Friday, November 30, 2018

The Other Shoe Drops As Mueller Cinches The Case For Trump-Russia Collusion

And so the other shoe has dropped. 
Nearly three years after the first hint that Russia was interfering in U.S. politics, 18 months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation of the greatest scandal since Soviet spies stole U.S. atomic bomb secrets in the late 1940s, and nearly three weeks after Democrats flipped more House seats than in any election since Watergate and vowed to push back against an unhinged president, what has long been suspected is now cold, verifiable fact -- Donald Trump and his campaign eagerly colluded with America's historic enemy to steal the 2016 presidential election. 
The confirmation of collusion with Vladimir Putin's cyberwarriors -- long assumed but never telegraphed until this week by the circumspect Mueller -- emerged in court filings in which Trump was opaquely identified in legalese as "Individual No. 1." 
"Individual No. 1," the filings indicated, was the central figure in key events involving Russia's election interference, a bombshell allegation underpinned by evidence that as an underdog presidential candidate, Trump was in close contact with his lieutenants as they reached out to and worked hand-in-glove with the Kremlin and WikiLeaks and then tried to conceal the extent of their activities.  
"It's deeply troubling.  It's not a place that anybody wants to be, or where you would want your friends or family to be," said former federal prosecutor Glen Kopp in what was something of an understatement considering the enormity of the crimes outlined in Mueller's filings.  "And it's certainly not a place that you would want your president to be." 
On Tuesday, a draft document revealed that Mueller and his prosecutors are closely scrutinizing Trump's interactions with longtime adviser and dirty trickster Roger Stone and his associate Jerome Corsi, who worked with WikiLeaks as it released waves of Russian-hacked Democratic emails that candidate Trump, in pronouncements and stump speeches excoriating Hillary Clinton, had sometimes mysteriously anticipated before their release and reveled in afterwords. 
On Thursday, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, fresh off a new cooperation agreement with Mueller, pleaded guilty to having lied to Congress when he insisted that Trump was not pursuing plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow (photo, below) after January 2016 when in fact the planning continued into June and involved the highest levels of the Putin government.   
A plan for Trump to fly to Moscow after securing the Republican nomination and gift Putin a $50 million penthouse atop the tower, which would include an Ivanka Trump-branded spa, was scotched after The Washington Post broke the first story that Russian hackers were stealing Democratic emails. 
It has been a long and frustrating journey, the years of lies, obfuscations and rationalizations by Trump and his sycophancy in their ultimately futile effort to explain away the president's multiple ties with Russia, although understanding why those ties exist has been a piece of птичье молоко (That's a Russian cake.)  
Beginning in in 1984, over 30 years before he ran for president, Trump began tapping into what would become an extensive network of contacts with corrupt businessmen, mobsters and money launderers from the former Soviet Union, Russia and their satellite states to make deals ranging from real-estate sales to beauty pageants sponsorships to bailing out his frequently ailing enterprises.  It is tempting to say that Trump built that network himself as his business empire grew, but in reality members of the network more often used him as a convenient patsy.  This has been especially true of money launderers.  
In 1991, the Soviet Union fell and President Boris Yeltsin ordered the dramatic shift from a centralized economy of state ownership to a market economy, enabling cash-rich mobsters and corrupt government officials to privatize and loot state-held assets.  After Putin succeeded Yeltsin, Russia's feared intelligence agencies joined forces with mobsters and oligarchs, and Putin has given them free rein so long as they help enrich him and strengthen his grip on the country.   
One of the biggest questions in the Russia scandal has been whether Putin has leverage over Trump.   Wrong question.  Regardless of whether the infamous Pee Tape exists, there is no doubt Putin has leverage.  What matters is how he has used that leverage since Trump quite obviously has been vulnerable to blackmail.   
Putin, for openers, used that leverage to ensnarl a probably very frightened Trump in his cybersabotage of the 2016 campaign of his arch enemy, Lock Her Up Hillary, plunging America into a ceaseless nightmare by handing the presidency to a profoundly unqualified fool.   He has used it to soften, with only some success, sanctions imposed on Russia in the last two years despite Trump.  He has used it to bend Trump to his foreign policy.  And he has used it because he knows the extent of the labyrinthine web of sleazy Trump-Russia business interests on which Cohen, now that he has joined the other Trump insiders that Mueller has flipped, can enlighten the special counsel. 
In this context, Trump's tweet storms are even more pathetic.  There are so many to choose from, but my favorite is, "Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA — NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!"
Mueller's court filings this week are are merely the tip of a very big collusion iceberg. 
