Rewarding Friends and Businesses

The conflicts of interests just keep coming. Yesterday, Trump signed yet another executive starting his administration’s bid to overhaul Dodd-Frank. Of course, an overhaul is needed.

But take just these two paragraphs as reported accurately by the Washington Post:

“We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank,” Trump said during a meeting with business leaders Friday morning. “Because frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine, that had nice businesses, they just can’t borrow money . . . because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations in Dodd- Frank…

During the meeting with more than a dozen chief executives, Trump noted that there were several bankers in the room, including Larry Fink, chief executive of the huge investment firm BlackRock. “Larry’s got a lot of my money, and I have to tell you, he got me great returns,” Trump said to laughs in the room.

The Other Foot

Now the shoe Is on the other foot. One of the most depressing characteristics of the hyper-partisanship of Washington is observing how parties and ideologues so easily switch their arguments depending on who’s in power.

A cable signed by a thousand State Department employees pushing back against President Donald Trump’s executive order freezing refugee admissions and banning citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States has incurred the wrath of Republican lawmakers.

The cable — along with the the refusal of the now sacked acting attorney general Sally Yates to defend the executive order — prompted a stern condemnation from Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee.

“When someone works full time for the government, it should be no surprise to them that they serve at the pleasure of the [president],”he told The Hill newspaper. “I’m not interested in politics by an agency employee,” he added.

(In fact, Sessions is wrong when it comes to the vast majority of the federal government’s 2.1 million employees — career civil servants do not serve at the pleasure of the president).

On Thursday, Robert Moffit, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Breitbart News Daily that for civil servants who wish to oppose or obstruct Trump, “The right thing to do if you cannot carry out the policies of a democratically elected president, the right and honorable thing for you to do is what people do all the time when they’re in jobs that they’re being asked to do things that they conscientiously object to – and that is resign. That is a very honorable thing to do.”

But cast your mind back to May 2015 when the Heritage Foundation was mounting a different argument about the rights as well as duties of public servants. The Daily Signal, the conservative think tank’s media arm, posted a commentary written by Ryan Anderson, a public policy research fellow at Heritage, headlined: “Civil Servants Have Rights, Too. Government Should Respect Them.”

In the commentary, Anderson defended a religious exemption law passed by North Carolina’s legislature aimed at protecting magistrates who object to solemnizing ceremonies for same-sex marriages and clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses. The law allows magistrates or clerks to recuse themselves.

Anderson described the law as “good public policy,” arguing, “Government employees have rights, and those rights should be protected.”

Jump to June 2016, and Walter Russell Mead writing in the conservative American Interest, had no difficulty refraining from lambasting 51 diplomats for signing a cable roundly criticizing Barack Obama’s Syria policy. In fact he greeted the dissent as “a massive demonstration of the State Department’s lack of confidence in a policy that will be a stain on this administration’s legacy.”

And he added: “Never has a President’s policy had so much pushback from his own high officials and appointees. Never has a President defied so much evidence to insist on the unique cerebral brilliance of a policy in ruins.”

No demands for resignations there — or anxiety about civil servants opposing publicly a president’s policy.

Promoting Excellence In Journalism?

Two weeks ago I sent to the Columbia Journalism Review a rebuttal to a defense written by the magazine’s managing editor Vanessa Gezari of Buzzfeed’s decision to post the so-called Steele dossier, the collection of un-vetted memos making lurid allegations about Donald Trump. The magazine accepted the submission but a fortnight on the editors still have not posted my response. So I have decide to post it here. I think the arguments I make are important in the debate underway among journalists about how we should be covering Trump. Please see another post of mine on this issue here.

Anyway here is a link to Vanessa Gezari’s article.

And here is my response:

Vanessa Gezari’s arguments supporting Buzzfeed’s publication of the questionable dossier on Donald Trump strike me as Jesuitical and they are a sad reflection of where we are as a profession these days. I find it troubling that they should be mounted by the managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, which markets itself as “Encouraging excellence in journalism.”

