Hate sells guns

These are testing times for the American gun industry. Sales of Remington Outdoor Co.’s products, which include the Bushmaster XM-15 “modern sporting rifle” Adam Lanza used to massacre 20 kindergartners and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook in 2014, were down 27 per cent in the first quarter year on year.

Smith and Wesson, which trades as American Outdoor Brands, has seen its share price sink by a third since hitting an all-time peak last July. AOB stock took a particularly heavy beating in the three days following Donald Trump’s victory on Tuesday, November 8, falling from $28.45 at the end of election day trading, before the votes were tallied and while Hillary Clinton still looked inevitable, to $21.24 at the close that Friday.

Trump has not been a boon for CEO’s whose stock options rely on fundamentalist readings of Second Amendment.

Wall Street assumes that since neither he nor the Republican majority in Congress will molest the sacred right of Americans to own military-grade firepower, demand in an already glutted market will be flat. Atrocities like Sandy Hook will not send punters running to Walmart to pick up a last assault rifle or three in case politicians are finally shamed into enacting controls. For the time being Washington is entirely unencumbered by shame.

To scare up business, the industry therefore needs a different strategy. As usual, it can rely on its friends at the National Rifle Association, the lobby that seeks to hound from office any public servant foolhardy enough to want to keep Glocks from the hands of mental patients.

The pitch now coming from the NRA, both directly and out of the foaming mouths of surrogates for whom it provides a platform with industry sponsorship, is genuinely alarming, whichever side you’re on.

It’s a call to arms, broadcast over NRATV, the lobby’s streaming media channel, to fight the “organised anarchy” and the “radical leftist agenda” that are being masterminded by “them” and “their ex-president”, Barack Obama, against Trump and true Americans. A figurative call, technically speaking, but literal to those with ears tuned to the Trumpian dog whistle. Time to lay in another Armalite!

“They,” says NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, incandescent with resentment and menace in a recruitment ad flighted in June, “use their media to assassinate real news, they use their schools to teach their children that their president is another Hitler, they use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.”

Voicing over black and white footage that evokes the chaos of antiwar protest and inner city meltdown that helped elect Richard Nixon in 1968, Loesch tosses red meat to Trump’s “silent majority”.

“And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance, all to make them march, make them protest, make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia, to smash windows, burn cars, shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorise the law-abiding until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness. And when that happens they’ll use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth. I’m the National Rifle Association of America, and I’m freedom’s safest place.”

Or consider this exchange between ranting NRATV commentator Grant Stinchfied and Chuck Holton, introduced as “veteran Army Ranger and frontline correspondent”, first aired last week. The “them” in this case is Black Lives Matter, the movement that sprang up in reaction to the endless shooting with impunity of unarmed African-American suspects by mostly white policemen.

Stinchfield: “Our race relations are strained here in America after 8 years of Barack Obama, but nowhere as near as bad as it is in South Africa where white families are being tortured and killed almost every day in racist violence. It is a warning for the United States that you will never hear from the mainstream media in this country….

Holton: “Right…the violence against farmers is being called for by government officials, it’s being celebrated by politicians and the scary thing is, it’s kind of a warning for what could happen in the US if we continue to let this get out of control…”

When the Washington Post suggested the NRA might want to stick to defending the Second Amendment rather than whipping up hate, Stinchfield shot back: “You have done more damage to our country with a keyboard than every member of the NRA combined has ever done with a firearm.”

Will the gunmakers do anything to restrain their lobby from these raw, deeply illiberal appeals to the basest of Trump’s base? Not, I imagine, if the appeals move product. And given the target market, it’s hard to see them damaging sales. Another civil war would be good for business, wouldn’t it?


End of the beginning?

This week witnessed if not the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, then quite possibly, in Winston Churchill’s phrase after the battle of El Alamein, the end of the beginning.

The chain of emails Trump’s elder son, Donald Jr., released on Tuesday after learning the New York Times had a copy, may not by itself be proof that his father’s election campaign colluded with the Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin to smear Hillary Clinton. But they are anything but inconsistent with such a conclusion.

The correspondence, from early June last year, is between Junior and Rob Goldstone. Goldstone is a lunchy former UK tabloid hack turned manager of musical talent. His clients include Russian pop idol Emin Agalarov, son of Aras Agalarov, an Azerbaijani property developer sometimes called “the Donald Trump of Russia”. The Agalarovs provided the Moscow venue for the 2013 final of the Miss Universe contest which Trump then partly owned. The two families, plus Goldstone, are close. There was talk of collaboration on a Trump-branded building in the Russian capital. In March 2016, Aras told the Washington Post he was rooting for Trump to capture the White House.

