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The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

President Donald Trump and his son-law and other key members of his administration have lately been hiring personal legal counsel, which is well-advised and by no means implies anything nefarious, but we find their choices of attorneys rather eyebrow-raising. The lawyers often turn out to be some of the most intriguing characters in these long-running television dramas, and in this case no mere screenwriter could have come up with anything quite so colorful.
What Trump calls “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” thus far one of the main plot lines of the show, has reached the point that a House committee and Senate committee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Special Counsel are looking into it, and although Trump plausibly dismisses it all as “fake news” he’s nonetheless wisely lawyered up. Throughout his long and now-legendary career in the private sector Trump has frequently been required to hire legal representation, and in his current predicament he’s once again turned to the same lawyers and the same bare-knuckle legal tactics he’s relied on in the past.
In his early days as a proudly bare-knuckle real estate developer Trump relied on the legal talents of Roy Cohn, one of the more colorful characters in countless American lawyer shows. Cohn first gained fame way back in the ’50s as the take-no-prisoners adviser to Sen. Joe McCarthy, urging on an often reckless anti-Communist crusade that ended with that widely-watched “Have you no shame?” moment on national television after a baseless claim of treason against some sympathetic low-level government employee, and he stayed in the papers by representing New York mafioso and the owners of the cocaine-and-sex-orgy Studio 54 nightclub and any other high-profile clients who needed his famously aggressive legal tactics. He also represented Trump and his real-estate mogul father in their fight against a Justice Department allegation that they’d discriminated against their black and Latino tenants, along with some other more middling matters about their businesses, and Trump has often spoken kindly of his tough guy style. That same approach eventually got Cohn disbarred when he started harassing some obnoxiously rich but otherwise innocent pillar of New York City society with his usual blizzard of threatening letters, and  not long after the outspokenly anti-homosexual lawyer who’d had numerous suspected homosexuals kicked out of the military back in the McCarthy days died  in 1988 at the age of 59 from complications of AIDS, most likely a result of one of his frequent sexual encounters with men, but in his most recent comments about the man Trump still praised his style.
Since Cohn’s disbarment and ultimate demise Trump has mostly relied on the advice of Michael Cohen and Marc Kasowitz, both of whom are known in New York legal circles for their similarly tough guy approach to the law.
Kasowitz was graduated from Yale but had to settle for a law degree from Cornell University, then made his fame and started his fortune by defending the major tobacco companies from all the lawsuits that business entailed, and he wound up with Trump as a very lucrative client. He represented Trump in one of his two divorces and all the complicated bankruptcy proceedings regarding his failed casinos and a fraud suit against Trump University, along with hundreds of claims of unpaid bills, and he sent some harassing letters to the women who publicly claimed  during the past presidential campaign that Trump had sexually harassed them, and we’d guess he’s billed his usual $1,500-an-hour-advice on countless other matters. Trump came out of the divorce with a still-sizable fortune and a glamorous nudie model third wife, and while his investors lost collective billions in those casinos he came out millions ahead, and they settled that Trump University lawsuit for a mere $25 million to plaintiffs and surprisingly few headlines, and despite all those other matters he’s the president, so despite Kasowitz’ lack of Washington experience we can see why Trump trusts his attorney’s advice.
Still, he seems an odd choice to deal with this Russia thing with Trump and Russia. It’s not just that Kasowitz provides an excuse for every snarky journalist to once again mention Trump’s two divorces and more numerous bankruptcies and scam university schemes and all those unpaid bills and countless other matters in his now-legendary private sector career, but that he’s also got his own Russian ties. His law firm of Kasowitz, Benson and Torres — which was Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman until until the bankruptcy-specialist Friedman left to become Trump’s ambassador to Israel  — also represents a Russian bank, OJSC Sberbank, and a Russian billionaire with the same predictable ties to the Kremlin.
Cohen, a former executive vice president of the Trump Organization and famously combative spokesman for the Trump campaign and administration, is also on the job of defending Trump in this Russia thing with Trump and Russia, but he’s also got his own legal problems about that. The House and Senate committees have both asked him about his contacts with the Kremlin , and so far he’s  refusing to provide the requested information. None of this proves anything, we’ll readily agree, but Trump and his most hopeful supporters should admit that it doesn’t look good.
Meanwhile, the president’s son-in-law has lawyered up with Jamie Gorelick, which is possibly the weirdest plot twist yet. Jared Kushner, the bare-knuckle real estate mogul husband of Trump’s most beloved daughter and his pick to negotiate Middle East peace and reinvent the federal government and deal with China and end the opioid crisis in America is also reported to have been in meetings with Russian banks and is reportedly a “person of interest” in that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, so one can hardly blame him for picking a well-connected Washington insider such as Gorelick to guide him through it. The eminently well-connected-to-the-Democrats Gorelick, though, seems an odd choice.
She really should be at least as infamous as Roy Cohn, as far we’re concerned. Her first mention in the papers came as a deputy attorney general appointed by President Bill Clinton when she was “field commander” in the botched raid on some religious nuts in Waco, Texas, which left 20 children and 60 adults dead, and which earned her a promotion to a higher post where she implemented the “wall” between domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. We’ll assume she had the best intention of protecting citizens from intrusive surveillance, but as predicted the policy also kept the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency from sharing the information that could have prevented the terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001. For that she was rewarded with control of the Federal National Mortgage Association, where she stubbornly and successfully resisted President George W. Bush’s proposed reforms to a crazy Clinton-era sub-prime mortgage scheme that led to the financial meltdown of 2008.
After playing a starring role in the most deadly attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression she was briefly floated as President Barack Obama’s pick for Attorney General, and although that somehow didn’t happen Gorelick continued to serve the Democratic Party by helping a George Soros-funded non-profit get a say who in gets a non-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service ,and helping Duke University deal with the lacrosse team they’d falsely accused of gang rape in a racially-charged case , and vouching for Obama’s ultimately unconfirmed last Supreme Court nominee, among other high-dollar matters for the left.
There’s no denying she’s a well-connected D.C. lawyer and a ruthlessly tough survivor of some vicious fights, and she came out a reported $25 million ahead after that still-ongoing 2008 recession, so we can well understand why Trump’s son-in-law, whose own bare-knuckle real estate mogul father did some federal time on illegal campaign contribution and witness-tampering charges, might turn to her. She’ll no doubt be a fierce defender in whatever court of law Kushner might find himself in, where those Democratic connections might well prove useful, but we don’t expect she’ll be a very popular character in either the cheering or jeering sections of the court of public opinion.
Once again we’ll stipulate that none of this proves anything, and that we have no idea what the next plot twist will bring, but we can’t shake an unpleasant feeling about where this heading.

