Be afraid. Be very afraid.

At an October 10 rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Donald Trump held up a document. Kurt Eichenwald describes what happened next:

“He told the assembled crowd that it was an email from Blumenthal, whom he called ‘sleazy Sidney.’ ‘This just came out a little while ago,’’ Trump said. ‘I have to tell you this.’ And then he read the words from my [Kurt Eichenwald’s October 21, 2015 Newsweek] article. “‘He’s now admitting they could have done something about Benghazi,’ Trump said, dropping the document to the floor. ‘This just came out a little while ago.'”

As Eichenwald explains, the words weren’t Blumenthal’s. Trump read from a distorted summary of Eichenwald’s 10,000-word Newsweek article attached to an email to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. It resulted from a Russian disinformation campaign tied to a recent Wikileaks release. A Russian-controlled news agency — Sputnik — reported the false story.

Eichenwald asks, “So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin’s mouthpiece?”

“This is not funny,” Eichenwald continues. “This is terrifying. The Russians engage in a sloppy disinformation effort and, before the day is out, the Republican nominee for president is standing on a stage reciting the manufactured story as truth.”

Which Takes Us Back to Trump’s Income Tax Returns

Compared to Trump’s boast about being a sexual predator, his admission in the second debate that he paid no federal income taxes for years seems almost innocuous. So why does he still refuse to release his returns? Eichenwald’s latest revelation adds more evidence that the answer may be Russia. Like all things Trump, his words and deeds fit a pattern.

“He is not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand,” Trump declared in August. “He’s not going into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”

“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos corrected him immediately, referring to Vladimir Putin’s illegal seizure of Crimea.

“OK,” Trump answered. “Well, he’s there in a certain way.”

Worse Than Ignorance?

A month after Trump’s declaration about Putin in Ukraine, he made what Trump’s campaign later called a mistake. Trump appeared on Russian state-sponsored television to criticize America. Meanwhile, he has praised Vladimir Putin continuously: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”

Never mind that Putin is a cruel dictator who crushes dissent, makes a mockery of human rights, and orders the invasion of sovereign countries. Political opponents and critical journalists disappear or get assassinated. And there’s growing evidence that he’s trying to influence the election in Trump’s favor.

During the first presidential debate, Trump reacted defensively to Hillary Clinton’s concerns about Russians hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s computers. Rejecting the U.S. law enforcement consensus that Russian intelligence agents were behind that cyberattack, Trump said:

“She keeps saying ‘Russia, Russia, Russia,’ and maybe it was. It could be Russia, but it could be China, could also be lots of other people. It could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

And at the second debate, he persisted: “[A]nytime anything wrong happens, they like to say the Russians are — she doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking. But they always blame Russia.”

He knows better. Back in mid-August, Trump and his team received intelligence briefings that directly contradict his recent statements. And 48 hours before the second debate, the intelligence community and the Department of Homeland Security issued a joint statement that pointed directly to the Kremlin:

“The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations… We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”

Why does Trump ignore undisputed evidence, defend Russia, and praise Putin? Here’s one possible answer: the personal financial self-interest of Trump and his top advisers.

Paul Manafort and Ukraine

When Georgetown Law School graduate Paul Manafort took over as campaign manager, the selection seemed to be the harbinger of an extreme makeover. Manafort would attempt for Trump what he’d accomplished for Ukrainian’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, whom Manafort resurrected from disgrace to that nation’s highest office in only five years.

But Manafort’s ties to Ukraine’s pro-Putin former president led to accusations of secret cash payments to Manafort’s consulting firm. Then The Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes on a Republican convention platform plank that gutted the GOP’s longstanding support for Ukrainian resistance to the Russian-led intervention. Finally, the Associated Press reported that Manafort’s firm hired Washington, DC lobbyists to influence the American press and U.S. government officials on behalf of the pro-Putin Ukrainian Embassy. The cascading revelations of pro-Russian activity led to Manafort’s resignation.

Boris Epshteyn

After Manafort departed, another Georgetown Law graduate, Boris Epshteyn, became the most visible surrogate defending Trump’s continuing admiration for Russia’s top tyrant. Epshteyn was born in Russia and emigrated to the United States in 1993. Twenty years later, when New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg died in 2013, Epshteyn wrote,

“[I]t was the Lautenberg Amendment that allowed my family and me to emigrate to the United States of America in 1993. The Lautenberg Amendment, passed in 1990, loosened the restriction on refugee states and thereby allowed for tens of thousands of Jews like me from the former U.S.S.R. to come to America. The legislation was also applied to religious minorities from Iran, Vietnam and Burma, as well as other countries.”

