11 May 2017

The Looming Disaster. The Trump Administration: The Apotheosis of the Worst Trends in American Thinking.

It has been a rough week for the Trump administration, and it’s GOP allies. The cynicism of the Trump/Ryan push on the GOP health care bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) has already had a telling effect on GOP numbers. As reported by the Independent, Republicans who signed off on the AHCA are already seeing re-election chances fall. The hope of the GOP members of Congress is to present the illusion of success, while essentially giving the Senate a land mine. While claiming victory with no major legislation passed, they create an insurance policy they can point to should the Senate fail to do anything with the bill. “Well, we presented legislation, its not our fault the Senate failed to come up with a workable middle ground.” Trump sang the AHCA’s praises, even as its chances to pass, are fairly slim.  The Senate isn’t terribly satisfied with the bill. The Congressional Budget Office  report on the AHCA doesn’t help. Their summary, "CBO and JCT estimate that enacting the American Health Care Act would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the coming decade and increase the number of people who are uninsured by 24 million in 2026 relative to current law, makes a lot of people, lawmakers and constituents alike, uncomfortable. Of course, with Trump, it can get worse, and often does. His firing of James Comes, the sometimes controversial head of the FBI, generated massive, and predictable, except apparently to President Trump alone, backlash. According to the New York Times, some republicans have broken ranks with Trump to express dismay, with the firing of Comey, whom Trump once praised for Comey’s October surprise reveal of a continuing investigation into Clinton’s emails. The President, his press secretary, and various other conservative megaphones, have tried out using the former director Comey’s handling of Clinton’s investigation as a rationale for the firing. It isn’t convincing and, in any event, the rationale continues to evolve. The evolving rationales look more and more like mendacity with each ad hoc permutation.* (SEE ADDENDUM)

The optics of the Comey firing looked worse than it might have, given Trump’s meeting, almost on the heels of Comey’s termination, free of a free press, with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyack, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. While Western Media may have been barred from the meeting, Russia’s state controlled press was allowed in. It doesn’t even take a paranoid mind to find that kind of move suspicious. In their New York Times article, Sense of Crisis Deepens, as Trump Defends Firing, Michael Shear, Jennifer Steinhauer, and Matt Fledgenhiemer, point out that Kislyack is a central figure in the FBI’s sprawling investigation of Russian meddling, and possible collusion with elements of Trump’s campaign. The pictures, released by Russian media, make the scene in the Oval Office seem almost celebratory. Who knows, maybe it was. We won’t know, because there was no free press present to record the event. If you were an ethical player in US politics, or even just a optics savvy one, would you meet with Kislyack in the absence of reporters? Or at all? And no where is there any of that saber rattling vibe that Trump’s Whitehouse and Moscow, both, seemed to have been trying to sell to the media a few weeks ago after Trump bombed a well warned Syrian air base. And, as if the optics could not get any worse, or the Nixon comparisons any easier, Trump meets with Henry Kissinger.

What we do know is this. The FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling, and possible collusion between Trump campaign operatives and Russian elements was ramping up. The investigation had already damaged one Trump campaign member, then National Security Advisor Michael T Flynn so badly he was forced to resign. Before Flynn’s departure, Paul Manafort, a long time Republican operator, long time friend of Russian oligarchs, resigned, in part because of his own Russian ties. Manafort worked for the pro-Putin Ukrainian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, amid a swirl of ethical quandaries. From The Atlantic article:
"The Times reports on handwritten ledgers that list $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort from Yanukovych’s political party between 2007 and 2012. While it isn’t clear from the records whether Manafort actually received the money, the documents, obtained by the Ukrainian National Anti-Corruption Bureau, sketch out some of Manafort’s many ties in the region:
Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials. In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin."
As a political advisor, Manafort seems to have gravitated toward less than morally upright candidates. In addition to Yanukovych, Manafort also once worked with Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. If Manafort’s forte is polishing generally terrible people for public consumption, what are we to make of his decision to seek out and aid Trump? That is, perhaps, question for another blog. The fact remains, though, Manafort, has ties, and extensive ones to Putin backed lackeys. In addition to Manafort and Flynn, Trump’s foreign policy advisor Carter Page, has significant financial ties to Russia’s state controlled oil company Gazprom.

Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was caught lying, or at least misspeaking, , under oath about meeting with Kislyack in a way that, in previous, less partisan times, would likely have doomed any other AG candidate. We don’t live in less partisan times. Sessions in response to the revelation that he had, in fact, met with Russians, announced he would recuse himself from the investigation of Russian meddling. Remember that for a bit, it is a subject to which we will return.

