• Quick tip: Normally, the Neo-Nazis are NOT the Third Rail of American Politics

    How can you managed to turn a simple matter–morally and politically–into a day-after-day controversy and ultimately a political firestorm?

    Good heavens, man, condemning the neo-Nazis and KKK when they instigate the event and cause a death: not a hard call.

    When the anarchists or some other group lead the chaos, then condemn them.

    But not now.

    When progressives go too far–demanding the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson be excised from history and honored status–condemn them when they do. (The chances they will go too far? Very high.)

    But not now.

    Act like the President of the whole country.

    Now.

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    Is there anybody in the West Wing saying, “At least that got the Russia investigation off the front page”?

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, August 10

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ How serious is the North Korean crisis?
    Answer: Deadly serious
    My column on the crisis appears today in Real Clear Politics (link here).

    Washington Post headline: “Trump’s threat to North Korea contrasts with calm reassurances of other administration officials” (Washington Post)

    Comment: No. It’s “good cop, bad cop.”

    Trump and SecDef Mattis issue threats.

    Meanwhile, Sec. of State Tillerson holds out hope for negotiations.

    Although these differences could be seen as inconsistency or disarray, the more likely explanation is that the administration is holding out a hope for negotiations as the outcome of military threats.

    Deportation orders up 30% under Trump (Fox News)

    The president has vowed to speed deportations and cut down on the growing backlog of cases. He issued an executive order in January calling for a national crackdown.

    After Trump issued the order, the Justice Department dispatched dozens of immigration judges to detention centers across the country and hired an additional 54 judges. The agency said it has continued to hire more immigration judges each month. –Fox News

    Related story: Newspaper in El Salvador helpfully explains which 18 states illegal immigrants should avoid because “police agencies [in those states] are able to enforce immigration law.” (Daily Caller)

    Manafort’s home is not his castle. FBI conducts pre-dawn raid (New York Times)

    Why such an aggressive move against a white-collar suspect who is already cooperating? The NYT offers some ideas:

    The search is a sign that the investigation into Mr. Manafort has broadened, and is the most significant public step investigators have taken since the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, was appointed in May. Investigators are expected to deploy a wide array of similar measures — including interviews and subpoenas — in the coming months as they move forward with the intensifying inquiry. . . .

    Legal experts said that Mr. Mueller might be trying to send a message to Mr. Manafort about the severity of the investigation, and to pressure him into cooperating. –New York Times

    How nasty are the Cubans? Well, they planted sonic devices around the homes of US diplomats, causing them hearing losses (Miami Herald)

    The use of sonic devices to intentionally harm diplomats would be unprecedented. –Miami Herald

    This began in 2016, shortly after President Obama and Sec. of State John Kerry opened relations with Cuba and proclaimed a new day in bilateral relations.

    Comment: These physical attacks on US personnel were known to the Obama administration, though the specific causes were not known.

    Pioneering type 1 diabetes therapy, using immunotherapy, is safe (BBC)

    The disease is caused by the body destroying cells in the pancreas that control blood sugar levels. The immunotherapy – tested on 27 people in the UK – also showed signs of slowing the disease, but this needs confirming in larger trials. Experts said the advance could one day free people from daily injections.

    Patients given the therapy did not need to increase their dose of insulin during the trial. However, it is too soon to say this therapy stops type 1 diabetes and larger clinical trials will be needed. And further types of immunotherapy that should deliver an even stronger reaction are already underway.–BBC

    Comment: Promising but larger studies needed. Note that it slows the progression of the disease; it does not reverse it.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, August 5

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    Special Counsel Mueller’s office ask White House for docs on Mike Flynn; doing a full investigation of Flynn’s financial dealings, especially those with Turkey (New York Times)

    Taking money from Turkey or any foreign government is not illegal. But failing to register as a foreign agent is a felony, and trying to hide the source of the money by routing it through a private company or some other entity, and then paying kickbacks to the middleman, could lead to numerous criminal charges, including fraud.