— Bud Norman

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Reality Intrudes on a Otherwise Nice Weekend

The weather around here was atypically perfect over the Memorial Day weekend, with none of the vicious thunderstorms and potential tornadoes that usually drive all the campers away from the nearby lakes at some point in the holiday, and the news cycle was as slow as one can hope for these days. Still, there was no shaking a certain sense that real life and all its discontents would start up again today.
We did our best to put it aside for a weekend of gratitude to fallen heroes and other uplifting thoughts, attending church and doing some pressing chores and pursuing plenty of procrastinating, while sticking mostly to the sports news. On Monday we slept late and eventually got together with some gray-haired hippie friends who meet every year on the date at a charmingly dilapidated house in a charmingly dilapidated neighborhood, and we had some barbecue and drank some beer and talked mostly about music.
They were playing the Allman Brothers Band on an old stereo sound system, apparently in memoriam of Gregg Allman, one of the eponymous co-founders of the band and its longtime vocalist and organist and songwriter, whose obituary we had noticed in the news over the weekend, and we have to say it sounded great. As natural born rockabillies our tastes in rock ‘n’ roll tend to the pre-hippie generation, and in our relative youth we embraced the punk sensibility that rebelled against those aged hippies, but we could never resist that Allman outfit doing “Crossroads” or “Whipping Post” or especially that enticingly melodic “Jessica,” which we played over and over on our old stereo until it drove our mom crazy, so we shared with our hippie friends a sincere toast to an undeniably crazy old hippie who was also an undeniably great and quintessentially American musician.
There was plenty of grousing about President Donald Trump, too, of course, but our natural born rockabilly punk and old school Republican sensibilities weren’t much stirred to offer any defense. We left early and dropped in an another old friend, a woman who is a bit younger and far punkier than ourselves, and still quite attractive in an exotic and ripened sort of way, and after she she showed us some cell phone video of her cute grandsons she also started grousing about Trump. After such a long friendship she usually avoids political topics with us, but we invited her to vent her spleen without any fear of recriminations. This lead to an eerily civil discussion about our bedrock conservative principles, however weird they might seem at the moment, and even some lengthy discourse some about the authoritarianism on her side of the political divide, and it ended in a hug.
After that we still managed to make the last inning of the Wichita Wingnuts’ home-opening victory over the Salina Stockade at the old Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on a glorious early summer night next to the Arkansas River, and although our New York Yankees lost to the Baltimore Orioles the Boston Red Sox also so lost so the Yankees were still comfortably in first place in the American League East. In our perusal of the sports pages we also noticed that Frank DeFord had died and Tiger Woods had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, so it wasn’t a great day in sports. DeFord was until his final day the best sportswriter of his generation, and at one point around 2008 Woods seemed poised to claim the title of greatest golfer and most heroic sports hero ever, and both of those stories came to a sad end over the weekend.
We dropped in on the last Wingnuts inning with a couple of our cigar-chomping friends in the smoking section of Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, one of whom is a graying hippie professor at the local university and the other a gray-pony-tailed hippie who still musters a full-throated defense of Trump, and they briefly filled us in on what they’d been arguing about during the home team’s victory. At that point we tried to talk about the home team’s victory, and if we’d arrived early enough to purchase a beer we’d have raised a conversation-changing toast.
We can’t help a late night glance at the news, though, so naturally Trump came up in that. They don’t observe Memorial Day in Germany, so Chancellor Angela Merkel went ahead with a speech that didn’t mention Trump by name but made clear that in “my experience of the last few days” she spent with Trump she had concluded that Europe could no longer count on the support of “outside sources,” and her opponent in the upcoming election more explicitly agreed with her more subtle denunciation of Trump. Our liberal Facebook friends were meanwhile exulting in Trump’s admittedly unusual demeanor during the national anthem at Arlington Memorial Cemetery, and although we don’t think it necessarily damning we have to admit it is unusual. There’s the carry-over from the previous work week’s stories about Trump’s son-in-law and all-purpose appointee, too, and we had to warn our Trump-apologist friend that the upcoming testimony of the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director will likely require some difficult apologetics.
He seemed to take our warning to heed, and inquired about the well-being of our folks, whom he has also lately befriended. We appreciated the sincere inquiry, and assured him they seemed to be doing fine, and felt a hopeful thought that all this politics and sports and whatnot doesn’t really matter.
We also took a moment or two to remember Jerry Clark, who grew up in the Depression at an Atchison orphanage and got his toes blown off at the Battle of Manila in World War II and somehow wound up in the darkroom of the newspaper where we worked as young punks,  where he became one of our very best friends ever. For all the difficulties of his life he was one of the funniest fellows we’ve ever known, and as we face the coming week we’d love to hear what he would say about this particular moment in time.

