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When Nepotism Doesn’t Work

For most of America’s history the public didn’t have to concern itself with what the President of the United States’ son or son-law were up to, but that’s another one of those things you can no longer count on the age of President Donald Trump. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and presidential namesake son Donald Trump Jr. were both once again prominently in the news on Tuesday, and neither looked at all good.
Trump ran for president on the promise he would appoint only the very best people, and it’s turned out that the very best person to negotiate Middle East peace and end the country’s opioid crisis and re-invent government happens to be his favorite child’s husband. Press reports indicate that Kushner has also been charged with the tricky task of reforming America’s immigration policies, and that he’s also struggling with that.
Kushner met with the Senate’s slim majority of Republicans on Tuesday, and although it was a closed-door meeting the inevitable leaks suggest it didn’t go well. Kushner reportedly had trouble answering questions about the several million so-called “dreamers” who were illegally brought into the country as children and have since been verifiably blameless quasi-citizens, which is a political problem that a hard-line anti-immigrant Republican administration will need some pretty damned convincing answers for. Kushner reportedly made a case for a merit-based immigration system that would favor highly skilled workers and scientists and engineers, which still seems reasonable enough even as the booming economy Trump routinely brags about needs ever more hammer-swingers and assembly-line workers to keep up with demand, and some well-credentialed and high-tech and Republican-leaning friends of ours are complaining about foreign competition on the job market.
Despite the president’s son-in-law’s best efforts, we don’t think we’re any closer to a much-needed bipartisan reform of immigration law than we are to Middle East peace or an end to the opioid crisis or the reinvention of American government. Trump seems to think that his favorite child’s husband is smart, which we begrudgingly admire, but to us the kid clearly isn’t that damned smart.
Meanwhile, the president’s namesake son has agreed to an another round of grilling from the Senate’s intelligence committee about that “Russia thing” Trump hoped he had put behind him when a special counsel investigation declined to indict him on anything. The special counsel’s report did include some suspicious facts about the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operates, notably the meeting that Donald Trump Jr. has admitted taking with some government-connected Russians he clearly understood to be working on behalf of his father’s campaign, and even though the Republicans control the Senate intelligence committee they still have some reasonable questions about that. The younger Trump was able to negotiate that his testimony won’t be in public, but it will be under oath, and given how restive the farm state Republicans are about the elder Trump’s trade wars we expect it will be entirely and embarrassingly leaked to the press.
There are still plenty of people left in prominent political positions who aren’t related to Trump through blood or marriage, on the other hand, so we’ll hold out hope it all somehow works out.

— Bud Norman

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The First Casualty of the Trade War

