No More Bad Bailouts

An opinion piece from The Boston Globe describes a policy a sensible government would adopt:

Twice in a dozen years, Congress has undertaken enormous bailouts to rescue companies and individuals in the economy. In 2008, the federal government drafted legislation on the fly that bailed out the big financial institutions, but left many homeowners drowning with underwater mortgages. Amid popular outcry, Congress then promised to end bailouts forever with the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act in 2010.

Less than a decade later, Congress has authorized an even more enormous bailout. This time, the legislative process has been even more complicated. Congress once again scrambled, drafting legislation to address both the public health and economic emergencies stemming from COVID-19. So far it has rushed through five separate relief bills in a matter of months because each successive bill was insufficient to address not only the public health crisis but also the economic crisis. Congress will now likely take up a sixth bill in late July [assuming Sen. Turtle Face, the Kentucky Republican, agrees], in part to deal with the imminent expiration of expanded unemployment insurance benefits.

Once again, the rescue legislation has been a bonanza for lobbyists, financial institutions, and big businesses, which have been able to get access to financing relatively swiftly and with few conditions. Once again, the public is left wondering where all the money went. And once again, workers and Main Street businesses have been relegated to second-class status. Small businesses have struggled to get limited rescue funds under the Paycheck Protection Act. Even with trillions of dollars going out the door, 40 million Americans remain out of work. The public health crisis continues, as testing remains woefully limited and incidence of the virus is growing in many parts of the country. Communities of color have been hit especially hard, setting back efforts to expand equality and opportunity.

This ad hoc approach to responding to economic crises is inefficient at best and malpractice at worst. Emergency response and disaster management professionals do not “wing it” every time there is a forest fire or a hurricane. They prepare in advance, developing policies and procedures so they can react swiftly and effectively. When Congress starts thinking about a response only after an economic crisis starts, it’s no surprise that the response isn’t very effective.

Policymakers should take a page from the disaster response playbook. Economic crises are emergencies, and just like with a fire or a hurricane, many aspects of a response can be anticipated — unemployment, income shocks, and liquidity constraints. What we need, therefore, is a standing set of procedures and policies — an emergency economic resilience and stabilization law that can be activated when a crisis hits.

The benefits of this approach are significant. Congress could respond to economic emergencies more quickly because it wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time there is a crisis. Executive branch agencies would also be able to anticipate the administrative capacities needed to implement the program. And individuals and businesses would have a good sense of what happens during a crisis, reducing fear and uncertainty.

Because the standing law would address the major foreseeable problems, Congress could focus its attention on the unique causes of the specific downturn. In the case of COVID-19, for example, Congress would have been able to spend much of the spring focused on the public health aspect of the crisis, such as facilitating production of tests and establishing a contact tracing system.

A standing program would also reshape the political dynamics around rescue legislation. In the fog of an economic crisis, lobbyists see a bonanza: a chance to stuff goodies for their clients into must-pass legislation. Members of Congress who simply want good governance can end up using their limited political capital fighting off such bad policies or ensuring that uncontroversial provisions make it into the final bill rather than advancing the best policies.

While Congress would be free to change the economic resilience program even in the midst of a crisis, the fact that a program already exists would require members to explain any divergences. There would likely be fewer concerns about lobbying, favoritism, and corruption because the rules would be written without anyone knowing which particular companies need help—or which lobbied hardest. So what might such a program look like? We think it should have four parts.

First, it would end no-strings-attached bailouts by providing a restructuring process for large or publicly traded companies. The companies would have the option to get funding from the US government, but their shareholders would be wiped out. Their debt would be converted into equity — meaning the company would now be owned by its lenders and by the federal government, which would get a preferred equity stake. Alternatively, companies would still have the option to pursue a traditional restructuring in bankruptcy, but without federal aid.

Second, there would be a program for smaller businesses to cover payroll and operating expenses to prevent mass layoffs and closures on Main Street. The small business program would be akin to what Congress attempted with the Paycheck Protection Program, but with direct payroll subsidies for employers to maintain payroll and cover operating expenses, rather than operating through banks as third-party intermediaries.

Third, there would be reforms to the financial system infrastructure so that every person or business could get an account to which emergency government payments could immediately be credited. That would make it possible for people and businesses to get direct payments, like checks, much more quickly than they have in this crisis.

Finally, the program would include “automatic stabilizers,” a wonky term for policies that are automatically triggered based on data, rather than relying on repeated and recurrent congressional action. In the event of an economic crisis like the crash in 2008 or COVID-19 this past spring, funding for state and local governments, for example, would automatically kick in and would continue until the economy has bounced back.

