2016 Election, Russia, Trump

Up to Its Neck in Russians…

       “Not everything done by Lenin was carefully conceived. In particular, he had little foresight about what he was doing when he set up the centralized one-party state. One of the great malignancies of the twentieth century was created more by off-the-cuff measures than by grandiose planning…Lenin eliminated concern for ethics. Lenin justified dictatorship and terror. Lenin applauded the political vanguard and the need for firm leadership. Lenin convinced his party that his Marxism was pure and that it embodied the only correct policies.”

                     Historian Robert Service, author of Lenin – A Biography


One hundred years ago this month the world changed. Not for the better.

Lenin: The Revolutionary

In many ways the “revolution” that toppled the Russian Czar and ultimately led to the formation of what we used to call the Soviet Union was an unthinkable event in both Russia and in the rest of the world. Across the political spectrum, American politicians, with a few exceptions, recoiled at the thought of a Lenin, a Stalin or a Trotsky establishing the first communist state and not incidentally a bridgehead from which to export revolutionary political thought and action. The coming to power of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, just as unthinkable in Mother Russia.

As Anne Applebaum, an insightful historian of all things Russian, pointed out in a recent Washington Post essay: “At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who would become known to the world as the Bolsheviks had very little to show for their lives. They had been in and out of prison, constantly under police surveillance, rarely employed. Vladimir Lenin spent most of the decade preceding the revolution drifting between Krakow, Zurich and London. Joseph Stalin spent those years in the Caucasus, running protection rackets and robbing banks. Leon Trotsky had escaped from Siberian exile was to be found in Viennese coffee shops; when the revolution broke out, he was showing off his glittering brilliance at socialist meeting halls in New York.”

A few months later these losers of distinction were in power exercising a ruthless stranglehold on the population and eliminating every visage of what had been for a few months a fledgling democracy. Oh, and of course, they brutally eliminated their opponents.

At the heart of the “revolution” of one hundred years ago – Applebaum says it was more correctly a coup d’état – was, for sure, violence, but also audacious and persistent lying.

Leon Trotsky

“All through the spring and summer of 1917,” Applebaum writes, “Trotsky and Lenin repeatedly made promises that would never be kept. ‘Peace, Land, and Bread’?” The Bolshevik leaders lied about their own past and they lied about the scandalous deal Lenin struck with the Kaiser’s Germany that allowed him to return from exile to be in Petrograd when his moment came.

Putin and the Politics of Lying…

It was the birth moment of decades of lies, misdirection and tragedy that finally seemed to end with the dramatic break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. But, that conclusion may well have proven to be premature – or fatally incorrect – given the state of the Russian experience since Mikhail Gorbachev gave the world fleeting hope that the old Soviet empire might indeed enjoy a new birth of freedom. Vladimir Putin took care of that hope.

Putin, the one-time KGB operative, now the new Czar

The former KGB goon now stands astride a government as corrupt and venal as most anything Lenin could have dreamed up. Putin has also succeeded where so many of Lenin’s successors failed. He has gotten the United States and much of the West to question its own democratic exceptionalism, while helping advance a new narrative based on old Soviet tactics of constant misrepresentation, doing away with opponents, press manipulation and – that word again – steady, unremitting lying.

As a special counsel and several Congressional committees probe the level of Russian influence in the last election and quite potentially the active collaboration with Russian actors by a host of individuals in Donald J. Trump’s political orbit, we should remember some recent and not-so-recent history.

How far we have come, or better yet how far we have fallen.

During decades of Communist rule in the old Soviet Union, skepticism or outright hostility to the leaders in the Kremlin became an article of political faith for American political leaders. Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan were always wary and occasionally warlike in denouncing the dangers emanating from a non-democratic state ruled by greedy men consumed by their own lies. Stalin pioneered the Russian practice of simply erasing his opponents from history. Putin, his modern day successor, now controls a vast international propaganda network – it operates openly and brashly in the United States – that embeds the modern Kremlin line in your daily social media feed.

In the not too distant past most Americans who argued for some type of accommodation with the Soviet Union – think of Henry Wallace, a one-time vice president who saw his political career crumble under allegations of being “soft on the Reds” – were relegated to the political margins, their reputations tainted.

Skepticism of Russia Was Once Just Good Politics…

Entire political careers – Nixon, Joe McCarthy, Reagan, even JFK – were built around the belief that Soviet Russia presented an existential threat to the west and, in particular, to the United States. Few elections were lost from 1920 to 1990 by candidates who adroitly played this Russia card. The last real Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was mocked for his prescient observation that Putin’s Russia continued to present the gravest kind of threat to American interests.

Young Congressman Richard M. Nixon hunts for Communists in the U.S. government

My how things have changed. With Trump in the White House his Republican Party appears to work every way from Sunday to cozy up to Putin, the new Russian Czar. On this level alone Putin’s classic disinformation campaign directed at western democracy has succeeded beyond Lenin’s wildest dreams.

As conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin observed recently, the Trump Administration is up to its neck in Russians. “We have never seen such a multiplicity of connections,” Rubin wrote, “to a hostile foreign power and lack of transparency in a presidential campaign or administration — nor have we ever had a campaign in which Russians interfered in such a widespread and deliberate manner.”

Up to Its Neck in Russians…

Consider just some of the news of the last several days:

A Trump campaign foreign policy advisor pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign and the details of his contacts continue to seep out.

Campaign manager Paul Manafort and his chief deputy were indicted for a variety of alleged illegal sins, including laundering Russian (or Ukrainian) money through a Russian-connected bank in Cyprus.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross was found to have his own Russian connections – with members of Putin’s own family no less – thanks to the leak of a trove of offshore banking and corporate documents. It was reported earlier in the year that Ross had helped engineer deals with Russian oligarchs while the vice chairman of that interesting little Cypriot bank.

The comically inept Carter Page, another Trump campaign operative, appears destined to become the G. Gordon Liddy of the current Russian caper. (Liddy, for the post-Watergate generation, helped plan and carry out the break in of the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex in 1972. He was a conspiracy theorist and more than a bit odd. Liddy served nearly a year in prison for his Watergate role before becoming a rightwing radio talk show host.) Page’s recent testimony to a House committee marks this nutty Trump campaign character as either a fool or as a deeply implicated collaborator with the Russians, or perhaps both.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have recently testified about the extent – as far they know or are willing to admit – of Russian propaganda contaminating their technology platforms. It is now beyond any reasonable doubt that Russian agents accomplished a massive disinformation campaign designed to influence the 2016 presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor, while generally creating havoc in the American body politic.

Alt-right “news” sites such as the conspiracy fueled website Infowars actively helped peddle Putin’s propaganda. Since 2014 Infowars has republished more than 1,000 articles pulled directly from RT, the Kremlin funded “news” platform that operates openly in the U.S. Infowars, you may recall, peddled completely phony stories about refugee crimes in southern Idaho and stoked the “Pizzagate” garbage that gained substantial traction during the last presidential campaign.

The conservative Drudge Report website, the second most visited Internet site in the United States, has also repeatedly linked to stories that originated within the Russian propaganda universe. One headline posted at Drudge on November 7, 2016 – Election Day – simply said “Obama Encourages Illegals to Vote.” The story was total B.S. and totally manufactured by Putin’s RT.com lie factory.

Meanwhile the president of the United States continues to side with Vladimir Putin against the unanimous conclusion of the nation’s intelligence services on whether Russia meddled in his election.

“He says that very strongly,” Trump said in describing his conversations with Putin during a summit meeting in Vietnam, “he really seems to be insulted by it, and he says he didn’t do it. He is very, very strong in the fact that he didn’t do it. You have President Putin very strongly, vehemently, says he has nothing to do with that. Now, you are not going to get into an argument, you are going to start talking about Syria and the Ukraine.”

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

For good measure Trump described the former directors of National Intelligence and the CIA, men who have testified under oath about Russian interference, as “political hacks.” As The Atlantic’s David Frum notes, “These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn, or uniformed.”

Back to Anne Applebaum, the Russian scholar. “Remember: At the beginning of 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, most of the men who later became known to the world as the Bolsheviks were conspirators and fantasists on the margins of society,” she wrote recently. “By the end of the year, they ran Russia. Fringe figures and eccentric movements cannot be counted out. If a system becomes weak enough and the opposition divided enough, if the ruling order is corrupt enough and people are angry enough, extremists can suddenly step into the center, where no one expects them. And after that it can take decades to undo the damage. We have been shocked too many times. Our imaginations need to expand to include the possibilities of such monsters and monstrosities. We were not adequately prepared.”

Who You Gonna Believe…

And, of course, we wait with trepidation to discover if the president of the United States, a man woefully ignorant of history and consumed by ego was himself an active Russian collaborator, an ignorant dupe, a greedy businessman or, as seems increasingly likely, all of the above.

As Chico Marx – no relation to Karl, but Groucho’s brother – once said, “who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes.”

Putin has already won a great victory in the West by using disinformation to fuel deep doubts about American institutions and the fundamentals of a democracy, particularly a free press. His victory has advanced the interests a perverted and dangerous 21st Century version of the kind of tyrannical state that Lenin set out to create a century ago, a place were truth and reason are turned upside down.

The questions for us a year into the Trump presidency is whether Putin will continue to get away with sabotaging American democracy or whether American institutions, including what remains of the political party Trump has hijacked, can end the corruption and begin to roll back the damage already done.

2016 Election, Trump

John Lewis is Right…

       “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”

Representative John Lewis, D-Georgia


John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon, was beaten, bloodied, bullied and might have been killed while marching for voting rights toward the Edward Pettis Bridge in Selma in 1965. He knows a thing or two about standing up to evil.

John Lewis beaten by Alabama state troopers while marching for voting rights in 1965

When John Lewis said the other day that he did not consider the soon-to-be president of the United State “legitimate” he both stretched the bounds of political discourse and he spoke the truth. I’ll explain.

