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Another Scare from the Korean Peninsula

The nutcase dictatorship of North Korea has been a problem for America since before we were born, but lately it has become scarier than ever. Fox News had a story about the North Koreans recently loading cruise missiles aboard a patrol ship, the Washington Post reported they now have a nuclear missile small and light enough to fit atop the intercontinental ballistics missiles they’ve recently successfully tested, and on Tuesday President Donald Trump responded that “North Korea best not make any more threats” lest it be “met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
That successful ICBM test brought down severe economic sanctions on North Korea from the entirety of the United Nations, and Trump’s rhetoric drew the predictable bipartisan criticisms, but as usual neither seems to care much what the rest of the world thinks. As has been the case since before we were born there are no easy solutions to the problem, but this time around are openly threatening the hard ones. By now we’ve lived through more North Korea scares than we can recall, but this time around seems different.
As discomfiting as Trump’s remarks were, we won’t pile on the bipartisan heap with our usual criticisms. The critics rightly noted that Trump’s characteristically un-parsable language was eerily similar to the apocalyptic hyperbole the North Koreans have long spewed, but the past 50 years of more diplomatic language haven’t prevented this scary moment, so there might be something to to be said for saying things in a way the nutcase North Koreans understand. All through the past 50-plus scary years of both Democratic and Republican administrations America’s clearly understated policy has been that any nuclear attack on our soil will be met with a devastating response, which has thus far worked well enough with far more formidable enemies than the North Koreans, so we won’t object if Trump is merely overstating the same old policy in typically Trumpian fashion.
That ominously-named policy of mutually assured destruction maintained a relative peace in the post-nuclear age because America has has been demonstrably able to make good on the threat, so neither do we mind that Trump is proceeding apace with the previously scheduled war-game exercises with the South Korean democracy and other relatively sane Asian allies and other displays of America’s military might. We’re not sure if the more war-wary and wised-up generals and admirals who surround Trump signed off on that “fire and fury and frankly power” statement, but we’re sure the rest of it wouldn’t be happening without their assent, and we trust that like any soldiers they’re more interested in deterring a war than provoking one.
Which is not to say that Trump’s role in all of this isn’t also a bit discomfiting. His characteristically mangled English leaves some room for doubt about whether that “fire and fury and frankly power” would follow mere threats, and what levels of threat would trigger it, and sometimes there’s something to be said for more diplomatic language. On Tuesday he was “tweeting” that Fox News report full of the anonymously-leaked intelligence sources he usually rails against, seemed to be taking some heed of the Washington Post story with same intelligence agencies whose conclusions about Russian meddling in the past election he has scoffed at, and he wasn’t ready to meet the press and formulate anything at all reassuring. Should the hard solutions become necessary Trump will need bipartisan and widespread public support to pursue them, and so far he’s failed to achieve that. Most of the rest of the world tries to translate his un-parsable English and finds him a bit nutty, too, and that also doesn’t help.
Which is not to say that Trump is nearly as nutty at that nutcase North Korean dictatorship, though, and we hope that both the domestic and international audience will keep in mind that they’re bad guys of this scary moment. Trump’s intrepid if occasionally independent United Nations ambassador did a great job of bringing even the Russians and Chinese on board with the sanctions, and those planned war games exercises might prove an effective bargaining chip in yet another round of negotiations, and for now we can still hope that with the help of all those war-way and wised-up generals his famed real-estate-deal negotiating abilities will suffice to at least kick this radioactive can a bit further down the road toward some sensible solution. We’ll also hope that the nutcase North Korean dictatorship has a few war-wary and wised-up generals of its own, too.

— Bud Norman

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McMastering Trumpian Foreign Policy

