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Looking Back to Singapore on the Road to Helsinki

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Donald Trump has already invested a lot of personal political capital by agreeing to meet with Vladimir Putin despite the warnings of many of his advisers, associates and allies. Trump will have at least two opportunities to achieve an impressive historically significant victory. First, he could secure a promise from Vladimir Putin that Russia will not interfere in the midterm Congressional elections later this year, set to take place just five short months from now. Second, the sides could draw up some kind of framework document on Syria. This is particularly relevant as Trump is not especially interested in Syria and has been threatening to wrap up the U.S. operation in the country for a while now.

The agreement with North Korea is being spun as a personal achievement of Trump, rather than the fruit of U.S. policy that has been implemented over the course of several years. According to Trump’s version, it was he who managed to “solve” the problem that his predecessors had been unable to deal with for decades. Every possible “deal” with Moscow will be considered separately. If Russia’s friend Donald has the opportunity to press his friend Vladimir on the global arms market, then he will do so to the fullest extent.

The final declaration, if there is one, will inevitably be an extremely general, concise, and at the same time vague document. Trying to get something more concrete from Trump at this stage is a hopeless affair and a waste of time and energy.

The existing balance of power within the administration, and within the U.S. political establishment as a whole, does not yet favour a departure from the course of tough confrontation with Russia. And Trump’s mood, as the experience of North Korea demonstrates, tends to fluctuate wildly.

Nevertheless, the summit in Helsinki presents the most realistic opportunity for Russia to open a meaningful conversation with the United States on issues that are of great importance to both countries. It will likely be a long time before another chance like this presents itself.

Helsinki has little in common with Singapore. And Russia is vastly different from North Korea. On the international stage, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un play in different leagues and by different rules. Nevertheless, the recent U.S.–North Korea summit in Singapore is of some interest in the context of preparations for the meeting between U.S. and Russian leaders on July 16. The impressive political show that took place on the island of Sentosa allows us to make some assumptions about the diplomatic style of Donald Trump in dealing with “difficult” partners who are not inclined to easily succumb to overt pressure and are not prepared to unconditionally accept American superiority.

“What I need is to win. Nothing else! ”

It is well known that Donald Trump has a soft spot for strong leaders, even those who cannot be considered friends or allies of the United States. America’s traditional partners rarely receive the kind of attention from the President that Kim Jong-un was afforded in Singapore on June 12. This is precisely why Trump desperately needs a win, or at least something that looks like one. Getting into yet another squabble with Justin Trudeau or sending Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron home empty-handed – this is all par for the course for the current President of the United States. Failure, however, was simply out of the question during the summit in Singapore. This is why the strictly preliminary and extremely vague agreement on nuclear disarmament on the Korean Peninsula has been declared an unqualified “historical triumph” of U.S. foreign policy.

What could happen in Helsinki that would put the meeting on a par with this win for Trump? It would seem that Trump will have at least two opportunities to achieve an impressive historically significant victory. First, he could secure a promise from Vladimir Putin that Russia will not interfere in the midterm Congressional elections later this year, set to take place just five short months from now. As Moscow refuses to acknowledge that any interference took place in the presidential elections and has no intention of signing up to any unilateral commitments, such an accord will have to come in the form of a bilateral agreement on non-interference. This is not a simple task, but it is possible. Second, the sides could draw up some kind of framework document on Syria. This is particularly relevant as Trump is not especially interested in Syria and has been threatening to wrap up the U.S. operation in the country for a while now. Of course, it would be better to pull out of the reasonably inhospitable Syria in the form of a deal with Moscow, and if necessary, Moscow could be accused of violating the terms of any agreement signed.

“I’m not Obama, I’m different…”

In his diplomacy, Trump tries to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessors, particularly Barack Obama. Never was the desire to do this more evident than during the summit in Singapore. We could spend hours arguing whose approach to cooperation with Pyongyang was closest to that of the man currently residing in the White House – Barack Obama’s? George W. Bush’s? Or even Bill Clinton’s and Madeleine Albright’s? – but Donald Trump has no intention of sharing his successes with anyone. The agreement with North Korea is being spun as a personal achievement of Trump, rather than the fruit of U.S. policy that has been implemented over the course of several years. According to Trump’s version, it was he who managed to “solve” the problem that his predecessors had been unable to deal with for decades.

