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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Russian American Lobbyist Attended Meeting
      •  Kushner Hires a New Lawyer
      •  How Did the Trumps Get Here?
      •  Trump Lauds Transparency
      •  Another Trump Conflict of Interest Comes to Light
      •  Social Security Fund May Have 17 Years Left
      •  Two Papal Advisers Slam Trump Voters

Russian American Lobbyist Attended Meeting

When the story first broke a week ago, everyone was left with the impression that Donald Trump Jr.'s now-infamous meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya was an intimate affair, with the two of them joined only by Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner. Now, thanks to reporting from the AP, we learn that there were several others in attendance. The most important of the newly-revealed names is Rinat Akhmetshin.

Some details of Akhmetshin's biography are not in doubt. He was born in the Soviet Union, and served in their army as an intelligence officer. He eventually emigrated to the United States, acquired American citizenship, and now works as a lobbyist on behalf of Russian interests. At very least, then, he has substantial ties to the Kremlin. All of this also reads like the resume of a Russian spy. Akhmetshin denies that is the case, though spies tend to have a habit of lying about that little detail, so his denial is not particularly instructive. In the past, he has been accused of involvement in various hacking operations, though he's avoided prosecution thus far.

The news of Akhmetshin's presence at the meeting complicates things for the Trumps in two ways. First of all, Trump Jr. suggested that nobody else was in attendance at the meeting beyond the four individuals originally named. That means that, for the third time, his accounting of that encounter has been proven untruthful. We have only his word that nothing of value was shared by Veselnitskaya, but at this point, his word is not worth an awful lot. And if it turns out that some actual dirt was passed along, then that kills the last, already tenuous, defense he has against charges of conspiracy and of violating federal campaign law.

The second problem, of course, is that Akhmetshin was likely acting on behalf of the Russian government, either as a spy, or something close to it. In fact, according to 40-year intelligence pro Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who worked for the CIA and the Dept. of Energy before taking a job at Harvard, the meeting looks exactly like the opening act in a Russian intelligence operation. As he explains:

[E]verything we know about the meeting—from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded—is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign's willingness to take the meeting—and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities—may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election.

If this assessment is correct, then there's really no way that the Trump campaign is not responsible in some way for the Russians' election shenanigans. Either they were unwilling dupes—"useful idiots," to use Soviet-era parlance—who encouraged Russian behavior by failing to notify the authorities, and by signaling that a President Trump would not look upon such activities unfavorably. Or, they were willing accomplices who reached some sort of understanding at that meeting, something along the lines of "you help us, we do what we can about the sanctions." The upshot is that the Trump family and the Trump presidency are getting sucked deeper into the muck, and even an army of high-paid lawyers is likely not going to be enough to extricate them. (Z)

Kushner Hires a New Lawyer

Speaking of Trump family members and their lawyers, Jared Kushner has hired a new one to represent him: Abbe Lowell, currently a partner at the firm of Chadbourne & Parke. Lowell will take over Russiagate-related matters from Jamie Gorelick, who will continue to represent Kushner on other issues.

The change in counsel sends a clear signal that Kushner knows he's in deep doo-doo. Gorelick, a former deputy AG, is well-suited to handling things like security clearances and ethics compliance. Essentially, standard government employee stuff. Lowell, by contrast, made his name when he helped the Democratic Party to defend Bill Clinton during Lewinskygate. He's exactly the kind of guy you would hire if, for example, you expected to be appearing before Congress, maybe on perjury or conspiracy charges. So, at least one person in the White House knows that the plot has thickened considerably, and that it's getting close to "every man for himself" time. (Z)

How Did the Trumps Get Here?

For a presidential administration to find itself in this much hot water, this fast, is unprecedented, historically. The administration would have you believe that, for whatever reason, they have been singled out unfairly by the media and/or the opposition party. A convenient explanation, but a facile one. Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, and—to go really far back—Ulysses S. Grant were all absolutely loathed in some quarters, even at the beginnings of their terms. Anyone who imagines otherwise is either deluded or ill-informed.

Let's try for a better explanation for the Trumps' woes, then. The one we'll offer up has three parts:

  • They Are Dishonest: Long ago, Donald Trump Sr. learned a lesson from his father, one that he passed on to his kids: If you're wealthy, and you have good lawyers, and you're willing to screw people, the rules largely don't apply to you. The New York Times describes it as a "culture of dishonesty," and it's a necessary prerequisite for getting mired in these kinds of scandals. It is inconceivable that, to take two recent examples, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter could have found themselves ensnared by something like Russiagate. Both were mediocre presidents (or worse), but they were also both honest men.