According some segments of the conservative media, one of those “deep state” “establishment” “globalist” types threatening President Donald Trump is his own national security advisor. Highly decorated combat veteran and former three star Army general H.R. McMaster stands accused of various heresies against the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” strains of conservatism, and it’s a more consequential story that the rest of all the palace intrigue that’s been going on at the White House.
McMaster is well-regarded by some other segments of the conservative media as one of the administration grown-ups needed to restrain Trump’s worst tendencies, and enjoys the begrudging respect of the Democrats on Capitol Hill, but such establishmentarian respect is all the more reason for the burn-it-down sorts of conservatives to revile him. They’re livid that he renewed a national security clearance for President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, persuaded Trump to sign off on a statement that Iran has thus far been in compliance with a deal struck with Obama regarding its nuclear weapons program, once worked at a British think-tank partly funded by the hated progressive billionaire George Soros, and has generally been an impediment to the isolationist and Russia-friendly bomb-all-the-Muslims-and-take-their-oil foreign policy they prefer.
Worse yet, McMaster seems to have gained influence in the administration since former four-star Marine general John Kelly took over as chief staff. Kelly has a reputation as someone who doesn’t suffer fools and idiots lightly, so his first order of business was to get rid of a White House communications officer who had proved spectacularly incompetent after a week on the job, and his second was to help McMaster defenestrate three members of the national security council. Each were allies of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and if you’ve been binge-watching the Trump show you should already know that he’s the administration’s true keeper of the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” faith.
Bannon had already lost his seat on the council after bi-partisan complaints that he had no qualifications whatsoever for the job, and his ideological ally Mike Flynn had resigned the national security advisor post in record time after it was revealed he had lied about about his dealings with Russia and talk about all sorts of other foreign intrigues started to surface, and for the moment the Bannonite vision seems to be fading. The former four-star Marine general James Mattis is still Secretary of Defense, and despite his “Mad Dog” nickname he’s also considered one of the restraining grown-ups that the establishment Republicans praise and the Democrats begrudgingly respect.
Not that you’d notice, but Rex Tillerson is still the titular Secretary of State, and the former top Exxon boss has surprisingly proved a stalwart defender of the post-war global order. You can’t help but have noticed United Nations ambassador Nikki Halley after her fine work winning an international agreement to impose sanctions on North Korea for its recent belligerence, but you might not recall she’s also often stood in opposition to a Bannonite foreign policy. With so many foreign policy positions still unfilled, largely due to the administration;s failure to find nominees with the requisite credentials who haven’t publicly expressed previous doubts about Trump’s foreign policy campaign rhetoric, Trump is pretty much stuck with the establishment he promised to burn down.
Hence the recent assault on McMaster in certain segments of the conservative media. One of the most vociferous critics has been BreitbartNews.com, which was formerly run by Bannon as a self-described “platform for the alt-right,” and others are the internet conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Michael Cernovich, but several of the talk radio hosts and more mainstream conservative outlets such as the Daily Caller have also been piling on, as has the Jerusalem Post’s usually reliable Caroline Glick. They all combine for a relatively small and already-on-board audience, but that audience does include Trump, so it will be interesting to see what effect they have.
Meanwhile pretty much all the mainstream press and certain segments of the conservative media will argue that McMaster is one of the much-needed grownups in the administration, and we’ll go right ahead and pile on ourselves. We’re no fans of Rice, but security clearances have always been granted as a routine courtesy to past national security advisors, and we’d like to see that tradition continue to benefit McMaster some day, and we can’t see what damage she’s likely to do at this point. That deal Obama struck with Iran was every bit as awful as Trump said it was back on the campaign trail, but if the Iranians are shrewd enough to be complying at this point then denying it would only undermine our nation’s credibility when Trump at long last gets around to his promised so-great-your-head-will-spin re-negotiation. Except for the fact some money came from the admittedly noxious Soros, there’s nothing we can find in any of the stories about that British think-tank that make us think worse of McMaster.
As much as we respect the formidable Ms. Glick there’s nothing we can find in McMaster’s history that suggests he’s insufficiently committed to America’s alliance with Israel, and even if he’s not a bomb-all-Muslims-and-take-their-oil kind of guy we figure that’s because he has better ideas about how to deal with the problems that certain segments of the Islamic world undeniably pose. According to all sorts of leaks he was one of the people who pressured Trump into belatedly affirming America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and otherwise counseled the same unfriendly posture toward Russia’s expansionist ambitions that the Republican party had maintained since the dawn of the Cold War, but that’s fine by us.
Trump has thus far publicly “tweeted” his support for McMaster, but there are leaks that he’s privately fuming to friends that he wishes Flynn was still on the job, and on the campaign trail he boasted that he knows more the generals, adding his usual “believe me,” and he hates to disappoint the loyal fans who listen to Jones and Cernovich and the radio talkers. Getting rid of McMaster would surely fuel all the mainstream media talk about the “Russia” thing, but the fans won’t believe a word of that anyway, and Trump has proved entirely unpredictable about everything, so we’ll not venture any guesses how McMaster comes out at the end of this story.
We hope he’ll come out ahead, though, and will at least get his security clearance approved by the next Democratic administration’s national security advisor. During the first Iraq War Captain McMaster led nine American tanks into battle against 28 Iraqi Revolutionary Guard tanks and won by a score of 28-to-zero, was a fellow at the Hoover Institute while rising to his three-star general rank through a series of challenging commands, and despite such establishment credentials he strikes us a very serious man. Trump’s bone spurs prevented him from serving heroically, alas, and he later said his personal Vietnam was avoiding venereal disease on the New York City dating scene of the ’70s, and all his campaign rhetoric about NATO’s obsolescence and Russia’s moral equivalence with the United States and taking the Muslim’s oil struck us as similarly unserious, so we think he could us some establishmentarian grown-ups around him.
That will disappoint the fans, but they’ll surely get over it, and we think that for now they’re outnumbered by the liberals and certain segments of the conservatives and pretty much everybody else.

— Bud Norman

Smarter Phones, Dumber People

The news was slow and the weather stormy over most of the weekend, which gave us a chance to ponder some of the big-picture think pieces in the high-brow media. For the past 160 years Atlantic Magazine has been among the most high-brow of them, as well as one of the most reliable sources of ponderable big-picture think pieces, and they offered up an excellent essay about the modern age of the “smart phone” and its dire effects on its youngest generation.
It’s a lengthy and complicated article, but even if you’re not rained in and there’s another bombshell Russian story on the front page we highly recommend it. The author has been spent the past 25 years studying how Americans differ from generation to generation, with his research stretching from the 1930s to the present, and he reports on an anomalous change in the usual ebb-and-flow of cultural shifts that have occurred since 2012. That was the first year that a majority of Americans owned “smart phones,” the author notes, and when “I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.”
The author also posits there’s a causal connection between these two things, and based on our more anecdotal evidence we think he’s on to something. He briefly and glumly summarizes all the widely-observed ways that “smart phones” have altered the daily lives of all generations — a more complete assessment would require shelves of upcoming social science dissertations and satirical novels — but finds his most alarming data among the youngest generation that never knew what life was like before the damned things. What the author calls the “Gen-I” generation reports markedly higher levels of lack of social interaction, loneliness, depression, and suicide, and links these to hours spent on texting, social media, and other time “on screen.” We’re short at the moment on very young friends, as all of our friends’ kids are all grown up but haven’t yet had kids that are even old enough for “smart phones,” and we’re proudly among the dwindling minority of Americans who still don’t own one of the damned things, but we’re not surprised by the author’s findings.
At this point we’re tempted to take some time off and write a satirical novel of our own about “smart phones,” so outraged are we with the way the damned things have made people so damned dumb. When we’re out arguing politics with our friends at the local hipster dives we always notice the attractive young couples sitting across a booth from one another and staring into their “smart phones” rather than into the other’s eyes. A conspicuous number of our similarly-aged friends lately seem frustratingly forgetful, and instead of an unexercised and flabby memory rely on their “smart phones” to tell them the name of the guy that they’re talking about. By now all of the great adventures tales would have to be re-written if they were up-dated to an age when the hero could ask the palm-sized device in his pocket for an answer, we have friends who can’t get from one place in Wichita, Kansas, to another without help from a “smart phone” global positioning system, and we don’t count it all as progress.
Shudder to think, then, what it’s like for those poor kids who can’t remember the good old analog age of actual rather than virtual reality. The Atlantic’s highbrow correspondent also provides the unsurprising and commonsensical data that children who spend less time “on screen” and more time social interactions with other children in extra-curricular activities and religious services and sports and local playgrounds, and spent their other hours with either family or books, were less likely to be lonely, depressed, or suicidal. The real world is a daunting place, but people there seem happier than the ones in the virtual world.
All the data shows the younger folks tend not to date, in the traditional sense of the term, and although that’s had a salutary effect on the teen pregnancy rates we think it’s a mixed blessing. The Atlantic reports that teens are also postponing getting a driver’s license, which would have been unimaginable to our teenaged selves, or any previous generation of red-blooded Americans, and spending way too much time in their bedrooms and worrying that the picture they posted on Instragam won’t get a self-affirming number of “likes.” The youngest of them are now tethered by a global positioning system every hour of the day and every day of the week to their parents, too, and we shudder again to think of what that must be like. We were blessed with diligently watchful parents, but we’re sure they won’t mind us saying that we’re also grateful that the technology of the time didn’t preclude those occasional moments when we were blissfully free to act according to our own better judgement. Every previous generation, after all, had those moments.
This might seem yet another old folks’ rant against modernity, but we’ve got some state-of-the-art social science data from such a highbrow publication as Atlantic to back it up, and we think there’s something afoot that’s even more significant than the next presidential “tweet.” We finally got an old-fashioned “flip phone” a while back to be constant communication with our still-watchful folks, who are now old enough to require our watchfulness, and we have to admit we’re taking up some of your own “on-screen” time, so we can’t deny that some progress has been made. Every generation has also lost something dear to every technological revolution, though, and we hope that the next one will still know something of a real-life and primal childhood.