Trade wars are good and easily won, President Donald Trump assures us, but we have to admit they make us nervous. Somehow we can’t find a single case in the past several millennia of economic history where a trade war was anything but disastrous and anybody actually won, and with the bluntness Trump’s fans so admire we’ll just come right out and say that we don’t expect his generalship will make his ongoing trade wars come out any better.
Since taking office Trump has been taking on pretty much the entire world, having won the presidency partly on the gripe that the entire world has been taking advantage of America ever since it emerged from the post-World War II ashes as the world’s preeminent economic and military and cultural power, but his biggest battlefront has been with China. On Friday Trump further raised the tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from an already-high 10 percent to 25 percent, which he apparently is allowed to do under the current constitutional order, and before the closing bell on today’s stock markets China is expected to retaliate in kind. The stock markets have been wildly down and then incrementally up throughout the squabble, on fears that Trump is screwing up a carefully built post-World War II international economic order that has for the most part brought increased peace and prosperity to the world and then faint hopes that the great dealmaker might yet deliver on his promise of the greatest deal ever made.
China is indeed a devious trading partner that dumps its excess supplies on world markets and steals intellectual property and occasionally manipulates its currency and exploits more or less slave labor, as Trump claims and even the looniest Democrats agree, so we’ll not deny that a tough negotiating stance is required. Even so, China has emerged from its post-World War II ashes with an economy that is huge by any measure and even bigger than ours by some suspect measures, and it’s a major client of the agricultural and aviation export industries that make up a huge chunk of our beloved Kansas economy, and we’d prefer it was dealt with in a cautious, carefully deliberated way, informed by history and the best expert opinion. Cautious and carefully deliberated and informed by history and expert opinion is clearly not Trump’s style, on the other hand, so for now we’ll remain just as nervous as the stock markets.
We’re just as rank amateurs about all this global economic order stuff as Trump, but with a bravado he might admire we’ll say we’ll go right ahead and say we would have played it differently. China is indeed taking advantage of America in various insidious way, but it’s doing the same to the rest of the world, so we would have availed ourselves of that Leader of the Free World status America’s wiser leaders rightly earned in the post-war years to unite the rest of the Free World and its overpowering economic might against China, which would surely realize it couldn’t take on the rest of the planet, and might even agree to free trade and human rights and full membership in the modern world. Rank amateurs that we are, we note that even the looniest Democrats and the most impeccably credentialed old-fashioned Republican foreign affairs and trade policy experts seem to agree.
Trump is a bolder sort of fellow than ourselves, however, and he chose to take on the rest of the world, so we have no choice but to hope he’s right. His routine renegotiation of the re-branded North American Free Trade agreement has a few billion in upsides for Wisconsin dairy farmers and a few other industries, which Trump claims are the difference between the worst and best trade deal ever negotiated, but it’s currently stalled in the Republican-majority Senate because of the tariffs Trump used in the negotiations that are currently hurting the economies of states held by free-trade Republicans. Meanwhile in the rest of the Free World the European Union is going through a nasty divorce from the United Kingdom. and Trump is taunting the British Prime Minister with sneering “tweets” and threatening the EU with higher tariffs, and demanding they all pay more for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump’s Latin American foreign policy seems in retreat in Venezuela, we can’t discern any policy for the “shit-hole” countries in Africa, North Korea is once again conducting missiles test in Asia, where we’re threatening trade wars against everyone, and the possibility of a united front against those undeniably devious Chinese seems remote.
Trump and his most ardent admirers would have us believe that he’s a self-made multi-billionaire who can easily best these Chinese bums in international trade negotiations, but we’ve read enough of the “fake news” to know that he’s a billionaire’s son who’s gone bankrupt six times in casinos and strip-clubs despite house odds and bare breasts, and ran airlines and football teams and scam universities and other ventures in into the ground, and given his well documented business record we don’t trust in his acumen to run an international economy. He’s lately been crowing about all the money his tariffs have been bringing to the federal treasury, but his national economic council director Larry Kudlow had to acknowledge on one of the Sunday news shows that the money is coming from American consumers rather than China, and sooner or later the average Wal-Mart shopper will notice that Trump tells a lot of lies about his trade wars. Our guess is that those wily Cheese have already noticed, and that we’re in for a bumpy ride.

— Bud Norman

The War Between Trump and Congress, and the Ongoing Struggle for the Truth

The longstanding battle between President Donald Trump’s administration and the United States Congress has recently escalated, and by the time judicial branch sorts it all out we expect that no will be looking good.
When special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation without any charges brought against the president for conspiring with the Russians or obstructing justice, Trump claimed complete exoneration and seemed to expect that would end the annoying discussion. Alas, the report included evidence of numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian, most of which the campaign officials lied about, and it documented several occasions when Trump attempted to obstruct justice but was thwarted by his White House staff, so the Democrats were disinclined to let the matter drop.
The Democrats who hold the majority in the House of Representatives have continued to hold hearings and ask hard-to-answer questions, and want full 400-plus pages of Mueller’s released to the public without redactions that apparently concern 16 criminal investigations that the special counsel team turned over to various jurisdictions of the Justice Department, and they’re requesting tax returns and other documents and calling witnesses about the various other Trump scandals that have been in the press. Even the Republican-run Senate intelligence committee is getting in on it, issuing a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr. to go over some earlier testimony about a meeting he had with some Russian operatives at Trump Tower in light of what Mueller’s report revealed.
Trump’s Attorney General is refusing to hand over the un-redacted report and defying a subpoena to testify to the House judiciary committee, Trump’s Treasury Secretary is refusing to hand over Trump’s tax returns or to testify to anyone about why, and Trump himself is vowing to resist everything. The president is claiming executive privilege to prevent the release of the full Mueller report that supposedly exonerates him and stop former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying about the times he told the special counsel investigation Trump ordered him to either fire the special counsel or otherwise interfere with the probe, he’s backing Attorney General William Barr’s refusal to testify despite a contempt of Congress vote, and we fully expect he’ll resort to any measure to keep his namesake son from testifying under oath.
For now Trump seems to be winning, at least to the extent that he’s not yet been indicted and the Democrats haven’t yet got their hands on the documents they want, but the game is still very much afoot. We’re old enough to remember how President Richard Nixon dragged out the Watergate scandal, and although we were young at the time watched the hearings and read the press reports with rapt attention, and as we recall all the judicial precedents that were set regarding executive privilege and congressional oversight powers are not in Trump’s favor. Sooner or later everything comes to light in American politics, and we assume that Trump has self-serving reasons to keep Barr and McGahn and Mueller and Trump Jr. from facing questions under oath, and even more reasons to keep anyone from looking at his tax returns or those redacted portions of the special counsel’s report.
More worrisome for now is that Republican Senator and intelligence committee chairman Richard Burr signed off on the subpoena for Trump’s namesake son, and at a time when the Republican caucus has become somewhat restive about the president’s trade wars and foreign policy and a few other things that offend traditional Republican sensibilities. Several Republican Senators and all of the Trump-friendly media are calling Burr a “Republican in name only,” which is the worst thing they can think of to call a Republican, but Burr was a Republican when Trump was a registered Democrat and a Reform Party member and an independent who mostly palled around with and made big donations to Democrats, and he’s the epitome of what used to be considered a conservative before Trump redefined the term. When everything eventually comes to light, he might be as well respected by the general public and positioned in the party as the many Republicans who who declined to sanction Nixon’s misdeeds back in the Watergate days.
On the other hand, Trump might well plow through on the unquestioning support of those rally crowds he still commands and the indifference of the broader American public. The last time an Attorney General was cited for contempt of Congress was way back in President Barack Obama’s administration, when Eric Holder refused to cooperate with a congressional investigation in the “Fast and Furious” gun-running scandal, and although all the Republicans were outraged about it the Democrats seemed to share his contempt for Congress and admire his fighting spirit. This time around the Democrats will be outraged and most of the Republicans will be chanting their annoying mantra that “at least he fights,” and the vast majority of Americans who don’t care about all this headache-inducing stuff will be checking the unemployment rate and their retirement accounts.
We’re sure Trump hopes that his two appointees to the Supreme Court will help him prevail when all these various cases wind up, and is especially hopeful about Justice Brett Kavanaugh, but that won’t do much to restore America’s faith in its constitutional order. Trump’s fans will be galvanized against the damned Democrats that attempted coup, his opponents will be all the more eager to support any crazy leftist that runs against Trump and his undeniable craziness, and we’ll see how that turns out.
At least Burr and ourselves and a very few other Republicans old enough to remember Watergate will once again be outraged by presidential power run amok, and some of the Democrats seem to be asking tough questions we consider quite reasonable. Although we no longer hold out hope for either party we retain an old-fashioned faith in God and the free press and the systems of governance and all that eventually brings everything to light.

