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When Silence Would Have Been Golden

President Donald Trump mostly spent his extended holiday vacation on the golf course or at fancy dinner parties, but he couldn’t keep from making some news. He had the usual number of insulting “tweets,” several insulting sound bites, and sat down for an impromptu interview with The New York Times that still worth noting after several days.
The interview is so full of eyebrow-raising quotes that one hardly knows where to begin, but we might has well start with the one that got the most attention from the media during a slow and little-watched news cycle. Asked an inevitable question about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the last presidential election, Trump surprised many by saying that “It doesn’t bother me, because I hope he’s going to be fair. I think that he’s going to be fair. There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
Which is surprising because Trump has frequently characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and “witch hunts” are by definition unfair, while his most loyal allies in Congress and the conservative media have lately maintained that the investigators are biased and out to get the president. Perhaps it was a holiday spirit that had Trump so hopeful about Mueller’s fairness, perhaps he was taking the high road with confidence his surrogates would take the low, and he perhaps he believes that Mueller might as susceptible to flattery as himself, but in any case it provided fodder for speculation.
When asked about the possibility of re-re-opening an investigation former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices Trump replied that “I have absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I will be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved in this particular matter.” Which is worrisome on a number of levels.
Aside from the fact that a President of the United States speaks such un-parseable English, there’s something chillingly Nixonian about Trump’s insistence that he can use federal law enforcement to persecute his political enemies, and something more chilling yet about his apparent confession that isn’t do so only in hopes of currying favor with the special counsel. Just in case a reader might reach a more generous interpretation, Trump also had some strange praise for former Attorney General Eric Holder that made his rather authoritarian views of presidential power explicitly clear.
“I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that — I will say this: Eric Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had — not made up problems like Russia collusion, these were real problems — when you look at the things they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
Aside from mangled syntax and the failure to recall the name of the “Fast and Furious” scandals or come up with any other of the many Obama scandals, Trump is saying that his predecessor committed serious crimes and was allowed to do so by an Attorney General who put personal loyalty ahead of loyalty to the rule of law, and that he wishes his own Attorney General were just as unethical. All of Trump’s allies in Congress and the conservative media used to loathe Holder for doing what Trump respects, and when they get back to work today it will be interesting to see if they recant their past criticisms. We’re sure they’ll come up with something to say, and fully expect that their ongoing attacks on Mueller’s character will continued despite Trump’s hopefulness for fair treatment.
There was plenty of Trump’s widely-ridiculed braggadocio, too, as he claimed Chinese President Xi Jiping treated him “better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” that he understands tax law “better than the greatest CPA” and the details of health care policy “better than most.” He also claimed to have vaulted candidate Luther Strange from fifth place to second after endorsing in his Alabama’s Republican primary for a Senate race, even though there were only three major candidates in the race, and the numbers he claimed in Strange’s surge were simply made-up. As usual he could not get through an interview with about bragging about his electoral college victory, which as usual he claims is much harder for a Republican to win than the popular vote, even the Republicans are three-and-two ┬áin the past five electoral votes but only one-for-five in the popular vote.
Trump also used a barnyard epithet to describe the Democrats’ opposition to the tax bill, while unnecessarily insulting potential Democratic ally Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that Trump claims to have single-handedly restored to economic greatness.
The weirdest part, though, was Trump’s prediction that the mainstream media — those “very bad people” and purveyors of “Fake News” who have been Trump’s favorite target since he launched his campaign — are going to carry him to an easy reelection victory in 2020. “Because without me, their ratings are going down the tube. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times but the failed New York Times. So basically they have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please don’t lose Donald Trump.'”
Which is to say that the American public only reads or watches the news to hear about Trump, and will lose interest in public affairs all together if he’s not around, and that’s pretty arrogant even by Trumpian standards. He also expects that the news outlets that have seen their readerships and viewerships rise with the constant criticisms of Trump will commence six months of unrelenting praise so that they can go back to luring readers and viewers once he’s safely re-installed in office, which strikes us as worrisomely crazy even by Trumpian standards.
Trump is probably lucky the interview was published when people had better things to do than read or watch the news, but today the holidays are over and the government is back to work and people will once again be paying attention. Our advice is that he avoid impromptu interviews for a while.

