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The Two “Jokers” in the News

The two big stories in the news all weekend were about “Joker,” the comic book movie that’s been drawing a huge box office take and generating even more controversy, and of course the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry regarding President Donald Trump, whose seeming solicitations of foreign meddling in the next election are also quite controversial.
Which strikes us interesting coincidence, given that Trump’s defenders on the Sunday morning news shows were insisting that Trump was only joking when he stood before all the network cameras and microphones asked various foreign governments for dirt on a potential election rival.
As much as we’d like to weigh in on the “Joker” controversy, we haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t until it shows up on Netflix, as we have little interest in even the most controversial comic book movies, and we don’t pass judgment on any movies we haven’t seen. So far as we can tell it’s the same controversy we’ve gone through with “The Wild Bunch” and “Bonnie and Clyde” and “A Clockwork Orange” and “Kids” and “Fight Club” and other disturbing and hard-to-watch films about amoral protagonists that are nonetheless praiseworthy cinematic commentaries on their times and the human condition, but we don’t much like comic book movies and might well quit “Joker” halfway through a Netflix viewing, as we’ve done with other much-hyped comic book movies.
By now we’ve been through a lot of political imbroglios, too, but this whole “the President was only joking” defense is something that only came along with the Trump presidency. We remember President Ronald Reagan being caught on a “hot mic” saying he’d launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, but in that case he was clearly joking with what he thought was a few understanding friends, and no harm came from it. In this case it’s not nearly clear Trump was joking when he stood in front of the cameras and microphones and cameras and urged the Ukrainian and Chinese and Australian governments to investigate a potential rival, and it’s arguably harmful to America’s international relationships.
There’s now a second “whistle-blower” alleging that Trump asked the Ukrainian president during a discussion about America’s military aid to the beleaguered country to investigate a potential electoral rival, this one said to have even better credentials and first hand knowledge, which will likely further bolster the Democrats’ impeachment efforts. So far, the President seems to be saying so “what if I did solicit foreign interference in an American election?” while his Sunday morning news show apologists are insisting he’s only joking.
On the American Broadcasting System’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan responded to a question about Trump’s quotes by asking “George, do you really think he was serious about thinking that China’s going to investigate the Biden family?” Meanwhile, on the Columbia Broadcast System’s “Face the Nation,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt was saying “I doubt the the China was meant seriously, to tell you the truth.” Earlier, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had explained to the media that “I think he did it to provoke you to ask me and others and get outraged by it.”
Our guess is that Trump will ultimately go with the “so what if I did?” strategy and leave his Sunday morning apologists under the proverbial bus. He famously asked the Russians on live television to hack his 2016 Democratic opponent’s e-mail, told Stephanopoulos that he didn’t see anything wrong with accepting campaign help from a foreign government, and has lately said on all the networks that the ChiComs and Aussies and the Ukrainian comedian all chip in. He didn’t seem to be joking in any case, and by now he really can’t make it any clearer that he seriously doesn’t see anything wrong about it, but the die-hard fans don’t seem to mind.
Although we can’t find the link, we saw recently saw some YouTube video of a Democratic congresswoman in a swing district defending her pro-impeachment inquiry vote in front of a hostile town hall, and when she made the by now hard-to-refute argument that Trump had solicited foreign help in an American election much of the crowd started chanting “fake news, fake news.” When she cited Trump’s own statements and other hard-to-refute evidence the same members of the crowd started shouting that Trump was merely seeking evidence of his opponent’s corruption from those foreign governments. They seemed to like that better than the “he was only joking” defense.
All of the damn Democrats and most of the inexplicable independents will take a dimmer view of an American president openly inviting foreign interference in an American election, however, and something in our old-fashioned Republican souls doesn’t like it any better. We’d like to think Trump is only joking, but we don’t think it’s something an American president should be joking about.

