Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism”

The Russian government intervened, overtly and covertly,  in the 2016 U.S. elections to damage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. Whether the primary goal of that activity was actually to elect Trump, or instead merely to weaken Clinton in the event of her expected victory, isn’t really an answerable question.

The obvious things to say about this are:

  1. That was a wicked thing for Putin & Co. to do.
  2. Encouraging that help, accepting it, exploiting it, and subsequently covering it up was and is a wicked thing for Trump & Co. to do. It should mark everyone who engages in it and defends it as profoundly disloyal, and make all of them political pariahs.

The defenders of Putin and Trump make four responses: Continue reading “Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism””

Getting rid of the “Johnson Amendment”

So what does Donald Trump mean when he says he wants to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment”?

Trump always talks about “churches,” but the proviso, inserted in the tax code in 1954, forbids all tax exempt non-profits (organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)3, and therefore referred to generically as 501(c)3 organizations) from contributing to political campaigns.

If the law were changed to exempt churches only, the courts would have to decide whether than created an unconstitutional “establishment of religion,” but it doesn’t require a law degree to see that allowing tax-exempt churches to attack tax-exempt Planned Parenthood by running campaigns against politicians who take positions favorable to reproductive rights, but forbidding Planned Parenthood from defending itself, would be grossly unfair.

Moreover, churches - unlike most other non-profits - aren’t required to disclose their donors. So allowing them to serve as campaign vehicles would not only convert them into tax-deductible super-PACs, it would allow unlimited amounts of hidden money to come into politics. (Citizens United and its progeny have already severely weakened disclosure rules.) Disclosure has been, until now, regarded as an invaluable protection against corruption. If Trump gets his way, any individual, privately-held corporation, partnership, or LLC could purchase influence with unlimited, undisclosed, tax-deductible campaign contributions simply by laundering them through a church, or even a fake “church” organized solely as a pass-through for bribes. (Again, for religious-freedom reasons, the IRS is very wary of deciding that a group calling itself a church isn’t really a church: the New Testament rule “wherever two or three are gathered” about covers it.)

But wait! It gets worse. If churches can gather money without disclosing their donors - and obviously that degree of privacy protection is required for the free exercise of religion - and spend that money to run political campaigns, then the market is open for foreign as well as domestic corruption. The Russian, Chinese, Saudi, and Iranian governments would all, predictably, either find congregations already recognized by the IRS to use as front groups or incorporate new ones. Of course a group organized as a mosque might not be able to wield much influence without stirring up opposition, but nothing bars the Saudis or the Iranians from paying some stooges to set up a fake Baptist church. Nor is an outfit organized as a church for IRS purposes have the word “church” (synagogue, mosque, temple, whatever) in its name; many people would spot “Society of Friends” as meaning Quakers, but you and I could start a group tomorrow called “Truth Tellers,” incorporate it as a church, and then run political ads with the trailer “This message brought to you by the Truth Tellers.”

So, like most of Trump’s ideas, this one reduces mostly to corruption and the sacrifice of American sovereignty to foreign - especially Russian - influence. And of course that won’t keep the tame preachers of the Christian Right from backing him all the way.



Trump’s Kremlin connection: the other shoe(s) drop

Mike Isikoff is about as far from being a Clinton-lover as it’s possible to be on an outpatient basis: he was last seen chasing down a semen-stained dress. But today he broke a blockbuster story: tracing the activities in Moscow of Carter Page, an otherwise utterly obscure person who was nonetheless one of the five people Donald Trump listed as “foreign policy advisers” to his campaign.

It appears that, after Trump named him as an adviser and just before the Republican convention, Page met in Moscow not only with an oligarch on the sanctions list but also with the official apparently in charge of Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. elections, including both the activities of the RT and Sputnik News and the hackers who broke into the DNC emails and released the results to WikiLeaks timed to create maximum heartache for Clinton.

Also today, ABC blew a major hole in Trump’s denial of major economic ties to Russia: his estimated take was in the “hundreds of millions of dollars,” some of it from the Russian mafia. His proposal to put his assets in a “blind trust” run by his children doesn’t pass the giggle test:  that trust wouldn’t even need glasses.

