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If Trump has nothing to hide, why are Republicans undermining the Russia investigation?

On Wednesday, before flying to Davos, the president told reporters at the White House that he would happily testify under oath to special counsel Robert Mueller. “I am looking forward to it, actually,” Trump said. “Here is the story: There has been no collusion whatsoever. There is no obstruction whatsoever. And I am looking forward to it.”

Trump also tried to spin the many actions he has taken to hobble the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Now they’re saying, ‘Oh, well, did he fight back?’” Trump said of Mueller’s investigation. “You fight back, ‘Oh, it’s obstruction.’” In other words, the president’s political opponents are willfully misconstruing his combative nature as being criminal.

Of course, there is a growing body of evidence that Trump has obstructed justice. Trump admitted that he fired James Comey as FBI director because of “this Russia thing.” Trump has admitted that he believes Attorney General Jeff Sessions should have done more to protect him, and reportedly implored the White House counsel to convince Sessions not to recuse himself from the investigation. Trump made matters worse by telling the Russian ambassador that firing Comey had taken the pressure off, as well as by constantly tweeting that the investigation is a “witch hunt.”

As he prepares to talk to Mueller, Trump’s posture is that he has nothing to hide, even though many of his aides are reportedly worried about his penchant for lying. But congressional Republicans are actively working to muddy the waters in anticipation of an obstruction charge. Republicans have taken to cable news to insist that the FBI and Mueller are engaged in a conspiracy to undermine the president’s legitimacy. “Using the Clinton-Starr playbook, kill the special investigator and obfuscate the charge,” a Trump adviser told Axios’s Mike Allen. “This is the Government against the People’s President. It is an easy narrative.”

This is the Republican strategy, at least for now. Trump says he is willing to cooperate with the investigation, while his allies do everything they can to undermine it.

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.

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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”

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Protesters outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish authorities are doubling down on the Jamal Khashoggi murder-dismemberment theory.

While Saudi Arabia continues to deny that it had any role in the disappearance of regime critic and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish media outlets on Wednesday reportedly ran CCTV footage purporting to show a team of Saudi intelligence officers entering the country the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance. Turkish authorities say that the team came into the country, killed Khashoggi, and then removed his body.

A senior Turkish official has also told The New York Times that Turkish authorities believe Khashoggi “was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on orders from the highest levels of the royal court.” As the Times report notes, whatever the truth of the matter, this is likely to “increase the pressure on both sides of the dispute.”

The paper has also published a timeline of the events surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance, which involves two charter flights arriving with Saudi officials, and multiple movements between the consulate and the Saudi consul’s residence.

Writing in The Washington Post Tuesday, Robert Kagan argued that the apparent murder in Istanbul is another sign of the decline of U.S. influence and the crumbling of the liberal order:

Saudi Arabia is a small nation that cannot defend itself without the support of the United States, and therefore no Saudi leader would have made such a brazen move without confidence that Washington, once the leader of the liberal world order, would do nothing.

There have been many other similar warning signs: China’s arrest of the head of Interpol; the Burmese military’s campaign of genocide against the Rohingya; the systematic and deliberate slaughter of civilians in Syria, including by outlawed chemical weapons; the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. Nor is the rise of right-wing nationalist forces in Europe and elsewhere unrelated to the loss of strength and vitality among the democratic nations. Doubts about America have been reverberating across the globe for more than a decade, and others have been responding accordingly. ... So welcome to the breakdown of the liberal world order the United States once upheld. You’re seeing just the beginning.

Update: The Washington Post is now reporting that U.S. intelligence may have had knowledge of a Saudi plan to “capture” Khashoggi. Two anonymous sources appear to have told the Post that the U.S. had intercepted intelligence to this effect. “It is not clear whether the United States warned Khashoggi that he was a target, the people said.”

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Report: Trump asked Japan’s prime minister to let a GOP megadonor build a casino.

Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam have become Donald Trump’s biggest and most important donors over the past two years, using their influence to help shape the administration’s Middle East and tax policies, among others. Adelson was believed to have been particularly instrumental in Trump’s decision to move the United States’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite widespread international criticism. The Adelsons have given tens of millions to support the administration and are particularly important to the GOP’s midterm election efforts.

On Wednesday, ProPublica reported that Adelson dined with the president in February of 2017, shortly after the casino magnate donated $20 million to Trump’s presidential campaign and $5 million to his inauguration. The following day, Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. During their conversation, the president reportedly lobbied Abe on behalf of Adelson, who has long harbored an ambition to build a casino in Japan.

“It was totally brought up out of the blue,” one of the people briefed on the exchange told ProPublica. “They were a little incredulous that he would be so brazen.... Abe didn’t really respond, and said thank you for the information.” According to the report, Trump also lobbied Abe on behalf of donor Steve Wynn, who ran MGM Casino and Resorts and served as the RNC finance chairman at the time.

From the moment Trump was elected president, there have been concerns that he has used the office of the presidency to enrich himself, his family, and his allies. In the case of Adelson, Trump may have used his office to give his largest donor personal and financial benefits.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Trump’s midterm strategy reeks of desperation.

In the wake of the protests of Brett Kavanaugh’s ascendance to the Supreme Court, Republicans have settled on a election argument they think will turn out their base: The Democrats are ruled by an “angry mob” and would destroy every institution they could if elected. Only Republicans can preserve a democratic government and the rule of law.

It’s a rich argument, given the Republicans’ increasing extremism under President Barack Obama, and one that essentially appropriates Democratic arguments against Trump and Republicans dating back to the 2016 election. But now, with their base energized by videos of protestors chanting “shame” at Republican senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Trump is leaning into the idea that Democrats are the real extremists.

At a rally in Iowa on Tuesday, the president said Democrats had become “totally unhinged,” while reciting the names of party officials who called for Kavanaugh’s confirmation to be blocked. (The crowd went as far as to chant “lock her up” about Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Diane Feinstein.) “The Democrats have become too extreme and, frankly, they’ve become too dangerous to govern,” he said. “They’ve gone wacko.”

Trump’s argument about the Democrats’ determination to burn it all down extended to health care, despite the fact that his administration has repeatedly and deliberately moved to destabilize the Affordable Care Act. In an op-ed written for USA Today, Trump argued that Democratic proposals to create a universal health care system would “end Medicare as we know it and take away benefits that seniors have paid for their entire lives.” In the op-ed Trump casts Republicans as protectors of Medicare, despite the fact that they have spent decades gutting and attempting to privatize the program in an attempt to scare seniors into turning out.

The new Democrats are radical socialists who want to model America’s economy after Venezuela,” he wrote. “If Democrats win control of Congress this November, we will come dangerously closer to socialism in America. Government-run health care is just the beginning.”

Trump’s efforts to turn Kavanaugh’s confirmation and concern over health care costs into wedge issues may drive out parts of the Republican base. But polling shows that both issues favor Democrats, and that the party continues to lead the Republicans by double-digits on the generic ballot.