Donald Trump hasn’t quite mastered the “not” joke.

To the consternation of many on the left, President Obama took on the role of exasperating but willing mentor to Donald Trump—an exasperated Henry Higgins to the latter’s Eliza Doolittle—almost immediately after the election. But after a few weeks of good will, a certain frostiness began to set in, largely the result of an inevitable power struggle between the president and the president-elect. The Obama administration’s decision not to veto a non-binding UN resolution demanding that Israel cease building settlements in occupied Palestinian territory late last week seems like it could be a breaking point between the two men. Trump lobbied the Obama administration at the behest of the Israelis and has harshly criticized the U.S.’s refusal to veto the resolution, which was passed 14-0 (with the US abstaining) by the UN Security Council. And on Wednesday, he took to Twitter to condemn the Obama administration for its treatment of Israel, which receives nearly $4 billion in US aid every year:

The idea that Israel is being treated “with such total disdain and disrespect” by the Obama administration is a bit rich, given the amount of US aid the country receives and the fact that Netanyahu has ignored and disrespected Washington whenever he has felt like it over the past eight years—an attitude that predated the Iran deal, whatever you think of it. It’s especially rich coming from Trump, though, whose entire political career is based on treating Obama, who he said was not born in America, with “total disdain and disrespect.”

But let’s not put the cart too far in front of the horse. Trump has also tried to use a “not” joke—possibly for the first time in American political history. But, while Trump’s best tweet pats himself on the back for not falling for Sacha Baron Cohen’s schtick, it seems that he could have learned something from the movie Borat.

August 20, 2018

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Trump laments the “killing field” of birds created by windmills.

At a fundraiser in Utica last Monday, the president went on a bizarre rant about the superiority of coal over windmills. “Coal is indestructible,” Trump claimed. “You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills. You know, the windmills. Boom, boom, boom. Bing. That’s the end of that one. If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds. You look under those windmills, it’s a killing field, the birds.”

Although unusually incoherent even for Trump, this speech was a return to a favorite theme: the dangers windmills pose for birds. As Emily Atkin pointed out in The New Republic last October, Trump has been obsessed with windmills since at least 2012. That was the year Trump got into a feud with the Scottish government over offshore wind turbines which he complained spoiled the view of one of the golf course he owned in Scotland.

As this history indicates, Trump’s concern for the wellbeing of birds rings hollow. “The reality is that the Trump administration’s fossil fuel policies are a far bigger threat to avian species,” Atkin noted. “These threats are less obvious, because unlike wind and solar, expanding fossil fuel development does not result in birds being suddenly zapped or shredded. It results in slower deaths, resulting from the gradual loss of habitat.”

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Pope Francis: Catholic Church “abandoned” child sex abuse victims.

“With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” Pope Francis said in a statement released on Monday morning. “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” It’s the Vatican’s most detailed response to a Pennsylvania grand jury report that named over 300 predatory priests and over 1000 victims of child sex abuse. But while Francis’s statement expresses remorse, it does not explain what the Catholic Church intends to do in response to the crisis, nor does it apologize for Francis’s previous stumbles on the sex abuse issue. As the Associated Press reports:

Francis several years ago scrapped a proposed Vatican tribunal to prosecute negligent bishops, and he has refused to act on credible reports from around the world of bishops who have failed to report abusers to police or otherwise botched handling cases, and yet remain in office.

Francis also has kept on his nine-member kitchen cabinet a Chilean cardinal long accused of covering up for pedophiles, an Australian cardinal currently on trial for historic sex abuse charges and a Honduran cardinal recently implicated in a gay priest sex scandal involving his trusted deputy.

The church has made some reforms to address the issue of child sex abuse, as I reported on Friday. Review boards and human formation courses at seminary are intended to provide oversight and to properly prepare priests for lifetime celibacy. But many victims believe those efforts are inadequate. Victims of clergy abuse in Ireland, where Pope Francis travels on Saturday, have already condemned Monday’s statement. “Mere words at this point deepen the insult and the pain,” Anne Barrett Doyle, a victim advocate, told the AP.

