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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – January 19, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Snow in Grand Canyon, New Year’s Day, 2019 – photo by AP. Lookout Studio is on the left.

Most of you know that Wrongo has been deeply skeptical of the Russia investigation, but as time has moved forward, we’ve learned quite a bit about Trump and his team’s involvement with Russia. Apparently, he worked hard to get a Trump Tower built. Elsewhere, it is reported that Trump stood to gain $300+ million if the deal went through.

Until now, Trump has denied that any deal was considered while he was running for President. But, Buzzfeed broke news this week:

President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.

Trump also supported a plan, set up by Cohen, to visit Russia during the presidential campaign, in order to personally meet President Vladimir Putin and jump-start the tower negotiations. “Make it happen,” the sources said Trump told Cohen.

The article also says: (brackets by Wrongo)

The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office [Mueller].

All of this still needs to be confirmed, but IF it’s true, it is without question an impeachable offense. And the Buzzfeed article appeared two days after Trump’s Attorney General-designate William Barr testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that suborning perjury would be clearly criminal, even if done by a President. Well, Buzzfeed says Trump suborned perjury by asking Michael Cohen to lie about his discussions with Russia about a new Moscow Trump Tower. Marcy Wheeler, the best analyst of the Mueller investigation, notes: (brackets by Wrongo)

Discussing a real estate deal is not, as Trump has repeated, illegal. If that’s all this were about, Trump and Cohen might not have lied about it.

But it’s not. Even before the GRU [Russian intelligence] hacked John Podesta, even before Don Jr told his June 9 visitors that his dad would consider lifting sanctions if he got elected, Michael Cohen let a key Putin deputy know that Trump would be happy to discuss real estate deals that involved both partnering with the GRU and with sanctioned banks. And Putin has been sitting on that receipt ever since.

All of what Wheeler talks about is in the Buzzfeed article, along with her previous reporting.

It’s going to be interesting to hear what Mr. Cohen has to tell Congress when he testifies next month. Telling someone to lie to Congress is obstruction of justice, and it’s why the House drafted articles of impeachment for Richard Nixon in 1974. From Booman:

We can’t have a chief executive who is compromised by a foreign power. That’s a clear and present danger, and it’s even more serious than the possibility that he may have engaged in a criminal conspiracy with them to help him win the office.

Directing someone to lie to Congress is probably next in line…

When Trump won on November 8th 2016, America had no idea of just how bad things might get over the next four years. Wrongo assumed Trump would appoint a few Supreme Court justices, pass a big tax cut for the wealthy, and gut Obamacare.

But, would you have believed that we would be on the precipice of impeachment within two years? Would you have believed that a one-month government shutdown wouldn’t be the biggest news in town?

With all of that to consider, we need to take a break before our heads explode. We need another Saturday Soother. This one is the calm before Sunday’s Snowpocalypse in the Northeast. So, check your snow blower, find your snow shovel, and go and buy all the bread and milk that’s left in the market.

Now, brew up a hot steaming cup of Beanstock’s Mexican Organic coffee ($11.99/12oz.) from Wellfleet MA’s Beanstock Coffee. The roaster says it is sweet to the taste, with dark chocolate and toffee up front, and a soft, lingering lemon finish.

And, cup in hand, settle back and contemplate your local bad weather. It’s time to listen to something different, so here is guitarist Gilad Hekselman performing “Do Re Mi Fa Sol” from his 2018 album “Ask for Chaos”. Hekselman was born in Israel, and lives in New York. He won the Gibson–Montreux Jazz Festival Guitar Competition in 2005, and sounds to Wrongo like the second coming of Bill Frisell. Wrongo isn’t sure we should be asking for chaos. but there we are:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Cohen, Manafort and Facebook

The Daily Escape:

The Moses Bridge, Netherlands – photo via @archpics. The bridge, which crosses a moat, is made from waterproof wood.

We’re all busy trying to figure out what the twin “guilty” findings about Manafort and Cohen really mean, but Steve Breen nailed it:

Michael Cohen clearly put Trump in trouble by saying that Cohen had worked in coordination with Trump to silence the two women that Trump had affairs with, in order to influence the 2016 election.