    Prosecutors have also asked during interviews about Mr. Flynn’s speaking engagements for Russian companies, for which he was paid more than $65,000 in 2015, and about his company’s clients — including work it may have done with the Japanese government. –New York Times

    Comment: Besides Flynn’s vulnerability, the thing to note here is that Mueller’s office appears to be illegally leaking confidential investigation materials to the NYT.

    Venezuela’s march toward complete dictatorship continues (New York Times)

    Hugo Chavez’s successors are rewriting the Constitution to give themselves total power.

    Predictably, the economy is collapsing, people are trying to flee, etc.

    Comment: Sean Penn had no comment.

    US proposes even tougher UN sanctions against North Korea (Channel NewsAsia)

    Vote expected Saturday in UN Security Council after a month of negotiations with China. It will be the 7th set of UN sanctions on North Korea.

    The [proposed] measures that include a ban on exports of coal, iron and iron ore, lead and lead ore, as well as seafood by the cash-starved state. . . .

    The draft text would also prevent North Korea from increasing the number of workers it sends abroad, prohibit all new joint ventures and ban new investment in the current joint companies. –Channel NewsAsia

    The proposal would also blacklist the regime’s Foreign Trade Bank but would not prohibit shipments of oil to North Korea.

    Comment: The EU, Japan, and South Korea have supported US efforts.

    My guess: These sanctions will not stop Kim’s pursuit of nuclear-tipped ICBMs.

    House Speaker Paul Ryan “casts doubt on Pres. Trump’s plan to cut legal immigration” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

    To quote Ryan:

    With baby boomers leaving the workforce, we’re still going to have labor shortages in certain areas and that is where a well-reformed legal immigration system should be able to make up the difference. –Paul Ryan interview with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

    Comment: ZipDialog has noted that the proposal to cut the number of legal immigrants is separable from the proposed new point system, focusing on higher skills and English language. Big business does not want the total numbers cut, and Ryan’s comments suggest those concerns have resonance.

    Nissan workers in Mississippi overwhelmingly reject high-profile unionization bid from United Autoworkers (New York Times)

    In a test of labor’s ability to expand its reach in the South, workers at a Nissan plant in Mississippi have overwhelmingly rejected a bid to unionize.

    Out of roughly 3,500 employees at the Canton-based plant who voted Thursday and Friday, more than 60 percent opposed the union. It was an emphatic coda to a years-long organizing effort underwritten by the United Automobile Workers, which has been repeatedly frustrated in its efforts to organize major auto plants in the region. –New York Times

    Experienced workers make $26 hour there, well above average wages in the state. Detroit wages are a few dollars higher. Nissan’s contributions to employees’ retirement accounts are similar to those of Michigan automakers, according to the NYT.

    Comment: The majority of plant workers are black, and the UAW had contributed heavily to civil-rights organizations as part of the organizing effort.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Friday, August 4

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed.
    Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ EXCELLENT ECONOMIC NEWS: Surging jobs in July means that the US has now regained all the jobs lost in the recession. Wages rose 2.5% last year. Unemployment remains 4.3% Dow-Jones above 22k for the first time ever (Washington Post)

    Comment: Now, to get more healthy people back into the labor force.

     

     ◆ After latest leaks of private Presidential phone calls to foreign leaders, AG Jeff Sessions announces more measure to find and punish the perps (Fox News)

    Based on the leaked documents, The Washington Post reported new details Thursday about Trump’s tense phone calls in late January with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. In the former, Trump reportedly told the Mexican leader to stop publicly saying his government would not pay for a border wall.

    The newspaper said the transcripts had notes indicating they had been classified by the chief of staff on the National Security Council. The Post said it obtained full transcripts, which were “produced by White House staff” and based on records kept by White House note-takers. –Fox News

    Comment: My guess: holdover staff from the last administration or people who have just been fired.

    Special Counsel Mueller empanels Grand Jury in Washington (The Hill)

    They already had one in Virginia, so this is really not new, just a more convenient location for Mueller’s office, which now has 16 full-time prosecutors.

