Mar. 03

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Trade War Revs Up

Yesterday, Donald Trump again defended his decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, despite most White House staff members, congressional leaders, and economists saying that his plan is a bad idea. Trump even said that trade wars are easy to win.

When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win. Example, when we are down $100 billion with a certain country and they get cute, don't trade anymore-we win big. It's easy!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 2, 2018

He seemed to miss the fact that if the U.S. is down $100 billion with some country, that country is apparently making some product that an awful lot of Americans want and if he cuts off all trade with that country, those Americans are not likely to be pleased. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), a traditional Republican who favors free trade, pushed back on Trump yesterday, saying: "Kooky 18th century protectionism will jack up prices on American families—and will prompt retaliation from other countries."

Sure enough, Sasse had barely finished speaking when the retaliation started. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, bourbon, orange juice, and other American exports. Those products weren't chosen at random. Harley-Davidson is in the district of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Bourbon comes from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's state of Kentucky. Orange juice comes from the mother of all swing states, Florida. The EU understands where the pressure points are.

Canada, South Korea, and Japan all export steel to the U.S., but they also import large amounts of American agricultural products. Those countries, and others, may decide that they will put a tax on those products, something that will be felt very quickly in the big farming states, most of which have Republican senators and representatives. When the farmers in those states see their markets drying up, they are not likely to blame Hillary Clinton. (V)

One Beneficiary of the Tariffs: Carl Icahn

There have been only 44 men to serve as president, and most of them were generally upstanding fellows. Between that, and the fact that the Constitution is something of a barebones document, there is much that is uncertain about the relationship between the POTUS and the law. Most variations of the sentence: "Can the president be impeached/arrested/prosecuted for _____________?" don't really have a good answer, because there's never been a need for an answer. Donald Trump appears to be doing much to clarify and establish precedents in this area of the law, though. The latest potential entry for the blank above: insider trading.

One of Trump's closest confidants is the billionaire Carl Icahn. Icahn was seriously considered for a job in the administration (Commerce? Treasury?) and declined, either because he didn't want to divest himself of his financial interests, or he didn't want to take a pay cut (depends on whom you ask). For the past year, then, Icahn has been one of Trump's favorite phone calls, and the pair reportedly speak multiple times each week. Just days before Trump announced his plans to slap a tariff on steel imports, Icahn sold $31.3 million worth of shares in the crane and lifting equipment supplier Manitowoc Company, which depends heavily on steel imports. After The Donald made his announcement, the price of Manitowoc dropped a little over $6 a share, which means that Icahn's "foresight" has already saved him $6 million.

It is hard to imagine that a man worth almost $17 billion would risk imprisonment over $6 million, which is a relative drop in the bucket to him. However, the love of money does strange things to people, and if the sale really was a coincidence—meaning that the tariff never came up in Icahn's conversations with the President—then he should probably head to Las Vegas or buy some lottery tickets while his luck is running hot, hot, hot. On the other hand, if Icahn is guilty of wrongdoing, it raises a lot of uncomfortable questions for Trump. Was the President deliberately helping his friend, or was he an unwitting dupe? Whatever the case may be, is Trump guilty of a crime? If so, what crime, and can it be prosecuted? In short, the list of things The Donald should be worried about just keeps getting longer. (Z)

Jared Kushner Is in Deep Doodoo

First son-in-law Jared Kushner has been in the news quite a bit the past week, and none of it has been good. His security clearance was changed from "top secret" to "secret," which means he no longer gets the President's Daily Brief. His colleagues are afraid to talk to him because they fear he may be a target of special counsel Robert Mueller. His financial woes are so well known that at least four foreign countries have tried to use them to manipulate him. CEOs of financial companies who talked to him in the White House suddenly are willing to loan him hundreds of millions of dollars. NBC News is now reporting that federal investigators are looking closely at whether Kushner's discussions with foreigners have shaped government policy, in other words, is he guilty of plain old-fashioned vanilla corruption. For example, the AP has a story out there about how the SEC suddenly dropped an investigation into Apollo Global Management a month after the company gave Kushner's troubled business a loan of $180 million.

In short, he is up to his ears in trouble—and this is before Mueller trains the big guns on him, for example, to find out why he asked the Russian ambassador to set up a secret communications channel with Moscow back in Dec. 2016.

