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Another Overseas Adventure

Every time President Donald Trump travels overseas he seems to say a series of things that have us slapping up foreheads, perhaps even more prolifically than he does when does when stateside. His recent trip to Osaka, Japan, and then a few steps into North Korean territory was no exception.
The trip was immediately proceeded by Trump insulting his Japanese hosts by grousing to Fox Business News that our longtime ally has been taking advantage of America’s generosity since the mid-’40s. “We have a treaty with Japan — if Japan is attacked we’ll go in and fight World War III. We will go in and protect them and fight with our lives and treasure. We will fight at all costs,” Trump said, adding that “But if we’re attacked Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on Sony televisions, the attack.”
Trump doesn’t seem to realize that Japan is constrained by the constitution that America imposed on it by force in the aftermath of World War II to only self-defense capabilities, and that it has used often those resources on America’s behalf if a non-combat but nonetheless helpful support role throughout the Cold War and in the various wars we’ve fought against radical Islamism in the Middle East, nor that were carefully considered geo-political balance-of-power reasons for that treaty, which still make sense. The average Fox Business News viewer also doesn’t know that, on the other hand, and neither do the die-hard fans, so Trump probably didn’t care much how it badly played in most of the American media and pretty much everywhere in Japan and the rest of east Asia and everyone else at the G-20 and around the world.
Trump was also feuding ahead of the trip with most of the rest of America’s longtime allies and trading partners at the Group of 20 Economic Summit in Osaka, but as usual he was more polite in his face-to-face encounters with the rest of the world’s leaders. He had only nice things to say to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and was on his best behavior with all the European democracies he routinely accuses of ripping us off, but as usual he saved his most obsequious behavior for the murderous likes of Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammad Bin Salman and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
The Saudi Arabian dictator was invited by Trump to stand next to him in the middle of the official G-20 photograph, despite his obvious role in the murder of an American resident and Washington Post journalist, among other recent atrocities. As usual Trump was just as chummy with the Russian dictator, at one point sharing an inside joke with Putin about the Russian election meddling that the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office National Intelligence and the other 13 intelligence agencies and their Trump-appointed leaders all agree did actually happen. The die-hard fans love Trump’s shock jock sense of humor, but the rest of it thought it wasn’t a joking matter.
Worse yet, to our ears, was when Trump yukked it up with Putin about the “fake news.” Trump admitted his envy that there doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem with critical coverage of the government in Russia, where he might or might not know that at least 26 journalists have suspiciously died during Putin’s time in power, but they wound up commiserating with one another that it still sometimes happens even in Russia. America’s “fake news” still got to the pepper the president with questions, though, the foreign trip press conference being one of those rare presidential traditions even Trump can’t ignore, and once again he gave answers to their pesky questions that had us slapping our foreheads to a bright red.
Putin’s trip to Osaka was immediately proceeded by an interview with a British publication in which he said that “Western Liberalism is obsolete,” and when asked to respond Trump said that San Francisco and Los Angeles were in a sorry state because of liberal leadership, which suggests he didn’t quite understand the question. The die-hard Trump supporters might not know nor care, but the rest of the world clearly understood that Putin was talking about the classical Western Liberal tradition of individual rights and representative governments obligated by rule of law to recognize those rights, and not west coast liberalism as it’s understood in the modern context. We share Trump’s contempt for the latter meaning of liberalism, but we do worry he doesn’t share our affection for the the former sense of the term.
Meanwhile, back in the states, California Sen. Kamala Harris was getting headlines by reviving the ’70s era of busing school children to different school districts to achieve racial desegregation in an attack on Democratic primary front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden, so Trump was of course asked about that. We thought it stupid for any Democrat to dredge up a long-dead ’70s issue that was damned complicated at the time and eventually turned out badly for the Democrats’ political standing, but Trump seemed to think it only had something to do with school districts providing students transportation to their local schools. The dark-hued Harris had an inspiring story about she was luckily bused to a fancy and liberal Berkeley school as an elementary student, we’re a few years older and several shades paler and less happily remember the racial tensions at our newly integrated junior high school, so we figure we’re both entitled to our opinions at the time about the long-forgotten issue, but Trump was already a graduate of an all-white school who didn’t seem to notice what was going on elsewhere at the time. He promised the pesky reporters that he’d soon have a surprise announcement of a brilliant policy to solve the busing problem, but he offered no specifics, and as far as we’re concerned he looked damned ridiculous.
After that Trump made history by being the first American commander-in-chief to step foot on North Korean soil since the country came into existence with the stalemate of the Korean War. It was an historic photo opportunity for both the the American president and the North Korean dictator, and both men seemed to relish it together, and both were very chummy, and there’s always a chance it might avert the exchange of nuclear missiles that the past 50-plus years of Republican and Democratic administrations have worried about. On the other hand there’s also a chance that the fat guy with the bad haircut who murdered his brother and uncle to gain power is playing Trump for a chump, and the he’s not so immune to flattery as Trump, who has gushed about he’s “fallen in love” with the dictator who writes him such nice letters.
Even in the immediate aftermath of his historic photo-op Trump was grousing to the pesky reporters that any speculation it might not amount to much is “fake news,” but we’ll go ahead and speculate it might yet turn out that way. We also notice it was followed by an interesting case of the free American press asserting its First Amendment rights even on foreign soil, and Trump’s newly-appointed press secretary Stephanie Grisham getting slightly roughed up in the process.
It all started when the American president and the North Korean dictator agreed to a historic first-ever American news conference on North Korean soil, and the North Korean security forces apparently didn’t get word of it. Being the pesky and pushy people they tend to be the American reporters stormed into the conference room, the security forces responded with the usual authoritarian sternness, and quite a scuffle apparently resulted. To her credit Grisham was apparently screaming the whole time that they were allowed in by mutual agreement, and took a few bruises by doing so, so as longtime newspapermen we hope she learned something about what reporters occasionally go through and how scary it might be to cover a typical Trump rally.
We also read that as the reporters were eventually allowed to enter The Washington Post correspondent Seung Min Kim was temporarily held up, as the natural born American but Korean-descended reporter was briefly barred because the North Korean security forces insisted on “only U.S. reporters,” but that the rest of the press corps vouched for her all-American credentials and eventually got her in.
We hope it all works out for the best, and that this Grisham woman proves better than the long-forgotten press secretary Sarah Sanders, and that a free press and our longstanding alliances and various other norms of political behavior somehow persist.