— Bud Norman

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A Not-So-Crazy Middle East Conspiracy Theory

Being unfamiliar with the Kuwaiti press, we have no idea how much credence to give Al-Jarida‘s report that in 2014 the Obama administration thwarted an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities by threatening to shoot down the Israeli jets. Being all too familiar with the Obama administration and its dealing with both Israel and Iran, however, we can’t dismiss the story as entirely implausible.
The usually reliable Times of Israel quotes a former Israeli Defense Forces chief as saying that a strike against Iran was seriously considered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but ultimately rejected on the advice of himself and other top military officers, which also seems within the realm of possibility, and we will await with open mind whatever confirmations or denials the administration’s various spokesmen might provide. Still, there’s no shaking a unsettling suspicion that President Barack Obama might actually have threatened to wage war against Israel in defense of Iran.
Obama’s antipathy for Israel and ardent desire for rapprochement with Iran have long been apparent, but have been especially conspicuous in the lead-up to Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday. The speech is at the invitation of the Republican leadership, and the president is claiming it is a breach of diplomatic protocol for Netanyahu to have accepted without the president’s approval, that it constitutes unethical meddling in a foreign nation’s politics to schedule the speech within weeks of Israeli elections, and that it could endanger America’s on negotiations with the Iran government over its nuclear weapons program. None of which is at all convincing, unless you’re one of the obedient Democrats who are huffily boycotting the speech. Obama’s own frequent breaches of protocol toward Israel include having its head of state cool his heels in a White House office for hours and allowing high administration officials to impugn Netanyahu’s courage with barnyard epithets, groups loyal to Obama have been openly campaigning in Israel and his own preferences regarding the election have been well-known to the Israeli public, and Netanyahu can only endanger America’s deal with Iran by making a persuasive case to Congress and the American people that it is dangerous the security of Israel and America and the rest of the world. The president’s annoyance with Netanyahu and Israel at large preceded the invitation to make the speech by at least seven years, and his peculiar affinity for Iran’s America-hating theocracy goes back as far.
Obama’s apparent desire is to allow Iranian regional hegemony and nuclear weapons and international respectability in exchange for, well, we’re not sure exactly, but assume it will include some assurance that they’ll help deal with the Islamic State al-Qaeda and other regional pests and abandon their frequently stated goal of the death of America. He probably also expects a grand photo opportunity as he delivers peace in our time, and a good write-up in the history books as the man who finally brought lasting amity to the Middle East, but he seems awfully worried that Netanyahu will make a persuasive case that it’s all a dangerous pipe dream. Iran’s state-run news agency is peddling the typically crazy Middle East conspiracy theory that America is secretly behind the Islamic State, the government is offering safe haven to al-Qaeda terrorists despite their Sunnism, Iranian street demonstrations still feature the ritual chant of death to America, and the country’s influence is reading into Iraq and Lebanon and Jordan and elsewhere in the region without ceding anything to the Great Satan. With Obama protecting Iran from the sanctions that had recently brought its economy to a near halt, and with no immediate disavowals that he’s also been protecting it from Israeli jets, the country has no reason to agree to any deal that threatens their dream of nuclear weapons and whatever apocalyptic plans they might have for them. That would set off a nuclear arms race in a region characterized by religious manias and ancient hatreds, with Saudi Arabia having already made arrangements with nuclear-armed Pakistan in the event of an Iranian bomb being developed, and Netanyahu can hardly be blamed for any discomfort he might have about that scenario.
The Secretary of State has declined to state “what is or isn’t the situation” regarding his negotiations with Iran, and Obama’s only argument for his policies seems to be that we should trust him, but alas, we don’t. At this point, we’re not even sure that he hasn’t threatened to shoot down Israeli planes to defend an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

