Thursday, March 23, 2017

Random thoughts on an astonishing week

Here are some random thoughts about this very busy week in the world of politics and government, which has seen both the opening testimony of the House Intelligence Committee on the possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials -- and the hearing for the confirmation of Trump's Supreme Court nominee.

Lurking behind all of this is the distinct possibility that our government may be operating under an illegitimate presidency, if some of the allegations being investigated turn out to be true.   They may not be true, of course.   But, if they are . . . ?

1.  We've become so inured to turmoil coming from Trump World (it both reflects his inner world and is weaponized as a tactic to keep us distracted) that it's hard to take in the significance of Monday's hearing with the FBI's Director Comey.   Let me re-iterate:   the president's campaign, plus other associates, and maybe even the president himself are under investigation for possible collusion with a foreign government to win the election.   Comey also said that, although it is a counterintelligence investigation, it could also contain elements of a criminal investigation as well.

2.   Now, let me pause to clarify that this is an investigation, not a verdict.   It could all turn out to be explained away.   But there are simply too many connections to reasonably be only a coincidence.   That stretches credulity.

3.  Take one of the major players here as an example:   Paul Manafort had a background of having worked to help elect the later-deposed, corrupt head of Ukraine.  He  continued representing the Russia-leaning Yanakovich after his government was overthrown, including being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for lobbying for him in the U.S.   Why would Donald Trump chose a man with that background to be his campaign manager after he fired Corey Lewandowski?   Because that's the kind of person Donald Trump liked to surround himself with.   Manafort had done some lobbying work for Trump before, going back to the 1980s.  

Now even more evidence is turning up of millions of dollars in secret payments to Manafort from Russians and Russian-leaning Ukrainians, some of it concealed in money-laundering schemes.  Just last night, new evidence was reported on NBC that, beginning in 2006, Manafort was being paid $10 million/year by a Russian billionaire oligarch "to influence the interests of Vladimir Putin."  He had submitted a written strategic plan that "would influence politics, business, and news coverage inside the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government."  

It further stated that this influence would include "at the highest levels of the United States government:  the White House, Capital Hill, and the State Department."   Manafort insists that he was never working for the Russian government, however.    As we've said before, in Russia, the lines are very unclear on who is and who isn't "the government."  Maybe this $10 million per year from Russia was why Manafort was willing to work for the Trump campaign without a salary, which was touted at the time as a positive thing.   Perhaps his reward would come in some other form.

Here are questions I don't have an answer for.  Did Trump know about Manafort's Russian connections?   Was he in on the deal?  Is Manafort's "influencestill going on?  Chris Hayes interviewed a guest journalist last night (sorry I missed her name), who had reported that Manafort did not disappear when he officially left the Trump campaign in August.  He was known to have been advising behind the scenes, sometimes with daily contact with Trump and/or the transition team, during the transition period.   What's the difference between "advising" and "influencing?"  And is he still doing it?    We don't know.

4.  Manafort's connections should have raised red flags for anyone running for president.   But add to that:  the retired general you chose to be National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, also has Russian connections, having given a paid speech to celebrate an anniversary for the Russian propaganda, English language television station, RT (Russia Today).  At that gala dinner, Flynn (the future NSA Director in the Trump administration) sat next to Vladimir Putin, who gave him a medal from the Russian government.   For what?   Not exactly clear.

Add to that the more fringe hangers-on who had deep and enduring connections in Russia (and could have been secret couriers for the Trump campaign) Carter Paige and Roger Stone.  And then there's Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who it now turns out has had a long time association with former Breitbar News editor, now Trump senior adviser, Stephen Bannon.   So is Sessions the Trump connection to all these others?  Sessions himself had two meetings during the campaign period with the Russian ambassador that may, or may not, be significant.  He says it was in his role as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Then there's J.D. Gordon, National Security Director for the Trump campaign, who finally acknowledged that it was he who forced the RNC Platform committee to make the only change Trump asked for -- as the president who was going to officially run on this platform.  Gordon insisted on, and got, a weakening in the language for our support for Ukraine to defend itself against Russia.  The only thing a presidential candidate wants to influence in the platform is the balance of U.S. support away from Ukraine and toward Russia -- which was a sharp reversal, by the way.     Think of that, in the context of everything else about the Trump team and Russia.   Did Gordon do this at the behest of Manafort?   Or was Trump also involved?

