Why Should You Care About This Man?

This is Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion. Not only is he a Grand Master chess tactician, as a critic of Russian politics he is also a student of Vladimir Putin’s tactics. He knows Putin is a cagey, calculating, politically savvy, cold-blooded killer. He’s seen Putin’s enemies murdered – Alexander Litvinenko poisoned in London and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov shot four times in central Moscow days before the Russian election.

Kasparov’s is only one voice, but it raises the question of whose voices are worth listening to in the divisive acrimonious debate surrounding Russian interference in the American election. We need to know the truth on both sides, the Russian and the American. How do we go about identifying, sorting, and selecting from all the voices vying for attention in order to get closer to the truth?

As America begins its investigation into the possible collusion of Trump campaigners with the Russian government to interfere in our election we need guidelines to help us evaluate the voices commenting on the case.

Historians love primary sources, so it’s worth mentioning that three Americans have interviewed Putin in the last two years – Charlie Rose, Megyn Kelly, and Oliver Stone. Stone’s four interviews begin airing on Showtime tonight (June 13, 2017). The Putin interviews are a good place to begin. I thought all of them, including the excerpts I’ve seen of Stone’s, had as much to say about the interviewer as they did about Putin, but the spymaster’s reactions, facial expressions, body language, and comfort with the process were revealing. (#KGB, #hesasnake). We see and hear him in action. He’s a calculating showman, better and smarter than Trump, and experienced at deception. What other voices are out there that should we listen to?

In spite of “fake news” and “alternative facts” I still believe there is such a thing as truth, and with an honest desire and perseverance we can discover it. It will take time and evaluating the credibility of disparate sources is a challenge. At this point in the unfolding political drama, here’s what we know for sure.

  • There was a Russian cyberattack on American institutions – 17 American agencies agree
  • It didn’t change the outcome of the election – most statisticians agree

We also know the Russian intervention contributed to the confusion, disruption, and polarization of American voters. We know that Putin is a KGB spymaster, suppresses dissent, murders critics, jails political opponents, invades Crimea, and uses his forces to support Assad in Syria.

Why doesn’t every American want to know what he did to interfere in the American election? What was his objective? Who benefitted from the intrusion? Why would any American try to prevent an investigation? I want to know; shouldn’t every American?

I believe Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel, will ferret out the truth, but I’m not content to stand by and wait for his findings. I’m going to follow along and do my own due diligence; analyze sources and work my way toward the truth? Who should we listen to? What are their biases? What are the outcomes they are hoping for? How will those outcomes affect America and Americans going forward?

I want to be even handed in evaluating sources, while admitting my liberal bias. I want to be fair and look at both sides of the conversation. My primary sources are columnists in the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, Vanity Fair, New Yorker, and Esquire, what Trump would call mainstream “fake news,” but I also read the Weekly Standard and National Review. I try to select from sources close to the middle.

I read Thomas Friedman (Democrat) and David Brooks (Republican) at the NY Times, David Ignatius (Democrat) and George Will (Republican) at the Washington Post, William Kristol (conservative) at the Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry (conservative) at the National Review.

Like President Trump, I watch a lot of cable TV but I try to balance it with written commentary as well. I have a limited tolerance for Fox News. It’s a shambles after the Ailes/O’Reilly scandals and the defection of Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren. I can’t watch the nerdy bullying of Tucker Carlson or angry hostile apostasy of Sean Hannity, but I still tune in for Bret Hume or Fox and Friends.

My real go-to news programs start with Republican Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe and end with Democrat Brian Williams 11th Hour on MSNBC. I watch Rachel Maddow but temper her excesses with the knowledge that she’s on the far left of my center-left spectrum. What I appreciate about MSNBC’s coverage is the inclusion of current and former government officials who have no skin in the game and whose veracity I trust – people like former CIA chiefs Mike Hayden and Bob Gates, former CIA and Defense Department Chief of Staff Jeremy Bash, former Bush Homeland Security advisor Fran Townsend, and former FBI counter-intelligence agent Clint Watts. I trust these men and women. They are my vetted sources.

I don’t read the political stuff that shows up on my Facebook feed, though it might seem to be in my wheelhouse. I don’t know if it’s real or fake news and I don’t think Facebook does either. I want an established entity standing behind the reporters and their sources. My primary go-to cable program is Morning Joe. With everyone from Rick Tyler (Cruz man), Elise Jordan (Bush White House) David Ignatius (Washington Post), Steve Rattner (economist and Obama’s Task Force on the auto industry), Jon Meacham (Presidential historian), Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (co-managing editors of Bloomberg Politics) as regular contributors there’s wide coverage of the political spectrum.

