Tag Archives: Putin

GOP’s Moment Of Truth

We really are in “never never” land. It is impossible to draw innocent conclusions from yesterday’s press conference following Trump’s private meeting with Vladimir Putin.  During yet another incoherent and unhinged rant, the President insulted America’s intelligence community and insisted that he believed Putin’s denials of election interference.

The “summit” with Putin came on the heels of disastrous meetings during which Trump insulted America’s closest allies and inflicted significant damage on important American alliances.  In stark contrast, he absolutely fawned over Putin– even after Putin made a point of coming 45 minutes late to their meeting, a public signal of disrespect that somehow didn’t enrage our notoriously thin-skinned POTUS.

At this point in the surreal saga that has been the Trump presidency, there is no longer any doubt about Russia’s interference in the American election. That case has been made over and over by American Intelligence officials, most recently, Dan Coats. It has been confirmed by the mounting number of detailed indictments filed and guilty pleas obtained by Bob Mueller.

Over at Vox, Ezra Klein has an exhaustive (and damning) list of what we now absolutely know.Not what we speculate, not what we surmise, but what we know.

Nevertheless, as Klein noted,

Standing next to Putin, Trump turned on America’s intelligence services, and again mused about how much better it might have been if Russia had cracked Clinton’s server and gotten her documents.

So while the entire world was watching, the President of the United States attacked agents of his own country and administration– and gave Putin a big wet kiss.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times, 

Such behavior by an American president is so perverse, so contrary to American interests and values, that it leads to only one conclusion: Donald Trump is either an asset of Russian intelligence or really enjoys playing one on TV.

Everything that happened in Helsinki today only reinforces that conclusion. My fellow Americans, we are in trouble and we have some big decisions to make today. This was a historic moment in the entire history of the United States.

There is overwhelming evidence that our president, for the first time in our history, is deliberately or through gross negligence or because of his own twisted personality engaged in treasonous behavior — behavior that violates his oath of office to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

A Manchurian candidate committing intentional treason would have been more skillful. Even if–as a friend of mine posits–the Russian oligarchs who have financed Trump for years have him “by the short hairs”– the stupidity displayed at the press conference was counterproductive. This clumsy and irrational performance  just adds to the already overwhelming amount of evidence that (while he may or not be a knowing Russian asset) Trump is definitely seriously mentally ill.

The real question is: what will Congressional Republicans do with this incontrovertible, in-your-face evidence of traitorous behavior? How long can they pretend he is either competent or acting in America’s interests? As Friedman says,

Every single Republican lawmaker will be — and should be — asked on the election trail: Are you with Trump and Putin or are you with the C.I.A., F.B.I. and N.S.A.?

As former CIA chief John Brennan tweeted,

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you??? 

Where indeed? They sure aren’t from Indiana. And I haven’t noticed much in the way of patriotism from other Republicans currently serving in the House or Senate.

The refusal of an American President to honor his oath of office–his refusal to protect and defend our country– is a Constitutional crisis. If GOP lawmakers continue to put their own interests and those of their party above their duty to the country, if they continue to abet this President’s erratic and treasonous behavior, history will not be kind to them.

Hopefully, neither will the voters.

 

Collusion, Not Statecraft

I don’t usually cite to Daily Kos, because I am aware that its articles are reported through a liberal lens and I’m not interested in simply becoming part of an echo chamber.

Despite its clear–and acknowledged–editorial perspective, however, I have found the site to be factually accurate–and often, very persuasive. I was especially convinced by a post analyzing the effects of Trump’s decision to renege on U.S. commitments made in the Iran Agreement (an agreement our inarticulate President likes to call a “deal.”)

A number of foreign policy experts have expressed frustration with the withdrawal because it reduces America’s ability to exert influence in the region and rather dramatically increases the prospects of destabilization, if not war. The recurring critique is that no one  (not even Israel, Bibi notwithstanding) benefits from this decision.

As the post reminds us, however, there is a beneficiary. Putin’s Russia.

Crude oil futures have leapt from $26 at the time of Trump’s election to $77 today. Back in January, Trump actually certified that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear agreement. However, Trump threatened to end the agreement if it wasn’t expanded to include items unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program and “strengthened” in unspecified ways.

Trump increased his warnings that he would end the deal in February, and by March was engaged in talks with European allies—talks at which allies consistently urged Trump to remain in the deal and Trump consistently announced his intention to walk away. As the talks wore on, and Trump’s intransigence became clear, fears of a destabilized Middle East began to shore up oil prices.

Russian oil production hovers around 10 million barrels a day. That means the increase that has already happened in oil prices is providing Putin with an extra $520 million a day. …

Everything else that Trump has or hasn’t done about Russia, any sanctions, any tariffs, any expelled diplomats, absolutely pales in comparison to the huge boost he provided to the Russian economy by backing away from the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, short of actually starting a shooting war in the region, it’s difficult to find anything else that Trump might have done of more benefit to Putin. It’s certainly difficult to think of anything Trump might have done to generate a more certain boost for Russia.