    Comment: It means the investigation is

    • Clearly a criminal one, not limited to counter-intelligence
    • Not limited to Mike Flynn, who was the subject of the Virginia panel
    • Likely to last many more months

    Who should be worried? Anybody in Trump’s circle who has extensive business dealings with Russia or Russian-sponsored entities and, of course, anybody who lies to Federal agents. Lying to the media is not a crime, but a pattern of lying could indicate intent to cover up and prompt further inquiry.

    West Virginia’s Democratic Governor announces switch to GOP at Trump rally (Charleston WVa Gazette-Mail)

    West Virginia, once reliably Democratic, has voted for Republicans in each presidential race since 2000, and dramatically last year. Four of the state’s five Congressional seats have flipped to Republican.

    The most important elected Democrat in the state is now centrist Joe Manchin, who said he will remain a Democrat.

    Comment: Democrats now control only 15 governorships and the fewest state legislatures in the party’s history.

    Sticking with Bernie and Nancy is not going to help, but the ineptitude of the current Congress will.

    Israel: PM Netanyahu’s top aide agrees to testify against him in a bribery, fraud investigation (Bloomberg)

    Comment: Likely outcome: Netanyahu indicted.

    It’s grim when top officials are suspected of corruption, but it is good news when an independent judiciary can investigate them, as they do in constitutional democracies . . . and nowhere else.

    Chief of Staff John Kelly emerges as key supporter of National Security Council Adviser McMaster in White House in-fighting (Politico)

    Comment: Yes, it helps that they are both former generals. But the main point is that they are both experienced at high-level Washington bureaucratic politics.

    McMaster has been cleaning house in his operation, putting his own people in place.

    The problems: McMaster has a violent temper, often on display in staff meetings, and is frequently pitted against Steve Bannon, who is an important link to Pres. Trump’s populist constituency–and who would be harder on the Trump Administration outside the tent than inside.

    Fragile economy limits Putin (Reuters)

    And US sanctions weak him further.

    Comment: ZipDialog has made this point repeatedly. Most news commentary has overlooked it.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    Hat Tip to

    ◆ Michael Lipson for the Grand Jury story

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, August 1

    Articles chosen with care. Your comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Comment: What the Scaramucci ouster shows:

    • The initial appointment was another of Trump’s unforced errors
    • John Kelly has quickly asserted control over White House staff, obviously with Pres. Trump’s blessing
    • The White House desperately needs to assemble a stable, competent communications team (Rumors are that Kellyanne Conway could be the new Communications Director; she would be a good choice.)

    ⇒ More at a separate ZipDialog post here.

    If anybody can run this circus, it’s Kelly. The biggest question is whether he can get the Ringmaster to restrain himself. Conway did it for several months as campaign manager. Perhaps Conway and Kelly can do it again. But they are facing an impulsive, temperamental, thin-skinned boss.

     More night-time lights in North Korea show an improving economy, despite sanctions  (Fox)

    Comment: Blame China. They’ve played the US for years. Trump, James Mattis, Nikki Haley, and Mike Pence have all declared that the time for talk–and waiting for China’s voluntary assistance–is over. Easier to say than to do.

    The question is whether any pressure on North Korea, either directly or via China, will stop them? China will only act if they fear a dreadful alternative. The only possible alternative short of war that they might fear is a nuclear-armed Japan. Moving in that direction is obviously fraught with dangers.  Before that, expect more anti-missile batteries, possible shoot-downs of North Korean launches, and economic sanctions against Chinese banks and trading companies.

     Pres. Trump himself dictated Jr’s misleading statement about meeting with Russian lawyer  (Washington Post)

    Comment: It’s hard to be stunned by this White House–or the leaks–but this qualifies. It is almost certainly not obstruction of justice in its own right, but it will undoubtedly attract the interest of Special Council Robert Mueller, who will look for a pattern.

