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On the Wisdom of Leaving Bad Enough Alone

Up until he took that famous escalator ride down to the lobby of Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States, we happily paid little attention to Donald Trump. Since then we’ve been forced to pay attention, though, and have noticed that he never backs down, always fights back, and never fails to leave bad enough alone. President Trump demonstrated those same qualities yet again on Tuesday, and as usual they didn’t serve him well.
The whole mess started last Friday when a few hundred armed-and-armored Ku Klux Klansmen and neo-Nazis and various other white supremacist types from around the country descended on the picturesque and impeccably liberal college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, for a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee from a local park and to more generally “Unite the Right.” Of course a larger crowd of counter-protestors turned out, there were predictably many street brawls between the more violent elements of both crowds, and it culminated with a muscle car driven by one of the white supremacists plowing into a crowd of peaceful counter-protestors and killing one while injuring 20 others. Several hours after the fatal incident the president addressed the nation, condemning the “hated, violence and bigotry, on many sides,” repeating “on many sides” for emphasis.
Except for the most loyal news outlets and their most steadfast callers and commenters, and the former Grand Wizard and the “alt-right” spokesman who co-hosted the rally and “tweeted” their thanks for the statement, the reviews were not kind. The entirety of the left, almost the entirety of the middle, and all the more respectable segments of the right were offended by the apparent moral equivalence between the KKK and neo-Nazis and the people who engaged in the fights they had clearly intended to provoke. Both the moderate and more traditionally conservative Republicans in Congress were more unequivocal in their denunciations of white supremacism, so were several administration officials, including the Vice President and that Attorney General the left considers a stone-cold racist, as well as the president’s favorite daughter, and by Monday Trump was reading a teleprompter-ed speech that actually named the KKK and neo-Nazism and racism in general while singling them out for specific presidential opprobrium.
The entirety of the left doubted that his heart was really in it, and most of the middle and those respectable quarters of the right were openly wondering what took him so long, but at least it gave his apologists in the administration and the most loyal news outlets something to work with. There were bound to deal with predictable some sidebar stories, which in this case involved a few Fortune 500 executives and organized labor honchos resigning from a presidential advisory board in protest of the president’s handling of the situation, but a careful moment of silence might have helped quiet the storm of negative coverage. Tuesday also brought news of the North Koreans doing their usual backing down from their usual bellicose rhetoric in the face’s of Trump’s more-bellicose-than-usual rhetoric, the latest leak about the “Russia” thing actually bolstered the president’s much-in-need-of-bolstering claim that he had nothing to do with it, and the stock markets were up and employment was still down and the weather was nice here in Wichita, but by now we’ve seen enough of the guy that we’re not the least bit surprised Trump chose to instead make the Charlottesville mess the top story for yet another day.
Instead, Trump started the day with a round of “tweets” insulting the business executives and labor leaders who had resigned from his manufacturing advisory panel.The first of them had been the head of the Merck pharmaceutical company, one of the few black CEOs to hold such a position, and Trump had already accused him “ripping off” his customers. The next two were the predictably white and male heads of a software giant and a prominent sports gear manufacturer, then the president of the labor-affiliated Alliance for American Manufacturing and the American-Federation of Labor-Congress of Interational Organizations. Trump tweeted back that there were plenty of good people willing to replace them and that they were “grandstanding,” apparently unaware of what a hoot that was to all but his most loyal supporters. In a later press conference he said the executives were leaving out of “embarrassment” about their companies’ reliance on foreign labor, which is also something of a hoot if you’ve been following the practices of his still-held businesses and those of his favorite daughter.
Facing the press, and its inevitable questions about that widely-panned first statement blaming the fatal violence that resulted from a KKK and neo-Nazi rally on “many sides, on many sides,” Trump again characteristically refused to back down, Monday’s teleprompter-ed back down notwithstanding. The Monday statement had included the presidential boilerplate about love and unity, but in the press conference he struck to the more unscripted hostility and divisiveness that has long characterized his interactions with the press. In between gratuitous insults of the press as an institution and certain reporters in particular, Trump defiantly defended his earlier moral equivalence between the KKK and the neo-Nazis and the people they wound up having street fights with, insisted there were some “very fine people” marching alongside those Confederate-and-Nazi-flag waving Klansmen and neo-Nazis, and worked in some recently rosy economic statistics.