August 19, 2018

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Rudy Giuliani asserts “truth isn’t truth.”

The former mayor of New York, who is now the most public face of the President’s legal team, was interviewed by NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press on Sunday. It did not go well, especially when Giuliani spoke about the notorious Trump Tower meeting of June 9th, 2016 between a group of Russians, led by Natalia Veselnitskaya, and top members of the Trump campaign, including Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. Giuliani flatly asserted, Veselnitskaya “didn’t represent the Russian government. She’s a private citizen. I don’t even know if they knew she was Russian at the time. All they had was her name.”

In point of fact, in a June 3, 2016 email that helped set up the meeting, the pop music promoter Rob Goldstone informed Donald Trump Jr. that the document that were going to be discussed at the meeting were “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

Blatantly telling demonstrable untruths might not seem like a good legal strategy. But as it turns out, Giuliani is committed to a radical epistemological assault on the very possibility of shared agreement about reality.

“Truth isn’t truth,” Giuliani said later in the interview. Chuck Todd correctly predicted that this statement would become a “bad meme.”

Earlier this week, while speaking on CNN, Giuliani claimed that facts are “in the eye of the beholder.”

August 17, 2018

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Alex Jones accused of destroying evidence in the Sandy Hook lawsuits against him.

The New York Times reports that Texas lawyers representing two families of Sandy Hook shooting victims have filed a motion “accusing the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars media business of intentionally destroying evidence relevant to the defamation cases against him.”

The 2012 Sandy Hook massacre in Newton, Connecticut was the most lethal school shooting in American history, with 20 children and six adults killed by gunman Adam Lanza. On his program Infowars, Jones has repeatedly maintained that the killing was a false flag operation. This has led to the harassment of families of the victims by Jones fans.

In recent weeks, Jones has become a social media pariah, losing platforms on Facebook, Apple, and Youtube. Last week, after being temporarily suspended from Twitter, Jones “said on his broadcast ... that he had told his staff to delete material after CNN cited Infowars content that violated Twitter’s policies.”

This deletion of material is the basis of the new motion, which argues the material destroyed is salient to ongoing defamation suits against Jones.

One of the individuals bringing the motion is Neil Heslin, father of a six-year-old killed at the school. The new motion will make it harder for Jones to win the defamation suits brought by Heslin and others, as The New York Times explained: “Should the court find that Mr. Jones and Infowars willfully destroyed evidence, he, and possibly his lawyer, could be assessed thousands of dollars in fines and be subject to punitive action. Most important, the material that was destroyed could be presumed by the court as supporting Mr. Heslin’s claims against Mr. Jones, bolstering his case.”

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People really are plotting to kill Nicolas Maduro.

An unnamed Venezuelan military dissident told Bloomberg that he had met with a group planning to assassinate the Venezuelan president months before an attempt was made on his life on August 4, using drones armed with plastic explosives. The assassination attempt took place during a military parade and was caught on live television.

The former dissident was part of a separate scheme called Operation Constitution, which sought to capture Maduro and put him on trial before the country’s presidential elections this past May. Operation Constitution was broken up after many of its members were arrested and jailed. But before that, the dissident said he was shown “videos of armed drones shipped from Miami and being tested on a Colombian farm,” according to Bloomberg. The group plotting the assassination had reportedly proposed joining forces with Operation Constitution.

Venezuela’s government has denounced plots to overthrow Maduro for months, and now apparently has legitimate reason to do so, despite earlier claims that the assassination attempt had actually been a gas tank explosion. Venezuelan authorities later said that backers in Florida and Bogota had promised Maduro’s would-be assassins $50 million and a stay in the U.S. if they succeeded in killing Maduro.

