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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Russians Pressured Manafort while He Led Trump Campaign
      •  Trump Keeps Tweeting; That's How the White House Staff Likes It
      •  This Is What Fake News Looks Like
      •  And This Is What Corruption Looks Like
      •  How Will History Remember 2018?
      •  Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Jerry Brown

PW logo Trump’s Worst Weeks of 2018
What Should Democrats Not Investigate?
Republicans Brace for a Gloomy 2019
Hyde-Smith Didn’t Return Contributions
Trump Digs In On Shutdown
Trump Compares Border Wall to Wall Around Obama Home

Russians Pressured Manafort while He Led Trump Campaign

Just about every day, even during the holiday season, the connections between the Trump campaign and the Russians get clearer and/or more numerous. So it was on Saturday, when Time magazine reported that the Russians were twisting Paul Manafort's arm about his debts to them, even while he was serving as chair of Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

The key figure in the story is former Russian intelligence officer Victor Boyarkin, who works for Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Boyarkin's shady activities are well enough known to the U.S. government that he is already on the list of Russian individuals being sanctioned by the United States (as is Deripaska). And the debts at issue are between $19 and $45 million that Deripaska claims he deposited in the Cayman Islands and that Manafort absconded with. If that is true, then it means Manafort is not only incredibly dishonest, but also incredibly stupid, since these are not the type of people you double-cross (especially when eight-figure sums are on the line). Certainly the Russians think it is true, because Boyarkin was putting the screws to Manafort throughout the campaign in 2016. And, in an apparent effort to buy some time, Manafort briefed Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate of both Deripaska and Boyarkin, on the campaign less than two weeks before Trump formally accepted the GOP nomination.

Ultimately, the picture that is coming into focus is this: Just about every key player in the Trump campaign had a compelling reason to play ball with the Russians. Manafort because he was trying to keep himself from ending up on the wrong end of a cup of polonium tea. Michael Flynn because he had clients (i.e., the Turkish government) with a vested interest in making nice with the Russian government. Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi because they are hard-core GOP operatives who wanted dirt on Hillary Clinton. And Donald Trump and family because of business opportunities in Moscow and/or kompromat and/or a desire for dirt on Clinton. Not everybody had the same motivations, but each had goals that could be achieved by cooperation between Team Trump and Team Putin. In that circumstance, collusion/conspiracy of some sort is not only possible, it's likely. Especially when we are dealing with a group of people whose moral compasses are questionable.

Needless to say, special counsel Robert Mueller already knows all of this. He's tried to talk to Boyarkin about the matter (and was apparently turned down). It's probable that Mueller also knows the truth about the millions that Manafort allegedly took, and whether or not the former Trump campaign chair has gotten himself into a financial hole from which he cannot escape. This could also help explain why Manafort lied to Mueller, risking a lengthy prison sentence, since anywhere other than prison may be none-too-safe for him (of course, even in prison, the Russians may be able to get to him). We shall see if we gain any more insight into the matter before Manafort is sentenced in February. (Z)

Trump Keeps Tweeting; That's How the White House Staff Likes It

As we have now pointed out several times, the government shutdown is driving Donald Trump nuts. Not only because he's losing the narrative (which he must know, on some level), but also because he can't really do anything about it until next week, at the earliest. This is a man who is so impatient about...well, everything that he would much rather do the wrong thing today than the right thing in a week.

Anyhow, with him holed up in the White House, and being driven into a frenzy by a mix of anger and anxiety, it is prime Twitter time. Saturday's installments included:

Executive summary: I'm willing to make a deal...or not. Everything is the Democrats' fault. Rinse and repeat.

Interestingly, Trump's aides say they like it that the only way he's communicated with Democratic leaders since Dec. 11 is via Twitter. There are several reasons they claim this is the case. First, because whenever he engages in any other way (for example, televised meetings with Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY) he tends to shoot himself in the foot and to make promises/declarations that he cannot back up, or to make statements that work against him. Second, because the White House staff is spread thin due to the holidays and the shutdown, and this keeps the President occupied and out of their hair. Third, and finally, they hope that he could be doing himself some good right now by highlighting stories that support his take on the issue (for example, his tweets about the undocumented immigrant who allegedly shot a cop in California).

