1. The Real Deep State
Timothy Snyder’s newsletter has become invaluable over the course of the war in Ukraine. But he has insights about American politics, too.
This week he discussed the arrest of FBI agent Charles McGonigal:
On 23 January, we learned that a former FBI special agent, Charles McGonigal, was arrested on charges involving taking money to serve foreign interests. One accusation is that in 2017 he took $225,000 from a foreign actor while in charge of counterintelligence at the FBI's New York office. Another charge is that McGonigal took money from Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch, after McGonigal’s 2018 retirement from the FBI. Deripaska, a hugely wealthy metals tycoon close to the Kremlin, "Putin's favorite industrialist," was a figure in a Russian influence operation that McGonigal had investigated in 2016. Deripaska has been under American sanctions since 2018. Deripaska is also the former employer, and the creditor, of Trump's 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
The reporting on this so far seems to miss the larger implications. . . . In 2016, Trump's campaign manager (Manafort) was a former employee of a Russian oligarch (Deripaska), and owed money to that same Russian oligarch. And the FBI special agent (McGonigal) who was charged with investigating the Trump campaign's Russian connections then went to work (according to the indictment) for that very same Russian oligarch (Deripaska). This is obviously very bad for Trump personally. But it is also very bad for FBI New York, for the FBI generally, and for the United States of America.
Don’t worry. It gets worse.
The reason I was thinking about Trump and Putin back in 2016 was a pattern that I had noticed in eastern Europe, which is my area of expertise. Between 2010 and 2013, Russia sought to control Ukraine using the same methods which were on display in 2016 in its influence operation in the United States: social media, money, and a pliable candidate for head of state. . . .
Trump and Yanukovych were similar figures: nihilistic, venal, seeking power to make or shield money. This made them vulnerably eager partners for Putin. And they had the same chief advisor: the American political consultant Paul Manafort. . . .
Anne Applebaum once put the question the right way: why didn't the FBI investigate Trump’s connections to Putin much earlier? In retrospect, it seems as though the FBI investigation of Trump’s campaign and its Russian connections in 2016 was not only late, but weirdly understated.
If the McGonigal allegations are proven, then we have an entirely new set of problems. Not just that one political party was willing to become the cat’s paw of a foreign government, but that a key part of America’s law enforcement apparatus was in on the game.
In other words: An actual Deep State.
As always, projection is the sincerest form of Trumpism.
2. Chris Cillizza
Chris Cillizza is one of the best human beings I met in Washington. Shortly before Christmas, he (and hundreds of his colleagues) were laid off from CNN.
Now he’s started a Substack. And you should absolutely subscribe to it because (1) it’s great and (2) it’s free.
Cillizza has two superpowers. The first is his ability to distill. The second is that he’s heterodox enough that you never really know where he’ll land.
Example: In this post, Chris gives you five charts that more or less define the topography of America’s gun problem. Short. Pithy. Smart. You might think, “Oh, so Cillizza is a lib.”
Then in this post he explains why the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” is kind of bullshit. (Complete with a nod to Watchmen.)
Also, Cillizza has excellent instincts about people and the human condition.
To wit: My favorite post from Cillizza’s newsletter is his deep dive on how Donald Trump keeps winning—sorry, “winning”—golf tournaments.
On Sunday, Donald Trump posted this on Truth Social:
“A great honor to have won the Senior Club Championship at Trump International Golf Club, one of the best courses in the Country, in Palm Beach County, Florida. Competed against many fine golfers, and was hitting the ball long and straight.”
(Breitbart News saw fit to write a story about Trump’s triumph, which he subsequently sent out to his press list.)
If you are keeping count — and I am! — that’s at least Trump’s 3rd senior club championship at the course. He also won it in 2012 and 2013. Trump also claimed to have won the club championship (not just for seniors!) in 1999, 2001, 2009 and 2018. (Yes, Trump won the club championship while he was president of the United States. Amazing!)
Trump, in fact, has said he has won 20 club championships during his playing career.
“I've won a lot of club championships,” Trump told Golf Digest in 2014. “Anytime I win a club championship, I'm proud of those rounds. Club championships are like our majors.”
I did a whole bunch of research on Trump’s golf prowess (and his claims about his golf prowess) for my forthcoming book: “Power Players: Sports, Politics and the American Presidency.” (It’s out April 18! Preorder it now!)
And I learned something interesting about that claimed 2018 club championship that might, um, shed some light on how Trump manages to win so damn many of these things.
From the book:
The story goes like this. A man named Ted Virtue (not making him up), the CEO of MidOcean partners, played in and won the club championship in 2018. (Virtue helped finance the movie “Green Book,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 2018). Sometime after Virtue’s win, Trump bumped into him at the club and somewhat jokingly told him “The only reason you won is because I couldn’t play.” Trump proposed that he and Virtue play a 9 hole match for the title of club champ. Trump won. Hence the plaque on the wall.
