A Not-So-Implausible Conspiracy Theory

The June 2016 meeting between the Trumps and the Russians is the subject of ongoing scrutiny by the media, the public and – it appears – the special counsel appointed to look into the question of Russian involvement in the 2016 election. Much more effort will likely be expended in this area, trying to suss out what happened in that 20-30 minute meeting.

Those efforts are important, but here’s reality: The moment the Trumps’ visitors stepped off the elevator on the 25th floor of their tower to sit down with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, the Trumps became pawns of the Russians. It doesn’t matter what was actually said or done.

By way of explanation, consider who was on the field that day: Starting with the visiting team, we have Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian attorney with close ties to the Russian elite, two people, Rob Goldstone and Irakly Kaveladzeare beholden to the Agalarov family, a former Soviet counter-intelligence officer, Rinat Akhmetshin, and a translator, Anatoli Samochornov.

Playing for the home team, we have the aforementioned Trump, Kushner and Manafort.

Now, if I were the kind of guy who was a former intelligence officer who used to catch and run spies for one of the most vicious (and effective) intelligence agencies in the world, the kind of guy who has been in power for nearly two decades and runs his country like a private bank for himself and his friends, the kind of guy whose political opponents serendipitously end up dead – if, in other words, I was Vladimir Putin – I would view this meeting as a lever. I could – with very little effort I suspect – convince the visitors – all of whom are tied to me, my country or my friends – to tell any story I wanted about what was said, what documents were provided, how the home team reacted.

Absolutely anything.

If I were Vladimir Putin’s kind of guy, I could probably get the visitors to swear that Ms. Veselnitskaya promised the Russians would arrange for the release thousands of Clinton campaign e-mails if Don Jr. promised that his dad would look the other way on Ukraine. Or that the Trump organization would wire $100 million to a Cayman Islands bank in exchange for help. Or that he’d pimp out Melania, Ivanka or Tiffany.

Or anything else. Let your imagination run.

Lest you think this is unrealistic, consider this thought experiment: sooner or later, the visiting team is going to be called to testify before Congress. If all five participants come to the witness table and in shaky, tremulous voices describe a more-or-less consistent version of what happened in that meeting, who can rebut them? After a solid year of lying, dissembling, omitting, misdirections, incomplete answers, amended forms and convenient forgetfulness, can anyone honestly claim that Don Jr., Jared and Paul have MORE credibility than five earnest people who haven’t spent all that time lying in public on a near-daily basis?

What if someone on the visiting team happened to record the meeting? Or at least has a recording that purports to be from the meeting? Before you say no way could something like that be faked, read this article.

Of course, the beauty of a lever like this is that you don’t actually have to use it in order to make it effective. All you have to do is let your opponents know that you have the lever and that you’re prepared to use it. You would also offer them a carrot in the form of a “promise” that the visiting team would continue to be helpful in terms of denying anything untoward happened as long as the Trump administration continued to cooperate.

Now, when could the Russians have let the Trumps know of the existence of such a carrot-and-stick arrangement? Could they have told them…

  • During the undisclosed conversations between Mike Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak?
  • During the undisclosed meetings between Jeff Sessions and Kislyak?
  • During the undisclosed meeting between Jared Kushner and Kislyak?
  • During the undisclosed meeting between Kushner and Russian banker Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank?
  • During President Trump’s unpublicized meeting in the Oval Office with Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov?
  • During the 2:15 meeting between President Trump and Putin at the G20?
  • During the just-disclosed one-on-one meeting between the two at the G20 dinner?

Those are just a few of the possibilities. Turns out there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to cataloging the many ways information like this might have flowed to the Trumps.

“The Russians are not our friends,” said Mitch McConnell. Similarly, Vladimir Putin does not admire, respect or want to be friends with Donald Trump. Everything I’ve ever read about the man suggests that people are important to him only to the extent that they’re useful to him. The Trumps, through ineptitude, greed or entitlement, have made themselves extraordinarily useful. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this article, I’m seeing reports that the Trump administration has ended its program to supply arms to anti-Assad rebels in Syria, something long sought by Moscow. As one current official described the decision, “Putin won in Syria.”

See how useful the Trumps can be?




The Incoherency of Donald Trump

NATOThe foreign policy world is abuzz today about the latest pronouncement from Donald Trump that casts doubt on his willingness to fulfill our NATO treaty commitments.

The policies Trump puts forward are wildly outside the mainstream of any Republican or Democratic administration in the last 60 years, but what really caught my eye in the transcript of the interview – which was put out because the campaign is now claiming Trump was misquoted – is the basic incoherence of his words. At almost every point, the words Donald Trump speaks literally make no sense.

