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The Center Asserts Itself

President Donald Trump specifically denounced the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists on Monday, with none of the talk about the bigotry and violence of “many sides” that characterized his earlier statement about the deadly events the white supremacists had provoked over the weekend in Virginia, and we suppose it was better late than never. Still, widespread suspicions will likely linger about his sincerity.
No one should suspect that Trump has any affinity for the violent sort of white supremacists who provoked the events in Virginia, but by now no one can trust his commitment to racial equality. Trump’s real estate business has been fined for discrimination against black tenants, he continued calling for the execution of five black teenagers convicted of rape even after scientific evidence had definitively proved their innocence, suggested that judges of hispanic descent were unfit to hear any case he was involved in, “re-tweeted” bogus statistics and racist “memes” from white supremacists web sites, and this weekend wasn’t the first time he was slow to denounce the violent sort of white supremacists who had openly expressed their support of him. The White House chief strategist is Steve Bannon, former editor of a web site he described as a “platform the ‘alt-right,'” other key aides have offered apologetics for the “alt-right,” and if you’re not hep to latest political lingo the “alt-right” is basically white supremacism with pretensions of intellectual respectability.
Our liberal friends would cite Trump’s border enforcement policies, restrictions on travel from some several Muslim-majority countries, and willingness to investigate the affirmative action policies at publicly-funded universities as further evidence of his racism, but except for that stupid wall idea we think there’s a sound conservative case to be made that each of these benefit the country as a whole. Those arguments have to be precisely stated, though, and with due respect to the complicated array of perspectives in such a polyglot country as this, and without any lingering doubts on the part of the listener about the speaker’s sincere commitment to racial equality. Trump, alas, seems the wrong guy for a job with those particular requirements.
Which is not good for the country at large, and as straight white conservative male Republicans out here in the heartland we’re bearing some small part of the burden. We’re “Bleeding Kansas” Republicans, whose political forebears signed up in record numbers to fight the Confederacy and the Nazis, whose flags those white supremacist idiots in Virginia were waving, and for years we’ve struggled to convince others on that complicated array of perspectives that our commonsensical views on taxation and regulation and defense spending all the rest of it are not tainted by association with those noxious causes. Trump’s delayed denunciation of the KKK and neo-Nazis, and continuing silence about the re-branded white supremacism of the “alt-right” elements that are still next door to the Oval Office, do not make our task any easier.
Nor do Trump’s apologists further the conservative Republican cause. Some of the first punches that were thrown when those white supremacists gather in Virginia came from counter-protestors, to be sure, but others just as surely thrown were thrown by the armored-and-armed protestors who started the whole mess, and it did turn out to a white supremacist who is charged with ramming his car into a crowd of protestors and killing an especially non-violent counter-protestor, and it was not a time to be equally condemning of “many sides.” There have indeed been far too many case of similarly unprovoked violence by the worst elements of the left, including assaults on people leaving Trump rallies, which the left is indeed not similarly condemned for, but the aftermath of a deadly melee that started with a bunch of armored-and-armed white supremacists invading a picturesque college town is not the right time to be making that argument.
Most of the Republican party, at least, moved quicker and convincingly to disassociate themselves from the KKK and neo-Nazism. Texas’ Sen. Ted Cruz is widely vilified by the left as an extremist conservative, but he went to “Twitter” shortly after the deaths to denounce the racism that clearly the cause of the tragedy, and it vindicated our vote for him the Kansas Republican caucus. The party’s congressional leaders and the Vice President and the president’s favorite daughter were also well ahead of him in singling out the KKK and neo-Nazis for condemnation, as were the more respectable quarters of the conservative print media. The comments sections were full of people still fuming about the past violence by the sleazier segments of the left, along with all the usual conspiracy theories about George Soros and Jewish cabals paying for it all, but the mainstream Republican reaction was enough to prompt Trump’s more specific remarks on Monday.
So for now the center holds, and the news will likely soon return to North Korea and that Russia thing, with a difficult debt ceiling fight in Congress quickly coming up, but those stories probably won’t be helpful, and Trump and such Trump-wary Republicans as ourselves will be diminished. The KKK and neo-Nazi story grew another day’s new pair of legs when the chairman of the giant Merck pharmacy corporation, one of the very few black Fortune 500 chief executive officers, resigned his post on a White House advisory council in protest of Trump’s initial statement, and Trump “tweeted” back a petty insult about the company’s “ripoff” drug prices, so that also doesn’t help the free market conservative cause.
Trump’s specific denunciation of white supremacism is better late than never, though, and a hopeful sign that the center will somehow hold. Nudging the country’s path slightly to the rightward direction we’d prefer, though, won’t be any easier.

