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Doubling Down on a Dumb Trade War

Way back when we were proud to be Republicans, it was largely because of the Grand Old Party’s principled stand for red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism. When Republican nominee Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama during a campaign debate of picking the economic winners and losers, and mostly picking the losers, we stood up and cheered. Now the Republicans are obliged to defend President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade war against the rest of the world, and to ignore the fact that he’s picking the economic winners and losers and mostly picking the losers.
On Monday Trump escalated the trade war with China by threatening $200 billion of tariffs on that country’s exports to the United States, his earlier threat of a mere $50 billion of tariffs having failed to force China’s capitulation to his trade demands, and of course China immediately responded with threats of retaliatory tariffs. Of course the stock markets hated the news, and so did everyone else with a basic understanding of the global economy. It’s bad economic policy, has warped America’s foreign policy to the point that North Korea’s nutcase dictator Kim Jong-Un is a an honorable leader much beloved by his starving people and Canada’s democratically elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a weak and dishonest leader who awaits a special place in hell and all of our longtime allies are suspect, and in the long run it will prove bad politics.
Trump’s tariffs on steel and coal imports will surely be popular with people employed in those industries, but it will just as surely be unpopular with people who work in steel- and coal-buying industries, and anyone who buys anything made of steel or powered by coal, and the latter categories are by far a bigger voting bloc. There are also a lot of wheat farmers and airplane-makers who do a brisk trade with China and will surely be chagrined if China decides to buy from Argentina or Airbus, and a large chunk of Trump’s die-hard defenders will eventually notice that their shopping trips to Wal-Mart are suddenly far more expensive. The worst case scenario for a global trade war is the same as the last time a cocky and unprincipled Republican president tried it, which resulted in the Great Depression and eventually World War II, and even Trump will be hard-pressed to spin that outcome to even his most die-hard defenders.
The best-case scenario is harder to imagine. Red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism has always resulted in the creative destruction of longstanding industries, such as buggy-making and Blockbuster video stores, but it has reliably replaced them with something the public has always found better. China isn’t the reason that coal-mining now employs a mere 50,000 workers in America, which is mainly because of mechanization and nuclear plants and fracking of natural gas and all those windmills along I-35 and other more healthy ways to generate the nation’s energy. We sympathize with those last remaining coal miners, but red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism might well replace their jobs with something that doesn’t cause black-lung disease and an early death, and in any case they’re a small voting bloc.
Trump seems to believe the best-case scenario is back to the good old days when America mined coal and made all the world’s steel, and that his die hard defenders will prefer that to this high-tech age and what might come next. What might come next might well be far better, though, and we’ll bet on that rather Trump’s global trade war.

— Bud Norman

