What a petty, venal, corrupt and foul thing it is. More media-generated homunculus than man, every day, Donald Trump behaves more and more like the cornered animal desperately trying to save itself by viciously biting in every direction, pulling out every nasty trick that has worked for him before. But now he gnashes his teeth on a global stage so vast that the pettiness of his vindictiveness is unconcealed, cast in a spotlight that diminishes every American.
With last week’s firing of Rex Tillerson and the dismissal of Andrew McCabe as deputy director of the FBI just hours before he was eligible for his pension after 21 years of service, the president once again demonstrated that as the Mueller investigation seems to get closer to a truth he does not want revealed, there is no bottom to the well of deception, posturing, vengefulness—and fear— that motivates his actions. Trump’s is the real witch-hunt.
Yes, it’s important that we soon see the inspector general’s report that was used to justify McCabe’s ouster, but to follow that character assassination Friday night with a Trump tweet celebrating the sacking as “a great day for Democracy” is a cruelly ironic subversion of our founding principles of liberty and justice.
Ironic, too, that this McCabe madness and that first of a new fusillade of dumb and desperate weekend tweets deliberately aimed at undermining Mueller’s probe should come down on the very day we marked the contributions of two politicians who dedicated their lives not to avarice and self-aggrandizement but to public service.
March 16 was the 50th anniversary of the day Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was a controversial decision; as the Vietnam conflict raged on, Gene McCarthy had emerged as the leading antiwar Democrat challenging Lyndon Johnson’s re-election and Kennedy was accused of opportunism, of using McCarthy’s bid to test the waters for his own race.
Those old enough to recall 1968 remember it as a year like no other. The campaign for the White House was a cauldron of roiling drama and crisis. Kennedy was not running solely on his charisma and the family name; nor was he a one-issue candidate. He spoke out in opposition to the Vietnam War but consistently and passionately against poverty and social injustice as well. Here’s a little of what Kennedy said in a speech just two days after he declared he was running:
“… The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
“It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
“And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Try to imagine Donald Trump or his pals saying any of that and you’ll realize just how far our republic has fallen. Right after you recover from a fit of bitter laughter.
Friday also was the day we lost Rep. Louise Slaughter, the western New York congresswoman who was the oldest sitting member of the House. She served for nearly 32 years.
Here’s how Harrison Smith in The Washington Post described her: “The daughter of a blacksmith in a Kentucky coal mine, Rep. Slaughter traced her lineage to Daniel Boone and attacked her political opponents with a marksman’s accuracy and, not infrequently, a disarming grin.”
She was a microbiologist who moved to New York State with her husband in the 1950s. A local fight over a stand of beech-maple trees drew her to elected office, serving in county and state legislatures and then Congress. Slaughter was the first woman to chair the powerful House Rules Committee. She co-sponsored the 1994 Violence against Women Act, defended the right to choose, fought to get the Senate to hear Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court, co-chaired the Congressional Arts Caucus and wrote the STOCK Act to bar members of Congress from insider trading.
I was proud to be her friend. Louise Slaughter and I sat next to each other at a dinner in Rochester, NY, eight years ago and bonded over politics and a shared love for the song lyrics of Johnny Mercer. We would talk on the phone from time to time and the day she died I found a recent voicemail in which she cheerfully chatted about being up to her neck in work and pushing back against the unending Republican attempts to kill Obamacare, a bill she had helped advance through the House.
Both Louise Slaughter and Bobby Kennedy represented New York State on Capitol Hill but their concern was for the whole nation. They shared a commitment to compassion, fairness and equal rights that transcended payoffs, privilege and bullying egos. They recognized that country and citizenship should come first and that elections are supposed to be about being chosen to speak for the best interests of the people.
There’s speculation that the latest Trump rant was set off by special counsel Mueller’s subpoena of Trump corporate records and an initial list of questions he has submitted for the president to answer. They doubtless are just the beginning of queries intended to determine whether our chief executive has obstructed justice or colluded with Russia in election tampering, whether he chose profit and self-interest over patriotism and loyalty.
Compare Trump to Kennedy and Slaughter and it makes you want to weep. And then pray.
Meet Trump’s Pro-Dwarf Tossing Judge
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.”
Trump’s First Building to be Torn Down
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.
Inside Sex Tapes, Power the Kremlin and Trump: Nastya Rybka case
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.”