Those Darned Ukrainians

There was more bad news for President Donald Trump on Thursday’s episode of the impeachment inquiring show, which guest starred the formidable Fiona Hill. She’s the senior director for Europe and Russia on Trump’s National Security Council, is widely recognized as the government’s foremost expert on Russia, and during her hours of testimony was remarkably well-spoken in an intimidating British accent.
Basically she just backed up what all the previous formidable witnesses had testified, that Trump had sought political help from the Ukrainian in exchange for $400 million of aid that Congress had appropriated to that beleaguered ally, the easily rebuffed the Republican members’ efforts to undermine her. She further further endeared herself to us when she also took aim at one of the more preposterous theories that Trump’s apologists are trying to peddle.
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security forces did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said in her opening statement. “This is a fictional narrative the has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Well said, but we thought it a shame it needed saying. All of Trump’s appointees to head America’s intelligence agency have confirmed that Russia hacked Democratic computers and launched an internet disinformation campaign and attempted to alter voting totals, both the Republicans and Democrats on the Senate’s intelligence committee reached the same conclusion, and Trump’s own Justice Department is currently charging 12 specific Russians for pulling it off. At this point the only people who doubt it are Trump, who has Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s word that it didn’t happen, and the die-hard fans who somehow still believe anything Trump says.
The most die-hard of the fans, who seem willing to believe almost anything, are convinced it was Ukraine that meddled in the election in cahoots with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. It’s a neat theory with the virtue of explaining everything Trump has been accused of, but it has the unfortunate flaw of making no sense whatsoever.
There’s no denying that somebody hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s computer and selectively leaked the most embarrassing e-mails through Wikileaks at such convenient moments for Trump as when the “Hollywood Access” tape was released, and we notice that Trump advisor Roger Stone was recently found guilty for lying about his contacts with Wikileaks, and it’s hard to explain why Ukraine or anyone else would do that Clinton’s behalf. All of the foreign disinformation was to Trump’s advantage, too, and the executives at the internet platforms which disseminated the disinformation all testified to Congress that it was coming from Russia and was often paid for with rubles. The attempts to hack the voting machines apparently failed, but they did breach a couple of levels of security and were eventually traced to Russia.
If those nefarious Ukrainians were attempting to get Clinton elected they did a damned poor job of it, but they were astoundingly successful in framing those blameless Russians. According to the most die-hard die-hards those Ukrainians a wily bunch of schemers, though, and are in cahoots with Crooked Hillary and potential Democratic nominee Sleepy Joe Biden and his big-earner son, and is currently hiding that DNC computer server that surely holds all the the secrets of the satanic and child-molesting and globalist “deep state” conspiracy.
Biden’s son did a make a lot of money in Ukraine while his dad was Vice President and overseeing Ukrainian policy, and after many decades as a subservient vassal of the Soviet Union Ukraine’s path toward democracy has been fitful and often corrupt, but that’s hardly proof that Trump didn’t lean on an ally for dirt on a potential political opponent. Nor does it mean Trump was right to do so.
We’ve been Republicans  far longer than Trump, and can well remember the pride we felt in our party when President Ronald Reagan’s leadership helped liberate Ukraine from the Evil Empire and tried to welcome it into the western world of freedom and democracy. For all its faults we don’t think Ukraine is the bad guy in all this, and for all the good it has done in the past we’re not taking much pride in the Republican party these days.

