Jun. 24

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Last August, CIA Had Putin's Detailed Instructions for Compromising the Election

The Washington Post has published a report saying that last August, the CIA informed Barack Obama that not only was it certain the Russians were actively working to damage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump in the election, but they had captured Vladimir Putin's detailed instructions on how to do it. Since Putin, a former KGB agent, is extremely cautious and rarely communicates by phone or computer, the intercept probably came from a top-level mole high in the Russian government who is actually a CIA spy.

In the months following the revelation, top administration officials debated what to do. This included (potential) cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, release of material the CIA had that could embarrass Putin, or sanctions that could crater the Russian economy. In the end, Obama approved only a minor package: expelling 35 "diplomats" and closing two compounds that were used for spying. Trying (and succeeding) to flip a presidential election has to be the crime of the century, but the response was just a slap on the wrist. Later, one Obama administration official said: "I feel like we sort of choked." President Donald Trump has shown no interest whatsoever in punishing the Russians for their actions. To the contrary, he has talked about lifting existing sanctions rather than imposing new penalties. However, Congress may impose some new sanctions on its own.

Obama's main concern, as he and a small number of top officials discussed their options in the highly secure Situation Room, was not making things even worse. One thing he ordered was offering assistance to the states to shore up their voting systems. To his amazement, Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state in Georgia, denounced the move as a violation of states rights. So did other state officials. Republican leaders in Congress didn't believe the CIA's evidence. So, Obama wasn't able to do much to stop or punish the Russians.

The Post's reporting is based on more than three dozen interviews with former and current senior officials in the White House, as well as the State, Defense, and Homeland Security departments and the intelligence community. It goes into a great amount of detail about what happened and when. The paper also left out key information at the request of the government. (V)

Trump Blasts Obama for Russian Interference

Donald Trump sat for an interview with "Fox and Friends" on Friday, and made clear he's a reader of the Washington Post. "Well I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it," said the President. "But nobody wants to talk about that." And in case anybody missed the point, Trump re-stated it on Twitter shortly thereafter:

Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of November 8th about election meddling by Russia. Did nothing about it. WHY?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2017

First of all, it's certainly correct to say that "nobody" wants to talk about this if by "nobody" you mean "everybody." See, for example, the item above. And the 1A story on every major news site and in every major newspaper. Beyond that, however, we have yet another case of Trump putting short-term gain ahead of long-term pain. Undoubtedly, the viewers who tune in to "Fox and Friends" to hear the interview will be delighted by a little Obama-bashing. It may enliven their whole weekend, even. But that effect will fade, and then Trump will be left with the fact that he has officially acknowledged the fact that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election. That now opens him up to all manner of questions. Here are a few:

Of course, as per usual, Donald Trump hasn't thought this far ahead. And, in a characteristic Trumpian double-standard (see below for another), he's done absolutely nothing so far about Russian interference despite attacking Obama for not doing enough. That may get it done on Fox News, and at rallies, but as Obama and the Democrats learned, you can only point the finger at the previous guy for so long before it doesn't work any more. This is particularly true if you do nothing to solve the problems that you blame him for not solving. (Z)

Heller Won't Support Senate Health Care Bill

At a news conference in Las Vegas, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), the Democrats' top target in 2018, announced his opposition to the new Senate health care bill, saying: "It's simply not the answer. And I'm announcing today that in this form, I simply will not support it." Heller is the fifth Republican senator to oppose the bill, but there is an important difference between him and the other four (conservative) Republicans, namely senators Ted Cruz (TX), Rand Paul (KY), Ron Johnson (WI), and Mike Lee (UT). The other four want to make the bill harsher, spend less government money, and cover fewer people. Heller wants to go the other way. Standing next to Gov. Brian Sandoval (R-NV), Heller said that he cannot support a bill that takes away insurance from tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Nevadans. This puts Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in a terrible bind. Satisfying the four conservative senators is easy: Just make the bill cover fewer people and have less generous tax credits.

The trouble is McConnell can afford to lose only two votes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) have said they don't want to vote for a bill that defunds Planned Parenthood, which the Senate bill does. If the bill is changed to please Cruz, et al., it could lose Collins, Murkowski, and Heller, and thus go down to defeat. If it is changed to please Heller, Collins, and Murkowski, then Cruz, et al., might kill it. Getting 50 noses pointed in the same direction is going to be the biggest challenge of McConnell's life. He is a brilliant tactician and will do his best, but there is no guarantee of success.

