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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

The Robber Baron

William Andrews Clark, Sr. (1839-1925) isn’t the best-known of the American robber barons, but he’s a classic example of men of his era who became wealthy through ingenuity and ruthlessness.

Clark made a fortune in mining, railroads, banking, newspapers, and other businesses. He is among the 50 richest Americans of all time, and he rose to the top by being shrewd and unscrupulous and never looking back.

Clark was born in Pennsylvania, and as a young man, briefly taught school in Iowa. In 1862, he headed west to seek his fortune mining gold.

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William Clark (right) in Bannack, Montana, 1863.

During the Montana Gold Rush, he had modest success panning for gold. But he saw greater potential in supplying goods and services needed by the prospectors and miners.

He also began loaning money to the men of the boom towns. When a miner defaulted on a loan, Clark repossessed the man’s claim. Thus, he found himself in the mining business. Within a decade, he had expanded into smelting and transportation.

In Montana, he bought several played-out silver mines, which the owners were relieved to sell for next to nothing. He then made vast profits by mining them for copper.

At its peak, Clark’s copper mine in Jerome, Arizona, yielded some $400,000 per month. Clarkdale, Arizona, is named for him.

When he needed a watering stop on his rail line from California to Jerome, he built it next to a remote trading post in Nevada. The spot grew to become Las Vegas. Clark County, Nevada, is named for him.

By the 1890s, Clark had developed political ambitions. At a time when senators were appointed by state legislatures, he pressured Montana legislators to send him to the U.S. Senate. In 1899, they did.

But soon, proof went public that Clark had bribed many of the legislators with envelopes of thousand-dollar bills. Clark’s response: “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

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Senator Clark speaking to a crowd in 1905.

The result of the Clark bribery scandal was the 17th Amendment, adopted in 1913, which provided for the election of senators by popular vote.

Clark has the distinction of being the first person caught using bribery to become a U.S. Senator, but, in fact, the scheme didn’t work. When the truth came out two months into his term, the Senate ejected him.

Clark promptly ran for the Senate again, supposedly without resorting to bribery this time. He secured the appointment and served in the Senate from 1901 until 1907.

In 1911, Clark moved to New York City, and he set out to build the most elaborate, most magnificent mansion money could buy. The structure was indeed elaborate, with 25 guest bedrooms, 35 rooms for servants, and all the outlandish adornments Clark could dream up. He spent several years personally massaging and revising the plans to make the building more opulent.

But when his dream house was finally completed, New York society ridiculed it mercilessly. Critics called it tacky and out of style. It was “an architectural aberration,” “inexcusable,” and “an appropriate residence for the late P. T. Barnum.” The building came to be known as “Clark’s Folly.”

Clark died in his mansion in 1925. His widow promptly sold the building and moved away. It was demolished in 1927 and replaced with a luxury apartment building.

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“Clark’s Folly” at Fifth Avenue and East 77th Street.

William Clark was a product of America’s Gilded Age, when enterprising men took advantage of the country’s feverish expansion, wild-west mentality, and rapid industrialization to amass great wealth by any means, ethical or otherwise.

Even then, Clark was a larger-than-life villain, reviled for his shady, underhanded tactics in business and politics.

And it’s only natural to compare him to Donald Trump. The similarities between Clark and Trump in personality and behavior are striking: swaggering, self-absorbed, braggadocious, combative, ostentatious, amoral. No sense of shame or regret. Masters of conspicuous consumption.

I don’t mean to suggest that Trump is a modern-day robber baron. That would be an insult to robber barons. Trump lacks the necessary competence and focus.

In truth, Trump has more in common with P. T. Barnum, who once said, “I am a showman by profession, and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” That’s a perfect description of Trump, and we all know it.

But back to my comparison of Clark and Trump. The differences between the two men are interesting, too.

— Clark started with nothing and clawed his way to the top; Trump was born rich and has made a career of keeping himself in the public eye.

