Political Animal

Trump Just Realized He’s Not Getting His Wall

The bad joke Vladimir Putin played on the American electorate in 2016 seems like it will never end, but it does have its genuinely amusing moments. For example, this tweet:

On Tuesday, the Senate approved the conference report with the House by a bipartisan 93-7 majority for funding the Defense, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments next year. The leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont each issued press releases praising the bill and the work of the committee staff in putting it all together.

This kind of bipartisan cooperation still goes on in Congress because, on the Senate side, there is still a legislative filibuster in place requiring that the majority party get sign-off from the minority party on their spending bills.  That’s why, even with Trump as president and Republicans in charge of Congress, Senator Leahy can legitimately crow about some of the funding he was able to provide.

The best part of the bill, though, at least from an amusement standpoint, is that it included a continuing resolution to keep the rest of the government agencies funded through the election.  In other words, the bill was designed to cut off the kind of standoff about Donald Trump’s stupid border wall that he was promising earlier this year. If Trump paid even a modest amount of attention to doing his primary job, this would not have come as a surprise to him and he would not be responding, “Where is the money for the WALL?”

There is no money for the wall. The Republicans in Congress made sure of that, and it seems the bill was passed through the Senate before the president even noticed.  Of course, based on Bob Woodward’s reporting, you could probably make off with the First Lady and Trump wouldn’t notice something was missing for several weeks. Attention to detail is not his forté.

The House still needs to pass the conference report, and they plan to do so next week. That means Trump can still try to revive his veto threat if he wants, but the Senate passed the bill be a very strong veto-proof majority so I think it’s a little late for the president to try to influence the final product.

He does have a good point when he asks where the money will come from after the midterms. Even if the Republicans hold on to their majorities, they will be greatly diminished in the House and it doesn’t seem likely that Senate Republicans will suddenly have more of an appetite for funding a stupid wall.

Maybe you don’t think this is so funny, but surely you’ll see the humor in this:

On Tuesday, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell claimed that Trump suggested building a wall across the 3,000-mile-long Sahara Desert to prevent African migrants from making their way into Europe. “You need to build a wall around the Sahara,” Trump said recently, according to Borrell. When Borrell asked Trump if he understood just how big the Sahara is, Trump argued that “it can’t be bigger than our border with Mexico.” Borrell then informed Trump that the Sahara is far bigger than the U.S. border with Mexico. “In any case, it wouldn’t be very useful to do that,” Borrell told the president.

Trump is the joke that just keeps on giving.

How Court Evangelicals Respond to Allegations of Sexual Abuse

It wasn’t that long ago that court evangelicals were telling us that if we let transgender people use the bathroom of their choice, we’d be subjecting our children to sexual predators. Now that they’re facing an actual allegation of sexual abuse, they’re singing a very different tune. Let’s take a look at how some of them have responded to Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her when they were in high school.

Dr. Robert Jeffress:

Tony Perkins:

Why would someone sit on an allegation for nearly six weeks, if it were about a subject that everyone is supposed to be concerned about? Perhaps it’s because they are more concerned about how to use the allegation than whether or not the allegation is true.

Welcome to Washington, DC where such political theater is regularly on display, the latest episode being Senate Democrats’ efforts to derail Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with an eleventh-hour allegation of inappropriate behavior from more than thirty years ago. Whether or not the allegation is true is one thing. We should always be concerned about the truth. But how it is being used is another — and methods have the right to be questioned.

Ralph Reed:

6 FBI background checks over 25 years: nothing. 1325 written questions from U.S. Senators: not a word. 65 meetings with U.S. Senators: it never came up. 32 hours of public hearings: nothing. Executive session of U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee: never raised. Spartacus: did not mention it. Washington Post publishes a hit piece mentioning a one uncorroborated 36-year-old high school allegation, and we must delay or defeat the confirmation of Judge Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. This is a disgraceful, partisan debasement of the U.S. Senate and the confirmation process, and the fact that it was held until the eleventh-hour is suspicious at best and nefarious at worst.

The focus for these three is all on the process of how and when the allegations became public. Not one of them has the decency to even express concern for what Dr. Ford experienced if what she reported is true. The possibility is never even contemplated, with Jeffress going so far as to directly challenge her credibility and suggest that she “colluded” with the Democrats to take down Kavanaugh.

But perhaps the most disgusting response came from Franklin Graham.

Graham declares that what Kavanaugh did in high school is irrelevant. When the interviewer followed up by asking what kind of message that sends to sexual abuse victims, Graham responded by saying that no crime was committed because they were teenagers and when she said no, he respected it and they walked away. Graham ends by saying, “And they call it a sexual assault? No…I don’t believe it.”