In this season of political bickering, the hint of impeachment, Special Counsel, obstruction of justice and multiple ongoing investigations it’s good to know how to think about these things. Garry Kasparov cautions us with Ronald Reagan’s words, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” Then he adds, “A dictator only cares about his survival, political and physical. You may call it the ‘strategy of survival,’ but it’s purely tactical. The advantage of democracy over dictatorship is that democracy can afford long-term planning.” We have 240 years of democratic government; Putin has 17 years as a heavy handed autocrat.

Here’s my final word: even if you are tired of hearing the endless repeats, take heart and listen to Steve Perry on Journey’s 1981 rock hit Don’t Stop Believin’ the sentiment is a good one. Stay the course and vet your sources.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcjzHMhBtf0),

Don’t Stop Believin’

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The End of the Beginning

Tomorrow (Thursday June 9, 2017) is The End of the Beginning, a big day in the unfolding of America’s future. I, for one, am taking the day off. I need to watch former FBI Director James Brien Comey Jr.’s testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Comey’s testimony is not the end of this tortuous period in our democracy, but it will be a turning point. We are far from the end of this Constitutional puzzle. Will the President be cleared of wrongdoing or will the Russian saga end in impeachment or prosecution? Was Trump colluding with the Russians to disrupt the 2016 election? Is he in deep trouble with the Russian banks? Do they have him by the short hairs? Will he self-destruct? Will the Republicans finally stop ignoring and apologizing for his erratic, ignorant, dangerous rants? However it ends it will be a turning point in the contemporary struggle for the soul of the republic. I’m all in until it’s over.

For 138 days we have been observer-victims of the drip, drip, drip of intelligence leaks. Prior to the election it was the drip, drip, drip of Russian intelligence leaks aided by the self-cloistered Julian Assange dripping Russian hacked, Wiki-leaking Clinton emails from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Since the election it has been the drip, drip, drip of US intelligence and White House leaks concerning the secretive shenanigans of the Trump administration thanks to what has to be the golden age of investigative journalism.

On January 26, 2017, six days after the Trump inauguration, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with President Trump to advise him that General Mike Flynn, the National Security Advisor, lied about his conversations with Russian operatives and was thereby vulnerable to blackmail by them. Trump allowed Flynn to continue in his role as NSA for 18 days until it was revealed that he had also lied to VP Pence about his Russian connections. At that point Flynn was fired. Why did it take 18 days to act on Sally Yates information? The Trump team has yet to answer that question.

In the 115 days since Flynn’s firing the White House has been under siege and under investigation. Americans are dying to know why Trump and his associates had so many unreported meetings with Russian operatives (especially the 3 Sergei’s – Ambassador Kislyak, Foreign Minister Laverov, and banker Gorkov) before and after the election.

Why did AG Jeff Sessions, son-in-law Jared Kushner, advisor Carter Page, former Blackwater CEO and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ brother Eric Prince, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, gadfly advisor Roger Stone and others all conceal their encounters with Russian officials and emissaries? It’s a veritable rogues’ gallery of Trump associates.

Why did Trump honor Putin’s request to entertain Kislyak, Laverov, and the TASS news team in the Oval Office and exclude all US media? It’s hard evidence of Putin’s leverage over Trump.

We may never know the answer to these questions. Special Counsel Robert Mueller may keep the contents of recorded conversations and other surveillance under wraps, but soon we will know a lot more about those meetings and their purpose. With four investigations – House, Senate, FBI, and Special Counsel – digging into the Russia scandal we’re likely to part the smoke to see the fire beneath it all.

Was Trump himself compromised during his earlier visits to Russia as the Christopher Steele dossier claims? Did Flynn promise the Russians the new administration would lift the sanctions? Did Trump direct him to assure the Russians everything would be fine after he took office? Did Trump obstruct justice by asking the DOJ, CIA, DNI, and FBI to drop the Russia investigations. Is this where the real power lies now?

Tomorrow signals the end of the beginning; fired FBI Director Comey set to testify in open session to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his personal encounters with President Trump and the reputed presidential attempts to co-opt his investigation, loyalty, and personal honor.