— Bud Norman

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A Bad Weekend in Europe

All the president’s men and women took to the Sunday news shows to talk up his dramatic trip to Europe, with breathless accounts of triumphs we very much wanted to believe, but from our perspective it seemed as slapstick a comedy as Chevy Chase taking the Griswold family on “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
The trip began promisingly enough in Poland, where President Donald Trump delivered an uncharacteristically coherent speech before a large and adoring crowd. In his address Trump robustly urged Poland to defend western civilization’s unique values against its enemies, specifically cited the revanchist Russian government’s recent intrusions into Ukraine and other parts of its former Soviet Union empire as an example, and explicitly reiterated America’s Article Five commitment in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to back it up, which had been conspicuously omitted from his last speech in Europe. Even the most Trump-wary conservative commentators effusively praised the speech, which they found a welcome change from the apologetically morally-relativistic and multi-culturalist pablum that President Barack Obama had spewed to foreign audiences over his eight years.
We probably typed as many column inches of annoyance as any of those commentators during Obama’s interminable time in office, and are still as annoyed as any Pole or Czech about him canceling the missile defense deal his predecessor had negotiated with Poland and the Czech Republic as part of his ridiculous “re-set” effort with the Russkies, so we’ll concede that Trump’s speech was a marked improvement. Still, we found ourselves short of being effusive about it. The crowd was large and unanimously adoring because Poland’s government has lately taken an authoritarian turn that does not tolerate dissent any more willingly than did its communist predecessors, so a truly robust defense of Western values should have made mention of that, and it pains us to admit that even Obama’s apologetic and morally-relativistic and multi-cultural speech in Poland at the end of his interminable term did so.
Whatever points Trump might have have scored for western civilization in that speech, he promptly threw them all away in an ensuing joint press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda. The Polish government has lately been restricting press freedom in ways that Trump can only envy, and Trump expressed his sympathy for the cause by damning most American media as “fake news” before a worldwide media audience. He was particularly irked by the unfavorable coverage of the National Broadcasting Company, explaining it was because he once had a hit reality show on the network, and although capitalism is indeed a western value we don’t think that Trump strike quite the right balance with a free press.
Worse yet, Trump also advised his international audience that it can’t necessarily believe it anything it hears from America’s intelligence agencies. In response to a question from one of those darned NBC reporters if Trump accepted the conclusion of America’s intelligence community that Russia had meddled in America’s past presidential election, the winner of that election said that he thought they might have but so had other countries he wouldn’t name and other people he wouldn’t speculate about, and he recalled how they had been wrong about all sorts of things including an Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program prior to the Iraqi war, and “nobody really knows for sure” what is true. During his winning Republican primary campaign Trump had alleged that Republican President George W. Bush knew from intelligence reports that there was no such program but lied the country into a disastrous war over it anyway, but the current story is that the intelligence agencies had knowingly misled him, and in any of the tellings of the story the Republican Party and America and its intelligence community and the rest of western civilization don’t look good.
