Russia probes kick into high gear

Politico reports: The congressional Russia investigations are entering a new and more serious phase as lawmakers return from the August recess amid fresh revelations about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In the coming weeks, both intelligence committees are expected to conduct closed-door interviews with high-ranking members of the Trump campaign, and potential witnesses could include Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr.

The two panels are also looking at possibly holding public hearings this fall.

In addition, Trump Jr. is set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is conducting its own parallel investigation into President Donald Trump and his associates’ alleged ties to Moscow.

The return of the congressional Russia probes also means the return of a phenomenon that has reportedly enraged Trump and caused him to lash out at GOP leaders: constant headlines about the latest incremental developments in these sprawling and unwieldy investigations. [Continue reading…]

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How business leaders are trying to convince Congress to save the ‘Dreamers’ from Trump

The Washington Post reports: Business leaders across industries, from tech to agriculture, are appealing to Congress to protect nearly 800,000 undocumented workers from deportation as President Trump is expected on Tuesday to announce a plan to revoke their permission to work.

The Trump administration has indicated it would phase out the five-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed immigrants who have lived in the United States illegally since they were children to work without punishment.

Politico first reported Sunday night that Trump plans to rescind the program but delay enforcement for six months to give Congress time to pass legislation to replace the Obama-era provision.

“This is not the end of the story. Congress can act today,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of New American Economy in an interview Monday. “We have been gearing up for this big fight that we hope is coming.”

Robbins said the national business coalition, founded by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to advocate for immigration reform, will have more than 100 corporate and conservative leaders lined up in at least 15 states by Tuesday to begin pressuring Congress to act. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s next self-inflicted crisis is a nuclear Iran

Jeffrey Lewis writes: Oct. 15, 2017. Put it in your calendar.

By that date, President Donald Trump must yet again certify that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Indeed, owing to the infinite wisdom of the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the U.S. Senate, the president must make such a certification every 90 days. Trump has done so twice, although each time at the last possible moment and only following a knock-down, drag-out fight in which a bunch of globalist cucks, also known as Trump’s national security team, implored him not to walk away from the agreement. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said, “If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago.”

Which is a weird thing to say because, you know, it is up to him whether to certify that Iran is in compliance. If Trump simply does nothing, Congress can reimpose sanctions on an expedited basis, which it would almost certainly do, thereby possibly collapsing the agreement.

The Iranians, of course, have noticed this little carnival of bellicosity. Both President Hassan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the nuclear energy program, recently said that if the United States reimposes sanctions, Iran could quickly resume a limited number of nuclear activities. These statements were widely misquoted, as Ariane Tabatabai notes, but they remind us that Iran is contemplating its options.

So it is time for a stark warning: If the United States walks away from the JCPOA, Iran could have a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) much more quickly than you might think, possibly before Trump leaves office.

The United States walked away from the Agreed Framework with North Korea in 2003. Three years later, North Korea exploded its first nuclear weapon. This summer, North Korea started testing long-range missiles that can carry those nuclear weapons to cities in the United States like New York and Los Angeles.

If the United States walks away from the JCPOA, Iran could do the same thing — only faster. This is admittedly a worst-case scenario, but as you may have noticed last November, unlikely, even unthinkable things occasionally do happen. [Continue reading…]

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Why America still hasn’t learned the lessons of Katrina

Annie Snider reports: The most important piece of the North American continent right now may be a slice of land here, 13 miles long, 65 feet wide, much of it just six months old.

From the air, the Caminada Headland is a sparkling strip of beige and green rising up from the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also a barricade, protecting one of the most important nodes in North America’s oil supply, a busy seaport serving more than 90 percent of deep-water oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana coast, this strip served as a critical barrier between the pounding waters of the Gulf and the machinery of the port just half a mile behind—and was all but washed away in the process, becoming little more than a narrow strip of sand with waves crashing over it. Restoring it before the next major hurricane became a top priority.