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Pomp, Circumstance, and the Unvarnished Truth

‘Tis the season for college commencement speeches, and the controversies a few of them annually cause. Even the most controversial commencement speeches are usually forgettable affairs, but we did take notice of the one that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered on Wednesday to the most recent graduates of the Virginia Military Academy.
Tillerson was once the well-regarded and objectively successful chief executive officer of the multi-national and very big deal Exxon Corporation, but during his brief tenure as Secretary of State he was harshly criticized from both the left and the right. The left resented his corporate downsizing of the State Department and seeming abandonment of diplomacy as a means of American influence, the post-President Donald Trump right found him insufficiently committed to an “America First” isolationism and militarism, and even from our newfound perspective on the sidelines he was so clearly ineffectual we were glad to see him replaced by our formidable former District of Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo.
Even so, Tillerson’s bold address to the VMI graduates give us hope that he’ll prove one heck of an ex-Secretary of State. Although he never mentioned Trump by name, Tillerson opened the speech by talking of his own higher education in engineering and the need for structural integrity, the similar need to maintain the personal integrity that is prized by every great faith and every tradition, and the importance of maintaining longstanding alliances and the challenges of an ever changing world,and it was obvious to anyone on the left or right or on the sidelines that he was talking about Trump. He also described a “growing crises in integrity,” recalled his alma mater of Texas A&M New Testament motto of the “the truth shall set you free,” and warned that if citizens ‘becoming accepting of ‘alternative realiities’ that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”
Just in case it wasn’t clear enough that Tillerson was talking about Trump,Trump’s under-penalty-of-law financial disclosure forms were simultaneously admitting that he had indeed lied to the media and the nation aboard Air Force One about his $130,000 payment to a porno performer who quite credibly alleges a one night stand with the future president. Tillerson couldn’t have possibly predicted it, but Trump’s inevitably Nobel Peace Prize-winning negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear weapons program had hit hit a sudden snag, Trump’s bellicose “America First” stance on trade had complicated relations with out our longstanding allies in southeast Asia and elsewhere, and those widely reported reports that Trump’s sudden conspicuous friendliness to a Chinese telecommunications that was previously sanctioned for intellectual property theft on spying on Americans coincided with the Chinese government’s $500 million dollar investment in a Trump-branded development deal in Indonesia.
We’ll have to wait and see how that all turns out, as Trump likes to say, but in the meantime the guy he appointed and then fired as Secretary of State seems to have the upper hand with commencement speech. We always voted for the current Secretary of State when he was running for our fourth congressional seat here in Kansas, and hold out hope that he’ll somehow negotiate some settlement to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula that doesn’t leave hundreds of thousands of people dead, but his ineffectual and defenestrated predecessor’s words about the need for integrity and acknowledging truth ring disquietingly true.

