Friday Talking Points [493] -- Colluding In Plain Sight

[ Posted Friday, July 20th, 2018 – 17:03 PDT ]

President Donald Trump is now openly colluding with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, in everyone's plain sight. That's an astonishing thing to type, but there is simply no other way to put it. Trump is now Putin's ultimate "useful idiot," to resurrect an old Cold War term. The subject of whether the president of the United States has just committed treason is now being seriously discussed. That's where we, as a nation, find ourselves at the present moment.

Before we get to the week's events, though, we have to insist on a change in terms (that we sincerely hope the rest of the media picks up on). Properly put: Our nation is under attack by a foreign power. We were attacked by this very same power in the 2016 presidential election cycle. If this wasn't an actual act of war (depending on your definition), it was surely intended to weaken our nation. It was not "meddling." Meddling is what Scooby Doo and the gang are routinely accused of. It is a cartoon word. Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, did not merely meddle in our election, they directly attacked the cornerstone of American democracy. Period. They did it before, and they continue to do it now, in the buildup to the 2018 midterm elections. We are under attack, people. The first thing we need to do to combat this attack is to acknowledge it for what it is -- and it is definitely not chasing pirate ghosts with the help of a talking dog. It is a direct attack on American democracy, plain and simple.

The American intelligence community knows this. In fact, they are currently telling anyone who will listen that "the red lights are flashing" once again -- our democratic system is once again being attacked by a foreign adversary. And the president of the United States doesn't even seem to understand this, even in a superficial way. All he sees is an effort to personally embarrass him. Which is why he's siding with Putin over his own intelligence agencies.

Donald Trump is not the only one acting like a Russian asset, however. House Republicans just voted this week to kill funding to the states to protect election systems against cyberattack, even in the face of mounting evidence that this is exactly what is happening, right now. The definition of treason is to "give aid and comfort to the enemy," and that's a pretty good description of killing off any funding to protect our states' election systems against Russian attacks when you know those attacks are ongoing. This is cowardice in the face of an enemy, plain and simple.

Not every Republican has been bamboozled by Russia, for which we can thank our lucky stars. Part of Donald Trump's open collusion with Putin this week was his outright enthusiasm ("it's an incredible offer!") for a plan to allow Russian intelligence agents to question a former U.S. ambassador -- a job which brings with it diplomatic immunity, please remember. When asked about this, days after Trump's disastrous summit, Sarah Huckabee Sanders pointedly did not shoot the idea down in any way: "The president is going to meet with his team, and we'll let you know when we have an announcement on that." Trump entertained the idea right up until the Senate was about to vote (which they did, unanimously, 98-0) to condemn such an insane plan. Then the White House finally (and reluctantly) backed down, although they couldn't resist still using sugary language to describe Putin's proposal: "It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it. Hopefully President Putin will have the 12 identified Russians come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt." Really? "In sincerity"?? "Hopefully"??? That's the best you can do? Wow.

One of Trump's favorite lines is: "No collusion!" Or, as he wrote on a statement prepared for him by others in an effort to walk back his colluding with Putin on the world stage: "THERE WAS NO COLUSION (sic)." But whatever happened during the 2016 election, Trump is -- right now -- colluding with Russia right out in the open, for all to see. Putin gives Trump his marching orders, and it falls to the rest of the American government to fight back against all of Putin's wonderful ideas to benefit Russia. Donald Trump has -- quite openly -- gone from "America first!" to "Russia first!" right before our very eyes.

Journalists are struggling with how to write about what is going on, because the implications are so staggering. Two articles appeared in the Washington Post this week which reflect this unease, one titled: "The Entire Republican Party Is Becoming A Russian Asset," which contains a rather extensive bullet-point list which lays out this case.

The second was titled: "If This Is Not Treason, Then What Is?" but the subtitle was even more interesting: "We should have a debate over whether treason is being committed by the White House. Yes, I Just Typed Those Words." Here's just a taste of this article (both articles are worth reading in full):

Based on the actions of the Trump administration this week, reasonable people can disagree over whether treason is being committed. Let me repeat that: Reasonable people can disagree over whether treason is being committed by this White House.

I do not want to be writing those words. Much as I may have disagreed with previous administrations in my lifetime, I never doubted that the people in those administrations were trying to advance the national interest the best way they thought possible. After this past week, can that case be made with Trump and his national security team?

What is the most notable about the way this has played out all week long is that even now it appears nobody in the administration has any idea of what Trump and Putin actually said to each other. Trump has apparently not briefed anyone from the State Department, the Pentagon, or the White House on what (if anything) was either discussed or agreed to. When asked by journalists, both the State Department and the Pentagon admitted that they were being kept in the dark and had no idea if any new U.S. policies had emerged from the meeting -- on Syria, on Ukraine, or on Russia. Trump's meeting with Putin was so secret, only he knows what went on in it.

