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.”

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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.

Weekend Reading

Some suggestions for your leisure time this weekend: on Twitter this week, I have a series of HDR photos, like this photo from the Hoi An, Vietnam market. That’s @BMurrayWriter.

To start, a bit of positive news this week, from George Monbiot:

Monbiot is author most recently of Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. To get an idea of his general worldview, watch this YouTube video called How Did We Get into This Mess from a book talk with John Lanchester.

Now, gathering clouds:

Incoming National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote an article in 2015 with the headline To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran. He thought then that “only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” Here is a piece he wrote in the National Review last summer called How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Colum Lynch and Elias Groll write at Foreign Policy, “Bolton has explicitly called for a preemptive strike on North Korea, advocates bombing to force regime change in Iran, and wants an open-ended military presence in Afghanistan. He has also called for a much more confrontational stance against China, including stationing U.S. troops in Taiwan.”

At the same time, CNBC reports that Incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “has … expressed disdain for a 2015 nuclear deal aimed at limiting the country’s (Iran’s) nuclear energy program … (saying) I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”

An evangelical Christian, Pompeo is “a longtime die-hard opponent of the Islamic Republic, who has for years advocated for a policy of regime change in Tehran,” says CNBC.

It may be a long, hot summer. This morning, moderate punditry is busy trying to convince itself that this team won’t be a disaster. One thing to look forward to: McMaster’s book.

And then there is this:

China’s “Social Credit System” Will Rate How Valuable You Are as a Human by Dom Galeon and Brad Bergan at Futurism

And perhaps a sign of a different set of worries to come: Pakistan Is Racing to Combat the World’s First Extensively Drug-Resistant Typhoid Outbreak by Meher Ahmad at Scientific American

But enough gloom.

Learning about whaling and visiting the defunct Við Áir whaling station in the Faroe Islands for Out in the Cold instructed me about the whalers’ life, about which I knew nothing. The last whalers by Lyndsie Bourgon at Aeon.com describes the winding down of a brutal way of making a living.

And a few more worthwhile articles:

Cows with character: How much can we read into animal behavior by Jennie Erin Smith at the Times Literary Supplement

Grown Men Reading ‘Nancy’ by Dash Shaw on the NYRB blog

Kidnapped Royalty Become Pawns in Iran’s Deadly Plot by Robert W. Worth in the New York Times

In books this week, Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism by Kristen Ghodsee in due in the house via Prime tomorrow. It’s kind of specialized, granted, but it’s an area of interest to me. I spent a fair amount of time riding the rails around the newly-freed East Bloc in the early 1990s.

This bit of the description got the book into my shopping cart: “Just as the communist ideal has become permanently tainted by its association with the worst excesses of twentieth-century Eastern European regimes, today the democratic ideal is increasingly sullied by its links to the ravages of neoliberalism.” Can’t argue with that.

Here in southern Appalachia we had day-long snowfall at midweek and now we look for springlike conditions over the weekend. Wherever you are, go and have some fun this weekend. Cheers for now.

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.

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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?

Quotes: How We Find Out about the World

“I think it’s only in a crisis that Americans see other people. It has to be an American crisis, of course. If two countries fight that do not supply the Americans with some precious commodity, then the education of the public does not take place. But when the dictator falls, when the oil is threatened, then you turn on the television and they will tell you where the country is, what the language is, how to pronounce the names of the leaders, what the religion is all about, and maybe you can cut out recipes in the newspaper of Persian dishes. I will tell you. The whole world takes an interest in this curious way Americans educate themselves.”