Getting to Prague Unsecretly

The McClatchy newspaper company reported yesterday that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, was in Prague last August or September. This is important because if true, it would seem to corroborate part of the controversial dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The idea is that Cohen would have taken on the role of contact person with Russia after Paul Manafort was fired from/quit the campaign.

For about 25 hours so far, reporter Peter Stone has left out there twisting slowly, slowly in the wind kicked up by his report. No other news organization that I know of confirms his report. That must be uncomfortable.

If the report is true it is important. Cohen made a conspicuous point of denying the trip when the allegation appeared, when the Steele dossier was published by Buzzfeed. He tweeted a picture of the front of an American passport and wrote “I have never been to Prague in my life.”

•••••

Less than half of Americans have a passport, and as recently as 1997 that number was only 15 percent (After 9/11, for the first time “U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda were required to have a valid passport,” Forbes reports, which raised the percentage dramatically).

Since so many Americans are unfamiliar with borders and how they work, I think it’s important to point out something that many might not realize: whether Mr. Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 or not, his passport would not necessarily contain a Czech entry stamp.

Here’s how that works: 26 European countries, comprising some 400 million people, signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1995. Under the Schengen agreement, entry into any of these countries requires the usual pass control arrival procedures, the glowering official, the uncomfortable silence, maybe the fingerprint thing and all the flourescence and fatigue, but once stamped in, a visitor is not subject to further border checks within the Schengen area.

Here is a list of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been reported that Mr. Cohen traveled to Italy in July of 2016, though at a time not consistent with the claims of the dossier. He could have walked from the plane to the Hertz counter, rented a budget sedan and driven from Roma to Prague in about twelve hours with no need for his passport.

Alternately, his evil, opulent-luxury-yacht-wielding collaborators might have put him ashore on a quiet Portuguese beach, from which he perhaps begged a ride from an itinerant fisherman to the train station, and from there made his way to Prague. He might have caught the Delta flight up to Reykjavik, been waved through by a weary pass control clerk at the end of his shift, predawn, when all those flights come in at once, and caught the ferry to Denmark.

Or, of course, for the conspiracy minded, he might have been spirited in and out of the Czech Republic with the help of all those evil, conspiring collaborators. Doing something really mean about Crimea on the way just for the record.

Point is: these days in Europe, a passport needn’t have a stamp for you to have been there.

You can get to Prague with your initial entry stamp from any of these places:

Quotes: Auctioning Mugabe

“on my trip to Harare, three weeks after a coup deposed Mugabe in November 2017, I had seen no pictures of the man. Once mandated in state buildings, they had been taken down swiftly after the coup. A teacher I met described the scene in her school on the day of his resignation. “One teacher came to the staff room and said, ‘Auctioning, auctioning, anybody want a picture of Mugabe?’ and someone put up his hand and said, ‘Fifty cents, I’ll give you 50 cents!’ and then he said, ‘OK, I’ve got 50 cents, anyone else?’ and someone else said, ‘Ten cents’ and he said, ‘Sold to the guy with 10 cents!’ ””

– from After the Strongman by Karan Mahajan in the New Republic.

Quotes: The sound MPs make during prime minister’s questions

“It’s not a natural human noise – too joyless for a laugh and yet too lacklustre for a jeer. If a Foley artist had to recreate it for a film’s soundtrack, they’d fill an old accordion with gin and throw it down a flight of stairs – it’s the only way to get that thudding braying noise, wheezing out malicious approval like a drunk uncle watching Benny Hill reruns.”

Election Day in Italy

 

How about a morning coffee catch up on today’s Italian elections?

To start, bookmark these two overviews, a general explainer from Euronews and a cheat sheet from an economic perspective.

Now, what people are saying:

Italy’s Election Could Change Everything, Scott B. MacDonald argues. If Eurosceptics win a majority and cobble together a coalition Italy could face a referendum on whether to leave the eurozone.

