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The All-Too-Familiar News Gets Worse

The latest horrific American mass shooting got most of the air time and front page headlines, as it should, but there was also plenty of intriguing news about the “Russia thing” on Thursday.
Rod Rosenstein is a life-long Republican who was appointed to his post as America’s deputy attorney general by putatively Republican President Donald Trump, but you wouldn’t have guessed that by the treatment he received from the Republicans during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Because Trump’s pick for Attorney General was obliged to recuse himself from the “Russia thing” Rosenstein has wound up in charge of a special counsel investigation into the matter, and so far he’s letting it proceed without interference, and these days that’s a considered a betrayal of the only Republican principle that matters, which is loyalty to Trump above all else.
Rosenstein was accused of unlawfully withholding information from Congress, even though he’s handed over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and has a strong argument that the law forbids him from turning over what has been withheld. Based on a Fox News report Rosenstein was accused of “intimidating” congressional investigators with threats of subpoenas of e-mails and phone calls, but he plausibly asserted that Fox News was wrong and got a big laugh by noting that “you can’t subpoena phone calls.” South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy angrily insisted that the special counsel investigation that has already numerous indictments and several guilty pleas come to a quick because it’s going for on a year, and Rosenstein was polite enough not to respond that Gowdy’s investigation of the deadly fiasco at Benghazi went on for two-and-a-half without proving anything but the obvious-from-the-outset conclusion that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been fatally incompetent but not at all criminal in their handling of the matter.
Fox News viewers and talk radio listeners probably enjoyed the pummeling they perceived, but we thought Rosenstein punched back quite effectively. In any case, Rosenstein is clearly defiant about allowing the special counsel investigation to proceed without interference, and if the House Republicans try to prevent that they’ll be in for an awful news cycle and a damning verdict from history. Thursday brought more proof, added to all that’s piled up over the past couple of years, that there’s something fishy about the “Russia thing” that demands a special investigation.
The American Broadcasting Company broadcast some pretty persuasive pictures of some some pretty suspicious Russians enjoying their elite access to Trump’s inauguration parties, and the news that the special counsel is scrutinizing all of them.
Buried deep in the news were the finalized details of a planned meeting between Trump and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, and all the numerous reasons our nervous allies and our own skittish selves are worried about that. Trump himself “tweeted” that Russia denies it had anything to do with the last election, andhe wondered why his Justice Department is more concerned with that “Russia thing” “witch hunt” rather than all the crimes his vanquished political opponents should clearly be locked up for by now. Given that all of the intelligence agencies and the people he picked as Federal Bureau of Investigation director and Central Intelligence Agency director and Defense Secretary and Secretary of State and Attorney General agree that Russia is brazenly lying to him, this is not reassuring.
At Axios.com they have a round-up of media reports about Trump telling our most longstanding military allies and trading partners at a recent Group of Seven meeting that “(North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is as bad as (North American Free Trade Agreement)” as a rip-off of the United States, and that Russia probably should be occupying Crimea because so many people speak Russian there. Axios.com is liberal but reliably reality-based internet news publication, and given Trump’s many displeased public pronouncements about our traditional military allies and trading partners in the G-7 and all of his fulsome praise for the dictator of a traditional adversary we see no reason to doubt a word of it. Thursday also brought news from The Washington Post that Trump tried to convince French President Emmanuel Macron to leave the European Union and strike a friendly unilateral deal with America.
The summit with Russia’s dictator should prove at least as friendly as his recent summit with the even more brutal North Korean dictator, where Trump traded fulsome praise and security guarantees in exchanges for the same vague promises the third-generation dictatorship has broken countless times. It will certainly be friendlier than that last G-7 summit with our most longstanding military allies and trading partners, where Trump went out of his way to offend everyone but that wacky populist in Italy.
Trump won’t be pressing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin about that “Russia thing,” or Russia’s occupation of a significant part of a nation whose sovereignty America is obliged by treaty to respect, and he’s apparently cool with Putin’s attempts to undermine the military alliances and trading partnerships that have made the West so dominate in the post-World War II and especially the post-Cold War eras, and he’s fine with Putin’s pal and brutal dictator Bassar al-Asssad staying in power in Libya, so they should get along fine. Now that Trump’s branded vodka is long gone from the marketplace he might even negotiate a trade good deal for lower-priced Stolichnaya, which is the good stuff and will surely come in handy someday soon, but other than we can’t see what the boastful deal-maker hopes to get out of it.
Which strikes us as fishy, given what an adversarial dictatorship Russia is and the conclusions of every Trump administration official except Trump that it did play a nefarious role in our last election, and everything else about Trump’s foreign policy is similarly fishy. The special counsel has Trump’s clearly Russia-tied former campaign manager in jail, has secured a guilty plea from Trump’s clearly Russia-tied national security advisor, Trump’s son has published an e-mail chat that admitted he and his brother-in-law and the campaign manager with someone he understood to be from the Russian with an offer to interfere in the election. and there’s so much else that’s fishy about it we want a special investigation to keeping looking into it.

