This Week, On As The White House Turns

At the risk of damning with faint praise, we have to admit that President Donald Trump’s administration is a lot more intriguing than his last reality show. All the characters are more complicated than those B-list celebrities Trump used to fire, the infighting is more vicious, and we prefer the new format of constantly leaked news stories better than carefully edited one-hour-a-week television episodes.
Lately all the subplots seem to be about Steve Bannon, who makes Dennis Rodman and Gary Busey and all those other flamboyantly crazed celebrity apprentices seem bland by comparison. If you haven’t been following the show, Bannon is an ex-Navy officer turned Goldman Sachs investment banker turned publisher of an internet publication he described as a “platform for the alt-right,” and after that he turned into the “chief executive” of Trump’s campaign and then “White House chief strategist.” Until recently he was also a member of the National Security Council, but he’s been rather unceremoniously removed that position and suddenly there’s a great deal of suspense about whether he’ll be around in any capacity for future episodes.
After weeks of leaks about Bannon’s feud with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus the stories are now mostly about his feud with Jared Kushner, whose White House responsibilities include being an envoy to China and bringing peace to the Middle East and getting the Mexicans to pay for a border wall and solving the opioids crisis and reinventing federal government. The very busy 36-year-old Kushner is also the husband of Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka, another key character in this convoluted plot who has also reportedly feuding with Bannon, and for now he seems to enjoy the advantage that blood proverbially has over water. Trump told the friendly folks at The New York Post that “I like Steve, but you have to remember that he was not involved in the campaign until very late. I had already beaten the all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change my strategy because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
In the past Trump had frequently spoken of his years-long friendship with Bannon, and often cited him as one of those very best people he promised to surround himself, but if you’ve been following the show you know that Trump’s past pronouncements don’t mean much. Despite Trump’s past boasts about his loyalty he’s fired two wives along with all those other B-list celebrities, as well as two campaign managers, both of whom were described by Trump spokespeople as someone Trump barely knew, and a National Security Advisor, and at this point such an old media hand as Bannon can surely read the writing on The New York Post. Should he find himself on the receiving end of Trump’s “you’re fired” catchphrase, though, it would make for a messy divorce even by Trump standards.
Bannon’s complicated role in this even more complicated plot has been the keeper of the “nationalist populist” and “America First” and “anti-establishment” and vaguely “alt-right” flame that Trump ran on, and as the guy who was fending off all those nasty “globalists” and “neocons” and “establishment” types who suddenly were trying to lure Trump away from the one true faith. According to leaks that probably came from Bannon he was credited with that “American carnage” inaugural speech that fired up the faithful and those travel restrictions that sure seemed to keep the campaign promises Trump had made, as well as the immediate efforts to bring the promised Mexican border wall and all that it implied. All of that played well enough wit the hard-core of Trump’s supporters that there was plenty of credit to go around, but it didn’t play nearly so well elsewhere.
The inaugural speech drew mostly negative reviews and a dismal crowd that Trump embarrassingly lied about at great length, the travel restrictions were halted by a couple of federal courts that thought they sure sounded like a Muslim ban and were therefor a violation of the religious establishment clause in the First Amendment, and all the polls show that despite mixed feelings about illegal immigration most Americans now regard a gazillion-dollar wall across the entire Mexican border as an obviously stupid idea. Whatever value those “nationalist populists” brought to the campaign season they’re currently dragging the new season’s ratings down to a 40 percent or so approval rating, so new characters have been brought in. There’s also Chief of Staff Preibus, who used to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the guy whose name all the right-wing talk radio hosts used to pit out to describe that hated GOP establishment, so naturally Bannon had several leaked episodes of feuding with them.
Not to mention Jared and Ivanka, who by this point have at least enough combined political clout to deserve a collective tabloid nickname like “Javanka” or something, and have reportedly persuaded Trump to embrace such hairy-legged feminist nonsense as paid maternity leave and apologizing for talking about grabbing women by the wherever and to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Libyan air base that launched a horrific attack against a nearby village wound up killing scores of men and women and children and some “beautiful babies.” There’s talk they also have something to do with Trump pulling back on his out-dated promises to declare China a currency manipulator and starting slapping 45 percent tariffs on their imports, and serving its dictator steak and au-gratin at his still wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago instead of the Big Mac and fries he promised on the campaign trail, and of course all the true-blue “nationalist populists” are by now feeling betrayed, and the right-wing talk radio hosts are still trying to make sense of it, but Bannon should worry about the overall poll number and those recent Trump remarks to the press.
Should Brannon wound up another one of the very best people that Trump has been forced to defenestrate that would be fine with such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves. That “alt-right” of his strikes us as the same sort of racist trash that conservatives have long been distancing themselves from, that Mexican border and all it implies seems an overreaction to the admittedly serious but declining-even-before-Trump problem of illegal immigration, that talk of China’s currency manipulation was outdated and the part about 24 percent tariffs was always crazy, the “America First” slogan makes no more sense than it did when used to oppose resistance to the Axis, and except for the undeniable yet recently denied crucial role he played in keeping crooked Hillary from becoming president we don’t see how Bannon has ever done the country much good.
Still, there’s no telling how this story might turn out without Bannon. By the time of the feud with Javanka he had reportedly made peace with Priebus and the rest of the GOP establishment, who were allied against the influence of a couple with no political paper trail except for a long history of generously donating to Democratic candidates and espousing such liberal causes as mandated paid maternity leave for all employees. One of Trump’s sons told the British press that his sister had persuaded his father to launch those 59 Tomahawk missiles against that Syrian air base, which pleased the less constitutionally-minded sorts of “neocons,” and that yet might prove wise, but for all the bleeding-heart reasons that Trump himself outlined and were pretty much the same reasons that President Barack Obama cited when seeking congressional approval for such a strike after a similar chemical attack that killed similarly beautiful babies, which the Republicans in congress and of course Bannon and even the then-unregistered reality star Trump himself found wanting at that time.
We’re pleased by the recent reasonableness of Trump’s China policy, skeptical but open-minded about the Syrian strike, delighted by Trump’s complete retreat from that campaign-season nonsense about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization being “obsolete, and still following all the twists and turns in that ongoing Russkie subplot, but we’re mostly worried that there’s no underlying logic to any of it. Past pronouncements are of course of no use, ¬†except that “unpredictable” remains a goal, and what happens seems to depend largely on what the president saw just on television. The Republican establishment hasn’t done much for Trump lately, that “alt-right” has clearly become burdensome, and we have even less faith in the Javanka faction, and of course theres no telling what those damned outright Democrats might do.. The ratings seem to be driving this plot so far, and that never leads to a satisfactory conclusion.

— Bud Norman

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The Son-in-Law Also Rises

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

— Bud Norman