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Week's End Thoughts & Reflections, July 21, 2018

Once again I hardly know where to begin. The week got off to a rollicking start with the Putin summit and rolled on with Tuesday's walk-back as to who the president believes about that small matter of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Wednesday's walk-back of the walk-back, and the bizarre consideration of Putin's offer for reciprocal interrogation of indicted Russians and an American diplomat.

All this led to a rare contentious Friday PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, Newshour regular Mark Shields (syndicated columnist and designated liberal), and National Review editor Reihan Salam, subbing for Newshour regular David Brooks (NY Times columnist and designated conservative). The studio heated up when Salam insisted that Trump's words do not matter because the administration has been tough on Russia, the summit was a defeat for Putin, however rattling Trump's rhetoric may be to informed observers he is shaking things up in pursuit of a diplomatic breakthrough, the NATO alliance has survived worse than Trump, &c. Shields was flabbergasted and spluttering, as I would have been. His assessment was quite different:

There’s no question that he was overmatched with Putin. I mean, there’s no question who was the supplicant in that relationship. There’s no question who was the big dog and who was the puppy seeking the approval. And the reality, when you come back — and I don’t know when this epiphany occurred, that he realized things hadn’t worked out, because it didn’t occur — they had to sit down with him. They had to confront him in his own administration before he would even acknowledge, begrudgingly, two letters. That didn’t change that the United States was at fault, that he blamed his own country, that he blamed America first. No American president has ever done that before. But when you get verbs like revise, revamp, contradict, change, modify, those are not the words of a thoughtful leader or a strong leader, or a principled leader.

Hackles and voices were raised as Salam hung tough with the line clung to by the gang at National Review that, yes, the president's rhetoric and actions are often objectionable, baffling, or both, but they do not matter because he is on board with the right's agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, making abortion unavailable in effect even if Roe v. Wade is not overturned, destruction of unions, unraveling the social safety net, &c., and packing the courts with judges whose decisions will further that agenda. At this point it is difficult to imagine what Trump could do that would bring these unprincipled wretches to abandon him.

Quote of the week. The competition was stiff. The president got in at least three entries. I'm cutting him off at that.

  • "I don't see any reason why it would be [Russia]."

  • "I would like to clarify.... In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't.' The sentence should have been: I don't see any reason why I wouldn't -- or why it wouldn't be Russia."

  • "I can’t believe Michael would do this to me." (after it was revealed that Cohen secretly taped phone conversations)

Next up is the inimitable, for which we should all be grateful, Roseanne Barr, who explained the unhinged tweet about Obama adviser Valerie Jarret that got her TV show canceled: "I thought the bitch was white! Fuck!" Well, okay, I suppose that covers it. Could have happened to any of us.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats topped them all with his reaction

when Andrea Mitchell informed him during a live interview at the Aspen Security Forum that the White House intends to invite Putin for a visit in fall. The DNI's expressions were even more hilarious than his sardonic, "okay…[pregnant pause]…that's gonna be special." Saturday Night Live could not have done it better.

An interesting column by Politico Magazine editor-in-chief Blake Hounshell opens with what has become a cliché in what must be record-setting time:

When I wrote, back in February, that I was skeptical that President Donald Trump would ever be proved to have secretly colluded with Russia to sway the 2016 election in his favor, I mistyped.

What I meant to write was that I wasn’t skeptical. (Why I’m No Longer a Russiagate Skeptic, Politico, July 20, 2018 )

Hounshell has come to reject as insufficient the oft invoked explanations for the president's persistent questioning of evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections:

  • in the words of the usual anonymous senior administration officials, "his brain can’t process that collusion and cyberattacks are two different things,"

  • he "views the various Russia investigations as a threat to the legitimacy of his election, and therefore a devastating blow to his sense of self-worth."