— Bud Norman

The Real Art of the Deal

For more than 40 years every major party presidential nominee released his tax returns to public scrutiny, but that’s another one of those venerable political traditions that President Donald Trump has flouted. There’s obviously something in Trump’s tax returns he’d rather you didn’t know about.
So far Trump is successfully flouting a Teapot Dome-era law that clearly states Congress can take a look at his returns, but the peskily intrepid reporters at The New York Times have come up with some rather embarrassing documents. The newspaper Trump always calls “the failing New York Times” couldn’t obtain Trump’s tax returns, but the president’s many business dealings over years have required that some of his tax information be released to various state and federal regulatory agencies and publicly-held companies and a public database, and the Gray Lady has succeeded in rounding up enough of it from 1985 to 1994 to infuriate the president.
The documents show that for eight of the ten years Trump paid no federal income tax at all, but he probably doesn’t mind you knowing that. During the 2016 presidential debates democratic nominee Hillary Clinton alleged that Trump had been dodging taxes, and Trump famously replied “That makes me smart.” Most of Trump’s supporters bought the argument that any self-made multi-billionaire who can get away without paying taxes is surely savvy enough to be president, and some even accepted his assurances that he would patriotically fix the tax system he knew so well to prevent any other super-rich rascal from getting away with it.
Trump’s much bragged-about tax bill was especially kind to multi-billionaires, however, and it turns out that the brilliant businessman’s ingenious method of avoiding taxes was losing millions of dollars year after year.
At the same time he was on top of the putatively non-fiction bestseller lists with the ghostwritten “Art of the Deal,” which earned him a reputation as history’s most skillful deal-maker, Trump was losing tens of millions on dollars on soon-to-bankrupt casinos and failed ventures into airlines and professional football and vodka and various other businesses. Over the 10 years the Times could find information about, Trump lost a total of $1.7 billion, and according to a database the Internal Revenue Service makes public some apparently legal reason he lost more money in that time than any other American.
For a while Trump did make millions of dollars by buying shares in troubled companies and spreading the word he was going to make a hostile take-over with his vastly overstated wealth, then cashing in on the brief bump in stock prices, which we have to admit is pretty clever, but the rest of the financial world is also pretty clever and eventually started calling Trump’s bluff. Trump has taken the same bold and blustery and debt-driven approach to governance, and so far it’s worked out well enough, but the rest of the word is pretty clever and is lately calling ┬áTrump’s bluff.
Despite the booming economy Trump brags about the federal government is racking up another trillion dollars of debt every year, with much of it owed to China. Trump is currently waging a tough-guy trade war with China, which seems unimpressed with Trump’s negotiating skills, and the Dow Jones index that Trump likes to brag about dropped 473 points as a result. That great trade deal Trump negotiated with Canada and Mexico currently doesn’t have the votes to get ratified in Senate despite a slight Republican majority, and Trump hasn’t proved much of a dealmaker with Congress, even when the Republicans held both chambers, and especially now that the Democrats rule the House.
There’s no telling what Trump doesn’t want anyone to see in his subsequent tax returns, but when Congress or some pesky reporter or not-yet-born historian inevitably get a look we expect it will also look very bad. In the meantime, we’re trusting more in the genius of America’s mostly free economy and surviving constitutional institutions than we are in the genius of President Donald Trump.

