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Barack Obama is striking back at Russia—and putting Donald Trump in a bind.

The Obama administration on Thursday announced its retaliation for Russia’s alleged hacking this year, leveling sanctions against top Russian intelligence services and giving 35 Russian diplomats in the United States three days to leave the country. President Obama also said his government would close two Russian compounds in Maryland and New York, and issue a report to Congress on Russian hacking in the days to come. “All Americans should be alarmed by Russia’s actions,” Obama said in a statement.

For its part, the Embassy of the Russian Federation in London responded thusly:

This followed a threatening tweet from from the Russian Embassy in the United States earlier in the day:

Politically, Obama’s action puts pressure on President-elect Donald Trump—whose fondness for Russian President Vladamir Putin is well known—to condemn the alleged hacking. (Trump has thus far rejected the conclusion of intelligence agencies that Russia is at fault.)

Asked on Wednesday about the potential of sanctions against Russia, Trump told reporters, “I think we ought to get on with our lives,” even as he conceded, “I’m not sure we have the kind, the security we need.”

Obama’s move could also put Trump at odds with congressional Republicans, many of whom are eager to investigate the Russian hacking issue. Following the administration’s announcement on Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement suggesting he supports the move. “While today’s action by the administration is overdue,” he said, “it is an appropriate way to end eight years of failed policy with Russia.”

Update: Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have issued a joint statement: “The retaliatory measures announced by the Obama Administration today are long overdue. But ultimately, they are a small price for Russia to pay for its brazen attack on American democracy. We intend to lead the effort in the new Congress to impose stronger sanctions on Russia.”

August 14, 2018

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In his response to tape allegations, Trump remains the master of kettle logic.

On Monday night, the president continued his escalating rhetorical war with Omarosa Manigault Newman, his former aide. Among other accusations,  Manigault Newman alleges that she was told by three individuals of Trump using the n-word. The tape was supposedly recorded while Trump worked on the set of The Apprentice and is reputedly in the possession of Mark Burnett, the producer of the show. Manigault Newman hasn’t provided evidence for this claim and her statements have been inconsistent.

In response, the president tweeted: 

If it’s difficult to follow the logic of these tweets, it’s because they don’t follow the rules of normal rationality. Rather, they are examples of what the philosopher Jacques Derrida called “kettle logic” were inconsistent arguments are made to prove a point. Trump is frequent user of “kettle logic.”

 Derrida coined the phrase “kettle logic” from a story that the psychologist Sigmund Freud related in two of his books.

The story goes like. This. A man is accused by his neighbor of returning a kettle in a broken condition. In response to the accusation he argues: 

1. That he had returned the kettle undamaged

2. That it was already damaged when he borrowed it.

3. That he had never borrowed it in the first place

In the same way, Trump’s response to this controversy can be broken down into several parts:

1.  He never used the n-word.

2. Mark Burnett told Trump there is no tape of Trump using the n-word. 

3. Manigault Newman can’t be trusted because she is “Wacky” and  “Deranged.”

4. The media didn’t listen to Manigault Newman when she praised Trump.

Point number 4 seems wholly irrelevant. It’s natural, for obvious reasons, for a former White House aide who is critical of a president she worked for to get a lot more media attention than a normal White House aide. The point is also in contradiction with 3 since if she is “Wacky” and “Deranged” the press should avoid her at all times. 

Point number 1, if true, makes point 2 irrelevant and strange. After all, if Trump never used the n-word at all, he doesn’t need Mark Burnett to tell him no tape exits. Trump himself would know that no tape exists. 

In sum, Trump is in the dream world of kettle logic, making whatever arguments he think will stick, no matter their internal coherence. 

August 13, 2018

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More and more Trump allies are caught in family feuds.

Monday was a day of family quarrelling in the Trump circle as uncle turned against nephew, son against father, and husband against wife.

It began with a much-read Politico article where Dr. David S. Glosser denounced his nephew Stephen Miller, a White House advisor, as a “hypocrite.” Glosser argued that Miller’s nativism was a betrayal of the family’s history as Jews who fled persecution in Europe:

I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses— the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom. The Glossers came to the U.S. just a few years before the fear and prejudice of the “America first” nativists of the day closed U.S. borders to Jewish refugees....I would encourage Stephen to ask himself if the chanting, torch-bearing Nazis of Charlottesville, whose support his boss seems to court so cavalierly, do not envision a similar fate for him.