Of course, Putin knows too, and because Trump has utterly failed to bring any of his advisors into the loop, the field remains clear for the Russian government to claim any number of things were agreed to or discussed -- which they've been doing, all week long. The public, the media, Congress, and the Trump administration itself is finding out what went on in the meeting not from President Trump but from President Putin. That should be a frightening state of affairs, but so far it hasn't received the attention it deserves.

This was made all the more obvious by one amusing incident during the week, when Trump's Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats found out that Trump had invited Putin to visit the White House this fall when everyone else in American found out -- from a White House tweet. Coats was being interviewed at a conference on national security, and had just been asked whether he thought Trump's meeting with Putin had been a good idea (Coats said it was not a good idea, for the record). The interviewer then reported breaking news, and asked Coats if he had heard that Trump had invited Putin to the White House. His reaction was, in a word, jaw-dropping: "Say that again... Did I hear you?" When the news was repeated, Coats let out a long: "Okaaaaay," before snidely responding: "That's going to be special." The man supposedly responsible for all the intelligence services in the country was reduced to the Church Lady, in other words.

For once in the era of Trump, we had a single-story week, because the specter of an American president colluding with a Russian leader on the same stage was so momentous. No other story even had a chance, at least until today (right before we began writing this, the news broke that Michael Cohen did indeed tape phone calls, and that the F.B.I. has at least one of these where payments to a Playboy Playmate were discussed with Donald Trump -- which is a juicy enough story that it might manage to edge the "Trump Commits Treason" headlines out).

Donald Trump did his best Neville Chamberlain impression this week, appeasing Russia and doing all but grovelling before Vladimir Putin. Democrats immediately pointed out that the most likely explanation of his fawning behavior was that Putin had the goods on Trump. Nancy Pelosi didn't mince words: "President Trump's weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially or politically." Chuck Schumer echoed this point: "A single, ominous question now hangs over the White House: What could possibly cause President Trump to put the interests of Russia over those of the United States? Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous behavior is the possibility that President Putin holds damaging information over President Trump." The reaction in the media was even more swift. Anderson Cooper, immediately following the press conference, summed up the surreal experience: "You have been watching perhaps one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president at a summit in front of a Russian leader certainly than I've ever seen."

But, of course, you'd expect those sorts of comments from Democratic leaders and the media, right? Well, we've devoted our talking points this week to all the white-hot heat raging towards Trump from members of his own party. Because watching an American president collude with a Russian leader on live television was too much for even members of his own party. In fact, it was even too much for Fox News. But before we get to our review of all the Republican condemnations, we have to first get the weekly awards out of the way.


Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer certainly deserves at least an Honorable Mention this week, for writing the bill that caused Trump to back down. When the White House said it was openly considering Putin's plan that America allow his intelligence agents to interview a former U.S. ambassador, Schumer went into action and wrote a bill condemning such a move in the strongest language. Because it was a non-binding resolution, Republicans were able to vote for it as well, and it passed the Senate with an unheard-of (these days) unanimous 98-0 vote. Without using the word, the Republican Senate just censured the Republican president, which is a pretty astonishing turn of events. Even more astonishing is that they did so before the fact, to pre-emptively smack the idea down before Trump could embarrass himself further (after he had already called it "an incredible offer" during his press conference).

But our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week was former president Barack Obama, who gave a rousing speech in South Africa to mark the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's birth. Without mentioning Trump by name (he didn't have to, it was obvious who he was talking about), Obama exposed the dangerous road we all face:

But the credibility of the international system, the faith in experts in places like Washington or Brussels, all that had taken a blow. And a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear, and that kind of politics is now on the move. It's on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I am simply stating the facts.

Look around. Strongman politics are ascendant suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained -- the form of it -- but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. In the West, you've got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism. Many developing countries now are looking at China's model of authoritarian control combined with mercantilist capitalism as preferable to the messiness of democracy. Who needs free speech as long as the economy is going good?

The free press is under attack. Censorship and state control of media is on the rise. Social media -- once seen as a mechanism to promote knowledge and understanding and solidarity -- has proved to be just as effective promoting hatred and paranoia and propaganda and conspiracy theories.

Towards the end of the speech, Obama got more specific.

And I should add for this to work, we have to actually believe in an objective reality. This is another one of these things that I didn't have to lecture about. You have to believe in facts. Without facts, there is no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it's going to be hard for us to cooperate. I can find common ground for those who oppose the Paris Accords because, for example, they might say, well, it's not going to work, you can't get everybody to cooperate, or they might say it's more important for us to provide cheap energy for the poor, even if it means in the short term that there's more pollution. At least I can have a debate with them about that and I can show them why I think clean energy is the better path, especially for poor countries, that you can leapfrog old technologies. I can't find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world's scientists tell us it is. I don't know where to start talking to you about this. If you start saying it's an elaborate hoax, I don't know what to — where do we start?

Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in state-sponsored propaganda; we see it in internet-driven fabrications, we see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, we see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they're caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they'd be like, "Ah, man." Now they just keep on lying.

Even without naming names, it's pretty obvious who Obama is referring to, here. But while these are two of the most powerful excerpts from the speech (which is well worth reading in full or watching on video), they are also two of the most negative. The rest of the speech was a solid rejection of these dark overtones with an uplifting call to how positive the future is capable of being. It is a speech of hope, and a speech of a brighter future for all.

For making such a powerful statement in defense of objective truth and international norms in the same week where Trump was doing his best to trash both of these concepts, Barack Obama is easily our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

[Barack Obama is now a private citizen, and it is our policy not to provide contact information for such persons, so if you'd like to let him know you appreciate his efforts, you'll have to search his contact information out for yourself.]


Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week

In a week where the biggest political subject was whether the Republican president was openly committing treason with the leader of Russia (or was just duped by him into believing Russian propaganda), we find it impossible to single out any Democrats for admonishment. To put this another way: no matter how badly any Democrat acted this week, he or she didn't commit treason with Vladimir Putin, did they? So we're going to retire the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award until next week, due to the sheer insanity coming from the other side of the aisle.


Friday Talking Points

Volume 493 (7/20/18)

First, a program note. Next week's Friday Talking Points column will (hopefully... no guarantees) be posted as usual, although I will be travelling to the Netroots Nation conference soon after. This will mean that the following Friday's column (on August 3) will not be an original one. We will then resume regular columns the week after. We may be posting random columns from Netroots Nation, but again, no promises.

With that out of the way, we have a special Friday Talking Points, because we are turning the whole thing over to the opposition once again. We used to do this regularly, since the rise of Trump, but haven't done so in a while. This week, however, the rage against Trump's obvious collusion with Putin coming from the right was so forceful that we cannot even limit it to the usual seven talking points.

We're going to start with the shortest responses, and gradually move on to the longer ones. We finish with the most scathing response of all, from Senator John McCain. While one or two sentences from this blast have been picked up by the media, McCain says much more than just a few soundbites, so we've reprinted his entire statement.

But first, a few snap reactions, mostly from Twitter. Probably the most astonishing thing about the reaction from the right in condemnation of Trump's collusion came from his favorite network, Fox News. Yep, you heard that right -- even the folks at Fox News couldn't excuse such blatant kowtowing to a tyrant, and for once they felt the need to push back against Trump. This wasn't just a single Fox talking head excoriating the president, it was a group effort. We'll give just one example, the headline of an article posted on the Fox website: "Putin Eats Trump's Lunch In Helsinki." That's gotta hurt.

But again, that's just the media. The pushback was even more fierce from Republican officeholders and national security experts. Former C.I.A. director John Brennan was one of the first of these to push back, and he pushed back as hard as he could, tweeting:

Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of "high crimes & misdemeanors." It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

Brennan later said in an interview:

Donald Trump knows what he has done and he knows what might the Russians are aware of. So I think his actions towards Mr. Putin may reflect that concern in term of what is in Donald Trump's past that the Russians have and might use against him.

Brennan was then asked if the C.I.A. might actually withhold sensitive information from the president because they saw him as a security threat (because Trump might just share the intelligence with Putin). Notably, Brennan did not deny this possibility. This would be extraordinary in the extreme, and would essentially mean the C.I.A. started treating the president as a foreign asset or spy.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse pushed back on Trump blaming the United States rather than Russia for Russia's aggression "bizarre and flat-out wrong." He issued a statement which said, in part:

The United States is not to blame. America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the president plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake echoed this line of thinking:

I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful.

On the Senate floor, Flake went further, saying that Trump "let down the free world by giving aid and comfort to an enemy of democracy."

Please remember, these are Republican responses to their own president.

Former Republican congressman Joe Walsh tweeted a warning for fellow Republicans:

Every Republican running for office needs to be asked: When it comes to Russian interference in our elections, do you stand with America's intelligence community or do you stand with Putin & Trump?

One Republican county chairman had had enough, and quit in disgust. Chris Gagin, who used to be the chair of the Belmont County (Ohio) Republican Party, tweeted his resignation to the world:

I remain a proud conservative and Republican, but I resigned today as Belmont Co Ohio GOP Chairman. I did so as a matter of conscience, and my sense of duty.

He further explained his reasoning:

The President is entitled to GOP party leaders, at all levels, fully committed to his views and agenda. Following today's press conference with Pres. Putin, as well as certain policy differences, most especially on trade, I could no longer fulfill that duty. Thus, I resigned.

