BIGGER THAN WATERGATE
The Russia-Trump probe led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is the most important criminal inquiry in our country’s history. It’s even bigger than the Watergate investigation, which was prompted by bungling burglars breaking into an office in 1972. In contrast, Mueller is scrutinizing a hostile foreign power breaking into our democracy in 2016.
And yet, the probe is a distraction from something even more significant.
Here’s what’s more significant, as indicated by the title of this January 10 Washington Post op-ed by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin: “Never before has a president ignored such a clear national security threat” – that is, Donald Trump is ignoring Vladimir Putin’s current threat to democracy. The piece is based on a Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority (Democratic) staff report. Though the report focuses on Russia and Europe, it warns that our own democracy is in grave danger.
Now, from the Wishful Thinking Department: In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre, a great Washington Post piece on the four-month process for getting a gun in Japan. It details the many steps designed to weed out loons and irresponsible louts from wielding lethal weapons. One upshot? “In 2015, there were more than 13,000 non-suicide gun deaths in the United States; in Japan, there was only one.”
Of course, it would be ludicrous to propose that process in the United States, given our vast political, historical and cultural differences. To cite just one, so many kids grow up with guns in America – though, then again, so many never get to grow up as they kill themselves or other kids along the way.
WORSE THAN WE’D THOUGHT
As reported in today’s New York Times, Putin’s 2016 election interference may have been even more pernicious than previously reported. Even short of intentionally causing miscounts, electronic shenanigans could have made it tougher for voters to vote, forcing many to turn away on Election Day. The problems in parts of North Carolina and other states might simply have been software glitches. But as the article emphasizes, the news emerges against a backdrop of troubling inattention by local, state and federal officials to the issue – and in fact, their resistance to addressing it at all.
THE PRESIDENT AT WAR
My first take on the president’s pardon for Joe Arpaio was that it was unnecessary, even by his cellar-dwelling standards. Sure, it reflects Trump’s portrait of an America besieged by job-stealing criminals from south of the border, with the former sheriff as a bulwark of our defense. But Trump supporters who admire Arpaio’s bigotry already saw the president as their leader in the war to keep America white. So the pardon seemed to be a hateful but gratuitous slap at Hispanics and Trump’s opponents.
At a Norfolk, Virginia ceremony today, President Trump commissioned the new aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.
There are manifold ironies afoot here.
One ship sets sail as another conceivably sinks. Is that sinking ship the Trump presidency or our American democracy?
We have a naval vessel, honoring an honorable public servant, launched by someone who’s something less than that.
At the ceremony, Trump declares that the warship will cause America’s enemies to “shake with fear,” even as he confoundingly cozies up to arguably our main adversary, Vladimir Putin.
On some level, we all saw it coming. Courtesy of The Washington Post, today’s Trump scandal news is that the president’s attorneys are exploring pardons for his family, aides and even himself. What’s more, they’re looking for ways of discrediting Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia’s disrupting our democracy.
A key passage from the story:
[Trump] has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns…
You’ve probably read about Donald Trump Jr.’s June 9, 2016 meeting to discuss Russian
orphans sanctions collusion with his dad’s campaign. If you want a good summary of why this is so important, see this Nicholas Kristof column.
Here’s one aspect that could become increasingly crucial: Consider the sources.
As Josh Marshall points out at his superb Talking Points Memo mega-blog, the New York Times cited five White House advisers – not law enforcement officials or other outside actors – as sources for its groundbreaking article on the meeting. He accordingly wonders whether the leaks for the story spring from the many splits within President Trump’s inner circle. The Washington Post points out that Trump aides are themselves pondering that possibility:
According to this New York Times story, last June Donald Trump Jr., presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort met with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton. The key take-away from the article: “The accounts of the meeting represent the first public indication that at least some in the campaign were willing to accept Russian help.”
A TANGLED WEB
The article and related reporting goes on to make matters murkier and potentially more incriminating. Trump Jr.’s inconsistent responses have flowed from first insisting that the meeting was mainly about adoptions to later, after the Times story appeared, asserting that he was fooled into seeing the lawyer because she claimed she had dirt on the Democrats and Hillary. According to Junior, that claim was a Russian ruse, for after briefly offering some nonsensical accusations against Clinton, she moved on to her real agenda: lobbying against a U.S. law that blacklists certain corrupt Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses, a law that has triggered Putin’s retaliation of barring Americans from adopting Russian kids.