Now that he is safely in the United States, Epshteyn supports a candidate who proposed a religious ban to keep others out. After receiving his JD in 2007, Epshteyn went to work at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy. According to his LinkedIn website page, a Russian theme has permeated his activities:

— June 2007 to present (overlapping with his time at Milbank from October 2007 to May 2009): Principal for Strategy International, providing “consulting and liaising services for domestic and international transactions with a focus on Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union.”

— June 2009 – July 2013: Managing director of business and legal affairs for West America Securities Corp. His duties were to “originate and locate funding for diverse domestic and international transactions, including private placements, public equity/debt offerings and mergers and acquisitions transactions.”

— July 2013 to present: Managing director of business and legal affairs for TGP Securities, Inc. In that position, he moderated an October 2013 panel discussion for a conference titled, “Invest in Moscow!”

In August 2016, Epshteyn became a senior adviser to the Trump-Pence campaign on “media, communications and foreign policy.” If Epshteyn is the important foreign policy adviser that he claims to be, it explains some of Trump’s bizarre denial about Putin.

Whose Party Line?

“First of all,” Epshteyn told a CNN interviewer on July 31. “Russia did not seize Crimea. We can talk about the conflict that happened between Ukraine and the Crimea…But there was no seizure by Russia. That’s an incorrect statement, characterization, of what happened.”

That’s in line with Trump’s statement to George Stephanopoulos that Putin “is not going into Ukraine.” Observers dismissed Trump’s comment as a gaffe, but it’s the Kremlin’s position. And it’s blatantly false. The international community has condemned Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Period.

Like Trump, Epshteyn also points to Putin’s 82 percent approval rating as proof that Putin is a strong leader. But as Tom Brokaw observed on the September 11 edition of  Meet the Press, “He’s not saying the other 18 percent are on their way to a gulag somewhere.”

All Roads Lead To Trump’s Tax Returns

Trump’s tax returns should confirm what he has now admitted publicly: that he hasn’t owed any federal income tax for years. But a far more sinister explanation for his unwillingness to release the returns is that they could complete a picture of Trump’s business connections to Russia that journalists are piecing together.

David Cay Johnston’s August investigation reveals that Russians are partners with Trump in many American projects: “Trump has tried at least five times to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, including efforts he made during his 2013 trip there. His name is on a 47-story building in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet empire… Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008 that ‘in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.'”

Kurt Eichenwald — the same reporter who revealed Russia’s disinformation effort relating to his 2015 article — published a September analysis in Newsweek: “Hoping to start its branding business in Russia, the Trump Organization registered the Trump name in 2008 as a trademark for projects in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi… If the company sold its brand in Russia while Trump was in the White House, the world could be faced with the astonishing sight of hotels and office complexes going up in downtown Moscow with the name of the American president emblazoned in gold atop the buildings.”

Legal Eagles

Richard Painter and Norman Eisen are former chief ethics attorneys for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. Their op-ed for The Washington Post listed the numerous conflicts that would make a Trump presidency “ethically compromised.” Among the most serious are his family organization’s undisclosed financial ties to Russia, China, India, South Korea, and Turkey.

Labeling Trump’s actual or apparent conflicts “as obscure, profound, and dangerous,” they conclude: “The ethics lawyer who would have President Trump as his or her client would face a far more daunting task than either of us — or any of our colleagues in recent years — has ever confronted.”

“Conflict-of-Interest Laws, You’re Fired!”

How would President Trump resolve the massive conflicts that haven’t been disclosed fully to voters? However he chose. All of those elaborate ethics laws and rules applicable to cabinet members and other high-level government officials don’t apply to the president.

As Norman Eisen elsewhere observes, “Because the President of the United States is the single most consequential decision maker on the planet, Congress has decided his hands shouldn’t be tied on any issue because of conflicts of interest over any potential financial or personal gain.”

In September, Kurt Eichenwald concluded, “Never before has an American candidate for president had so many financial ties with American allies and enemies, and never before has a business posed such a threat to the United States. If Donald Trump wins this election and his company is not immediately shut down or forever severed from the Trump family, the foreign policy of the United States of America could well be for sale.”

The Russians have chosen their candidate for president of the United States. Be afraid. Be very afraid.


Every week, Donald Trump intensifies his attack on the rule of law and the fundamental American values that underlie it. In the wake of the Orlando shootings, he added two more.

— Expanding his proposed ban on all Muslim immigrants, he added migrants from any part of the world “with a proven history of terrorism” against the United States or its allies.

— He withdrew The Washington Post’s press credentials to campaign access. That was the culmination of a crusade that Trump has pursued for a month against Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon and the paper.

