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When Silence Would Have Been Golden

President Donald Trump mostly spent his extended holiday vacation on the golf course or at fancy dinner parties, but he couldn’t keep from making some news. He had the usual number of insulting “tweets,” several insulting sound bites, and sat down for an impromptu interview with The New York Times that still worth noting after several days.
The interview is so full of eyebrow-raising quotes that one hardly knows where to begin, but we might has well start with the one that got the most attention from the media during a slow and little-watched news cycle. Asked an inevitable question about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the last presidential election, Trump surprised many by saying that “It doesn’t bother me, because I hope he’s going to be fair. I think that he’s going to be fair. There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
Which is surprising because Trump has frequently characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and “witch hunts” are by definition unfair, while his most loyal allies in Congress and the conservative media have lately maintained that the investigators are biased and out to get the president. Perhaps it was a holiday spirit that had Trump so hopeful about Mueller’s fairness, perhaps he was taking the high road with confidence his surrogates would take the low, and he perhaps he believes that Mueller might as susceptible to flattery as himself, but in any case it provided fodder for speculation.
When asked about the possibility of re-re-opening an investigation former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices Trump replied that “I have absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I will be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved in this particular matter.” Which is worrisome on a number of levels.
Aside from the fact that a President of the United States speaks such un-parseable English, there’s something chillingly Nixonian about Trump’s insistence that he can use federal law enforcement to persecute his political enemies, and something more chilling yet about his apparent confession that isn’t do so only in hopes of currying favor with the special counsel. Just in case a reader might reach a more generous interpretation, Trump also had some strange praise for former Attorney General Eric Holder that made his rather authoritarian views of presidential power explicitly clear.
“I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that — I will say this: Eric Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had — not made up problems like Russia collusion, these were real problems — when you look at the things they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
Aside from mangled syntax and the failure to recall the name of the “Fast and Furious” scandals or come up with any other of the many Obama scandals, Trump is saying that his predecessor committed serious crimes and was allowed to do so by an Attorney General who put personal loyalty ahead of loyalty to the rule of law, and that he wishes his own Attorney General were just as unethical. All of Trump’s allies in Congress and the conservative media used to loathe Holder for doing what Trump respects, and when they get back to work today it will be interesting to see if they recant their past criticisms. We’re sure they’ll come up with something to say, and fully expect that their ongoing attacks on Mueller’s character will continued despite Trump’s hopefulness for fair treatment.
There was plenty of Trump’s widely-ridiculed braggadocio, too, as he claimed Chinese President Xi Jiping treated him “better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” that he understands tax law “better than the greatest CPA” and the details of health care policy “better than most.” He also claimed to have vaulted candidate Luther Strange from fifth place to second after endorsing in his Alabama’s Republican primary for a Senate race, even though there were only three major candidates in the race, and the numbers he claimed in Strange’s surge were simply made-up. As usual he could not get through an interview with about bragging about his electoral college victory, which as usual he claims is much harder for a Republican to win than the popular vote, even the Republicans are three-and-two  in the past five electoral votes but only one-for-five in the popular vote.
Trump also used a barnyard epithet to describe the Democrats’ opposition to the tax bill, while unnecessarily insulting potential Democratic ally Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that Trump claims to have single-handedly restored to economic greatness.
The weirdest part, though, was Trump’s prediction that the mainstream media — those “very bad people” and purveyors of “Fake News” who have been Trump’s favorite target since he launched his campaign — are going to carry him to an easy reelection victory in 2020. “Because without me, their ratings are going down the tube. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times but the failed New York Times. So basically they have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please don’t lose Donald Trump.'”
Which is to say that the American public only reads or watches the news to hear about Trump, and will lose interest in public affairs all together if he’s not around, and that’s pretty arrogant even by Trumpian standards. He also expects that the news outlets that have seen their readerships and viewerships rise with the constant criticisms of Trump will commence six months of unrelenting praise so that they can go back to luring readers and viewers once he’s safely re-installed in office, which strikes us as worrisomely crazy even by Trumpian standards.
Trump is probably lucky the interview was published when people had better things to do than read or watch the news, but today the holidays are over and the government is back to work and people will once again be paying attention. Our advice is that he avoid impromptu interviews for a while.