To wit (emphasis added):

“If we cannot be properly reimbursed for the tremendous cost of our military protecting other countries, and in many cases the countries I’m talking about are extremely rich. Then if we cannot make a deal, which I believe we will be able to, and which I would prefer being able to, but if we cannot make a deal, I would like you to say, I would prefer being able to, some people, the one thing they took out of your last story, you know, some people, the fools and the haters, they said, “Oh, Trump doesn’t want to protect you.” I would prefer that we be able to continue, but if we are not going to be reasonably reimbursed for the tremendous cost of protecting these massive nations with tremendous wealth — you have the tape going on?”

“In the meantime, what have we done? So we’ve kept peace, but in the meantime we’ve let North Korea get stronger and stronger and more nuclear and more nuclear, and you are really saying, “Well, how is that a good thing?” You understand? North Korea now is almost like a boiler. You say we’ve had peace, but that part of Korea, North Korea, is getting more and more crazy. And more and more nuclear. And they are testing missiles all the time.

“And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?'”

Just so you understand though, totally on the record, this is not 40 years ago. We are not the same country and the world is not the same world. Our country owes right now $19 trillion, going to $21 trillion very quickly because of the omnibus budget that was passed, which is incredible. We don’t have the luxury of doing what we used to do; we don’t have the luxury, and it is a luxury. We need other people to reimburse us much more substantially than they are giving right now because we are only paying for a fraction of the cost.

By the way, and I know what I’m talking about is massive. If we ever felt there was a reason to defend the United States, we can always deploy, and it would be a lot less expense.

“I don’t think so, but I do give great credit to him for turning it around. You know, the first hour, it seemed like it was over. Then all of a sudden, and the amazing thing is the one that won that was the people. They came out on the streets, and the army types didn’t want to drive over them like they did in Tiananmen Square when they sort of drived them over, and that was the end of that.”

“Meetings. If I ever have the opportunity to do it, meaning if I win, we will have meetings, we will have meetings very early on.”

David, I have statisticians, and I know, like if I went to Pennsylvania, I say, “Give me the statistics on what is going on with respect to manufacturing.” Numbers — 45, 55, 65, I have states that are so bad. New England. Look at New England, what happened.

Cyber is absolutely a thing of the future and the present. Look, we’re under cyberattack, forget about them. And we don’t even know where it’s coming from.

Because we’re obsolete. Right now, Russia and China in particular and other places.

Yes. I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future.

We have nuclear that we don’t even know if it works. We have nuclear where the telephone systems are 40 years old and they have wire that’s so corroded that they can’t call from one station to the next.”

And I hope you say that I do know my subject. And I do know it. I know it better than, I know it better than the people that do it for ——

It’s possible to puzzle out of these comments what the reader THINKS Mr. Trump is saying but the reality of the words he speaks are incoherent and nonsensical. He does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. No one should level up his words. He deserves to be judged on the basis of what he actually says and the way he says it.

– Austin


Reaping the Trumpian Harvest

It’s early days in terms of calculating the damage Donald J. Trump has already done to America but there are already many signs that he has emboldened racists, misogynists and other species of political fungi that have been mostly consigned in the shadows of American politics.

Let’s not even get started on how many of our allies are already rethinking their relationship with a country that may end up led by a man who thinks it’s a good thing that they’re “rattled” by his candidacy. Here, too, the damage he’s already done is considerable.

In fact, Mr. Trump could drop out of the race tomorrow and we’d still be years recoMatthew Ericksonvering.

Or maybe his candidacy is the kind of damage a democracy like ours is ill-equipped to recover from. Take a few minutes to watch the announcement speech of one Matthew Erickson, the Republicans’ latest candidate to succeed Congressman John Kline in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District. Mr. Trump likes to boast about his success in bringing new people into the political process. If this is a representative example, he’s done us no favors by creating a new class of candidates and activists who think his example is worthy of following. We may never wring this stain out of our national fabric.

I weep for our country.

– Austin


Rupert Murdoch: The Story Thus Far

Is Rupert Murdoch evil? Or brilliant? Or lucky? So immense are his holdings that a list is the only way to explain what they are.

It’s fascinating that the man who brings us Fox Views News also brings us the Wall Street Journal, which once was quite a good paper. Murdoch’s most enduring legacy, I predict, will be The Simpsons (no kidding.)

But it’s the British holdings we’re concerned with now because they appear to have Mr. M.’s 80-year-old bells in a wringer. The story thus far…

Beginning in late 2005, Court sycophants became concerned that someone somehow was learning of Royal Family Secrets. Because this suspicion involved a high-profile family, the venerable Scotland Yard was called in to investigate. Rumors began to circulate that reporters at Murdoch’s News of the World (henceforth called NoW) and The Sun may have illegally wiretapped and pinged the telephones of numerous celebrities, including the Princes William and Harry. This was high-level stuff, so hot that it resulted in the spring 2006 leak Harry had visited a strip club! The Sun’s precision headline: “Harry Buried Face in Margo’s Mega-Boobs. Stripper Jiggled . . . Prince Giggled.” I know some of you want to see a Royal between two boobs, so here you go.