Add these to the list: Trump’s threat to renege on our NATO treaty commitments and not support our allies in the face of Russian aggression; Trump’s expressed admiration for Putin as “a stronger leader” than Obama;  hiring Paul Manafort, who worked to elect Putin’s puppet Yanukovych as President of Ukraine; his having foreign policy advisers like Gen. Michael Flynn, who takes money to go on Russian propaganda channel RT and compares it to CNN; Trump’s invitation to Putin to hack Clinton’s emails; and Trump’s astounding assurance that Putin wasn’t “going into Ukraine” two years after Russia had annexed Crimea and while Russian troops (under thin disguise as “volunteers”) were still shooting up the Donbass; and Trump’s promise to “look at” lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea.

Since the United States is not at war with Russia, what Trump is up to does not meet the Constitutional definition of “treason.” But since U.S. and Russian interests directly conflict, and since the Russian military has engaged in risky provocations such as buzzing U.S. Navy vessels in the Baltic, there is no reason not to call what Trump is doing - most of all, his invitation to an adversary to intervene on his behalf in our elections - disloyal. That’s the first time in U.S. history (unless you want to count George McClellan in 1864) that such a word could be  accurately used about a major-party candidate for President of the United States.

And yet the Republican Party - including legitimate war heroes such as Bob Dole and John McCain - is unifying behind a man not just obviously unfit to lead this country but not even loyal to it. That should give you some idea how deep the rot goes.


  1. With his usual impeccable timing, Ted Cruz chose today to endorse the man he previously said was unfit to be President.
  2. In related news, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reports that former KGB Col. Putin plans to reanimate his old outfit by recombining foreign and domestic intelligence agencies. Instead of doing so under the KGB name, however, Putin proposes to revert to name the outfit carried when Lavrenti Beria ran it for Stalin: the Ministry of State Security, or MGB. No word yet on plans to re-open “mental hospitals” in which to torture dissidents. But have patience.

Good news for Donald Trump!

Trump’s buddy Vladimir Putin - the career secret policeman Trump awarded an “A” for “leadership” -  is only “probably” a murderer.

A Flack-of-the-Year nomination goes to Kremlin spokesgeek Dmitry S. Peskov, who said that the murder of  Alexander Litvinenko - for blowing the whistle on an earlier Putin-ordered murder - “is not among the topics that interest us.”

The Nation backs Col. Putin

If The Nation’s endorsement of the Russian seizure of Crimea doesn’t make you spew, I envy your digestion.

Some time ago in this space, I identified The Nation as part of the “American-power-hating left” that fawns over Vladimir Putin, Asked for chapter and verse, I couldn’t find it, and removed the offending reference. (See the discussion in comments.)

It turns out that I was premature - would it be boastful to say “prescient”? - rather than actually wrong. Here’s The Nation’s editorial take on the first territorial acquisition in Europe made by military force since Hitler and Stalin launched World War II by trying to divide Poland between them. If it doesn’t make you spew, your stomach is stronger than mine. Bottom line: Now that Russia has taken Crimea, the only think to do is “negotiate” on the basis that Crimea is now part of Russia. In those negotiations, Russia is to give up nothing, while Ukraine is to be treated as a subordinate power whose sovereignty is modified to whatever extent its larger neighbor desires. If Russia wants Eastern Ukraine to “have a reasonable degree of autonomy” (i.e., be ruled by Russian proxies), why should anyone object? And of course the Ukrainian government must be “stripped of neofascists.” That is, the range of acceptable political opinion in Ukraine is to be determined in Moscow. No mention of “stripping” the Zhirinovsky faction from Russian politics, of course.

A full analysis would be a bore, so just a few samples of facts from which the editors of The Nation don’t bother to mention:

1. Russia agreed to “respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders” in the Budapest Memorandum, in return for Ukraine’s de-nuclearisation.

2. Thirteen of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted for a resolution holding that the Russian annexation of Crimea is illegitimate. Naturally, Russia vetoed it; even China merely abstained. (The Nation: “Crimea, now annexed to Russia …” The editorial does note that the seizure was a violation of international law, but hastily adds that the United States has no right to complain. Why flawed U.S. foreign policy implies that the Ukrainians should acquiesce in having their territory seized isn’t explained.)

3. Russian aggression does not enjoy universal support within Russia. The sort of liberal-minded Russians who, if they were Americans, would subscribe to The Nation, oppose it; some of them do so while under house arrest. There have been large anti-war protests in Moscow.