Under the subject line “Re: Russia – Clinton private and confidential”, Goldstone told Junior on June 3 that “Emin asked me to contact you with something very interesting.” Using an English term, he continued: “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents that would incriminate Hillary…and would be very useful to your father.”

Then the bombshell: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but it is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr Trump, helped along by Aras and Emin.”

Junior replied enthusiastically, seeming to refer to the coming showdown with Clinton and the need for ammo: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week…”

Goldstone followed up on June 6: “Emin asks that I schedule a meeting with you and the Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow…I believe you are aware of the meeting…I assumed it would be at your office.” “Great,” said Junior, “It will likely be Paul Manafort (campaign boss), my brother in law and me.”

And so, at 4pm on June 9, Junior, Goldstone, Jared Kushner, dad’s chief consigliere, and Manafort, the Washington swamp creature whose clients have included Mobutu Sese Seko, Jonas Savimbi and more recently Putin’s gauleiter in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, sat down at Trump HQ with Natalia Veselnitskaya who had been introduced to them as “the Russian government attorney”.

What transpired at the meeting is as yet unclear. The official line at this point is nothing of substance. We are also asked to believe that Trump himself, though in the building at the time, had not heard of it until a few days ago.

Kushner and Manafort are not talking for the record yet. Junior’s story has evolved with each fresh revelation by the New York Times, culminating for now with the gloss he released with the emails on Tuesday “in order to be totally transparent” and preempt the Times. He agreed to the meeting, he concedes, expecting that “the woman” had “opposition research” — dirt — to share on Clinton. But “she had no information to provide and wanted to talks about adoption policy and the Magnitsky Act”.

That is plausible. Adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2012, the act imposes sanctions on individuals implicated in the 2009 murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor jailed after exposing after a massive tax scam by Russian officials. Putin counterpunched with a ban on US adoptions of Russian children. Veselnitskaya may not be a government lawyer in the strict sense, but she does represent clients targeted by the act and has been leading a high profile campaign for its repeal. It is scarcely credible that Manafort and Kushner would not know who she was.

The Trump mbongi chorus says Junior was duped. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post editorialised: “We see one truly solid takeaway from the story of the day: Donald Trump Jr. is an idiot.” Manafort and Kushner? The son-in-law “walked out after 10 minutes while Manafort did work on his phone”.

Here’s my working hypothesis. The Agalarovs were Putin’s cut outs. Veselnitskaya didn’t come with dirt. She came with a proposition: dirt for a promise from Trump to lift any and all sanctions if elected. Trump, way behind in the polls at that point and a man demonstrably devoid of principle, said sure. Whereupon the dirt, in the form of of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, began arriving at strategic intervals along with a torrents of disinformation spread via social media.

If special counsel Robert Mueller can stand that up, Trump will be impeached.

Bonkers Mbongi

Joel Pollak, Donald Trump’s slavish SA-born mbongi, thinks Trump “may be able help” bring the Zuptacracy to heel. “As he wrestles with the swamp creatures of Washington, Trump has some leverage to drain the swamps in Pretoria and Cape Town as well,” the would be ambassador to Pretoria recently posted on Breitbart, Trumpism’s Pravda.

And that leverage would be? No, not a promise to Trumpify Nkandla if Zuma would agree to retire there quietly. Something even wackier.

“President Trump,” argued Pollak, “could use his discretion to suspend South Africa’s AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) eligibility until the country can reliably hold its elected officials accountable to the law. That might prompt Zuma to clean up his administration, or embolden voices for reform within the ANC.”

It’s not obvious Tony Leon’s one time speechwriter has much grasp of SA’s current political dynamics. Were I Zuma or a Gupta, I’d tell the orange mountebank to bring it on. I’d want him as an enemy. Kleptocrats love it when popular anger is distracted by foreign devils. Pockets at home become easier to pick. Besides, there are comrades who dismiss AGOA as heartily as they dislike Zuma.

Pollak’s suggestion is probably still born.The law does not give Trump the power to suspend SA’s AGOA benefits simply because many South Africans are convinced their president is a crook. The requirement is for beneficiaries to have in place, or be “making continual progress” towards, “a system to combat corruption and bribery”. No one would deny SA has such a system. It’s under strain but it’s there nonetheless.

None of which is to say that SA’s enjoyment of AGOA between now and when the act expires in 2025 is a done deal. Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made that very plain when he addressed the Corporate Council Africa’s annual business summit here earlier this month.