— Bud Norman

A Hard-Earned Vacation

Today President Donald Trump starts a planned 17-day vacation at his swank private New Jersey golf club, and we can hardly blame him for wanting to get away from the swamps of Washington, D.C., for a while. Thursday brought fresh leaks of some embarrassing phone calls Trump had with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia, as well as the news that the special counsel investigating the matter of what Trump now calls “Russia” has convened a grand jury, and that’s despite the best efforts of tough new chief of staff who was installed after a major administration shake-up and another week of rebukes by everyone from the Boy Scouts to America’s police chiefs to the Republicans in Congress.
The ostensible reason for the time away is that the White House is replacing its 27-year-old air-conditioning and heating system, and after the couple of sultry summers we’ve spent in Washington that seems plausible enough, although we’re not sure if President Andrew Jackson would have though so, and the timing does seem suspiciously fortuitous. Trump had long criticized his predecessor for spending too much time on golf courses, just as his predecessor had even more hypocritically criticized his predecessor for the same thing, and with his own private golf course being reimbursed by the government Trump will probably take an even worse public relations hit than either of them, but by now it could be a lot worse. If Trump can keep his thumbs gripped to a golf club rather than tapping out a “tweet” on his telephone, and stay away from interviews and otherwise avoid compounding his problems while his lawyers and remaining staff do their best to sort things out, that would probably be 17 days well spent.
The leaks about those embarrassing phone calls with the heads of state of Mexico and Australia had already been partially leaked way back in Trump’s second week of the job, but despite the momentary embarrassment Trump was able to dismiss them as “fake news” with with the politely oblique help of the other countries involved, and it was quickly forgotten in all the other news that kept coming. This time around there are full transcripts of the conversations, which are even more embarrassing in full context, and the White House is neither confirming nor denying their veracity, and neither are the other two governments involved, and by now the guy embarrassing himself on those transcripts sure does sound an awful lot like Trump.
The phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull reveals Trump trying to weasel out of a deal the United States had during struck his predecessor’s administration to take in 1,250 refugees, getting the numbers involved and other basic facts of the deal wrong along the way, frankly worrying how it would “It would make me look terrible,” and abruptly ending the conversation after saying that he’d had a much more pleasant telephone call that day with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Worse yet, as far as Trump’s most loyal supporters might be concerned, in the phone call with Mexican President Pena Nieto he seemed to concede that he’d never really meant all that campaign rhetoric about making Mexico pay for a wall across the entire southern border, but expected the Mexican government to play along with it for the ruse for a while. Nieto bluntly said Spanish equivalent of “nyet,” so far the Republican majorities in Congress have been similarly reluctant to cough up the funding for a border wall, and this is not a good time for people to be reminded about it along with all the further “fake news” leaks that can neither be denied by confirmed by the White House.
The leaks about the special counsel convening a grand jury to issue all sorts of subpoenas in that “Russia” investigation have also been neither confirmed nor denied by the White House, so they’re also looking pretty credible, and although you can spin it so it’s not such a bad thing there’s no way of making it out to be a good thing. That special counsel has a formidable reputation as a dogged but by-the-book investigator, and according to the book the paneling of a grand jury implies some pretty darned prima facie evidence that something fishy’s going on, and for now all questions about it are being referred to the president’s and his family’s and staff’s outside legal counsel.
Given all the other leaks about “Russia” that have neither been confirmed nor denied over the past eight months or so, and instead been to referred to all the various outside counsels that are now involved, we can easily understand why Trump is wanting some rest and relaxation on a familiar golf course. Someone pretty high up in Trump’s administration  is leaking the latest leaks, too, so all the more reason to take some time off from whomever that might be. We’re sure he’ll still be in constant communication with the rest of the executive branch while he’s contemplating a chip shot, just as his predecessors claimed to do, and we hope he at least breaks par.
According to some rather embarrassing leaks to Golf Magazine and Sports Illustrated, though, Trump is also  a notorious golf cheat who routinely claims to have broken par, and so far the White House neither confirms nor denies this.