Shakespeare Vs. Trump

We’ve long noticed that one of President Donald Trump’s many peculiar tendencies is to “tweet” or tell a television camera whatever happens to be on his mind at the moment. His most die-hard supporters have always loved his “tell it like it is” style, but we’ve always thought it ill-suited to the presidency. Our preference is for Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” to “give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any un-proportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.”
Trump clearly has no patience for such old-fashioned and highfalutin advice, however, and thus often winds up “tweeting” or telling a camera something that is quite different from what was on his mind at an earlier moment. The latest example once again involves the bloody and damned complicated Syrian civil war, and America’s even more damned complicated role in it, and shooting from the hip has so far proved a poor tactic.
After the Syrian dictatorship apparently launched another deadly chemical attack on in its citizens recently, Trump “tweeted” and talked tough. He denounced the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad as an “animal,” and went so far as to criticize by name Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for his pro-Assad role in the civil war. By Wednesday he was “tweeting” that “Russia vows to shoot down any all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
All of Trump’s critics on the left were of course horrified by such bellicosity, but so were many of the die-hard supporters on talk radio and internet sites who had cheered his “tweets” of a few days earlier about pulling out of the Syrian civil war altogether. That earlier “tweet” had already been talked back considerably by various more careful administration spokespeople, and by Thursday Trump himself was “tweeting” back his more recent imminent threats. “Never said an attack on Syria would take place,” Trump implausibly “tweeted,” adding “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
On our way home with some fish tacos from the great Tacos Lopez drive-through over on West Street we heard one of the anti-immigrant and isolationist talk radio hosts claiming credit for talking Trump into his latest strategic retreat, but we’d like to think it was due to the more informed and deliberative advice of the surprisingly sound Defense Secretary and United Nations ambassador and potential next Secretary of State that Trump somehow has on hand, and we hope even that wild-eyed but experienced third national security advisor who came on board Wednesday. There’s a strong case to be made for enforcing a red line against chemical attacks, especially if we’re able to cobble together the international support that Trump’s administration is reportedly seeking, and we’re open to any arguments for washing our hands of the whole mess, but we think it best that wiser and more knowledgable people than ourselves carefully deliberate these matters before the president “tweets” about them.
We certainly wish those wise old hands well. The Syrian situation is complicated enough, and Trump is making tough demands on a nuclear arms treaty the Iranian theocratic dictatorship even as he’s signaled he intends to hand them Syria on a silver platter, and that whole thing with Russia is pretty damned complicated, too. On the other side of the globe Trump is engaged “twitter” feuds and diplomatic dances with the North Korean dictator, and has lately refrained from taunting him as “Little Rocket Man,” and has been talking and “tweeting” tough about trade negotiations with our ostensible allies in democratic South Korea. The stock markets have sighed a green arrow sigh after Trump lately “tweeted” back his earlier tough talk about a trade war with China, and there are reports that he’s even considering reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Barack Obama had negotiated with China’s neighbors. Trump had long been critical of multilateral trade agreements in general, and ones negotiated by Obama in particular, but given the howls of pain coming from the stock markets and agricultural states and various other export industries it suddenly seems a more sensible approach to dealing with China’s undeniably unfair business practices than all-out trade war.
There’s some faint cause for hope, therefore, that some semblance of a more or less effective foreign policy might emerge from all this. We can’t imagine Trump coherently explaining it to the world, though, and count on lots of incoherent “tweets” and televised statements further complicating things along the way. He probably won’t hear it, bout our advice is the same the Bard might well have said  to Trump, to give thy thoughts no tongue nor “tweet,” nor any un-proportioned thought your action. As for the part about not being vulgar, we hold out no hope Trump will heed that sage advice.