— Bud Norman

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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 Second Hundred Days Begin

President Donald Trump’s most ardent admirers admire his blunt talk, so we’ll just go right ahead and say that his second hundred days are off a to a rocky start. He gave a couple of interviews that invited ridicule by his liberal critics, signed a spending bill that offered nothing his conservative supporters were hoping for, and had a “very friendly” phone call with the Philippines’ crazy-pants president that alarmed pretty much everybody but Trump’s most ardent admirers.
One of the interviews was aired Monday morning on CBS’ “This Morning” program, and featured host John Dickerson asking Trump about his relationship with preceding President Barack Obama. Trump said “He was very nice to me, but after that we’ve had our difficulties.” Pressed further, Trump said “You saw what happened with surveillance, and everybody saw what happened with surveillance.” Unsure what happened and everybody saw with surveillance, Dickerson asked for clarification. “You can figure that out yourself,” Trump replied. A seemingly befuddled Dickerson stammered about question about Trump “tweeting” that Obama was “sick and bad,” and Trump again replied that “Look, you can figure it out for yourself.”
At that point the interview was already going badly, except for those viewers who always revel in watching Trump be brusque with an interviewer, and then Dickerson had the impudence to ask “But you do stand by that claim about him?” Trump replied that “I don’t stand by anything,” and by then it was destined to go down in history as one of the most disastrous interviews ever. Even Trump’s most ardent admirers will have to admit that “I don’t stand by anything” isn’t something you can post on YouTube with the title “Trump absolutely destroys CBS reporter.”
Trump added that “I just — you can take it the way you want,” and something about how it’s all been proved and everybody’s talking about it and how it should be discussed, and “we should find out what the hell’s going on,” and some more short snippy answers to tuhalf-asked questions before terminating the interview with a polite “OK, it’s enough. Thank you. Thank you very much.” We doubt it did much good, though, and expect that only the line about “I don’t stand by anything” will wind up in future editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Trump also sat down in the Oval Office for an interview with the far friendlier Salena Zito of the far friendlier Washington Examiner, but even that friendly conservation went badly awry. As Zito was reading off a carefully chosen list of questions about current issues, all of which provided the president an opportunity to make the case for his policies, Trump suddenly interjected — “apropos of nothing,” as Zito would explain to one of her subsequent interviewers — a rambling soliloquy about his high regard for President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait was hanging nearby.
“They said my campaign and is most like, my campaign and win, was most like Andrew Jackson with his campaign. And I said, ‘When was Andrew Jackson?’ It was 1828. That’s a long time ago. That’s Andrew Jackson, and he had a very, very mean and nasty campaign, because they said this was the meanest and nastiest campaign yet.” Not content to confess his previous ignorance of 19th Century American history, Trump further speculated that “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the the Civil War. He said ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that not have been worked out?”
All of which, alas, was irresistible fodder for all the left-wing critics and late-night comics and more respectably leftist press pundits. They had Trump on tape once again veering off topic into some self-aggrandizing non sequitur, and once again into territory he didn’t know much about. Jackson did indeed run an historically nasty campaign against John Quincy Adams, but emulating that it not something that politicians should brag about. Adams did run an historically nasty campaign against Jackson, who plausibly blamed his scandalized wife’s death on the bad press, but Trump getting sentimental about how Jackson visited her grave every day almost writes its own own punch lines.
Jackson sure enough was a tough guy, with the evidence of a lifelong facial scar from the saber of a British officer inflicted on the sassy 13-year-old prisoner of the Revolutionary War — or one of those guys “who got caught,” as Trump put it in another disastrous interview — and a distinguished record in several conflicts with Indians and historic and folk-song worthy victory in the Battle of New Orleans. But given Trump’s military and tough guy record, which involved bone spurs and a “personal Vietnam” of dodging venereal disease on the New York City dating scene, he really shouldn’t be inviting any comparisons. As for Jackson’s “big heart,” Jackson was the guy ordered that the peaceable and productive Cherokee people be forced from their Carolina’s on a death march along the Trail of Tears, and even in his final, frail years he was using his cane against any impudent pressmen. All of that might play well with Trump and his most ardent admirers, but for everybody else it’s a disastrous interview.
