Monday, July 31, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt eight)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

After witnessing the pogrom, one of the best-known Jewish authors of the twentieth century, Sholem Aleichem, left the city and the country for faraway New York. Anticipation of a pogrom became a major theme in his last story about Tevye the Dairyman. The subject is also prominent in those of his stories on which the Broadway classic Fiddler on the Roof is based. In both the story and the musical, the city policeman is sympathetic to the Jews. That was true of some policemen, but many stood by during the pogroms, encouraging the violence. That seems to have been the case in Kyiv. By the time the police took action against the perpetrators of the pogrom, it had been going on for two days.

In many ways, the Kyiv pogrom was representative of those that took place in Ukraine’s other big cities. The perpetrators were usually workers—recent migrants to the cities from the impoverished villages of Russia and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine who were competing with Jews for jobs and felt exploited and discriminated against by city and factory officials and entrepreneurs. In the Jews, they found easy prey and a “legitimate” target: by attacking them, the perpetrators could manifest and defend their “true Russian identity” and loyalty to the empire’s principles of autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality. Peasants would join in to pillage properties in small towns and on the outskirts of big cities. These criminals felt free to attack properties they would not have touched before.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt seven)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

Among the Russian peasants attracted by the jobs available in Yuzivka, which were dangerous but well paid by the standards of the time, was the young Nikita Khrushchev. He was fourteen years old in 1908, when he moved from the Russian village of Kalinovka, approximately forty miles northeast of the Cossack capital of Hlukhiv, to Yuzivka to join his family. His father, Sergei, a seasonal worker on a railroad in the Yuzivka region before he moved his family there and became a full-time miner, never abandoned his dream of saving enough money to buy a horse and move back to Kalinovka. His son, who had no such dream, embraced city life and became a mining mechanic before joining the Bolshevik Party in the midst of the Revolution of 1917 and embarking on a stunning political career. He would be the leader of the Soviet Union during the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Nikita Khrushchev was not the only future Soviet leader whose family left a village in Russia to benefit from the industrial boom in southern Ukraine. A few years earlier than the Khrushchevs, Ilia Brezhnev, the father of Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s onetime protégé and successor at the helm of the Soviet Union, moved to the Ukrainian industrial town of Kamenske (till recently Dniprodzerzhynsk). Leonid was born in the steel town in 1906. The Khrushchevs and the Brezhnevs took part in a major Russian peasant migration into southern Ukraine that contributed to the underrepresentation of ethnic Ukrainians in the cities. In 1897, the year of the first and only imperial Russian census, approximately 17 million Ukrainians and 3 million Russians resided in the Ukrainian gubernais of the empire—a ratio of almost six to one. But in the cities, they were on a par, with slightly more than 1 million Russians and slightly fewer than 1 million Ukrainians. In the major cities and industrial centers, Russians constituted a majority. They accounted for more than 60 percent of the population of Kharkiv, more than 50 percent in Kyiv, and almost 50 percent in Odesa.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt six)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

The prohibition of virtually all Ukrainian publications in the Russian Empire came in the summer of 1863, in the middle of the Polish uprising that had begun in January of that year. At stake once again was the loyalty of the Ukrainian peasantry. The government decided that when it came to the Ukrainian language, its main concern was the consolidation of the imperial Russian nation, which required shielding the peasantry from unwanted advances on the part of the Ukrainophiles. “Previous works in the Little Russian language were aimed only at the educated classes of southern Russia, but now the proponents of Little Russian ethnicity have turned their attention to the uneducated masses, and those who seek to realize their political ambitions have taken, under the pretense of spreading literacy and education, to publishing reading primers, alphabet books, grammar and geography textbooks, etc.,” wrote the minister of interior, Petr Valuev, in the directive prohibiting Ukrainian-language publications, now not only in the Latin but also in the Cyrillic alphabet. The Valuev directive did not extend to works of fiction, of which there were very few in the early 1860s. In the five years between 1863 and 1868, when Valuev resigned his office, the number of Ukrainian-language publications fell from thirty-three to one.

At first considered a temporary measure, the prohibition became permanent in May 1876. That month, Emperor Alexander II issued a decree known as the Ems Ukase (he was relaxing at a spa in the German town of Ems). The new decree went further than the Valuev directive, prohibiting all publications in Ukrainian, as well as the import of Ukrainian-language books from abroad. It also banned Ukrainian-language theater productions and public performances of Ukrainian songs. Like the Valuev directive, the Ems Ukase was kept secret from the general public. The restrictions were loosened in the 1880s, with the removal of plays and songs from the list, but the publication or import of any Ukrainian-language text remained prohibited for another quarter century. The government held to the formula ascribed to Petr Valuev, who claimed that “there was not, is not, and cannot be any special Little Russian language.” The Ukrainian language, culture, and identity came to be seen as a threat no less serious to the unity of the empire than Polish nationalism: the very unity of the Russian nation seemed to be at stake.