— Bud Norman

The Avoidable and Inevitable Stock Market Swoon

Monday was another down day on Wall Street, and so far as we can tell there are several reasons for the recent stock market swoons. Part of it just the usual economics, but so far as we can tell the worst of it is some unusually stupid politics.
The seemingly biggest reason is that the Chinese have predictably imposed steep tariffs on many American products in retaliation for President Donald Trump’s unilaterally imposed tariffs on many Chinese products, and it seems a trade war has begun. At the same time, though, Trump is also waging war on some major American businesses, another heavy hitter has come under congressional scrutiny, and the usual economic disruptions are at play.
Trump has “tweeted” that “trade wars are good and easily won,” but the smart money on Wall Street and most sane observers elsewhere strenuously disagree. Trump has also retreated from some of his “tweeted” threats, which has always prompted stock markets rallies, but then he “tweets” another threat, such global economic powers as the European and Union and our neighbors to the north and sound issue retaliatory threats and the stock markets once again swoon. If the cycle continues until the rest of the world meekly accedes to Trump’s demand for American dominance of the global marketplace, we expect it will take a while.
In the meantime, one of the most dynamic sectors of the American economy is facing political problems, which are the worst kind of problems these days. Some of the biggest players in the high-tech industry that keeps coming up with all sorts of world-changing gizmos and gadgets and thingamajigs are now being “tweeted” about and summoned to congressional committees, which is not good for business, and the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock exchange has taken the worst hit lately in the recent downturn.
The on-line retailer Amazon.com has recently surpassed Wal-Mart as the world’s biggest store, and Trump has recently been “tweeting” that it’s a tax cheat which drives Main Street stores out of business and is bankrupting the United States Postal System. Much of that is entirely untrue and the rest quite debatable, but it’s been an undeniable drag on the drag on the company’s stock price, and given its enormous size there’s a big drag on the overall averages. For now there’s not much Trump can do about Amazon or its owner’s other notable property, The Washington Post, other “tweet” about it, what with those pesky constitutional prohibitions against bills of attainder and infringements of freedom of the press, but at least Trump is inflicting quantifiable financial pain on his even-richer nemesis.
The on-line social media giant Facebook has its own similar political problems, but for very different reasons. A web site that became extraordinarily profitable and powerful by allowing people to share videos of their cats and cell phone pictures of the taco they were about to eat and whatever else they had on their minds also wound up disseminating political propaganda from Russian-based “troll farms” through a firm tied to the Trump campaign during the last presidential election, and the resulting headlines have not been good for the company’s once red-hot stock price. All the propaganda was apparently pro-Trump, so Trump hasn’t “tweeted” anything about it, but the Democrats on those pesky congressional investigative committees have at least managed to inflict some quantifiable financial pain of their own. Facebook ended Monday down 16 percent from its recent high, and given its outsized influence that also accounted for much of that broader decline.
The computer chip-making giant Intel also took a huge on news that Apple Computers, another outsized company tech-sector and one of Intel’s biggest customers, is considering making its own computer chips. That’s the sort of business page news you’d expect on any day in the fast-moving and nerve-wrackingly dynamic high tech sector, though, and we’re the sort of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and old-fashioned Republicans who are content to let the marketplace sort that out. As much as we love that old corner store that Mom and Pop once built out of brick and mortar, we equally hate bills of attainder and infringements on a free press, and we’ll let Amazon do whatever the state legislatures and the marketplace allows it do, and we’ll stay on Facebook just to keep apprised about which of our friends have recently divorced, so as to avoid any awkward comments.
Although we’re rapidly growing too old for such economic disruptions, we’ve long since learned to accept them as part of the ebb and flow toward something like progress. As rock-ribbed Republicans and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists we’ve long believed that all those sorry-assed consumers at the pay line could choose more wisely than the politicians, and we still resent those darned Democrats for presuming to make better picks of the winners and losers.
Nowadays, though, that seems to make us “Republicans in Name Only” or “cuckservatives” or “globalists,” as both parties have chosen their winners and losers. Steel and aluminum companies seem a good stock bet at the moment, but car makers and beer brewers and any other industries that use steel or aluminum look risky. If you have a stake in any of the several industries China is now slapping tariffs on, you might want to talk to your financial advisor about that. The Democrats can try to deprive all the social media-addled youth of Facebook, but we’d advise them that most of the political content from our friends is annoyingly liberal.
Oddly enough, yet another reason for the current nervousness on Wall Street is that the unemployment rate is currently low by historical standards and the overall economy seems to be doing well, so there’s the ever-present danger that the Federal Reserve Board will raise interest on loans past the virtually free-money rates that have sustained the whole enterprise since that last big crash. Such adjustments are another one of those disquieting disruptions we’ve learned to accept, but otherwise we’d prefer politics just stay out of it.