— Bud Norman

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly News

The economic news has been undeniably good lately, with the unemployment rate lower than it’s been since the height of the Vietnam War and the gross domestic product growing incrementally faster than it has in more recent history, but the rest of the stories in the papers look bad for President Donald Trump.
Although Trump has been doing a celebratory end zone dance ever since the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” ended without any indictments against him, the problem still lingers. Attorney General William Barr had a hard time answering the Senate judiciary committee’s questions about his rather rosy four-page assessment of the report’s 400-plus pages, then declined the House judiciary committee’s request to go through a more thorough grilling about the matter, and now there’s talk of a contempt of Congress citation. Barr had testified to the Senate that he had no problem with special counsel Robert Mueller’s own bad self giving his account of the report to Congress, but Trump has since declared that he won’t allow any further questions from anyone about the report that he claims completely exonerates him, and that doesn’t look good.
The damned Democrats in Congress are asking all sorts of other pesky questions, and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin is contesting a law which seemingly requires him to turn over the presidential tax records that might yield answers, which also doesn’t look good. The courts will eventually settle all of it in one way or another, but the state and federal judicial system is also pursuing 16 criminal cases that were referred to other Justice Department jurisdictions and therefore redacted from the special counsel’s report, and we expect all of those to look bad. There’s also ongoing news about the illegal immigrants Trump seems to have hired and exploited at his still wholly-owned businesses, the security clearances he granted for family and friends despite the objections of intelligence officials, a few lawsuits filed by state attorneys general alleging that Trump’s still wholly-owned businesses impeachable violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, and a few other problems too numerous to recap here.
So far America isn’t entering any new wars, but the old low-level ones in Syria and other hotspots continue, and Trump is leaving a military option open for Venezuela’s disastrous but purely domestic problems, and he sending a carrier fleet to counter the recent bellicosity of Iran, which Trump promised would never dare challenge America so long as he was president. Trump also promised the American public it could sleep soundly at night without worrying about a North Korean nuclear threat, and although it was obviously premature he was able for a time to note that at least North Korea wasn’t doing any missile tests, but lately they’ve been once again testing missiles.
While the economy continues to chug along, Trump can only claim so much credit. Despite two years of Republican control of both chambers of Congress the only significant legislation affecting the economy that was passed and signed into law was a big tax cut, which so far resulted in the kind of budget deficits that the hated President Barack Obama sanctioned in the darkest days of the Great Recession, and at a time when Republican orthodoxy would be paying down the national debt. Trump has used his executive powers to roll back a lot of ridiculous federal regulations, but a lot of airline travelers and other consumers are likely to note he’s also reversed some reasonable ones that saved them some serious money. As orthodox Republicans we still blame Obama for the late and initially sluggish recovery that followed the Great Recession, which we still insist was caused by the Democrat’s crazy Clinton era subprime mortgage lending policies, but as objective observers we have to admit the economy has lately been more or less on the same upward trajectory that it had been during the final days of the Obama administration. Fairness compels us to admit that at least Trump hasn’t screwed that up.
Being no fans of either Obama or Trump, we give all the credit to the remarkable resilience of America’s free market economic system and the steady hand of those quasi-governmental know-it-all bards at the Federal Reserve Board. Despite our amateur advice they kept the economy going through the dark days by printing up dollars and distributing them at near-zero interest rates, which eventually started something of a boom, so we humbly admit it didn’t result in the hyperinflation we’d worried about and was possibly a good ideal. Now that Trump is bragging about the greatest economy ever, which according to both Republican orthodoxy and the left wing’s Keynesian economics is a time for higher interest rates and quantitative easing of the money supply and paying down debt, Trump is trying to get the Fed to keep the monetary pedal to the metaphorical peddle. Alas, his own chosen Fed chairman disagrees, and Trump’s two latest nominees to the Fed board have been obliged to withdraw their names from considerations because they’re both so ridiculous that even some congressional Republicans wouldn’t go along.
During his surprisingly successful presidential campaign Trump promised to make America great again by bullying the country’s trading partners into more favorable trade deals. “Trade wars are good and easily won,” Trump tweeted to the nation, with the same cocksureness as when he assured us we could sleep soundly without fear of North Korea’s nukes, but so far that’s also not turning out well.
Trump got some billion-dollar concessions for America’s dairy industry when the renegoiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he claimed was the difference between the worst trade deal ever and the best trade deal ever, but his rebranded US-Canada-Mexico Treaty is having a hard time getting ratified by the Senate, where the Republicans still hold a slight majority. Republicans in agricultural states, which as always are crucial to the party, are reeling from from the declining commodity prices that have resulted from the rest of the world’s inevitable retaliation against Trump’s tariffs, and other Republicans from states where their export-driven economies don’t need Trump’s protections are also restive.
Meanwhile,Trump’s trade war with the far more formidable opponent of China doesn’t seem either good nor easily won. Trump continues to play hardball with the Chinese, threatening to up the tariffs on Friday if they don’t accede to his demands, but the congressional Republicans from states and districts that used to do a lot more export business with China are balking, and of course even the Democrats from the states and districts that might benefit from Trump’s protection from China’s imports are disinclined to side with the president, and anyone paying higher prices on the Chinese-made goods at at Wax-Mart is likely to be irked.
The good news for Trump is that for now the economy seems to be chugging along well enough, and that so long as it does and nobody gets nuked a sufficient number of voters spread around the electoral map won’t care much about the rest of the news. The bad news for Trump is that the economy tends to go up and down no matter who’s in the White House, and unnecessary trade wars and military interventions in Latin America never seem to help, and if the economic news sours the rest of the stories in the papers in 2020 will suddenly be outrageous.