Friday, July 28, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt five)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

In February 1847, a student of law at Kyiv University named Aleksi Petrov turned up in the office of the Kyiv educational district to denounce a secret society that aimed to turn the Russian Empire into a republic. The investigation launched into Petrov’s allegations uncovered the clandestine Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius, named for the Christian missionaries who had enlightened the Slavs not only with a new religion but also with a new language and alphabet. Its members included a professor of history at Kyiv University, Mykola (Nikolai) Kostomarov—he would later become the founder of modern Ukrainian historiography—and a newly appointed drawing instructor, Taras Shevchenko. Born to the family of a Russian noble in Voronezh province on the border with Sloboda Ukraine, Mykola Kostomarov often stressed that his mother was a Ukrainian peasant woman. Whether that was true or not, mid-nineteenth-century Kyiv intellectuals prized peasant origins—they all wanted to work for the people and be as close to them as possible.

No member of the brotherhood had better populist credentials than Kostomarov’s coconspirator Taras Shevchenko. Born in 1814 into a family of serfs in Right-Bank Ukraine, the young Shevchenko joined the household of a rich Polish landlord and first went to Vilnius and then to St. Petersburg as a member of his court. There Shevchenko showed his talent as an artist. A Ukrainian painter in St. Petersburg discovered him while he was drawing in the city’s famous Summer Garden. Shevchenko was introduced to some of the leading figures of the Russian cultural scene of the time, including Russia’s best-known poet before Pushking, Vasilii Zhukovsky, and a founder of Russian romantic art, Karl Briullov. Shevchenko’s work, personality, and life story made such an impression on the artistic community of St. Petersburg that its members decided to free the young serf no matter what. They bought his freedom with 2,500 rubles, an astounding sum by the standards of the time; the funds were the proceeds of the auction of a portrait of Zhukovsky, painted specifically for that purpose, by Briullov.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt four)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

The turning point in the internationalization of the Khmelnystky Revolt took place on January 8, 1654, in the town of Pereiaslav. On that day, Bohdan Khmelnytsky and a hastily gathered group of Cossack officers swore allegiance to the new sovereign of Ukraine, Tsa Aleksi Romanov of Muscovy. The long and complex history of Russo-Ukrainian relations had begun. In 1954, the Soviet Union lavishly celebrated the tricentennial of the “reunification” of Ukraine and Russia. The implication was that all of Ukraine had chosen at Pereiaslav to rejoin Russia and accepted the sovereignty of the tsar. What actually happened at Pereiaslav in 1654 was neither the reunification of Ukraine with Muscovy (which would be renamed “Russia” by Peter I) nor the reunion of two “fraternal peoples,” as suggested by Soviet historians. No one in Pereiaslav or Moscow was thinking or speaking in ethnic terms in 1654.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt three)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

The Ukrainian Cossacks, who had begun their international career in the 1550s by serving the tsar of Muscovy, Ivan the Terrible, paid an unsolicited visit to Moscow during the first decade of the seventeenth century. Muscovy was then in turmoil because of an economic, dynastic, and political crisis known as the Time of Troubles. It began at the turn of the seventeenth century with a number of devastating famines caused in part by what we today call the Little Ice Age—a period of low temperatures that lasted half a millennium, from about 1350 to 1850, peaking around the beginning of the seventeenth century. The crisis afflicted Muscovy at a most inopportune time, when its Rurikid dynasty had died out and a number of artistocratic clans contested the legitimacy of the new rulers. The dynastic crisis came to an end in 1613 with the election to the Muscovite throne of the first Romanov tsar. But before the crisis was resolved, a number of candidates for the throne, some of them “pretenders” claiming to be surviving relatives of Ivan the Terrible, tried their political luck, opening the door to foreign intervention.

During the lengthy interregnum, the Cossacks supported the two pretenders seeking the Muscovite throne, False Dimitrii I and False Dimitrii II. Up to 10,000 Cossacks joined the army of Field Crown Herman Stanislaw Zólkiewski of Poland when he marched on Moscow in 1610. The election to the Muscovite throne three years later of Tsar Mikhail Romanov, found of the dynasty that lasted until the Revolution of 1917, did not end Cossack involvement in Muscovite affairs. In 1618, a Ukrainian Cossack army of 20,000 joined Polish troops in their march on Moscow and took part in the siege of the capital. The Cossacks helped end the war on conditions favorable to the Kingdom of Poland. One of them was the transfer to Poland of the Chernihiv land, which the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had lost in the early sixteenth century. By the mid-seventeenth century, Chenihiv would become an important part of the Cossack world. As always, however, the Cossacks both helped and hindered the Polish kings in advancing their foreign-policy agenda. In its war with Muscovy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth never got the support it hoped for from the Ottoman Empire, partly because of continuing Cossack seagoing expeditions and attacks on the Ottoman littoral.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt two)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