— Clark, probably for reasons of ego, sincerely wanted to be a U.S. Senator; Trump, I suspect, also ran for office for reasons of ego, but never thought he would be elected President. He probably longs to have his old life back.

— Clark was known for his intellect, attention to detail, and an uncanny sense of when to take a risk; Trump is known for a stunning lack of curiosity, shooting from the hip, and a history of business failures*.

In 1907, William Clark’s final year in the Senate, Mark Twain published an essay entitled “Senator Clark of Montana.” He assessed Clark this way:

He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has produced since Tweed’s time.

I wonder how Twain would assess Donald Trump.

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William Clark, the quintessential American robber baron, and his Trumpian hair.

* Trump is now indebted, to a degree we don’t yet know, to a host of international banks and foreign interests, including a number of Russian oligarchs. Putin and the oligarchs are, in case you don’t know, literal gangsters, ruling Russia like a criminal enterprise to line their own pockets. The fact that Trump does business with them and mixes with them socially is a disgrace. There. I feel much better now.

 

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The Minions Speak

Donald Trump, the most laughable President in U.S. history, met with his full Cabinet for the first time recently. Since then, the meeting has been thoroughly covered in the news and mocked repeatedly, and there’s little reason for Rocky Smith to chime in about it, but I can’t help myself…

Trump, the Orange Vulgarian, never operates in a remotely normal or dignified manner, so it came as no surprise that his first Cabinet meeting was so cringe-worthy.

After patting himself on the back for a host of phantom accomplishments, Trump asked the assembled minions to say a few words. They did. All of them.

In my considered opinion, these minions are an especially villainous bunch, not only ill-suited to serve, but salivating to wreak havoc while they can. (You know, like Scott Pruitt cheerfully dismantling environmental protections.) I expect only the worst from them.

And the worst is what we got. What transpired was an example of shameless sycophancy — of a roomful of toadies competing to out-brown-nose each other and impress Dear Leader Trump.

Through it all, Trump listened, nodded, and smiled with satisfaction. No doubt it reminded him of his glory days on The Apprentice.

Here are some lowlights from the meeting.

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Mike Pence, Vice President:

“It is just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as the — as vice president to the President who’s keeping his word to the American people and assembling a team that’s bringing real change, real prosperity, real strength back to our nation.”

Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture:

I want to congratulate you on the men and women you’ve placed around this table. This is the team you’ve assembled that’s working hand in glove with — for the men and women of America, and I want to — I want to thank you for that. These are — are great team members and we’re on your team.”

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Attorney General:

“We are receiving, as you know — I’m not sure the rest of you fully understand — the support of law enforcement all over America. They have been very frustrated. They are so thrilled that we have a new idea that we’re going to support them and work together to properly, lawfully fight the rising crime that we are seeing. The response is fabulous around the country.”

Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services:

“Mr. President, what an incredible honor it is to lead the Department of Health and Human Services at this pivotal time under your leadership. I can’t thank you enough for the privileges you’ve given me and the leadership that you’ve shown.”

Nikki Haley, UN Ambassador:

It’s a new day at the United Nations. You know, we now have a very strong voice. People know what the United States is for, they know what we’re against, and they see us leading across the board. And so, I think the international community knows we’re back.”

Scott Pruitt, EPA Administrator:

“I actually arrived back this morning at 1 o’clock from Italy and the G-7 summit focused on the environment. And our message there was the United States is going to be focused on growth and protecting the environment. And it was received well.”

Rick Perry, Energy Secretary:

“America is not stepping back, but we’re stepping into place and sending some messages, that we’re still going to be leaders in the world when it comes to the climate, but we’re not going to be held hostage to some executive order that was ill thought out. And so, my hat’s off to you for taking that stance and presenting a clear message around the world that America’s going to continue to lead in the area of energy.”

David Shulkin, Secretary of Veterans Affairs:

“Mr. President, thank you for your support and commitment to honoring our responsibility to America’s veterans. I know that this is personally very important to you.”