— Bud Norman

The Kansas Weather and the Rest of the News

The neighborhood tornado sirens went off Sunday evening, which seemed odd given the light rain and even lighter winds we noticed outside the window, but we nonetheless did the Kansas thing and turned on the old-fashioned AM radio and checked the newfangled internet radar. Kansas is our favorite of the 49 very fine states we’ve visited, and we urge you to pay it a visit sometime, but you do have to be careful about the weather around here.
Kansas gets hotter than Hades in the summer, colder than the proverbial well digger’s ass in the winter, and the few in-between weeks of spring and fall are either eerily perfect or downright scary. On the good days you can drive around with the top down and watch a spectacular prairie sunset of shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald and fawn, with the earth’s whole amplitude and nature’s multiform power consigned for once to colors — as Walt Whitman once memorably described it — but on the bad days Mother Nature is a mean old bitch old around here. Kansas goes through droughts when the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers slow to a trickle, and such rainy seasons that both rivers would have overflowed their banks and flooded our Riverside house if the damned know-it-alls at the City and County Halls hadn’t defied local anti-government opinion and dug the Big Ditch on the west side of town. Every spring, and to a lesser extent every fall, the state also gets lightning strikes and medicine-ball sized hail and ferociously high winds and car-window-shattering barometric pressure drops and torrential flash-flooding rains and Wizard of Oz-sized tornadoes that can quite literally kill you, and on several occasions we can well recall each of them have come quite close to killing us.
The Kansas weather hasn’t killed us yet, however, and we like to think the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said “That which does not kill us makes stronger.” Life on the prairie can be harsh, but so can life be anywhere you might go, so maybe the weather has something to with Kansas being able to stumble along as well as it has since it righteously entered the Union as a Free State.
Despite the tornado sirens we only got a brief heavy rain and moderates winds on Sunday, although the unlucky neighborhoods to the west did get some hail that will probably involve an insurance claim or two, and that’s the way a lot of the media scares always seem to work out. Barring bad weather we’ll try to get back to the rest of the news today, and we’ll try not to be alarmist like some of the meteorologists around here, but we’ll also keep in mind just how bad things sometimes get.