— Bud Norman

As the Impeachment Soap Opera Turns

The star of Wednesday’s episode in the impeachment inquiry show was Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and despite his dull appearance he proved a fascinating character.
Sondland testified that President Donald Trump pursued a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to get political favors, and that the Vice President and Secretary of State and White House chief of staff and various other administration officials were in on it, and that he has e-mails and text messages and other evidence to back the claim. He also had an interesting back story about how he wound in the middle of it all.
Unlike the career diplomatic and military officials who had previously testified to a quid pro quo, having worked their way up the ranks through both Democratic and Republic administrations to find themselves working in Ukraine, Sondland had no previous foreign policy experience and seems to have bought his ambassadorship by donating a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. He’s said to have made $60 million with a chain of upscale hotels, and for some reason rich guys often want to be ambassadors somewhere, and there’s a longstanding tradition of presidents rewarding big donors with a fancy title in some warm and scenic country of little economic and geopolitical importance.
Past presidents have always appointed more seasoned and well-credentialed ambassadors to the hot spots, but that’s another one of those longstanding presidential traditions that Trump cares nothing about, and he figured that his fellow hotelier was just the guy to represent America with the world’s third largest economy and our most important allies. Sondland seemed in over his head from the outset, and was unable to smooth over spats Trump was having with the EU over trade and defense issues, but Trump also dragged him into his dealings with non-EU member Ukraine, presumably because Trump expected him to loyally do whatever was asked of him.
Which is exactly what Sondland did, which is why he wound up testifying under oath on national television Wednesday. He remained loyal enough to Trump that he offered no damning testimony to a House committee in a closed session, but then hired a high-powered Washington lawyer who’s a veteran of some high-profile political scandals, and was persuaded to be more forthcoming and more in line what the career officials had testified in closed sessions and what the texts and e-mails and other evidence showed.
All of which made him a hard witness for his Trump’s dogged defenders among the Republican committee members to handle. They tried to cast the previous career professionals as traitorous “deep state” conspirators, and even one of the vice president’s top aides was slurred as a “Never Trumper,” but this was a guy who’d given Trump more than a million dollars and done the president’s bidding right up to the moment his lawyer explained the penalties for perjury and the way things often turn out for rank amateurs who find themselves in over their heads in a big political scandal. The Republicans seized on the fact that Sondland had amended his sworn testimony, which does raise credibility issues, but getting Sondland to admit that he’d erred by saying Trump hadn’t done anything wrong wasn’t much help to their cause.
Near the end of his testimony Sondland loyally testified that in his last telephone conversation with the president about the matter Trump had said he wanted nothing from Ukraine and offered no quid pro quo and asked Sondland to tell the Ukrainian president to “do the right thing.” Die-hard Trump defender California Rep. Devin Nunes demanded to know why that tidbit wasn’t in Sondland’s opening statement, and all the Republicans on the committee and the conservative media tried to make hay of it. Trump addressed a gaggle of media with Marine One’s rotor whirring in the background and dramatically read the statement, and declared he was therefore cleared of everything and everyone can move on, as there’s nothing to see here..
The show will go on though, for several reasons. For one, even someone so brazen as Trump is hard-pressed to argue that he’s been cleared by the lying rat who testified at the beginning of opening statement that Trump had pursued a quid pro quo for political gain. There’s also all that corroborating testimony from those career professionals with the impeccable records, and the texts and e-mails and other corroborating evidence. Not to mention the secular timing of that call when Trump suddenly sounded uncharacteristically high-minded about foreign policy.
Records indicate that the call came after Congress had a received a “whistle blower” complaint, deemed “urgent and credible” by two layers of Trump appointees in the intelligence community, about a shady quid pro quo Trump was working up with the Ukrainian government that was afoot, and we’re certain some Republican in Congress gave the White House warning about it. It was at that point that Trump chanting the mantra of “no quid pro,” and he’ll likely stick with the defense to the end.
Trump and the rest of his Republican party are still wanting to know everything about that “whistle blower” whose complaints started all this mess, and whatever Ukraine can say about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and potential Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son and how Ukraine rather Russia meddled in the last election. They’re also arguing that Trump never got his quid in exchange for Ukraine’s quo in the end, so it’s no big deal, and certainly not impeachable, even as Trump insists against all evidence there was never any talk of a quid pro quo.
Even so, this byzantine reality show will surely slog on, and might well feature some big-name guest stars. Sondland’s testimony will likely result in subpoenas for the Vice President and Secretary of State and White House chief of staff and other administration officials, and if they’re compelled to testify under oath and on live television the ratings will be sky-high. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also been frequently mentioned in the testimony, and he winds up as witness there’s no telling what he’ll say.. If they all  somehow manage to dodge the duty, because of bone spurs or some legality technicality, that won’t look good.
Here’s hoping that it all ends with Sondland returning to his happy rich guy life of well-deserved anonymity, as we’ve come to rather like this character. Such an amiably idle rich guy who finds himself way in over his head in a big political scandal could have conjured only by real life or the great British satirists Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, and with his balding head and sad sack face Sondland plays the part perfectly. Throughout hours of grilling from Republicans and Democrats alike he seemed quite comfortable, and occasionally even jocular, as when he admitted that telling Trump the president of Ukraine “loves his ass” sounded like something he would say.
This is an entirely subjective opinion, we must admit, but Sondland struck as someone who felt blissfully unburdened by telling the truth. He seemed to realize that his rich guy hubris had gotten him in way over his head in a historic political scandal, and that like others who had pledged loyalty to Trump he was best advised to exit the public stage with truthful testimony and a since mea culpa. His hotel business is already suffering from the Democratic backlash against his million dollar donation to Trump and his shady dealings on Trump’s behalf, and the Republicans all regard him as traitor to the cause, even as they cite him as proof that Trump was blameless all along.
At this point we have no rooting interest in either side, but we liked the satisfied look on Sondland’s face when he finished his testimony. That he ended with the beginning of Trump’s “no quid pro quo” defense only made him more believable. He seemed a man that had done the right thing in the end, putting his faith in truth ahead of his faith in princes, and was free at last. How it turns out for the rest of the Trump loyalists remains to be seen.

