Trump And Putin, Barr And Mueller

*So how does President Trump spend an hour and a half on the phone with Vladimir Putin, and the subject of future Russian interference in our elections never comes up? Only if your sovereign counterpart is also your handler. But they did broach the subject of the “Russian hoax.” No wonder Putin “sort of smiled,” however inexplicably, over the phone. The joke’s on us.

* “Mueller, Mueller… .” It sounds like a line from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” But there’s nothing funny in needing Bob Mueller to step up and publicly put his report into non-William Barr, agenda-driven language. It’s past Mueller Time, and America needs him to re-capture and re-affirm his report’s conclusions. In short, its “context, nature and substance.” 

* Another untimely, unforced error by the Dems. This time it was Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen of the House Judiciary Committee trying to heap ridicule on William Barr for his no-show at the committee’s hearing. Barr, in effect, was “chickening” out because he didn’t want to face questions from staff attorneys. An empty chair with a nameplate should have been sufficient optics. But not for Cohen, who proceeded to re-focus attention from Barr’s lack of cooperation. First, he munched on Kentucky Fried Chicken on the dais as press cameras clicked. He looked stupid. Then he doubled down by placing a ceramic chicken on the table at which Barr would have sat. It was so dumb that “Saturday Night Live” passed on it for its cold opening, and that’s saying a lot.

* The latest D.C. oxymoron: “the Honorable William Barr.”

* First the good news: The (Democratic-controlled) House has approved a bill that would prevent President Trump from fulfilling his pledge to formally withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. It would also affirm that the U.S. will honor its commitments under the global accord. The bad news: No way does it move forward in the (Republican-controlled) Senate. The consoling news: Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is on the case as chairwoman of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “This is just the start of climate action in this Congress,” vows Castor. You go, KC.

* A lot of Democrats are making the case that while it’s urgent to replace Trump, it’s not smart to make him the singular focus of the 2020 campaign. It has to be about principles and game-changing programs. It’s also a jab at Joe Biden, who is a moderate septuagenarian with across-the-aisle bona fides. That’s utterly understandable if these were remotely normal times. They’re manifestly not. The overriding priority has to be the removal of Trump, who remains an existential threat–not just an off-putting, opposition occupant of the Oval Office.

How to prioritize the electoral ouster of Trump? Think Hitler and Kim–or Rev. Jim Jones and Charles Manson. Nothing less than the removal of an authoritarian, pervertedly charismatic cult figure who literally embodies a movement is required. Then we can talk policies and plans and business, however cantankerous, as usual.

* Here’s hoping that Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado doesn’t become the Democratic nominee. Can you imagine the “fake news” and journalistic “collusion” Trump push-back on a candidate whose younger brother is the editorial page editor of the New York Times? While Jim Bennet has already recused himself from weighing in on the upcoming election, that won’t matter to those in bed with Fox.

* Too bad Trump can’t reprioritize a big chunk of the money he wants for his wall into the immigration court system.

* On his way to the Big House, erstwhile Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen took a parting shot at the occupant of the White House. “I hope that when I rejoin my family and friends, this country will be in a place without xenophobia, injustice and lies at the helm of our country.”

* Yes, there’s enough of Trump every news cycle to cause despair. But we shouldn’t forget; we still outnumber them, even if we don’t out-decibel them. Remember that Republicans have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections–and Trump was not the exception. The Republicans–and Trump–can’t win without Democratic compliance: sheer laziness and/or ideological stubbornness.

Primary Politics

* It’s still weird that Sen. Bernie Sanders, stoked for another run at the Democratic presidential nomination, still can’t actually call himself a “Democrat.”

* We all know the pragmatic reality: If the Democrats had a sure-fire, baggage-free, kick-ass candidate who could go after Trump as well as rally all Dem troops for the progressive cause, we wouldn’t have nearly two dozen, formally-declared candidates.

* But say this forCaliforniaSen. Kamala Harris: She made good use of her Senate Judiciary Committee forum in her questioning of Attorney General William Barr. Most senators come equipped with staff-prepared queries. But staff can’t prepare ad hoc follow-ups, which she is really good at. Her prosecutorial chops were more than a match for Trump-surrogate Barr, who seemed more DOJ grunt than grandee. Presidential candidate Harris’ persistent probing–OK, “performance”–does make you fantasize how she would handle the pompous, sophomorically-spoken, detail-challenged Trump one on one.  