Scotland Yard, deeply embarrassed, hastily concluded the wiretapping was performed by only two journalists, Royals’ watcher Clive Goodman and investigator Glenn Mulcaire. (The two had learned how to capture the PIN numbers of cell phones owned by Royals, celebrities, politicians, etc. Thus, they were able to listen to voice mail left on those cells and find “scoops.” By using pinging, the reporters could also physically locate someone.

(And here’s audio of Mulcaire explaining to another reporter how to capture a soccer coach’s number, courtesy of the NYT.com audio.)

The problem was that during its investigation, Scotland Yard came up with much more evidence that dozens – if not hundreds – of other cases existed where News of the World reporters had performed similar illegal taps. Most were of the celebrity ilk, such as listening in on voice mails of Jude Law, Siena Miller, Mick Jagger and, the greatest of them all, Hugh Grant.

However, and this just kills me, the Yard decided pursing the case “was a heavy stone that they didn’t want to try to lift,” according to one parliamentarian. Instead the Yard mumbled something about pursing terrorism (which translates into British as “pfroofreeing trzm”).

But, the Eugenie was out of the bottle. Numerous families filed police reports alleging the same violations against the NoW particularly. Since it was Murdoch the police clearly would have to go up against, they – like the Yard – did nothing.

What we didn’t know then but know now is that the most heart-wrenching, unethical, immoral and unforgivable tapping had already been done in 2002 on the cell phone of a missing 13-year-old school girl, Milly Dowler. Dowler was missing for six desperate months before her remains were found. During that time, NoW scumbags tapped into her phone messages, listened to those left by her desperate friends and family, erased messages when the inbox became full so that more could come in and, thus, confounded police as to whether or not the girl was still alive and/or where she might be.

When did all of this wrong-doing become known? Well, the NYT first blew the whistle in September 2010 on some of the shady practices in Murdoch’s papers when it interviewed, among others, former NoW entertainment reporter Sean Hoare who explained the widespread and editor-approved practices. NoW editors angrily accused the NYT of professional jealousy. And then everyone’s attention was taken up in the Royal Wedding and the “scandal” died down during the winter and spring of 2011.

But it would not go away. The Yard, caught in an unprofessional and illegal position itself, had to notify hundreds of shocked subjects that they, too, may have been subject to illegal taps..violations that had taken place years previously that the Yard knew about but did not bother to inform people of. (The number now stands at approximately 4,000.)

By early July of this year, everything exploded when a rival newspaper revealed the Murdoch’s News of the World had tampered with evidence in the 2002 Milly Dowler case.

Outrage was swift and very real.

On July 8, Andy Coulson, editor of News of the World from 2003 to 2007, was arrested for his connection to the scandal and other corruption charges. (It is worth noting that after Coulson left his editorship of NoW, he became – upon Murdoch’s recommendation – the communications director for current British Prime Minister David Cameron. Hmm. But don’t worry folks. Cameron cut short a visit to Africa to call for a special Parliamentary inquiry into the affair.)

Murdoch was forced to drop his attempted takeover of BSkyB cable in Great Britain, a multibillion-dollar move that would have given him the same power in broadcasting as he enjoys in print.

The best PR agency in the world, Bell Potinger, was called in for “refuse de-odorification.” And it would be needed, quickly.

On July 15 Rebekah Brooks, editor of the NoW from 2000-2003 – when many of these atrocious activities took place – resigned.

She was arrested on July 17.

Also on July 15, Dow Jones CEO Les Hinton, who has been with Murdoch for 50 years, resigned. Dow Jones, of course, owns the Wall Street Journal, which used to be quite a good paper.

On the weekend, Murdoch visited the Dowler family and apologized numerous times for their injury. While the apologies were heartfelt, the family’s attorney says the Dowlers have indicated “they can forgive but not forget,” which translated into British means: “See you in court, bastard.”

On July 17, Sir Paul Stephenson, Metropolitan Police commissioner and head of Scotland Yard, resigned. He denied knowing anything about the cover-up of illegal taps or new allegations of police bribery by reporters.

John Yates, the other top police official of Scotland Yard who reviewed phone-hacking evidence in 2009 and concluded there was no need for a deeper investigation, resigned.

Murdoch published a public apology to his readers on the same weekend.

And then on July 18..um, what happened again on Monday, the 18th? I know it’s something kind of important.

