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Merkel: United States Is Not a Reliable Partner

After meeting with Donald Trump last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come to the conclusion that the United States is no longer a reliable partner for Europe. In particular, she was dismayed that Trump refused to state that an attack on any NATO country is an attack on all of them. That is the basis for NATO, the only reason it exists. If Trump rejects that, NATO is toothless and Vladimir Putin can start planning which NATO country he wants to gobble up first.

She said yesterday that Europe must take its fate in its own hands now. In practice, that means much closer integration of European military organizations, so they have the ability to stand up to Russia. She was also unhappy with Trump's "America first" policy and his plans to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change.

Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron seems to be on the same page as Merkel. He appointed a German-speaking Prime Minister and flew to Berlin to meet with Merkel on his first day in office. It is certainly possible that Europe will chart its own course on many matters now, and that course may not be what the U.S. wants. (V)

Trump Calls Kushner Reports "Fake News"

President Donald Trump is back in the U.S., and everything is back to "normal"—at least, "normal" for his presidency. While he was away, there was a bombshell report that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, asked the Russian ambassador to the U.S. to set up a secret channel to communicate with the Russians without the CIA knowing about it. Yesterday, Trump blasted the report as "fake news." Trump said because the story was based on anonymous sources, it couldn't be true. Of course, any person who attached his name to such a story would be fired instantly and probably indicted for treason, so it was not terribly likely the names of the sources would be published along with the story. In a sense, we have to trust the reporters who file such stories as having good faith in the sources (which they probably know).

Several Republican senators didn't deny the story, but downplayed its importance. Ditto Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, who defended Kushner by saying it was a good thing for the U.S. to have a way to communicate with the Russians. Of course, no one is denying that. There has been a secure hotline to Moscow for decades. What Kushner is accused of is trying to hide the communication with the Russians from the U.S. intelligence agencies. Kelly didn't address that "detail", which is really the main point here.

Reading between the lines, though, Kelly didn't deny that Kushner tried to set up a secret channel. Kelly could have said: "I have seen the intelligence and I hereby categorically state that Jared Kushner did not try to set up a secret channel." He didn't say anything like that at all. Maybe he is trying a bit of CYA (Cover Your Ass) in case the report is later confirmed.

Maybe Kushner's activities were fine with Kelly, but they weren't fine with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. On "Meet the Press" he said: "My dashboard warning light was clearly on and I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community." Clapper clearly thinks there is something to the story. So does the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (R-CA). He wants to know if the campaign was trying to hide something from U.S. intelligence, which if true, would be a serious matter. He also wants Kushner's security clearance reviewed. (V)

Intel Pros See No Legitimate Explanation for Kushner Plan

James Clapper and Adam Schiff (see above) aren't the only ones who are skeptical about Jared Kushner's proposed backchannel to Russia. The Washington Post spoke to a number of former high-ranking members of the U.S. intelligence establishment (Note to Donald Trump: All of them used their real names). To a man, they agreed that there was no legitimate reason to create a means of communication that does a runaround of the U.S. government.

Mark Lowenthal, for example, is a former assistant director of the CIA. He described Kushner's alleged plan as "a really serious issue" and "extremely dangerous." Eliot A. Cohen worked in the Bush State Department, and added, "There's no way that it can be appropriate to say, 'I want to use a hostile government's communications system to avoid our government knowing anything about it.'" Jon Finer, who was a senior member of the Obama State Department, was particularly pointed. He said that Kushner's machinations illustrate "that the Trump team had less trust in the American government than in a foreign adversary that undermined our election." He also added that the million-dollar question is: "What was so urgent and so sensitive that the president needed it to be handled this way? Every explanation offered so far has been wholly unsatisfying."

That last point, as Finer observers, really is the rub. It's been three days since the news broke, and the Trump administration's response has been to downplay the revelations and/or to disingenuously suggest that such behavior is commonplace. They have not denied Kushner's scheming, which would seem to affirm that the reports are not "fake news." And they have not provided any sort of explanation as to why Kushner would need to talk to Russia in this way, which would seem to suggest that the truth is none too flattering, and also that they're struggling to come up with a plausible lie. (Z)

Rosen: Trump No Media Master

A reader sends along a link (by way of Taegan Goddard's Political Wire) to Jay Rosen's blog PressThink, which is produced under the auspices of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. In Sunday's posting, Rosen assesses ten different analyses that give Donald Trump credit for being a wizard at manipulating the media. His conclusion: The emperor has no clothes.