The comment from Lewis, delivered in his typically low-key, but straight forward way predictably teed up a good deal of outrage including, predictably, the kind of vitriol we have come to consider normal behavior on the part of the man who will be president in a few days.

“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” the Tweeter-in-Chief said in a pair of Twitter posts.

“All talk, talk, talk — no action or results,” he added. “Sad!”

           The man who will be president

Where to begin?

Well, how about beginning with pointing out that the original birther – our soon-to-be commander-in-chief – rose to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president, not once or twice but repeatedly over many years. It was a monumental lie that he personally perpetuated.

             An extremely credible source…

Or we could begin with the fact that the nation’s intelligence community has unanimously concluded that Russia participated in widespread cyber crimes, as well as a propaganda and disinformation campaign and may have colluded with the GOP candidate’s campaign to assist with his election. To deny that this Russian activity influenced the election is to ignore that the beneficiary of the Russian help repeatedly cited information – by one count 164 times during the campaign – from Wikileaks documents, leaks undoubtedly facilitated by the Russians, to advance his campaign. You can check the videotape.

Or we could examine the fact that the president-elect mounted, as his tweets aimed at John Lewis make crystal clear, a race-based campaign that mobilized and gave voice to the nation’s white supremacist, immigrants hating alt-right elements in a manner unseen in American politics since at least 1968.

The next time you hear an apologist for the man who will be president say that a major element of his appeal was not about emphasizing race and social division, just reflect on the fact that he explicitly said, two months after his election, that a black congressman could only represent a district “in horrible shape and failing apart (not to mention crime infested).” Like his attacks on an American judge of Mexican heritage or a Gold Star mother and father who are Muslim, failing to see the attacks on John Lewis as profoundly racist is to look the other way at the hate and bigotry this man has put in the center of American politics.

John Lewis, by the way, represents the Fifth District of Georgia, most of Atlanta and home to the toney Buckhead neighborhood with a real luxury hotel, the Ritz Carlton, as well as the world’s busiest airport, the Centers for Disease Control, the campuses of Emory and Georgia Tech Universities and the corporate headquarters of Coca Cola and Delta Airlines. Nearly 60 percent of the district population is African-America, but as the Atlanta Journal points out if the president-elect “believes Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District is ‘falling apart,’ then he believes Atlanta is falling apart.”

And, of course, it isn’t.

Emory University in the heart of district John Lewis represents

And then think about this: a truly legitimate president dedicated to the job of leading the nation and representing all its citizens might have devoted a few minutes of the last two months to a real effort to tone down the volume of division that he has placed front and center in our politics and our culture. But, of course, he’s not capable of such moral leadership. It’s almost enough to conclude that he is not, to coin a phrase, a legitimate president.

The dictionary definition of “legitimate” says: “conforming to the law or to rules.” Synonyms include legal, lawful, licit, legalized, authorized, permitted, sanctioned and my favorite – constitutional.

By the measure of most of the nation’s most authoritative experts on the Constitution, include White House ethics watchdogs for Presidents Bush and Obama, the new guy will be violating the Constitution the moment he utters “so help me God.”

Or, as the majority of us who voted for someone else last  November might express it, “so help us all, God.”

The president-elect made a mockery of “conforming to the law or rules” last week in a circus of a news conference where he and his enabling lawyers flaunted the Constitution and the long history of bipartisan presidential efforts to avoid conflicts of interest. Genuine commitment to financial disclosure, avoidance of conflict and adherence to the Constitution might have gone a good distance to legitimizing a president who will enter office later this week with the kind of unchecked ethical baggage that makes Warren Harding look like a candidate for sainthood.

Harding’s Interior Secretary went to jail and his attorney general resigned amid corruption allegations.

But the big-shot-in-chief can’t be bothered with such “legitimate,” “lawful,” “sanctioned” or “constitutional” actions and that, among much else, does make him less than legitimate.

The critics will say that John Lewis has a duty to recognize the duly elected president even in the face of policy differences and the violation of decades of political practice. But neither patriotism nor moral clarity requires anyone to accept the unacceptable.

Besides the duties of a citizen aren’t really any different than the duties of a president. To be legitimate you must display legitimacy and when you have given a majority of the country reason to question your commitment to the rules, laws and the Constitution you don’t automatically receive the benefit of the doubt. You can win an election under our bizarrely undemocratic rules, but you still need to earn your legitimacy.

John Lewis is right, if not politically correct in calling the man less than legitimate. And as our thin-skinned new leader has so often told us being right is always better than being politically correct. Or as he might say: Get over it.

He will take the oath, assume the office, have the power, but he has made himself less than legitimate to a vast number of Americans and most of our friends around the world. He did it himself through his actions, words, insults, crudeness, rudeness, and by defying the rules and defiling the norms. He did it by lying about everything big and small, important and petty. He did it by dividing us in ways that no president has in generations. All this is on him. He did it. His illegitimacy is his problem.

All the tweets in the world will not make that John Lewis’ fault.

2016 Election, Reagan, Russia, Trump

Explaining Trump and Putin…

      “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Intelligence community report on Russian activity to influence the U.S. election


WASHINGTON — The chiefs of America’s intelligence agencies last week presented President Obama and President-elect Donald J. Trump with a summary of unsubstantiated reports that Russia had collected compromising and salacious personal information about Mr. Trump, two officials with knowledge of the briefing said.

On today’s front page of the New York Times 


One of the dangers to American democracy inherent in a Donald Trump presidency is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to political norms that he has and will touch off. It’s frankly almost impossible to keep track of chaos he has sparked. I’ve taken to reducing his soon-to-be presidency to “the outrage of the day.”

The upsetting of what is normal is, of course, precisely what many of his supporters like most about Trump and his approach. As long as he’s able to keep his core supporters stirred up with his brand of political chaos – many of those supporters long ago abandoned any desire or ability to think critically about the man-child – he will believe that he is riding high and being successful. And given the stunningly short national attention span that afflicts us, as well as our desire to be entertained, he may just have discovered a new rule of political effectiveness – keep them guessing and above all keep them distracted.

Trump will almost certainly and eventually crash and burn (I hope before bringing on a war; trade or shooting), and he will eventually need to confront the age-old problem of over exposure. Every reality TV show has a shelf life after all and his expire by date looms even before he takes office. A 37 percent approval rating is not the raw material of long-term political credibility. He has no where to go but down.

But man-oh-man what damage in the meantime, which brings me to my outrage of this day: the amazing political gymnastics on the part of some on the American right who are joining Trump is his embrace of Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB agent intent on destabilizing western democracies, including our own. This has been clear for months and long before the most recent salacious material surfaced publicly, yet the Putin embrace grows stronger.

Churchill, FDR and Stalin at Yalta in 1945

From before Franklin Roosevelt’s trip to Yalta in February of 1945, the American political right has held as a cardinal principle of conservative orthodoxy a deep and abiding distrust of all things Russian. From Robert Taft to Ronald Reagan no Republican strayed from that gospel. Richard Nixon’s remarkable opening to an arms control agreement with the Russians and diplomatic relations with China were possible, in no small part, because of Nixon’s life-long hard line stand on both countries. It really did take an anti-Communist Republican like Nixon to go to China since any Democrat, with the possible exception of Senator Henry Jackson, would have been immediately characterized as “soft” on Communism.

Most American’s old enough to remember Reagan remember his 1983 labeling of the then–Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” The larger context of that famous line was Reagan’s warning that the country must not “ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

Ronald Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ speech in 1983

In order to understand the full scope of Reagan’s speech, one his most famous, delivered by the way to the National Association of Evangelicals, a group ironically now totally in thrall to Trump, I went back and read the speech. Several lines resonate all these years later and in the context of the vast rightwing acceptance of Putin, election meddling and all, none rings more true than this:

“Some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses,” Reagan said of the Russians in 1983. “But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.”

It remains the single most stunning reversal of 75 years of conservative thought that so many on the political right have strayed so far from the warnings of Reagan – until Trump, the secular saint of the GOP – that they they can actually embrace Vladimir Putin as some kind of legitimate global partner in a new Trumpian world. 

And while I suppose it is possible to question the unanimous conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Putin ordered interference in the recent election in order to destabilize our democracy and help Trump, it is really not possible to ignore the record of the man John McCain correctly calls “a thug, a murderer, a killer and a KGB agent.”

With Donald Trump one of the two most        powerful men in the world

Putin has annexed Crimea, invaded the Ukraine, fought a war with Georgia, threatens the Baltic states, backs the Syrian regime at the expense of fighting ISIS, finances rightwing nationalist movements in western Europe and has created both a cult of personality and a kleptocracy that rules Russia in ways that Lenin or Stalin might envy. Reagan is rolling over.

And there is this tidy little summary of Russian efforts to destabilize western Europe as reported by Henry Porter in Vanity Fair:

“Russia’s record of destabilizing actions against the Soviet Union’s former dominions is established beyond doubt,” Porter wrote late last month. “In 2007, the Baltic state of Estonia, which Russia basically regards as being on loan to western liberal democracy, experienced a full-blown cyber-attack on its banking and media networks after the Estonian government relocated the Soviet-era ‘Bronze Soldier’ memorial. Russia launched a cyber-war against Georgia prior to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Ukraine became the target of sustained attack exactly a year ago this week. Hackers took control of the power grid through a denial-of-service attack and caused outages across one region.   During the last 12 months, the Germans have sent repeated warnings about attacks on their political system and perceived operations to stir up hatred with false news stories. In May, Germany’s domestic security agency said there had been attempts, reportedly sourced to Russia, to compromise the computer system of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. Reports of a previous attack on the Bundestag, which disabled the lower house’s network, was also tied to Russian actors.”

The next target – Germany’s Angela Merkel

There are clear signs that the Russian meddling in the American election – the cyber crimes, the planting of “fake news” that more correctly should be labeled propaganda and the empowerment of various alt-right actors – was merely a tune up for coming elections in France and Germany. We’ve had a major warning. Will it be heeded? Apparently not by many Trumpers.