4. The acting president of Ukraine has announced that he will not approve the hasty and unfortunate (to say the least) action of the parliament that would have removed Russian as a second official language in areas with strong Russian minorities. Other than that, there is no actual evidence that anyone civil liberties are threatened Ukraine. Russia, of course, is a different story.

5. Two newspeople for the Kremlin-owned American version of RT have left, one voluntarily and one not, over RT’s Ukraine coverage. One of them is a 9/11 Truther, which gives you some idea the sort of “progressives” Putin employs. The Russian version of RT features a neo-Nazi as a “German journalist.”

6. In addition to grabbing Crimea, Russia is threatening to “protect” Russian minorities in Estonia and elsewhere. (I gather no one is allowed to mention the Sudetenland in this context, so I won’t.)

7. Putin is promoting a “Eurasian union” based more or less on the opposite of all Enlightenment values. His alliance with the Orthodox Church to suppress “foreign” religious activity, his homophobia (defending “traditional Russian values” from “aggressive minorities”), and his aggression are all part of the package.

But I urge you not to follow any of those links or believe what is in them. Otherwise you, too, might wind up “bellicose” and “hysterical,” in the authoritative view of the editors of The Nation. No sane person wants the U.S. to go to war over Crimea. But there’s a difference between admitting that an act of aggression can’t practically be reversed by force and pretending it’s not an act of aggression. The Obama Administration seems committed to making Putin and his cronies pay a price for what they’ve done. I understand why RT opposes them. Why The Nation does so is harder to figure. Maybe it’s just the persistence of a bad Cold War habits of reflexively opposing anything anti-Soviet. Susan Sontag got it right, and she still has it right:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

What’s bizarre is that, while it made a twisted kind of sense for leftists in the West to support what was nominally a left-wing government in the Soviet Union (never mind that it was actually an oligarchy), it makes no sense whatever for progressives to support a Russian government with a Rush Limbaugh ideology. Why is it hard to figure out which side to take, between an America led by a constitutional lawyer and a Russia headed by a career secret policeman?

Footnote I hadn’t seen this, or any reference to it. But Putin’s speech to the Reichstag State Duma has a remarkable passage, which completely trashes the idea pushed by some of his Western apologists that Russian troops didn’t move into Crimea:

… the President of the Russian Federation received permission from the Upper House of Parliament to use the Armed Forces in Ukraine. However, strictly speaking, nobody has acted on this permission yet. Russia’s Armed Forces never entered Crimea; they were there already in line with an international agreement. True, we did enhance our forces there; however – this is something I would like everyone to hear and know – we did not exceed the personnel limit of our Armed Forces in Crimea, which is set at 25,000, because there was no need to do so.

“Enhance” is very good, don’t you think?

Cheerful thoughts on Ukraine

A credentialed expert on Russian politics tells me the end is near for Putin’s dictatorship.

Just ran into Daniel Treisman, a credentialed expert on Russian politics, who told me back when Yeltsin was president (and Treisman was a grad student) that Putin was next and that he would fix himself in power. Short version of the dialogue:

DT: Interesting times.
MK: I told you your boy Putin was an SOB.
DT: He’s always been an SOB, but he didn’t use to be delusional.
MK: Huh?
DT: After fourteen years of cautious and skilful politics, he’s lost touch with reality. I knew his control was going to end, but this week brings the end much nearer.
MK: To be replaced by …?
DT: Something closer to democracy.

From his lips to God’s ears. Daniel was right when I was optimistic, so let’s hope that he’s right now that he’s optimistic.

Update Treisman’s more detailed thoughts.

Vladimir Mikhainovich Romneyov

Obvious GOP candidate for 2016: gun-lover, gay-baiter, hates liberals. And you can see Russia from his house.

There’s lots of nonsense being talked about how the Republicans don’t have a natural candidate for 2016.

In fact, there’s someone with (1) huge name recognition; (2) a strong anti-gay record; (3) unlimited willingness to violate human rights in “anti-terrorist” campaigns; (4) a love of weapons and cheap machismo; and (5) no liberal tendencies whatsoever. Mitt Romney praises him.  As an extra bonus, you can see Russia from his house.

Ted Cruz, eat your heart out!