There's more.   Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who, as CEO of Exxon/Mobile negotiated an extraordinarly huge oil field deal with Russians.  He has many connections in Russia -- presumably all business connections, but with Russia it's hard to draw the line).  Now Tillerson has just announced that, instead of attending the NATO Conference in April, he has a trip planned to Russia.   You'd think that, with all the hoopla in the air about Trump/Russia, you'd want to avoid at least the appearance of choosing Russia over NATO.

5.  It's already been repeatedly obvious throughout the campaign that Trump refrains from uttering the slightest criticism of Putin or his actions, while he almost routinely insults our closest allies.    Remember his praise for Putin, saying that he admires Putin's kind of strong leadership, that he is a stronger leader than Obama, and that Putin is the kind of leader he would hope to be.    When asked about Putin's penchant for having journalists and opposition leaders killed, Trump's response was, essentially, we've done it too.   "You think we're so innocent?"

All that is just coincidence?   I don't think so.

6.   Moving away from Trump/Russia, there was the Gorsuch hearing.   He managed, even more than his recent predecessors, to avoid answering any questions that would tip his hand on any issues.   The questions about this hang more on what the Democrats will do, rather than Gorsuch himself.    Will they rise above the fact that the Republicans stole this SCOTUS seat, that it was rightly Obama's to fill?   And will they refuse any votes for Gorsuch because of that?    Chris Matthews gave an impassioned discussion of that last night on his MBNBC "Hardball" news show.  

Matthews' and others' point is that the law and tradition around appointments have been broken by the Republicans.   You can't fix it just by rising above and going about usual business.   The Republicans stole this seat from the Democrats in that the vacancy occurred during a Democrat's term as president, and Republicans refused even to talk to the nominee.

In addition, Obama made a gesture toward bipartisanship by nominating someone who represents not the left wing of liberalism but a rather centrist position on sensitive issues.   Republicans responded, not with a bipartisan hand reaching out, but with a slap in the face.   You can't pretend that didn't happen.   Nor that Trump has nominated someone who is said to be even further to the right than Scalia, the justice he would replace.

On top of that, this is now a president under investigation, who could turn out to be an illegitimate president.   So to let him have his SCOTUS choice while that is still a cloud hanging over the White House is a compromise too far.

7, 8, 9 . . .   There's so much more.   Trump's really awful demeanor with the most important political figure in Europe, Angela Merkel at her White House visit.  The near-collapse of the Trump-Ryan Health Care Bill, to be voted on by the House on Thursday, and would most likely fail in the Senate, even if it passes the House. 

Some people are grumbling about the announcement that Ivanka Trump now has an office in the West Wing and is being vetted for a top security clearance as an unpaid adviser to her dad.   Personally, I don't oppose this in these special circumstances.   Ivanka is probably the best thing he has, and she -- even more than Kellyanne Conway -- is able to tone him down and reason with him.    So I'd say give her what she needs to keep this child-man we have given all this power to on a slightly saner track.

It's not a lot different from Rosalyn Carter's role in the Carter administration.  Not that she had to keep her husband sane, but he depended on her as his first sounding board and intimate adviser who knew him better than anyone.   Ivanka may be the only one who can actually say "no" to Donald Trump   If it ever comes to trying to persuade him to resign, the family will be crucial.   And Ivanka and her husband Jared are obviously the ones he trusts the most.


PS:  The days' news keeps expanding.   On a late interview with NBC, Rep. Adam Schiff, highest ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Chuck Todd that the committee now has "evidence that is more than circumstantial of collusion between the Russians and members of the Trump campaign.

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