— Bud Norman

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The Autumn of Our Discontent

Summer ends and autumn arrives at early afternoon here in Wichita, and if there aren’t any clouds at the exact moment we hope to watch the sun shine through a prism onto the autumnal equinox stone at the solar calendar a couple of our artsy friends erected in a nearby park. Equinoxes and solstices are usually well-attended at the spot, if the sun if shining, not for any pagan reasons but just because some people in this eccentric neighborhood want to share the experience of the changing of the seasons and the passage of our limited time on Earth.
Meanwhile, everything else keeps changing, and little of it brings people together. At the moment the big political news is about a “whistle-blower” and President Donald Trump and his telephone conversation with the Ukrainian president, and both sides of our vast political divide agree that it’s an outrage.
So far the facts of the matter aren’t entirely clear, as the Trump administration has prevented Congress or the press or the general public from seeing the “whistle-blower’s” complaint, but that naturally frustrates Trump’s critics, and all the anonymous leaks and Trump’s own statements on the matter seem to suggest that Trump did indeed at least imply a demand for dirt on potential Democratic campaign rival and former Vice President Joe Biden in exchange for military aid that had been passed by Congress. This is quite arguably a very big deal, especially when you take into account that Trump openly invited Russia to find dirt on his last presidential opponent and frankly said on national television that he’d accept similar help from any other government, and on the left they’re making a very big deal of it.
On the right they’re more concerned about the dirt Ukraine has on Biden, and insisting that’s bigger scandal. Biden’s undeniably wayward yet surprisingly successful son was somehow on the board of a big company in incredibly corrupt Ukraine, which came under scrutiny from a prosecutor investigating public corruption, and Biden is caught on tape bragging that as Vice President he withheld foreign aid to Ukraine unless the prosecutor was removed from power. That’s more than enough for right wing talk radio talkers to fill their three-hour time slots. Trump is also saying that although he doesn’t know the identity of the “whistle-blower” he does know it’s a partisan member of a “deep state” conspiracy against him, and that also plays well with the talk radio audience.
At this point we no longer have a rooting interest in anybody, and are trying our best to cling to unchanging principles. Go ahead and call us old-fashioned Cold War-era Reagan Republicans, but we still think an American president shouldn’t be strong-arming an eastern European ally valiantly trying to resist Russian domination. Nor do we think that foreign interference in an American presidential election should be tolerated. So far, the apologists are unconvincing,
The so-called “lame-stream” media are credibly reporting that the investigation of Biden’s son had long been stopped when Biden made his remarks about removing that prosecutor, who the Ukrainian media had identified as one of the more corrupt of the notoriously corrupt government’s officials, but it’s still suspicious how Biden’s son wound up on that Ukrainian board of directors. If it turns out that Biden is implicated in his own scandal that’s fine by us, as we have no particular regard for him or his son, even if it means that someone further left winds up winning the Democratic nomination and beating Trump. Nothing that Biden or even Hillary Clinton ever did provides any excuse for what Trump might have done, so at this point you can lock ’em all up, as far as we’re concerned.
Here’s hoping, though, for a prolonged Indian Summer and a mild winter.