Sunshine State Shade

* On balance, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been much better than expected by Democrats who knew they were getting a governor vetted in the Fox News green room. And not being Rick Scott, however subterranean that bar is, was a decided plus. But his de facto victory speech after the 2019 legislative session ended, was disappointingly disingenuous. He portrayed the session, which was an homage to the right-wing agenda (from school vouchers and armed teachers to “sanctuary city” bans, free-market health care reforms, a certain rural toll road and Amendment 4 retreat), as a win for both sides. As if.

“There’s really something in here, I think, for everybody, in one way or another, so that’s a good thing,” declared DeSantis. “There are great wins for conservatives, but there’s also, with the environmental stuff, that appeals to a lot of Democrats.” As if “environmental stuff”–and, BTW, whatever happened to enough Florida Forever money to really matter?–was purely the purview of Dems. As if this wasn’t everybody’s “environment.” As if this wasn’t business as usual–even without Scott.

* When it comes to legislation about distracted driving and voting rights for ex-felons, not nearly enough is made of this obvious rationale: It doesn’t just impact texting drivers and former felons. It impacts ALL of us. Those who, otherwise, have to run the risk of being on the road with drivers who menace the rest of us. Those who have to live in a society where former felons remain second-class citizens with predictably disturbing recidivism rates. Talk about a vested interest.

* As we know, the residents of Panama City Beach and Bay County still await federal help after the devastating hit by Category 5 Hurricane Michael last summer. This is the longest delay in memory–even though President Donald Trump inspected damage last fall and has scheduled a (swing state) return trip for this week.

“We’re not a community that has ever asked for handouts,” said Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts. “The one time that we need Washington to step up to the plate, they’re really failing the Panhandle.”

One ironic postscript: In 2016, Trump carried Bay County by more than 70 percent. Karma, anyone?

Tampa Takeaways

* Tampa has always been diverse, and now it’s on a downtown, revitalizing roll. How symbolic that our new mayor, Jane Castor, is the first gay woman to serve as mayor of a major city in the Southeast, and her inauguration was held at the Armature Works, emblematic of the new waterfront vibe and the resurgent Tampa Heights community.

* If we’re talking about signs after an election, it’s usually in the form of complaints about how too many, winners and losers, are still up there–some way beyond the legal grace period. Here’s a different scenario: the prominent sign on North Dale Mabry in front of the “TK” civil-trial law offices of Trentalange & Kelley. It arguably, alas, speaks for a lot of voters: “Shame on You, David Straz.”

Sports Shorts

* Word out of Philadelphia is that Phillies fans are still Phillies fans. Bryce Harper, who signed an obscene, 9-figure contract in the off-season is hearing his share of boos for not playing better. But it comes with the territory. Ask Mike Schmidt. He’s a 12-time All-Star and Hall of Fame third baseman with more than 500 home runs, plus three National League MVPs and 10 Golden Gloves. He also bore the brunt of lots of hometown boos. I was there for some of them. The fans–as well as the media–always wanted more.

Of the love/hate paradox, Schmidt famously once said: “Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.” It is what it is, Bryce.

But they don’t just boo their own. Ask Joe Maddon. When the Rays were in Philly for the 2008 World Series, his family had to watch the last two games from a hotel because the fans were so vulgar and threatening at the park. It is what it is.

* It’s hard to see some of those Lightning flags still flying around neighborhoods. It comes from a good, loyal-fan place, but it’s a graphic, depressing reminder of all that should not have happened.

* The Rays just made the cover of Sports Illustrated. “The Amazing Rays” was the article headline. No, it won’t affect attendance, but it’s a nice, national shout-out about what the low-budget Rays are accomplishing by being smart and creative.

Quoteworthy

* “Step up to stamp out anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, persecution of Christians and all other forms of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and incitement.”–What U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres demanded of the world.

* “More (U.S.) saber-rattling would weaken the broad regional coalition that supports a return of democracy to Venezuela. And six decades of a failed trade embargo has shown that such pressure, though it may garner some votes and bring in campaign donations in South Florida, has little effect on the Cuban regime and serves only to diminish the United States’ standing in Latin America and elsewhere.”–Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

* “China is set on an implacable course to run the world in the second half of this century.”–Roger Cohen, New York Times.

* “The whole idea behind the notion that a sitting president cannot be indicted is that the responsibility lies in Congress.”–Georgetown law professor Neal K. Katyal, former acting solicitor director in the Obama Administration.