— Bud Norman

Foul Language and Fouler Policies

The vulgar language an unnamed senior White House official used to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting all the attention, but The Atlantic Monthly story headlined “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here” is full of far more disturbing revelations. Even a crisis in America’s relationship with its most important Middle East ally might not be the worst of it.
Not that the vulgarity isn’t worth noting. The unnamed senior White House official used a barnyard epithet commonly understood to mean coward, which is a most peculiar slander against a former special forces soldier who fought with distinction in two wars and a series of daring missions and as Prime Minister has led his country through existential wars, and odder yet coming from an official speaking on behalf of a former community organizer who will never be mistaken for Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and has long made clear that he considers Netanyahu all too inclined to fight. Senior White House officials astute enough to remain unnamed are not likely to have let such a phrase slip out accidentally, so one can only assume that the insult was carefully chosen.
What renders the insult completely absurd, however, is that the official was accusing Netanyahu of cowardice for failing to launch a war against Iran that the United States government has exerted great effort to prevent. The unnamed senior White House official even boasts that Israel’s failure to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons program “was a combination of our pressure and (Netanyahu’s) own unwillingness to do anything dramatic.” So the administration will deliberately insult a key ally as a coward for not doing something they had pressured him not to do, a mindset far more worrisome than the juvenile language used to express it. Netanyahu is also faulted for failing to “reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and Sunni Arab states,” as if a Palestinian government that lobs rockets at Israeli civilians and proudly proclaims its desire to destroy the Jewish state has any interest in making peace, and as if the Sunni Arab states aren’t currently more worried about the nuclear program in Shiite and Persian Iran that the United States has restrained Israel from destroying, so there’s no mistaking that America is pursuing a Middle Eastern policy based on false assumptions.
The historically crucial relationship between Israel and the United States can be repaired by a new administration in this country, and Netanyahu has proved himself brave enough to continue the defense of his country no matter what unnamed senior White House officials might think of it, but the article hints at possibilities that will be harder for future presidents to deal with. Written by a noted sycophant for the White House and clearly intended to convey its sneering contempt for a key ally, the article credits the administration’s cunning use of an Israeli for “what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime,” but it fails to mention that the sanctions have been weakened and the nuclear program continues and doesn’t seem to notice that unnamed senior White House official seems mostly relieved that it’s “Now too late” for a military strike that would end it. That pressure that the official boasts about was achieved largely with promises that America will never allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon, but at this point even a sycophantic article in The Atlantic Monthly leaves an unmistakeable impression that was just another promise never intended to be kept. No one named or unnamed in the administration speaks as harshly of Iran’s brutal theocratic rulers as they do about the leader of the one humane and democratic nation in the region, the White House has kept its “open hand” policy intact despite the worries it causes those Sunni Arab nations that Israel is expected to accommodate, further overtures to the Iranians have been made in the futile hope they will help in our desultory efforts to fight the Islamic State terror gang that continues to gain territory in Iraq, and an Iranian bomb now seems a fait accompli.
Senior White House officials can be expected to deliver on-the-record speeches about containment and moral equivalence and deterrence and other reasons not to be worried about a nuclear bomb in the hands of a government that routinely shouts “Death to America,” but we will not be reassured. Cold War analogies are always suspect coming from a party that advised surrender in that conflict starting with the McGovern campaign and continues to decrease America’s nuclear defenses, and the mutually assured destruction that worked with an officially atheist communist government might not work out as well with an apocalyptic suicide cult hoping to bring about the arrival of the twelfth mahdi and the prophesied end times. Those Sunni Arab states that the administration wants the Israelis to appease will probably seek their accommodations with Pakistan-provided nuclear weapons of their own when their mortal enemy acquires one, especially when it has been made so clear that America’s protection cannot be counted on, and a nuclear arms race in a region so riven with ancient hatreds and fanaticism is unlikely to end well. At that point, even the most vulgar language will be required to describe the outcome.

— Bud Norman