A standing economic resilience program like this one is possible for a simple reason. We can predict many of the policy responses that are needed in a crisis. While every crisis undoubtedly has its own unique trigger and features, the next time won’t be very different. Rather than live through another round of ad hoc bailouts for the wealthy and powerful and suffering for everyone else, Congress should get prepared, so our country’s response to the next crisis can be quicker, fairer, and more effective.

Unquote.

This week the government was forced to identify some of the “small businesses” that received stimulus money. They included wealthy law firms, the Secretary of the Treasury’s family business, several chains with wealthy private-equity investors, twenty-two tenants of an office building owned by the president, the Ayn Rand Institute and the Archdiocese of New York. 

It would be cynical to say something sensible like this would never, ever happen in a country like ours.

(It would probably never happen in a country like ours.)

None of This Adds Up To Anything Good

Susan Rice is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and National Security Advisor to the president. She wrote this for The New York Times:

Since at least February, and [according to a new report] possibly as early as March 2019, the United States has had compelling intelligence that a committed adversary, Russia, paid bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill American troops in Afghanistan. American service members were reportedly killed as a result.

To this day, the president of the United States has done nothing about it.

Instead, President Txxxx dismissed the intelligence as not “credible” and “possibly another fabricated Russia hoax, maybe by the Fake News” that is “wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!”

Mr. Txxxx also claimed that neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence was ever told about this critical intelligence before it was first reported in The New York Times. Setting aside for a moment the credulity of that claim, whenever the president learned of this deeply troubling intelligence, why did he not publicly condemn any Russian efforts to kill American soldiers and explore options for a swift and significant U.S. response?

None of this adds up.

As a former national security adviser, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that no one told Mr. Txxxx about this intelligence.

It was reportedly contained in the president’s daily briefing, which is provided to all top-level national security officials. Even if Mr. Txxxx does not bother regularly to read the daily briefing, we must assume others do. If the president’s senior advisers — Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser; Richard Grenell, who stepped down in May as acting director of national intelligence; and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, among others — thought it was unnecessary to inform the commander in chief of this life-or- death matter, then they are not worthy of service.

White House officials claim that it would be improper to inform the president of such information until it is fully verified and options for the U.S. response had been prepared. Yet, the administration reportedly informed the British government, and the National Security Council convened an interagency meeting in March to discuss the intelligence and its implications.

Here’s what should have happened. Had I, as national security adviser, received even “raw” reporting that Russia was paying to kill U.S. service members, I would have walked straight into the Oval Office to brief the president.

Contrary to the spin-masters in the White House today, I would not have waited until we had absolute certainty. I would have said, “Mr. President, I want to make sure you are aware that we have troubling reporting that Russia is paying the Taliban to kill our forces in Afghanistan. I will work with the intelligence community to ensure the information is solid. In the meantime, I will convene the national security team to get you some options for how to respond to this apparent major escalation in Russia’s hostile actions.”

If later the president decided, as Mr. Txxxx did, that he wanted to talk with President Vladimir Putin of Russia at least six times over the next several weeks and invite him to join the Group of 7 summit over the objections of our allies, I would have thrown a red flag: “Mr. President, I want to remind you that we believe the Russians are killing American soldiers. This is not the time to hand Putin an olive branch. It’s the time to punish him.”

This is what would have happened in any prior administration of either political party.

That it apparently did not is deeply troubling and raises myriad questions. If Mr. Txxxx was told about Russian actions, why did he not respond? If he was not told, why not? Are his top advisers utterly incompetent? Are they too scared to deliver bad news to Mr. Txxxx, particularly about Russia? Is Mr. Txxxx running a rogue foreign policy utterly divorced from U.S. national interests? If so, why?

A perilous pattern persists that underscores Mr. Txxxx’s strange propensity to serve Russian interests above America’s. Recall that, during his 2016 campaign, Mr. Txxxx publicly urged Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and praised WikiLeaks for publishing stolen documents.

He denied and dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 election, then took Mr. Putin at his word at a Helsinki meeting while undercutting the U.S. intelligence community, and obstructed the Mueller investigation and distorted its findings. Mr. Txxxx recklessly removed U.S. troops from northern Syria and allowed Russian forces to take over American bases.

Next, Mr. Txxxx unilaterally invited Mr. Putin to attend the Group of 7 meeting, a move that apparently upended the organization’s annual summit. Subsequently, without any consultation, Mr. Txxxx announced his decision to remove nearly a third of U.S. troops from Germany — a sudden and inexplicable withdrawal that weakens the U.S.-German relationship and harms NATO, while benefiting Russia.

Most recently, we have learned that even Russian efforts to slaughter American troops in cold blood do not faze this president. Mr. Txxxx brushes off the information, evades responsibility and fails to take action — not even lodging a diplomatic protest. Now Mr. Putin knows he can kill Americans with impunity.