     Venezuela sinking into a chaotic dictatorship, with economy in free fall  (Washington Post)

    Comment: The US is imposing more sanctions and could impose even more stringent ones. If so, expect the Iranians, Russians, and Chinese to step up and offer support in bids for more influence. The Iranians already have big-time connections there, forged under Chavez.

     Alabama inmates escaped using peanut butter. In jam after capture.  (Washington Post)

    They used peanut butter to renumber the jail cells and fool an inexperienced guard.

     Alphabet (Google) working on new way to store lots of energy; alternative to lithium-ion batteries (Bloomberg)

    They have a “skunk works” operation that tries to develop these long-shot projects. The idea here is to send energy to a heat pump, some of which will supercool antifreeze (or some alternative liquid), some of which will heat molten salt. When air from the separate hot and cold tanks are combined, they produce wind vortexes that spin turbines and generate electricity.

    Alphabet is working with prototype plants now and could be ready to work with a manufacturer soon to build a real-world version. The plants could range in size from as small as a garage to as large as a conventional electric plant.

    Besides scaling up, the researchers are looking for ways to build the plan with cheaper materials.

    Storage like this is crucial if renewable energy sources are to play a larger role since most renewables only produce power intermittently (when the sun is shining, the winds are blowing, etc.).

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  • ZipDialog for Friday, July 14: All Trump Jr.: What we know, what we don’t know, and what matters

    UPDATED

     The big story continues to be fallout from Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting with the Russian lawyer.

    Amid the firestorm, it is important to remember what matters and why.

    Comment and Analysis:

    • What matters is less the meeting itself and more the reasons DJT, Jr., himself says he wanted to have it after being told it involved information from the Russian government, which (he was told) wanted to help his father
    • That help was not given at the meeting.
    • If it had been given, it probably would not have been illegal
    • But it is a terrible idea to accept help from a foreign government.
    • It is even worse when the government is an adversary. And it is still worse when it is part of a multi-pronged attempt by the foreign government to interfere in the US election.
    • It completely obliterates the Trump White House’s denials for months that they had no contacts with Russian government agents during the campaign.
    • It is now consuming Washington, damaging the Trump presidency, and making it more difficult for him to move forward on health care, taxes, immigration, and other policy issues

    More information will continue to dribble out, such as yesterday’s story about how Loretta Lynch’s DOJ let the lawyer. Natalia Veselnitskaya, into the country and today’s story that one of the lobbyists the lawyer brought to the meeting was an ex-Russian intel officer.

    To me, the main questions now about the Trump side are whether

    1. There were more contacts?
    2. This was just chaos and confusion at the Trump campaign or part of a coherent plan and, if so, did the plan bear any fruit?
    3. The Democrats (Hillary, the DNC, their donors) had any hand in this or other dirty tricks?
    4. Manafort, the experienced guy on the Trump side, knew about the extent of the Russian involvement?
    5. This sought-after cooperation with the Russians involved the nominee himself?

    Now that this line of inquiry has opened up, it is also important to know what contacts the Clinton campaign had with foreign-government agents, especially those of unfriendly governments. Those would show that this game is played by all sides and show her campaign’s intent. BUT the Clinton campaign’s activities are much less important now because she lost.

    Trump is in the Oval Office so his campaign’s integrity, or lack of it, matters more.

    Everyone seems to think the Russians are loving this mess. I’m sure they do–but they probably have more mixed opinions since their fingerprints are all over the room and, because of that, are blocked from all but minor, tactical cooperation with the US.  Who could doubt they are adversaries and malevolent actors?

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    Question: Was this meeting a criminal offense, as Trump’s sharpest critics have charged.

    Answer: Most experienced attorneys have said that the information made public so far is not a prosecutable crime. But that it hardly the end of the matter.

    It is still a nasty business politically. It is either a political “crime,” or at least an attempted one, or else extraordinary incompentence. The presence of an experienced operative like Paul Manafort being part of this is inexplicable and disturbing.