The Trump administration, he said, wanted to move from AGOA’s unilaterally extended trade preferences to “two-way trade agreements”. Nothing particularly new in that. Indeed, from the outset AGOA’s authors saw the more advanced African economies graduating from one-way grants of US market access to negotiated reciprocity.

More interesting — and Trumpian — was what Ross chose to emphasise next: “In the meantime, we must ensure countries currently benefiting from…AGOA continue complying with the eligibility requirements established in US law. The administration takes these congressional requirements very seriously…We will vigorously protect the rights of US companies and workers in the global arena.”

Deliberately or serendipitously, the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) showed Ross to be in earnest three days later when it launched an “out-of-cycle” AGOA eligibility review of three members of the East African Community — Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania — and warned a fourth, Kenya, which had already semi-caved to US demands, to keep its nose clean. SA knows all about “out of cycle reviews”, having been subjected to one as part of the late poultry war.

EAC leaders announced last year they were raising tariffs on imports of cast-off clothing and shoes they said were stifling domestic manufacturers. In March, SMART, the Washington trade association that represents “secondary materials and recycled textiles industry”, petitioned USTR for retaliation. 40 000 US jobs and exports valued at $124 million were at stake, the lobby claimed.

If the tariff increases were consistent with World Trade Organisation rules, and it looks as though they are, what had the EACs done to violate AGOA? The SMART answer: they were not making “continual progress” on “the elimination of barriers to US trade and investment” and “economic policies to reduce poverty”. Trump’s USTR has decided there are “exceptional circumstances warranting” turns of the screw.

Here is the reality of AGOA. The US can make whatever demands and arbitrary determinations it likes in return for duty free access to its market. Under previous administrations, there was a tacit understanding that the act’s purpose was primarily developmental, to help African nations grow by encouraging their integration into global value chains. That was then.

If Ross is to be taken at his word, Team Trump means to use AGOA eligibility aggressively in pursuit of its America First objectives. These include “access to markets, recognition of truly international standards, due process in procurement and protection of intellectual property”. Also “wins” for US companies bidding on African infrastructure projects, even when their bids are not the lowest. The Trumpsters will be keeping count.

The only way African governments will be able to avoid arbitrary Trumpist interpretations of AGOA conditions will be to negotiate bilateral deals. Does that rule out agreements with regional communities like the one the Obama administration was working towards with the EAC? That’s unclear.

More predictable is that SA will come under pressure to do a bilateral deal to level the playing field for US exporters with their EU competitors. That’s where the administration will play the AGOA eligibility card, not as a lever to end the Zuptacracy.

John Brown

Once a month I ride the Capitol Limited between Washington and Cumberland 140 miles to the west at the foot of the Allegheny mountains as a volunteer lecturer. The railroad follows the sinuous Potomac river and the remains of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal that run beside it. My job is to talk to passengers about the history of what they are seeing from the observation car.

Half way along the route we come to Harper’s Ferry where the Potomac is joined from the south by the Shenandoah and passes through the Blue Ridge. The view, wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1783, is “one of the most stupendous in nature”. The town itself, in its heydey, was less picturesque. “An abominable little village,” an English tourist called it in 1836. “Here is the Government Manufactory of Firearms; and the smell of coal smoke and the clanking of hammers…prevent one’s enjoyment from being unmixed.”

As we approach Harper’s Ferry, I generally ask my audience what, if anything, the name John Brown means to them. I am referring to the radical abolitionist who, in October 1859, tried to seize the armoury and ignite a slave uprising that would blaze down the Shenandoah valley and into the deep South. Most of Brown’s 19-man raiding party were killed. Brown himself was captured, hastily tried and hanged that December.

A century and a half on, it is still best to have a sense of who you’re talking to when discussing Brown or the civil war between the slaveholding South and the free North it helped trigger. Donald Trump’s dog whistles have given a sense of license to diehard Confederate flag-flyers and other fans of the Lost Cause.

“John Brown’s effort was peculiar,” said Abraham Lincoln in early 1860, the year he would be elected president. “It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves in which slaves themselves refused to participate.” He saw Brown as “an enthusiast” who “broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt which ends in little else than his own execution.”

That was the carefully measured judgement of a statesman hoping save a deeply divided nation from fracture. It has lived on as the safe view up to the present day. When in doubt, it’s what I can confidently get away with on the train, placing Brown somewhere on the fruitcake spectrum between Don Quixote and Tad Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

But it’s also a distortion.

