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Sunday Political Brunch: What is the Real Russian Connection? -- July 16, 2017

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(Charleston, West Virginia) – It has been another fascinating week of stories about Russia, whether it played any significant role in interfering with the 2016 U.S. election, and whether that changed the outcome. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Trump Jr.’s Journeys” – The President’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., confirms he and others met with a Russian attorney, who - we are told - was going to offer some damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Trump says that no such information was given, but there was a brief conversation about a different issue in Russia, and the meeting ended. He says the Russian attorney offered nothing of substance; nor was she offered anything in return. For the sake of our discussion, let’s assume those basic claims are true.

“Opposition Research” – This is one of the most crucial, but rarely discussed, practices in the world of political strategy. It's critical to any campaign. A candidate who does little if any opposition research is – to put it bluntly – a fool and usually loses. Research to uncover the mistakes and “sins” of the opposition is often not pretty, but it’s a necessary evil of the business. Campaigns search for information on the opponent, but often they are offered unsolicited information by an interested third party. The fact that Trump Jr. was contacted should not surprise anyone. His response is a whole different animal.

“Leave No Fingerprints” – As mentioned, campaigns often receive tips and rumors about dirt on opponents. It goes back as far as the long-standing feud between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in American politics, and a lot further in older countries. The big mistake in the Trump campaign was to let the candidate’s son attend the meeting. It goes to show how politically naïve they were. One can’t image someone in the Bush or Kennedy families making such an egregious faux pas. If you have the same last name as the candidate, run for the hills, and send in a trusted lieutenant instead.

“Was the Law Broken?” – Well I’m not a lawyer, and it depends upon whom you ask. The hyperbole is off the charts, with some shouting that Trump Jr. should be charged with treason. I don’t see that coming. I want to paraphrase some analysis I heard from famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is hardly a conservative. His assessment is that if Trump Jr. initiated the discussion and solicited information or a deal from the Russian government, then he might be in legal hot water. But if Trump was merely offered information, went to listen, but made no requests, and took no action, there is no violation.

“It’s About the Optics” – I confess I am tired of hearing the old political cliché about “bad optics;” but in this case, I believe it fits. Trump Jr.'s meeting with the Russians just looks bad; and the fact that it was never disclosed until now, makes it look even worse. Democrats used to use such legal heavyweights as Vernon Jordon, to go to these types of meetings. For Republicans, it was lawyer James Baker. These guys are pros. They know the legal parameters, and they know the political boundaries. How a family with Trump’s assets and allies could make such a rookie political mistake is unfathomable.

“The Faucet is Dripping” -- If a waterpipe breaks and water gushes onto the floor, we know we have an emergency. But if it makes one drip per minute, it may take days or weeks before we notice the flood rising in the basement. I use this analogy because the first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired for undisclosed dealings with Russians. Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions failed to disclose meetings with a Russian Ambassador (although Sessions' role as a U.S. Senator may have made the meetings perfectly legit.) Then former campaign manager Paul Manafort also had Russian dealings (although that may have been legit in his role as a lobbyist.) And, of course, there is President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation. Now there’s the Trump Jr. meeting. None of this may lead to proof of collusion, but to Trump critics it’s beginning to form a critical mass.

“So, What’s the Chatter?” – People I’ve spoken with in D.C. this week say the Trump Jr. email chain on the Russian meeting is the talk of the town and, in fact, is the main topic of political chatter and hallway whispers. That’s the way Washington works. But what’s the buzz outside the beltway? In watching a local TV newscast tonight, I found almost all the commercials targeted Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), who is a key swing vote on the Senate’s efforts to repeal Obamacare. Right now, she’s a “no” vote, but could flip to “yes” if the right changes are made. The country is having two distinct, if not totally disconnected conversations.

“Senate Hearings” – Both Democrats and Republicans want Donald Trump, Jr., to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the Russian meeting. He should. Sunshine on the whole matter is the best way to clear the air. President Trump praised his son’s “transparency” for releasing the email chain, but it’s important to note his candor came after the story broke in the press. I don’t know if Trump Jr. violated the law, but his naïve meeting just further fans the flames of mistrust and suspicion.

“Why All of This Matters” – I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, because I say this almost every week. The more time Washington, D.C., spends on controversy or suspected scandal, the less work it gets done on public policy. I listen to a wide variety of media daily, and thought on Wednesday that conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh had a valid point. If I may paraphrase his theory, it is that none of this will ever warrant or lead to impeachment, but that Trump’s critics will keep fanning the flames so that none of his political agenda ever gets accomplished. Pardon the pun, but Limbaugh may be right!

