• A Brief Guide to Trump’s upcoming NATO Summit

    What Can NATO Do in Today’s Threatening World?

    May 25, the NATO heads of state will meet in Brussels. It’s an important meeting for the world’s most important alliance, the cornerstone of America’s military and diplomatic partnerships.

    If NATO is important to the US, the US is critical to NATO. It is the organization’s de facto leader because it has the diplomatic and military muscle and because it contributes 70 percent of NATO’s $890 million budget.

    What issues are on the table when Trump arrives in Brussels? The same ones that have plagued the organization since the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
    1. Is NATO obsolete?
    2. If not, what is its mission?
    3. Is NATO a paper tiger? If it is, how can it become more relevant?

    A Little Background

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in the late 1940s to contain the Soviet Union and safeguard the security of its original fourteen state members. It expanded occasionally during the Cold War, adding Greece and Turkey in the early 1950s, for instance, to contain Soviet probes to gain influence (and a warm-water port) in the Mediterranean.

    After the Cold War, NATO took in many of Eastern Europe’s new democracies, former Soviet satellites eager to form close connections with the West. In the process, the original 14 members doubled to twenty-eight, with Montenegro scheduled to become the twenty-ninth.

    NATO is both political and military

    Although the sub-text of NATO’s mission is to prevent conflict, in reality its reason for being is not peace.

    Today, NATO’s primary purpose is to constrain a belligerent and expansionist Russia.

    That is both a political and military task, and NATO has both dimensions. Or, rather, it has them in principle but not always in practice.

    NATO did not respond to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea or its bombing of the Syrian military and civilian opposition. Russia also guaranteed that Syria’s chemical weapon inventory would be totally liquidated. Not so. Last month the Syrian government committed a chemical attack resulting in the deaths of scores of opposition fighters and civilians. Again, NATO did not respond, although the US did with a barrage of cruise missiles.

    How should the US approach NATO now?

    The contemporary threat array facing the US and NATO is
    • Russian expansionism,
    • A hostile ISIS-Islamic Caliphate, and
    • Acts of domestic terrorism, which struck the West again this week.

    What should NATO’s role be in tackling these threats? My assessment is that NATO is still germane to constraining Russia, but it is not capable of countering ISIS or domestic terrorism.

    The US can regain its global leadership responsibility by using and supporting NATO, provided the NATO member states recognize, define, and implement their limited role as diplomats who are dressed in military uniforms. This is an expensive charade.

    The NATO member state budget commitment is two percent of their GDP. Compare the US 3.6 percent contribution and the 2 percent commitment made by Estonia, Greece, Poland, and UK, with the other 23 states that do not meet their commitments.

    NATO should stay in its lane.

    America’s focus–our national interest–lies in protecting the Baltic states from Russian military aggression, providing military weapons to the Ukraine (a non-NATO member), and re-integrate Turkey into NATO.

    The US can regain its global leadership position and responsibility by leading, using, and supporting NATO.

    Bottom Line: Keep NATO, but consider reducing its budget by 50 percent to allay US critics who seek to terminate the alliance because it is not cost-effective.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦

    Richard Friedman was chair of the National Strategy Forum/Chicago. He has served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Counselor to the American Bar Association Committee on National Security.

     

  • ZipDialog for Wednesday, May 17: Making Sense of the News about Trump, Comey, and Russia

     The two big stories are about Pres. Trump:

    (1) The discussion with then-FBI Director Comey about the Mike Flynn investigation, and

    (2) The discussion with the Russians about ISIS.

    Let me offer comments on each, rather than a regular news roundup.

    My goal is to say what we know and don’t know about each and put their importance and potential consequences in some perspective.

     Comment on FBI Director Comey’s private meeting with President Trump

    The meeting was in mid-February, the day after Flynn was fired as National Security Adviser

    The most grievous possibility is that Trump was asking Comey to stop the investigation, which could be seen as obstruction of justice. That’s a very serious charge.

    Comey claims to have written a memo-to-self after the meeting. He held it secretly for three months and then had friends leak it to the press on Tuesday. The anonymous friends read excerpts from the memo and did not release it to the press. They kept their own identities secret, as well.

    Since it was Comey’s own memo, the leak had to come from him. No one besides Comey and the friends though whom he is leaking has actually seen the memo. We don’t know if he wrote memos on other meetings with Trump (or with others), but he probably did.

