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Vladimir Putin might need to hire spies who can hold their liquor.

Maria Butina, who is currently under arrest on charges of being a foreign agent, seems not to have been the most adept spy in the world. According to a CNN report, when intoxicated she explicitly boasted of her Kremlin connections. “On at least two separate occasions she got drunk and spoke openly about her contacts within the Russian government, even acknowledging that Russian intelligence services were involved with the gun rights group she ran in Moscow,” CNN notes. “Twice, classmates reported her actions to law enforcement because they found her comments so alarming, sources said.”

This story is similar to another report of a figure caught up in the Russia investigation. As The New York Times reported in December 2017, “During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” Papadopoulos subsequently pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI.

Both the Butina and Papadopoulos stories illustrate the fact that the Russia investigation is not a typical spy thriller along the lines of Ian Fleming or John Le Carre novels. Rather, it is a farce in the tradition of the Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading.

August 16, 2018

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Omarosa releases new tape, says Trumps tried to “buy” her silence.

On Thursday, Omarosa Manigault Newman released a secret tape of a conversation between her and Lara Trump during an interview with MSNBC’s Craig Melvin.

Lara Trump, the senior adviser of President Trump’s 2020 campaign and Eric Trump’s wife, can be heard offering Manigault Newman a job working alongside her for $15,000 a month—a figure totaling $180,000 a year.

The tape opens with Mrs. Trump referencing what she considers a troubling New York Times article—the Times’s Maggie Haberman believes it to be this one—in which Manigault Newman is quoted having said she has “seen things that made me uncomfortable” over the course of her work for Trump, and that she has a “profound story that I know the world will want to hear.”

“It sounds a little like, obviously, that there are some things you’ve got in the back pocket to pull out,” Lara Trump says on this new tape, referring to the article. Mrs. Trump then notes that all the money raised for the campaign comes from small donors, and offers to match Manigault Newman’s White House salary of $179,ooo. Manigault Newman told Craig Melvin that the recording is proof of “an attempt” to “buy my silence, to censor me, and to pay men off.”

President Trump’s former bodyguard, Keith Schiller, was also offered a 2020 campaign position that pays $15,000 a month, according to CNN. He left the White House in September 2017 for “financial reasons,” began receiving $15,000 a month for “security expenses” in October, and was interviewed as part of the Russia investigation in November.

The U.S. National Archives

Mississippi GOP Senate hopeful waxes plagiaristically poetic over Robert E. Lee.

Chris McDaniel, who currently serves in the Mississippi State Senate and has his sights set on a U.S. Senate seat, published a Facebook post on Wednesday praising the supposed honor of Robert E. Lee, the Virginia-born general who fought in defense of the South’s slaver aristocracy during the Civil War.

Here’s the irony: McDaniel’s attempt to refute the “historically illiterate left” is astoundingly historically illiterate itself. The claim that Lee “opposed both slavery and secession” would likely come as a great surprise to the Confederate general, who waged a five-year war against the United States on behalf of a secessionist rebellion that sought to preserve slavery. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted last year that not only did Lee own slaves himself, but soldiers under his command sought to enslave free black Americans during the Pennsylvania campaign and routinely murdered captured black Union soldiers throughout the war. Misrepresenting Lee as a benign, honorable figure is a common feature of Lost Cause mythology, which valorizes him and other Confederate leaders who fought to defend white supremacy.

McDaniel might have fared better if he hadn’t lifted the passage whole cloth from Dinesh D’Souza. The conservative filmmaker is known for his relentless efforts to deflect criticism of the Republican Party’s racist tendencies by citing historical episodes of racism within the pre-1960s Democratic Party. Real historians have thoroughly debunked the charade, which willfully ignores the parties’ historic flip on racial issues in the mid-twentieth century over civil rights, but D’Souza remains unrepentant in his quest to paint Democrats as the real racists of the Trump era.

What prompted McDaniel to rise to Lee’s defense in this occasion is unclear. In any event, it’s a jarring move for a public official to make. After all, why should anyone seeking elected office in the federal government praise a man who sought to destroy it?

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Trump wants Omarosa arrested.