Mick Mulvaney, Director, Office of Management and Budget:

“Thanks for the kind words about the budget. You’re absolutely right, we are going to be able to take care of the people who really need it. And at the same time, with your direction, we were able to also focus on the forgotten man and woman who are the folks who are paying those taxes.”

Steve Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury:

“It was a great honor traveling with you around the country for the last year and an even greater honor to be here serving on your Cabinet.”

Mike Pompeo, CIA Director:

“Mr. President, it’s an honor to serve as your CIA director. It’s an incredible privilege to lead the men and women who are providing intelligence so that we can do the national security mission. And in the finest traditions of the CIA, I’m not going to share a damn thing in front of the media.”

Rrrrreince Priebus, Chief of Staff:

“On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.”

————

To be fair, a couple of the minions maintained a modicum of integrity and wouldn’t play.

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James Mattis, Secretary of Defense:

“Mr. President, it’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense. And we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength. Thank you.”

Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State:

“Thank you for the honor to serve the country. It’s a great privilege you’ve given me.”

————

Even so, the fact that most of them DID play, and that Trump clearly expects such fawning, is a sorry spectacle.

Years ago, when I was a green lieutenant in the Air Force, I was having lunch with a colonel who was head of the base Legal Office. I don’t recall the subject, but I observed that, in some situation or other, we had reached “rock bottom.”

“Bottom?” the colonel replied. “Rocky, wake up. There is no bottom.”

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More Proof

Here’s more proof that money and power can’t buy class, character, manners, or a sense of decency.

Class, character, humility and integrity have to be earned, but some people are destined to remain callous, small-minded jerks. That’s just the way it is.

Sad.

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Smokescreens

A decade ago, an editorial cartoon by the great Kirk Anderson observed that cats are like Democrats and dogs are like Republicans. The analogy remains as valid today as it was then.

But, in one sense, the reverse is true.

Consider the fact that dogs are uncomplicated, guileless creatures. Dogs have no hidden agendas. With dogs, what you see is what you get.

Cats, on the other hand, are sneaky little bastards, cold-hearted and lethal. With cats, you are advised to be on guard. The average cat is plotting something ugly.

Now consider how this observation plays out in our politics — how liberals conduct themselves compared to conservatives.

With the lefties, what you see is what you get. Liberals want to use government and our common resources to make life better and safer. They consider that to be the fundamental purpose of any government.

The liberal mindset is clear and straightforward. There are no facades, no deceptions, no smokescreens.

With conservatives, everything is a smokescreen. They are honest and candid about nothing.

At every opportunity, Republicans in Congress work to undermine government involvement in the healthcare system because they don’t believe government should be involved in healthcare.

But they don’t have the guts to admit it. They claim their goal is to make your healthcare better. Puh-leeze.

Republican politicians pass laws designed to make voter registration and voting more difficult, because lower turnout always benefits Republicans.

But they don’t have the stones to own up to what they’re doing. They insist they are protecting the nation from “voter fraud.” Voter fraud is a fabricated, non-existent, laughable threat.

Republicans despise government funding of social programs, Planned Parenthood, NPR, the arts, etc., because those are do-gooder programs. Do-gooder programs elevate the right’s collective blood pressure.

But they can’t make themselves admit that publicly. Instead, they claim they want to rein in wasteful government spending.

The irony here is that conservatives are just as transparent as liberals, and we all know it. But the right-wingers lack the conviction to admit their beliefs in the light of day. Hence, smokescreens.

Let’s be real. Republican politicians are an opportunistic, cynical, and despicable bunch. They reaffirm my contempt with every breath.

Most Republican voters, on the other hand, are normal enough people. While they clearly have more hang-ups and issues, they are no more evil and malicious than anyone else.

But they embraced a philosophy that is precisely that.

The Republican ideology is, on its face, selfish and mean. Fundamentally, Republican doctrine consists of the attitude, “I’ve got mine, go fend for yourself.”