— Bud Norman

A Pause for Memorial Day

The news should start up again with its recent ferocity tomorrow, but until then the country deserves a brief respite. Today is Memorial Day, a chance to relax, light up the barbecue, knock back a beer, and reflect for a moment or two on the heroes who made it possible. We’ll not intrude on any of that with news, which is mostly pretty bleak these days.
Thanks for dropping by, though, and allowing us to wish you a great day in in the great land of America.

— Bud Norman

If This is Thursday, This Must Be Belgium

President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip went well enough through its first six days, with some potentially significant successes offsetting a few relatively minor if undeniably embarrassing missteps, but all along even his most ardent well-wishers had to admit to a certain nervousness about how long that would last. On Thursday Trump was in Belgium for a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, and our worst fears were largely realized.
The date always struck us as fraught with peril, as Trump had won the presidency while railing that NATO was an “obsolete” federation of deadbeat nations free-riding on America’s on America’s gullible generosity, but upon taking office he made a few steps back from that position. He declared that NATO was “no longer obsolete,” seemed unembarrassed to admit that he’d said some things before he knew much about NATO but that he knew better now, and the high-ranking foreign policy officials he’d appointed went to further lengths to reassure our alliance partners, but he’d occasionally lapse back to campaign rhetoric. During a rather awkward meeting in Washington with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel he handed her a multi-billion dollar invoice for what he thought was owed for American defense spending on behalf of Germany over the past decades, which was more widely reported in the German press than in America’s, and by the time he landed in Belgium there was no guessing what he might have to say.
What he had to say when he took his turn at the podium started well enough, with kinds words for Merkel and a nod to British Prime Minister Theresa May before asking for a moment of silence of the victims of a recent terrorist attack in Britain, and he recalled how NATO had invoked it’s Article Five that an attack on one was attack on all after the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York in 2001. After that he mostly went on about how most of the NATO nations are free-riding on the gullible shoulders of American taxpayers and he was there to demand back payments. He noted the opulence of the newly-built NATO headquarters where he was speaking, boasted that he’d promised himself not to ask how much it cost, and seemed to imply it was a nice little building they had there and it would be a shame if anything happened to it.
Trump was undeniably correct in noting that the vast majority of NATO’s members hadn’t spent their promised 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending, and his most ardent admirers thus have a plausible argument that he’s staking out an ingeniously outrageous opening bargaining according to the art of the deal. This should prove convincing to that 25 percent or so floor of public support that Trump enjoys no matter what, but it’s a harder sell to the rest of both the left and the right. The same left that wanted  to surrender in the Cold War is suddenly talking tough about Russia, while the establishment right that navigated the conflict to a favorable conclusion is fuming that the NATO alliance needs to be dealt with behind the scenes rather than in pubic speeches. That 2 percent of GDP rule was gently pressed behind the scenes even by the administration of President Barack Obama, our NATO partners have been upping the ante ever since, and although thy were coming around at this point it’s hard to see how Trump’s public scolding will urge them along.
Trump’s most ardent admirers will admire his forthright America First stand, but all the international footage shows the heads of state of our NATO allies looking decidedly less enthusiastic about it, and they’re all accountable to British and French and Belgian and other local opinions that have not yet succumbed to Trumpism. The art of the real estate deal and the art of diplomacy are decidedly different, and although we wish him well we can’t help thinking that Trump doesn’t know the difference.The video footage of our NATO allies was far less ebullient than Trump with his Sunni Arab friends from a few days before, and Trump had a few more of the embarrassing missteps on Thursday, including some footage of him seeming to shove his way past the head of state from newly-joined NATO partner Montenegro to get his way to the front of a a photo op, and a couple of awkward handshakes with the French President whose Vichy-derived opponent Trump had more or less endorsed, and all in it all it added up to another bad news cycle.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the news cycle was no kinder. The lead story on most of the network news was that Trump’s son-in-law, the 36-year-old Jared Kushner who has been charged with negotiating Middle East peace being the go-between in our dealings with China and ending America’s opioid crisis and reinvent its federal government, was also the focus of a federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. Russia was no doubt pleased by Trump putting the squeeze on America’s NATO allies, and those looks on our NATO allies’leaders faces, and how those NATO negotiations are likely to go from here. The Republican congressional candidate who was arrested for assaulting a reporter on election eve wound up winning a special election in Montana, possibly because most of the votes were cast before it happened, but that probably won’t help much in the rest of the world and its opinion polls.
As much as we’re rooting for America and its established principles of foreign policy, we can’t shake a certain nervousness about how Trump is negotiating this darned convoluted art of diplomacy. We’ll continue to regard all those sudden Cold Warriors on the left with suspicion, but neither do we trust that the president or his son-in-law is truly putting America or anybody else first.