What must we conclude from all this? At best, our commander in chief is utterly derelict in his duties, presiding over a dangerously dysfunctional national security process that is putting our country and those who wear its uniform at great risk. At worst, the White House is being run by liars and wimps catering to a tyrannical president who is actively advancing our arch adversary’s nefarious interests.

Unquote.

The Times explains some of the evidence:

American officials intercepted electronic data showing large financial transfers from a bank account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account, evidence that supported their conclusion that Russia covertly offered bounties for killing U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, according to three officials familiar with the intelligence.

Charles Pierce of Esquire asks [with some assistance/interference from me]:

How many more shoes have to drop? Every time the administration* comes up with a new bogus alibi for the Russian bounty case, information appears almost immediately that utterly undermines it. What do they have to do? Find a picture of him dancing … in a furry hat while tossing hundred-dollar bills to a cheering crowd [in Red Square]?

Finally, mothers of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan are demanding answers. So is this veteran:

No Surprise: He’s As Bad If Not Worse In Private

The New York Times now reports that the president was briefed in February about Russia offering bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan, while CNN has a long story about the president’s bizarre interactions with foreign leaders. The gist of the CNN story is that Txxxx is as dumb and self-centered in private as he is in public (and he loves sucking up to autocrats like Putin).

Are sources in the government finally coming forward to deny him a second term? Unfortunately, they’re not coming forward in public. But anonymous disclosures are better than nothing.

By Carl Bernstein at length for CNN:

In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, President Dxxxx Txxxx was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and so abusive to leaders of America’s principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials — including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff — that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States, according to White House and intelligence officials intimately familiar with the contents of the conversations.

The calls caused former top Txxxx deputies — including national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as intelligence officials — to conclude that the President was often “delusional,” as two sources put it, in his dealings with foreign leaders. The sources said there was little evidence that the President became more skillful or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time. Rather, he continued to believe that he could either charm, jawbone or bully almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and often pursued goals more attuned to his own agenda than what many of his senior advisers considered the national interest.

These officials’ concerns about the calls, and particularly Txxxx’s deference to Putin, take on new resonance with reports the President may have learned in March [or February] that Russia had offered the Taliban bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan — and yet took no action. CNN’s sources said there were calls between Putin and Txxxx about Txxxx’s desire to end the American military presence in Afghanistan but they mentioned no discussion of the supposed Taliban bounties.

By far the greatest number of Txxxx’s telephone discussions with an individual head of state were with Erdogan, who sometimes phoned the White House at least twice a week and was put through directly to the President on standing orders from Txxxx, according to the sources [Txxxx has business interests in Istanbul].

Meanwhile, the President regularly bullied and demeaned the leaders of America’s principal allies, especially two women: telling Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom she was weak and lacked courage; and telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel that she was “stupid”[Merkel has a PhD in chemistry].

Txxxx incessantly boasted to his fellow heads of state, including Saudi Arabia’s autocratic royal heir Mohammed bin Salman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, about his own wealth, genius, “great” accomplishments as President, and the “idiocy” of his Oval Office predecessors, according to the sources.

In his conversations with both Putin and Erdogan, Txxxx took special delight in trashing former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and suggested that dealing directly with him — Txxxx — would be far more fruitful than during previous administrations. “They didn’t know BS,” he said of Bush and Obama — one of several derisive tropes the sources said he favored when discussing his predecessors with the Turkish and Russian leaders.

The full, detailed picture drawn by CNN’s sources of Txxxx’s phone calls with foreign leaders is consistent with the basic tenor and some substantive elements of a limited number of calls described by former national security adviser  John Bolton in his book, “The Room Where It Happened.” But the calls described to CNN cover a far longer period than Bolton’s tenure, are much more comprehensive — and seemingly more damning — in their sweep.

Like Bolton, CNN’s sources said that the President seemed to continually conflate his own personal interests — especially for purposes of re-election and revenge against perceived critics and political enemies — with the national interest.

To protect the anonymity of those describing the calls for this report, CNN will not reveal their job titles nor quote them at length directly. More than a dozen officials either listened to the President’s phone calls in real time or were provided detailed summaries and rough-text recording printouts of the calls soon after their completion, CNN’s sources said. The sources were interviewed by CNN repeatedly over a four-month period extending into June. The sources did cite some instances in which they said Txxxx acted responsibly and in the national interest during telephone discussions with some foreign leaders…

One person familiar with almost all the conversations with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Canada, Australia and western Europe described the calls cumulatively as ‘abominations’ so grievous to US national security interests that if members of Congress heard from witnesses to the actual conversations or read the texts and contemporaneous notes, even many senior Republican members would no longer be able to retain confidence in the President [who thinks they have confidence in him now?].