— Bud Norman

Robert Mueller’s Graceful Bow from the Public Stage, and Its Aftermath

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before two congressional committees on Wednesday was one of the most highly anticipated episodes in President Donald Trump’s long-running reality show, but it proved anticlimactic. No matter which side you’re rooting for in this tawdry spectacle, you probably didn’t get what you were hoping for.
Trump’s tormenters in the Democratic party were mostly disappointed that Mueller stubbornly refused to add anything juicy to what’s in the 480-page report his exhaustive investigation into the “Russia thing” provided. There’s plenty in the report that looks very, very bad for Trump, but it’s a long and tough read that most Americans haven’t perused, and much of the country is willing to go with Attorney General Robert Barr’s four-page summary that there’s nothing in it that looks at all bad for Trump, so the Democrats were hoping that Mueller would make it more vivid, which his very carefully chosen words didn’t do.
On the other hand, Trump and his die-hard supporters in the Republican party didn’t get what they wanted. They’ve been claiming that the report completely exonerates Trump of any wrongdoing, and Mueller reiterated the report’s carefully chosen and clearly stated words that it “does not exonerate the president.” Even as Trump and his die-hard supporters claim that Mueller did exonerate the president, they’re also claiming that Mueller is a “deep state” conspirator who launched a treasonous “witch hunt” into a “total hoax” about Russian interference on Trump’s behalf in the last presidential election, and they didn’t make much headway with that alternative argument.
On the whole, we’d say that Trump and his die-hard supporters got slightly the worst of it.
In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee Mueller reiterated his investigation’s finding that Russia did indeed interfere on Trump’s behalf in various ways during the last election, a claim that all of America’s intelligence agencies confirm is not a hoax, with Trump’s Secretary of State and Central Intelligence Agency director and National Security and Director of National Security Director in agreement. Trump is still inclined to take Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s word for it that Russia would never think of doing any such thing, and has taken no action to prevent from doing so in the future, and any fair-minded American who’s still paying attention to Mueller’s carefully chosen words about this stuff should be concerned about that.
Mueller also reiterated his investigation’s conclusion that it could not charge Trump or his campaign with criminally conspiring with the Russians, which seems to be the “total exoneration” that Trump crows about, but of course it’s more complicated that. The investigation found Trump campaign officials were fully aware of Russia’s efforts and had numerous and Russian officials, proved that Trump was lying when he assured the Republican primary electorate he wasn’t pursuing any business deals in Russia, and has won indictments and guilty pleas and convictions against such high-ranking Trump associates as longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen and campaign manager Paul Manafort and national security advisor Mike Flynn. Another case against longtime Trump friend and advisor Roger Stone is currently being adjudicated, but Mueller carefully avoided commenting on that, or any of the other many criminal cases his investigation referred to other jurisdictions.
The House Judiciary Committee was naturally more interested in the part of Mueller’s report that outlined ten instances where Trump sought to thwart the investigation, but Mueller disappointed the Democrats by artfully dodging questions about whether he would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice if Trump weren’t the president of the United States. There’s a Watergate-era opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that says you can’t charge a sitting president for a felony, which the report seems to imply is the sole reason no charges were brought, and the seasoned Mueller was craftily coy in dodging questions about whether he’d meant to imply that, but we figure any fair-minded observer still paying attention to this arcane stuff could probably read between the lines.
The Republican attacks on the character and credibility of the man they simultaneously claim has completely exonerated Trump looked ridiculous, of course. If you’ve been following this soap opera on right wing talk radio and through Trump’s “tweets” you know that Mueller and the Hillary Clinton-loving and Trump-hating “13 Angry Democrats” he assembled for his investigation were intent on a coup d’tat against a duly elected American president, but despite their best efforts the Republican interrogators failed to make a convincing case. Trump has “tweeted” that Mueller only investigated him because Mueller was “best friends” with fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, Trump didn’t appoint Mueller to a a third term as FBI director, and because of some long-ago dispute about greens fees at a Trump-owned golf course, but that was all the more ridiculous.
Mueller is a bona fide Eagle Scout, a veteran of the Vietnam War decorated with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, a star student at three of America’s most elite universities, a longtime prosecutor against America’s most dangerous criminals whose reputation for by-the-book integrity earned him a nomination to head the FBI by a Republican president and a nomination to serve a rare second term by a Democratic president, with both appointments confirmed by landslide and bipartisan votes in the Senate. His reputation for honesty and integrity and patriotism is far better than Trump’s, by any fair-minded assessment, and it’s hard to believe he’d toss away his hard-earned fawning footnote in America’s history because of a collegial professional relationship with Comey or a third term at the FBI he swore under oath he did not apply for, much less some petty dispute over greens fees that only the likes of Trump would make a big deal about.
That Mueller disappointed by the Democrats by declining to sensationalize the more damning parts of his report makes the Republican arguments that he’s a treasonous “deep state” conspirator all the more unconvincing. So far as we can tell from our reading of Mueller’s report the Trump campaign cooperated with Russia’s interference in the election, and the Trump administration sought to prevent efforts to find out about it, and while it’s outside Mueller’s jurisdiction he stuck to rules as he reads them and he figures it’s up to Congress to decide if that amounts to the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are impeachable offenses. We’re sure Mueller has some private opinion about how Congress should proceed, but he’s a stickler for the rules ,and one of those rare Washington figures who doesn’t think everything’s all about him, and is still willing to let his private opinions remain private, so as disappointed as we are our old-school Republican souls admire his old-school reticence.
Which is more than we can say for Trump. At what he surely hopes is the end of a long and distinguished career of public service Mueller has once again provided the American public with the facts of the matter at hand, as best as he could, and according to the rules he has once again humbly and wisely decided to let the rest of us sort it all out. We’ll hold out hope, as we’re sure Mueller will do, that whatever the hell the truth is it will ultimately prevail.

