Originally Published: 7/21/2018
Trump in Helsinki: Trump went to Helsinki, Finland to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin last weekend. His performance set off a firestorm here at home. I don’t believe we’ve ever had a president who engendered so much discussion about whether his loyalty was to the United States or to a foreign power.
Pre-Meeting Shenanigans: On Sunday, the day before the meeting, Trump said that he hadn’t thought of asking Putin to extradite the 12 Russians indicted for interfering in the 2016 election. (TWW, Mueller Investigation, 7/14/18) Then he said he might ask about it. He said, “This was during the Obama administration. They were doing whatever it was during the Obama administration.” (Washington Post) Trump also tweeted: “Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” (CNBC) The Russian foreign ministry then tweeted “we agree.” (Twitter) He also called the European Union a “foe” (CBS) and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, shot back with a tweet: “America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.” (Twitter) New York Magazine wondered if Trump was meeting with his counterpart or his handler. On his way to the meeting, Trump lashed out at the media, asserting that “much” of the media is the “enemy of the people.” He also blamed Democrats for division in the country. (The Hill) At the start of the meeting, Trump gave Putin a wink. (Guardian) Then they had a 2-hour, private meeting with only 2 interpreters there to hear their conversation. No aides, no media. (Washington Post)
Joint Press Conference: Before the meeting staffers provided Trump with about 100 pages of briefing materials “aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Putin.” But Trump, as usual, did his own thing. He ignored most of the briefing papers and his remarks were “very much counter to the plan.” He handed Putin a diplomatic triumph by casting doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies. (Washington Post) “In a remarkable news conference, Mr. Trump did not name a single action for which Mr. Putin should be held accountable. Instead, he saved his sharpest criticism for the United States and the special counsel investigation into the election interference, calling it a ‘ridiculous’ probe and a ‘witch hunt’ that has kept the 2 countries apart.” (NY Times) When asked by a reporter, “Who do you believe?” Trump made this unforgettable statement: “My people came to me, [Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me and some others, they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be . . . I have confidence in both parties.” (Washington Post) Remember, it wasn’t just 1 intelligence assessment. It was 7. Here’s a look at the findings and analysis. (NY Times) Mark Landler at the NY Times noted that Trump, “who gleefully defies the norms of presidential behavior,” outdid himself and went “where none of his predecessors have ever gone: He accepted the explanation of a hostile foreign leader over the findings of his own intelligence agencies.” [Emphasis added.] Stephen Colbert said that the joint press conference “has shaken me to my core.” (You Tube)
Aftermath: Administration officials were hoping for something good to come out of this meeting. However, at the news conference following the meeting “Trump attacked his own FBI on foreign soil and warmly praised arch rival Russia.” (Washington Post) His defense of Russia prompted outrage even among some Republicans. (Washington Post) Senator John McCain (R, AZ) wrote: “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.” The Washington Post editorial board wrote that Trump just colluded with Russia. “Openly.” On Tuesday, Trump finally said that he had “misspoken” when he said he accepted Putin’s denials that Russia had interfered in our election. “Initially crossing his arms in front of him, and reading haltingly from prepared remarks, the president said he accepts the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia sought to influence the election - but added that it ‘could be other people also,’ an assertion not backed by evidence.” (Washington Post) He said that the sentence should have been, “I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,” rather than “would be” Russia. (NY Times) And he claimed that he had laid down the law to Putin. “I let him know we can’t have this.” (NY Times) The NY Times editorial board did an extensive analysis of everything that Trump said on Monday. By Wednesday Trump was declaring his meeting with Putin was a success, but he again broke with the intelligence community. When asked by a reporter if Russia was still targeting the U.S. and Trump said, “no.” (Roll Call)
Outcome: No one knows what Trump gave away during those 2 hours. Unfortunately “no communique was issued . . . underlining the off-the-cuff informal diplomacy in which Donald Trump specializes. The absence of an agreed statement leaves secret the status and extent of any practical agreements reached either between the U.S. president and his Russian counterpart or in the later wider meeting between officials.” (Guardian) Russian officials asserted that “important verbal agreements” were reached. Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., said they agreed on the New START and INF, on major bilateral arms control treaties, and on how they would cooperate on Syria. “Officials at the most senior levels across the U.S. military” have been scrambling to determine “what Trump may have agreed to on national security issues.” (Washington Post) Putin told Russian diplomats that he made a proposal to hold a referendum to “help resolve the conflict in east Ukraine, but agreed not to disclose the plan publicly so the U.S. president could consider it.” (Bloomberg) In order to find out what went on, what kind of agreements Trump made, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee moved to issue a subpoena to the interpreter so she could testify. Republicans voted it down. (The Hill)