— Bud Norman

Swimming Against the Mighty Amazon

The anti-capitalists on the left have always railed against the biggest retail sales giant of the moment. Back in the prairie populist days they warned that the Sears & Roebuck catalogue would destroy all local commerce, and by the early 20th Century it was the A&P grocery store chain that threatened to rule us all with a monopolistic fist. Until recently the scary corporate villain was the Wal-Mart discount store chain, but they’ve lately been usurped in both sales totals and political notoriety by the on-line retail giant called Amazon.
This time around, though, it’s putatively Republican and unabashedly capitalist President Donald Trump who’s leading the boos and hisses. Trump has frequently criticized Amazon, and he did so again on Thursday with yet another “tweet.”
“I have stated my concerns with Amazon long before the Election,” Trump wrote. “Unlike others, they pay little or no taxes to state or local governments, use our Postal System as their Delivery Boy (causing tremendous cost to the U.S.), and are putting many thousands of retailers out of business!”
Putting aside our usual complaints with the usual arbitrary capitalizations and use of parenthesis and that always annoying exclamation point, pretty much every word of it is embarrassing economic illiteracy and pure balderdash. Even worse, we’d say than what the left has always peddled.
In actual fact, rather than alternative fact, Amazon does indeed collect and then pass along sales taxes on items sent to the 45 states and many localities that have decided to require it by law. The other five states apparently have their own reasons for not requiring it, probably either purely ideological or brazenly corrupt, but we figure that’s their business, and Trump is in no moral position to criticize Amazon for not paying a penny more in taxes than is most strictly required.
Amazon does indeed use America’s postal system as one of its “Delivery Boys,” but so do all the rest of us who have sent a letter or utility bill payment or greeting card or Christmas package through the postal system. This is what the postal system does, after all, and it will take one hell of a “tweet” to explain how having the country’s biggest retailer as a client is bad for business. We can well believe that Amazon has negotiated a favorable deal with its delivery boy’s biggest client, but every analysis we’ve read suggests the delivery boy should be glad for the business in these days of on-line communications, and once again Trump is in no moral position to criticize their artful dealings.
There’s no doubt that Amazon will drive at least a few thousand Main Street brick-and-mortar retailers out of business, just as Sears & Roebuck and the A&P and Wal-Mart undoubtedly did, but the Republicans and the right in general used to chalk that up to the “creative destruction” of capitalism. The much-railed-against railroads delivered delivered Sears & Roebuck catalog’s low-priced items to people across the rural areas, including all the guitars used on all the great country and blues recordings of the time, and it worked out pretty well. The A&P chain did well because it used its market share to negotiate good deals with the wholesalers and then passed the discount along to its consumers, and more recently Wal-Mart has found itself in a position to negotiate profitable deals the likes of China and pass along the everyday savings to their grateful and often obese customers.
In every case, it all proved relatively momentary and nobody wound up ruling the world. These days nobody’s afraid of the big, bad Sears & Roebuck catalogue, the last of the far-flung rural A&P grocery stores went under three years ago, and Amazon has now passed Wal-Mart both in sales and as the leading target of the traditional left and the newfangled right.
Amazon is already using drones as an occasional delivery boy, which can’t be good for the postal system’s negotiating position, and there’s no telling what they’ll come up with next. Whatever Buck Rogers gizmo they come up with, though, we’re sure that some kid in some garage somewhere on the fruited plains is on the verge of something that will overtake Amazon in sales and villainy and low, low prices to the consumer. Perhaps it’ll be one of those “Star Trek” gizmos that immediately transmits whatever your desire and whatever your credit card will allow.
It’s not that we’ll regard it as a grand and glorious day. We’re the old-fashioned sort of Main Street Republicans who still nostalgically long for that ol’ corner store — if you’ve got a few moments to spare, our friend Jonathan Richman put it especially well — and we still resent almost everything from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue to the A&P to Wal-Mart to that newfangled Amazon thingamajig. There’s something tactile and human about brick-and-mortar and face-to-face commercial interactions, and we’d hate to see it go, but we don’t worry that any kid in any garage will soon match that.
Still, we’ll be rooting for Amazon over Trump in their momentary battle for rule over the world. Amazon has ever done us any wrong, as we’ve had nothing to do with them except for their publication of our e-novel “This Town Is Nowhere,” and at this point we have more complaints with Trump. We can’t help suspecting that part of Trump’s crusade against Amazon is because it’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is provably far richer than Trump claims to be, because Trump really is that petty. Bezos is also the owner of The Washington Post, a nationaly-read newspaper that daily publishes news stories Trump would rather not hear, and that seems to have something more to do with this feud.
We don’t care much about Sears & Roebuck or the late A&P or Wal-Mart or the currently almighty Amazon, or whatever comes next, as we do little business with any of them, but the freedom of the press is dear to our heart. So is the constitutional prohibition of bills of attainder, which has long prevented the government from acting against any specific person or specific group of persons, and we don’t worry that Trump will wind up ruling the world.