We can expect the same approach during the meeting in Helsinki. For example, the START III agreement between Russia and the United States is now seen as a bad thing because it was negotiated by the Obama administration, and extending it cannot feasibly be spun as a personal victory for Trump. Similarly, we are unlikely to see a return to some of the elements of the agreement reached between Sergey Lavrov and John Kerry on Syria, primarily because it was signed by a Secretary of State from the Democratic Party that Trump hates so much. Consequently, we need to move away from continuity, emphasizing the novelty and revolutionary nature of any possible agreements. Even if, de facto, we are talking about a return to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty or to START III, it is very important to integrate this conversation into the context of the search for new foundations of strategic stability in the 21st century world.

“Details? Throw ‘em on the furnace! ”

Many observers believe, incorrectly, that the American side did not properly prepare for the meeting in Singapore, and this is the reason why a more substantive and detailed agreement on the North Korean nuclear issue was not reached. In actual fact, the U.S. experts, whose professionalism we have no reason to doubt, worked conscientiously on the issue. What happened was that the President once again revealed his traditional dislike for detail, and the two leaders confined themselves to a general – and in places ambiguous – final document. As far as we can judge, Trump had no desire whatsoever to trade back and forth endlessly on what the wording of the document would actually be. This tactic is, to some extent, justified, as a joint document creates fewer obligations and is less vulnerable to criticism from political opponents at home.

This is probably what will happen in Helsinki too. The final declaration, if there is one, will inevitably be an extremely general, concise, and at the same time vague document. Trying to get something more concrete from Trump at this stage is a hopeless affair and a waste of time and energy. And it does not even matter whether the attempts come from the Russian side or Trump’s own team. Any kind of concrete agreement will create a pretext for the opposition to accuse the President of pursuing a policy of appeasement, while there will be no shortage of members of Congress willing to somehow block the practical implementation of such an agreement. A very general declaration, however, would be a great achievement in the current climate, opening the way for further elaboration and more concrete and practical agreements.

“The show must go on.”

Any somewhat significant political movement by Trump is in no small part an effective and colourful show designed to attract as much attention as possible, primarily within the United States but also around the world. This public side of Trump’s diplomacy was demonstrated in all its glory in Singapore, starting with the choice of exotic venue for the meeting, the threat that it would not go ahead and the subsequent confirmation, followed by the numerous presidential tweets, showy photo shoots, flashy press conferences, etc. The attention of the whole world was riveted once again on the President of the United States, which, as far as he was concerned, was an important foreign policy achievement in itself.

It is clear that Helsinki promises even greater opportunities than Trump was offered in Singapore. The first meeting between the U.S. and Russian leaders is an ideal opportunity for the Donald Trump brand to be promoted on a global scale. It should be furnished in the correct manner, like the Tilsit meeting between Napoleon and Alexander I on a raft in the middle of the Neman River in June 1807. The excellent stage direction of the show could more than make up for any modest practical results that may come out of the summit. At the end of the day, Donald Trump has already invested a lot of personal political capital by agreeing to meet with Vladimir Putin despite the warnings of many of his advisers, associates and allies. Surely he has the right to count on the appropriate political dividends. It would probably be wise for the Russian side to play up to Trump, especially because the meeting has particular symbolic significance for Russia too, given the current circumstances.

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

The summit in Singapore, as well as the many other high-level meetings held by Donald Trump, allow us to make the following conclusion: “friendly” personal relations with foreign leaders, handshakes, hugs, pats on the shoulder, and mutual compliments – none of this means that the President of the United States is willing to make compromises on issues that he sees as being truly important for himself. Not a word has been said about easing international sanctions against Pyongyang since that romantic meeting on the island of Sentosa. In a similar vein, the demonstrably friendly personal relations Trump enjoys with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzō Abe and President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping did not prevent him from increasing economic pressure on Tokyo and declaring an economic war on China.

