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Playing Tough in a Tough Game

The late and great comedian Rodney Dangerfield had a joke we liked about how tough his high school was. “I’m telling you, it was really tough,” he’d say, tugging nervously at his collar before adding, “after the football team sacked the quarterback, they would go after his family.”
That jibe somehow came to mind as we were reading about the newly installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives’ wide and widening investigations into the businesses and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration of President Donald Trump. Letters of inquiry and warnings of subpoenas have been sent not only to Trump’s longtime personal secretary and senior vice president of the Trump Organization and the longtime Trump Organization chief financial operator and keeper of secrets, as well as White House associates Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer, and Steve Bannon, but also Trump’s namesake son Donald Trump Jr. and other son Eric Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
We’re telling you, politics is really tough — tug nervously on your collar for full effect — and that newly installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives seems ready and eager to play it tough.
Which is not to say that they’re wrong to do so, and we guess that as Trump tugs nervously at his collar he gives them some begrudging respect for it. Trump has always prided himself on his toughness, and as recently as last Saturday was describing his critics as “very sick people” who “hate America” and are “like a crazy person.” He’s alleged all sorts of criminal and downright treasonous crimes against previous presidents and other political opponents, Republican and Democratic alike, and he’s not been shy about going against their families. Back when the Republican nomination was down to him or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump “re-tweeted” an internet “meme” with an unflattering shot of Cruz’ wife juxtaposed against a gauzy glamour photo of Trump’s third trophy wife, and threatened to “spill the beans” on the relatively homely housewife. When one of Trump’s longtime lawyers started spilling the beans on Trump’s hush money payments to porno performers and other business practices, Trump “tweeted” to the Justice Department and the rest of the country that it was more important to find out about the lawyer’s father-in-law’s dirty dealings. We almost forgot, but he also directed everyone’s attention to a National Enquirer scoop that Cruz’ father might have been in on the assassination of President John Kennedy, but by now even such a rock-ribbed Republican as Cruz seems have for forgiven and forgotten and bended to Trump’s will.
Politics is indeed a tough game, with some very tough players on both sides, but for now the rules of the game seem to favor that ruthlessly tough Democratic majority in the House, as well as some well-established matters of fact. Longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is soon headed to a three-year stay in federal prison for various crimes, so he had nothing to lose when he stopped by a congressional hearing to testify that he committed his various crimes on behalf of and at the request of Trump, and he had various documents to back him up, and he credibly named the Trump Organization’s longtime secretary and vice president and its chief financial operator as corroborating witnesses, so letters of inquiry and threats of subpoena seem reasonable. We’re not at all Democrats, even if at this point we’re not blindly Republican, and we’d also like to hear what those potential White House witnesses have to say under oath and penalty of law.
At this peculiar point in history, we don’t even mind that those damned Democrats are going after the family. Donald Trump Jr. has already coughed up an e-mail chain admitting that some Russians he knew to be tied into the Russian dictatorship had told him they had some dirt on Trump Sr.’s opponent as part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” to which he replied “I love it!” The younger Trump took that meeting, it’s now acknowledged, and after a number of now-acknowledged lies have been told about he seems fair game for another round of congressional testimony. Eric Trump is one of the executives in charge of President Trump’s still wholly-owned businesses and a trustee of the recently ended family charity, and given that the Justice Department’s southern district and the special counsel investigation and the many media inquiries into various matters about that he also seems a fair target.
As for that son-in-law, he frankly reminds us every son-in-law joke we ever heard. As it turns out the very best person that Trump could find to bring about peace in the Middle East and end America’s opioid crisis and reinvent the federal government was his son-in-law, who according to a credible and mostly undenied New York Times report got a top level security clearance from his father-in-law despite the objections of the intelligence and national security agents who had investigated him. What with politics being such a tough game we’ll add that Kushner’s dad is a felon who was on c0nvicted on tax evasion and witness intimidation charges by Trump’s short-lived transition chief and former federal prosecutor and New Jersey governor and vanquished campaign rival Chris Christie, and that the story is even tawdrier than that. If those damned Democrats haul him before Congress to testify why those intelligence and national security investigators didn’t want to give him a top secret security clearance, we won’t mind a bit, and will be eager to hear his live-on-television and under-oath and penalty of law answers.
Politics is indeed a tough game, but with no particular dog in the fight at the moment we’ll sit back and see how it plays out. We still retain a rooting interest in America and the truth, though, and will anxiously await the outcome.

