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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

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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

Dueling Narratives

You might have missed it, given all the clutter of ongoing and newly breaking stories about President Donald Trump and Russia and what the president calls “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” but there was also an interesting report in the news about the very mysterious case of Seth Rich.
Unless you occasionally visit the more conspiracy-minded corners of the media you also might not have heard of Rich, but he was a 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee who was shot to death at close range as he walked home from a nightclub in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood on the night of July 10, 2016. There was no apparent motive for the murder, as his wallet and expensive watch and other valuable items remained on his body, but rumors soon began circulating that he had leaked the embarrassing DNC e-mails that were published on WikiLeaks just 12 days later, which immediately showed up in every newspaper during a stretch of the presidential election, which if true suggests a plausible motive to the more conspiracy-minded types.
The national press has treated the murder as a local crime story, but the D.C. press has been forced to treat it as such, however, and on Tuesday the local Fox News affiliate story ran a story that quoted both an unnamed and named source claiming to have information that Rich did indeed pass over some 44,000 e-mails to WikiLeaks. The unnamed source is said to be a federal official, the named source is a private investigator who claims to have been acting at the request of the victim’s family, and one needn’t be very conspiracy-minded to admit that it could be true. That was enough for Sean Hannity to devote a portion of his radio talk show to matter as did our afternoon chores, and the commenters were quick to pounce on it as proof of yet another Hillary Clinton murder at one of the conservative news sites we visit. Even The Washington Post had to weigh in the local crime story, and acknowledge the sources of the Fox report, as well as the fact there are no other convincing theories of the crime.. Those hoping for something to talk about besides the Russia thing with Trump and Russia thought they had an opening.
Alas, The Post led with the impeccably-sourced fact that the victim’s family is angrily denying every word of it, and describing the private investigator as a political operative who had preyed on the family, then going on to mention that the local cops and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both deny the existence of the smoking-gun laptop computer that both of the original story’s sources describe. The national Fox News operation published a story of its own that read pretty much the same way, too, and unless you were checking on certain news sources the matter probably escaped your attention.
Meanwhile, the stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia proliferated like the weeds on our lawn. The firing of the FBI director who was leading the agency’s investigation and the various White House explanations for it was followed by the claims that Trump had blabbed some secret information to a couple of Russian officials who were invited to the Oval Office, and that rolled into the latest claim that the fired FBI director wrote up a memo about Trump had asked him to quash an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who had resigned after it was revealed he had lied about his contacts with, of all people, the Russians.
There’s even something about possible White House tapes, which is a phrase that sends a chill down the spine of any Republican old enough to remember the Watergate days. The bad news cycle has also included some embarrassingly believable stories about screaming matches in the president’s meetings with his communications staff, some prominent Republicans admitting that it doesn’t look good and, and the inescapable sense that it really does look pretty bad.
These are crazy times, though, and that Clinton woman and her hound dog husband were pretty darned awful, so it might turn out that unfortunate Rich fellow really did leak all those e-mails and was whacked by the Democratic presidential nominee in a futile retaliation, and the “deep state” has been covering it up, and Trump and Russia are entirely blameless. That’d be a hell of deus ex machina, though, and for now the White House will probably have to keep coming up with those evolving explanations. We wish them luck, because for now we can’t imagine how anyone’s going to come out of this looking good, and can only convey our best wishes to the family and friends of Seth Rich.</div>.