In the last few days the President has seemed increasingly unhinged, tweeting ceaselessly about the TRAVEL BAN (his caps), fake news, Comey’s upcoming testimony, his unhappiness with Jeff Sessions, attacks on the Mayor of London, and the end of Obamacare. Tomorrow should be interesting. Will he live-tweet as the Intelligence Committee receives Comey testimony? If so, it’s not likely to help his case with the committee or the Special Counsel just as his travel ban tweets are likely to be used against him in the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped him from sounding off in other situations. Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye; the President of the United States wants to be heard.

Yikes!!!

 

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Nashville: Skyline and All

“If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lived there

For she was once a true love of mine.”

Both Bob Dylan and the Nashville skyline have changed since he wrote those words for the Nashville Skyline album in 1969. I loved the record (yes, it was a record in those days), and I loved his surprising shift from folk-protest to traditional country music including an off-pitch duet with Johnny Cash. Beyond that I didn’t know much about the city except that it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. I had never been there and neither had M, but a chance meeting with a young couple at a Peter Cetera concert in Seattle got us thinking about a visit to their hometown. So, on impulse, with an Alaska Airlines companion ticket to burn, we booked the flight as just the right destination for an escape from our long wet winter in Seattle.

Based on recent events – United Airlines dragging an injured, bloody, paying passenger off its airplane, an American Airlines flight attendant pushing and verbally abusing a young mother and Delta booting a family off in a dispute over a seat they had paid for… it looked like the home team – Alaska Airlines– was the right choice. And, it was.

What a treat, a non-stop flight from the Emerald City to Music City. Wide cabin 737-900. No intermediate stops. No physical or verbal abuse. Cordial gate agents. Friendly flight attendants. On time departure. A real surprise.

And, Nashville itself was an even better surprise – a lovely city with giant tulip poplar trees shading well-manicured lawns and stately homes set back from the street. I don’t know what I expected but it didn’t include this kind of genteel understated residential elegance. To be sure there are portions of the city that are not so well maintained but we admired many homes and neighborhoods like this one near our Airbnb home.

What I did expect was lots of music and I wasn’t disappointed. Broadway is the main drag for the younger crowd; bars and honky-tonks cheek by jowl within throwing distance of Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the iconic Grand Ole’ Opry. But, there are better less crowded venues like the Bluebird Cafe in Green Hills and Third and Lindsley in The Gulch, where local session musicians play with emerging talent every night.

I was never a fan of the old Nashville country music scene with its sequined suits and twangy rhythms – Porter Wagoner and Roy Acuff – but I’m a big fan of later trends starting with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson and on to Keith Urban and Sheryl Crow. Today, the city offers music of every genre and every taste. On Friday night of our weeklong stay we made it over to Musician’s Corner in Centennial Park to hear five talented singer-songwriters take the outdoor stage and sing their hearts out while families picnicked, kids ran around on the lawn and food trucks dished up catfish tacos, salted caramel ice cream, and other treats.

Nashville was everything we hoped it would be – a connection to the American past (Civil War history and Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage), a musical odyssey (Country Music Hall of Fame and new talent), food choices from BBQ (Martin’s) to upscale modern (Henrietta Red), and the best lattes east of the Mississippi (Frothy Monkey).

M and I thought one week would be plenty of time to see and experience Nashville. We were wrong and I think we’ll go back. In addition to a dynamic roots music scene there is the Nashville Symphony, a thriving visual arts community, the Predators ice hockey team (currently in the NHL Stanley Cup finals), craft breweries, 200-year-old whisky (Scottish spelling) distilleries, and a renowned letter press typesetting shop (Hatch) – all worth visiting. We’ll be back.

Here’s a view of that “other” Nashville skyline, the one that Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan could never have imagined 48 years ago.

PS: It’s worth mentioning that in spite of its location in the Bible Belt, Nashville is a blue city. In 2016 it voted 59% for Clinton 34% for Trump and 4% for Gary Johnson while the State of Tennessee went overwhelmingly for Trump. For Left Coast liberals, like us, it’s a safe zone though we did hear there are still a few Confederate generals standing on pedestals.

PSS: Bob Dylan delivered his Nobel Prize acceptance speech yesterday (June 5, 2017) – right on deadline.

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Commander-in-Thief

There’s no other way to say it… I’m worn down and disheartened by what’s happening in Washington. I still believe that fairness, goodness, generosity, cooperation, and compassion are core values to most Americans, but when the President and his surrogates lie to us, when reporters are jailed (W. VA), body slammed (MT), or referred to as “enemies of the state” (POTUS) for simply asking questions, when Russia is praised and courted and NATO snubbed and denigrated, when legislation is crafted to harm the poor and enrich the wealthy it’s obvious that our core values are under siege. But keep reading… I have a theory.