Publicly-revealed evidence alone has shown that Donald Trump Jr. eagerly agreed to meet with Russians promising dirt on Clinton and his then-candidate father approved.  That son-in-law Jared Kushner asked the Russian ambassador for a "backchannel" inside the Russian embassy while Barack Obama was still president so that Trump and Putin could secretly converse at will.  That Trump campaign associate Carter Page announced Rex Tillerson's appointment as secretary of state in Moscow before Trump announced it in Washington.  That the National Rifle Association funneled as much as $100 million in cash, some of it from Russian interests, to the Trump campaign.  That Russian agent Mariia Butina cultivated Trump campaign associates.   That Erik Prince arranged a meeting in the Seychelles with a Putin rep in another effort to establish a backchannel. And so on and so forth. 
Still, the vastness of the Russia scandal -- after all, just another aspect of that national nightmare -- has had a numbing effect.  On Thursday, the president's personal lawyer admitted to lying to Congress about the president’s business activities with a hostile foreign power, and it barely caused a blip, let alone ended that presidency because of another scandal -- the treasonous cowardice of congressional Republicans. 
Even with the appointment of the deeply corrupt Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general in order to ride herd on Mueller, Trump has lost control of the process just as Mueller has blown past that "red line" the president warned him to not cross in revealing he was boring deeply into Trump's family and their business dealings. 
As Trump jetted off to Buenos Aires to not meet with Putin, an aborted sitdown that would have capped a week of public relations disasters, German police were raiding the offices of Deutsche Bank, not coincidentally the one remaining financial institution willing to lend him money, while FBI agents raided the offices of two powerful Chicago aldermen whose law firm represented Trump in dealings involving the Trump International Hotel. 
Perhaps it has been all about the money after all.

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Update On A Scandal: Why The Manafort Cloud Has A Silver Lining For Mueller


Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it. ~ JONATHAN SWIFT 
There has been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands in the wake of the news that Paul Manafort continued to lie after striking an agreement with Robert Mueller to cooperate -- an perhaps be the key witness -- in the special prosecutor's quest to nail down collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. 
To which I say, "so what?" 
Yes, it is unfortunate that Mueller encountered a bump in the road to Truth and Justice, but what is surprising is that there have been relatively few Manafort-like bumps considering the road is potholed with contemporary versions of the very kind of reprobates the great Anglo-Irish satirist Swift wrote about over three hundred years ago. You know, Trump and his family and friends.   
As it turns out, Mueller's seeming misfortune has a big, fat silver lining that may demolish the lie that the Trump campaign did not collude and that even if it did, then-candidate Trump was out of the loop and therefore can be of no help to the special prosecutor and his "witch hunt."
The are three aspects to that silver lining, which was first articulated to me by colleague-friend Brad Scharlott, who is a retired academic, before the scent was picked up by mainstream media legal eagles and pundits.   
The first aspect:
Trump's former campaign manager had lied to banks and the IRS, and after Mueller busted him, urged witnesses to lie about his phony front companies.  It is apparent he planned to keep lying and never intended to cooperate with the special counsel.  
There has to be something Manafort expected in return for reneging on his plea agreement, possibly the promise of a presidential pardon.  But it could simply be that it was too late in the game for Paulie to go straight, he'd already been stripped of millions of dollars in assets, including that $15,000 ostrich jacket, and he may simply have wanted to get back at Mueller for destroying his platinum lifestyle, but with a flourish.
Here's the second aspect to the silver lining, flourish explained:
Manafort's lawyer, Kevin Downing, agreed to a scheme whereby he would provide reports to Trump criminal defense lawyer Rudy Giuliani about the scope of the questions Mueller's prosecutors were asking Manafort under the plea agreement, thereby providing the beleaguered Trump with inside information that would help him fudge the answers to the written questions Mueller had submitted to him after a year of negotiations. 
How do we know this is true? 
Because Giuliani has more or less admitted there was a quid pro quo in the form of the continuation of a joint defense agreement between Downing and Trump's lawyers that, by all rights and legal ethical standards, should have been terminated when Manafort agreed to cooperate with Mueller.   
And because this explains, in retrospect, why Trump did not go ballistic when Manafort "flipped" in mid-September as the president did when Michael Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer and fixer, agreed to cooperate with prosecutors a few weeks earlier.  (As part of a new plea deal with Mueller, Cohen pleaded guilty on Thursday to making a false statement to Congress about his contacts with Russia during the campaign regarding a Trump hotel project in Moscow.) 