Conservatives still believe, or profess to believe, in the tired old myth that welfare queens are bleeding the nation dry. They believe millions of lazy deadbeats are living the good life at the expense of honest, hard-working Republicans like themselves.

They believe that if you’re poor or sick, it’s your own fault; you didn’t work hard enough or plan ahead adequately. And furthermore, it isn’t the job of government to step forward and help you. Tough cheese, pal. Now get lost.

Sneaky, cold-hearted, and lethal. Cat-like to the core.

President Trump Speaks At The White House After The House Voted On Health Care Bill

 

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Blue Lies

You tell people a lie three times, they will believe anything. You tell people what they want to hear, play to their fantasies, and then you close the deal.

— Donald Trump in ‘The Art of the Deal’

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Donald J. Trump, the Orange Vulgarian, was in the national spotlight for decades before he became President.

Over the years, Trump has been on regular display, making his name as a celebrity, a personality, an entertainer. The public had ample time to see him in action and observe how he thinks and operates.

Those years of exposure clearly revealed the man’s many unpleasant traits of personality and character. He was, and still is, coarse, tasteless, narcissistic, amoral, vindictive, and, underneath it all, needy and insecure. I make that diagnosis with full confidence that I’m right.

Trump being Trump makes him totally unfit for any position of public trust. Yet, great numbers of seemingly ordinary Americans voted for him.

Here was one of the most shallow, petty and unqualified persons ever on the national scene, and a huge chunk of the electorate, oblivious to reality, put him in office. To my eternal credit, I wasn’t one of them.

I still struggle to grasp the underlying psychology here. I don’t fully grok the motivation of the trumpophiles. I’ve had no eureka moment that allows me to understand fully why people voted for Trump and continue to support him.

Was he so convincing that he told his lies three times, played to people’s fantasies, and they believed him? Of course not.

Can his win be explained by anger in blue-collar America, hyper-polarization in society, and the Fox New bubble? Yes, to a degree.

The cloud over everything, of course, is the matter of Russian interference and influence — the meddling by Putin, the creepy web of connections/collusion between Russia and Trump’s inner circle. This is unprecedented stuff, with consequences yet unknown.

But, that aside, focusing on what was in the minds of the Trump voters, I’ve found a new piece of the puzzle that, for me, is very illuminating. It has to do with the art and science of telling lies.

Lying, the experts say, begins at about age three. That’s when children discover that adults can’t read their minds, and it’s possible to tell lies — self-serving black lies — to avoid getting into trouble. He hit me first. I didn’t do it.

By age seven or eight, kids learn the concept of white lies — tactful lies told to avoid unpleasantness or hurt feelings. Yes, ma’am, the meatloaf was great. That’s a pretty dress.

People lie, tactically and strategically, all their lives. Psychologists classify the lies we tell in various ways, usually something like this:

Black lies — Told for selfish reasons.

White lies — Told for selfless reasons.

Gray lies — Told partly to benefit yourself, partly to benefit someone else.

Red lies — Angry lies, told for spite or revenge, even at the risk of harming yourself.

And now, add to that list the concept of blue lies — lies told to benefit the group to which the liar pledges allegiance.

Think about how humans operate socially. By nature, we divide ourselves into groups, for protection as well as to share resources. For the most part, we are loyal and generous to others in the group. To our fellows, we are magnanimous and compassionate.

But, while we tend to be pro-social toward members of the group, we tend to be antisocial toward non-members.

Non-members are outsiders. Potential enemies, potential threats. They are easily dehumanized. They can become targets of suspicion, hate, and violence, usually in that order.

In that context, telling a blue lie can be positive and morally justified. It is seen as lying in the interest of the collective good, while simultaneously taking a shot at a perceived enemy.

Blue lies are told wherever people divide into groups — in politics, government, business, everywhere. We applaud our spies, who tell blue lies to defend the homeland. We accept lying as an appropriate weapon against enemy nations.

It follows, then, that lying to our political enemies is also acceptable.

Thus, when Trump tells a lie, the faithful don’t consider it a case of Donald making an outrageous, demonstrably false statement. They see it as a strike against their enemies. Their man is scoring one for the team.

Rational people can wig out all they want when Trump tells another obvious whopper. But the fact that he lied is of no concern to his supporters. Nor is the actual truth of the matter.

Trump’s conservative admirers rally behind a litany of familiar issues. Freeloaders on public assistance. Immigrants as a criminal threat, stealing our jobs. Climate change is a hoax. Government regulations hobble free enterprise. Hillary ran a sex ring out of a pizza parlor.

How much of that they believe, if any of it, is immaterial. More to the point, those issues amount to blue lies being used as weapons against enemy tribes.

The concept of using lies as a social force and a weapon explains a great deal. It helps me better understand the mentality and motivations of the Trump voters.

It also makes me thank God that I have a brain, a heart, and an empathy gene.

Us vs. Them

 

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The Man at the Bar

Now and then, you get a peek at how the brain of a modern-day political conservative functions. You get a glimpse of how the mental gears mesh, how the thought processes unfold. The experience is always depressing.

Last week, while out shopping, I stopped for lunch at On the Border. Being a party of one, I was ushered to a small booth in the bar.

Sitting here and there around the bar were several other parties of one, all 50-ish white guys. One was chatting with the female bartender. Mostly, I was tuning everyone out, until the man got my attention.

“Did you hear?” he said to the girl. “Obama’s new house in Washington has a damn bunker built under it. A huge compound for illegals. Might be 20,000 of ’em camped out there.”

The girl replied matter-of-factly, but I couldn’t make out what she said. It came across as sort of a wah-wah-wah, like Charley Brown’s teacher in the Peanuts cartoons.

“They’re gonna expand it, so many are crossin’ the border,” the man said. “They’re on Obama’s payroll. He sends ’em to the anti-Trump riots to cause trouble.”

The girl gave another wah-wah-wah reply and departed to help another customer, whereupon the tirade ended.

I thought about the incident on the way home, and it seemed obvious that the man got his information from the right-wing propaganda machine.

The aim of the story he related was clear: to vilify immigrants, vilify anti-Trump protesters, and stick it to Obama, who is still the cartoon evildoer of the conservatives.

I didn’t think it was a Fox News story. It seemed a step too preposterous, even for Fox.

I mean, really. A bunker under a rented house in a ritzy Washington neighborhood? For 20,000 people? Wouldn’t the neighbors object?

Actually, it sounded more like the kind of caustic, over-the-top, conspiracy-theory crapola peddled on talk radio. Maybe from Alex Jones and Infowars.

So, when I got home, I went online and Googled “Compound under Obama house.”

Sure enough, there it was on the Infowars website:

SABOTAGE: OBAMA IS COMMANDING AN  ARMY OF 30,000 ANTI-TRUMP ACTIVISTS FROM HIS HOME 2 MILES FROM THE WHITE HOUSE

The only real fact in the story is that the Obama family rented a house in a D.C. neighborhood. Two miles from the White House? Probably. The rest is baseless nonsense, fabricated from thin air.

The story uses words and images designed to incite the easily incitable — “command center,” “army of activists,” “riots,” “bunker,” “shadow government,” “community organizers,” “global elite.” If your brain functions in the normal manner, you can easily see it as a spin job.

But the man at the bar fell for the story. In fact, he embellished it. And it was interesting to see how much of the message, and which parts, he got wrong.

The article called its fictional subjects “activists.” The man heard “illegals.”

They were described as an “army” under Obama’s command. The man took that to mean they are literally on the premises. Under the house. The idea of  plans to expand the bunker, he seems to have dreamed that up on his own.

Also interesting is that he remembered the number 20,000, which was in the text of the story, not the number 30,000 from the headline. Maybe he was trying to be, you know, conservative. Wouldn’t want to exaggerate or overstate things.

I didn’t hear the man mention the proximity of Obama’s house to that awful Islamic Center, but there’s a story online about that, too.

My point is, the man at the bar is a prime target of right-wing propaganda and a poster child for absorbing the intended message.

I don’t mean to imply that the man is villainous in any way. He probably thinks of himself as a good citizen. He may well be an honest, hard-working, church-going family man.

But, like legions of his fellow conservatives, he gets most of his information from sources that are, on purpose, not factual. Sources that present outright lies as truth.

The man is fed, and he believes, information that is misleading, self-serving, sometimes preposterous, and often easily proven wrong.

But he and his fellow righties are okay with that. They are neither deterred nor impressed by reality, logic, or facts. The truth is, they chose a side long ago, and that’s that.

At this point, they are well-conditioned and do not flinch. If an inconvenient truth slips into the conservative bubble and slaps them in the face, they simply dismiss it. They literally don’t believe it.

What the right-wing has done is cynical and diabolical. But you have to admire the genius of a brainwashing apparatus that has, in just a few decades, successfully rewired the synapses in the brains of millions of people. They’ve managed to train people to dismiss reality and believe the unbelievable.

People like the man at the bar.

obama-house

This is the Obama family’s new home in Washington’s ritzy Kalorama neighborhood. It’s a rental, nine bedrooms, 8,200 square feet. Among their new neighbors: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Secretary of State/oil magnate Rex Tillerson.

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Follow the Money

Back in 1976, in the movie All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein are told to “follow the money” to get to the truth, understand motivations, and see the big picture.

Follow the money. Always good advice, especially in business and politics.

For example, consider the following facts about Russia, the oil industry, and the orange vulgarian, Donald Trump.

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In 2012, oil behemoth ExxonMobil entered into a partnership with the Russian oil company Rosneft (world’s 2nd largest oil/gas company, state-controlled) to develop oil reserves under 63 million acres in the Russian Arctic. The deal was estimated to be worth a mind-blowing five hundred billion dollars.

To celebrate, Vladimir Putin awarded the “Russian Order of Friendship” to Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil. As you may know, Putin, Tillerson, and Trump have a history of personal and business ties and speak glowingly of each other.

But then Putin invaded and annexed Crimea, and the United States and other countries imposed sanctions against Russia that blocked the Rosneft/ExxonMobil deal.

Tillerson and ExxonMobil lobbied strongly against imposing sanctions, but were unable to stop them.

At the moment, 15 of the 20 largest energy-producing companies in the world are state-controlled. This means the head of state is the de facto head of the energy company. Saudi Arabia’s oil company is the world’s largest, followed by Russia, Abu Dhabi, Iran, and China.

FYI, the U.S. has no state-controlled energy company. We’re the only major country that doesn’t own and control its oil and gas industries.

Also FYI, ExxonMobil is the world’s largest non-state-controlled oil company.

So, to summarize: a mammoth oil deal was blocked because Russia got punished for steamrolling and annexing one of its neighbors. Imagine the anger and frustration left seething inside Putin, Tillerson, and Trump.

When 2016 and the U.S. presidential election arrived, Putin and Russia interfered in the campaign to a degree we civilians don’t fully know. We’re aware that Russia spread fake news stories about Hillary Clinton, stole emails from Democrats, and arranged for the juiciest of them to go public.

All in all, Russia’s intention was to help Trump win. He did.

Almost immediately, Trump nominated Tillerson to be Secretary of State. Tillerson solemnly tendered his resignation from ExxonMobil, the only company he has ever worked for.

The resignation is meaningless, of course. It’s a bit like the Trump children running the family business while Dad is President: an un-blind trust.

There is much in the news lately about Trump and Tillerson bemoaning the bad blood between Obama and Putin. They muse about making nice with Russia. They wonder if sanctions are really, you know, such a good idea. Can’t we all just get along?

Whether the three of them can pull it off, can manage to get the sanctions lifted so their fat oil deal can proceed — well, that’s a jump ball. In time, we’ll find out.

But in the meantime, the moral of the story is clear: to get to the truth, follow the money.

puppies

 

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