Sunday, August 5, 2018

Last Call For 44 Years Later, it's 45

With the twin clocks of the 2018 midterm elections and the Mueller probe into Donald Trump's obstruction of justice ticking, the regime has now shifted from mass denial and "fake news" conspiracies to full Nixonian "If the President does it, it can't be illegal" mode.

President Trump said on Sunday that a Trump Tower meeting between top campaign aides and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was designed to “get information on an opponent” — the starkest acknowledgment yet that a statement he dictated about the encounter last year was misleading. 
Mr. Trump made the comment in a tweet on Sunday morning that was intended to be a defense of the June 2016 meeting and his son Donald Trump Jr.’s role in hosting it. The president claimed that it was “totally legal” and of the sort “done all the time in politics.” 
But the tweet also served as an admission that the Trump team had not been forthright when Donald Trump Jr. issued a statement in July 2017 saying that the meeting had been primarily about the adoption of Russian children. Donald Trump Jr. made the statement after The New York Times revealed the existence of the meeting
A few days later, Mr. Trump posted a tweet similar to the one he wrote on Sunday morning: “Most politicians would have gone to a meeting like the one Don jr attended in order to get info on an opponent. That’s politics!” But his administration at the time was sticking to the adoption story line, with his press secretary, Sean Spicer, saying later that day there was no evidence that anything but that topic had been discussed during the meeting.

Although the president tried again on Sunday to portray the meeting as routine, it is a key focus of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. Mueller is looking into whether the president’s campaign worked with Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and whether Mr. Trump or his associates obstructed justice by lying about their activities. 
It is illegal for a campaign to accept help from a foreign individual or government. 
Mr. Trump’s tweet on Sunday was one in a series in which he renewed his attacks on Mr. Mueller, saying his inquiry was riddled with “lies and corruption.
The president denied a report in The Washington Post that he was worried about the legal exposure for Donald Jr., who had been promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to hold the meeting with the Russian lawyer. While he said that the meeting was legal, he also distanced himself from it, repeating his assertion that he knew nothing about it at the time. 

At some point, somebody must have told Trump to stop talking and to get off Twitter, but as any good prosecutor will tell you, letting the suspect talk himself into a conviction because they lack basic self-control is tried and true.

So now, with Trump's public admission that he has committed both obstruction of justice and campaign law contributions, we arrive at the inevitable test of the durability of the Republic. 

It was always going to reach this point, I have been saying this for 18 months now.  But today is the day we turn the corner from midgame to endgame, and we finally see if anyone is willing to stand up to Trump. We've been down this road as a country before, and I don't use the term Nixonian lightly.

August 5, 1974, was the day the Nixon Presidency ended. On that day, Nixon heeded a Supreme Court ruling and released the so-called smoking-gun tape, a recording of a meeting, held two years earlier, with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. Many of Nixon’s most damaging statements came in the form of short, monosyllabic answers and near-grunts—“um huh,” the official transcript reads, at one point—as he responds to Haldeman’s idea of asking the C.I.A. to tell the F.B.I. to “stay the hell out of” the Watergate investigation. The coverup is clearly of Haldeman’s design. Nixon’s words are simple: “All right. Fine.” Then, “Right, fine.” 
Haldeman’s idea seemed clever. He believed the F.B.I. was close to concluding that the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate hotel was the work of a C.I.A.-led operation, which had something to do with Cuba and the Bay of Pigs. Nobody would have to actually lie, he seems to suggest—it wasn’t “unusual” for the C.I.A. to warn the F.B.I. to drop an investigation that could harm national security. “And that will fit rather well because the F.B.I. agents who are working the case, at this point, feel that’s what it is. This is C.I.A.”

Nixon’s strongest statement to Haldeman is, surprisingly, a word of caution. “Don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it,” he says. “Say that we wish, for the country, don’t go any further into this case, period!” When Nixon released the tape, he acknowledged that it would lead to his impeachment. Three days later, he resigned the Presidency.

The fact that there's only a 0.0001% chance that Trump resigns after this admission makes me have my extreme doubts.  But we will see if we survive this or not.

Open Mic Night, Only With Moonshine

If it's the first August Saturday in Kentucky, it's time for Fancy Farm, the Bluegrass State's annual "pretend we're normal people" political speechifying event/open mic night.  It's something that every political hopeful here attends, and this year was no different as human-terrapin hybrid Mitch McConnell announced his intent to run for Senate again in 2020.