For Russia, this means that any possible agreement signed in Helsinki concerning strategic stability or the Syrian settlement, for example, will not lead to Trump easing pressure on Moscow in areas where he believes applying pressure is in the interests of the United States. In this sense, Trump, as far as we can tell, is not prepared to follow the tactic of positive alignment of certain aspects of U.S.–Russia relations with others, a tactic pursued by many U.S. presidents before him. Every possible “deal” with Moscow will be considered separately. If Russia’s friend Donald has the opportunity to press his friend Vladimir on the global arms market, then he will do so to the fullest extent. If he gets the chance to twist the arms of the United States’ allies in Europe and force them to buy expensive American gas instead of the cheaper Russian gas, not a single summit will help change his mind. If some kind of agreement on Syria comes from the meeting in Helsinki, this will do little to facilitate a deal on Ukraine. As the saying goes, “It’s just business, nothing personal.”

“A promise means nothing.”

The weeks following the meeting in Singapore demonstrated that Trump is selective when it comes to keeping his promises – especially if they are formulated in general terms and can be interpreted in many ways. In all honesty, we already knew this. Let us recall, for example, the infamous story of the plans discussed by the Russian and American leaders on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Hamburg in July 2017 to set up a U.S.–Russia working group on cybersecurity, plans for which have yet to materialize. In response to his many critics back home who accuse him of making “unilateral concessions” to Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump fires back confidently that the United States can easily renege on any of these “concessions” (including the moratorium on joint U.S.–South Korea military exercises) if it is not satisfied with Pyongyang’s actions moving forward. It’s not that the President of the United States deliberately and cynically went against his word, but that unpredictability is an organic part of his diplomatic style.

This means that any agreement reached in Helsinki cannot be regarded as final and irreversible until it has acquired the form of a concrete and detailed treaty, a roadmap detailing the responsible officials, timeframes, enforcement mechanisms, etc. The White House will always find a pretence for going back on preliminary obligations it has agreed upon with Moscow. This is why we should probably not attach any kind of sacred meaning to formulations, terms, and figures of speech that might make their way into any joint U.S.–Russia agreements signed in Helsinki. Nor does it make any sense to cling to anything the President of the United States says during the summit. It is far more important to try and change the general atmosphere in the bilateral relations and instil a positive “spirit of Helsinki” that would allow the two countries to move forward in specific directions at lower levels of interaction.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom.”

As far as we can tell, theUS agreements with North Korea in Singapore did not stop the fierce conflict within the United States regarding possible options for resolving the Korean nuclear problem. The struggle continues as bitterly as ever. This conflict is not only between Trump and his opponents on Capitol Hill; the administration itself does not seem to have a coherent plan in this regard. Rumour has it that there are at least two groups vying for Trump’s ear on the Korean issue. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s doves oppose National Security Advisor John Bolton’s hawks. It is difficult to say whether this bureaucratic tug-of-war is a manifestation of the President’s managerial style or the result of the confusion and uncertainty that have been the hallmarks of the current administration from the very beginning.

In any case, we have to be prepared for the fact that the meeting in the Finnish capital will not be a turning point, but simply the start of a complex process to restore relations between Moscow and Washington. The political and bureaucratic struggle in Washington for the implementation of the Helsinki Accords, whatever they may be, will be complicated and time-consuming. Attempts at bureaucratic sabotage and obstruction of progress on various pretexts cannot be ruled out. Nor can the desire to load the agreements reached in Helsinki with all kinds of additional terms and requirements. The existing balance of power within the administration, and within the U.S. political establishment as a whole, does not yet favour a departure from the course of tough confrontation with Russia. And Trump’s mood, as the experience of North Korea demonstrates, tends to fluctuate wildly.

Nevertheless, the summit in Helsinki presents the most realistic opportunity for Russia to open a meaningful conversation with the United States on issues that are of great importance to both countries. It will likely be a long time before another chance like this presents itself.

