The Russians Are Playing, The Russians Are Playing

The Russians Are Coming 1966

While playing connect the dots is a favored past-time among the punditry, it takes time to piece together the actions and intent of the Russians in terms of American politics.   We can, however, list some items which should be of continuing interest to the American voting public:

Item: Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, has been doing some heavy lifting in the background information department.  He reminds us that the Russians aren’t playing from a position of strength; they aren’t the power they once were, and shouldn’t be perceived as the Cold Warriors of Old. This doesn’t mean we can dismiss their “asymmetrical” activities in American elections, but we should be clear about their capacity to do major harm.  They are engaged in trolling operations; and in “news” operations.  And, yes, as Marshall outlines it, there is a Putin-Trump connection.  What does make all this interesting is that both Putin and Trump are operating from positions of weakness, rather than strength; Putin in a declining economic power and Trump in a declining political position.

Item: The Manafort Issue is no less intriguing. CNN reports that the Trump Campaign chair received funds from the former Ukrainian regime, now under investigation for corruption. According to the NYT:

“And Mr. Manafort’s presence remains elsewhere here in the capital, where government investigators examining secret records have found his name, as well as companies he sought business with, as they try to untangle a corrupt network they say was used to loot Ukrainian assets and influence elections during the administration of Mr. Manafort’s main client, former President Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Handwritten ledgers show $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Mr. Manafort from Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012, according to Ukraine’s newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials.”

Manafort’s response has been varied.  He’s denied that any such transactions took place (Vanity Fair) and tried to shake off the allegations by saying that some donations to the Clinton Foundations were equally shady. (Politifact)  However, Mr. Manafort’s allegations of corruption were not substantiated with any actual evidence. [Politifact] This leaves us with an uncomfortable bit of circumlocution from Mr. Manafort — “I didn’t do it, but if I did what the Clinton’s did was worse.” This is not a very strong argument.

Item:  The matter of the DNC hack.  That the hack came from Russian sponsored sources is no longer a matter of debate – it did.  We should get used to titles like Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear in relation to the hack job. The first round of released information was enough to thoroughly embarrass the DNC, but the second round may be the most deleterious.  The hacking was more widespread than previously thought, and the DCCC information was both leaked and used – according to Minority Leader Pelosi:

“The California lawmaker was responding to the latest hacking incident, into the House Democratic campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which on Friday night published members’ personal cell phone numbers and some private email addresses.”

Democratic lawmakers received obscene calls and texts. Pelosi advised members to change their phone numbers, and they were also advised on another concern, “One major concern are the emails sent to the members or the staff could include website links with malware or phishing attempts to steal identities or financial information. Congressional security officials have warned members and staff not to click on websites they are not familiar with.” [CNN]  Now, we’re getting into some truly nasty territory. It could be argued that the Trump Campaign has outsourced the Dirty Tricks Department to the Russians?

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Trump: Even Truthiness Doesn’t Matter

Al ZarqawiThe man in the photo above is the founder of ISIS (Daesh).  And then there’s this from the latest round of Trump0matic Rhetoric:

“In the wide-ranging phone interview (with CNBC), Trump insisted that President Barack Obama “absolutely” founded ISIS. He also discussed economic issues, including regulation and infrastructure spending.

Asked about them, he doubled down and said “[Obama] was the founder of ISIS absolutely, the way he removed our troops. … I call them co-founders,” he added, referring to his Democratic presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton.”

I know full well that correcting Trumpisms is like shoveling sand up hill, but at least we don’t have to reside in the land of utter stupidity and ignorance.  Let’s focus on “the way he removed our troops.” Obama removed our forces based on the SOFA agreed to by George W. Bush.

December 14, 2008:

“It is true that Bush signed an agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, on Dec. 14, 2008, that said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s secretary of state, wrote in her 2011 book, “No Higher Honor,” that Bush did not want to set a deadline “in order to allow conditions on the ground to dictate our decisions.” She wrote that she met with Maliki in August 2008 and secured what she thought was an agreement for a residual force of 40,000 U.S. troops. But she said Maliki soon “reneged” and insisted on “the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.” She said Bush “swallowed hard” and agreed to what she called “suitable language” to do just that.” [FactCheck.org]  (emphasis added)

The remainder of the argument depends on a subjective opinion as to how “hard the Obama Administration tried to renegotiate the SOFA.”  Critics of the withdrawal of combat forces charge that the Administration “didn’t try hard enough.”  However, the insistence of the Maliki government that any agreement would have to be put to the Iraqi Parliament didn’t help matters.  This also leaves open the argument that perhaps the Bush Administration didn’t press the Maliki government hard enough either.