— Bud Norman

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The Son-in-Law Rises Again

The partial government shutdown is now in its 33rd day, and hundreds of thousands of government workers are going a third week without pay, with many of them calling in sick as a result, but the good news is that presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner is bravely taking charge of the situation.
In case you’re unaware of the wunderkind’s remarkable resume, the heavily indebted real estate mogul has also been given responsibility for ending America’s opioid crisis and bringing peace to the Middle East and re-inventing the federal government, among other things. Although he doesn’t seem to have quite yet accomplished any of these Herculean tasks, he’s reportedly asserted himself into the shutdown negotiations, which look to be as intractable as any of his many other jobs. There’s much skepticism about his ability to pull any of it off, but the young fellow is apparently as self-confident as ever.
According to The Washington Post’s reporting Kushner is sure that the Democrats in congress will soon capitulate to President Donald Trump’s demand for five billion dollars or so of funding for the big and beautiful border wall that he promised his supporters, and that Trump’s smartest move is to remain obstinate in the demand. Kushner has a more impressive job description than we do, including the difficult task of being Trump’s son-in-law, but we nonetheless wonder where he gets such cockamamie ideas.
All of the public opinion polls show that a plurality of Americans don’t want a border wall, and a clear majority don’t think it justifies a partial government shutdown, and such veteran politicians and wily wheeler-dealers as Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem to be enjoying the hit Trump has taken in polls. Trump is no longer making more than a token effort to argue that the Mexicans are eventually going to repay whatever money the Democrats might fork over, he’s now willing to let the Democrats call it something other than a big beautiful wall, and until the right wing provocateurs Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham spoke he was willing to capitulate on the whole idea, and for now he seems to have the far worse negotiating position. Several congressional Republicans are already planning to vote for a budget bill or continuing resolution to fully re-open the government that doesn’t include funding for the border wall, including all the congressmen who represent districts along the border.
There’s always a chance Trump’s rhetorical eloquence will persuade a majority of Americans that a big beautiful border wall is the most important issue facing the nation, perhaps when he delivers his State of the Union address in front of some raucous rally crowd in some deep-red state in the coming days, but so far that hasn’t happened. The president’s son-in-law reportedly played a role in getting the criminal justice reform bill passed, but that was a weak-on-crime bill that all the Democrats wanted and the likes of Limbaugh and Coulter and Ingraham didn’t talk about, and it doesn’t suggest he’s much a negotiator. Kushner is famous for rarely speaking in public, so it’s harder to assess his oratorical abilities, but based on what we have heard we don’t give him a better chance of swaying public opinion that his father-in-law. Our guess is he’ll be most useful to the president as an eventual scapegoat.
Meanwhile, Trump’s daughter-in-law is getting involved, and so far that’s not been helpful. Lara Trump, wife of the still-married Eric Trump, told a news outlet that those unpaid federal workers should “stay strong” and insist on a border wall before they get paid. The billionaire heiress said acknowledge that going weeks without a paycheck “is a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of country, and their children and grandchildren and generations after will thank them for their sacrifice right now.” She’s more well spoken that her father-in-law and brother-in law, but we expect that even more unpaid government workers will be calling in sick today.

— Bud Norman

A Who-Wrote-It Mystery

The most popular parlor game in political circles lately is speculating about the identify of the senior administration  official who penned an op-ed in The New York Times that was scathingly critical of President Donald Trump.
The piece cited Trump’s “amorality,” described him as uninformed and impulsive, claimed that several high-ranking officials routinely hide documents and do other things to prevent the president from endangering national security, and generally confirmed the reporting in a soon-to-be-released Bob Woodward book that the White House is “crazy town.” Trump is reportedly furious about it and eager to find and the fire the author, and during a recent rally he described he called the author an “anenimonous” coward who should be tried for treason. By now even Trump isn’t claiming that The New York Times just made it up, and naturally everyone else is also wondering who the senior White House official might be.
There was some speculation that he’s Vice President Mike Pence, because the relatively rarely used word “lodestar” is in the piece and Pence frequently uses the term, and chief of staff John Kelly has been suspected because some of his favorite phrases also appear, but both possibilities strike us a quite remote. More likely is that the author was shrewd enough to add these details as a diversion, and subject both men to Trump’s inevitable questions.
Pretty much everyone at a senior level in the administration is still a suspect, but most of the attention seems to be focused on national security advisor Dan Coats and part-time “senior adviser” and full-time presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The case against Coats strikes us especially strong, for several reasons. Coats found out about Trump’s decision to invite Russian dictator Vladimir Putin to the White House while being interviewed on national television, and was clearly both surprised and displeased, and the op-ed stresses the danger of Trump’s tendency to make impulsive decisions without consulting any of the experts he’s hired. The piece also defends some of the more traditionally Republican aspects of Trump’s domestic policy, and back when Coats was in the House of Representatives and then the Senate he very much a traditional Republican. He’s now nearing retirement age, too, and at this point might well care more about what the country thinks of his party than what his party thinks of him.
Kushner seems a less likely suspect, but we’d love to believe it just as much the next Never Trumper, and there are reasons to do so. Both Kushner and First Daughter Ivanka Trump Kushner were social-climbing Manhattanites and fashionable Democrats when they took their “senior advisor” positions in the White House, and both promised their appalled friends that they were only there to be a moderating influence on Trump’s more populist impulses. Kushner and his wife and pretty all of his in-laws have their own expensive legal troubles, too, and it was widely speculated even before the op-ed that both Kushners would be heading back to New York at any moment, and whenever they eventually do we’re sure they’ll want to reassure the fashionably Democratic socialites of Gotham that they did their part for the resistance.
Whoever it was wrote the op-ed shouldn’t expect a hero’s welcome anywhere, however, as almost everyone thinks the author has been cowardly. According to Trump and his die-hard fans the “aneniminous” writer should forthwith face a traitor’s fate on that gallows, while Trump’s critics on both the left and right would have preferred a principled resignation and an on-the-record account to corroborate all the recent reliable reporting on the “crazy town” inside the White House. We’re more inclined to the latter view, and find the former downright scary, but we’ll judge not lest we be judged, as we’re not sure what we’d do if we found ourselves in the writer’s unusual situation.
If it turns out to be Coats we’ll take stock of his long congressional career as a traditional Republican and distinguished diplomat from the old school, and assume his cowardly efforts had the best intentions and might of done some good. If it turns out to be Kushner, we’ll go right ahead and and indulge in some sinful schadenfreude, and let him find his apologists somewhere in New York City’s high society.
In any case, even Trump seems to agree that there is indeed at least one high-rankking senior official in the White House who worries about the president’s moral and intellectual and temperamental qualifications for the office. According to that soon–to-be-released book by a veteran reporter with a far better truth-telling record than Trump there are several other senior officials in the White House with the same qualms, which pretty much accords with a book by a less reputable author and then one of Trump’s former reality show co-stars, and based on what we’re seeing of Trump’s televised and “tweeted” statements we don’t doubt that at least a few senior White House officials are similarly alarmed.
We’d like to think so, at least, and we hate to speculate how this might all turn out.