— Bud Norman

The Occasional Re-Thinking About Immigration

Wednesday’s news included an actual policy proposal, for a change, and for another change we found ourselves siding with President Donald Trump. The issue is a Trump-backed Senate bill that would significantly alter America’s legal immigration policies, so despite our support it’s likely to be controversial.
The Senate bill would halve the million green cards that grant permanent residency rights to immigrants every year, award the remaining number on a “points system” that rewards English proficiency and high levels of education and marketable skills, tightens the rules regarding family members following, as well as restricting immigration from certain countries almost altogether. There are strong arguments to be made for all of it, without any appeal to nativist or xenophobic passions, and for the most part Trump made them well enough during a Wednesday speech.
The un-repealable laws of economics dictate that expanding the labor supply faster than demand for it lowers the price it is paid, and Trump rightly and shrewdly noted that black and hispanic workers are proportionally even more affected by than white and Asian workers. We’ll leave it to our privately-schooled readers to calculate what small percentage a mere one million green cards annually makes on a population of 325 million Americans, but even our publicly-educated selves know that after 50 years of it there are now some 50 million foreign-born residents in the country, and you don’t have to be a Trump enthusiast to worry how it affects the broader culture, which Trump wisely didn’t go on about it.
We’ve never shared the left’s opinion that the white working class is a bunch of a knuckle-dragging racists who’ve been itching since the Civil Rights Acts of ’65 for some Republican demagogue’s dog-whistle to start lynching all the darker folk, but neither have we ever accepted their assurances that you can annually bring millions of non-English-speaking and low-skilled and rootless people from very different cultures into the Trump precincts without some unpleasant social disruptions. Our weekly commerce includes very pleasant interactions with a family of Laotian immigrants who sell the cheapest beer in town, Mexican immigrants who bake the city’s best and most reasonably-price doughnuts, some Chinese immigrants who sell drive-through Kung Pao Chicken at a price so low we’re almost embarrassed to pay it, and our social circle of friends includes a charming Bolivian playboy and a delightfully bawdy English wench who are now fellow American citizens, but immigration has been an undeniably mixed bag of results.
Economics is almost as complicated as culture, however, and the bill’s opponents also make some credible arguments. For better or worse America as we know it today began with a wave of European immigrants who wound up disrupting not only the lives of the natives but also the European powers they rebelled against, and the country’s economic and cultural fortunes were greatly enhanced by massive immigration waves prior to the Civil War and the First World War, and that the third wave which began just prior to the Vietnam War has for the most part proved a similar boon. By now foreigners are as American as apple pie, and the left is trotting out that tear-jerking Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty and all the old black-and-white-movie success stories about plucky immigrants, and we’ll have to see how Trump counters all that corny Americana without appeal to nativist and xenophobic passions.
One of the most un-repealable laws of economics is that things change, though, so those past success stories about immigration require some reexamination. The first wave of mass legal immigration came at a time when the American economy was shifting from an agrarian to an industrial model and needed to fill a rapidly-expanding economy’s demand for unskilled labor, and needed to find soldiers to fight the agrarian and slave-holding states of the rebellious south in a bloody Civil War. The second wave came just as the country was approaching both economic and cultural preeminence among the industrialized powers, and could make use of all the unskilled labor and genius physicists and future black-and-white movie moguls and other creative types who were pouring in. The third wave has persisted through the past 50 years of ups and downs in the economy, probably having something to do with both swings, and it’s made undeniable contributions the country’s culture and our weekly commerce, but has also caused some social undeniable social disruptions.
At this point the country is quite rapidly shifting from an industrial model to some sort of high-tech and talking-robot post-industrial economy and a starkly post-modern kind of culture, so it seems reasonable to re-think the nation’s legal immigration policies accordingly. The Senate bill favors the Albert Einsteins and Nikolai Teslas and Andrew Carnegies whose exceedingly high skills did so much to enrich America during the previous waves of mass immigration, restricts the entrance of the workers in the lower-skilled ranks that have not seen any economic gains for most of the past 50 years, and offers benefits to such a diverse group of people that it really doesn’t require any appeals to nativist or xenophobic passions.
There’s no telling what great and transformative ideas the Senate bill might wind up excluding from the American culture, of course, but at this point the country could probably survive a brief respite in its economic and cultural evolution. The first two waves of mass legal immigration were followed by a pause to to get all the economic and social disruptions settled, and there’s a case to be made we could use another one after the past 50 years of the third. The left celebrates those first two waves even as they grouse that it was almost entirely white folks from European countries with certain ethnic and religious and cultural similarities to native-born Americans, and they rightly note that the Asian minorities who trickled in on the second wave and poured in on the third have mostly proved model citizens, but things change.
In the first and second and even third waves the immigrants were cut off from their ancestral cultures, forced to assimilate to some functional degree with the broader culture, but the current wave remains connected by wire-exchange and the internet and the permission of the cultural left to the cultural values of their homeland. By now some of those immigrants are coming from cultures where most people are openly hostile to the values of America and the broader West, and you don’t have to be at all nativist or xenophobic to worry about that. All in all, the Senate bill has some strong arguments.
We wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Trump and the rest of the Republicans lose that argument, though. Even the Rust Belt’s Democrats and the ones from the most nativist and xenophobic black districts won’t sign on, and the business lobby with its preference for an ever-expanding labor supply still holds enough sway in the Republican party to peel off at least a few congressional votes, and we can easily imagine Trump resorting to some dog-whistled appeal to nativist and xenophobic passions that puts it beyond the pale of polite discussion. Trump’s lately claiming credit for  such a booming economy that a low-skilled labor shortage seems imminent, too, which further complicates the discussion.
The left will also rightly note that the Senate bill leaves intact the low-skilled visa program that Trump’s still-wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago resort relies on for maid and janitorial services, and that Trump has long relied on immigrants to build his buildings and be his wife, and that he can’t credibly claim to be not all nativistic or xenophobic. That doesn’t reflect on the Senate’s bill and is no way to make policy decisions, of course, but here we are.