Saying it was never too soon to start, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell formally announced his 2020 re-election bid in his home state Saturday and tapped the young leader of the state’s House Republicans as his campaign chairman. 
The 76-year-old McConnell has said for months that he intends to run for re-election in 2020. But he left little room for doubt while speaking at a GOP breakfast in far western Kentucky, the precursor to the Fancy Farm picnic that serves as the traditional starting point for the state’s fall campaign season. 
“I have some news to make this morning. I’m going to be running for re-election in 2020,” McConnell told the crowd at Graves County Middle School, adding: “I don’t like starting late.” 
McConnell chose Jonathan Shell, the 30-year-old majority leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives, as chairman of his campaign. Shell made national news in May when he was ousted in a Republican primary by a high school math teacher who had never run for office before. The election was seen by many as result of massive protests across the country by teachers and public workers upset with education funding, retirement benefits and low pay. 
Hundreds of teachers mustered at the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday. The 138-year-old tradition in western Kentucky is known for pitting politicians of both parties onstage before a crowd of raucous hecklers who do their best to fluster those brave enough to stand at the microphone. Raising the stakes, the speeches are broadcast live on statewide television. 
As McConnell spoke Saturday, hundreds of teachers in matching red T-shirts stood and turned their backs on him as they chanted, “Vote him out!” 
But McConnell was steady, seeming amused by some of the reactions. Near the end of his speech, McConnell addressed the Republican side of the crowd by turning to the Democrats and saying: “Don’t be afraid of these people. Stand up for America and help us make America great again.”

I will admit, anyone who thought Mitch would be bothered by the political pressure he's under never put up with Fancy Farm crowds in a sweltering Kentucky August. Especially in the Trump era of "civility" heckling everyone on stage is free game and absolutely expected, and you're supposed to give as good as you get but you'd better keep it clean.  After all,  this is a church picnic, folks.

But you know who wasn't here?

GOP Gov. Matt Bevin.

Couldn't stand the heat, I guess.  Next year should be real interesting.

Sunday Long Read: An Eye For The Trump Era

Author Laurie Penny brings us this week's Sunday Long Read at the Baffler, an in-depth look at why Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy may arguably be the most timely and important social commentary on the Trump era so far, why late-state capitalism is an impressive failure, why toxic masculinity is destroying the country, and why we're packaging it all as feel-good reality TV.

SOME THINGS ARE JUST TOO PURE for this weird and wicked world. That video of the golden retriever failing an agility test. Golden retrievers in general. Political science majors who truly believe they can change the system from within. And Queer Eye.

Queer Eye is a cultural intervention masquerading as a Netflix series. It has rapidly become essential to the well-being of a great many good and decent human beings who had otherwise stopped turning on the television for fear of the horror leaking out of it. I’m only slightly exaggerating: you’ve got to wonder what will become, for example, of the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman—who has now written a heart-wrenching daisy-chain of Queer Eye columns—if the show’s producers don’t make a third season. Which they will. I promise. Nobody panic.

Queer Eye is wonderful and terrible and probably the last significant statement to be made in reality television. The show, a Netflix-produced reboot of the original, squealsome mid-aughts judge-your-jeans extravaganza, instantly launched a thousand memes when it premiered in February, and the new second season has been a huger hit than anyone expected. In a culture awash in both mawkish reality vehicles dripping with kitsch and nostalgic reboots of shows from a softer world, Queer Eye is both. It manages to exceed the sum of its parts by not actually being about what we’re told it’s about. It’s not about queerness at all. It’s actually about the disaster of heterosexuality—and what, if anything, can be salvaged from its ruins.

On the surface of things, it’s a straightforward quest for “acceptance,” supposedly of homosexuality, dramatized via the no-longer-so-outlandish vehicle of sending five gay men on an outreach mission to small-town Georgia with a vast interior design budget and a vanload of affirmations. What it turns out to be, though, is a forensic study of the rampaging crisis of American masculinity. In each new installment of the reboot, queerness is gently suggested as an antidote to the hot mess of toxic masculinity under late-stage capitalism. I am absolutely here for it, as long as we all get paid.

The basic formula has barely changed: five gay men in an SUV descend on one hapless, shlubby, usually straight guy and sort his life out. In seven days, Jonathan Van Ness, Bobby Berk, Tan France, Karamo Brown, and Antoni Porowski give him a whole new look, redesign his home and wardrobe, teach him some basic kitchen skills, and provide scripted space to talk about his feelings with the cameras rolling.