— Bud Norman

What’s On TV Instead of “Jeopardy!”

The House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry regarding President Donald Trump preempted “Jeopardy!” on Tuesday afternoon, so we figure this getting to be serious business. All the critics on the talk radio right are panning the televised hearings as boring and lacking pizzaz, and so far the ratings are not boffo, but we’re finding it “binge-worthy,” as the kids might say.
If you’ve been following the latest installment of Trump’s ongoing reality show, you already know why the Trump-loving talk radio right doesn’t like it. So far all the evidence indicates that Trump sought help from the Ukrainian government in his reelection campaign in exchange for much-needed military aid that Congress had appropriated to an important ally, the polls show that most of the country thinks it was not a good thing for an American president to do, and no one in the Republican party has yet come up with a coherent rebuttal.
The pilot episode of the televised hearings featured a West Point alum and Vietnam war hero and distinguished foreign service officer who’d been lured out of retirement by Trump’s Secretary of State to take over in Ukraine, and he testified that Trump had sought reelection help from Ukraine in exchange or that much-needed military aid, and that he thought it was a bad thing to do. There was also the distinguished foreign service officer he replaced as ambassador to to Ukraine, who testified under oath that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and two of his recently indicted associates were seeking help for Trump’s reelection, and that she was removed from her post because she thought it was a bad thing to do. In addition, there was an aide to Vice President Mike Pence who told pretty much the same story, and Trump of course “tweeted” that they’re both “Never Trumpers,” as if that’s a bad thing and necessarily makes them liars.
Tuesday’s episode started out with Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testifying in uniform, replete with his many combat decorations from the Iraq War, with his credentials as a National Security Council member and America’s top expert on Ukraine mentioned in the introductions, and he also testified that Trump was leaning on the Ukrainians for political advantage and that he thought it was a wrong thing to do. Under questioning from the Republicans Vindman admitted that he’ been born in Ukraine and was fluent in both Russian and Ukrainian, and the Republicans thought it damned suspicious that he wound up as a high-ranking expert on Ukraine, but Vindman’s uniform and decorations and and impeccable record of public service and no apparent reason to lie seemed to carry the day. There was also corroborating evidence from Jennifer Williams, and aide to Vice President Mike Pence, who was also dismissed by “tweet” as a “Never Trumper.”
The Republicans got to call two witnesses in the hearings, but neither did them much good. Trump loyalist and former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker wound up vouching for the character of former Vice President and possible Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the very man Trump was allegedly seeking dirt on. He also derided the “conspiracy theories” that it was the Ukrainians and not the Russians were the ones who meddled in the last presidential election, depriving talk radio of a favorite talking point, and he couldn’t deny the bargain Trump is alleged to have sought political gain from Ukraine in exchange for the much-needed aid. Senior director on the National Security Council Timothy Morrison was no more helpful, admitting that when Trump admittedly asked the Ukrainian president for “a favor” it was “not what what we recommended the president discuss.”
Future guest stars in this embarrassing reality show surely include Gorland  Sondland, the billionaire who bought an ambassadorship to the European with a million-dollar donation to Trump’s inaugural and has already amended his testimony and now finds himself neck-deep in this mess, and potentially Giuliani and his recently indicted associates, and Trump himself is threatening to give written testimony. This will likely be increasingly hard for the talk radio right to explain, and it can only hope that the ratings remain low.