— Bud Norman

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The Not-So-Quite Grand Old Party

These should be the best of times for the Republican party, what with complete control of the federal government and most of the states, but Tuesday seemed more like the worst of times. The party’s latest effort to repeal and replace Obama proved as futile as the previous ones, the Senate candidate backed by both the party establishment and the anti-established President Donald Trump lost to a full-throated theocrat in an special Alabama primary, and another shoo-in incumbent moderate decided not to make another run for Congress, along with all the other assorted bad news.
No one was surprised by the party’s latest failure in its seven year crusade to repeal and replace Obamacare, which went down without a vote for the same reasons it did on the previous tries. The GOP’s majority is in the Senate is too slim to lose even three votes, there are moderates who don’t like any of the offered health care bills because they’re too austere, conservatives who don’t like any of them because they’re too profligate, and every attempt to modify the bills to appease one faction inevitably offended the other. Each of the bills had something for everyone to dislike, all the opinion polls they were even more unpopular than the hated Obamacare law, and no one in the party could muster much of a sales pitch.
That conspicuous lack of a sales pitch was partly because the Republicans were in too much of a hurry to make one, for no good reason we can discern, but it’s also due to a lack of salesmanship in the party. The Republicans did spend seven years making a strong case against Obamacare, to the point that all the opinion polls showed it was widely hated, and steep insurance premium rate hikes in most markets made it all the easier, but they had less luck pitching the alternatives. They couldn’t talk the public out of liking the provision that insured coverage people with pre-existing conditions or the subsidies that allowed many millions of Americans to get some sort of policy, and since those were the market-distorting features that resulted in those sky high premium rate hikes that made Obamacare so unpopular it was hard to come up with an alternative, much less sell it to a wary electorate.
Neither the moderates nor the conservatives in the party were up to the task, and despite his reputation for salesmanship Trump couldn’t offer any help. During his presidential campaign Trump had promised coverage for every American at greatly reduced price and care that would be so great your head would spin, but he clearly didn’t have a plan that would have accomplished that, and of course no Democrat or Republican or independent knew how to do it, so he was never an enthusiastic supporter of what was on offer. He threw a beer party for the Republicans in the House of Representatives after they passed a repeal and replace bill on a second try, but the later “tweeted” that the bill was “mean,” and except for one little-seen speech on a weekday afternoon his efforts were mostly limited to trying to bully reluctant Republicans into voting for anything he might get on his to sign.
Trump’s salesmanship also fell short in Alabama, where a clear majority of Republican voters chose the state’s former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore over Trump-backed incumbent Luther Strange in a race that reveals all sorts of internecine Republican squabbles. Strange was the incumbent because he’d been appointed to the seat after longtime Sen. Jeff Sessions was appointed to be Trump’s Attorney General, which has turned to be a complicated matter, and had been a loyal ally to Republican majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose political action committee donated generously to Strange’s campaign, yet despite these impeccable establishment credentials he was also endorsed during an open primary round of voting by the same Trump who was blaming McConnell and the establishment for all the party’s recent failures. The open primary featured a fellow named Mo Brooks who was so severely conservative that all the talk show hosts and numerous other Trump apologists were touting him, all of whom come right out and griped about Trump’s endorsement, and when Strange and Moore wound up in the run-off they all sided with Moore. The final days of the campaign saw former Trump “chief strategist” Steve Bannon and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both of whom had proved their populist credentials back when Trump was contributing to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, giving fulsome speeches on behalf of Moore.
