The Russia House (Investigation)

Commentary podcast: Congress investigates the Trump campaign's Russia ties.

The matter of the Donald Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia have dogged this administration since its very first days. For the first time in public hearings, Congress is digging into the matter. Today, FBI Director Comey revealed that the Trump campaign is under investigation for its Russia ties. Will Democrats “overplay their hand?” Further, President Trump’s chilly meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and some awful job approval polls for the president suggest the White House is having a bad week. John Podhoretz is out today, so Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman dissect the day’s developments. Give a listen.

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The Russia House (Investigation)

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A Failed State on Our Doorstep

The Syria next door.

The Western Hemisphere reached a milestone this week. According to United Nations observers, Colombia’s leftist rebel militia FARC has entirely disarmed. When it comes to monitoring rogue actors, the UN’s representatives have a spotty track record, but even FARC’s leaders are endorsing the group’s transition away from violence. After a half-century of war, Latin America’s longest-running insurgency is over. Unfortunately, celebrations must be tempered by the sobering developments on the other side of the Colombian border. There the violence surging, the military is teetering, and the political class is nearing the point of irreversible illegitimacy. The prospect of Venezuela collapsing in on itself looms dreadfully large.

The crisis in Venezuela again made its way into international headlines following a daring attack on the country’s Supreme Court. On Tuesday, an elite police officer-turned-actor allegedly commandeered a helicopter and flew it over the nation’s high court, dropping live grenades on the building from overhead. No one was injured in the attack, but the rogue cop posted a confession on social media expressing the hope that his actions would stir the country to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

It worked, in a way. Maduro took the daring and potentially galvanizing raid quite seriously. He immediately appeared on state television to denounce the assault, mobilized the military, and implied that Washington D.C. was behind the incursion. Accordingly, the world has temporarily forgotten to forget about the crisis in Venezuela. That condition seems unlikely to last.

This current bloody chapter in Venezuelan history began on March 29, the country’s Supreme Court (an institution packed with Maduro loyalists) stripped the country’s legislature (an institution dominated by the opposition) of its authority. The veritable coup attempt was short-lived; the Latin American world all but broke off relations with Caracas until the high court reversed itself. But the fuse had been lit. The assault on Venezuelan sovereignty set off a display of violent and ongoing demonstrations against Maduro, his predecessor Hugo Chavez, and the Bolivarian Revolution.

The current spasm of violence against the Venezuelan regime by its oppressed peoples long ago became bloodier than earlier outbursts of anti-government unrest. The death toll resulting from organized violence in Venezuela surged to more than 62 dead at the beginning of June—among them a 37-year-old judge who was involved in the unorthodox conviction and sentencing of one of Venezuela’s most well-known political prisoners, Leopoldo Lopez.

The Maduro government’s efforts to undermine the elected opposition in the National Assembly have also failed to subside. Despite this unrest, the Maduro government has forged ahead with a plan to create an alternative Congress that would render the National Assembly obsolete. The Venezuelan president plans to put a new constitution to the public in a July plebiscite, and he has shaken up his cabinet and military to ensure the new government is filled with as many key loyalists as possible.

The forthcoming referendum is a mere formality. The opposition is boycotting the upcoming election. Even former Maduro loyalist and Venezuela’s chief prosecutor under Chavez, Luisa Ortega, denounced the vote as an attack on the fundamental pillars of Venezuelan democracy. The new government will be illegitimate, ensuring that the opposition and the violence continue.

As Maduro continues to shed the confidence of Venezuelan power brokers, the talk of a military coup has grown louder and louder. The head of a group of exiled Venezuelan officers, former National Guard Lieutenant Jose Colina, told The Telegraph that the regime’s support rests on the shoulders of a handful of politically loyal army officers. The unreliable ones are being sent to the provinces or are being disposed of in other, grislier ways. “The government is purging the armed forces as it anticipates having to use the army to repress growing street protests,” said retired Admiral Ivan Carruto.

While there are no outward signs of dissent against the government, Reuters revealed that recruiting for the military and police is becoming more difficult. The Telegraph reported that, according to exiled sources, some 5,000 officers have left the Venezuelan army and could make up the backbone of paramilitary forces in the event of a putsch. The stability of government is, however, due entirely to the fact that most of the army remains loyal to it. A coup attempt with sufficient support could fail. If it did, it would likely result in a civil war.