Actually, that doesn't really do justice to Rosen's conclusions, of which he has three. His first is that Trump has no shame, and "does not care if he is shown to be a liar, idiot, ignoramus, clown, or monster." If anything, Rosen argues, Trump is compulsive at putting himself out there, regardless of consequences, which is the polar opposite of mastery. From this follows the second conclusion, that Trump is risk-friendly in a generally risk-averse field. He is willing to "accuse a previous President of the United States of a devilish crime without any evidence...and feel fine about it. It's true that by these methods he dominates the news agenda and forces attention to his groundless charges, but 'master media manipulator' is a poor description of the man who would do that." Finally, Rosen points out that giving Trump credit for being a "master," as so many in the media do, gives them some cover for their own sins. After all, being played by the President is less shameful if he has near-magical powers.

Rosen wraps up his piece—which is worth looking at in total, just to see how very much the narrative has coalesced around the "master" notion—with a very succinct observation that communicates his message in a nutshell: "If you are a man, and you bite a dog, that does not make you a master of anything. But it does make you news." (Z)

Mattis: ISIS Policy Now "Annihilation"

Secretary of Defense James Mattis is clearly very upset about recent events in Manchester, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. Addressing the graduating class at West Point, he declared that, "Manchester's tragic loss underscores the purpose of your years of study and training at this elite school. We must never permit murderers to define our time or warp our sense of normal. This is not normal."

That might just be so much rhetoric, except that Mattis appeared on the Sunday news shows, and declared that he was initiating a change in U.S. policy towards ISIS: "Our strategy right now is to accelerate the campaign against ISIS...We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them."

While the notion that Barack Obama was "soft" on ISIS makes for great campaign talk, the fact is that the Obama administration took aggressive steps to undermine and destroy the organization. If Mattis plans to escalate things, it means that he is willing to embrace either more civilian casualties than Obama was, or more American combat casualties. The Secretary said nothing about the latter, but was unequivocal about the former, announcing: "civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation." Given his seemingly cavalier attitude, the hosts of "Face the Nation" were prompted to ask, "What keeps you awake at night?" Mattis, by this time in full alpha male mode, bragged: "Nothing. I keep other people awake at night."

In short, Mattis is showing why he earned the nickname "Mad Dog," along with a reputation for being aggressive. As to those who felt he would be a voice of reason and of moderation in the administration, well, this weekend's pronouncements are a bit dismaying. And finally, it is worth noting the irony that the deaths of innocent civilians in Manchester have made Mattis so angry that he's now willing to tolerate...the deaths of innocent civilians. (Z)

Trump Pressed to Speak Out on Portland Attack

On Friday, a man named Jeremy Joseph Christian was traveling on a commuter train in Portland and launched into an Islamophobic rant targeted at two Muslim teenagers. Three other passengers attempted to intervene, and two of them—Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche—were stabbed to death by Christian.

When the Manchester attack happened last week, Trump issued a statement nearly instantaneously, and then reiterated his views several times thereafter. Since Friday, Trump has Tweeted about fake news (several times), and his European trip, and how Obamacare is dead, and the Montana congressional election, and Jared Kushner. Nothing, however, about the incident in Portland. His silence has been so deafening that he is being pressured to say something. Leading the charge has been veteran newsman Dan Rather, who wrote a Facebook post that reads, in part:

This story may not neatly fit into a narrative you pushed on the campaign trail and that has followed you into the White House. They were not killed by an undocumented immigrant or a "radical Islamic terrorist." They were killed in an act of civic love, facing down a man allegedly spewing hate speech directed at two teenage girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab. That man seems to have a public record of "extremist ideology"—a term issued by the Portland Police Bureau.

This "extremism" may be of a different type than gets most of your attention, or even the attention in the press. But that doesn't make it any less serious, or deadly. And this kind of "extremism" is on the rise, especially in the wake of your political ascendancy. Most people who study these sorts of things do not think that is a coincidence. I do not blame you directly for this incident. Nor do I think other people should. But what a President says, who he has around him, and the tone he sets can set the tone for the nation at large.