I don’t see how CJR’s managing editor is promoting excellence in jo,urnalism by endorsing the publication of material of this huge scope that was not verified and that those who posted it apparently harbored doubts about as to its veracity.

Gezari seems to be arguing — in fact is — that it is okay to take a punt to see what happens, to see if any leads are generated — even if people are smeared as a result.

By that standard we should all shove up stuff on the internet to see what works or doesn’t, even if we have major doubts about the veracity of what we have just posted, just to see what gives. I sense underpinning her piece is a belief that the allegations must largely be true about Trump.

When something looks too good, it might well be the case that it is! In short, it might not be true. And as journalists we have a responsibility to try to get as close to the truth as possible, before we decide to publish.

Gezari argues: “But did reporters independently verify all the allegations against Hillary Clinton and her allies contained in the emails released by WikiLeaks?” No, they didn’t, but it was Wikileaks — not a bona fide news organization — that published the material. Once in the public realm, news outlets had no choice but follow the story.

Gezari seems to think that media outlets were just sitting on the dossier. Many weren’t. They were working to try to prove the allegations or to knock them down. Yes, that takes time — as she notes investigations can take months and sometimes years. Although in this case I doubt it would have taken years. Premature publication has screwed up quite a lot of journalists who have been working on the dossier and complicated efforts to get the backstory on the dossier.

The dossier is full of contradictions and basic factual errors — as I noted in an opinion article for The Hill and as Andrei Soldatov did in a piece for the Guardian. Perversely, the Guardian chose to headline Andrei’s article a tad misleadingly, “The leaked Trump-Russia dossier rings frighteningly true.” In fact, he was casting grave doubts about the material.

Some errors in the dossier are so basic that they cast huge doubt on the skills of Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent responsible for preparing the memos. Let me give you a few instances. The misspelling of “Alpha” for “Alfa” in reference to one the most important banks in Russia. The wrong FSB department when it comes to eavesdropping or cyber investigations. The naming of an official as having been tasked to deal with the U.S. election who was actually tasked with the Russian elections and, anyway, moved from Vladimir Putin’s office to the State Duma in October.
Why didn’t Steele notice these errors? Why didn’t Buzzfeed? Or if they did, whey did they carry on and post the document in its entirety?

And then we have unexplained and troubling contradictions, such as the material on Trump’s business deals in Russia, or rather the lack of them. In one memo it is stated: “The Kremlin cultivation operation on Trump also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far from reasons unknown Trump had not taken up any of them.”

But in another memo we get this: “Regarding Trump’s claimed minimal investment profile in Russia, a separate source with direct knowledge said this had not been for want of trying. Trump’s previous efforts had included exploring the real estate sector in St. Petersburg as well as Moscow.”

So which is it? He tried to secure business deals and failed, or was offered lucrative deals but for unknown reasons didn’t take them up.

Such factual errors and contradictions should have stopped Buzzfeed from posting the dossier. They did discourage others.

But then the media world seems to be divided into three groups now.

One group comprises those who hate Trump so much, they can and will believe anything of him. They have relatives on the other side of the aisle — those who hate Hillary Clinton so much they can and will believe anything of her — even that she has been overseeing a human trafficking operation! Then we have the group whose members love Trump and so won’t believe anything bad about him, even when verified.

And then there are the poor sane souls in the middle, who might love or hate Trump, or even be indifferent to him, but who hold fast to professional standards and try to base their articles on facts.

Can I Get Two Alternative Facts For Price of One?

I am in Europe — well Britain and technically still Europe for two more years — and so have only just caught up with the Meet the Press interview today where trump aide Kellyanne Conway says Sean Spicer, the new White House press secretary, was merely offering “alternative facts.”

I am really looking forward to moving forward with Trump press officers at State, the NSC and Pentagon to ask them to supply me with some “alternative facts.” What am I meant to ask? Is this a fact or an alternative fact? Which one should I consider more truthful — the fact or the alternative fact? Could you give me several alternative facts and can I pick the alternative fact I should use? Can I get two alternative facts for the price of one?