The same day, Bobby Goodlatte tweeted out criticism of his father, retiring Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, for his treatment of fired FBI agent Peter Strzok:

Previously, the younger Goodlatte made clear that he was giving money to a Democratic candidate to replace his father in congress.

Finally, George Conway, husband of Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, took the opportunity to tweet some snark at her boss:

George Conway’s tweet was all the more remarkable given that Kellyanne Conway is still one of the president’s biggest defenders, often championing him in interviews.

As Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale noticed, there seems to be a pattern:

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In a signing and speech at Fort Drum, Trump again showed his disdain for John McCain.

The president and vice president both spoke at the military base, where the president signed the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act. But in touting the new bill, which they celebrated for increasing military spending, neither men uttered the name of John McCain. The senator, who has been fighting brain cancer for a year, was an unperson at the event.

Trump and McCain have long been political foes, despite belonging to the same party. In 2015, Trump notoriously said of McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” Trump later pretended not to have said McCain wasn’t a hero and never apologized for these words.

Later, after Trump won the presidency, McCain proved to be the decisive vote against Trump’s signature policy of repealing Obamacare. Trump continues to take jibes as McCain at rallies, notably when the president visited Nevada this past June:

Trump’s continued belittling of McCain speaks to the president’s pettiness and also his desire to remake the Republican Party in his image by casting aside all internal critics. The fact that Vice President Mike Pence followed the president’s lead in this matter shows that Trump’s campaign against McCain is shaping how others in the GOP treat the ailing senator.

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Trump believes there are nations whose names are pronounced “Nipple” and “Button.”

Politico has published a comprehensive investigation of the president’s knowledge of the outside world, coming to some alarming conclusions. “Several times in the first year of his administration, President Donald Trump wanted to call Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the middle of the afternoon,” the news outlet reports. “But there was a problem. Midafternoon in Washington is the middle of the night in Tokyo—when Abe would be fast asleep.”

The president had a hard time being cognizant of time-zones and other basic information about foreign nations and leaders. “He wasn’t great with recognizing that the leader of a country might be 80 or 85 years old and isn’t going to be awake or in the right place at 10:30 or 11 p.m. their time,” a former Trump NSC official told Politico. “When he wants to call someone, he wants to call someone. He’s more impulsive that way. He doesn’t think about what time it is or who it is.”

Basic geography is also a problem for the president. Shown a map of Asia, he was puzzled by the nations nestled next to India, Nepal and Bhutan. “What is this stuff in between and these other countries?” he asked advisors. When informed of their names, the president took to calling those countries Nipple and Button. In the same spirit, Trump also imitated the accent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

James Carafano, vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, defended the president’s lack of rudimentary knowledge of the outside world. “If people are looking for more polish and more kind of conventional statecraft and that’s their metric for Trump learning, I think they’re going to be disappointed,” Carafano told Politico. “I don’t think he sees those as faux pas; I think he sees them as, ‘Look, I do things differently.’ If you say, ‘That’s not how things are done,’ he says, ‘Who says? Where is it written down that I can’t do that?’”

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FBI fires agent over anti-Trump texts, fanning partisan flames.

The Washington Post is reporting that Strzok, a 22-year veteran of the agency who once led the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, was fired on Friday. Strzok became a controversial figure once  it was revealed that he had written anti-Trump text messages. After reports of those texts were made known to special counsel Robert Mueller last summer, he removed Strzok from the Russia investigation.  

As the newspaper notes, “Aitan Goelman, Strzok’s lawyer, said FBI Deputy Director David L. Bowdich ordered the firing on Friday—even though the director of the FBI office that normally handles employee discipline had decided Strzok should face only a demotion and 60-day suspension. Goelman said the move undercuts the FBI’s repeated assurances that Strzok would be afforded the normal disciplinary process.” If the firing was done for political purposes, it could run afoul of laws that protect the free speech of federal employees.

The president used Strzok’s firing to post a tweet designed to discredit the Mueller investigation:

As The Washington Post makes clear, the firing is part of a larger pattern: “Strzok is the third high-ranking FBI official involved in the Clinton and Russia investigations to be fired amid an intensely political backdrop. Trump removed Comey as the bureau’s director and said he did so thinking of the Russia case. Attorney General Jeff Sessions later removed Comey’s deputy, McCabe, after the inspector general alleged he lied about a media disclosure related to Clinton.” 

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Ryan Zinke: There are too many trees in the forest.