— Bud Norman

Checks, Balances, and other Trump Woes

President Donald Trump seems cocksure he could singlehandedly make America great again if only certain pesky people would get out of his way, but he’s finding that’s not the way things work in America or the rest of the world. The courts and the Congress and various other institutions have their own ideas about what to do, and are increasingly willing to assert themselves without fear of Trump’s “tweets.”
One of the peskiest institutions is the Federal Reserve Board, a stubbornly independent quasi-governmental body that plays an outsized role in the American economy by setting interesting rates and therefor determining monetary policy. Fed chairman Jerome Powell is Trump’s handpicked appointee, but like many another handpicked Trump appointee he’s greatly disappointed the president, in this case by very gradually raising the historically low interest rates and slightly easing the unprecedentedly voluminous money supply. Given the low-unemployment and chugging-along-well-enough economy that Trump routinely boasts about that’s what the Fed is supposed to do, according to the prevailing and usually reliable economy theory, but Trump would prefer the easy money that keeps the economy and stock market setting records he can brag about until the hyperinflation comes along during a future Democratic administration.
Trump has tried to solve this problem by packing the Fed’s board of governors with more compliant appointees, but the latest two have failed been forced to drop out..
One was Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza chain boss who ran for the Republican presidential bar in ’12 on a catchy “Nine Nine Nine” economic plan that somehow concluded that nine was the perfect number for the national income tax and business tax and sales tax, and even before a couple of extramarital sex scandals chased him out of the race most Republicans had concluded that despite his business success and master’s degree in business and knack for catchy slogans Cain didn’t much know about economics. Once it became clear he wasn’t going to get affirmed by Congress, Cain withdrew his name for consideration for the Fed Board.
Trump appointee Stephen Moore has also withdrawn his name from consideration, although for different reasons. The damned Democrats who control a majority in the House and are only slightly behind in the Senate didn’t like Moore’s long history of undeniably sexist public statements about uppity women playing basketball, nor his habit of making arguably racist jokes while on microphone, and a sufficient number of the slight majority of Republicans in the Senate were so put off by his utter lack of any discernible qualifications for the job that they risked the wrath of Trump’s “tweets” Moore has said on camera and written in print that he favors a return to the gold standard, which economists on both the left and right sides of the sensible mainstream consider crazy talk, and when confronted with that in his confirmation hearings Moore took the Trump-ian way out and insisted that he’d never said or written any such thing, so that didn’t go well
Meanwhile Trump’s Attorney General didn’t show up for his scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, the White House and its various executive agencies are similarly resisting Congress’ very extensive efforts to exercise its constitutional oversight powers about a wide range of Trump’s ongoing businesses, which will all be eventually settled in those pesky courts that don’t always rule in Trump’s favor, despite Trump’s serendipitous efforts to pack the Supreme Court.
Gasoline prices are also rising, despite all the “fracking” that’s going on and Trump’s chummy relationship with the unctuous king of Saudi Arabia. Trump’s greatest trade deal ever with Canada and Mexico to replace the worst-ever North American Free Trade Agreement is also facing a bipartisan tough fight in Congress despite the slight Republican majority in the Senate. There still seems to be a worry about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, despite Trump’s love affair with Kim Jong Un and his assurances we can all sleep soundly at night. The damned Democrats have some pretty fair questions to ask Barr about his rose-colored-glasses handling of the pretty darned damning Mueller report, and the Democrats are calling on Mueller himself to sort it out in public testimony, and we expect that to take up much of the coming news cycles.
Which is mostly fine by us. We don’t think any of these damned Democrats know any better, but we’ve seen enough of Trump to root for any established institutions that might restrain him. So far as we can tell, the hated establishment and its usual way of doing things is more reliably right than Trump.

— Bud Norman

Another Riveting Afternoon of Television

James Holzhauer’s continued dominance of the Jeopardy! game show notwithstanding, the most compelling television show on Wednesday afternoon was Attorney General William Barr’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the “Russia thing.” Barr wound up taking such a beating that he’s declining to participate in today’s scheduled interrogation by the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee, even though that’s likely to be the embarrassing big story of today.
If you’ve been following the “Russia thing” reality show you know that Mueller’s report found insufficient evidence to charge that President Donald Trump colluded with a Russian plot to interfere with the past presidential election on his behalf, despite the indictment and convictions and guilty pleas it won against Trump’s campaign manager and personal lawyer and national security for lying about their numerous contacts with Russian officials, and left it up to the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and the slighter Republican majority in the Senate to decide if Trump’s thoroughly documented attempts to impede the investigation constituted obstruction of justice and the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are impeachable offenses.
Before releasing the redacted 400-plus-pages report Barr released a four page press release summarizing the conclusions, which he chided the press for calling a summary, and it made Trump look a lot better than the eventually released redacted report did, and the redactions are probably even more damned damning. The free if “fake” news media have reported that Mueller and his crack team of investigators thought Barr mischaracterized their findings, so naturally the damned Democrats had some tough questions about that, and for the most part Barr had trouble coming up with answers.
As old-fashioned pre-Trump Republican conservatives we have no rooting interest in these damned Democrats, but we have to admit they scored some points. One of Barr’s inquisitors was California Senator and announced Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who is far too far left for our tastes yet too centrist for the left wingers we watch Jeopardy! with at Kirby’s Beer Store, and as a former California prosecutor she’s probably sent too many young minority males to prison to win a Democratic nomination, but there’s no denying she left Barr stammering. As crazy as she is Harris can eloquently pose a tough question, which Trump’s Attorney General struggled with on Wednesday, and if the Democrats can forgive her occasional resort to common sense she’d probably make a formidable opponent for Trump in the next presidential election.
Trump had clearly hoped that Barr’s four-page summary of the the Mueller report would fully exonerate him of anything to do with the “Russia thing,” but Barr’s testimony on Wednesday and his absence on Thursday will likely keep it in the news for a while. The report confirms the consensus of the national intelligence community and Trump’s own appointees that Russia meddled in the last election on Trump’s behalf, which Trump continues to doubt and has done absolutely nothing about, and we can easily guess why Barr declines today to answer any questions from a Democratic majority on a House Judiciary Committee about that. For now, at least, the “Russia thing” seems likely to linger, and any attempts by Barr and Trump to charge “deep state” conspirators for starting it will only drag it out into the next administration, no matter what it is.
At this point, we wonder if any of it will make any difference at all. By now Trump’s opponents are disposed to believe the the worst about him, even if the Mueller report doesn’t fully oblige them, and Trump’s fans are inclined to believe that he’s making America great again, even if the Mueller report doesn’t quite back up that audacious claim. The economy’s still sluggishly chugging along at the same low-growth rate it was during the last years of the hated Obama administration, more and more brown-skinned people are showing up at our southern border but we’re treating them more harshly than ever, and there are a couple of Trump appointees on the Supreme Court who might or might not back him up in the the looming Constitutional showdowns about all of it, and that’s more likely to settle the next presidential election.
We’ll be watching all the news until then, and taking on an even livelier interest than in Holzhauer’s amazing run on Jeopardy! So far as we can tell, this is serious business.

