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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

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Politics In The Spirit

The spirit of goodwill can take us by surprise in this season, without respect to religion (or even politics). And while such a moment may not quite become an epiphany, it can still make us think again about our lives and times. Which is what happened to me over the weekend before Christmas.

Visiting the nation’s capital, as we do every year at this time, I was invited by friends to attend a holiday party hosted by an eminent conservative writer – someone whom I knew only as a political opponent of long standing. Our last encounter, on a radio show before the 2016 election, had not concluded on friendly terms, at least in my recollection. I held a caricature of him in my mind and assumed he would feel similarly toward me – although during the intervening years he had turned against the Trump-dominated Republican Party and its reprehensible leader.

The writer assured my friends that I’d be welcome at his party, so I went along, still thinking this might become a highly uncomfortable situation because of past conflicts.

When I arrived, however, he and his wife both greeted me warmly. He graciously took the time to introduce me to other guests, and as we talked, his sincere friendliness was undeniable and uplifting. 

I began to realize, as I should have much sooner, that his political journey had cost him something important. Like so many of the Republicans (and former Republicans) who have turned away from Trump, he had forfeited many friends and relationships in a wrenching experience that had changed his life. He had been forced to confront deeply troubling aspects of his own political affiliations and of people to whom he had once been close. Reading the messages we exchanged in the days that followed, I felt a twinge of unexpected empathy for this man.

For liberals, the Never-Trump conservatives have presented a series of these conundrums. Each of them is an individual, with her or his own ideology, career, and future aspirations. Some of them have faced quite squarely the moral compromises that eventually led to Trump and Trumpism, including a history of Republican racial pandering that dates back to the Nixon era; others have not. 

And so far, very few of these conservative Trump critics have asked themselves what responsibility they may bear for the decades of exaggerated animus against Hillary Clinton, whose demonization by the right and its media opened the way for Trump. While many of the Never-Trumpers probably voted for her, and almost all of them have confessed we’d be far better off if she were president today, their own culpability in framing her as “Crooked Hillary,” in Trump’s infamous phrasing, remains a largely unacknowledged responsibility. (The same is still true of the mainstream media, which so eagerly cooperated in distorting her image.) 

Reckoning with those old quarrels will have to wait. For now, we look forward to a new year when we will have a chance to free our democracy from the curse of Trump. Every hand will be needed. My own strong impulse is to welcome new allies, assume their good motivations, and treat them generously, without regard to the past. That is not only the spirit of Christmas but the spirit of America, a nation that has freed generations of people to reinvent themselves and build a new society.

 Someday when Trump is gone, we may yet find ourselves debating intensely again with those who are now at our side opposing him. When that day comes, it will be good if we can remember that our adversaries need not be our enemies, and that we should practice politics with decency and kindness. We will need to include everyone willing to share in that spirit, no matter their errors.

Inspector General’s Report Destroys Fake News Narratives

Whenever President Donald Trump is caught doing wrong, he answers with categorical denial and a fervent claim that he was wronged. Almost since the day he won election in November 2016, that is how Trump and his minions in politics and media have sought to obscure the glaring and indecent fact that he was sponsored by a Russian dictator who remains deeply hostile to our country.

So we have a president who gaslights his benighted followers with every variety of fable, myth and slander designed to distract from the ugly truth.

That is why Trump insists we should credit winking denials of election interference by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russians over the factual findings and warnings of the U.S. intelligence community, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee and reliable European allies such as the Dutch intelligence service, which recorded the Kremlin machinations in real time.

That is why he maligns U.S. federal law enforcement personnel. He repeatedly accuses them of crimes and political bias, and even charges with treason, because they prosecuted crimes by his crooked campaign aides.

That is why he and his deranged associate Rudy Giuliani have fabricated a fraudulent story about “Ukrainian interference” in the 2016 election on behalf of his opponent, and why the most abject politicians in his camp knowingly echo such lies. And that is why Trump and those same politicians concocted “Spygate,” a tale about partisan espionage against the Trump 2016 campaign ordered by then-President Barack Obama and perpetrated by federal agents.

But now the Justice Department’s thoroughly professional and nonpartisan inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has delivered an exhaustive report that should put a steel girder through Spygate. After months of examining detailed evidence and interviewing relevant witnesses, Horowitz found no evidence at all to support the president’s fevered accusations. (Is anybody really surprised?)

