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A Washington storm is turning around stunning reports that Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency put a bounty on the heads of US and UK troops in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, citing unnamed officials, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were briefed about the affair, but did nothing about it.
Trump denied that he was briefed about the bounty scheme, but given past behavior, it’s hard to take this White House’s word on anything. Could warnings about the Russian-Taliban tie-up have been included in the presidential daily brief, which contains the US government’s mostly highly classified secrets, and simply been missed or ignored?
Trump spurns written briefings, according to multiple reports, now corroborated by former national security adviser John Bolton. He also has previously refused to take stands that embarrass Russian President Vladimir Putin, even appearing to advance Russia’s interests, as in the US exit from Syria, feuds with NATO members, dismissal of Moscow’s election meddling and push to get Russia back in the G7.
All intelligence intrigues should be treated with circumspection. The motives of those in and around the intelligence services — people who make a living from deception — are even more impenetrable than the usual Washington operatives. But the revelation raises questions about what exactly is going on in Russia: Was this signed off by Putin? After the US armed Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s, it’s not inconceivable that then-young Soviet military intelligence officers humiliated by their exit from the country now have influence at the top of the GRU. And revenge is a dish best served cold.
‘You can’t always get what you want’
The Rolling Stones are threatening legal action against Trump’s campaign for using their music at his campaign rallies — particularly their 1968 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a favored walk-off song at the conclusion of Trump’s campaign rallies. “Despite cease & desist directives to Donald Trump in the past, The Rolling Stones are taking further steps to exclude him using their songs at any of his future political campaigning,” a spokesman for the band said.
What progress looks like
Even by the post-Orwellian standards of this White House, Pence’s statement was staggering.
“Under the leadership of President Trump, we have made truly remarkable progress in moving our nation forward,” Pence said Friday, in the latest “Mission Accomplished” moment of the pandemic. “We slowed the spread. We flattened the curve. We saved lives.”
Here’s what happened next: On the same day that Pence made his claim, the US set a record for new confirmed coronavirus infections in 24 hours: 40,173. Saturday was worse, with 42,597 more Americans diagnosed. The pandemic is raging in key population centers in southern states that heeded the President’s demands for a rapid reopening. And Texas and Florida are pausing reopenings and closing bars where young people — increasing numbers of whom are infected — congregate.
The curve hasn’t been flattened. It’s going sharply up, even as America’s key competitors, like the European Union, have been more successful in suppressing the virus. The administration is spinning the younger ages of the infected as good news, as the young tend to get less sick. But wait until they go home and infect parents and grandparents.
Given the rising crisis, you might expect Trump to have spent the weekend chairing crisis meetings. Just the reverse. He played golf twice, and vowed to defend a statue of former President Andrew Jackson. He then retweeted, and later deleted, a video in which one of his supporters chanted “white power.” It was an apt metaphor for a presidency that refuses to take obvious steps to slow the disease — like model the wearing of masks or encourage business closures — as thousands more Americans fall ill and die.
Trump on Sunday morning retweeted a video showing an argument between his supporters and critics at the Villages retirement community in Florida — during which a man driving a golf cart adorned with Trump campaign posters can also be heard chanting “white power.”
The President was grateful, writing, “Thank you to the great people of The Villages. The Radical Left Do Nothing Democrats will Fall in the Fall. Corrupt Joe is shot. See you soon!!” he wrote in the tweet. Within three hours, his tweet was deleted — but not before South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only Black senator in the Republican conference, described it as “indefensible.” According to White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere, Trump just didn’t hear the part about white power.
Spot the difference
Masking up to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is broadly endorsed in the US — except by Trump, who recently described facial coverings as a “double-edged sword” hygiene-wise in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. But many members of his party and friends abroad have already adopted masks, and would like him to fall in line already. “It would help if from time to time the President would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate that says if you’re for Trump, you don’t wear a mask, if you’re against Trump, you do,” said Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander over the weekend.
Meanwhile producer Shelby Rose has found a few examples to underline Alexander’s point — from fellow Republicans wearing masks, to heads of state that Trump admires wearing masks, to leaders on both the global left and right wearing masks. At the very least, the staffers frantically working to keep the 74-year-old Trump from exposure to the virus would surely appreciate him wearing one.