  • They Are Amateurs: While being dishonest is likely a necessary prerequisite if an administration if going to be deeply enmeshed in scandals just six months in, it's probably not sufficient. After all, there have been other Pinocchios of various sorts in the White House—Clinton and Nixon, of course, but also Warren Harding, and Chester Arthur, and even Andrew Jackson if we want to go really far back. The difference is that the other men had political experience, as well as a willingness to listen to advice from seasoned pros. The Trumps have no experience and, until very recently, no willingness to listen to experts. The meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya is illustrative in this way. Trump Jr. has explained that he was just doing normal "oppo research." And he may even be telling the truth about his mindset. But the pros know what actual oppo research looks like. As Tracy Sefl explains, it's a painstaking, exhausting process, not unlike sifting through all the leads the police get when a high-profile crime is committed. Usually, there's a little gold there, and a lot of dross. Most importantly, the pros know that there are lines you don't cross. After all, Watergate was nothing more than an oppo research mission, but one that obviously went well beyond what was appropriate or legal. If Trump Jr. had any idea how the process actually works, and what the lines are, we might hope he would have turned down the Veselnitskaya meeting. At very least, however, he would have known how very much he was pushing his luck, and would have avoided inviting everyone and their brother as witnesses, and leaving an e-mail trail that could somehow find its way into the media's hands. That may be the main difference between Nixon and the Trumps; Tricky Dick knew the rules, and so was pretty good at covering his tracks when he broke the law.

  • They Didn't Think They Would Win: And finally, as a reader helpfully points out, a lot of the Trumps' behavior during the campaign can be explained by the simple fact that they did not expect to win. The reader brings up a salient comparison: The play and the movie "The Producers." For those not familiar with the plot, a pair of shady fellows produce a Broadway play, and sell well more than 100% of the profit participation. As long as they can guarantee a bomb, there will be no profits, and their ruse will not be discovered. But instead of a bomb, the play (a Nazi musical called "Springtime for Hitler") becomes a surprise kitsch hit. When the investors show up demanding their money, the fraud is revealed, and the perpetrators end up in the slammer. It's reasonable enough to view the Trump campaign as a version of this. Either they didn't think they would win under any circumstances, which would mean that nobody would care about their bad behavior, or they thought that a win was such a longshot that "desperate times call for desperate measures." Either scenario would lead to sloppiness that would not be characteristic of most presidential campaigns.

So, there's the theory. Could be all of the above, or some, or none, but to us these ideas would seem to go as far as any toward explaining how a presidential administration could get into this much trouble this fast. (Z)

Trump Lauds Transparency

Donald Trump is a big supporter of transparency. He made that very clear while talking to reporters during his plane flight to France. Here are his exact words on the subject:

One of the things with the [Mexican border] wall is you need transparency. You have to be able to see through it. In other words, if you can't see through that wall—so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what's on the other side of the wall.

And I'll give you an example. As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don't see them—they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It's over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs.

This exchange definitely had the reporters scratching their heads. First, because it's unclear if his use of the word "transparency" is meant ironically, or if he truly doesn't understand that it makes him look, well, kind of dumb to use it in this context. One would generally assume that it's the former, and that he meant the word tongue-in-cheek, except that it was followed by head-scratcher #2. Does he truly believe that there's a serious risk of people being brained by 60-pound bags of heroin or cocaine flying over the fence? If that really is keeping him up at nights, it's worth noting that athletes who competitively hurl heavy weights into the air can only clear about 25 feet, and that's with only about 30 pounds. So, unless we have a very short wall, and very athletic drug couriers, and very unlucky bystanders, there's nothing to be concerned about.

In any event, this is the latest reminder that either (1) Trump is running the most ironic presidency of all time, and spends nights laughing merrily at how badly we all bite on his "jokes," or (2) This is a man in the midst of a significant cognitive decline that is only going to get worse. One day, we will presumably learn which one it is. Hopefully before nukes start flying. (Z)

Another Trump Conflict of Interest Comes to Light

There was no doubt that we'd be seeing lots of stories like this while Donald Trump was in the White House. We've already heard about Chinese banks and Trump tower, and Middle Eastern diplomats and Trump's hotel in Washington, and the increased membership fees at Mar-a-Lago, and lots of speculation about the President's financial interests in Russia. The newest entry on the list: The Philippines.