Oh yeah. Now I remember:

Sean Hoare, the former NoW entertainment reporter who first busted the NoW for its practices, was FOUND DEAD IN HIS APARTMENT! AND HE WAS IN HIS 40s! AND THE POLICE DO NOT BELIEVE HIS DEATH WAS SUSPICIOUS! AND HE WAS IN HIS 40s!

As Jon Stewart puts it, if the police – who are investigating allegations of bribery against them by the same man who is found dead in his apartment – are satisfied his death was not suspicious, then it’s OK with him, too.

That almost brings us up to date. At last week’s hearing before a select committee of Parliament, a hooligan tried to throw a cream pie (A CREAM PIE!) at Mr. Murdoch during his testimony. Although Murdoch got some of it in on his suit but not in the puss, the worst damage was inflicted on the miscreant who was promptly thumped by the 30-year-old Mrs. Murdoch, Wendi Deng. You have got to see this video. Wendi is in the beautiful pink jacket. (Versace, perhaps?) I am so impressed by her no-nonsense, take-no-prisoner, stand-by-her-man, leap-over-the-crowd defense of Murdoch. Seriously, Murdoch owes her BIG TIME for that. And, gentlemen. You must honestly ask yourselves: Would your wives do THIS for YOU?

It’s reported that Rebekah Brooks is staying with the current British Prime Minister, David Cameon. (He’s also the same person who called the parliamentary investigation. But, hey! Apartments are hard to find in London.)

Murdoch and Deng will continue to live nice lives. He did not know what was going on at his papers. Neither did his son. Neither did Rebekah Brooks. Nobody seen nothin’, see?

But former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who claims the NoW obtained confidential medical records of his son, summarized the situation best on Wednesday when he testified that victims watched “their private, innermost feelings and their private tears bought and sold by News International for commercial gain.”

In doing so, he said, “News International descended from the gutter to the sewer.”

P.S. On July 10, Rupert Murdoch closed the 168-year-old News of the World.

How Shall We Go to War Today?

The news that 10 members of Congress have filed suit against President Obama claiming he has violated the War Powers Resolution should come as no surprise.  President Obama is simply the latest in a long line of presidents – all of them – to claim for himself the unilateral right to determine when, where, how and how long are armed forces can be deployed in the field.

This is not a  right/left, liberal/conservative thing.  Dennis Kucinich and John Boehner man one side of the debate and Barack Obama and George W. Bush man the other. Hell, Senator Barack Obama the senator doesn’t agree with President Barack Obama on this topic.

Instead, the debate is an institutional one.  Congress takes seriously the Constitutional words in Article I, Section 8 that it alone has the power to declare war.  Each president takes just as seriously his duties as commander-in-chief and the oath of office to protect and defend the country as enumerated in Article II.

An that’s all it takes to start a Constitutional tug-of-war that has lasted until today.

Everybody pretty much agrees that the President doesn’t need Congressional authorization to deploy troops in response to an attack or to stop an attack that is imminent.  Over the years, however, succeeding presidents have used those exceptions to stretch their usage at least into controversial if not outright distorted grounds.

Even more effectively, though, presidents have gotten around the Constitutional requirements by simply defining a deployment as something other than “war.”  Hence the long line of “police actions,” “peacekeeping missions.” and “limited kinetic engagements” that populate our history of going to other countries and tearing up big chunks of it.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution came about when frustration about our involvement in Vietnam – which to many was an unauthorized war – reached a peak in Congress.  The joint resolution passed both house overwhelmingly and then was passed again over President Nixon’s veto.

The resolution actually represents a major concession by the Congress in that it allowed the president to deploy troops pretty much as he sees fit for up to 60 days with only an after-the-fact notice to Congress.  While a retreat in the eyes of some Constitutional scholars, it also was a recognition that the framers’ worldview – in which the development of threats and responses took months or years and that most armed conflict was nation versus nation in nature – no longer applied.

Good intentions, perhaps, but in practice  the War Powers Resolution has simply given executives another way to deploy troops as they wish.  When it suits their purpose, presidents cite their compliance with the resolution as a post-hoc justification for their actions.  When it doesn’t, as Mr. Obama did today, they assert that the Resolution doesn’t apply and is un-Constitutional to boot.

In case you’re wondering why the Constitutionality of these actions and resolutions are still in question, the answer is that no branch of government – not the executive, not the legislative and certainly not the judiciary – wants this question cleared up.  The legislative and executive branches both worry that the courts will weaken their current powers and the judicial branch does not want the job of parsing the Constitutionality of such a touchy subject.  A ruling one way or the other could put one of the branches of government into direct conflict with the finding and bring to the fore a Constitutional crisis that we’ve all managed to mostly ignore for nearly 225 years.

Accordingly, expect this lawsuit to go pretty much nowhere because – after the press conferences are over – the last thing anybody really wants is a speedy trial.

– Austin