“It’s pretty freaking amazing. All of this stuff was the first line of defense that was just gone,” said Garret Graves, a U.S. congressman who served for six years as the head of Louisiana’s coastal protection and restoration efforts in the wake of Katrina.

Today, Caminada Headland is a robust new island backed by thick, healthy marshes, thanks to a $216 million project launched by Graves and the state of Louisiana. But what looks like a success story from the window of a seaplane was, to Graves and nearly everyone else involved, an expensive and exhausting struggle—one that raises serious questions about America’s ability to grapple with the increasing problems caused by rising coastal waters and more destructive storms as the climate changes.

As Hurricane Harvey plows furiously across the Gulf Coast, again endangering homes and critical industries, Graves and others worry that Washington’s systems for protecting communities against weather disasters haven’t gotten better since that 2005 disaster, and in many ways may be worse. The state of Louisiana wasn’t supposed to shoulder the Caminada Headland project itself: Rebuilding the island was originally the job of the Army Corps of Engineers, the 215-year-old entity charged with building and maintaining our country’s ports, harbors, locks, dams, levees and ecosystem restoration projects. Today, the agency is the single most important agency in coastal America’s battle against rising seas, at the center of every major water-resources project in the country, either as builder or permitter. But the state of Louisiana, exasperated by federal delays and increasingly worried that the next big storm could just wipe out the port, eventually fronted the money and pumped the sand on its own. Today, despite years and millions of federal dollars poured into studying the Caminada Headland project and neighboring islands slated for restoration, the Corps has yet to push a dime toward construction.

Graves compares his experience with the Corps to that of a “battered ex-spouse”: “I feel like I’ve been lied to, cheated, kicked in the teeth over and over and over again.”

The sclerotic Army Corps of Engineers is the most visible and frustrating symptom of what many officials have come to see as the country’s backward approach to disaster policy. From the way Congress appropriates money to the specific rebuilding efforts that federal agencies encourage, national policies almost uniformly look backward, to the last storm, rather than ahead to the next. And the scale of the potential damage has caused agencies to become more risk-averse in ways that can obstruct, rather than help, local communities’ attempts to protect themselves. The Army Corps, for example, requires Louisiana to rebuild a full suite of five islands before it can reclaim any of the money it spent on the one headland—and is currently insisting it will take another half-decade simply to review an innovative wetlands restoration project the state has been working on for more than a decade and views as the linchpin of its coastal efforts. Meanwhile, new design standards inspired by Katrina have made levee projects wildly unaffordable.

As the effects of climate change play out, the risks posed by storms like Katrina and Harvey stand to get only worse. A not-yet-final draft of National Climate Assessment, produced by scientists across 13 federal agencies, predicts that global sea levels will likely rise between half a foot and 1.2 feet by 2050, and between 1 and 4 feet by the end of the century. In areas like the Northeast and the Gulf of Mexico, relative sea-level rise will happen much faster, researchers say. Coastal Louisiana is currently losing a football field’s worth of wetlands every 90 minutes, making it a harbinger for the crises that coastal communities around the country are expected to face. [Continue reading…]

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Republican floats measure to kill Mueller probe after 6 months

Politico reports: Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) is pushing an amendment to severely curtail special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

DeSantis has put forward a provision that would halt funding for Mueller’s probe six months after the amendment’s passage. It also would prohibit Mueller from investigating matters that occurred before June 2015, when Trump launched his presidential campaign.

The amendment is one of hundreds filed to a government spending package the House is expected to consider when it returns next week from the August recess. The provision is not guaranteed a vote on the House floor; the House Rules Committee has wide leeway to discard amendments it considers out of order.

In a statement, DeSantis said the order appointing Mueller as special counsel “didn’t identify a crime to be investigated and practically invites a fishing expedition.”

“Congress should use its spending power to clarify the scope and limit the duration of this investigation,” he explained. Deputy Attorney General Rod “Rosenstein has said that the DOJ doesn’t conduct fishing expeditions; the corollary to this admonition should be that Congress will not fund a fishing expedition.” [Continue reading…]

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House Speaker Paul Ryan criticizes Donald Trump’s pardon for Joe Arpaio

The Wall Street Journal reports: House Speaker Paul Ryan on Saturday criticized President Donald Trump for pardoning a former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio, becoming the highest-ranking Republican to object to the move.