— Bud Norman

The Post and a “Tweet” and a Twist in the Russia Story

Over the weekend there was another big Washington Post scoop, another blast of “tweets” from President Donald Trump, and yet another intriguing twist in the ongoing story about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
The Post’s big story was about how President Barack Obama reacted to the intelligence community’s alarmed reports that Russia was meddling in various ways with the American presidential race, all in favor of Trump and by the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it seems to support an unnamed administration official’s conclusion that “We choked.” Although Obama ordered that “cyber bombs” be planted in Russian computer systems to be set off if needed, and confronted Putin about the matter at an international summit, the article notes that Russia suffered only “largely symbolic” economic sanctions for its attempt to sabotage an American election
Trump has previously expressed doubt about whether Russia did anything at all in the election, saying that the e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and disseminated by Wikileaks could have been the work of anyone from the Chinese to “some guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds,” but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at Obama. “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of Nov. 8 about election meddling by Russia,” Trump “tweeted,” adding “Did nothing about it. Why?” Continuing the theme, he later “tweeted” that “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!”
Which makes for an interesting twist in the longer-running story, or at least in the way Trump tells it. Instead of continuing to cast doubt on the conclusions of 15 separate intelligence agencies, and the findings of his own Central Intelligence Director, and scoffing at anything at all that runs in The Washington Post or contains anonymous sources, Trump is now outraged that Russia did indeed try to help him get elected and wants the public to direct its outrage at Obama for allowing it to happen. One of the shriller right-wing talk radio hosts we scan across while driving was making essentially the argument a week earlier, and the fans calling in all found it very convincing, but we wonder how it will play with anyone other than Trump’s most loyal supporters or Obama’s most determined critics. It also invites arguments that Trump will have trouble “tweeting” his way through.
The Post’s story was a novella-length opus, so we’re guessing that Trump’s notoriously short attention span didn’t get him to the part where it did a pretty good job of answering the question about why the Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully. As the reporters document, the intelligence was incomplete about the Russians’ capabilities and what might be provoked, the sanctions imposed after Russia’s violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia didn’t leave many more options, and like most Americans Obama incorrectly assumed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway. We’ve spent the last 10 years criticizing Obama and are as eager to take another swipe at his sorry presidency as anyone, but in this case we can’t think of anything he might have done that would anyone.
As if to further confuse the issue, Trump also “tweeted” that “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?” We’re not at all clear how quashing any effort Russian effort to get Trump elected would have helped Clinton, and we can’t imagine anything that Obama might have done that would have pleased Trump. A White House address warning that the Russians were actively working to elect Trump would surely have been scoffed at by Trump, even with the 15 intelligence agencies all backing it up, and given the suspicious mood of the electorate we doubt that any of Trump’s supporters would have believed a word of it or cared much even if they did. Even now, we suspect most Trump supporters are outraged that Obama let Putin do all those nasty things that Trump previously said he might not have done.
Today’s a new day, and we expect that the White House communications team will be explaining how the “tweets” speak for themselves but don’t necessarily mean what they say. An earlier Trump “tweet” following a Washington Post story about Trump being investigated by a special counsel on possible obstruction of justice charges griped that he was being investigated because he’d fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director because of a recommendation by the man who was investigating him, which was wildly wrong on several levels, and by the weekend one of his lawyers was on all the shows insisting that Trump was not under investigation by anyone. This is a common post-“tweet” occurrence, and you can between that Mike Huckabee’s daughter or some other spokesperson will be explaining how Trump still doesn’t necessarily believe in that Russian meddling that he was blaming Obama for.
They’ll pretty much have to, because all the questions that reporters might not be allowed to recorded are going to about what the Trump administration is doing about Russia’s meddling in the election. Until The Washington Post provided an opportunity to attack Obama with it Trump had never definitively acknowledged that Russia had done anything untoward during the election, his transition team made an aborted effort to lift all those largely symbolic sanctions, even the Senate’s Republicans felt obliged to vote for legislation that would not allow Trump to ease the rest of the sanctions, and there are all those other Russian ties and undisclosed meetings between Trump’s close associates and everything else about that Russian meddling that Trump seems have at long last acknowledged.
These days Obama seems to be enjoying his post-presidency a lot more than Trump seems to be enjoying his presidency, and we think he’ll happily accept history’s verdict that he did choke in one of his final crises so long as Trump is lured into admitting that the Russians connived to help his campaign. How Trump responds to that fact is likely to be far more important to how history eventually regards him.

— Bud Norman