— Bud Norman

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An Oddly Special Relationship

By now we should be inured to President Donald Trump’s bizarre behavior, as so many Americans seem to be, but we still frequently find ourselves cringing. The latest cringe was induced Tuesday when Trump ran a finger across French President Emmanuel Macron’s blue-suited shoulder and explained to the assembled media that he was wiping off some dandruff.
Trump’s die-hard fans no doubt found it hilarious, more high-browed apologists such as the “Dilbert” cartoonists will no doubt explain he was brilliantly establishing his alpha male dominance in the Franco-American relationship, but we’re sure the rest of the world found it rude and boorish. So far the rest of Trump’s first official state visit from a foreign head of state has proved just as undiplomatic and un-presidential.
Seldom-seen First Lady Melania Trump is getting rave reviews from establishment media for the apparently swell official state dinner she arranged, as well as her elegantly dignified comportment in front of the cameras, but Trump had to settle for the praise of the hard-core fans while the late night comics had great fun with the footage. Trump was filmed grabbing Macron’s hand on the White House porch and pulling him along like a reluctant pet, growled that a reporter’s perfectly reasonable query if Trump will pardon his legally beleaguered personal attorney was a “stupid question,” and touched Macron more often and more familiarly than a head of state should touch another head of state.
Macron arguably started it with that discomfiting kiss on the cheek thing that the French do, and he was also unusually touchy and huggy, even by French standards, but that only made it an embarrassing spectacle for both heads of state. So far as we can tell, the negotiations on weighty matters that the state visit is ostensibly about went no better.
Macron had come to the White House with the stated intention of talking Trump out of withdrawing from the nuclear arms agreement with Iran that President Barack Obama and France and five other European powers had negotiated, and it seems he intended to flatter Trump into acquiescence. Flattery is usually an effective technique with Trump, but it’s unusually hard to talk Trump out of his opposition to that Iran deal. He constantly railed against it as “the worst deal ever made” during his improbably successful presidential campaign, and returned to his campaign rhetoric as he sat next to Macron in front of world’s television cameras and microphones. The public posturing by Trump and Macron is sure to complicate their private discussions.
We’ve always shared Trump’s opinion that the Iran deal was awful, but at this point Macron can make a compelling case that for now we’re stuck with it for lack of a better alternative. By usually reliable press accounts several of Trump’s remaining foreign policy advisers have come to the same conclusion, as did several of his many recently defenestrated foreign policy advisers, and so have the heads of state those six other European powers that in on the deal. Macron has told his own people and the rest of the world that “There is no plan B,” it seems unlikely that Trump will be able to articulate a persuasive one during the private negotiations, and if either head of state caves they’ll have a lot of explaining to do with their hard-core fans.
Although we don’t follow French politics so closely as the American variety, we’re guessing Macron has more to lose. He’s an obviously ambitious fellow, some even say slightly Napoleonic, and clearly pines for pan-European and even global prominence, and if he manages to seduce Trump into the global elite’s consensus with his Gallic charm it will greatly enhance that project. If he fails, though, he’ll be left with his country’s late night comedians yukking it up about their head of state’s embarrassing and literal kissing-up to an American president, even by French standards. Trump is not at all popular in France, nor anywhere else in Europe or most of the rest of the world, and he’s especially unpopular in the world’s halls of power, so Macron’s literal and figurative outreaches to Trump could end very badly.
Which is all the more reason for Trump to stick to the campaign rhetoric that won over those hard-core fans. The fact that those faggy Frenchies and snooty Euro-snobs and wily Orientals and the rest of those “shit-hole countries” largely abhor Trump is all the more reason to love him, as far as they’re concerned, and he’s still right that the hated Obama’s Iran deal was truly awful. Even without a persuasively articulated “Plan B,” Trump could win a news cycle with the hard core fans, who would readily forgive all his faintly homo-erotic fulsome praise and physical embraces for Macron as a brilliant negotiating tactic. After that there’s no telling what will come, but it will probably be something else.
Meanwhile Trump is hoping his alpha maleness will strong arm the rest of the world into his “America First” trade agenda, and Germany’s more seasoned and formidable Chancellor Angela Merkel is the next scheduled official state visitor. There’s also a chance that Trump will be meeting somewhere and someday with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un about his country’s more imminently scary nuclear ambitions. In both cases, we’ll hold out some faint hope Trump will forego the campaign trail insult comic shtick, and articulate some persuasive plan instead.