Writing in Vanity Fair, Garbriel reports that President Donald Trump “told advisers that he wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to have [Omarosa] Manigault Newman arrested, according to one Republican briefed on the conversations. (It’s unclear what law Trump believes she broke.)” Despite the counsel of his advisors and his wife Melania to ignore Manigault Newman, the president continues to go on a rampage against the former advisor, who he’s known for fifteen years dating back to their work on the reality television.

“In recent days, Trump has called Manigault Newman ‘crazed,’ a ‘lowlife,’ and a ‘dog’ on Twitter,” Sherman notes, “Another Republican recounted how over the weekend Trump derailed a midterm-election strategy session to rant about Manigault Newman’s betrayal.”

The story of Trump demanding that Manigault Newman arrested is consistent with the fact that Trump has repeatedly made public requests that the Department of Justice investigate his political enemies. The president has also expressed frustration in tweets over Attorney General Jeff Sessions not doing his bidding with regard to the Russia investigation:

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New GOP theory: Losing the midterms could actually be great.

As the midterms approach and they continue to lag in the polls, some Republicans are cheering themselves up with the idea that defeat in the House of Representatives and a move to impeach President Donald Trump could be a blessing in disguise. Politico describes this as a lose-to-win” theory and reports it is gaining increasing traction among Republicans.

“If they take the House, he wins big,” former Trump campaign advisor Barry Bennett told Politico.

Losing even one house of Congress would mean the end of unified Republican control of the government. Normally, this isn’t something a party in power would wish for. But, according to Politico, Republicans see a silver lining in defeat:

Proponents of the go-for-broke scenario argue that Trump’s at his best when his back is against the wall, and that a move to impeach would both rally the base and make the president sympathetic to moderate voters. Some scoff at the notion that there’s anything for Trump to fear from Democratic investigators on Capitol Hill, especially given the threat he’s already facing from special counsel Robert Mueller, and suggested that the House doesn’t matter as long as Republicans retain the Senate.

If this is really what Republicans think, it is far-fetched and unlikely. There are all too many ways that losing the House of Representatives could backfire on the Republicans. After all, as House Majority leader, Nancy Pelosi would have subpoena power. All the bubbling scandals of the Trump era would suddenly move from the back pages of newspapers to become live drama on TV, as Democrats grill Trump associates about emoluments, conflicts of interest, and the Russia investigation.

Further, defeat would change the political calculations of elected Republicans. So far, they remain in alliance with Trump because they see the downside of criticizing him, especially losing in primaries, as too dangerous. But if Trump leads his party to a midterm collapse, the remaining Republicans might decide they are better off without him.

Finally, as a polarizing president, Trump won’t be able to triangulate the way Bill Clinton did when he faced a Republican congress after 1994. So Trump’s already limited ability to work with congress would completely end.

The theory of “lose-to-win” seems more like one of the stages of the acceptance of grief (denial) than a viable political strategy.

Fox Business

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s latest wildfire interview is a doozy.

The scandal-ridden Interior Secretary explicitly denied the science of climate change in a Thursday morning interview on Fox Business, saying it’s “still being disputed” whether humans are directly causing global warming—a dispute at this point limited to American politics. Scientists have been warning about human-caused climate change since at least the year 1912. Today, the international scientific community states with 95 percent confidence that humans are the main, direct cause of climate change.

But even if climate change were real, Zinke said, (to be clear, it is), he sees the issue as “irrelevant” to the California wildfires. The real problem, according to Zinke, is the 120 million dead trees sitting in California’s forests—an issue his agency is supposed to help manage. “Alls you have to do is look at our highways and the amount of dead and dying timber in our forests, it’s clear what’s occurring,” he said. “It is the fires are enraged and intensified by too much density of dead and dying timber.”

While dead timber is indeed a problem with regard to wildfire management, Zinke neglected to mention two things: One, that scientists have found climate change is exacerbating California’s dead tree crisis. And two, that Zinke has been promoting industrial logging—that is, clearing live, healthy trees from forests—to solve the problem.

“Alls you have to do is talk to the [firefighters],” Zinke said, claiming they would cite forest management as their biggest problem and not climate change, which is prolonging the season and making extreme blazes more likely. And yet, last week, the assistant deputy director of Cal Fire told The New York Times the opposite.“Let’s be clear,” he said. “It’s our changing climate that is leading to more severe and destructive fires.”