— Bud Norman

Trying to Read Between the Lines and Behind the Headlines

The political news requires an extremely careful reading in the age of President Donald Trump. One must not only read between the lines, but also try to get a peek behind the story by speculating on the identity of all those unnamed sources and what their motives might be for providing the information.
Whenever the stories reflect poorly on Trump he insists that the sources simply don’t exist, which his rally crowds always cheer lustily, but after four decades in and around the news business we don’t believe the claim. Journalists do occasionally make things up, but they tend to get caught, especially when they’re on a story that other journalists are also covering, and the consequences always prove a deterrent to the rest of the profession. We’ve also noticed that an awful lot of those stories Trump dismisses as “fake news” wind up being corroborated by congressional hearing testimony and court documents and are eventually explained rather than denied by the White House press secretary.
Which makes the identity of a few of Monday’s unnamed sources a most intriguing mystery.
The National Broadcasting Company’s “Nightly News” aired a widely noted story that White House chief of staff John Kelly had a tenuous relationship with both Trump and pretty much the rest of his administration. The network reported that Kelly has called Trump “an idiot,” complained about the president’s shallow understanding of complicated policy matters, and told staffers that he was heroically preventing an impulsive president from disastrous actions. It also said that Kelly has annoyed women staffers with sexist remarks and his defense of a former top White House official who had been accused by two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend.
Less than 45 minutes after the story aired Kelly issued a statement through the White House press office calling it “total BS,” affirming his undying loyalty to the president and his agenda, and decrying “another pathetic attempt to smear people and distract from the administration’s many successes.” Which might be true, as Kelly came into the White House as a four-star Marine general with a rock-solid reputation for integrity, but at this point he’s been there’s long enough we’re more inclined to believe the unnamed sources.
It’s not at all hard to believe that Kelly is of the many millions of Americans frequently frustrated by Trump’s study habits and impetuous temperament, after all, and pretty much everyone has at some point called his boss an “idiot.” Recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never did forthrightly deny that he’d called Trump a “moron” — which he’d reportedly emphasized with a certain gerund form curse word we’ll not repeat here — and although Trump claimed not to believe it he did feel compelled to “tweet” a challenge to Tillerson in an intelligence quotient test contest, and more unnamed White House officials than any fiction writer could create have anonymously shared similar gripes. Kelly did have some strangely nice things to say about credibly accused wife-beater, his reputation for rock-solid integrity took when his statement issued through the White House press office about the firing largely untrue, and he strikes as the sort of four-star Marine general who probably has some ideas about the differences between the sexes that are too old-fashioned even for the sort of women who work in the Trump White House.
Most of those women seem to remain loyal to Trump, though, and the unnamed sources are clearly more interested in taking down Kelly. Which has led to widespread speculation that the sources are closely associated with presidential daughter Ivanka Trump and presidential-son-in-law Jared Kushner, who were prominent figures in the administration figures when Kelly was installed as chief of staff but have since disappeared almost entirely from the news. Trump’s former campaign “chief executive officer” and White House “chief strategist,” who was ousted after Kelly became chief of staff and has since lost his media gig and billionaire backers and is now known to Trump as “Sloppy Steve,” is always considered a suspect, and there’s a chance he still has a few allies in the White House. On the other hand it could be almost any of those seemingly loyal women hanging around, as Kelly has reportedly described the fairer sex as overly emotional.
All of the unnamed sources are described as administration officials, and we doubt that NBC would run the risk of one of its many competitors more convincingly reporting otherwise, so at least we can be sure they’re not Democrats. In the mysterious case of it was who handed over to The New York Times the list of subjects that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would like to ask Trump about in an interviews, which the investigators had turned over to Trump’s legal defense team just a short time earlier, it’s momentarily impossible to rule out anybody.
According to the document provided by the Times’ unnamed source, the special counsel intends to ask some pretty tricky questions about the Trump campaign’s previously denied or undisclosed but now thoroughly documented contacts with Russian government operatives, and the Trump administration’s actions that might be construed as obstructing the subsequent investigations into that. The Times might have made it up, unconcerned that its reputation would be unsullied by convincing denials of both the special counsel and the Trump defense team, but so far that hasn’t happened, and if the interview ever does come to pass it sounds exactly like the sort of things we’d be asking.
Maybe the special counsel dropped it off at the Times’ Washington bureau shortly visiting Trump’s legal defense team’s offices, but they’ve been a remarkably un-leaky so far, to the extent that all the search warrants and indictments and guilty pleas they’ve racked up have all taken everybody by surprise. There’s rampant speculation it was leaked by members of the Trump legal defense team who are hoping in God and pubic opinion to persuade Trump not to sit down with that ruthlessly efficient special counsel team and answer their very tricky questions in his usual impulsive style, but the Times itself has tamped that down. Someone in the White House but not on the defense team, maybe, or perhaps some “deep state” operative that probably does exist among all thousands of workaday feds.
In the checkout line at the neighborhood grocery store we noticed the headline about “Trump’s Fixer” and his sordid dealings, and although we were too stingy to pay for a copy we had no trouble discerning where that story came, and what it means. The “fixer” in the headline is Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen, who has admitted making a $130,000 payment to a pornographic video performer to prevent from talking about an alleged affair with Trump, which led to the Justice Department’s southern district of New York office executing a very thorough search warrant on his home and office and hotel room, based on a tip from the special counsel. That led to widespread speculation that Cohen was going to provide some answers to those pesky special counsel questions that would reflect poorly on Trump.
Porn stars and presidents are perfect fodder for The National Enquirer, but in this case the president is a good friend and loyal supporter of the president, so to the casual supporter it might seem odd they’re screaming headlines about “Trump’s Fixer.” If you’ve been following the complicated story so far, though, you’re well aware that Trump’s even more longtime lawyer, the one who negotiated his great divorce settlements, has assured him that Cohen is going to sing like the cliched canary, so the all-out assault on the integrity of somehow Trump was recently calling a “great guy” has begun. It also undercuts any Democratic efforts to exploit the shady dealings of Trump’s longtime attorney and “fixer.”
In any case, the truth will out, somewhere down the line, maybe in some little read history book published far in the future. In any case, Kelly probably does think Trump is an idiot, and he does strike as the sort of old-fashioned sexist pig you’d want in a four-star Marine General, we sort hope he’s obsequious enough to hang around and tackle the president before he gets to the nuclear football, Trump’s eventually going to have answer those pesky questions, if not to the special counsel then surely to subsequent historians, and we can well understand why any lawyer would advise him to put the final verdict as far into the future as possible.
At this point all we know for certain is that poor Cohen fellow is in quite a fix. We know that for a fact, oddly enough, because we saw in the headline of The National Enquirer at the local grocery checkout line.

