May 27

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Clocks Are Striking Thirteen in Washington

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen," announces the opening sentence of George Orwell's 1984, a book about a government that is not content with mere lying, and that goes far beyond that in order to craft an alternative reality unencumbered by things like facts.

At this point, it is well known that Donald Trump lies—boldly, unashamedly, and multiple times on a daily basis. He blew past the 3,000-lie mark in April, right around his 450th day in office, an "achievement" that required him to lie—appropriately enough—about 6.66 times a day. Now it seems that mere lies are not getting it done any more, and that—like Big Brother—the President has moved on to crafting his own reality.

At the heart of the matter is the whole North Korea situation, which has been a mess for decades, and which Trump somehow managed to make messier. After weeks of bragging about his upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-Un, and weeks of getting outmaneuvered by same, Trump released a letter calling the whole thing off. He was unambiguous on that point:

We greatly appreciate your time, patience, and effort with respect to our recent negotiations and discussions relative to a summit long sought by both parties, which was scheduled to take place on June 12 in Singapore. We were informed that the meeting was requested by North Korea, but that to us is totally irrelevant. I was very much looking forward to being there with you. Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place. (emphasis ours)

The tone and grammar of the letter strongly suggest that Trump dictated it personally (something the White House later confirmed) and that he did so in a fit of anger (something the White House is unlikely to admit). In any event, there was also a press conference that day at which a senior administration official answered reporters' questions about the letter. So as to keep the focus on the letter, and to "let the president's remarks stand" on their own, this press conference was a background briefing, and the name of the official who spoke on behalf of the White House was not reported.

The problem is that, as with so much that Trump does, he apparently did not think things through. Without that meeting, there will be no Nobel Peace Prize, and the President badly wants that trophy. It's a bit strange that someone whose mantra is "America First!" cares so much about what a bunch of Norwegians think, but there it is. On the other hand, Trump wants more Norwegians to immigrate to the U.S., although the Norwegians aren't so keen on it.

Furthermore, it's not actually necessary for the United States to be involved with the process, and if Trump decides to back away, there is a good chance that South Korean president Moon Jae-in might seize the opportunity and run with it. In fact, that is what he's doing; on Saturday, Kim and Moon had a surprise meeting to discuss what needs to be done to allow the U.S.-North Korea summit to proceed as planned. The clear subtext of the meeting, however, is "we are capable of getting things done without you, Donald."

As much as Trump would be unhappy to lose out on the Nobel, he would be positively livid if it went to someone else for bringing peace to Korea. In other words, he is now regretting Thursday's letter and press conference. One option would be for the President to admit he erred, but he doesn't admit mistakes. Another option would be to say that he's changed his mind, but apparently even that is a bridge too far. So, his approach has been to behave as if Thursday never happened. He spoke to reporters on Saturday and said, "we're looking at June 12th in Singapore. That hasn't changed," as if anyone who thinks the summit was canceled is nuts. Trump also took to Twitter to declare that the Thursday press conference didn't happen, and that the unnamed source is fake:

The Failing @nytimes quotes “a senior White House official,” who doesn’t exist, as saying “even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.” WRONG AGAIN! Use real people, not phony sources.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 26, 2018

Recall that this wasn't just one leaker talking to one newspaper. It was a White House official, operating in his (or her) official capacity, speaking to a room full of reporters. And some of those reporters recorded the briefing, as they are wont to do. So there is not only audio proof, but we now know that the "unnamed official" was National Security Council member Matt Pottinger.

When it comes to making sense of what's going on here, three possibilities present themselves. The first is that this situation is so high-stakes that Trump is taking his usual tendencies to extremes. The second is that, having gotten away with so many small and medium lies, Trump is willing to tell more and more big lies. And the third is that we are seeing the signs of dementia. That storyline has faded from view, thanks to the President's physical exam in January. However, the test he was given to affirm his mental acuity was not the right tool for the task, and the physician who gave the test—Ronny Jackson—has since been diagnosed with Bad Behavior Syndrome. So, maybe this possibility is worth a second look. (Z)

