The Year Justice Caught Up With Trumpworld

In 2018, impunity came to an end.

Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.

Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.

.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.

.. At the beginning of 2018,

  • Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
  • Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
  • Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
  • Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
  • The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
  • He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
  • and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.

When this year began,

  • Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
  • Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
  • David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.

At the start of 2018, the

  • casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
  • Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
  • (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)

As this year began,

  • Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.

In January,

  • McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
  • On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”

Trump likes Mattis. Will it last?

The trickiest challenge for Mattis next year will be North Korea. The defense secretary backs Tillerson’s strategy of diplomatic pressure; the goal is slow asphyxiation. But Trump wants military options, too, and the Pentagon is working hard to deliver them. Dunford must be prepared for a possible North Korean nuclear-missile launch, anytime.

Homeland Security Chief Resisted White House Pressure on Immigrant Program

White House officials were pushing the Department of Homeland Security to announce this week that they were ending those protections for Honduras and Nicaragua ..

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly telephoned Acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke and pressed her on the matter, a White House official said. The official said the point of his call was to get her to make a decision, saying she was delaying too long. Others said the pressure from the White House was to end the protections.

“As with many issues, there were a variety of views inside the administration on a policy. The acting secretary took those views and advice the path forward for TPS and made her decision based on the law,” said Jonathan Hoffman, spokesman for Homeland Security.

.. Mr. Kelly, when he was Homeland Security secretary, offered a limited extension of the same protective status for Haitians earlier this year and advised immigrants protected by the program to prepare to leave. He also signaled that protections for people from other nations were likely to end, as well.

.. “The White House came down on her really hard” before and after the decisions were announced.

.. On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the protected status for Nicaragua would end, but the roughly 5,000 immigrants in the U.S. under the program would have until January 2019 to either leave the country or apply for another immigration status if they are eligible.

.. Ms. Duke is expected to leave the agency when a permanent successor is approved by the Senate. Mr. Hoffman, however, said he knew of no plans for Ms. Duke to leave.

The MacArthur Model for Afghanistan

Consolidate authority into one person: an American viceroy who’d lead all coalition efforts.

Afghanistan is an expensive disaster for America. The Pentagon has already consumed $828 billion on the war, and taxpayers will be liable for trillions more in veterans’ health-care costs for decades to come. More than 2,000 American soldiers have died there, with more than 20,000 wounded in action.
For all that effort, Afghanistan is failing. The terrorist cohort consistently gains control of more territory, including key economic arteries

.. First, he should consolidate authority in Afghanistan with one person: an American viceroy

The coalition has had 17 different military commanders in the past 15 years, which means none of them had time to develop or be held responsible for a coherent strategy.

  1. .. In Afghanistan, the viceroy approach would reduce rampant fraud by focusing spending on initiatives that further the central strategy, rather than handing cash to every outstretched hand from a U.S. system bereft of institutional memory.
  2. .. Troops fighting for their lives should not have to ask a lawyer sitting in air conditioning 500 miles away for permission to drop a bomb. Our plodding, hand wringing and overcaution have prolonged the war—and the suffering it bears upon the Afghan population.
  3. .. Third, we must build the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces the effective and proven way, instead of spending billions more pursuing the “ideal” way. The 330,000-strong Afghan army and police were set up under the guidance of U.S. military “advisers” in the mirror image of the U.S. Army. That was the wrong approach.     .. frequent defections, which currently deliver the equivalent of two trained infantry divisions per year to the enemy.

.. a different, centuries-old approach. For 250 years, the East India Company prevailed in the region through the use of private military units known as “presidency armies.” They were locally recruited and trained, supported and led by contracted European professional soldiers. The professionals lived, patrolled, and—when necessary—fought shoulder-to-shoulder with their local counterparts for multiyear deployments. That long-term dwelling ensured the training, discipline, loyalty and material readiness of the men they fought alongside for years, not for a one-time eight-month deployment.

.. the viceroy would have complete decision-making authority in the country so no time is wasted waiting for Washington to send instructions. A nimbler special-ops and contracted force like this would cost less than $10 billion per year, as opposed to the $45 billion we expect to spend in Afghanistan in 2017.

.. The military default in a conventional war is to control terrain, neglecting the long-term financial arteries that fund the fight, and handicaps long-term economic potential.

The Taliban understand this concept well. They control most of Afghanistan’s economic resources—including lapis, marble, gold, pistachios, hashish and opium—and use profits to spread their influence and perpetuate the insurgency. Our strategy needs to target those resources by placing combat power to cover Afghanistan’s economic arteries.