Until fairly recently I also thought it at least possible that these explanations substantially account for the president's deeply strange words and actions pertaining to the investigation. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (The Bigs Are Starting to Accept the Unimaginable) and others have written of a similar evolution that brought them to essentially the same conclusion as Hounshell:

"We might never get clear evidence that Trump made a secret deal with the Kremlin. It would be great to see his tax returns, and perhaps Mueller has evidence of private collusion that we have yet to see. These details matter. But in a larger sense, everything we need to know about Trump’s strange relationship with Russia is already out in the open. As The Donald himself might say, there’s something going on."

A woman in attendance at this week's Resist Trump Tuesday meeting who is never shy about speaking her mind advised Senator Wyden's staff liaison Grace Stratton that the senator and his fellow Democrats need to do a better job of setting the narrative about Russia interference in American elections. For one thing, she said, stop saying "meddling." Meddling is something you do when you're a matchmaker, a yenta. Call it treason. I agree that "meddling" is not the right term but remain uncomfortable with talk of treason. The Constitution defines treason pretty narrowly:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

The case against the president is strong enough without getting into fruitless disputes over whether his actions actions amount to treason. I will stick with "Russian interference" for now.

Almost as good as the Mitchell-Coats moment was George Will's evisceration of Mike Pence and the "lickspittle" Republican Party back on May 9, which I somehow missed when it first appeared in Will's Washington Post column (Trump is no longer the worst person in government):

Donald Trump, with his feral cunning, knew. The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness, could, Trump knew, become America’s most repulsive public figure. And Pence, who has reached this pinnacle by dethroning his benefactor, is augmenting the public stock of useful knowledge. Because his is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's July 13 appearance on Firing Line was not among her best moments. I thought her responses were generally okay while not great on substance and detail, which I put down as much to the tenor of host Margaret Hoover's questions and the format of the show as to Ocasio-Cortez.

My impression based on two previous episodes (with Ohio governor John Kasich and conservative journalist James Kirchick) is that Hoover does not press her guests with really penetrating questions. She is content to keep the conversation at a level that may not be exactly superficial but does not rise much above that. I am not familiar enough with Hoover to know whether this is just the level at which she operates or if it comes from a conscious attempt to make the show accessible and appealing to a wide audience.

Ocasio-Cortez could have given better responses to questions about capitalism. She misspoke badly when she said "unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs," which critic Liam Warner at The National Review (Ocasio-Cortez Embarrasses Herself on Firing Line, July 17, 2018) pounced on while ignoring her valid point that the fact that many people must hold multiple jobs to make ends meet is not a positive or desirable situation.

I would like to have seen her expand on her remarks about "this no-holds-barred, Wild West hypercapitalism, what that means is profit at any cost" and the possibility that the extreme laissez-faire capitalism embraced by Republicans generally may not be the be-all and end-all of human economic development.

Ocasio-Cortez's low point was her stumbling response when Hoover asked her to explain her stance on Israel. Warner gleefully excoriated her for this. To my mind she deserves credit for quickly acknowledging that this is not an area expertise instead of doubling down as the usual suspect would have done.

Corey Robin minces no words in his criticism of Ocasio-Cortez for being left "tongue-tied and equivocating" by the question. Robin makes it clear that he remains firmly in her corner, having worked for her candidacy since May, while forcefully pointing out that she must do better:

Like it or not, Ocasio-Cortez has been elevated to a national position of leadership and visibility on the Left. If she wins in the general election, as everyone believes she will, every single thing she says and does will be watched and scrutinized….

People have turned to Ocasio-Cortez not simply because she won but because she’s good at what she does: she’s smart, fast, funny, and principled. Because she’s shown leadership. I understand the pressures she’s under. But as her star rises, the pressures will only increase. Ocasio-Cortez needs to be not only strong but also clear on this issue. She needs to be as subtle, dexterous, and sharp as she is on other issues, virtually every night on Twitter. This isn’t a game, especially when it comes to Israel. Or, if it is a game, she needs to be a better player. (On Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Palestine, and the Left)

In the end Robin expresses confidence "that she has the political skills to get it." I remain hopeful.

Keep the faith.

Memo from the Editorial Desk

Minor edits were made to this piece after it was published.

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