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Pennsylvania and Pompeo and the Rest

The big story on Tuesday was supposed to be that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania, but of course President Donald Trump wound up grabbing all the headlines. He fired his Secretary of State, which would be newsworthy story in any administration, and given these peculiar circumstances there were enough subplots to fill countless side bar stories.
Although none of ever much liked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, some of us are sorry to see him go. He came into the job with no previous diplomatic experience, save for negotiation some big-money deals as the head of the giant Exxon corporation with the Russian government that were being hampered by American sanctions, so he started off on the wrong foot with the foreign policy establishment. He proved more of a hard-liner on Russia than Trump would prefer, so the establishment press came to regard him as a restraining influence on the president, but that only made him all the more unpopular with Trump and his hard-line supporters. Meanwhile Tillerson went ahead with his budget-cutting and downsizing plan for the State Department, which did not endear him to any of his employees, and in the end it didn’t spare Tillerson from his own boss’s wrath.
Trump’s announced replacement is Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, which is another interesting story. As much as we hate to name drop, we’ve actually schmoozed with the guy on a couple of occasions, which is one of the perks of being well-connected on the theatrical and political and social scenes here in Wichita, Kansas, which has somehow produced two CIA directors in our lifetimes, and we have to say we found him a friendly enough fellow. He’s a formidable fellow, too, top of his class at West Point and editor of the Harvard Law Review and founder of a successful high-tech aviation business here in town, and as traditional Kansas Republicans we enthusiastically voted for him in all three of his successful runs in our Fourth Congressional District. Why, wee still have a red-white-and-blue “I Like Mike” button on our desk, which we proudly use to prick the pinholes on our pesky electronic devices.
Pompeo gave an eloquent endorsement of Sen. Marco Rubio during the Kansas Republican party’s primary caucus down at Century II, and was among the Republican resisting Trump right up until the nomination, but since then he’s been more accommodating to Trump. Early on in his is CIA role he reaffirmed the agency’s conclusion that the Russian government had indeed meddled in the past presidential election, and that the “Wikileaks” operation leaking all the hacked Democratic e-mails was acting on Russia’s behalf, but he was careful not to implicate Trump. Over time he reportedly won Trump over with his schmoozing and his educational and military and business and Kansas conservative credentials, along with his increasing willingness to insulate Trump from any of that “Russia thing,” and we’re not surprised by Pompeo’s latest promotion.
Trump was reportedly considering firing Tillerson months ago, although dismissed it as “fake news” at the time, so there was naturally some speculation about why it happened on Tuesday. Tillerson had survived the reports that he’d called Trump a certain profane sort of “Moron,” which he neither confirmed nor denied, and Trump’s “tweets” about challenging his Secretary of State to an I.Q. test competition, and all the times that Tillerson had distanced himself on whatever story was dominating the day’s news cycle, from the Paris Climate Accord to the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia to the wisdom of negotiating with the North Korean dictatorship, so one can’t help wondering what straw at long last broke the metaphorical camel’s back.
The British government is currently indignant about a couple of political assassinations that were quite apparently committed on their sovereign soil by agents of the Russian government, and Tillerson expressed his shared indignation shortly after the White House press secretary had stressed that maybe the Russians had nothing to do with it, so naturally there was some speculation about that. Trump has since said that yeah the Russians probably did it, although he didn’t seem the least big indignant about it, and he’s previously expressed his opinion that hey what the hell we do lots of extra-terrritorial killings here in the good ol’ USA, so there’s some expected speculation about that.
If we were the type to indulge in conspiracy theories, we’d chalk Tillerson’s firing up to that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania. We stayed up all night to the results but it was still too close too call, but the Democrat was clinging to a slim over the Republican, and no matter how the lawyers work it out we’re sure Trump would rather not talk about that.
Trump won the district by 20 points in the election landslide, even better than the 15 or more point victories that Republicans had long expected, but since then things have changed. The Republicans have won most of the special congressional elections since Trump’s inaugural, but that’s mostly because they’ve been in districts or states where Trump promoted a popular Republican to a cabinet position, and all of the races have been conspicuously closer than the last time around. The Republicans even managed to lose a Senate seat in Alabama, of all places, for crying out loud, and a loss in northern Pennsylvania would bode ill for a lot of Republicans next November.
That Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts creepy and criminal behavior, while that Republican up in Pennsylvania is more frequently criticized for being boring, unlike the pro-life and family values Republican incumbent who’d resigned the seat after his mistress told the press about he’d pressed to get an abortion. In both elections Trump held well-attended and raucous rallies in support of his fellow Republicans, and although in both in cases he talked mostly about himself they wound up well short of his victory margins, even the Republican lawyers somehow eke out a victory. which does not portend well for Trump or the rest of the Republicans in fall’s mid-term elections.
All politics really is local, though, even in the age of Trump. The Democrat in Pennsylvania was just as supportive of Trump’s crazy-ass steel tariffs as the Republican, and he was a handsome ex-Marine and former prosecutor who’d killed or locked up all sorts of sinister types, and was centrist on guns and such, and had the endorsement of the remaining steelmaking unions. The Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts of creepiness, and the opposing Democratic took his own boring and centrist position, which eventually won the day.