Since the attack, officials have arrested 14 people, including a lawmaker and two high-ranking military officials, while another 20 suspects remain at large.

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Trump thinking about handing over Afghanistan to mercenaries.

NBC is reporting that the president, frustrated by the long military stalemate in Afghanistan, is reconsidering a proposal floated last year to replace American troops in the country with military contractors. This idea is being advocated by Erik Prince, the founder of the controversial security company Blackwater (now known as Academi). In 2007, Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad, Iraq, in one of the most controversial massacres in the American war in that country. Prince remains well connected in Washington. His sister Betsy Devos is Secretary of Education and the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly a supporter of the mercenary idea. Others in Trump’s orbit, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, are said to oppose the idea. 

In a 2017 Wall Street Journal article, Prince advocated an “East India Company approach” approach to Afghanistan. The East India company governed large parts of the subcontinent on behalf of the British state for more than two centuries. During their rule, the company was notorious for plundering India and overseeing human-encouraged famines that consumed millions of lives

Prince’s proposal follows the same basic outlines as the East India Company’s regime: there would be “viceroy”  (or “envoy”) who answers to the monarch (or, in this case, President Trump). As NBC reports, “It calls for private contractors and aircraft to aid Afghan forces, with some help from the CIA and the Pentagon’s special operations forces—all of whom would be overseen by a U.S. government envoy for Afghanistan policy who reports directly to the president and is given the authority to coordinate with the Afghan government.”

As former military contractor Sean McFate noted in Politico last August, Prince’s plan is rife with dire implications for global stability. “When anyone can rent a military, then super-rich and large corporations can become a new kind of superpower,” McFate warned. “Worse, mercenaries can start and elongate conflicts for profit, breeding endless war.”

Nor, McFate argued, is it clear that the company once known as Blackwater can avoid massacres in the future: 

Prince assures us that nothing will go wrong. To avoid Nisour incidents in the future, he wants to place all mercenaries under U.S. military law, known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. However, this resolves little. Take, for example, jurisdiction: What happens if a Guatemalan mercenary massacres an Afghan family while on an American contract? Does he go to trial in: a) Afghanistan b) U.S. c) Guatemala d) nowhere? No one really knows, and a good labor lawyer could probably shred the case in minutes.

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Trump argues with veterans about napalm, Agent Orange and Apocalypse Now.

The Daily Beast reports that on March 17, 2017 President Donald Trump met with a delegation of veterans’ groups and got into a bizarre dispute about a film classic. Rick Weidman, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), brought up the problem of Agent Orange, asking the president to broaden the number of veterans who can receive VA benefits for treatment from the herbicide, which was used during the Vietnam War. The president seemed to confuse Agent Orange with napalm, an incendiary gel that was also deployed in that conflict. The president claimed the problem with Agent Orange had already been dealt with.

The the conversation took a strange turn. As The Daily Beast describes the scene:

Attendees began explaining to the president that the VA had not made enough progress on the issue at all, to which Trump responded by abruptly derailing the meeting and asking the attendees if Agent Orange was “that stuff from that movie.”

He did not initially name the film he was referencing, but it quickly became clear as Trump kept rambling that he was referring to the classic 1979 Francis Ford Coppola epic Apocalypse Now, and specifically the famous helicopter attack scene set to the “Ride of the Valkyries.

Source present at the time tell The Daily Beast that multiple people—including Vietnam War veterans—chimed in to inform the president that the Apocalypse Now set piece he was talking about showcased the U.S. military using napalm, not Agent Orange.

Trump refused to accept that he was mistaken and proceeded to say things like, “no, I think it’s that stuff from that movie.”

Eventually the president said the problem was that Weidman “just didn’t like the movie.”

The exchange is in keeping with the haphazard way that Trump has handled veterans’ matters. The Daily Beast also notes that veterans’ issues had been part of the portfolio of former reality show star Omarosa Manigault-Newman. According to one veterans’ advocate, during a February 2017 meeting Manigault-Newman “showed up late, interrupted us, and said she was taking the lead.”