— Bud Norman

As the Son-in-Law Sets

Jared Kushner’s position as President Donald Trump’s son-in-law seems secure for the time being, so far as we can tell, but otherwise it’s hard to see how he continues doing the additional jobs of bringing about Middle East peace and reinventing the federal government and solving America’s opioid crisis and being the country’s go-to guy with China and getting Mexico to pay for a border wall.
A pesky bureaucracy has denied him top-level security clearance, what with all the meetings with foreign powers that he forgot to disclose on his forms and the recent reports by the even peskier news media that China and Mexico and a couple of other countries have tried to exploit the billion-dollar debts owed by the company he last ran and is still fully invested in. The White House press secretary assures us that Kushner can continue dealing with the Middle East and China without access to the most top-secret stuff, and has the full support of former the four-star Marine general and current White House chief of staff who doesn’t seem to like Kushner much and recently announced the street policy limiting access to the top-secret stuff to those with top-secret security clearances, but that seems suspicious.
We suppose that Kushner can reinvent America’s federal government and solve its opioid crisis and somehow convince Mexico to pay for a border wall with the same meager information available to the internet-browsing public at large, but our reading of the news suggests these are all tough tasks. All the tougher when you can’t get a security clearance and reports are swirling that foreign government have been trying to exploit the billion-dollar debt you incurred in your last job and still owe, and the father-in-law who handed you these tough jobs has his own problems dealing with eerily similar swirling reports about possible indebtedness to foreign powers.
There’s also the lingering question of why any 37-year-old without any previous public service or foreign relations experience, whose only credentials were taking over the family real estate business when his dad went to prison and driving it a billion dollars into debt and marrying a future president’s daughter, wound up in such demanding jobs. When Trump ran for president he promised that he would hire only the best people, and but it turns out he meant the best people he knew. His limited circle of acquaintances includes his son’s wedding planner who wound up in a sweet position at the Department of Urban Development, a former bit player from his “Apprentice” reality show who wound up as the only black woman in the white House but got fired and wound up on another reality and got fired again, as well too-many-to-link-to others who wound up in high-ranking jobs after serving low-level duty in Trump’s businesses or campaign.
Trump is reportedly going to appoint his former personal jet pilot to head the Federal Aviation Administration, and we marvel at how all the best people happened to be people he knew before he ran for office. Still, we hope he starts considering other job applications from outside his family and circle of friends, if any are forthcoming,