“The speaker does not agree with the decision,” said Ryan spokesman Doug Andres. “Law-enforcement officials have a special responsibility to respect the rights of everyone in the United States. We should not allow anyone to believe that responsibility is diminished by this pardon.”

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about Mr. Ryan’s statement. [Continue reading…]

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Some in Congress don’t get the ‘gravity’ of Russian election meddling, former CIA director said

Jason Leopold reports: In an internal memo to CIA employees last December, CIA Director John Brennan complained that some members of Congress he had briefed about the agency’s assessment that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election did not “understand and appreciate the importance and gravity of the issue.”

Brennan’s December 16, 2016 memo did not identify the lawmakers who expressed skepticism about the CIA’s judgment that Russia helped Donald Trump win the election. But three intelligence sources told BuzzFeed News that Brennan’s criticism was directed at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator John Cornyn, the Majority Whip. At the time, the two Republican lawmakers downplayed the importance of the CIA’s intelligence. Cornyn said it was “hardly news.”

Four congressional committees are now investigating Russia’s role in the presidential election and ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

The Brennan memo offers rare insight into a tense time when the CIA was under pressure by the White House and Congress to produce evidence to support its conclusions about Russia’s meddling in the election. It was obtained by BuzzFeed News and Ryan Shapiro, an MIT doctoral candidate and co-founder of the transparency project Operation 45, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the CIA and other intelligence agencies for documents about Russia’s role in the election. [Continue reading…]

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Roger Stone says if Trump gets impeached, there will be civil war

 

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McConnell, in private, doubts if Trump can save presidency

The New York Times reports: The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises.

What was once an uneasy governing alliance has curdled into a feud of mutual resentment and sometimes outright hostility, complicated by the position of Mr. McConnell’s wife, Elaine L. Chao, in Mr. Trump’s cabinet, according to more than a dozen people briefed on their imperiled partnership. Angry phone calls and private badmouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him, and Mr. McConnell mobilizing to their defense.

The rupture between Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell comes at a highly perilous moment for Republicans, who face a number of urgent deadlines when they return to Washington next month. Congress must approve new spending measures and raise the statutory limit on government borrowing within weeks of reconvening, and Republicans are hoping to push through an elaborate rewrite of the federal tax code. There is scant room for legislative error on any front.

A protracted government shutdown or a default on sovereign debt could be disastrous — for the economy and for the party that controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.

Yet Mr. Trump and Mr. McConnell are locked in a political cold war. [Continue reading…]

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Nikki Haley’s path to the presidency runs right past Trump

Vox reports: Attacks on Russia. Soccer games with refugees. Lively chats about human rights with Bono.

Browse through Nikki Haley’s Twitter feed long enough and you’d be forgiven for forgetting she’s a powerful and high-ranking official in the Trump administration, where the president pointedly refuses to do the first one of those and would consider the last two to be political suicide.

President Trump selected Haley early on in the formation of his Cabinet, settling on her as his ambassador to the United Nations before picking Rex Tillerson for secretary of state or James Mattis for secretary of defense. But she was a surprising pick then, and remains so today.

A popular twice-elected governor of South Carolina, she’s an experienced GOP politician in an administration packed with outsiders. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, she stands out in an administration run chiefly by white men. Telegenic and poised, she has a knack for the limelight that stands in sharp contrast to the administration’s tendencies toward the rumpled (former press secretary Sean Spicer) or reclusive (Tillerson).

But in her first seven months at the helm of the US mission to the UN, Haley’s differences have gone far beyond optics. Trump campaigned on a foreign policy platform of “America first” — the idea that the US should avoid getting involved in unnecessary conflicts overseas and focus narrowly on national security interests over promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.

