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A Corker of a Feud

Reality shows usually derive their drama from petty disputes between the main characters, and President Donald Trump’s current action-packed series is no exception to the rule. Trump’s latest spat with Tennessee’s Republican Sen. Bob Corker, though, is likely to spill over into the real reality.
If you’ve been following the show since it debuted with the main character descending from the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy, you might recall Corker as the mild-mannered and impeccably mainstream Senator who was one of the first Grand Old Party establishment types to endorse Trump’s candidacy after Trump had all but wrapped up the Republican nomination. Corker even so went so far as to describe Trump to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as “courteous, kind, and respectful,” and “not at all what people think,” and his name was floated as a possible pick for Vice President or Secretary of State, but since then the relationship has gone sour.
As chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee Corker shepherded a Russian sanctions bill that was clearly intended to curtail Trump’s ability to negotiate with that country. Following Trump’s widely criticized response to the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia, Corker was one of several congressional Republicans who joined in the criticism, going so far as to say “The President has not been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” During the recent episodes when Trump was feuding with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over his efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict with North Korea, Corker that Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly were among the were among the few administration officials “that help keep the country from chaos.”
On Sunday Trump did his usual illiterate counter-punching with a series of three “tweets” firing back at Corker, all with the usual vehemence. “Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election reelection in Tennessee. I said’NO’ and he dropped (said he could not win without…” one read, which was continued in the next “tweet” with “… my endorsement.) I said ‘NO THANKS!’ He wanted to be Secretary of State, I said “NO THANKS!” He is also largely responsible for the horrendous Iran deal!” The third “tweet” added “Hence, I would fully expect Corker to be a negative voice and stand in the way of our great agenda. Didn’t have the guts to run!”
The part about Corker being largely responsible for the Iran deal is entirely untrue, as Corker was an outspoken critic and a key reason President Barack Obama didn’t dare submit it to the Senate for ratification as a treaty and thus had to sign it as a presidential agreement, which is why Trump should be grateful he can now undo it by executive action. Corker contends that Trump had called him to offer his endorsement as an inducement to run again, that he withdrew his name for consideration for Secretary of State before Trump reached a decision, and that he’s not seeking for re-election for reasons other than cowardice. Given both what we’ve learned about both men over their long public lives, we’re inclined to believe Corker on each count.
In any case Corker isn’t running for reelection and is all the more unintimidated by Trump’s “tweets.” He responded with a phone call to The New York Times to categorically deny all of Trump’s “tweeted” claims, and to say that the president is treating his office “like a reality show” and that his handling of the North Korean crisis puts the country “on the path to World War III.” Corker even went to his own “Twitter” feed to opine that “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”
The spat has received plenty of media attention, of course, and most of the commentary has been about how it will affect Trump’s ability to get his legislative agenda passed. Republicans can only afford to lose three votes from their slim majority in the Senate, which includes “Lyin'” Ted Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio and the ugly Rand Paul and the unheroic John McCain, among several other members that Trump has gone out of his way to insult, so the general conclusion has been that enmity of the gutless Corker will likely further complicate the art of the legislative deal for Trump. There’s a counter-theory on the talk radio shows that Trump’s feuds with his own party are a brilliant strategy, which involves burning down the Republican party and bring forth a Trump-ian Phoenix from the ashes in order to defeat the almost-as-hated Democrats, but it’s hard to see that playing out soon enough to get anything passed before the next mid-terms.
So long as the Republicans are blamed for their legislative failures and the Republican president is held blameless that will probably be fine with Trump, but we worry Americans in general and Republicans in particular might have bigger problems. Corker is a fellow mild-mannered and impeccably mainstream Republican, even if he isn’t so wised-up as ourselves that he once went on cable television to describe Trump as “kind, courteous, respectful,” and we think he might be right about the adult day care at the White House with the adult supervision occasionally gone missing.
We’re not the only ones who can’t shake that nagging worry, or even the only Republicans. Corker claims most of his colleagues share his concerns, and so far few congressional Republicans have taken a public stand with Trump in in feud, and a very stalwart Pennsylvania GOP congressman from Pennsylvania who’s also not seeking went on the MSNBC cable network to admit his own worries. The latest poll from the Associated Press has Trump at a new low approval rating of 32 percent, with only 27 percent of women favorably inclined, and more worrisome it showed a positive 67 percent among Republicans. That’s a landslide in a general election, but in the past few hyper-partisan decades presidents have usually scored around 90 percent in their own parties, with the political Mendoza line set at around 80 percent, and the defection of nearly a third of the Republican grass-roots and a significant number of its elected representatives should give pause to the other two-thirds of the party.
Stay tuned, though. According to another recent episode, this is just the calm before the storm. Also, there’s an intriguing subplot involving Trump’s first wife and his third wife and First Lady to keep you diverted until the next twist.