— Bud Norman

As Bad As It Is, It Could be Worse

America seems a pretty prosperous and placid place when you read the latest news from Venezuela or most of the countries in this troubled world, but there’s still plenty of desultory domestic news to argue about.
The economy continues to chug along, although interest rates are historically low and the national debt is unprecedentedly high and no one knows how we’ll deal with the inevitable downturn, and the income inequality is such that the Democrats are waging successful class warfare about it. For now President Donald Trump seems safe from impeachment proceedings, but there are still plenty of scandals and constitutional showdowns and unsettling issues he has to deal with.
When special counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation of the “Russia thing” without bringing any charges against Trump, and a four-age summarization of the 400-plus page report written by Trump’s Attorney General stressed that, Trump claimed not only vindication but also victimization by a “deep state” conspiracy of federal officials who attempted a treasonous coup d’tat and should presumably be hanged. The redacted 400-plus pages of Mueller’s report have proved somewhat more embarrassing to Trump, however, and although he still claims the report completely exonerates him — which the 400-plus pages plainly state on several occasions that it does not — and with his characteristic presidential eloquence Trump now calls the exonerating document “total bullshit.”
Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to testify before Congress today about the matter, and the Democrats are expected to ask some tough questions about the rather smiley-faced summation of the Mueller report that he issued. The report confirms the unanimous conclusions of the intelligence community that the Russian government meddled in the past election on Trump’s behalf, which Trump continues to deny and has done nothing about. The report documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, and the investigation has won indictments and guilty pleas and convictions against Trump’s campaign manager and national security advisor and personal lawyer for lying about it, so we can’t blame the damned Democrats if they ask about any of that. All in all, it should be a hard day on the job for Barr and the rest of the Trump administration.
The report explicitly states that it does not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice, and makes clear to even a lay reader that the only reason the investigation didn’t charge Trump with that crime is because Justice Department policy forbids indictment of a sitting President, and because Trump’s underlings disobeyed his orders in fear of the law. The report leaves it up to the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to decide if it constitutes the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are constitutionally impeachable offenses, and there are a lot but probably not quite enough Democrats who find that offer tempting. Former White House counsel Don McGahn is featured prominently in the report, describing several instances when he defied Trump on orders he considered illegal, and McGahn is scheduled for upcoming testimony before Congress, and Trump is already accusing him of perjury, so that should prove interesting.
Meanwhile, all those blacked-out redactions have to do with criminal cases where the special counsel found evidence of criminal actions that it considered outside its jurisdiction, and those investigations are ongoing. We anxiously await to learn what that’s all about, and we can well understand why the damn Democrats literally can’t wait to find out, as they’re already subpoenaing everything they can about Trump’s still wholly owned businesses and surpassed tax returns and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration. It’s all going to wind up in the courts, and Trump is counting on his two Supreme Court appointees to bail him out in the court of last resort, but that remains to be seen. There’s always a chance that Trump’s appointees are the principled conservative constitutionalists he said they were, and they’ve disappointed Trump on a few rulings.
Our guess is that the damned Democrats’ investigations will turn up something damned embarrassing to Trump, and that Trump and his die-hard supporters won’t be the least bit embarrassed about any of it. Our hope is that at least we don’t wind up fighting it out on the streets the way they’re doing down in Venezuela.