And here's the third aspect to the silver lining, the payoff for Mueller:
Yet again, Trump tripped himself up in thinking he was the smartest guy in the room.  But Mueller was smarter.   
Mueller didn't need Manafort to answer key questions pertaining to Trump's involvement in collusion such as whether he knew about and greenlighted the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting where the campaign was promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.  (Then there is the matter of who in the campaign interacted with WikiLeaks.)  The special counsel may already have had answers to those questions and led Manafort to think he had duped him until it came time to lower the boom and withdraw the plea agreement.   
Trump was duped, as well.  He delayed submitting his answers to Mueller's questions until Downing reported back.  When Trump did submit his answers, he lied about the Trump Tower meeting and perhaps Wikileaks, based on Downing's reports.  And so the president has now been trapped by Mueller, who might be emboldened to subpoena him to appear before his grand jury, but more likely will lay out Trump's involvement in collusion in his sentencing report on Manafort, which could come as early as Friday, when a hearing has been scheduled on Manafort's status. 
Meanwhile, Downing and Giuliani are in the deepest of ethical (and perhaps criminal) do-do.  It's unlikely Mueller will let that pass.  And Trump, whose "deal" with Downing is an open-and-shut case of witness tampering, is busily dangling pardon bait for Manafort in brazenly thumbing his nose at Mueller while accusing him of trying to force three key scandal players -- Manafort and Wikileaks playmates Roger Stone and associate Jerome Corsi -- to lie or go to jail.   
But the bottom line is that if Mueller didn't reveal to Manafort -- and indirectly Downing, of course -- what evidence he had proving Manafort was lying as the post-plea agreement meetings played out, and there is no reason so shrewd an operator would have, both Manafort and Trump believed they could still get away with lying, which Trump cavalierly did in his sworn answers to Mueller's questions. 
The special counsel can now make Trump's falsifications public in his sentencing report, which guess what? Acting Attorney General and Trump poodle Matt Whitaker cannot block or otherwise obstruct. 
Helluva silver lining, eh?

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.    

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Manafort May Take His Collusion Secrets To Prison, But That' Isn't A Big Deal

In the end, Paul Manafort may have feared the long arm of Vladimir Putin more than the clenched fist of Robert Mueller.   
Donald Trump's former campaign manager, like his onetime mentor, is a compulsive bad actor with larceny in his heart and the narcissist's belief he can outwit any opponent.  How else, short of a problematic presidential pardon, to explain Manafort's decision to game play the special prosecutor at the risk of nullifying his plea agreement and probably spending the rest of his sorry life in prison rather than risk he or a family member meeting the business end of a poisoned umbrella or door handle smeared with a nerve agent courtesy of the Russian leader?  
"It is plain that Manafort has spent a lot of the time during which he was incarcerated sawing off the branch behind him," notes Charles Pierce in Esquire.  
Indeed.  Manafort will appear before in U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington as early as later this week after Mueller's prosecutors revoked a plea agreement under which they would recommend a lighter prison sentence in return for his cooperation because, they said, he lied repeatedly to them despite multiple warnings.  
Manafort denied lying intentionally, but significantly did not fight the prosecutors' filing on Monday that he be sentenced "immediately," perhaps understanding that his luck finally had run out, his legal fees were astronomical, he already had forfeited $43 million in ill-gotten gains, several million of which creditors are fighting over, and would never be able to return to an extravagant five-home lifestyle replete with $15,000 silk-lined ostrich leather bomber jackets and $18,000 karaoke machines that had been built on a career polishing the images of a Who's Who of the most despicable world leaders. 
Trump can pardon Manafort, although that begs the question of why he entered into a pardon-proof plea deal in the first place.  But violating the deal doesn't make sense since the forfeiture process is well underway and many of the charges can be reinstated in state courts, which are beyond the reach of the presidential pardon pen. 
Manafort still had faced as much as eight to 10 years in prison even if he had kept his part of the deal, but the sentence recommended to and carried out by Judge Jackson is likely to be substantially longer because of his obstruction of justice in the form of repeatedly lying. 
The collapse of Manafort's cooperation agreement, which followed a guilty plea in September to charges of cheating the IRS, violating foreign-lobbying laws and attempting to obstruct justice, is the latest stunning turnaround in his case, but not an entirely surprising one considering his choices.  Under the terms of the agreement, he cannot withdraw his guilty plea.  
Manafort had been stripped of his house arrest status in June while awaiting his first trial and has been in solitary confinement in an Alexandria, Virginia detention facility for his own protection since then when Mueller's prosecutors charged him with witness tampering.  In October, the 69-year-old appeared in court in a wheelchair, which his lawyers said was a result of "significant" issues relating to his jailhouse diet.  