    I suspect this memo and any others he wrote will be subpoenaed. That could get very interesting. The Democrats, in particular, will enjoy the circus and the stench of scandal, using it to block the Trump presidency.

    Personally, I am disturbed Trump even broached the subject of the Flynn-Russia investigation with Comey.

    Excluding Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the meeting casts further doubt on the propriety of the President’s behavior.

    But there are problems with interpreting the information we currently have as an attempt to obstruct justice, which is how the Democrats and their favorite media are spinning it.

    • First, if there was an attempt to obstruct justice, Comey had a clear legal obligation to report it. He did not. That suggests he thought it was not such an attempt.
    • Second, Comey never discussed this potential obstruction with the second-in-command at his agency, which he presumably would have done if it were a disturbing issue or a close call.
    • Third, Comey never threatened to resign, a threat he famously made during the George W. Bush administration over a DOJ decision. He presumably would have done so–or told his associates about his doubts–if he thought Trump was trying to block an FBI investigation.
    • Fourth, Comey gave very detailed briefings to senior Congressional investigators about the Russian investigation and never mentioned it.
    • Fifth, Comey did not leak this bombshell memo while he was employed at the FBI. He kept it private for three months and only disclosed it after being fired. That means he either did not think the information sufficiently damning or else he thought it was his “job insurance” in case Trump wanted to fire him (a very disturbing possibility, reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover). Right now, we simply don’t know why he kept it secret, especially if he thought it was so important.
    • Sixth, it is possible that Trump’s statement was less a request to kill the investigation of Michael Flynn (which would be obstruction, if that was Trump’s specific intention) and more a vague aspiration that he hoped this mess would end soon with Flynn cleared. (Again, I do not think the President should say any such thing to the leader of that investigation. That’s true even if his statement falls well short of obstruction.)
    • Finally, we know that the FBI investigation has continued full-throttle and that the former second-in-command, now heading the agency temporarily, said in public testimony that no one has attempted to impede the FBI inquiry. That’s vitally important.
      • If Trump were attempting to obstruct the investigation, it seems likely he would have done more. Of course, the Democrats say he did: he fired Comey. But he did so long after the “bombshell” meeting, so it is hard to connect the two.
      • Comey has also said that he didn’t get the additional resources he needed for the investigation. But that has been rebutted by the acting director (who says he has adequate resources) and the deputy AG (who says flatly that Comey never made such a request).

    Bottom Line:

    1. Trump’s political enemies see the whole episode as more evidence of Nixonian malfeasance, a wonderful chance for hearings that put Trump and the Republicans on the defensive, and a great way to impede and undermine Trump.
    2. Trump’s friends see it as something like an attempted coup by Comey, the intelligence agencies, the sore-loser Democrats, and their friends in the media.
    3. Expect many more shoes to drop, including a grand jury investigation of Russian financial ties by some former Trump campaign aides.

    ◆ Comment on Trump and the Russia Leaks

    Now, several days after the news broke, we still don’t know all the details. But we can reasonably conclude that Trump shared some highly-classified information with the Russians. Although Trump has full authority to do that and did not disclose “sources and methods,” he seems to have spoken without fully recognizing the sensitivity of the information or clearing it in advance with his national-security team.

    After the meeting, they called a couple of the US intelligence agencies to clean up after the fact. Some senior people in those agencies almost certainly were the ones who then leaked that information to the media, vastly compounding the damage as well as committing felonies by disclosing the secret information.

    The New York Times and Washington Post played this story as a huge Trumpian error, endangering US national security. But they never explained how, other than saying that such leaks were terrible and, because the leak came from a US ally, it could endanger that relationship.

    My assessment: Trump may have shared too much; it is hard too say since we don’t know the details publicly. If he did, then it was probably a combination of inexperience handling this classified material and an overestimation of our common interest with the Russians.

    But there is a huge irony here. The media’s main claim is that Trump endangered the US with his leaks.

    But it was the WaPo and NYT that spread that information around the world (via leaks they received) and it was the NYT that went further and identified the US partner who “owned” the intelligence, the Israelis. If the information Trump gave the Russians truly jeopardized the US and was a major violation of our security, then what exactly was the justification for publishing detailed descriptions of this secret data, which shares it not only with the Russians but also Iran, ISIS, and everyone else?