.. We need to encourage the growth of legitimate industries to raise tax revenue while choking off the Taliban’s sources of income. It’s absurd that Afghanistan—which holds an estimated $1 trillion worth of mineral resources—still doesn’t have a mining law, after 15 years of American presence and “advice.”

.. Our failed population-centric approach to Afghanistan has only led to missed opportunities

.. A smarter, trade-centric approach will boost Afghanistan’s long-run viability by weaning it off donor welfare dependency.

.. Mr. Trump must not lose sight of the reason we became involved in Afghanistan: to deny sanctuary to those who want to destroy our way of life.

.. The U.S. should adjust course from the past 15-plus years of nation building and focus on pounding the Taliban and other terrorists so hard that they plead for negotiation. Until they feel real pressure and know the U.S. has staying power, they will win.

The Angst of Endangered CEOs: ‘How Much Time Do I Have?’

a common lesson this year: The pay is great, but job security has rarely been shakier.

chief executive churn reflects a broader reality for the country’s business elite: An array of challenges—from

  • increasing impatience on Wall Street and in boardrooms to
  • a corporate landscape rapidly transformed by new technologies and rival upstarts

—have made the top job tougher and more precarious than just a few years ago

.. The typical CEO of a major company a decade ago resembled a ship captain “who could rally a group of people with a lot of process and procedures,” said Deborah Rubin, a senior partner at RHR International, a leadership-development firm. “Today’s CEO has to be much more like a race car driver,” she added. “You have to do the sharp maneuvers.”

.. Flush with more cash than ever, activist investors are pursuing bigger corporate prey.

.. Even GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s disclosure that he would depart this summer came amid brewing tensions with activist investor Nelson Peltz

.. Mr. Peltz’s Trian Fund Management LP had recently stepped up pressure on GE to cut costs more aggressively and boost profits, setting off speculation about when the longtime CEO might leave.

.. Growing shareholder clamor for quick results comes as new technologies are upending entire industries. If you run a retailer, for instance, “you are watching your whole market go away in just a matter of years,”

.. Likewise, Ford’s ouster of Mark Fields after less than three years in its highest job was the starkest sign yet of how tech players such as electric-car maker Tesla Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s autonomous-car unit, Waymo, threaten the traditional auto sector.

Trump: The Presidency in Peril

If Donald Trump leaves office before four years are up, history will likely show the middle weeks of May 2017 as the turning point.

.. If Trump has nothing to hide, he is certainly jumpy whenever the subject comes up and his evident worry about it has caused him to make some big mistakes.

.. Though younger and more composed, Kushner is a lot more like Trump than is generally understood.

  • Both of them moved their father’s businesses from the New York periphery to Manhattan.
  • Like his father-in-law, Kushner came to Washington knowing a lot about real estate deals but almost nothing about government.
  • Both entered the campaign and the White House unfamiliar with the rules and laws and evidently disinclined to check them before acting.

.. Thus, Kushner has reinforced some of Trump’s critical weaknesses.

.. Kushner, who has a high self-regard, has taken on a preposterous list of assignments.

.. He was able somehow (likely through his own leaks) to gain a reputation—along with his wife, Ivanka Trump—as someone who could keep the president calm and prevent him from acting impulsively or unwisely.

.. Richard Nixon, who was a lot smarter than Trump is, similarly misread the way the public would react when he arranged for the firing of his special prosecutor, Archibald Cox

.. Mueller’s investigation is limited to considering criminal acts.

.. His purview doesn’t include determining whether Trump should be held to account for serious noncriminal misdeeds he or his associates may have committed with regard to his election

.. of the three articles of impeachment adopted by the Judiciary Committee against Richard Nixon in 1974, the most important was for “abuse of power.”

.. Unless a single act is itself sufficiently grave to warrant impeachment—for example, treason—a pattern of behavior needs to be found. That could involve, for example, emoluments or obstruction of justice.