— Attacking key ally leaders, especially women

The insidious effect of the conversations comes from Txxxx’s tone, his raging outbursts at allies while fawning over authoritarian strongmen, his ignorance of history and lack of preparation as much as it does from the troubling substance, according to the sources. While in office, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed worry to subordinates that Txxxx’s telephone discussions were undermining the coherent conduct of foreign relations and American objectives around the globe, one of CNN’s sources said. And in recent weeks, former chief of staff Kelly has mentioned the damaging impact of the President’s calls on US national security to several individuals in private.

Two sources compared many of the President’s conversations with foreign leaders to Txxxx’s recent press “briefings” on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, fact-deficient stream-of-consciousness ramblings, full of fantasy and off-the-wall pronouncements based on his intuitions, guesswork, the opinions of Fox News TV hosts and social media misinformation.

In addition to Merkel and May, the sources said, Txxxx regularly bullied and disparaged other leaders of the western alliance during his phone conversations — including French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison — in the same hostile and aggressive way he discussed the coronavirus with some of America’s governors.

Next to Erdogan, no foreign leader initiated more calls with Txxxx than Macron, the sources said, with the French President often trying to convince Txxxx to change course on environmental and security policy matters — including climate change and US withdrawal from the Iranian multilateral nuclear accord.

Macron usually got “nowhere” on substantive matters, while Txxxx became irritated at the French President’s stream of requests and subjected him to self-serving harangues and lectures that were described by one source as personalized verbal “whippings,” especially about France and other countries not meeting NATO spending targets, their liberal immigration policies or their trade imbalances with the US.

But his most vicious attacks, said the sources, were aimed at women heads of state. In conversations with both May and Merkel, the President demeaned and denigrated them in diatribes described as “near-sadistic” by one of the sources and confirmed by others. “Some of the things he said to Angela Merkel are just unbelievable: he called her ‘stupid,’ and accused her of being in the pocket of the Russians … He’s toughest [in the phone calls] with those he looks at as weaklings and weakest with the ones he ought to be tough with.”

The calls “are so unusual,” confirmed a German official, that special measures were taken in Berlin to ensure that their contents remained secret. The official described Txxxx’s behavior with Merkel in the calls as “very aggressive” and said that the circle of German officials involved in monitoring Merkel’s calls with Txxxx has shrunk: “It’s just a small circle of people who are involved and the reason, the main reason, is that they are indeed problematic.”

Txxxx’s conversations with May, the UK Prime Minister  from 2016 to 2019, were described as “humiliating and bullying,” with Txxxx attacking her as “a fool” and spineless in her approach to Brexit, NATO and immigration matters.

“He’d get agitated about something with Theresa May, then he’d get nasty with her on the phone call,” One source said. “It’s the same interaction in every setting — coronavirus or Brexit — with just no filter applied.”

Merkel remained calm and outwardly unruffled in the face of Txxxx’s attacks —”like water off a duck’s back,” in the words of one source — and she regularly countered his bluster with recitations of fact. The German official quoted above said that during Merkel’s visit to the White House two years ago, Txxxx displayed “very questionable behavior” that “was quite aggressive … [T]he Chancellor indeed stayed calm, and that’s what she does on the phone.”

Prime Minister May, in contrast, became “flustered and nervous” in her conversations with the President. “He clearly intimidated her and meant to,” said one of CNN’s sources. In response to a request for comment about Txxxx’s behavior in calls with May, the UK’s Downing Street referred CNN to its website. The site lists brief descriptions of the content of some calls and avoids any mention of tone or tension. The French embassy in Washington declined to comment, while the Russian and Turkish embassies did not respond to requests for comment.

— Concerns over calls with Putin and Erdogan

The calls with Putin and Erdogan were particularly egregious in terms of Txxxx almost never being prepared substantively and thus leaving him susceptible to being taken advantage of in various ways, according to the sources — in part because those conversations (as with most heads of state) were almost certainly recorded by the security services and other agencies of their countries.

In his phone exchanges with Putin, the sources reported, the President talked mostly about himself, frequently in over-the-top, self-aggrandizing terms: touting his “unprecedented” success in building the US economy; asserting in derisive language how much smarter and “stronger” he is than “the imbeciles” and “weaklings” who came before him in the presidency (especially Obama); reveling in his experience running the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow, and obsequiously courting Putin’s admiration and approval. Putin “just outplays” him, said a high-level administration official — comparing the Russian leader to a chess grandmaster and Txxxx to an occasional player of checkers. While Putin “destabilizes the West,” said this source, the President of the United States “sits there and thinks he can build himself up enough as a businessman and tough guy that Putin will respect him”…

In numerous calls with Putin that were described to CNN, Txxxx left top national security aides and his chiefs of staff flabbergasted, less because of specific concessions he made than because of his manner — inordinately solicitous of Putin’s admiration and seemingly seeking his approval — while usually ignoring substantive policy expertise and important matters on the standing bilateral agenda, including human rights; and an arms control agreement, which never got dealt with in a way that advanced shared Russian and American goals that both Putin and Txxxx professed to favor, CNN’s sources said.