Yes, Brown committed acts of what many would classify as terrorism. As supporters of slavery fought with anti-slavery “free soilers” in the 1850’s for control of what would become Kansas, he and his men rousted two families out of their beds at the dead of night and slaughtered five of their menfolk with broadswords. The victims had all been involved in murderous attacks on free soilers. Brown openly intended his vengeance to terrorise.

And yes, you might even see parallels between Brown’s crusade and jihadism. Like the jihadis Graeme Wood interviewed for his masterful book, “The Way of Strangers — Encounters with the Islamic State”, Brown took his marching orders from an uncompromising reading of scripture. But is extremism in the name of God always wrong? As Evan Carton writes in “Patriotic Treason — John Brown and the Soul of America”, the best recent biography:

“The Christianity that is invoked in our national halls of power has nothing in common with the teachings that Brown understood to be at the heart of the faith: Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them. Do unto others that others should do unto you. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and towering abolitionist orator of whom Trump recently said “(he’s) done an amazing job and is getting recognised more and more, I notice”, counselled his friend Brown against the Harper’s Ferry raid. He had to leave the country for a spell after it failed. But his admiration never waned.

“Like the great and good of all ages, the men whose bleeding footprints attest the immense cost of reform,” he would later say, “this our noblest American hero must wait the polishing wheels of after-coming centuries to make his glory more manifest, his worth more generally acknowledged.”

There are signs, Trumpism notwithstanding, that the polishing wheels are getting closer. Most obvious is the courageous decision by the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, to take down the city’s statues of Robert E Lee and two other Confederate generals. “These statues”, he said in a speech that has caused some to see him as a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement and the terror that it actually stood for.” And which Brown stood all but alone against.

Pharma eats the US economy

AIDS, argued Thabo Mbeki, was a syndrome, not a disease treatable with antiretroviral drugs. The roots of his denialism will be endlessly debated but of one there can be little doubt. He was deeply suspicious of Big Pharma. His enforcer Essop Pahad told me straight out that AIDS was invented by the likes of Merck and GlaxoSmithKline. They had lumped together a host of existing assaults on African immune systems to construct a new disease and with it a new market for their monopoly-priced drugs.

He and Mbeki were grotesquely wrong, of course, condemning hundreds of thousands to premature death. But they had good reason to question the bona fides of American and other western drug companies. Recall that as the AIDS epidemic exploded, the companies and their lobbyists were fighting tooth and nail to stop SA and others in similar straits from exercising their WTO-enshrined right to override patents on essential medicines. Mbeki was not about to cede SA’s sovereignty to what he saw as a new form of extractive colonialism.

As he prepared to leave office in 1960, President Eisenhower famously warned against state capture by what he called the military-industrial complex. His successors have paid no heed. In 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China, Russia, India, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Japan collectively spent $567 billion on defence. By itself, the US spent $596 billion, or roughly half of all federal spending that is not committed to the (relatively skimpy) social safety net and interest on the public debt. President Trump wants to spend more on guns and bombs.

That said, as far as capture of the American state goes, today the really crushing elephant in the room is not the military-industrial but the medical-industrial complex, a vast, metastasizing behemoth that employs one in 9 working Americans and chews through close to 20 per cent of GDP, half as much again as the health spend of any other high income country and nearly double the average, while consistently delivering inferior results. At least in health terms. For investors, the outcomes have been excellent. In the five years through April, health-related stocks in the S&P 500 outperformed every other sector, posting a total return of 120 per cent.

Drugs (the legal kind) now account, by value, for around 12 of every 100 dollars spent on goods at the wholesale level in the US — $54 billion out of $465 billion, seasonally adjusted, in February alone, according to the latest Commerce Department report. They are the single biggest item, bigger than petrol ($53 billion), food ($52 billion) and cars ($38 billion), and their relative claim on national income is growing. In February 2012, drugs were 9 per cent of wholesale purchases; five years before that, 7 per cent.

How are the manufacturers achieving this? Principally by raising prices at many times the inflation rate, according to a Wall Street Journal dive through the Securities and Exchange Commission filings of the top 20 firms. They game the patent system to stifle generic competition and preserve monopoly power. To head off any risk of price controls, they have fat war chests to keep Congress bought and to propagate the lie that they need every dime they can get in order to “innovate”. And right now they have a reptilian Secretary of Health and Human Services — the official in overall charge of regulating them — who is entirely in their pocket. Tom Price, as a member of Congress, pressed for rule changes that benefited drug companies in which he owned stock.