— Bud Norman

Is Jeopardy! in Jeopardy?

As regular readers of this publication know, we are avid followers of all the major sports. These days we don’t much follow football, what with all the head injuries and domestic violence charges and endless video review delays, but we still keep a keen eye on basketball and baseball and any sport where someone is doing something no one’s ever seen before.
Perhaps our very most favorite televised sport is the quiz show Jeopardy!, and lately it’s been the most riveting half-hour of entertainment in America’s daily popular culture. For the past 18 episodes has starred James Holzhauer, whom you might well have heard of by now because he’s playing the game like no one’s ever seen before. Watching this guy play Jeopardy! is like watching Babe Ruth play baseball or Wilt Chamberlain play basketball or Barry Sanders darting around a football field. There are numbers to back that up.
In Babe Ruth’s first year as a daily player he hit 45 homes to shatter the record of John “Home Run” Baker, who earned the nickname by smacking a mere 15 homers over a season. Chamberlain had a year when he averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds and more than the regulation 48 minutes of playing time per game. Sanders wisely retired just short of a head injury and some all-time records, but watching Holzhauer dart around all the arcane trivia on a Jeopardy! board reminds us of that.
Until Holzhauer came along the average winning score on Jeopardy! was around $20,000, which is a nice chunk of change for a half-hour’s work of answering trivia questions, and the record for a single-day score was around $73,000, which is even better. So far in his 18-game winning steak Holzhauer is averaging around $70,000 per game, and he holds the game’s top five single-day records, with a best of more than $130,000, and only a couple of challengers have come close to toppling him.
Although Holzhauer is surely driving the Jeopardy! accounting department crazy, the advertisement department is probably loving him, as the show’s ratings have been spiking with each of his victories. Holzhauer is a handsome and physically fit 34-year-old, and although he’s supremely self-confident and always smiling a slightly smug smile he doesn’t come across as arrogant or cocky. He’s always introduced as a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas, but he makes bets that pay off according to the dates of his apparently very happy marriage and the birth of his obviously beloved daughter, and he always send a shout-out to his parents and siblings and family and friends when he nails the Final Jeopardy question.
As much as he endearingly seems a family and friend values sort of guy, Holzhauer is also very much a Las Vegas sports gambler. He likes to go for the hardest and most high-dollar questions first, and rack up the big money on the way to the Daily Double questions he routinely gets, which allow a contestant to wager all of his earnings, and he always seems to know the answer. He’s usually several times ahead of his nearest competitor going into Final Jeopardy!, where you only need double the score to be assured of victory, and he usually calculates to the dollar how much he can afford to wager and then nails the question, racking up another record-setting total.
Of course Holzhauer’s dominance has spurred a controversy, as some people will always resent excellence. Holzhauer’s been in all the newspapers, and some of them are griping that his unorthodox strategy and astounding immediate recall of general information just aren’t fair. When one player is so clearly better than all the rest, the critics snipe, it takes all the fun out of the game.
Call us old-fashioned, but we still think there’s something to be said for unsurpassed excellence in any old thing that humans pursue, including the accumulation of knowledge and a quick recall of it on afternoon quiz show, and a self-confident willingness to bet 20 grand or so on the answer to a trivia question. Nor does Holzhauer’s talent diminish our interest in the game. Most days Holzhauer wins by the same lopsided lengths that Secretariat won the Triple Crown at the the Preakness, but we still well remember that display of all-time excellence.
On Monday Holzhauer found himself in a tight game, and it was better television than anything Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association has on offer. One of the challengers was some endearingly boring and balding middle-aged egghead with impressive academic credentials, exactly the sort who usually wins on Jeopardy!, and he gave the champion a hell of run. Holzhauer took a double-digit lead by winning a big wager on a Double Jeopardy question, but his challenger landed on the next Daily Double, and although he’s clearly not accustomed to wagering double-digit sums he had no choice but to go in big to stay in the game, and after he gulped hard and correctly answered the hard question it went down to a dramatic Final Jeopardy!
Holzhauer was up a few thousand more dollars at that point, and when he correctly answered the Final Jeopardy! question he had a mere $18 more than his formidable opponent, who had also correctly answered and wagered enough that he would have easily won in an ordinary game and if only Holzhauer had gotten a very rare question wrong. Not since the great Boston Celtics versus Los Angeles Lakers rivalry back in the ’80s have we watched anything quite so riveting.
Our main sporting obsession these days is the blood sport of politics, but we don’t find anyone there of Ruth’s or Chamberlain’s or Sanders’ or Secretariat’s ability, much less Holzhauer’s. We hope all the games will go on, however, and that no matter how jealous human nature might be we continue toward a greater excellence in every weird thing that humans do..

— Bud Norman