Hoping the Third Time’s a Charm at the Department of Defense

Army secretary Mark Esper has been named acting defense secretary, making him the third person to head the Department of Defense of during Trump’s two-and-a-half years in office. Here’s hoping he has better luck at the job than his predecessors.
Esper got the nod after acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew his nomination for the official post because of a domestic violence scandal. Unlike the three previous Trump administration appointees and the former Trump campaign official who resigned due to domestic violence scandals, in this case it was Shanahan’s now ex-wife who was arrested for battering him. That’s still something Shanahan didn’t want to have to explain at a confirmation hearing, and he was probably even less eager to answer questions about a son’s arrest for beating his mother with a baseball bat, and why Shanahan told the police and courts it was a case of self-defense.
Shanahan was preceded by Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general with a spotless reputation who breezed through his confirmation hearings and won bipartisan respect for his performance in the job, but he wound up resigning in less than a year, making it clear in his resignation letter that he disagreed with President Donald Trump on several important issues of national security. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malignant actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have to the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down.”
Esper’s confirmation hearing for his Army post didn’t turn up any scandals, so it’s unlikely the next round will dig up some dirt that the Trump administration’s notoriously lax vetting process overlooked. It’s also unlikely he’ll dare to differ with Trump with about anything, no matter how obviously wrong Trump might be.
The Democrats on the confirmation committee will probably have some questions to ask about Esper’s tenure as top lobbyist for Raytheon, the military’s second biggest contractor, but they would have had the same questions about Shanahan’s long career as high-ranking executive at Boeing, the military’s biggest contractor. The Democrats will probably have the same questions for any fourth nominee Trump might put forward, as he’s clearly comfortable with the military-industrial complex, and has jettisoned all the multi-starred generals and admirals he once bragged about for daring to disagree with him.
Esper’s outstanding resume includes the dean’s list as West Point, a master’s degree from Harvard’s school of government, and a doctorate in philosophy of all things from George Washington University. He served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, was chief of staff at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and has held various government posts in the executive and legislative branches.
Despite such impeccable credentials, he was Trump’s third choice for Army secretary after the first two withdrew their nominations, in one case because the nominee didn’t want to divest his business holdings in defense-related business, in the other because of controversial comments about transgender bathrooms and Islam.
Esper will have to answer some tough questions from the Democrats about his handling of several sexual assault and harassment cases he handled as Army secretary, but the Republicans who hold a sight majority in the Senate probably won’t much care about that. We expect he’ll once again be easily confirmed, and will wind up doing as good a job as can be expected in an administration where the president and his national security advisor and Secretary of State are feuding about how to handle Iran’s recent aggression . He no doubt knows far more about defense issues than Trump does, as do Trump’s national security advisor and Secretary of State,  but Esper also seems shrewd enough to not let the boss know that.