 .. Many of what seemed disparate acts—well beyond the famous break-in in the Watergate complex and the cover-up—were carried out in order to assure Nixon’s reelection in 1972, and they amounted to the party in power interfering with the nominating process of the opposition party. That way lay fascism.
.. By definition, impeachable offenses would appear to concern conduct only during a presidency. But a number of constitutional law scholars, including the Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, who was dubious at first, believe that if a president or his associates working on his behalf acted corruptly and secretly to rig the election, then the preinaugural period should be included.
.. Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation only on February 13, after stories about Yates’s warning appeared in the press—and then, two days after he fired him, the president called Flynn “a wonderful man.”
.. weirdly, recently told aides that he’d like to have Flynn back in the White House.
.. Flynn, in conversations with outgoing national security adviser Susan Rice during the transition, asked that the Obama administration hold off on its plan to arm Kurdish forces to help the effort to retake Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Since Flynn was a paid lobbyist for the Turkish government, which strongly opposed the plan, this action could possibly lead to a charge of treason.
.. Flynn was leading the Russians to believe that they’d receive much better treatment under a President Trump and the Russians went along.
.. A big question is whether Flynn discussed such important policy matters with the Russians without the knowledge of the president-elect.
.. Trump tweeted: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin)—I always knew he was very smart!”
.. Brennan testified he was worried that the Russians may even have recruited some Americans to cooperate with their effort to tilt the election.
.. Intelligence analysts picked up conversations by Russians in which they bragged that they’d cultivated Flynn and Manafort and believed they would be useful for influencing Trump. (This doesn’t prove guilt on the part of either man.)
.. Laurence Tribe is gathering what he believes are impeachable offenses committed by Trump.2
.. Tribe sees Trump flouting the constitutional ban on accepting “emoluments”—
.. Trump’s firing of Comey for, as he ultimately admitted, “this Russia thing.”
.. Trump’s saying to Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and to Ambassador Kislyak, of firing Comey: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
.. There were also Trump’s efforts very early in the administration to get Comey to pledge “loyalty” to him
.. In another form of pressure, Trump asked Comey when the FBI would announce that he wasn’t under investigation. Comey didn’t respond.
.. Before it was revealed that Comey had taken notes of their conversations, Trump made a not-very-veiled threat that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations.”
.. Where are all the leaks coming from? Many Republicans want to make this the issue rather than what the leaks reveal, but the fact that they keep coming is a sign of the state of near collapse of the White House staff.
.. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trump has the most unhappy staff ever, with some feeling a higher duty to warn the public about what they see as a danger to the country.
.. Trump is a nearly impossible person to work for:
  • he screams at his staff when they tell him something he doesn’t want to hear;
  • he screams at them as he watches television news for hours on end and sees stories about himself that he doesn’t like, which is most of them.

.. Leaks are also being made by the intelligence community, many of whom see Trump as a national menace.

.. McMaster has yet to recover his reputation from having emphatically refuted things the Post story didn’t say.

.. Trump’s reckless act is believed to have endangered the life of an Israeli intelligence asset who had been planted among ISIS forces, something extremely hard to pull off.

.. Rosenstein found himself in a meeting with Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions (who had supposedly recused himself from any dealings on the campaign and the Russia matter) and under pressure to write a memo expressing his own strong negative views of how Comey had handled Hillary Clinton’s e-mail case. The choices before Rosenstein were to write the report, knowing that Comey was going to be fired anyway, or refuse to and resign or be fired. Then what use could he be?

.. he spoke melodramatically of his anguish in having to decide between two choices: to “speak” or to “conceal.” But many observers believed that he had a third choice: quietly to get a warrant and check out some of the e-mails that had traveled from Clinton’s laptop to her close aide Huma Abedin’s to that of Abedin’s then-husband Anthony Weiner before reopening an investigation, much less announcing one and perhaps affect the outcome of the election.

.. Comey’s testimony also angered Democrats by wildly exaggerating the number of Clinton’s e-mails that had landed on Weiner’s laptop—“hundreds and thousands,” he said, when actually there had been just a handful.

.. Comey’s comment that the thought that his actions may have affected the election made him “mildly nauseous” enraged Trump.

.. Everyone who hewed to the White House line that the firing had been based on Rosenstein’s memo, including Pence, was now embarrassed and lost credibility with the press and the public.

.. the respected Cook Report anticipates substantial Republican losses in the House. Republicans are starting to panic.

..Their challenge is how to overcome the twin blights of

  1. Trump’s chaotic governing and
  2. his lack of achievements on Capitol Hill

.. unlike Nixon, he can also make use of social media, Fox News, and friendly talk shows to keep them loyal.

.. Trump is, for all his deep flaws, in some ways a cannier politician than Nixon; he knows how to lie to his people to keep them behind him.

.. The critical question is: When, or will, Trump’s voters realize that he isn’t delivering on his promises,

  • that his health care and tax proposals will help the wealthy at their expense,
  • that he isn’t producing the jobs he claims?
  • His proposed budget would slash numerous domestic programs, such as food stamps, that his supporters have relied on heavily. (One wonders if he’s aware of this part of his constituency.)