    Bottom Line:

    1. Trump may have made a mistake, but it doesn’t look like a huge one (from what we know so far). It may have been done out of hubris, inexperience, or overestimation of our potential to work with the Russians but not out of malice–and certainly not treason as some unhinged commentators have said.
    2. The media, the Democrats, and Trump’s other opponents, including many traditional conservatives, have exploited his error, exaggerated its impact, and actually compounded the problem by publishing additional classified materials, contradicting their claim that they were only worried about the national-security impact of Trump’s (presumed) error.

    ◆ Bottom Line on the two big stories taken together: the Comey meeting and the Russia meeting:

    This whole ruckus–the damage he inflicted on himself, the damage his adversaries are inflicting on him–destabilizes his presidency, sucks the oxygen out of his policy initiatives, splits the Republican party (whose elected officials don’t know whether to back him or back away), and weakens the country.

    If there is real fire beneath the smoke, the damage will get worse. Much worse.

    On the other hand, if Trump’s supporters think he is being railroaded out of office without conclusive, damning evidence, they will see what they feared all along: a Washington establishment that runs the country, regardless of what the electorate says–an entrenched, unelected elite determined to fight dirty to retain its power.

    Given the already-deep cleavages in the country, either alternative poses serious dangers to America’s consensual, constitutional order.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

     

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Friday, May 12

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     Comey Commotion: Neither side’s story survived intact–and Comey didn’t do so well, either (a comment)

    • Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he intended to fire Comey, regardless of what the DOJ report said. That completely blows up the story the White House press office has been peddling that pinned the decision on Rod Rosenstein, the new number 2 at DOJ. Rosenstein’s memo gave Trump cover and may have changed the timing, but this was Trump’s doing. He said so himself.
      • And many sources are saying the ultimate cause was his frustration that the Russia investigation didn’t wrap up. That, too, is a serious blow. He should not interfere with such investigations. Ever. Period.
    • The Democrats’ narrative suffered an even more serious blow, in my opinion. The entire logic of the Democrats’ position is that Trump fired Comey as part of a coverup. The No. 2 at FBI, who is now running the show, testified to Congress that the investigation is a high priority and that it had plenty of resources to do the job. He also said that there had been no pressure from the White House on the FBI’s conduct of the investigation. That makes the obstruction-of-justice claim against Trump and his aides look tenuous, at best. And it makes Comey’s claim he needed more money for the investigation (see below) look bad.
    • Comey himself doesn’t look so good in the day’s news, either. He said that he asked Rosenstein for money $$ for the investigation. Rosenstein says, flatly, that such a request was never made. And McCabe (the #2 at the FBI, married to a Democratic politician) said there was already enough resources. So Comey’s statement, which supported the idea that Trump and his administration were trying to block the investigation, collapses.
    • Comey also told Trump several times he was no under investigation. We might not believe Trump’s statement on this but it was confirmed by the top Democrat and Republican on a Congressional Committee, who said Comey told them the same thing about Trump. It is unclear whether the FBI Director should ever make such disclosures.

     The New Yorker has a brilliantly clever cover. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with the political perspective, artist Barry Blitt deserves credit for a mordant pen.

     More biased coverage at the NYT. Sun rises in East.

    The story is headlined: “In a private dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty. Comey Demurred” 

    To see the bias in that pitch, just look at what the story actually says.

    • There were only two people in the room at that dinner: Trump and Comey.
    • Comey says, “Trump demanded loyalty from me. I, brave soul, refused.”
    • Trump says, loyalty was never even discussed.

    I have no way of knowing what happened in the meeting. You have no way. And the New York Times has no way. But look at their news headline. Comey is telling the truth, they are saying; Trump is lying. That’s possible. But it is not certain.

    The headline should have read “Comey says Trump Demanded Loyalty. Trump says the issue never came up.”

    Here’s the story, which is more accurate than the editorializing in the NYT headline:

    Only seven days after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as president, James B. Comey has told associates, the F.B.I. director was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner with the new commander in chief.

    The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I., according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner.

    As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.

    Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.