— Bud Norman

A Busy and Upset Thursday, for Better and Worse

Thursday was a busy day for us, what with rehearsals for our annual theatrical turn and Kansas State University’s Wildcats pulling off a big upset in the national college basketball tournament and the trash needing to be taken to the curb, which made it hard to keep up with a busier than even usual news day.
The stock markets swooned as a trade war with China broke out, a former Playboy “playmate of the year” gave a lengthy interview about her past adulterous affair with then private citizen Donald Trump, and a national security advisor regarded as one of the steady hands in the White House was replaced with a hothead from Fox News, along with other noteworthy developments.
Candidate Trump ran on a promise to protect certain American industries with punitive tariffs, and President Trump has “tweeted” that “Trade wars are good and easy to win,” and after he fired the steady hand who’d been his economic advisor who’d urged restraint it was no surprise that he announced stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum on $60 billion worth of tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. Neither was it a surprise when the European Union threatened retaliatory tariffs, nor when China announced them on Thursday, nor when stock markets around the world swooned on the news.
Perhaps the trade war will prove as good and easily won as Trump predicts, but we share all of the stock markets’ doubts. There is no historical precedent for a good and easily won trade war, after all, and they’ve all gone so badly they wound up with everyone losing. For all its faults the free-trading post-World War II global economic brought great prosperity and relative peace to both America and the rest of the world, and despite his salesmanship we can’t see Trump persuading all those other countries to give up their share of the pie.
Although it’s less likely to immediately affect your next 401K statement, the former Playboy “playmate of the year’s” interview with the Cable News Network’s Anderson Cooper was of more than prurient interest. Not that there wasn’t plenty of prurient interest to be had, of course, what with a billionaire playboy and future president doing the nasty with his nudie model girlfriend while his nudie model wife was at home nursing their recently born son, but at this point in the post-President Bill Clinton era even the evangelicals seem rather jaded about that sort of thing. The bigger problem is yet another blow to Trump’s believability, because he’s denying the affair and the former Playboy “playmate of the year” seems by far the more credible of the two.
She’s got notebooks and photographs and hotel receipts and other corroborating evidence of an affair, and her on-camera account of the affair has a verisimilitude no actress can achieve. She freely acknowledges that the adulterous affair was mutually consensual, didn’t describe any of the unwanted groping that Trump has bragged about and numerous women have alleged, said that he was handsome and charming, sadly recalled how he had offered to pay their sexual encounters, and even insisted that she voted from Trump and still supports his presidency. So far she doesn’t seem to have profited from the past affair, and when she credibly says she doesn’t want to hurt Trump we can’t imagine what her motive might be other than to come clean.
Which only adds to the credibility of the pornographic video performer who is also alleging an adulterous affair with Trump right around the same time, and whose interview with the same Anderson Cooper is scheduled to air on Sunday’s episode of the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes.” Trump likes to brag about how he drives the news ratings, and our guess is that on Sunday night Cooper and CBS will benefit from that more than he does.
The porn performer’s story has an even more prurient appeal than that centerfold model’s, as it doesn’t have any of the weepy and cliched I-thought-he-loved-me parts and includes salacious details about rolled-up copies of Forbes Magazine with Trump’s picture on the cover. She describes a more transactional relationship where provided what she considered routine sex in exchange for a chance to be a contestant on Trump’s reality show, and although she’s brazenly capitalizing on her notoriety with a “Make America Horny Again” strip club tour her story also has a ring of truth to our ears.
The $130,000 that Trump’s lawyer admits he paid the porno performer just before the election might constitute a violation of campaign finance law, too, which adds to Trump’s already expensive legal bills from the ongoing “Russia thing” and various other matters. Trump has lately been shaking up his legal team, with Washington’s most high-powered attorney declining the offer but a conspiracy theorist from Fox News joining the team, but their task of defending his credibility will be even harder.
The recent shakeups in the administration are also unsettling. The outgoing national security adviser was three star Army general H.R. McMaster, one of the steady hands who offered such sage advice to Trump as “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in a recent phone call with dubiously reelected Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which Trump of course rejected, and the incoming national security advisor is John Bolton, who does not strike us as an upgrade. He’s a past United Nations Ambassador and longtime figure in national security circles, but his brusque style seems to have found a better fit at Fox News, where he routinely has urged Trump to follow his natural and nationalist instincts. He’s no more likely to restrain Trump’s impulsive temperament that the Fox News guy who replaced the steady hand economic advisor that warned against a trade war.
On a busier than usual Thursday news cycle, it all adds up a certain unease. It’s a sad state of affairs when a Playboy model and porno performer are more believable than a president, but here we are. The same recklessly impulsive fellow who got himself into those tawdry messes is now waging a global trade war and in charge of preventing the military kind, and he’s firing steady hands and hiring cheerleaders.
On the other hand, rehearsals went well, K-State whipped that snooty Kentucky squad and moves on to its 13th “elite eight” game, and we got the trash out to the curb.