— Bud Norman

Just Another Manic Tuesday

The weather’s lately been great around here, the stock markets are up, the unemployment rate is down, and the casualties in America’s ongoing shooting wars are so low that most Americans have forgotten they’re still being waged, but pretty much everything else in the news these days is not helpful to President Donald Trump. Although leaked drip-by-drip there’s been an extraordinary amount news flooding forth lately, too, and much of it raises concerns even in the best of times.
On a by-now typical Tuesday the headlines included the revelation that Trump wrote the misleading statement his son released about the son’s and son-in-law’s and campaign manager’s already embarrassing meeting with Russian operatives during the campaign, and another one about a lawsuit alleging Trump’s involvement in a Trump-friendly media outlet’s propagation of a discredited story about how a murdered Democratic staffer rather than the Russians had hacked the Democratic party’s e-mails. There was some further fallout from a couple of speeches Trump gave way back last week, speculation about why Trump hasn’t yet signed the Russian sanctions bill that both chambers of Congress passed with veto-proof majorities, and stories about other acts of congressional Republican rebellion on issues from health care to tax reform, as well as all the latest followups about all the recent shake-up in the White House staff.
None of it will suffice to shake the faith of Trump’s most loyal supporters, but all of it requires some pretty creative explaining.
The previously-offered creative explanations for that already embarrassing meeting between Trump’s son and son-in-law and campaign and some Russian operatives already  required some especially creative re-explanation. When the broader story that the Russians were meddling in America’s election first surfaced the Trump campaign explained that it was just as likely to be some fat guy on his bed and that in any case it didn’t have anything to do with the campaign, and president-elect Trump’s transition team explained that none of them had ever had any meetings with any Russians. After that the administration’s national security advisor resigned after some Russian meetings were undeniably uncovered, the Attorney General recused himself from all Russia matters after some of his meetings were similarly disclosed, and then The New York Times reported about that confab between the president’s son and son-in-law and campaign manager, so further explanation was required.  A second consecutive daily New York Times scoop that the meeting was really about Russian government-provided dirt on the opposition wasn’t denied but was rather originally explained as a harmless few minutes in Trump Tower with some Russian lawyer or other the son didn’t know that turned out to be a boring conversation about Americans adopting Russian babies.
The offficial White House explanation to the second scoop was that it turned out to be a boring conversation about Russian adoptions anyway. Before The New York Times got a chance to unleash a third consecutive scoop with its leaked -emails, in the interests of “full disclosure” Trump’s son preemptively “tweeted” the entire e-mail chain that showed the meeting was set up by a music publicist Trump’s son knew to be a reliable lackey of a Russian oligarch he knew to be a reliable lackey of the Russian dictatorship, who was explicitly promising information that came directly from the Russian government’s efforts to support the Trump campaign.
None of that shook the faith of Trump’s most loyal supporters, who were satisfied that at least according the reporting Trump himself wasn’t tied to any of this nonsense. The Washington Postthen  won a victory in its newspaper war with the Times on Tuesday when it reported that Trump himself had drafted the son’s misleading original statement about the embarrassing meeting, though, and it was pretty much confirmed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and sometime spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway saying that Trump had only done “what any father would do.” We’ve been blessed with a far better father than was Donald Trump Jr., and we’re sure he would have sagely advised us admit all our embarrassing secrets before the New York Times got the chance to spill them, no matter what consequences he might endure as result, but we expect that Trump’s most loyal supporters will accept the administration’s latest explanation.
Right after The Wall Street Journal our father’s favorite source for news is Fox News, which is a defendant in that lawsuit about a story that blamed the hacking of the Democratic Party on a murdered staffer rather than the Russians. The plaintiff in the suit was one of the main sources for the story, which was quickly retracted by the network but continued to gain traction on one of its “opinion shows” and the host’s widely-heard radio show, and it also requires a lot explaining. There’s a lot of litigation to be done before it’s proved to any Trump supporter’s satisfaction that the president had anything to do with it, but we’ve heard enough of the apologetics on “Fox & Friends” and Sean Hannity to give the conspiracy theory at least  some credence. The rest of the network has pretty much piled on with the rest media atop the dung heap of recent Trump news, but all the intelligence agencies agree that it was Russia and not some 400-pound fat guy or whoever else was behind the undeniable election meddling, and The Washington Post’s latest scoop about that Fox News scandal seems to require some pretty darned creative explaining.
All the lesser blather about those weeks-old presidential speeches now pits the Boys Scouts of America and America’s police chiefs against the president, and Trump’s various feuds with the Republican congress are also out in the open, and all the Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare seem deader than ever, so there’s more explaining to do than even the combined efforts of Sanders and Conway are up to. Even Trump’s most loyal supporters can’t credit him with the great weather we’ve been having around here lately, and the gains in the stock market and unemployment pale in comparison to what was achieved despite the dreadful Obama years after the Great Recession, and despite the low casualties and gains against the Islamic State there’s reason to believe we’re losing ground to the Russians and their Iranian allies in our ongoing shooting wars, so it’s hard to shake a uncertain feeling about all the news.
Trump’s climate change skepticism seems at least momentarily vindicated, his free market inclinations are working out well enough though they aren’t yet  passed into law, and for now there aren’t any brand new shooting wars with more mass casualties. Everything else in the latest flood of news, though, despite the leak-proof nature of the latest White House shake-up, seems foreboding.