— Bud Norman

The Health Care Fight Turns Literal

President Donald Trump’s extended foreign tour went smoothly on Wednesday, but back in the states his party’s efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare had a bumpier ride. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report that the bill recently passed by the House of Representatives would result in 23 million fewer Americans having health insurance, a Fox News poll confirmed all the other polls showing that the bill was already unpopular with the public, and the Republican candidate in today’s special congressional election in Montana apparently wound up taking his frustrations out by body-slamming a reporter.
The body-slamming got the most media attention, of course, but even those stories required some mention of the CBO score and the bad polls to provide the context. Although the state-wide district has been an easy win for the Republican the past 20 years, this is not at all a usual year and the race has been close enough to draw reporters from all sorts of places in anticipation of an upset with national implications. Democratic candidate Ron Quist, a 69-year-old singing cowboy with a troubled financial history he attributes to some pesky health expenses, has lately tightened the race by stressing his opposition to that unpopular House bill. Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey transplant who got rich with a software company, has been steadfastly opposed to the unpopular Obamacare law but noticeably less steadfast about where he stands on that even more unpopular House bill.
Which helps some to explain what happened when a reporter from the unabashedly-liberal-even-by-British-standards The Guardian newspaper walked to up to Gianforte wielding a tape recorder microphone and asking about that brand new CBO score. At that point, so far as we can tell from the reporter’s audio recording and the eyewitness testimony of several other journalists and Gianforte’s own self-serving account, Gianforte declined to answer, the reporter persisted, Pianoforte continued to declined, the reporter continued to persist. After a few moments of this, it seems, Gianforte grabbed the reporter’s neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground, then began punching.
On the audio recording Gianforte is clearly heard at that point shouting “I’m sick and tired of you guys. The last guy that came in here did the same thing. Get the hell out of here. Get the hell out of here. The last guy did the same thing. Are you with The Guardian?” The reporter admitted he was from The Guardian and complained that his glasses had been broken, Gianforte reiterated his demand that he get out, and the reporter stated his intention to call the local police. As a criminal matter it’s now in the hands of the local authorities, so we’ll not comment on that, but as a political matter we will say that it’s not the kind of publicity a candidate hopes for on election eve in a tight race.
In a state that is red on both the electoral map and the back of the neck it might be worth trying to blame it all on that liberal media, especially when it’s some pesky Brit from a left-by-British-standards rag such as The Guardian, but in this case the eyewitnesses to the events were a crew from Fox News, which is not known for its liberal bias, and confirmed every detail of the reporter and his audiotape’s account what happened. There are bound to be a few Republicans in Montana who will relish a smart-alecky reporter from that far back east getting his rightful comeuppance, but there are bound to be even more Montana Republicans who are embarrassed by it.
Montana’s a reliably red state, though, and this might yet prove another tantalizingly close call for the Democrats in this unusual year. They do things different up in Montana, such as holding special elections on a Thursday, instead of Tuesday as God intended, and given the long rides into town that most Montanans have there are some unusually lenient early voting laws. An estimated 62 percent of the votes that will be cast in a typically low-turnout special election have already been made, before that CBO score or Pianoforte’s alleged body slammed hit the news, and unless they’re paying attention to their local news or the international internet buzz the rest might go to the polls without having heard about it. Some of those who do might decide to reluctantly vote for Gianforte anyway, and they’ve probably been following the race closer than we have.
Even if the Republicans eke out another unusually close win in a reliably red district, though, they should remain calmly nervous. They won the special election here in our Kansas Fourth District by seven points, but that’s a jarring drop from the customary 30-point-plus blowouts of recent decades, and at this point the really big special election this June in that mostly-white-and-educated-and-upper-income Georgia district in suburban Atlanta that used to elect Newt Gingrich the Democrat is ahead in all the polls on his anti-hour bill platform. Given that all these districts went Republican by comfortable margins just last November, Republicans must ask themselves what’s happened since then.
The special election in Kansas was held because Rep. Mike Pompeo was tabbed as Central Intelligence Agency director, in Montana it was because Rep. Ryan Zinke was promoted to Secretary of Interior, and that Georgia seat’s open because Rep. Tom Price was promoted to Secretary of Health and Human Services, so in each case the Grand Old Party was running candidates with lesser credentials. All politics really is local, too, and we’ll freely admit we’re not au courant on what’s going on in rural Montana and suburban Atlanta. Still, the trend seems to be that the Democrats hate Trump more than the Republicans love him, and that the repeal-and-replace bill the House passed is even more unpopular than Obamacare, which takes some doing.
Obamacare is still as bad as people thought it was just last November, though, and there’s a strong case to be made for that House bill, but for now the Republican party seems unlikely to make it. Both the bill and the president’s widely damned proposed budget cut to Medicare and other governments are necessary to forestall the bankruptcy of those programs, which will prove far more painful, but until then that’s a hard argument to make. On the campaign trail Trump promised coverage for everyone at government expense, then promised that it would all be cheaper and better for everyone and that he’d never touch Medicare, and he rebuked the Republicans in the House who only promised to do what had to be done, so it will be interesting to see what he has to say about it when he gets home from that foreign trip.
He’ll no doubt bash the press, which usually plays well with that plurality of his supporters, but we’d advise him not to do it literally. In a race with national implications, that doesn’t play well.