 As James Kirchick, a never Trump conservative, wrote recently in the Washington Post, “Pro-Russian converts on the American right appear to take two forms. The opportunists simply want power and are willing to sacrifice principles in pursuit of it. The ideologues, meanwhile, see Russia as nothing worse than an occasional nuisance, if not a potential ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.”

Among the pro-Putin opportunists, those who cravenly seek power or access, Kirchick lists Newt Gingrich, various Fox personalities including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, all of whom have praised Russia, Putin and the creepy Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the conduit for John Podesta’s hacked email’s. Even Sarah Palin has gone from keeping an eye on Russia – remember she once said she could see it from her porch in Alaska – to apologizing for once thinking ill of Assange.

Elected Republicans have gotten into the praise Putin act. Arizona Congressman Trent Franks bizarrely reasons that the Russian email hacks – if they happened and he’s not sure they did – “succeeded in giving the American people information that was accurate, then they merely did what the media should have done.” One wonders how the Congressman would feel if Putin had his emails. It’s likely he does. 

And what would any modern political controversy be without a conspiracy theory angle. Enter Oliver Stone. You can generally assess where the truth lies by seeing where Stone comes down and then take the opposite point of view. Stone essentially passes off the entire Putin-Trump phenomenon as an invention of the New York Times and Washington Post and actually suggests any further investigation focus on a supposed leaker from within the Clinton campaign rather than Russian hackers. This from the guy who has peddled more conspiracy theories than, well, Donald Trump. You can’t make this stuff up, or if you are Oliver Stone maybe you can.

As for me, as I think about the bizarre Putin-Trump relationship, I keep coming back to the old Watergate adage – “follow the money.”

Back in October and before the election, The Financial Times, hardly any kind of apologist for left of center politics, published a remarkable if little noticed analysis of the vast web of connections between Trump, his children and various advisors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

One of the experts consulted by the FT was David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist who has written, among other things, a biography of Trump entitled The Making of Donald Trump. Johnson – no relation – says he’s convinced the real Putin-Trump story has yet to emerge and observes that “Every time Vladimir Putin is mentioned, Trump goes out of his way to express deep respect for him, which suggests there’s something very important which we simply don’t know.”

It has got to be either money or sex. Since the Billy Bush “grab ’em by the…” tape didn’t sink the faux billionaire last fall, I’m betting it all about money. Trump’s empire is surely highly leveraged. He has big, big debt, which many observers have long suspected is at the heart of his refusal to release his tax returns or undertake real divestiture of his assets. I would bet my inaugural tickets that the money trail leads back to Putin and his Russian billionaire oligarch pals.

The young KGB agent

Imagine the possibilities and then remember that Putin is a former KGB agent: Perhaps Trump was caught on some Russian videotape secretly recorded during one of his trips to Russia, as some of the new allegations suggest. Or perhaps there are intercepts of Trump telephone calls. Or maybe the Kremlin has access to what we mere American citizens don’t, the Trump tax returns, bank statements, off shore accounts and debts. Perhaps Trump advisors like one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has well-established ties to Russian businesses and political leaders, actually colluded with Putin’s intelligence agencies. It’s a plot line too bizarre for a John Le Carre novel, but considering where we are and who is headed to the White House can you really rule any of it out?

The most significant paragraph in the intelligence community’s report on Russian efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the presidential election and assist Trump is quoted at the top of this piece: “Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests (emphasis added) made them more disposed to deal with Russia, such as former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.”

Trump’s resistance to further investigation of the Russian role in the election – we should just get on with our lives he says – and his continuing stance that the matter is no big deal looks very much like the leading edge of a cover-up. Real digging by reporters and U.S. senators will undoubtedly expose what cannot be seen above the surface of this murky pond. The future integrity of American elections is at stake, not to mention the idea that an American president really is putting the nation’s interests above his own.

In his path breaking 2005 book Postwar, a history of Europe since 1945, the late and supremely talented historian Tony Judt, a man who understood the postwar world as well as anyone, has only two references to the then still new Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Both reference Putin’s authoritarian instincts and his drive to recover Russia’s international “respect” after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Judt astutely points out a reality about Russia that many are ignoring – the old Soviet approach to governing never really changed after the official fall of Communism. “High-ranking officials from the old regime were quietly recycled back into power under Vladimir Putin,” Judt wrote, “Communist-era silviki (prosecutors, police, and military or security personnel) constituted over half of the President’s informal cabinet.”

Putin is a thug, he dispatches his enemies in brutal and effective ways and he is an increasingly desperate dictator who presides over a crumbling economy. He is also smarter and much more disciplined than Donald Trump and he has the goods on the “useful idiot” who will soon be occupying the Oval Office. Above all Putin is hell bent on destabilizing and weakening western democracies. The soon-to-be president of the United States, either through ignorance or corruption or both seems determined to help him. This cannot stand.

2016 Election, Catholic Church, Congress, Politics

The Great Decline…

     “Americans clearly lack confidence in the institutions that affect their daily lives: the schools responsible for educating the nation’s children; the houses of worship that are expected to provide spiritual guidance; the banks that are supposed to protect Americans’ earnings; the U.S. Congress elected to represent the nation’s interests; and the news media that claims it exists to keep them informed.”

Gallup survey, June 2016


If you want to set off a spirited discussion at a family dinner or spark a debate around the office water cooler you need not go to the trouble of mentioning a Trump presidency, just mention Wells Fargo, one of the nation’s biggest banks.

The big bank’s apparent wide spread embrace of various scams to create two million phony accounts in order to secretly squeeze bucks out of its unsuspecting customers is just the most recent example of the financial industry’s disconnect from the most basic notion of ethical behavior. It is a scandal that perfectly illustrates the great decline in public confidence in American institutions.

OAKLAND, CA – OCTOBER 11: A sign is posted in front of a Wells Fargo bank on October 11, 2013 in Oakland, California. Wells Fargo reported a 13 percent increase in third-quarter profits with a net income of $5.6 billion, or 99 cents a share compared to $4.9 billion, or 88 cents a share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Wells Fargo has taken a public relations beating as a result of the fiasco, but the former CEO still walked away with a $130 million dollar golden parachute even as 5,300 bank employees lost their jobs. The bank’s stock price has recovered nicely. Members of Congress are making noise while demanding more information from Wells Fargo about its response to what might safely be called fraud, but there seems little chance that any senior person at the bank will suffer much. Wells Fargo, like many of the big banks who contributed to the economic meltdown in 2008, will probably skate by paying a fine – de minimis likely compared to bank profits – but no individual is likely to get nailed for the flagrant misconduct.

Oh, by the way, only 27 percent of Americans according to a June Gallup survey have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in banks.

Disgraced Cardinal Bernard Law

You can set off other kind of outrage by mentioning the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandals that went on for years while various senior leaders of the Church did little or nothing to stop or hold accountable those guilty.  Even worse in a way was how some bishops covered the tracks of their own culpability. Catholics – I’m one – are particularly outraged because so little accountability has been doled out. Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston during the worst of the scandals, was publicly shamed but still trucked off to comfortable retirement in a cozy villa at the Vatican. Presumably the Cardinal’s judgment day will come in another more decisive form.

Only 41 percent of those surveyed by Gallup expressed confidence in churches or organized religion.

Pick any of a dozen or a hundred other scandals: the revolving door that spins the former congressman from lawmaker to lobbyist to multi-millionaire, or the EpiPen manufacturer accused of gouging those who need the lifesaving medicine, or the recent story that Sinclair Broadcasting – the largest owner of television stations in the country and therefor a massive owner of the public’s airwaves – gave favorable and disproportionate coverage to Donald Trump during the campaign.

I could go on, but I also suspect you can easily come up with your own list of outrages. It does all accumulate. The confidence numbers for health care institutions, for example, are south of 40 percent, the media confidence numbers are in the very low 20s and Congress, well, Congress is in used car salesman territory checking in at a robust nine percent on the public confidence scale.

The verdict is clearly in: America suffers a crisis of confidence in basic institutions and it has been going on and getting worse for some time. The Gallup survey six months ago reported that only the U.S. military and the police have public approval numbers above 50 percent. Other institutions, political and social, that one could easily argue have long been at the center of American life are held in such low esteem as to call into question the essential institutional framework of our democracy.

But, wait just a minute. Institutions by themselves did not create this crisis of confidence. Institutions don’t either have or lack credibility. Institutions depend on people and we’ve been failing our institutions through neglect, ignorance and hubris. We are experiencing a crisis of institutional confidence, at least in part, because we are accepting standards from those institutions that cannot possible instill confidence.

I think this reality may go some distance in explaining the next president of the United States. Donald J. Trump, the disrupter-in-chief, has merely accelerated the deterioration – or out and out destruction – of long established norms, which I would argue has contributed over a long period of time to this erosion of confidence in a whole host of American institutions.

There is a myth that American institutions, political or societal, are “sturdy” and “resilient” all by themselves. They are not. Survival of institutions, particularly in a political system like ours that features both defused power and built in rivalries, not to mention considerable opportunity for corruption, requires more than rules. It requires adherence to a broad collection of often-unwritten requirements – norms – that function to uphold tradition, while reflecting common sense and well-established time tested approaches.

It has been a norm for more than 40 years, for example, for presidential candidates to voluntarily release their income tax returns. It’s not the law, but rather a function of how we once expected candidates to behave in a vital democracy. The norm was to reinforce transparency and discourage self dealing by folks in high public office. Until this year it was normal for all of us to see and evaluate for ourselves those revealing documents.

Public confidence: Nine percent

But the president-elect will sail into office next month having violated that norm and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee seems on the verge of considering a multi-millionaire oil executive to become secretary of state without forcing more than a cursory review of his finances and potential conflicts of interest. An institutional framework is thereby weakened and a long-time precedent set aside. It will be hard to get it back.

There is no absolute requirement that the United States Senate consider a president’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. They should. That would be normal, but Senate Republicans have exploited for months now all the possible wiggle room in the Constitution in order to deny even a hearing on the nomination of federal Court of Appeals  Judge Merrick Garland, a demonstrably qualified candidate.