— Bud Norman

Arrivederci, Scaramucci

President Donald Trump started the work week on Monday with a “tweet” assuring the public “No WH chaos!,” but after that things got pretty chaotic around the White House. By lunch time the communications director was on his way out, after less than two weeks on the job and a full two weeks before he was to be officially installed, which was just the latest and surely not the last in a remarkable number of personnel changes for a still-young administration.
Anthony Scaramucci’s appointment had led to the resignations of the White House’s press secretary and chief of staff, both of whom preferred to quit rather than work with him, and his resignation set off lots of speculation about what comes next. His predecessor’s tenure had also been brief by historical standards, and his predecessor’s shorter yet, so at this point the office is starting to look like being a drummer for Spinal Tap, and so far we haven’t heard any names being floated for who’s next.
The chief of staff that Scaramucci scared away has already been replaced by former four-star Marine General John Kelly, who moves over from his post as Homeland Security secretary, so some people are speculating that the Attorney General that Trump has lately been trying to harangue into resignation will be moved over there, and that he will be replaced by someone free to fire the special counsel who was appointed to investigate Russia’s role in the past election after Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
All of which sounds pretty chaotic to us, but still-new-on-the-job press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assures us that “If you want to see chaos, come to my house with three pre-schoolers.” That’s not a very reassuring comparison to a White House, though, and we hope that none of Sanders’ pre-schoolers are as troublesome as that Scaramucci fellow.
“The Mooch” made a fortune on Wall Street, and although he was an outspoken critic of Trump until the future president wrapped up the Republican nomination, he was complimentary to an almost homo-erotic degree afterwards. He had no experience in politics or media, but Trump admires people who have made a fortune and likes over-the-top flattery, so Scaramucci arrived in the White House with a pair of blue aviator shades and a Trump-like tough-guy persona and plenty of hair gel and swagger. He also arrived with a $200 million dollar sale to a Chinese conglomerate of the SkyBridge Capital  firm that he has a 44 percent stake in still pending before a regulatory review board, conveniently comprised of Trump appointees. That was reportedly one of the main reasons the previous chief of staff was so adamantly opposed to bringing him on board, and the official reason Scaramucci wasn’t officially on the job for another two weeks of consideration of the deal, but Trump doesn’t seem to have any problem with that sort of thing.
Scaramucci’s tough-guy shtick probably would have carried through him such picky-picky ethical controversies, but he somehow managed to take it too far even by Trump standards. When Politico broke the story about his holdings in SkyBridge, Scaramucci immediately “tweeted” what sure seemed to be a threat to have the FBI investigate the chief of staff for leaking the story, only to have the reporter “tweet” back that her source was the public disclosure form he’d filled out for a time-holding job at the Export-Import Bank. After that a New Yorker reporter “tweeted” that Trump and Scaramucci had dined with radio host and Fox News personality Sean Hannity, which is a rather embarrassing but hardly as earth-shaking scoop, Scaramucci responded with a profanity-laden and downright-crazy rant that wound up a few minutes later at the web site of one of America’s most venerable magazines.
The rant was probably the most widely-read piece in the history of the New Yorker, far surpassing anything Dorothy Parker or James Thurber or John Updike ever wrote for the rag, and we have to admit it does make for damned interesting reading. Scaramucci once again alleged that the White House chief of staff was a a possible felon and very certain sort of “paranoid schizophrenic,” described the White House chief strategist performing an extremely difficult sex act upon himself, and threatened to either fire or kill countless other administration officials. That might not have bothered such a tough guy as Trump much, either, but in one of those ironic twists from Greek drama and the Trump administration the chief of staff that Scaramucci forced out was replaced by a former four-star Marine general who is famous for not suffering fools and idiots lightly.
This scaramouche’s exit from this commedia dell’arte was foretold in our posting of yesterday, but even with our powers of prophecy we didn’t see it coming quite so fast. Nor could our literary imaginations have ever imagined such a colorful character or such a cruel fate for him. Shortly after he signed on with the Trump administration his wife filed for divorce during her ninth month of pregnancy, reportedly in part because she can’t stand Trump, and we doubt she felt any differently when he wound up missing the birth of their child because he preferred to accompany Trump to a Boy Scout jamboree, where the president gave a speech that the Boy Scouts later apologized for. The president he showed such loyalty to accepted his resignation a few days later, the press secretary and chief of staff he forced out and all the administration officials he’d threatened to fire or kill were no doubt having a hearty laugh about it, and that genuinely tough new chief of staff might yet have something to say about that $90 million payday he was counting on.
The quick exit and the genuinely tough guy who did the bouncing are hopeful signs for the administration, at least, and we’re wishing Kelly the best. There are a still an awful lot of fools and idiots left that he’ll have to suffer, though, and it’s beyond even his formidable powers to get rid of all of them.

— Bud Norman

Shaking Up the White House, Except at the Top

Last week was a rough one for the administration of President Donald Trump, and even his most stubborn apologists can’t deny it.
Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare once again went unfulfilled, this time seemingly for good. He was publicly rebuked by the Boy Scouts as well as numerous police chiefs for a couple of widely-panned speeches he recently gave on their behalf. The House and Senate sent him a nearly unanimously-passed and thus entirely veto-proof bill that imposes sanctions on Russia and limits his ability to do anything about it, which was also unmistakably a rebuke of his Russia-friendly campaign promises. Trump continued a war of words against his own Attorney General, who had inconveniently recused himself from the various investigations about Russia’s apparent efforts on behalf of Trump during the campaign, but several important congressional Republicans sternly warned him not to the fire the guy or otherwise try to interfere with all the ongoing inquiries.
There was a Trump-“tweeted” order for the military to no longer allow transgendered troops, but it apparently was a surprise to the vacationing defense secretary, the generals in charge of such things admitted they weren’t sure if a “tweet” was an official order, several important congressional Republicans were also among the critics, and the newly installed press secretary couldn’t answer such obvious questions as how it would affect any transgendered troops currently serving in hazardous duty. The press secretary was newly-installed because Trump had also forced the resignation of his communications director, whose successor almost immediately went on a profanity-laden rant to The New Yorker that very saltily slurred the White House’s chief of staff and chief strategist and threatened to either fire or kill countless other administration officials.
By the end of the week Trump also forced the resignation of his chief of staff, but the apologists are hoping that’s going to turn things around. Newly-installed in the job is John Kelly, who comes in after rising to four-star general rank in the Marines, serving for four years as commander of the United States’ Southern Command despite his frequent clashes with the administration of President Barack Obama over Guantamo Bay and the Mexican border and other issues, and for the past six months has been doing a provably efficient job of fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises about illegal immigration as head of the Department of Homeland Security. A Washington Post headline describes Kelly as someone who “won’t suffer idiots and fools,” and he has a hard-earned reputation for imposing the military-style discipline that even the most ardent apologists will admit the Trump administration sorely needs.
Kelly certainly seems a very formidable force, and we wish him well, if only because we’re exhausted keeping up with all the news these days, but we’ll wait and see how it turns out. It’s hard to see how he would have made much of a difference last week, so we hold out only faint hope for this week.
There’s plenty of blame to be spread around the Republican party for its failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, but it’s going to take a pretty ardent apologist to argue that Trump doesn’t bear some of it, and there’s no reason to think Kelly could have changed that. Kelly’s predecessor was Reince Priebus, who had previously risen through the Republican ranks to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, and with considerable help from Obama he was instrumental in electing many members of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate as well as a Republican president. That wasn’t enough to fulfill the party’s seven-year-old promise of repeal and replacement of Obamacare, as it turns out, but there’s nothing on Kelly’s otherwise impressive resume to suggest he’s any more familiar with health care policy or has any more sway with the suddenly rebellious Republican caucus in Congress.
Neither is there any reason to believe that Kelly would have had any more luck than Priebus in dissuading Trump from making those apologized-for orations to the Boy Scouts and law enforcement. Nor do we think Kelly could have staved off that nearly unanimous sanctions bill, and given his hawkish nature we wonder if he would have wanted to. Given his reputation for rock-solid integrity, and given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was his best friend in congress during all the fights with the Obama administration over the southern border back in the Obama days, way back when Trump was firing people on “Celebrity Apprentice” and bad-mouthing the Republican nominee’s relatively mild “self-deportation” policy, it will be interesting to see how Kelly handles all that mess and how it affects all the rest of the mess with Russia.
There are plenty of persuasive if politically incorrect arguments to be made against transgendered people serving in the military, but they’re hard to fit into a “tweet,” those 140 characters of social media can’t adequately explain to a vast bureaucracy or a lean White House Communications office how it should be carried out, and we doubt Kelly could have been any more successful in steering a more measured course of bureaucratic review and legally-hashed documents followed by a coordinated communications effort. The whole mess reminds of us when Trump “tweeted” a ban on travel from certain Islamic countries, which also had plenty of persuasive if politically incorrect arguments but hadn’t been run through any bureaucratic or legal review and wasn’t explained to the White House communications team, and what a mess that turned out to be. The cabinet secretary that Trump hadn’t bothered to consult in that case was Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly, but maybe he’ll have better luck next time.
We can, at least, hold out more than faint hope Kelly will be able impose some severe military-style discipline on that newly-installed White House communications director with the foul mouth and tough-guy persona. Former Wall Street shark Anthony Scaramucci got the job and quickly forced the resignation of the previous chief of staff, whom he had so memorably described in that New Yorker rant, but that chief strategist he even more memorably described is still on the job, and the new chief of staff is said not to suffer fools and idiots, so we figure the four-star Marine general will prove the tougher in the inevitable fights.
There’s nothing Kelly can do to shake up the White House that will shake out Trump or his daughter and a son-in-law, however, or shake away all the investigations about Russia or the increasing rebelliousness of the Republicans in congress. Trump was resistant to military-style discipline back when  his father shipped him off to a military school, hasn’t much changed at age 71, and even such a formidable force as Kelly seems unlikely to restrain his “tweeting” thumbs and oratorical impetuousness, or forestall future rough weeks.

