America First, Morality After That

President Donald Trump sat down for an interview with Lesley Stahl of the “60 Minutes” program that aired on Sunday, far away from the friendly confines of “Fox and Friends,” and of course it was full of news.
He suggested that Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, widely considered a restraining influence on Trump’s more rash foreign policy impulses, is “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” and might soon be leaving the White House. He wouldn’t comment on how long Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be around, except to say “We’ll see what happens come midterms,” which suggests that something will happen after the looming midterm elections. He denied mocking the woman who alleged that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault while they were both high schools, although Trump sure did seem to revel in all the laughs he got talking about her at a recenta campaign rally. He effused about the trustworthiness of murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, but added “That doesn’t mean I can’t be proven wrong,” which is newsworthy for its uncharacteristic modesty.
More striking to us, though, was Trump’s continued affinity for murderous Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and murderous Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammad bin Salam, and his apparent insouciance about murderous dictatorships in general.
Although Trump  now grudgingly acknowledges that yeah, Putin probably did meddle in America’s past presidential election, which all of America’s intelligence agencies insist with complete certainty,  he added that China’s murderous dictatorship probably did the same, which no intelligence agency has suggested, and he seemed to shrug it all off as business as usual. Way back in the campaign Trump told friendly Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly that yeah, Putin occasionally a journalist or dissident or political opponent or two, but “There a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, do you think our country’s so innocent?,” and he told the far feistier Stahl the relies on Russia, and he noted with apparent satisfaction that Putin none of Putin’s recent assassination attempts have happened in America or to Americans abroad.
Trump has talked tough about “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it’s proved the government brutally murdered and dismembered self-exiled Saudi dissident and Washington Post writer and legal American resident Jamal Kashoggi, as all of the world’s intelligence agencies and every sane observer has concluded, but we expect it will require some rather extraordinary proof before he’s nudged to say that yeah, they probably did it. Even if he is somehow convinced that the Saudi friends who treated to him to such a flattering state visit and do billions of dollars of business with American corporations of millions of dollars of business with his own still wholly-owned companies, he’s already pointed out that the alleged killing happened in Turkey, “and to the best of our knowledge, Kashoggi is not a United States citizen.” An American president should speak with more certainty about such easily learnable facts, and should also be aware the a legal residency in the United States also entitles one to the protection of the state, but Trump clearly thinks America lacks the moral standing to fuss about such things.
Trump bluntly told the country as much before he was elected. He said so not only to O’Reilly and his Fox viewers but to all the revved-up rally crowds that chanted along with his “America First” slogan, not knowing or caring it faithfully echoed the pre-World War II isolationist movement that thought Fortress America could get along just fine in a world otherwise ruled by the Axis powers. Long before he started his unlikely political career Trump had hired a ghostwriter to pen “The Art of Deal,” which explicitly described his Machiavellian worldview of everything in life from love to business to foreign relations as a zero-sum game that comes down to winners and losers, with the rules being strictly for suckers. Even as he successfully courted the evangelical Christian vote, he made it quite clear he didn’t believe in all that nonsense loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek and the meek being blessed.
On one warm and sunny Hawaiian December day in ’41 America realized that despite two oceans and a couple of placid neighbors to the north and south America could not get along just fine with the Axis powers, and with the help of some carefully cultivated democratic allies the country waged a costly but ultimately victorious war against those murder dictatorships. The allies also  much needed the help of a murderous communist dictatorship in Russia, which waged a fare more costly war but a sizable victory of it, as well as an unpleasantly authoritarian regime in China that soon fell to an even more murderous communist dictatorship, but somehow the free and democratic nations of the world cobbled together trade agreements and diplomatic arrangements and military alliances that have worked the necessary moral compromise out pretty well for most part over the past 70-plus, at least relative to most of humankind’s bloody and impoverished history.
There have been plenty of wars and moral compromises along the way, of course. Fighting Chinese and Soviet communism involved a couple of horrific wars that resulted in a still-troublesome tie on the Korean peninsula and a arguable loss to a unified and more-or-less capitalist Vietnam that now offers potential strategic advantages to the United States, and America has overlooked some unsavory behavior from anti-communist regimes and any country that can help keep the international economy well lubricated with oil. There were greater moral exigencies to be arguably considered at the time, though, and at no point did any Republican or Democratic president ever signaled that he didn’t much about such behavior. Those bipartisan fancy-pants “experts” got a lot of things wrong, but they also rebuilt former vanquished adversaries into formidable friends, nurtured the free and democratic nations they had rescued from murderous dictatorships, and we think they know better than Trump, and we’ll hate to see the last few of them leave his administration.
Trump is quite right that America has done a lot of killing, and that like any country populated by mere human beings we’re not so innocent, but we think he’s quite wrong to suggest America should begin to atone for its sins by giving the green-light to any of his favored murderous dictators to keep killing off any pesky journalists or political opponents or assorted dissidents. We don’t think it will help make America great again.