    The White House says this account is not correct. And Mr. Trump, in an interview on Thursday with NBC, described a far different dinner conversation with Mr. Comey in which the director asked to have the meeting and the question of loyalty never came up. It was not clear whether he was talking about the same meal, but they are believed to have had only one dinner together. –New York Times

    Comment: Is there anybody at the NYT who knows the difference between reporting and commentary? If there is, she’s not anywhere near the masthead.

     Quotas, Quotas, Quotas!! Freshman Senator wants mandated diversity on everything in Congress (Fox News)

    One of the U.S. Senate’s newest members is proposing to shake up the chamber by mandating “diversity” quotas for everything from staffs to committees.

    A proposal by Nevada’s freshman Democratic senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, could mimic efforts in corporate America. . . .

    “You just have to walk in the room and look at the Senators that are there — the 100 Senators, right? You could see the lack of diversity.”

    Comment: I’m absolutely opposed to discrimination on the usual prohibited grounds. And I appreciate diversity on multiple dimensions, including not everybody working on Capitol Hill being a lawyer (as, of course, Sen. Masto is).

    But, Sen. Masto, as I understand it, Senators are selected by an alternative mechanism. So, how does Sen. Masto plan to mandate her kind of diversity there. Btw, some democracies actually do mandate such gender diversity, requiring parties to put up slates that meet their regulatory standards.

    Typically, when these mandates go in, we get upper-middle-class, highly educated people who check off different boxes for some things, while we ignore all the other similarities among them.

     Former Rep. Corrine Brown stole big-time from the charities associated with her. Now, she’s been convicted  (News4Jax, Jacksonville, FL)

    She said that she never knew where the money was coming from; her staff handled such things. The staff testified otherwise. The jury didn’t buy her story.

     North Korea, still claiming the US (under Obama) tried to assassinate Kim Jong Un, demands the US hand over the culprits  (Washington Post)

    Comment: This won’t end well.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    ZipDialog will post less frequently for the next few days, as I travel the friendly skies. Sarcasm off.

     

  • The “Comey firing” story is going according to script: A comment

    ◆ The Partisans are saying exactly what you expect them to say

    • The Democrats are calling the firing Nixonian, an obstruction of justice because, they say, it was designed to block the Russian investigation.
    • The Republicans are saying that the FBI director’s appointment is within the President’s responsibilities and that Comey’s immediate boss at the Dept. of Justice, a highly-regarded, non-political attorney, lacked confidence in him.

    • The Republicans are stressing the role of Rod Rosenstein, as I expected. Rosenstein memo to his superiors clearly says he lacked confidence in Comey, who, he says, not only made serious mistakes (for which the Democrats had lacerated him) but was still saying he did nothing wrong. By failing to acknowledge his mistakes and learn from them, he raises the likelihood that he will keep making them.
    • The memo, plus news that Trump was frustrated with the continuing Russia investigation (d’uh!), are among the few nuggets of real news since the initial story broke.
    • I explain the basic logic of the two parties’ positions in a previous post here.

    The Democrats are clearly on the offensive, but they have a problem. You cannot coverup a crime–which is essentially their charge against Trump–unless there is a crime.

    So far, there is simply no evidence of such a crime involving Trump or his campaign. Yes, there is a serious investigation into Michael Flynn and perhaps into others, and, yes, the Russians meddled in our election, but so far there is nothing to suggest Trump collaborated with the Russians. (Related story: The Senate committee investigating the Russia issue has ordered Flynn to turn over relevant papers after he failed to do so voluntarily. BBC)

    The Democrats’ call for a special independent counsel will fail unless they can come up with some evidence to support their basic allegation.

    Meanwhile, Trump absolutely must appoint a top-notch, apolitical, experienced law enforcement leader to the FBI. The best names I have heard are Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly, people who have run large police departments very successfully.

    That appointment is not only crucial for Trump politically. It is crucial for the country, which wants to restore confidence in the justice system. And it will be crucial down the line for Trump, who needs to be able to say that the Russia connection was bunk and that a serious FBI inquiry proves it. If the FBI leader doesn’t pass the tests for neutrality and competence, Trump won’t be able to say that.

    ◆ Related story: In the meantime, Trump has hung a nickname on Schumer: “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” (The Hill) Before deriding Trump’s childishness, remember that he has a real knack for picking nicknames that highlight an opponent’s vulnerability. They stick and they work–not always, but mostly. Jeb Bush was low energy. Marco Rubio did seem too little in the campaign. Hillary was and is corrupt. The Schumer nickname highlights his whining negativity–and Trump could make it stick.