— Bud Norman

How Not to Win Friends and Influence People

Back when he started to woo evangelical Christian voters President Donald Trump liked to boast that the pastor at the Presbyterian Church he had attended as a child was Norman Vincent Peale, saying “You could listen to him all day long,” but it never seemed clear what lessons he had learned from the sermons. Peale was better known as the author of the famously best-selling self-help book “The Power of Positive Thinking,,” and it does seem clear from Trump’s recent battles with his own party’s congressional leadership that he learned all the wrong lessons from that tome.
Trump escalated his ongoing war of words with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday with another series of “tweets.” He criticized both for rejecting his advice to attach a controversial debt ceiling increase to a popular Veterans’ Administration reform bill that recently passed with bipartisan support, claiming “Could have been so easy — now a mess!” A short time later he once again “tweeted” that McConnell was solely to blame for the Senate’s failure to pass an unpopular bill to repeal and replace the formerly unpopular Obamacare law. That came shortly after Trump had quite clearly criticized both Senators from Arizona in front of a raucous campaign rally crowd, even as he complimented himself for being so presidential as to not mention either man’s name, which followed several insulting “tweets” aimed at various other Republican congressmen who had criticized Trump’s response to the deadly violence that followed a white supremacist rally in Virginia.
No matter how much Trump positively thinks nones  of which seems likely to win him any new friends or influence anyone who isn’t already a die-hard supporter.
The idea that something as controversial as a debt ceiling increase could be easily snuck into a VA bill without anyone noticing, or everyone in both parties raising a fuss that would sink even such a popular and important piece of legislation, suggests to anyone at least vaguely familiar with the legislative process that the Senate majority leader and the House Speaker know a lot more about it than does the relatively neophyte president. McConnell does indeed bear much of the blame for the Republicans’ failure to get that unpopular health care reform bill passed, but there’s enough blame to spread around that fiasco that some of it surely falls on a Republican president who had run on a campaign promise that on the first day he’d repeal Obamacare and replace it with his beautiful but not very specific plan that would cover everyone and lower costs and it would be easy for your head will spin, and Trump would do well not to give his many critics another chance to mention that. Trump’s attempts to spread around the blame for the deadly violence that occurred at a white supremacist rally have not played well with the general public thus far, and he’d be wise not to drag that out any longer.
All of which seems to complicate some already darned complicated negotiations regarding that debt ceiling increase, along with a continuing spending resolution and various other matters that must be dealt with prior to some very hard deadlines looming in the near future in order to avert all sorts of political and economic disasters. Many congressional Republicans won their seats on the promise of ending the federal government’s endless borrowing and doing so without tax increases by drastically cutting spending, others ran on the same basic principles but with a begrudging acknowledgement that it would take some time and a lot of compromises on continuing spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases all the rest of that nonsense, and Trump exponentially complicates that internecine Republican complicatedness.
Trump became the Republican president with the usual Republican promises of low taxes and balanced budgets, but also some proudly anti-Republican promises of not touching the big entitlement programs that are driving the debt and adding at least a trillion dollars of infrastructure spending, as well as his assurances that he’d done enough big real estate deals that it would be easily achieved. We’ve never been in on any big real estate deals, but we’ve been watching how Congress works a lot longer than Trump seems to have done, so we’re skeptical that can keep all those promises and won’t further complicate things.
He added even more complications during that raucous rally in Phoenix, where he hinted he’d rather force a partial government shutdown than sign any continuing spending resolution that doesn’t include full funding for his campaign promise of a tall and formidable border wall stretching across the entire border with Mexico, which he now promises will also be translucent so you can see what those wily Mexicans are up to. During the campaign Trump routing led his die-hard supporters in a chant that Mexico will pay for the wall, as president he’s threatening that he’d cause a partial government shutdown and perhaps even a federal default if the Republican-led Congress doesn’t pay for it with taxpayer funds, and we can’t imagine of the Democratic minority wanting to help him out.
From our Republican perspective out here on the prairie it seems that Trump is less interested in averting political and economic catastrophes than in making sure he once again doesn’t get blamed for them by his most die-hard supporters. McConnell and Ryan and the rest of the Republican party are easy enough targets, we must admit, so there’s a certain self-interested reason for those insulting “tweets.” As pillars of the Republican establishment they’re already reviled by the entirety of the Democratic party, and they do indeed shoulder a share of the blame for the Grand Old Party’s recent failures to make good on the opportunity of its recent political dominance, and the talk radio talkers and most of their grassroots listeners have bitched and moaned out long enough that Trump got nominated and even more improbably elected on the promise to burn the down the establishment.
At the time we wondered how Trump’s mostly-reluctant 46 percent share of the popular presidential vote was going to prevail against the combined might of both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as all the economic and civic and academic and religious institutions that comprise the much-maligned establishment, and thought that “burn it down” was a peculiar rallying cry for conservatism, and at this point we’re hoping that some semblance of the pragmatic Republicanism we always voted for will somehow prevail. At this point that means rooting for the likes of McConnell and Ryan and against Trump and his and ridiculous border wall idea, and hoping there are still enough sensible Democrats to join with averting the looming political and economic disasters, but so be it.
For all their failures both McConnell and Ryan still strike us as more serious men than Trump, and we’re heartened they don’t seem at all influenced by Trump’s “tweets.” Ryan did his best to ignore Trump’s “tweeting” on Thursday, and instead had an impressive “town hall” appearance at a Boeing factory in the Seattle area, where he made a clear case for the Boeing-friendly corporate tax reforms that both he and Trump are working for. Some of the questioners questioned Ryan’s support for de-funding the Export-Import Bank that Boeing has taken generous advantage of, and he gave a very detailed explanation about how other reforms he’s pursuing would leave the company just as well advantaged, and we can’t imagine Trump giving a better answer. One Boeing employee asked a rather frank question about how he was dealing with Trump’s latest public pronouncements, which she seemed to find troubling, and Ryan deftly replied “It’s a day-by-day deal,” adding “I am kind of joking.”
We can’t find any press reports of questions about Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which aren’t likely to benefit Boeing’s largely export-driven business, and although Ryan is far more a traditional Republican free-trader than we suspect they were both glad of that. At this point we’re liking the Republican establishment that Trump vowed to burn down than we’re liking Trump, but we can’t say that give us a hopeful feeling.
Even a partial government shutdown would be a political disaster that can’t plausibly be blamed on that darned Democratic minority, a federal default would be a catastrophic global economic disaster that makes everyone in the American body politic culpable, so surely some sort of desultory-to-all-sides deal will eventually be struck, We’d feel a whole lot more hopeful, though, if any of the players seemed more interested in averting the looming catastrophe than avoiding any blame for it.

