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On the President’s Weekly Winter Vacation

Except for howling winds and an extended dry spell the weather’s been nice and warm around here lately, the Wichita State University Wheatshockers are heading into collegiate basketball’s championship tournament on a 15-game blow-out streak, and so far it’s been a pretty good March in our patch of the prairie. Still, we can’t help noticing with a certain wistfulness all the references to Mar-a-Lago in the latest news.
Usually around this time of year in Kansas we’re chattering our teeth and wishing for a south Florida vacation, and fondly recalling that one especially bitter winter when we did escape to a week of driving around Miami in a rented convertible V-8 Mustang, which yielded lots of funny stories we still like to tell, but even our most fanciful late winter fantasies never included anything quite so fancy as Mar-a-Lago. A very Republican friend of ours said the other day that he’d never heard of Mar-a-Lago, so perhaps we should explain to a general readership that it’s a Great Gatsby-esque mansion and sprawling estate complete with golf courses and tennis courts and all sorts of amenities located on a prime stretch of Palm Beach real estate that Trump had turned into a $100,000-a-year resort before he became president, and now uses as the “Winter White House” while charging a recently raised $200,000-a-year fee for the rest of the guests, and by all accounts it’s very swank.
Trump has spent five weekends there since being sworn in as president just last January, and the taxpayers have spent an estimated $3.5 million per visit, which is also pretty damned swank, even by government standards, and we can’t help thinking that it would be a bigger story if he weren’t there “tweeting” unsubstantiated charges about his wires being tapped and thus dominating the next days’ news cycles.
We spent much of the past eight years grousing about how many vacations President Barack Obama took and how many rounds of golf he played, and sneering about how his Martha’s Vineyard getaways belied his man-of-the-people image, and how damned expensive it was for the actual people, and feeling sorry for partisan Democrats who had to make excuses for it after eight years of grousing about George W. Bush’s far cheaper recreation expenses and rounds of golf. So far Trump has gone out of town for non-business-related reasons and played and golf far more often than Obama did, and racked up monthly travel bills equal to what to Obama rang up in a year, and seems to think he proved his Jacksonian populism by pouring ketchup over the well done steaks he ordered at the Great Gatsby-esque resort where the government pays the tab even as he collects it, and because we were Republicans long before Trump ever was we’re not about to make any excuses for five straight weekends at Mar-a-Lago.
Should Trump ever bless the nation with a slow news day we’re sure his antagonists in the media will be able to fill it with some standby stories about Trump’s unusual buyer and seller arrangement with Mar-a-Lago, and the potential that a mere $200,000 a year membership could buy access to the president, and how top-secret negotiations were conducted there within earshot of waiters and busboys and other diners in the restaurant, and how it really doesn’t fit with the image of a champion of the black-lunged West Virginia coal miner and opioid-addicted former factory worker from the Rust Belt. Nor does it comport to our old-fashioned Republican fantasy of a Republican president working overtime at the actual White House on the weekend to get all those policies just right so that the damned Democrats couldn’t make such easy hash of them, and we can only imagine what the the Democratic media will make of it.
The press is already taking note of who isn’t going to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend with Trump, the latest reports have some of the famously feuding top White House staff left behind, and even over the work week it’s hard to find any evidence even in the friendliest meeting that the administration is humming along like the finely-tuned machine that Trump swears it is. Perhaps Trump will find some insight at Mar-a-Lago that repays the taxpayers’ expense, but until he does the resentment is likely to rise, even if Trump’s much boasted-about extravagance was one of his selling points. Trump used to grouse about Obama’s vacationing and golfing extravagance, too, and so long as we’re stuck here on the prairie we’ll fell free to grouse about them both. From what we hear, the weather’s been pretty mild in Washington, D.C., too.

