The Trump-Russia Nexus

Via the New York Times Editorial Board:

The acting director of the F.B.I., Andrew McCabe, told Congress on Thursday that President Trump’s firing of James Comey has not derailed the agency’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Which is good news. Despite Mr. Trump’s assertion that the idea of collusion is “a total hoax,” and despite many unknowns, the links continue to pile up. Here is a partial accounting of the connections we do know something about.

THE TRUMP FAMILY BUSINESS There may be no Trump Tower in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but it is not for lack of trying. Mr. Trump and his family have sought to do business in Russia since at least the 1980s. They have also developed extensive commercial and personal relationships with politically connected Russian businessmen. In 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York,” according to eTurboNews, a travel industry news site. The author James Dodson said that another son, Eric Trump, told him in 2013 that Russians have bankrolled Trump golf courses: “Well, we don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” Eric Trump denies saying that.

In addition, Donald Trump worked with the Agalarov family, a prominent Russian business group, to host the 2013 edition of his Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Mr. Trump met more than a dozen of the country’s most prominent oligarchs while he was there, Bloomberg News reported. Jared Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump and is a senior adviser to the president, has also been caught up in the Russia story. During the transition, Mr. Kushner met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, as well as with the top executive of a Russian government-owned bank.

The world would know much more about Mr. Trump’s foreign partnerships if he had released his tax returns, as every president has done for the last 40 years.

MICHAEL FLYNN Mr. Flynn, the former national security adviser, had several conversations with Mr. Kislyak during the transition in which they discussed American sanctions against Russia. Mr. Trump fired Mr. Flynn after public disclosure that the had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those talks. In addition, RT, a Russian government-backed news outlet, paid Mr. Flynn $45,000 for giving a speech in December 2015 in Moscow. On the same trip, he sat next to President Vladimir Putin at an RT gala. The Pentagon is investigating whether Mr. Flynn, a retired military intelligence officer, failed to disclose and obtain approval from the State and Defense Departments before taking money from a foreign government.

JEFF SESSIONS Mr. Sessions, the attorney general, said during his Senate confirmation hearing that he did not have any contacts with Russian officials while he was actively campaigning for Mr. Trump. In fact, he met with Mr. Kislyak twice, once in his Senate office and once at the Republican National Convention.
PAUL MANAFORT Mr. Manafort, a former chairman of the Trump campaign, worked as a consultant for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and for Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was backed by the Kremlin. Mr. Manafort has been accused of receiving secret payments from the pro-Russia party. About a decade earlier, Mr. Manafort also worked for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Mr. Putin. The Associated Press obtained a memo he wrote to Mr. Deripaska offering a plan that he said would “greatly benefit the Putin Government.”
CARTER PAGE American officials believe that Mr. Page, a foreign policy adviser, had contacts with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. He also gave a pro-Russia speech in Moscow in July 2016. Mr. Page was once employed by Merrill Lynch’s Moscow office, where he worked with Gazprom, a government-owned energy giant.

ROGER STONE Mr. Stone, an informal but close Trump adviser, exchanged messages last summer with Guccifer 2.0, a Twitter account widely believed to be a front for Russian intelligence operatives who were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. During the campaign, Mr. Stone seemed to know in advance that WikiLeaks would release emails from the account of John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Mr. Trump and his associates can cry themselves hoarse that there is neither smoke nor fire here. But all in all, the known facts suggest an unusually extensive network of relationships with a major foreign power. Anyone who cares about the credibility of the American electoral process should want a thorough investigation of whether and how Russia interfered in the election and through whom.

The Downfall of Kellyanne Conway

Erin Gloria Ryan, writing in The New York Times:

As Kellyanne Conway sleepwalks her way through a series of increasingly embarrassing interviews, it’s been hard not to feel sorry for her. It was difficult not to feel bad for her when “Saturday Night Live” depicted her as a craven hack driven to “Fatal Attraction”style debasement by a desire to appear on the news. When the cast of “Morning Joe” pointed out that Ms. Conway’s recent appearances on news shows proved her a useless source of information, when they sneered at Ms. Conway’s apparent White House ostracization, it was difficult to not feel stirrings of sympathy.

But I can’t feel sorry for Kellyanne Conway. Not anymore.

Not long ago, Ms. Conway felt like a vital part of a system that needed smart people on both sides to make it work. As a pollster who studied the electoral behavior of women, she served as a bridge between the right wing and a demographic that often seemed to perplex them.

The first time I saw Ms. Conway speak was at a New Yorker Festival panel in 2012. I was new to New York City. I was new to writing about politics. I was new to writing, period. On a panel about women voters, Ms. Conway spoke with a pragmatism that stood in opposition to contemporary TV personalities like Elisabeth Hasselbeck, whose brand of delicate pouting defined the conservative zeitgeist. Ms. Conway didn’t appeal to her audience’s sympathy. She had facts.