Throughout his presidency, Txxxx has touted the theme of “America First” as his north star in foreign policy, advancing the view that America’s allies and adversaries have taken economic advantage of US goodwill in trade. And that America’s closest allies need to increase their share of collective defense spending. He frequently justifies his seeming deference to Putin by arguing that Russia is a major world player and that it is in the United States’ interest to have a constructive and friendly relationship — requiring a reset with Moscow through his personal dialogue with Putin.

In separate interviews, two high-level administration officials familiar with most of the Txxxx-Putin calls said the President naively elevated Russia — a second-rate totalitarian state with less than 4% of the world’s GDP — and its authoritarian leader almost to parity with the United States and its President by undermining the tougher, more realistic view of Russia expressed by the US Congress, American intelligence agencies and the long-standing post-war policy consensus of the US and its European allies. “He [Txxxx] gives away the advantage that was hard won in the Cold War,” said one of the officials — in part by “giving Putin and Russia a legitimacy they never had,” the official said. “He’s given Russia a lifeline — because there is no doubt that they’re a declining power … He’s playing with something he doesn’t understand and he’s giving them power that they would use [aggressively].”

Both officials cited Txxxx’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria — a move that benefited Turkey as well as Russia — as perhaps the most grievous example. “He gave away the store,” one of them said.

The frequency of the calls with Erdogan — in which the Turkish president continually pressed Txxxx for policy concessions and other favors — was especially worrisome to McMaster, Bolton and Kelly, the more so because of the ease with which Erdogan bypassed normal National Security Council protocols and procedures to reach the President, said two of the sources.

Erdogan became so adept at knowing when to reach the President directly that some White House aides became convinced that Turkey’s security services in Washington were using Txxxx’s schedule and whereabouts to provide Erdogan with information about when the President would be available for a call.

On some occasions Erdogan reached him on the golf course and Txxxx would delay play while the two spoke at length.

Two sources described the President as woefully uninformed about the history of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East generally, and said he was often caught off guard, and lacked sufficient knowledge to engage on equal terms in nuanced policy discussion with Erdogan. “Erdogan took him to the cleaners,” said one of the sources.

The sources said that deleterious US policy decisions on Syria — including the President’s directive to pull US forces out of the country, which then allowed Turkey to attack Kurds who had helped the US fight ISIS and weakened NATO’s role in the conflict — were directly linked to Erdogan’s ability to get his way with Txxxx on the phone calls….

Despite the lack of advance notice for many of Erdogan’s calls, full sets of contemporaneous notes from designated notetakers at the White House exist, as well as rough voice-generated computer texts of the conversations, the sources said.

According to one high-level source, there are also existing summaries and conversation-readouts of the President’s discussions with Erdogan that might reinforce Bolton’s allegations against Txxxx in the so-called “Halkbank case,” involving a major Turkish bank with suspected ties to Erdogan and his family. That source said the matter was raised in more than one telephone conversation between Erdogan and Txxxx.

Bolton wrote in his book that in December 2018, at Erdogan’s urging, Txxxx offered to interfere in an investigation by then-US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman into the Turkish bank, which was accused of violating US sanctions on Iran.

“Txxxx then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” Bolton wrote. Berman’s office eventually brought an indictment against the bank in October 2019 for fraud, money laundering and other offenses related to participation in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade the US sanctions on Iran. On June 20, Txxxx fired Berman — whose office is also investigating Rudy Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer — after the prosecutor refused to resign at Attorney General William Barr’s direction.

Unlike Bolton, CNN’s sources did not assert or suggest specifically that Txxxx’s calls with Erdogan might have been grounds for impeachment because of possible evidence of unlawful conduct by the President. Rather, they characterized Txxxx’s calls with heads of state in the aggregate as evidence of Txxxx’s general “unfitness” for the presidency on grounds of temperament and incompetence, an assertion Bolton made as well in an interview to promote his book with ABC News last week: “I don’t think he’s fit for office. I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job,” Bolton said.

— Family feedback and grievances fuel Txxxx’s approach

… In addition to rough, voice-generated software transcription, almost all of Txxxx’s telephone conversations with Putin, Erdogan and leaders of the western alliance were supplemented and documented by extensive contemporaneous note-taking (and, often, summaries)….

White House and intelligence officials familiar with the voice-generated transcriptions and underlying documents agreed that their contents could be devastating to the President’s standing with members of the Congress of both parties — and the public — if revealed in great detail…..

In one of the earliest calls between Putin and Txxxx, the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Ivanka Txxxx were in the room to listen — joining McMaster, Tillerson, Hill, and a State Department aide to Tillerson.