Aside from his climate-change denial, Zinke also used the wildfires to bring up his military experience. Asked to describe the blazes, Zinke replied, “Well, you know, I served in Iraq. The devastation in the California wildfires is the worst I’ve ever seen.” Zinke made a similar comment while visiting Redding, California on Sunday. “As a former (Navy) SEAL that was a deputy commander and acting commander in Iraq, this is on par with anything I’ve seen, just the devastation,” he said.

The whole interview is below.

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Steve Bannon forms a new group to make the midterms all about Trump.

The former CEO of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has been in the political doghouse for most of this year. Bannon lost his lustre among Republicans and the president himself after critical remarks he made about Donald Trump Jr., and after his support of Roy Moore’s Alabama Senate bid ended with the Democrats winning what should have been a safe Republican seat. Still, despite losing his perch as head of Breitbart News and the patronage of the billionaire Mercer family, Bannon clearly wants to keep his hand in Republican politics. 

The New York Times reports that Bannon is back with a new group called  Citizens of the American Republic which will “try to sell voters on a midterm message that they should support Republicans to defend the Trump agenda and save the president from impeachment.” As with previous Bannon efforts, the main focus will be on ideological messaging rather than grass roots organizing. “But Mr. Bannon, who insists that approaching congressional races as one-offs is a waste of time, is planning a messaging push on cable television, the op-ed pages of newspapers and local conservative radio shows,” The Times notes. “His premise is that more of Mr. Trump will be a good thing.”

As Axios reports this morning, part of Bannon’s propaganda strategy is a new movie titled Trump @ War. A trailer fro the film is now available:

Although he’s now something of a pariah in Trumpian and GOP circles, Bannon’s approach is very much the one that Trump himself has embraced when he goes to campaign on behalf of candidates, which is to make each election about Trump himself. And the Republican Party itself seems to feel that embracing Trump is the way to go, with candidates who act like the president and praise him elbowing out critics

This strategy of making everything about Trump is the opposite of how the Democrats are approaching the midterms. The Democratic Party’s strategy is not to nationalize the elections, to let each local candidate shape a message, and to avoid talking about Trump in areas where the president is popular. 

It’s unlikely that Bannon’s new gambit will win him a spot in the president’s good graces again. Still, Bannon’s actions do show that he’s still on the same page as the president and the larger GOP. 

August 15, 2018


Does the Trump White House fear black women?

On Wednesday, the president tweeted a strange birthday message to Maxine Waters:

Nancy Pelosi also wrote a birthday tweet, suggesting that Waters “strikes fear in the heart of” Donald Trump:

The idea that Trump and his circle might have a special fear of black women is gaining traction, perhaps because of the White House’s panicked reaction to a new book by Omarosa Manigault-Newman.

Ilhan Omar, the Somali-American who won a Democratic congressional primary on Wednesday, echoed this idea when she said, “I am America’s hope and the president’s nightmare.

The White House itself lent credence to this idea by their reaction to Manigault-Newman. On Sunday, Axios published an article titled “Inside Omarosa’s Reign of Terror” which quoted lurid statements by Trump officials about how scary Manigault-Newman was:

    • “I’m scared shitless of her... She’s a physically intimidating presence,” a male former colleague of Omarosa’s told me. (He wouldn’t let me use a more precise description of his former White House role because he admitted he’s still scared of retribution from Omarosa. Other senior officials have admitted the same to me.)
    • “I never said no to her,” the source added. “Anything she wanted, ‘Yes, brilliant.’ I’m afraid of her. I’m afraid of getting my ass kicked.”
    • Three other former officials shared that sentiment: “One hundred percent, everyone was scared of her,” said another former official.

The notion that Trump has a particular reaction to women of color has been around for sometime. Former Republican Sophia Nelson discussed the president’s disdain for black women last October in Politico. But there’s renewed focus on the specific role fear might play, thanks to the controversies around Omarosa but also the increased visibility of politicians like Waters and Omar.


Twitter CEO suspends Alex Jones but still doesn’t understand who he is.

Of all the big social media outlets, Twitter has been the most reluctant to sever ties with Jones, a notorious conspiracy theorist. While Facebook, Apple and Youtube have all banned Jones, Twitter has only suspended Jones for one week.