In 1385, in the town of Kreva (now in Belarus), the thirty-three-year-old grand duke of Lithuania, Jogaila, who called himself by God’s grace “Grand Duke of the Lithuanians and Lord of Rus’,” signed a decree that was, in all but name, a prenuptial agreement with representatives of the twelve-year-old queen of Poland, Jadwiga. In exchange for the Polish throne, he agreed to accept Catholicism for himself and his realm and brought about a union of the lands of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A year later, Jogaila was crowned king of Poland. Another year passed, and in 1387 the combined Polish and Lithuanian forces helped to wrestle Galicia from the Hungarians and attach it once again to the Polish kingdom.

A number of other unions would follow the one negotiated in Kreva, strengthening ties between the two polities and culminating in the Union of Lublin (1569), which created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The borders between the kingdom and the duchy were realigned within the commonwealth, transferring most of the Ukrainian territories to the kingdom and leaving the Belarusian ones within the boundaries of the duchy. The union of Poland and Lithuania thus meant the separation of Ukraine and Belarus, and in that regard we can hardly overestimate the importance of the Union of Lublin. It would initiate the formation of the territory of modern Ukraine and its intellectual appropriation by the local elites.

Monday, July 24, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy, excerpt one)

from The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy:

Yaroslav died on February 28, 1054, and was buried in the Cathedral of St. Sophia, which he had built. His earthly remains were placed in a white marble sarcophagus decorated with carvings of the Christian cross and Mediterranean plants, including palms, which were by no means native to Kyvian Rus’. According to one theory, the sarcophagus—a stone embodiment of Byzantine cultural imperialism—had once been the final resting place of a Byzantine notable but was brought to Kyiv either by marauding Vikings or by enterprising Greeks. The sarcophagus is still preserved in the cathedral, but the remains of Yaroslav the Wise disappeared from Kyiv in 1943, during the German occupation of the city. By some accounts, they ended up in the hands of Ukrainian Orthodox hierachs in the United States and were spotted in Manhattan after the war. Some suspect that they may now be in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn.

What could account for the transfer of Prince Yaroslav’s remains all the way to the Western Hemisphere? The answer has nothing to do with American cultural imperialism but is closely associated with the Ukrainian claim to the legacy of Kyivan Rus’. Ukrainian clergymen leaving their homeland removed the relics so as to prevent them from falling into the hands of the advancing Soviet army. Concern that if returned to Kyiv, they might end up in Russia explains enough the continuing refusal of the custodians of the Brooklyn church to discuss the issue of Yaroslav’s remains with representatives of the Ukrainian government.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt eighteen)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

The convention highlighted just how much the Republican Party had become an adjunct of the Trump family. The roster of speakers included seven people named Trump and an eighth who aspired to the name. In addition to the president and the first lady, those addressing the conclave included Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Lara Trump, and Tiffany Trump. Even Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of the president’s oldest son, had a turn at the podium, where she concluded her speech with a widely mocked cheer, shouting as if addressing a crowd of thousands rather than a camera in a mostly empty room: “The Best! Is Yet! To Come!”

The Trumpification of the party was so complete that the convention produced no platform, the document traditionally adopted by a party every four years to outline its agenda and positions on major issues of the day, an abdication unheard of in modern times. Instead, the Republican National Committee simply released a resolution declaring that it “enthusiastically supports President Trump,” rendering it a party that stood for nothing other than its leader.

Small wonder, perhaps, since that leader could articulate no strong idea of what he wanted to do with a second term anyway. Asked just before the convention about his agenda for the next four years, he rattled off a few accomplishments from his first term, then added, meanderingly, “But so, I think, I think it would be, I think it would be very, very, I think we’d have a very, very solid, we would continue what we’re doing, we’d solidify what we’ve done and we have other things on our plate that we want to get done.”

Friday, July 21, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt seventeen)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

But nothing was going to stop Trump. Just a month after the flareup over Stone, the president publicly intervened in the prosecution of Mike Flynn, the national security adviser who had pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. Once again, Barr stepped in—not, he insisted, because Trump wanted him to but because he happened to agree that the prosecution was bogus. The attorney general took the extraordinary action of asking a court to drop the case even though Flynn had pleaded guilty not once but twice. Barr did not argue that Flynn was innocent of lying to the FBI, only that the FBI should never have asked him the questions about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador that led him to lie in the first place. The questions, Barr maintained, were “unjustified” by the bureau’s counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference and Flynn’s lies were not “materially” relevant to the inquiry. Dropping a case where the defendant has already pleaded guilty without new evidence was all but unheard of, especially in such a politically sensitive situation—so much so that a judge refused to rubber-stamp the decision and ordered Barr to explain it, leading to a long set of hearings and appeals.