There is no doubt that Politico is correctly reporting what they are hearing, and that Team Trump really is claiming to be happy about the President's approach. However, it certainly feels like a blend of wishful thinking and/or putting the most positive spin possible on a crummy situation. While it's possible that the tweets are helping to strengthen the base's resolve, they are also having the same effect on Trump's opposition. Further, it's all good and well to "negotiate" via Twitter when there are no actual negotiations going on, but eventually Congress will be back in session, and it will be time to actually discuss the matter like adults. Can Trump really pivot, after he's spent two weeks convincing himself of the utter righteousness of his position and the utter worthlessness of his opponents' position? We shall see, but pivoting is not exactly his strong suit. (Z)

This Is What Fake News Looks Like

Claas Relotius, until recently a staffer at the German magazine Der Spiegel, was a rising star in journalistic circles. This was due almost entirely to his extensive coverage of "Trump Country," story after story he filed in which he documented the lives of Trump voters. The theater that was still playing "American Sniper" two years after it was released. The front yard with a "Mexicans Keep Out" sign. The high school students who were traveling to New York as a class, and voted to visit Trump Tower instead of the Statue of Liberty.

Thanks to reporting chock full of juicy details like these, Relotius' stories found their way into many other publications besides Der Spiegel, and he won a mantel full of awards. The only problem: He made it all up. Actually, that's not quite true. He made up about 95% of it, and included just enough true details that it was easy to double-check his lies. For example, he related the story of Maria Rodriguez, owner of a Mexican restaurant in Fergus Falls, MN, who turned into an Obama hater because of the high cost of treatment for her kidney problems. Well, there aren't too many Mexican restaurants in that town, as you can imagine, and so it wasn't difficult for other journalists to find Rodriguez and to figure out that she had spoken to Relotius, but that she is a waitress and not the owner of the restaurant, and that her kidneys are just fine.

Relotius has been fired from his job, of course, and has offered up the usual excuses, namely that his stories weren't quite working out, and he got desperate, and he just wanted to do right by his readers, and he's always felt a need to be in control, and yada, yada, yada. Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cooke all said the exact same things when they got caught doing, well, the exact same thing. Anyhow, it is a reminder of what actual fake news looks like, as opposed to Donald Trump's version, which is "real news that I don't like." (Z)

And This Is What Corruption Looks Like

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp (R-GA) was a pretty abysmal candidate, running in a state that is slowly turning purple, and in a year that was not favorable to his party. All of this put him in serious danger of becoming the first Republican to lose a statewide election in the Peach State since 2006. Meanwhile, he was also a pretty abysmal state secretary of state, and one of the horde of (mostly GOP) folks in his position who stuck his fingers in his ears and sang "la, la, la" anytime anyone tried to warn him that his state's voting machines were not secure.

Kemp's weaknesses as both gubernatorial candidate and secretary of state very nearly came home to roost the weekend before the election. Per an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he was slipping in the polls, to the point that he was trailing Democrat Stacey Abrams in many of them. At the same time, it came to light that the state's voter registration system was badly compromised, so much so that an amateur (to say nothing of the Russian FSB) could well have hacked into it and wrought havoc. If and when the story came to light, it would likely have made Secretary Kemp look incompetent, and would have wrecked the electoral hopes of aspiring Governor Kemp.

Faced with this crisis, Team Kemp came up with a three-for-the-price-of-one solution. In his capacity of secretary of state, Kemp announced—without evidence—that the Democrats had tried to hack into the voter database. It was a tidy solution, because: (1) It made it look like he and his staff were being vigilant, as opposed to the truth, which is that they had left the door of the henhouse open; (2) It put Abrams on the defensive, and probably cost her critical votes; and (3) If Abrams had won, it would have laid the groundwork for Kemp to challenge her election.

It is, of course, unlikely that Kemp will suffer any consequences for his corrupt behavior. The Georgia constitution does allow for a recall election in the case of officials who commit "an act of malfeasance or misconduct while in office." However, the process has to be initiated by the State Assembly, where Republicans have an overwhelming majority. So, don't hold your breath.