Maybe Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State will turn it all around, but we doubt it. He strikes us as a nice enough and serious enough fellow, but these are trying times.

— Bud Norman

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A Mish-Mash of a Monday News Cycle

Monday was chockfull of news, most of it involving President Donald Trump, and it was a decidedly mixed bag.
Trump traveled to Utah to announce that he’s reducing the size of two national monuments in the state by a combined 1.9 million acres, which is a very big number. Some of the local Indian tribes and all of the environmental groups and a few tourism and sporting goods businesses were aghast at the reduction, but there are such sound conservatives arguments for the move that most conservatives were pleased. That’s a big chunk of Utah that was being run by the federal bureaucracy rather than Utah or Utahans, and there’s still more than an ample 1.2 million combined acres of the Bears Ears and ¬†Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments left for the Indians and nature lovers, so we’ll give Trump a rare thumbs up.
Court challenges have already been filed, of course, but Trump’s contested restrictions on travel from some Muslim-majority countries won a victory that should cheer him. The matter is still slogging its way through the lower courts, but the Supreme Court has decided that the restrictions can be fully enforced until it eventually arrives at a final decision. For sound conservative reasons too complicated to recount here, that’s also fine with us.
The rest of the legal news, though, was more troublesome. It wouldn’t be a news day these days with some “twitter” controversy, and the latest was about Trump’s statement that he fired former national security advisor Mike Flynn because “he lied to the vice president and the FBI” about contacts with Russian officials. Flynn has recently pleaded guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and apparently because isn’t facing prosecution on several other serious charges because he’s cooperating with the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the past election, but various journalists and legal analysts found the “tweet” self-incriminating for Trump. The problem is that it implies he knew Flynn had lied to the the FBI before he asked the bureau’s director to drop the investigation — according to the sworn of testimony of the director, who was fired after he declined the arrest — and therefore bolsters a case for obstruction of justice.
The arguments raged all day on all the political shows, with plausible points made on both sides, but even if Trump’s prevail it’s still another example of how “tweeting” causes unnecessary and unhelpful controversies. Any good lawyer would tell any client that it’s best to avoid “tweeting” anything about an ongoing criminal investigation, and any good client would heed that advice, but one of the lawyers Trump hired step forward to claim that he had written the “tweet” and used the president’s account to transmit it without the president’s knowledge. Either that’s a disbarment sort of lie, which is our best guess, or it’s a glaring example of the kind of legal representation you wind up with if you have a reputation for not paying your bills in full and being a bad client, and in any case it’s not helpful.
By the end of the day Trump’s legal team was arguing that “collusion” isn’t even a crime and that a president cannot obstruct justice or be indicted on any charge, which are arguments that most presidents would prefer not to have to make. It’s true enough that the word “collusion” isn’t found in any relevant statute, but the law is rife with its synonym “conspiracy,” and if it’s not illegal for a candidate to abet a hostile foreign efforts interference in an American election most Americans are likely to conclude it should be. As is so often the case with Trump’s unprecedented presidency, there are few precedents regarding a president’s obstruction of justice or indictment on some other crime, but those few precedents are not promising. Nixon wound up resigning after a bill of impeachment charged obstruction of justice, Clinton was disbarred and disgraced and barely survived an impeachment trial on the same charge, numerous high-ranking officials of other administrations wound up doing prison time, and Nixon’s famous argument to David Frost that “It’s not illegal when the President of the United States does it” has not fared well in the court of public opinion.
Trump’s one-time campaign chairman Paul Manafort was back in the news with accusations by federal prosecutors that he had violated the terms of his house arrest while awaiting trial a variety of money-laundering and tax evasion charges, which looks bad. The feds claim he was working with one of his contacts in the Russian intelligence community to pen an editorial Manafort hoped to sell defending his work on behalf of a Russia-friendly Ukrainian political party, which looks worse. Trump’s original claims that none of his people ever had anything to do with the Russians isn’t looking good these days, what with all those disclosed e-mails and revised clearance forms and corrected testimonies, and it remains to be seen if there’s a a better argument than it’s no big deal even if the worst is true.
There’s also that Southern Gothic novel of Senatorial race down in Alabama, where Republican nominee and quite credibly accused child molester Ray Moore is running against some got-durned liberal, and of course Trump was part of that story. He’s now fully in support of the Republican nominee and credibly accused child molester, whereas previously he had only been fully against the got-durned liberal, and much of the Republican establishment has meekly backed away from its previous criticisms and will even be sending some campaign ad money through the party’s congressional committee. This comes on a day when one of Moore’s accusers offered proof that Moore did at least know her, despite his denial, and another woman came forward to accuse Trump of forcing unwanted kisses on her, just as he boasted about frequently doing on that “Access Hollywood” case. All charges are open to argument, as always, but it’s not helpful.
Oh, there’s also that tax bill Trump might yet get to sign soon. All the details still have to be worked out in a conference committee, but already it’s clearly another mixed bag of news and too complicated to explain here.

— Bud Norman