The prospect of a protracted Syrian-style conflict in the Americas seems an event for which policymakers in the United States are ill-prepared. Such a scenario would mean the implosion of a country rich with oil resources, a state flush with government-backed narcotics traffickers, money, and weapons. It could spark a refugee crisis similar to that which has cast the Middle East and North Africa into disorder and strengthened the rise of reactionary elements inside Europe. It would be a conflict that would threaten American national security and may necessitate and armed American response.

The trajectory Venezuela is following in 2017 is eerily similar to the path Syria took in 2011. It would behoove the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the United States, in particular, to begin preparing the public for the prospect of necessary contingency operations. The worst case scenario is now pretty easy to envision.

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Everyone for Themselves!

A party in a Cold War with itself.

As congressional Republicans struggle to cobble together a bill to replace ObamaCare, their party’s leader has been less than helpful. More often than not, in fact, the president’s comments seem calibrated to provide him with the maximum political benefit even if they undermine the Republican effort to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s health-care reform law. Well, turnabout is fair play. If Republicans were once reluctant to undermine the president by name and on the record, they are shedding their inhibitions.

As if the process of reshaping the nation’s sprawling health-care sector wasn’t hard enough, Donald Trump has spent his presidency making himself an obstacle to conservative reform. He undercut the House GOP’s efforts by calling the draft they produced at the cost of much political capital and factional comity “mean.” He insisted that the bill needed “more heart,” by which he said he meant “more money.”

The president may be a political novice, but he’s a savvy operator. Trump seems to have determined that it was in his best interests to let congressional Republicans pilot the ship while criticizing their driving from the backseat.

Trump’s latest display of apparent disinterest in the GOP’s central governing plank occurred yesterday, ironically, in a setting designed to communicate to Republicans just how plugged into the process he was. “We’re getting very close, but for the country, we have to have health care, and it can’t be ObamaCare, which is melting down,” Trump told the Senate Republican conference at a White House summit on the reform process. “This will be great if we get it done. And, if we don’t get it done, it’s just going to be something that we’re not going to like. And that’s okay, and I understand that.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that contradictory cascade of raw inner monologue. Even if the president thought he was giving the troops a rousing pep talk, observers came to the precise opposite interpretation.  It’s hard to avoid concluding from this word cloud that the president is entertaining the prospect of not just the Senate bill failing but the entire repeal-and-replace effort.

For Republicans, that’s an unacceptable outcome. Not only does the party have to make good on eight years of previous promises to their voters, but the party’s entire legislative agenda hinges on freeing up billions of dollars currently dedicated to ObamaCare provisions.

At some point, someone had to have informed the president that his agenda and, thus, his presidency rested on this fulcrum. It’s hard to explain his actions other than to attribute them to a self-preservation instinct. Well, two can play at that game.

In a recent Washington Post dispatch, Senator Susan Collins offered a subtle but scathing attack on the president’s competence. “This president is the first president in our history who has neither political nor military experience, and thus it has been a challenge to him to learn how to interact with Congress and learn how to push his agenda better,” she said. When asked, Republicans ranging from Lindsey Graham to Darrell Issa to Carlos Curbelo all dismissed the idea that the president could exact retribution against lawmakers who crossed him.

“In private conversations on Capitol Hill, Trump is often not taken seriously,” the Post revealed. “They are quick to point out how little command he demonstrates of policy. And they have come to regard some of his threats as empty, concluding that crossing the president poses little danger.”

“It is frustrating to deal with a WH that is not 100 percent accurate,” Senator Dean Heller told a caller into his Tuesday night tele-town hall. An early opponent of the Senate GOP’s draft health care bill, Heller drew friendly fire from a pro-Trump outside group that began targeting his home-state support in negative ads. Those ads were mysteriously pulled on Tuesday following the revelation that the Nevada senator was ready to go back to the negotiating table on health care, but Heller’s declarations of no-confidence in the president have not abated.

According to two Republicans who spoke to the New York Times, those attacks on Heller were dubbed “beyond stupid” and unhelpful by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a phone call to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. The Majority Leader is similarly disinclined to prop up the president. “When asked by reporters clustered on the blacktop outside the West Wing if Mr. Trump had command of the details of the negotiations, Mr. McConnell ignored the question and smiled blandly,” the Times reported.