— Bud Norman

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Grand Old Party Poopers

With a solid Republican majority in the House of Representatives, a slight Republican majority in the Senate, and a slightly Republican president in the White House, the Grand Old Party should be having a grand old time about now. Alas, things haven’t yet worked out that way,, and after the slightly Republican president sided with the Democrats Wednesday on the latest debt ceiling debate it’s hard to see how they ever will.
These all-too-frequent debt ceiling increases are complicated affairs even in more normal circumstances, so of course this time around it’s all the harder to make sense of it. As always a debt ceiling increase is much needed to keep the government operating and avoiding a federal default that would have far more catastrophic economic consequences, everyone is eager to avoid that politically suicidal fate at any cost, yet everyone is trying to take advantage of the situation to get pet causes included. The usual result is some scary brinksmanship followed by yet another desultory compromise that pleases no one, and we’ll hold out hope for another similarly happy outcome this time.
Democrats typically use this all-too-frequent game of chicken to get further exorbitant spending for all sorts of crazy social engineering regulations, Republicans always try to win severe spending cuts and argue that even though they’re voting for another debt ceiling increase they don’t think we can keep this up forever, and we’ve always been more inclined to the Republicans on the issue. We’re as disappointed as any snarling caller to your local talk radio station that the Republicans always wind up voting for another debt ceiling increase, but we have to admit that at least the annual federal deficits have been halved since the Republicans took over the House and then the Senate back in the ill-remembered days of President Barack Obama, and we guess they’d have doubled if not for all those congressional Republicans who came to the rescue before Trump joined the party.
This time around the debate is complicated by all sorts of things that don’t even involve Trump. An historic natural disaster has lately occurred in America’s fourth-most populous city, another bad storm might be headed for the densely populated east coast of Florida, and a significant down payment has to be made on the budget-busting cost of all that lest a political disaster bear down on both Democrats and Republicans alike. That’s not to mention all the complications caused by Hurricane Donald, who had already threatened to veto anything that didn’t include full funding for his crazy and unpopular idea of a tall and translucent wall across the entire border with Mexico, long been “tweeting” schoolyard taunts against both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and had won office by railing against the establishments of both parties and promising no entitlements and balanced budgets.
So far as we can tell the latest congressional negotiations had come down to a difference of opinion about how long the latest desultory compromise which pleased no one would last. The Democrats wanted a mere three-month extension, the Republicans preferred a year-and-a-half before they had to go through all this again, everyone was willing to cough up the necessary funds for all those natural disaster victims, and in normal circumstances a Republican majority Congress and Republican president would have at least granted a weary nation that slightly longer respite.
On Wednesday, though, Trump met with the Democrats’ Senate minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and House minority leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, gave them both videotaped hugs,  and agreed to back their side, which complicated things beyond comprehension. Both Schumer and Pelosi are longstanding villains in the Republican narrative of the way things are, Trump had previously “tweeted” that Schumer was a “clown” and taunted him as “Cryin’ Chuck,” long been at least as unkind to the long-hated-by-Republicans Pelosi, so it came as something of a surprise.
Less surprising if you’ve been following how a certain segment of the talk-radio-listening Republicans have come to hate House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky with a nearly as red-hot hatred, and how Trump tapped into that anti-establishment mood to win the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency. Trump more or less vowed to vanquish the Republican establishment, kept up the feud from his election up to now, and his most die-hard supporters probably like it.
We can’t see what satisfaction they’ll get out of it, though, except for seeing Ryan and McConnell and their establishment Republican types properly irked. The Democratic offer that Trump is backing doesn’t come closer to what every sort of Republican has long wanted from all these all-too-frequent debt ceiling increase debates, and any old Republican should be irked by the satisfaction than the even more loathsome Schumer and Pelosi surely feel. Trump’s staunchest defenders will dutily explain that it’s another master move by The Art of Deal, being played out on a 3-D chess board we cannot comprehend, but that’s harder than ever to believe. The Democratic side basically means that they’ll have all their leverage back in a mere three months, when there’s no telling what disarray the Republicans might be in, the Republican side at least gives them a year and a half to perhaps right ship, and conceding such leverage might work in New York real estate deals but we can’t recall the last time it worked in these complicated legislative negotiations.
It might be for a mere three months or a whole year and a half, but we expect the government will ultimately stay open and continue paying its bills over either span. That grand old time for the Grand Old Party and its long promised balanced budgets seems further away than ever, though, and in the meantime there’s a lot of other very complicated messes to be figured out, We’ll keep following the news, and hoping for the best.