Republicans say that finding two of Trump’s inner circle guilty has nothing to do with Russia, or with Trump, and Wrongo remains skeptical about what Mueller will actually prove.

OTOH, Cohen worked on a Trump Tower project that was supposed to be built in Moscow. He worked on that project during the 2016 presidential campaign. You may remember that in 2017, Trump said that no such relationship with Russia ever existed.

Manafort was convicted of tax evasion. The taxes Manafort didn’t pay were on income from Russian proxies, one of whom, the president, was running Ukraine for the Kremlin. Manafort’s conviction on bank fraud was related to bank loans he tried to get at least in part, to pay back $20 million he owed to a buddy of Vladimir Putin. His business also employed a Russian intelligence officer for years, and once Manafort was the Trump Campaign Manager, he offered that intelligence officer private briefings on the Trump campaign.

So, there are links to Russia for both men. But, the big ugly shoe to drop is whether Michael Cohen can corroborate what McClatchy journalists Peter Stone and Greg Gordon said a few months ago:

The Justice Department special counsel has evidence that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign…

No real proof has emerged that ties Cohen to a visit to Prague, or to meeting Russians. Cohen could tell Mueller whether the trip took place, and if Cohen strategized while there with Russians about the Kremlin’s playing a role in the US election.

Wrongo is again, skeptical. He doubts that the Trump organization would have Cohen undertake such a mission. But, if true, It would prove that the Trump campaign and the Kremlin worked together to help Trump win the White House.

Let’s turn briefly to a related idea: Facebook’s role as a platform for the spread of both disinformation, and as a rallying site for angry groups. In under the radar item at the NYT, a landmark study about violence against refugees in Germany shows that the most significant variable among towns with instances of violence was use of Facebook.

The work by Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz, researchers at the University of Warwick, shows:

Their reams of data converged on a breathtaking statistic: Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

The researchers scrutinized every anti-refugee attack in Germany, 3,335 in all, over a two-year span. In each case, they analyzed the local community by all relevant variables. One thing stuck out. Towns where Facebook use was higher than average reliably experienced more attacks on refugees.

That held true in virtually any sort of community — big city or small town; affluent or struggling; liberal haven or far-right stronghold — suggesting that the link applies universally. From the NYT:

The uptick in violence did not correlate with general web use or other related factors; this was not about the internet as an open platform for mobilization or communication. It was particular to Facebook.

This has huge implications: Does social media scramble users’ perceptions of outsiders, of reality, even of right and wrong?

We all believe that Facebook has had an impact on amplifying division in our society. We all are dimly aware that Facebook uses algorithms to determine what appears in each user’s newsfeed. That algorithm’s mission is to present content that maximizes user engagement.

Posts that tap into primal emotions, like anger or fear, perform best, studies have found, and so proliferate. Wrongo said this a few days ago:

…fake news spread on social media has been proven to have a bigger impact, and to spread further and faster than real news.

There are two powerful forces within Facebook’s algorithms: A combination of fear of social change, and the “us-versus-them” rallying cries. Everybody knows that they are common on Facebook.

What should we as society, do about it?

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – August 12, 2018

Stop feeding the troll:

Alex Jones was banned for posting “fake news”. Clay Jones, (no relation) the cartoonist who drew the above, asks how conservatives can say that private businesses like Facebook or Apple shouldn’t be able to deny Alex Jones from stating his opinions. But, conservatives also argue that the NFL must stop football players from kneeling during the National Anthem. Is holding both positions acceptable?

Just a few parallels:

As bad as Nixon was, he doesn’t hold a candle to Trump’s self-serving deceit!

First the gates, then the fort. What else protects Trump?

How will the Trumpets square these ideas with the “final frontier”?

Trump tries explaining how the fires in CA were caused:

Trump’s secret sanctions plan will bring Iran to its knees:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – February 18, 2018

Friday brought Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians for “information warfare against the United States of America“. The best part was that the special counsel’s work was totally under the radar, and there were zero leaks.

And thus far, nobody on the right is claiming Mueller’s indictments are “fake news”.

One interesting takeaway was that Russian cells were formed to establish phony Facebook, Twitter and other accounts that pushed divisive politics in the US. We already knew this, but we didn’t know specifics: At one point, a supposed Islamophobic group protested outside a Texas mosque, and it was met by a pro-Muslim counter-demonstration. Both demonstrations were called for by fake Russian sites. These sites eventually had hundreds of thousands of followers. They spread false memes, including that Clinton supported Sharia law.

