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Why the Trump-Bannon Feud Will Destroy the White House

Jules Witcover

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The dramatic breakup between Donald Trump and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has blown wide open the political direction of the Trump presidency at a particularly inopportune time.

It comes just as Trump is frantically seeking to stabilize a presidency besieged by internal chaos and to cope with his own Justice Department’s investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian agents meddling in the 2016 election.

The president already has his hands full trying to discredit that probe, and by association Special Counsel Robert Mueller, even as Trump insists he has no intention of firing him. He also has now he has turned against Bannon, his onetime guru.

The catalyst for this bizarre bombshell is a soon-to-be-released insider book on Trump and his administration by free-lance writer Michael Wolff. In it, Bannon is said to have described Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian officials at Trump Tower in 2016 as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” — among other explosive contentions.

In reply to derogatory remarks Bannon made about Trump family members, the president contended that Bannon’s role in his campaign and first months of his administration were overblown. Of his old close adviser he tweeted, “When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he has lost his mind.” Bannon, he said, had “very little to do with our historic victory.” Trump also instructed his lawyers to send Bannon and Wolff cease-and-desist letters, citing an alleged breach of a nondisclosure agreement Bannon has supposedly signed.

It’s clear now that Bannon has become another cross for the president to bear among an accumulating list of critics in and out of his Republican Party. After being fired by Trump, Bannon returned to his old job running the alt-right Breitbart News website, which formerly was a conspicuous cheerleader for the president. But now it but has become a vehicle for Bannon’s own political ambitions, including clashes with the Republican Party establishment and national committee that he appears to be targeting for a takeover.

Beyond revealing the breakup itself, Wolff’s book provides a stinging insight into what some White House insiders thought of the president. One fired campaign aide, Sam Nunberg, is quoted as saying he was assigned to tutor Trump on the Constitution. “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment,” he said, “before … his eyes are rolling back in his head.” Bannon himself is said to have commented that Trump’s daughter Ivanka was “dumb as a brick.”

Also, a former deputy chief of staff, Katie Walsh, is quoted as saying that trying to deal with the president was “like trying to figure out what a child wants” — an observation she later denied having made.

Wolff also reports Walsh says she was obliged to respond to three different Trump power centers: Reince Priebus, the first chief of staff, Bannon and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“For Walsh,” Wolff writes, “it was a daily process of managing an impossible task: almost as soon as she received direction from one of the three men, she would be countermanded by one of another of them.”

It was no wonder the Trump White House came off from the outside as a confused madhouse, with a president constantly getting mixed messages and making decisions as an ill-informed neophyte would-be politician.

Whether all the disclosures Wolff has reported are accurate or not, taken together they constitute more tasty morsels for both the conventional news media and the social media platforms Trump himself so favors.

As a new year gets started, there are already more than enough reasons to worry about the state of the union in the era of Donald J. Trump and his merry band of confusion-spinners.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power.” Send email to juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Jules Witcover is a veteran political columnist going back to his days as one of The Boys on the Bus. His thrice-weekly column combines 65 years of reporting and institutional memory in assessing current events against the background of witnessed history. He is the author of 14 books and co-author of five on American politics and history. The latest is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.

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Trump

Meet Trump’s Pro-Dwarf Tossing Judge

Polipace Staff

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Donald Trump has nominated Neomi Rao to replace Brett Kavanaugh on the Court of Appeals in the DC Circuit. The announcement prompted a notable spike in online talk about dwarf-tossing—that’s right, the practice of throwing little people like a shot-put.

Dwarf-tossing has been banned in some US states and parts of France for offending human dignity, and a Nov. 16 post on Mother Jones by Stephanie Mencimer called Rao a “staunch defender” of this pastime: “Rao considers these laws an affront to individual liberty that fails to recognize the right of the dwarf to be tossed,” Mencimer writes.

Rao, currently administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote about the controversial “sport” repeatedly while she was a professor at George Mason University law school. Her writings offer “a pretty good indication of where [Rao] will come down as a judge, not just on dwarf-tossing bans, but on some of the nation’s most contentious issues,” including same-sex marriage, says Mencimer. By reading Rao on dwarf-tossing, we can predict that she will be preoccupied with “all the conservative bugaboos.”

Conservative and liberal commentators seem to agree that Rao’s dwarf-tossing arguments illuminate her worldview and judicial philosophy. But not everyone agrees on whether Rao’s position is defensible or being genuinely represented by the press. For example, R Street Institute policy fellow Shoshana Weissmann in Reason on Nov. 26 noted, “If you only read about Rao’s work in Mother Jones…you might have thought that Rao simply has a niche affinity for dwarf tossing.”

In pieces reviewed by BuzzFeed News that Rao wrote between 1994 and 1996 — she graduated from Yale University in 1995 — she described race as a “hot, money-making issue,” affirmative action as the “anointed dragon of liberal excess,” welfare as being “for the indigent and lazy,” and LGBT issues as part of “trendy” political movements. On date rape, Rao wrote that if a woman “drinks to the point where she can no longer choose, well, getting to that point was part of her choice.”

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Trump

Trump’s First Building to be Torn Down

Polipace Staff

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The building that helped Donald Trump make a name for himself in his first big deal in Manhattan is being sold to developers who plan to tear it down.

Developer TF Cornerstone said Thursday that it and a group managing billionaire Michael Dell’s money have agreed to buy the Grand Hyatt New York next to Grand Central Terminal and replace it with a mixed-used tower that will include office and retail space and a smaller hotel.

Trump partnered with the Hyatt Corp. to buy what was then the Commodore Hotel in the late 1970s in his first splash in Manhattan real estate. He refurbished it into a sleek glass tower and used its success as a stepping stone to his next big gamble a few years later, the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue.