— Bud Norman

Happy Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day in France, and it’s a big deal over there. The holiday celebrates the date in 1789 when French revolutionaries stormed the notorious Bastille prison where political dissidents were being held, which proved a turning point in the civil war that toppled the despotic monarchy of Louis XVI, and July 14 still stirs a feeling of liberte, egalite and fraternite in French hearts in much the same way the Fourth of July makes Americans feel proud of their revolution.
The French Revolution didn’t work out quite so well as the American one, however, what with the Reign of Terror that shortly followed and the dictatorial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte that quickly ensued and all the wars that inevitably resulted. We can well understand why the French are still relieved to be rid that Louis XVI fellow, who really was a particularly despotic monarch, but we’re harder pressed to see how they think it all worked out well enough to celebrate. The French eventually settled into a reasonably peaceable and productive democracy, with scientists who pasteurized milk and painters who created that awesome Impressionist stuff and a military that maintained a profitable empire in Africa and Asia, but they had a bad 20th century. At this point in the 21st century they’ve arrived at a Bastille Day with French President Emmanuel Macron sharing the stage with American President Donald Trump.
Trump was ostensibly given the seat of honor because this Bastille Day coincides with the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, one of the two times in the 20th century when America’s military might came to France’s rescue, but we assume there were other reasons as well. Franco-American relations have been complicated as far back as the XYZ Affair, and in the age of Macron and Trump it’s all the more complicated. At first glance the two leaders seem polar opposites of one another, but on closer inspection bear some unsettling similarities.
Trump ran on a nationalist and isolationist and protectionist platform, Macron on a platform of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation and free trade. On the campaign trail Trump frequently cited France as an example of what America shouldn’t be doing with its immigration policy, usually citing a friend “Jim” who had ceased his annual vacations to the country because “Paris isn’t Paris anymore,” and Macron has been one of the European leaders frankly talking about the need for a post-American world order. During Macron’s race Trump “tweeted” some friendly words about Macron’s opponent, who was from a Vichy-derived nationalist and isolationist and protectionist party that was also backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and we’re sure Macron would have preferred Trump’s opponent, whose myriad flaws are surely well known to our American readership. They’ve also clashed over the Paris Climate Accord, with Trump ending America’s support because “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” and Macron quickly exploiting the European backlash by promising to “Make the planet great again.”
Trump’s a 71-year-old political neophyte with a 47-year-old photography model wife, Macron’s a 39-year-old career civil service technocrat with a 64-year-old school teacher wife, the former is more quintessentially American than we’d like to admit, and the latter is Frenchier than any self-respecting Frenchman would want to admit, so it does seem an unlikely pairing on a Bastille Day stage. Still, as the dined together with their spouses at a reputedly swank restaurant beneath the Eiffel Tower the two leaders probably found they had much in common.
Macron won election as the leader of his own newly-created and defiantly disruptive party, much as Trump did, and he prides himself on a pragmatism unmoored from any coherent political ideology, much as Trump does. Both are friendly to business interests and averse to needless government regulations, except for some disagreements on immigration policy they both take the same tough-on-terrorism stands, and we guess they’re both equally eager to make sort of deal about something or another. Macron shares Trump’s tastes for fancy dinners and big military parades, too, as well as the same distaste for all the constitutional restraints and constant press criticisms that stand in their way of getting things done. Macron has recently proposed doing away with a third of the French Parliament’s deputies, which is bold even by Trump’s standards, and the French press has likened him to “Sun King” Louis XVI by calling him the “Sun President,” which is about as harsh as anything the American press has yet come up with against Trump.
The two leaders agreed to disagree about the Paris Climate Accord, which will probably help both with their domestic political audiences, but didn’t announce any noteworthy agreements. Nothing was expected for the old Franco-American relationship celebrating Bastille Day and the centennial of America’s entry into World War I and world leadership, though, and the two leaders got along well enough that something good might come of it. Our guess is that Macron is pragmatic and unprincipled enough that he’s trying to find a sweet spot between an increasingly isolated but still significant America and the post-American European alliance he’ll be talking up again tomorrow, and our faint hope is that the savvy real estate developer Trump will hold his own in the negotiations.
The trip obliged Trump to take a couple of questions from the American press, and naturally one of them was about those e-mails his son released about a meeting he and Trump’s son-in-law and campaign manager had with someone they understood to be a Russian lawyer offering help in the election from the Russian government. Trump’s rambling reply described his son as a “good boy” and “young man” who didn’t do anything that wasn’t usual in American politics, but Trump’s son is the same age as the French President, whose leadership Trump had just effusively praised, so it was a bad setting for the argument. Macron declined the opportunity to gripe Russia’s meddling in his country’s past election, and although that was a characteristically shrewd French diplomatic move we’ll leave it to our Francophile friends to guess how that plays with his domestic political audience.
Both Trump and Macron will be back at the mercy of their domestic political audiences by Monday, if not sooner, and we expect the mobs of both countries will eventually grab the metaphorical pitchforks and storm the metaphorical Bastille against the both of them. Although we admit that both of them were arguably preferable to the people they ran against, we still don’t have much regard for either of them, and at this point we’re only rooting for France and America.