After touring several neighborhoods ravaged by the Carr Fire on Sunday, the Interior secretary said large, healthy trees must be removed from national forests to prevent the spread of wildfire flames. “It doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change,” Zinke said. “What is important is we manage our forests.” Zinke also blamed environmental groups for the state’s devastating wildfire season, saying their opposition to industrial logging operations has worsened the tree problem.

This is not a new argument, and it’s a hotly contested one. While America’s forests are overgrown—thus providing more fuel for flames to quickly spread—dead trees and underbrush are considered greater problems. California’s forests have more than 100 million dead trees. The U.S. Forest Service is supposed to help manage this, but historically has had to spend most of its $600 million budget on directly fighting fires. In March, Trump signed legislation to give the Forest Service an additional $2 billion to manage forests, but it doesn’t go into effect until 2020.

Last week, President Donald Trump blamed California’s wildfires on a lack of available water for firefighters. Firefighters and fire experts roundly agreed that there’s plenty of water to fight the 100+ blazes raging across the state; some pointed out that water isn’t even the main tool used to tame wildfires. This argument, like Zinke’s, is being made to advance a policy agenda. Trump has also long wanted to weaken environmental protections for endangered species, and is already using his water argument to do it. The administration is also considering loosening regulations that require the logging industry to protect the environment while cutting down trees.

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Trump should have known Omarosa would stab him in the back.

Omarosa Manigault was open about it from day one of the first season of The Apprentice, back in 2004: She was not here to make friends. She was the show’s heel and its breakout star. Vicious and cutthroat, she would cross anyone to get ahead. She didn’t win, of course—the heel never wins, even in reality television—but her ability to draw ratings meant she kept coming back. She would go on to appear on (and be fired from) The Celebrity Apprentice twice, making numerous enemies, including Piers Morgan, in the process.

Omarosa’s whole character was built around being a ruthless competitor: She wanted to win at any cost. And while she would later deny that the character of Omarosa was anything like her true self—she called it a a gross misrepresentation of who I am” that was performed for “ratings”—she is a true product of the reality television age, a person who will go any distance for ratings.

Trump, the greatest heel in American politics, may have seen a kindred spirit in Omarosa. His decision to bring her on as special assistant to the president raised eyebrows, as it was the kind of thing that late-night television hosts joked about when no one expected him to win the 2016 election. In Trump’s telling, he hired her out of pity, not respect:

Trump knew what Omarosa was like on The Apprentice, but hired her anyway. She then acted in the White House as she did on The Apprentice. But Trump didn’t hire her for her professionalism—he did so because she “said GREAT things about” him. Trump may be a heel, but he melts whenever anyone compliments him. Omarosa, meanwhile, has continued playing her character, goading the president of the United States into the kind of fight she would often get into with Piers Morgan on The Celebrity Apprentice. It may very well push her book to number one on Amazon and The New York Times Bestseller List.

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Democrats are souring on capitalism.

A new Gallup poll found that just 47 percent of Democrats and people who lean Democratic have a positive view of capitalism, the lowest percentage since Gallup started measuring the issue in 2010. Meanwhile, 57 percent of the same respondents felt positively about socialism. Among all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, opinion of capitalism is lowest among young adults (ages 18-29): 45 percent have a positive view of capitalism, versus 51 for socialism.

But the real story in Gallup’s data isn’t necessarily voters’ opinion of socialism. Among Democrats, attitudes toward socialism have remained relatively static; in 2016, during the heat of the Democratic presidential primary between a democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, 58 percent of Democrats said they had a positive view of socialism—roughly even with the new poll. But positive views of capitalism among Democrats dropped precipitously over that period, by nearly ten points. Among young voters of all political persuasions, favorable opinions of capitalism have dropped 12 points since 2016.

The poll isn’t entirely good news for the country’s resurgent democratic socialists. Among Democratic voters, a decline in support for capitalism did not translate to increased support for socialism; and among young voters, positive views of socialism have fallen four points since 2016 . But it is clear that the party’s base is disillusioned with capitalism.

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Keith Ellison denies domestic abuse allegation.

The six-term congressman, who is competing Tuesday for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination for Minnesota attorney general, was accused of domestic violence in a Facebook post on Saturday. The post was written by Austin Monahan, the son of Karen Monahan, a woman with whom Ellison had a long-term relationship. Austin alleged that he had seen a video of Ellison abusing his mother. To date, no media source has been able to verify the existence of this video, which Austin says is not in his possession.