Iraq Here We Come?

What on earth are we meant to make of this aside by Donald Trump in his speech yesterday at the CIA’s Langley headquarters? At one point, he said we “should have kept the oil” after invading Iraq. “Maybe we’ll have another chance,” he added.

He said the same thing a few times on the campaign trail and failed to take on board the criticism that sucking up all of the country’s underground reserves and transporting the oil would amount to an engineering and logistical non-starter. Aside from that it would breach international law and would make an enemy of a government that is meant to be an ally.

Thoughts on Trump and Putin

Hard to plot how Donald Trump will act on the World stage. His campaign trail pronouncements were often vague, frequently contradictory and lacked substance, leaving many in the U.S. and abroad left to speculate about what exactly his defense and foreign policies will look like. There are divisions within his own national security team.

When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration engaged largely in hand-wringing over how to help rebel militias oust Bashar al-Assad. A shift in priority to battling the Islamic State terror group resulted in the reduction of support for rebel groups that weren’t prepared to prioritize the fight against the jihadists over their aim to topple Assad first and then deal with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

The Assad horse has now bolted, thanks to Russia’s decisive military intervention. With the retaking of eastern Aleppo, Assad’s survival is assured. The announcement today by Russian officials of the start of a military drawdown in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s confidence. Moscow has achieved its main goal — namely to save the Assad regime.

How the conflict will end finally is largely going to be decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran — something I have been arguing for months. Moscow and Ankara engineered the latest ceasefire, which despite violations by Assad forces in the Damascus suburbs and parts of Homs and Hama is largely holding. The rebels are now controlled by Turkey, which can strangle them by stopping arms supplies crossing the border. The U.S. has been sidelined and there are no signs that a President Trump will want to change that — he has been critical of the U.S. getting involved in regime change and for him too IS is the priority.

We could well see greater cooperation unfold quickly between the Trump administration and Moscow in the fight against the jihadists. Such cooperation would help further Trump’s stated aim of improving relations with Russia.

In terms of the battle against the Islamic State, the jihadists have mounted a creative and stubborn resistance. In Mosul Iraqi progress is very slow and the jihadists won’t be ejected likely for months from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, an offensive is yet to be launched on Raqqa, although bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition have increased greatly in the last week. On Thursday there were 23 coalition air strikes in Syria and just 6 in Iraq.

The question remains who will be the ground force used to retake Raqqa? Turkey is opposed to the Kurds being in the vanguard and the Arab militias that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task.

Like Mosul, the offensive on Raqqa will prove long and arduous. With the defeat of IS being one of his few clearly stated policy aims, Trump is likely to grow frustrated with the slow progress in Mosul and Raqqa. To speed things up, I think it likely he will decide to deploy more U.S. military advisers and to increase the rate and intensity of airstrikes, probably with less concern about civilian casualties.

And no doubt Russia will offer help with joint airstrikes. (Recently the IS-held town of al-Bab saw Russian warplanes joining Turkish ones in bombing IS positions in the town.)

Syria-based cooperation between a Trump-era Washington and Moscow will likely start the reset in U.S.-Russia relations. But that reset could easily be derailed — and not just from the political fallout from the Russian election hacking.

With an Assad victory, Russia has reasserted itself in the Middle East. It will become more influential, more important across the Middle East as a whole. It seems unlikely that Trump will want to challenge Russia’s growing clout in the region. But for how long? U.S. and Russian interests in the region don’t mirror each other.

Putin will no doubt push quickly for a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Trump may not be able to deliver on that — a push for an end to Ukraine-related sanctions will prompt a fierce push-back from influential GOP senators like John McCain and from some key NATO allies. That could lead to an unraveling of the Trump-Putin reset.

Another fly in the ointment comes with a resurgent Iran, currently a Russia ally. Assad’s survival strengthens Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah, alarming Gulf allies and Israel. Will Putin dump Tehran to maintain good relations with Trump?