As the fifth member of the Trump campaign to plead guilty, Manafort agreed to cooperate "fully and truthfully" with investigators. 
"He wanted to make sure his family remained safe and live a good life," attorney Kevin Downing had said.  "He has accepted responsibility." 
It turns out that Downing, in yet another stomach-churning aspect of Trump's relentless efforts to undercut Mueller,  repeatedly briefed the president's lawyers on Manafort's discussions with Mueller's prosecutors after Manafort agreed to cooperate.    
In 2016, Manafort had thought another despicable individual who improbably would become president of the United States with a cyber assist from Putin would be his next meal ticket following lucrative gigs with a rogue's gallery of corrupt foreign leaders, including Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seiko in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angolan guerrilla heavyweight Jonas Savimbi.  
This high-stakes gambit worked -- running interference for Putin's cut-outs and all -- until his seamy past was laid bare in the form of a Washington Post story about his multi-million dollar contracts with a pro-Moscow Ukrainian political party that was deeply embarrassing to the Trump campaign, and then indictments, an agreement by longtime partner Rick Gates to cooperate with Mueller and testify agains him, a first trial where he was found guilty of eight of 18 counts, and the guilty pleas on the eve of a second trial.  
Like Trump, Manafort also believed he was above the law, was seduced by the oligarch wealth of the former Soviet Union, put profit over principles, and ended up becoming entangled, entrapped, and then a witting tool of Russian interests.  If there is a difference, it is Manafort may be getting his comeuppance before Trump. 
There is a possible downside for Mueller, but it has a silver lining. 
As the special counsel nears the endgame in an 18-month-long investigation, he would seem to have lost his potentially most valuable witness in Manafort, who was present at the infamous June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russian cut-outs promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton and other sitdowns that go to the heart of making the case that the campaign colluded with Russia to tip the election to Trump. 
(Meanwhile, The Guardian reported on Tuesday that Manafort held secret talks with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2013, 2015 and in March 2016 about the time he joined the Trump campaign.  Assange called the opaquely sourced story a "hoax."  I call it something that Mueller probably has known about for some time.)
Reading Mueller's motivations, let alone his next move, is a fool's errand.  But his team may have known Manafort was lying because of information gleaned from a hitherto secret witness, as well as evidence gathered from Manafort's seized mobile phones, iPods and computer hard drives, and yet again set the kind of perjury trap that has snared others.  Beyond all that, Mueller almost certainly already has direct evidence of collusion. 
Furthermore, Mueller's sentencing memorandum for Manafort is likely to be lengthy and exhaustively lay out for public consumption some of the incriminating evidence further exposing the president that the special counsel would include in a final investigative report to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.   
In the court filing voiding the plea agreement, Mueller's prosecutors wrote that "The government will file a detailed sentencing submission to the Probation Department and the Court in advance of sentencing that sets forth the nature of the defendant’s crimes and lies."  
Trump's new toady at the Justice Department is widely thought to have been told by the White House to suppress a final investigative report, but a sentencing submission would be beyond Whitaker's reach.   There also is the possibility -- which is sheer conjecture at this point -- that Mueller will prepare two reports, one classified for  Justice and the other unclassified, but in any event, the report is almost certainly be bound to be leaked if it does not come out through other means.   
The threat to Manafort and his wife and daughters presented by Putin is not a spy novel fantasy.   
Putin can be linked to over 30 assassinations of critics of his regime or threats to its viability, and has reached beyond Russian borders, most notably the attempt in March by two GRU agents to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal, who was living in the quaint English cathedral town of Salisbury, by smearing Novichok No. 5, a lethal Russian-made nerve agent, on his door handle. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Donald Trump Is On The Run. Let's Make Sure That He's Run Out Of Washington

Donald Trump's presidency by tweet is crumbling.  The preening grifter is barely coherent, wracked by paranoia and in a full-blown panic after suffering stinging defeats in the midterm elections and in the courts, including stern dressings down by the chief justice and some of the very judges he appointed.  The Russia scandal investigation is steaming ahead and in a mere five weeks, a Blue Wave will engulf the White House as Democrats launch investigations into the capo di tutti capi's tax returns, shady financial dealings, hush money payments to mistresses, guns-for-oil foreign policy, and much more. 
His post-midterm election behavior is that of a beast cornered.   