— Bud Norman

When Silence Would Have Been Golden

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

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

President Donald Trump picked as good a time as any to embark on an extended multi-nation tour of Asia, given all the bad political news for the Republicans over the past week, but as usual he managed to grab his share of the attention.
During the campaign Trump frequently claimed that America had been “raped” by China in their trade relationship, but while in China he basically said that America was asking for it. “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for their benefit of their own citizens?,” he said to an audience of Chinese political and business and leaders quite a few American businessmen, who responded with a slight and nervous-sounding laughter. He placed the blame for America’s trade deficit with China squarely on “past administrations,” apparently beginning with the Nixon administration, a charge he later reiterated via “tweet,” and the die hard-supporters back home were all more robustly cheering the implication that things are going to be different from now own.
Trump wasn’t talking the campaign talk labelling China a currency manipulator or slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports or holding the negotiations over a Big Mac and fries rather than a state dinner, though, and he didn’t give any details about what he wanted to change. We don’t claim to be the masterful negotiator that Trump claims to be, but we note he also didn’t give any details about how he’s going to persuade the Chinese to go along with his announced plan to take advantage of them for the benefit of his citizens, and most of the business leaders in the audience seemed to be hoping for a different tactic.
China is going to have to reconfigure its entire economy to get its citizens buying enough Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gibson electric guitars to make much of a dent in the trade imbalance, and although it probably would make the country a whole lot cooler they’re unlikely to do so for Trump’s sake. America’s economy will also require a lot of reconfiguring before Americans stop snatching up low-priced Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart, although doing without some of that junk might also make America cooler, and there’s also the matter of the high-end airplanes and delicious wheat that folks here in Kansas make and the Chinese spend a lot of money on, so the Chinese will have some some threats of their own to make when any treaty is being debated in the Senate. Something better than the status quo is possible, and we wish Trump well in achieving that, but for the foreseeable future a balance of trade isn’t possible, and neither is it necessary desirable, so we hope Trump will be more understated and realistic in the future.
The trip also took Trump to Vietnam, which gave his critics an opportunity to chortle about the bone spurs that prevented him from serving in a war there, and brought him into direct contact with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which also gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump told reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia didn’t do the tiniest bit of meddling in the past American presidential, and Trump said that he believed him, although after the predictable outrage he quickly revised that to mean that he believed that Putin actually believed that, and that in fact he believes the contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies, at least now that they’re headed by his appointees and saying the same things they said under Obama’s appointees.
Continuing his penchant for disparaging past American governments in front of foreign audiences, Trump dismissed Obama’s past intelligence chiefs as “political hacks,” although both began their careers in Republican administrations and were decorated combat veterans of the war in Vietnam, and said the same things about Russian meddling that the Trump appointees are saying. In any case, Trump made clear that he didn’t see any reason why Russian attempts to sabotage an American should stand in the way of friendly relations.
There was also a stop in the Philippines, where the current President is Rodrigo Dueterte, who has cursed the Pope as the “son of a whore” and called an American president a “black bastard” and routinely forces kisses on women at his campaign rallies and unleashed gangs of vigilantes who have killed thousands of suspected drug users. Trump has previously praised Dueterte’s approach to the country’s problem, and always seemed quite comfortable with the rest of it, and Dueterte seems to like Trump’s style, too, so their meeting was fairly cordial. There’s a huge “Trump Tower” being built in downtown Manila, too, and Trump hasn’t divested himself of the branding agreement that’s expected to earn him millions of dollars, and the real owner of the property also happens to be Dueterte’s trade minister, so we expect it to remain cordial no matter how many suspected drug users are shot down without so much as a warrant.
The Philippines has lately benefited from America’s military support in quashing one of its occasional outbreaks of terrorism from it’s long-troublesome Muslim minority in the southern islands, too, and Dueterte has tamped down his anti-American rhetoric. He remains resistant to restoring America’s past military presence in the country and continues to make concessions to the Chinese in an apparent belief that they’re a more reliable diplomatic and economic partner.
During a stop in South Korea Trump managed to avoid making many big headlines, at least not to big enough to nudge the electoral losses or a Southern Gothic sex scandal out of the way, as he carefully avoided to referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jon-Ung as “Little Rocket Man.” The talk was tough, but within the usual diplomatic bounds, so the critics couldn’t muster of a case that he was taunting the North Korean nutcase into a nuclear confrontation by lowering himself to the dictator’s level of personal insult. After Kim once again called Trump a dotard, meaning an old and demented person, though, Trump “tweeted” back that “Why should Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat.’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe that will someday happen!” Around the same time he offered to arbitrate some of China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, citing his great negotiation skills, but was politely declined by all parties.
At every stop along the way the leaders went out of their way to provide the most lavish welcomes and flattering praise, however, and Trump seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Our guess is he and his fans will take it was proof that they’re making America great again, but that’s about all they’ll get out of it.

— Bud Norman

Two Tales of One Speech

President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language  editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.