But Haley has pursued the opposite course. From her stern criticism of Moscow to her championing of human rights to her calls for Syrian regime change, she’s routinely diverged from, or outright contradicted, Trump’s stance on the biggest foreign policy issues of the day.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the most hawkish Republican senators in Washington, told the New York Times recently, “She sounds more like me than Trump.”

Haley’s stances may reflect more than just policy differences. Many in the GOP worry that Trump may not survive four years and that those who’ve served in his administration may be tainted by association if he resigns or is impeached. Haley appears to be one of the few administration officials with the potential to survive the Trump years — and could be positioning herself for a presidential campaign of her own. [Continue reading…]

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Congressional investigators want to question Trump’s longtime secretary, Rhona Graff, in Russia probe

ABC News reports: Congressional investigators want to question President Donald Trump’s longtime personal secretary as part of their ongoing probe into a controversial meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, ABC News has learned.

Rhona Graff, a senior vice president at the Trump Organization who has worked at Trump Tower for nearly 30 years, has acted as a gatekeeper to Trump. She remains a point of contact for the sprawling universe of Trump associates, politicians, reporters and others seeking Trump’s time and attention, even now that he’s in the White House.

Graff’s position in Trump’s orbit recently gained attention after Donald Trump Jr. released a June 2016 email exchange with British publicist Rob Goldstone leading up to the meeting with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower.

“I can also send this info to your father via Rhona,” Goldstone wrote Donald Jr. in the email, “but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.”

Graff was not on the email chain and it’s unclear if Goldstone ever made direct contact with her.

“Since her name is in the email, people will want her to answer questions,” said Rep. Peter King, R-New York, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who knows Graff. “If you go into Trump Tower, you’re going to mention her name.”

The president, who has said he does not use email, communicated with associates for years through Graff. “Everybody knows in order to get through to him they have to go through me, so they are always on their best behavior,” Graff told Real Estate Weekly in 2004. [Continue reading…]

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FBI conducted predawn raid of former Trump campaign chairman Manafort’s home

The Washington Post reports: FBI agents raided the home in Alexandria, Va., of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, arriving in the pre-dawn hours late last month and seizing documents and other materials related to the special counsel investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The raid, which occurred without warning on July 26, signaled an aggressive new approach by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team in dealing with a key figure in the Russia inquiry. Manafort has been under increasing pressure as the Mueller team looked into his personal finances and his professional career as a highly paid foreign political consultant.

Using a search warrant, agents appeared the day Manafort was scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a day after he met voluntarily with Senate Intelligence Committee staff members.

The search warrant requested documents related to tax, banking and other matters. People familiar with the search said agents departed the Manafort residence with a trove of material, including binders prepared ahead of Manafort’s congressional testimony.

Investigators in the Russia inquiry have previously sought documents with subpoenas, which are less intrusive and confrontational than a search warrant. With a warrant, agents can inspect a physical location and seize any useful information. To get a judge to sign off on a search warrant, prosecutors must show that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: There are a couple reasons the special counsel’s expanding Russia investigation might be so interested in former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort that FBI agents showed up at his door before dawn, unannounced, searched his home and seized documents, as The Washington Post reports.

In many ways, Manafort is squarely in the crosshairs of the Russia-Trump collusion investigation: His brief tenure as the head of Trump’s campaign happened as concerns about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election were heating up, he’s got high-level connections to Russia in his own right, and he’s got a whole host of scrutinized financial dealings that could make him a useful tool for investigators seeking cooperation.

He’s also the perfect target to send a message to the rest of Washington that the special counsel investigation means business, said Jack Sharman, a white-collar lawyer in Alabama and former special counsel for Congress during the Bill Clinton Whitewater investigation.

“One purpose of such a raid is to bring home to the target the fact that the federal prosecution team is moving forward and is not going to defer to or rely on Congress,” he said. [Continue reading…]

Bloomberg reports: Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, his son Donald Trump Jr. and former campaign manager Paul Manafort have started turning over documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of the panel’s expanded investigation of Russian election-meddling.