He fired Jeff Sessions and hired Matthew Whitaker.  He tried to ban a CNN correspondent from the White House but lost in court.  He skipped a visit to a military cemetery in France.  He criticized the admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  He reveled in climate change denial while floating bizarre theories for the California wildfires.  He issued a bewilderingly incoherent statement chockablock with exclamation marks questioning the CIA's conclusion that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the death of WaPo columnist Jamal Khashoggi.  He wanted the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey.  And in a political stunt that has backfired badly, he authorized troops on the U.S.-Mexico border to use "lethal force" against a migrant caravan.  U.S agents later fired tear gas across the boarder at approaching asylum seekers.  You know, the barefooted women and diapered children who are the"criminals" and "gang members" Trump is trying to keep out of the former Land of the Free.    
So are we there yet?  No. 
As long as Mitch McConnell slithers unimpeded through the Capitol and the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts's scolding aside, gives Trump a pass as the lower court injunctions on his more draconian policies are heard, the nightmare he has visited on America will continue.   
But there is hope here as well.  McConnell's caucus may fray around the edges as Democratic investigations get traction and the secrets hidden in Trump's tax returns are bared, while it is my belief that even with party boy Brett Kavanaugh on the high court, and even if the court's so-called independence is pretty much a mirage, it will rule against Trump's contention that executive privilege neuters constitutional protections. 
An astounding 40-plus court rulings have gone against Trump.  Besides which, kidnapping migrant children and putting them in prison camps just isn't playing well with many of the men and women in black robes. 
Trump may have told over 6,400 lies in the last 22 months, but here's the truth: He's scared shitless as a lifetime of sins and a presidency built on deceit crashes down on him. Oh, and keeping that base energized while reverse engineering his own and other autocrats' lies -- notably Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman and Kim Jong Un -- remains reflexive but has become downright exhausting.    
Nothing has Trump more frightened than Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. 
Mueller may be close to unsealing a long-expected round of indictments against more Russia scandal witches (he's bagged 35 to date) and reaching ever deeper into what remains of the president's inner circle.  Considering all the bad actors in the scandal, as well as associated with Trump's myriad financial intrigues, the indictment list might be longer, but the special counsel and other federal prosecutors have flipped some seriously major horsepower.   
They include Michael Cohen, Trump's longtime lawyer-fixer; Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, his former campaign manager and deputy campaign manager; Michael Flynn, his disgraced national security adviser; Felix Sater, his partner in dodgy real estate deals, and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's chief financial officer.   
"Cohen may know where the bodies are buried," notes one pundit, "But Weisselberg buried them." 
When Trump backed into his improbable presidency with an assist from Putin's cyberwarriors, the right-wing noise machine, a feckless mainstream media that allowed Trump to repeatedly jerk its chain and an archaic Electoral College, he was making a bad situation worse.  Bipartisanship had ceased to exist after eight years of relentless Republican attacks on Barack Obama, and the pernicious effects of big money on politics were everywhere.  Trump's brand of "governing" by fear and fiat was perfect for the swamp he promised to drain and instead has filled to overflowing. 
This makes a recently-introduced criminal justice bill that reforms draconian drug sentencing laws such a rarity because it has brought together the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fraternal Order of Police, Republican conservatives and Democratic liberals 
Lurking behind this rare piece of good news (the only other one I can find is that Trump recently went more than a month without playing golf, a record for someone far more focused on mulligans than being presidential) stands Matt Whitaker. 
Whitaker is the right-wing nut job Trump appointed to be acting attorney general after firing Sessions in the expectation that he could take down Mueller and maybe prosecute Clinton and Comey while he's at it. 
As a U.S. attorney in Iowa, Whitaker sought longer-than-usual drug sentences, including threatening a woman who had a non-violent arrest record with a life sentence if she didn't accept a plea bargain that would have sent her to prison for over 20 years.  That is until a federal judge -- you know, the kind Trump loves to hate -- stepped in after the woman had served 11 years and cited prosecutorial misconduct in urging Obama -- you know, the predecessor Trump also loves to hate -- to commute her sentence.  Which he did. 
Sessions opposed the reform bill, which exists in part because of beasts like Whitaker.   Trump is said to support it, a rare instance of decency for a nihilistic cretin who is the very definition of beastliness.  But for how long? 
That Blue Wave washed away any realistic talk of Trump running for reelection.  He is incapable of consensus, let alone coalition building.  He, in fact, is toast.  But beyond pending indictments and blasts from the Democratic subpoena cannon, there is the biggest reason why Trump has to be run out of town, whether on a rail or by his own locomotion.  He cannot be allowed to continue to destroy America. Nor can the job of trying to rebuild it be put off much longer.  