Meanwhile, direct-to-consumer advertising — $5.2 billion of it in 2015 — not only fuels demand, it buys quiescence from the media. Only one other advanced economy, New Zealand, permits such pitch-making. To watch news broadcasts on the major networks, CBS’ flagship “60 Minutes” included, is to be bombarded with prescription drug ads. CBS, according to Kantar Media, netted $511 million from Big Pharma in 2015, ABC $296 million, NBC $250 million, Fox $128 million and all other TV stations $607 million.

What ails American health care, and why, in spite of President Obama’s now besieged Affordable Care Act, so many millions of Americans cannot afford to get seriously ill, is not down exclusively to the drugmakers. The sickness is systemic. The prime directive driving every element of the system from medical practitioners, to hospitals, to device manufacturers, to insurance companies to a swelling army of administrators, billing consultants, debt collectors and other ancillaries, is not to heal, protect or care for the sick.

It is to extract in every case the maximum possible payment from whomever — taxpayer, insurer or individual patient — is footing the bill, regardless of the actual costs of treatment. In American medicine, there are no hard and fast prices for anything. So bills for everything rise inexorably, as does the number of things that are billed for. Billers constantly test what the market will bear, and use resultant windfalls to fight any attempt to rein in the madness. Thus does the medical-industrial complex cannibalise the American economy. There is no hope of Trump fixing it.


“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen…Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

So wrote the thoroughly inconsistent Ralph Waldo Emerson in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance”. Donald Trump appears to have been channeling the 19th century American transcendentalist.

As he approaches the symbolic 100 day mark of his presidency, his pirouettes have both dazzled and baffled. CNN’s political staff reported, “Hazarding a guess at the mercurial president’s plans is roughly as fruitful as predicting an earthquake, a person in close touch with the White House said… “Who the hell knows?” another senior Republican source in frequent contact with the White House said. “It’s Donald Trump”.”

On the campaign trail and since, Trump has spoken and tweeted many hard words. Lately he has been eating them.

He threatened trade war with “world champion currency manipulator” China, called NATO “obsolete” and threatened not to honour US commitments to the alliance unless its members pulled their fiscal weight. He was ready to shutter the US Export-Import Bank (Exim) and cashier Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen after a single term. Having failed to muster the votes to “repeal and replace” his predecessor’s signature health care initiative, Obamacare, he announced that, to hell with it, he was moving on to tax reform.

On all these things, and more, the president has changed his mind. A couple of days with Xi Jinping and his “lovely wife” at Mar a Lago, the Palm Beach White House, has improved Trump’s understanding of reality. For now, at least, he accepts that, one, without China there is no solution to the problem of the nutty nuclear-armed Kim dynasty in North Korea and, two. the only currency manipulation Beijing is currently engaged in involves propping the yuan up against the dollar, not pushing it down.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg came to the White House. Trump, reminded that the alliance was fighting terrorism shoulder to shoulder with the US, and had been since 9/11, decided that it was “no longer obsolete”. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney stopped by and explained how Exim helped him sell aircraft to foreign customers who might otherwise shop elsewhere. Another Damascus moment for the president. Exim, he told the Wall Street Journal, was “useful”. In the same interview, he endorsed Yellen for a second term, having earlier said she should be “ashamed” for holding interest rates down under the Obama administration to create a “false” impression of recovery.

Unendorsed, on other hand, was Steve Bannon, propagandist for the America First Trumpism of the election campaign which, for now at least, seems to be going the way of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, though with more of a scowl than a smile.

Trump, as confidence man, has alway seen strategic value in being misunderstood. One can see why, in his current predicament, he would reckon consistency foolish. As vain as he is, he has to know his presidency is off to a terrible start. He’s in danger of being lumped with real duds like Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover.

The Republicans he nominally leads have majorities in both chambers of the national legislature. Thus far, they have proved unable to govern together.

To get things rolling, all he wanted them to do was get rid of Obamacare and put something, anything, in its place. Just let him have a bill to sign for the cameras which would, on paper at least, free up funds for the other things he promised — the Mexico wall, a trillion dollar infrastructure spend and tax reform to broaden the revenue base while cutting rates. No, said the true believers who believe that no one who cannot afford it has a right to life saving medicine any more than they have a right to own a car or an iPhone.

Now Trump is discovering that next to reforming the tax code, so many and so well-organised and financed are the entrenched interests that replacing Obamacare should have been child’s play. He wants to go back and try again.