— Bud Norman

An Unscheduled Hospital Visit

President Donald Trump spent a couple of hours in Walter Reed Hospital on Saturday, and there’s much speculation about why. Trump has “tweeted” it was just “phase one” of his annual checkup, but there are reasons to doubt that.
For one thing, Trump’s last annual checkup was only nine months ago, and he doesn’t strike us as the sort who wants to undergo another one any sooner than he has to. For another thing, checkups are rarely done in phases. For yet another thing, the hospital visit was not on the president’s published daily schedule and seems to have arranged hastily. Also, there’s a medical unit at the White House that has previously sufficed for presidential checkups.
The biggest reason for the skepticism, though, is that what Trump says so often turns out to be a big fat lie. Speaking of big and fat, his previous checkup results clearly overstated his height and understated his weight, and Trump was so pleased by he nominated one of the doctors to be director of the Veterans Administration, although the nomination was withdrawn when the Republicans in Congress after allegations of staff harassment and script-writing surfaced and everyone noticed the doctor had no administrative experience.
During the election Trump broke with longstanding tradition by refusing to release his medical records, and instead offered a four-paragraph letter from his weird-looking gastroenterologist testifying that the candidate’s “strength and stamina are extraordinary” and “his laboratory tests results are astonishingly excellent,” and oddly enough that “Mr. Trump has had a medical examination showed only positive results.” The letter concluded that Trump would be “the healthiest person ever elected to the presidency,” and judging by that hyperbolic prose style and the things that no licensed physician would ever say it was clear that Trump dictated it, which the doctor later acknowledged.
Trump feels obliged to always present an image of alpha male invincibility, bragging about his artificially deflated golf scores and even his penis size, as well as constantly denigrating the energy levels and physical attractiveness of his foes, so he’d surely be loathe to admit to even the most minor sort of ailment that might bring a mere human being to a hospital for a couple of hours. Given that at 73-years-of-age Trump is the oldest president ever, with a well known penchant for fast food and an aversion to any exercise that doesn’t involve a golf cart, as well as well-established record of telling big fat lies, the skepticism about Trump’s brief time in the hospital is inevitable.
We’re not prone to conspiracy theories about a politician’s health, such as the ones Trump fans peddled back when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton fainted on a hot New York City sidewalk and then died and was replaced by a body double, but it’s easy to believe that Trump had some minor ailment that more normal people would admit to. We truly hope that’s the most benign explanation for Trump’s impromptus motorcade visit to Walter Reed, and that whatever tests Trump had there yielded only those hoped-for negative results, and that he soldiers on through his likely impeachment.
Even so, we’d be more reassured about the health of our septuagenarian president if he weren’t so big and fat and such a big fat liar.

— Bud Norman

Election Season is Over, Let it Commence

They do things differently down in Louisiana, including the unusual practice of holding statewide election on the Saturdays of odd-numbered years. Over the past weekend the state narrowly reelected a damned Democrat as its governor, which is just the different sort of thing they routinely do down in Louisiana, but it is nonetheless considered a political setback for President Donald Trump.
Trump won Louisiana’s electoral votes by a landslide and campaigned hard for Republican nominee Eddie Rispone, holding two of his sold-out rallies to argue that a loss baby Rispone would be a loss for Trump, so incumbent Gov. John Bel Edward’s victory in a Deep South state is embarrassing to to Trump no matter how narrow the margin. You could blame it on the anomalies of Louisiana, but it comes shortly after another damned Democrat won a gubernatorial election in usually reliably Republican Kentucky despite Trump’s best efforts, and it concludes what has undeniably been a disastrous run of mid-term and off-year elections for the Trump-era Republicans.
Which of course complicates all of our politics from now until the First Tuesday in November of 2020. The damned Democrats are pursing an impeachment inquiry that seems to be building a very solid case abused his foreign policy powers for personal gain, Trump is trying ta rally unified Republican support no matter what they come up with, and the setbacks in the Deep South and the suburbs of almost everywhere are worrisome for Trump and the rest of his Republican party. Maybe it’s the vulgarity and venality and divisiveness of the current administration and the utter implausibility of its conspiracy theories and explanations for its behavior, but we expect Trump to double down on that, and the rest of the party will have to decide how far to to distance themselves.
Maybe it’s because the damned Democrats nominated sane and centrist and well-credentialed candidates in those suburban districts and southern states, such as the Democrat governor show got elected here in Republican Kansas and so far has not brought the state to noticeable ruin to our state. The damned Democrats in all the big cities and college towns probably won’t notice this winning formula, though, and might well nominate someone for so far left that Trump can beat him or her or whomever.
In any case, we wish Kentucky and Louisiana well, as we love their food and music and very fine people.