Defending the suspension in an interview with NBC, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey argued the goal was to get Jones to transform his behavior. “Whether it works within this case to change some of those behaviors and change some of those actions, I don’t know,” Dorsey said. “But this is consistent with how we enforce.” The CEO added: “We can’t build a service that is subjective just to the whims of what we personally believe.”

The interview is alarming evidence that Dorsey doesn’t actually understand who Alex Jones is (and, by extension, who many of the other bad actors who exploit social media are). To talk about Jones changing his behavior is to assume Jones is basically a rational person who is sometimes tactless. But conjuring up ludicrous conspiracy theories that lead to harassment isn’t incidental to Jones, but integral to his entire public project.

In a useful rundown of Jones’ ideas, Rolling Stone noted that he’s someone who has argued that satanists are taking over America, Glenn Beck is a CIA agent, Bill Gates is trying to exterminate minorities, Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring out of a pizza shop, the government controls the weather and countless shootings aside from the Sandy Hook massacre were false flag operations. In other words, lies and absurdity are inextricable from Jones, they are the very essence of his worldview. There’s no reason to think this is incidental behavior that can be changed. Or rather, there is no reason to think this unless you run a social media platform and want to keep Jones on it.

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Why Trump revoked former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Wednesday that Brennan’s clearance was being revoked because of his “erratic conduct and behavior” and “frenzied commentary.” Brennan, who served under Obama from 2013 to 2017, is currently a intelligence and security commentator for NBC News. He has also become a vehement critic of President Trump’s policies and behavior since leaving the CIA last year. In July, he said that Trump’s widely condemned press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was “nothing short of treasonous.”

It’s unclear whether Brennan will have any legal recourse to keep his security clearance. The White House did not specify what mechanism it used to strip Brennan of it. What’s crystal clear is that the president is using his national-security powers to retaliate against political opponents and punish them for criticizing him. It’s no coincidence that the other officials Sanders cited for potential revocation—former FBI Director James Comey, former national security advisor Susan Rice, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper—are among his most outspoken dissenters.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Under Trump’s watch, the FBI has also effectively purged its upper ranks of officials who oversaw the early phases of the Russia investigation, or were corroborating witnesses to Trump’s pressure campaign against Comey before last year’s dismissal. Many of them were already the subject of constant attacks from the president on his Twitter feed. With these moves, Trump is sending a clear signal to civil servants in the American national-security apparatus: Your livelihood may depend on your personal loyalty to me.

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Eschewing a national strategy, Democrats are betting on a hodgepodge message winning the midterms.

While Democrats are hoping for a blue wave to help take back the House of Representative in the fall, they have decided on a risky strategy that goes against the grain of how previous wave elections have been won. As The New York Times notes, going back more than two decades, wave elections have always had victorious parties adopt a national platform, ranging from the Contract With America in 1994 to the “Six for ’06” in 2006 to the Tea Party agenda in 2010.

In 2018, by contrast, the Democrats have decided that the way to go is to let individual candidates set their own agenda. “Democrats in the House tasked with cobbling together a unifying agenda after the 2016 elections say they studied Contract With America and similar plans in detail,” The Times reports. “But in the end, they settled on a narrow ‘do no harm’ strategy rather than a granular point-by-point agenda punctuated with a high-profile unveiling at the Capitol. Midterm elections are almost always referendums on the president, regardless of the opposing party’s message.”

Foreswearing a bold wish list, “The Democratic platform, For the People, outlines a relatively anodyne agenda — lowering health care and prescription drug costs, increasing worker pay, cleaning up corruption — that Democrats say unites all of their candidates.”

To some degree, this “do no harm” strategy makes sense. After all, the Democratic Party is very heterogenous. In swaths of the Midwest, the party is running candidates that Politico describes as “white, conventional and boring.” But this isn’t true of the whole Midwest, let alone the whole party, which is becoming more diverse (fielding a record number of women and people of color) and, in the safest seats, more ideologically bold (notably with the avowed socialist (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez).

The danger of “do no harm” is that it’ll yield the national floor to the Republicans, who are more than happy to paint all Democrats as extremists beholden to the supposed radical Nancy Pelosi. And if the case-by-case approach succeeds, it’s hard to see how it would translate to Congressional politics: Governing is easier when the members of a party basically agree on platform.