The Trump campaign turned over about 20,000 pages of documents on Aug. 2, committee spokesman George Hartmann said Tuesday. Manafort provided about 400 pages on Aug. 2, including his foreign-advocacy filing, while Trump Jr. gave about 250 pages on Aug. 4, Hartmann said. The committee had asked them last month to start producing the documents by Aug. 2.

A company the Judiciary panel says has been linked to a salacious “dossier” on Trump, Fusion GPS, and its chief executive officer, Glenn Simpson, have yet to turn over any requested documents, Hartmann said. [Continue reading…]

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‘Good conservative’ Grassley ramps up his panel’s Trump-Russia probe

Bloomberg reports: Donald Trump may have annoyed the wrong man in Congress.

Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has been ramping up an investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign, in addition to the president’s dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey.

The plain-spoken Iowa Republican had sharply criticized the administration’s initial failure to respond to many lawmakers’ requests for information. He also hasn’t been shy about other topics, including the use of foul language by the recently dismissed White House communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci.

Grassley’s decision to move full speed ahead on Russia, including threatening Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and others with subpoenas, will likely force a more public — and unpredictable — autopsy of topics the administration would rather fade away. Grassley, working with the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, is pressing to uncover any attempts to obstruct justice or influence the presidential election. [Continue reading…]

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Mueller’s job would be protected by bipartisan Senate bill

CBS News reports: Two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are moving to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s job, putting forth legislation that aims to ensure the integrity of current and future independent investigations.

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware plan to introduce the legislation Thursday. The bill would allow any special counsel for the Department of Justice to challenge his or her removal in court, with a review by a three-judge panel within 14 days of the challenge.

The bill would be retroactive to May 17, 2017 – the day Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible ties to Donald Trump’s campaign. [Continue reading…]

The Hill reports: President Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow said Thursday that Trump is not considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In an interview Thursday with Fox News’ Your World with Neil Cavuto, Sekulow dismissed rumors that Trump is considering firing Mueller. [Continue reading…]

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Trump, GOP senators introduce bill to slash legal immigration levels

The Washington Post reports: President Trump on Wednesday endorsed a new bill in the Senate aimed at slashing legal immigration levels over a decade, a goal Trump endorsed on the campaign trail that would represent a profound change to U.S. immigration policies that have been in place for half a century.

Trump appeared with Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.) at the White House to unveil a modified version of a bill the senators first introduced in April to cut immigration by half from the current level of more than 1 million foreigners each year who receive green cards granting them permanent legal residence in the United States.

The outlines of the legislation reflect the aims Trump touted on the campaign trail, when he argued that the rapid growth of legal immigration levels over five decades had harmed job opportunities for American workers. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Browder’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee

Bill Browder, the driving force behind the 2012 Magnitsky Act, writes: I had always thought Putin was a nationalist. It seemed inconceivable that he would approve of his officials stealing $230 million from the Russian state. Sergei [Magnitsky] and I were sure that this was a rogue operation and if we just brought it to the attention of the Russian authorities, the “good guys” would get the “bad guys” and that would be the end of the story.

We filed criminal complaints with every law enforcement agency in Russia, and Sergei gave sworn testimony to the Russian State Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI) about the involvement of officials in this crime.

However, instead of arresting the people who committed the crime, Sergei was arrested. Who took him? The same officials he had testified against. On November 24, 2008, they came to his home, handcuffed him in front of his family, and threw him into pre-trial detention.

Sergei’s captors immediately started putting pressure on him to withdraw his testimony. They put him in cells with 14 inmates and eight beds, leaving the lights on 24 hours a day to impose sleep deprivation. They put him in cells with no heat and no windowpanes, and he nearly froze to death. They put him in cells with no toilet, just a hole in the floor and sewage bubbling up. They moved him from cell to cell in the middle of the night without any warning. During his 358 days in detention he was forcibly moved multiple times.