As any political pundit worth her salt will confirm, poor economic performance is a threat to even an autocratic politician, and Russia–which is very dependent on oil prices–has been running up steep deficits and cutting vital programs.

As the post notes, Russia’s economic problems have also hobbled its ability to deploy its military.

In 2014, as oil prices declined again, the value of the ruble tumbled, making it more difficult for Russia to borrow or import goods. At the start of 2015, the purchasing power index for Russia—the actual value of the country’s money when it comes to buying a standard “basket of goods”—was the lowest in the world.

The falling ruble triggered waves of inflation across Russia, putting prices up by double digits across the board, raising the interest rates to near 20 percent, and leading to widespread calls for wage and price controls. In 2016, Russia faced growing debt and declining GDP. Retail sales and personal wealth were both sharply down. Predictions were for a sustained period of oil prices below $20.

Anti-Putin demonstrations during the past few years have addressed a number of grievances, but this economic reality was clearly a major source of popular dissatisfaction. But as long as Iran continued to participate in the world’s oil markets, the oil prices that are so important to Russia’s economy would remain low.

Oil prices could be driven up only if the U.S. re-imposed the sanctions that had prevented Iran–the third largest player in OPEC–from selling its oil on the world market.  Those sanctions had been lifted under the agreement Trump just trashed. Immediately after he reimposed them, Americans faced  additional sticker shock at the gas pump.

Rising pump prices are blunting the positive effects of sweeping tax cuts on Americans’ spending, potentially undercutting a pillar of economic growth this year.

Withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran agreement may have infuriated our European allies, imposed costs on American consumers and made the world less safe. But it was a huge gift to Putin.

For a communist, Putin sure understands return on investment.

Incompetence? Or Sabotage?

There’s an old saying that even paranoids have enemies.

When Trump appointed Mick Mulvaney to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau–despite a provision in the law creating the Bureau that seems to vest appointing power in the departing head of that agency–I had a sudden epiphany. (Or–more probably–indigestion. But bear with me.)

When he was in Congress, Mulvaney voted in favor of killing the agency, which was created after the financial crisis to protect consumers and keep an eye on Wall Street. He has argued that the agency has too much power; he’s called its regulations “harsh.” In other words, he fits the profile of almost all Trump appointees: he wants to dismantle the agency he is being appointed to run.

Leave aside, for now, the lawsuit over this appointment. My “epiphany” isn’t about this particular appointment. In fact, it is a conspiracy theory–and I should be ashamed of entertaining it, but it seems so persuasive….

What if Putin really is blackmailing Trump? And what if he is demanding, as payment for his silence, the decimation of America’s federal bureaucracy?

Think about the people Trump has appointed. Betsy DeVos wants to destroy public education. Scott Pruitt wants to erase the EPA. Just this weekend, the New York Times ran a story about Tillerson’s hollowing out of the State Department. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to shrink or eliminate national monuments. Ajit Pai is intent upon repealing net neutrality. Don’t get me started on Sessions. In fact, every single person Trump has appointed has approached the job with a hatchet in hand.

I’ve previously attributed this continuing disaster to the profound incompetence that characterizes this administration. But really, mere incompetence can’t explain all this. Maybe it’s malevolence–his obsessive hatred of Obama and his determination to erase everything Obama did–but why would Trump deliberately and intentionally destroy the agencies of  federal government? Clueless as he is, even he would have to know that history wouldn’t be kind to an accident of the Electoral College who presided over the destruction of American government.

Putin is a terrible human being and a ruthless despot, but unlike Trump, he’s smart. The various ways in which Russia influenced our election were clever; we’ll never be able to calculate the actual effects of that stealth operation. Putin also knows that Russia could never defeat the U.S. militarily. Trump’s election victory was probably an unanticipated gift. If he really does have the goods on our unstable, needy, none-too-bright President, why not use that leverage to make Trump do his dirty work?

He wouldn’t have to deploy a single soldier….

We’ve already seen incalculable damage to  America’s profile abroad. We’ve already watched as Trump’s “troops” have undermined, understaffed and rendered impotent some of our most important federal agencies, dramatically weakening the country.

If all that isn’t the result of Putin blackmailing Trump, what could possibly explain it?

 

 

Russia Abroad, Theocrats at Home

Welcome to the Trump/Pence Administration.

Per Right Wing Watch

Last month, it was reported that President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team was giving Religious Right activists, especially the members of his presidential campaign’s evangelical advisory board, unprecedented input in shaping his administration,

Earlier this week, one of the members of that board, Richard Land of the Southern Evangelical Seminary, appeared on the “Point of View” radio program, where he told host Kerby Anderson that he has been shocked by how much influence he and other Religious Right activists have had over the make-up of Trump’s administration.