As with Roger Stone, the president publicly celebrated the decision, heedless of the fact that he himself had fired Flynn. Trump made no effort to disguise his motivations. He wanted revenge. “I hope a lot of people are going to pay a big price because they’re dishonest, crooked people,” he told reporters. “They’re scum—and I say it a lot, they’re scum, they’re human scum.”

Thursday, July 20, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt sixteen)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Trump was at home tweeting when he was supposed to be in Poland, for a commemoration of the eightieth anniversary of the beginning of World War II. He had canceled the trip, citing the need to monitor the progress of Hurricane Dorian, which was threatening Florida. Hurricanes were another longtime preoccupation of Trump’s and the new organization Axios reported that week that Trump had, numerous times during his presidency going back to 2017, asked aides whether the United States could foil the storms by bombing them with nuclear weapons—a story that, a senior administration official told Axios in a moment of candor, was inevitably going to “feed into ‘the president is crazy’ narrative.” Which, of course, it did.

Trump’s plan to deal with Hurricane Dorian thankfully did not involved atomic warfare. In fact, his monitoring of the storm looked a lot like any other weekend of his presidency in that it included hours spent watching Fox News, tweeting and retweeting nearly sixty times before noon on the last Saturday of the month, and then motorcading to a Trump-branded golf course for his 226th day on the links at one of his own properties since becoming president. That Sunday, Trump erroneously claimed in a tweet that the storm was on track to hit Alabama. Rather than acknowledge the mistake, he then spent the rest of the week feuding with the media about whether he had taken one of his trademark pens and altered a National Weather Service map to prove his point. The resulting “Sharpiegate” lasted for days, unlike the storm, which hit neither Florida nor Alabama in force.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt fifteen)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Back in Washington, the president was taking an increasingly expansive view of his own powers. That July, he told a conference of pro-Trump teenagers that Article II of the Constitution gave him “the right to do whatever I want as president,” which was both flagrantly incorrect and also consistent with Trump’s oft-stated view that he had the “absolute right” to do whatever he wanted at whatever moment he wanted to do it—a list that had grown by that point to include everything from pardoning himself and declaring a national emergency to build a border wall to revealing classified information. He not only admired autocrats like Putin and Xi, he appeared determined to sound like one. And the presidential ego, never slight, seemed ever more boundless by the middle of 2019 as he often referred to himself as a “genius” and one of “the smartest people anywhere in the world.”

His estimation of his abilities was both vast and highly specific. The list of things Trump publicly claimed to “know more about than anybody” had grown to include borders, campaign finance, courts, construction, drones, debts, Democrats, the economy, infrastructure, the Islamic State, lawsuits, money, nuclear weapons, politicians, polls, renewable energy, social media, steelworkers, taxes, technology, “things” generally, trade, the United States government, and the visa system. He even said he knew more about New Jersey Democratics senator Cory Booker than Booker knew about himself. The president often explained publicly that windmills caused cancer, climate change was a hoax, and American toilets did not work properly anymore because of federal regulations.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt fourteen)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Kim spun a big story about his willingness to abandon nuclear weapons, claiming to be committed to full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, without Trump fully grasping that meant something very different to each of them. To Kim, it meant all American troops out of South Korea and a series of steps—“action for action,” in the catchphrase of the negotiators that Kim used at the end of the summit, to Bolton’s horror—that each would take along the way. To Trump’s hardline national security team, “action for action” was unacceptable. They were looking for Kim to unilaterally give up his weapons first; only then would sanctions relief and other measures follow.

The trouble began when Kim pleaded for a gesture to help him with his own hardliners: Couldn’t Trump offer something, say, by canceling or cutting back the military exercises conducted jointly by the United States and South Korea that were a regular source of friction? Trump, who had repeatedly pressed Jim Mattis to halt them as a waste of time and money, agreed on the spur of the moment without consulting his national security team or the Pentagon. He even adopted Kim’s language, calling them “war games” instead of exercises, and thanked Kim for saving the United States a lot of money. That was exactly the concession that Vladimir Putin would want to see, an America pulling back. Matt Pottinger, the senior Asia adviser who had been in the meeting, told others bluntly that it was “a complete giveaway with nothing in return.”