    It’s not the end for another reason: further information might still come to light and suggest crimes really were commited. You can be certain that the mainstream media, which loathes Trump and now sees blood in the water, will spare no resources to investigate those possibilities. Plus, there’s Mueller’s investigation. Nobody is getting away with anything here.

     

     

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, July 13

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     US had a clear shot at killing Kim Jong Un recently but decided not to pull the trigger (Yahoo News)

    They had him in their sights when he went to the ICBM launch. The fear, of course, is that a US strike would begin a devastating war.

    Comment: So, what’s behind this leak? The US is sending a very threatening message to Kim. Move against us and you die. Or you might want to live underground for a while.

     Politico reports: White House aides feeling ‘helpless’ as Trump Jr. scandal explodes

    The news in the story is that key White House aides are not bothering to play down this meeting as fake news or a false scandal, though some of Trump’s staunchest supporters do.

    Comment: The in-fighting will increase and, with it, the leaks. 

    If you think it’s bad now, imagine how much worse it gets if Congress cannot enact bills on healthcare and tax reform.

    Another strange aspect of the “Russian lawyer” story: Why did Loretta Lynch’s DOJ give her special permission to come to the US? (The Hill)

    This revelation means it was the Obama Justice Department that enabled the newest and most intriguing figure in the Russia-Trump investigation to enter the country without a visa. –The Hill

    Comment: She appears to have been given permission to come to do some specific legal work for a client but quickly shifted over to lobbying for Russian sanctions relief.

    ◆ Another day in Florida: Instagram model arrested for attacking police during nude encounter at Florida hotel (Fox News)

    According to the Clearwater Police report obtained by The Smoking Gun, [25-year old Brissa] Dominguez had trespassed onto the Edge Hotel’s property at approximately 4:20 a.m. on July 5. Officer Richard Edmonds later arrived on the scene to find Dominguez naked, so he handed her a towel. But instead of covering up, Dominguez used the towel to “strike [Edmonds] in the face by swinging it in a whipping motion.”

    Dominguez then proceeded to kick at the responding officers. The police report says she also tried biting and spitting on an officer before delivering a “mule kick” to Edmonds as police attempted to restrain her.

     Brazil’s former leader, Lula da Silva, indicted for corruption  (Washington Post)

    Comment: The corruption seems to have been pervasive in his government and that of his party.

     Fed Chair Janet Yellen: US economy strong enough to warrant more interest-rate increases  (Washington Post)

    Comment: Barring some shock, expect a couple more increases this year.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Wednesday, July 12: All Donald Jr.

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Trump, Jr.’s troubles  The news is important, and we need to know more. The front page of the Washington Post captures the range of issues.

    Comments:

    What does the email chain mean?

    It means that

    • Trump Jr. knew (or thought he did) that the Russian government was trying to aid his father’s campaign by providing information on Hillary.
    • He wanted to cooperate with them if they had information
    • All his prior statements and those of the campaign that they were not having any meetings with the Russians were false, and they knew they were false
    • He, Kushner, and Manafort, who, as an experienced pol, should have known better, were effectively  drawn into an “information honey trap”
    • They didn’t already have good ties to the Kremlin, which means they had probably not been colluding (but sure looks like they wanted to do so)
    • They apparently still do not  grasp that this is far over the line of appropriate conduct in a US presidential race since it involves collaborating with a foreign adversary; that is true, whether or not the transaction violated any laws

    What else do we need to know? 

    Lots.

    We need to understand, among other things

    • Who was behind this, both in the US and in Russia?
    • What was their goal? Entrapment or future collaboration? Something else?
    • What links does the Russian lawyer have, in Russia and in the US?
    • What internal communications got Kushner and Manafort into the room for this meeting?
    • What other meetings did any high-level Trump staffers have with Russian operatives?
    • Where were the campaign’s legal team during this fiasco?
    • Did the Clinton campaign team have any similar meetings with foreign powers?