“Some of my conservative friends and I, we have been pinching ourselves, are we hallucinating or is this actually happening?” Land said. “I know a good number of people on the transition team and I can tell you right now, about half of them, Kerby, think I’m liberal. I mean, these are very conservative people.”

Land went on to say that he had personally been solicited several times for names of potential appointees, something that had never happened with prior administrations. He predicted that the Trump/Pence administration would have more conservative Christians in it than any administration he’d had contact with, including the Reagan Administration.

Hoosiers who suffered through four years of his administration can see Mike Pence’s fingerprints all over these appointments.

Americans now have a President who has neither experience with nor interest in government. He still hasn’t filled most staff positions, he hasn’t educated himself about the challenges he’ll face, and he’s given no evidence that he understands what the job of President entails. Instead, he has engaged in the same petty, self-aggrandizing behaviors we’ve come to expect: arguing about the size of inaugural crowds, lashing out at the women and men who marched in opposition to him, threatening the press, and generally acting like a five-year-old spoiled brat.

Meanwhile, reports of his campaign’s Russian connections continue to grow.

It shouldn’t surprise us that, in the absence of any interest in actually governing, Trump would hand off pesky details like staffing to his Vice-President. After all, when Trump Junior approached John Kasich about the Vice-Presidency, he reportedly promised Kasich he could run the country while Trump spent his time “making America great.”

If it were Kasich making the decisions, I would actually feel a lot better. Giving Mike Pence that authority is another matter. Pence is equally uninterested in the boring details of policy (ask anyone who observed his performance as Governor of Indiana), but unlike Trump, who is concerned only with himself, Pence does have an agenda–a theocratic one.

Pence is a Christian culture warrior. His priorities are outlawing abortion, defunding Planned Parenthood, taking money from public education and directing it to Christian schools (Betsy DeVos was deeply involved in Indiana’s voucher program), insuring that Christians can discriminate against LGBTQ citizens and a variety of other measures that would legally privilege fundamentalist Christianity. (He seems to have skipped over those passages in the Christian bible that counsel caring for the poor, refraining from judgment and abstaining from public prayer…like most culture warriors, his is a highly selective reading of the bible.)

So this is what voters in white, rural America have given us: an unstable child-President with mysterious ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the various oligarchs who funded his projects after American banks declined to do so, and an equally vacuous Vice President who is a True Believer intent upon imposing his crabbed version of God’s Will on the rest of us.

Worse, if we somehow got rid of both of them, we’d get Paul Ryan, whose deepest desire is to throw grandma off Medicare…..The next few years are going to be very trying….

To Russia, With (Trump’s) Love

MarketWatch is a subsidiary of Dow Jones, and a property of News Corp. It operates a financial information website that provides business news, analysis, and stock market data. It is neither a fake news site nor a particularly ideological one (certainly not left-wing–News Corp also owns Fox News), so I was surprised to read a column headlined “Top 10 Signs that American President is a Russian Agent.”

The “signs” the column identified were: (1) U.S. Intelligence has concluded that the Kremlin helped put him in power; (2) the new President sides with the Kremlin against the CIA; (3) He receives vast sums of money from mysterious Russians (Including an astonishing $95 million that Trump personally received from a Russian billionaire during the 2008 collapse); (4) His election made a lot of people in Moscow rich–their stock market is up 20% since the U.S. election; (5) He wants to end Russia’s global isolation and terminate U.S. and international sanctions against Russia; (6) He has surrounded himself with known Russian allies and sympathizers; (7) He repeatedly refuses to criticize the Kremlin; (8) One of his first steps as President-elect was to drive a wedge between the U.S. and China, Russia’s chief Asian rival; (9) He has announced policies that would undermine NATO; and (10) He once had his own brand of vodka.

Okay, that last one is a stretch.

The column gives “chapter and verse” for each of these signs, so those interested in more detail can click through.

My reaction to this seemingly outlandish theory is not altogether dismissive. Two points are worth consideration: first, whether Trump is simply being his clueless self or knowingly acting on behalf of the Kremlin–being blackmailed by the Russian oligarchs who financed several of his projects after American banks stopped doing business with him, perhaps, or otherwise being bribed to do so–is irrelevant. If he were a knowing Russian agent, how would his behavior differ?

Second, MarketWatch’s list of ten signs is missing a huge one. Russia’s economy is heavily dependent upon oil, and Putin’s stranglehold on the Russian people is heavily dependent upon the economy.  The Kremlin is thus threatened by U.S. efforts to address climate change–efforts that diminish reliance upon and use of fossil fuels.  Trump’s cabinet nominees are virtually all anti-science climate change denialists. His energy transition team has already signaled a witch hunt against government scientists working to protect the environment.  

A military friend recently told me that Russia’s conventional armed forces are substandard. Evidently, according to the CIA and the New York Times, they are much better at cyberwarfare. (Slate also has a good overview of the history and tactics of the Russian hackers.)

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Russia subdued us without having to deploy a soldier or fire a shot?