  • A Quick Guide to the Political Firestorm over Comey’s Firing. What matters and why. What Democrats and Republicans will argue

    Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey has set off a firestorm, mostly along party lines, but not entirely. Some Republicans have expressed concern, too, and more will wring their hands in the next few days if the Democrats’ narrative takes hold.

    How long the fire lasts and how much it consumes depends, crucially, on information that will emerge out over the coming days, as media organizations pump their sources and Comey defends himself.

    Here are the basic messages you will hear from Democrats and Republicans, starting immediately.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦

    The Democrats’ message is remarkably disciplined. They are speaking with one voice, Chuck Schumer’s.

    They will repeat two key words: Nixon and Watergate.

    Their meaning is clear: Comey was fired to cover up Trump’s crimes.

    Here is their message:

    • Trump, not some underlying, is the person who fired Comey.
    • Trump fired Comey because the FBI was getting to close to uncovering malfeasance by the Trump campaign and transition.
      • This is focused on Russian collaboration with Trump and usually implied rather than asserted directly. Why?
        • First, the intelligence agencies agree that Russia actively meddled in the US campaign, sought to harm Hillary Clinton, and favored Trump.
        • We know that some Trump advisers had connections of various sorts to Russian entities. The most important is Michael Flynn, who was briefly the National Security Adviser. There are reports that he and his associates are now under investigation by a grand jury. Some questions have also swirled around Paul Manafort, head of Trump’s campaign in the summer, and Carter Page, a lower-level figure.
      • Key question: Do the connections between the Trump team and Russia rise to the level of collaboration? If so, that would be a huge scandal and lead to calls for impeachment. If such evidence were found and were convincing, many would consider it a “high crime and misdemeanor.”
        • So far, no evidence of such collaboration has been found. Senior figures of the intelligence community, associated with the Obama Administration, have specifically said that they have looked and that there is no such evidence.
    • Because Trump “interfered” with the FBI, which was investigating the Russia issue, we cannot leave this investigation to the Congress or Department of Justice.
      • Key claim: We are now seeing a Watergate-style coverup by the Trump Administration since they cannot fairly investigate themselves and we cannot count on the FBI, the DOJ, etc.
      • Key demand: We must have an independent special counsel to investigate
      • This demand will receive unanimous backing from Democrats, I expect, and has already received a lot of vocal support from them.
      • The demand will succeed politically if the public thinks there is a coverup and enough Republicans agree that an independent counsel is needed.
    • What’s missing from the Democrats’ argument?
      • None of them actually defend Comey or say he should have been kept in the job. They can hardly make the affirmative case since they have repeatedly called for him to be fired.
      • They simply say “the timing is bad” or “looks suspicious.” But they would have said that if Trump had fired Comey on Day 1. They would have said Trump is trying to stop an on-going investigation.
      • They have not produced any evidence that the firing was actually related to the coverup of a crime, which was the essence of the Watergate firing of Archie Cox and his associates.
      • They have not explained why the firing of Comey impedes the Senate investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
    • What to expect?
      • Democrats will keep pushing hard to get an independent counsel and, if possible, stop Trump’s policy agenda by tying up the Congress and undercutting public support for him.
      • Hearings, of course. Lights, camera, preening. The goal of public hearings is to push agendas, not discover information. And the Democrats have a perfect opportunity here.
      • huge fight over whoever Trump picks as the new FBI director. The fight will be less intense if the nominee is a highly-regarded, career professional, but the Democrats will still use the selection and confirmation hearings to slash and burn the Trump administration.

        ♦♦♦♦♦♦

    What are Republicans saying?

    They have said, or will say,

    • Comey deserved to be fired for cause, totally unrelated to any Russian investigation.
    • Rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey, making it impossible for him to lead the agency.
    • Senators from both parties had already expressed their lack of confidence in Comey.
    • There is zero evidence, so far, of collusion between Trump and the Russians, much less that Trump was trying to stop any investigation (the obstruction of justice charge against Nixon).
    • If you D’s think Comey is so great, why did you call repeatedly for him to be fired? That is, R’s will try to get D’s to defend Comey, an untenable position, and move them away from simply attacking Trump and the Republicans.
    • The acting director at the FBI is a dreadful candidate to lead the agency, even in the interim. Why? Because his wife, an unsuccessful candidate for local office in Virginia, was handsomely funded by Clinton confidante, Terry McAuliffe. At the very least, that was a horrible judgment, given the FBI’s interest in the Clinton machine.