* * *

When Ms. Conway breached federal ethics laws by hawking Ivanka Trump’s “stuff” in the press briefing room, she got off with no immediate penalty besides being “counseled on the subject.” She told Fox News that the president supported her, that she was lucky to have a nice boss like Donald Trump and that every woman in America should hope to have a boss like him. She made it sound as though declining to punish a woman for ethics violations was somehow feminist, and as though all that matters to women is how their bosses treat them personally, not how their bosses impact the lives of other women.

If I wasn’t too exhausted to feel insulted, I’d have felt insulted.

More here.

The Trump brand was built on winning. So what happens when it starts to lose?

Christine Emba, writing in The Washington Post:

The White House is perhaps the best imaginable venue for product placement. But despite the fact that it now commands a presidential seal, the Trump brand seems less attractive than ever.

Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and even discount retailers such as Kmart are dropping daughter Ivanka’s fashion line. Companies such as Uber face backlash for merely giving the impression of being pro-Trump. Professional athletes, those traditional arbiters of cool, are turning their backs: So far, six of the New England Patriots have declined to meet the president, and beloved Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry mockingly described President Trump as an asset — “if you remove the ‘et.’ ”

The “brash business mogul” brand just hasn’t translated well from the campaign trail to leadership of the country. In fact, the move to D.C. seems to have deflated it completely.

Overexposure hasn’t helped. Even under the harsh lights of the campaign, Trump operated under, if not a veil of mystery, at least a level of remove. Watchers certainly saw enough of him to stick in their minds, but the barrage only became unrelenting late in the game.

Today, however, we’re seeing far more of Trump than we would like — and it’s rarely a flattering view. The constant, unnecessary tweets! The manifold White House leaks! The confoundingly public bathrobe discussions! The tweets again!

It’s one thing for a provocateur to make an effort to stay in the public eye: Think of Madonna’s ever-changing looks. But at a certain point — perhaps after the presidency has been achieved, or your 13th studio album — it ceases to impress. Remember when a negative Trump tweet had the power to make a company’s stock drop? His latest swing at Nordstrom did the opposite . Over time consumers have become numb to Trumpisms, or worse, they’ve begun to find them grating.

But there’s another problem more damaging than overexposure: The narrative beneath the Trump brand is crumbling.

A brand is a promise to a customer. On the campaign trail, and throughout his career, Trump built his brand on getting things done that no one else could. Using the element of surprise. Making the best deals. Winning, first and foremost. Improbably, the election bore this story out. But what happens when a brand built on winning starts to lose?

Trump’s first major gambit was his executive order on immigration, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit’s swift ruling against it was an undeniable, and justified, loss. The bluster and bravado of his all-caps response — “SEE YOU IN COURT” — didn’t make that failure any less apparent (in no small part because, well, we did just see him in court, didn’t we?).

While every new administration experiences setbacks, Trump’s unpreparedness and lack of organization clearly contributed to this early defeat and others that have come with it: a lackluster inauguration whose underattendance was only highlighted by flagrant falsehoods about crowd size, a botched raid in Yemen, the resignation of a national security adviser over improper contacts with Russia. These fast-mounting failures set an ominous tone. It’s hard to trust the brand going forward.

But all is not lost. Marketing experts and corporate strategists would soothingly point out that setbacks aren’t necessarily the end of the story. A moment of crisis is an excellent opportunity to pivot — try a brand refresh, if you will. It worked for Burberry in the late ’90s. Why not Trump today?

More here.

Trump’s two-year presidency

Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post:

Good news: In two years, we’ll have a new president. Bad news: If we make it that long.

My “good” prediction is based on the Law of the Pendulum. Enough Americans, including most independent voters, will be so ready to shed Donald Trump and his little shop of horrors that the 2018 midterm elections are all but certain to be a landslide — no, make that a mudslide — sweep of the House and Senate. If Republicans took both houses in a groundswell of the people’s rejection of Obamacare, Democrats will take them back in a tsunami of protest.

Once ensconced, it would take a Democratic majority approximately 30 seconds to begin impeachment proceedings selecting from an accumulating pile of lies, overreach and just plain sloppiness. That is, assuming Trump hasn’t already been shown the exit.

Or that he hasn’t declared martial law (all those anarchists, you know) and effectively silenced dissent. We’re already well on our way to the latter via Trump’s incessant attacks on the media — “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth” — and press secretary Sean Spicer’s rabid-chihuahua, daily press briefings. (Note to Sean: Whatever he’s promised you, it’s not worth becoming Melissa McCarthy’s punching bag. But really, don’t stop.)