— Bud Norman

How to Fill a Fully-Funded Government News Cycle

Way back when last weekend’s latest partial government shutdown began, President Donald Trump said the Democrats had caused it just to change the discussion from that fabulous tax bill he had signed. By Monday morning the Democrats had admitted defeat and fully funded the government way up until Feb. 8, however, and by Tuesday morning the discussion had shifted to the “Russia thing” and other topics that Trump would rather not talk about.
All of the mainstream “fake news” media were reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the “Russia thing” had conducted an interview with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which the Department of Justice officially confirmed was entirely true, and without all the file copy and stock footage about furloughed government workers and disgruntled national park visitors all the front pages and 24-hour news cycles had plenty of room for speculation about that.
If you haven’t been following the complicated and downright convoluted “Russia thing” subplot in Trump’s latest reality show, Sessions once felt obliged to recuse himself from any investigation of the whole affair after offering a Senate committee’s confirmation hearing inaccurate information about his own proved contacts with Russians, which so infuriated Trump that he both “tweeted” and gave taped press interviews to both press and television “fake news” media about how he wanted his Attorney General to be running interference on the whole “Russia thing,” like past attorneys general had done for presidents John Kennedy and Barack Obama during their more tawdry scandals. Of course all the “fake news” media and all the snarky ate night comedians had a gleeful time with that, and although it’s not yet known if he admitted anything harmful to the Trump administration during the interview it seems unlikely Sessions had anything very exculpatory to say on its behalf.
One of the many sidebar stories in the “fake news” about the “Russia thing” subplot was that the investigation had already secured guilty pleas from past Trump campaign and administration officials and won scary-sounding indictments against a former Trump campaign chairman and his longtime business associate, and was now reportedly negotiating some form testimony from the president himself. This administration didn’t clearly deny a word of it, and of course that led to much speculation. There was a lot of speculation about whether a sitting president could be compelled to give any written or oral testimony, several precedents from the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton presidencies cited, and further speculation about the political ramifications of testifying or not testifying. On one or another of the “fake news” cable channels we heard a panel of purported experts speculating that such an instinctively narcissistic and dishonest with such a cocksure certainty he talk himself out of anything as Trump will imperil himself testifying to the seasoned likes of this particular special counsel, and that sounded real enough to us.
Meanwhile the idiot son-in-law Trump picked to solve everything from Middle East peace to the opioid crisis is also the crosshairs of the the special counsel for his role in the “Russia thing,” and such diverse “fake news” outlets as The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker are also reporting that Jared Kushner has his own “China thing” to go along with it. There’s also fresh news about the story The Wall Street journal broke about Trump’s tryst with a porn star and the six-figure hush-money she received, with all the “fake news” reporting on the very real court filing by some left-wing do-gooder group alleging it the pay-off amounted to a illegal campaign contribution, and of course all those snarky late comics were having great fun with that.
The more Trump-friendly voices in the media are trying to change the conversation to talk about the “deep state” conspiracy that’s trying to concoct all this “fake news,” but Russian “internet bots” are reportedly perpetuating the same talking points about some memo that a Republican congressman who had to recuse himself from his committee’s investigation has written about the “deep state” conspiracy, and at least we can be sure that Trump would rather everyone be talking about that fabulous tax bill.