They had the power to do it, so they did, while shamelessly arguing it was just business as usual. But don’t believe for a second that it is normal – or right. Stiffing a president – any president – on a Supreme Court nominee has now become the new normal.

American public schools, it is said over and over, are failing. But are they? There is wide discrepancy in performance from state-to-state or city-to-city, but the blanket indictment of “failing schools” often masks a fierce partisan battle over resources and governance. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, only 30 percent of American express “confidence” in public schools.

Republican legislators in North Carolina recently used a post-election special session to strip the incoming Democratic governor of many powers traditionally exercised in that state, including the power to appoint members of the governing board of the state’s university system. This was after North Carolina lawmakers aggressively suppressed or minimized minority voter participation in various ways. North Carolina legislators had the power to run roughshod over voters and political opponents so they did it, but it is not normal. It violates a basic sense of fair play and abuses the system’s unwritten rules about responsible political behavior. The situation in North Carolina is so far out of control that the academic and nonpartisan Electoral Integrity Project classifies the state as no longer “democratic.” North Carolina’s scores for how it handles elections and registers voters compares, shockingly, to Iran and Venezuela. Meanwhile protesters objecting to the power grab were arrested.

In the flush of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 many congressional Republicans vowed to make him a one-term president and then proceeded to oppose virtually every move he made. That is not how the system is supposed to work. Of course there will always be bitter and passionate partisan debates about all kinds of things. Its fine to favor your candidate over the other guy’s candidate, but not OK to obstruct. We only have one president at a time and the norms of American politics require for partisans to work for solutions to big problems like, for example, a shocking lack of health insurance among millions of Americans. Politics involves resolving or mitigating the differences. Compromise has been the norm. The kind of blind obstruction Obama has typically faced is simply not normal.

Nor is it normal for a president to regularly resort, as Obama has, to “executive action” to carry out a policy agenda. His excuse for doing so – that Republicans failed to function normally – is understandable, but still not normal and over time it will only become more corrosive to our concept of confidence in political institutions.

It is not normal for a president-elect to engage in foreign policy while he is waiting to assume the job. It’s not normal, as California Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher has, to embrace as “terrific” the Russian hacking of American emails in order to permit a foreign power to meddle in a U.S. election in favor of its candidate.

There is absolutely no evidence of voter fraud in the country, widespread or otherwise, yet candidates and political leaders routinely call into question the validity of elections in order to score debating or partisan points. No wonder more and more people think the system is rigged.

Every politician without exception has a beef with the media. I’ve got my own beef – or a side of it. It is a story as old as the republic to dislike the scribing classes, but there has also long been an expectation that a free and vigorous press, even one occasionally wrong or unfair, is an absolutely essential check on corruption or improper exercise of power. When a politician rides to power in part by declaring reporters who expose his inconsistencies or question his logic “dishonest,” while never engaging in the substance of the reporting you get what we have – a decline in confidence in the media. As a result a bedrock institution of the American system is further diminished.

We have experienced a decline in respect for American institutions – and it’s about to get worse – in large part because we have allowed a deterioration in what I’ll call “standards of normal behavior.” Institutions fail to hold individuals personally accountable for outrageous or unethical behavior. Traditional political norms that offer no immediate political payoff are eagerly cast aside in favor of securing a short-term advantage. Opinions are shifted and shaped and passed off as facts in order to win a news cycle or a Twitter confrontation. It is not normal.

We tend to take for granted that American “institutions,” including all the institutions that buttress a free society, can weather any storm. We’ve muddled through for nearly 250 years, after all. But perhaps we’ve just been both lucky and good and continued muddling depends on both factors continuing to favor us.

Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond authored a persuasive and sober piece in The Atlantic back in October – before the election – in which he argued that we have rarely had reason to doubt American resilience – until now.

“Democracies fail,” Diamond wrote, “when people lose faith in them and elites abandon their norms for pure political advantage.”

Diamond recalled Sinclair Lewis’ classic novel – It Can’t Happen Here – published in 1935 just as Adolf Hitler had consolidated power in Germany and Huey Long promised to run for president. “For more than half a century, Americans have blithely assumed that democracy is so rooted in their norms and institutions that nothing like that could happen here,” Diamond said. “If Americans do not renew their commitment to democracy above all partisan differences, it can.”

The first step in stepping back from the edge is to insist – individually and collectively – that long-established traditions of accountability, transparency, fair play and commitment to country over partisanship are again treated with the respect they deserve and the future of the country demand.

We have entered a period where American institutions of every type will be challenged as much as any in modern time by a political class with less respect for norms, traditions and facts than any since perhaps 1860. The challenges come at precisely the moment when those institutions are weaker and less respected than they have ever been.

Not a happy thought for the New Year, but I think patriots will fight back against this reality. At least I hope so. It will be the defining struggle of the next four years and beyond. Each of us will decide how – or whether – to engage in the struggle. No institution will save us.

2016 Election, Trump

Regularizing the Irregular…


          “I’m gonna tell you what I really think of Donald Trump: This man is a pathological liar. He doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. He lies practically every word that comes out of his mouth, and in a pattern that I think is straight out of a psychology textbook, his response is to accuse everybody else of lying.”

Senator Ted Cruz in May before endorsing Donald Trump in September


As opportunistic politicians go it is not an overstatement to say that Texas Senator Ted Cruz occupies a niche all his own on the scale of opportunism. Cruz, a Republican who condemned Donald Trump as harshly as any – remember the president-elect accused Cruz’s father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination and insulted Cruz’s wife for good measure – made a show of opposing Trump at the GOP convention and then totally capitulated to him.

Ted Cruz: From Trump dismissal to embrace
Ted Cruz: From Trump dismissal to embrace

Cruz is a fine example, maybe the best example, of what I’ll call “the regularization” of the man who will be president.

For the last year and a half Republican presidential candidates, most establishment media, and Hillary Clinton embraced the fiction that Donald J. Trump could be dealt with by conventional political methods. They all blew it.

Republicans “Regularized” a Man They Detest…

Republicans, like Ted Cruz, thought if only they could get Trump in a one-on-one situation they could finish him off. That belief resulted in one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in politics. The Republicans candidates who were maneuvering to be the last man standing against Trump spent weeks attacking each other rather than going after the clear frontrunner. Only when it was too late did anyone try to take down the leader. It was amazing and oddly it served to “regularize” Trump as the face and voice of the Republican Party.

Trump could claim and, of course, did that he beat them all, but those who lost to him let him off without a real challenge out of fear they would alienate his core supporters. Now he owns them all.

The media for the most part treated Trump as an outlandish, but not wholly different character in American politics. By the methods of false equivalency Trump’s abjectly irregular methods – threatening to jail his opponent, cavorting with Russia, refusing to release his tax returns, lying about everything under the sun – were balanced against Clinton’s emails and untrustworthiness. He was regularized.

Media "regularization" of the most irregular candidate in modern times
Media “regularization” of the most irregular candidate in modern times

Media attention was lavished on Trump, certainly in order to driving ratings, but also because many in the media seemed to think his own words would do him in. The coverage of his campaign, often live coverage of his rallies, served to regularize him as just another politician with a big following.

Admittedly this guy said outrageous things, but Trump was still just a variation on an old campaign theme. To many in the media he was a politician, but he isn’t, of course. Trump is a phenomenon, a media and self-created personality, a cult of personality really, and wholly unlike anything we’ve seen before.

As the campaign post mortem is conducted it is also becoming clear that the Clinton campaign, fixated on re-fighting the campaign of 2012, never got what was going on with Trump. They thought, as the media did, that Trump’s outrages would sink him, Democrats would turn out and Clinton would slip into the White House to begin Barack Obama’s third term.

The Clinton team used all the old tactics – television, policy pronouncements, debate traps – while never confronting their own candidate’s huge shortcomings or the opponents appeal. They fundamentally treated Trump as just another wacky Republican, but of course he is not just another Republican.

The regularization of Trump, from Cruz’s eventual capitulation – Cruz actually said, “I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father,” but then he did – to Clinton’s treatment of his candidacy as an aberration that would be disposed of with talking points and policy papers now reaches an entirely new level as Trump measures the White House drapes.

I’ve heard it said that Trump in office “will behave pretty much like a New York-style Republican” and that he will inevitably come around to the norms of political Washington. It’s said that Trump’s supporters took him seriously, but not literally and therefore we should, too. Actually being able to take him seriously, but not literally and having him morph into a New York-style Republican would be, under the circumstances, a highly desirable outcome for the country and the world.

But it seems just as likely those expectations are as unfounded as the notion that Ted Cruz would, just once, take a pass on political opportunism. The odds aren’t that great.

After making the mistake for the last 18 months of thinking that Trump is just another politician, many are about to double down on that calculation. He’s not a regular politician in any way, which of course is part of his appeal, but even more fundamentally he harbors no regard for any norm of political behavior and that ultimately makes him both completely unpredictable and entirely dangerous.

Here’s the Worry…

The president-elect is a deeply flawed human being with a serious personality disorder. He is obsessed with himself. There aren’t enough binders inside the Beltway to brief him, that’s how little he knows or cares about policy. He makes it up every day and the organizing principle is simple and always has been: he will do what is best for Trump.

Reading Trump’s life story – there was plenty of opportunity to do so during the long campaign if anyone wanted to do so – reveals a person unmoored from the norms – that word again – that govern most of the rest of us. He’s different. Special. Better in all ways. He has the best words. He’s the greatest. No one – ever – has come to the American presidency with such a glaring image of himself as a savior, while portraying the country as being in the final stages of destruction.

Why would Trump start behaving differently now that he has reached the pinnacle of a life that is all about him, his words, his image of himself? The answer is – he won’t.

The first rule of living under an autocratic, it is said, is to believe what the autocrat has said and promised.