    One more thing: it is now obvious (at least to me) that the Russians have succeeded far beyond what they hoped for–and it is damaging to them because it blocks any conceivable glide path to better relations with the US in the near future.

    The domestic political implications are serious, even if this doesn’t go much further.

    Trump is weakened and his policy agenda is impeded as a result. Independently elected officials will edge away from him unless he squashes these legitimate questions with real answers.

    If there is more to the attempted collaboration, then the implications are far more serious.

    If it turns out to be a honey trap that somehow involved the Democrats, they will suffer, too.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, July 11

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     NYT: Trump Jr was told by email that his meeting with a Russian lawyer was part of a Kremlin effort to aid their campaign  The NYT has not seen the email but has been told about it by 3 anonymous people.

    Trump Jr’s lawyer says it is “much ado about nothing” and that he was simply meeting with someone who might have info that could help the campaign.

    In fairness, the Times notes that Trump Jr. has said he would be willing to meet with Congressional investigators and that he

    had a reputation during the campaign for having meetings with a wide range of people eager to speak to him, did not join his father’s administration. He runs the family business, the Trump Organization, with his brother Eric.

    Comment: The fact that Jr’s story has changed several times is not a good sign for him; it suggests he has something to conceal.

    The better news for him is that it strongly indicates to me they did not already have good contacts with the Russians (a point that I have not seen made elsewhere). If that is true, it is strong evidence that they had not been colluding prior to the June 2016.

    Final point: we don’t know yet if this meeting was a dirty trick. Could be–but if it was then why wouldn’t the Clinton people have revealed it during the campaign? They would have. So that seems unlikely.

     US soldier arrested in Hawaii for allegedly joining ISIS  (NBC)

    Ikaika Erik Kang was a convert to Islam and some of his statements lauded Hitler.

    Comment: Proper sentence: send him to Mosul for join his friends.

     Two studies say drinking more coffee leads to longer life (CNN)

    Comment: More fine research from the Starbucks Institute for Science.

     FDA: opioid pharma companies must comply with new, tougher rules to train doctors on using the painkillers properly  (Washington Post)

    Comment: A small but welcome step.

     Chicago Sun-Times Editorial: Illinois should lead the way in solar energy

    Comment: No it shouldn’t. States with a lot of sunshine should lead the way.  They have the obvious advantage.

    If Illinois wants to lead the way in energy, it should use its advantage and focus on better energy use in cold weather. Conservation is an equally important part of an overall energy strategy.

     Texas judge suspended after admitting she used ecstacy and marijuana and sexted her bailiff (Daily Mail) She also misrepresented her relationship with a convicted swindler to conceal drug purchases from him.

    Her former boyfriend [whom she was seeing while she was married] also said that they used Backpage.com on two occasions to hire prostitutes for threesomes. He said Green paid $150 to a prostitute in Houston on one occasion, and $200 to a prostitute in Austin on another.  –Daily Mail

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  • US-Russian Relations: What matters but isn’t covered in all the tabloid news

    Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election matters. So do any possible connections to the Trump campaign

    But the media’s obsession with those issues is missing other major developments in US-Russian relations

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    The news about US-Russian-European relations goes far beyond the 2016 election interference and possible connections to the Trump campaign.

    On the international stage, Vladimir Putin has skilfully played a very weak hand, while the US misplayed its own for 8 years. Putin has taken an economy the size of Italy’s and returned it to status as an international power.

    It is Iran’s major outside supporter and a major player in Syria, where, in return for supporting the Assad regime, it has acquired major bases.

    It has used Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for political leverage.

    And it has effectively offered to step in and assist North Korea if they want assistance beyond China’s.

    But he can only stay in power by running a corrupt kleptocracy, in close alignment with the oligarchs, with everything stage-managed from Moscow.

    That’s a good way for him to stay in power, but it is a terrible way to grow a diverse, modern economy. Over the long run, the Russian economy will continue to sputter as the US grows.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    What has the Trump Administration done to cope with Putin internationally?