— Bud Norman

Another Day at the White House Communications Office

Every single day these days seems to bring another story that the beleaguered souls at the White House communications have to somehow explain. The latest comes courtesy of that pesky Washington Post, which reports that President Donald Trump blabbed some top-secrets to those two Russian officials he met with last week.
The Post was palpably disappointed to concede there’s nothing at all illegal about that, as any president has the clear authority to declassify anything he wants, but they nonetheless made a strong case that it was damned stupid. They didn’t divulge much of what was shared, except that it had something to do with the Islamic State, and that it was something that had been passed along from an allied country’s intelligence agencies, which might not be pleased that it was then passed on the Russians. Respected national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who replaced the currently scandalized-because-of-Russia Michael Flynn on the job, said that the story “as reported, is false,” but a few hours later the Post made a strong case that the rest of his statement wasn’t nearly so definitive, except for a clear denial that Trump hadn’t revealed the foreign source of any information or how they might have got it.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer eventually “tweeted” that the story is “100 percent false,” but by now most people don’t regard him as any more trustworthy than The Washington Post, and all but the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters will have to admit that it sounds like something he might do. By now the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters say it was actually another masterstroke of diplomacy, ensuring the promised rapprochement with Russia that will defeat the Islamic State, but at the moment that’s a hard sell and being made only on the far fringes of the media.
That meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister came the very day after Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director who was leading an inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and the only media allowed in the meeting was a photographer from Tass, which everyone old enough to remember the Cold War knows is a Russian propaganda outlet, and the pictures showed Trump looking far more happy and friendly than in any of those more photographed moments with Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May or the other world leaders have that lately passed through Washington. The FBI firing and all the glaring mismatch between what the White House communications said and what the president himself said the next day on television had already carried a bad news cycle for Trump through the weekend, so Monday’s story in The Washington Post was surely a strain on those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office.
They’ll surely do their usual yeoman’s work muddying the waters, though, and as usual they’ll make some perfectly valid criticisms of that pesky press, which never does get these things 100 percent right.  There’s something likely to be something else to come up today, though, and those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office aren’t the only ones dreading it.

— Bud Norman

Trump on Mother’s Day

There was nothing going on Sunday but Mother’s Day and the latest re-hashings of that complicated story about President Donald Trump firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, so we chose to spend the morning and the early afternoon with Mom. All in all, it proved the far better choice.
She and Dad started worshipping at Riverwalk after our family’s congregation had folded and back when we weren’t so diligent about weekly worship, then went off to the Philadelphia in pursuit of Dad’s career and wound up involved in the many good charitable works of a Church of Christ there, and in the meantime we desperately re-connected with that much smaller and older Church over on West Douglas. Mom and Dad have joined us there for worshipping and found it reassuringly familiar, so much like the church where they were married and where we once served as a ring-bearer at a cousin’s also very happy marriage, and although there’s usually an Arkansas River and a full hour dividing our Holy Communion it was nice to share it with Mom. She’s the reason that dad worships every Sunday, and her and our Dad’s combined example is the reason we continue to do so, too, even if it’s over that Arkansas River Bridge and deep in to Delano, and there’s no doubting that Mom’s mother was mostly responsible for that. The subject of the sermon was honor they Father and Mother, and given our family history that seems wise counsel on almost any old weekend, and we took it to heart
Dad wasn’t there because he’s recently had some pretty serious spinal surgery, which also involved a neurosurgeon, which worried us plenty, Dad being such a great guy, but he seemed in high spirits when we and Mom joined him apres church, and very much abreast of the latest developments in that Trump and Russia thing, when we met him for a lunch in the health care unit of his very nice retirement home. The lunch wasn’t bad, by semi-hospital standards, and he was in such a good mood that he encouraged us to take Mom out for an afternoon of Wichita culture. Mom had already introduced us to the local arts and music and all the test of the surprisingly rich culture rich traditions of Wichita, Kansas, so it was a delight to drive her over in her fancy care to the WAM’s annual art and book fair. There was a nice collection of pieces from the permanent collection chosen by some of our fine local artists, that internationally iconict and perfect-for-Mother’s-Dy painting by Mary Casatt of a mother and infant child, and we also had a chance to introduce our Mom to a couple of very idiosyncratically Wichita women of our more secular acquaintance.
Before we headed home we warned our Dad that the whole Russian thing with Trump and Russia seems to be closing in on Trump, based on the foreign and and non-cable news we follow, even though we share his hope that it’s all fake news. No matter how that turns out, it was a a great day with Mom and we’ll give thanks next Sunday over on West Douglas.

— Bud Norman