— Bud Norman

Bannon with Abandon

If you weren’t watching the continuous Florida storm coverage on all the cable news channels on Sunday evening, you might have caught former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s interview with the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes” program. We didn’t, as we were out enjoying the perfect weather we’ve been having around here lately, but of course we couldn’t avoid reading and hearing all of it on Monday.
Even after being fired or having resigned in order to better serve President Donald Trump from the outside, depending on which version of events you prefer, Bannon still has a knack for making news. He was a controversial figure as the “chief executive officer” of Trump’s campaign, even more so in his administration post, and got enough media attention that Trump was reportedly miffed about. To Trump’s most ardent supporters Bannon was considered the keeper of the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist faith that was going to make America great again, and to Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and right he was the authoritarian and alt-right quintessence of everything they hated about Trump.
His exit from the White House and his return to his previous gig of running the Breitbart.com internet news site was a big story before all the storms started, and even with the floods still rising in Florida his first on-air interview took up a full half of “60 Minutes.” He took full advantage of the opportunity to generate another days of news, of course, offering several opinions that will surely outrage Trump’s most strident critics on both the left and the right, which will surely gratify Trump’s most ardent supporters, but Trump himself also came in for some notable criticism.
Bannon said that Trump’s decision to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey was “the biggest mistake in modern political history,” so of course that got the most media attention. This does not strike us as much of an overstatement, especially by Bannon standards, and we note that he also said “worst political mistake ever” was too bombastic even for him, but it was still some criticism from Trump’s most ardent supporter that Trump’s most strident critics relished. Bannon explained that Comey’s firing was a mistake because it inevitably led to the appointment of special counsel James Mueller, who’s now conducting far more thorough investigation of “Russia” than the one Trump effectively stopped Comey from pursuing, so he’s implicitly conceding he expects that to turn out even worse than Watergate or the Monica Lewinsky business or the many other worst modern political mistakes.
Bannon also pledged to be Trump’s “wing-man,” though, so maybe he’s just trying to give some good advice about exposing oneself to enemy fire. In the rest of the interview he remained fiercely loyal to Trump’s agenda, at least the nationalist and isolationist and populist and protectionist parts of it, and he vowed the mighty wrath of Breitbart.com and Bannon’s own media clout, and potentially the backing of his billionaire backers, against any Trump administration officials or any sorts of Republicans who won’t pledge their loyalty to whatever Trump might want to do at any given moment.
Even such a veteran interviewer as Charlie Rose seemed quite taken aback by it, which allowed Bannon to make specific threats and name specific names, and clearly explain his master plan to burn down the Republican party and raise a new nationalist and populist and all that party from the ashes. He dismissed the entirety of Republican party’s pre-Trump foreign policy and defense experts as “idiots” he “holds in contempt, total and complete contempt,” threatened primary challenges to any congressmen deemed unloyalw to Trump, cited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan as people he’d like to get rid of, and accused the broader Republican “establishment” of “trying to nullify the election.” He also defined loyalty to Trump by “the Billy Bush day” standard, which means who was still loyally defending Trump when the entire nation heard the soon-to-be-president bragging on audiotape about how he could grab women by the wherever because he’s a star, and that’s a pretty high standard.
He also said he hoped all those “dreamers” who are suddenly the national sob story will be forced to “self-deport,” and we’re sure that Trump’s most ardent admirers loved every part of it, but we’re not sure what Trump made of it. Bannon also took aim at several Trump administration officials for publicly criticizing the president’s response to the violence that occurred during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying they should quit if they’re not entirely on board with whatever the president says at any given moment, but good look finding replacements who can meet that very high standard. He further took aim at senior White House advisor and jack-of-all-trades Jared Kushner, a Manhattanite and longtime Democratic donor and suspected globalist who frequently clashed with Bannon on such matters as nationalism and populism and the wisdom of firing Comey, but Kushner is also Trump’s son-in-law and we notice that he’s still working at the White House while Bannon isn’t, so that will likely play better with Trump’s most ardent supporters than Trump himself.
Bannon and his Breitbart.com and their billionaire backers have a limited influence in the grand scheme of things, but it’s enough to further fracture an already fractuous Republican party. There are a lot of Republican districts where Bannon’s efforts would only bolster a Republican incumbent’s chances in a primary, but there are others where the combined efforts of Bannon and Trump could find some true believer to knock off an office-holder who might otherwise have impeccable conservative credentials but doesn’t meet that “Billy Bush day” standard. In some cases this would lead to the election of some sane-by-Democratic-standards challenger, and maybe in enough cases to affect Democratic majorities in Congress that wouldn’t go along with any part of the Trump agenda now matter how far left might veer, but Bannon and other ardent Trump supporters can be consoled that at least we’d be done with that darned Republican establishment.
Both Trump and the “establishment” along with the rest of the country have recently survived two horrific hurricanes, though, and we expect most of us will survive the likes of Bannon as well.