Enter President Trump, and his business association. There is no shortage of ties between Trump and numerous Russian, pro-Putin business entities. To be successful in business in Russia is almost by definition to be pro-Putin. Trump once famously tweeted, by way of deflection, “I HAVE ZERO INVESTMENTS IN RUSSIA.” Having never released his tax returns, we of course can’t easily verify this. The statement of course is vulnerable to critical analysis. Is he being tricky with terms? He may personally have no investments in Russia, but what about his businesses? Related entities? Is he just lying? Whatever the answers to those questions are, they say little about how Russian entities might have invested in Trump himself.

As Time Magazine reporter Jeff Nesbitt eloquently puts it: 
"Most of the coverage of the links between Trump and Putin’s Russia takes the GOP presidential nominee at his word—that he has lusted after a Trump tower in Moscow, and come up spectacularly short. But Trump’s dodge—that he has no businesses in Russia, so there is no connection to Putin—is a classic magician’s trick. Show one idle hand, while the other is actually doing the work."
Citing the work of a multitude of reporters, Nesbitt asserts, with copious evidence to support him, that while Trump may not have businesses in Russia, many of his business holdings, are deeply entangled with Russian financiers that are "part of Putin’s inner circle.” Several of Trump’s advisors have had or continue to have deep business relationships within Russia. Trump’s brand can no longer get loans from US institutions, owing to his many bankruptcies, and in response sought out Russian investment. Nesbitt quotes, LA Times reporter Max Boot, "Trump has sought and received funding from Russian investors for his business ventures, especially after most American banks stopped lending to him following his multiple bankruptcies.” Many of Trump’s satellite businesses have been financed by a company called Bayrock. The company has been implicated in money laundering, tax evasion and connection to more serious criminal organizations. Trump Soho, was such a complicated mess, even the shady Bayrock was troubled, and its Finance Chief Jody Kriss, sued Trump Soho, because of what Kriss referred to as the magical appearance of funds from Russian sources whenever Trump Soho needed funds, Nesbitt notes.

Trump partnered with two Russian investors on his lavish Toronto hotel. We all, I assume, know how the story of Trump’s Toronto adventure ends, but if you didn’t, the words you are looking for are, disaster, and ignominy. Lawsuits, debt and bankruptcy seem to be Trump’s real business legacy. From NPR,

"Investors bought condominiums in the tower that could be rented out by the hotel. The investors claim they were promised sky-high occupancy rates and returns on their investment.
Toronto lawyer Mitchell Wine says those never panned out. Collectively, the investors lost millions of dollars. Wine represents 27 investors, and many are members of Toronto's Korean community who speak very little English."
Trump has bragged about meeting with Russian Oligarchs.

While Trump Sr likes to play down any Russian ties these days, Donald Jr., has been decidedly less reserved on the numerous and deep ties to Russian investment. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., bragged. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump has been touting his ties and interest in Russian business, according to the Atlantic, for nearly 30 years. It is only relatively recently that he has been talking out of both sides of his mouth on the Russian Question. I don’t think I’ve even been exhaustive on the links Trump and his businesses have to Russian entities. Click through the links. There is more to see and all of it is troubling.

I bring up all this because it casts a dark shadow over the abrupt firing of James Comey. I’m not here to defend Comey, who seems fairly capable of that on his own. I am not a person who ever called on Comey to resign, or be fired, despite the fact I think he has been, at times (can you say October Surprise constant reader) clumsy. He has had some very good moments too, standing up to politicians of both parties, doggedly pursuing a potentially explosive investigation, to name just a few. Comey has earned both his criticisms and his praise. 

Director Comey asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for more funding to pursue the complicated question of Russian involvement in meddling, and potential collusion with members of the Trump campaign in shaping the 2016 election, among other things. We know that after that request Rosenstein and Sessions both sent word to Trump that he should fire Director Comey. Its hard not to view Sessions recommendation as both self serving (he has himself been implicated as a liar on the Russian question) as well as a violation of his stated recusal from the investigation into Russian infiltration of our politics. We know, that upon receiving these letters, Trump, who was deeply angry with Director Comey, did exactly what Sessions and Rosenstein suggested and he fired Director Comey.