“The call was all over the place,” said an NSC deputy who read a detailed summary of the conversation — with Putin speaking substantively and at length, and Txxxx propping himself up in short autobiographical bursts of bragging, self-congratulation and flattery toward Putin. As described to CNN, Kushner and Ivanka Txxxx were immediately effusive in their praise of how Txxxx had handled the call — while Tillerson (who knew Putin well from his years in Russia as an oil executive), Hill and McMaster were skeptical.

Hill — author of a definitive biography of Putin — started to explain some of the nuances she perceived from the call, according to CNN’s sources — offering insight into Putin’s psychology, his typical “smooth-talking” and linear approach and what the Russian leader was trying to achieve in the call. Hill was cut off by Txxxx, and the President continued discussing the call with Jared and Ivanka, making clear he wanted to hear the congratulatory evaluation of his daughter and her husband, rather than how Hill, Tillerson or McMaster judged the conversation.

McMaster viewed that early phone call with Putin as indicative of the conduct of the whole relationship between Russia and the Txxxx administration, according to the sources — a conclusion subsequent national security advisers and chiefs of staff, and numerous high-ranking intelligence officials also reached: unlike in previous administrations, there were relatively few meaningful dealings between military and diplomatic professionals, even at the highest levels, because Txxxx — distrustful of the experts and dismissive of their attempts to brief him — conducted the relationship largely ad hoc with Putin and almost totally by himself. Ultimately, Putin and the Russians learned that “nobody has the authority to do anything” — and the Russian leader used that insight to his advantage, as one of CNN’s sources said.

The Kushners were also present for other important calls with foreign leaders and made their primacy apparent, encouraged by the President even on matters of foreign policy in which his daughter and her husband had no experience. Almost never, according to CNN’s sources, would Txxxx read the briefing materials prepared for him by the CIA and NSC staff in advance of his calls with heads of state.

“He won’t consult them, he won’t even get their wisdom,” said one of the sources, who cited Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman as near the top of a list of leaders whom Txxxx “picks up and calls without anybody being prepared,” a scenario that frequently confronted NSC and intelligence aides. The source added that the aides’ helpless reaction “would frequently be, ‘Oh my God, don’t make that phone call.'”

“Txxxx’s view is that he is a better judge of character than anyone else,” said one of CNN’s sources. The President consistently rejected advice from US defense, intelligence and national security principals that the Russian president be approached more firmly and with less trust. CNN’s sources pointed to the most notable public example as “emblematic”: Txxxx, standing next to the Russian President at their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, in June 2018, and saying he “didn’t see any reason why” Russia would have interfered in the 2016 presidential election — despite the findings of the entire US intelligence community that Moscow had. “President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Txxxx said.

The common, overwhelming dynamic that characterizes Txxxx’s conversations with both authoritarian dictators and leaders of the world’s greatest democracies is his consistent assertion of himself as the defining subject and subtext of the calls — almost never the United States and its historic place and leadership in the world, according to sources intimately familiar with the calls.

In numerous calls with the leaders of the UK, France, Germany, Australia and Canada — America’s closest allies of the past 75 years, the whole postwar era — Txxxx typically established a grievance almost as a default or leitmotif of the conversation, whatever the supposed agenda, according to those sources.

“Everything was always personalized, with everybody doing terrible things to rip us off — which meant ripping ‘me’ — Txxxx — off. He couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see or focus on the larger picture,” said one US official….

“With almost every problem, all it takes [in his phone calls] is someone asking him to do something as President on behalf of the United States and he doesn’t see it that way; he goes to being ripped off; he’s not interested in cooperative issues or working on them together; instead he’s deflecting things or pushing real issues off into a corner,” said a US official.

“There was no sense of ‘Team America’ in the conversations,” or of the United States as an historic force with certain democratic principles and leadership of the free world, said the official. “The opposite. It was like the United States had disappeared. It was always ‘Just me’.”

America the Extraordinary

“Reddit shut down its popular but controversial forum devoted to supporting President Txxxx on Monday, following years in which the social media company tried but often failed to control the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, glorification of violence and conspiracy theories that flourished there” (The Washington Post).

“The US is ‘unlikely’ to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus even with a vaccine, according to the country’s leading public health expert, who warned that a ‘general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling’ is likely to thwart vaccination efforts. In an interview with CNN, Dr Anthony Fauci also said people not wearing masks was ‘a recipe for disaster’”… (The Guardian).

“The videos are now showing up in your social media feed every hour or two, each one more over-the-top than the one before — viral missives from a world that seems to have gone mad and yet somehow exists right in our backyard. These ‘forgotten Americans’ are at the lectern at your county commission meeting if they’re not yelling at you in the produce aisle — screaming that the elected officials and their so-called scientific experts demanding they wear a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus are really part of a vast conspiracy to take away their freedoms” (Will Bunch for The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Mr. Bunch continues:

It was another great day for liberty — and yet a horrible one for tens of thousands of Americans who now may die needlessly because so many cling to a warped idea of freedom that apparently means not caring whether others in your community get sick.

