Jul. 07

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Trump Underwhelms in Poland

Donald Trump is in Europe this week for the G20 summit, and is ostensibly trying to reboot his relationship with the nations of the West. In order to get off to a good start, the President's first public appearances were scheduled for Poland, a nation that has historically been very friendly to American leaders. While in Warsaw, Trump gave a press conference, held jointly with Polish president Andrzej Duda. He followed that with a speech. Both were head-scratchers.

At the press conference, Trump focused on one of his very favorite subjects: how much he hates the media. "They have been fake news for a long time," he said. "They've been covering me in a very, very dishonest way. Do you have that also, by the way, Mr. President?" Duda, who has much in common with Trump as a right-wing populist who is no fan of a free press, was happy to join in on the festivities. Trump also got in a few shots at another favorite target, Barack Obama. Following a question about Russian hacking of the 2016 election, The Donald once again falsely accused Obama of doing nothing about Russian interference, and then launched into this rambling monologue:

I think it was Russia. And I think it could have been other people and other countries. It could have been a lot of people interfered. I've said it very simply. I think it could very well have been Russia but I think it could very well have been other countries, and I won't be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. I think it has been happening for a long time. It has been happening for many, many years.

So, it would seem that Russia definitely interfered, or else might have interfered, or maybe didn't have anything to do with it at all and it was actually some other country. All we can be sure of, apparently, is that Barack Obama blew it.

After the press conference, it was time for Trump's speech. The theme of the address was, in his own words, "whether the West has the will to survive." He was speaking at the site of a monument commemorating Polish resistance to the Nazi, and that sort of "clash of cultures" argument really belongs more to the 1940s than it does the 2010s. The President's list of enemies was pretty modern, however. There was Islamic terrorism, of course. And the "deep state." He also offered up a lengthy harangue against the Russians:

We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in the Ukraine and elsewhere and its support for hostile regimes, including Syria and Iran, and instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and defense of civilization itself.

Further, Trump had flattering things to say about NATO, which is an implicit rebuke of the Russians, inasmuch as the organization was founded, "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

In any event, as is so often the case, Trump was thinking more about the audience he can see and hear than the one he can't. In other words, the Poles were quite pleased with Trump's appearance, and gave him the applause and the warm response he so craves. However, the international community was underwhelmed. His flim-flammery on Russia and his anti-globalist "The West vs. the world" message will not please the Western democracies. Germany's Angela Merkel, for example, was quick to give the President the thumbs-down: "I think that globalization can be organized in a way that it's a win-win situation. It doesn't always have to be the case that there are winners and there are losers." Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is not going to be happy about some of the things he heard, as he prepares for his meeting with Trump today. So, it is probably fair to describe Trump's Polish adventures as one small step forward, and two big steps back. (Z)

All Eyes Are on Trump-Putin Meeting

On Friday afternoon, Donald Trump will have his first face-to-face meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Of the various lists of "what to watch for" during that meeting (from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, USA Today, etc.), The Hill has a particularly good one. Here's how they see it:

Those, then, are some of the major storylines for Friday. The meeting is going to last only 30 minutes, and surely Trump's aides will be on pins and needles the entire time. They've used every trick in the book to get him ready, including tutoring sessions with Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis over dinner. They've also kept the documents in his "Putin briefing" folder minimal, with the main points being presented in the form of very short bullet points. No complete paragraphs for this president. Despite the prep work, and the short length of the chat, there are some big risks, not the least of which is that Trump will let slip some more classified information. If he can just avoid that pitfall, Trump's staff will surely consider the meeting a win, regardless of what else happens. (Z)

Russia Ratchets up the Spying

In case there wasn't enough intrigue surrounding Donald Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin, news broke on Thursday that the Russians have ratcheted up their spy operations in the United States. According to insiders, Vladimir Putin's administration is concerned by some of the anti-Russian turns that recent events have taken, and is also emboldened by the lack of response from the Trump administration on the 2016 election hacking.