Critics of the US policy in regard to Iraq, and the deployment of troops to that country, are caught arguing “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda,” when there are altogether too many variables in a complex situation to make blanket charges of any kind.

And, while Trump says he will continue to say Obama and Clinton are the “co-founders of ISIS” (I prefer Daesh) the timeline rebuts this presumption.  A brief trip down memory land —

2004: Abu Musab Al Zarqawi establishes Al Qaeda in Iraq.

2006: Zarqawi, killed in a US air strike, is replaced by Abu Ayyub Amasri at the head of AQI. October 15, 2006: Al Masri announces the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq; Sunni tribes begin a campaign to kill AQI members, and AQI is rebranded the Islamic State in Iraq.

In reality, the formation of Daesh goes back a bit further, as is explained here:

“ISIS/IS has its origins in an obscure militant group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), that was stood up in 2000 by a Jordanian one-time criminal-turned-Islamist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ).1 His intent was to fight the Jordanian government, but he failed to gain traction.2 Zarqawi then traveled to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the mujahidin (resistance) in the jihad against the Soviets. Having arrived after their departure, he soon returned to his homeland to fight the well-entrenched Jordanian monarchy. His efforts came to naught, and he eventually returned to Afghanistan, where he ran an Islamic militant training camp near Herat.” [MEPC.org]

And now the plot thickens and becomes more nuanced:

“Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq. There he developed extensive ties with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), a Kurdish Islamist group. In March 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. A brilliant conventional campaign led to the erroneous belief on the part of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq would stabilize and progress towards democracy. By summer 2003, the disgruntled Sunni minority — toppled from power with the downfall of Saddam Hussein — launched a deadly insurgency. It consisted of five distinct groups, four composed largely of Iraqis from the former regime, nationalists, tribal elements and various Islamist fighters. The fifth group was AMZ’s JTJ, consisting of a smattering of Iraqis and many foreign fighters.”  [MEPC.org]

Not that any of this matters to Donald J. Trump.  However, what we do know is that the Trump pronouncements on foreign policy are as vapid and ill informed as his sloganeering on any other topic.  ISIS (Daesh) morphed from a fifth element in the Iraqi insurgency into a major and deadly part of the conflict in the region, but they certainly didn’t find their origin in the Obama Administration.

Those wishing to get a longer, more historical look at the issues surrounding the current conflict in the Middle East may want to start with David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.  Also recommended is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. These are three notable books which will give a person something to do besides listen to Trump’s simplistic sloganeering and sloppy irrationality.

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Trump’s Economic Siren Song

Siren Song The words “Trump” and “plan” should really never be used in the same sentence. Witness the speech to the Detroit Economic Club.  Here’s what the Reuters News Service gleaned from Trump’s speech:

“Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Monday proposed tax breaks for working families and for corporations as he outlined economic plans in an effort to regain momentum lost during a damaging spate of controversies.

Trump said his plan would include imposing a temporary moratorium on new federal regulations and a reduction to the tax burden on working parents with childcare costs.

He proposed cutting the number of federal income tax brackets from seven to three and reducing the top rate to 33 percent from 39.6 percent. He had previously said he would drop that rate to 25 percent, an idea many tax experts said would dramatically reduce government income and balloon deficits.”

First, notice in the second line of the article quoted above that Mr. Trump “outlined economic plans,” NOT offered any specifics —  those will come later, just as every other suggestion made by the Republican nominee will come later, if at all.  If ever.

The Rich Get Richer and 88.7% Get Nothing

Secondly, those “tax breaks for working families” aren’t for all working families just some of them – even the Wall Street Journal noticed:

“It wasn’t clear how such a tax break might be structured and whether it would be available to tens of millions of families that don’t pay income taxes because they have lower incomes. Making child-care expenses fully deductible would provide much larger benefits to the wealthiest families that have larger tax bills.”