The reality is that those devil-worshiping elected officials and their mad scientists are trying to mandate masks in public for the same reasons they don’t let 12-year-olds drive and they close bars at 2 a.m.: They actually want to keep their constituents alive.

There’s a plethora of reasons why countries across Europe — even Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom, for God’s sake — crushed their coronavirus curve while the United States didn’t. Their shutdowns were somewhat longer, their reopenings came with better testing and contact tracing, their leaders set good examples, and their people showed common sense about social distancing and masks. But especially masks.

The most comprehensive study published in the journal Lancet found mask-wearing could reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission from 17% to 3%. No wonder the University of Washington says universal mask-wearing in the United States would reduce the coronavirus death toll between now and October by a whopping 33,000 human beings.

Just think of all the restrictions on freedom and liberty — from the government seeing what you checked out at the library to invasive searches at the airport — to prevent another attack like 9/11 that killed 3,000 people, or less than one-tenth the toll from not wearing masks. But for millions of Americans — not a majority, mind you, but enough to cause a public-health hazard in a pandemic — the idea of masks has been launched into a different orbit where freedom talk is injected with the uniquely American viruses of free-market capitalism and media manipulation, maybe with a dollop of white supremacy….

But … too much of the warped notion of freedom promoted by the aggressively not-mask-wearing President Txxxx and his No. 2, Mike Pence, and their prophets like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity won’t just get you high — to continue with the Sweet analogy — but could also kill you by an overdose. What the radio hucksters, and the wannabe dictators they installed, won’t tell you is that freedom without any social responsibility or empathy for others is ultimately hollow.

But let’s remember that American people — even the damaged souls that you’re laughing at on Twitter today — didn’t pervert the meaning of freedom on their own. The warped modern version of liberty was sold to them, first by right-wing public intellectuals like Ayn Rand, who killed thousands of trees to wrap unbridled selfishness in her endless tomes about freedom, and later by the salesmen of Big Capitalism.

Protecting your freedom became the ideal branding for what these pitchmen really wanted, which was political cover to dramatically lower taxes on millionaires (who, thanks to that, would become billionaires) and to crush unions and their demands for higher pay, freeing up profits to now pay CEOs 350 times what the average worker makes. Talk about finding the cost of freedom! With the help of academics like the Nobel economist James McGill Buchanan, backed by billionaires like the Koch brothers, warped freedom capitalism got a fancy name — free-market libertarianism…..

Confronted with scientific realities like man-made climate change, the forces of conservative libertarianism turned their guns toward expertise, with the goals of thwarting environmentalism and keeping corporate profits high. The bills for global warming are starting to come due, but that has been superseded for the time being by the COVID-19 crisis; the lack of trust for medical expertise from Main Street all the way to an ignorant president whom 62 million Main Streeters installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has proved lethal.

No other nation has botched its coronavirus response so badly because no other nation holds science in such low esteem. “Who made you perpetrators over my life?” the self-proclaimed Txxxx Girl demanded of the experts at the Palm Beach County meeting. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Stanford psychiatry prof Keith Humphreys noted that the United States simply can’t impose a coronavirus testing regimen like South Korea or Singapore because we don’t trust the government on public health. “Clusters of gun-toting protesters opposing public health measures are a real — and uniquely American — problem,” he wrote, “but it’s the much more prevalent distrust in government’s role in public health that would curtail the success of any test, trace and isolate program.”

In a functioning society, freedom can flourish when it’s part of a broader social compact, when liberty is not abused because its practitioners also see themselves as part of a community, where they care about others — even, or especially, when it comes to wearing a mask and not spreading germs to your neighbor. But has there ever been a branding campaign as successful as America repackaging selfishness, self-interest, and extreme inequality as personal freedom?

That’s even true of the freedom that’s so central to my work life: the free press that exists under the First Amendment. I’ve seen how that only works well when publishers fuel their press freedom with common sense and an understanding of responsibility to the readers. In the internet age, the promise of an even greater media freedom has been polluted by billionaires from Fox’s Rupert Murdoch to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who made bigger profits off lies and unchecked conspiracy theories than off fact-checking in the public interest. The filth of Zuckerberg’s Facebook is what’s spewing, unmasked, from the self-styled “patriots” of Palm Beach County….

As the global pandemic advanced and as evidence mounted that COVID-19 is most lethal not just for the elderly but also for Black and brown Americans, it seems clear that for some white people, not wearing a mask isn’t just a freedom song but a defiant proclamation of their superiority. That’s validated every day by America’s white-supremacist-in-chief, whose refusal to wear a mask in public is in fact a different kind of mask, one of his deep insecurity. This toxic blend of narcissism and white privilege is Dxxxx Txxxx’s idea of leadership — even as he leads some of his voters to an early grave.

