All the President’s Frenemies
September 15, 2020
The Good News
- Learning to adapt, adapting to learn: Meet the students who say school remote learning in the pandemic is a big win (Vox)
“Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad company.” ― George Washington
“There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks, circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water.”― Alan Clark
A Presidential Thiel of Approval
(Drew Angerer via Getty Images)
What motivates someone to become a Donald Trump supporter — then to become disillusioned and fall (or be thrust) away — is the stuff for much longer reads, like Michael Cohen’s new memoir. The journey of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, encapsulated here, is also instructive.
Thiel is an enigmatic, openly gay Libertarian who made uber-millions as a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. The successful, tight-lipped tech magnate had a second coming out when he went public with one of the biggest bets of his life. Speaking at the 2016 Republican National Convention, Thiel gave his full-throated endorsement to the party’s standard-bearer, Donald Trump — the presidential candidate despised throughout Silicon Valley.
Thiel was used to making risky bets, but his forays into mainstream politics were few before his deep dive in the summer of 2016. He saw Trump as being different, someone whose business orientation and sheer chutzpah could be good for America. Thiel willingly looked past the candidate’s business debacles and clear character shortcomings, donating $1.25 million to the campaign just a week after the Access Hollywood tape leaked.
Thiel’s bet went much farther than money and speeches — he met in private with the racist fringe that felt emboldened by Trump’s rise to power. During the campaign, Thiel hosted a dinner with one of the most influential white nationalists in modern-day America, Kevin DeAnna, a man who has called for the creation of a white ethnostate and who played a key role in mainstreaming white nationalism as the “alt-right.” Thiel’s outreach raised hopes among those on the racist right that his financial bet on Trump would also fortify the movement. One avowed white nationalist privately speculated that the billionaire’s money and influence could have made him “our George Soros.”
Thiel’s wager paid off at first. Trump’s victory thrust him into a new echelon of political power; he gathered allies throughout the nascent administration, and won a direct line of communication with the White House. But his efforts also brought him into contact with the darkest elements of that power, and to an administration whose competence he began to doubt. Despite Thiel’s personal victories over the past four years, he began backing away as the risks he had undertaken by betting on Trump grew more perilous.
The administration’s disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw for him. 2016 Trump’s wishful neophyte is nowhere to be found in 2020. Thiel’s bet had worked … until it didn’t.
Interested in taking a deeper dive into Thiel’s controversial rise to power? Check out this Daily Pnut essay: Not Your Average Tech Bro: The Years of Peter Thiel.
Geopolitical Bannon Fodder
(Drew Angerer via Getty Images)
- Steve Bannon helped President Trump win the 2016 election by embracing their shared nationalist impulses. He was given the position of chief strategist in the new administration, where he quickly became a caustic presence in a chaotic West Wing, frequently clashing with other aides over trade, the war in Afghanistan, taxes, immigration, and the role of government.
- Known as the Great Manipulator, Bannon had outsized influence over Trump, helping to shape the president’s fiery populism during a turbulent seven-month tenure. He was ousted after the violence involving white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, VA in the summer of 2017.
- Bannon continued to promote himself as a political provocateur and champion of an underclass left behind by open borders and free trade, traveling the world and giving advice on running populist movements. At the same time, however, he was forging a personal and financial relationship with a fugitive Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengui, whose efforts to obtain asylum in the US have divided Trump’s top allies.
- In August, the self-proclaimed champion of the ‘forgotten people’ was arrested, on federal charges of defrauding donors to a non-profit he founded, while relaxing aboard a 150-foot yacht belonging to the flashy Chinese billionaire. Bannon’s partnership with Guo Wengui in a company the billionaire is accused of defrauding is now the subject of a separate federal investigation. (NYT, WaPo)
Oracle Wins Bid to ‘Babysit’ TikTok
- After months of insistence that TikTok sever its US operations from Chinese ownership, and after forcing a deadline on Microsoft — the company most interested in purchasing TikTok, and the most likely one to provide the security and safety the government said it wanted — the administration is poised to approve a move by another company.
- ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, accepted Oracle’s offer to become TikTok’s “trusted tech partner” to “take over the stewardship” of the Chinese company’s US operations. The deal is strange in that it’s not an actual sale, and it’s unclear what the “trusted tech partner” status entails.
- What is clear is that ByteDance refused to accept Microsoft’s more lucrative deal because Microsoft intended to make some serious changes, including severing American TikTok from Europe and Asia entirely, and providing much more security, privacy, online safety, and misinformation removal. It’s unlikely Oracle will take over any significant operations from the US TikTok offices, leaving everything mostly intact.
- US TikTok will remain the same as Korean TikTok and Nigerian TikTok, just with an extra babysitter. In other words, it’s basically a glorified hosting deal, which lets President Trump say he’s solved the problem, just not really. (Verge)
Additional World News
- Another diplomat dips out: Terry Branstad, Trump’s Ambassador to China, is Stepping Down (NYT, $)
- Xinjiang: US to block some exports from Chinese region (BBC)
- From royals to regular folks, nobody was safe in this security breach: Zhenhua Data leak: personal details of millions around world gathered by China tech company (Guardian)
- Tencent Picks Singapore as Asia Hub After India, U.S. Bans (Bloomberg)
- A conniving Kremlin case study: How Putin Got Into America’s Mind (Atlantic, $)
- Massive Protests Continue In Belarus As Demonstrators Demand Lukashenko Resign (NPR)
- Boris Johnson Pushes to Backtrack on E.U. Deal, Despite Party Revolt (NYT, $)
- Scientists baffled by orcas ramming sailing boats near Spain and Portugal (Guardian). Orcas finally get revenge on humans for creating SeaWorld.
