school and college, respectively. But the overall level of opposition is much greater than any other failed or successful Supreme Court nominee in recent American history.

The poll found increased voter enthusiasm after the confirmation battle. Unfortunately for the GOP, it narrowly favored Democrats: 33 percent of Americans said the confirmation battle made them more likely to vote for Democratic candidates, while 27 percent said they would be more likely to vote for Republicans instead. Democrats already had a significant edge in voter enthusiasm this year, and the president’s party traditionally loses seats in Congress during the first midterm election of his tenure. For now, it looks like that pattern is holding.

Kavanaugh’s extraordinarily partisan remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee also left quite an impact on Americans. The poll found that 43 percent of Americans think his presence on the court will increase the number of politically motivated Supreme Court rulings. They also appear to be largely unpersuaded by his denials of wrongdoing: 53 percent said they support further investigations into his past, including 58 percent of women. The Republican effort to rush Kavanaugh onto the court without a thorough inquiry already looked like a moral error. It may turn out to be a political one as well.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Is Khashoggi’s disappearance really a turning point with Saudi Arabia?

Media outlets, major companies, and global leaders are condemning Saudi Arabia for its apparent role in the death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who vanished after entering the country’s embassy in Turkey. The New York Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, Uber, and Viacom have pulled out of the country’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. Tom Friedman and other centrist pundits who had previously cheered the country’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, as a bold reformer, are recoiling. K Street lobbyists, happy to cash checks from the Gulf State for decades in spite of its abominable human rights record, are now getting cold feet. And a bipartisan group of 22 senators are pushing to block a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was announced last year.

All of this has the feeling of a tipping point. Saudi Arabia has jailed and murdered dissidents, women’s rights activists, homosexuals, Shia muslims, and others for decades. It has spent the last three years indiscriminately bombing Yemen despite international criticism, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths; its blockade of the country has also led to a severe famine. Bin Salman, despite his cultivation of pundits and politicians, has led a purge of rivals under the guise of corruption reform. But it was the murder of Khashoggi that has finally created a long-deserved backlash.

Whether or not this backlash will last is another matter. President Donald Trump can do much to rein in Bin Salman, but has chosen not to, citing the $110 billion arms deal and the fact that Khashoggi was not an American citizen. Trump’s own financial ties to Saudi Arabia, it is worth noting, are murky. If he ordered the murder of Khoshaggi, Bin Salman may have assumed that, given the praise he has received, his unearned image as a moderate would cover up his recklessness. But he also surely bet that Trump’s fecklessness and the United States’ strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, an oil producer and enemy of Iran, would protect him. That potential calculation may still hold true.

October 11, 2018

The Democrats’ hopes of retaking the Senate are dying.

Despite the recent chatter about Republicans’ narrowing the enthusiasm gap, Democrats have huge advantages heading into the 2018 midterms. The fracas surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination has only increased their electoral advantages. Democrats have an eight point lead over Republicans in polls asking which party they support heading into the election; FiveThirtyEight gives them a 7 in 9 chance of retaking the House of Representatives.

Despite these structural advantages, the 2018 Senate map is a nightmare for Democrats. Ten Democrats running for reelection represent states won by Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Of the 35 Senate seats up for grabs in November, only nine are held by Republicans. Trump’s broad unpopularity and historic Democratic turnout have fed speculation that the party could effectively shoot the moon—holding all of the seats that it currently has and flipping a couple of Republican seats to gain control of the Senate. But recent polling has suggested that might be a pipe dream.

North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp’s vote against Brett Kavanaugh may have been a recognition that her seat is already lost: Republican polling shows her losing by double-digits, while public polls show her losing by a slightly smaller margin. Democrat Phil Bredeson, who is challenging Republican Martha Blackburn in Tennessee, also is trailing by as many as eight points. He’s had a roller-coaster week. While an endorsement from Taylor Swift may bolster his chances, his stated support for Kavanaugh has upset the party’s base and caused campaign volunteers to quit. Missouri’s Claire McCaskill is struggling to hold onto her seat, while in Texas, it’s becoming clear that Congressman Beto O’Rourke is even more of a long shot than initially thought. A poll released on Wednesday shows him trailing Senator Ted Cruz by nine points. Even the bright spots aren’t particularly bright. Joe Manchin, the only Democrat to vote to confirm Kavanaugh, is likely to hold onto his West Virginia seat, though a recent internal GOP poll did show a tightening race.

It isn’t all bad news for Democrats. Winning the House, which they are expected to do, would give them the power to investigate Trump’s abuses of power. But with a month to go until the election, it’s nearly all bad news for the party’s hopes of retaking the Senate—and thus, of stopping Republicans from putting another Kavanaugh on the court over the next two years.