One person uniquely situated to comment on Trump's collusion is Republican Representative Will Hurd, who was a C.I.A. intelligence agent for years before entering politics. He wrote a rather astonishing statement in the New York Times which begins with accusing the president of being a Russian asset:

Over the course of my career as an undercover officer in the C.I.A., I saw Russian intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American president would be one of them.

The president's failure to defend the United States intelligence community's unanimous conclusions of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and condemn Russian covert counterinfluence campaigns and his standing idle on the world stage while a Russian dictator spouted lies confused many but should concern all Americans. By playing into Vladimir Putin's hands, the leader of the free world actively participated in a Russian disinformation campaign that legitimized Russian denial and weakened the credibility of the United States to both our friends and foes abroad.

George Will was also not holding back this week, in a column titled: "This Sad, Embarrassing Wreck Of A Man." This is worth an extended excerpt, to fully appreciate Will's snarky use of language:

America's child president had a play date with a KGB alumnus, who surely enjoyed providing day care. It was a useful, because illuminating, event: Now we shall see how many Republicans retain a capacity for embarrassment.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Democrat closely associated with such Democratic national security stalwarts as former senator Henry Jackson and former senator and former vice president Hubert Humphrey, was President Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations. In her speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, she explained her disaffection from her party: "They always blame America first." In Helsinki, the president who bandies the phrase "America First" put himself first, as always, and America last, behind President Vladimir Putin's regime.

Because the Democrats had just held their convention in San Francisco, Kirkpatrick branded the "blame America first" cohort as "San Francisco Democrats." Thirty-four years on, how numerous are the "Helsinki Republicans"?

. . .

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and others might believe that they must stay in their positions lest there be no adult supervision of the Oval playpen. This is a serious worry, but so is this: Can those people do their jobs for someone who has neither respect nor loyalty for them?

Like the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe's short story with that title, collusion with Russia is hiding in plain sight. We shall learn from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation whether in 2016 there was collusion with Russia by members of the Trump campaign. The world, however, saw in Helsinki something more grave -- ongoing collusion between Trump, now in power, and Russia. The collusion is in what Trump says (refusing to back the United States' intelligence agencies) and in what evidently went unsaid (such as: You ought to stop disrupting Ukraine, downing civilian airliners, attempting to assassinate people abroad using poisons, and so on, and on).

Americans elected a president who -- this is a safe surmise -- knew that he had more to fear from making his tax returns public than from keeping them secret. The most innocent inference is that for decades he has depended on an American weakness, susceptibility to the tacky charisma of wealth, which would evaporate when his tax returns revealed that he has always lied about his wealth, too. A more ominous explanation might be that his redundantly demonstrated incompetence as a businessman tumbled him into unsavory financial dependencies on Russians. A still more sinister explanation might be that the Russians have something else, something worse, to keep him compliant.

The explanation is in doubt; what needs to be explained -- his compliance -- is not. Granted, Trump has a weak man's banal fascination with strong men whose disdain for him is evidently unimaginable to him. And, yes, he only perfunctorily pretends to have priorities beyond personal aggrandizement. But just as astronomers inferred, from anomalies in the orbits of the planet Uranus, the existence of Neptune before actually seeing it, Mueller might infer, and then find, still-hidden sources of the behavior of this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man.

Astonishingly, this wasn't even the worst condemnation of Trump this week by a fellow Republican. That prize goes to John McCain, who fired off his reaction almost immediately after Trump's disastrous press conference with Putin. So to end this week's column, here is McCain's scathing statement in its entirety:

Today's press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory. The damage inflicted by President Trump's naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate. But it is clear that the summit in Helsinki was a tragic mistake.

President Trump proved not only unable, but unwilling to stand up to Putin. He and Putin seemed to be speaking from the same script as the president made a conscious choice to defend a tyrant against the fair questions of a free press, and to grant Putin an uncontested platform to spew propaganda and lies to the world.

It is tempting to describe the press conference as a pathetic rout -- as an illustration of the perils of under-preparation and inexperience. But these were not the errant tweets of a novice politician. These were the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin's regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule, his violent disregard for the sovereignty of his neighbors, his complicity in the slaughter of the Syrian people, his violation of international treaties, and his assault on democratic institutions throughout the world.

Coming close on the heels of President Trump's bombastic and erratic conduct towards our closest friends and allies in Brussels and Britain, today's press conference marks a recent low point in the history of the American presidency. That the president was attended in Helsinki by a team of competent and patriotic advisers makes his blunders and capitulations all the more painful and inexplicable.

No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are -- a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad. American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.

-- Chris Weigant


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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground