The Morning Dispatch: Friday, October 11, 2019

Turkish Incursions, Republican Criticisms, Giuliani Associates, & Chinese Censorship

Grim news out of northern Syria, where Turkish forces are continuing their advance into Kurdish-controlled land. The Turks, who are attempting to seize control of a wide band of the Kurds’ territory in which to resettle refugees from the Syrian civil war, have battered Kurdish towns with airstrikes and heavy artillery. Meanwhile Turkey’s border towns have been hit with rockets from Syria. Civilian casualties are piling up on both sides, and the U.N. estimates that 70,000 civilians in northern Syria have been newly displaced.

After his surprise announcement that the U.S. would cease its military support of the Kurds earlier this week, President Trump seemingly left the door open for another strategic shift Thursday:

It would make sense for Trump to try to walk this back, as it’s hard to overstate just how far out on a limb he is with GOP lawmakers here. By The Dispatch’s count, 24 GOP senators and 38 House members have distanced themselves from the White House’s new Syria policy, with only a handful actively praising it. The president is counting on a lot of loyalty from his party as Democrats prepare for impeachment—he can’t be thrilled to see those numbers increasing.

But do these defections truly spell political danger for Trump, as some pundits have suggested? A three-day deep dive into lawmakers’ reactions reveals that while members are growing testier, there’s little indication yet that congressional Republicans objections on Syria are bleeding into their stances on the impeachment-related issues that could threaten his grip on the White House.

GOP Temperature Check

If a GOP lawmaker did see the Syria disaster as a “come to Jesus” moment, what would that look like? We don’t have to speculate: Illinois Republican John Shimkus called Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds “despicable” and said, “I pull my name off the ‘I support Donald Trump list.’”

A few more dressed down the Syria policy in surprisingly scornful language.

But a huge majority of the Republicans who distanced themselves from Trump’s Syria policy took pains not to suggest they were criticizing the president. Of those who did express concerns, the boldest said that Trump had merely made a “mistake.” Others simply urged the U.S. to take a different tack, but without mentioning that the current tack was the one Trump had chosen. And then there was Representative Mark Green, from Tennessee, a decorated combat veteran of both Afghanistan and Iraq, whose official bio reports that he interrogated Saddam Hussein. Discussing Trump’s Syria decision on NPR’s “Here and Now,” Green offered what might be the best distillation of the uneasy tension between Capitol Hill Republicans and Trump. "Yeah, I disagree with what he’s doing now, I wish it wasn’t happening, but I still fully support it."

That same sentiment describes the approach of many GOP lawmakers on the president’s use of Ukraine (and China) to target Joe Biden. But publicly there’s little GOP movement on any of the president’s Ukraine-related controversies. Is private frustration there feeding public disagreement on Syria? Perhaps. But so far not a single Republican has moved from disagreement over Trump’s treatment of the Kurds to denunciation of bad behavior in Ukraine.

And speaking of Ukraine…

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better

Two associates of Rudy Giuliani were arrested Thursday on federal campaign finance charges. Prosecutors allege that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman attempted to funnel foreign money to a former GOP congressman, hoping to enlist him to convince the Trump administration to fire then-ambassador to Ukraine Maria Yovanovitch. All this, in turn, was apparently part of a hamfisted scheme to get in good with Ukraine’s state natural gas company.

The arrest took place at Washington’s Dulles airport as the pair were attempting to board a one-way flight to Vienna. It comes just days after the Associated Press detailed Parnas and Fruman’s attempts to game both the Ukrainian government and our own. If you missed that, here’s the gist:

  • Parnas and Fruman, along with an oil baron named Harry Sargeant, hatched a plan to ingratiate themselves with senior executives at Ukraine’s state natural gas company, Naftogaz, by talking up their close political connections to Trump. 

  • As part of their pitch, the schemers let on that they had insider knowledge of the Trump administration’s strategy for the region. They told one executive, for instance, that Trump planned to replace the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine—Marie Yovanovitch, who was indeed recalled two months later—“with someone more open to aiding their business interests.” 

  • Later that month, Rudy Giuliani met with Parnas and another personal associate, Healy Baumgardner, the CEO of a Houston-based lobbying group called 45 Energy Group, to discuss a potential energy deal and the status of Ambassador Yovanovitch—although Giuliani maintains this potential deal involved Uzbekistan, not Ukraine. 

  • Giuliani, who, it is always worth pointing out, is Trump’s personal attorney and has no official government role, also acknowledged pushing Trump to replace Yovanovitch, and has previously described Parnas and Fruman as personal clients. 

President Trump distanced himself from the whole sordid affair Thursday, telling reporters he didn’t know the men and that if they wanted more information, “you’d have to ask Rudy.” (Photographs of Trump and Giuliani with the two men quickly zipped around social media.) He also said he hoped Giuliani wouldn’t be indicted as well. 

This new web of alleged corruption is all tangential to the main accusation that’s had Democrats pressing toward impeachment: that Trump extorted the Ukrainian government to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden, seemingly even holding back military aid appropriated to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia until he got what he wanted. (Trump’s defense received a boost yesterday when Ukrainian president Zelensky said he didn’t think he was being blackmailed.)

As these Giuliani-related stories continue to drop—and the smart money seems to be they will keep dropping—it will be interesting to see whether Democrats fold them into their impeachment narrative, or continue to stay laser-focused on the single abuse of power. 

But the two Ukraine scandals converge in one key respect. In order to justify the Biden ask to the public, Trump has been forced to lean hard on a pretty flimsy argument: That he was interested in getting dirt on Biden not for his own political gain, but simply because he couldn’t stand to see anybody get away with political corruption. 

This claim strained credulity before. Now we get the opportunity to see it tested in real time. Will Trump spend the days to come aggressively trying to get the Ukrainian government to get to the bottom of alleged Giuliani-related grift? We wouldn’t bet the milk money on it. 

Ted Cruz Weighs In on the NBA Saga

Long heralded by progressives for its social stances and commitment to player empowerment, the NBA has quickly shed its status as the “woke” sports league after its shameless attempts to appease authoritarian thugs in China. 

After Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the NBA went into overdrive mitigating the fallout with the Chinese Communist Party to protect what has ballooned into a $4 billion market for the league. Chief communications officer Mike Bass issued an embarrassing statement, requiring Commissioner Adam Silver to clean it up a few days later. A Rockets employee shut down a CNN reporter who asked superstar James Harden if, after this week, he had new reservations about speaking his mind freely. (The NBA later apologized). Capital One Arena employees confiscated signs during Wednesday’s Wizards game for being too “political” while the Star-Spangled Banner played in the background. Typically outspoken Warriors coach Steve Kerr, when asked about Chinese human rights abuses, offered an utterly asinine example of moral equivalency, avoiding criticism of the country that systematically imprisons ethnic minorities in order to castigate his own.

But the NBA isn’t alone in pandering to these wannabe apparatchiks in Asia. Apple removed an app from its App Store that helped protesters in Hong Kong monitor police activity after the CCP-run newspaper People’s Daily called the app’s approval an “unwise and reckless decision.” Nike pulled all Rockets memorabilia from at least five stores in China. Activision Blizzard, a video game company, suspended a professional gamer and revoked his earnings after he shouted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” on a livestream.

The episodes raise serious questions about the role American corporations have in promoting democratic values and human rights as they expand into global markets. In August, the Business Roundtable—a trade association representing CEOs of the largest companies in the country—updated for the first time since 1997 what it believes to be the purpose of a corporation. In addition to simply creating shareholder value, BRT members committed to “dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers” and “supporting the communities in which we work.” Apple CEO Tim Cook was a signatory.

Sen. Ted Cruz, who has been beating this drum on China for years, tells The Dispatch

American companies should not be willing instruments of the Chinese Communist Party. When they act that way, they set an unfortunate and dangerous precedent of kowtowing to a communist regime with an appalling human rights record and brutally oppressive policies trampling on free speech and free expression. The N.B.A., Nike, and Apple should know that when they do business in China there are at a minimum enormous reputational risks entailed and when they bend to the will of China at the expense of free speech and free expression, they import the regime’s repressive policies to the United States and the rest of the world.

Cruz—joined by a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher, Ron Wyden, and Ben Sasse—signed a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver earlier this week criticizing the league’s handling of Morey’s tweet. “It’s not unreasonable,” the group wrote, “to expect American companies to put our fundamental democratic rights ahead of profit The very rights that have fostered their success and our nation’s wealth.”

To most American politicians, standing up to China’s authoritarian practices is like facing an 89 mile per hour fastball from Clayton Kershaw in the NLDS. For Donald Trump, it’s a little trickier to hit. The president said Wednesday the league has to “work out their own situation,” and on a June call with Chinese President Xi Jinping he allegedly pledged to “remain quiet on Hong Kong protests as trade talks progressed” (and not the kind involving James Harden). He also tweeted congratulations on the 70th anniversary of communist Chinese rule.

Why Has China Been So Pissed?

Protesters in Hong Kong have been taking to the streets for months; at first over a Chinese extradition bill that would have limited Hong Kong’s judicial sovereignty, and subsequently in response to the violent crackdown against the initial demonstrators. What many Westerners see as an admirable fight for democratic norms, the Communist Party of China—and in turn the Chinese people whose information diet is limited to what the CCP wants them to know—views as a dangerous group of rioters, propped up by foreign adversaries, pushing a separatist movement.

So when Morey tweeted his support for these pro-democracy dissidents, what the Chinese saw was a direct affront from the top executive of their favorite team—the one that drafted the Shanghai-born Yao Ming first overall in 2002.

There are signs, however, that China is changing its strategy. The New York Times reported early Friday morning that the government was moving to tamp down protests of the NBA they’d previously been whipping up for days: “Editors at state news outlets have told reporters to avoid emphasizing the N.B.A. issue for fear that it might become overheated, according to interviews with three journalists on Thursday.”

What Else We’re Reading/Watching

  • Former commander of U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel and counter-terrorism fellow at the Middle East Institute Elizabeth Dent highlight the danger of abandoning our Kurdish partners in a piece in The Atlantic.

  • Toni Fitzgerald tells the story of Julia Sand, a 19th-century Manhattan woman who changed the course of Chester A. Arthur’s presidency by sending him a series of 23 letters “imploring him to be a better man.” Kim Jong-un, we see what you’re up to.

  • John McCormack has an excellent profile of senator, Uber driver, and Runza vendor Ben Sasse over at National Review. The Nebraskan was 67 minutes late to the interview, but he brought beer.

Presented With No Comment

Toeing The Company Line

A note from our fearless editor-in-chief, Jonah Goldberg:

 “Seeking and blundering are good,” the German man of letters, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “For it is only by seeking and blundering we learn.” Goethe, if web sources are to be believed, was full of wise and pithy insights that seem relevant to our endeavor here at The Dispatch. For instance, Goethe observed, “To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”

We are trying to do exactly that with The Dispatch, to provide something we think the world should want, even if acting on it proves quite difficult. Goethe warned that the “things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” And here we disagree with the sage of Frankfurt, the wiseman of Weimar. We believe in sweating the small stuff, because we don’t think it’s really small. Whether it’s grammar and spelling or facts and figures, we want to get things right every single time. We understand that’s an impossible ideal.  Still, when we fall short, we think it’s vital to be honest and transparent with our members about it.

Which brings us back to Herr Goethe. While he apparently did say, “There is nothing worse than aggressive stupidity,” he did not in fact say “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid,” a quote we misattributed to him in our introductory post. That was Basil King, the largely forgotten Canadian writer. On the Internet, the quote is widely (mis)attributed to Goethe—almost surely because of the film “Almost Famous.” We regret the error and we promise that as we get our sea-legs we will be more diligent in rooting out this sort of thing. After all, as Abraham Lincoln famously said in his first, and only, televised debate with Stephen Douglas, not everything on the Internet is to be believed.

Let Us Know

Which of the below is not a company owned by Giuliani clients Lev Parnas or Igor Fruman? We promise, two of them are real.

  • Fraud Guarantee

  • Crime Doers, Inc.

  • Mafia Rave

Answer: Crime Doers, Inc. 

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Reporting by Declan Garvey and Andrew Egger.