Individually none of these facts would be all that remarkable. The aggregate, though, is more than troubling. It is alarming. The shape of these facts do more than just suggest that powerful people in Washington are trying to stave off a potentially administration shattering scandal, the likes of which we haven’t seen in US politics since June 17, 1972. These facts demand a thorough, and uncompromised investigation.

What scares me, and I think should scare you is this. The partisan era in which we live, and the fact averse society we have created, suggest that exactly what we need -an impartial investigation- will be an extra-ordinarily difficult undertaking. Paul Ryan, and many in the GOP in Congress seem to see Trump, more often than they do not, as useful idiot in producing their brand of ideologically driven policy. There is not, at present, a significant number of Democrats to drive such an investigation forward either. The chance that men like Paul Ryan would happily let things get worse, and American confidence in its government continue to falter, to achieve a very narrow set of political goals, seems very high to me. The righting of this ship, requires that the GOP see the Cyrillic writing on the wall. No. I take that back. They, except for perhaps the most naive among them, already see that writing. What is required is that they act accordingly, with integrity and resolve. Perhaps the truth will even allow them to keep their useful idiot. Or it may not. Regardless, a thorough, transparent examination of the Russian connections is absolutely necessary.

Shortly after I finished this piece, mere hours, a few new and shocking things came to light. The most damning permutation of President Trump’s rationale for his firing of James Comey came out in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. Michael Schmidt, of the New York Times, closes a long troubling article about Trump demanding loyalty from Comey at a dinner between the two men with the NBC quote.
Mr. Trump said in the NBC interview, “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.” “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Mr. Trump said. I recommend you read the Times’ piece, In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty. Comey Demured. The article is linked in the text above.

But let us focus for a moment on the incredible quote, which must represent the most real rationale for Trump’s decision to fire Comey. There is nothing ethical to be gleaned from Trump’s words. He simply wants the Russian investigation to go away. “ ..Russia is a made-up story” He says. 

Whether he really believes he has done nothing wrong, or understands that he has, is immaterial to the massive ethical violation of his office demonstrated by his reasoning. Whether he is innocent of any wrong doing (can one be held too responsible for incompetence?) he serves the interest of the American people. The commitments to the American people are no less for AG “Mr. Let me recuse Myself” Sessions, and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. Of the people who form the heart of this article the only one who seems to have understood the nature of public service, for all his flaws, seems to have been former Director James Comey. Trump’s firing of Comey is an attempt, naked and contemptible, to close an investigation simply because it may make him look bad. The investigation into Russian meddling is an investigation demanded by the facts, and it is owed to the American people. Richard Dawkins, with an economy I think we all should envy, damned the whole affair in a simple tweet. 

It is nearly impossible to follow Trump, and his loyal tribe, and not make comparisons to Nixon or various Banana Republics. Trump’s own love of autocratic strongmen greases the wheels of  these comparisons. The ease of these comparisons makes the observation that neither Trump, nor his administration care about their duty to the public hard to dismiss.

Whatever Trump may personally think, his dismissal of the Russian story as “made-up” doesn’t align with facts. Even if he himself operated with no intentional collision, that wouldn’t mean members of his campaign did not. Or that he himself, or members of his campaign were not influenced by Russian attempts to influence both the American public, Trump himself, and his staffers. In fact, the Intelligence community has demonstrated that, even sans conscientious efforts at collusion, the Russian efforts to influence Trump and his campaign, and the American public worked to some degree. In what many are calling the most over looked news story of the day, that day being yesterday, the following exchange took place as the Senate continued its own investigation of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election.

Clinton Watts' testimony before the Senate may be the most troubling two minutes of testimony the US has seen in a very long time. Trump’s twitter account was targeted by fake news organizations operated by Russian elements. Both Paul Manafort and Trump and others in his campaign parroted these fake stories. Trump supporters were targeted by these propaganda organs of the Russian state.
This is what we know. I urge you to watch the video. It should unsettle you, and make you want to defend our institutions and our way of life even more.

My final note to this blog post:
I shared this post, in rough form, with several friends. They all offered their own feed back and observations, and various corrections. I want to say thanks to Alexandra, Jason G, and Jason C, and Dan.

One of my friends suggested that “apotheosis" was apt, but seemed to suggest that more accurately, the Trump administration represents the culmination, specifically, of Republican populism stretching back to and beginning in the Goldwater era in 1964 (though Goldwater himself wasn’t a simple populist). This same friend, who can name himself in the comments if he chooses, also suggests a twin culmination. Republican populism has a twin, ineffectualism in governance. I think my friend is on to something here, but I will leave my title as it stands.