- Venezuela says it has captured American ‘mercenary’ plotting to blow up power plants, oil refineries (WaPo, $)
- Health officials face death threats amid coronavirus pandemic (WaPo, $)
- Trump officials interfered with CDC reports on Covid-19 (Politico)
- 7 Ways the Pandemic Has Changed How We Shop for Food (NYT, $)
- Anders Tegnell and the Swedish Covid experiment (FT)
- Months after Covid-19 infection, patients report breathing difficulty and fatigue & I was infected with coronavirus in March, six months on I’m still unwell (CNN, Guardian)
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Putin’s “Useful Idiot”
- On July 25th, 2019, Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, director of European Affairs for the National Security Council (NSC), organized a phone call and listened in, with other officials, to a conversation between President Trump and the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
- “I just had a visceral reaction to what I was hearing,” he said to an Atlantic journalist in his first interview since being forced out of his job. “I suspected it was criminal, but I knew it was wrong.” After the call, Vindman made an official complaint through proper channels. A whistleblower shared details of the call, and Vindman later realized he could be compelled to testify. His reporting had set in motion what led to Trump’s impeachment, and ultimately cost both he and his brother their jobs.
- Even so, Vindman says he was untroubled by the consequences of his reporting. “I had to choose between the president and the Constitution … I chose the Constitution. No Army officer wants to be put in that position, but there I was.”
- Vindman was asked if he thought Trump is an asset to Russian intelligence. He replied: “President Trump should be considered to be a useful idiot and a fellow traveler, which makes him an unwitting agent of Putin.” Vindman said Russia doesn’t even need to have dirt on Trump. “[Trump] has aspirations to be the kind of leader that Putin is, and so he admires him. He likes authoritarian strongmen who act with impunity, without checks and balances. So he’ll try to please Putin.” (Atlantic)
Female Trump Converts Prove Crucial
- Nin Bell works for an answering service from her home in the Philadelphia suburbs. She takes calls from people trying to reach more than 10,000 funeral homes and end-of-life companies. As COVID-19 began to sweep the country earlier this year, the number of calls related to new deaths tripled. Caller after caller told Bell about losing a loved one to the virus, as well as to suicides and drug overdoses.
- They provided an overwhelmingly painful window into just how badly the country was suffering. But then she would hear President Trump repeatedly downplay the severity of the pandemic. “He was telling everybody [COVID-19] wasn’t a big deal — but I knew it was a big deal because of my job. He made a lot of mistakes. He just runs his mouth. . . . He’s the president, he can’t get away with that, especially when people’s lives are in danger.”
- Bell had voted for Trump in 2016, even working to help him win Pennsylvania. Now she’s part of a group of white women, especially those who are working-to-middle class, who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in the last election, but are determined to vote for Biden this year. In 2016 the presidential race was decided by shifts among a few sets of voters. Clinton won the majority vote among all women, but lost to Trump among white women.
- Come November 3rd, even slight changes among white women could play a deciding role in several states — especially Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that Trump won in 2016 by a razor-thin margin. (WaPo)
Additional USA News
- How the Trump Campaign’s Mobile App Is Collecting Huge Amounts of Voter Data (New Yorker). How many MAGA-bytes?
- Minnesota Seemed Ripe for a Trump Breakout. It Has Not Arrived. (NYT, $)
- US democracy is at risk for political violence (WaPo, $)
- What if the entire US became (electoral) college dropouts? The Case for Dumping the Electoral College (New Yorker)
- Congress’s failure to pass stimulus has had a devastating effect on people of color (Vox)
- Despite A New Federal Ban, Many Renters Are Still Getting Evicted (NPR)
- Mama mia! Child care crisis pushes US mothers out of the labor force (AP)
- Warmer. Burning. Epidemic-challenged. Expensive. The California Dream has become the California Compromise. (WaPo, $)
Alien Life Floating On Venus
- On Monday, scientists said they have detected a gas called phosphine in Venus’s harshly acidic atmosphere. The gas indicates microbes may inhabit the planet, and that suggests the possible presence of alien life.
- The phosphine that is present on Earth is produced by bacteria thriving in oxygen-starved environments. The study’s co-author, MIT molecular astrophysicist Clara Sousa-Silva said: “With what we currently know of Venus, the most plausible explanation for phosphine, as fantastical as it might sound, is life.”
- Venus is Earth’s closest planetary neighbor. Similar in structure but slightly smaller than Earth, it is the second planet from the sun; Earth is the third. Venus is wrapped in a thick, toxic atmosphere that traps in heat. Surface temperatures reach a scorching 880 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead.
- Phosphine was seen at 20 parts-per-billion in the Venusian atmosphere, a trace concentration. Researchers examined potential non-biological sources such as volcanism, meteorites, lightning, and various types of chemical reactions, but none appeared viable. The research continues to either confirm the presence of life or find an alternative explanation.
- If it’s determined to be life, Sousa-Silva says, “it means we are not alone. It also means that life itself must be very common, and there must be many other inhabited planets throughout our galaxy.” (Reuters)
- A passage on passivity: When Good People Don’t Act, Evil Reigns (NYT, $)
- Goodbye, readers, and good luck — you’ll need it (WaPo, $)
- The Meaning of All Caps—in Texting and in Life (Wired). WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE WE’RE SHOUTING?
- How Quarantine Killed the Weekend (NYT, $)
- AirFrauds: Feds proudly announce seizure of “counterfeit Apple AirPods” that are actually OnePlus Buds (The Verge)
- The Intercept Promised to Reveal Everything. But It Didn’t Protect a Source. (NYT, $)
- The Safest Ways to Log In to Your Computer (Wired)
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