This story does illustrate two important lessons, for the umpteenth time. The first is that it is deeply problematic for someone to be in the position of overseeing an election where they themselves are on the ballot. And the second is that unsecure voting machines are a real Pandora's box, facilitating all manner of corrupt behaviors, by both foreign and domestic actors. One wonders if Americans will ever reach the seemingly obvious conclusion, namely that elections should be run by the federal government, and not by a patchwork of localities, each doing their own thing. If the country ever does move in this direction, we have a pretty good guess as to which major party won't be the one driving the change. (Z)

How Will History Remember 2018?

It's not so easy to know how the story is going to end while it's still being written. Similarly, it's not so easy to know what the history of a year or an era will be while it's still being made. Well, actually, sometimes it's pretty easy. In 1944, it was pretty clear that the story of the year was World War II and the imminent defeat of the Nazis. But most years and eras are much, much trickier, including the current one. However, that did not stop Politico from asking a bunch of prominent historians to take their best guess at how 2018 will look from the vantage point of the future. Here are excerpts from some of the more interesting responses (the parentheses summarize that particular historian's area of expertise):

  • Jacqueline Jones (Women's and Southern history): "The traditional narrative of the United States as a noble world leader and defender of human rights was slipping away, and by the end of Trump's second year in office, the country was in danger of sliding into a garden-variety authoritarianism. To paraphrase the historian Henry Adams, the progress of evolution from President Lincoln to President Trump was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin."

  • H.W. Brands (Jacksonian America): "The year 2018 marked the moment when America's abdication of its role of leadership in the world, begun in 2017, grew more pronounced and irreversible. Trump called into question or flatly rejected America's commitments to its allies, to free trade, to the rule of law, to democratic norms and to a global effort to avert the most dire consequences of climate change. He made America, in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, a rogue state. The president of the United States had long been the most consequential person in the world; that distinction shifted to the president of China in 2018. The world has never been the same."

  • Nicole Hemmer (U.S. political history): "While progressives organized to transform the face of American politics--electing the most diverse set of officials in the nation's history--the administration set out to fulfill its restrictionist vision, separating migrant families, erecting detention camps at the border and using teargas on refugees. At the end of 2018, both parties had organized a clear response to 2016's earthquake-responses that could not have been more different."

  • Geoffrey Kabaservice (U.S. political history): "Half a century later, 2018 stands out as the point at which it became evident that the Republican and Democratic parties had switched their political bases. The 2016 elections already had confirmed that the white working class--the foundation on which New Deal liberalism was built--had become overwhelmingly Republican. But the 2018 midterms gave the first real indication that Donald Trump's self-destructive presidency, combined with conservative ideological zealotry in Congress, had broken the long-standing GOP loyalty of college-educated, suburban voters, and that this group would reliably support Democrats going forward."

  • Michael Kazin (Labor history): "In his one unhappy term in the White House, the man who vowed to 'Make America Great Again' made it less powerful and persuasive around the globe and more vulnerable to environmental damage at home."

  • Elizabeth Cobbs (U.S. diplomatic history): "American historians focus on domestic squabbles of the era, but world historians highlight the melting of Alaska while Trump opened new public lands to oil exploration, reduced the size of national parks and waived protections for endangered species. They also point to record-breaking wildfires sparked by drought, and note the parallel to ancient history: Trump fiddled while California burned."

  • David Greenberg (U.S. politics and media): "As the year closed some big indicators-abrupt volatility in an otherwise strong economy, Robert Mueller's prosecutorial doggedness, Democratic election triumphs-signaled that Trump's strength might be ebbing. But in Europe, the three hitherto-solid Ms of stability-Merkel, May and Macron-faced major crises of legitimacy, offering paltry grounds for confidence that, come 2019, the center would hold."

  • Heather Cox Richardson (Nineteenth century U.S.): "The extremes of the Republican Party inspired grassroots opposition, especially among women and people of color, and the 2018 midterms were a wave election that flipped 39 seats and put women in two-thirds of them. Overall, 2018 resembled the pivotal year of 1856, when a revolt against the Democratic Party's control of the federal government in the interests of wealthy Southern slaveholders prompted Americans to reject the Democrats and begin the process of taking their democracy back."