There was enough truth to it to give Trump’s most loyal supporters something to work with, but they should resent that he’s once again made their job of persuading the rest of the country all the more difficult. The mostly placid and hippy-dippy counter-protesters did indeed include some of the violent “antifa” idiots who always show up itching for a fight, and indeed the left has all too often been reluctant and unequivocal in denunciations of their violence, but when they inevitably provoke the next round of unpleasantness their apologists will now be entitled to recall the last time around when the violent idiots on the right started it all and the right was slow and equivocal in its denunciations. We’re sympathetic to the arguments that the south is entitled to acknowledge its troubled history with a certain sort of ambiguous gratitude, and that there’s something unsettlingly Taliban-esque about the new one true faith wiping out any trace of any previous civilization, but we can’t imagine any sort of very fine people who might make these arguments while marching alongside torch-bearing and armed-and-armored Confederate-and-Nazi-flag-waving Klansmen and neo-Nazis.
Another thing we’ve noticed about Trump since his famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower is that he’s not much of a student of history, so of course he wondered aloud if the removal of a Gen. Robert E. Lee statue would ultimately lead to the removal of monuments to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, who were similarly tainted by the sin of slave ownership. He touched on a true point well worth considering, that America’s all-too-human past should be judged by where it ultimately led and might yet lead rather than all the all-too-human stops it’s made along the way, but Tuesday was a particularly inopportune time in history and Robert E. Lee a particularly wrong example to make the case. Washington was the general who won the country’s independence and established a high example of leadership as its first president, Jefferson was a reluctant slave-holder who wrote the Declaration of Independence that President Abraham cited as his authority to quell the Confederate rebellion and abolish slavery, whereas Lee was the general who led a rebellion against the country that was explicitly explained by the rebels as a defense of chattel slavery, and despite Lee’s many martial and other virtues the aftermath of a deadly riot provoked by the KKK and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists is not a ripe moment to come to his defense.
During that typically disastrous press conference Trump also asserted that the matter of public monuments in such towns as Charlottesville are best left to the local citizenry, and we couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. He seems not to have noticed that the mayor and city council and the general consensus of the picturesque and impeccably liberal town of Charlottesville and its mayor and city council had decided not to have one of its most picturesque parks devoted to the memory of Lee, however, nor that the opposition were almost entirely a bunch of armed-and-armored Klansmen and neo-Nazis and other white supremacists from out of town.
Yes, Trump is quite right that the Washington and Jefferson memorials should forever stand, but when we eventually get around to that argument he won’t have helped the case.
Trump still isn’t backing down, continues to fight back, as ever refuses to leave bad enough alone, and so for now at least we have to admit that it’s worked out pretty well for him so far. He’s indisputably the President of the United States, as he often reminds everyone, and indisputably we are not.
We can’t help but wonder, though, how many fights this tough guy can start and still somehow come out on top. By now Trump is feuding not only with the entirety of the left and most of the middle and the more respectable quarters of the right, along with much of his own administration, but also the Boy Scouts of America and several of top law enforcement officials in America’s most populous cities and a loud segment of the Fortune 500 as well as all the late-night comics, so we’re not surprised the latest poll has Trump at a 34 percent approval rating. Other and older polls have him in the low 40s, but even the most favorable have a majority expressing disapproval, and we doubt that Trump’s never-back-down and always-fight insticts will serve him well. He’ll need those Fortune 500 executives to get his tax agenda passed, and could have used some help from the organized labor honchos and the votes of their hard-hat rank-and file on his infrastructure plans and immigration policies, and we can’t see any compensating votes he’s picked up in the last few days.
Better Trump had stuck to the teleprompter-ed script and left bad enough alone.

— Bud Norman

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Shaking Up the White House, Except at the Top

Last week was a rough one for the administration of President Donald Trump, and even his most stubborn apologists can’t deny it.
Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare once again went unfulfilled, this time seemingly for good. He was publicly rebuked by the Boy Scouts as well as numerous police chiefs for a couple of widely-panned speeches he recently gave on their behalf. The House and Senate sent him a nearly unanimously-passed and thus entirely veto-proof bill that imposes sanctions on Russia and limits his ability to do anything about it, which was also unmistakably a rebuke of his Russia-friendly campaign promises. Trump continued a war of words against his own Attorney General, who had inconveniently recused himself from the various investigations about Russia’s apparent efforts on behalf of Trump during the campaign, but several important congressional Republicans sternly warned him not to the fire the guy or otherwise try to interfere with all the ongoing inquiries.
There was a Trump-“tweeted” order for the military to no longer allow transgendered troops, but it apparently was a surprise to the vacationing defense secretary, the generals in charge of such things admitted they weren’t sure if a “tweet” was an official order, several important congressional Republicans were also among the critics, and the newly installed press secretary couldn’t answer such obvious questions as how it would affect any transgendered troops currently serving in hazardous duty. The press secretary was newly-installed because Trump had also forced the resignation of his communications director, whose successor almost immediately went on a profanity-laden rant to The New Yorker that very saltily slurred the White House’s chief of staff and chief strategist and threatened to either fire or kill countless other administration officials.
By the end of the week Trump also forced the resignation of his chief of staff, but the apologists are hoping that’s going to turn things around. Newly-installed in the job is John Kelly, who comes in after rising to four-star general rank in the Marines, serving for four years as commander of the United States’ Southern Command despite his frequent clashes with the administration of President Barack Obama over Guantamo Bay and the Mexican border and other issues, and for the past six months has been doing a provably efficient job of fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises about illegal immigration as head of the Department of Homeland Security. A Washington Post headline describes Kelly as someone who “won’t suffer idiots and fools,” and he has a hard-earned reputation for imposing the military-style discipline that even the most ardent apologists will admit the Trump administration sorely needs.
Kelly certainly seems a very formidable force, and we wish him well, if only because we’re exhausted keeping up with all the news these days, but we’ll wait and see how it turns out. It’s hard to see how he would have made much of a difference last week, so we hold out only faint hope for this week.
There’s plenty of blame to be spread around the Republican party for its failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, but it’s going to take a pretty ardent apologist to argue that Trump doesn’t bear some of it, and there’s no reason to think Kelly could have changed that. Kelly’s predecessor was Reince Priebus, who had previously risen through the Republican ranks to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, and with considerable help from Obama he was instrumental in electing many members of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate as well as a Republican president. That wasn’t enough to fulfill the party’s seven-year-old promise of repeal and replacement of Obamacare, as it turns out, but there’s nothing on Kelly’s otherwise impressive resume to suggest he’s any more familiar with health care policy or has any more sway with the suddenly rebellious Republican caucus in Congress.
Neither is there any reason to believe that Kelly would have had any more luck than Priebus in dissuading Trump from making those apologized-for orations to the Boy Scouts and law enforcement. Nor do we think Kelly could have staved off that nearly unanimous sanctions bill, and given his hawkish nature we wonder if he would have wanted to. Given his reputation for rock-solid integrity, and given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was his best friend in congress during all the fights with the Obama administration over the southern border back in the Obama days, way back when Trump was firing people on “Celebrity Apprentice” and bad-mouthing the Republican nominee’s relatively mild “self-deportation” policy, it will be interesting to see how Kelly handles all that mess and how it affects all the rest of the mess with Russia.
There are plenty of persuasive if politically incorrect arguments to be made against transgendered people serving in the military, but they’re hard to fit into a “tweet,” those 140 characters of social media can’t adequately explain to a vast bureaucracy or a lean White House Communications office how it should be carried out, and we doubt Kelly could have been any more successful in steering a more measured course of bureaucratic review and legally-hashed documents followed by a coordinated communications effort. The whole mess reminds of us when Trump “tweeted” a ban on travel from certain Islamic countries, which also had plenty of persuasive if politically incorrect arguments but hadn’t been run through any bureaucratic or legal review and wasn’t explained to the White House communications team, and what a mess that turned out to be. The cabinet secretary that Trump hadn’t bothered to consult in that case was Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly, but maybe he’ll have better luck next time.
We can, at least, hold out more than faint hope Kelly will be able impose some severe military-style discipline on that newly-installed White House communications director with the foul mouth and tough-guy persona. Former Wall Street shark Anthony Scaramucci got the job and quickly forced the resignation of the previous chief of staff, whom he had so memorably described in that New Yorker rant, but that chief strategist he even more memorably described is still on the job, and the new chief of staff is said not to suffer fools and idiots, so we figure the four-star Marine general will prove the tougher in the inevitable fights.