Nice.  However, we can clarify this to some extent.  The Tax Policy Center offers this information about working families, tax bills, and who needs the help the most:

“Only 11.3 percent of households in the bottom income quintile will pay federal income tax in 2015. In contrast, 59.3 percent of households in the lowest income quintile will owe payroll taxes. Combined, 60.3 percent of households in the lowest income quintile will owe federal income or payroll taxes.

In many cases, low-income households owe no income tax. That’s because, in 2015, a married couple with two children can exempt $28,600 from income using the standard deduction and personal and dependent exemptions. Generally, smaller amounts can be exempted from smaller households and larger amounts from larger households.”

The arithmetic is simple. Only a bit over 11% of households in the bottom income quintile owe federal income taxes – and these are the ones which would benefit from Trump’s “deduction.”  What the other 88.7% of the families in that quintile get from Mr. Trump’s “plan” is nothing.

Deregulation

We’ve heard this song before.  More specifically, a campaign aide told the Wall Street Journal, this means Trump wants to slash EPA regulation on carbon pollution, and halt the preservation of wetlands and waterways.  Nothing new here.  It’s the same GOP rhetoric of old, conflating all regulation with EPA and conservation rules.  This, while 1/3rd of the residents of California still lived in areas as of 2014 which did not meet Clean Air standards. [LA Times]

Reporters slid by deregulation of the financial sector (read: Wall Street Casino) However, this past May the Republican candidate called for dismantling the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and reversing the regulations in the Dodd Frank Act.  [Fortune]  There’s nothing new here either, just more generalized GOP talking points.

Jolly Little Trade Wars?

“At the same time, Mr. Trump has promised to aggressively use executive power to renegotiate trade agreements, to label foreign countries as currency manipulators and to apply tariffs and other penalties to trading partners.”  [WSJ]

Lovely.  First, China is our Number One import partner.  Mexico is second, and Canada third.  [Census FT]  We’ve imported $212.2 billion worth of stuff from China thus far this year; $145.2 from Mexico; and, $137 billion from Canada.  Not surprisingly these three are also our top three export partners, in order: Canada, Mexico, and China. [Census FT] Is Mr. Trump truly suggesting that we get into economic battles with our top three economic partners?  Are we really going to benefit from practicing Hoover-ian Protectionism in relation to our top three partners?

Trump said:

“At the center of my plan is trade enforcement with China. This alone could return millions of jobs into our economy.

China is responsible for nearly half of our entire trade deficit. They break the rules in every way imaginable. China engages in illegal export subsidies, prohibited currency manipulation, and rampant theft of intellectual property. (65 66) They also have no real environmental or labor protections, further undercutting American workers.”

[…] Trade has big benefits, and I am in favor of trade. But I want great trade deals for our country that create more jobs and higher wages for American workers. Isolation is not an option, only great and well- crafted trade deals are.” [Time]

Yes, Chinese manufacturing policies are heinous.  However, what Mr. Trump has on offer IS protectionism and isolation; no matter how politely it’s phrased.   Or how vaguely it’s expressed, as on Trump’s website explanation.  Missing from the Detroit address and the website mentions are the 35% tariffs Mr. Trump proposed last May. [National Review]

Further, Mr. Trump appears to be operating on the happy delusion that simply declaring China to be a currency manipulator will force them to re-negotiate our trade deals.  Not. So. Fast.  Manipulation is in the eye of the beholder.

“Reasonable people can and do disagree about how countries conduct their monetary policies: what price should the central bank fix, or at what pace should that fix evolve. But to label as manipulation the conduct of monetary policy itself betrays a fundamental confusion about the operation and goals of central banks. If Zhou Xiaochuan,governor of the People’s Bank of China, is a currency manipulator, then Janet Yellen is an interest-rate manipulator.” [WSJ]

As is becoming all too noticeable, Mr. Trump’s understanding of the monetary policies involved is essentially shallow. The Wall Street Journal continues:

“Movements in the nominal yuan exchange rate have almost no long-term impact on global flows of exports and imports or on broader considerations such as average wages. The exchange rate that matters for trade flows is the real exchange rate, i.e., the nominal exchange rate adjusted for local-currency prices in both countries.

The real exchange rate, in turn, reflects the deep forces of comparative advantage such as technology and endowments of labor and capital. These forces drive trade regardless of monetary policy.”