  • Meg Jacobs (U.S. political history): "2018 turned out to be the moment when Trump finally broke the mold of American politics, a fissure that was in the works for decades. Despite all the indications of declining popularity and rising political vulnerability, Trump remained standing. His durability suggested that, in an age of polarization exacerbated by the fracturing of the media, the traditional markers of political success no longer applied. As a candidate and then as a president, even one under siege, Trump appreciated that no longer did he need to be loved by all or even by a majority of the public, no longer were there consequences to having your own version of the truth, and no apologies were necessary for what half the country, if not more, thought of as unpresidential, if not illegal, behavior."

  • Timothy Naftali (U.S. diplomatic history): "As the year ended, the victory of the Democratic Party in the midterm elections (with its promise of subpoena-led investigations and accountability), the hollowing out of the Trump regime, the president's consistently low approval ratings, and the possibility that the Mueller inquiry would produce evidence of Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator either in financial crimes or collusion with Russia signaled for some observers that the tide in the United States, at least, had turned against the nativist wave of 2016. On the other hand, there was no reason to believe that the dark populism of Trumpism was fading outside American cities and suburbs or that Trump and his acolytes were doing anything but digging in for a long struggle, whatever the political, human or economic costs to the nation or the world."

While some of the scholars are hopeful that the U.S. has hit bottom, and that the events of 2018's final two months are the start of a bounce-back, the majority have the sense that this is the beginning of the decline and fall of the American empire (or of democratic government in general). Meanwhile, the same several existential threats keep coming up, over and over: global warming, hyper-polarization in U.S. politics (encouraged, but certainly not invented, by Donald Trump), and the movement of China and Russia into the vacuum created by America's receding global leadership. All in all, it's a pretty sobering piece. (Z)

Democratic Presidential Candidate of the Week: Jerry Brown

We've done a few frontrunners or near-frontrunners in a row. Time to shift gears and do a longshot candidate, just to mix it up.

Jerry Brown
  • Full Name: Edmund Gerald "Jerry" Brown Jr.

  • Age on January 20, 2021: 82 (and will turn 83 about two months later)

  • Background: A lifelong Californian, Brown was born in San Francisco to a family that first came to California during the gold rush (that's the Golden State equivalent of having a ancestor who came over on the Mayflower). His father was also named Edmund Brown, and was also a politician who served as governor of California. His mother was a teacher and homemaker. A somewhat indifferent and aimless student, Brown graduated high school in 1955, went to Santa Clara University for a year, and then decided to enter the seminary and become a Catholic priest. After four years, he decided that the priesthood was not his cup of tea, so he jumped ship to Berkeley, taking a degree in classics in 1961. He followed that with a Yale law degree in 1964, and then worked as a clerk for the California Supreme Court and as a private practice attorney.

  • Political Experience: Brown has had, in essence, two political careers. The first began in 1969, when he was elected to the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, where he served one term. That was followed by a term as California Secretary of State (1971-1975), and then two terms as governor of California (1975-1983). In the latter job, Brown earned much attention for refusing the perks of office, living in a small apartment rather than the governor's mansion and traveling in a 1974 Plymouth Satellite rather than a limousine. During his first gubernatorial term, he took his first two shots at the White House, finishing third behind Mo Udall and Jimmy Carter in 1976 in delegates won, and then failing to gain any delegates at all in a disastrous rematch with Carter in 1980. In 1982, with his time in office coming to an end, Brown ran for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican S.I. Hayakawa, but was defeated by Republican Pete Wilson.

    Once he was done being governor, Brown did many standard post-governor things, like help run the Democratic Party as its state chair, join a prominent law firm, and sit on corporate boards. He also did some not-so-standard post-governor things, like travel to Japan to study Zen Buddhism and visit India to help Mother Teresa minister to the sick and infirm. He started (and then quickly aborted) another U.S. Senate campaign in 1992, and then undertook his third presidential bid that same year. It was the most successful of Brown's three White House runs; he was arguably the frontrunner until he screwed up and told a mostly-Jewish audience that he was considering Jesse Jackson as his running mate. Given Jackson's habit of making anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks, that was not exactly the right audience for that announcement. Thereafter, Brown's campaign stalled, and he ended up finishing second in the delegate count to Bill Clinton. The nastiness of that campaign made the Browns and the Clintons into bitter enemies, and the chilly relationship has not thawed since.