That’s doubtful. Politico.eu sees things differently.

The Guardian has a long article on Italy’s political fringe, The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstreamAnd Tim Parks writes that just over a month ago the body of an eighteen-year old girl

“was found in the countryside near Macerata in Central Italy. Soon the police had arrested a Nigerian accused of selling the girl drugs. On February 3, a white man, previously a local government candidate for the Northern League, drove through the town firing some thirty shots from his car into immigrant shops and bars, wounding six people.”

And thus the stage was set for an ugly five weeks of immigration-centered contentiousness. At the center of that particular stage is Matteo Salvini, 44, leader of the Lega (formerly the Northern League), a xenophobic, racist bunch who fear an “Islamic invasion” in Italy. (Here is an interview.) Salvini has gathered up all the last minute press with headlines like the most dangerous man in Italy.

At the same time, today’s election is huge for the anti-establishment, poll-leading Movimento Cinque Stelle, or 5 Star Movement, the formerly insurgent party founded by Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian who is himself ineligible to hold office because of a negligent homicide conviction.

M5S politician Virginia Elena Raggi is Mayor of Rome, and Chiara Appendino is Mayor of Turin. Because its members now wield actual power, to decidedly mixed results, M5S is in awkward transition, governing while campaigning as insurgents.

Part of the problem is that they aren’t governing all that well. Raggi was indicted two weeks ago on favoritism charges that sound familiar: lying about cronyism. In Raggi’s case it was appointing her former assistant’s brother to be Rome’s tourism chief.

Grillo keeps a lower profile than during the rise of the movement. The party’s hopes are pinned on 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, a Vice-President of Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament. Conventional wisdom holds that even if M5S were to get the most votes it would be difficult for them to cobble together a governing coalition.

(M5S background here from Bloomberg. The Atlantic explains How Italy’s Five-Star Movement Is Winning the Youth Vote: “They can’t find jobs, and the centrist parties have failed them, opening space for the populists.”)

The former PM Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) polls in second place but it ain’t got no juice. Slim Odds.

•••••

And then there’s this, from a different Tim Parks article titled Whoever Wins Won’t Govern:

“We are the country of … the decree that never becomes law and the investment that is always inadequate; in the rare event that everything goes smoothly and parliament gets something done we are the country that can rely on the courts to undo it. Italian power is impotence.

Whoever wins, they will not govern. All will go on just the same. Most key policies will be decided outside Italy.”

By which he means the European Union.

•••••

The EU is a wholly fascinating polity. Choose your corner. In the northwest and southeast the United Kingdom and Greece slash and tear at Brussels’ rule. In the northeast, Finland is grateful the EU has its back, given its long Russian border, while in the southwest Portugal appreciates the €1.8 billion more that it receives annually than it contributes to Brussels (2016). And in the middle, the yet-to-be initiated Balkan countries both want in and don’t.

My Italian friends were the first to assure me, seriously, that Donald Trump could become the American president. This was nonsense, I assured them, but they had seen it. They had lived the Silvio Berlusconi experience. Now as usual, Italy faces a dizzy field of Communists, anarchists, stuntmen, the common paralysis and … Berlusconi.

The prospects of a return of Berlusconi invite despair.  One would hope that having once elected a clown parody of a statesman, the good people of (insert your country name here) would run him out of town.

This election is worth staying up late to watch. Happy election day.

Speaking of morning coffee, got time to buy me a cup?

Name That Crossroads

Umair Haque has a question:

“Is freedom being murdered at school, but never having healthcare or retirement, even if you’re not  (murdered) — just so the economy can keep growing, as the profits of the people who sell the guns and the medicine rise ever higher? If that’s all freedom is, why should anyone want it? But if freedom’s something more than that, what is it, really?”

For a long time after the fall of the Soviet Union, all of us (other than Francis Fukuyama) waited for a new order to take shape that we could label with a term more descriptive than the “Post-Cold War Period.” And waited, and waited.