Trump’s efforts on behalf of Strange, meanwhile, were less enthusiastic. He tried to convince Alabamans that Strange hardly knew McConnell and was a true fellow disestablishmentarian, but no one was buying that. By now too many rank-and-file Republicans in Alabama and elsewhere loathe McConnell and the Republican establishment even more than they love Trump, and Trump seems to sense this with his usual keen political instincts. He showed up for a 57 minute speech at a raucous campaign rally for Strange last week, but he spent most of it bragging about his popularity and blasting Republican Sen. John McCain and starting a feud with the National Football League that took up most of the news cycle, and in one of the few mentions of Strange he admitted that “I might have made a mistake in endorsing the guy.” He also promised to campaign for Moore if that’s how the election turned out, and although we’re sure he’ll keep that promise it remains to be seen how it will work out for the Republicans.
Moore is the favorite in his special general election against Democratic candidate and former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, if not as heavy a favorite as Strange would have been, but we doubt he’ll play as well as a Republican standard-bear in the other 49 states. In the recent Republican past we have proudly supported the party’s stand that the Judeo-Christian traditions which have done so much to create our enviable western civilization should continue to inform our decisions into the future, and steadfastly insisted that such time-tested principles enhance rather than threaten our freedom and democracy, but we have to admit Moore really is the theocratic Republican that Democrats have always caricatured. He was twice removed from Supreme Court seat, once for defying a federal order to remove a Ten Commandments sculpture from public grounds and the second time for ordering lower Alabama courts to ignore a Supreme Court decision to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and in both cases he made clear that God’s law should supersede civil law, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of theocracy.
We’re the church-going sorts of Republican Kansans who think it ridiculous that anyone would object to the Ten Commandments taking up some small space in the public square, and we had our old-fashioned constitutional originalist reasons for disagreeing with that Supreme Court decision that found a previously hidden right to a same-sex marriage license, and we still don’t think the government should compel anyone to baking a wedding cake, yet we’re not entirely comfortable with Moore. If fate should ever compel us to choose between following either God’s law or man’s law we hope we’ll opt for the former, and we give thanks that hasn’t to us happened yet, but there’s God’s law according to Moore and God’s law according to us and God’s law according to the rest of you, and we’re left here on Earth to sort it out. Our version of God’s law includes verses about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and obeying civil authority, and a Savior who came not to establish His heaven and not on earth, and as crazy as that sounds we invite everyone to share our faith but won’t try to compel anyone to do so.
Maybe Trump will muster more enthusiasm for it. He’s a thrice-married and six-times-bankrupt casino-and strip club mogul who has bragged about all the married babes he’s bagged and said at a religious gathering he’s never felt the need to ask God’s forgiveness for anything, and talked fulsomely about the lesbian and gay and bisexual and transexual communities at the Republican convention, of all places, but he’s somehow big with a lot of the Christians in Alabama and elsewhere and has a keen political instinct. How that will play with the rest of America, of course, also remains to be seen.
Tuesday also brought the news that Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker was bowing out of the Senate. He’d had a long and admirably unnoticed career holding off the crazier Democratic ideas and letting down the party on its crazier ideas, and was regarded as one of the party’s wise old hands on foreign policy matters, so naturally he was a frequent target of Trump’s “tweets.” His departure provides an opportunity for a more Moore-like or Trump-friendly candidate to win the Republican nomination, and be a slightly-less-favored front-runner for the seat, but it’s hard to say that would play elsewhere.
There’s still a chance for the party to make the best of it. Surely there’s something better than Obamacare that the Republicans can come up with, and even if it doesn’t cover everyone at lower prices and is so great it makes your head spin a regular order of hearings and deliberation and compromise and public protests to match what the Democrats have been staging could prevail. Those time-tested Judeo-Christian principles will surely survive Moore’s attempts to impose them on a wary populace. There’s speculation that Corker is bowing out to set up a primary challenge to Trump, and that will prove interesting.