* “The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress of the United States. That’s a crime.”–House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

* “Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them. … Often, proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing. I think that’s at least part of what we’ve seen with Bill Barr and Rod Rosenstein. Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump, and that adds up to something they will never recover from. … Mr. Trump eats your soul in small bites.”–Former FBI Director James Comey.

* “I’m living rent free inside of Donald Trump’s brain, and it’s not a very nice place to be, I can tell you that.”–Hillary Clinton.

* “Even if we should get a Democratic president and retain a Democratic House, if Mitch McConnell stays the majority leader, nothing will get done.”–Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.

* “What accounts for the extremes in U.S. healthcare spending? At every single turn, the U.S. healthcare system is designed to limit choice and gouge the consumer.”–Jonathan Tepper, the American Conservative.

* “Experts know the plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t data.”–Dr. Michael Segal, neurologist and neuroscientist.

* “I don’t think we ever would have tried what we did this year under the old Supreme Court, because we know it would have gone right into the  ditch.”–State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, on how much having a Supreme Court with no Democratic appointees meant to the effort to allow students to get public-money vouchers to spend at private schools.

* “You have to market to draw visitors. Coke spends a fortune on marketing, and they’ve been around more than a century.”–Santiago Corrada, chief executive of Hillsborough County tourism agency Visit Tampa Bay, on why Visit Florida deserves continued funding.

* “We needed a city where we could attract the best talent. Tampa quickly rose to the top of the list. This region has emerged as a driving force behind the state’s fast-growing life science industry.”–Karen Zaderej, president and CEO of AxoGen, a nerve-regeneration start-up that has signed a lease at the Heights Union project.

* “The Tampa Bay region has continued to transform into an attractive environment for innovation.”–Steve Case, co-founder of AOL and author of “The Third Wave.”

* “Tampa Bay is on fire. I can’t go a day without hearing from somebody who wants to invest in Tampa Bay or lend in Tampa Bay.”–Yakhin Israel, senior vice president of the brokerage firm CBRE, in assessing Tampa Bay’s building boom.

* “Plastic straws, bags should be phased out in Florida. You don’t need to do a study to understand the harm plastic does.”–St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

How We Got Here

At some point, historians will have a field day with the Trump Administration and how the hell this all happened. We’ll see references to those left behind finding a (scapegoating) voice, those white nationals needing demonized targets, those greed-heads celebrating non-progressive economics, those hypocritical evangelicals rationalizing anything in the name of anti-abortion, those protectionists and isolationists defying all things global and those spineless GOP enablers prioritizing party and career over country. And, yes, those far-left Bernie Sanders activists who sat out 2016 because they couldn’t rally around the establishment Democratic alternative.  

There likely will be references to Huey Long, Fr. (Charles Edward) Coughlin, George Lincoln Rockwell and maybe Richard Spencer of contemporary “peaceful, ethnic cleansing” notoriety. And the increasingly authoritarian pattern we’re seeing internationally–from Brazil to Hungary–will not go unnoted.

But no explanation would be complete without these two names: Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. While it’s sacrilegious to even include those two in the same sentence, it’s also relevant in chronicling how we got here. The year 2008 could live, ironically, in infamy as well as fame.

As soon as John McCain, unconscionably playing the non-patriot, pander card, put Palin on the ticket, the stage was set for the American devolution. No longer would it be unprecedented to put somebody so blatantly, embarrassingly unqualified on a presidential ticket. By lowering the credible-candidate bar to such depths, we had raised the possibility that a narcissistic, pop-culture con man would have a shot at getting elected and establishing a Whites-only House.

And even though President Obama was hardly the embodiment of all things liberal, he was still the first African-American president. But while many celebrated the symbolic ascendance of an eloquent, minority president, the pendulum came careening back to taunt those who were decidedly not celebrating.

The tauntees only needed a perfect-storm, anti-Obama candidate to vent with and vote for. The political version of the Rev. Jim Jones was ready with the faux-populist Kool Aid.

Now we await 2020 to see if 2016 was a teachable moment in our history–or its turning point.

Trumpster Diving

* Would that Jared Kushner’s take on the Mueller report were merely partisan. Would that he wasn’t self-servingly doubling down on the pathological lying of his father-in-law.