— Bud Norman

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Trump Meets the Press

Watching Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, we were reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s apocryphal theater review that advised “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” Those who voted for Trump because they like his abrasive and combative style were no doubt pleased by the performance, but those who voted for him in spite of it because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, and the plurality of voters who went ahead and voted for Clinton, and the majority of the country that voted for someone other than Trump or didn’t vote at all were probably less entertained.
Back during the interminable and still seemingly ongoing presidential campaign Trump always revved up the crowds by taunting the penned-in print and radio and television and internet contingent, whom the Trump rally crowds were already predisposed to hate with a red-hot passion, and he brought the same confrontational attitude to his first full-blown post-election press conference. He opened by boasting that “I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences and it’s good to be with you,” but in the next sentence explained “We stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news.”
Just in case you hadn’t heard the gossip about Trump and Russian prostitutes and kinky sex acts and unfulfilled real estate deals, which Trump alleged was “nonsense that was released maybe by the intelligence agencies? Who knows,” he then took the opportunity to thank all the news outlets that hadn’t reported on what he had already “tweeted” were Nazi-like efforts by America’s intelligence agencies to undermine his legitimacy. That was followed by some boasting about all the American companies that are staying put for fear of Trump’s border tax-imposing wrath, how he’s also cowed the entire military-industrial complex out of cost overruns, a threat to do the same thing to “pharma,” yet another promise to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created,” a boast about how the great the inauguration will be and how he’s booked all the best bands that the military has to offer, and announcement that some guy would be in charge of the Veterans administration, all of which probably bored even his most ardent fans. Then he opened himself to questions, and that’s when the latest installment of this reality show finally got to the good part.
The first questions naturally pertained what the questioner carefully and obliquely referred to as “these unsubstantiated allegations” about Russian prostitutes and kinky sex acts and unfulfilled real estate deals, and whether the intelligence agencies had given him a heads-up on the reports eventually splashed all over the internet, and also whether Trump still doubted the intelligence agency’s unanimous conclusion that Russia had meddled for some reason or another in the election. Trump claimed he couldn’t answer because of highly classified confidentiality stuff, then said he read all of whatever it was, presumably about Russian prostitutes and kinky sex and all the rest of it nobody explicitly mention, and went on to say that “It’s phony stuff. It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It didn’t happen. And it was gotten by opponents of ours, as you know, because you reported it and so many of the other people. It was a group of opponents that got that together — sick people — and they put that crap together.”
That now-famous dossier of putative crap apparently was put together by a former British intelligence official and a former muckraking journalist who now sell their services on the open market, and it was originally Republican but then Democratic buyers who paid to begin their “opposition research” on Trump, and although its too-good-not-to-talk-about allegations are very much unverified and seems to have some flaws it was nonetheless splashed across the internet by a previously little-known site called Buzzfeed.com, which carefully acknowledged that the information it was disseminating was “unverified.” Mentioning the site by name, Trump said “It’s frankly outrageous and highly irresponsible for a left-wing blog that was openly hostile to the president-elect’s campaign to drop a highly salacious and flat-out false information on the internet just before he takes office.” Most of last of the big city newspapers and television networks, who were well of the story that they knew was being circulated in congress and included intelligence networks but decided to sit on it more or less agreed, and given all the seeming flaws in some of the allegations it seems likely Trump also be able to boast of victory over some site called Buzzfeed.com.
The slightly more formidable CNN aired and posted on the internet a report about the undeniable fact that some site called Buzzfeed.com had splashed all that salacious talk over the intent, just as we’re now doing, and they stressed that the information they were reporting on was unverified and that it contained some seeming flaws, just as we do, but they also noted that the British intelligence agent and the muckraking journalist for-hire had pretty good reputations, and that the three biggies of America’s intelligence agency had included their findings in reports to by the out-going and in-coming presidents, which also strikes us as newsworthy, and they tried to put it in the broader context of the longstanding and still ongoing story about Trump’s seeming “bromance” with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which we’ve also been wondering about.
Obviously we find no particular with fault with CNN in this case, despite all our other numerous complaints with the network over the years, but Trump singled them out for the same “garbage” criticism as Buzzfeed.com. He even got into one of those reality show-worthy shouting matches with the poor schmuck from CNN, snarling “Your organization is terrible,” “quiet,” “don’t be rude,” and “I’m not going to give you a question.” He didn’t have the fellow roughly evicted from the hall, although there was a tantalizing hint of that possibility that will surely keep viewers tuned in, and he had a sort of mini-rally of supporters cheering on the exchange, no doubt along with all those people who voted for Trump because he’s willing it to stick to punch back against all those smart aleck reporters, but it left us with a queasy feeling.
We only watch CNN when we’re stuck in an airport terminal and only read it on the internet when it breaks a story, and we didn’t vote for either Trump or Clinton, but we’re still rooting for the free press and skeptical public that was badly need over the past eight years and will surely be needed over the next four. A shouting match with a member of that hated mainstream media will endear Trump to his already enamored supporters, but conservatives and liberals and the more sensible types who didn’t vote for him or did so only for fear of Hillary Clinton will still want to know how Trump will be separating himself from the vast and as-yet unlocked business holdings he has around the world, and how Obamacare will differ from Trumpcare, and if it’s not Russian prostitutes and kinky sex acts and unfulfilled real estates or something else hidden in Trump’s still-undisclosed tax returns then what is the deal with his weird “bromance” with Putin? Trump finally admitted that he thinks probably maybe Russia did do all the hacking that wound up in those intelligence reports no one should know about, except for the parts about Hillary Clinton that got all the attention, but he didn’t seem nearly so angry about it as he was about CNN.
None of Trump’s answers on those questions were at all reassuring to us, and although we hold out hope that something better than Obamacare will come of all this we’re thinking that Trump’s plan to let his kids run the shop for the time being is bound to raise some constitutional issues, and even without any salacious talk about prostitutes and kinky sex we’re still worried about Trump’s obvious affinity for Putin, so even though we hate the media as much as the next guy we’re hoping that someone will keep asking.