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Friday, November 23, 2018

From Moab To Monument Valley: Twenty-Five Books For Great Holiday Gift Giving

A good friend of 50 years decided to move to Colorado sight unseen in 1972 after reading Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in the course of a particularly bleak winter in an old Southeastern Pennsylvania farmhouse.  He's never given a moment's thought to coming back East, while my visits and treks with him have been a constant in my own extensive travels throughout the American West, from the bottom of the Havasupai Canyon, which is a branch of another canyon called the Grand, to the 12,365 foot peak of Mt. Sopris. 
Yet my last westward odyssey was much too long ago, and I never got around to picking up Desert Solitaire until this past summer when a big city friend read it in preparation for his first sojourn to the Southwest.   
And so I finally read Desert Solitaire and was mind blown by its descriptive eloquence. Feeling homesick for a region where I had always left a piece of my heart, I moved on to another contemporary classic of the West, Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, and then yet another fine book that ties the whole megillah together, David Gessner's All the Wild That Remains 
Having read a non-fiction Abbey and a fiction Stegner, I finally moved on to The Monkey Wrench Gang, considered to be Abbey's best novel, and Stegner's biographical Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West
The reason Abbey and Stegner are so important is that they were not merely environmental trailblazers.  They correctly saw the story of the West, in Gessner's words, as it truly is:
We came upon this country of plenty and took everything we could get our hands on.  We didn't care what got in our way: native people, geography, climate, logic, whatever.  We rationalized this as a kind of brave, bold, can-do way of being, and in some cases it really was.  But in many cases it was, and remains, about greed.  In many cases we came as raiders, pure and simple, and raiders we remain. 
Absorbing myself in the West, which is to say Abbey and Stegner, had another purpose as well. 
Most of my blogging through 2018 was on the Russia scandal, some 75 posts in all, and as reference for my nattering I read a bunch of books related to Russia's cybersabotage of the 2016 election that were about as far from the West as Moscow is from Mesa Verde. Dipping back into Desert Solitaire, which I read as one would sip from a bottle of fine cognac, was a welcome escape.  
In any event, the following 25 books, among the three dozen or so that I read in 2018, make great holiday gifts.  Most are available in paperback, or if your local lending library is a member of the Interlibrary Loan network, you can borrow a copy for the price of a little bit of shoe leather.  
ALL THE WILD THAT REMAINS: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West (David Gessner, 2015) "We read Wallace Stegner for his virtues and Edward Abbey for his flaws," writes Gessner in this illuminating portrait of these two seminal figures, one boozy and wild and the other button-down and scholarly.  Gessner adeptly wraps his homage around road trips to their childhood homes, and I came away appreciating all over again the deep love these two men had for the West and the prescience of their warnings about the consequences of development run amok.   
AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patricia Hearst (Jeffrey Toobin, 2017) The 1974 kidnapping of Hearst foretold much of what would happen to American society, from the culture of celebrity to the news media and criminal justice system.  Toobin masterfully weaves fascinating new details into an oft-told story and delivers an engrossing page turner that is chockablock with fresh insights, not the least of which is that Hearst "did not turn into a revolutionary.  She turned into her mother."   
AMERICAN KINGPIN: The Epic Hunt For the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road (Nick Bilton, 2017) In 2011, Ross Ulbricht, a 26-year-old libertarian computer programmer, launched the Silk Road, a free market Dark Web site where anyone could trade anything from drugs to forged passports to firearms.  The Silk Road soon ballooned into a multi-billion dollar enterprise with Ulbricht as its kingpin.  There followed a pursuit by the FBI and other federal agencies for a man they weren’t even sure existed.  Bilton’s telling of his saga is fast paced and engrossing.

ANGLE OF REPOSE (Wallace Stegner, 1971) This Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of a novel is ostensibly about retired history professor Lyman Ward and his long labors to write the biography of his grandmother, an elegant and headstrong artist and pioneer who, along with her engineer husband, journeyed through the West in the late 19th century.  But this really is a story of self discovery and Ward/Stegner’s realization that the West has been forever changed while America has come of age around him.   
BEYOND THE HUNDREDTH MERIDIAN:  John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (Wallace Stegner, 1953) John Wesley Powell was no mere prophet and this is no ordinary biography.  Powell was a one-armed Civil War veteran and distinguished ethnologist and geologist who explored the Colorado River, Grand Canyon, and the Indian tribal homelands of the Southwest.  He had a profound understanding of the region, warned of the dangers of economic exploitation and was ignored.  Until he wasn’t, although by that time it was much too late.  
