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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump: I Think We Hit a Home Run
      •  Trump Plans to Back Out of Paris Accord
      •  Florida Republican Worked with the Russians
      •  McMaster: I am Not Concerned about a Backchannel with Russia
      •  Follow the Money
      •  Is Trump Stuck?
      •  Bannon May Return to Prominence as "Wartime" Consigliere
      •  Tillerson Will Not Host Ramadan Reception

Trump: I Think We Hit a Home Run

In a fitting end to his 9-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, just before he departed from Italy, President Donald Trump gave a speech in which he said "I think we hit a home run," as if he were playing baseball with the Saudis with the Pope as pitcher. None of the countries he visited play baseball. Once again, he spoke of the threat of terrorism and his determination to win in the fight against it,

Melania Trump also delivered a speech before departing. She said she would never forget the women and children she met on the trip. According to CNN, Mrs. Trump packed a separate bag for each event after consulting with State Dept. officials to make sure she wouldn't violate any cultural taboos. She didn't, although she was widely criticized for wearing a $51,000 jacket in Italy. (V)

Trump Plans to Back Out of Paris Accord

During Donald Trump's European trip, the Paris Accord on climate change was a subject of much discussion. In particular, the Pope implored the President not to withdraw, emphasizing the magnitude of the looming global crisis, and presenting Trump with a copy of his encyclical on the issue. The Donald promised that he would read the document and would think carefully about the subject. Apparently, the time for reading and thinking has now come to an end. According to Axios, Trump has told EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and other administration insiders that he is planning to withdraw from the agreement. An official announcement is expected sometime this week.

From a political standpoint, Trump is taking a big gamble. There is no question that much of the base, and many Republican leaders in Congress, want the President to withdraw from the agreement and to proceed as if there is no global warming. It's also the case that both they and the President love a chance to poke Obama in the eye. However, the decision will not please the Europeans Trump just spent a week underwhelming. It will not please Democrats, nor Catholics who feel the President is showing the Pope up, nor many centrist Republicans. Polls make clear that belief in global warming is now a majority position, and the trendlines are headed in Obama's direction, and not Trump's. So, the President would be handing the blue team another potent issue for the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.

Now, for those who would prefer to see the Paris Accord survive, there is some cause for optimism. To start, Trump famously changes his mind on a dime, so today's decision may not be tomorrow's decision. Beyond that, withdrawing won't actually be all that easy. If Trump does decide to follow through and pull out, he's got three options. The first would be to declare the agreement a treaty, and have the Senate vote it down. This would be the quickest option, but would leave a lot of Senators exposed politically (think: those in blue/purple states), and would also constrain Trump's ability to make similar deals (say, on trade). The second option would be to withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, under whose auspices the Paris deal was negotiated. This would be a somewhat "nuclear" option, however, and would shut the U.S. out of future climate discussions. Trump's third option would be to quit the Paris Accord under its own terms, a process that would take until...November 2020. This would be the least aggressive option, and would leave a lot of time for Trump to change his mind. In theory, it might also give time for a Democrat to get elected president and reverse Trump's decision. Presumably the other nations of the world would be willing to fudge the deadlines a bit to keep the U.S. involved in the agreement.

Once again, then, it would seem that Barack Obama has done a pretty good job of making it hard for Donald Trump to unravel his legacy. (Z)

Florida Republican Worked with the Russians

Every day, it gets harder for the Trump administration to claim innocence vis-a-vis the Russia situation. The latest revelation comes from the Wall Street Journal, hardly a bastion of left-wing activism. They report that Florida GOP consultant Aaron Nevins received some documents from Guccifer 2.0, the hacker(s) working on behalf of the Russian government. Among those documents were Democratic analyses of voter turnout—political gold in today's data-driven world. Nevins, in turn, shared that information with a number of other Republicans, among them Trump adviser Roger Stone. That, of course, would be the same Roger Stone who "predicted" the leak of 20,000 internal DNC emails in July of last year, shortly before they showed up on Wikileaks.

None of the parties involved in this set of transactions denies the accuracy of the WSJ's reporting, though Stone insists he never shared the information with the Trump campaign. Given that Stone is already under investigation by the FBI, you may want to take that declaration with a truckload of grains of salt. In any case, what we have here is the first unambiguous case of Russia-Trump campaign collusion. There is a clear chain of custody from the DNC, to the Russian hacker(s), to the GOP, to a member of the Trump campaign. Now, the chain is pretty long, of course, and ends on the periphery of the Trump campaign (as far as we know). Further, it involves the kind of information that—while very valuable—is unlikely to raise the hackles of John Q. Voter. For these reasons, this story is flying under the radar a bit. But this news should be concerning to Team Trump, because it's the kind of thing that will be of great interest to investigators. (Z)

McMaster: I am Not Concerned about a Backchannel with Russia

National Security Adviser Gen. Herbert McMaster said that he was not concerned about Jared Kushner setting up a secret channel to communicate with Russia. He said it was nothing to worry about because, "we have backchannel communications with a number of countries."

Whoa! What McMaster failed to note is those backchannel communication links are set up by the CIA to allow the president to communicate securely with foreign leaders. They are almost certainly monitored by the CIA. What Kushner was apparently trying to do was set up a channel using Russian equipment for the express purpose of evading the CIA. Otherwise, he or Trump could have just asked the CIA to set up such a channel. Most likely they would have been told it already exists and as soon as Trump takes office he will be shown how to use it. McMaster obviously knows all this, which is why he tried to minimize his comments and insist they be made off camera. Things like this must have Vice Admiral Robert Harward thanking his lucky stars that he declined Trump's offer to become NSA. (V)

Follow the Money

One of the leads that federal investigators are following is the meeting Senior Adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner had with Sergei Gorkov, a former Russian intelligence official and president of a powerful Russian bank that was hit hard by Barack Obama's sanctions. One source said it "set people's hair on fire." Why would Kushner talk to a "former" spy who is close to Vladimir Putin and then "forget" to mention the meeting on his security clearance form?