Make no mistake. Trump’s actions are part of his “crazy-like-a-fox” campaign strategy. And they fit together neatly.

Why the Post?

Trump’s stated reason for banning The Washington Post stems from a headline that read: “Trump suggests President Obama was involved with the mass shooting in Orlando.”

Here’s Trump’s post-Orlando comment on Fox News that prompted the headline:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

In the same interview, Trump was asked to explain why he called for Obama to resign in light of the shooting and he answered, in part: “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”

What does he mean by “gets it better than anybody understands”? What’s the “something else in mind” that “people can’t believe”? What’s the “something going on”?

A Familiar Ring

Innuendo is an enduring Trump technique. It feeds irrational conspiracy theories that linger. And irrationality combines with the absence of fact-based analysis to become Trump’s most potent voter weapon.

For example, in April 2011, Trump revived discredited “birther” claims that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

“We’re looking into it very, very strongly. At a certain point in time I’ll be revealing some interesting things,” he told CNN. “I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they’re finding.”

What “”unbelievable” things were Trump’s investigators in Hawaii finding? Nothing. But irrationality has allowed his false claim to live on in the hearts of his constituents. Even today, 20 percent of Americans still believe that President Obama was born outside the United States and fall into one of two categories: nine percent have “solid evidence” to prove it; eleven percent admit that it’s just their suspicion.

It gets worse. Twenty-nine percent of Americans — and 43 percent of Republicans — say they think the President is Muslim. So now you know what Trump really means when he says “something is going on” involving the President and Orlando. And you know to whom he is saying it. Which takes us to the link between Trump’s current dual assault: Muslims and the press.

Troubling Precedent

Apparently, it’s okay for Trump to imply vile and non-existent connections between the President, Muslims, and a terrorist rampage by an American citizen who wouldn’t have qualified for Trump’s proposed ban anyway. But apparently it’s not okay for the media to call him out on such dangerous demagoguery. It’s not sufficient for a widely respected newspaper to cover a story. It has to cover it precisely the way Trump wants it to read.

When he talks about “opening up our libel laws,” that’s what he really means. And when he says he thinks he’ll possess the presidential power to do so, he proves his ignorance and/or willful disregard of how individual states’ laws and the U. S. Supreme Court’s application of First Amendment principles shape that area of jurisprudence.

This pattern of revenge isn’t new for Trump, but his previous revocations of press credentials have received less attention: The Des Moines Register (after an editorial called on Trump to drop out of the race), The Huffington Post (too liberal), The Daily Beast (after an article citing Ivana Trump’s allegations against Trump that she later walked back), Politico (after writing an unflattering story about Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski), and BuzzFeed (never credentialed, probably because of a lengthy and unflattering article about Trump in 2014).

Univision was initially banned after Trump filed a $500 million lawsuit against the company for canceling its broadcast of Trump’s Miss USA pageant. Since settling that litigation in February, Univision says the Trump campaign has credentialed its reporters only twice.

And More Precedent

Apart from Trump himself, his words and deeds have historical forebears. After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, fear led to Japanese internment camps. After the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic weapon and China fell to Communism in 1949, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade included attacks on the U. S. Army and baseless claims that Communist spies controlled the State Department.

McCarthy fed on fear and paranoia. He survived because others were reluctant to challenge a dangerous demagogue. His fellow Republicans — even President Eisenhower — remained silent as he ruined thousands of lives. Only a free press brought him down and returned the nation to its senses.

Televised hearings and Edward R. Murrow’s March 9, 1954 investigative program subjected McCarthy and his methods to the disinfectant of sunlight. But for the preceding five years, he left destruction in his wake. Trump is far more dangerous than McCarthy ever was. And we don’t have five years to let him run roughshod over our country’s most fundamental principles.


[NOTE: Here’s a link to my recent interview on Viewpoints –]

Donald Trump is laying mattresses for the release of his tax returns. His periodically besieged and perpetually angry campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told CBS News that the presumptive Republican nominee for President will provide his returns as soon as the Internal Revenue Service concludes an audit.

As another episode in the reality series that has become the presidential campaign, the interview is worth watching. It exemplifies the Trump approach: Confuse the issue, pivot from defense to offense, and identify a new villain or two. As the questions get tougher, allow the natural bully to escape just long enough to intimidate serious inquirers while invigorating core supporters who embrace anger.

Step #1: Confuse the Issue

The CBS News introduction to the Lewandowski interview starts with the enormous range in the estimates of Trump’s wealth. He now claims to be worth $10 billion. In 2014, he said it was $3.3 billion. Last year, Forbes put it at $125 million.