— Bud Norman

The Son-in-Law Also Rises

Most of the chatter on Monday seemed to be about president-elect Donald Trump’s latest “twitter” tantrum, this one provoked by actress Meryl Streep’s obligatory liberal rant at yet another one of those show biz awards shows, but it was the stories about Trump’s appointment of Jared Kushner as a “senior advisor” that caught our eye.
If you’re still unfamiliar with his far less famous name, Kushner is a 35-year-old real estate mogul, having run his family’s sizable business ever since his father went to jail about decade ago for tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness intimidation, and he’s also Trump’s son-in-law. Unless the mainstream media and Trump’s “Tweets” have left anything out, that’s about the extent of his resume for a senior advisory position with a presidential administration. We don’t find any aspect of it reassuring, and are troubled for reasons.
Kushner reportedly played a senior role in his father-in-law’s presidential campaign, which thus far seems to have worked out well for the entire family, so we’ll give him that. He’s also played a reportedly big role in the post-election transition, and so far that seems a mixed bag for all involved. Kushner was quite plausibly reported to have been behind the ouster from the transition team of the oh-so-obsequious New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had put Kushner’s dad in jail back in his heroic days as a tough and incorruptible prosecutor, and although that firing might have been a good call by this point in Christie’s decline it does continue a pattern of petty score-settling that doesn’t befit a presidential administration.
Our eyes were also caught by the stories just a couple of column inches below about Kushner’s family business’ ongoing negotiations with one of the biggest banks in China, a country that Kushner’s father-in-law has famously threatened 45 percent tariffs against, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. A couple of column inches the mainstream press acknowledges that Kushner has offered to relinquish his executive role in his family’s business, but so far we as we can tell and without any reassuring information via Trump’s “tweets” it will still be his family’s business, so that doesn’t allay any concerns. The president-elect has enough ongoing international deals raising conflict-of-interest questions without adding all the scandals of another family of real estate moguls to the daily budget of the last of the newspapers. Trump has been delighted to “tweet” the pretty much inarguable fact that he’s exempt from the conflict of interest laws that apply to almost all federal employees, except for that pesky “emoluments clause” in the Constitution, which we’ll deal with later, and his son-in-law’s “senior advisor” post won’t be subject to congressional approval and will apparently go unpaid and thus also fall into some legal category that Trump’s suddenly huge payroll of lawyers will find, so we expect that for at least a while it go as well as everything else that has been lately happening for the family.
That whole in-law nepotism thing bothers us, too. We’re from old-fashioned Republican stock that once groused about President John Kennedy appointing his brother Bobby to be Attorney General, and in all fairness we have to admit that at least the young punk had once served on Sen. Joe McCarthy’s commie-hunting crusade, and that this Kushner fellow seems to have no record of public service at all on his resume except for chasing Christie away, and even that seems to motivated by petty score-settling. Our experience of fathers-in-law is that sons-in-law are reluctant to offer them any criticism, and ours was a much nicer and less thin-skinned guy than Kushner’s, so we’d much prefer a “senior advisor” to Trump who would likely be more willing to advise some restraint. Something on the resume that indicates Kushner has any familiarity with geo-politics and macro-economics and all those crazy social issues would be reassuring, but these days that’s too much to expect.