Here’s the worry: Every president is challenged every day in a thousand ways. If the campaign revealed anything about Trump it was that he doesn’t suffer criticism or rejection well. He lashes out and punishes. He’s a bully, even when the offense is small or particularly when it’s valid. With Trump every confrontation becomes a question of who wins and who loses. To “regularize” the president-elect you must now embrace the idea that all his bluster, his threats and, yes, all his hatred will suddenly disappear. Somehow you have to believe a man who has never behaved differently will now behave differently.

President-elect and new White House Chief Strategist
President-elect and new White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon

And, of course,  the president-elect spent the Sunday morning after his unexpected election bashing the New York Times on social media, but only after sending his chief surrogate out to the talk shows to threaten a siting United States senator who has been sharply critical of him.

Then in the afternoon he named Stephen Bannon as his chief White House strategist, a guy who runs a white nationalist website that routinely traffics in outrageous conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic and anti-gay hate speech. Regularize that, America.

In a few weeks when he finally gets his hands on all the levers of power you have to believe that a “regularized” President Trump will be able to resist the temptations of great power that men of vastly more accomplishment found difficult to avoid when they held the job. Will a President Trump avoid reaching into the FBI or the CIA or the IRS to deal with a critic? With a white nationalist whose “media” empire regularly attacks Muslims and gays and women soon sitting a few feet from the Oval Office will Donald Trump bring America together?

To “regularize” the president-elect, as journalist Masha Gessen, a close observer and critic of Vladimir Putin, has written, is to suddenly accept that “Donald Trump had not, in the course of his campaign, promised to deport US citizens, promised to create a system of surveillance targeted specifically at Muslim Americans, promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico, advocated war crimes, endorsed torture, and repeatedly threatened to jail Hillary Clinton herself. It was as though those statements and many more could be written off as so much campaign hyperbole and now that the campaign was over, Trump would be eager to become a regular, rule-abiding politician of the pre-Trump era.”

To believe that is simply the triumph of hope over experience. Accept it at your peril.


2016 Election, Clinton, Trump

Missed it by a Mile…


        In midtown Manhattan, Amtrak train conductor Joe Mazzola, 35, said that many of his fellow rail workers, all of them unionized, were voting Trump. He said he was sick of what he called corrupt, inept politicians. “I’m done with all this crap. I love my country but our government, uh-uh,” he said.

 Quoted in the Toronto Globe and Mail


Well, put me firmly in the company of the legions who missed this thing by a mile. In the grey light of the morning after it seems both historic and surreal. It is impossible not to conclude that something has profoundly changed in American social and political life. We had the change election few saw coming. Now what?

As regular readers know, I’ve been dissing and dismissing Donald J. Trump for a year and a half. “Manifestly unfit’ was one of the milder things I alleged. I still believe that – perhaps more than ever – but today my mind drifts on to other, perhaps even bigger things.

The President-elect claims his mandate
The President-elect claims his mandate

If the president-elect attempts even a quarter of what he has proposed – abandoning existing trade deals, going squishy on NATO, overturning the Iranian nuclear deal, drastically reducing taxes, undoing Wall Street financial regulations, building his wall, weakening libel laws, replacing Obamacare, banning Muslims, using torture on enemies, indicting his opponent – you need to ask how the implementation of those objectives might alter the fundamentals of the 240 year American experiment?

Historical Parallels? Not in America…

To those looking for historical parallels, something I always attempt, you won’t find them, at least not in the United States. At a critical moment when the fragile bonds that have held together the American experiment – reverence for the Constitution, respect for the rule of law and the legal system, the influence of “the establishment” – were broadly discarded in favor of a man with what can only be described as harboring authoritarian tendencies. When we needed a Lincoln and his better angels we got “lock her up.”

The United Kingdom’s decision earlier this year to split from the European Union marked the unmistakable rise of a new phenomenon in western liberal politics – the radical populist, anti-immigrant, anti-elite, mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more crowd. The Trump victory brought the passion home. The ugliness of the campaign from both the candidate and some of his followers, the anti-Semitism, the disdain for women (particularly her), the boasts and the bald faced lies were never, we now know, going to be enough to derail a man tapping into deep anger.

He knew something, or at least mobilized something, that amounted to screaming “the hell with all of this.” Once revered and protected institutions from the Catholic Church to the military suffered his denunciations. Heck, Trump picked a fight with the Pope and claimed he knows more than the generals. Turns out he really could have shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lost a vote.

So, sorry there are no American historical parallels and no parallels of any kind that provide comfort. For parallels we need to go to Europe in the 1920s or to a South American dictatorship any time.

The toxic brew of nationalism, white identity, economic and social dislocation, fear of the present and deep anxiety about the future has nearly always resulted in the rise of a strong man with all the answers. America, until Trump, had resisted such folly. Now we’ll see how this turns out.

Their tests will come...
The tests will come…

One particularly critical question the day after is whether the “regular” Republican enablers of Trump – Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, Richard Burr, and all the rest of these “elites” now safely returned to power – will do what they inevitably will be called upon to do and what they so cleverly avoided during Trump’s rise and during their own struggle to remain in power.

Some of them may harbor the belief, still, that they can “work with him” or regularize his behavior. Not likely. And then what? Will they place position and power over country? This has always been the greatest question in a constitutional democracy: when do you stand up to great power? There will be a reckoning for all of them and for all of us.

I’m reminded of the old adage that America can always be assured of defeating any foreign enemy. After all we took care of the Nazis and Imperial Japan and once upon a time helped break apart the Soviet Union, but that the real threat to America will come from within. The ultimate unraveling of the country will come not through an invasion of Syrian refugees, but by a gradual or not so gradual abandonment of our imperfectly lived ideals.

Concentrated Power…the new American norm…

We are, for example, a good way down the road toward an ever more powerful American president, and in this regard Barack Obama followed George W. Bush in actually expanding the unilateral power of the executive. Where do we go with a man who campaigned with the authoritarian pledge that only he could fix what is wrong with the country? What are the real and practical constraints on the actions that lurk behind such boasts? Who protects the people from the president? Surely we will find out.

We have a Republic, Benjamin Franklin famously said at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, “if you can keep it.” We’ll see about that – again.

Franklin: A Republic...if you can keep it
Franklin: A Republic…if you can keep it

A reckoning is in order as well for all of us – yours truly included – who blithely went along with the fiction that nothing had fundamentally changed in the land that once elected a Reagan and an Obama. Too many of us bought the fiction that it would be enough to beat a skilled mass media marketing expert by nominating the ultimate technocratic insider, a consummate member of the elite.

You also don’t beat a celebrity TV star who long ago mastered the dark arts of media manipulation with an opponent who has a tin ear for authenticity and has been relentless defined, often by her own missteps, as dishonest.

The Clinton candidacy wasn’t even close to being enough to head off the heat of the half of the country that feels aggrieved by almost everything. It was always also going to be a stretch to replace the first African-American president with the first woman president and it turned out exactly so.

It is often the case in our politics that defeat brings out something in the defeated that had it been more obvious earlier might have changed the course of history. So it is with Hillary Clinton. “Scripture tells us,” Clinton said in her concession statement today, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season, we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.”

Clinton’s statement was profoundly patriotic, wholly gracious, bravely optimistic and seemed more genuine that most of her poll tested speeches during the long and awful campaign.

But for this American, at least for today, my optimism is muted. Oh, I accept the outcome, while not liking it, because we have only one president at a time. But accepting the outcome of an election is a good deal different than believing that the long American experiment will rumble steadily on.

I study history. I know the country has endured many things and triumphed through many, many trying times. I hope to high heaven it will again, but I’m not quite there today.


2016 Election, FBI, Montana

Round Up the Usual Suspects…


       “Amusing thing about Comey debacle is that there were still Ds (and now Rs) who are delusional enough to imagine the FBI might be apolitical.”

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation


Many Democrats are shocked and many Republicans gleeful at the news that Hillary Clinton’s emails, thanks to a letter sent by the director of the FBI to several members of Congress, have again surfaced as a big issue at the 11th hour of the presidential campaign.

The Clinton campaign termed the public disclosure of the new information, which apparently had not yet been seen by the FBI and may or may not be relevant to Clinton’s ongoing email problems, was “inappropriate and unprecedented.

Inappropriate perhaps, unprecedented hardly.

FBI Director Comey
FBI Director Comey

At the time FBI director James Comey wrote his letter to Congress exposing the need to investigate emails found on the laptop of a Clinton aide who is married to a creepy former Congressman under investigation in an unrelated matter (involving sex, of course) the Bureau had not received a search warrant to even look at the laptop in question.

Cries of foul have dominated the news cycle, interspersed with shouts of “lock her up” and official hand wringing that the FBI has violated its own standards stipulating the avoidance of injecting itself into the last stages of a political campaign.

American Myth: The FBI is Above Politics 

Whatever your views of Clinton’s email habits or the propriety of the FBI director going public with scant information about what might or might not be involved in the emails on aide Huma Abedin’s creepy husband’s laptop you should disabuse yourself of the notion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has ever been “above” politics.

Politics is baked into the DNA of “the Bureau” and has been since a young J. Edgar Hoover tried to smear a United States senator who was investigating the Department of Justice in the 1920s.

Young J. Edgar Hoover
Young J. Edgar Hoover

“Hoover stands at the center of the American century like a statue encrusted in grime,” Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tim Weiner wrote in his meticulously researched book Enemies – A History of the FBI.

“Hoover was not a monster,” Weiner said. “He was an American Machiavelli…a masterful manipulator of public opinion. He practiced political warfare and secret statecraft in pursuit of national security, often at the expense of morality.” Hoover ran the Bureau for 48 years, intimidated six presidents and used and abused power in the name of national security. Hoover’s name is on the side of the building in Washington, D.C. that houses the organization he built. His DNA is the FBI.

As we approach the end of the worst presidential campaign in my lifetime – I don’t say that lightly – Americans cling, at least some of us do, to a belief that the professed standards of American life and American institutions is really the norm, but occasionally we are forced to confront that the “standards” often don’t meet the reality of what is actually happening.