— Bud Norman

Overtimes and Sex Scandals in Prime Time

The “60 Minutes” program’s much-hyped and long-delayed interview with a pornographic video performer named Stormy Daniels was delayed another half-hour or so on Palm Sunday by the University of Kansas Jayhawks’ overtime victory in a barnburner of a game with Duke University’s Blue Demons in the college basketball tournament, but the compelling lead-in probably boosted the ratings.
Although the interview proved somewhat less salacious than some reality show fans might have hoped for, and got bogged down in a bunch of blah-blah-blah about apparent campaign finance violations and other legal matters and less prurient issues, it still made for must-see-TV. The pornographic video performer was dishing the dirt about her alleged decade-old sexual relationship with then fading reality-show star and now President Donald Trump, which allegedly happened not long after Trump’s third wife gave birth to his fifth child, and it takes a pretty stiff Republican neck to turn away from that.
Daniels said that she spanked the future president with a rolled up a copy of a Forbes magazine that had his picture on the cover, as she had done in a long-suppressed but recently published interview with the “In Touch” tabloid, but insisted that it was more jokey than kinky. She explained that on their intimate evening together in a bungalow at the Hollywood Hills Hotel he had tried to impress her with the magazine cover, she responded that she wasn’t impressed and was tempted to spank him with it, that he obliged by pulling down his pants but not his briefs, and after a couple of smacks they both had a good laugh about it. She says he treated her differently afterwards, though, and then goes on to tell a prime-time-in-these-tawdry–times tale of a pornographic video performer’s unprotected sexual encounter with a future president.
All that blah-blah-blah about campaign finance laws and other less prurient matters seems to back it up. Trump’s longtime “fixer” of a lawyer has publicly admitted that just after the “Access Hollywood” tape and just before the election he paid Daniels $130,000 not to talk about such things, and insists he did so out of the kindness of the heart and without the knowledge of his client. So far as we can tell that’s either a laughable lie and dis-barrable offense or an apparent violation of campaign law and probably something to do with the tax code, or Trump was paying a porn performer not to talk about something he insists never happened, which is perfectly legal so far as we can tell but doesn’t look at all good.
Daniels recalls times she took Trump’s phone calls on her speaker phone in front of her incredulous porn industry friends, who could presumably recall that to some to noisome deposition-taking attorneys, intimates that she has corroborating e-mails and text messages, and her own rather ferocious and seemingly far more competent attorney has recently “tweeted” a picture of a digital video disc in a safe deposit box as a warning not to doubt her account. There’s also the interview that “60 Minutes” correspondent Anderson Cooper had conducted for his more full-time gig with the Cable News Network with a former Playboy “playmate of the year” who alleged a similarly convincing but more saccharine account of her affair with the future president around the same time, and both the porn star and the playmate come across not only better-spoken than the president but also more believable.
In both cases we thought Cooper did a well enough job at the old journalistic fair-and-balanced shtick. He confronted both women with their past statements and all the legal blah-blah-blah, rightly noting that the porn performer had made previous denials of any affair, but he also let the fully clothed and seemingly wised-up women provide their plausible answers, and we don’t blame Cooper if they came off more convincing than the president. By now such tawdry details as that jokey and only-slightly-kinky spanking with a rolled up copy of Forbes with Trump on the cover rings all too true, as much as we hate to admit it or even contemplate it, we can’t imagine how it might help Trump.
On the other hand, it might not hurt Trump much. Back in the days of President Bill Clinton the left used to make excuses for such tawdry behavior, by the time Trump was running against his harridan of of wife the right was just as lenient about its guy, and by now almost anyone who is appalled by the present prime-time network fare stands credibly accused of hypocrisy.

