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Why can’t we be friends? The long, short and fat of Trump diplomacy

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters aboard Air Force One on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, while traveling to Hanoi, Vietnam.  Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

Must not make Vlad mad

Aboard Air Force One en route to Vietnam from China, Donald Trump told reporters he’s not the only one who bristles when Russian meddling in the election comes up. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is “very insulted by it,” the president said three times.

“Every time he sees me, he says I didn’t do that and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” said Trump. He went on in that exchange and on Twitter to decry “the haters and fools” who don’t realize that “having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

The election-interference story, Trump said, is a “Democratic hit job” from “political hacks” — naming former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former FBI Director James Comey.

Fast-forward to a news conference Sunday in Hanoi, after the CIA says its Trump-named director, Mike Pompeo, “stands by” the finding of Russian meddling.

“What I said there is that I believe he [Putin] believes that,” Trump said. “As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.” See Emily Ngo and David M. Schwartz’s story for Newsday.

Belief systems

Even as Trump said he stood by his intelligence agency chiefs, he remained consistent in not saying the words: the Russians interfered. But Trump’s rapid revisionism was enough of a contortion to be read as an implicit insult to Putin.

If there was interference and Putin had no clue that it happened, that would suggest that Putin — admired by Trump as a “strong” leader — wasn’t in control of his government.

Click here for a transcript of Trump’s remarks on Air Force One.

Trump got ‘played’

Brennan and Clapper, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” portrayed Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge the threat of Russia’s meddling as dangerous to U.S. national security.

“It’s either naiveté, ignorance or fear,” Brennan said. “And I think it demonstrates to Mr. Putin that Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and to try to play upon his insecurities.”

Clapper said: “The threat posed by Russia ... is manifest and obvious. To try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding, and in fact, poses a peril to this country.”

Clapper was an Air Force officer for more than 30 years and spent nearly two decades in senior intelligence posts. Brennan is a 25-year veteran of the CIA. Both served under Republican and Democratic administrations.

Bowing to a strongman

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, famous for sanctioning vigilante killings in his nation's crackdown on drugs, reported hearing not a peep of human rights protest from Trump when they met on the final stop of the American president's Asian jaunt.

Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, said "there was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining."

Obliquely, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed human rights did come up in their 40-minute conference, but did not say whether Trump mentioned extrajudicial violence. Duterte in an evening reception sang for Trump a Filipino love song (no kidding). Trump laughed as his host shut down questions from what he called news media "spies." 

Trump boasted that he and Duterte have a "great relationship." Hilarious video of the American president trying to understand and master a traditional handshake went viral.

The nuclear schoolyard

When the commemorative plate collection goes on sale with Trump’s most distinctive tweets etched in gold letters, look for this one:

“Why would Kim Jong Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe someday that will happen!”

Really? Really, Trump said later in Hanoi. “That might be a strange thing to happen, but it’s certainly a possibility.”

So why the insult? “I think that was the president just responding the way he does to somebody who insulted him first,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on ABC’s “This Week.” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry called Trump “an old lunatic.”

Janison: Flynn the Ankara baby

Lawyers for Michael Flynn are denying a Wall Street Journal report that he plotted to kidnap a Muslim cleric in the United States who is a rival of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But there are multiple layers of intrigue surrounding the former national security adviser’s paid lobbying for Turkey, among other activities. One example: While Trump is a fan of Erdogan, allies of the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, have contributed to Hillary Clinton (as well as to several Republicans).

For more, see Dan Janison’s column for Newsday.

SALT in the recipe

The House GOP tax plan limits state and local tax deductions to property taxes and ends them for state and local income taxes. The Senate version eliminates both kinds of deductions. That goes too far, said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas).

Brady said on “Fox News Sunday” that the House would not agree to the proposal even if the Senate were to pass it. He said he had worked with lawmakers from New York, California and New Jersey to come up with the current House plan “and I’m committed to it.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) led a rally at City Hall in Manhattan against eliminating the deductions and gave a “shout-out” to Republican Reps. Peter King of Seaford, Lee Zeldin of Shirley and Dan Donovan of Staten Island for their opposition.

2018 is getting closer

The fate of the tax-overhaul package, a centerpiece of Trump’s agenda, is seen as likely to have an impact on the 2018 midterm elections, especially among suburban voters, writes Newsday’s Ngo.

If it goes down, more GOP voters may stay home in disappointment. But if it passes with the elimination of state and local deductions, Republican candidates in high-tax regions may feel the backlash.

What else is happening

  • Trade ministers from 11 Pacific Rim countries are moving ahead with each other, and without the United States, toward concluding a free-trade Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Trump reiterated his opposition at the Asia-Pacific meetings in Vietnam.
  • Alex Azar, a pharmaceutical executive and former official in the George W. Bush administration official, is Trump's pick to succeed the scandal-ousted Tom Price as secretary for Health and Human Services.
  • After special counsel Robert Mueller secured a guilty plea and cooperation from former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, Trump tweeted “few people knew the young, low level volunteer.” But Papadopolous helped edit a major Trump foreign policy speech, The New York Times reports.
  • Comey quoted the book of Amos where it declares: "But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The declaration came amid the latest Trump shot at him over Russia.
  • Trump’s surrogates on the Sunday talk shows were still hedging on whether they believed the allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of improper conduct with teenage girls as young as 14.
  • Trump offered to help settle a dispute between China and Vietnam over territorial claims in the South China Sea. “I’m a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” he said. There were no immediate takers.
  • Trump is succeeding at getting conservatives confirmed to fill U.S. Court of Appeals vacancies at a rapid pace, The New York Times reports.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions faces a grilling on Capitol Hill Tuesday over new claims he failed to disclose contacts between aides and Russian officials while serving in Trump’s campaign.

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