American Held in Venezuela Is Released

In June of 2016, Josh Holt left his home in Utah and traveled to Venezuela to marry Thamara Caleño, who is a citizen of that country (they met while he was on his Mormon mission). Shortly after the nuptials, the two were arrested and accused of trying to overthrow the Venezuelan government. They languished in prison for two years before finally being freed Friday night. They returned to the U.S. on Saturday, and were greeted on their arrival—naturally—by Donald Trump, who got the photo-op up on Twitter pronto:


— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2018

The President is certainly attempting to lay claim to as much of the credit as he can, though several others—Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), and Rep. Mia Love (R-UT)—are trying to do so as well. The bigger question is: What changed here? Trump says that he gave nothing to Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro to secure Holt's release, and that current U.S sanctions against that country will remain in place. Maybe that's true, and maybe it isn't—at this point, you can never be particularly sure with this administration. It's also very possible that Maduro is trying to run some version of the Kim Jong-Un playbook in hopes of backing Donald Trump into a corner. Earlier this week, the Venezuelan president expelled Todd Robinson, the top U.S. diplomat in the nation. So, that's a stick and an olive branch in the same week, which is pretty similar to Kim's hostile-then-friendly approach. Whatever the case might be, it is likely that Venezuela is going to be in the headlines a lot starting sometime in the next few weeks. (Z)

FBI Obtained Wiretapped Calls from Spain

These shadowy networks of insiders are very complicated, so bear with us. Alexander Torshin is a Russian oligarch who has close ties to Vladimir Putin (admittedly, "Russian oligarch" and "close to Putin" are kind of redundant). He's also good friends with a convicted Russian money launderer and is a member of the National Rifle Association. While attending the NRA's 2016 convention, Torshin had a brief meeting with Donald Trump, Jr. Torshin thus connects, on some level, the Russian government, money laundering, the NRA, and Trump Jr.

Given Torshin's interactions with dubious characters, the Spanish government appointed a special prosecutor—José Grinda Gonzalez—to take a long look at him. That's right, the deep state—er, el estado profundo—extends even to Spain. As part of the investigation, Spanish authorities wiretapped Torshin's conversations. And, we learned Saturday, those recordings have found their way into the hands of the FBI.

Only a few people know exactly why the FBI wanted the recordings. As part of the Russiagate investigation? To put pressure on Trump Jr.? Because of the money-laundering angle? Anything is possible. However, Grinda Gonzalez knows what the recordings contain, and he said, "Mr. Trump's son should be concerned." So, those who thought Jared Kushner was the Trump family member most likely to end up in the hoosegow might just want to think again. (Z)

Bolton Wants to Eliminate Cybersecurity Job

Newly-installed NSA John Bolton wants to put his own stamp on the National Security Council, and is also a fan of cutting the budget. To that end, when Rob Joyce leaves his post as special assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator, the top cybersecurity job in the White House, Bolton wants to get rid of the post, transferring (some) of the responsibilities to other NSC members.

The coordinator oversees a staff that works on all manner of activities apropos to the job description, including election security, encryption policies, and digital warfare. They also work with private companies like Apple and Microsoft to strengthen their security efforts. Given recent events, dialing back the White House's efforts in this area is...concerning. It's possible that Bolton (69 years old), and Trump (71), as folks who grew up before the Computer Age, are operating from a position of ignorance here, and don't fully grasp how significant this is. After all, it was just this week that it was reported that Trump is extremely careless with the security on his cell phones. It's also possible that their priorities are out of whack, and that they simply see saving a bit of money (and/or getting rid of a post created by Barack Obama) as more important than being as secure as possible—a version of "penny wise, pound foolish." Of course, the most nefarious explanation is that poor cybersecurity helped secure Trump's election, and that the administration would like the henhouse to remain accessible to the foxes at least until November 3, 2020. White House insiders currently say the odds are 60/40 that the job gets whacked, though there's lots of blowback from members of Congress and private industry, so it's not a done deal yet. (Z)

Warren Tries to Blunt "Pocahontas" Slur

Although she has shrugged it off, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is clearly bothered by Donald Trump's slurs against her, mocking her as "Pocahontas" for her (currently unproven) claims of Native American ancestry, although she was born and raised in Oklahoma, home to many Native Americans. To that end, she's working overtime to make nice to the Native American community. She's made speeches, attended cultural events, met 16 times with Native American groups and tribal leaders, and signed on as co-sponsor to 13 bills directly affecting Native American tribes. The Senator (or, really, her staff) has even set it up such that anyone who is redirected to her site by going to (something arranged by a presumed Trump supporter who owns the domain) now gets a message on how inappropriate the slur is. All of these activities are aimed at getting the support of Native American tribes, and possibly even confirmation of Warren's ancestry.