First published in our partner RIAC

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Weakness or calculation? How the pandemic undermined the US world leadership

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Anyone watching the numerous doomsday movies, happily churned out by Hollywood, will see American doctors saving the planet from space-borne viruses and the plague epidemic that turn people into zombies. However, the very first serious test in a decade has shown that the US healthcare system is actually inferior even to the Russian one, created during the Cold War years. And this despite the fact, that for the past 30 years, the Russian medical system has been suffering from “optimizations,” cuts and underfunding. Moreover, while the Kremlin, even for propaganda reasons, has managed to provide real assistance to a number of European countries, and has been the first to launch a vaccine on the market, Washington’s actions can be regarded as a sign of weakness, and a very dangerous one to its allies at that.

More than a year after the start of the global lockdown, we can already sum up the initial results, which look disappointing to Washington. The US healthcare system has collapsed under the pressure, thus laying bare the country’s inability to bring the outbreak of a less-than-deadly disease under control. As for Russia, despite its lack of America’s vast resources, it still managed to win the vaccine race and become the first to come up with a viable antidote.

More importantly, Moscow has also come out on top in the information “war” with the West, with its Sputnik V vaccine proving to have far fewer side effects than its Pfizer and Moderna counterparts. Therefore, the US and British lobbying of their own vaccines, and their attempts to close the European market for the Russian vaccine look unethical, to say the least, all the more so amid numerous European media reports about people having  died from side effects after being inoculated with Western vaccines. At the same time, there are simply no reports about similar complications caused by the Russian vaccine, even though the European Commission and Brussels have been keeping a close eye on the effects of its use in European countries, including Serbia and Hungary, which have already taken the first deliveries of the Sputnik V vaccine.

What is the reason for the US demonstrating its weakness? How come that in the midst of the epidemic Washington was unable to find the resources to demonstrate its readiness to lend a helping hand to its European allies? Unfortunately, one of the reasons was that the Americans simply freaked out. The truth is, the US healthcare system is rather decentralized and unorganized. People with good health insurance have little to worry about. However, in a situation of a pandemic, the US medical facilities are pretty hard to manage, so one has to do it manually. Compounded by the general atmosphere of panic and the fact that the poorest strata of society, who have no health insurance and constitute the main risk zone (obesity due to malnutrition, advanced chronic diseases and other COVID-inducing conditions), the system simply collapsed. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Trump administration tried to keep maximum resources at home. Moreover, the businessman-turned-president, who had openly spoken about “exporting security,” never missed a chance to make it clear to his allies that US assistance is never free. As a result, he was replaced by Biden, a Democrat who advocates maximum support for all democratic forces. However, Democrats usually provide moral or military support, but they have proved equally unprepared to line up any serious assistance to the countries hit the hardest by the pandemic.

Moreover, it was actually at the suggestion of the United States and the UK that the COVAX system, a global initiative aimed at providing equitable (but not free) access to COVID-19 vaccines for countries in need, stalled. It turned out (who might have guessed?) that both the US-developed Moderna and the British AstraZeneca vaccines are primarily needed by their own electorates, and only then by countries that need them, but are unable to produce their own vaccine. Meanwhile, India with a population of over 1 billion, managed to fulfill its obligations, and Russia is ready to launch the production of vaccines in Europe. However, bending under Washington’s pressure, the European Union has banned the import of Russian, Indian and Chinese vaccines, without bothering to explain the reasons for this ban.

A country, claiming world domination cannot lead in everything, of course.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the healthcare systems of many European countries, like Sweden and Switzerland, are way better that what they now have in the United States. That being said, the world leader still bears full responsibility for its allies and cannot leave them to their own devices, not only in the event of a military conflict, but also in the midst of a pandemic. However, this is exactly what it did…

From our partner International Affairs

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The legacy of 2020, and 2021 in the prospects of the United States and China

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image source: cnn.com

2020 was a crucial year because of Covid-19, which disrupted the evolution of the world order in the direction of differentiation and transformation. This is the most severe crisis the human world has faced since the Second World War.