— Bud Norman

If This is Thursday, This Must Be Belgium

President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip went well enough through its first six days, with some potentially significant successes offsetting a few relatively minor if undeniably embarrassing missteps, but all along even his most ardent well-wishers had to admit to a certain nervousness about how long that would last. On Thursday Trump was in Belgium for a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, and our worst fears were largely realized.
The date always struck us as fraught with peril, as Trump had won the presidency while railing that NATO was an “obsolete” federation of deadbeat nations free-riding on America’s on America’s gullible generosity, but upon taking office he made a few steps back from that position. He declared that NATO was “no longer obsolete,” seemed unembarrassed to admit that he’d said some things before he knew much about NATO but that he knew better now, and the high-ranking foreign policy officials he’d appointed went to further lengths to reassure our alliance partners, but he’d occasionally lapse back to campaign rhetoric. During a rather awkward meeting in Washington with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel he handed her a multi-billion dollar invoice for what he thought was owed for American defense spending on behalf of Germany over the past decades, which was more widely reported in the German press than in America’s, and by the time he landed in Belgium there was no guessing what he might have to say.
What he had to say when he took his turn at the podium started well enough, with kinds words for Merkel and a nod to British Prime Minister Theresa May before asking for a moment of silence of the victims of a recent terrorist attack in Britain, and he recalled how NATO had invoked it’s Article Five that an attack on one was attack on all after the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York in 2001. After that he mostly went on about how most of the NATO nations are free-riding on the gullible shoulders of American taxpayers and he was there to demand back payments. He noted the opulence of the newly-built NATO headquarters where he was speaking, boasted that he’d promised himself not to ask how much it cost, and seemed to imply it was a nice little building they had there and it would be a shame if anything happened to it.
Trump was undeniably correct in noting that the vast majority of NATO’s members hadn’t spent their promised 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending, and his most ardent admirers thus have a plausible argument that he’s staking out an ingeniously outrageous opening bargaining according to the art of the deal. This should prove convincing to that 25 percent or so floor of public support that Trump enjoys no matter what, but it’s a harder sell to the rest of both the left and the right. The same left that wanted  to surrender in the Cold War is suddenly talking tough about Russia, while the establishment right that navigated the conflict to a favorable conclusion is fuming that the NATO alliance needs to be dealt with behind the scenes rather than in pubic speeches. That 2 percent of GDP rule was gently pressed behind the scenes even by the administration of President Barack Obama, our NATO partners have been upping the ante ever since, and although thy were coming around at this point it’s hard to see how Trump’s public scolding will urge them along.
Trump’s most ardent admirers will admire his forthright America First stand, but all the international footage shows the heads of state of our NATO allies looking decidedly less enthusiastic about it, and they’re all accountable to British and French and Belgian and other local opinions that have not yet succumbed to Trumpism. The art of the real estate deal and the art of diplomacy are decidedly different, and although we wish him well we can’t help thinking that Trump doesn’t know the difference.The video footage of our NATO allies was far less ebullient than Trump with his Sunni Arab friends from a few days before, and Trump had a few more of the embarrassing missteps on Thursday, including some footage of him seeming to shove his way past the head of state from newly-joined NATO partner Montenegro to get his way to the front of a a photo op, and a couple of awkward handshakes with the French President whose Vichy-derived opponent Trump had more or less endorsed, and all in it all it added up to another bad news cycle.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the news cycle was no kinder. The lead story on most of the network news was that Trump’s son-in-law, the 36-year-old Jared Kushner who has been charged with negotiating Middle East peace being the go-between in our dealings with China and ending America’s opioid crisis and reinvent its federal government, was also the focus of a federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. Russia was no doubt pleased by Trump putting the squeeze on America’s NATO allies, and those looks on our NATO allies’leaders faces, and how those NATO negotiations are likely to go from here. The Republican congressional candidate who was arrested for assaulting a reporter on election eve wound up winning a special election in Montana, possibly because most of the votes were cast before it happened, but that probably won’t help much in the rest of the world and its opinion polls.
As much as we’re rooting for America and its established principles of foreign policy, we can’t shake a certain nervousness about how Trump is negotiating this darned convoluted art of diplomacy. We’ll continue to regard all those sudden Cold Warriors on the left with suspicion, but neither do we trust that the president or his son-in-law is truly putting America or anybody else first.

— Bud Norman