Sorry, Mr. Trump, it seems as though a bit more sophisticated understanding of exchange rates is necessary – and, no, merely declaring China a “currency manipulator” isn’t likely to do much, and certainly not much in terms of wages for American workers.  It really would do Mr. Trump some good if he’d check out the article by the Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth in the WSJ. [ Also WPO Blog, CFR, and then of course there are the Federalists]  Little wonder Republican economists are jumping ship.

Bottom Line Towards the Bottom of the Barrel

It isn’t hard to summarize Trump’s “Economic Plan,” – first, it’s not a plan.  It is an aspirational outline of economic ideas, none of which are anything new. Romney suggested declaring China a “currency manipulator” during his campaign, and the anti-regulation rhetoric goes back to the 1971 Powell Memo. It’s rather more a laundry list of Republican wishes – deregulate, repeal the Affordable Care Act, bash China, and ‘act strong.’   In this, Mr. Trump seems to be unable to differentiate between acting and posturing.  The speech was all pose in bad prose.

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FACT CHECK: Catherine Cortez Masto on Crime v. Joe Heck

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Source: FACT CHECK: Catherine Cortez Masto on Crime v. Joe Heck

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Amodei and Unforced Errors

Evans Not to put too fine a point to it, but Representative Mark Amodei (R-NV2) has never been what a person might call a pillar of political strength and a standard for articulation in the English language.  This is shown yet again in his interview with the Reno Gazette Journal editorial board:

“U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said Wednesday that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump could only end up as one of two extremes if elected: a “smoking black hole” or the “next messiah.”

Amodei goes further and explains why he might back the possibility of a “smoking black hole.”

“You have to have some respect for the process, and I’m a process guy,” Amodei said. “It’s like, (voters) picked this guy, they picked him in Nevada, they picked him in most of the states, he’s the nominee. So when you say, ‘Well, he wasn’t your pick,’ it’s like, I know that, but it is a team sport and I know what it’s like to be on the team that isn’t in the administration. And that’s – quite frankly in this day and age, or at least in the five years I’ve been around, I’d like to try being on the team in the White House.” [RGJ]

There’s some unpacking, as there always is, to be done with this Amodei explanation.  First, as his opponent Chip Evans points out,  Amodei is betting on the “next messiah” rather than the “smoking black hole.”  Evan’s was blunt: “Shame on Congressman Amodei! No head of a business or head of a family would ever make a bet that risky, where the outcomes can be so extreme.”

Then there’s politics as a team sport.  No matter how extreme, Amodei will play on The Team for the Sake of The Team, and for ‘team’ read Party.  There’s little way to interpret this statement other than “Party First.”  All that “Party First” has gotten us so far is obstructionism, and obstructionism has yielded nothing but gridlock.  But, there’s more …

Amodei is playing the role of the perpetual optimist, Trump will get better.  That was July 27, 2016.

“Trump was showing some signs of improvement, Amodei said. The selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as the vice-presidential nominee was one the Nevada congressman said he liked. Pence’s experience both as an executive official and a member of the U.S. House provided some much needed balance, he said.  Even in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump showed some signs of self-awareness, Amodei said.

“I really like the part where he goes, ‘I want to thank the evangelical community for their support … I’m not sure I deserve it,’” Amodei said. “Now that shows me a guy who’s got a little bit of circumspect. We need to see some more of that out of you, big guy. … That warms the cockles of my heart and I’ve got a pretty cold heart.” [RGJ]

Perhaps Rep. Amodei’s cockles are getting colder?  And, no, we’ve not been watching a presidential candidate with “a little bit of circumspect.”  On July 27, 2016 candidate Trump was busy confusing vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine with former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, [Politico] hardly the first of his gaffe-a-matic productions for the campaign. [NPR]

Tennis fans who think that no one can make more unforced errors than those occurring in the Kafelnikov v. Vicente 2000 French Open match, which might be a record at 112, may take heart that the Trump bluster machine will continue at pace.  The Khan family assault,  the Announcement he would not release his tax returns, cramming two mistakes into one comment about the situation in Turkey, his unawareness that Russia wasn’t already in Ukraine (Want to fly into what’s left of the Donetsk Airport?), his comment about NATO commitments, his sniping at House Speaker Paul Ryan, the amusingly ungrammatical tweet about Bernie Sanders, taken along with the comment that the New York Times “doesn’t write good,” should all leave  tennis fans full of cheer that their favorite players don’t make anywhere near the unforced errors of the Trump Campaign.

