July 5, 2018

Seven Republican senators and one GOP congresswoman have been in Russia, meeting with Russian officials, since June 30. On Tuesday, they sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. "We come here realizing that we have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told Lavrov. "We are competitors, but we don't necessarily need to be adversaries." Shelby added that he hopes the July 16 summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin "will be the beginning, maybe, of a new day."

Oddly, the Republican lawmakers were extending an olive branch to Russia on the same day the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee released a report accusing the Kremlin of working during the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump win. Most of the senators, scheduled to return July 5, posted patriotic Fourth of July images to their Twitter accounts Wednesday — Shelby, John Kennedy (R-La.), John Thune (R-S.D.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) — with no mention of where they were spending America's Independence Day. But Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) posted three photos of him and his wife in Washington, proclaiming it a "treat to be in DC to celebrate the 4th and watch some great fireworks!"

Several people noticed this "really weird" discrepancy, and producer Robert Schooley proposed two explanations:

It's probably the former, but the whole thing is pretty strange. Peter Weber

Update July 5, 3:30 p.m.: Business Insider has confirmed that it was indeed the former: "Daines departed Russia earlier than his colleagues and returned to Washington before trekking back to his home state of Montana, where Trump is holding a campaign rally [Thursday] night. An aide to Daines confirmed the trip details to Business Insider." Mystery solved!

May 29, 2018
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On Sunday, China gave final approval to a 13th trademark in three months for White House official and first daughter Ivanka Trump's lifestyle brand, including seven trademarks awarded in May alone. "Taken together," The Associated Press reports, "the trademarks could allow her brand to market a lifetime's worth of products in China, from baby blankets to coffins, and a host of things in between." They also raise thorny conflict-of-interest questions.

For example, China approved five of Ivanka Trump's long-sought, potentially lucrative trademarks six days before President Trump announced his surprise decision to work with Chinese President Xi Jinping to rescue Chinese telecom ZTE, which was fined $1.2 billion by the Commerce Department and barred from using U.S. parts for violating U.S. trade sanctions against Iran and North Korea. (The military, U.S. intelligence community, and a bipartisan majority in Congress also say ZTE poses a national security threat because its phones could be used for spying.) On May 21, China awarded Ivanka Trump two more trademarks, and four days later, Trump announced he had made a deal to keep ZTE open and allow it to buy U.S. parts again.

"Coincidence?" asks Sui-Lee Wee at The New York Times. "Well, probably." Trump's company — which she has taken a break from leading but still profits from — said there was nothing improper in seeking to protect the brand in China, and experts said China approved the trademarks in roughly a normal period of time. Interestingly, AP notes, "Ivanka Trump does not have a large retail presence in China, but customs records show that the bulk of her company's U.S. imports are shipped from China." Still, with the constant confluence of family business and U.S. policy in Trump's presidency it's hard to tell if countries see rewarding his daughter's company "as a way to curry favor" or "requests they cannot refuse," say Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer and CREW's Norman Eisen. Peter Weber

May 23, 2018

Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy has subpoenaed The Associated Press over hacked emails it obtained about his apparently successful efforts to sour President Trump on Qatar while Broidy and a partner, George Nader, solicited business with Qatar's Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to the emails, Broidy met with Trump about Qatar on Dec. 2, 2017, and a few days later, the UAE awarded Broidy a five-year, $600 million intelligence contract.

Oddly, on Nov. 30, 2017, as New York's Paul Campos points out, Broidy wired $200,000 to a law firm that transferred it to a lawyer representing former Playboy model Shera Bechard (and also Stormy Daniels), the first installment of a $1.6 million hush agreement he had reached with Bechard through his lawyer in this one case, Michael Cohen. When The Wall Street Journal confronted Broidy about the payment in April, he readily confessed to an extramarital affair with Bechard that ended in pregnancy and an abortion. On Tuesday night, MSNBC's Chris Hayes explained some other strange coincidences.

Two weeks ago, Campos laid out a detailed circumstantial case that it was Trump, not Broidy, who had an affair with Bechard. "If it's difficult to imagine Broidy being willing to take the fall for Trump's affair with Bechard and then paying her a seven-figure sum, it's much simpler to imagine it simply as a perfectly timed and fantastically profitable bribe," Campos wrote Tuesday.

"If I had to guess, I'd say that Cohen, as usual, got the job of dealing with Bechard's demands," Kevin Drum speculated at Mother Jones. "But he didn't want the money to come from Trump, even under a phony name, now that Robert Mueller was scouring every inch of Trump's business. Somehow this reached Broidy's ears — he and Cohen were both deputy finance chairs of the RNC at the time — and he offered to help." We may never know if this is true," he adds, "but it seems pretty plausible." Peter Weber

May 2, 2018

At an event Tuesday afternoon in Tempe, Arizona, hosted by America First Policies, a group led by controversial former Trump administration official Carl Higbie that promotes President Trump's agenda, Vice President Mike Pence had a special shout-out for a "favorite" member of the audience. "A great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law," Pence said, "Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I'm honored to have you here."

A federal judge ruled Arpaio in criminal contempt of court last year, after Arpaio had already lost his bid for re-election as Maricopa County sheriff, and she refused to vacate his conviction even after President Trump controversially pardoned him. Arpaio is running for an open U.S. Senate seat, fringe views and all, and if he wins the August primary, "you can kiss goodbye to that seat if you are a Republican," poll-watcher Harry Enten tweeted. "What is Mike Pence doing?!" That was one of the kinder reactions. You can get a sense of the broad repulsion at Arpaio's history in this brief thread from conservative columnist Bethany Mandel.