— Bud Norman

How “The Mooch” Screwed the Pooch, If You’ll Kindly Pardon the Expression

The administration of President Donald Trump was already the most compelling show on television, with enough back-stabbing palace intrigue and occasional nudity to make “Game of Thrones” look like a “Romper Room” re-run, but the addition of new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci will surely drive the ratings through the roof. Although he’s not yet been on the job for even a full week, on Thursday Scaramucci managed to grab all the headlines and the top of the news hour.
How he got the job in the job in the first place was already an interesting enough story, but on Thursday Scaramucci made it all the more intriguing with his “tweeted” threats of criminal action against a Politico reporter and his profanity-laden and tape-recorded tirade to a reporter from The New Yorker, along with all the disparagements of the rest of the Trump administration he made along the away. All in all, it was a pretty weird end to a first week of the job.
Scaramucci had gained a famously fabulous fortune on Wall Street, and been an outspoken critic of Trump right up until the point when Trump clinched the Republican nomination, but after that Scaramucci became an unabashed apologist for the eventual president. He even divested himself of a lucrative investment fund in apparent hopes of winning an administration post, but he found himself frozen out. Trump had campaigned in the Republican primaries on promise to destroy the Republican party’s establishment, but after he won the nomination he accepted the embrace of Republican National Committee chairman Rience Priebus, and after Trump’s unexpected electoral victory former Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer was installed as White House communications director and press secretary, and Scaramucci was left on the outside looking in.
Spicer did his best to bully the press into favorable coverage and defend Trump’s most indefensible claims, but his feeble efforts were effectively ridiculed on all the late night comedy shows, and Trump cut the cameras off his press conferences a few weeks ago and gave the audio-only spotlight to deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, so it was no surprise when he was eventually forced to resign. Despite having no relevant experience in politics or media relations other than his own life-long self-promotion Scaramucci thus wound up with the gig, which brings us to that manic-even-by-Trump-standards Thursday about the presumed leaker.
He responded to Politico’s scoop with a “tweet” that threatened to sic the Justice Department on whatever cad had leaked the now-confirmed information, and the reporter “tweeted” back that her only source was Scaramucci’s own public disclosure forms. Being new to the strange ways of the Washington cesspool, the Wall Street shark Scaramucci apparently didn’t understand that what he’d disclosed on his public disclosure forms would eventually be publicly disclosed, so we’d have to say he wound up losing round one in his war against “fake news.”
Scaramucci responded to The New Yorker “tweet” by calling up its intrepid reporter Ryan Lizza to demand the anonymous source, and at that point it really gets good. Perhaps it’s because he’s new to the strange ways of the Washington cesspool and didn’t realize that intrepid reporters don’t divulge their anonymous administrations sources and tape all their uninvited calls from identifiable administration officials, and that a president’s lunch with a media sycophant isn’t a state secret or really any big deal, but he wound up on a epic rant that has to be read to believed. As Eagle Scouts and evangelical Christians and old-fashioned establishment Kansas Republicans we have long maintained an editorial policy against profanity, and always added asterisks when the news of the day required it, but by now even such a genteel publication as The New Yorker can’t avoid it, and the age of “grab ’em by the pussy” Trump has already “schlonged” the standards of public discourse, so we’ll go right ahead and let Scaramucci speak for himself.
“Reince is a fucking paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoic,” Scaramucci said, mocking Priebus’ voice as he added “Let me leak the fucking thing and see if I can cock-block these people the same way I cock-blocked Scaramucci.” At that point The New Yorker politely and parenthetically noted that Priebus had declined to comment on the comment. If you’re following all the subplots closely you’ll have noted Scaramucci doesn’t have to report to the White House chief staff, as White House communications directors usually do, so he also promised that “I’m going to start ‘tweeting’ some shit to make this this guy crazy,” which was shortly followed by a “tweet” threatening to sic the Justice Department on the White House chief of staff.
“The Mooch” also opined on tape that “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock. I’m not trying to build my own brand off the strength of the fucking president. I’m here to serve the country.” Which is weird enough even before you realize that Bannon represents the anti-Republican-establishment half of Trump’s team of rivals, and that Scaramucci had laid down a profanity-laden assault  to every part of the Trump administration except himself and Trump.
That’s your new White House communications director, however, and we’ll leave it to Sean Hannity and the Boy Scouts and evangelical Christians and establishment Republican types who are still on board the Trump train to defend it. He’s already got a lot communicating about “Russia” and the the the apparent failure of Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare to do, as well as all those administration jobs Trump hasn’t yet found anyone to fill, and from our Eagle Scout and evangelical Christian and old-fashioned Kansas Republican perspective he’s off to a bad start.