Jackson was also an ardent defender of the peculiar institution of slavery, so a less friendlier interview might well have asked Trump how he thought Jackson might have averted a Civil War in a way that Americans of that time or this time would have found acceptable. Although Trump seems not have given it much thought until recently, the question of why the Civil War happened as been a matter of ongoing debate ever since, and most Americans who have passed a sixth grade history test or earned a doctorate in the field have reached the same conclusion President Abraham Lincoln did in his second inaugural address: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
There were also arguments between North and South over tariffs and taxes and all the immigrants pouring into the north, to be sure, but so far that’s not the sort of thing Americans have civil wars over. Trump is clearly speculating, apropos of nothing, that the pro-slavery guy would have settled the far more pressing, far more irresolvable question of slavery, and that such a savvy deal-maker and tough guy with a big heart would have done the same, and unless you’re an ardent admirer that’s a hard interview to defend.
Several of Trump’s usual defenders were too busy, though, grousing about that spending bill that got passed and signed and was hopefully overlooked in all the rest of the chatter.
We won’t recount all the gripes that the talk radio hosts had, but we’ll link you to the gloating of The Washington Post that headlined it “Eight ways Trump got rolled in his first budget negotiation.” They note that Trump not only didn’t get his one billion dollar request for a border wall, which sometime supporter called a “measly one billion,” but the bill includes explicit language against any spending on a border wall. Trump had vowed no increase in spending, but the bill includes no cuts and $4.6 billion for Trump’s Appalachian coal miners and $295 million for the Puerto Rican Medicaid recipients that Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi insisted on, and the $61 million that Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer got for the New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, law enforcements that are paying for Trump’s frequent visits, which even the right wing talk radio hosts are starting to sour on.
Obama’s $1.2 billion funding for a “moonshot” cancer program was renewed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget was cut by 1 percent rather than the requested one-third, and Planned Parenthood was defunded at all. The defense budget was raised by less than half of what Trump insisted on, 160 Republican riders were dropped, and as early as last week the White House was agreeing to keep stringing along the Obamacare subsidies. There’s more, but The Washington Post ran out of column inches for its gloating. Lest you think it’s all “fake news” from “The Washington Compost,” all the talk radio hosts seemed to be grousing about the very same things.
It’s all temporary, with more battles vowed to be more vigorously fought, and there’s plenty of blame to go around to those establishment Republicans that Trump vowed to bring to heel, and as always the Democrats are nothing to brag about, but for now there’s no denying it makes for a bad news cycle. The headlines and the poll results would been even worse if a Republican president and Republican congress hadn’t come up with something to avert a government shutdown, but we doubt even Trump will tout that victory.
That’s enough to keep even such political junkies distracted, but we couldn’t help noticing that phone call between Trump and the Philippines’ Duterte. It’s a long story but we were born in the Philippines and have tried to keep abreast of the news there ever since, and we’re aware that the current leader is a foul-mouthed and boastfully murderous fellow who has lately been waging a “war on drugs” that has gunned thousands of people who might or might not have been involved in drugs, as no courts or evidence were involved, and has had the most profane words for American ambassadors and Roman Catholic Popes but a friendly relationship with the dictatorship in China. Trump has had only kind words for the man, though, and his own State Department’s synopsis of their most recent phone call described it as “friendly” and including an invitation to the White House, which Duterte has yet to accept.
That’s more fodder for the left, especially after his recent congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Raccip Erdogan after winning a clearly rigged election to give his Islamist government dictatorial powers, and anther move that the right is struggling to defend. There might well be some brilliant strategy at play here, and we surely hope so, but if Trump is just trying to drive a plot line he’s going to need some new writers.