Earlier this month, ProPublica reported that a small cabal of the president’s cronies, none of them holding public office, were shaping VA policy. These wealthy friends of the president all belonged to his private club Mar-a-Lago. Members of this cabal sometimes tried to use the VA to promote their private interests.

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Did Brett Kavanaugh lie to the U.S. Senate?

The New York Times reported on Friday that Kavanaugh, who is President Trump’s nominee to replace Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court, misleadingly downplayed his role in a campaign to put a controversial judge on an appeals court. In 2006, when Kavanaugh himself was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, he told the Senate that Judge Charles W. Pickering “was not one of the judicial nominees” that he was “primarily handling” as part of his work as an attorney for the George W. Bush administration. But documents from the time show that Kavanaugh may have actually played an important role in Pickering’s nomination process:

Among other things, the emails show that Judge Kavanaugh helped work on a binder of documents about the judge, Charles W. Pickering Sr., to give to Senate staff members; drafted a letter to a senator about him; and handled a draft opinion article supporting his confirmation intended for publication under the name of Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel whose staff called him “Judge.”

In 2003, when Bush put Pickering forward as a nominee, controversy centered on the Mississippi judge’s aggressive campaign to get the Justice Department to reduce the sentence of a man “convicted of burning a cross on an interracial couple’s lawn,” The Washington Post reported at the time. Pickering believed the man’s seven-year sentence was too long and too harsh for the crime, and wrote in a sealed order that the man’s “record is devoid of any general attitude of racial animosity.” Bush eventually appointed Pickering when the Senate went on recess.

Kavanaugh’s involvement in the Pickering nomination is only the latest trouble to beset his own nomination. According to a CNN poll released on Thursday, only 37 percent of Americans think the Senate should confirm his nomination, making him the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee since Robert Bork in 1987.


Trump angrily cancels his expensive parade project.

In July of 2017, the president was impressed by the Bastille Day military parade he saw during his visit to France. He called for a comparable American event, a showcasing of the latest military hardware through the streets of Washington, D.C. The Pentagon took up the task of planning the event, but cost estimates kept going up, jumping more than 700% from $12 million to 92 million.

The president tweeted this morning saying the parade was cancelled, and that he would instead go to the Armistice parade in parade on November 11. He’ll also attend another parade in Andrews Air Force Base. He blamed the government of Washington for the cancellation.

In response, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, tweeted:


The suspicious timing of the Stormy Daniels payout might lead to campaign-finance charge.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that federal prosecutors are zeroing in on the timing of the payments to Stephanie Clifford (whose stage name is Stormy Daniels) by the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. The fact that these payments came immediately after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in the waning weeks of the 2016 election is helping prosecutors construct a plausible narrative that shows the hush-money was election related.

The issue of timing is important because prosecutors have to pre-empt the argument that the payment to Clifford was made just to prevent Trump’s family from learning of her alleged affair with Trump rather than to influence the election. In 2012, Democratic politician John Edwards successfully defended himself from a campaign-finance case of a similar nature by arguing that the allegedly illicit payment was done to shield from his wife information about an extramarital affair rather than for electoral reasons. Earlier this year, Michael Cohen made exactly this argument by saying on CNN, “It wasn’t for the campaign. It was for him.”

But in the Trump/Clifford case, the fact that the payment was made soon after the release of the Access Hollywood tape gives a plausible time-line that pins the motives on influencing the election.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, “Federal prosecutors in New York view the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape as a trigger that spurred Mr. Cohen to bury potentially damaging information about his boss, as they investigate whether the payment amounted to an illegal, in-kind contribution or an expenditure that should have been disclosed by the campaign, people familiar with the matter said.” The path seems to be clearing for federal prosecutors to go after both Michael Cohen and Trump himself for the payments to Clifford.