— Bud Norman

Snobs, Slobs, and the Soul of Conservatism

The first televised witnesses in the impeachment inquiry part of the ongoing reality show about President Donald Trump were William Taylor and George Kent, and we found them very interesting and compelling characters in the drama. Both men bring what used to be considered impressive credentials to the screen, along with a dignified and even stately bearing most often found these days on the documentaries and costume dramas from the Public Broadcasting System.
How they play with the rest of the viewing public remains to be seen, and will largely determine the future of the Republican party and the Republic itself.
Taylor was fifth in his class at West Point in ’69, earned numerous decorations for valor during the Vietnam War, then commenced a career in foreign service in Cold War hot spots that lasted through Republican and Democratic administrations and culminated with ambassadorship to Ukraine. He was coaxed out of a hard-earned retirement to become charges d’affaires and acting ambassador to Ukraine by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the previous ambassador was forced out of her job in the middle of negotiations with Ukraine about military, and very complicated part of the plot already, which is why he found himself on live television testifying about that whole mess. He did so with perfect diction and elegantly plain English in a baritone voice, distinguished gray hair and an obvious gravitas.
Kent has the impressive title of the Trump’s administrations deputy secretary of state for European and Asian affairs, was able to tell the congressional committee that he was third George Kent in his family to have served America in high levels of the government, he’s a Harvard man who speaks fluently in Ukrainian and Russian and Thai, and was resplendent in bow tie and three-piece suit during his testimony. Like Taylor, he seemed the very embodiment of establishment rectitude.
The testimony of both men was damaging to Trump, though, and these days most days Republicans are deeply suspicious of the establishment and unconcerned about rectitude, and they’re not inclined to believe anything bad they hear about Trump, so we’re sure these gentlemen will be pilloried on talk radio and ostracized by the party. Those elite school credentials and multilingualism and long resumes of public service suddenly makes them seem “deep state” conspirators, and even though they’ve testified under oath that they don’t consider themselves “Never Trumpers” they’re suspected of treasonous perjury. That perfectly parsed fancy talk they doesn’t help, either, as it doesn’t sound authentically populous.
Once upon a time Taylor and Kent and special counsel Robert Mueller and former Trump chief of staff John Kelly and former Trump defense secretary John Mattis and various other defenestrated administration officials would have been considered exemplars of conservatism and the Republican party, but that was before both the cause and party were redefined in Trump’s image. Now anyone who has anything to say potentially harmful to Trump’s political fortune, no matter his lifelong commitment to what used to be considered conservative values, is found traitorous.
The damned Democrats are every bit as hypocritical, of course. Once upon any sort of Democrat would have considered Taylor and Kent and the rest of the reluctant Trump witnesses a bunch of imperialist war-mongering neocons, but now that they have testimony damaging to Trump they’re suddenly exemplars of rectitude. The current Democratic party doesn’t really give a damn about Ukraine or how it affects America’s standing in world affairs any more than Trump does, but is happy to have such credible testimony against Trump. Even if Trump is impeached by the House but not removed by the Senate, which is probably the smart way to bet right now, it will come in handy for the Democrats come next election day.
From our perspective here on the political sidelines, having had enough of all the hypocrisy in both cheering sections, our only rooting interest is in the objective truth. That’s always hard to come by, and especially these days, but our old-fashioned conservative instincts incline us to believe the guys with the elite educational credentials and impeccable careers in the military and public service, no matter what they say about Trump. Trump daily says several things that are provably untrue, he’s never been anything near our notion of an exemplar of Republican rectitude at any time in his life, and for now he sure looks guilty of what this impeachment inquiry is alleging he has done.
There’s an argument to be made that it’s no big deal even if Trump did do what’s alleged, which is abusing his foreign policy powers to extract political favors from an ally, and eventually Trump and his apologists will get around to making it. Both Taylor and Kent freely testified to the under oath to the House of Representatives that it did happen and they thought it was a distressing incident in America’s foreign affairs, and although that’s just their opinion we found it more well-considered than Trump’s Ukraine’s foreign policy, or the party’s defense of it, which seems incoherent and suspiciously Russo-friendly. Not that the damn Democrats would do any better.
In our ripened old age we rather like those well-bred and well-educated and bow-tied and fancy-talking establishment types who have guided us through two World Wars and a Cold War, no matter all the messes we’ve gotten into along the way, and we trust their testimony. Here’s hoping the truth prevails, no matter how awful that might be.