DESERT SOLITAIRE: A Season in the Wilderness (Edward Abbey, 1968) Abbey’s masterpiece, a sort of contemporary Walden, is a deeply felt collection of vignettes about life in the wildernesses of the Southwest.  It also is a philosophical treatise on the desert, which as Abbey points out, has been largely ignored by deep thinkers who have mused at great length on the mountains and the sea.  But most of all, Desert Solitaire is a warning that development in the service of industry and tourism is destroying America’s precious wilderness lands.  
EMPIRE EXPRESS: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (David Hayward Bain, 1999) I seldom read books a second time, but I dove back into this epic some 12 years after my initial foray with relish.  Bain masterfully tells three stories: The epic engineering feat of joining a vast nation with twin ribbons and steel, the ceaseless labors of the Chinese, Irish and others who did the real work, and the deep corruption of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific corporate overseers who made that happen.  
THE ENGLISH PEOPLE AND THEIR HISTORY (Robert Tombs, 2014) Do we really need another door stop of a book on the history of England?  Perhaps not, but these 1,000 pages are a gem of narrative storytelling that focuses on the moral complexities of the oldest nation-state in continuous existence.  This goes a long way to understanding the virtues and ambiguities of these sometimes maddeningly complex people, and although Brexit was just around the corner when it was published, that profound development suddenly made sense, as well as why there will always be an England. 
THE ETERNAL NAZI: From Mauthausen to Cairo, the Relentless Pursuit of SS Doctor Aribert Heim (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet, 2014)  Dr. Aribert Heim worked at the Mauthausen concentration camp for only a few months, but left a horrifying legacy.  When he disappeared after World War II, some Germans were unwilling to let him go unpunished, including police investigator Alfred Aedtner, who with help from legendary Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, pursued him to the streets of a working-class neighborhood in the Egyptian capital.  
THE HEART OF EVERYTHING THAT IS: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend (Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, 2013) Red Cloud, who at the height of his powers could claim control of one-fifth of the contiguous U.S. and the loyalty of thousands of fierce fighters, was the only American Indian to defeat the U.S. Army in a war, forcing the government to sue for peace on his terms.  Drury and Clavin restore the Sioux chief to his rightful place in history, but in the end his story is wrenchingly -- if predictably -- tragic. 
HENRY DAVID THOREAU: A Life (Laura Dassow Walls, 2017) There was much more to Thoreau than living at Walden Pond.  Trouble is, most of it was eminently disinteresting, although he could at times be mischievous and occasionally downright cantankerous.  Walls has managed to overcome Thoreau’s seeming two dimensionality through extensive scholarship and elegant writing in this most readable biography of the Concord naturalist and radical abolitionist through deftly describing the arc of his life in the context of a still young America morphing from agrarian to industrial.  
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence (Michael Pollan, 2018) The little-known early history of psychedelic research is told to insightful effect here, but the greatest contribution of this fine book is how a new generation of  researchers using LSD and other psychedelics are rediscovering the largely unmapped frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and out place in the world. (Click HERE for a full review.)   
HOW TO TAME A FOX (AND BUILD A DOG) (Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, 2017) Beginning in 1959 in remote Siberia, geneticists Dmitri Belyaev and co-author Trut began an improbable experiment to turn wild silver foxes into creatures as docile and friendly as a dog.  Did their extraordinary attempt to compress thousands of years of evolution into a few decades work?  Were the foxes able to bond with their scientist masters?  The answer lies within the pages of this small, utterly fascinating and charming book.  
IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire (Tom Holland, 2012) Those who can rewrite the past are better able to control the future.  That broad if vague maxim propels this history of the birth of Islam out of the crucible of the Arab empire.  "Something manifestly God-stamped would have to be fashioned: in short, a religion," writes Holland in describing how the Arabs carved out a vast dominion practically overnight, a civilization that not only endures but has a profound and sometimes violent bearing on the contemporary world.  
JUNGLE OF STONE: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (William Carlsen, 2016) American diplomat Stephens and British artist Catherwood were an unlikely pair, but electrified by reports of great ruins hidden in the unmapped jungles of Central America they set out to find and explore them, in the process becoming the fathers of archaeology in the Americas as they meticulously uncovered the astonishing lost civilization of the Maya, a story beautifully and expertly told by Carlsen.  
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (David Grann, 2017) When oil was discovered on Osage tribal lands in Oklahoma in the 1920s, dirt farmers became millionaires overnight.  But they soon began dying — an execution-style shooting here, a poisoning there, a fatal fire somewhere else.  This is the gripping story of how one of the first FBI agents got to the bottom of the crime spree, which unlike other famous crimes of the era, has faded into obscurity despite the unspeakable atrocities committed on these peaceful people.  
