Things that make you go hmmmm
October 19, 2018

At a rally in Montana on Thursday night, President Trump trotted out a confusing new theory about a group of Honduran migrants trying to head to the U.S., currently stalled in Guatemala: The Democrats sent them. Why would Democrats try to lure some 3,000 Honduran citizens up to the U.S. right before an election that Trump is increasingly trying to make a referendum on illegal immigration? They "figure everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat," Trump said, rallying for the Republican Senate candidate challenging Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Noncitizens can't vote in U.S. elections, of course, but Trump let that slide. "A lot of money's been passing through people to come up and try to get to the border by Election Day because they think that's a negative for us," Trump said. "They wanted that caravan and there are those that say that caravan didn't just happen. It didn't just happen."

The president appears to be referring to a video posted on Twitter first by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) then by Trump of a man passing out what appears to be money to a group of women, the theory — as explained by Newt Gingrich — being that somebody is paying Hondurans to migrate to America for some unexplained reason. Gaetz later explained: "This video was provided to me by a Honduran government official. Thus, I believed it to be from Honduras."

Trump is so concerned about 3,000 Hondurans trying to make their way to the U.S. border that he threatened on Thursday to "call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!" Peter Weber

September 26, 2018

President Trump held a rare solo press conference Wednesday, where he said that "fake" sexual misconduct allegations against him have shaped his view of accusations regarding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

"I've been accused," said Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 10 women, saying that "false charges" have "absolutely" affected his sympathy toward Kavanaugh. Three women have accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct.

Trump complained that The New York Times published a story with allegations from "four or five women" who he says were "paid a lot of money to make up stories about me." If you want the real story, said Trump, check with Fox News or host Sean Hannity. MSNBC's Chris Hayes called the theory "Alex Jones-level stuff," akin to the conspiracy theories on Jones' Infowars. "People want fame," said Trump of the accusers. "They want money."

When pressed by the reporter, CBS News' Weijia Jiang, who pointed out that he hadn't allowed her to get to her question, Trump said "you've been asking a question for 10 minutes. Please sit down." Watch the moment below, via Fox News. Summer Meza

September 19, 2018

As President Trump was leaving a Sept. 12 Congressional Medal of Honor Society event in the White House, Epoch Times photojournalist Samira Bouaou broke protocol by entering a restricted area and handing Trump a purple folder. "Trump accepted the folder and appeared to open it briefly as he departed before quickly shutting it," The Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing several news photographers who witnessed the event. "It was not clear what was inside the folder. Photographers who asked Bouaou afterward why she did it and what the folder contained said she declined to provide details."

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has discussed Bouaou's folder situation with the White House Correspondents' Association executive board, and the White House has reviewed the incident, but nobody will say anything about it on the record. One White House official told the Post that the matter has been "dealt with." Bouaou, who had recently received a Secret Service pass to attend White House briefings and other events, has not been seen at the White House since the encounter, other photographers say.

The Epoch Times, launched in New York in 2000 by a group of Chinese Americans, is believed to have close ties to the Falun Gong spiritual group, an affiliation the newspaper denies. Falun Gong and the Epoch Times are both banned in China. Ming Xia, a political science professor at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, tells the Post that the newspaper's part-time journalists "support the Falun Gong because they are Falun Gong practitioners. ... They are not professional journalists and they do not follow the protocols professional journalists abide by. That's how they can be very pushy and aggressive." Xia said the Falun Gong is eager to exploit Trump's hardline stance on Beijing. Peter Weber

August 31, 2018

If you are a reader of President Trump's Twitter feed or a viewer of Sean Hannity's Fox News show, you will know their names: Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok, and now Trump's newest bête noire, Bruce Ohr. "How the hell is Bruce Ohr still employed at the Justice Department?" Trump tweeted on Wednesday. "Disgraceful! Witch Hunt!" It turns out, Natasha Bertrand reports at The Atlantic, these (mostly) former FBI and Justice Department officials all have "extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia."

Ohr is a "career Justice Department official who spent years investigating Russian organized crime and corruption," and Trump's escalating attacks on him (and his wife) could fairly "be interpreted as an attack on someone with deep knowledge of the shady characters Trump and his cohort have been linked to," Bertrand says, including Russian magnate Oleg Deripaska, whom Ohr was instrumental in banning from the U.S. in 2006 "due to his alleged ties to organized crime and fear that he would try to launder money into American real estate."

McCabe, who Trump's FBI fired in March, "spent more than a decade investigating Russian organized crime and served as a supervisory special agent of a task force that scrutinized Eurasian crime syndicates," Bertrand reports. Page, who resigned from the FBI in May after her private text messages with Strzok were made public, was "a trial attorney in the Justice Department's organized-crime section whose cases centered on international organized crime and money laundering," and Strzok, fired earlier this month, was "a Russian counterintelligence expert."

Trump "throwing U.S. intelligence officials under the bus, has, conveniently for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, persisted in making a spectacle of some of the Kremlin's biggest adversaries in the U.S. government," Bertrand says. You can read more about Trump's domestic targets and documented ties to Russian mobsters and oligarchs at The Atlantic. Peter Weber

August 22, 2018

Forget for a moment that President Trump is using his Twitter platform to highlight the struggles of white farmers in South Africa ("Translation: Make Apartheid Great Again #MAGA," as one wag on Twitter put it), and marvel that the president of the United States asked the U.S. secretary of state on Wednesday night to devote his energies to investigating something he saw on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show.