Although Trump made his name as a real-estate developer, his real business in the last 10 years or so has been licensing his name. That means that he has dealings with lawyers in many different countries, with an eye toward securing trademark protection for the Trump name. The current issue is that The Philippines (much like the United States these days) does not do a great job of maintaining the lines between "government" and "private sector." And one of the lawyers who works for Trump there, Elpidio C. Jamora Jr., is also a government official, serving as chairman of the country's largest state-owned and run construction company, the Philippine National Construction Corporation (PNCC).

The potential for conflicts of interest is substantial. In one direction, any money that Trump pays to Jamora could be construed as a bribe, particularly if the payment is far and above what would normally be proffered for this sort of service. In the other direction, the Philippine government could try to gain favor by expediting the trademark applications, using Jamora as a go-between for negotiating purposes. The potential for corruption will exist until such time that the President divests himself of all his business interest and, of course, he has no intention of doing so. Which means that even if he somehow dodges Russiagate, the emoluments clause might get him in the end. (Z)

Social Security Fund May Have 17 Years Left

In a new report, released Thursday, the trustees of Social Security and Medicaid offered some sobering news: Sometime in 2034 or 2035, if current trends hold, the Social Security fund will be tapped out. At that point, the program would be funded entirely by the money it brings in, which would mean that benefits would have to be cut by 25%.

Social Security is, quite possibly, the most popular program the federal government operates, and enjoys broad support from both sides of the aisle. The party that steps up and makes balancing the books a priority would seem to have a winner, then. Following the new report, Trump administration officials paid lip service to this matter. "Tens of millions of Americans rely on these programs and it is important that we ensure their long-term stability," said Treasury Sec. Steve Mnuchin, while HHS Sec. Tom Price declared, "The bottom line is it must be addressed." Undoubtedly, millions of Americans are pleased to hear of their commitment, though their current plan is to wait for the 3% annual growth that Donald Trump has promised, and to let that replenish the Social Security trust fund. This is a fantasy, not far removed from waiting for a flock of gold-egg-laying hens to take up residence on the White House lawn. If this is the best the GOP has got, then the ball will be in the Democrats' court the next time they are in power. Since it was a Democrat who came up with the program in the first place, maybe they can do better. (Z)

Two Papal Advisers Slam Trump Voters

Pop quiz: The second largest individual denomination in America is the Southern Baptists, with about 16 million people. Number one is the Catholics; how many adherents do they claim? The answer is coming later, but for now we will note that two Catholic priests, both of them close with Pope Francis, have penned an article for the Catholic journal La Civiltà Cattolica. In it, they take to task American evangelicals, accusing such individuals of fostering fear and hatred. The two priests acknowledge that there are some commonalities between the agenda of Catholics and that of evangelicals, such as opposition to abortion, but that they lament the frequency with which Jesus' name has been used to oppose social progress, including feminism, the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Today, they argue, evangelicals have embraced a, "xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations."

This article should be viewed with two things in mind. The first is that Francis does not like Donald Trump, either as a person or as a president. There is very little that they see eye-to-eye on. The second is that the Pope is not likely to become directly involved with American electoral politics, as that would be regarded as inappropriate for someone of his station. Taken together, then, we would expect the Vicar of Christ to try and undermine The Donald, but to do so through intermediaries, which certainly appears to be what's happening here. Although the article is ostensibly a lecture addressed to evangelicals, its real audience is Catholics, and its real message is, "You don't want to be like them."

If Francis is able to persuade a meaningful percentage of American Catholics to vote against Trump and the candidates with whom he is allied, that would be very bad news for the GOP, indeed. To answer the question asked above, there are more than 62 million Catholics in the country, meaning that there are nearly four of them for every one Southern Baptist. Overall, 20.8% of the U.S. population is Catholic. Certainly, not all of them were Trump voters in 2016 (Latinos, for example), but a fair segment of them were (working-class midwestern Poles and Italians, for example). A nudge or two from Francis, through appropriate channels, could be enough to flip the script in states like Michigan and Ohio in 2020 (if Trump makes it that long). (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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