Russian sites that were disguised as a part of the Black Lives Matter movement argued that African-Americans should not vote. While it is impossible to show cause and effect, Clinton underperformed with Black voters.

The jury is still out on the extent of Russian influence, and we may never know if it mattered. Still, it is way past time for the Democratic Party to own up to its own failures, rather than continually blaming the Russians, Bernie Sanders, the Green Party, or the deplorables.

After Mueller indictments, Trump and friends now have some ‘splaining to do:

Mitch, Paul and the rest of the GOP think they have zero responsibility for gun violence:

The issue is always the guns:

American Exceptionalism was on display again last week:

Pledge of Allegiance needs new words:

Blockbuster Black Panther movie may help beyond entertaining us:

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The Nunes Memo, and the Coming Purges at the DOJ

The Daily Escape:

Hrafnabjargafoss waterfall, Iceland – 2018 photo by aryeh95

The problem with a made-by-hand blog like The Wrongologist is that we are always 24 hours behind the current news cycle. This is written in the late Tuesday afternoon prior to Trump’s 9 pm EST State of the Union (SOTU) pitch to America. Raul Ilargi has as good a forecast as any:

Donald Trump will be gloating from ear to ear, but he’ll be subdued – by his standards. Expect perhaps $1 or even $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending to be announced, plus an immigration plan that gives Democrats much of what they want in exchange for some of the things Trump wants, as well as more on trade surpluses and deficits. The Democrats will attempt to turn it into a circus of sorts by bringing guests, and they will fail.

Indeed, a circus. One Republican Congresscritter, AZ’s Paul Gosar, just asked the US Capitol Police and the Department of Justice to “consider arresting any illegal aliens in attendance”, knowing that some Democrats have invited Dreamers to watch whatever Trump says about immigration.

Perhaps Trump will stick to reading the teleprompter, and the pundits will fall over themselves to say “how presidential!”

Overhanging the SOTU is the tangled web of the Russian investigation. This week, the resignation of the FBI’s Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Congressman Devin Nunes’ (R-CA) memo are top of mind. Nunes is the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee. He appears to have taken actual information about the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and has written a memo claiming that the investigation was based on bad information. He goes on to intimate that if they’re investigating Trump, that proves they are biased against him.

Specifically, we have learned that Nunes claims that approving a FISA warrant against former Trump adviser Carter Page is ipso facto, an abuse of power, and proves that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, another Republican, is biased, and out to get Trump.

Long-time readers know that Wrongo is agnostic on whether the Russians’ interference in the 2016 election had any impact. And he doubts that collusion by the Trumps or his campaign is provable.

Saying Trump’s guilty until proven innocent is easy and convenient for Democrats, but only Mueller can make a case, and he hasn’t said anything yet.

The NYT reports that the Nunes memo singles out Deputy AG Rosenstein for approving the continuation of surveillance of Carter Page, whom law enforcement and intelligence officials suspect may have been acting as an agent of the Russian government. The NYT notes:

The reference to Mr. Rosenstein’s actions in the memo…indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the [Russia] inquiry.

Why? Because only Rosenstein can fire Mueller. Release of the Nunes memo may well be designed to give Trump the high-altitude air support he needs to order Attorney General Jeff Session to fire Rosenstein.

The firing of Rosenstein is their strategy to get Mueller. Trump seems to believe he can’t fire Mueller outright, so they are going about it in an indirect way. They want to replace his boss with someone who can rein in the investigation and hopefully, keep the White House apprised of all developments so they can get ahead and stay ahead of the investigation.

They might get away with it. The question will be if the people they replace them with are honest citizens.

We are staring down the barrel of a Constitutional crisis similar to when Nixon got Robert Bork to fire Archibald Cox. He then appointed Leon Jaworski, a very conservative Texas prosecutor, who by all accounts went into it thinking the president was being railroaded.

That didn’t work out as Nixon planned.

Enjoy the SOTU.