— Bud Norman

Oh Yeah, That Conflict-of-Interest Thing

One of the many peculiar things we noticed about this past crazy election year was the conspicuous lack of serious discussion about the potential conflicts of interest that Republican nominee Donald Trump and his vast business empire might face if he became president. Now that he’s the president-elect it’s suddenly a hot topic in all the big papers, and we suppose better late than never.
The question did come up in one of the early Republican primary debates moderated by Fox News’ business section, and Trump answered that if he became president “I couldn’t care less about my business,” which he described as “peanuts,” promised that he only cared about making America great again, then explained that he would turn over control of his various holdings to his adult children. “Is that a blind trust?” he asked, adding that ain’t-I-a-rascal smirk his fans seem to love, then answering his question by saying “I don’t know.” Of course the crowd went nuts for it, awed that Trump would make such a selfless and patriotic gesture as turning over control of his businesses to his children, but as we watched at home and slapped our old-school Republican forehead we fully expected that at some point somebody would effectively make the glaringly obviously argument that no, what Trump describes is not at all a blind trust, and it invites all sorts of serious problems.
Some of the media did take note of the issue, but by that point Trump’s growing number of fans were able to dismiss it as something the hated media was making an issue of, and the news quickly moved on to coverage of Trump’s latest “Tweet” or insult or some old locker room talk he shared with the shock jock Howard Stern’s nationally-broadcast radio show. We kept waiting for one of the Republican rivals to bring up the conflict of interests inherent in Trump’s proposal, but they were too afraid of offending Trump’s fans or just reluctant to remind them that he was a semi-successful business who was thumbing his nose on their behalf at all those old-fashioned rules of political propriety that everyone suddenly hated. Surely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would make hay of it, we thought, but given her phony-baloney and scandal-plagued family foundation and all the various conflicts of interest that entailed she apparently decided to steer the conversation elsewhere.
Now that the Clinton family no longer has any influence to peddle, and their voluminous scandals can be left to the historians, the press is free to focus on Trump’s peculiar situation, and so far they’re having a grand old time of it. They’re noting a wide range of Trump family interests that might well be at odds with the broader public interest, and belatedly wondering if Trump is truly so patriotically disinterested as he promised. There’s that fancy new hotel Trump built in the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., where business hasn’t been great since its grand opening and a grand re-opening during a much publicized campaign stop, and since the building was leased from the federal government the co-author of “The Art of the Deal” is now both the landlord and lessee, and it will be interesting to see how those negotiations turn out. Should the unions representing the workers at Trump’s many other hotels find themselves before the National Labor Relations Board, an executive agency overseen by the president, and that will also prove interesting. Trump is also scheduled to be deposed in a class action lawsuit against his phony-baloney and scandal-plagued Trump University, presided over by a judge Trump has publicly denounced as a Mexican, and we expect that much attention will be paid to that.
The proudly nationalist and anti-globalist president-elect has a proudly globalist business empire, so there’s also concern how that might affect foreign policy. Although Trump has refused to release his tax records so that the public might know just how entangled he is with foreign entities, he has been forced to release enough financial information to reveal that he owes hundreds of million of dollars to Germany’s Deutsche Bank, which is currently haggling with the the executive branch Justice Department over how many billions they will pay for promoting dubious mortgage-backed securities in the run-up to the 2008 recession. One of the biggest tenants at his Trump Tower is the Bank of China, which has also complicated dealings with the federal government. During a campaign stop in Scotland to get some free publicity for a golf course he’s built there, where business also hasn’t been great lately, Trump told the assembled media that a devalued British pound would draw more tourists there, which was widely noted by the already-hostile Fleet Street press. Donald Trump Jr. has publicly admitted that the family business is also indebted to Russian interests, and his father’s campaign has been strikingly Russia-friendly for a Republican nominee, and any conspiracy theories about that will be at least as plausible as the ones Trump promoted about Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad killing JFK or President Barack Obama being born in Kenya.
There are numerous other examples that the press has already seized on, with more surely to come, and the only way for Trump to avert the problem is to put all his holdings into an actual, honest-to-God, not-run-by-his-children blind trust. That’s what every other president in the history of the Republic has done, even the ones you couldn’t stand, and every ethics expert from either party agrees it is the only way to assure the public of honest governance. Trump has thus far stuck with his campaign position, which we must admit didn’t keep him from winning, and he apparently figures that his fans will see any personal enrichment he might derive as further proof of that brilliant business acumen the country needs. Former New York City mayor and prominent Trump spokesman Rudy Giuliani argues that it would be unfair to Trump’s children to “put them out of work,” promises that Trump would never discuss business with his children, and argues that people will just have to trust their president.
Giuliani was a darned good mayor at one point but now has his own conflicts of interest to worry about,¬†and we can’t remember him saying much about how people should trust their president over the past eight years or so, and we’re sure he wouldn’t be talking that nonsense if Clinton had won and her own conflict-of-interest problems were the story of the moment. Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters will probably always trust he’s only concerned with making America great again, and won’t mind if the Trump family profits as well, but a lot of the people who reluctantly voted for him and the vast majority that didn’t will be more skeptical. Let us hope that Trump proves as patriotic he claims to be, and that his kids find something do while he’s making America great again.

— Bud Norman