— Bud Norman

Another Day of Foreign Intrigues

President Donald Trump’s first foreign tour has produced some notable but hard-to-explain successes, as well as some relatively minor but easy-to-ridicule missteps, but it hasn’t been able to keep what Trump calls “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia” out of the news.
While Trump was making what can be considered an inappropriately upbeat comment in the guest book of Israel’s holocaust museum, The Washington Post was running a story that he had asked national intelligence director Daniel Coats and National Security Agency director Admiral Michael Rogers to deny that there was anything to that whole Russia thing with and Russia. This might not be the evidence of obstruction of justice that so many of Trump’s critics have been hoping for, but it’s still far more inappropriate than what Trump wrote in that guest book, and noisily intruded on what Trump had surely hoped would be a much-needed favorable news cycle.
Trump and his most ardent defenders could have dismissed it as just another fake news smear from the “Washington Compost,” but Tuesday also saw the under-oath congressional testimony of former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan and the aforementioned Coats and Rogers, and it did nothing to undermine the story. Brennan not only declined to dismiss the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia but spoke at length about his certainty that Russia did indeed meddle in America’s latest presidential election and his concerns that some people in the Trump campaign were either wittingly or unwittingly involved. Both Coats and Rogers declined to either confirm or deny the Post’s latest big story, citing the now familiar reason that doing so would involve divulging classified information, which is not necessarily damning but not at all what Trump and his most ardent defenders wanted to hear.
That’s not to mention all the other ongoing news about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is still exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and resisting a congressional subpoena for his financial documents, which is not necessarily damning but never looks good, and it invites all the snarkier Trump critics to dredge up video montages of Trump saying that all the Hillary Clinton who staffers who the Fifth were clearly guilty and Flynn himself leading chants of “lock her up” at the Republican convention. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort remains under investigation, too, and The Washington Post is still claiming that some senior-level administration member who was a senior-level campaign staffer is as well, and all the talk is that it’s son-in-law. Fox News has also retracted a story about how a murdered 27-year-old staff at the Democratic National Committee had leaked all those e-mails during the crime, and Sean Hannity also agreed to back off the story at the request of the family, which was the last alternative theory to the idea that the Russians did it.
Trump’s embrace of a youthful Saudi king who so far seems genuinely committed to modernizing his kingdom might yet prove a diplomatic masterstroke, and it’s worth noting that the undeniably Islamophobic Trump seems to have a better rapport with at least the Sunni Muslim world than the embarrassingly Islamophilic President Barack Obama ever did. Given how much more troublesome the Iranian regime has been lately, the inevitable backlash from the Shiites might prove worth the provocation. Despite his clumsy attempts at holding hands with his wife and writing in guest books seems to have reassured the Israelis of America’s continued support for their survival, which is a welcome relief to them and ourselves after all the blatant offenses of the Obama years.
That’s all theoretical for now and very to hard to explain, though, and we expect that Trump’s best explanation will be that it was stupendous and the best and everyone says so. So far he’s handled his foreign adventure well enough, but the remaining itinerary includes plenty of opportunities for missteps, and even if he gets through that the Russia thing with Russia and Trump will likely still be there when he arrives home.

