Trump drama Act II, Brazil’s fresh crisis, Iran’s vote, China’s economic strategy, Austria’s populists

This week, there is too much news: we enter a new phase of the Trump administration, Brazil’s political crisis heats up again, Iran goes to the polls, Austria joins the fun, and much, much more.
[Join us to discuss Signal and the week’s news live on Facebook at 9 am ET today (May 19). See you at If you miss it, you’ll be able to watch the recap video there afterward.]
Here we go.

The Noise This Week

The appointment of a special counsel to investigate Donald Trump’s ties to Russia closes Act I of the Trump presidency. We don’t know yet how the next act will unfold, but some things have changed for good. Any conception that Trump will set a policy agenda is gone. It’s now firmly on Congress to move forward, or not, on legislative action. Trump’s initial reaction to the news suggests that he will retreat further into the worldview of his hardcore supporters, who see the establishment as conspiring against their rebel president. And that establishment encompasses essentially the entire executive branch, except for the pieces directly controlled by the president and his Cabinet. Even if the Mueller investigation ultimately results in Trump being forced out — still unlikely, considering that in 1998 only five House Democrats voted with the Republicans to impeach Bill Clinton, in an era less polarized than this one — the war over American institutions will continue. Mueller has a chance to clear the system of its current symptoms, a political and legal crisis enabled by Russia, but his investigation won’t begin to address the immense cultural and socioeconomic divides that enabled the Trump presidency in the first place. And that’s just Act II.

Brazil, meanwhile, is doing its best to show Americans what political scandal really looks like. Michel Temer’s unpopular presidency is facing what will be an existential challenge if the latest allegations against him are vindicated. A newspaper reported Wednesday on recordings of Temer allegedly approving the bribery of Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house. Cunha — who once said he would be “known for overthrowing two Brazilian presidents” — has long been at the center of the sprawling corruption case that also resulted in the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff less than a year ago. (To give a sense of scale, the construction firm Odebrecht reportedly paid out billions worth of bribes over nine years, and more than 100 senior politicians are under investigation.) Meanwhile, the most popular candidate to become the next president remains Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff’s predecessor, who is himself facing corruption allegations. The odds of Lula returning to the presidency are nonetheless low, but this week has dealt a massive blow to what was otherwise a fairly optimistic Brazil story.

Iran, too, is working to keep politics interesting. Today’s election has settled into a contest between the relatively reformist President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for a second term, and the more hard-line Ebrahim Raisi. While Rouhani is ahead in the limited polling available, Raisi has built momentum as other conservatives have fallen in line behind him. A Rouhani victory remains more likely, but, in a country that has a position called “supreme leader” in addition to “president,” political interference can never be ruled out. Allegations of election-rigging led to widespread protests in 2009, when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad won a second term. Today’s vote represents a significant juncture for Iran: either the continuity of a reform-minded, globally oriented presidency, or the possibility of a significant domestic shake-up and an even tenser relationship with Iran’s adversaries.

Amid this electoral turmoil, China is making a show of looking outward. Its first Belt and Road Initiative summit was the equivalent of a diplomatic firework show, meant to put noise and excitement behind its strategy of investing in regional infrastructure. There are many reasons to be skeptical of a plan that involves heavy state-directed investment into projects in less-than-democratic countries in the region. Many projects have turned out to be bridges to nowhere, and arguably the key beneficiary is Xi Jinping in his campaign to solidify his domestic political position. But while you can criticize the efficacy and goals of China’s strategy, compared to the political convulsion in the West — we haven’t even mentioned Brexit — at least China’s leaders can say they have a strategy.

Oh, by the way, if you’re not sick of elections yet, the collapse of Austria’s government coalition means they, too, are joining the party with a parliamentary vote in October 2017. The race is shaping up to be a (more consequential) re-run of the contest for the (mostly ceremonial) Austrian presidency, which the far-right nationalist candidate lost by a narrow margin. And even if the far right doesn’t win, one of the main candidates for chancellor is the current foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, who is all of 30 years old. At 45, Justin Trudeau is starting to look like the grizzled old veteran of Western politics.

Democracy on a Leash: Iranians Head to the Polls

Ranked: World Leaders’ Artistic Performances

Because we could all use a little break from heavy news.

7. Vladimir Putin’s musical stylings. He played piano, a little clunkily, at China’s Belt and Road Summit this weekend. His rendition of “Blueberry Hill” is a classic.

6. Nicolas Maduro’s salsa dancing. He hosts his own salsa show. Venezuelans throw eggs.

5. Boris Johnson’s poetry. The British foreign minister was the legendary winner of a poetry contest for his impromptu rude limerick about Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His poetry career went downhill after that.

4. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s DJ sets. The Turkmenistan president has tried to build a cult of personality around himself, including through music. He has to do it himself since J-Lo was forced to apologize for performing at his birthday party. 

3. Taro Aso’s impressions. The current Japanese Deputy Prime Minister, and one-time holder of the top job, does a mean Humphrey Bogart. He presented it at an ASEAN meeting where—bonus points—Sergei Lavrov performed a skit about the U.S. losing its superpower status.

2. Edi Rama’s fine art. Next time someone tells you George W. Bush is a great painter, send them over to see the paintings and sculpture of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who was a practicing artist before he became a politician.

1. Justin Trudeau’s party tricks. He falls down the stairs for fun. Really.

* In memoriam: We will always miss late Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s legendary dancing.

Your Weekly Bremmer

Watch the World in 60 Seconds from Nigeria.

Hard Numbers

6 disruptions to the inter-Korean hotline have occurred since its creation in 1971. The new government in South Korea is ready to reopen communications. You used to call me on your hotline…

72 days on average is required for Dutch governments to form new coalitions. We’re now 65 days in, and talks have collapsed.

13 out of 16 German state legislatures now include a representative of the far-right Alternative for Germany party following this week’s vote in North Rhine-Westphalia. Populism isn’t taking over, but it’s not going away, either.

141 violations of Greek airspace by Turkish aircraft were reported in one day this week. “Airspace violations” is a good euphemism for what happened to anti-Turkish protesters in Washington last week.

3 Cabinet members in French President Emmanuel Macron’s new government speak fluent German. We’re partial to “Emmangela,” but M&M isn’t bad either.

Words of Wisdom

“We see that the United States has been developing political schizophrenia.”

- Russian President Vladimir Putin, who can never resist a good victory lap.

Signal is written by Matt Peterson (@mattbpete) with editorial support from Gabe Lipton (@gflipton). Don’t like what you read? Feel free to yell at us on Twitter or just reply to this email.