The Real Russia Scandal

Mike Flynn. In 2016, the retired general published a book that made clear where he stood when it came to Russia.

“Although I believe America and Russia could find mutual ground fighting Radical Islamists,” he and co-author Michael Ledeen wrote, “there is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us; quite the contrary, in fact.”

Lest there be any doubt as to where the future national security adviser stood, Flynn went on to stress that Vladimir Putin “has done a lot for the Khamenei regime”; that Russia and Iran were “the two most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance”; and that the Russian president’s deep intention was to “pursue the war against us.”

All this was true. Yet by the end of the year, Flynn would be courting Russia’s ambassador to Washington and hinting at swift relief from sanctions. What gave?

What gave, it seems, was some combination of financial motives — at least $65,000 in payments by Russian-linked companies — and political ones — a new master in the person of Donald Trump, who took precisely the same gauzy view of Russia that Flynn had rejected in his book.

.. the president’s craven apologists insist he’s right to try to find common ground with Russia. These are the same people who until recently were in full throat against Barack Obama for his overtures to Putin.

.. Yet the alleged naïveté never quits: Just this week, he asked for Putin’s help on North Korea.

The better explanations are:

  1. the president is infatuated with authoritarians, at least those who flatter him;
  2. he’s neurotically neuralgic when it comes to the subject of his election;
  3. he’s ideologically sympathetic to Putinism, with its combination of economic corporatism, foreign-policy cynicism, and violent hostility to critics;
  4. he’s stupid; or
  5. he’s vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

.. Each explanation is compatible with all the others. For my part, I choose all of the above — the first four points being demonstrable while the last is logical.

.. There’s no need to obsess about electoral collusion when the real issue is moral capitulation.

The Missiles of August

In reality, the Cuban missile crisis was the kind of scenario many of us feared could follow the election of Donald Trump: An inexperienced president gets elected on promises of toughness and flagrant lies, makes a series of bad decisions that provoke escalation from our foes, at which point political considerations make him feel he can’t back down, and suddenly we’re staring at nuclear war.

.. That’s basically the sequence of events that gave us the Cuban crisis, as Ben Schwarz pointed out in a revisionist Atlantic essay in 2013. Kennedy was elected after attacking Richard Nixon over a supposed “missile gap” with Russia that did not exist. He proceeded to fulfill his promise to Make America Tough Again with a series of poorly planned, Mafia-entangled, occasionally ludicrous attempts to unseat Fidel Castro, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster. At the same time, he went ahead with a plan to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey, a provocative gesture that made the Soviets suspect that we were looking for opportunities for a nuclear first strike.

.. When Khrushchev responded to this aggression and incompetence with the missiles-to-Cuba scheme, Kennedy decided that while the missiles did not place the United States in greater military danger (a nuke is a nuke whether fired from Havana, Russia or a submarine off the U.S. coast), they created an unacceptable political problem for his presidential credibility. Thus the escalation that followed — the quarantine, the invasion threat, the nuclear brinksmanship.

.. “success” required giving the Russians the strategic concession they had originally sought. The Jupiters were removed as well, but on a delayed timetable to allow the Kennedy White House to deceive about the crisis’ resolution. Meanwhile, American efforts to overthrow Castro diminished, and his regime endures today.

.. The weapons’ purpose is blackmail and self-protection, with no Cold War grand strategy involved. The U.S. military seems more likely to be a restraining force in this crisis than a hawkish one.

.. Meanwhile Trump himself is far more publicly unmastered and privately ignorant than J.F.K. But in fairness, Trump also has confined his real bellicosity to Twitter, without ordering any Kennedy-esque military misadventures or escalations yet.

.. My sense is that he would gladly — nay, eagerly — take a version of the deal that Kennedy ultimately struck: a bargain that looked better publicly for the U.S. than in secret, that allowed him to claim success even if the reality were different.

..  the concessions we would have to make to Pyongyang are unlikely to be kept secret.

..  can see the price of letting a U.S. president save too much face.

.. So it’s more likely that if we avert war, it will be because Trump is fundamentally a bluffer, who will issue threats on Twitter but won’t overrule his advisers if they tell him not to give an order that will leave hundreds of thousands dead.

Unfortunately, the bluster and incompetence will also probably make any deal worse than it otherwise might be.

But that’s the nature of the Trump presidency: You root for the least-bad outcome, knowing that the best one is probably already out of reach.

Jared Kushner’s Got Too Many Secrets to Keep Ours

he’s under investigation, and a series of revelations have bolstered suspicions — and credible doubts mean that he must be viewed as a security risk.