— Bud Norman

The Other Steadily Dripping Flood

The historic and ongoing natural disaster in Texas and Louisiana has flooded almost everything else out of the news, except for a few stray reports about the nutcase regime in North Korea escalating nuclear tensions, so you might not have noticed that the steady drip, drip, drip of leaks about “Russia” is also approaching flood levels.
The past week has provided at least three new plot twists in the ongoing unnatural disaster, none of which are helpful to President Donald Trump. None are the evidence of impeachable offenses that his most strident critics have been hoping, but they all require some creative explaining from his staunchest admirers.
The Washington Post reported that the congressional investigating committees will soon have documentary evidence that in October of 2015 Trump signed a letter of intent for an ambitious skyscraper project in Moscow, which isn’t necessarily illegal but doesn’t look good. Trump was four months into his presidential campaign at the time, running on a strikingly Russia-friendly foreign policy platform and offering unusual praise for the country’s dictator and predicting on “Face the Nation” that “I think I would probably get along with him very well,” while indignantly denying any suspicion that it might be for self-interested reasons. At the time he categorically denied any business dealings with any sorts of Russians, seemed quite offended that anyone would suspect otherwise, so the skyscraper project he was pursuing with the apparent help of a Russian-mob connected associate who kept dropping the Russian dictator’s name in the ensuing e-mail chain might not be illegal but doesn’t look good.
If we know about that letter of intent it’s a safe bet that so does famously dogged special-counsel-into-the-matter Robert Mueller, who apparently already had enough reason to suspect other fishy deals between Russians and people near to Trump to obtain all sorts of extraordinary subpoenas and search warrants, and it’s another interesting plot twist that Politico reports Mueller has lately been working on the case with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The more attentive fans of the long-running Trump reality show might recall Schneiderman as one of the attorneys general who brought a civil case against Trump University, which ended with Trump paying a $25 million settlement but not having to acknowledge the undeniable fact it was pretty much a scam all along, and how Trump had frequently “tweeted” about what a “lightweight” Schneiderman is, so his reintroduction into the plot does not bode well.
There’s widespread press speculation that Mueller brought Schneiderman aboard because a few people who held high levels in the Trump campaign that he clearly regards as criminal suspects can’t get a presidential pardon on state charges, a concern heightened by Trump’s controversial pardon of an Arizona sheriff for seemingly political reasons last week, and that seems reasonable to us. Anyone Trump did preemptively pardon would forfeit a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, though, and Mueller seems to think he has even higher-level fish to fry this in this investigation, so it also seems reasonable that Schneiderman’s longstanding scrutiny of Trump’s New York-based and still wholly-owned business empire has come up with some hard-to-explain evidence of its own.
One of the people near to Trump that Manafort clearly considers a potential criminal suspect is the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has plenty of Russian connections from his lobbying-for-dictators business that he doesn’t even deny, and Mueller has enough reason to suspect Manafort of something or another that he persuaded a federal judge to grant an extraordinary pre-dawn search warrant on Manafort’s home, so of course Manafort was also back in the news. The National Broadcasting Company reported that the notes he took on his smart phone during a meeting he took with the president’s son and son-in-law and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and a couple of other fishy Russians, which are now in the hands of those pesky congressional investigations and presumably Mueller, and that they mention the word “donor.” Trump’s most staunch defenders described the meeting as meaningless, and pointed to everyone’s account that Manafort was staring at his smart phone the whole time as proof, but they’d also previously insisted that no one near Trump ever had any sort of meeting with anyone remotely Russian.
It might nor might not have anything to do with all this, but Bloomberg News also reported that Trump’s son-in-law and highest-level advisor Jared Kushner and his family’s still wholly-owned New York-based real estate empire is desperately seeking foreign financial aid to stave off bankruptcy. That happens to the best of families and isn’t illegal, we suppose, but neither does it look good.
Sooner or later the sun will shine down on the good people of Texas and Louisiana, and the hard work of recovery will commence, and we’re hopeful that politics won’t prevent the federal government from doing its part. All the drip, drip, drip from the Korean peninsula to the ongoing investigations in Washington and New York will sooner or later bob up above all the water on the front page, though, and don’t say you weren’t warned.