Of course, Rather knows that he's tilting at windmills. Trump never misses an opportunity to denounce Muslim extremism, but has little to say after incidents like this one. Perhaps the President simply does not see the commonalities. Or maybe he is worried about irritating his base. Or possibly, even the mere acknowledgment of what happened would be too close to admitting blame, for a man who almost never takes blame for anything. When explaining his ideas on leadership, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "One man with courage is a majority." One wonders what Tom would think about his current successor. (Z)

Trump's Budget Got a Chillier Reception than Bush's

Donald Trump's proposed budget got a cool reception in Congress last week. Some of the most cutting remarks came from Republican senators, like these:

  • John McCain (R-AZ): [It's] dead on arrival.
  • Dean Heller (R-NV): [It is] anti-Nevada
  • Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV): [It] cuts too close to the bone
  • Lindsey Graham (R-SC): [It] doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of passing

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell downplayed his colleagues' responses by saying that Congress disliking the president's budget is nothing unusual. But a study of reactions to George W. Bush's early budgets shows nothing of the kind. They were warmly received.

The reason is clear: Bush's budgets were not nearly as draconian as Trump's. Bush tripled expenditures for reading programs (his wife was a librarian), added $25 billion to help poor children on Medicaid, and increased nutrition programs for women and children by $94 billion. Bush also increased funding to the National Institutes of Health and the Office of Research on Women's Health. Trump's budget slashes almost everything not directly connected to the military or homeland security. It's no wonder that not all senators have jumped for joy upon receiving it. If they vote for it, they are going to have to explain it to their constituents. (V)

Who Is Trump Most Like?

The modern politician who most resembles Donald Trump is the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Both are erratic billionaires who appealed to working-class voters but did little for them once in office. They both have massive egos and demand total loyalty from everyone around them. The truth is foreign to both of them. Both are outsiders to the political system and both are sexist, often bragging about their sexual prowess in terms that would be embarrassing even in a locker room. Both have long lists of enemies, including the courts and the media. In both cases, their campaigns are all about their person, not about the issues. Neither ran on a well-defined political platform.

But suppose we go back further. Some people have compared the Trump administration to those in George Orwell's 1984, with Trump playing Big Brother. Both used "alternative facts." Sean Spicer could easily run the Ministry of Truth. Authoritarianism is a common theme. But the Washington Post's book editor, Ron Charles, has a different take: He compares Trump to Shakespeare's King Lear. Both are erratic but demand totally fealty from everyone around them. Lear from his daughters, two of whom agreed to it, Trump from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former NSA Michael Flynn, (and a host of others). Here former FBI Director James Comey stars as the third daughter, Cordelia, who won't surrender her soul to please the king. It is a fascinating piece. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
May28 Trump: I Think We Hit a Home Run
May28 Trump Plans to Back Out of Paris Accord
May28 Florida Republican Worked with the Russians
May28 McMaster: I am Not Concerned about a Backchannel with Russia
May28 Follow the Money
May28 Is Trump Stuck?
May28 Bannon May Return to Prominence as "Wartime" Consigliere
May28 Tillerson Will Not Host Ramadan Reception
May27 Kushner Reportedly Wanted Means to Communicate With Russia Secretly
May27 Comey Wanted to Outrun Fake Russian Intelligence
May27 While Trump Is Away, Top Officials Give Contradictory Messages
May27 Republicans May Have Found a Way to Increase Taxes Mostly in Blue States
May27 Democrats Are Losing, but Less Badly than Before
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May27 Boehner Slams Trump
May27 Fox Trolls Trump
May26 Gianforte Wins Montana Special Election
May26 Appeals Court Upholds Muslim Ban v2.0 Injunction
May26 The "Mystery" Person of Interest in the White House? Jared Kushner
May26 Trump Excoriates Allies for Not Paying Enough to NATO
May26 World Leaders Seem Unimpressed with Trump
May26 Spicer Snubbed During Papal Visit
May26 Lieberman Withdraws from Consideration as FBI Director
May26 Mueller Investigation Interferes with House Investigation
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May25 Harris Is Raking in the Bucks
May24 Former CIA Director Tells House that Russia May Have Recruited Trump Campaign Aides
May24 Did Russia Buy Ads on Facebook during the Election?
May24 Trump Administration May Have Spilled the Beans Again
May24 Trump Tax Plan Contains $2 Trillion Error
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May24 CBO Will Release Its Assessment of the AHCA This Afternoon
May24 The Midwest Shifted Sharply toward the Republicans in 2016
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May24 Texas Adopts New Voter ID Bill
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May23 Trump Budget to Drop Today
May23 Flynn Defies Subpoena and Invokes the Fifth Amendment
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