Back at the Pentagon, the nation’s military leadership found out by watching cable news. “Let’s take a deep breath,” Chairman Joe Dunford told the emergency meeting that gathered in his office to figure out what to do. The major twice-a-year exercises were a key part of the deterrence strategy against North Korea and were held so frequently because of the annual rotations of American personnel on and off the peninsula; many smaller ones also took place. The White House did not formally notify the Pentagon of Trump’s decision until days later. The order was to “just cancel all exercises,” a senior defense official recalled. “We said that’s not doable. You actually have to have exercises.” Eventually, a complicated matrix was produced; exercises over a certain size would require White House approval, while smaller ones or those that were virtual could be held without permission.

Monday, July 17, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt thirteen)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

The ascendance of Pompeo at just the moment of Ryan’s reckoning made perfect sense in a political world reordered by Trump. Republicans were now defined by their choices about whether and how to accommodate their leader and his strongman style; most of them did so, but few with more skill and ardor than Pompeo. On paper, Ryan and Pompeo had not started out all that differently in 2016. Both were hawkish Republicans who claimed to love Ayn Rand and loathe a lot of what Trump stood for. But where Trump had proved to be the death of Ryan’s political ambition, he was the catalyst for Pompeo’s—another figure who, like John Bolton, the polarizing new national security adviser, likely never would have been chosen for high office by any president other than Trump.

A husky, evangelical Christian from Wichita, Kansas, with a hair-trigger temper who had started out life as an establishment conservative from Southern California, Pompeo was little known in Washington or anywhere else before Trump came to power. In his first venture in politics, barely a decade earlier, he finished third in a three-way race for chair of the Kansas Republican Party. A Harvard Law School graduate, he had practiced for less than two years at a blue-chip law firm in Washington before abruptly leaving for his late mother’s home state of Kansas. His national security experience, aside from a couple terms on the House Intelligence Committee, consisted of serving as an Army captain in the waning days of the Cold War. The “small business” experience he bragged about as a politician turned out to have been a struggling venture, Thayer Aerospace, that sucked up nearly $100 million in investments, including from the conservative Wichita-based Koch brothers, before Pompeo was forced out as chief executive. The Kochs financed his political career too, making him the single largest recipient of their congressional giving in the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 election cycles. In his six years in Congress, he had never chaired so much as a subcommittee or passed any significant legislation. The major cause with which he was associated was castigating Hillary Clinton for not doing enough to prevent the Benghazi attack. Clinton’s alleged cover-up, he averred at one point on NBC’s Meet the Press, was even “worse, in some ways, than Watergate.”

Sunday, July 16, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt twelve)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Trump soon faced exposure on another front. Michael Rothfeld and Joe Palazzolo of The Wall Street Journal, pursuing the story that Fox News killed during the 2016 campaign, reported on January 12, 2018, that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal attorney, had sealed a deal just eleven days before the election to pay $130,000 in hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels for silence about an extramarital sexual romp with Trump in 2006.

Trump and his team responded, as they often did, with deception. Cohen, who months earlier boasted that he would “take a bullet for the president,” told reporters that he paid the money himself, as if Trump had nothing to do with it. When reporters asked the president on Air Force One about the secret payments, he said, “You’ll have to ask Michael Cohen. Michael’s my attorney.” A reporter asked if he had known about the payments. “No,” Trump said. Did he know where the money came from? “No, I don’t know.” In fact, Trump knew perfectly well, since he had reimbursed Cohen for the payments, personally signing six out of eleven checks from his own bank account or trust.

The affair with Daniels, known for adult movies like Good Will Humping and Porking with Pride 2, reminded the public of Trump’s sordid past with women at the very moment the #MeToo movement seeking to hold prominent men to account for sexual misbehavior was getting under way—a reaction, many believed, to Trump’s own history of getting away with such acts. The president who had boasted on the infamous Access Hollywood tape that he could grab women by their private parts had been accused over the years by more than two dozen women of sexual harassment or assault—ogling women backstage at his beauty pageants, groping a woman on an airplane flight, kissing another outside her office at Trump Tower, reaching under other women’s dresses. Several of the women had gone public all over again in the weeks following revelations about other powerful men like the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Trump, ever defiant, not only rejected all allegations against him, he rejected them against anyone else who was accused, at least if they were on his side of the political aisle. Most notably that fall, he stuck with Roy Moore, the controversial Senate candidate in Alabama, even after he was accused of molesting a fourteen-year-old girl and pursuing other teenage girls—allegations that cost Republicans the seat in a special election in a deep-red state where the party had not lost a Senate race in thirty years.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt eleven)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Kelly was also left trying to manage the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the president and his secretary of state. While Trump had not heard Rex Tillerson’s “fucking moron” comment after the disastrous meeting in the Pentagon Tank, neither man did much to hide growing contempt for the other. By fall, they were barely on speaking terms. While Trump was threatening North Korea’s “Rocket Man,” Tillerson was trying to talk with Kim Jong-un. He had been working back channels to set up a meeting and was already on the way there when, during a stop in China, his legs were cut out from under him via Twitter. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote. “Save your energy Rex,” he added, “we’ll do what has to be done!” As soon as the tweet appeared, North Korea canceled the meeting. Tillerson was beside himself. Rarely if ever had a commander in chief so undermined his secretary of state on a diplomatic mission.