— Bud Norman

Vive La France, Or What’s Left of It

The big news on Sunday was from France, of all places, where what’s left of the global establishment prevailed in a presidential election over the rising global anti-globalist populist movement. No one in France expects the election will herald a glorious new age in that long-declining country, given that it was a choice between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, but the rest of the world is still debating what it might mean everywhere else.
Emmanuel Macron won by a comfortable 66-34 margin, which is even more comfortable than all the much-maligned polls had predicted, by running as a putatively independent candidate was was “neither left nor right.” He was a longtime member of the Socialist Party, which is one of the two major parties and the closest equivalent of the Democratic party, but had shed the party label when the Socialist incumbent reached an eye-popping 4 percent approval ratings, and would be considered far-left by even current American standards, but he could plausibly claim the centrist position in France. He’s a former investment baker who’s more comfortable with free market capitalism than Democratic runner-up and self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, more unequivocally pro-North Atlantic Treaty Organization than the Republican president, and takes a pro-free trade position while promising restrains on all the regulatory meddling from Brussels.
Macron is also 39 years old, making him the youngest leader of France since Napoleon Bonaparte, which has been a while, and he’s got a 64-year-old wife, which the polls show endeared him to a certain demographic of the French electorate. All politics is local, too, and France is so far outside our locality that we can’t imagine what other oddball issues might have played a role in the election, but so far as we can tell from this far-off vantage point his biggest advantage was that he running against Le Pen.
All the international media described her as the “far-right” candidate, which is accurate enough in an international context, but that doesn’t translate well into American. She was outspokenly opposed to unfettered immigration from the Islamic world and stridently insistent the immigrants conform to traditional French values, and opposed to the infringements on French sovereignty imposed by the European Union, and didn’t cotton to all the free trade involved, so even much of the talk-radio segment of America’s conservative media embraced her as one of their own. The old conservative hands who still write down their words noted that she was until recently the candidate of her father’s National Front Party, which advocated not just nationalism but an industry-socializing and all powerful socialism, and had only renounced the party affiliation because its Vichy roots and unabashed racism polled poorly, and that she wasn’t any kind of conservative recognizable by American standards.
Everywhere in the international media from the center-right to the far-left is celebrating Macron’s victory, but from here on the plains it seems another premature celebration. Macron’s economic prescriptions don’t seem any more likely to fire up the long-moribund French economy than those of his successor with the 4 percent approval rating, and his blithe attitude toward all those undeniably troublesome Muslim immigrants will likely add to that unprecedented 34 percent that a “far-right” candidate just earned in oh-so-enlightened France. The similarly commonsensical Geert Wilders has also lost in Denmark, where the Muslim problem also brought out a signifiant minority, but the “Brexit” vote that pulled Great Britain out of the European Union and the election of President Donald Trump in America, of all places, suggests that the international center is still being pulled in a nationalist direction.
Our hope is is that Macron will take a calculatedly centrist position on immigration, that political parties all around the world will be similarly commonsensical and not leave the nationalist-socialist types to address it, and that France and the rest of us will continue to limp along that rocky path of freedom.

— Bud Norman

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