The Art of the Political Smear…

The American image of the FBI is the upright Eliot Ness (who was actually a prohibition agent) rounding up the bad guys, gunning down Dillinger and more recently battling terrorism. That’s the standard. The historical reality is something altogether different. And before you conclude that I’m issuing a blanket indictment of the FBI and everything its ever done, I’m not.

The history, however, does point to a law enforcement agency that from its earliest days has been deeply enmeshed in the country’s politics, often in extremely unsavory ways. The current director is a product of that culture and his violation of the “norms” associated with law enforcement investigations is of a piece with the history of the agency he leads. Some examples.

FBI critic Max Lowenthal
FBI critic Max Lowenthal

In the early 1950s a long-time critic of the FBI, Max Lowenthal, a brilliant attorney who conducted Congressional investigations and advised Harry Truman, published a book entitled simply The Federal Bureau of Investigation. As scathing indictments go Lowenthal’s book, carefully researched and largely based on written records, was pretty tame stuff even as it asked serious and important questions that amazingly remain pertinent today.

Lowenthal asked, for example, to what extent “a federal police agency is needed for the curbing of crime,” what the proper functions of such an agency might be, and what in an open society are “the possibilities and methods of controlling the police agency.”

Perhaps Lowenthal’s most telling question – remember he was writing nearly 70 years ago – hangs unanswered and ominous over the last days of this awful campaign: what is the “impact of a central police force on American society?”

Here’s what the FBI did to Max Lowenthal.

Knowing that his book on the Bureau was about to be published, Hoover, working with the leadership of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), saw to it that Lowenthal was denounced on the House floor. His publisher was pressured to abandon or at least not promote the book.

Then, just as the book finally went on sale, Lowenthal was subpoenaed by HUAC to answer question about his alleged associations with various leftist or Communist individuals or groups.  Lowenthal testified, under oath, in a private session that under committee rules was to remain confidential. Of course it didn’t remain out of public view, but was leaked to newspaper reporters almost certainly by the FBI.

There was nothing incriminating in Lowenthal’s testimony, but Hoover and Bureau had achieved their objective, linking the lawyer and civil libertarian with the on-going Communist witch-hunt that would eventually vault Joe McCarthy to national prominence. What better way to discredit a FBI critic that to suggest he was a Commie and, of course, Lowenthal was Jewish which made him doubly suspicious.

Lowenthal’s book never became the best seller it might or should have been, his impeccable reputation was sullied in a thousand newspapers and, of course, Hoover stayed on the job until Richard Nixon’s administration.

King, and the Klan and Mark Felt…

The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King
The FBI had a long-running fight with Dr. King

American history is replete with other examples: the FBI spied on Dr. Martin Luther King and threatened to expose his ex-marital affairs, the Church Committee in the 1970s exposed the Bureau’s domestic spying – a program called Cointelpro – on anti-war activists and civil rights advocates, FBI informants were implicated in Klu Klux Klan violence in Mississippi in the 1960s, including the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo.

And, of course, it was FBI deputy director Mark Felt who was Bob Woodward’s Watergate “deep throat,” a man whose leaks of information about Nixon’s embrace of corruption helped alter history. But its also worth remembering that Felt acted in part out of revenge, or something like revenge, after being passed over for the top job in the Bureau.

“Unprecedented?” Not at All…

One more example from the long history of the FBI proves that Director Comey’s letter to Congress which has roiled the last days of the campaign is not, as the Clinton camp has maintained, “unprecedented.”

In 1924, Montana Democratic Senator Burton K. Wheeler won Senate approval for a wide ranging investigation of alleged corruption at the U.S. Justice Department. Wheeler’s real target was Republican Attorney General Harry Daugherty, a close associate and political fixer for former President Warren Harding. Daugherty had stayed on as attorney general when Calvin Coolidge became president upon Harding’s death in 1923.

Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924
Montana Senator B.K. Wheeler. The FBI tried to frame him in 1924

When Daugherty got wind of Wheeler’s investigation, coming on the heels as it did of an even more sensational probe of political corruption – the Teapot Dome oil leasing scandal – conducted by Montana’s other senator, Thomas J. Walsh, the attorney general dispatched Bureau agents to Montana to gather “dirt” on both senators. Hoover was an eager participant in the scheme even down to instructing agents on how they should file their field reports so as not to reveal that they were in Montana on a political fishing expedition.

With the help of a less-than-scrupulous U.S. Attorney in Montana, the Bureau’s agents concocted a story that Wheeler, an attorney, had improperly used his political office to enrich himself and a wealthy Montana client. A Montana grand jury – the foreman was a old political adversary of Wheeler’s – indicted the senator just as he was concluding his own investigation of the attorney general and just as he was about to join the third party Progressive ticket as the vice presidential candidate.

The Senate’s own investigation exonerated Wheeler, but the legal case went on for months, tarnishing Wheeler’s reputation, before a Montana jury returned a not guilty verdict. One juror joked that the jury would have returned its decision more quickly, but they were incensed enough with the government’s prosecution of the case that they took extra time in order to stick the feds with the cost of dinner.

Harry Daugherty was forced to resign and Wheeler’s investigation, while not producing a spectacular smoking gun did paint a stark picture of a fundamental unethical attorney general surrounded by a pack of unsavory cronies bent on enriching themselves in government service. Of course, Hoover escaped the blame and kept right on being Hoover.

New Yorker cartoon
New Yorker cartoon

Jim Comey, the FBI director, has gotten himself in a political pickle and if the Wall Street Journal’s reporting over the the weekend is to be believed he has also shredded his own credibility within the Bureau and ignited a vicious internal feud. Meanwhile, the FBI is leaking like a galvanized bucket hit by buckshot.

Maybe Comey was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, but in one fell swoop he has, as J. Edgar Hoover did time and again, put another big, smudge mark on the Bureau.

Comey is learning an old lesson: it’s impossible to be above politics when  you act like everything is political. His job isn’t to avoid criticism, which he’s clearly failed to accomplish in any event, but rather to stay above the fray and maintain the credibility of a professional. Instead he’s taken the FBI – again – into a political swamp. It’s an old story.

You can, take your pick, be shocked or gleeful about Comey’s last minute letter, but you shouldn’t be surprised.


2016 Election, GOP, Trump

Cue the Recriminations…


         “Character matters. (Trump) is obviously not going to win. But he can still make an honorable move: Step aside and let Mike Pence try.”

 Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse  two weeks ago


         CHRIS WALLACE : “I want to ask you here on the stage tonight, do you make the same commitment that you’ll absolutely accept the result of the election?”

         DONALD TRUMP: “I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now. I’ll look at it at the time.”

The third presidential debate October 19, 2016


Sometime in the late evening of November 8 as it becomes clear that Donald J. Trump has led the Republican Party over an electoral cliff the recriminations will begin. For students of politics, and particularly for those who abhor the charlatan that has held the GOP hostage for the last 18 months, it will be good sport to watch the blood letting, but soon more important issues will become obvious.

The ultimate loser...
The ultimate loser…

Surely there will be a price to pay for those who aided and abetted Trumpism. The elected officials who condemned the man, but managed to twist their logic in such a way that they could still cast a vote for him will wear that scarlet letter for the rest of their days. A cosmetic patch of political Bondo will not easily repair what Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has called “the intellectual rot” at the heart of the Grand Old Party.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has asked the right question, a question we will be hearing more and more post-Trump: “What is the Republican Party?”

Dionne wonders “whether Republican congressional leaders have any connection with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked during the Obama years but always hoped to contain. Mr. Trump is the product of their colossal miscalculations.

“And then there are the ruminations of millions of quiet Republicans — local business people and doctors and lawyers and coaches and teachers. They are looking on as the political institution to which they have long been loyal is refashioned into a house of bizarre horrors so utterly distant from their sober, community-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, conservative approach to life.”

Much time and attention will be lavished on the future fortunes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump denouncer who nevertheless continues to say he will vote for a man he likely can’t imagine having dinner with. Mr. Speaker will struggle. You heard it here firste.

The GOP's odd couple.
The GOP’s odd couple.

And what of John McCain, once a truth teller on the budgetary excesses of his own party, a pragmatist about the need for immigration reform and a realist about the impact of money on politics? Facing the very real political dilemma of repudiating Trump – remember Trump early on attacked McCain’s military service – and alienating his core of angry voters or wringing his hands over Trump’s embrace of Putin and disdain of personal character,

McCain has been like horse droppings after a Fourth of July parade – all over the place. He finally and certainly belatedly abandoned Trump after “the tape,” but some how saw fit to stick with Trump through his attacks on a federal judge, the Gold Star family and revelations about Trump’s taxes, charity scams and business failures. Sex and vulgar talk about sex was apparently the deal breaker.

The cynical might dismiss McCain’s election year straddle as merely the pragmatic machinations of a old pol riding to the last roundup, but how to explain a waffle like that of Idaho Senator James Risch who is not on the ballot this year and would have little to lose by standing up to a loser? Risch, an early Marco Rubio supporter then a reluctant Ted Cruz guy, still sticks with Trump despite what the senator call the “the vulgar and indefensible revelations relating to the Republican nominee’s character.”

It all comes down to the Supreme Court, Risch says, “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country. I will cast my vote for the Republican nominee.” The country will be fine, senator, as to abandoning character as a presidential requirement, that is problematic.

By Thanksgiving it will be difficult to find anyone who will admit to having voted for the most unfit presidential candidate in any of our lifetimes, but the political battlefield will be strewn with the remains of the gutless Republicans who stood with him at the edge of the cliff and then beyond. If Trump turns out to inflict as much damage to the Republican Party as seems likely – loss of younger voters, suburban women and minorities for a generation perhaps – supporting the guy who took the party into the gutter will be in the first paragraph of many political obituaries.