— Bud Norman

His Back Against the Wall

President Donald Trump has lost the first round of negotiations for his promised border wall, big league, and he should be glad of it. If he plays it just right, he might be able to wriggle his way out of the ill-advised promise altogether.
That won’t be easy, though, as Trump made it the centerpiece of his campaign. His rally audiences would serenade him with chants of “Build That Wall!,” which was also emblazoned on many of the t-shirts in the crowded arenas, and he frankly admitted to The New York Times that “You know, if it gets a little bit boring, if I see people starting to so of, maybe thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall,’ and they go nuts.” As the negotiations for the big spending resolution started he insisted that funding for the wall be included but he was already starting to be a little less insistent when he told the Associated Press over the weekend that “People want the border wall. My base definitely wants the border wall. My base really wants it — you’ve been to many of the rallies. OK, the thing they want more than anything is the wall.”
Trump always played The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as he exited his rallies, too, so the base should have been forewarned that some promises would be hard to keep. He’d also promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, and when he’d ask his rallies “Who’s gonna for pay for it” they’d chant back Mexico, so asking Congress for the money was already a big concession. Trump did “tweet” his reassurance that “Eventually, but at a later date so we can get started early, Mexico will be paying in some form, for the badly needed border wall,” but he eventually was forced to concede that it’s not the thing most badly needed at the moment.
If some spending resolution or another doesn’t get passed by Friday, right around the time everyone will be writing their “First 100 Days” stories, the government will go into another one of those occasional partial shutdowns. They’re fine by us, but most people seem to intensely dislike them, and they always get the most awful press, and no matter what all the fuss is about the Republicans always seem to get the worst of it. With the Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress and the White House even most the creative talk radio hosts would find it hard to blame it on the Democrats, so at the moment job one is avoiding poll-damaging unpleasantness.
Trump seems to have thought this would give him the needed leverage to get the money to start building the wall he’d promised his base, and within the 100-day deadline he’d promised, but he quickly realized that these sorts of negotiations are different from a real estate deal.
As much as those people at the rallies wanted the wall, all the public opinions polls showed that a solid majority of the country was against it and only 38 percent or so had any real enthusiasm for the idea. The opposition included all the Republican-held border districts, too, where landowners were facing eminent domain seizures of old family ranches and Indian reservation land and the occasional non-Trump-owned golf course, and all sorts of local economies were going to be inconveniently cut off from valued neighboring customers and friends. There were also unanswered questions about the wall’s cost and whether the money would be more effectively spent on drones and increased patrols and checking up on visa overstays and other more traditional methods of border enforcement, and just how Mexico might be forced to pay for it, and whether such a strain on relations with a neighbor was really needed at a time when net migration from Mexico is about zero, so there were likely to be some other Republicans resisting as well.
With his own approval ratings around 42 percent in an average of all the polls Trump doesn’t enjoy the kind of political capital that would cow a border Congressman enough to defy his district, and those other reluctant Republicans are also in districts where some distance from the president might be advised, so he shrewdly agreed that he’d sign whatever spending resolution the congressional Republicans could come up with to avoid a shut-down. A big victory for the base in time for those 100 day stories would have been nice, but having all the stories be about a government shutdown because of the president’s insistence on a wall that most people don’t want and even members of his own party opposed would have been disastrous, and Trump understands the publicity game well enough to know that.
Trump “tweeted” enough tough talk that his rally-going supporters can console themselves that “at least he fights,” and we expect most of them will be satisfied with that. They’re still promised that Trump will fight again for the wall, eventually, in some form, but it’s hard to imagine any time in the near future when there won’t be some new spending resolution or other impending crisis that’s more pressing, and all the arguments those border counties and the rest of the country are making will still be valid, and Mexico almost certainly won’t be any more inclined to pay for it. At this moment the wall seems another case of you can’t always get what you want.
“But if you try sometimes,” as the Stones’ song goes, “you might just find you get what you need.” Trump’s already touting all the more traditional border enforcement that he’s beefed up, most of which we and a majority of the rest of country heartily approve of, and we’re quite confident that the funding for it won’t be affected whatever spending resolution the congressional Republicans come up with to avert a government shutdown. This is a happy enough resolution for us, at the moment.
After all the court interventions and more moderate counsel the president has been getting lately his more-muscular-than-Obama approach to border enforcement is pretty much what all of those supposedly soft-on-immigration Republican presidential contenders endorsed, and about the same as the Mitt Romney plan that Trump then decried as inhumane, but the base will probably be satisfied by the familiar argument that only Trump could have made such an audacious opening bid with something so outrageous as a wall stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean as a brilliant ploy to reach these common sense solutions. His more ingenious apologists are also fond of saying that you have to take Trump seriously but not literally, and Trump is already suggesting that c’mon, he was talking metaphorically about common sense border enforcement and not an actual big, beautiful wall that no Mexican could find a ladder long enough to climb over, because c’mon, that idea’s so outrageous no one would take it literally.
We think a lot of those people at the rallies took it literally, and were looking forward to seeing some chastened Mexican handing over a literal check, but sooner or later they’ll come around. Although some of his supporters are already sore about his newfound moderate positions on issues ranging from China’s alleged currency manipulation to a Syrian missile strike that didn’t seem to have an “America First” rationale, if Trump keeps up the robust border enforcement he can let his big, beautiful wall fade into memory without taking too much of a hit in the polls. Gradually dropping the wall issue probably won’t win over any of Trump’s most determined critics, but it will deprive them of a potent issue, and he’ll have easier dealings in the future with certain Republican congressmen to accomplish something more popular.
Trump was shrewd to take a loss this round, and we hope he’s shrewd enough to lose that crazy wall idea altogether.

— Bud Norman