— Bud Norman

“Tweeting” and Transgenderism in the Age of Trump

The world had become a weird place even before the age of President Donald Trump, otherwise he never would have been elected, but it was still a jarring reminder on Wednesday of how very weird weird things have become when the world wound up with Trump “tweeting” an official proclamation that transgendered people cannot serve in the military.
This is the sort of commonsensical policy that wouldn’t have been considered the least bit controversial not so very long ago, but these days things are more complicated. Men who think themselves women and women who think themselves men are now a fashionable cause, and concerns about the nation’s military readiness don’t have the same cachet, so the “tweeted” proclamation stirred a big fuss in all the papers. Throw in all the weirdness that always comes with Trump and his “tweets,” and it’s all the more complicated.
Clans and tribes and kingdoms and nation-states have been waging war against one another for long so that humanity has learned a thing or two about how to do it, and one of the lessons is that successful wars have almost always been waged by armies of stout-hearted and self-identified men who will fight for the rights they adore. Which is not to say there haven’t been some ferocious women warriors over the past millennia, and we’re unashamed to admit there have been more than a few of them who would put us to shame on a battlefield, but the general rule about leaving the fighting to the men-folk has always proved generally reliable. The rights of those outlier ferocious women warriors began to supersede considerations of military readiness even before the weird age of President Barack Obama, however, and by now the most up-to-date notions of social justice are given greater weight than the most time-tested notions of how to win a war.
After so many years of modern America treating its military as a social engineering experiment rather than a war-winning enterprise, it’s no surprise the conversation lately turns to talk about the even further outlying men who think themselves women and the women who think themselves men and their rights to serve in the military. By the social scientists’ count the number of transgendered people in America is measured with a percentage point and a couple of zeros of the general population, and despite the dizzying number of number of dizzyingly diverse people we know we’d put the number even lower, and we have to believe than only a fraction of that already small number are pining for military service, but these relatively infinitesimal few are what all the fuss is about.
Which is not to say that any of them wouldn’t put us to shame on a battlefield, and we’ll concede that in these weird times the current poster boy or girl for transgenderism is a self-identified woman who once won the gold medal in the men’s Olympic decathlon, which is way more macho than anything we ever did, but we still go by the general reliability of the time-tested general rules of warfare. Go ahead and call us old-fashioned, but we also have our doubts about the current vogue for those outlier men who think themselves women and women who think themselves men. We can’t recall who to credit with the observation that someone who thinks he’s Napoleon is still considered crazy, while someone thinks he’s Josephine is now to be indulged in the conceit, but it seems apt. Quite frankly, all this post-gender talk strikes us as another another one of post-religious manias that keeps popping up.
Which is not to say we lack compassion for these few folks, but rather to say that lopping off their healthy organs and surgically mutilating their genitals doesn’t necessarily strike us as the most compassionate response to their situation. Way back in the ’50s the first so-called sex-change operation was performed in Sweden on George Jorgensen, who had been honorably discharged from the United States Army after World War II, and a short time  later he or she became the popular nightclub chanteuse Christine Jorgensen, and despite his or her celebrity it seemed pretty weird to almost everybody at the time, and probably still strikes most Americans as kind of creepy. Since then there have been a lot of other so-called sex-change surgeries, the first of which was performed in America at the august Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, but by now the record shows that the patients mostly haven’t been happy about it, and have had much higher mental illness and alcoholism and drug abuse and suicide rates than the general population. The rate of regret is even higher than for such less-drastic measures as tattoos and plastic surgery, and as a result that august hospital’s chief surgeon now refuses to lop off healthy organs or otherwise surgically mutilate a patient’s genitals.
All of which seemed quite commonsensical to pretty much everybody until as recently as last summer, when even the Republican nominee for president was inviting that former men’s Olympic decathlon champion to use the women’s room at his Trump Tower, and chiding the Republican convention that had nominated him for its old-fashioned ways, and blasting the Republican North Carolina’s decision to restrict men’s rooms to biologically male people as a bad business decision. Trump is still on solid ground for insisting that America’s military and its war-winning mission is different than the restrooms at Trump Tower or a North Carolina basketball tournament, but by now he’s ceded an awful lot of ground in the ongoing culture wars.
By “tweeting” his executive order rather than seeking the military’s full-throated support for a congressional action on the matter, Trump has also passed up a chance for a national commonsensical consensus and allowed an inevitable Democratic successor to easily undo his slightly executive-ordered policy. That’s earned the wrath of a lot of old-fashioned Republicans on the right, even as more up-to-date Republicans embrace the modern sensibilities about all this stuff, and it just goes to show what weird times we’re now living in. For now, it looks a lot  like the same “Tweet”-first-and-ask-questions-later mess Trump made of his otherwise commonsensical plan to restrict travel from countries where lots of people want to blow up America.
We’ll continue to wish our best for all those men who think themselves woman and the women who think themselves men, hope like hell America somehow wins its inevitable next war, and in the meantime we’ll continue to note what weird times these are.

— Bud Norman