In its aughts heyday, the original Queer Eye was catty and consumerist, with a side-order of snide eye-rolling and dreadful puns. The gimmick, the selling point, was that gay men are actually fun and fabulous and it’s safe to let them in your homes, because they might redecorate. The reboot follows the same beats with a more compassionate melody, and this time the gimmick is different. The gimmick is that heterosexuality is a disaster, toxic masculinity is killing the world, and there are ways out of it aside from fascism or festering away in a lonely bedroom until you are eaten by your starving pitbull or your own insecurities. The men typically featured as the show’s reclamation projects remind me of some of the men who I see on Tinder, sitting on that touring reproduction of the Iron Throne, staring into the middle distance, while in their real lives, and certainly on Queer Eye, they sit on ugly, painful furniture, faux-leather recliners that damage their backs, couches soaked in cat urine.

People on this show are extremely sweet to one another. That is rare enough within the reality TV genre, where “reality” is usually flattened into an exaggerated Hobbesian melee of shark-eyed competition and high-stakes back-stabbing. Most reality shows replicate the ruthless dogma of the age whereby life is made up of winners and losers and the trick is to hammer the other guy into the ground before he can do the same to you. On this show, men do not compete with each other. They touch each other, a lot, and seeing that brings home just how horrifyingly rare that is in untelevised reality. They cry and admit to one other how much it hurts to be alive while a handsome stranger teaches them how to make guacamole. There are no winners on Queer Eye—just better losers.

Fixing a few of these losers is the best we can hope for, I guess.  Fixing the system that created these losers, well, that's the reality show we're all living in today.

The Erdogan Model Comes To Caracas

Brutally cracking down after "rebel action" is a tried and true autocrat maneuver straight from the dictatorship playbook, and Venezuela is no different as an "assassination attempt" on President Nicolas Maduro over the weekend will certainly lead to a massive military purge of his enemies.

Explosions caused pandemonium at a military ceremony where President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela was speaking on Saturday, making the first lady flinch and sending National Guard troops scurrying in what administration officials called an assassination attempt using drones.

The president, who was unharmed, later told the nation, “To all of our friends in the world, I am fine, I am alive.” He blamed right-wing elements and said, “The Bolivarian revolution keeps its path.”

Mr. Maduro has presided over a spectacular economic collapse in Venezuela, where inflation is expected to reach one million percent this year despite the country’s large oil reserves. Economists blame decades of mismanagement under Mr. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

The drone attack was the latest in a string of attempts in recent years to end the tenure of Mr. Maduro, who was declared the victor of an election in May that carries his term until 2025. No previous assaults have been as bold, though, and this appeared to have been the first assassination attempt on a head of state using drones.

It was an attack that seemed scripted for Hollywood: Off-camera explosions. Low-flying drones exploding midair. The president and first lady ducking for cover. Thousands of soldiers in a military parade suddenly fleeing in a stampede that was broadcast to the country, live.

Jorge Rodríguez, the communications minister, said the attackers had used “several flying devices” that were detonated near where the president was standing.

The attack came shortly after 5:30 p.m. during an event the government said was meant to celebrate the 81st anniversary of the country’s National Guard.

During the president’s speech, which was broadcast live on state television, the camera began to shake. Mr. Maduro then looked into the air as his wife, Cilia Flores, flinched and reached for another official to brace herself.

The video feed was interrupted, but Mr. Maduro could be heard continuing to talk as voices in the background yelled for people to flee.

The video feed then showed figures dressed in black breaking through a barrier from the sidelines of a wide street where hundreds of uniformed guardsmen were arrayed in formation. The figures in black ran toward the guardsmen, who abruptly fled in panic.

Maduro is already blaming Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos for the incident, as well as ex-pat "financiers" in Florida.  Authorities have of course immediately picked up suspects.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the incident took place shortly after 5:30 p.m. as Maduro was celebrating the National Guard’s 81st anniversary. The visibly shaken head of state said he saw a “flying device” that exploded before his eyes. He thought it might be a pyrotechnics display in honor of the event.

Within seconds, Maduro said he heard a second explosion and pandemonium ensued. Bodyguards escorted Maduro out of the event and television footage showed uniformed soldiers standing in formation quickly scattering from the scene.

He said the “far right” working in coordination with detractors in Bogota and Miami, including Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, were responsible. Some of the “material authors” of the apparent attack have been detained.

“The investigation will get to the bottom of this,” he said. “No matter who falls.”

Venezuela’s government routinely accuses opposition activists of plotting to attack and overthrow Maduro, a deeply unpopular leader who was recently elected to a new term in office in a vote decried by dozens of nations. Maduro has steadily moved to concentrate power as the nation reels from a crippling economic crisis.

Mismanagement and corruption has caused one million percent inflation in the country, and Maduro is hated.  But now, this "assassination attempt" by Colombia allows Maduro to consolidate power and rally it against an external enemy.  It's a move as old as civilization itself.

Just like Turkey and the Philippines, expect bloodshed and purge.
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