Congress is deaf, dumb, and mute (as confused as we are), while the only three honorable men in the cabinet – McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly – are endangering their own reputations by defending the President’s boorish behavior at the NATO and G7 conferences in Europe.

You couldn’t make up the unfolding scenarios; there are elements of House of Cards, Scandal, The Americans and Homeland blended into the actions in Washington. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright have both said that, try as they might, the imaginative writers at House of Cards can’t stay ahead of the real life plotlines at the White House. Russian interference in the election. Secret meetings with Russian intelligence officers. Clandestine meetings in the Seychelles. A meeting with the KGB-trained president of a sanctioned Russian bank. Group amnesia. Suspicions of money laundering in Cyprus. Racist leadership at the Department of Justice. A climate denier heading the Environmental Protection Agency. A rich woman with no public school experience in charge of the Department of Education. A doctor/Congressman linked to insider trading in healthcare stocks heading Health and Human Services. Connecting the dots is not a problem, they’ve bled together and become a stain. The strands of the rope are weaving themselves together. The noose is tightening, but we are still waiting for those tax returns from the Commander-in-Thief.

Inside the White House, chaos is the modus operandi. Nobody can keep Grumpy happy. Reince Priebus is trapped in the middle of the Kushner Bannon turf war. Kushner hates Bannon. Bannon thinks Kushner is a Democrat. Bannon is losing influence while his little toady, Stephen Miller, becomes a rising star. Sean Spicer is under siege because he can’t explain away The Donald’s gaffes, and Corey Lewandowski is on his way back to take on the role of attack dog.

I ask myself on a daily basis what I can do to raise awareness and redirect the vector back to American core values. The good news is that I think it will happen. Whether you call it a pendulum swing or return to sanity, change will happen and balance restored. Pundits are calling for impeachment. Treason is being mentioned. I think Trump is scared and Kushner has been outed for trying to create a back channel directly to Putin.

In the end we’re back at the beginning. This is about money. This is about a vast criminal enterprise designed to enrich the Trump and Kushner families. Follow the money. After the four Trump casino bankruptcies in the ‘90s, no one would loan Trump money. Enter the Russians. Don Jr. has bragged about the extent of Russian investment, but because Trump Sr. has withheld his tax returns we don’t have the details. Even if we had the returns it is likely that the source of funds would be hidden in shell companies, LLC’s, and other offshore entities. These investors will be unmasked by the FBI and Special Counsel but it will take time. It always does.

Jared Kushner is at the heart of the Trump/Russia scandal, and like his father-in-law before him, his greed has put him in financial hot water. The President’s 36-year-old son-in-law is no choir boy though he looks like one. His father, convicted of 18 felonies including tax evasion, tax fraud, and witness tampering spent two years in federal prison but built a successful family real estate empire that his son runs. Nevertheless, Jared’s 2007 purchase of 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion and the financial crisis of 2008 left him with a mountain of debt and constantly on the lookout for new money. Earlier this year a Chinese investor pulled out of a deal that would have made him whole. Kushner’s 666 problem is still there and he needs a bailout.

My theory is that Jared’s reckless approach to the Russian Ambassador and his attempt to open a secret encrypted “back channel” to President Putin was part of a plan to exchange sanctions for money. If the back channel had succeeded, the Trump and Kushner companies would have found a limitless source of capital in exchange for the lifting of Russian sanctions. The Trump/Kushner real estate empires would have the financing potential for worldwide expansion and Russian intrusion into former Soviet states would have gone unopposed. This is treason; a straight up quid pro quo – unlimited capital for the Trump/Kushner families and the release of sanctions for Vladimir Putin and his gang of thieves.

It isn’t clear whether a sitting president can be indicted, but it is clear that once removed from office criminal prosecution is possible. First comes impeachment, then comes the criminal prosecution. My best guess is that if the Special Counsel uncovers the truth and a successful Bill of Impeachment is brought, Trump, Kushner and their associates (Manafort, Flynn, Page, etc.) might end up on the pointy end of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) prosecution. Eric Schneiderman, the New York Attorney General has mentioned the possibility, and Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York that Trump fired was also working on a similar case against the Trump organization. Have you noticed that Trump has not returned to New York since the inauguration? Is he avoiding a confrontation with Schneiderman?