As of 10 May 2021, According to the Hopkins University Global New Crown Epidemic Statistics Report, as of May 10, 2021 there have been 158,993,826 confirmed cases worldwide and 3,305,018 deaths.

The pandemic is like a fatal global social test. On the basis of a world order that has already undergoing a crisis, it has not only caused a pause and thus a deceleration of economic development, but it has also stepped up social division and the transfer of power from the political to the technical sphere.

Although the most experienced analysts and leading research institutions have published various reports, currently none of them can accurately predict in detail the huge impact of the pandemic on the history of the 21st century.

The pandemic, however, will bring about major changes in four areas.

Firstly, it will accelerate the general trend of global economic recession and differentiation. This is due to the currency over-issue policies adopted by several countries and to intensified domestic social polarisation. Since 2018 the global economic and financial crisis has not yet been solved. On the contrary, the crisis has only been concealed by the short-term response of monetary policy.

Secondly, the pandemic will speed up internal changes and the reorganisation of the international political and economic order precisely due to internal social differentiation. Owing to the turbulent influence of domestic and international policies, economic and political risks in fragile regions of the world will intensify or have knock-on effects.

Thirdly, the pandemic will strengthen the digital society and competition between countries in building new technologies will become more intense. The most significant impact of digital society is the silent arrival of a transparent society that exists but has no human contacts.

Fourthly, the pandemic promotes the rise of vaccine nationalism and accelerates the revival of the community value of East Asian countries, which has epochal significance from the perspective of the history of world civilisation.

The most influential political and economic event in 2020 was the US elections and the related change of Administration. The US elections represented the sharpest but also the most frustrating change in US history. Although Donald Trump lost the election, 74,216,154 citizens voted for the outgoing President.

For the United States, the change in direction cannot be seen as the advent of a resolute and determined policy along one single line, as the basic reality of the highly divided American society was not changed, but indeed strengthened due to the general election. The huge impact promoted the spread of political violence and protests in the United States.

Source: The US Crisis Monitor, Bridging Divides Initiative, Princeton School of Public and International Affairs’, Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination.

First of all, Donald Trump lost the election, but the spectre of Trumpism has remained in the United States and even in Europe, which is generally not conducive to advancing the strategy of developing relations with China.

Secondly, the “antagonism” of the US strategy towards China has not changed radically. Trump hadopened a political-economic dispute with China. Itisparticularlynoteworthythat the younger generation of the Republican leadership isgraduallybecominghostile and negative towards China, and exertsgreatinfluence in Congress.Thisdoesnotfavours world peace.

Thirdly, if this attitude is not contained, it will lead to negative long-term impacts between high-tech decoupling and ideological competition. Finally, China’s policy towards the United States has been perfected and refined: although the government is still adopting a wait-and-see attitude, the voice of seeking cooperation and being rational and pragmatic is still the mainstream in China.

Besides the issue that China will reduce its dependence on the world and increase world’s dependence on China itself, China will reduce its dependence on traditional growth models and increase its care for social, green and environmental sustainability.

The year 2021 is proving that the focus of the analysis of global political and economic trends will still be competition between China and the United States. President Biden’s Administration still regards China as its main strategic competitor, but the methods of addressing the issue are quite different from those of Trump’s Administration. The main difference lies in the fact that President Biden focuses on solving domestic problems and does not exclude the most important issues with China.

President Biden’s Administration has adapted its strategy for China as the influence of major lobbies and interest groups – such as the US finance and military industry – on policy is constant compared to the previous Administration. Nevertheless, the Chinese factor in the chain of global interests keeps higher levels.

Indeed, voices from both parties in the US Congress calling for curbing China’s rise are also increasing.

In short, in terms of China’s policy direction, President Biden’s Administration is expected to oppose a trade war because it harms the core interests of the US business community. However, there are likely to be problems for Taiwan, Xianggang (Hong Kong), Xinjiang Weiwu’er (Uyghur), South China Sea, Xizang (Tibet), as well as other issues.

The possibility of renewed trade negotiations between China and the United States is expected to increase significantly in the future and the US strategy of constructive competition will be reformed.