And yet, Mark Amodei, Representative to Congress from Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District wants ever so desperately to be a team player for a man whose sense of teamwork, especially as it applies to foreign policy is:

“Trump replied: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. I know what I’m doing, and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people, and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But my primary consultant is myself and I have, you know, a good instinct for this stuff.” [MJ/ Morning Joe March 2016]

As the campaign season heats up will Representative Amodei’s cockles cool off?  Or, will he continue to watch Trump’s unforced errors and give candidate Chip Evans an opening?

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DIY Ukraine Briefing: Will Trump Stand Up To The Russian Tanks?

Ukraine Map

Yes, Mr. Trump, the Russians are in Ukraine. They’re occupying Crimea, and supporting “rebel” groups in eastern Ukraine. [HuffPo]  More distressing still is baffling inarticulateness which came after Mr. Trump was reminded that the Russians were already in Ukraine:

“Asked about the scrubbing of pro-Ukrainian language from the Republican platform, Trump offered up a word salad in which he seemed unaware that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been meddling in Ukrainian politics for years.

“[Putin’s] not going into Ukraine, okay, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want,” Trump said. (1)

Stephanopoulos pushed back, reminding Trump that Putin’s “already there, isn’t he?” Trump quickly changed the topic to Obama bashing.

“Okay — well, he’s there in a certain way. (2) But I’m not there. You have Obama there,” Trump said. “And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he’s going away. He takes Crimea.” (3)  [ThinkProg]

(1) The Russians are obviously already in Ukraine, and are currently building up forces along the border (again).

“Kremlin is supposedly to deploy three more brigades near the Ukrainian border. The Russian Federation is actively regrouping its two armies near the border with Ukraine and new divisions are being formed, according to the representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency.

“The 1st Tank Army, which is stationed in Moscow region, is being built up, as well as the 20th Army with Headquarters in Voronezh. Three new divisions are being created. The plans of the Russian leadership are changing,” told the representative of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine Vadym Skibitskiy.” (emphasis in original) [Ukraine Today, July 26, 2016]

Skibitskiy further commented that the three brigades formerly deployed along the border with Ukraine have now turned into three divisions.

(2)He’s there in a certain way?”  Well, yes, if “certain way” means occupying Crimea, supporting eastern pro-Russian rebels against the Ukrainian government and moving in like the proverbial brother-in-law who takes over the couch and then the living room. Liquidating status and changing place names.

July 28, 2016: “Russia liquidates the federal district status of the annexed Crimea.”

July 30, 2016: “U.S. tech giant Google has reinstated existing Soviet-era place names on online maps of Russia-annexed Crimea after it angered Moscow by changing them to correspond with names that Ukraine hopes to adopt in future under its “decommunization” law.”

(3)He’s  going away.” Certainly not if the Russians are building up units like the 1st Tank Army and the Russian army units based in Voronezh.  Putin is not going away any time soon, but he would like the Sanctions imposed in March and April 2014, April 2014, and the third round of sanctions imposed from April 2014 to the present to go away. Putin would really like it if the EU sanctions extended on December 12, 2015 to July 31, 2016 went away.

A door prize to anyone who can figure out what this means, which might be perilously close to “I can see Russia from my house:”

And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this.”

Ah yes, THIS from the man who suggested he would seriously consider not supporting Article 5 of the NATO agreement – one for all and all for one.  Yes, that self-same article 5 that was invoked by NATO after we were attacked on September 11, 2001.  The Lithuanians certainly don’t find Mr. Trump’s bombast comforting –  a large segment of the Lithuanian population remember all too vividly what the Russians did to them when they asserted their independence in 1991. [WaPo]

Mr. Trump obviously isn’t listening to people like Erika Verberyte, Lithuanian diplomat and foreign policy expert: “Almost every family in Lithuania had someone killed or deported by KGB. I was 19 and a student at Vilnius University during the events of Jan.13, 1991, when we rallied to stand up to Soviet tanks.” [WaPo]

The question is will Mr. Trump stand up to the Russian Tanks?

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