Interrogation Swap: Putin, at the secret meeting, proposed that his team interrogate Americans “in exchange for assistance in the ongoing U.S. investigation into election interference.” They want to interrogate American-born financier Bill Browder (TWW, Bill Browder, 8/5/17; Rinat Akhmetshin and Magnitsky Act, 7/15/17) and about 11 others. 12? The same number as the number of Russians indicted? (CNN) It appears that Putin is targeting U.S. officials who worked on the sanctions against Russia, (Washington Post) and is particularly interested in getting Browder for his part in instituting the Magnitsky Act. (Washington Post) Sarah Sanders admitted that Trump “discussed the possibility of some sort of U.S.-Russia interrogation-swap with Putin” during their meeting. (CNBC) One of those Putin wants to question is former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and there are other state officials and intelligence officers. (Meduza Project) “Current and former American diplomats are expressing disgust and horror over the White House’s willingness to entertain permitting Russian officials to question a prominent former U.S. ambassador.” (Daily Beast) The White House finally announced that it “does not plan” to allow any officials to be questioned by the Russians. (Roll Call) But Trump’s friendship with Putin has not been harmed. He’s invited Putin to the White House this fall, “an invitation that stunned the nation’s top intelligence official.” (NY Times)
There are Tapes: Apparently Trump’s “fixer,” Michael Cohen, had a penchant for secretly taping conversations, and he’s got one of his conversations with Trump discussing making payments to cover up Trump’s affair with Karen McDougal. (Washington Post) Now, I don’t give a fig about Trump’s sex life. We have too many important things to worry about. However, this does bring up some interesting questions. Were the payments to McDougal done to help Trump’s election? If so, that’s a violation of campaign finance laws. Of course, the Trump administration would have to prosecute the Trump election campaign. Ain’t gonna happen so you can stop dreaming. The more interesting question is: Are there any more tapes?
Another Indictment: Maria Butina, a/k/a Mariia, was indicted on espionage charges. Her attempts to broker Trump-Putin meetings during the 2016 campaign were intended to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian Federation.” (NY Times) Butina, a Russian gun-rights advocate, attempted to cultivate relationships with U.S. politicians to establish “back channel” lines of communication with an aim at infiltrating political groups, like the National Rifle Association (NRA), “to advance Russia’s agenda.” While the case is not part of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in our elections, it “lays out the strongest allegations to date of American involvement in Russia’s influence operations.” (Washington Post) The Washington Post set out how she “gained access to elite conservative circles.”
Another Inquiry: The New York Department of Taxation and Finance has opened an investigation into whether the Donald J. Trump Foundation violated state tax laws. (NY Times)
The Kids: Don Jr. and Eric Trump racked up almost $250,000 in Secret Service costs in just 1 month for trips overseas for the Trump family business. (Politico)
Veterans Affairs: Robert Wilkie will likely be confirmed as VA Secretary. (TWW, Robert Wilkie, 7/14/18) In anticipation, Trump loyalists at the VA “are taking aggressive steps to purge or reassign staff perceived to be disloyal to President Trump and his agenda for veterans.” (Washington Post)
Jared Kushner: Trump’s son-in-law’s family real estate firm “is deepening its financial relationships with institutions and individuals that have a lot riding on decisions made by the federal government.” (NY Times) We also found out this week that the security clearance Jared was finally granted last May (TWW, Jared Kushner, 5/26/18) was only “top secret” status, but he has not yet been approved to review “sensitive compartmented information,” better known as SCI. (Washington Post) So what? You think his father-in-law doesn’t tell him everything?
Obama in South Africa: “The Trump administration ordered that Barack Obama not be given any assistance other than security arrangements by the American embassy in South Africa.” It’s common for U.S. embassies to give any officials, particularly former presidents, assistance when they visit the country. “This is “a break from the diplomatic tradition of offering support to any visiting American leader.” (The Citizen)
Ryan Wesley Bounds: Trump nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. However, “facing imminent defeat,” Senate Republicans pulled his nomination. This guy is so bad even they wouldn't support him. “There were some writings from when he was a student at Stanford that were maybe not racially sensitive.” (Roll Call) Trump’s pick.