Since it occurred after the election, it wasn't about getting Russia's help to win. ABC News has reported that the bank described the meeting as one in which they discussed promising lines of business. Why did Kushner talk to a sanctioned bank with close ties to Putin about business deals?

Anders Aslund, a nonpartisan Russia expert, said that the bank is completely controlled by Putin. He suggested that it could have been a straightforward bribery attempt. For example: "You lift the sanctions and we will loan you tons of money under very favorable conditions." Or maybe: "You lift the sanctions and we will forgive all your current loans."

Aslund's point is interesting. While everyone is looking to see if there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians for the purpose of helping him win the election, Trump may actually have been more interested in making business deals with the Russians that helped him personally. The fact that Trump is adamant about not revealing his tax returns may be related to all this: The Russia connection may be about money, not politics. When he was at the Western Wall in Israel, Trump stuck a note between the stones, which people do when they want a small favor from God. Trump's might well have read: "Dear God, please stop Mueller from seeing my tax returns." (V)

Is Trump Stuck?

Mike Allen of Axios has an interesting take on the conundrum Donald Trump finds himself in. He can't reboot the White House without changing the personnel in it. But he can't clean house, because those on the inside know too much and those on the outside can't be trusted with what they would learn. This theory also explains why Trump refuses to let former NSA Mike Flynn have it with both barrels: Flynn knows far too much about secret channels, Russia, and probably much more. It is also virtually certain that he committed a felony (acting as an unregistered foreign agent), and Robert Mueller could indict and surely convict him for that. At that point, he would probably spill the beans to save his own neck. Trump knows this, so he keeps being nice.

Son-in-law Jared Kushner probably knows most of the stories as well, but Trump can't bring himself to dump his most trusted adviser. He could fire Senior Adviser Steve Bannon and Chief of staff Reince Priebus, but Bannon has already been sidelined (or maybe not; see below) and Priebus probably doesn't know much about the "Russia thing." Besides, firing the only guy in the White House who understands how government works and who is also close to Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is counterproductive. So Trump is basically stuck with his current crew.

Trump's solution to his woes might be to create a "war room" in the White House and then go out and hold more campaign rallies. None of this is going to stem the continuous leaks, though. It is hard to tell where they are coming from, but it is conceivable that some people high up in the CIA (but not the very top) consider Trump a threat to national security and are actively working to destroy him so that he will either resign or be impeached. No changes to the White House staff would change that dynamic. (V)

Bannon May Return to Prominence as "Wartime" Consigliere

It is clear, at this point, that Steve Bannon knows very little about governance. This has led to numerous failures on his part (threatening the members of Congress over the AHCA, for example), and is why he's currently been benched. What he does know, however, is how to rabble-rouse, and how to use the media to get his message out. These, of course, were the skills he put to use as the leader of Breitbart News.

This being the case, Bannon may soon be back in the thick of the action. Now that the Russia issue has become a full-fledged crisis, the White House is shifting into bunker mode (even more profoundly than before). Donald Trump has already lawyered up, and his counsel will undoubtedly wage a vigorous defense of the President. However, there is only so much they can do, given that they will be facing battle-tested veterans like Robert Mueller, who may well be armed with piles of evidence. On the media front, however, there is much room for maneuvering, particularly of the sort that Bannon specializes in. What he and Trump surely know is that impeachment is a political decision more than it is a legal one. The more that Trump's base can be riled up with talk of witch hunts, and the "deep state," and the like, the more costly it will be for Congressional Republicans to pull the trigger.

That this business will be rough and tumble, and of dubious ethicality, is indicated by the fact that both outsiders and insiders are using the term "wartime consigliere," a reference to the Mafia in general, and to the movie "The Godfather" in particular. Bannon's main job will be to protect the President, but others will undoubtedly benefit from his efforts including, ironically enough, his nemesis Jared Kushner. Politics makes strange bedfellows, particularly when people get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. (Z)

Tillerson Will Not Host Ramadan Reception

On Friday, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. And for the last 20 years, the State Department has commemorated the end of Ramadan with a reception, to which members of Congress, other top U.S. officials, Muslim community leaders, and the diplomatic corps of majority-Muslim countries are invited. This is in line with similar commemorations the government holds to honor other religions, including Passover seders and Christmas and Easter celebrations. This year, however, there will be no Ramadan commemoration, on the orders of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

It's unclear what Tillerson's reasoning is and, as usual, he's not saying. It could be a budgetary/staffing issue; as he tries to aggressively streamline his department, there may not be the resources for a big reception. On the other hand, it could be that he doesn't want to socialize with a bunch of Muslims, or at least does not want to be seen doing so. Whether the latter explanation is correct, that is certainly how it appears, which means that the Trump administration continues to send mixed messages on their feelings about Muslims. Or actually, maybe the message is not so mixed at all. When traveling abroad, and talking to the Muslim nations of the world, it's sunshine and rainbows. When in the U.S., where the Republican base lives, it's travel bans, and anti-Muslim speeches, and refusal to acknowledge Ramadan. Donald Trump is hardly the first president to talk out of both sides of his mouth, but rarely is a chief executive so obvious about it. And the problem is that the base may not be paying close attention, but the federal judges who rule on travel bans are, and so too are the Abdel Fattah el-Sisis (Egypt) and Fuad Masums (Iraq) and Ashraf Ghanis (Afghanistan) of the world. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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