Days later, NBC News reported Tillerson’s “moron” quote—and The New Yorker later correctly added the expletive. Trump fired back publicly, suggesting that Tillerson was the moron. “I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests,” Trump said. “And I can tell you who is going to win.” Not even a year into his tenure, this was what it had come to: an insecure president challenging his secretary of state to an intelligence test to prove that he was not an idiot.

Friday, July 14, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt ten)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

The dispute over Puerto Rico once again demonstrated the limits of Trump’s understanding of the country he governed. When he asked his staff why he should spend so much money on disaster relief there, they had to explain that Puerto Rico was part of the United States.

“They’re American citizens,” Kelly told him.

“They’re not Americans,” Trump insisted.

“Yes, they are,” Kelly replied.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt nine)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

While on Air Force One heading back to Washington after the speech, with Priebus on board, Trump placed a phone call to John Kelly. The president reminded him about a conversation they had after James Comey’s firing when Kelly had commented on how his White House was so messed up and how ill-served he had been. “You’re right,” Trump told him, “the staff is terrible.” On and on the president went: His aides were “not good for me.” They were not loyal. They were all fucked up. “You need to come here and be chief of staff,” Trump told him. Kelly demurred. “John, I really need you to do this,” Trump said. After Kelly hesitated some more, Trump concluded, “Okay, how about this: Come in and see me on Monday and we’ll talk about it.” Kelly agreed. Minutes later, Air Force One landed at Joint Base Andrews and the president’s staff, including Priebus, disembarked into a miserable rain that seemed to symbolize the dark moment.

At 4:49 p.m., Trump, while still on board, sent out a series of tweets. “I am pleased to inform you that I have just named General/Secretary John F Kelly as White House Chief of Staff,” the president wrote. “He has been a true star of my Administration.” Trump had not only publicly announced Kelly was taking a job he had not accepted, the president had not bothered to inform Priebus either. Sitting in a White House car on the tarmac waiting for the motorcade ride back to the office, Priebus looked down at his phone to discover that he had just been kicked to the curb. Soon after, Trump exited the plane and his motorcade pulled out.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt eight)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

If there was a before and an after in the Trump presidency, the firing of James Comey on a lovely May afternoon was it, a power play gone bad that transformed much of the rest of his tenure into an endless brawl over the investigation that had prompted him to fire the FBI director in the first place. But if Trump hoped that getting rid of Comey would end or allow him to contain the inquiry, he was quickly proved wrong.

What the lawyers who had been called to the Oval Office were slow to grasp was that the poorly planned and politically ill-advised ouster of Comey was not only a scandal, it would also be seen as an effort by the president to obstruct a federal investigation into his own campaign, one they had failed to stop. They had even helped Trump concoct an implausible cover story claiming that the real reason for Comey’s dismissal, six months after the election, was that he had mishandled the FBI inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails—as if Trump, who had led crowds at his rallies chanting “lock her up” and vowed to throw Clinton in prison if elected, cared whether she had been treated unfairly. Many Democrats loathed Comey for what he had done to Clinton, especially his last-minute decision before the 2016 election to briefly reopen the probe to examine a trove of newly discovered emails, a move that many believed had helped Trump win the presidency. But it was a fatal miscalculation on Trump’s part to think that Democrats might welcome Comey’s firing at this point rather than see it as an act intended only to protect Trump.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt seven)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Another weapon Trump thought he had was the United States Postal Service, which delivered many of Amazon’s packages. Trump would often complain that Amazon was getting preferential postal rates, when in fact it was the sheer and growing volume of Amazon’s business that was keeping the Postal Service afloat. He also got it in his head that Amazon did not pay state sales taxes and should be forced to.

Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, was on the receiving end of this particular tantrum repeatedly. “It’s total bullshit,” Cohn told an associate. “Amazon may actually be saving the Postal Service, not killing it,” Cohn explained. Cohn had little doubt about Trump’s real motivation. “He’s just mad at Bezos for owning The Washington Post,” he told the associate.

But Cohn could not shake Trump of his Amazon obsession. After leaving the White House, Cohn estimated that he probably had that same conversation with the president maybe thirty times. Cohn eventually had a PowerPoint created showing that Amazon did pay state sales taxes. Trump never actually looked at it, so Cohn just kept bringing it back every time the issue came up.