Trade Deals: The rest of the world is moving on without the United States. The European Union and Japan signed a trade deal that effectively eliminated nearly all tariffs on the products they trade. (CNBC) And the EU is also working on agreements with Australia, Vietnam, and China. (NY Times)
NATO: Trump’s performance at the NATO summit last week (TWW, NATO, 7/14/18) was embarrassing, but this week he showed that he has no understanding of the NATO pact. In an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, Trump suggested that NATO’s mutual defense compact is confusing, “particularly the question of why an American would have to defend a small country like Montenegro, which is more than 5,000 miles away.” Apparently he doesn’t realize NATO was established for the member nations to defend against the aggression of the then-Soviet Union. Montenegro joined in 2017 “a year after Russia plotted a coup to overthrow Montenegro’s government and replace it with one that would be hostile toward NATO.” But the pact is so that if one NATO country is attacked, all NATO countries will be considered to be under attack and will join in defense. (NY Times) Trump doesn’t get it. He doesn’t even know what nations are members. He met with Finnish president Sauli Niinistö before his meeting with Putin. “According to reporters, Trump thanked Niinistö for his support. He said: “I enjoyed being with you a couple of days ago. NATO has, I think, never been stronger. It was a little bit tough at the beginning, but it turned out to be love. I appreciate your support.” However, Finland is not in NATO. (Think Progress)
Afghanistan: The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has recorded 1,692 civilians killed. While the war started in 2001, the organization has only been counting civilian deaths since 2009. (BBC) 17 years at war with a little, backward country like Afghanistan. “We have always been at war with Eastasia.” (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you need to read 1984.”
Britain: If you recall, Trump said he gave Prime Minister Theresa May advice on Brexit but “she didn’t listen to me.” (TWW, In the UK, 7/14/18) In an interview May was asked what the advice was. She said Trump advised her not to negotiate with the EU, but to sue them. (Guardian)
India: It just passed some of the toughest net neutrality rules in the world. We’ve just gotten rid of ours. (TechDirt)
Israel: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing to pass a bill that would allow for Jewish-only communities. “The proposed legislation would allow the state to ‘authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.” (Guardian) But he got passed a law declaring Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.” Centrists and leftists aren’t happy. (NY Times)
Russia: According to the AP, Russia has tested weapons that range from the laser weapon system to a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The cruise missile is reported to have “unlimited” range. You think maybe Putin told Trump about this at the secret meeting?
Syria: Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and pro-Syrian government news outlets claim that an airstrike that killed at least 54 people was led by the U.S. (Independent)
Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated last week. (TWW, Turkey, 6/30/18) But even before his swearing in, “he began elbowing his way into the front ranks of the globe’s strongmen.” He published a 143-page decree “changing the way almost every government department and public body in the country operates.” Since then he has issued several more decrees, along with presidential decisions, “centralizing power and giving him the ability to exert control in nearly all areas of life with almost unchecked authority.” (NY Times)
Maryland: Officials were informed this week by the FBI that the state voter registration platform, ByteGrid, was purchased by a Russian oligarch in 2015 “without state officials knowing.” The software vendor that maintains the voter registration platform is funded by AltPoint Capital Partners, “whose fund manager is ‘a Russian’ and the largest investor is Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin.” (CBS) We need a federal law mandating that anything that has to do with elections cannot be privatized.
Gilded Age: According to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. is heading for a level of income inequality that hasn’t been seen since 1928, “yet the richest residents in 5 states and 30 cities have already surpassed that threshold.” The states where the top 1% have exceeded 1928’s 23.9% share of income are New York (31%), Florida (28.5%), Connecticut (27.3%), Nevada (24.8%), and Wyoming (24%). Check out the graph. (CNBC)
Election Financing: The Treasury Department announced that the IRS will no longer require nonprofit organizations “to disclose the names and addresses of donors giving $5,000 or more, arguing the change doesn’t affect the information legally available to the public.” (Fortune) However, this decision, “means groups such as the National Rifle Association, Planned Parenthood, and the AARP will no longer have to tell the IRS who’s giving them money. . . Ethics experts say Treasury’s maneuver will make identifying activities like those Butina [see above] has been accused of even harder to track.” (Vox)
Purging Voters: A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice says it calculated that more than 16 million voters were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016. That is significantly higher than previous years and indicates that large numbers of eligible voters are being disenfranchised.
Reunifying Families: U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw “blasted” a declaration from a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “who claimed that using a streamlined approach for reuniting children with their parents . . . could place the kids in danger.” Sabraw wrote: “Unfortunately, HHS appears to be operating in a vacuum, entirely divorced from the undisputed circumstances of the case.” He suggested that the HHS argument was an attempt to “provide cover to defendants for their own conduct in the practice of family separation, and the lack of foresight and infrastructure necessary to remedy the harms caused by the practice.” (CNN)
U Visas: Victims of crime who are here illegally are eligible for a special visa program, called the U visa, which encourages them to help solve their cases and catch criminals. But under the Trump administration, these people, who have come forward voluntarily, are being detained and deported. (AP)
Trade Wars: Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post gave us a bleak picture of what the trade wars could mean. The global debt is estimated at a staggering $247 trillion. A mind-boggling number. All borrowing - yes, even your credit card - is based on the assumption that you’ll either be able to pay it off or roll it over with a new loan. But as debt increases so does the servicing of that debt, but the expanding trade war squeezes incomes. “The resort to more tariffs and trade restrictions will make it hard for borrowers to pay their debts. At best, this could slow the global economy. At worse, it could trigger another financial crisis.” And note. This is a worldwide problem.