With luck, and Cabinet-level courage that is not much in evidence, there’s a chance we won’t have to wait two long years, during which, let’s face it, anything could happen. In anticipation of circumstances warranting a speedier presidential replacement, wiser minds added Section 4 to the 25th Amendment, which removes the president if a majority of the Cabinet and the vice president think it necessary, i.e., if the president is injured or falls too ill to serve. Or, by extension, by being so incompetent — or not-quite-right — that he or she poses a threat to the nation and must be removed immediately and replaced by the vice president.

Aren’t we there, yet?

Thus far, Trump and his henchmen have conducted a full frontal assault on civil liberties, open government and religious freedom, as well as instigating or condoning a cascade of ethics violations ranging from the serious (business conflicts of interest) to the absurd (attacking a department store for dropping his daughter’s fashion line). And, no, it’s not just a father defending his daughter. It’s the president of the United States bullying a particular business and, more generally, making a public case against free enterprise.

To an objective observer, it would seem impossible to defend the perilous absurdities emanating from the White House and from at least one executive agency, the Agriculture Department, which recently scrubbed animal abuse reports from its website, leaving puppies, kittens, horses and others to fend for themselves.

In a hopeful note, a few Republicans are speaking out, but the list is short.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz recently got a taste of what’s ahead for Republican incumbents. Facing an unruly crowd at a town hall meeting in Utah, the House Oversight Committee chairman was booed nearly every time he mentioned Trump. Even if many in the crowd were members of opposition groups, the evening provided a glimpse of the next two years. From 2010’s tea party to 2018’s resistance, the pendulum barely had time to pause before beginning its leftward trek.

Much more here.

Kellyanne Conway Promotes Ivanka Trump Brand, Raising Ethics Concerns

Via The New York Times:

The White House on Thursday “counseled” Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top advisers, in an unusual show of displeasure after she urged consumers to buy fashion products marketed by Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. Legal experts said Ms. Conway might have violated a federal ethics rule against endorsing products or promoting an associate’s financial interests.

“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would say,” Ms. Conway said in a Thursday morning interview with Fox News, speaking from the White House briefing room. “I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody; you can find it online.”

Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, would not elaborate on what the counseling entailed.

Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Ms. Conway’s comments were “wrong, wrong, wrong, and there’s no excuse for it.” Mr. Chaffetz — who so far had not acted on calls since Election Day to investigate ethics issues related to Mr. Trump — and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, formally asked the Office of Government Ethics for an inquiry.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Public Citizen, nonprofit advocacy groups, sent their own requests to the ethics office to investigate whether Ms. Conway’s comments went over the line. The director of the office, Walter M. Shaub Jr., has said publicly that the president needs to do more to separate himself from his businesses.

Federal ethics rules state that an employee of the government’s executive branch cannot use public office for personal gain or to endorse products or services on behalf of friends or relatives. Legal experts said Ms. Conway, whose title is counselor to the president, appeared to have violated that and possibly other conflict-of-interest rules, which do not apply to the president and vice president, but do apply to their staffs.

The president and the Trump Organization continue to be targets of criticism — and formal requests for investigation by Democrats in Congress — over potential conflicts of interest because of their global business operations. A particular focus of Democratic lawmakers in Congress is Mr. Trump’s lease with the federal government on the Old Post Office building in Washington, redeveloped as the Trump International Hotel. The hotel and Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., are among the Trump properties critics see as profiting from a surge in interest because of his presidency.

Much more here.

Early Signs Suggest Trump’s Actions Are Taking a Toll on Trump Brand

Rachel Abrams, writing in the New York Times:

Since the day Donald J. Trump began his presidential campaign, there were questions about how the Trump brand would be affected. Would his stream of insults hurt viewership of “The Apprentice” or sales of Ivanka Trump shoes? Or was all the attention good for business, a marketing adage President Trump could have learned during his time as a reality television star.

The answer may surprise him.

Major companies appear to be re-evaluating their relationships with the Trump brand, which, in some instances, does not appear to have benefited from Mr. Trump’s presidency. Hinting at lackluster sales, Neiman Marcus confirmed on Friday that it had dropped Ivanka Trump’s jewelry line from its website. A day earlier, her brand had disappeared from Nordstrom.com, a move reported by the fashion news site Racked.

Not everyone was happy that retailers were distancing themselves from the Trump name. By Saturday, some Twitter users were posting #BoycottNordstrom.

Companies also seem worried about how protests over the president’s actions, particularly his recent executive order on immigration, could hurt sales.

On Friday, MillerCoors, a brewing company, contacted Shannon Coulter, a founder of GrabYourWallet.org, a campaign pushing for boycotts of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and other businesses associated with the Trump name.

“He wanted to talk about why they were on the list,” she said, adding, “I think all the companies are paying close attention.”

At a time when protests and boycotts can easily be organized online, brands face more pressure to respond to consumer demands.

More here.