Week 52: Mueller and Trump Celebrate One (Rocky) Year Together

Donald Trump proved himself a terrible gift-giver last month when all he got wife Melania for her 48th birthday was … a card. He’s done Robert S. Mueller III much better, spraying him indirectly with a pair of “no collusion” tweets as the first anniversary of the special counsel’s appointment passed. Mueller didn’t give his anniversary partner anything in return, although a piece of paper—a subpoena to testify, perhaps—would have been keeping with tradition.

What Trump wants, of course, is an end to the relationship. Instead, Mueller seems more committed than ever to preserving the relationship as he continues excavating into Russian monkeying with the 2016 election. Without leaks or fanfare, he’s gone deeper and wider, rolling up guilty pleas among intimates and hangers-on in President Donald Trump’s orbit, getting people to flip, and sent his first perp to jail. This week, for example, he persuaded the son-in-law Continue reading “Week 52: Mueller and Trump Celebrate One (Rocky) Year Together”

The Last McCain Swoon

Like a beloved major leaguer playing his final season, accepting gifts and receiving toasts at his last appearances at opposing teams’ stadiums, John McCain finds himself in his death-bed bombarded by pre-obituary accolades from the press. The press, which McCain has long jokingly referred to as “my base,” has already issued so many sugary summations of his life and political career that by the time he dies the obituary writers will have nothing to chew on but a smattering of scraps.

In recent weeks McCain has been lauded in print for his decency, his courage and his congeniality. He’s an icon. No, he’s an American hero! No, make that the conscience of the Senate! Bret Stephens and Gail Collins of the New York Times have gathered around the cracker barrel to reminisce in a piece embarrassingly titled “Maybe We Don’t Deserve John McCain” about the glories of covering Continue reading “The Last McCain Swoon”

This Is How a Newspaper Dies

For a preview of the newspaper industry’s coming death, turn your gaze to Colorado, where the withering and emaciated Denver Post finds itself rolling in profits.

The Post’s controlling owner, “vulture capitalist” Randall Smith, has become journalism’s No. 1 villain for having cheapened and starved not just its Denver paper but many of the titles—including the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the San Jose Mercury News and the Orange County Register—that his firm, Alden Global Capital, operates through the Digital First Media chain. At the Post, Smith’s firm cut the newsroom from 184 journalists to 99 between 2012 and 2017, Bloomberg News’ Joe Nocera writes. Over the same time, Smith’s Pottstown Mercury fell from 73 journos to 10 while its Norristown Times-Herald went 45 to 12. And the cuts just keep on coming. For newspaper lovers, the cuts have been a disaster.

Journalists and citizens have Continue reading “This Is How a Newspaper Dies”

Week 51: Avenatti Strips Cohen to His Bare Essentials

Every political scandal ultimately turns into a money scandal. The article of impeachment brought against President Richard Nixon included charges that he’d been party to the payment of “substantial” amounts of money to silence or influence potential Watergate witnesses. The Iran-Contra affair sluiced money from illegal arms sales to Iran to finance the Nicaraguan contras. Spiro Agnew resigned from the vice presidency while being investigated for bribery, tax fraud, and extortion.

This week, the Russia scandal vectored in that direction as Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s financial records ripped a pants seam and news of the ill-gotten cash he had deposited in his shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, gushed out. We learned that AT&T gave Cohen $600,000 for his “insights,” that Novartis dropped $1.2 million on him for political advice on “health care policy matters,” and Korea Aerospace Industries chipped in $150,000 for “legal consulting. Continue reading “Week 51: Avenatti Strips Cohen to His Bare Essentials”

Michael Avenatti’s Rules for Radicals

Stormy Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti recently achieved status as a Permanent Guest on CNN. He’s appeared on one of its shows more than 60 times in the two months since filing the lawsuit to invalidate the non-disclosure agreement the adult-film actress entered into with Donald Trump.

Go ahead and joke about TV’s bright lights sun-burning his bald head all the way to skin cancer. Avenatti won’t mind. All the world is his court and all the men and women in it merely jurors. Appearing on Anderson Cooper 360° on Tuesday night, where he was as poised as a fat cat taking a limousine to the airport, he explained his method.