It seems unlikely that this news will prompt any action from the President. If he isn't interested in dealing with election meddling, then he's not going to be bothered by a little more spying. In fact, for him to do anything about this news would first require that he actually believe that it's true, which in turn would mean trusting the U.S. intelligence establishment. And it remains the case that Trump does not trust them. And so, we end up with something of a reverse McCarthy. Instead of seeing Russian spies everywhere, Trump and his team don't see them anywhere, even when those spies are right under their noses. (Z)

Ethics Czar Resigns

As director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Walter Shaub has had the unenviable task of identifying (and publicizing) ethical breaches by the Trump administration. It has been an almost round-the-clock job, between Trump's billionaire appointees, and Kellyanne Conway's pitches for Ivanka Trump's jewelry, and various staffers engaging in electioneering via Twitter. Perhaps Shaub is tuckered out, or maybe he realizes that ethics are not exactly a growth industry in Washington right now, or possibly he is tired of tilting at windmills, since the OGE has no enforcement powers. Whatever the case may be, Shaub resigned on Friday.

Shaub brough both experience and commitment to the job, as well as a non-partisan sense of fairness, having served in both Democratic and Republican administrations. His departure is undoubtedly America's loss, and at a time when his services are needed most. He will now work for the Campaign Legal Center, which lobbies for tougher campaign finance laws. The Trump administration says it will move quickly to fill the post, though the smart money says that Shaub will be replaced shortly after Trump appoints a director for the office of flying pigs. (Z)

McConnell Says GOP May Be Stuck "Patching Obamacare"

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was speaking at a Rotary Club luncheon—yes, those still exist—on Thursday. He was asked about health care, and he told the audience that, "If my side is unable to agree on an adequate replacement, then some kind of action with regard to the private health insurance market must occur."

Some commentators are interpreting this as a sign of weakness on the part of the Speaker; possibly the first step in softening the blow of a defeat that he suspects is coming. It may be that, but primarily it is a warning to the more conservative members of his caucus: my way, or the Obamacare highway. His purpose was so obvious, he might as well have mailed a copy of the speech to Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). Especially Paul and Johnson. Unfortunately for McConnell, those four men are seasoned politicians as well, and they know posturing when they see it. (Z)

Moran Facing Pressure on Health Care Bill

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) is quite conservative, comes from a very red state, and is rarely a squeaky wheel when it comes to following orders from the GOP leadership. On health care, however, he's turning into a real headache for Mitch McConnell.

Moran's problem is that he decided not to hide in a cave, and has spent the recent Senate recess talking to constituents. They, in turn, have given him an earful. Not helping matters is that the state is in something of a financial crisis, precipitated by Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) faithful adherence to the GOP playbook. This being the case, the rhetoric being used to sell the Republican health care bill isn't finding an audience, while fears of lost health care coverage, shuttered hospitals, and lost jobs in the health care industry most certainly are. Moran is now on the record as having made some very Obamacare-leaning declarations, like: "I'm very interested in making sure preexisting condition is covered and I wouldn't consider it covered if it could be taken away in some other fashion. Who in the room doesn't have a preexisting condition? Don't we all?"

If Moran really is a "no" vote unless preexisting conditions are covered, then McConnell has got two very big problems. The first is that he's now got to worry about yet another vote, when he was already working with an impossibly thin margin of error. If preexisting conditions are a deal-breaker for Moran and Planned Parenthood is a deal-breaker for Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), then that's basically it. There is no bill that can get the three of them and also get the conservatives. The second problem is that Moran is likely not alone. If a senator from Kansas is rebelling, there are surely others who are likely to do so, and just haven't said so yet. How about, for example, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), who is theoretically facing the exact same pressures that Moran is? This is precisely why McConnell wanted to have a vote before the Independence Day recess. (Z)

Business is Booming for Newt, Inc.

Former speaker Newt Gingrich continues to be a one-man Donald Trump cheerleading team. For example, asked to assess the President's speech in Poland (see above), Gingrich said it was a "landmark" speech that compared favorably with the best that Ronald Reagan had to offer. That's quite a review. It's a shame nobody thought to ask him how Trump's address compares to the one Lincoln gave in Gettysburg.

In any case, we and others have wondered what exactly Gingrich is after, since a plum appointment in the administration is clearly not forthcoming. And now, we have an answer: money. Gingrich has managed to turn his support of The Donald into a business, and business is good. There's his book Understanding Trump, of course, available at a retailer near you. Further, the former speaker earns $60,000 to $80,000 a pop for delivering his lecture "Fundamentals of Trumpism," which compares The Donald to Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and grizzly bears ("If you get his attention, he'll be awake, bite your face off, and sit on you."). It's pure poetry, obviously.

Of course, there is a word for someone who sells themselves to the highest bidder. Though some might argue that Gingrich has merely moved from the world's second-oldest profession—politics—to its oldest. (Z)

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