Both in his report and in Senate testimony on Wednesday, Horowitz firmly rejected the Trump tale of a malicious “deep state” conspiracy against him. To the contrary, said the inspector general, the opening of “Crossfire Hurricane,” code name for the Russian-interference investigation, went strictly according to regulations and without political bias of any kind. Horowitz stands by that finding, despite bizarre attempts at counterspin by both Attorney General William Barr and special counsel John Durham, assigned by Barr to investigate Crossfire Hurricane. (Durham may soon ruin his credible reputation by serving as a lackey to Barr, whose own reputation is already in tatters.)

It is true that Horowitz also found troubling errors or worse in the applications to surveil Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser with a history of connections to Russian intelligence. But Page was never indicted, and Horowitz found no similar problems in the surveillance of other Trump associates, several of whom have been convicted of felonies. Until now, most Republicans have ignored the civil liberties issues raised by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the special court that administers that law. Predictably, they’ll return to ignoring those issues when FISA’s faults can no longer be deployed to shield Trump.

What matters more — amid impeachment over Trump’s attempt to promote Kremlin propaganda and undermine Ukraine — is keeping a steady focus on the aggressive Russian campaign against Western democracy. In recent months, Giuliani and his associates have served as the principal vectors of that campaign, with their nefarious dissemination of fake “evidence” against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and their bumbling effort to exonerate former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort of his crimes in Ukraine.

With increased visibility into Giuliani’s strange maneuvers has come fresh and disturbing evidence that he is advancing a Kremlin operation, wittingly or not. First, reports emerged that his legal and business associates are seeking to assist the Putin-affiliated Ukrainian gas oligarch Dmytro Firtash.

And now the Southern District of New York has asked the court to revoke bail for Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the disreputable pair of Giuliani (and Trump) associates under indictment for laundering Russian money into a Trump political committee. Prosecutors were alarmed to discover that Parnas had received $1 million “from Russia” — and it was Parnas who made a $500,000 payment to Giuliani.

Not only was there collusion between Trump Tower and the Kremlin in 2016 but that collusion apparently continues to this day. Our country and its values are under unrelenting attack in an information war waged by Putin — and some of our fellow Americans are giving aid and comfort to the other side.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Boycott! Bring Brazil’s Bolsonaro To Heel

The most predictable thing about authoritarian government is that it will eventually exceed our worst expectations. With Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, we didn’t have to wait long. Not only has the Brazilian president failed to protect the Amazon rainforest but he also seems madly determined to destroy that most vital planetary resource.

The only pertinent question now is what the rest of us will do about his ongoing depredations — and about him.

Amid the wave of extremists swept to power in recent years, Bolsonaro was among the most repellent even before this literal firestorm struck. He rose from obscurity by fomenting hatred against Brazil’s indigenous minorities, gay Brazilians and feminists. He despises democracy and speaks fondly of the military dictatorships that long oppressed his own country and its neighbors. Indeed, he openly admires their barbaric history of torture and mass murder.

So nobody should be surprised that this deformed character would oversee violent destruction in the Amazon basin. His presidential campaign emphasized the massive development of agribusiness in previously protected lands as well as the breaching of indigenous preserves — all to serve the interests of his rural political base. He threatened repeatedly to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord and appointed as foreign minister an eccentric bureaucrat who thinks climate change is a “conspiracy by cultural Marxists” to limit growth.

Bolsonaro’s own response to the record number of rainforest fires this year is appalling: He dismissed a space agency official who revealed the extent of the inferno; he repudiated data that proved increased burning as “lies”; and he accused nonprofit organizations of setting the Amazon fires to make him look bad. His record of paranoia and deception has won him the admiration of President Donald Trump, who praises him frequently.

Before Bolsonaro took office, Brazil had notched important achievements in protecting the Amazon, encouraging renewable energy and reducing its carbon emissions. Years of progressive policy initiatives had reduced deforestation by as much as 80 percent, while the Brazilian transportation and energy sectors increasingly relied on wind, solar and ethanol. But the new government is eager to snuff out all such hopeful trends.

Over the past several months — well before intense conflagration engulfed the Amazon — European governments had sought to discourage Bolsonaro’s most destructive impulses by threatening to withhold aid and trade. His response has been defiant; he told the Norwegians to take their aid and “reforest Germany” with it.

That isn’t his worst idea — planting tens of billions of trees should be a top priority for every government — but it is also beside the point. Preserving the rainforests that remain is the only way to ensure an inhabitable planet.