— Bud Norman

Bannon with Abandon

If you weren’t watching the continuous Florida storm coverage on all the cable news channels on Sunday evening, you might have caught former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s interview with the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes” program. We didn’t, as we were out enjoying the perfect weather we’ve been having around here lately, but of course we couldn’t avoid reading and hearing all of it on Monday.
Even after being fired or having resigned in order to better serve President Donald Trump from the outside, depending on which version of events you prefer, Bannon still has a knack for making news. He was a controversial figure as the “chief executive officer” of Trump’s campaign, even more so in his administration post, and got enough media attention that Trump was reportedly miffed about. To Trump’s most ardent supporters Bannon was considered the keeper of the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist faith that was going to make America great again, and to Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and right he was the authoritarian and alt-right quintessence of everything they hated about Trump.
His exit from the White House and his return to his previous gig of running the internet news site was a big story before all the storms started, and even with the floods still rising in Florida his first on-air interview took up a full half of “60 Minutes.” He took full advantage of the opportunity to generate another days of news, of course, offering several opinions that will surely outrage Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and the right, which will surely gratify Trump’s most ardent supporters, but Trump himself also came in for some notable criticism.
Bannon said that Trump’s decision to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey was “the biggest mistake in modern political history,” so of course that got the most media attention. This does not strike us as much of an overstatement, especially by Bannon standards, and we note that he also said “worst political mistake ever” was too bombastic even for him, but it was still some criticism from Trump’s most ardent supporter that Trump’s most strident critics relished. Bannon explained that Comey’s firing was a mistake because it inevitably led to the appointment of special counsel James Mueller, who’s now conducting far more thorough investigation of “Russia” than the one Trump effectively stopped Comey from pursuing, so he’s implicitly conceding he expects that to turn out even worse than Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky business or the many other worst modern political mistakes.
Bannon also pledged to be Trump’s “wing-man,” though, so maybe he’s just trying to give some good advice about exposing oneself to enemy fire. In the rest of the interview he remained fiercely loyal to Trump’s agenda, at least the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist parts of it, and he vowed the mighty wrath of and Bannon’s own media clout, and potentially the backing of his billionaire backers, against any Trump administration officials or any sorts of Republicans who won’t pledge their loyalty to whatever Trump might want to do at any given moment.
Even such a veteran interviewer as Charlie Rose seemed quite taken aback by it, which allowed Bannon to make specific threats and name specific names, and clearly explain his master plan to burn down the Republican party and raise a new nationalist and populist and all that party from the ashes. He dismissed the entirety of Republican party’s pre-Trump foreign policy and defense experts as “idiots” he “holds in contempt, total and complete contempt,” threatened primary challenges to any congressmen deemed unloyalw to Trump, cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan as people he’d like to get rid of, and accused the broader Republican “establishment” of “trying to nullify the election.” He also defined loyalty to Trump by “the Billy Bush day” standard, which means who was still loyally defending Trump when the entire nation heard the soon-to-be-president bragging on audiotape about how he could grab women by the wherever because he’s a star, and that’s a pretty high standard.
He also said he hoped all those “dreamers” who are suddenly the national sob story will be forced to “self-deport,” and we’re sure that Trump’s most ardent admirers loved every part of it, but we’re not sure what Trump made of it. Bannon also took aim at several Trump administration officials for publicly criticizing the president’s response to the violence that occurred during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying they should quit if they’re not entirely on board with whatever the president says at any given moment, but good look finding replacements who can meet that very high standard. He further took aim at senior White House advisor and jack-of-all-trades Jared Kushner, a Manhattanite and longtime Democratic donor and suspected globalist who frequently clashed with Bannon on such matters as nationalism and populism and the wisdom of firing Comey, but Kushner is also Trump’s son-in-law and we notice that he’s still working at the White House while Bannon isn’t, so that will likely play better with Trump’s most ardent supporters than Trump himself.
Bannon and his and their billionaire backers have a limited influence in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to further fracture an already fractuous Republican party. There are a lot of Republican districts where Bannon’s efforts would only bolster a Republican incumbent’s chances in a primary, but there are others where the combined efforts of Bannon and Trump could find some true believer to knock off an office-holder who might otherwise have impeccable conservative credentials but doesn’t meet that “Billy Bush day” standard. In some cases this would lead to the election of some sane-by-Democratic-standards challenger, and maybe in enough cases to affect Democratic majorities in Congress that wouldn’t go along with any part of the Trump agenda now matter how far left might veer, but Bannon and other ardent Trump supporters can be consoled that at least we’d be done with that darned Republican establishment.
Both Trump and the “establishment” along with the rest of the country have recently survived two horrific hurricanes, though, and we expect most of us will survive the likes of Bannon as well.

— Bud Norman

The 60 Minutes Man

Regular readers of this publication are aware that we do not hesitate to find fault with Barack Obama, and thus might be surprised that we think the criticism of the president’s remarks on the “60 Minutes” program have been overstated.

Not that the remarks weren’t outrageous. Obama described the wave of rioting throughout the Middle East and beyond that resulted in the deaths of an ambassador and three other Americans as “bumps in the road.” He described the Israeli Prime Minister’s pleas for help in saving his country from a nuclear holocaust as “noise” that he will “block out.” He also made some highly misleading excuses for the more than $5 trillion that has been added to the national debt during his term.

Such nonsense warrants scorn, of course, but in the grand scheme of things they are just more of the dumb things that the president often says. The real outrage should be reserved for the results of the foolish notions that these things express.

Even more galling than the president’s callous indifference to the deaths of four Americans are the deaths themselves, and that the administration ignored warnings from the Libyan government and the ambassador himself that could have prevented it, and that our government has since sought to appease the murderers by apologizing for the free speech that is said to have given them offense. Further tragedies lie at the end of the Islamist road that the Middle East is now taking, and the real problem isn’t the “bumps” along the way.

The president’s apparent indifference to the fate of Israel’s nearly 800 million souls is another problem, and not just his willingness to admit it. Perhaps Benjamin Netanyahu could persuade him to take a greater interest in the possibility of Iran’s insane government acquiring a nuclear weapon, but that meeting will apparently have to await Obama’s heavy schedule of schmoozing with television and movie stars.

Obama’s failure to take more than 10 percent of the blame for the country’s looming insolvency is admittedly infuriating, but even more worrisome is the possibility that he actually believes it. So long as he can convince himself that he bears no blame for skyrocketing national debt, Obama likely will not regard it as a problem that needs addressing.

Our conservatives colleagues are correct to criticize the president’s words, but let’s hope it won’t distract from real problems they help reveal.

— Bud Norman