They did all of this because they wanted him to withdraw his testimony against the corrupt Interior Ministry officials, and to sign a false statement that he was the one who stole the $230 million—and that he had done so on my instruction.

Sergei refused. In spite of the grave pain they inflicted upon him, he would not perjure himself or bear false witness.

After six months of this mistreatment, Sergei’s health seriously deteriorated. He developed severe abdominal pains, he lost 40 pounds, and he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and gallstones and prescribed an operation for August 2009. However, the operation never occurred. A week before he was due to have surgery, he was moved to a maximum security prison called Butyrka, which is considered to be one of the harshest prisons in Russia. Most significantly for Sergei, there were no medical facilities there to treat his medical conditions.

At Butyrka, his health completely broke down. He was in agonizing pain. He and his lawyers wrote 20 desperate requests for medical attention, filing them with every branch of the Russian criminal justice system. All of those requests were either ignored or explicitly denied in writing.

After more than three months of untreated pancreatitis and gallstones, Sergei Magnitsky went into critical condition. The Butyrka authorities did not want to have responsibility for him, so they put him in an ambulance and sent him to another prison that had medical facilities. But when he arrived there, instead of putting him in the emergency room, they put him in an isolation cell, chained him to a bed, and eight riot guards came in and beat him with rubber batons.

That night he was found dead on the cell floor.

Sergei Magnitsky died on November 16, 2009, at the age of 37, leaving a wife and two children. [Continue reading…]

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Vladimir Putin to America: You’ve let me down

Julia Ioffe writes: Sunday night, Vladimir Putin went on national television and explained his decision to slice American diplomatic staff in Russia by two-thirds. He was retaliating for Barack Obama’s December expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, as well as newly passed congressional sanctions, by kicking out 755 American diplomatic staff—a response over 20 times stronger than Obama’s original retaliation for Russian election meddling. But Putin sounded calm and humble, like a disappointed parent who has no choice left but to send a recalcitrant child to military school. “We were waiting for a long time, thinking that maybe something will change for the better; we kept hope alive that the situation will change,” Putin said. “But judging by everything that’s happened, if something’s going to change, it won’t be soon.”

This is Putin’s way of dressing up a bad situation: try to sound like the sole adult in the room, even as you actively make the situation worse. It’s what Putin did, for example, in Syria, financing and arming the Assad regime while calling for peace talks, then stalling and dragging them out as long as possible, all while taking the same resigned yet exasperated tone of the peacemaker stymied by unruly children.

Because the fact is, the situation is bad, for Moscow and for Washington, and it’s been exacerbated by both sides. [Continue reading…]

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Putin’s bet on a Trump presidency backfires spectacularly

The New York Times reports: A little more than a year after the Russian effort to interfere in the American presidential election came to light, the diplomatic fallout — an unraveling of the relationship between Moscow and Washington on a scale not seen in decades — is taking its toll.

President Vladimir V. Putin bet that Donald J. Trump, who had spoken fondly of Russia and its authoritarian leader for years, would treat his nation as Mr. Putin has longed to have it treated by the West. That is, as the superpower it once was, or at least a major force to be reckoned with, from Syria to Europe, and boasting a military revived after two decades of neglect.

That bet has now backfired, spectacularly. If the sanctions overwhelmingly passed by Congress last week sent any message to Moscow, it was that Mr. Trump’s hands are now tied in dealing with Moscow, probably for years to come.

Just weeks after the two leaders spent hours in seemingly friendly conversation in Hamburg, Germany, the prospect of the kinds of deals Mr. Trump once mused about in interviews seems more distant than ever. Congress is not ready to forgive the annexation of Crimea, nor allow extensive reinvestment in Russian energy. The new sanctions were passed by a coalition of Democrats who blame Mr. Putin for contributing to Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Republicans fearful that their president misunderstands who he is dealing with in Moscow.