.. Kushner attended a meeting in June 2016 whose stated purpose was to advance a Kremlin initiative to interfere in the U.S. election; he failed to disclose the meeting on government forms (a felony if intentional); he was apparently complicit in a cover-up in which the Trump team denied at least 20 times that there had been any contacts with Russians to influence the election; and he also sought to set up a secret communications channel with the Kremlin during the presidential transition.

.. Kushner is set to be interviewed Monday in a closed session with the Senate Intelligence Committee, his first meeting with congressional investigators. I hope they grill him in particular about the attempt to set up a secret communications channel and whether it involved mobile Russian scrambling devices.

.. Similar issues arise with Ivanka Trump. The SF-86 form to get a national security clearance requires inclusion of a spouse’s foreign contacts

.. McClatchy has reported that investigators are looking into whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation, which Kushner oversaw, colluded with Russians on Moscow’s efforts to spread fake news about Hillary Clinton.

.. the national security world fears that there is something substantive to the suspicions about the president and Russia. Otherwise, nothing makes sense.

  1. Why has Trump persistently stood with Vladimir Putin rather than with allies like Germany or Britain?
  2. Why did Trump make a beeline for Putin at the G-20 dinner, without an aide, as opposed to chat with Angela Merkel or Theresa May?
  3. Why do so many Trump team members have ties to Russia?
  4. Why did Trump choose a campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who had been as much as $17 million in debt to pro-Russian interests and was vulnerable to Moscow pressure?
  5. Why did he take the political risk of firing Jim Comey?
  6. Why is he so furious at Jeff Sessions for recusing himself?
  7. Why does he apparently contemplate the extreme step of firing Bob Mueller during his investigation into the Russia ties?
  8. If the Trump team is innocent and expects exoneration, why would it work so hard on a secret effort aimed at discrediting Mueller, as The Times reported?

  9. Why would Trump be exploring pardons for aides, family members and himself, as The Washington Post reported?

.. One thing you learn as a journalist is that when an official makes increasingly vehement protestations of innocence, you’re probably getting warm.

..  I sympathize with our counterintelligence officials, who chase low-level leakers and spies even as they undoubtedly worry that their commander in chief may be subject to Kremlin leverage or blackmail.

 

Citing Recusal, Trump Says He Wouldn’t Have Hired Sessions

President Trump said on Wednesday that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Mr. Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision “very unfair to the president.”

In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Mr. Trump complained that Mr. Sessions’s decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. “Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Mr. Trump said.

.. In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, the president also accused James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director he fired in May, of trying to leverage a dossier of compromising material to keep his job. Mr. Trump criticized both the acting F.B.I. director who has been filling in since Mr. Comey’s dismissal and the deputy attorney general who recommended it. And he took on Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel now leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Mueller was running an office rife with conflicts of interest and warned investigators against delving into matters too far afield from Russia.

.. Asked if Mr. Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Mr. Trump said, “I would say yes.” He would not say what he would do about it. “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

.. In the interview, Mr. Trump said he believed Mr. Comey told him about the dossier to implicitly make clear he had something to hold over the president. “In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there,” Mr. Trump said. As leverage? “Yeah, I think so,’’ Mr. Trump said. “In retrospect.”

.. Mr. Comey testified before Congress that he disclosed the details of the dossier to Mr. Trump because he thought that the media would soon be publishing details from it and that Mr. Trump had a right to know what information was out there about him.

.. Mr. Comey testified before Congress that Mr. Trump kicked the vice president, attorney general and several other senior administration officials out of the room before having the discussion with Mr. Comey.

.. “I don’t remember even talking to him about any of this stuff,” Mr. Trump said. “He said I asked people to go. Look, you look at his testimony. His testimony is loaded up with lies, O.K.?”

.. He noted that he actually interviewed Mr. Mueller to replace Mr. Comey just before his appointment as special counsel.

..  Talk about conflicts. But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.”

.. The president also expressed discontent with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, a former federal prosecutor from Baltimore.

.. “There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any,” he said of the predominantly Democratic city.

He complained that Mr. Rosenstein had in effect been on both sides when it came to Mr. Comey. The deputy attorney general recommended Mr. Comey be fired but then appointed Mr. Mueller, who may be investigating whether the dismissal was an obstruction of justice. “Well, that’s a conflict of interest,” Mr. Trump said. “Do you know how many conflicts of interests there are?”

.. As for Andrew G. McCabe, the acting F.B.I. director, the president suggested that he, too, had a conflict. Mr. McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe, received nearly $500,000 in 2015 during a losing campaign for the Virginia Senate from a political action committee affiliated with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is close friends with Hillary and Bill Clinton.

.. But the president repeated that he did not know about his son’s meeting at the time and added that he did not need the Russians to provide damaging information about Mrs. Clinton.

“There wasn’t much I could say about Hillary Clinton that was worse than what I was already saying,” he said. “Unless somebody said that she shot somebody in the back, there wasn’t much I could add to my repertoire.”

Trump’s Pious and Dangerous Enablers

Did I miss something when Trump said he was salivating at the chance to take health care away from 22 million Americans and the 87-year-old Robertson merely responded with his trademark chucklehead chuckle?

.. Robertson is not the most despicable of Trump’s enablers. For that, you’re probably thinking of Sean Hannity. No, it goes beyond the safe spaces in broadcasting. The most odious of those who are letting Trump drag America into the gutter include Vice President Mike Pence, the leaders in Congress and the pious shepherds of a white evangelical community that continues to give an awful man a pass for every awful thing he does.

.. Pence is the choirboy who leaves the room when the nasty boys take over, and then helps clean up later.

.. Pence has said he would never dine alone with a woman who is not his wife, which raises questions about how he would handle a diplomatic dinner with Angela Merkel.

.. Through every degrading statement, every Oval Office insult, every one of the more than 500 demonstrable lies told (so far) by this president, Pence has remained silent or defended the offender.

And if the White House is blackmailed because the Kremlin has something even more damning on, say, Jared Kushner .. Pence will be further exposed as a gutless cipher.
.. Another boy scout in hiding is House Speaker Paul Ryan. Golly gee, he just wants to cut taxes on the rich, destroy the health care system, and work on his abs and guns.
.. Asked this week if he would ever have a meeting with a foreign power offering dirt on a political opponent, he said, “I’m not going to go into hypotheticals.”
.. And the above question is anything but a hypothetical; the dim-bulbed Donald Trump Jr. presented it in writing.
.. A true miracle would be for one of the enablers among the 81 percent of white evangelicals who gave their vote to Trump to follow their conscience, or at least the Scriptures they profess guide them.

Trump Has Putin over a Barrel

Senator John McCain said on a Sunday talk show that “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”

..But with energy prices falling, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has essentially been in a recession over the past four years. With oil at $50 a barrel or less, Russian budgets plunge deeper into debt. It’s even doubtful the Russians have enough money to upgrade their military-energy industrial complex.

.. Through crafty media relations and his own bravado, a deluded Putin struggles to maintain the illusion that Russia is a strong economic power. But it ain’t so. Not even close.

.. He said, “if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.”

.. But in an absolutely key part of the speech, he took direct aim at Vladimir Putin’s energy bullying. Trump said, “We are committed to securing your access to alternative sources of energy so Poland and its neighbors are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy.” Italics are all mine.

.. Trump wants America to achieve energy dominance. He withdrew from the costly Paris climate accord, which would have severely damaged the American economy. He directed the EPA to rescind the Obama Clean Power Plan, which would have led to skyrocketing electricity rates. He fast-tracked the Keystone XL pipeline. He reopened the door for a modernized American coal industry. He’s overturning all the Obama obstacles to hydraulic fracturing, which his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton would have dramatically increased. And he has opened the floodgates wide to energy exports.

.. Right now, U.S. oil reserves are almost in parity with those of Saudi Arabia. We have the second-most coal reserves in the world. There are enough U.S. gas reserves to last us a century. We have already passed Russia as the world’s top natural-gas producer. We are the world’s top producer of oil and petroleum hydrocarbons. And exports of liquified national gas are surging, with the Energy Department rapidly approving new LNG projects and other export terminals.

.. Trump made it clear that America’s energy dominance will be used to help our friends across Europe. No longer will our allies have to rely on Russian Gazprom supplies with inflated, prosperity-killing prices.

.. the businessman president fully intends to destroy Russia’s energy-market share. And as that takes hold, Russia’s gas-station economy will sink further.

.. And as that takes hold, bully-boy Putin will have to think twice about Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics. He’ll have to think twice about his anti-American policies in the Middle East and North Korea.

Mika Brzezinski explains what President Trump’s tweets reveal about him

We’re okay. The country is not.

..  White House threatened a negative tabloid story about them unless they asked Trump — who is friendly with the National Enquirer’s publisher, David Pecker — to have the story killed.

.. Trump took to Twitter on Friday morning and called the claim “FAKE NEWS” — prompting Scarborough to accuse the president of “yet another lie.”

.. Scarborough said Friday on MSNBC that Trump “attacks women, he fears women,” and accused the president of having a “really disturbing obsession with Mika.”
.. The White House came to Trump’s defense Thursday, saying that Brzezinski and Scarborough have said far worse things about the president and his staff.
.. “Look, I don’t think you can expect someone to be personally attacked day after day, minute by minute, and sit back,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “Look, the American people elected a fighter. . . . They knew what they were getting when they voted for Donald Trump.”
.. For months, Brzezinski has raised questions about the president’s psychological health, calling him “possibly unfit mentally” and saying that he is “such a narcissist, it’s possible that he is mentally ill in a way.”