With a fascistic thug holding Earth by the throat, it is tempting to imagine more forceful solutions. But a military incursion against Brazil’s sovereignty would undoubtedly polarize small and large nations and provoke cries of imperialism. Indeed, Bolsonaro complains incessantly about the “colonialism” supposedly imposed by environmental leaders, even as he invites major U.S. financial outfits like the Blackstone Group to profit from destructive development in the Amazon. Of course, it is the less developed countries that will suffer the most immediate consequences of climate change.

What can be done about this flashpoint of environmental crisis? Nations led by sane politicians — a category that sadly doesn’t include the United States today — should exert maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on Bolsonaro’s regime. Members of the European Union should continue to use the Mercosur trade agreement, which will include Brazil, to leverage his cooperation on dousing the fires.

Public sentiment in Europe and the United States is powerfully aroused by the footage of burned forest. Brazil can defy global opinion only at significant risk to its economy.

If the fate of future trade agreements is not enough to persuade Bolsonaro, then the threat of an international boycott may yet concentrate his tiny mind. The Brazilian president’s agribusiness allies already have confessed a deep fear of consumer action against their companies. They know that activists everywhere are urging people to shun Brazilian products. Now those capitalists should pull his leash very hard to put the fires out immediately and keep them extinguished.

Democratic values and environmental sanity both will be well served by bringing Bolsonaro to heel. He has certainly earned it.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Smoke rising from fires in the Amazon rainforest.

 

 

Kushner Proved He Is A Security Risk — Again

Some blessed day, America will be rid of the Trump administration. But the “normalization” of misconduct by this president’s entourage will leave indelible stains — one of which will bear the name Jared Kushner.

Unlike his constantly blithering and blabbering father-in-law, Kushner usually goes about his self-serving business in the White House very quietly, hiring lawyers to spout his alibis. When he granted an interview the other day to Axios on HBO, the result was predictable. This epitome of nepotism demonstrated once again why he should hold no public position of trust.

Although Kushner was mocked for his evasions and denials when Axios correspondent Jonathan Swan asked him about Trump’s bigoted “birther” campaign and attacks on Muslims, that was a sideshow. Nobody can expect him to speak frankly about those topics, and his opinions about the president don’t matter anyway.

What he said about the Russian incursion into the 2016 election was far more troubling. He claimed that he never noticed the subject line on the email from Donald Trump Jr. that summoned him to the infamous Trump Tower meeting with the Russians — “FW: Russia — Clinton — private and confidential.” Worse still was Kushner’s retort when Swan asked what he would do if the Russians were to approach with offers of dirt on the Democrats in 2020.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to do hypotheticals, but the reality is that we were not given anything that was salacious.”

Let’s be real: As the top officials in the U.S. intelligence community have pointed out many times, usually with hair on fire, there is nothing hypothetical about the Kremlin’s ongoing and aggressive meddling in our elections. There is no doubt that President Vladimir Putin prefers the malleable and amoral Trump to any possible alternative.

And there is no reason to expect that Kushner would do anything differently from what the Trump gang did in 2016 and ever since. They will encourage the Russians and then cover up their alliance with America’s adversaries by lying, just as they did last time.

Kushner’s arrogant attitude is even more stunning because the House Oversight Committee has spent months investigating his security clearance. Letting him run around the White House and the world with access to classified materials seemed like a very bad idea before the Axios interview, owing to his conflicts of interest and dubious behavior. He routinely disrespects the most fundamental ethical and legal standards, as he did when he met in the White House with bankers who had loaned his family firm half a billion dollars.

He is also a target of intelligence operators from many countries, all of whom view the callow Kushner as a potential stooge, open to blandishments, flattery and offers of money. Intercepted conversations about targeting him made our own intelligence officials blanch with worry. So did his bumbling but ill-intentioned attempt to establish a “back channel” with Russian officials during the Trump transition.

Now he has informed us, on the record, that he just might not report a contact by meddling Russians to the FBI. He says he doesn’t know how he will respond when they show up again. This may be the simplest question any White House official has ever been asked, with the most obvious answer. And he got it dead wrong.

Perhaps someone should have told Kushner that reporting any such illicit offer by a foreign adversary to federal authorities is the minimum expected of any official holding a security clearance. Then again, he seems impervious to any understanding of the dubious activities that propelled his father-in-law into power. He recently mischaracterized the Russian Trump campaign as the purchase of “a few Facebook posts” and added that the special counsel investigation has done greater harm to American democracy.

Kushner’s own utterances disqualify him from any level of security clearance. If the United States were to have a government that valued national security, he would be fired from his unearned White House job, instructed to clean out his desk, and briskly escorted from the premises. It is yet another sign of how far we have fallen that he won’t be going anywhere.