Proving Native American ancestry, incidentally, is not so easy as it seems. It generally can't be done via DNA testing, as there is no distinctive chromosomal marker in most cases (particularly for North American tribes). Further, even if DNA testing was viable, it would miss large numbers of folks who were adopted into various tribes for various reasons (with the Black Seminoles being the most famous case). Whether or not Warren ever gets the "proof" she wants, one thing is clear. Being slurred as "Pocahontas" is going to have zero impact on her 2018 Senate reelection bid, but it might have an impact in 2020, if she were to face off against Donald Trump. So, despite the Senator's protestations otherwise, she clearly still has her eye on a White House run. (Z)

McConnell Thinks Sherrod Brown's Seat Is in Play

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke to The Hill, and—among other things—told them that he thinks Sen. Sherrod Brown's (D-OH) seat is in play in November, and might very well be won by Repulbican challenger Jim Renacci. "I saw a survey within the last week in Ohio indicating that race is very competitive. I would certainly add Ohio to the list," McConnell explained.

The survey he is referring to is an internal GOP poll in which the gap between Brown and Renacci was, as one Republican official put it, "within the margin of error." Now let's translate that into what it really means: "We did a poll that is going to skew in a Republican direction, and even then Renacci was trailing." The only non-partisan poll of the race, done back in March, had Brown up by 14 points.

There's no downside for McConnell to claim the seat is in play; maybe he inspires Ohio Republicans to donate a bit more money, or Democrats to waste a bit more. And there is a reason that the Buckeye State is the mother of all swing states (at the moment, its PVI is R+3). Still, it's hard to believe Brown is actually in much danger. His net approval rating is +25%, and Gov. John Kasich's (R-OH) status as the loudest anti-Trump Republican outside of Washington suggests that we should not expect enormous GOP enthusiasm in Ohio for the midterms. Time will tell, but it's going to take one or two or three polls more reliable than an internal, partisan survey before it's really correct to say that Ohio is "in play." (Z)

Nunes Gets Ready for the Fight of His Life

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) generally doesn't have to worry too much about reelection in his very red district, having won his last three contests by 35, 44, and 24 points. However, he has made himself Donald Trump's #1 ally in the House, which will undoubtedly stoke enthusiasm among Trump-loving voters, but is also going to put a giant target on his back. Also not helping things is that a winery in which the Congressman is part-owner was just busted for helping organize a nighttime cruise that featured cocaine and prostitutes in generous quantities.

Nunes is at least a little bit nervous. He has been shaking the fundraising tree for the last couple of months, which allowed him to raise $2.3 million, leaving him with more than $5 million on hand. That's a veritable fortune in his district—Tulare—which, while it is in California, is pretty rural. Nunes is also a pretty good match for the district, which is more likely to be mistaken for Alabama than for San Francisco or Los Angeles. In short, he's still the favorite to be reelected.

That said, Nunes also has some things to be worried about besides the coke and hookers. He's notoriously bad at constituent services, focusing nearly all of his energy on Washington, which could come back to bite him. And while CA-22's PVI of R+8 makes it quite red, it's not as red as the (somewhat similar) district in Pennsylvania that Democrat Conor Lamb won. Further, while CA-22 is 42.4% white, it's also 44.8% Latino. If those folks are roused to action by an opportunity to poke a Trump acolyte in the face, that would be bad news for Nunes. Finally, the Democrats running in the primary for the right to oppose Nunes have been raising unusually large amounts of money (albeit not millions), much of it coming from outside the state. So, anti-Trump folks from across the nation look set to get involved in the race. Add it all up, and this could be one of the most interesting contests in November, and a useful case study for exactly how toxic the President might be. (Z)

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