    Significantly, I expect Republican activists to demand a fresh start to several failed investigations Comey led.

    They think Comey botched them and that the DOJ blocked them under Lynch and Holder. Besides thinking that’s true–and wanting to get evidence that it is–they would be happy to distract attention from incoming fire.

    • Why, they ask, were all Hillary’s aides given immunity without an indictment in prospect for the bigger fish, the one with the private, unsecured server? Why was no Grand Jury empanelled? Why didn’t the FBI interview Hillary under oath? Why wasn’t the Clinton Foundation seriously investigated?
    • They will want a major investigation of the Obama Administration’s alleged spying on Americans, including members of Congress, the Trump team, and so on. If such spying really did take place, and if it was directed against political opponents, that is a scandal as big as anything since Watergate.
    • They want to know exactly who ordered all the unmasking of names, which should be readily available, and they will want to know the purported national security purposes for the large number of such requests from the White House. They will note that Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, has already refused to testify voluntarily on that issue.
    • They know the leaking of Flynn’s name was a felony, and they want to see an indictment in that case.

    My guess: if the Democrats look like they might get a special prosecutor for the Russia issue, the Republicans will want one for the Obama spying.

    The Republicans in Congress know–or ought to know–that if Trump’s firing of Comey takes firm root as a major scandal, an attempted coverup by the White House, then the GOP’s grip on power will slip away.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Sunday, May 7

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     Biggest event of the day: French election  Why? First, it’s already been important because the country’s main parties are out. Voters are not happy.

    Second, if Marine Le Pen is elected France could well exit the European Union, which it helped form.

    The latest ripple is massive computer hack of Emmanuel Macron’s computer files. (BBC)

    The main suspect is Russia, which is backing Le Pen.

    Macron is heavily favored. (Reuters)

    Comment: Even the prospect will rock European politics. It should have already done; there is clearly widespread dissatisfaction with the excessive bureaucracy, lack of democratic controls, erosion of national control over borders, and other key elements of the European project.

    There is also fury over the massive migration of Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa who are not integrating into European society, reject many elements of Enlightenment liberalism and toleration, and, in some cases, pose terror threats.

    Le Pen is expected to lose to center-left candidate, Emmanuel Macron. Whether he can lift France from the economic and social doldrums is another matter.

     Next up on Health Care: Trump and Mitch McConnell try to craft a deal (Washington Post)

    For months, McConnell, the consummate political insider, has been dispensing his counsel to Trump, the ultimate outsider, who has been absorbing the Kentuckian’s words. The dynamic has provided a degree of stability in the still-forming relationship between the low-key Senate leader and the loquacious president, who are starkly different types of people.

    But cracks have also emerged in their partnership, most notably when Trump has casually suggested that McConnell change the long-standing rules of the Senate and McConnell has bluntly brushed him off.

    Their fragile alliance is about to face its biggest challenge yet in the next phase of the Republican effort to overhaul the nation’s health-care laws. –Washington Post

    Comment: Trump will surely rely on McConnell to work on the deal in the Senate itself, with Vice President (and former Rep.) Mike Pence as the main intermediary for the White House. Trump will be involved enough to show he cares a lot about it and then push harder when the Senate deal is close to done. 

    Of course, the Senate bill and the House bill will be different, requiring a conference committee–the kind of thing that used to be standard before the Obama years essentially jettisoned normal Congressional procedures.

     The New York Times wastes no time attacking: “Health Act Repeal Could Threaten U.S. Job Engine”

    How? Because fewer people might be employed in health care. They report devastating numbers in manufacturing in Ohio and then say, well, treating people for illnesses has softened the blow to employment.

    Comment: Oddly, this editorial was printed as a news story.

     Warren Buffett: I’m a ‘broken record’ on the US economy, we’re stuck at 2% growth  (CNBC)

    Don’t pay much attention to the quarterly numbers, which oscillate, he says. It’s been slow and steady since the autumn of 2009.