— Bud Norman

Trump, Sessions, a Son-in-Law, the Boy Scouts, and the Rest of a Very Bad Day

Monday was just another day in the era of President Donald Trump, and whatever else you might say about it at least it’s not boring.
The day began with a “tweet” blasting his own “beleagured” Attorney General for not pursuing a criminal investigation against his vanquished Democratic rival, and was shortly followed by his son-in-law having to explain to a congressional committee why he’d attended a meeting that the president’s son had set up with the clear understanding that Russians they knew to be tied to the Russian government were offering campaign help as part of that foreign adversary efforts on the Trump campaign’s behalf. Trump then finally got around to delivering a public address on behalf of his party’s longstanding but recently ailing attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, and after that delivered a speech to the Boy Scouts’ annual Jamboree that has to be heard to be believed.
As usual one hardly knows where to begin, but we’ll follow Trump’s lead by starting with that “tweet” and saving that bizarre Boy Scout oration for last. Trump first “tweeted” that “Sleazy (Sen.) Adam Schiff, (D-Calif.), the totally biased congressman looking into ‘Russia,’ spends all his on television pushing the Dem loss excuse!” A short time later he wondered “So why aren’t the Committees and investigators, and of course our beleagureed A.G., looking into Crooked Hillarys crimes & Russia relations?” Putting aside the arbitrary capitalizations and missing apostrophes and deliberate rudeness, which are by now the modern presidential standard, it was a bad start to the day.
Sessions is mostly beleaguered these days by Trump, who recently fumed to The New York Times that he never would have made the pick if he’d known that Sessions would wind up recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation of what he now calls “Russia” after some inaccurate testimony to the Senate,  so that embarrassing story got at least another day in the news. Why Sessions isn’t pursuing various criminal investigations against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is a valid question to ask, given her long and sordid history, and we can’t wait for some impertinent reporter to pose it to the President of the United States at some possible future news conference. Candidate Trump ran on a rallying cry of “lock her up,” president-elect Trump immediately reneged on the promise by saying that Clinton had suffered enough, but President Trump is clearly in high dudgeon about that outrage, so our only guess is that it will all turn out to be Sessions’ fault.
Sessions resigned his membership in the more respectable clubs of the Republican party when he was the first federal elected official to endorse Trump’s anti-establishment candidacy, relinquished a safe life-long sinecure in the Senate to serve as Trump’s Attorney General, and bravely defended all the indefensible things that Trump had said and done and “tweeted” along the way, but as a respectable Republican he also did his ethical duty by recusing himself from “Russia” after giving some inaccurate and under-oath testimony to the Senate during his confirmation hearings. That wound up with a special counsel who’s now looking into Trump’s previously opaque financial empire, however, so Trump and all the apologists who once cited Sessions’ endorsement as proof of Trump’s conservative bona fides seem eager to defenestrate the poor fellow.
The guy Trump nominated to be the Federal Bureau of Investigation director after the firing of the predecessor told his congressional confirmation hearing interrogators that he didn’t consider his predecessor’s investigation a “witch hunt,” as the president calls it in his “tweets,” and advised any future presidential campaigners to call the FBI if they got any e-mails from people they knew to be connected to a hostile foreign powers promising helpful information. Should Trump fire Sessions or “tweet” him into resignation we expect that any nominee for the job would also face the same questions, and at this point we don’t think anything but the same answers would win anyone confirmation even with a slight Republican majority in the Senate if they answered differently.
At this point we can’t imagine any remotely qualified candidates wanting to work for such an erratically disloyal boss, too, and we note that he’s also having trouble filling a lot of other high-level positions for similar reasons, so we think the “tweet” got Trump’s day got off a bad start.
Trump’s son-in-law didn’t have to testify in an open session about that meeting that Trump’s son set up with those Russkies they knew to be tied closely to the Kremlin and were were told was part of the Russian government’s efforts to help the campaign, so at least is was relegated lower than most people read in the day’s news. Son-in-law Jared Kushner issued an 11-page explanation of the matter to the broader public, explaining that he’d attended the meeting because his brother-in-law had asked him to and he hadn’t read the e-mails subject heading about “Confidential –Russia,” and that he’s recently revised his security clearance forms to include all the numerous Russian meetings and the hundreds of millions of dollars of business transactions that he’d previously forgotten.
Even if you believe every word of it, it doesn’t inspire much confidence that the 36-year-old wunderkind son-in-law is up to the challenges of ending America’s opioid crisis and re-inventing American government and negotiating Middle East and everything else his father-in-law president has asked him to do. Despite the closed hearings and all the rest of the distracting news, we think Kushner also had a bad day.
Trump’s long-awaited address about repealing and replacing Obamacare wasn’t bad, we have to admit, but we’ll have to see how effective it was. Trump stuck mostly to a teleprompter-ed script about how Obamacare had not fulfilled all the promises it was made, and he was surrounded by some telegenic real Americans who have been paying much higher premiums rather than the $2,500 annual savings and had lost the plans they been told they keep and been denied all the rest of that President Barack Obama had promised them, and with characteristic bluntness he called Obama a “big, fat, ugly lie.”
At this point there’s no denying any of that, but we think the same point could have been made without language that precludes any red-state Democrat from agreeing, and we can well understand why all the polls show landslide majorities of Americans are doubting all the claims being made for any of the various Republicans’ proposals, with no one  quite sure which one Trump was touting during that big speech. Candidate Trump ran on promises of coverage for everyone with the government and paying for it, at far less a cost to the average American, President Trump has previously “tweeted” that the proposals he’s now currently touting are “mean,” and we can well understand why all the polls show a public leery of the latest promises of fewer people being covered but lower costs for the rest.
Trump had the golden opportunity to end such a day with a rousing patriotic address to the 30,000 Boy Scouts and troop leaders assembled at an annual Jamboree in rural West Virginia, but in typical Trumpian fashion even that went very, very weird.
At one point in his speech to the too-young-to-vote Boy Scouts, Trump noted that “Tonight we put aside all the policy fights in Washington, D.C., you’ve been hearing about from the fake news. Who the hell wants to talk about politics when I’m front of the Boy Scouts?” He then proceeded to ramble on for 35 minutes about fake news and politics, blasting former president Barack Obama and Clinton, attributed the turn-out an the annual Jamboree to his popularity, and vowed that more people would be saying “Merry Christmas” as a result of his presidency.
Much of the speech was a guy-at-the-bar-style rambling reminiscence about real estate developer William Levitt, whose Levittown development outside New York City started the suburban development craze that transformed America in the long-ago ’50s, and although he didn’t mention that Levitt insisted on white and gentile-only sales he did reveal that Levitt came to a sad and lonely end at least he stopped short of the more sordid details about Levitt’s late night parties, but somehow it wound up as some sort of cautionary tale about grandiose ambitions of a real estate mogul who wound up friendless despite “all the hottest people” at his old age parties. We can only guess what all those Boy Scouts made of it, and we note that the Boy Scout leaders had already issued a plea for an apolitical address,and urged that the audience be respectful but not partisan,  but the kids seemed to love it.
Trump was never a Boy Scout during his childhood as the son of a big-time New York real estate developer who never quite matched Levitt’s historic significance, but he was joined by a couple of cabinet members who’d attained Eagle Scout rank, one of whom was dressed in full Boy Scout uniform, even if fellow Eagle Scout Sessions was conspicuously absent. He also he gave passing mention to the Boy Scout creed of being “Helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, brave, clean, and reverent,” none of which seem to describe Trump. He also noted that the Boy Scouts value loyalty, but it probably went over the heads of most of the Boy Scouts when he added that “We really could use some loyalty, I’ll tell you that.”
We’re not only lifelong Republicans, we’re also silver-medal-holding Eagle Scouts due to our parents’ insistence, and even from our unhappy middle-aged perspective we’d have to say that all in all it was another dreary day in the age of Trump.

— Bud Norman