    Inasmuch as Brown had already served two terms as governor, and his efforts at equivalent or higher office all came up empty, it certainly appeared his political career was over. But, as it turns out, he was not too proud to run for a "lower" office. So, in 1998 he won the mayoralty of Oakland, serving two successful terms from 1999-2007. Then, he won the Attorney Generalship of California, serving in that position from 2007-11. And finally, he returned to the governor's mansion (this time, actually living there, at least sometimes) in 2011. Next month, he will conclude his second consecutive and fourth overall term leading California. Given his vast experience in state government, it is not too surprising that his second time in the governor's chair has been very successful.

  • Signature Issue(s): Brown is closely identified with a number of issues important to Californians: He's an outspoken environmentalist, a vocal opponent of the death penalty and overly-harsh prison sentences, and a supporter of LGBT rights. However, if he were to run for president, he would likely build his campaign around two issues. The first is campaign finance reform, which was his signature issue during his last presidential campaign. The second is budget management. He has pretty effectively managed California's expenditures in the last eight years, and given that its economy is the seventh-largest in the world, and that the U.S. budget figures to be pretty hairy by the time Donald Trump is done, it's a natural selling point for him.

  • Instructive Quote: "Jobs for every American is doomed to failure because of modern automation and production. We ought to recognize it and create an income-maintenance system so every single American has the dignity and the wherewithal for shelter, basic food, and medical care. I'm talking about welfare for all. Without it, you're going to have warfare for all."

  • Completely Trivial Fact: We've got three, and can't decide which to go with, so here are all of them: (1) The Dead Kennedys' California Über Alles, which is among the dozen or so best-known punk rock songs, is about Brown. It's not meant to be a compliment—the lyrics compare him to Adolf Hitler; (2) Brown's mother began her teaching career so long ago, namely 1928, that there were rules in place that forbade her to marry until she had three full years' service under her belt. She held on for two years, but then ran away to Reno to marry Edmund Sr., thus ending her career; and (3) Brown and (Z) are distantly related by marriage; his wife's paternal great-great grandfather is (Z)'s paternal great-great-great-great grandfather. Undoubtedly, a genealogist could express that relationship more artfully, but there it is. (Note: The genealogists have written in and noted that it is: third-cousins-in-law, twice removed).

  • Recent News: As he wraps up his time as governor, Brown has been granting clemency or commutation to prisoners like it's going out of style (close to 300 of them). The California Supreme Court, as is their right under the terms of the state constitution, stepped in and canceled 10 of them. That's the first time the Court exercised that power since the 1960s.

  • Three Biggest Pros: (1) Quite a few Democrats have spent the past two years jousting verbally with Donald Trump, but Brown has spent them actually poking Trump in the eye with the actions he's taken and the bills he's signed (over 1,000 of them just this year); (2) He is a political strategist of the first order; and (3) Like a Sherrod Brown or a Beto O'Rourke, Brown offers an interesting combination of progressivism and practical centrism, and would have some appeal to both the Clinton and Sanders wings of the Party.

  • Three Biggest Cons: (1) Given Brown's long career and quirky nature, there is a veritable cornucopia of oppo research just waiting to be deployed against him—the GOP won't even need to hire a Christopher Steele-type, they can just read Brown's Wikipedia page; (2) If the age of a septuagenarian like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Joe Biden is an issue, then Brown's status as an octogenarian who would be a nonagenarian at the end of two terms is a big problem; and (3) Brown is a terrible debater and public speaker, which is not a good résumé for a 21st century presidential candidate.

  • Is He Actually Running?: The odds are that even he doesn't know right now. He did say "Don't rule it out," and his past bids have come together very quickly (some would say haphazardly) once he made the decision to run. So, it's certainly possible, though there have been no outward signs of a 2020 campaign.

  • Betting Odds: The books have him anywhere from 100-to-1 to 50-to-1, which implies a 1-2% chance of him being the nominee.

  • The Bottom Line: Brown has surprised so many times in his career than you can never be sure what he will do next. However, given his age and the fact that he would be challenged by so many people, including several prominent Californians, he's probably going to just enjoy his well-deserved retirement.

You can access the list of candidate profiles by clicking on the 2020 Dem candidates link in the menu to the left of the map. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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