So with his decision to order that hundreds of American diplomats and Russians working for the American Embassy leave their posts, Mr. Putin, known as a great tactician but not a great strategist, has changed course again. For now, American officials and outside experts said on Sunday, he seems to believe his greater leverage lies in escalating the dispute, Cold War-style, rather than subtly trying to manipulate events with a mix of subterfuge, cyberattacks and information warfare.

But it is unclear how much the announcement will affect day-to-day relations. While the Russian news media said 755 diplomats would be barred from working, and presumably expelled, there do not appear to be anything close to 755 American diplomats working in Russia.

That figure almost certainly includes Russian nationals working at the embassy, usually in nonsensitive jobs. [Continue reading…]

Given that the last time Trump spoke to Putin face to face, Trump saw no need for his own translator or any aides, and given that the State Department is already under assault from this administration, maybe this paring down of diplomatic ties will be of little concern inside the White House.

Who knows? Maybe Trump even gave Putin his personal cell number because he’s confident he can handle U.S.-Russia relations on his own in the Oval Office or while playing golf.

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Without Priebus, Trump is a man without a party

Tim Alberta writes: By firing [Reince Priebus], Trump has severed a critical connection to his own party—not simply to major donors and GOP congressional leaders, but to the unruly, broader constellation of conservative-affiliated organizations and individuals that Priebus had spent five years corralling. He was effortlessly tagged as an “establishment” figure—inevitably, given his title atop the party—but Priebus was a specialist at coalition-building. He convened regular meetings as RNC chairman with influential players in the conservative movement, picking their brains and taking their temperatures on various issues. That continued as chief of staff: Priebus spoke by phone with prominent activists, such as the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, at least once a week. There is a meeting scheduled at the White House this Wednesday of the Conservative Action Project—an umbrella group that brings together leaders from across the right—and Priebus was planning to attend. It was this kind of systematic outreach that made Priebus, whatever his flaws as a West Wing manager, an essential lieutenant for Trump.

There is no question, however, that Priebus’ absence will echo loudest on Capitol Hill—particularly in the speaker’s office. Ryan’s team had heard whispers for months of Priebus’ possible departure, but the news was nonetheless a dagger, especially on the heels of a health care defeat and at the dawn of tax-reform season. Ryan and Priebus, both Green Bay Packers fans and local beer loyalists, have been friends for decades; Ryan’s former chief of staff, Andy Speth, was Priebus’ college roommate at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Priebus was the first call Ryan made when things got hairy this year, and vice versa. Working with a West Wing that contains few other true allies—and with a volatile president who has viewed him suspiciously ever since the speaker accused him of making “the textbook definition of a racist comment” about a Hispanic-American judge—Ryan saw Priebus as his staunchest ally and bunker mate. And now he’s gone.

In his place is John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and respected disciplinarian whose mandate is to succeed where Priebus failed: imposing order and organization on a chaotic White House. Kelly, however, is not a political figure; he did not support (or oppose) Trump’s campaign, and is not known to hold strong political or ideological inclinations. Looking around Trump’s inner circle, there is communications director Anthony Scaramucci, a political novice who in the past donated to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton; chief strategist Steve Bannon, who used Breitbart to try and burn the Republican Party to the ground; National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, a lifelong Democrat; director of strategic communication Hope Hicks, who has zero history with GOP politics; and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, a pair of self-professed Manhattan progressives. Of Trump’s closest advisers, only Mike Pence has any association with the Republican Party.

This no longer seems accidental. Trump has, since taking office, consistently referred to Republicans as though he is not one himself—it’s invariably “they” or “them.” Unlike past presidents of his party, Trump entered the White House with few personal relationships with prominent Republicans: donors, lobbyists, party activists, politicians. This liberated him to say whatever he pleased as a candidate, and, by firing Priebus, Trump might feel similarly liberated. The fear now, among Republicans in his administration and on Capitol Hill, is that Trump will turn against the party, waging rhetorical warfare against a straw-man GOP whom he blames for the legislative failures and swamp-stained inertia that has bedeviled his young presidency. It would represent a new, harsher type of triangulation, turning his base against the politicians of his own party that they elected. [Continue reading…]

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