— Bud Norman

Capitalism and Its Current Respectability

Lately the reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post and the rest of the respectable press have a strange new respect for the old-fashioned Republican sort of free markets economics, which we attribute entirely to president-elect Donald Trump.
Although Trump won’t take office for another five weeks or so, he’s already made news by cajoling the Carrier heating and air conditioning company into keeping 800 jobs that were slated for Mexico in Indiana, “tweeted” the cancellation of an order with Boeing for a new Air Force One fleet over alleged cost overruns, and once again threatened any company that’s considering a foreign work force with a 35 percent tariff. All of which is news that poses a dilemma for the respectable press.
The current operational definition of a respectable press is its instinctive opposition to anything that any Republican might do, and especially Trump, but the president-elect’s unorthodox style of Republicanism is not susceptible to the usual criticisms. Trump’s meddling in Carrier’s affairs is precisely the sort of industrial policy that Democrats have long championed, and although they usually prefer the stick of punitive tax hikes to such carrots as the $7 million in tax abatements that the state of Indiana will offer it’s not enough to hang a scathing critique on. Boeing and the rest of the military-industrial complex are usually cast as the villains, and any attempt to shortchange them is usually cheered. All the tough protectionist talk that got Trump elected isn’t much different from what self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders eventually forced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to embrace.
Compelling arguments against Trump’s policies can only be found on the right, in the free market theories that until recently defined the Republican party’s economic platform, and in its desperation the respectable is suddenly willing to go there. All the stories now feature lengthy explanations of Trump’s inefficient market distortions by economists from such capitalist think-tanks as the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute or the University of Chicago or some similarly red-in-tooth-and-claw economics department, and without the usual characterization’s of “right wing” or mention of any funding they might be receiving from the Koch brothers. They’re the same names that have been in the respectable press’ rolodex the past eight years, quoted briefly in the tenth or eleventh paragraph for the sake of balance, but suddenly they’re showing up right after the lead and getting a chance to rebut the Trumponomics that is now being added for the sake of balance somewhere in the ten or the eleventh paragraph.
We’re glad to see it, being red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and no fans of Trump ourselves, but it seems a case of much too little and far too late. The respectable press wasn’t making such a fuss about Trump’s Republican heresies back during the Republican primary, when it might have done some good, and these days the respectable press doesn’t seem to have much influence even with with Democrats. Such disreputable Democrats as the party’s newest congressional leader, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, have long been the beneficiaries of Trump’s political donations, and they’ve always come through for him in the past, it’s hard to see how they’re suddenly going to be swayed the think-tank theories of a suddenly swept away Republican party to oppose the same sort of tax-abatement-dealing and corporate strong-arming and old-fashioned protectionism they’ve always wanted, and the respectable press will also have a hard time with that news.
The old tried-and-true ideas will surely stick around to denouement, with all the variations from those think tanks and economic departments and the help of such respectably anti-Trump conservative presses as National Review and The Weekly Standard and The Central Standard Times, even if it is eventually relegated to the tenth and eleventh paragraphs. Eventually they’ll get another try. In the meantime we’re glad to see the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post helping out, however begrudgingly.