— Bud Norman

An Ill Wind that Blows No Good

The televised impeachment inquiry started of with some damning testimony and big news on Wednesday, but here in our humble prairie hometown the story of the day was about baseball. Wichita’s getting a new team in a fancy new ballpark next spring, and city officials and their business partners announced with much ballyhoo on Wednesday that it will be called the Wichita Wind Surge.
Kansas does get a lot of wind, but according to the Dictionary.com site a “wind surge” is a wind-induced rise in the water level of an inland expanse of water, and can causing flooding if the tidal cycle is right, which has nothing to do with Wichita, which is conspicuously lacking any nearby expanses of water. Over the past century or so the city’s baseball teams have mostly had aviation-related names to tout its status as the “Air Capital of the World,” such as Pilots and Aviators and Aeros and the most recent Wingnuts, but somebody downtown decided that “Wind Surge” made more sense.
Everyone in town, ourselves very much included, absolutely hates the name. Our Facebook page is full of complaints about it, the local television stations are can only dismayed men and women on the street, everybody at Kirby’s Beer Store agrees the name is awful, and flatulence jokes ae already afloat and a protest petition is already up on the internet. The logo features a pegasus flying through a stylized “W,” which also doesn’t make any apparent sense, and everyone also hates that.
The new team was controversial to begin with. For 80 years watched its professional baseball at the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, a charmingly old-fashioned ballpark nestled along the Arkansas River with a view that showed off the downtown skyline during a hot summer sunset, but some big bucks developers sold City Hall on the idea that some tax abatements and other subsidies would pay off for everyone if they tore it down and built a modern-looking new ballpark. They promised to promote Wichita from Double-A status all the way to Triple-A, which appealed to the class conscious types down at City Hall, and to replace the ruggedly independent Wingnuts with a major-league affiliated team with players that might wind up in the majors, which might appeal to the so-called fans who never showed up for those fabulous Wingnuts games.
The bargain included some sweetheart deals on several lots of the Delano neighborhood, which was long a charmingly old-fashioned white ghetto but has lately becoming a gentrified entertainment district for the monied less daring young hipsters, and there was a lot of local grousing about that. More grousing followed a suspicious deal that the city cut to expensively overhaul its water system, and Wichita wound up voting the mayor out office in a recent election that had a bigger than usual turnout. A couple of our Facebook friends contend that the out-going mayor chose the name as his final revenge on an ungrateful electorate, and the theory seems plausible.
Even in this age of political polarization, though, sports has somehow once again brought a community together. The left is fed up with all the public-private partnerships the city keeps cooking up because they distrust the private sector, the right objects because of an aversion to government, the sensible center is also skeptical of what’s going on, and everybody hates the new team name. Not since the Wichita State University Wheatshockers were in the Final Four has Wichita been so unified.

Like a Roiling Stone

For a guy who’s currently on trial for crimes that could land him in federal prison for the rest of his life, Roger Stone is a remarkably lucky fellow. He’s lucky that his trial is being largely overlooked because of an impeachment inquiry about President Donald Trump, and you could make a strong case he’s lucky that it took so long for karma and the law to catch up with him.
Stone stands accused of lying to Congress about coordination between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Wikileaks, which Trump’s former Central Intelligence Agency director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called a “hostile intelligence service” aligned with Russia, as well as other foreign agents. So far former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and former Trump campaign and administration advisor Steve Bannon have testified that Stone boasted of his connections to Wikileaks’ mastermind Julian Assange, and recall him bragging about upcoming Wikileaks disclosures to candidate Trump, and they’ve got text messages and e-mails to corroborate their testimony.
The foppish and ostentatious Stone’s defense is that he constantly spews boastful balderdash, and that it’s mere coincidences all of his predictions about the upcoming Wikileaks proved true. Given Stone’s track record of dirty tricks and clean escapes it just might work.
He’s been in the news since the days of President Richard Nixon, when he was one of the Committee to Reelect the President’s rat fuckers” — sorry for the language, but that’s why called themselves, and the political vocabulary is unavoidably more vulgar in the age o Trump — and has since remained a prominent practitioner of what he proudly calls the “dark arts” of political dirty tricks. For a long while he was a partner with Gates and former Trump campaign chairman and current federal inmate Paul Manafort in a D.C. lobbying firm notorious for representing the world’s most odious dictators, and he has a portrait of Nixon tattooed on his back, so it should surprise no one that he’s also a decades-long friend and informal advisor to Trump.
A special counsel investigation into Russia’s meddling the presidential election documented numerous contacts between the Trump administration and foreigners, and indicted Stone and convicted Manafort and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and others for lying about it under oath, but it didn’t find prove of a criminal conspiracy and declined to bring charges for ten instances of trying to obstruct the investigation, so Trump has claimed complete vindication and no longer worries about that. Instead he’s being being investigated by a House impeachment inquiry about his dealings with Ukraine, which is getting a lot of attention, and for now Stone seems to have nothing to do with that, having been defenestrated and disavowed by Trump long before all that mess started, so the trial is relegated to the inside pages and the bottom of the news hour.
Which is probably good news for both Stone and Trump, who have thus far been a lucky couple of guys. At this point Stone won’t sway a federal jury in Washington, D.C., with his loyalty to Trump, and the Republicans defending Trump on the impeachment inquiry committees won’t be calling Stone as a character witness. In any case we’ll be following both proceedings, as they’re both binge-worthy.