Axios' Jim vandeHei has written a piece claiming there is a coordinated plan by Kushner's enemies to destroy him. It consists of five parts:

More than one source has said that Chief of Staff John Kelly wants him out of the White House. Despite all this, Kushner is digging in. One source said that First Daughter Ivanka Trump is not leaving the building and Kushner is not prepared to leave her alone there among the wolves. If Kushner doesn't want to leave, and apparently he doesn't, and assuming he does not end up leaving in handcuffs, then the only person with the power to throw him out is Donald Trump. But when it comes to firing hired help, The Donald is a coward and always has someone else do it. Firing family is going to be nearly impossible for him, unless Mueller indicts Kushner for something. (V)

The U.S. May Yet Get One of the Russian Hackers

When Robert Mueller indicted a baker's dozen of Russian hackers in February, it sent a symbolic message to Russia that Mueller was onto its game, but no one expected any of the hackers to show up as a defendant in a U.S. courtroom anytime soon. Recent developments have made that less certain. Czech police have arrested one of them in Prague and are considering a request from the U.S. for his extradition. Russia's president Vladimir Putin is desperate for him not to be extradited to the U.S., so he has requested that the man, Yevgeniy Nikulin, be sent back to Russia on a minor charge of stealing $2,000 online in 2009. Czech Minister of Justice Robert Pelikan gets to decide where he goes, if anywhere. However, the country's pro-Russia president, Milos Zeman, wants him sent back to Russia, so domestic Czech politics play a role here. If Pelikan decides to send him to the U.S., Mueller will undoubted really turn the screws on him, and who knows what secrets he might divulge to save his neck. (V)

Russiagate Just Keeps Getting Stranger

Anastasia Vashukevich is a 21-year old model and blogger from Belarus, and is apparently the mistress of Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who has close ties to Vladimir Putin and to former Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Vashukevich, who also goes by the name Nastya Rybka, was arrested in Thailand for conducting a "sex training workshop," whatever that might be. In hopes of getting out of prison, Vashukevich has made this offer: She will reveal the "truth" about Trump's connections to Russia if some country will grant her asylum and get her out of jail.

To sum up, then: That's a Belarusan "model" with ties to Russia who will spill the dirt on an American president in hopes of escaping a Thai prison. Got it? Good. Of course, her claims could just be crazy talk, or an attempt to get attention, except that there are a few clues that suggest she might actually have the goods (or, at least, some goods). First, she really does have ties to people who are in the know, or who might be in the know. Second, there is a video (in Russian) posted to YouTube by Aleksei A. Navalny, an opponent of Putin, and an activist. It's sort of like the Russian version of the Steele dossier. In the 25-minute clip, Navalny lays out what he's learned about Russian interference in the 2016 elections, relying significantly on evidence from...Anastasia Vashukevich. Unless Navalny is a co-conspirator, then it means he believes at least some of what Vashukevich is claiming. Further, the Russian government has tried (unsuccessfully) to get the video removed from YouTube, which again suggests that there must be something meaningful there.

Maybe there's actually nothing here, and we won't be hearing from or about Vashukevich again. However, the whole thing is plausible enough that many mainstream media sources in the U.S. have run the story, including the New York Times, CNN, CBS, ABC, and the Washington Post. Heck, even Fox News ran it, though their headline was careful to note that there's "no proof." Whether it's true or not, it's another wild turn in what is surely becoming the craziest soap opera in American political history. All we need now is someone to spill what they know about the President while using the name of a porn movie as an pseudonym. (Z)

Trump, Pence Attend Funeral

It is not often that the President and Vice President of the United States both attend the same funeral, but it happened on Friday. The individual being buried had more than a few black marks on his record, among them:

One might be forgiven for thinking that the deceased was, perhaps, one of the Charlottesville protesters. But, of course, it was not one of them. It was the preacher Billy Graham, who received a hero's farewell on Friday at an invited-guests-only 2,000-person funeral.

It is interesting that few people—even Trump's fiercest critics—seem to care that he's lending the gravitas of the presidency to the funeral of someone like that. Exactly why Graham's well-established record of bigotry is not a concern is anyone's guess. Because he was old (99)? Because he continually reminded us he was a man of God? Because he claimed (rather disingenuously) to be apolitical (even though he managed to make quite clear his endorsement of most of the last half-dozen Republican presidential candidates)? Because he offered half-hearted apologies for some of his misdeeds, sometimes after being caught red-handed (the anti-Semitic remarks were caught on the same tape system that led to Nixon's impeachment), and sometimes after it was clear he had played his hand wrong (Graham finally acknowledged in the 1970s that maybe King had a point)? It's true that people can change, and it's true that Graham (apparently) did in some ways, but—for example—he remained firmly anti-gay and anti-women's equality to his dying day.

In fairness to Trump, Barack Obama also praised Graham after his death:

Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many - and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.

— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) February 21, 2018

Indeed, Graham was famously intimate with a dozen or so presidents, dating back to the 1950s. The only one who really did not buy what he was selling was Harry S. Truman, who described the then up-and-coming evangelical as "one of those counterfeits," and added, "All he's interested in is getting his name in the newspaper." That may help explain why Trump was a fan—they're very much on the same page when it comes to publicity. As to the rest of the country, particularly the part that generally deplores things like homophobia and sexism, who knows? (Z)

Trump Has a Personnel Problem

Actually, the President has two personnel problems. The people he really wants to keep are leaving and the people he can't stand are staying. First the dear departed:

The other side of the coin is a group of people Trump really doesn't like but doesn't have the cojones to walk up to them and say: "You're fired." He does that only on television. These include:

Trump has told confidants he is feeling more and more isolated every day, in no small part because he is surrounded by the wrong people. (V)

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