“There’s been some criticism about our media strategy and how often I’ve been on CNN and how often I’ve been on your show and other networks,” Avenatti said. “Here’s the bottom line, Anderson. It’s working. OK? It’s working in Continue reading “Michael Avenatti’s Rules for Radicals”

Week 50: Rudy Steps In It and Trump Makes Him Squirm

Having Rudy Giuliani in the news mix is almost as good as having two Donald Trumps.

When the former mayor of New York City joined the president’s legal team his assignment was to deal with the Russia mess, specifically with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. He was going to iron out the terms for a Trump interview by the special counsel and barring that he was going to convince Attorney General Jeff Sessions to kill the probe. But before the ink could dry on Giuliani’s new business cards, he entered a different theater of political war—the Stormy Daniels dispute—and napalmed whatever credibility he still had as a counselor, a tactician and broker by shooting his mouth off to the press about the case.

Prior to Giuliani’s arrival, the Stormy Daniels story was a confusing mess of secret payouts, denials, lawsuits, and Michael Avenatti apperances on CNN. But thanks Continue reading “Week 50: Rudy Steps In It and Trump Makes Him Squirm”

Is There Method in Donald Trump’s Madness?

Donald Trump appears to prowl the nation in a permanent mad-dog rage.

This week, angered by Sen. Jon Tester, who blocked his nominee to head Veterans Affairs, the president threatened to release information about the Montana Democrat that would prevent the senator’s reelection. Last month, Trump flung his fury at former FBI director James Comey once again, adding him to the growing list of people he wants jailed, and fumed over Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation. Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, draws regular threats and denunciations from the president, and this is only the beginning of Trump’s tantrums and threatened retaliations. Since becoming president, Trump has menaced individuals, institutions, business and countries, including the media, the NFL, NATO member countries, North Korea, South Korea, Mexico, Iran, European cars, China, NAFTA, Steve Bannon and business leaders with ugly and strong language. He’s Continue reading “Is There Method in Donald Trump’s Madness?”

Week 49: Cohen Took a Bullet and Trump Fired It

Michael Cohen once bragged that he would take a bullet for his client, Donald Trump. “I’m the guy who protects the president and the family,” he insisted. More recently, Cohen offered that he would “rather jump out of a building than turn on Donald Trump,” even after the president spurned his desire for a big White House job.

Perhaps wanting to test these claims, Trump opened fire on Cohen on "Fox & Friends" this week and then shoved him out of a high window in Trump Tower, where this scandal keeps returning.

“He’s a great guy,” the president said as he proceeded to disassociate himself from the man who has slaved away as his fixer since 2007, cleaning up business and personal messes left behind, who teamed with Russian-American convicted felon and businessman Felix Sater to try to swing a Trump Tower Moscow deal, who is named as one Continue reading “Week 49: Cohen Took a Bullet and Trump Fired It”

James Comey Is Doing It Wrong

Having used both his book, A Higher Loyalty, and his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos to portray himself the defender of truth, the paragon of integrity, the embodiment of ethical values and principles and as someone guided by a steady moral compass, former FBI Director James Comey has drenched the public discourse with the stink of sanctimony. Not to mention his heavy yammering about leadership, the likely topic he’ll be lecturing on at $60,000 a speech on the stemwinding circuit for the next couple of years.

As a former U.S. attorney, deputy attorney general, corporate attorney, hedge-funder and FBI director, you’d imagine that Comey had viewed himself through life’s mirror often enough to realize that over-dressing himself in the vestments of truth and honor might backfire. But there he goes in the book and interview, posturing like the deacon of justice he obviously thinks he is.

In Continue reading “James Comey Is Doing It Wrong”

Week 47: Mount Trump Fumes but Doesn’t Blow

Santiago Nasar—the protagonist of Gabriel García Márquez’s novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold—lives out his final day unaware that he has been marked for death by vengeance-seeking twin brothers. Everybody in town knows the murder is imminent because the brothers talk endlessly about killing Nasar, sharpening their knives all the while. Yet nobody stops the attack, either because they dismiss the brothers as drunken blowhards or because they get distracted and forget to pass on the information or because they secretly hope the brothers succeed. It’s a communal collapse that ends with an unjustly accused man stabbed to death on his doorstep, holding his guts in his hands.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein recently entered a Márquezian zone of inevitability of their own. If we can believe the anonymous sources blabbing to the press, President Donald Trump rages almost daily about taking Continue reading “Week 47: Mount Trump Fumes but Doesn’t Blow”

Week 46: Mueller Rattles the Oligarchs

Even if special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference accomplishes nothing more than filing indictments against one identity thief, two money launderers, three liars and 13 Russian cyber-op artists, his efforts will have helped to rejig U.S.-Russia relations for a decade or maybe more.