The flip side is that the millions who’ve marched in America’s streets after George Floyd’s murder — many, although not all, from the under-35 generation — are making the case that a better world, built around empathy and compassion for people who don’t look like ourselves, is coming. They are using their freedom of speech and assembly to forge a more perfect union, and I fervently wish that the 33,000 Americans who may be doomed by a lethal injection of phony liberty can somehow live to see it.

He Didn’t Care or Was Clueless

On Friday night, The New York Times reported that, according to intelligence reports, Russia offered bounties to Afghan opposition forces to kill U.S. and allied troops. Furthermore, the Txxxx administration has been deliberating for months about what to do in response:

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Txxxx, and the White House’s National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of potential options — starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step, the officials said.

Today, The Times added details:

United States intelligence officers and Special Operations forces in Afghanistan alerted their superiors as early as January to a suspected Russian plot to pay bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan, according to officials briefed on the matter….

Armed with this information, military and intelligence officials have been reviewing American and other coalition combat casualties since early last year to determine whether any were victims of the plot. Four Americans were killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American positions since a February agreement to end the long-running war in Afghanistan.

The details … emerged as the White House confronted a growing chorus of criticism on Sunday over its apparent failure to authorize a response to Russia….

Though the White House press secretary … claimed on Saturday that [Txxxx] had not been briefed about the intelligence report, one American official had told The Times that the report was briefed to the highest levels of the White House. Another said it was included in the President’s Daily Brief, a compendium of foreign policy and national security intelligence compiled for [Txxxx] to read.

In addition to saying he was never “briefed or told” about the intelligence report — a formulation that went beyond the White House denial of any formal briefing — [the president] also cast doubt on the assessment’s credibility, which statements from his subordinates had not.

Specifically, he described the intelligence report as being about “so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians”; the report described bounties paid to Taliban militants by Russian military intelligence officers, not direct attacks. [He] also suggested that the developments could be a “hoax” and questioned whether The Times’s sources — government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity — existed….

Two officials said the information about the bounty hunting was “well known” among the intelligence community in Afghanistan, including the C.I.A.’s chief of station and other top officials there, like the military commandos hunting the Taliban. The information was distributed in intelligence reports and highlighted in some of them.

The assessment was compiled and sent up the chain of command to senior military and intelligence officials, eventually landing at the highest levels of the White House. The Security Council meeting in March came at a delicate time, as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and prompting shutdowns around the country….

[Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi] said that if the president had not, in fact, been briefed, then the country should be concerned that his administration was afraid to share with him information regarding Russia.

Ms. Pelosi said that the episode underscored Mr. Txxxx’s accommodating stance toward Russia and that with him, “all roads lead to Putin.”

“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed,” she said. “Whether he is or not, his administration knows, and some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan have been briefed and accept this report.”

John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, said … that he was not aware of the intelligence assessment, but he questioned Mr. Txxxx’s response….

“What would motivate the president to do that, because it looks bad if Russians are paying to kill Americans and we’re not doing anything about it?” Mr. Bolton said. “The presidential reaction is to say: ‘It’s not my responsibility. Nobody told me about it.’ And therefore to duck any complaints that he hasn’t acted effectively.”

Mr. Bolton said this summed up Mr. Txxxx’s decision-making on national security issues. “It’s just unconnected to the reality he’s dealing with.”

Unquote.

So, officials say the matter was discussed for months at the highest levels of the Administration, but the press secretary and another official or two, whose job regularly requires that they lie to protect the president, claim that neither the president nor Vice President Pence were informed. John Bolton, the National Security Adviser in 2019, also says that he knew nothing about it, but he’s not surprised that the president is divorced from reality. Of course, nothing any of these people say should be trusted.

Tonight The Washington Post reports:

Russian bounties offered to Taliban-linked militants to kill coalition forces in Afghanistan are believed to have resulted in the deaths of several U.S. service members, according to intelligence gleaned from U.S. military interrogations of captured militants in recent months.

Several people familiar with the matter said it was unclear exactly how many Americans or coalition troops from other countries may have been killed or targeted under the program. U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered a total of 10 deaths from hostile gunfire or improvised bombs in 2018, and 16 in 2019. Two have been killed this year.

Unquote.

Two papers devoted to military news, Stars and Stripes and Military Times, are headlining this story. Some of the president’s most ardent supporters are in the military. Will hearing about this cause any of them to reconsider their support for a Commander-in-Chief who greatly admires Vladimir Putin and did nothing in response to Russia targeting their fellow service members? Either because he didn’t care or was clueless?

They should. We can hope.