Then get some popcorn and see if the purges start at the Department of Justice. If the purges begin, drop the popcorn, and pick up your pitchforks and torches.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – January 14, 2018

Let’s make something clear. When Trump called Africa and Haiti “shitholes”, the issue wasn’t that the president swore in the Oval Office, that surely has happened with all modern presidents. No one in the media should have a fainting spell because Trump swears. The issue was saying we should promote immigration from predominantly white countries like Norway. That made what Trump said racist. It also places Trump out of the mainstream. Americans have always looked all over the world for talent, and then lured it to our shores.

People migrate primarily for wealth and/or safety, and since the early 1900s, America has offered both. That was the main reason many waves of Europeans came at first, and later, people from other, non-white places came to this country.

Bloomberg View offers some insight about African immigrants: (emphasis by Wrongo)

According to Census data, more than 43% of African immigrants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher — slightly more than immigrants from East Asia. Nigerian immigrants are especially educated, with almost two-thirds holding college degrees — a significantly higher percentage even than Chinese or South Korean immigrants…That education translates into higher household income. Nigerian-Americans, for instance, have a median household income well above the American average, and above the average of many white and Asian groups, such as those of Dutch or Korean descent.

Trump wrongly equates the worth of individuals with the place where they come from, probably like many of his supporters.

This is what Trump meant by strict vetting of immigrants:

Trump’s staffer Steven Miller auditions as the new Lady Liberty:

Mueller asks to speak with Kaiser Tweeto:

Jeff Sessions goes after marijuana. It doesn’t fully mellow him:

Why Florida is exempted from off-shore drilling:

Donny offered new words for the National Anthem when he went to the football game:

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – December 3, 2017

The Senate’s tax bill was written by lobbyists, and was hardly read by lawmakers. About 2 pm Friday afternoon, Claire McCaskill (D-MO) tweeted a list of Manager’s Amendments she’d received from a lobbyist rather than from her Republican colleagues. From McCaskill:

None of us have seen this list, but lobbyists have it.

Republicans just took 200 years of Constitutional process and trashed it so they could tell their constituents corporate benefactors that they had passed something this year.

That doesn’t seem to be the right way to do things, but the GOP no longer trusts that its ideas will carry the day if they are put under scrutiny and debate. Presuming this dog’s breakfast gets through conference, six months from now, the Republican leadership will be standing at a podium, looking very concerned. They will say America needs immediate reforms to Social Security and Medicare (please don’t say “entitlements”) in order to reduce America’s out-of-control deficits. Rubio and a few other high-ranking Republicans have openly said that this is their plan.

Here is a handy chart from the CBO on how the tax cuts for individuals break down:

David Stockman notes that 97% of the $1.412 trillion revenue loss over the next decade, based on the Senate bill, is attributable to the $1.369 trillion cost of cutting the corporate rate from 35% to 20% (along with the repeal of the related AMT).

All the rest of the tax bill is a zero-sum stirring of the pot. Of note, $83 billion of the tax cuts go to the estates of 5,500 dead people per year, since the bill doubles the estate deduction to $20 million per couple.

But they did all of this to help the little guy, amirite? On to cartoons. More than the tax bill happened last week, so let’s review: Flynn and Manafort. House of cards?

Flynn has fans everywhere:

Trump Code-talks too:

Santa uncovers some nasty stuff:

Roy Moore says what he means, and means what he says:

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Monday Cartoon Blogging – August 7, 2017

Here are yesterday’s cartoons today. The week begins with Congress at home trying to explain all the winning to their voters, while Der Donald is again on the golf course. For the next 17 days, the job of the Whitewash House is limited to describing his golfing success:

Is it more likely to see four new faces on Mt. Rushmore, or a fifth?

Meme by Political and Editorial Cartoons

Kelly tries to pin Trump down on who knew what, when:

Donny’s talk to the Cops adds an awkward moment to Trump family meetings:

Trump’s phone calls always amount to less than he tells us:

Most kids would want a dog. Just not this one:

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Parsing the “Russia Hacked Our Democracy” Meme

The Daily Escape:

Kangaroos in a vineyard in Barossa Valley Australia, June 2017 – photo by David Gray

People can’t stop talking about the Donny/Vlad meeting in Hamburg, and the idea that Trump’s position regarding the potential Russian involvement in the 2016 election is: “Let’s move on”. Then, we learned that our new Syria strategy is driven by Russia and its plan for a cease fire.