“It’s a terrible thing, but I think the investigations and all the speculation that happened for the past two years has had a much harsher impact on democracy than a couple of Facebook ads,” was how Kushner preposterously framed the upshot of Mueller looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign to the benefit of Trump. He really did say that. But Mueller, as we know, had categorically concluded that “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” In short, the Russians trafficked in a lot more than “a couple of Facebook ads.”

Kushner sounds more like the duplicitous, disingenuous son-in-law who had been caught meeting up with Russians over ostensible “dirt” on Hillary Clinton than some Administration hack. He doesn’t do bombast like Ivanka’s father, but he does do whatever is necessary to enable the family. Roy Cohn would be proud.

* According to Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un asked him at their summit to “inform the U.S. side of his position about questions he has regarding what’s happening on the Korean Peninsula.” But if Putin, whose agenda-driven veracity rivals that of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is telling the truth, it begs an obvious question. Why doesn’t Kim just say that directly to the one who “fell in love” with him?

* You never know what the “new normal” will bring in the era of Trump. It’s a daily given. But some observers seemed genuinely taken aback by revelations of the former chief of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, that the president–ever uber-sensitive to his election legitimacy–could not even be spoken to about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Such parallel-universe perversity, however, shouldn’t seem as shocking to Floridians, where former Gov. Rick Scott enjoined state officials to avoid referencing “climate change.”

* For those Dems wary about a moderate white male with some baggage representing the party in 2020, it would be prudent to remember that Joe Biden was vetted by Barack Obama. He found that Biden’s working-class roots and real-world experience in a dangerous world more than offset political liabilities.

* For those looking to Biden as the most likely Dem to confront and take down Donald Trump, the early polling looks positive, even if some of the other primary candidates are taking some shots. But it’s still very early. It’s hardly a precise parallel, but remember where we were in 2008 as the Republicans were sorting out their candidates. At this point in the calendar, Rudy Giuliani–still “America’s mayor”–was topping the field at more than 30 percent.

Mayors Matter

* Thanks, Mayor Bob. Thank you for your service. A lot happened on your watch–and the momentum is part of the Buckhorn legacy. You were the right mayor at the right time. One who appreciated what it meant for a major city to have a river running through it. One who realized what ripple effects–from quality of life to millennial appeal–result from revitalization. One who was pragmatic about working across the political spectrum to get things done for Tampa. One who realized that the CEO-mayor is also the city’s chief recruiter and salesman.

And, of course, timing is everything. The vision, money and credibility of Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates was fortuitous. The passage of a transit initiative was better late than never. Lots of neighborhoods still need attention.

And for a fellow Mick who was married on St. Patrick’s Day–and a fellow Penn State alum–thanks for the River O’Green and the “We are Penn State” shout-outs.

* As for Buckhorn’s successor, former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, she made national news by becoming the first openly gay woman to lead a major city in the Southeast. She’s being touted as a rising political star.

But first things first. Castor handles herself well and embodies competence as much as diversity. She knows the city. She’s a mayor who happens to be gay. In that order.

* And, finally, the recent mayor’s race–and run-off–underscored a sad reality. There are some people–who because of their skills, values, impact, generosity, work ethic and concern for others, have carved out almost iconic reputations. You want these folks, who have meant so much to their communities to go out on top. David Straz’s denouement should be legacy building, not an ill-advised, embarrassing mayoral campaign that ended in a one-sided defeat and diminished standing.

Media Matters

* The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is not what it used to be. For now, that’s an upgrade–especially after last year’s cringe-worthy “performance” by comedian Michelle Wolf that should have embarrassed both journalists and Democrats. The scaled-down event is now sans keynote comedian–as well as incumbent president–and is no longer enthralled with red-carpet celebrities. It highlights and prioritizes journalism in a society that has never needed it more. And replacing a comedian with historian-and-author Ron Chernow was a decided plus. “We are all Team USA,” underscored the ‘Alexander Hamilton’ author, “not members of enemy camps.” Amen.

And sometimes, of course, you add by subtracting. Donald Trump doesn’t deign to show up for the WHCD now that he’s president and not merely a pop culture celeb. How ironic for a “tough guy” who doesn’t back down and gives as good as he gets–but not in the interests of egalitarian humor. That’s because narcissists don’t laugh at themselves; they mock others and provide an inviting target.

* According to the Washington Post, Trump has made more than 10,000 false or misleading claims since he took office. For those scoring at home, that’s about 26 claims per day. But then again, you know WaPo; they always round up.