    The media focus has been entirely on US weakness, especially Trump’s mixed statements about NATO and his inexplicable reluctance to recognize the threat from Russia in clear, unambiguous language. There has been some focus on the recent cease-fire in Syria, too.

    But there is much more to the story. And all these other developments put pressure on a Kremlin ill-equipped to handle it.

    NATO

    On NATO, as I have noted, Trump is now a firm supporter but he still wants two major changes: a focus on terrorism and fair-share payments from European partners, as they promised. One reasonable interpretation of his threats to back away from NATO is that they are meant to get Europe to pay up.

    Poland

    In Poland, Trump did more than make a speech (a very good one in my opinion, a very bad one in the opinion of Democrats). He also agreed to an important arms sale the Obama Administration had refused.

    In a move set to counter Russia’s reinforcement on NATO’s borders, Poland and the U.S. have agreed that Warsaw will purchase the American-made Patriot air defense missile, the Polish government announced Thursday.

    Although Poland is a long-term advocate for more U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia’s decision to deploy Iskander missile systems on its borders in November made the demand for assistance more urgent. The S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander systems are set to be delivered in Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave bordering Poland. –Newsweek, story here

    Ukraine

    Totally missing from news coverage is the startling news that Ukraine is now openly seeking NATO membership–understandable, given the Russian threat, but an open insult to the Kremlin, which refused even to let Ukraine strike a trade deal with the EU.

    The Reuters story is headlines: “Pledging Reforms by 2020, Ukraine Seeks Route into NATO

    [Ukraine’s] President Petro Poroshenko, whose country is fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, revived the prospect of NATO membership during a visit by NATO Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg who himself used the occasion to call on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

    “Ukraine has clearly defined its political future and its future in the sphere of security,” Poroshenko speaking to reporters alongside Stoltenberg.

    “Today we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

    Russia, deeply opposed to enlargement of NATO toward its borders, weighed in quickly, saying the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine would not promote stability and security in Europe. –Reuters

    It’s unclear how NATO will approach this or what the Trump Administration will say (or even if it will speak with one voice).

    But the very fact that Ukraine has raised the NATO issue is sure to be a major irritant in US-Russian relations.

    Energy

    The Russian economy depends on oil revenues, and so does the Kremlin to retain support from oligarchs.

    The problem is that energy prices are under permanent, long-term pressure from the US, where shale technology is getting more and more efficient. The US is now a major (and growing) energy exporter, and Trump is doing everything he can to ramp up production and ramp down prices.

    The impact on Russia is not his primary concern here. He’s more concerned with the positive impact of lower prices on the US economy. But the impact on Russia is real, nonetheless, and Trump means to exploit it.

    On his recently completed trip, the president said:

    Let me be clear about one crucial point. The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so,” Trump said at a press conference flanked by European leaders. “You don’t want to have a monopoly or a monopolistic situation. –CNBC story here

    Trump did not name Russia, but everyone understood his message. After all, Russia had cut gas supplies to Europe in 2008 over a Ukraine dispute. Trump was saying, in effect, that we intend to stop that blackmail by giving you an alternative supplier.

    Bottom Line

    The possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign are worth a thorough investigation, as Mueller is doing.

    But don’t be mislead by Democrats’ talking tough: they did little to buttress Central European defenses during the Obama years. Pres. Obama had no intention of increasing US hydrocarbon production, if he could prevent it. (He couldn’t, thanks to new technology.) Lower energy prices it contradicted his broader concerns about fossil fuels and global warming. Fracking technology beat his regulatory onslaught, just as it beat the Saudis’ attempt to drive them out of business with low energy prices.

    For all Trump’s inexplicably warm language about Putin, his actions tell a different story. He’s selling arms to Poland, pressuring Europeans to pay up for NATO, unlocking American oil reserves to lower prices over the long-term, and working to ween Europe from Russian natural.

    Taken together, these actions put enormous pressure on a Kremlin underperforming economically, highly dependent on oil prices, and overstretched by its foreign commitment.