— Bud Norman

Another Day on a Long Trip

The third day of President Donald Trump’s nine-day foreign voyage went well enough that the more hostile media did their best to change the subject back to all the scandals that he hoped he’d left behind, but there was no keeping anybody’s eyes off it. There were a couple of things the critics could reasonably carp on, and all the more momentous things that can’t help being debated during any presidential visit to Israel, where Trump found himself the day after his royal welcome to Saudi Arabia, which further complicates that already complex debate, but at the end Trump seemed to have muddled through a relatively good news cycle.
Trump donned a yarmulke and went down to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to pay his respects to several millennia of Jewish tradition, becoming the first American president to do so at the much-disputed site while holding the office, and even such staunchly old-fashioned yet neo-conservative and philo-semitic and NeverTrumper Republican goyim as ourselves had to admire the chutzpah of that. Although he’s still backing away from that oft-stated campaign promise to relocate the embassy from Tel Avid to Jerusalem, which was a step too far even for the likes of us, we’re surely not the only ones who are pleased to see the stark difference with President Barack Obama’s anti-Israeli policies. Some of Trump’s supporters on the alt-right are no doubt disappointed, and the more blatantly anti-semitic portions of the left are also offended, but we hope that most of us are rooting for the Israelis rather than the people who have vowed to exterminate them.
Some of those Jew-haters are in Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni nations that Trump had been partying with the two days before, and some are in Iran and the rest of the Shiite sphere that Trump had thundered against, and nobody here or in the Middle East seems to know how that’s all going to work out in the end. We’d like to think that Trump has ingeniously calculated some great deal that will bring about peace in that eternally warring region just as surely as President Andrew Jackson would have averted America’s Civil War, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it, so for now we’ll take solace in the face that at least he’s not disrespecting the Israelis the way Obama used to do.
Still, there’s no denying the Trump-bashers some fun from such a marathon journey. All our liberal Facebook friends were sharing the footage of Trump noticing that Natanyahu and his wife were holding hands as the walked from the runway and then trying to do the same with his First Lady and having her slap his hand away, and we’ll have to leave it to the more ardent Trump apologists to explain how it doesn’t look bad. Some of Trump’s slighter lapses have been attributed by his communication team to “exhaustion,” which is credible enough excuse on behalf of an obese 70-year-old who eschews any exercise other than a weekly round on a Trump-banded golf course, but the late night wags are entitled to their montages of Trump bragging about his stamina, and it is only three days into a night-day tour.
There are the usual reasonable arguments from both the left and the right about how Trump’s pro-Saudi and pro-Israel and vaguely pro-Russian-yet stridently against aligned-with-Russia Iran stance will eventually work out, but for now we’ll be glad that unlike Obama he’s not apologizing for American influence in the region, even that Iraq war he claimed President George W. Bush lied us into, which even Obama didn’t claim. Things don’t seem any more muddied in the Middle East than before showed up, and even after that admittedly awkward hand-holding incident we’ll hold out out hope it will also continue to forestall the inevitable conflagration. All in all, that’s a pretty darned good news cycle from Trump these days.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the anti-Trump press has been able to take advantage of the dullness of it all by posting some stories hard to deal with for an administration on an ambitious foreign tour. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is defying a congressional subpoena and invoking the Fifth Amendment in the various ongoing investigations into that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, as Trump calls it, and that’s enough to intrude on the front pages. Flynn’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment doesn’t imply any guilt, as his Trump-friendly advocates can rightly say, but Trump’s critics are entitled to gleefully run the the late night comedy montage of Trump saying that his opponents’ use of the Fifth Amendment was the refuge of the guilty.
Sooner or later Trump will return to that temporarily paused news cycle, and although he hasn’t made any glaring missteps on his trip he’s yet to bring any undeniable foreign achievements, so we’d call it a draw so far. The next six days will involve a Pope and G-7 worth or world leaders that Trump has publicly feuded with, and it’s bound to be exhausting, but we’ll hope for the best. Not for Trump’s sake, but the sake of peace, and some respite this awful ongoing news cycle.