A Lesson from a Tragedy
With so much nasty stuff dominating the headlines, it’s hard to find some solace in the news. But one very sad story has a sort of silver lining.
It’s this article, about the seven sailors who died Saturday when their Navy destroyer collided with a container ship off the shores of Japan. Amidst this tragedy, one salient aspect is how diverse and inspiring their backgrounds were, including “an immigrant from the Philippines whose father served in the Navy before him; a poor teenager whose Guatemalan family came north eager for opportunity; a native of Vietnam hoping to help his family; a firefighter’s son from a rural crossroads in the rolling green fields of Virginia.”
Here’s my Indian TV interview from Friday, on Trump’s first 100 days in office. This was not the first time the Gravitas program had interviewed me, but it was the first time I’d subsequently seen how I was framing both my skype video and remarks. So lots of room for improvement, I know. My part starts at 2:15.
I found the lead-in pretty illuminating, in terms of one Indian media outlet’s take on Trump. And check out the way the segment closes with a big bang, commencing at 7:40, via a video of a North Korean military/propaganda drill.
So, I talked Trump on Indian TV back on February 14th. It all started when a former student of mine arranged for me to give a presentation at a leading New Delhi think tank, the Observer Research Foundation. This led to what we thought would be a subsequent five-minute televised chat, which turned out to be a 30-minute interview on the Indian network WION.
Though the Observer audience and WION interviewer were all very sharp (no surprise there), their questions still struck me as uninformed about Trump in a crucial way that reflected not on them but on the nature of foreign news coverage of Trump. That is, they understandably focused on how the new administration would handle China or terrorism or H1B visas, by which many India tech workers come to the United States. What they didn’t seem to get, and what I tried to educate them about, was how this president differs from all others in terms of his personality, his views on democracy and what those might mean for the United States and the world.
Feeling pretty good about the defeat of Ryancare…or Trumpcare…or the Gut-Health-Care-Coverage-for-24-Million-People Act? Hoping this is the start of a long-term slide for the president?
Such hope is helpful and such a slide would be super. But there’s still a respect in which we should watch what we wish for. As Andrew Sullivan speculates, a Trump slump could lead us into a wag the dog scenario:
A president hobbled domestically by his own party’s divisions and the opposition’s new energy may be tempted — Putin-like — to change the subject in a way that vaults him back to popularity. A foreign altercation from which he will not back down? A trade war? A smidge likelier, I’d say, is an over-the-top response to an inevitable jihadist terror attack in a major American city. A demagogue loses much of his power when he tries to wrestle complicated legislation through various political factions, in the way our gloriously inefficient Constitution requires. He regains it with rank fear, polarization, and a raw show of force. Heaven knows what the Constitution will look like once he’s finished.
Courtesy of Nicholas Kristof, historian Douglas Brinkley and others, the “T” word is finally in the air. Kristof’s column sums up and speculates about some of what we know about Trump advisors’ potentially treasonous collusion with Russia. As an indication of how this story is evolving in such a fast and troubling way, the piece doesn’t address the recent unprecedented, extremely political decision of House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes to brief a subject of his investigation (Trump) on the investigation itself.
My wife and I recently returned from a vacation in India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Israel. My first memorable step in our convoluted trip was actually a movie I watched on the flight out: Frank Capra’s 1946 fantasy drama, It’s a Wonderful Life, in which an angel shows a kind-hearted but suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) how bad his friends’ and family’s lives would have been had he never been born.
Bailey also learns that in this alternative reality his wholesome home town of Bedford Falls would have been renamed Pottersville, to honor the venal banker who would have dominated life there but for Bailey’s beneficent influence and call for people to help each other through hard times. Pottersville is a debauched place with no sense of community, where it’s all for none and none for all. Not that I mind some debauchery, but the town resembles what the United States of Trump could become: a small-minded, mean-spirited land that lauds selfishness.