This is what a party operating without conventional leadership looks like. It is the responsibility of any president to manage competing interests within and outside his governing coalition. Donald Trump appears to have prioritized his own interests and his own position over even those of his allies. Trump is not owed the loyalty of his fellow Republicans in Congress. To the extent Trump enjoyed a honeymoon, it’s over. The grace period has expired. If the GOP doesn’t start rowing in the same direction and soon, the New Republican Era will be remembered only for its dysfunction and transience.

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The New Paradigm in Your Pocket

Creation, destruction, and innovation; all in one device.

The iPhone, and its imitators have become so much a part of our culture that it is hard to believe it was introduced only ten years ago. To call it a phone is actually a misnomer; it is, in reality, a powerful pocket-sized computer that happens to make phone calls among myriad other functions. Betsy Morris of the Wall Street Journal wrote a wonderful article that makes clear how much the iPhone has transformed our lives. In the process, she inadvertently taught an important lesson in how our economy functions in ways that no business leader, let alone political leader, can anticipate or control.

One of the iPhone’s more obvious impacts has been to make social media pervasive. As Morris noted, at least 1.94 billion users are now “checking into Facebook at least once a month,” and of course countless millions of others are checking Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat and other popular social media “apps” (a word that was not in common use in the pre-iPhone era). An indirect consequence has been to devastate advertising revenues for newspaper and magazine companies. Advertising has followed eyeballs onto social media.

With its camera app, the iPhone has also been disruptive in the camera industry. With its navigational apps, such as Google maps, the iPhone has devastated the sales of Garmin’s stand-alone navigation devices (Garmin’s stock went from $100 at the end of 2007 to just $20 a year later), but it has given rise to firms such as Uber and Via that take advantage of the iPhone’s GPS capabilities to connect riders with cars. With its ability to store and play music, the iPhone has accelerated the destruction of the traditional recording industry, based on selling records and tapes, but has given a powerful boost to streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Amazon Music.

Perhaps the most obvious impact of the iPhone is that it has made Apple the most valuable company in the world, with a market cap bigger than all of the wireless phone companies in the United States (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile-US, and Sprint) combined.

And this is just what’s happened in the first ten years of the iPhone’s existence.  Another Wall Street Journal article by Christopher Mims imagined what the next decade will look like. By 2027, he predicted that “the suite of apps and services that is today centered around the physical iPhone will have migrated to other, more convenient and equally capable devices—a ‘body area network’ of computers, batteries, and sensors residing on our wrists, in our ears, on our faces and who knows where else.” As a result, “We’ll find ourselves leaving the iPhone behind more and more often.”

This is what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” in operation at hyper-speed. Of course, it is going on in every single industry, not just in consumer electronics. The overall impact is to benefit society—who could ever imagine, 11 years ago, having access to as much knowledge about the world as anyone can now conjure up with a simple Google search on an iPhone? But the impact on companies, industries, and individuals is highly uneven: Some are greatly hurt, others are greatly benefitted.

According to the New York Times, the top three automakers had revenues of $250 billion and employed 1.2 million people in 1990. By 2014, however, the top three tech companies had roughly equivalent revenues but employ only 137,000 people. The impact of that statistic is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the major tech companies have spawned countless spinoffs.

But the reality remains that high-tech industries don’t offer as much employment as heavy manufacturing does—and the employment opportunities they offer accrue in large part to those who are better educated. There are simply fewer blue-collar jobs than there used to be, and many of them are migrating to lower-wage markets overseas. That explains the appeal of populists from Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn and their claim to be able to stop the process of economic transformation. They can’t, and shouldn’t try. It makes no sense to try to revive Kodak and kill Snapchat or Instagram—but that is the equivalent of what Trump is trying to do by claiming to revive coal and steel jobs.

There is simply no going back. Like it or not, we are engaged in an economic journey into the unknown. We can and should try to cushion the shocks of transformation for the most vulnerable among us, but we cannot and should not try to push the “stop” button. If we do, we will wind up like North Korea—a nation frozen in time. What has always made America great is our willingness to shape the future. That is something that this country will continue to do as long as Washington does not get in the way.

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The Flip Side of the Western Wall Crisis

A two-way street.