McConnell is going to get some help, at least on Heller, from the super PAC America First Policies, which is run by six intimates of Donald Trump and/or Mike Pence, most notably former spokeswoman Katrina Pierson. They announced a seven-figure ad buy in Nevada designed to put pressure on the Senator. It's possible that it will work, but it's also possible that it will rebound to Heller's advantage, by reminding constituents of his unwillingness to throw their health care under the bus. The ad calls him a "typical politician," which in Nevada (and 49 other states) is intended as a slur. In the long run, trying to weaken the Republican's weakest 2018 Senate candidate, may not be a good idea, especially since Harry Reid's political machine has now selected an opponent for him: Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV). The ad may provide her with some footage she can use next year.

McConnell may also get some help from Trump himself, who called the Cruz group "four very good people." But if Trump helps push the bill in a more conservative direction, that is only going to make Heller's opposition stronger, and possibly also that of Collins and Murkowski as well. To get the bill through, at least one of those is going to have to vote for it.

Collins and Murkowski object to the bill on ideological grounds. They know that many of their constituents get health care from Planned Parenthood and don't want them to lose it. Heller has a far more important reason to oppose the bill: his career. Unlike the two women, Heller is up for reelection in 2018 in a state that Hillary Clinton won. If he votes for the bill, that vote will probably make him former senator Heller. That is a strong motivator. (V)

Meadows: Senate Bill Won't Pass the House

Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) said that if the Senate health care bill makes it to the House, it won't have enough conservative support to pass. It is entirely possible, however, that Meadows is bluffing in order to get the Senate to make the bill more conservative. The Freedom Caucus hasn't taken an official position on the Senate bill, so Meadows may be speaking just for himself. In the end, no bill is going to please every Republican. When any member of Congress says that he or she can't support a health care bill, the bottom line is always: "If you vote no on this bill, then Obamacare will remain the law of the land forever." Under those conditions, members may change their minds. But we are still in the posturing stage. (V)

Gowdy Will Not Investigate Russiagate

The former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), planned an extensive probe into Donald Trump's connections with Russia. But the new chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), is not interested. Gowdy has said that any potential criminal activity falls within the jurisdiction of special counsel Robert Mueller, as well as the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Putting it more succinctly, Gowdy said that his committee does not investigate crime. (V)

White House Uses Tweet as Official Statement

Speaking of Congressional committees, the White House's communications team has finally just gone and done it. Responding to the leaders of the House and Senate Russia investigations about the possibility of recordings of the meetings between Comey and Donald Trump, White House legislative affairs director Marc Short printed the President's tweet on the subject, stuck it on some letterhead, and sent it off.

This is, of course, a bit lazy and is also disrespectful to the members of Congress (likely deliberately so). However, the biggest impact may have escaped the administration's attention. In using Twitter, Trump gave himself a little bit of wiggle room about what is and what is not an "official" White House statement. Now, that wiggle room is gone, which could just come back to haunt Trump and his lawyers in Robert Mueller's ongoing obstruction of justice investigation. (Z)

Pence Meets with Charles Koch

The day before a meeting of the Koch brothers' donor network, Vice President Mike Pence met with Charles Koch in Colorado. The meeting, which lasted almost an hour, was not on the Vice President's published schedule. A spokesman for the Koch brothers network, James Davis, said the two discussed tax reform (meaning tax cuts, a subject dear to Koch's heart), as well as veterans affairs. While the Koch brothers did not support Donald Trump in 2016 and do not like him, they have a long and friendly relationship with Pence. It is not known if the two discussed how to scrap the "Vice" part in Pence's official title: "Vice President of the United States," but it was surely something both have thought about from time to time. (V)

Spicer "Explains" Off-Camera Briefings

White House Press Secretary (for now) Sean Spicer has continued to alternate between rules for press briefings. Sometimes, cameras are allowed. Sometimes, only audio recordings are allowed. And sometimes, recordings of any type are banned. Recently, "audio only" has been the default option, compelling CNN to send a courtroom sketch artist to capture visuals of the proceedings.

On Friday, Spicer was asked exactly what the reason is for the no-cameras policy. He hemmed and hawed, and then gave two different answers. The first was that, on some days, the White House wants the President to be the "person of record" and does not want to undermine that with camera footage of other people speaking on the same issues. There might be something to this, except that there has been absolutely zero correlation between the days that Spicer bans cameras and the days that Trump sits for filmed interviews or on-camera press conferences. The other explanation that Spicer offered up was that turning off the cameras allows him and the press corps to have a "more pleasant conversation." Judging from his tone of voice (audio only, remember), even he didn't buy what he was selling.