There’s nothing Kelly can do to shake up the White House that will shake out Trump or his daughter and a son-in-law, however, or shake away all the investigations about Russia or the increasing rebelliousness of the Republicans in congress. Trump was resistant to military-style discipline back when  his father shipped him off to a military school, hasn’t much changed at age 71, and even such a formidable force as Kelly seems unlikely to restrain his “tweeting” thumbs and oratorical impetuousness, or forestall future rough weeks.

— Bud Norman

Trump, Sessions, a Son-in-Law, the Boy Scouts, and the Rest of a Very Bad Day

Monday was just another day in the era of President Donald Trump, and whatever else you might say about it at least it’s not boring.
The day began with a “tweet” blasting his own “beleagured” Attorney General for not pursuing a criminal investigation against his vanquished Democratic rival, and was shortly followed by his son-in-law having to explain to a congressional committee why he’d attended a meeting that the president’s son had set up with the clear understanding that Russians they knew to be tied to the Russian government were offering campaign help as part of that foreign adversary efforts on the Trump campaign’s behalf. Trump then finally got around to delivering a public address on behalf of his party’s longstanding but recently ailing attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, and after that delivered a speech to the Boy Scouts’ annual Jamboree that has to be heard to be believed.
As usual one hardly knows where to begin, but we’ll follow Trump’s lead by starting with that “tweet” and saving that bizarre Boy Scout oration for last. Trump first “tweeted” that “Sleazy (Sen.) Adam Schiff, (D-Calif.), the totally biased congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all his on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” A short time later he wondered “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleagureed A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” Putting aside the arbitrary capitalizations and missing apostrophes and deliberate rudeness, which are by now the modern presidential standard, it was a bad start to the day.
Sessions is mostly beleaguered these days by Trump, who recently fumed to The New York Times that he never would have made the pick if he’d known that Sessions would wind up recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of what he now calls “Russia” after some inaccurate testimony to the Senate,  so that embarrassing story got at least another day in the news. Why Sessions isn’t pursuing various criminal investigations against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a valid question to ask, given her long and sordid history, and we can’t wait for some impertinent reporter to pose it to the President of the United States at some possible future news conference. Candidate Trump ran on a rallying cry of “lock her up,” president-elect Trump immediately reneged on the promise by saying that Clinton had suffered enough, but President Trump is clearly in high dudgeon about that outrage, so our only guess is that it will all turn out to be Sessions’ fault.
Sessions resigned his membership in the more respectable clubs of the Republican party when he was the first federal elected official to endorse Trump’s anti-establishment candidacy, relinquished a safe life-long sinecure in the Senate to serve as Trump’s Attorney General, and bravely defended all the indefensible things that Trump had said and done and “tweeted” along the way, but as a respectable Republican he also did his ethical duty by recusing himself from “Russia” after giving some inaccurate and under-oath testimony to the Senate during his confirmation hearings. That wound up with a special counsel who’s now looking into Trump’s previously opaque financial empire, however, so Trump and all the apologists who once cited Sessions’ endorsement as proof of Trump’s conservative bona fides seem eager to defenestrate the poor fellow.
The guy Trump nominated to be the Federal Bureau of Investigation director after the firing of the predecessor told his congressional confirmation hearing interrogators that he didn’t consider his predecessor’s investigation a “witch hunt,” as the president calls it in his “tweets,” and advised any future presidential campaigners to call the FBI if they got any e-mails from people they knew to be connected to a hostile foreign powers promising helpful information. Should Trump fire Sessions or “tweet” him into resignation we expect that any nominee for the job would also face the same questions, and at this point we don’t think anything but the same answers would win anyone confirmation even with a slight Republican majority in the Senate if they answered differently.
At this point we can’t imagine any remotely qualified candidates wanting to work for such an erratically disloyal boss, too, and we note that he’s also having trouble filling a lot of other high-level positions for similar reasons, so we think the “tweet” got Trump’s day got off a bad start.