Ohio Governor John Kasich
Ohio Governor John Kasich

As conservative commentators Michael Gerson (George W. Bush’s speechwriter), George Will, David Brooks and Max Boot – all “Never Trump” critics – have said repeatedly, the GOP has faced in this campaign its modern day McCarthy Moment. What do you do in the face of a deeply troubled, dangerous and profoundly unfit political figure? Most elected officials have buckled in the face of the moral challenge that demanded a repudiation of Trump. Those who have not – John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice among a few others – will be remembered for putting country before buffoonery.

Those who pulled a McCain or a Risch will be remembered for their profiles in political cowardice. They will continue to try to dress it up as merely sticking with the party, but the recriminations will take care of that fiction.

“Trump’s descent into ideological psychosis is tainting the reputation of all who were foolish enough to associate with him,” Michael Gerson wrote this week. He took particular note of vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, “one of the chief promoters of Christian morality in politics employing the ethical reasoning of 9-year-olds in the schoolyard. Someday Pence (and others) will look back on their shattered standards and ask: For this cause? For this man?”

Joseph McCarthy’s antics – character assassination, wild exaggeration and lying demagoguery – defined the Republican Party in the early 1950s, but a decent and well-intended man, Dwight Eisenhower, keep the GOP from falling completely under McCarthy’s sway. Barry Goldwater, never on his worst day as totally unfit for office as the current nominee, redirected the GOP rightward in the 1960s and eventually passed the reigns to Ronald Reagan, a president who stood for virtually everything Donald Trump fumes against. That history leaves us to ponder who will emerge from the coming wreckage to re-build a party suffering from “intellectual rot” after having sold its soul to a huckster?

So many who might aspire to that job will have to spend the next many months picking through the Trump wreckage, attempting to salvage their own sense of purpose after caving to a craven opportunist. How much better for these Republicans to have pulled a Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine GOP senator who denounced McCarthy early as an act of conscience, rather than continue to try and explain the inexplicable.

After all how do you explain next month, next year or ever why it was you stood for this cause, for this man?


2016 Election, Trump

Stay Classy….No, Really


         “Nice hotel. Under budget and ahead of schedule. Isn’t that nice? No, it is a great honor. This is our brand-new ballroom.”

Donald J. Trump free-associating and praising his new D.C. hotel


I knew a guy years ago that I’m tempted to say reminds me of the Republican presidential candidate, but i can honestly say no one really reminds me of Donald J. Trump. But this guy I knew does remind me of Trump in one specific way.

This really rich guy had a lot of money, several homes, expensive cars and he spent serious money on his apparel. You may know the type. Silk shirts, custom made sport coats – loud plaids and patterns – patent leather shoes. Expensive it was, but classy not so much. All of which proves something my old man used to say: you can spend a lot of money and still be a bum. A thousand dollars spent on a pair of polyester pants still means you’re wearing polyester pants.

Stay "classy" Toronto
Stay “classy” Toronto

The one and only time I have stayed in a Trump branded hotel – my excuse was that it was on a trip for a client and they booked the room – was in Toronto some years ago. I thought of that guy with the patent leather shoes as I entered my room. Not my style. Not my taste. Too much bling, not enough class. No portrait of The Great Man hung over the king sized bed, but you could feel him in the room. Creepy and did I say tacky?

Stay Classy…

I know that writing about a presidential candidate on the basis of his taste in bathroom faucets and bedroom headboards risks demeaning the whole idea of a presidential campaign, but let’s face it after praising Putin, fleecing his foundation, conning his contractors, harassing Hispanics, belittling blacks and assaulting half the population of the country this is where DJT has taken us.

Since I don’t understand – even a little – how anyone can support this guy based on his experience, temperament or policy ideas (he has, in order, no experience, a sociopath’s temperament and incoherent and dangerous ideas) then his taste – or lack thereof – seems to me to be completely fair game.

The grand Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. pre-Trump.
The grand Old Post Office in Washington, D.C. pre-Trump.

Political reporters assigned to cover Trump, the journalistic equivalent of a daily root canal, are still venting over the hoodwinking they suffered recently when the Republican candidate summoned them to his gaudy new Washington, D.C. hotel ostensibly to declare that he finally “believes” Barack Obama was born in the United States. He eventually got around to that statement, more or less, but spent most of his time before the cameras praising his new hotel.

I’ll never set foot in the dump.

I’ve been in the Old Post Office Building in Washington, D.C. – now the “newest luxury hotel” in the Capitol – and before Trump got hold of it the structure was all that he is not – full of detail, sensitive to history, a study in character, sturdy and principled. Some knot head at the General Services Administration (GSA) momentarily lost his/her mind and gave the job of “refurbishing” the building to Mr. Red Ties. Mistake.

Pray to God the man never gets any closer to the White House than the Presidential Suite at what use to be the Old Post Office. Still, as Monica Hesse of the Washington Post observed after spending a night in Trumpsalvania, the faux billionaire “has already taken over the city, at least in some filigreed, metaphorical way.”

One former GSA official recalled wondering, as BuzzFeed reported, “Are they going to tart the thing up? How do you maintain the dignity of the building?” You don’t. Not with Mr. Tasteless in town.

The “Deluxe” room was going for $805 a night when Hesse cased the joint last week.  Online hotel booking sites were offering rooms for half that price more recently. I predict a lot of vacancies. Hesse wrote that the lobby was full of gawkers, but not guests. “Make America Curious Again.” For the reporter’s sake I hope Jeff Bezos approves her expense account.

The Quest to Be Taken Seriously…

Will he re-do the White House in gold leaf?
Will he re-do the White House in gold leaf?

Trump, it is increasingly clear, has spent his entire life trying and mostly failing to be taken seriously. The forthcoming Frontline documentary on PBS will apparently make that case explicitly with an interview by Roger Stone, the Nixon-era hatchet man who is now Donald’s conspiracy theory whisperer.

Stone says that Trump decided to run for president when Obama kneecapped him over the “birther” issue at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in 2011. Trump sat through Obama’s speech fuming all the way, unable to laugh at himself or the absurdity of the big lie he has been peddling for years. All the swell people in D.C. laughed at him. He was humiliated. He was made a fool. Worst of all he was made to look a fool by a smart black man in a tuxedo, a guy who has actually read books and written them and knows what the nuclear triad is all about.

Commander-in-Chief as revenge play

Trump both got mad and decided to get even after that dinner. He’d show ‘em – take a grand old historic building and make it an amusement park and, by the way take the White House, too. Comforting thought, heh? Commander-in-Chief as revenge play.

All the endless boasting, the pathological lying, the gaudy buildings, the slinky ex-and-current wives, the name plastered on everything (even the bath mats at Trump Toronto), the insults, the funny hair, it’s all an act. Most of us grow out of our insecurities or at least find a way to manage them. Instead Trump makes a play for the nuclear codes.

Most of us, assuming we had the ego or ambition to seek high public office, might actually try to assemble some degree of preparation for that task. You might invite interesting, informed people to help provide an education on all that you don’t know. You might read something beside your own Twitter feed. But that’s just too much work and too normal for a Great Man, particularly one in need of constant reassurance that he is the best thing since the invention of the Taco Bowl.

The radio host and essayist Garrison Keillor has, I think, nailed Trump better than anyone, better certainly than many reporters who struggle to treat this singularly abnormal man as though he was anything but abnormal.

Trump having a grand time at the White House Correspondent's dinner in 2011
Trump having a grand time at the White House Correspondent’s dinner in 2011

Keillor, speaking directly to Mr. Needy, wrote recently in an essay: “The New York Times treats you like the village idiot. This is painful for a Queens boy trying to win respect in Manhattan where the Times is the Supreme Liberal Jewish Anglican Arbiter of Who Has The Smarts and What Goes Where. When you came to Manhattan 40 years ago, you discovered that in entertainment, the press, politics, finance, everywhere you went, you ran into Jews, and they are not like you: Jews didn’t go in for big yachts and a fleet of aircraft — they showed off by way of philanthropy or by raising brilliant offspring. They sympathized with the civil rights movement. In Queens, blacks were a threat to property values — they belonged in the Bronx, not down the street. To the Times, Queens is Cleveland. Bush league. You are Queens. The casinos were totally Queens, the gold faucets in your triplex, the bragging, the insults, but you wanted to be liked by Those People. You wanted Mike Bloomberg to invite you to dinner at his townhouse. You wanted the Times to run a three-part story about you, that you meditate and are a passionate kayaker and collect 14th-century Islamic mosaics. You wish you were that person but you didn’t have the time.”

They Know He’s a Huckster…

Most Republicans, of course, know all this. Even those who have endorsed the gaudy hotelier know it. Chris Christie knows it, but he’s grasping for any political life raft. Rudy Giuliani knows it, but he craves the spotlight almost as much as the guy from Queens. Ted Cruz – oh, boy – even Lyin’ Ted knows that the guy who insulted his wife and accused his dad of killing JFK is profoundly unfit. John McCain, remember him, Mr. Straight Talk? He knows. He wouldn’t let Trump close to Sedona or within a football field of his wife and daughters.

They all know, as Garrison Keillor also wrote, that “Trump is a man whom few Republicans would care to invite into their homes. So what’s going on here? An epidemic of hippocampus poisoning from bad enzymes in cheap beers? The man is a fraud, a compulsive liar and a clueless playboy whose presidency would be an unmitigated disaster for the country. If you would make us the laughingstock of the world just to irk your liberal sister-in-law, you are someone who should not be allowed to come within 500 yards of an elementary school.”

Staying classy in Atlantic City (AP Photo)
Staying classy in Atlantic City (AP Photo)

But the otherwise smart people who have endorsed and enabled this joker have twisted themselves into a political pretzel. They’re not voting their conscience, but their ambition. They justify their betrayal of democracy, not to mention common sense, by selling their souls for control of the Senate or a seat on the Supreme Court. They’ve bet the country that they can control a race baiting, foreign policy ignoramus. They can’t. Most of them don’t even want to mention his name. They wouldn’t share a Big Mac with the guy, but he’s got to be better than Hillary, right? But they know – they really know – that he’s not.