Regardless of changes in Sino-US relations, China will certainly promote greater bilateral and multilateral investment cooperation, while seeking new development and shaping new models of cooperation.

The key areas which are currently the most important and noteworthy are, firstly, China’s joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and seeking to adhere to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which shows that China’s top leadership has decided to continue the reform strategy of internal and external promotion.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region between the ten States of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) and five of their free trade partners: Australia, China, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), Japan and New Zealand. These Member States account for approximately 30% of world’s population and GDP, thus making it the largest trading bloc.

The CPTPP, instead, is a draft regional investment and regulatory treaty in which negotiations, until 2014, twelve Pacific and Asian countries participated: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the USA and Vietnam.

Indeed, between the RCEP and the CPTPP, there is not only the interconnection of the industrial chain and commonality -and more reasons for unity than differences – but also the influence of great powers’ strategic factors.

The main difference between the two is that the CPTPP has higher economic quality requirements, while the RECP is more inclusive. Secondly, the China-EU trade and investment agreement is likely to be signed, which has clear short-term interests for Europe and long-term strategic interests for China. China, however, still needs to take a cautious attitude towards European policy and its legal systems based on double standards. Thirdly, China and Russia are strengthening comprehensive strategic cooperation and there will be new opportunities for their cooperation in the energy and military sectors.

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Why Congress should be rough on Chris Miller at his testimony on Wednesday

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FBI director Chris Wray’s weak congressional testimony in March left most of the Capitol attack questions unanswered and most of us scratching our heads: if the chiefs of the intelligence agencies don’t know, then who does?

As I argued back in March, before Senate Wray picked the low hanging fruit questions — such as confirming that the Trump mob that stormed the Capitol was indeed Trump’s mob and not some other people — while conviniently glazing over the real questions.

This is why the congressional testimony by former acting Secretary of Defense, Chris Miller, this Wednesday matters. The national guard mystery is still the elephant in the room that’s still sitting in the corner in loud, deafening silence.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has been looking for answers from federal intelligence agencies on Trump’s role in the Capitol insurrection since day one. They have knocked on pretty much any door they could think of, requesting information from sixteen offices in total. That brings us to Wednesday when the Committee will hear from Chris Miller, as well as Jeff Rosen, former acting Attorney General, and Robert Contee III, District of Columbia Police Chief, in a hearing titled “The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions.”

Back in March, when Senate grilled Wray, the FBI director could not answer why the national guard was not sent in to quell the attack. Wray vaguely put the decision on local policy makers, conveniently circumventing federal responsibility.

Then months later, defense officials actually stated that the national guard was delayed for reasons of “optics” and worries over how it would look if Trump’s mob was pushed out forcefully, as they should’ve been. Miller dragged his feet for hours before giving the green light, as he wanted to imagine what exactly the national guard’s intervention will look like. The actual deployment took only 20 minutes, logistically speaking.

Miller has already spoken about Trump’s “cause and effect” words responsible for inciting the Capitol attacks. And some commentators like Sarah Burris at Raw Story already predict that Miller is about to throw Trump under the bus on Wednesday.

But that’s not enough. Where was Miller back then? The delay was his decision and no one else’s. The Congressmen and Congresswomen of the House Oversight and Reform Committee chaired by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, should not go easy on Miller only because now, after the fact, he is willing to speak up against Trump. Now it’s easy. Now it doesn’t count.

Trump removed Secretary of Defense Esper over his objection to sending the national guard on the Black Lives Matter movement that sparked up exactly one year ago. That’s why Trump replaced Esper with Miller. Miller could have also said no to Trump but he played along. That’s why Miller doesn’t get to play hero now. There are no heroes in the Trump Administration’s aftermath. Some “cause and effect” talk and hypocritical outrage after the fact don’t count. Now doesn’t count. The House Oversight and Reform Committee shouldn’t buy this. The time for cheap spins and late awakened conscience is up. Now is the time for real answers. Miller and Rosen should get a rough ride on Wednesday. Anything else would not be acceptable.

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