Trump’s son-in-law didn’t have to testify in an open session about that meeting that Trump’s son set up with those Russkies they knew to be tied closely to the Kremlin and were were told was part of the Russian government’s efforts to help the campaign, so at least is was relegated lower than most people read in the day’s news. Son-in-law Jared Kushner issued an 11-page explanation of the matter to the broader public, explaining that he’d attended the meeting because his brother-in-law had asked him to and he hadn’t read the e-mails subject heading about “Confidential –Russia,” and that he’s recently revised his security clearance forms to include all the numerous Russian meetings and the hundreds of millions of dollars of business transactions that he’d previously forgotten.
Even if you believe every word of it, it doesn’t inspire much confidence that the 36-year-old wunderkind son-in-law is up to the challenges of ending America’s opioid crisis and re-inventing American government and negotiating Middle East and everything else his father-in-law president has asked him to do. Despite the closed hearings and all the rest of the distracting news, we think Kushner also had a bad day.
Trump’s long-awaited address about repealing and replacing Obamacare wasn’t bad, we have to admit, but we’ll have to see how effective it was. Trump stuck mostly to a teleprompter-ed script about how Obamacare had not fulfilled all the promises it was made, and he was surrounded by some telegenic real Americans who have been paying much higher premiums rather than the $2,500 annual savings and had lost the plans they been told they keep and been denied all the rest of that President Barack Obama had promised them, and with characteristic bluntness he called Obama a “big, fat, ugly lie.”
At this point there’s no denying any of that, but we think the same point could have been made without language that precludes any red-state Democrat from agreeing, and we can well understand why all the polls show landslide majorities of Americans are doubting all the claims being made for any of the various Republicans’ proposals, with no one  quite sure which one Trump was touting during that big speech. Candidate Trump ran on promises of coverage for everyone with the government and paying for it, at far less a cost to the average American, President Trump has previously “tweeted” that the proposals he’s now currently touting are “mean,” and we can well understand why all the polls show a public leery of the latest promises of fewer people being covered but lower costs for the rest.
Trump had the golden opportunity to end such a day with a rousing patriotic address to the 30,000 Boy Scouts and troop leaders assembled at an annual Jamboree in rural West Virginia, but in typical Trumpian fashion even that went very, very weird.
At one point in his speech to the too-young-to-vote Boy Scouts, Trump noted that “Tonight we put aside all the policy fights in Washington, D.C., you’ve been hearing about from the fake news. Who the hell wants to talk about politics when I’m front of the Boy Scouts?” He then proceeded to ramble on for 35 minutes about fake news and politics, blasting former president Barack Obama and Clinton, attributed the turn-out an the annual Jamboree to his popularity, and vowed that more people would be saying “Merry Christmas” as a result of his presidency.
Much of the speech was a guy-at-the-bar-style rambling reminiscence about real estate developer William Levitt, whose Levittown development outside New York City started the suburban development craze that transformed America in the long-ago ’50s, and although he didn’t mention that Levitt insisted on white and gentile-only sales he did reveal that Levitt came to a sad and lonely end at least he stopped short of the more sordid details about Levitt’s late night parties, but somehow it wound up as some sort of cautionary tale about grandiose ambitions of a real estate mogul who wound up friendless despite “all the hottest people” at his old age parties. We can only guess what all those Boy Scouts made of it, and we note that the Boy Scout leaders had already issued a plea for an apolitical address,and urged that the audience be respectful but not partisan,  but the kids seemed to love it.
Trump was never a Boy Scout during his childhood as the son of a big-time New York real estate developer who never quite matched Levitt’s historic significance, but he was joined by a couple of cabinet members who’d attained Eagle Scout rank, one of whom was dressed in full Boy Scout uniform, even if fellow Eagle Scout Sessions was conspicuously absent. He also he gave passing mention to the Boy Scout creed of being “Helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean, and reverent,” none of which seem to describe Trump. He also noted that the Boy Scouts value loyalty, but it probably went over the heads of most of the Boy Scouts when he added that “We really could use some loyalty, I’ll tell you that.”
We’re not only lifelong Republicans, we’re also silver-medal-holding Eagle Scouts due to our parents’ insistence, and even from our unhappy middle-aged perspective we’d have to say that all in all it was another dreary day in the age of Trump.

— Bud Norman