The real reason for the policy is that the White House knows that video footage is particularly compelling (or damning), and they would prefer to have as little of it out there as is possible. Particularly when sensitive subjects are being discussed, like Friday's news about the Russians. But they can't say that publicly, of course. Maybe if the administration takes the weekend to think about it, they can come up with a more plausible excuse than the two that Spicer served up Friday. (Z)

Trump Social-Media Guru Bankrupted by One Illness

Dan Scavino, Donald Trump's social-media guru, had a half-million dollar home and a successful business until his wife, Jennifer, got chronic Lyme disease. Scavino had to quit working to care for her. Even with a $48,000 loan from her parents, the financial stress of $300,000 in bills over the years was too much and in 2015, Scavino had to file for bankruptcy.

Other than the fact that Scavino works for Trump, his situation is common. Medical bills are the largest cause of bankruptcies in the U.S. As the Senate is working on a bill that will make health care more expensive for many sick people, bankruptcies are likely to surge if it passes. (V)

Carrier Employees Angry with Trump

One of President-Elect Trump's first great triumphs came in late November of last year, when he announced that he had "saved" at least 1,100 jobs from being relocated from Carrier's Indiana plant to Monterrey, Mexico. "And by the way, that number is going to go up very substantially as they expand this area, this plant," he bragged. "So the 1,100 is going to be a minimum number."

There was much criticism of the deal at the time, in part because presidents don't have time for engaging in this kind of hands-on negotiating on an ongoing basis, and in part because the jobs were "saved" by giving Carrier various forms of corporate welfare. In other words, Trump did not actually solve any problems, and the rescued jobs were a relative drop in the bucket in an economy that regularly creates 150,000 jobs a month. And now, it turns out that 1,100 was not a "minimum number." Trump got that total by adding in 400 white-collar jobs that were never scheduled to be relocated, and he has done nothing to increase the total since his victory dance. Consequently, only 700 jobs were "saved," while 600 employees are now getting pink slips so that their jobs can be shipped to—you guessed it—Mexico.

Naturally, these people, many of whom voted for Trump specifically based on his job-related promises, are not happy. "I liked this job. This was a job that I actually wanted to retire from," said Trump voter Duane Oreskovic. "It's not going to happen any more." Local union president Robert James concurred: "That is what he said was not going to happen... And a lot of these people voted for Mr. Trump."

It has been said many times before, but it bears repeating: Talk is nice, but at some point people are either going to have jobs or they are not. And in 2018 or 2020, for all those coal miners and factory workers and other underemployed or unemployed people, it's no longer going to be feasible to blame anyone but The Donald. He does not seem to have learned what Harry S. Truman knew from day one: "The buck stops here." And he clearly does not have any special abilities when it comes to jobs, not does he even appear to have much interest in the issue. If he did, he would not be cutting funding for the very programs that are directed toward this exact problem. If the Democrats can offer some meaningful ideas about job creation, or if they just adopt Ronald Reagan's old line about, "If you're better off than you were four years ago, vote for my opponent, and if not then vote for me," they should be a force to be reckoned with. (Z)

Johnny Depp Steps in It

Appearing a film screening in the U.K. on Thursday, actor Johnny Depp went before the assembled crowd and began riffing on Donald Trump. "I think he needs help and there are a lot of wonderful dark, dark places he could go," Depp said. Then, he went where no celebrity should go (see Griffin, Kathy) and made a joke about assassinating The Donald. "When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?" he asked. This was an obvious John Wilkes Booth joke, and the crowd took it as such and greeted the remark with laughter. Depp immediately realized he had erred, though, as he promptly explained that he's not an actor, but instead someone who is paid to "lie for a living."

Needless to say, the White House is not going to let something like this pass, not when there's a chance to score points by lambasting one of them durned Hollywood liberals. A spokesman proclaimed:

President Trump has condemned violence in all forms and it's sad that others like Johnny Depp have not followed his lead. I hope that some of Mr. Depp's colleagues will speak out against this type of rhetoric as strongly as they would if his comments were directed to a democrat [sic] elected official.

This is fair enough (beyond the laughable suggestion that Trump has condemned violence in all forms), but we must recall that Trump has been happy to welcome Ted Nugent to the White House, despite the fact that the right-wing rocker talked about killing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on multiple occasions. Even more remarkable is that the spokesman could say this with a straight face on the exact same day that Trump hosted Al Baldasaro. If that name seems vaguely familiar, it is because Baldasaro made headlines last summer by declaring that Hillary Clinton "should be shot" for treason.

The bottom line is that either such statements are to be taken seriously, or they are not. And either they are morally wrong, or they are not. There are arguments to be made on both sides. But to blast Kathy Griffin and Johnny Depp and yet embrace Ted Nugent and Al Baldasaro is about as obvious a double standard as it gets (see above for another). (Z)

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