“Sir, Amazon pays taxes in forty-five states,” Cohn told him at one point.

“What about the other five?” Trump demanded.

“They don’t have a sales tax,” Cohn said.

Monday, July 10, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt six)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

For Murdoch, the Trump takeover in Washington was not just a political proposition but a business one. In 2014, he had tried to buy Time Warner, only to be rebuffed. So when Time Warner agreed in 2016 to be acquired by AT&T for $85 billion, making it the nation’s largest media company and a threat to the 21st Century Fox empire, he felt burned and looked for ways to thwart the merger. Trump was so eager to declare himself publicly on Murdoch’s side he did not even wait for the deal to be formally announced. On the same Saturday in October that the AT&T board of directors was making its final decision on the merger, they picked up their phones to discover that Trump had already vowed to block the deal if he were elected president, “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

Trump was hardly concerned about the danger of monopolies in a free society. His real problem with the merger was the fact that Time Warner owned CNN. As he saw it, CNN was his personal enemy as well as a competitor to Murdoch’s Fox. The network was run by Jeff Zucker, the former NBC executive who first put The Apprentice on the air, arguably paving the way for Trump’s eventual political career. As Trump began running for president, Zucker put his rallies on CNN from start to finish, savoring the viewership bonanza. But when it became clear that Trump was not the “sideshow” Zucker once thought he was, CNN took a tougher tone and Trump became convinced his former sponsor was a traitor.

After his election, Trump summoned Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive officer, to Trump Tower for a meeting where he erupted about Zucker and CNN. “Jeff Zucker’s a bad guy,” Trump ranted. “I made that guy. I got that guy his job.” It was the most bizarre meeting Stephenson had ever had with a national leader and the moment he realized that the threat to the merger with Time Warner was probably real. AT&T sought to play Trump’s game, donating $2 million to his inaugural fund and hiring Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, to advise them on how to navigate the new administration, a move Stephenson later called “a big mistake.”

Sunday, July 9, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt five)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Flynn was making matters worse. On the same day in December that Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for its pro-Trump election interference, Flynn spoke by phone with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, not once or twice but five times, at one point urging Moscow not to escalate in response to the sanctions and suggesting the new administration would reverse Obama’s tougher policy.

A week before the inauguration, the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius revealed Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak. Flynn insisted to Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, and Sean Spicer that he did not discuss sanctions with the ambassador, a reassurance that the vice president and press secretary then repeated publicly. But the Russian ambassador’s phone calls were routinely monitored, and FBI agents knew that Flynn’s denial was untrue. So just after the inauguration, they met with Flynn at the White House to ask about the conversations with Kislyak only to be surprised when he repeated that sanctions did not come up.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt four)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

The exception, though, seemed to be Ivanka, clearly his favorite child. Now thirty-five, she had spent the previous few years as an executive vice president at the Trump Organization and as a boardroom judge on The Apprentice before developing her own brands of clothing, handbags, and jewelry. She had acquired the reputation as the one who could calm her father’s rages or steer him in a more constructive direction—sometimes. His admiration for her sometimes took on a creepy tone. More than once in the years before the White House, he had praised her body, most infamously during a 2006 joint appearance on The View when he said, “if Ivanka weren’t my daughter perhaps I’d be dating her.” He thought so much of her that he proposed putting her on his ticket in 2016 as his vice presidential running mate. Campaign aides thought he was kidding at first, but he kept pressing. “She’s bright, she’s smart, she’s beautiful, and the people would love her!” Trump insisted at one meeting. As would happen so many times in the four years to come, his advisers humored him, hoping he would simply forget the idea. But after spending weeks vetting other candidates he did not like, Trump came around to his daughter again. “I think it should be Ivanka,” he said. This time the team agreed to test the idea in a poll, figuring the results would make clear how nutty it was. But she tested better than they thought, in low double digits, stronger than some of the real candidates.

Friday, July 7, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt three)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Within days, there were presidential tweetstorms attacking Republican senators—his nemesis John McCain and sidekick Lindsey Graham were “sadly weak on immigration” and “always looking to start World War III”—and early-morning rants about Iran and Mexico and Barack Obama. There was a threat to “send in the Feds” to battle “carnage” in the streets of Chicago. There were the repeated preposterous claims about the crowd size at his inauguration, which he forced his new press secretary, Sean Spicer, to repeat from the White House podium in a fatal blow to his spokesman’s credibility.

And then there was Trump’s boast that he had won not just the Electoral College but the popular vote too, when in fact he had lost it to Clinton by three million votes. It was completely invented. But that did not stop the new president from insisting on it to the astonishment of congressional leaders he invited to the White House on his first full workday in office. “You know, I won the popular vote,” Trump told them. When Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, challenged him, he simply repeated it. “Five million people voted illegally,” he asserted. “Five million immigrants voted illegally.” When Pelosi objected again, Trump added, “And I’m not even counting California!”