— Bud Norman

Reality TV and Reality Collide

The House impeachment inquiry makes its much ballyhooed debut on live television today, which puts in a wistfully nostalgic mood. It brings back vivid memories of the last two times the Congress tried to impeach a sitting president, and a jarring realization about how things change over time.
Way back in our youth the Watergate hearings were the top-rated show on television, and we watched with precociously rapt attention as the complex plot culminated with President Richard Nixon’s resignation and final helicopter flight from the White House. Even in the desultory aftermath of the Vietnam war and the emerging stagflation economy it was a very big deal, and with everything else on television at the time, it was such an epic morality play that we old folks talk about it to this day.
By the time President Bill Clinton was being impeached for lying under oath about a tawdry relationship with a White House intern during a civil lawsuit regarding a youth former Arkansas state employee, which was discovered by a special prosecutor charged with investigating a fail real estate scheme, things had noticeably changed. There weren’t any wars and the economy was growing without inflation, a post-sexual revolution country didn’t much care what its president was doing in his free time, and without any of the femmes fatales being questioned live on television the show couldn’t compete with all the other channels suddenly available on cable. In one of television’s greatest anticlimaxes the show ended with Clinton’s acquittal by a majority Democratic Senate, and no one on either of the side of the question at the time talks about much it now.
This time around things have changed even more noticeably. The nation’s notions of sexual propriety have reached a point where a thrice-married and boastful philanderer is the Republican president and hero of the evangelical right, and its standards for the proper exercise of presidential power have been similarly degraded. There are an exponentially greater number of viewing and reading options now, the impeachment hearings are boringly headed to a obviously predetermined and desultory-for-both-sides conclusion, and one likely outcome is that most Americans won’t much care how it comes out.
If you haven’t been slogging through the byzantine plot in the leaked or off-the-record reports in the print and electronic media, the gist of it is that several high-level Foreign Service and military officials have testified under oath to Congress that President Donald Trump’s White House withheld military and other aid to Ukraine unless it agreed to announce investigations into Trump’s past and potential future Democratic rivals. The White House itself released a rough transcript of a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president that seems to back up the charges, the White House chief of staff defiantly told a press gathering to “Get over it, we do it all the time,” and for now the Republicans are trying their best to come up with a better defense.
The Republicans protested when the witnesses testified in closed hearings, but their damning testimony has since been released, and we expect they’ll be telegenic and appealing characters when live on television. On other channels you can hear that they’re “deep state” conspirators involved in a coup d’tat against a duly elected president, and some Republicans will be saying the same on the hated “fake news” networks, but it’s not a convincing plot line, even by modern television standards. All but one of the witnesses for the prosecution all have impeccable records of public service, no apparent reason to lie, and their stories all line up. Several are Trump appointees, or appointees of his appointees, and the other witness is a dilettante diplomat who was appointed Ambassador to the European Union after bundling millions to Trump’s campaign and another million to Trump’s inaugural ball but has recently amended his testimony to line up with the others.
So far impeachment is polling pretty well, given the fractured media markets and bipartisan climate, and we expect that even low-rated televised hearings will nudge up the antipathy to Trump. Potential future guest stars include Trump’s personal attorney, whose peripatetic freelance foreign policy are currently under investigation by Trump’s own Justice Department, and Trump’s former national security advisor, who resigned over differences o such matters as our foreign policy with Ukraine, which would be widely watched.
Barring some deus ex machina plot twist in this improbable reality show, a nearly unanimous majority of the Democrats who control the House majority and perhaps even a few Republicans will almost certainly impeach Trump. For now it’s likely that a majority-Republican Senate won’t vote to remove Trump from office, but that might be slightly less likely with each passing day of televised testimony from believable witnesses about an arguably impeachable abuse of presidential power.
Back in our surly and cynical youth many of the Republicans used to care about that sort of thing, and even in our middle age there were some damned Democrats who were embarrassed by an older man using his presidential power to indulge in a tawdry relationship with an much younger intern, even if they thought lying about it under oath wasn’t necessarily an impeachable offense. These days there are so many channels to choose from, and all of the standards seem to have been lowered across the political divide, and much of the country probably won’t care how it turns out.
Even so, we’ll be “binge watching.”