Regardless of whether or not Graham believes Dr. Ford, I’d like to ask him if Kavanaugh pinning her to the bed and putting his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream constitutes “respect.” The two of them didn’t simply walk away. Ford escaped when Kavanaugh’s friend Judge jumped on top of them and sent them tumbling. She ran and locked herself in the bathroom until the coast was clear. If that doesn’t qualify as sexual assault to Graham, then I don’t know what would. Perhaps he thinks that men can treat women that way and if there is no penetration of a vagina by a penis, it’s not sexual assault.

It sounds like Graham would benefit greatly from a consultation with his nephew, Boz Tchividjian, a former prosecutor who now devotes himself to dealing with the epidemic of sexual assault in the evangelical church.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates — especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing — both in and outside the church — that exists,” says Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a former Florida assistant state attorney.

It is the attitudes of people like Graham, Jeffress, Perkins and Reed that contribute to this epidemic by demonstrating the kind of response victims will get from these leaders if they come forward with allegations against men in positions of power. It is both disgusting and disgraceful.

Are Russian Diplomats Obstructing Justice?

The Russians obviously do not like it when their citizens are arrested and extradited to the United States. They don’t like it when their spies are arrested here and put in prison. But they don’t lose total control in those situations. Thanks to a provision in the 1963 Vienna Convention, diplomats are allowed to make prison visits to their citizens when they’re being held in foreign custody.  It’s a privilege the Russians are making full use of in the cases of computer hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin (who was sent here by the Czech authorities) and NRA-allied gun enthusiast Maria Butina.

It’s less the fact that diplomats have met with them to check on their treatment and well-being that is unusual than the frequency with which they’re visiting.

Frequent jailhouse visits by Russian diplomats to two Russian nationals detained in the United States are raising questions about whether the Kremlin is trying to interfere in the high-profile cases of alleged cyber and political meddling…

…Russian officials have visited Butina six times since her arrest in mid July, U.S. prosecutors say. Nikulin’s attorney said Russian officials have visited the hacker multiple times at a Bay Area facility and have been “extremely active” in monitoring the case. He said he did not know the exact number of visits.

Federal prosecutors have already noted in court papers how often Butina has been visited to demonstrate that they did not err when they represented her as of high significance to the Russian government.

The hacker Nikulin’s attorney recognizes that the situation with his client is unusual:

Arkady Bukh, Nikulin’s New York attorney, who has represented dozens of Russian citizens jailed in the United States, said Russian officials were “extremely active at the beginning of the case” once Nikulin was booked into a detention facility in Alameda County, California, March 30.

“I know that there were a few visits,” he said, noting that most of his Russian clients receive only one visit. “That’s where the concern is coming.”

This behavior is so obvious that it’s a cliché we’ve seen portrayed in countless movies and television programs. A possible witness is visited by a mob associate (in prison or otherwise) and their mere presence does all the talking and performs all the intimidation necessary. That’s why it doesn’t matter that prison conversations are recorded. When Vladimir Putin sends someone to talk to you repeatedly while you’re cooling your heels in a cell block, that tells you that you better not cooperate and strongly suggests that you aren’t safe.

And if that kind of message isn’t sufficient, there’s the newspapers:

Bukh said he couldn’t speculate on the motive of the Russian consular visits to Nikulin but noted they came in the same month as “activities such as Skripal” – a reference to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter, in Salisbury, England, in March, just as the Czech Republic extradited Nikulin to the United States.. Britain has accused two Russian intelligence officers of carrying out the nerve agent attack. Both Skripal and his daughter survived, although a British woman’s death has been linked to the attack.

The case of Nikulin is probably the more urgent of the two for the Kremlin. Marcy Wheeler has discussed the various concerns Moscow may have, including that Nikulin could have been involved with Michael Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague in late-August or early-September 2016 that was described in the Steele Dossier.

Arkady Bukh is behaving in an interesting manner. The Russians specifically requested that he take Nikulin on as a client, and early on he strongly suggested that his client would cooperate and seek a deal:

“The likelihood of a trial is not very high,” Bukh said. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, where Nikulin’s trial would occur, “has over a 99 percent conviction rate. We are not throwing clients under the bus,” Bukh said.

But his client has not cooperated, and Bukh is concerned that the Russians managed to meet at least once with Nikulin while he was not present:

And Nikulin’s defense team — led by a New York-based attorney seasoned in representing Russians and Eastern Europeans charged with serious crimes in the U.S. — says Russian officials have shown unusually strong interest in his case, arranging at least once to visit him in jail when the attorneys weren’t present.

The lead attorney, Arkady Bukh, said he remains concerned, maybe ”paranoid,” over Nikulin’s safety after a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned earlier this year in England with a nerve agent.