Only Business…

Trump, of course, got the lease on The Old Post Office by promising a bunch of things that he has now completely reneged on and, of course, he worked every angle to minimize his tax burden and cage ever subsidy. It’s only business, right?

I think the whole hotel thing and Trump’s desire to be taken seriously and to not be humiliated go a long way to explain his unwillingness to release his tax returns. He may yet get away with being the first candidate since Nixon not to reveal his worth, his charitable contributions, his debts, his overseas bank accounts, his Russian ties, etc. etc.

But his real motive is not to be shamed. He’s not worth what he says he’s worth. He’s likely not paid a cent in taxes for years. He’s almost certainly has dodgy investments and a mountain of debt. The Washington Post’s remarkable stories have confirmed his philanthropy consists of using other people’s money to buy paintings of himself and cover his legal bills. It’s all a scam. And the tax returns would prove it, which is why we’ll never see them.

Despite much of the politics that take place there Washington, D.C. is a great place to visit. Go see the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Mall and the National Gallery. Visit the new African-American Museum, a place where you’re not likely to encounter Donald Trump or many of his followers. Great restaurants dot the city. Rock Creek Park is fun for a walk. And if you want to stay in a really great hotel, classy and tasteful try the Willard, the Hay-Adams or the Madison. Walk by The Old Post Office, gaze up at the handsome clock tower and contemplate the seat of government. Hope Trump’s seat never gets near it.

By the way, that Toronto hotel that I still causes a cringe when I think about two nights there, well – it’s troubled. Trump doesn’t own it, as usual with his “real estate empire,” he just “manages” it for the real owners and not well by all accounts.

As the Toronto Star reported earlier this year: “After 15 years of controversy, an investor revolt and now a U.S. Republican leadership campaign that has seen the billionaire businessman morph from bombastic long shot to presidential prospect, Talon International, the property developer, wants to erase his name from the Toronto skyline. They believe Donald Trump has tarnished his brand and the tower that wears it.”

Imagine what he’ll do to the country.


2016 Election, Britain, Russia, Trump, World War II

The Useful Idiot…


        “Hillary Clinton’s admission that she has pneumonia after allegedly becoming ‘overheated’ at a 9/11 event has even some in MSM acknowledging that the issue of the Democratic candidate’s health can no longer be ignored, as her tour has been put on hold.” 

How the Russian media outlet RT is covering the Clinton health story.


A few days ago Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, a noted writer on Russian and European history and politics, outlined what seems to me a highly likely scenario regarding the American presidential election.

Vladimir Putin, Applebaum wrote, is not so secretly attempting to undermine the U.S. electoral system, indeed his aim may well be to destabilize American democracy. It may sound farfetched, but then again the evidence may be hiding in plan sight.

We should believe that Putin, the creepy Kremlin leader and a former KGB apparatchik, is meddling in the election because he has done it before and, in fact, he does it all the time.

Here's a pair to draw to.
Here’s a pair to draw to.

What Americans might be waking up to – we can hope – is that in Putin’s attempt to interfere with a U.S. election he has for the first time, as an earlier generation of Moscow leaders might have said, “a useful idiot” to help him in the person of Donald J. Trump.

Here’s Anne Applebaum’s informed speculation in a nutshell:

Trump continues to say, as he already repeatedly has, that if he loses the election to Hillary Clinton the whole system must be “rigged,” the polls are “wrong” and “real voters” have been ignored. He constantly complains that the “dishonest” and “corrupt” media is out to get him.

Meanwhile, Russian Internet hackers will continue to use a third party – Wikileaks – to disseminate emails pilfered from Clinton or George Soros or some nameless bureaucrat somewhere in order to, as Applebaum says, “discredit not just Hillary Clinton but also the U.S. democratic process and, again, the ‘elite’ who supposedly run it.”

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, another of the Kremlin's "useful idiots"
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, another of the Kremlin’s “useful idiots”

Before Election Day or even on Election Day hackers will try to create havoc with one of more state election systems. They don’t need to succeed; just trying will be enough to confirm the suspicion, already firmly planted by Trump and others, that the election is “fixed.” The FBI, we already know, has warned election officials in Arizona that the election machinery may have been compromised. Imagine waking up on November 9th with Clinton having narrowly won Arizona – polls show her within striking distance there – and then imagine what Trump does and says.

I’ll quote Applebaum directly regarding the next step: “The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively — and this would, of course, be even more devastating — they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton’s campaign.”

What a perfect KGB-like operation: Plant a trail of evidence “proving” that Clinton “stole the election.” It all reads like a John Le Carre thriller, but somehow doesn’t seem all that farfetched. “Once revealed,” Anne Applebaum writes, “the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis — followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency.”

No Matter What – Putin Wins…

Here is the particularly pernicious aspect of the Russian meddling: there is no downside for Putin or his objectives. Putin wins no matter the outcome in November.

The plot of a novel...or the scheming of a former KGB operative?
The plot of a novel…or the scheming of a former KGB operative?

Suppose Trump wins the election in which case Putin gets his useful idiot in the White House and ends 75 years of Republican skepticism about all things Russian.

Or suppose Clinton wins amid allegations that the election was rigged or stolen. Putin still wins with a weakened American president who is immediately discredited as “illegitimate” by a sizable chunk of the electorate.

Under any scenario the Kremlin gains in its real aim, which is to destabilize western democracy, weaken NATO and diminish U.S. standing around the world. These aims also help explain Putin’s objectives in supporting Brexit, the United Kingdom’s pending exit from the European Union, his encouragement of hard right elements in France and elsewhere in Europe and his embrace of Syria and Iran.

But the critical element in the Kremlin strategy is the utility of the fake billionaire from Trump Tower. Without a major party presidential candidate like Trump, a guy who surrounds himself with advisers with ties to Putin, who praises the Russian dictator as a better leader than the American president and then grants interviews to Putin’s international disinformation network, the election meddling and propaganda campaign would be a good deal more difficult to pull off.

As the Washington Post pointed out Trump’s recent interview with Larry King on the Putin financed propaganda channel RT was all about dissing news coverage of his own campaign. That message fits perfectly with Putin’s larger aims. Alexey Kovalev, a Russian journalist and translator who runs a blog dedicated to exposing misinformation in Russian media, put it this way: RT’s “mission now is not to report on Russia but to tell everyone how bad America is. There’s a huge audience for that, not just internationally but in the United States as well.”

Republicans who continue to lionize Ronald Reagan must wince just a little that the new face of their party now echoes the Kremlin line. “Reagan never gave interviews to Pravda while campaigning to be our president,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote on Twitter, referring to the official newspaper of the Soviet Union. “Who advised Trump to appear on RT?” Who indeed?

An earlier Republican with a different view of Russia
An earlier Republican with a different view of Russia…”tear down this wall…”

Nothing motivates the GOP presidential candidate more than money, so that fact may offer the simplest, if a no less comforting explanation of the Trump-Putin alliance.“Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008 and it has been widely reported that his old man has been trying to cut a fat hog in Moscow for years.

Even if you don’t buy the full extent of Anne Applebaum’s conspiracy, just consider this: Is there anyone who knows anything about American politics who would have predicted two years ago that the Republican candidate for president would have at the center of his candidacy a bromance with a Russian hatchet man? Four years ago Mitt Romney, you remember him, was condemning Russia and Putin as our nation’s greatest strategic threat. In fairness to Romney, many allegedly smart people in both parties disagreed with his assessment. Now Mitt looks like a genuine prophet.

Not only has Trump embraced Putin and essentially offered cover to Russian outrages in Ukraine he has neutered GOP hawks like John McCain who are left to mumble, as House Speaker Paul Ryan did last week, that Vladimir Putin really isn’t a nice guy. The former KGB agent really isn’t a nice guy, but he may understand U.S. politics better than many American voters.

Nothing Like This Before…

So, has anything like this ever happened before, has a foreign power ever attempted in such a comprehensive way to mess with a presidential election and influence American policy? The answer is both kind of and no.

One somewhat analogous historical precedent is the presidential election of 1940 and the tumultuous foreign policy debate immediately preceding U.S. entry into World War II. While far less obvious than the Russian effort in the current election, Britain clearly tried to influence U.S. politics, policy and public opinion – with willing help from Franklin Roosevelt – in 1940 and 1941.

British-born historian Nicholas John Cull has documented the extent of the British effort in his 1995 book Selling War – The British Propaganda Campaign Against American “Neutrality” in World War II.

Winston Churchill authorized British propaganda efforts in 1940-1941, but didn't attempt to weaken American democracy
Winston Churchill authorized British propaganda efforts in 1940-1941, but didn’t attempt to weaken American democracy

During the 1930s, as Cull has written, British policy “explicitly forbid any such endeavor in the United States,” but that policy changed as the war situation darkened after the fall of France in 1940. British policy makers began to believe “through judicious use of propaganda and publicity” that they might “undermine U.S. neutrality and somehow sell Britain and a second world war to a skeptical American public.”

A key tactic was to plant “subversive propaganda” through a network of middlemen – “cut outs” they were called – who were charged with distributing up to “twenty rumors each day with the ‘leading home reporters of the New York and Chicago papers.’”

Given the sensitivity at the time to the notion that Britain was trying to maneuver the United States into the war, public disclosure of a propaganda campaign or covert lobbying of Congress would have been politically explosive. The British, however, deemed feeding useful information to popular reporters, both low risk and effective. They used a well-connected political operative with relationships inside the government and with columnists and radio personalities like Walter Winchell and Dorothy Thompson to shape public and political opinion. Over time the effort was quite successful.

However, what Winston Churchill’s government did not do, unlike Vladimir Putin’s, was attempt to hijack an election or destabilize American democracy. There is no obvious historical precedent for what has been quietly happening in plain sight with Trump’s campaign.

Now with media obsession focused on Hillary Clinton’s health, an issue sure to dominate news coverage for days, and with the Kremlin’s candidate climbing in the polls we may learn just how sinister a former KBG henchman can become when at last he has a useful idiot in the Oval Office.