     Colombian civil war: Should the US fund the peace deal, as Obama wanted? Monica Crowley says no.  (NY Post)

    In mid-April, President Trump had a brief, cordial exchange with two former presidents of Colombia — Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana — at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. After the Miami Herald reported the encounter, critics suggested it might “undermine” the Colombian “peace deal” struck by the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

    In fact, it’s less a peace agreement than a pathway to dictatorship for a key US ally and to an expansion of drug trafficking here — developments that would pose grave challenges to Trump’s national security agenda and fight against opioid addiction.

    Remarkably, this disastrous course will likely be partially financed with nearly half a billion US taxpayer dollars — promised by then-President Barack Obama — unless Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan deny the appropriation to implement the deal. –Monica Crowley in the New York Post

    Comment: This deadly civil war has lasted for decades. Colombian voters rejected a previous peace deal.

    I simply don’t know enough about the current situation to comment on it, or on Crowley’s views, intelligently.

     Richard Dawkins reports on very disturbing views in North Africa

    The underlying article is here (National Secular Society, UK) It reports on a large survey in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine.

    Just 45% of Egyptian men believed there should be laws “criminalizing domestic violence, including marital rape.” And only 70% of Egyptian women agreed with this statement. –National Secular Society

    Comment: This matters for women in the region and it matters for Europe, where refugees from North Africa are retaining the views for generations, not adapting to liberal western values.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-100px-w-margin♥ Hat Tip for helpful suggestions:
    ◆ Marcia Sukenik Weiss
    for the Colombia peace deal
    ◆ Seth Charnes
    for correcting me on Pence serving in the House, not the Senate

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, May 2

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     Trump offers to meet with North Korea leader under the right conditions.  Even says he would be “honored” to meet him. (Washington Post) 

    Why the sweet talk about one of the world’s most noxious humans?

    Comment: My guess is that Trump and his aides are trying to give Kim Jong Un a face-saving way out, even as the US ratchets up the pressure. Trump would never meet with Kim unless the deal itself was already set.

    It’s all a long shot in any case. Everything hinges on China, and the only reason China will pressure Pyongyang is the now-credible fear that, if Beijing does not act, Washington will.

    Who knows if the whole thing will disintegrate? Still, Trump and his team have handled this carefully, so far, and have managed to assert leverage from threats that were simply impossible under Obama and the Bush administration (which was tied down in Iraq).

    To put it simply: Trump is coupling his coercive diplomacy with a carrot.

    Brexit: Brits and EU off to a bad start. Strong words at Downing St. meeting between PM Theresa May and European Commission Pres. Jean-Claude Juncker (BBC)

    The UK will not enter into “a briefing war” with the European Commission over Brexit talks, Tory sources have said.

    It follows reports in a German paper of repeated clashes between Theresa May and Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at a Downing Street dinner.

    EU sources claimed UK misunderstanding of the talks process, and ignorance about how Brussels works, could lead to no deal being agreed on the UK’s exit. –BBC

    Comment: These will be complicated, difficult negotiations. Each is a huge trading partner of the other. But the EU does not want to set an example that it is easy to leave the union. Nor does it want to see EU nations, currently living in the UK, forced out.

     Dozens of Putin’s opponents killed over the years. USA Today says those “cast suspicion on Vladimir Putin”

    What do they have in common? They are among 38 prominent Russians who are victims of unsolved murders or suspicious deaths since the beginning of 2014, according to a list compiled by USA TODAY and British journalist Sarah Hurst, who has done research in Russia.

    The list contains 10 high-profile critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, seven diplomats, six associates of Kremlin power brokers who had a falling out — often over corruption — and 13 military or political leaders involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including commanders of Russian-backed separatist forces.. –USA Today

    Comment: Looks like a previous leader passed along his advice.

     Why are US corporate earnings so high when the economy looks weak, CNBC asks.  Short Answer: International Earnings in a strong global economy.

     How is Europe’s problem with Islamic terror going? Not Well.

    The US State Department just issued a travel alert for the whole continent. (Reuters)

      Just heard Elvin Bishop singing “I’m Old School,” with the great line,

    Don’t send me no email.

    Send me a female.