“They are very active, by far more active than any other case,” Bukh said of Russian embassy officials. “Now it’s less frequent, but earlier in the case they were calling almost every day. I have no duties to them. They’re not my client.”

Bukh hasn’t been able to get Nikulin to cooperate in his own defense. A member of the defense teams says when they meet with him he “just stares off blankly or starts laughing at very serious moments.”

Strangely, though, when the defense team sought an independent psychiatric evaluation of Nikulin, they picked someone with a “probationary status with the California Medical Board arising out of complaints of unprofessional conduct and gross negligence.” Apparently, the judge was not impressed.

There’s more than enough smoke and mirrors here for a classic spy thriller, but the most important thing remains that the Mueller team is highly interested in Nikulin’s possible role in the 2016 hacking operations. The Russians certainly act as though it’s critical that Nikulin remain silent. How else would you describe this kind of behavior?

The Russian government continues to show extraordinary interest in Nikulin, much to the consternation of his lawyers.

Another of Nikulin’s lawyers, Arkady Bukh, previously told CyberScoop that the Russian government was “extremely active” and that “they try to know anything and everything” about Nikulin.

According to Nechay, two representatives from the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. showed up unannounced at the lawyers’ office on June 7. After being repeatedly told Nechay was unavailable, the Russians had to be escorted off the premises.

“I am not sure what their motivations were, but these types of intimidation tactics are unacceptable and do not work with me,” Nechay told CyberScoop.

The Russians were certainly furious with the Czechs after Nikulin was extradited here in March. But they seem to have succeeded in preventing Nikulin from talking. They’re trying the same type of tactics with Maria Butina.

This doesn’t look like the ordinary kind of work diplomats do to look after the rights and health of their citizens who have been jailed abroad.

The Fragility of the Right Wing Information Bubble

As I mentioned previously, an internal poll conducted by the Republican National Committee revealed that “57 percent of people who describe themselves as strong Trump supporters don’t believe Democrats have a chance” of winning back the House. That has Republican operatives worried because it signals complacency, which is a problem for the upcoming midterm elections where turnout is key.

It’s not hard to imagine how the 57 percent of strong Trump supporters came to that conclusion. Here’s Walter Shapiro on that:

Convinced that polls are rigged for the Democrats (remember 2016) and conditioned by a president who denounces all criticism as “Fake News,” strong Trump backers have convinced themselves that the Republican Congress is an impregnable fortress.

This is a classic case of what happens when a group of people live in an information bubble. It is helpful to remember what Andrew Levison recently wrote about that. He identified the three layers of the bubble. The first is the national right wing media network, led by Fox News. The second is made up of local conservative media outlets (think Sinclair) who reinforce the propaganda being distributed by national outlets. But here’s how Levison described the third layer:

Finally, and most importantly, it is the network of personal relationships between neighbors and friends that works to validate and confirm the broader messages. Casual conversations with friends, Facebook messages and e-mails from relatives, and jokes passed among co-workers all reinforce the sense that Democrats are the “other” and lead people who once supported Democrats to mute their views, creating what sociologists call a “spiral of silence.”  The result makes support for the Republican Party seem not just dominant but unanimous.

In other words, when everyone you know is a Republican, you can’t imagine anyone who isn’t. That is what feeds the complacency. I remember growing up in an extremely conservative small town in Texas and wondering how Hubert Humphrey got elected when everyone hated him. That was long before anyone even dreamed of creating Fox News. It wasn’t until I was living in Minnesota and witnessed the overwhelming out-pouring of respect for the man when he died that my own information bubble got popped.

Authoritarianism requires that kind of information control in order to be successful. And it is precisely why Julian Sanchez was so prescient when he wrote about epistemic closure way back in 2010.

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.

Sanchez goes on to describe how that creates a sense of solidarity, but the bubble is also very fragile in that any breach has the potential to undermine the entire information filter.

If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely…And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.

Using my own experience as an example, it was the steady stream of facts that sparked a growing sense of cognitive dissonance that led me to start questioning the entire framework that had been created inside the bubble. Learning that Hubert Humphrey got elected because so many people in Minnesota not only agreed with him, but admired and respected their senator was just one of many examples. Once doubt gets under the hood, a lot of things start crashing.

It is the unconscious awareness of the bubble’s fragility that causes people to defend against even the slightest breach. As Sanchez writes, “A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome [a conversation], because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.”

In my experience, the least effective tool to use against this kind of information bubble is to shout at the true believers about how wrong they are. That doesn’t pose a threat because it merely gives them an excuse to dig in and defend themselves, drawing mostly on anger as the best tool. Instead, it is much more effective to plant small seeds of doubt that have the possibility of creating cognitive dissonance. Once that gets going, the fragility of the entire system becomes exposed.