Trump sold his stake in the Grand Hyatt in 1996.

Neither the White House nor the Trump Organization responded to requests for comment.

When Trump struck a deal to buy the Commodore from the bankrupt Penn Central Corp., the city itself was on the verge of bankruptcy and most other developers were not interested.

As Trump tells it, he realized there was something special about the Commodore after a walk by the hotel early one morning.

“The lobby was so dingy it looked like a welfare hotel,” he wrote in “The Art of the Deal,” but then his eye caught a hopeful sign. “There were thousands of well-dressed Connecticut and Westchester commuters flooding onto the streets from Grand Central Terminal and the subway stations below. The city was on the verge of bankruptcy, but what I saw was a superb location.”

Eager to make his mark in Manhattan, Trump took the plunge, using guaranteed loans from his father and generous tax abatements from the city.

Within a few years, he transformed the tired, old Commodore into a gleaming, reflective-glass tower. His timing was near perfect, too. He opened the hotel just before the start of 1980s boom and was soon able to rent rooms for as much as $1,100 a night.

In the latest deal, the new building will cover 2 million square feet and include a new Grand Hyatt with 500 rooms. The current hotel has 1,298 rooms.

The deal still requires local and state approval. The land under the Grand Hyatt is owned by the Empire State Development Corp., the state’s business-development arm.

TF Cornerstone’s partner in the deal is MSD Partners, which invests assets owned by Dell and his family. Dell is the founder of Dell Technologies and is estimated by Forbes to be worth $34 billion.

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International

Inside Sex Tapes, Power the Kremlin and Trump: Nastya Rybka case

Polipace Staff

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With bee-stung lips, Nastya Rybka addressed her approximately 130,000 followers in a short Instagram video. The 23-year-old Belarusian said she was ill, which was why she had not attended the press conference last Wednesday. She said she needed rest and would soon “tell everything.” Smiling, she thanked Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who had campaigned for her release from custody in Moscow.

This seems unusual enough; after all, this is a woman from the escort business who was imprisoned in Thailand, accused of illegal prostitution. In Russia she could face a prison sentence of up to six years. But Lukashenko’s assistance is only one piece of the puzzle in this heady mix of sex, power and politics.

Rybka (“little fish” in English) is a nickname Russian men give their loved ones. The young woman who  calls herself that is actually Anastasia Vashukevich, a colorful figure in a political thriller that has been going on for about a year.

The repercussions reach from Moscow to Bangkok to Washington. At its core, it’s about Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch and aluminum king, and speculation as to whether he might have been one of the secret intermediaries between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 US presidential election. Vashukevich played a role that evidently became too much for her at some point.

Vashukevich owes her fame in Russia and beyond to her craving for admiration, Instagram, and opposition politician Alexei Navalny. With her help, Navalny came across one of his most explosive revelations. In February 2018, Navalny presented a 25-minute investigative film on his web channels. He explained that he originally wanted to find out who was behind a 2017 campaign in which young women dressed as sex slaves stormed his office in Moscow. Vashukevich took part in the group’s other similarly provocative campaigns, for example, when several nearly naked girls showed solidarity with US film producer Harvey Weinstein by demonstrating in front of the US Embassy in Moscow.

In a talk show on Russian television, Vashukevich described herself as a “professional man hunter,” and said that she had had relationships with six billionaires, describing one of them in a book to demonstrate the maxim: “This is how you catch a billionaire.” Navalny in some instances compared very intimate descriptions of a yacht trip from this book with real photos from Rybka’s Instagram profile, where she presented herself with the oligarch Deripaska. Navalny’s conclusion was that the anonymous oligarch from the book is Deripaska.

The most controversial discovery in Rybka’s Instagram profile was a video supposedly taken in Norway in August 2016. It shows Deripaska and a man closely resembling top Kremlin official Sergey Prichodko on a yacht. Prichodko operates in the background politically, his main focus being foreign policy. An excerpt from a conversation about Russian-American relations can be heard.

Navalny speculated that this was the missing secret link between the Kremlin and the Trump team, which both sides have so far denied. According to US media reports, Deripaska was a business partner of Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager. Manafort allegedly owed Deripaska money and indirectly offered him “private briefings.” There is no evidence that the oligarch received and accepted this offer. Nor has there been any confirmation of Navalny’s suspicions, not even from US Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Deripaska described this as a smear campaign and sued Vashukevich and a certain Alexander Kirillov for damages in a Russian court for circulating details of his private life. Kirillov is also a native Belarusian, who likes to present himself as a “sex coach” and operates as Rybka’s “patron.” His exact role in this case is unclear.

No new revelations?

Vashukevich later fueled speculation by claiming she had explosive information about the US elections. In February 2018, shortly after Navalny’s revelations, she was arrested in Thailand, together with Kirillov, for conducting “sex training for Russian tourists,” as it was described by the Russian media. Both begged US media and authorities for help, but Washington did not get involved. Russian media reported, quoting sources from Vashukevich’s circle of acquaintances, that FBI agents questioned her during her detention in Thailand, but she said she “told them nothing.”

After nine months in prison, Vashukevich and Kirillov were deported in mid-February and flown to Moscow. Vashukevich allegedly wanted to fly on to Minsk in her native Belarus but was arrested and spent several days in Russian custody. She is accused of enticing at least two women into prostitution. She denies everything and was released from custody on Tuesday, but the charges remain.

In a Moscow court, Vashukevich asked journalists to pass on her apology to Deripaska and Prichodko. “I’m sorry that everything came to this.” Some see the investigation against her as Deripaska’s revenge. Others speculate that she filmed the oligarch on his yacht with the consent of the Russian secret services. Vashukevich told the court that Deripaska should “settle down.” The exhausted-looking woman promised no new revelations: “I’ve had enough.”

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