Shock waves created by Mueller’s 10-month probe couldn’t help but have emboldened the Treasury Department this week as it slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin with a bundle of sanctions where it hurts: the pocketbooks of seven of his most faithful oligarchs and 12 of their companies. Working in consultation with the State Department, Treasury applied sanctions to another 17 senior Russian government officials. In its announcement, Treasury linked “the Kremlin’s malign agenda” directly to the sanctioned elites.

The new sanctions were mandated by veto-proof legislation passed last year by representatives and senators from both parties who didn’t entrust the matter to Continue reading “Week 46: Mueller Rattles the Oligarchs”

Congrats, Jeff Goldberg. You Just Martyred Kevin Williamson.

Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg climbed out on a limb last month to add conservative fire-breather and Never Trumper Kevin D. Williamson of National Review to join his growing staff. On Thursday, Goldberg retreated to a safe place near the trunk and proceeded to saw off the branch, casting Williamson down to the ignominy of unemployment.

The sacking of the barely hired Williamson brought joy to everybody to the writer’s left, which is to say the better part of the universe. Media Matters for America earned an assist in his firing by drawing pointers to his inflammatory back pages, which helped stir up opposition to him. The organization danced on his pink slip when Goldberg let him go, as did NARAL, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti, Politico Magazine contributing editor Virginia Heffernan, Paste’s Jason Rhode, the American Prospect’s Adele M. Stan and many others.

I, however, Continue reading “Congrats, Jeff Goldberg. You Just Martyred Kevin Williamson.”

Trump Is Right. It Is the Amazon Washington Post.

President Donald Trump’s insistence on calling the Washington Post the “Amazon Washington Post” riles the newspaper’s executive editor, Martin Baron, to no end. He wants one and all to know that the online retailer and the newspaper are distinct corporate entities.

“There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon,” Baron told the New York Times on Monday. “Not one penny.”

Further distancing Amazon from the Washington Post, Baron said that the Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, involves himself only in the paper’s business doings, not its news coverage. “He’s never suggested a story to anybody here, he’s never critiqued a story, he’s never suppressed a story,” Baron said.

I have little doubt that this is true, but Baron’s argument is a distinction without a difference. Bezos became the world’s richest person through his labors at Amazon, which he still controls. He purchased the Continue reading “Trump Is Right. It Is the Amazon Washington Post.”

Trump Wants to Promote Sinclair? Let Him.

Our devotion to a free press knows no limits. Well, almost no limits. Should an outlet produce a news story or commentary that cuts too hard against the grain, who among us doesn’t want to reconsider the wisdom of granting just any newspaper, broadcast outlet, or website the right of free expression? Free speech for me, our conflicting sentiments argue, but not for thee!

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the television megachain that serves local news with an extra shot of conservative hot sauce, has become the most reliable scapegoat for our conflicting feelings about freedom of the press. As long ago as the 2004 election, Sinclair was earning the opprobrium of liberals for airing a harshly critical—some would say unfair—documentary of presidential candidate John Kerry. Last summer, John Oliver reinforced the anti-Sinclair position with a segment that savaged the expanding chain for its conservative ways. And now, President Donald Trump is Continue reading “Trump Wants to Promote Sinclair? Let Him.”

Trump Wants to Promote Sinclair? Let Him.

Our devotion to a free press knows no limits. Well, almost no limits. Should an outlet produce a news story or commentary that cuts too hard against the grain, who among us doesn’t want to reconsider the wisdom of granting just any newspaper, broadcast outlet, or website the right of free expression? Free speech for me, our conflicting sentiments argue, but not for thee!

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the television megachain that serves local news with an extra shot of conservative hot sauce, has become the most reliable scapegoat for our conflicting feelings about freedom of the press. As long ago as the 2004 election, Sinclair was earning the opprobrium of liberals for airing a harshly critical—some would say unfair—documentary of presidential candidate John Kerry. Last summer, John Oliver reinforced the anti-Sinclair position with a segment that savaged the expanding chain for its conservative ways. And now, President Donald Trump is Continue reading “Trump Wants to Promote Sinclair? Let Him.”

Week 44: Does Trump Want to Talk to Mueller or Fire Him?