Nowadays though, with the rise of “populism,” however you define it, the general disillusionment with “neo-liberalism,” however you define it, global austerity-fatigue and the arrival of what increasingly looks like late-stage capitalism, we’re clearly no longer in the Post-Cold War Period. But where are we?

When we’ve begun to question the very nature of work, when “what is freedom” sounds like a reasonable question for Americans to ask, wherever we are, it’s a crossroads.

•••••

And that’s the post as I published it. But I revise it here, to pull a comment up into the body of the post so that people will be sure to see it. This is from the author of the blog WheatyPete’sWorld:

“Well I am a teacher and I became a teacher because I was not happy just making money for someone else, or even just for myself-me-me-me. I wanted to give something rather than be a taker. I had my tyre slashed on my pride and joy VW camper by a parent whose child told him a lie about me last week. I work evenings and weekends. I am in debt and can not afford to replace the tyre so am driving on the spare which is bald, nor have I money to get new lenses for my glasses which are too scratched to see through. But I am still a teacher because I believe in what I am doing. It is a poorly paid vocation, but I still believe in what I am doing. OK I drive for 45 minutes with minimal vision to get to work every day, but if any a-hole told me I need to carry a gun to do this… well that would be time to look for a new planet to live on. How could anyone believe that the answer to young people who are so disillusioned that they shoot people is to get their teachers to shoot them first? What sort of planet/society is this? I have many American friends and respect so many things about the country, but this president is … well words fail me. I am very sad for all those who lost sons/daughters/loved ones this week … but someone needs to take the guns away from people who think that freedom is the right to shoot anyone else. It is really quite simple, why can’t Trump or the NRA see that: if people don’t have guns then they won’t shoot each other. Do I need to draw a picture for Trump and his supporters in the NRA? No guns = no shootings. That’s all.”

Brash

In the early 1990s I had the good fortune to accompany an Atlanta-based group called the Friendship Force, founded by Presbyterian minister Wayne Smith and then (that is, at the time of its founding) Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, on a trip to Jerusalem.

The Friendship Force organized home stays, pairing, say, people in Atlanta, Georgia with people in Tbilisi, Georgia, to promote cross-cultural familiarity and understanding.

The idea behind that particular trip was for American Jews, Palestinians and others (like me), to stay in one another’s homes, with the aim of extending cultural understanding across religions just a little bit, day by day, step by step.

With much less background out in the world at that younger age, I sat astonished with, I think, everybody else in our well-meaning little peacenik assembly, when a young Likud parliamentarian, fluent in English from his high school in Pennsylvania and later MIT, bounded up to the podium to caution us on trusting those damned Palestinians, whose Green Line was within nine miles of the Mediterranean Sea at the closest point, and who had designs on it all!

Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks were perhaps not the most appropriate welcome to our particular group.

The Prime Minister has been a public figure since that day, more than twenty-five years now, much of an adult life. And now we read today (New York Times):

“The Israeli police recommended on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, casting a pall over the future of a tenacious leader who has become almost synonymous with his country. The announcement instantly raised doubts about his ability to stay in office.”

This thing and others like it have been dogging the Prime Minister and his family for years:

“The Netanyahus have long occupied pride of place in this crowded field of wealth-seekers. In 1994, a Jerusalem paper wrote about the family’s penchant for dining and dashing. Their appetites grew after Netanyahu became prime minister for a second time in 2009: a $2,500 contract for gourmet ice cream at their official residence, and a $127,000 bed installed on a government plane so they could nap on the five-hour flight to London. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, has been investigated for stealing patio furniture, and his son, Yair, for accepting free Mariah Carey tickets. None of this seemed to put a dent in the Netanyahu family’s political fortunes. But it all made for good headlines.”

I wonder if all this time ought to be enough for any one person to be in proximity to power, particularly in a small and tightly-knit land like Israel, but maybe, anywhere at all.