— Bud Norman

The Fourth of the July on the Korean Peninsula

While America was firing off fireworks to celebrate its independence, the nutcase regime running North Korea was testing yet another intercontinental ballistic missile. According to the United States Pacific Command this one went 1,700 miles into space and landed 580 miles away from its launch off the South Korean coast line, so if you flatten that trajectory it could have landed in Alaska, which complicates what had already been a darned complicated situation for more than 50 years.
President Donald Trump defiantly responded with a “tweet” taunting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un by asking “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” It’s a valid question, of course, but we doubt Trump’s “tweets” will deter Kim from his nuclear ambitions any more effectively than they’ve deterred Mika Brzezenski from criticizing Trump on her early morning cable news show, and Trump’s “tweeted” promise as president-elect that the North Koreans wouldn’t dare an ICBM test when he got into office obviously hasn’t come to pass. Trump hasn’t yet declared any red lines or stated any demands or ruled out any possible options, which suggests that the more seasoned heads and steadier hands of his well-regarded defense secretary and and his widely-respected national security advisor are exercising some control over the presidential “twitter” feed, and for now we hold out hope for an old friend of ours who lives in Anchorage.
America’s options were always limited to a narrow range of bad to worse, though, and Tuesday’s test seems to have narrowed them further. A pre-emptive first strike on the nutcase North Korean regime’s missile launching sites always carried the risk of devastating retaliatory strikes on nearby American allies South Korea and Japan, the South Korean capital of Seoul could be easily shelled from the the demilitarized zone with World War I-era artillery, and geography has given always the North Koreans an unearned that advantage that made any miscalculation catastrophic. Even if you’re so ruthlessly American First that you’d ignore the humanitarian consequences of bombs landing on such densely populated places as Seoul and Tokyo, you’d have to admit the economic consequences would eventually be felt deep in the heartland. With the North Koreans seemingly in missile range of Alaska and maybe even such densely populated places as Los Angeles and San Francisco, even such a seasoned head and steady hand and instinctive first-strike hawk as well-respected former defense secretary William Perry is saying “it changes every calculation.”
There are still plenty of potential diplomatic solutions, of course, but all of those have always been darned complicated and are lately more complicated yet. China’s President Xi Jiping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement proposing that North Korea refrain from further missile tests in exchange for the United States canceling a planned joint military exercise, which sounds reasonable but is pretty darned complicated. Trump ran on a China-bashing platform but has been remarkably friendly to China ever since Xi visited Mar-a-Lago and granted some long-sought patents to Trump’s daughter’s business, and by now everyone knows that his relationship with Putin is endlessly complicated, and even his relationship with South Korea has been complicated by his protectionist rhetoric and insistence that the country pay more for a missile defense system that might shoot down something pointed at Alaska. That joint Sino-Russian proposal was a hard enough call in any case, aside from the embarrassing fact it had two leaders Trump has sucked up to colluding against him. Accepting would be a sign of weakness, and undermine a longstanding American-South Korean alliance, and refusing might now prove that that catastrophic miscalculation that the the past 50 years of American presidents have sought to avoid.
Given the situation we’re now in there’s argument to be made that all of those presidents of the past 50 years made some miscalculations. President Harry Truman was the first president who waded into the Korean Peninsula, although that was largely a result of his predecessor’s actions and those of presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelts first adventures in Asia, and for all the historical debate at least it ended up with a capitalist and mostly democratic South Korea and all those great K-Pop videos.
Those communist and totalitarian China and North Korea regimes lingered through the Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and then the cold warrior Republican President Richard Nixon famously went to China. After Vietnam and Watergate the Republican Ford and Democratic Carter administrations maintained the stalemate on the troublesome peninsula, and although the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush brought down the Soviet Union they didn’t much change the situation with the commies on the Korean peninsula. The Democratic President Bill Clinton struck a bargain with the North Koreans that looks dreadful and will perhaps look worse in the history books, Republican President George W. Bush didn’t rectify that, and the latest headlines in even Te New York Times and The Washington Post admit that Democratic President Barack Obama also failed to definitively solve the problem.
Now we find ourselves with President Donald Trump facing these complications, and hoping those more seasoned heads and steadier hands of his will somehow prevail at least enough to kick this can further down the road.

— Bud Norman