In a statement, Ellison, who is also the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, denied the allegation. “I still care deeply for [Karen’s] well-being,” he wrote. “This video does not exist because I never behaved in this way, and any characterization otherwise is false.”

As David Dayen reports in the latest print issue of The New Republic, Ellison is part of the larger movement of progressive Democrats running for attorney general positions in the states. “If elected, they could make up a new center of legal power in this country, building alliances across states and pooling resources,” Dayen wrote. “Someone like Ellison ... could exert a leftward pull on the law nationally.”

“When this moment in history is written, there’s got to be a chapter on state attorneys general, standing up for immigrants, standing up for students,” Ellison told Dayen in July. “It’s why I want to be a part of it.”

August 12, 2018

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V.S. Naipaul, a towering writer and deeply flawed man, is dead.

Naipaul, whose death was announced on Saturday, experienced a remarkable journey from the periphery of empire to the center of the literary canon. Yet as impressive as his rise was, his tormented relationship with his first wife and his abuse of his longtime mistress make Naipaul a prime example of the perennial and unsolvable aesthetic conundrum: how do we separate the bad actions of an artist from his or her achievements?

He was born in 1932 in Trinidad, the grandson of indentured servants who had been moved from one imperial hinterland, India, to another, the Caribbean. The family were the flotsam of colonialism, cultural castaways, the very type of people that Naipaul would make the subject of his fiction and reporting. The Naipauls were poor in money but, as Brahmins, rich in caste-pride. Seepersad Naipaul, the author’s father, was a newspaper man of literary ambition bogged down by over-bearing in-laws, the model for the main character in A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), Naipaul’s best novel.

The energy that drove V.S. Naipaul’s own ambitions came from the desire to both live his father’s unfulfilled dreams of literary greatness and avoid his father’s fate of being badgered and hemmed in by family. Naipaul moved to England in the early 1950s after he received a scholarship to attend Oxford. It was a painful migration: he was friendless and adrift in the culture, as well as marginalized by racism.

He was saved by his friendship with an Englishwoman named Patricia Hale, which blossomed into a romance. They married in 1955. “Pat became his indispensable literary helper, his maid and cook, his mother, the object of his irritations, the traveling companion who never appears in any of his nonfiction,” George Packer wrote in The New York Times in 2008. “Over the years, as Naipaul’s fame grew along with his irascibility, the marriage desiccated. If Pat overcooked the fish, he berated her and she berated herself. The couple wanted children but Pat was apparently infertile; in her passivity and shame she never pursued the possible remedies. Naipaul frequented prostitutes, which brought no satisfaction.”

It was during these years of marital unhappiness that Naipaul wrote the novels and travel books that form the basis of his literary fame. Aside from A House for Mr. Biswas, highlights of his career included An Area of Darkness (1962), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), and A Bend in the River (1979). His global travels and keen powers of observation informed all these books, fiction and non-fiction like. In them he became the heir of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, a truly global writer who had the rare gift for capturing the texture of many societies.

Naipaul’s best books are animated by his deeply conservative social vision. Civilization, he felt, was a small clearing in a forest, a fragile haven that was always on the verge of reverting to the wild. It was Naipaul’s gift to be able to convey this fear in wire-taut prose.

The fragility of civilization was something that was true not only of the world at large but evident in the private lives of individuals. The critic Walter Benjamin once wrote that “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” These words might stand as an epitaph for Naipaul’s life and work.

To the outside world, Naipaul was an emblem of civilization: an Oxford graduate, author of many prize-winning books, and, after he was knighted in 1990, titled nobility: Sir V.S. Naipaul. His treatment of the women in his life belied this image of cultivation.

As his literary career blossomed, his personal life remained troubled. In 1972 he entered into a long-term romantic affair with Margaret Gooding, an Anglo-Argentine woman he met in Buenos Aires. If Naipaul had the habit of psychologically tormenting his wife Patricia Naipaul, he took to physically assaulting his mistress. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt,” Naipaul once told is biographer Patrick French. “She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public.”

In 1994 when Patricia Naipaul was struggling with breast cancer, her husband gave an interview with The New Yorker where he said that he had been a “great prostitute man” and only found sexual pleasure with his mistress, Gooding. Patricia Naipaul was devastated by the interview. She died two years later.

“It could be said that I had killed her,” Naipaul admitted to his biographer. “It could be said. I feel a little bit that way.”

After Patricia Naipaul’s death, the novelist broke off relations with Gooding. He married the Pakistani journalist Nadira Khannum Alvi in 1998. She survived him.