— Bud Norman<

A Fairly Smooth Start to Trump’s Trip

President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip is going well enough, so far. There have been none of the glaringly undiplomatic moments that some feared, some begrudging praise for his speech in Saudi Arabia from the erstwhile Republican foreign policy establishment, and it managed to push all those stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia off the front pages and top-of-the-hour reports for a weekend.
No president goes to the Middle East and without provoking some controversy, of course, and Trump was never going to be an exception to that rule. There was some relatively minor quibbling about his swaying along with an all-male sword dance that the Saudis like to do, as well as the usual nitpicking about protocol. Although the left was obliged to praise the First Lady and First Daughter for refusing to cover their hair according to local custom, they also came up with the inevitable past “tweets” by Trump criticizing Democratic visitors for doing the same. The right was mightily pleased that Trump didn’t bow to the Saudi king, as President Barack Obama was accused of doing when he stooped a bit too low to shake hands with the much shorter monarch, but the left delighted in pictures of Trump also leaning a bit to accept a golden medallion from his relatively diminutive host.
There are also the more substantive controversies about more substantive matters, of course. A much-ballyhooed speech to an audience that included several heads of Islamic states managed to avoid the “Islam hates us” and “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” rhetoric, which was a relief to to his critics on the left but a disappoint to some of his supporters on the right. The speech was quite clear in its opposition to Iran’s regional and global ambitions, which played well on the right and especially well with his Sunni audience, but naturally upset those on the left that had grown accustomed to Obama’s Shiite tilt, and was worrisome to the centrist types who thinks it’s best that America not take either side in the bloody millennia-and-a-half-year-old schism. There was no mention of human rights in the speech, and instead a clear disclaimer that Trump had no intention of telling anyone how to deal with their internal affairs, which these days wins both praise and criticism from certain sections of both sides of the aisle.
The visit also saw the signing of a $110 billion defense deal with the Saudis for some very high-tech weaponry, but that was pretty much the same deal that the Obama administration had negotiated, so no one in either party seemed to have much to say about that. There was also some high-brow discussion about how Trump’s apparent support for authoritarian regimes so long as they suppress terrorism will address the root causes of terrorism, which are thought to include U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes suppressing all sorts of needed reform movements, but in all fairness no one on either the right or left or anywhere in between seems to have figured out what the hell is going on.
Trump’s trip moves on to Israel and the Vatican and Belgium and a G-7 meeting full of wary world leaders before he gets home, so there’s still plenty of potential for something glaringly undiplomatic to happen, but he’s got figure it’s going pretty well so far. If he can keep his thumbs away from a “twitter” machine he might even be able to keep that Russia thing with Trump and Russia on the inside pages and bottom-of-the-hour updates for a whole week, with the inevitable controversies being more easily ignored.

— Bud Norman

What Could Go Wrong?

President Donald Trump is now embarking on his first foreign trip since taking office, and we expect he’ll be glad to get out of the country. He’s spent the week griping to the graduates of the Coast Guard Academy that he’s been the most unfairly treated politician in all history, “tweeting” claims that the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s possible role in Russia’s election meddling are a “witch hunt,” and testily denying everything to a pesky pack of the press, so at least he’ll be able to change the subject for a while.
On the other hand, the conversation might well take another controversial turn or two before the nine-long-days trip is over. The celebrity apprentice president has already provoked controversies in his dealings with such friendly countries as Australia and Germany, which takes some doing, and the itinerary for his trip includes some far trickier encounters.
The tour starts out in Saudia Arabia, where the royal family has reportedly prepared to roll out $68 million worth of red carpet, which should be enough to satisfy even Trump’s sense of grandeur. So far Trump has been saying everything the Saudis want to hear about arms deals and their war in Yemen and other and other deals that are  dear to their hearts, but he’s also the guy who called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and until recently he was a vociferous critic of the country, and his planned speech on Islamic radicalism will require more carefully diplomatic language than Trump is accustomed to using. A visit to Saudi Arabia is fraught with peril for even the most seasoned presidents, and Trump is seemingly still starting a learning curve.
The next planned stop is in Israel, which is always tricky. Trump has long been outspokenly supportive of the Jewish state, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he’s lately abandoned his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem and reportedly blabbed some top-secrets shared by the Israelis to the Russians, and has long habit of making stereotypical Jewish jokes in public. His daughter and son-in-law are both Jewish, which provides some cover for such japes, but we expect his aides will be nervous for the duration of the visit.
After that Trump moves on to Italy and the vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis. Back in the campaign the Pope opined that Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico wasn’t consistent with Christian values, Trump replied with characteristic bluntness that the Pope was “disgraceful” to say so, but both men are promising a friendlier conversation when they meet face to face. Absent any inappropriate jokes about a priest and a Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister walking in to a bar it seems a safe enough stop.
Next up is Belgium, where he’s scheduled to meet the king and queen and Prime Minister, and although they probably won’t be spending $68 million for the chat that should go fine. He’s also scheduled to meet the newly elected President of France, after Trump implicitly endorsed his Vichy-linked opponent in the recent French vote, as well as the president of the European Union, an institution both Trump and that Vichy-linked opponent have long outspokenly criticized, so that might also require more diplomatic language than Trump is used to using. There’s another meeting scheduled with the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has lately concluded is not “obsolete,” as he frequently described it during the campaign, but he’s still grousing that its members are mostly a bunch of freeloading deadbeats, so there’s no telling how that might go.
Trump’s European trip then returns again to Italy, where he’ll take his place along the leaders of the G7 nations, and we hope he won’t mind sharing the stage with all of them. All those countries have pretty pesky presses of their own, though, and the American media will also be on hand to egg them on, and at that point the conversation might well take any number of controversial turns.
There’s always a chance Trump will return home with a lot of brand new best friends, and that the media won’t find anything to criticize, but Trump being Trump and the media being the media that’s not the way to bet.