Democrats Win the Summer But Will They Win The Election?

Normal Rules No Longer Apply?

The always thoughtful David Brooks has a chilling column in the New York Times today questioning whether a convention win will translate into a November win for the Democrats at the polls. At first glance, maybe it will.

He argues that Donald Trump has — if unintentionally — stumbled on an ingenious way to to allow the Democrats to save themselves: by “abandoning the great patriotic themes that used to fire up the GOP… he’s allowed the Democrats to seize that ground.”

“Trump has abandoned the deep and pervasive optimism that has always energized the American nation,” he says. He adds: “Democrats have often been ambivalent about that ardent nationalistic voice, but this week they were happy to accept Trump’s unintentional gift.”

But he fears that although “the Democratic speakers hit doubles, triples and home runs… the normal rules may no longer apply.”

He adds: “It could be in that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots and that humility and gentleness are simply surrendering to the butchers of ISIS. If that’s the case then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man of the future.”

Paul Krugman — also in the NYT today — poses the question, “Who Loves America?” And makes this telling observation: “If what bothers you about America is, instead, the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your country — you care only about your tribe.”

Trump and Russia

Having myself written this week for The Hill about Trump and Russia, I think this point from Krugman is thought-provoking: “Mr. Trump’s willingness to cast aside our nation’s hard-earned reputation as a reliable ally is remarkable. So is the odd specificity of his support for Mr. Putin’s priorities, which is in stark contrast with the vagueness of everything else he has said about policy. And he has offered only evasive non-answers to questions about his business ties to Putin-linked oligarchs.”

The Trump-Russia links are fascinating. As I pointed out earlier this week, if those business ties and financial dealings, as well as the relationships some of his advisers have had with Kremlin-run entities and allies, had been ones pursued by Clinton or her advisers, American Conservatives would be in uproar and hurling the national-security card.

Does that mean I think Trump is a recruited Russian agent? No, there is no basis for making such an allegation. But the question remains — and Trump and his advisers have not answered it — how much do those ties and connections go to shape and mould his foreign-policy thinking, or their’s, when it comes to Russia? Is Trump being reflexively a business deal-maker and playing nice now to Putin in the hopes that post-election, if he fails to win the presidency, he will be rewarded with the kind of deals in Russia that have so far eluded him?

There is something truly shocking, even tawdry, observing national-security Republicans remaining mainly silent on all of this.

On a side-note, it is curious to see Wikileaks and Edward Snowden fall out over the right approach to leaks with the NSA whistleblower condemning in a Tweet Wikileaks “hostility to even modest curation.” Predictably, Wikileaks has accused Snowden of pandering to the Democrats.

Of course, Wikileaks never panders to anyone, does it? The Wikileaks site is full of embarrassing Russian data disclosures, isn’t it?

 

 

The Circus Acts Alter

So the polls change and Trump slides and Carson advances: in short the audience in the big tent is getting bored with the circus acts. So predictable: but then my media colleagues will continue to pump up unprofessionally the quirky non-electables like some demented ringmasters fearful the audience will slip away and the bait-and-click won’t keep the numbers up. Anyone who has covered presidential races knows perfectly well that “likely voter” is a fiction at this stage in the race and that polls so far out from the primaries and the general election are meaningless. How about doing some real stories like actually exploring issues and substance as opposed to the Entertainment Tonight-style of journalism?

Trump and the English Language

For those of us who miss having a President able to mangle and abuse the English language with aplomb because there is no Bush in the White House, the choice is obvious. There is, of course, Donald Trump, who displays his dexterity with the English language in an angry letter to the New York Times to complain about the coverage he gets from one of his pet peeves, columnist Gail Collins. Yup, that’s the one he says has a “face of a dog.”

He wrote: “Even before Gail Collins was with the New York Times, she has written nasty and derogatory articles about me. Actually, I have great respect for Ms. Collins in that she has survived so long with so little talent. Her storytelling ability and word usage (coming from me, who has written many bestsellers), is not at a very high level. More importantly, her facts are wrong!”