Population Projections: The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia analyzed Census Bureau population projections and estimated each state’s likely population in 2040. It’s expected that by 2040 49.5% of the U.S. population will live in just 8 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas. The next 8 most populous states will account for an additional fifth of the population, up to 69.2%: Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, Washington. (Washington Post)
Endangered Species: The Interior Department is proposing “sweeping” changes to the Endangered Species Act. The proposals have “far-reaching implications, potentially making it easier for roads, pipelines, and other construction projects to gain approvals than under current rules. One change, for instance, would eliminate longstanding language that prohibits considering economic factors when deciding whether or not a species should be protected.” (NY Times)
Ryan Zinke: The Interior Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation into the real estate deal Zinke has with Halliburton chair David Lesar. (TWW, Ryan Zinke, 6/30/18) The probe will focus on whether Zinke violated conflict of interest laws. (Politico)
Reproductive Rights: Last February the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a funding announcement telling interested parties they’ll be giving Title X dollars to groups who cooperate with faith-based organizations and have an emphasis on abstinence. (Rewire) Many reproductive rights groups sought to block the plan. This week U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden, just appointed by Trump, ruled in favor of HHS, saying that “courts cannot . . . require formal rule-making for a change in agency procedure.” (NY Times)
Drinking Water: A report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) inspector general said that the EPA must strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to avoid a repeat of what happened in Flint. Don’t hold your breath.
Sport Hunting: In 2017 Trump formed the International Wildlife Conservation Council (IWCC), a group to advise him on U.S. policy on wildlife. But, rather than being composed of conservation scientists and wildlife advocates, he stocked it with hunting advocates. Observers say that since Trump took office, “court rulings and administrative decisions have in fact made it easier for hunters to import the body parts of lions, elephants, and other animals killed in Africa.” IWCC members argue that “the sport” is a good method of conservation. (Guardian) I’m speechless.
Blue Whale: Whalers in Iceland have killed what appears to be a blue whale, one of the largest creatures on the planet. The whale was butchered and exported. “Several experts have concluded from these pictures that it’s a juvenile male blue, a species that hasn’t been deliberately killed since 1978.” But the whaling company says they believe it is a hybrid “between a blue and a fin whale.” DNA testing will be needed to confirm the whale’s true identity. It’s important to determine if this is a blue whale since they became protected in the 1960s. Iceland is one of the countries that agreed not to kill them. I’m including the photo so you can see how big this creature is - and it’s only a juvenile. (BBC)
Interest Rates: Trump criticized the Federal Reserve’s increased interest rates. (TWW, Interest Rates, 6/16/18) “President have long declined to comment on the Fed’s actions, out of respect for the independence of the institution and to avoid any hint of political influence over the nation’s monetary supply.” (Washington Post)
Sinclair Broadcast: Ajit Pai, chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), expressed “serious concerns” about Sinclair’s bid for Tribune (TWW, Sinclair Propaganda, 4/7/18; Sinclair & Tribune, 5/13/17). Sinclair is proposing to sell some of its broadcast stations to affiliates to win regulator approval of the merger, but Pai claims that Sinclair will be able to keep control of the stations they sell. He’s proposing sending the issue to an administrative law judge. This may seem incongruous given the FCC has been actively working for this merger (TWW, FCC, 10/28/17) and Pai is apparently benefitting from this deal (TWW, Ajit Pai, 2/17/18), but you must consider that Sinclair’s deal would make it “a broadcasting behemoth that could rival Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.” (NY Times)
Google: The EU hit Google with $5.1 billion in fines “for abusing its power in the smartphone market. . . The decision . . . highlighted how European authorities are aggressively pushing for stronger regulation of the digital economy on issues including antitrust, privacy, taxes, and the spread of misinformation and hate speech.” (NY Times) Trump wasn’t happy about the fine. He tweeted: “The European Union just slapped a Five Billion Dollar fine on one of our great companies, Google. They truly have taken advantage of the U.S., but not for long!” (Washington Post)
ZTE: “Bowing to White House demands,” Senate Republicans dropped their attempt to reimpose U.S. sanctions on the Chinese telecommunications giant. “The retreat means that ZTE - a company found guilty of selling U.S. goods to Iran in violation of sanctions - will get to duck tough Commerce Department penalties that bar U.S. companies from doing business with it.” (Washington Post) If you remember, China put pressure on Trump to reverse this decision. (TWW, Defense Appropriation, 6/23/18) To spice up the deal, Chinese funders then provided money for a Trump project in Jakarta. (TWW, Commerce Law, 5/19/18)