October 15, 2018

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

What in god’s name is going on at the White House?

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Chief of Staff John Kelly sat down with New York’s Olivia Nuzzi to do a very normal thing: explain, over and over again, that the White House is not a circus. “We have a very smooth-running organization even though it’s never reported that way. So the real story is that. It’s really the real story. When you walk in here, you don’t see chaos,” Trump said. “There is no chaos. The media likes to portray chaos. There’s no chaos.” Kelly concurred, telling Nuzzi, “There is, to the best of my knowledge, no chaos in this building.”

If that wasn’t convincing enough, then Trump invited Kanye West for a rambling, almost entirely incoherent public sit down in the Oval Office on Thursday. During the visit, West delivered a 10-minute speech about mental health, education, and the fact that the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery) is a “trap door.”

“If you’re building a floor—the Constitution is the base of our industry, of our country, of our company, right?” Kanye explained. “Would you build a trap door that if you mess up, and you accidentally—something happens, you fall and you end up next to the Unabomber? You gotta remove all that trap door out of the relationship. The four gentleman that wrote the 13th Amendment—and I think the way the universe works, it’s perfect! We don’t have 13 floors.”

At other points in the interview, he referenced Joseph Campbell (presumably by way of Jordan Peterson) and claimed that Trump was on “his hero’s journey.” He said that he hoped that Trump and Colin Kaepernick would attend the Super Bowl wearing “Make America Great” hats designed by Kanye. And he talked extensively about the need for all people to live in the present and forget about pesky historical problems like slavery. “Time is a myth,” he said. Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown was also at the meeting.

Trump, for his part, mostly seemed confused by what West was saying. But he did seem to immediately grasp that it was good for ratings. Despite the fact that there are two pressing crises before him—Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida panhandle, and Saudi Arabia, which allegedly murdered a U.S.-based journalist—he was adamant that his meeting with Kanye was the most important thing he could be doing.

“What Kanye is doing has been incredible,” he said. “All over the world, they’re talking about this. I’ve had important meetings today with senators, other people... nobody cared! They wanted this meeting. The others were good. But this is what they want”

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Will Donald Trump do anything about Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance?

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, disappeared in the country’s consulate in Istanbul over a week ago. Over the last few days, a wealth of information has been reported tying his disappearance—and rumored murder and dismemberment—to Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman. Turkish authorities were first to sound the alarm, announcing over the weekend that Khashoggi had been killed. Since that time, the names of the 15-man Saudi team that entered Turkey the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance have been released, along with CCTV footage. The Washington Post has also reported that the United States has had intelligence suggesting that Bin Salman had personally ordered an operation targeting the Saudi journalist.

Khashoggi’s disappearance has resulted in widespread condemnation of Saudi Arabia. But the Trump administration—which does not have ambassadors to either Turkey or Saudi Arabia—has thus far done little. President Trump, who has praised Bin Salman, has characteristically refrained from condemning Saudi Arabia, though he has half-heartedly suggested that he would take action if presented with proof of the crown prince’s culpability. Speaking to Fox News, Trump said it would be “a terrible thing” if the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. “I would not be happy at all. I guess you would have to say so it’s looking a little bit like that. We’re going to have to see. We are doing a lot of work on it. It would certainly not be a good thing at all.”

But Trump also suggested that he is not considering cancelling a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. “We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before,” Trump said in the same interview. “A part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them and, frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”

The arms deal isn’t the only problem for Trump. His Middle East foreign policy, including its policies on Israel and Palestine as well as the fight against ISIS, is based on maintaining a close relationship to Saudi Arabia. These close ties may explain why Bin Salman acted so rashly: He rightly suspected that the current U.S. would do nothing.

October 10, 2018

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CVS and Aetna get the Trump administration’s approval to form a mega health care company.

The drug store chain CVS first announced its plan to buy the health insurance provider Aetna late last year, in an effort to expand its own health care offerings. The $69 billion merger was approved with minimal changes on Wednesday, as the Department of Justice only required Aetna to divest its Medicare offerings—a process that it had already begun.

CVS acquired Aetna for a number of reasons. The first, and most basic, is that Aetna is hugely profitable and will boost the company’s bottom line. The second is that CVS has, in recent months, been pushing to provide more basic health care services at its own stores—it believes that the acquisition of the health care giant will give it competitive advantages in the form of existing relationships with patience and knowledge. Finally, there is increasing concern among pharmacies and health care providers about possible entrants into the market, particularly Amazon, which announced a health care partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase earlier this year.

CVS has argued that the deal is good for consumers because it will lower costs. “Our focus will be at the local and community level,” CVS CEO Larry Merlo said in a statement, “to intervene with consumers to help predict and prevent potential health problems before they occur.” The idea is that treatment at CVS will keep patients out of the hospital. But there are also concerns about the size of this massive entity, and the level of control it will have in the pharmaceutical and health care realms is disturbing. By acquiring Aetna, CVS will now provide a host of services related to medical care and will have few competitors.