Trump could have called up Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and asked him about South African farm policy in private, of course, or asked the CIA or U.S. AID or any number of agencies that report to him if Carlson's segment was accurate and, if so, what the U.S. is already doing about it. And he might have done that, too, theoretically. But probably not.

"Will Trump try anything in the foreign policy realm to distract from his legal woes?" Daniel Drezner asked at The Washington Post on Wednesday morning, explaining why "wag the dog" tactics are rarely used by normal presidents. "Trump being an anomalous type of leader would probably mean more anomalous types of diversionary foreign policy," he said, suggesting that Trump might try to change the conversation away from Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort's federal criminal convictions with "a ratcheting up of the trade wars with our European allies, more summitry with enduring rival heads of state, and a further pushing of foreign policies that polarize at home." So far, no jacked-up tariffs on Britain or summit with Iran's Ali Khamenei, but Drezner can at least check "white nationalist talking points about 'white genocide'" off his list. Peter Weber

August 17, 2018

President Trump has a list of current and former intelligence and law enforcement officials he's apparently excited to strip of their security clearances, all of them critics of his actions and all of them, not coincidentally, involved in the investigation of Russian election tampering and possible collusion by the Trump campaign. Not on the list is his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who has pleaded guilty to federal charges of lying to investigators and is cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Trump-Russia investigation. Yes, Flynn, it appears, still has his security clearance.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is among those who doesn't think that's a great idea. "I've always liked Gen. Flynn but he's now pleaded guilty to a federal offense," he told reporters on Thursday. "I think he should lose his security clearance." At the same time, Graham appeared unconcerned with Trump's actions against Brennan, who led the CIA for four years — "I can't imagine sharing anything with Brennan given his hatred toward President Trump — I don't think he'd have any constructive input" — and said he's concerned about two former FBI agents, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, still having security clearances.

The reaction to Trump's use of security clearance access against critics has fallen largely along party lines, with former intelligence officials agreeing with Democrats that this is an authoritarian-style effort to stifle dissent and Republicans shrugging or cheering. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), for example, called Brennan "a butthead" and said he doesn't "see why he would need a security clearance, I really don't." When Trump was floating the idea in July, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was incredulous the idea was even explored, telling MSNBC that "when you're going to start taking retribution against people who are your political enemies in this manner, that's the kind of thing that happens in Venezuela. ... I mean, it's a banana republic kind of thing." Peter Weber

July 5, 2018

Seven Republican senators and one GOP congresswoman have been in Russia, meeting with Russian officials, since June 30. On Tuesday, they sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow. "We come here realizing that we have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told Lavrov. "We are competitors, but we don't necessarily need to be adversaries." Shelby added that he hopes the July 16 summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin "will be the beginning, maybe, of a new day."

Oddly, the Republican lawmakers were extending an olive branch to Russia on the same day the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee released a report accusing the Kremlin of working during the 2016 election to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Trump win. Most of the senators, scheduled to return July 5, posted patriotic Fourth of July images to their Twitter accounts Wednesday — Shelby, John Kennedy (R-La.), John Thune (R-S.D.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) — with no mention of where they were spending America's Independence Day. But Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) posted three photos of him and his wife in Washington, proclaiming it a "treat to be in DC to celebrate the 4th and watch some great fireworks!"

Several people noticed this "really weird" discrepancy, and producer Robert Schooley proposed two explanations:

It's probably the former, but the whole thing is pretty strange. Peter Weber

Update July 5, 3:30 p.m.: Business Insider has confirmed that it was indeed the former: "Daines departed Russia earlier than his colleagues and returned to Washington before trekking back to his home state of Montana, where Trump is holding a campaign rally [Thursday] night. An aide to Daines confirmed the trip details to Business Insider." Mystery solved!

May 29, 2018

On Sunday, China gave final approval to a 13th trademark in three months for White House official and first daughter Ivanka Trump's lifestyle brand, including seven trademarks awarded in May alone. "Taken together," The Associated Press reports, "the trademarks could allow her brand to market a lifetime's worth of products in China, from baby blankets to coffins, and a host of things in between." They also raise thorny conflict-of-interest questions.

For example, China approved five of Ivanka Trump's long-sought, potentially lucrative trademarks six days before President Trump announced his surprise decision to work with Chinese President Xi Jinping to rescue Chinese telecom ZTE, which was fined $1.2 billion by the Commerce Department and barred from using U.S. parts for violating U.S. trade sanctions against Iran and North Korea. (The military, U.S. intelligence community, and a bipartisan majority in Congress also say ZTE poses a national security threat because its phones could be used for spying.) On May 21, China awarded Ivanka Trump two more trademarks, and four days later, Trump announced he had made a deal to keep ZTE open and allow it to buy U.S. parts again.

"Coincidence?" asks Sui-Lee Wee at The New York Times. "Well, probably." Trump's company — which she has taken a break from leading but still profits from — said there was nothing improper in seeking to protect the brand in China, and experts said China approved the trademarks in roughly a normal period of time. Interestingly, AP notes, "Ivanka Trump does not have a large retail presence in China, but customs records show that the bulk of her company's U.S. imports are shipped from China." Still, with the constant confluence of family business and U.S. policy in Trump's presidency it's hard to tell if countries see rewarding his daughter's company "as a way to curry favor" or "requests they cannot refuse," say Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer and CREW's Norman Eisen. Peter Weber

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