Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Buzzfeed reported this morning that multiple sources claim that National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster called President Trump an “idiot” and a “dope” in a private dinner with Oracle CEO Safra Catz. McMaster also criticized Steve Bannon, Rex Tillerson and said presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has no business being involved in national security issues at all. According to Buzzfeed, Catz told one source “[the conversation was so inappropriate that it was jaw-dropping.”

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As the Russia story again heats up, let’s remember the ties between Russia and the US evangelical right as a critical backdrop and predicate for the entire story. Here’s my backgrounder on the topic (sub req.)

Let’s return to the topic of ties between Russia and the US evangelical right.

Russia or at least many Russians have spent a decade cultivating relationships with the evangelical right in the United States. Indeed, it would be incorrect to see it as a one-sided cultivation. The evangelical right in the US – along with other rightist political formations in Western Europe – has come to see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the logical head of a kind of white, Christian, authoritarian ‘international’, as the US and Europe have become less white and more culturally permissive.

An analogous building of bonds has taken place between Russia and the NRA, despite the fact that there’s nothing analogous to ‘gun rights’ or even such a political debate in Russia. The NRA was a critical backer of Donald Trump and spent tons of millions of dollars on field organizing on Trump’s behalf in 2016 – a much more significant factor in Trump’s election victory than many realize. Of course, the gun rights and right-wing evangelical community overlap to a significant extent. So in some ways these are two parts of the same phenomenon.

I raise this because in recent days we’ve seen Alexander Torshin’s name come up again in the Russia story. He’s a key player in ties between Russia and the NRA. He’s also close to Vladimir Putin and, allegedly, Russian organized crime. You’ve likely seen this new story about a “Russian backdoor overture” that has tripped up Jared Kushner. That was Torshin’s approach to a West Virginia-based evangelical activist named Rick Clay. Clay wanted to “get two sides together to talk about Christian values.”

TPM also reported that Sam Clovis, an increasingly central player in the Russia story, had strongly pro-Russian views on Ukraine well before Trump’s campaign even started. Clovis came to Trump’s campaign as a major player in conservative evangelical political circles.

To be clear, this is not an argument that US evangelicals or gun rights activists were somehow assets in place when Trump came on the scene. We’re talking about ties which came about to a significant extent organically, as a significant faction of the American right came to see Russia as an exemplar of how a 21st century society should be run. Everything from what we’d call public diplomacy to spy operations were then layered over this as the Russian government tried to cultivate these ties.

The relevance for today is that these were in many cases the channels through which approaches to the Trump world were made. It was furthered by the fact that Trump very early on made his tightest and most enduring political alliance with the evangelical right. It all fits together, not as a broad conspiracy necessarily but as different parts of a complex puzzle, all of which came together in 2016.

Since ties between Russia and the evangelical right are partly organic and vastly more broadly based than whatever relationship Russia has with the Trump family we should expect it to continue long after Trump.

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There are a number of different developments in the Russia story that I wanted to flag and discuss as we begin this Thanksgiving-shortened week.

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The NRCC, the campaign committee charged with electing Republicans to the House of Representatives is holding a lottery to send a “lucky conservative (and a friend)” for an all expense paid weekend at the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC. You just have to contribute a minimum of ten dollars.

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Let me expand on the significance of our Sam Clovis story.

Once Carter Page became a key figure in the Russia story, everyone wanted to know: who chose him? He wasn’t some controversial figure in the Republican foreign policy world. No one had ever heard of him. Did Manafort bring him in? Mike Flynn? It turned out it was Sam Clovis. This always seemed like an evidentiary dead-end. Sam Clovis? Clovis was a retired Air Force pilot who was working at a small college in Iowa when he became a big deal in the local Tea Party movement. He had a talk radio show. He ran for the GOP Senate nomination in 2014. The Iowa caucuses are a big deal. So as a local Tea Party big wig, Clovis was a catch. He initially signed on with Rick Perry. But he ditched Perry for Trump in August 2015.

Bringing on Clovis was a perfectly logical move for Trump, even a bit of a coup. The choice also presaged Trump’s hard and unshakeable relationship with the evangelical right. But what Clovis, a big shot Tea Partier from Iowa would have to do with Russia was totally unclear. So how did Page and Papadopoulos get picked? Also remember: According to the Papadopoulos plea deal, after signing on to the campaign, the first he heard was Clovis telling him that a rapprochement with Russia would be a “principal” focus of the campaign. Was that Clovis? Was that coming from Trump?

It’s in this context that this video seems so significant. All of a sudden, a lot of pieces seem to fit together, at least more logically than they had.

Here we have video that suggests that Clovis was highly sympathetic to Russian ambitions in Ukraine well before anyone thought Donald Trump was going to run for anything. So Russophilia clearly pre-dated Trump. If Trump’s decision to bring Clovis on board was inexplicable, that would be one thing. But as I noted above, it wasn’t. It made sense for entirely unrelated reasons. Did some significant part of the Trump campaign’s pro-Russia orientation came from Clovis? Or was that why he ended up with the campaign in the first place? Russia has made strides in recent years building bridges to the US evangelical right. Is that part of what we’re hearing here?

Remember that two of five of Trump’s first five named foreign policy advisors immediately started trying to set up channels of communication with Russia. That’s a high percentage. Is Clovis’s role as the chooser of the team bigger than we realized?

As you can see, there are many more questions here than answers. But how Clovis came into the campaign, how he chose Papadopoulos and Page, and the origins of his views on Russia now seem central to the story.

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When I first saw this, I was stunned. A big piece of the Russia puzzle. In a little watched campaign video from Sam Clovis’s failed 2014 Senate run, Clovis stated staunchly pro-Russian views about the Ukraine crisis. This was on March 17th, 2014, a day before the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and more than a year before Donald Trump even announced his candidacy. At one point in the video Clovis says that “Russia, [by] placing forces on the ground in Ukraine, will help assist them in moving back into the Russian empire.” Read our report here.

Yesterday I appeared on a panel about digital publishers who are ‘pivoting to video’. I’ve written about this before. But in case you’re new to it, there have been numerous cases over the last six months to a year in which digital publishers have announced either major job cuts or in some cases literally fired their entire editorial teams in order to ‘pivot to video.’ The phrase has almost become a punchline since, as I’ve argued, there is basically no publisher in existence involved in any sort of news or political news coverage who says to themselves, my readers are demanding more of their news on video as opposed to text. Not a single one. The move to video is driven entirely by advertiser demand.

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