— Bud Norman

Boeing, Boeing, Boing, Boing

For civic and family and purely personal reasons we have a certain affection for the Boeing Company, gigantic globalist corporate villain of creative capitalist destruction though it might well be, so naturally we were alarmed to see it was the most recent target of president-elect Donald Trump’s latest “tweet.”
“Boeing is building a brand new Air Force One for future presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion,” Trump “tweeted,” ominously adding the words “Cancel order!” Although a president-elect’s “tweet” doesn’t carry the same legal authority as an actual president’s nebulously defined executive power to renege on a contract, at least for the moment, the threatened cancellation was enough to cause a momentary dip in Boeing stock value and set off a round of harrumphing among all sorts of media. The left was reflexively appalled by any Trump “tweet,” even if it meant defending one of their usual corporate villains, the office-dwelling segments of the right were understandably worried about what’s to become of the rest of the federal government’s sizable contracts in the upcoming age of “The Art of the Deal,” even if that was a criticism of a duly elected Republican, and from our political perspective on the sidelines we’re going with our personal affection for the Boeing Company and unshakeable suspicion of this Trump fellow.
Four billion bucks does seem a lot of money for an airplane, at least by our own personal transportation standards, and probably even by the personal transportation standards of a billionaire who has famously gold-plated and leather-lined toilets on one of his fleet of jets and helicopters, and even those suspiciously lefty newspapers concede that Trump’s “tweeted” price is not far off the mark, but surely there are other considerations. There are actually two airplanes required to cope with all the exigencies of an all-out nuclear war, which unfortunately is once again one of those things that might actually happen, and both have to be outfitted with highly sophisticated defense and re-fueling systems that can survive the most devastating attacks and still coordinate communications with whatever’s left of a post-apocalyptic world. That kind of thing doesn’t come cheap, of course, and is not typically acquired by the same means as a real estate developer leaning on a less-politically-connected contractor and his immigrant workers, so we’re reduced to hoping that the president-elect is out of his league in this fight.
If Trump is willing to be the first future president to risk that post-apocalyptic scenario so be it, and we’ll just be glad he’s going down with the rest of us, but if he thinks he can get a better bid elsewhere, we’re not sure where he’d look. At this point Boeing is the only company in America with the know-how and other resources to get the job done, and even if Trump were willing to forsake his nationalist principles and find a supplier elsewhere he’d probably discover there’s no other company in the entire world up to the task. Unlike the Democratic left or what’s left of the erstwhile Republican right, Boeing finds itself in a strong negotiating position against Trump. Something in our red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist souls abhors such a monopoly, but we can’t help liking the idea of Boeing serving as a check and balance on Trump’s presidential power.
Our beloved hometown of Wichita was transformed from a sleepy little wheat-dealing and biplane-making town into a top-50 metropolis when Boeing started cranking out round-the-clock B-29s here during World War II, and the resulting military-industrial complex drew our beloved pop here with a job at the same company. As he rose from the engineering drafting boards to the executive suites he and his colleagues helped win the Cold War with the constantly and expensively upgraded B-52, and he went on to devise some very deadly helicopters designed for the persistent smaller but still expensive wars that have followed, and in his retirement he’s been mostly pleased how those young whippersnappers who succeeded him have kept his stock holdings up, so naturally we cheer on Boeing’s success. The company pulled almost entirely out of town a while back, and is now outnumbered by the heavily-subsidized and once-hated Europeans of Airbus in the local workforce, but as a good-bye gesture Boeing gave a sweetheart deal on that huge south side factory complex and most of its job to one of its biggest subcontractors, and the Beech and Cessna and Lear plants or whatever their current corporate names are have all survived the current president’s past rhetoric against “corporate jets,” so for now we’re still the self-proclaimed “Air Capital of the World.” The family portfolio should do just as well, and we hope that the rest of capitalism fares as well.
An apparent attempt to low-ball Boeing on a previously signed and legally iron-clad deal is already alarming every other company that does business with the federal government, and given that more than 22 percent of the gross domestic product is paid for by the federal government that’s a lot of businesses, and among them are the only ones who know to get certain essential jobs done. If Trump wants to renegotiate each of the thousands or hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of contracts that have already been negotiated by the government he now heads he can go right on ahead, but we expect it will prove more costly than that Trump University case he recently settled for a mere $25 million. Free markets and an independent judiciary are two of the essential bulwarks against autocracy, even when they’re monopolistic and legalistic, and we’re glad of it.

— Bud Norman