— Bud Norman

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The Latest Character in the Saga of the Russia Thing With Trump and Russia

As if the plot wasn’t already hard enough to follow, there’s now been a “special counsel” appointed to look into what President Donald Trump calls “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” Like every other twist in this convoluted tale, this one adds to the exponentially growing number of subplots.
We put “special counsel” in quotations not to denigrate the position, but rather because it’s a neologism to us. After watching the past many decades of binge-worthy political scandals we’re well with acquainted with special prosecutors, which were the usual starring roles played in the sordid stories, so we had to dig down deep into the media to find out what that might mean. As far as we can tell both are charged with getting to the bottom of things but the main difference is that special prosecutors can’t be fired for any reason by the president and special counsels can be for any old reason, and we can’t help thinking that might foreshadow some suture plot development.
Still, the Democrats and their media allies are celebrating the appointment as a victory, the stauncher supporters of Trump among the Republican party are calling it a bitter concession, and those of us now standing on the sidelines are hoping it works out for the best. After too many plot developments to recount here, and that’s just in the past week, the Democrats and their media allies were bound to get a continued investigation. Pretty much all the Republicans, and especially the ones that aren’t entirely staunch about their support for Trump, had to concede that questions weren’t going away until they were convincing answered. Those of us who’d just like to hear those answers might yet be satisfied by a special counsel, no matter what those answers might be..
The poor sap who was given the job is so far getting praise from both sides of the political aisle, and he seems a sound choice to us. He’s Robert Mueller, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation director who left the office after an extended term with both Republican and Democratic scalps on his belt and the respect of both parties. After a scandal-free career as a prosecutor, U.S. attorney, upper-level Justice Department official, and President George W. Bush’s pick as FBI director, Mueller was invited to add an extra two years to his ten-year term at the FBI by President Barack Obama.
The Democrats were pleased by his defiance of the Bush administration over surveillance policies, when he was joined by the Department of Justice’s James Comey, who would later become FBI director and get fired by Trump over that whole that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which is another one of those critical subplots in the latest scandal. Bush didn’t fire Mueller because of that, though, and Obama didn’t fire him of their frequent disagreements on policy matters, which were widely praised at the time by all the Republicans, so Mueller seems as good a choice as any for the thankless task he has been handed.
So far the choice is so widely popular that Trump might be tempted to take credit for it, but it appears that the pick was made by that Rod Rosenstein fellow that you might recall as one of the characters in one of the other recent subplots. He’s the newly-hired deputy Attorney General who wrote a memo that was critical of FBI director Comey’s handling of an investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails during the campaign, which did not help the Clinton effort at all, and which was used as the excuse for Comey’s firing by the White House staff before Trump himself told a nationwide television audience that he was going to fire Comey “regardless of recommendation” and had Comey’s continuing investigation of that “Russia thing with Trump and Russia” and on his mind as he made the decision.
The newly-hired and previously respected-by-both-sides-of-the-aisle but suddenly notorious deputy Attorney General found himself with the unenviable task of making the momentous choice, though, because Attorney General Jeff Sessions had felt obliged to recluse himself from that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia because of his own entanglements in the matter several months of subplots ago. A Trump-appointed National Security Advisor has felt obliged to resign over similar concerns, a Trump campaign chairman was fired after revelations of business dealings with Russia, as was a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, so we can’t blame this Rosenstein fellow for making the safest possible pick. For the sake of his civil servant soul, we also hope’s keeping the same meticulous memo record of his dealings as that Comey fellow has reportedly done in one of those other continuing subplots.
After watching so many of these scandals play out over our many years we’ll not venture any guess out how this one ends, and like most of them we’ll probably never live long enough to find out that final verdict history reached before it putting on a dusty bookshelf. In the meantime the stock market hit the skids on Wednesday over worries that a Republican president and Republican majorities in both chambers of commerce aren’t going to be able to deliver on the promised business-friendly economic policies, nobody’s talking about that dreadful Obamacare law or the arguably just-as-dreadful Republican alternative, our foreign allies and adversaries alike are by now surely wondering what the heck is going on, and this ongoing thing with Russia and Trump and Russia needs to be cleared up one way or another.
Godspeed, Mr. Mueller, you poor sap.

— Bud Norman