But, Russia is the story of the Trump presidency. We learned over the weekend that Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. met with Russian lawyers back in June of 2016. But, despite the continued news about meetings with the Russians, appearances don’t make the Trumps guilty. Mueller and his team will examine and understand the full extent of what the Russians did, and what they attempted to do. Only then will we determine if the Russians efforts had any effect.

There are two broad areas of potential Russian involvement to consider:

Interference in the electoral process: Russians attempt to manipulate domestic politics of many countries, including the US. We do the same. How serious is the threat? Political candidates already use a full array of tools and technologies to persuade voters toward specific social and political agendas. This persuasion effort is as old as humanity itself.

Whether tech-centric forms of propaganda, employing social media, fake news and data-mining techniques are effective remains to be proven. America has been engaged in exactly this sort of exercise in foreign lands for a long time, without significant (or lasting) success.

These technologies can only support ideas and feelings that are already out there. So, what was out there? Consider these:

  • Hillary’s emails threatening national security!
  • Dispensing contradictory, or conflicting, information like “Hillary Clinton is very sick”.
  • Using social connections to generate, or modify, beliefs, like “Trump is a successful executive who can fix the government”.

This type of information warfare is a lot like managing a stock portfolio. Hackers write small, diverse news stories and then wait to see what pays off. It is unclear that hackers were the tipping point in the election, and it is far from clear that the Russians were the sole party behind them. We don’t talk about the many countries that tried to influence our elections, including Saudi Arabia, China, Israel, and Ukraine. Is it more acceptable that the Saudi’s did it the “right” way, by donating massive amounts to their candidate’s campaign?

It is highly unlikely that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians regarding interference in the 2016 election.

Hacking into political databases: the “Russian hacking” stories are not just that Russians hacked the computers of US political operations including the DNC, but that the Russians have somehow delivered the election to Trump. Thus, the story morphed from “Russians infiltrated DNC computers,” to “Russians hacked our democracy.”

The first is both possible and probable, but the second is just wrong.

Hacking our democracy requires changing or destroying votes for one side in the presidential election, or suppressing voter turnout. Not even the Russians have the resources to pull off that feat. They may have preferred that Trump win, they may have done a few things, and Trump won, but that isn’t “hacked our democracy”.

Wrongo thinks it is probable that “Russian hacking” occurred. It is a serious story, but it needs to be placed in context. Yes, Russia has a political agenda. Yes, they use dirty tricks to influence political outcomes. Yes, this needs to be taken seriously. The problem is that once that is taken out of context, everything is reduced to political talking points. We are asked to choose between two absurd choices: Either Trump is a Russian stooge, or accusations against Trump are a baseless pack of lies.

The likely “truth” is that Russians were doing something, but what they did wasn’t material to the (relatively) close outcome of this election. This has been crowded out of serious discussion.

And who hacked us is still not definitively attributed: there are too many suspects with a motive, means, and opportunity. We can’t yet discount the possibility of domestic operatives (or disgruntled campaign workers) or political plants within campaigns doing mischief.

Sooner or later, we will figure out the definitive attribution for the hacks. And 2018 will bring new tools and techniques.

Who falls short may depend more on message, and less on technology.

Time for a tune. Here is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit doing “Hope the High Road” (leads you home again):

Takeaway Lyric:

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – June 18, 2017

It’s Father’s Day. Here is Wrongo’s tribute to his own dad, now gone for 19 years. Steve Goodman’s song, “My Old Man”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway lyric:

I miss my old man tonight
And I can almost see his face
He was always trying to watch his weight
And his heart only made it to fifty-eight.
For the first time since he died
Late last night I cried.
I wondered when I was gonna do that
For my old man.

Happy Father’s Day to all who qualify!

On to cartoons. This week, it’s hard to decide where to look first. How long will the current era of political good feeling last? We can be hopeful, but cracks have already appeared, and the urge to score political points has already begun:

The DC shooting reminds us that Congress still plays the ‘ol ballgame:

NOW we need some protection?

While America’s busy looking at the Russian drama, the GOP has had a breakthrough:

Trump’s team ruminates on replacing Mueller:

 

 

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