Polls show that most Americans, working class Trumpsters included, would like to see Obamacare replaced, not with the unrestricted market Darwinism favoured in varying degrees by Republicans, but by making available to all the socialized medical benefits that already exist for retirees, children and military veterans

A mind that wanted to be though big and unfettered by hobgoblins might be willing to work with Democrats for such a solution, especially if the alternative was to go down as a loser, fired after one term.

A cancer on the presidency?

Is Kremlin-gate a lethal cancer on the Trump presidency, the way the Watergate cover-up was for Richard Nixon? Or is it more akin to Whitewater, the pseudo-scandal named after a failed property development that blighted, but did not destroy, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s tenancy of White House.

Just as many Democrats question Donald Trump’s legitimacy today, so many Republicans rejected Clinton’s in 1992. They went hunting for skeletons Billary left behind when they came to Washington from Little Rock, Arkansas, where Bill had been governor and which was by no means the ethics capital of America.

Smelling smoke from the Whitewater deal and other Clintons schemes to improve their then scant net worth, the haters blew as hard as they could to coax up a flame. Vince Foster, a friend and law partner the Clintons brought with them from Little Rock, committed suicide under circumstances readily construable as mysterious, and, voila, you had the makings of an inferno.

Then, as now, there were plenty of fake news artists at the ready with phony inflammables. Before long, journals like the American Spectator with funding from well-heeled right-wingers were spinning ripping yarns. One set had Governor Clinton running drugs and guns from a clandestine airbase called Mena.

Special prosecutor, Senate hearings and all the other trappings of a really good Washington -Gate followed. But the Clinton funeral pyre refused to light, at least while built on Whitewater. Then the Big Dog torched himself by “not having sex with that woman”, the intern Monica Lewinski, which got him impeached for lying under oath. He survived, nonetheless, and would be remembered as one of the better ones.

I am beginning to think that Kremlin-gate may turn out to be a squib as damp as Whitewater would have been without the stained blue dress to keep Republican hopes alive.

For the FBI to be officially investigating whether a sitting president and/or members of his entourage colluded with an unfriendly foreign power to secure his election is without precedent. Only Nixon’s intrigues to derail Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Vietnam peace efforts comes close, and that involved collusion with friend rather than foe.

However, as much of a first as the present investigation may be, there is as yet nothing that points to any kind of active or conscious conspiracy between Trump himself and the Russian government to nobble the election.

The US intelligence community is on record as having a high level of confidence that the Kremlin was involved in hacking and leaking internal Democratic Party communications in a manner calculated to prejudice the chances of nominee Hillary Clinton. Beyond that, there are plenty dots but no firm connection between them. Trump’s publicly stated admiration for Vladimir Putin over the course of the campaign may tell us something about his character and instincts but is not proof of treason. When Trump invited Putin to share any emails he had hacked from Clinton’s personal server, he was clearly being flippant.

We know that Team Trump at one point included in the swamp creature of all Washington swamp creatures, Paul Manafort, and the weird one time Robin to Manafort’s Batman, Roger Stone. Manafort, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, had a $10 million a year contract to influence US policy financed by an oligarch close to Putin. Stone, who cut his incisors as a political dirty trickster or “ratf..ker” for Nixon, bragged about knowing in advance what Russian-hacked documents were going to strike the Clinton campaign next.

But this also needs to be remembered: when Manafort’s work for Putin’s gauleiter in Ukraine became known last August, Trump dumped him as campaign chairman. As for Stone, best one can tell he’s a legend in his own, not Trump’s mind.

So where does that leave us? I’m inclined for now to go with the judgement of Mark Cuban, a real self-made billionaire who built a successful computer business, owns the Dallas Mavericks, a top tier pro basketball franchise, and stars in his own reality TV show, Shark Tank. Cuban knows Trump. They talk. There was even thought of him as Trump’s running mate. On Saturday, he delivered, in a stream of tweets, his verdict on Trump and Russia.

Trump’s abiding focus, he said, was his wallet which was under growing stress, “Businesses from Trump steaks to Trump U(niversity) were awful. His kids probably saved his net worth. What he did care about was his cash. He spent almost all of it in his campaign.” Russians were willing to buy his condos, invest in his branded buildings and host his Miss Universe beauty pageant. So “he spoke favourably about Putin to get $ out of Russia and into Trump deals”.

Putin “recognised Trump’s greed and took advantage by back channelling coordinated misinformation in an attempt to influence voters.” Trump didn’t care much, one way or the other. “I talked to him…(and) people close to him during the campaign. He never thought he would win.”