Lewandowski said that Trump’s income last year was $557 million: “By any standard, that’s success.” Then he repeated it for emphasis: “$557 million.”

At best, his assertion was disingenuous. As Fortune Magazine observed, $557 million were Trump’s gross revenues, not his net income. Surely, he would never tolerate someone running one of his businesses who didn’t understand the difference. Plenty of companies with revenues that were tremendous — hugely tremendous, Trump might say — have gone bankrupt. It’s the net that matters.

Lewandowski then talked about the value of the buildings that he says Trump owns. Among them: “a store on Fifth Avenue that’s worth more than Mitt Romney’s total net worth was…”

What is Trump’s actual ownership share of the properties identified with him? Does anyone really believe that he holds clear title to all of the structures that bear the Trump name? Sadly, the answer is yes — lots of people do. They don’t understand, for example, the difference between owning a hotel and licensing the right to let the real owners put the Trump brand on it — often in great big capital letters.

As for his actual properties, do they have mortgages? Fortune reports that while revenues from his businesses increased from 2015, he added debt — $300 million of new debt generating $47 million in interest expense. What is Trump’s real “net-net-net” number? Lewandowski and Trump aren’t saying.

Step #2: Pivot to Offense

How about Trump’s insistence in 2012 that Mitt Romney release his tax returns? Or Romney’s observation that Trump’s returns have something to hide?

“Mitt Romney is a failed presidential candidate,” Lewandowski replied. “And he hid from his wealth.” Then he did a riff on Romney’s eight-car garage in Malibu. (He got that wrong, too. Romney’s building plans involved a four-car garage with an elevator lift in La Jolla.)

If the issue is the continuing IRS audit, why not release tax returns for 2002 through 2008? Those audits are completed.

Lewandowski’s answer: “It’s like what Bernie Sanders said, there’s nothing to see from 2002 and 2003 and 2004. What you guys are interested in right now is what his tax rate is. His tax rate is as low as possible… So he can provide jobs for people in his corporation.”

Step #3: Identify New Villains

As the CBS interviewers pressed ahead, Lewandowski became increasingly angry.

“Every attorney he’s talked to, including people like Greta Van Susteren, has said, ‘As your legal counsel, if I were to be your counsel, I would never allow you to release those taxes until the routine IRS audit is done.'”

“Routine” kept popping out of Lewandowski’s mouth when he referred to the “audit.” It began to take on a “protest too much” aura. But his substantive point is silly. Trump is not just another wealthy private citizen for whom such advice might make sense. He’s running for President of the United States. Does he fear that the IRS is missing something that others will catch? If so, why should he care? If he’s worth more than $10 billion, he can afford whatever anyone finds, can’t he? Besides, if Lewandowski keeps his promise, Trump’s returns will be available “immediately” after the audit is over.

Then came the new villain:

“This is the fault of the IRS,” Lewandowski said with his first smile of the interview. “Have them go finish the audit.”

Behind the Distraction

What could the “something to hide” be? Charitable giving secrets? Maybe. In April, The Washington Post analyzed a list from the Trump campaign of his charitable contributions over the past five years and concluded, “Not a single one of those [4,844] donations was actually a personal gift of Trump’s own money.”

Instead, they were “free rounds of golf, given away by his courses for charity auctions and raffles,” “land conservation agreements to forego development rights on property Trump owns,” and gifts from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, “which didn’t receive a personal check from Trump from 2009 through 2014.”

But I don’t think the most sensitive items on Trump’s personal tax returns involve his charitable giving or lack thereof. I think it’s the tax breaks that benefit every commercial real estate developer: depreciation and carry-forward losses.

Winning “Bigly”

The tax code allows taxpayers to depreciate the cost of a commercial building over its assumed life of 39 years. Each year, one thirty-ninth of the cost gets deducted from income. When you deal in big buildings, even small ownership slices translate into big tax depreciation deductions. It doesn’t matter that most buildings last a lot longer than 39 years. Properly structured, depreciation and other deductions relating to the ownership of commercial property pass through to individual taxpayers. Throw in taxes and other deductions, and the amounts get even larger.

Likewise, if a taxpayer loses money on a business venture — and Trump has ample experience there as well — those losses also offset current income. If total deductions and losses in a year exceed income, they carry-forward to offset income in future years.

“He’s going to pay the smallest amount of taxes possible,” Lewandowski said in reframing the entire issue. “Every deduction possible. He fights for every single dollar. That’s the mindset you want to bring to the government.”

Don’t be surprised if Trump’s personal effective tax rate turns out to be surprisingly close to zero. It’s probably a lot lower than what most of his supporters pay. I guess that makes Trump a winner. It makes those supporters something else.