The Israeli government’s decision on Sunday to freeze a much-touted compromise on the Western Wall, which would have created a non-Orthodox prayer space equal in status to the existing Orthodox area, sparked numerous warnings of a grave rift between Israel and American Jewry.

Commentator Rachel Sharansky Danziger, for instance, wondered how the relationship could continue after the Israeli government “delivered a resounding, ‘You don’t actually matter to us’” to American Jews. But there’s a flip side to Danziger’s question that many commentators have ignored: The confrontation ended as it did partly because too many American Jews have delivered that same resounding message to Israelis in recent years.

Numerous previous battles over religious issues in Israel have ended the opposite way, with the prime minister bowing to American Jewish pressure. As recently as 2011, for instance, the government froze and ultimately scrapped a planned reform of conversion procedures because American Jews objected. Since American Jews were both members of the family and important sources of American political support, no Israeli prime minister wanted to alienate them, and neither did most ordinary Israelis.

If that sentiment is fraying today, it’s not just because of fringe anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or even the growing ranks of the utterly indifferent, but also because of the attitudes of many American Jews who call themselves–and in many ways genuinely are–pro-Israel. To understand why, it’s worth pondering something Jewish-American author Jamaica Kincaid said in an interview with Haaretz earlier this month about Israel’s control of the West Bank.

I think one of the reasons this whole thing with the occupation and the territories is so alive is because most people do what Israelis do, just do it. They just do it! It’s not a conversation. You conquer the line, you drive the people off it, or you kill them. You know, you just do it. Then you move on. And maybe 100 years later, you have a little ceremony where you say, the head of state says, ‘I’m so sorry I did that.’ But you just do it…

“I suppose what surprises me is that Israel is the winning society, so I don’t expect it to be so self-examining. Usually, winners don’t examine themselves at all, but in Israel [there is] constant questioning and constant examining, constantly stating why you are right.

Kincaid is obviously correct: If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict draws disproportionate international attention, it’s in part because Israelis themselves endlessly and vocally debate its legitimacy, morality, and possible solutions. It’s also because, as an outgrowth of this debate, Israelis have made numerous attempts to solve it over the past quarter century, including repeated rounds of peace talks and unilateral withdrawals, and action of any kind is obviously more newsworthy than stasis.

But to many American Jews, even many who consider themselves pro-Israel, it doesn’t seem to matter that Israelis have repeatedly made generous peace offers, only to have the Palestinians walk away without even bothering to respond. It doesn’t seem to matter that every territorial withdrawal has led to a massive increase in Palestinian terror. It doesn’t seem to matter that numerous conflicts worldwide have produced far more bloodshed and far more oppression than this one. It doesn’t seem to matter that after almost 25 years of failed peacemaking efforts accompanied by vigorous internal debate, a solid majority of Israelis has reluctantly concluded that while a Palestinian state might be a good idea in principle, in practice, for the foreseeable future, there’s no better alternative to the status quo.

Despite all this, liberal American Jews are convinced that they know better. They know that the continued “occupation” is mostly Israel’s fault, and that Israel must end it immediately regardless of the price in Israeli blood and their job as American Jews isn’t to support Israelis’ painfully reached conclusions, but to pressure Israelis to disregard the lessons of their lived experience. If there’s a better way of telling Israelis “You don’t actually matter to us,” I don’t know what it might be.

Moreover, pursuant to that attitude, many American Jews–and again, not just fringe groups like JVP–are actively undermining Israel in various ways. Mainstream American Jewish groups like campus Hillels repeatedly host speakers from organizations that spew outright lies about Israel, such as Breaking the Silence, which even recycles the medieval blood libel about Jews poisoning wells.

American Jews also provide substantial financial support to such organizations, mainly through the New Israel Fund. Rabbis and Jewish organizations provide cover for anti-Israel activists. Leading liberal rabbi Sharon Brous, for instance, praised Linda Sarsour for “building a movement that can hold all of us in our diversity with love” even as Sarsour explicitly banned all Israel supporters from her movement. The Anti-Defamation League defended Keith Ellison, one of the few congressmen who consistently backs anti-Israel resolutions while shunning pro-Israel ones, as “an important ally in the fight against anti-Semitism” right up until he was caught out in overt anti-Semitism. American rabbinical students term Israel’s very existence a cause for mourning and engage in anti-Israel commercial boycotts. The Union for Reform Judaism urges members to step up their criticism of Israel. And on, and on.