Trump even appointed a commission to prove this made-up claim, a panel that would quietly close down a year later, having found no evidence whatsoever. It was all unthinkable and, ever since 2:29 a.m. on November 9, when the Associated Press had declared the presidential election of 2016 decided in Donald Trump’s favor, inevitable.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt two)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

Trump’s New York friends knew what Washington would find out: he planned to live in his own reality in the White House just as he had in Trump Tower. The uncomfortable truth for those encountering him for the first time—including much of his own staff—was that Trump really was what he seemed to be, and he had come to office without a plan for the four-year term that neither he nor his campaign had expected to win. It was an oft-cited fact that Trump was the only president never to have served a single day in either government or military service before being elected. If anything, that understated how unprepared he was for the business of governing. He was probably the least knowledgeable new president in the modern era.

He did not know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, did not know whether Colombia was in North America or South America, thought Finland was part of Russia, and mixed up the Baltics with the Balkans. He got confused about how World War I started, did not understand the basics of America’s vast nuclear arsenal, did not grasp the concept of constitutional separation of powers, did not understand how courts worked. “How do I declare war?” he asked at one point, to the alarm of his staff, who realized he was unaware that the Constitution prescribes that role for Congress. He seemed genuinely surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln had been a member of the Republican Party. “He knew nothing about most things,” observed one top aide. Advisers soon realized they had to tutor him on the basics of how government worked.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

the last book I ever read (The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021, excerpt one)

from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser:

If they had heard Barry Sternlicht, they would have understood better. The day before the inauguration, Sternlicht, the billionaire cofounder of the Starwood hotel chain and a longtime golfing buddy of the new president, had explained the essential facts of Trump to an audience of power players at an off-the-record gathering in New York’s Metropolitan Club. Trump, he said, had been a friend for decades. “He’s the last friend who should be president,” Sternlicht confided.

Trump’s mind was “unusual,” Sternlicht said. Something was “wrong” in his head. He could not pay attention, could not do details, was not bothered by inconsistency. “He hasn’t read a book in thirty years,” Sternlicht said. “He’s not encumbered by the truth.” To golf with him was to see the real Trump. “Anyone who’s ever played with Trump knows the rules are for suckers,” he said. Trump would take the regulator off the golf cart so he could go faster. He sometimes raced off even before his partners took their swings. Trump always insisted that he won, whether he did or not. He did not even think of it as cheating.

Monday, July 3, 2023

the last book I ever read (Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox, excerpt seven)

from Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox:

“You look as if you’d been on a binge,” she said. “Were you up all night?” She began to set the table for breakfast.

“For a while. I read and had some tea. Then I went back to sleep, then the baby woke me. . . . You’re not worried about the tests on the cat now, are you? I’ve never seen you up so early, not since we were first married.”

“Did I used to get up before you?” she asked, surprised, as though he had given her startling news that had some immediate relevance.

He was pouring himself coffee.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

the last book I ever read (Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox, excerpt six)

from Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox:

They drove through miles of Queens, where factories, warehouses, and gas stations squeezed up against two-story, two-family houses so mean and shabby that, by contrast, the ranks of uniform and tidy tombstones rising from cemetery islets that thrust up among the dwellings seemed to offer a more humane future. Sidewalks, brutal slabs of cracked cement, ran for a block or two, then inexplicably petered out, and along the center of the tarmac streets, short lengths of old trolley tracks occasionally gleamed among the potholes. Here and there, the skeleton of a vast new apartment complex sat on the rent ground; tree roots and rocks and earth rolled up around its foundation. Cries of boredom and rage were scrawled across the walls of factories, and among these threats and imprecations, invitations and anatomy lessons, the face of an Alabama presidential candidate stared with sooty dead eyes from his campaign posters, claiming this territory as his own. His country, warned the poster—vote for him—pathology calling tenderly to pathology.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

the last book I ever read (Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox, excerpt five)

from Desperate Characters: A Novel by Paula Fox:

The morning did not look promising; the sky was slack and wet looking. Yet there was a kind of festivity in wrapping sandwiches in waxed paper, in rinsing out the Thermos. A few grains of sand spilled from the straw picnic basket onto the kitchen counter.

Sophie had awakened to hope and intensified alarm. The unlikelihood of the cat’s being rabid had, mysteriously, increased the horror of the possibility that it might be. She moved quickly, packing the food, making an efficient pike of sheepskin-lined coats and gloves, the car blanket, a copy of Out of Africa which she would read to Otto on the way out. It was sure to be colder in Flynders than in the city. In Flynders, there was real weather.