What are your thoughts on the behavior of Donald Trump, Jr? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for five Nexstar Media TV stations in West Virginia, and a commentator on ‘The Brian Copeland Show” on KGO Radio San Francisco.

© 2017, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo Courtesy: cbsnews.com

Sunday Political Brunch: To Tweet or Not to Tweet? -- July 9, 2017

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(Charleston, West Virginia) – The hue and cry over President Trump’s latest tweets grabbed my attention this week, and just about everyone else’s, too. But I wonder whether the public and the press are spending way too much time focused on this, at the peril of things far more important. Let’s “brunch” on that this week.

“Stop Tweeting” – I am not a Twitter fan; but, alas, I use it, too. It’s the modern-day equivalent of the town square, or the proverbial water cooler, and we need to be engaged where the conversation is happening. As much as I wish President Trump would knock off the nonsensical tweets, it’s not going to happen. Quite honestly, I wish he’d tweet more about Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s nuclear threats than about a talk show host’s facelift. Any President has the power to heavily influence the national and international agendas, and I wish that Trump would use that power in a more productive manner.

“Having a Right Doesn’t Mean It's Right” – I am the most ardent defender of the First Amendment you’ll ever find. That’s because I believe democracy is fortified by a free marketplace of ideas. I don’t like the President’s excessive, provocative tweets; I don’t like Kathy Griffin holding the beheaded skull of a Trump look-alike; and, I don’t like Robert Mapplethorpe putting a crucifix of Jesus Christ in a jar of urine and calling it art. But I will defend all three under the right of free speech. It’s worth remembering the old saying, though: “Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.”

“Personal Stories” – As a reporter, I don’t feel threatened by the parody “CNN beat down” delivered in the Trump video. I don’t think it will lead to any violence against the press. Having said that, I’ll be candid in saying that what I do for a living is not without risk. Over the decades of doing this, I’ve been spit upon, physically and verbally assaulted, threatened with arrest, and - on several occasions - had my life threatened. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. I swear that ninety-five percent of the time people are decent, friendly, respectful, and kind to me – and I cover politics for a living! I hardly think my profession is under siege, as some would claim.

“The Politics of Distraction” – There was a two-track story going on in Washington, D.C., last week. The Obamacare repeal and replacement was going down in flames in the Senate at the same time the Trump vs. Morning Joe tweet battle was playing out. Guess which got more attention in the press and elsewhere? And guess which issue got little work done to try to save it? As I always say, scandal and controversy suck the oxygen out of the room in Washington, D.C., and it’s easy for serious business to come to a grinding halt.

“Trump Tweets Response” – President Trump has a new title: Provocateur-in-Chief! He loves to stir the pot, and to poke at the media with this stuff. He did it with name calling the other candidates during the primary, and then during the fall campaign. Like many, I think this behavior is beneath the dignity of the office, but firmly believe it’s the new normal. After the firestorm of the past ten days, Trump tweeted: “My use of social media is not Presidential – IT’S MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL. Make America Great Again!” Every politician worth his or her salt has a Twitter account these days, but you operate it at your own peril.

“What’s Getting Done?” – I asked Representative Evan Jenkins (R-WV) if anything of substance was getting done in Washington, D.C., considering the latest firestorms about Trump tweets over Mika Brzezinski and the CNN body-slam video. To my surprise, Congressman Jenkins – who is now running for U.S. Senate – rattled off a long list of legislation Congress passed recently regarding immigration, opioid addiction, and veterans’ benefits. He said the press obsession with Trump tweets was not interfering with work getting done in Congress. Touché, but I wonder how many of those bills are the President’s versus the ones that are solely from Congressional initiative.

“The Politics of ‘Finite’” – I had the good fortune to cover the late Governor Bruce Sundlun (D-RI), who had been a successful multimillionaire businessman in many ventures before getting into politics. He used to say, “If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.” His point was to focus on a few of the most important, critical issues, and not try to be everything to everyone. The President, Congress, and the press should heed that advice. We have a limited amount of time to get the work of government done. Carnival sideshows caused by ill-advised tweets are a distraction and a waste of time.

“Why All of This Matters” – Politics change, and communication technologies change, too. While people talk sentimentally about FDR’s radio fireside chats, some critics at the time thought he was grandstanding on this relatively new medium called radio. Many people (including some politicians) were mortified about the concept of C-SPAN and TV cameras showing Congress live, in action. They felt it would lead to grandstanding, too. But I weigh in on the side of transparency and sunlight. I want to be able to watch politicians unfiltered (even if they are scripted). Whether they are grandstanding or not - in a free society - let me make my own judgements about that. Tweet away!

What are your thoughts on the Trump tweets? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo courtesy: twitter.com, whitehouse.gov

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