American Jews no longer the bastion of support for Israel that they once were. If they still believe they have a familial relationship with Israelis, it increasingly feels like an abusive one in which the abuser shows his “love” by causing pain. Thus, it’s no surprise that support for Israel has plummeted among young American Jews; how many of them ever hear anything positive about Israel from their “pro-Israel” elders?

The result is that some Israelis are starting to feel, as Hillel Halkin wrote in Mosaic last month, “The distance between Israeli and American Jews is growing? Let it grow … so what?” Until recently, few Israelis would have said such a thing, and I still consider it a tragedy. But if American Jews keep telling Israelis that everything they think, feel and experience “doesn’t actually matter to us,” the number of Israelis who agree with Halkin will only grow.

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The Insufferable Tedium of Media v. White House

The War of the Poses.

Recently, the White House has adopted a habit that seems designed to maximize the frustration of the reporters who cover it. Occasionally, the administration flirts with doing away with the daily press briefing altogether or forcing reporters to submit written questions in advance. When reporters complain, the press briefing returns, but with no cameras allowed.

If the administration is feeling kind, it will allow the audio of the briefing to be recorded. Occasionally, reporters are permitted a still picture or two. This gesture is, however, only offered so as to not be so withholding that the targets of their psychological abuse lose interest in the game. Only when they truly want to hammer home a message will the White House appear to relent to journalists’ complaints and revert to the standard briefing format. Even then, it’s often only to castigate the reporters in attendance.

At Tuesday’s on-camera briefing, there was only one truly pressing subject. No, not the health care reform bill that is stalled in the Senate and could scuttle the president’s legislative agenda if it fails. Media bias was the topic du jour, as it is almost every jour.

Last week, CNN reported that Trump campaign advisor Anthony Scaramucci had ties to a state-run investment fund in Moscow. That story was based on false information and was retracted in its entirety. In a moment of rare professional penance, CNN accepted the resignations of three high-profile reporters and editors.

This display of loose journalistic ethics has become typical of reporting on Trump-Russian connections. The subjects of this smear, both those libeled directly and tangentially, have every right to be frustrated. CNN behaved admirably in facing its failure head-on. Both the president and his spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, took the opportunity to be graceless.

Donald Trump responded to the reporters’ dismissal by seeking to maximize his political advantage and declaring all stories related to his campaign’s interactions with Russian officials “fake news!” When she was asked why CNN’s response to their employees’ unprofessional conduct wasn’t good enough for the president, Huckabee Sanders attacked CNN for its serial inaccuracy. She then advised the American public to avail themselves of a video “circulating now” from James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas that purports to show a CNN producer objecting to his network’s ratings-driven obsession with the investigations into Russia and Trump. “Whether it’s accurate or not, I don’t know,” Huckabee Sanders added.

At this point, Sentinel Newspapers’ Brian Karem had had enough. “What you just did is inflammatory to people all over the country who look at it and say, see, once again, the president’s right and everybody else out here is fake media,” Karem averred, “and everybody in this room is only trying to do their job.” The video of his remarks went viral, reporters and conservative pundits flew to their respective corners, and the familiar ritual of public posturing had begun.

Rarely has a perfectly symbiotic relationship been so antagonistic. Or, at least, rarely has that contrivance been so irritating.

Members of this administration might feel legitimately transgressed against when they are accused of conspiring to undermine American sovereignty—particularly if they believe those allegations to be false. And after spending the last 150 plus days being lectured about their corrupt and dishonest employers, friends, and colleagues, members of the press might sometimes put aside professional courtesies and become a little passionate. Those traits are honest and forgivable. Less defensible is the affectation of grievance.

“Does this feel like America?” barked the increasingly hysterical CNN reporter Jim Acosta. “Where the White House takes [questions] from conservatives, then openly trashes the news media in the briefing room?” Adopting the language of the over-caffeinated partisans who make up The Resistance has become a feature of Acosta’s rhetoric since the White House began to draw the curtain over the daily press briefing.

In fact, this is what a traditionally adversarial relationship between reporter and political institution looks like. It is a testament to how compromising the Obama years were for both the press and political professionals that this dynamic is so alien neither side appears to recognize it.

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