     

     

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  • Russia’s UN Ambassador Goes Berserk at Security Council meeting on Syria’s Chemical Bombs

    As the Washington Post headline accurately puts it:

    ‘Don’t you look away from me!’: How a Russian diplomat’s tirade broke U.N. tradition

    Russian diplomat Vladimir Safronkov’s speech on the floor of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday was unusual. Accusing the British of blocking political efforts to end the Syrian conflict, the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations suddenly wagged a finger at Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations, and said: “Look at me! Don’t you look away from me! Why are you looking away?”

    “Don’t you dare insult Russia again,” he added later. . . .

    Safronkov’s tone, not just what he said but how he said it, turned heads. Even RT, the state-funded Russian media network, called the harangue an “extraordinary attack on his British counterpart, using some decidedly undiplomatic language.” –Washington Post

  • Very disturbing: Chechen leader, close ally of Putin, sends 100 gays to concentration camp as part of larger crackdown

    Chechen’s dictatorial leader is Ramzan Kadyrov, installed by Putin.

    The news report itself comes from the International Business Times (here), which says it is part of a larger suppression of gays in the region.

    The Guardian has published a similar report. The Chechen government claims this story is entirely lies and disinformation, spread by Russian opponents of Putin.

    Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, described the report as “absolute lies and disinformation”, basing his denial on the claim that there were no gay people in Chechnya. “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic,” he told Interfax news agency.

    “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” –Chechnya government spokesman, reported in The Guardian (UK)

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    Kyle W. Orton writes extensively about Syria and fighting across the Middle East (see his blog here).

    For some brief background on the Chechen leader, see this article in The Sun (UK), which calls him Putin’s Pitbull.

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Sunday, April 9

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     “Trump’s Syria Missile Strike Ramps Up Tensions with Moscow” (Bloomberg)

    The Trump administration warned that it’s ready to take further military action if the regime of Bashar al-Assad wages another chemical attack, even as this week’s missile strike ratcheted up tensions with Russia. . . .

    Russia pushed back. “Our western colleagues live in their own parallel reality, in which they first try to build joint plans single-handedly and then — again single-handedly — change them, inventing absurd reasons,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said by phone. –Bloomberg

    Comment: Equally important, the strike puts Iran’s huge investment in Assad in peril.

     Oddly, Vogue‘s glowing article on Bashar Al-Assad’s wife doesn’t seem to be online anymore at their site. Not sure why.  (The Atlantic on the story gone missing. And here, dear readers, is the actual article, “A Rose in the Desert,” in Vogue, which has been preserved by Gawker.)

    Comment: Still checking to see if GQ ran something on Bashar’s attire for launching chemical-weapons attacks.

     Good morning, Pyongyang: US sending aircraft carrier group to Korean Peninsula  (CNN)

    US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump and [China’s] Xi agreed on the “urgency of the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program” and agreed to work together to resolve the issue “peacefully.” –CNN

    Comment: The Vinson carrier group is a message, not a foreshadowing of conflict. China has hard choices to make here, as does the US.

     He lobbied for gay rights and opposed Trump — now Seattle’s mayor is accused of sexually assaulting minors  (Washington Post)

    Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, a nationally famous champion of gay rights and progressive causes, has been accused by three men of having sex with them as children. –Washington Post

    Comment: These scandals are equal opportunity. Yesterday, the sex scandal involved Alabama’s socially-conservative Republican governor. (Here’s a CNN report on it.) Today, it’s Seattle’s ultra-liberal mayor.

     Creative Destruction: Online purchases driving out bricks-and-mortar retailers faster than ever (Bloomberg) Both high-end and low-end stores are affected.

    At the bottom, the seemingly ubiquitous Payless Inc. shoe chain filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to shutter hundreds of locations. Ralph Lauren Corp., meanwhile, said it will close its flagship Fifth Avenue Polo store — a symbol of old-fashioned luxury that no longer resonates with today’s shoppers. –Bloomberg

     Another Islamist attack on Middle Eastern Christians, this one on a Coptic Church in Egypt (BBC)

    Comment: These crazed terrorists come from regions and religions that have not transitted through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the hard-won achievement of political and religious tolerance.

    The only reason you don’t read about even more such attacks is that intolerance and terror has driven them, as well as Jews, from these countries.

    It is shameful that, for several years, the US has done so little to speak out against these systematic, lethal attacks on Christians in the Middle East. Let us hope that changes now.

     

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