— Bud Norman

Another Multi-Billionaire New Yorker

There’s another multi-billionaire from New York City who’s running for president, with media mogul and former Big Apple mayor Michael Bloomberg running for the Democratic nomination. Our guess is that the Democrats won’t be interested in the services of a multi-billionaire from New York City, but we’ve been surprised before.
There are some significant differences between Bloomberg and President Donald Trump, of course. For one thing, Bloomberg is verifiably a multi-billionaire, worth several times more than Trump claims to be but declines to prove. For another thing, he’s previously served in public office and actually did a pretty good job of it.
Bloomberg became mayor of New York after the two terms of Rudy Giuliani, and although the youngsters would have a hard time believing it Giuliani had lowered the the city’s taxes and increased its revenues and lowered the crime rate and bolstered the employment rolls, and the city was saved from financial ruin and a dystopian state. Bloomberg ran as a Republican and mostly kept the Giuliani policies in place, and although he later switched to independent status and pursued some strict gun control measures and restored some of the city’s welfare system he mostly remained a low-tax and tough-on-crime mayor through his two terms.
None of this, of course, will endear Bloomberg to the modern Democratic party. Even Trump and most of the Republicans went along with a soft-on-crime criminal justice reform bill earlier this year, and by now a significant number of the Democrats equate law enforcement with racism. That will likely change with the next big crime wave, which inevitably will have an inordinate number of black victims, but for now law and order isn’t a winning issue in a Democratic primary.
Nor are low taxes likely to win any Democrats, who currently seem hell-bent on punitively taxing multi-billionaires such as Bloomberg. Lowering New York City’s top tax rates stopped the exodus of rich people from the city and thus increased the city’s revenues, and raising the top national tax rates would probably start an exodus of rich people’s money from the country if not the rich people themselves, thus lowering federal revenues, but today’s Democrats are more interested in social justice than such arcane economic theories.
Yet another way that Bloomberg differs from Trump is that’s he been hugely successful in building his media empire without suffering any conspicuous failures, but Democrats also don’t care much about managerial expertise, and even suspect it proves a bottom-line indifference to the working class. At this point, they’re also quite right to question if success in the private sector can be easily transferred to success in government.
Even so, Bloomberg apparently figures that a majority of Democrats doesn’t want to go so far left as a very big chunk of the party is clearly intent on, and that the moderate candidates remaining in the field are vulnerable. The Democrats are also very eager to beat Trump, and Bloomberg has a plausible argument that with his bigger fortune and record of sound governance and polite and well-spoken persona he’d be the more appealing multi-billionaire New Yorker.
It’s worth a shot, we suppose, and Bloomberg can well afford to place a bet on it, but we won’t wager any of our more meager money. He’s already announced he’ll be skipping the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire and wait until the big states, but that’s the same strategy Giuliani used to dodge farm folks and factories when he ran as “America’s mayor,” still flush from the rave reviews by even the mainstream press and so far away from his current dilapidated and disgraced self, and he was out of the race by South Carolina.
Bloomberg’s path won’t be any easier. The class warriors on the left will cast him as the party’s plutocratic enemy, the moderate candidates have been earning the loyalty of moderate Democratic voters while Bloomberg was earning money, and so far we don’t see a groundswell of support for a candidate little known outside of New York City, no matter how well known and regarded he might be there.
Still, we wish him well. There should be someone on the Democratic debate stage that has a more sophisticated tax policy than ripping up that goose and getting all the golden eggs, and understands that a trillion is a whole lot of dollars, and that’s there’s still something to be said for law and order. Bloomberg’s a gun-grabber with a lot of touchy-feely welfare state ideas and other Democratic party flaws, as far as we’re concerned, but as far as multi-billionaire New Yorkers go we could do worse.

— Bud Norman