So, yeah, that’s not how club championships work.
Two other Trump tricks I learned about during my research for the book:
Trump often plays the first round at a new course he owns and then declares himself the club champion for having shot the lowest round at the course (thanks to Rick Reilly for that one)
Trump, in a random round, shoots lower than the winning score shot during the club championship — and subsequently declares himself the de facto club champion.
He appears to have pulled just these sort of tricks in order to win his latest club championship, in fact.
As the Daily Mail has noted, Trump was in North Carolina last Saturday— during the club championship; he spoke at the funeral of Diamond (of “Diamond and Silk” fame/infamy), a high-profile supporter of his.
So, how did Trump wind up at the top of the leaderboard despite not playing in one of the rounds? The Daily Mail has more:
Insiders told DailyMail.com that competitors arriving for day two of the contest on Sunday morning were surprised (although not exactly shocked) to see his name at the top of the leaderboard with a five-point lead over the overnight leader.
He apparently told members that he had played a cracking round on Thursday and that would count as his first day's score.
None of that is to say that Trump is a bad golfer. No one who has played with him or watched him play would say that. In fact, he is widely seen as quite a good golfer for someone his age. (Trump is 76 years old.)
Luke Kerr Dineen, the play editor at Golf magazine and someone who has analyzed the swing of every president for which there is footage, told me of Trump:
“He hits the ball a long way off the tee. And he focuses singularly on hitting the ball off the tee. To him that’s the sign of a good golfer. Putting and all these other details are not as telling as your ability to hit the ball.”
Dineen said that Trump’s real handicap is like “somewhere between a 5 and a 8” when you factor in “lots of gimmes” that he tends to take.
Trump’s golf game is best understood as a metaphor for his broader life.
Read the whole thing and subscribe.
You’ll thank me.
3. Success Is Temporary
I’ve linked to David Espstein many times before and his interview with running coach (and former god-level runner) Lauren Fleshman has a lot to teach you about both running and life.
David Epstein: Early in the book you portray a scene where you’re coaching runners, and you say, flatly: “I don’t miss it — I had my turn.” Getting to as high a level as you did, I would imagine there are some things you miss about it. If so, what do you miss the most?
Lauren Fleshman: There are two things I do miss. I miss the feeling of being in absolute world-beating fitness, a feeling I had only a few weeks a year. I felt like a frothing bull for competitive opportunities, stood taller with a “bring it on!” attitude even when brushing my teeth, and was prone to grandiose ideas like “I could walk right up Everest right now if someone transported me there.” That was a fun feeling. And the other thing I miss is the travel without kids.
There’s a lot of great stuff about women’s physical development and the importance of not letting puberty be seen as a roadblock for female athletes. And then there’s this:
DE: With a lap-and-a-half to go at nationals in the 5,000, you moved out into lane 3, and stopped! After 13 seconds, you started again, in a sprint, and finished 4th, just off the world team. It’s kind of amazing that you stopped, and even more so that you started again so quickly. Why did you stop, and why did you start again?
LF: My internal chatter was so overwhelming, the pressure was so great, that I lost contact with the competitor I had been all my life. I convinced myself that it would be better to quit than to try my best and turn out the loser. I started again because I hated that voice and it didn’t match my values and I didn’t want to let it win.
DE: After that, you became the subject of some “headcase” gossip in the running world. But you grew from it. Pretty soon, you were actually having fun again. At a big race in London, which you won, you write: “I felt more free from perfectionism than I had in years. I took a drag on a stranger’s cigarette. I danced to a busker’s drums on the sidewalk.”
It’s interesting that your highs and lows were often in such close proximity. It reminded me of Alain de Botton writing about how, sometimes, it is at the moment of peak achievement that we should feel the most compassion for the achiever, because it is just at that moment when they are learning that their great triumph doesn’t fix the deepest problem they’re grappling with. When I read that, it resonated deeply with my experience with my first book, of it becoming a surprise bestseller. It was amazing, and yet… I wonder if that resonates with you at all. Did achievement deliver what you expected personally?
LF: This is basically what happened after my first USA championship in 2006, which was followed by the dramatic scene of dropping out and starting again. Winning didn’t make me enough, or make me beloved in some permanent way. That’s what I wanted. I wanted assurance I would be loved. But it was temporary. The love from success is always temporary. You have to find satisfaction with yourself on your average day.
Read the whole thing and subscribe.
And if you find value in what we’re doing here at The Bulwark, I hope you’ll subscribe to us, too.
I've always found Cillizza to be the kind of pundit who buys into the stupid DC parlor games and pushes the kind of sensationalized hyperbolic BS that most people despise about the media. The kind of NY/DC character who always buys into party/candidate spin and has very little insight into actually knowing anything about grassroots local politics.
An excellent opinion piece from Will Bunch on the FBI piece. (apologies if a repost)