THE LOST CITY OF Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (David Grann, 2005) Like Killers of the Flower Moon, this book is narrative nonfiction at its best, the gripping story of the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared in the Amazon jungle in search of the city of a fabled civilization he called “Z.”  Fawcett never returned, nor did some of the explorers and rescue parties who came after him.  But Grann, through his sheer doggedness, provides something of a surprising and satisfying ending to this epic tale.  
McTEAGUE (Frank Norris, 1899) If you’re looking for a bummer of a tale, this gem is it.  The under-appreciated Norris tells the story of a poor dentist scraping by in San Francisco, and his wife Trina, whose modest lottery winning sets in motion a shocking chain of events.  The seamy side of American urban existence at the end of the 19th century is conveyed with power and graphic intensity reminiscent of Jack London and is especially insightful for those of us who have lived in and love San Francisco.  McTeague is a must-read and truly Great American Novel. 
A MAN IN FULL (Tom Wolfe, 1998) We lost a literary giant in Wolfe this year, and for my money this was his most realized novel.  Protagonist Charles Croker was once a college football star but is now a late-middle-aged owner of an Atlanta conglomerate whose outsize ego and staggering debt load has at last caught up with him.  A continent away, Conrad Hensley, an idealistic young father, is laid off from his job at a Croker warehouse and sets out on a collision course with Charlie.  Wolfe's insights into contemporary America remain raw, hilarious and fresh.  
THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG (Edward Abbey, 1975) Former Green Beret George Hayduke returns from war with a new mission — fighting the powers that are destroying his beloved Southwest.   This ecoterrorism saga, which follows Hayduke and his fellow saboteurs as they take on the strip miners, clear-cutters and dam and bridge builders threatening the natural habitat, is a hoot.  But even if The Monkey Wrench Gang launched an environmental movement, the laughs sometimes get in the way of the message.  That movement has moved on, so this book also feels a bit dated 
PACK OF TWO: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs (Carolyn Knapp, 1998) The author of a book about people and dogs has to be damned good — both as observer and writer — to win my praise as someone who is deeply devoted to and knowledgeable about the interactions between my tribe and my dogs' tribe.  Knapp succeeds, sometime barely because I tired of reading about the lifetime of insecuries and neuroses she was unable to shed even after she stopped drinking.  But I am damning with faint praise and do not mean to.  Hers is a great book.  
THE ROAD TO XANADU (Orson Welles, Volume 1) (Simon Callow, 1997) This portrait of Welles from his prodigious childhood through the triumph of his all-black Macbeth, the notorious broadcast of War of the Worlds to the making of Citizen Kane is masterful.  But as geniuses go, the legendary actor-director of the finally released The Other Side of the Wind was not merely a flawed genius and egomaniacal myth maker, he was an outright liar.  Callow is unsparing in contrasting Welles’s brilliance with his fraudster self. 
17 CARNATIONS: The Royals, The Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History (Andrew Morton, 2015) The hit Netflix series "The Crown" has revived questions about whether the feckless Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, and his American wife, Wallis Simpson, were Nazi sympathizers.  Morton's conclusion is that they most certainly were.  Morton tells the story of the wayward Windsor, which included Hitler’s plot to make him a puppet king, and the extraordinary lengths the royal family went to in trying to hide the truth, with a deft and steady hand. 
THE SUSPICIONS OF MR. WICHER (Kate Summerscale, 2008) When three-year-old Saville Kent was found at the bottom of a privy with his throat slit in 1860, the gruesome crime horrified England and led to a national obsession with detectives and the nascent science of forensics while ironically destroying the career of Scotland Yard’s Jonathan Wicher, at the time the greatest gumshoe of them all.  This narrative, with its numerous plot twists and blind alleys, is beautifully constructed, while astute readers will delight in solving the murder mystery themselves. 
THIS WORLD OR ANY OTHER WORLD (Dan Leo, 2018) Much has happened in the temporal world in the 18 months since publication of Leo's other wordly Railroad Train to Heaven, but it's still a Saturday night in August 1963 in the quaint seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey.  Volume One concluded with Arnold ascending the stairs of his maiden aunts’ guest house to the second-floor loo, and Volume Two begins as he comes back downstairs.   Only Jesus, who makes an encore appearance, knows what will happen next.  (Click HERE for a full review.) 
Meanwhile, here are my holiday gift giving lists for 2017201620152014 and 2013.