But he was clearly a star among the Trump fans in Tempe, so at least Pence knew his audience — assuming the comment wasn't for an audience of one back in Washington. Peter Weber

March 22, 2018
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George Nader, a political adviser to the crown prince leading the United Arab Emirates and a cooperating witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, has spent the past year working with the Republican National Committee's deputy finance chairman to steer President Trump's Middle East policy and oust Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, The New York Times reports, citing interviews and newly disclosed documents.

Nader and Elliot Broidy, a longtime GOP fundraiser, used their influence and contacts in Trump's White House to "cultivate" Trump on behalf of the UAE and Saudi Crown Prince (and self-proclaimed Jared Kushner puppet-master) Mohammed bin Salman, and against Iran and Qatar, the Times says, adding: "Tillerson was fired last week, and the president has adopted tough approaches toward both Iran and Qatar." The two men — Nader, 58, and Broidy, 60 — met during Trump's inaugural festivities and "became fast friends," and Nader didn't come to the friendship empty-handed, the Times explains:

Nader tempted ... Broidy with the prospect of more than $1 billion in contracts for his private security company, Circinus, and he helped deliver deals worth more than $200 million with the United Arab Emirates. He also flattered Mr. Broidy about "how well you handle Chairman," a reference to Mr. Trump, and repeated to his well-connected friend that he told the effective rulers of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE about "the Pivotal Indispensable Magical Role you are playing to help them." [The New York Times]

In return, Broidy told Nader he personally pushed Trump in October to fire Tillerson, seen by the Saudis and Emiratis as insufficiently hardline on Iran and Qatar, and urged Trump to meet with the UAE crown prince in a "quiet" place outside the White House — a request blocked by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Broidy reported. Nader was met by Mueller's agents in February en route to meet Trump at Mar-a-Lago, an invitation wrangled by Broidy. You can read more about the tangled web at The New York Times. Peter Weber

March 7, 2018

On the one hand, it's nice that President Trump's budget chief and his chief economic adviser overcame their ideological differences to become friendly, as self-proclaimed "right-wing conservative" Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), suggested in his farewell statement to Gary Cohn, the outgoing head of Trump's National Economic Council. On the other hand, calling Cohn a "globalist" leaves the message with kind of an acrid aftertaste.

Cohn is Jewish, and "the term 'globalist' has also been used as an anti-Semitic dog whistle and echoes pernicious anti-Jewish conspiracy theories," explains Ben Sales at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "For the far right, globalism has long had distinct xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic overtones," adds Liam Stack at his "glossary of extremist language" in The New York Times. "It refers to a conspiratorial worldview: a cabal that likes open borders, diversity, and weak nation states, and that dislikes white people, Christianity, and the traditional culture of their own country."

But the alt-right slur "isn't entirely about anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering," says Andrew Prokop at Vox. "There are real underlying policy differences at play here." Which, of course, is what Mulvaney must have been talking about. Still, if Mulvaney had wanted to show his appreciation, maybe he should have just chipped in a few extra bucks to Cohn's farewell gift card. Peter Weber

March 5, 2018
Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Since December 2016, Congress has given the State Department $120 million to counter foreign attempts to hijack U.S. elections and sow distrust in American democracy, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spent none of that money, The New York Times reports. "As a result, not one of the 23 analysts working in the department's Global Engagement Center — which has been tasked with countering Moscow's disinformation campaign — speaks Russian, and a department hiring freeze has hindered efforts to recruit the computer experts needed to track the Russian efforts."

Tillerson, who's been "focusing his energies instead on drastically shrinking the department," spent seven months thinking about whether he even wanted to spend the original $60 million Congress set aside to coordinate a government-wide response to anti-democracy propaganda from Russia and China, the Times reports, and when the State Department finally sent over its request in September, "with just days left in the fiscal year, Pentagon officials decided that the State Department had lost its shot at the money." After months of haggling, the State Department said last week it will take $40 million from this fiscal year's $60 million allotment, and it expects the Pentagon to transfer the funds in April, half a year before the midterms.

The Global Engagement Center currently toils to counter jihadist and extremist propaganda, and its 23 analysts speak Arabic, Urdu, French, and Somali. The Trump administration has "the vehicle to do this work in the center," James Glassman, the State Department's under secretary for public diplomacy, tells the Times. "What they don't have is a secretary of state or a president who's interested in doing this work." You can read more about the holdup and Tillerson's role in it at The New York Times. Peter Weber

March 2, 2018

One of the battles reportedly raging inside the chaotic White House is between Chief of Staff John Kelly and President Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. "Javanka and Kelly are locked in a death match," a White House official told Axios, using Stephen Bannon's celebrity couple name for Trump's senior advisers/children. "Two enter. Only one survives."

Ivanka Trump and Kushner "have been frustrated by Kelly's attempt to restrict their access to the president, and they perceive his new crackdown on clearances as a direct shot at them," The Associated Press reports, citing White House aides and outside advisers, and the frustration is apparently mutual: Kelly "blames them for changing Trump's mind at the last minute and questions what exactly they do all day, according to one White House official and an outside ally."

To be fair, Kushner has been put in charge of solving a monstrous heap of issues, but is mostly supposed to focus on forging Israeli-Palestinian peace, while Ivanka has been known to represent her father at international conferences and the Olympics, as well as push for tax cuts for parents of young children. "Allies of Kushner and Ivanka Trump insist they have no plans to leave the White House in the near future," AP notes, but Kelly's continued tenure is an open question. "The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of homeland security," Kelly said Thursday, at the Homeland Security Department's 15th birthday celebration. "But I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess."

You have to watch Kelly's eye roll for the quote to really hit home. Peter Weber

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