All of this complicated the next day’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, of course, but naturally there was an attention-diverting “tweet” from the president early that morning. “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the (Democratic National Committee’s) server to the (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and the (Central Intelligence Agency), Trump “tweeted” from Hamburg, Germany, adding “Disgraceful.” In case you don’t follow the news diligently, Podesta was the campaign chairman for vanquished Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, there was some fuss about her e-mails during that long-ago campaign, and even such Trump-wary Republicans as us are still annoyed about it. Not even such an eager-to-believe sycophant as Sean Hannity will buy that’s what everyone in Hamburg was talking about on the opening of a G-20 summit of the world’s 20 largest economies, though, and Podesta was not the head of the DNC and had no authority over it’s e-mail server, so he was thus was able to plausibly “tweet” back about a “whack job president,” and all the president’s men and women seemed relieved it was overshadowed by Trump’s much-anticipated face-to-face meeting with Putin.
Before they got around to that, though, the European Union and the Japanese government had announced negotiations on a free-trade agreement that was clearly a preemptive measure against the protectionist trade policies that Trump had run on in his winning presidential campaign. Trump had treated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a round of golf at his high-priced Mar-a-Lago resort, and boasted of their personal relationship, but Abe explained his participation in a treaty that will leave the United States automotive industry disadvantaged in the European and Asian markets by saying it demonstrates “a strong political will to fly the flag for free trade against a shift toward protectionism.” A few days earlier German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who now seems to speak for 18 or so — minus Russia — of the countries in the G-20, had stated that “whoever thinks that the problems of this world can be solved by protectionism and isolation lives under a huge misconception,” and Trump is clearly negotiating his art of the deal to make America great again from an isolated position.
Even that disaster was overshadowed by the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Putin, however, so all the president’s men and women did their best to spin that on on all the Sunday morning talk shows. They all noted that by all accounts Trump did bring up Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election, but Trump had already said that it was based on unreliable American intelligence and that everybody does it, and there was some discrepancy in the American and Russian accounts about whether Trump accepted Putin’s claim that Russia was entirely innocent in the affair. One of the only Russians in the meeting claim that Trump agreed, the American Secretary of State who was one of only three Americans in the meeting quite believably admit that Trump agreed the American media had overstated the extent of Russian meddling, and we assume that at least 19 of the G-20 reached their own conclusions.
We also assume that most of Trump’s die-hard supporters here in the USA don’t much care what a bunch of Eurotrash and Latin and Asiatic globalist opponents think, and take their opprobrium as a badge of honor, but in the long run it probably does matter. Negotiating all those great trade deals to make America great again with a now-unified front of 18 of the world’s strong economies seems trickier than ever, and here in the domestic politics of the USA Trump didn’t do much to quash all that press talk about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Over the same weekend The New York Times had Donald Trump Jr. admitting that he and the Trump campaign chairman attended a meeting with a Kremlin-tied lawyer in anticipation of possible dirt on the soon-to-be vanquished Clinton campaign, whose chairman had been undeniably hacked, even if that was Obama’s fault and not Putin’s, and any triumphs from Trump’s visit seem likely to get lost in the next news cycle.
Trump predictably skipped the traditional post-G-20 news conference but “tweeted” his own clarification of his meeting with Putin, unhelpfully explaining that he had already made his position on Russian meddling in the election clear, and added that he was working with Putin to create an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit” to prevent the sort of hacking that he may or not believe Russia perpetrated. Such Republicans as Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham and John McCain were showing up on the Sunday shows and “tweeting” their skepticism about such a proposal, with Rubio likening it to having Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad partnering in an anti-chemical weapons coalition,  a short time later Trump was “tweeting” his assurance that it wasn’t going to happen, and all in all it didn’t seem a very triumphant end to Trump’s European trip.

— Bud Norman