Spreading like the blast from a high-yield nuclear device, the Trump Tower scandal has fireballed its way into every outpost of power and influence in American civilization. It has set the intelligence community against the president and prompted aggrieved members of Congress to call for a reheating of the Cold War. A special counsel and two congressional committees have quizzed hundreds of witnesses and collected millions of pages of supporting documents in a stab at unmasking Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The blast’s shock waves have decapitated the FBI, knocking out its director and its deputy director. The president’s men, his relatives and allies have been exposed as Russian dupes at best or agents of influence at worst. Some have tendered guilty pleas for lying. Another has confessed to money-laundering connected to his Eastern European influence peddling. Foreign policy initiatives—official and otherwise—designed to roll back the Russian sanctions have Continue reading “Week 44: Does Trump Want to Talk to Mueller or Fire Him?”

Week 43: Trump Rolls Out Red Carpet for Mueller Subpoena

Inside the leak-proof snow fort where counsel Robert S. Mueller III commands his Russia scandal gumshoes, the Trump investigation glowed fireball orange this week. The New York Times spotted the light and then reported it in a Page One, above-the-fold story in the Friday edition, stating that Mueller had subpoenaed business documents from the Trump Organization “related to Russia and other topics,” apparently for the first time.

“Investigation Nears President” touted the story’s subhead.

Near, yes, but how near? Maybe not as near as you would like to think. It was easy to read the Times scoop in the context of the interview President Donald Trump gave to the New York Times last summer. Asked if Mueller’s inspection of his finances and his family’s finances “unrelated to Russia” would cross “a red line,” Trump said, “Yeah.” Further questioned, Trump said he would regard such inquiries “a violation” of Continue reading “Week 43: Trump Rolls Out Red Carpet for Mueller Subpoena”

Resist the News Overload Panic!

Left distended, gagging and glum by their hefty 24/7 media diets, a smattering of intelligent people are battling information obesity by applying the bariatric clamps on their news consumption. Anything to end the painful and disorienting gorging, they cry.

The most notable self-experimenter in media self-denial would be technology columnist Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, who reduced his social media use to a trickle and canceled all news notifications on his phone for two months. Instead of consuming online news, Manjoo switched to print newspapers and achieved, he thinks, an increase in news literacy. Eve Peyser of Vice divorced herself from the internet for five days by decamping to an off-the-information-grid cabin in the woods. Reporting back, she said the test left her “calmer than ever.” Semi-retired business executive Erik Hagerman has outdone both journos by moving permanently to the sticks where he has avoided Continue reading “Resist the News Overload Panic!”

Week 42: Mueller’s Probe Reaches Distant Shores

Unspooling like a sedate Mission Impossible sequel, this week the Trump Tower scandal rolled back to January 2017 and splashed down in the Indian Ocean. Doors opened and closed at a beachside hotel in the Seychelles islands where a furtive meeting of a Lebanese-American fixer who specializes in the Middle East, an American mercenary leader, and a Russian moneyman with a Harvard MBA went down. According to Google Maps, it’s a 19-hour, 8,641-mile flight from the special counsel Robert S. Muller III’s office in Washington, D.C.’s southwest quadrant to the tiny island nation. That the meeting has drawn scrutiny shows a willingness on Mueller’s part to extend his reach to places and time periods that the original directive for his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign only hint at. Think of him as a non-super version of Marvel’s Mr. Fantastic, awesomely powerful, wildly Continue reading “Week 42: Mueller’s Probe Reaches Distant Shores”

What’s the Deal With Stormy Daniels?

At its core, what is the Stormy Daniels story about?

I ask this because the Daniels topic, just entering its seventh week in the news spotlight, has become so choked with details, nuance and avenues of entry that it’s easy to get confused. What we need is one of those mnemonic devices where you imagine a physical location—like a palace—and fill its rooms, closets, vestibules and floors with the scandal’s factual detritus to maintain perspective.

As we enter the memory palace, let’s make the first of our many deposits: Is the Daniels story primarily about the original allegation, sourced to Daniels, of a sexual affair spanning the years 2006 and 2007 with Donald Trump? If so, do we now all agreed that despite Trump’s adamant denial through his attorney, Michael Cohen, that such affair really happened? So the story is about sex, right?

Or is it about money? Everybody Continue reading “What’s the Deal With Stormy Daniels?”