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Are we watching an American presidential campaign or the pilot episode of a bizarre new TV series? Or both? The hallmark of "reality TV," of course, being its extreme unreality.
On a daily basis, the Trump campaign invites sheer disbelief. Recently, Ivanka Trump, the statuesque daughter her father talks about dating, posted an Instagram photo of herself sightseeing in scenic Croatia with Wendi Deng Murdoch.
The New York Daily News explains, "Deng, who was divorced from Rupert Murdoch in 2013 ... has been linked romantically to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin." The newspaper adds, "the optics of the photo could raise further questions about the relationship between Ivanka's father and Putin."
Geez, you think? Maybe I'll ask Boris and Natasha. That's my pet name for the Russian operatives who started sending me obscene emails after a recent column critical of Trump. The subject line in Boris's latest reads "TRUMP SHOULD [DEFECATE] IN YOUR TRAITOROUS MOUTH!"
With impressive tradecraft, Boris calls himself "Jason Larenzen," a name that appears not to exist in the United States.
Anticipating the latest Fox News fantasy theme, Natasha (masquerading as "Karyn") asks, "Will lying c**t Hillary last to the election before brain blood clot ruptures?" Her IP address links to Yandex.com, which a Google search locates in Moscow, within walking distance of the Kremlin.
They aren't even subtle about it.
Of course, in Putin's Moscow offending journalists get shot dead in the street, so I shouldn't complain. Besides, having grown up in New Jersey, profanity makes little impact on me.
Yo, Natasha, you eat with that your mouth?
But think about it: Russian operatives are openly intervening in an American presidential election, hacking Democratic Party emails and harassing obscure political columnists.
Always on Donald Trump's side. You've got to ask yourself why.
One possible answer may have appeared in the New York Times. Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's name turned up 22 times on a secret ledger detailing $12.7 million in illegal payola handed out under deposed Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Supposedly, Manafort was also involved in a "murky" $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable TV "to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin."
The information was given to Times reporters by the Ukranian government's "National Anti-Corruption Bureau," no doubt tasked with putting as many of the current regime's political rivals as possible in prison.
At the expense of being a spoilsport, I've learned to be highly skeptical of New York Times "blockbusters." From the Whitewater hoax onward, the newspaper has produced a series of abortive Clinton scandal stories, culminating in last April's attempt to hint that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had corruptly engineered the sale of a Wyoming uranium mine.
"Look," I wrote last April, "there's a reason articles like the Times' big expose are stultifyingly dull and require the skills of a contract lawyer to parse. Murky sentences and jumbled chronologies signify that the 'Clinton rules' are back: all innuendo and guilt-by-association. All ominous rhetorical questions, but rarely straightforward answers."
So it comes as no great surprise that Ukranian investigators "have yet to determine if [Manafort] actually received the cash."
So is Manafort a victim of the "Clinton Rules?" Could be.
But there's no doubt about this: "Before he fled to Russia two years ago, Mr. Yanukovych ... relied heavily on the advice of Mr. Manafort and his firm, who helped them win several elections."
On evidence, little things like democratic institutions and the rule of law don't appear high on Manafort's priority list. Among his previous clients were Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Zaire's infamous Mobutu Sese Seko, aptly described as "the archetypal African dictator." Both regimes were essentially kleptocracies, characterized by nepotism, brutality and extreme corruption.
Comparatively speaking, Putin would appear to be one of Manafort's more savory associates.
So when candidate Trump expresses a Russia-friendly foreign policy agenda — musing aloud about recognizing Putin's illegal occupation of Crimea, and hinting that a President Trump might refuse to defend NATO allies against Russian attack, it's reasonable to wonder what's being said behind closed doors.
Or when Trump invites Boris and Natasha to conduct cyber-warfare against his Democratic opponent. "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," Trump said in July.
Later, of course, the candidate alibied that he was being sarcastic. He's a great kidder, Trump. Something blows up in his face, it was a joke.
Washington Monthly's David Atkins poses the million ruble question: "How much does [sic] Trump and his team need to do before we start asking serious questions about whether they're a Manchurian Candidate campaign actively working on behalf of a foreign nation?"
Basically, that depends upon how big a piece of Trump Russian oligarchs own — one big reason we'll never see his income taxes.