Welcome to Club Fed Riverside County California.

Baseball diamonds. Track. Athletic fields, and secure, subsidized housing. What more could a convicted felon want?

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Gutless Wonders…

The political mysteries of the moment are:

  • Why did only half the eligible voters think our presidential election was worth turning out for?
  • How did such an ill-informed unfit candidate become President of the United States?
  • How did the Russians manage to meddle so effectively in our electoral process?
  • Why doesn’t a Republican Congress that distrusts or at the least feels ambivalent about its President fully embrace an investigation into his possible collusion with the Russians?

American democratic traditions and institutions are under attack. The vultures are circling. Why haven’t our elected officials come together to thwart the attack and bring the nation together?

Last week, after four months of Congressional foot dragging, during which we watched the President fire all of the nation’s serving US Attorneys, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI director James Comey, Deputy Attorney General Ron Rosenstein decided to take the investigation of criminal wrongdoing away from a partisan, gutless Congress and appointed an independent Special Council. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s charge is to look into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in the 2016 election.

The undisputed Russian cyberattack was an act of war. It is inconceivable that an American president, notified by 17 intelligence agencies that a foreign power interfered in our election, would not counterattack with increased sanctions, countermeasures, and severed diplomatic relations. But… Donald Trump did not. In fact, he doubled down and invited the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the Oval Office along with a Russian television crew and excluded all American media. Is it any wonder this man is smiling?

America needs to know the truth. Did Trump and his campaigners collude with the Russians? Is he obstructing the investigation? What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is it that he doesn’t want us to see in his tax returns?

As Americans, we were raised to believe in a nation of laws and the rule of law. No one was to be above it. This President’s behavior is unacceptable – and so is Congress’s. The rule of law is in jeopardy. We need answers.

America has been through difficult periods since its birth. Revolution. Civil War. Scandals and hard times. I saw the effect of the Depression on my parents throughout their lives. As a child during WWII, I listened to daily reports of the war, the battle between democracy and fascism. I was around for the founding of Israel, the Korean War, the Vietnam war, the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, the Nixon/Watergate scandal, the Clinton impeachment scandal, 9/11 and the rise of terrorism, the Arab Spring, the rabbit hole wars of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and now the emergence of Donald J. Trump. Once again we’re in dangerous waters.

Without historical perspective it’s difficult to judge how perilous these times are. So far we’ve only seen smoke and political posturing; scary and dramatic but not dangerously so. Congress is in a stupefied neutered state. Nothing is getting done, because the courts have prevented implementation of the President’s most draconian executive orders. But the signs of peril are ominous.

The suspension of protocols and traditions, a President ignorant of history and American government, and the appointment of ideological advisors make it seem especially perilous. So far, a cabinet cadre of former military leaders has prevented him from impulsive acts of aggression though he has been tested by North Korea and Syria since taking office.

The election threw the nation into shock. Hopefully the appointment of a Special Counsel will clear a path for functional government. The Russian inquiry will take time. We won’t know the outcome for months or maybe even years. Russian interference should never have been a partisan issue. It’s not a Republican or a Democratic issue; it’s a national issue. All three branches of government should be aggressively pursuing the truth. Foreign interference is a criminal act. The Russians interfered with our electoral process and every American should know the truth about it – why did they do it, who was involved, were any Americans implicated, and why?

If the Trump organization was involved in collusion with the Russians prior to the election they should be punished. If Congress and the Special Counsel move forward with their investigations, use the tools of discovery, exercise due diligence, and arrive at a conclusion – whatever the outcome – I will be overjoyed to know that the system is healthy. If Trump is guilty, I want to see him do the perp-walk in an orange jumpsuit. I won’t be pleased with a Pence presidency, but I won’t be afraid of the future for my children and grandchildren.

Director Mueller’s appointment is an important step in cleansing the process. Though he’s conducting an independent bipartisan investigation, it doesn’t absolve Congress of its responsibility. The FBI, Senate, and House investigations will continue with their own mandates. They will need staff and resources so they can uncover the facts as they relate to their own scope of inquiry. I trust they will get them.

It’s not that difficult. The process is simple but the work will be hard:

  • Identify the problem (Russian interference and possible collusion)
  • Investigate the problem (Congress, Special Counsel, and the FBI)
  • Determine the facts (follow the money, check the paper trail, analyze surveillance, interrogate witnesses)
  • Arrive at a conclusion.

Was there collusion or simply outside interference? Take appropriate action. We need to know.

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