— Bud Norman

Things Get Moore Strange in Alabama

There’s an awful lot going on in the world these days, with another round of hurricanes in the Caribbean and a second big earthquake in Mexico and the escalating war of schoolyard taunts on the now nucqearized Korean Peninsula and all those recent “Russia” revelations, but we can’t keep our eye off that special election t coming up next Tuesday in Alabama. President Donald Trump is scheduled to be in the state today to campaign for his preferred candidate, which suggests the matter also commands his attention despite everything else going on in the world these days, and of course his involvement makes the whole thing even harder to figure.
In case you don’t usually follow Alabama politics, as we usually don’t, the state is finally getting around to picking a successor to Sen. Jeff Sessions, who resigned his seat to become Trump’s Attorney General. Sessions seems to have been Attorney General forever by now, and we’re sure it seems even longer than that to him, but they take their time about doing things down south, and the Republicans are just now getting around to choosing their candidate for a general election that will occur somewhere down the road and  whichever Republican will surely win. One reason for the delay is that the Republicans had to hold an open-first primary to select the two run-off candidates, and given the nature of Alabama politics and the Republican party as a whole and the further complications of Trump’s intervention that was hard not to watch.
In the primary there were three credible and intriguing candidates. One was Rep. Mo Brooks, a one of those hard-line conservatives who voted against anything that wasn’t hard-line conservative enough no matter what the rest of the Republican caucus was going along with, and he was favored by all the talk radio hosts and the nationalist and populist Steve Bannon wing of the White House. Another was former state Supreme Court Judge Ray Moore, best known for twice being removed the bench for refusing to comply with Supreme Court rulings regarding public displays of the Ten Commandments and same-sex marriage, who was enthusiastically supported by the same evangelical voters who supported Trump. There was also the former state Attorney General Luther Strange, who had been warming Session’s seat as a temporary replacement and was a chosen son of the much-reviled-by-talk-show-listeners and Trump and most other Republicans Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, but for reasons no one can explain Trump also endorsed Strange.
As confusing as it must have been to the average Republican Alabamian, where he’s statistically likely to be a big fan of Trump, the open primary somehow ended with with Moore and Strange in the run-off. As popular as Trump is in the state, though, the talk-show-backed Brooks immediately endorsed Moore right after his near defeat, the more defiant sorts of evangelical voters have stayed loyal, and the president flies into the state in support of a candidate who’s far behind in all the polls. That’s Trump’s base resisting Strange, too, which is a noteworthy development in the ongoing war within the Republican party.
At this point it’s hard to see it working out well for the Grand Old Party in any possible case.
If Moore wins the Republicans will at long last be saddled with a Senator who actually closely resembles the Democrats’ caricature of the party’s extremist religious zealotry. Moore has reassured Alabama’s voters that he’s not in favor of executing homosexuals, but other than that he hasn’t gone out of his way to allay any secular fears about his religious fervor.. We’d like to think we’re as evangelical and Republican as the next guy, and we share Moore’s concerns that God is being banished from the public square, and we try our best to adhere to those ten commandments that Moore defiantly erected on public grounds, but we also note the New Testament scripture about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and obeying civil authorities, and that part about “come let us reason together,” so the mixed martial arts afficionado Moore strikes us as suspiciously prideful for a prophet.
If Strange wins so does McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment, which is by now hated by the entirety of the Democratic party and most of the independents and pretty much all the Republicans except for a few old Never-Trumper types such as ourselves, even Trump is today campaigning on behalf of Strange. Strange would likely end up on the repeal and replacement of the debate about Obamacare Trump now favors, and might help out on other issues, but given his establishment credentials he’s bound to cross paths with Trump at some point, and we don’t see him as the unifying figure the party needs right now.
If Brooks had somehow survived the open primary that probably wouldn’t have helped, either. He might have wound up sinking the last ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare because it didn’t repeal and replace it enough, and although he’d have had a good enough case that Strange or Moore couldn’t refute it would have still been scored another loss for both the party and its president. Brooks’ enthusiastic endorsement of Moore, along with all the polls, suggests that Alabama Republicans prefer the ten commandments to Trump, which seems about right to us, but it’s still hard to see this ending well for anybody. From our far away from Alabama perspective we’re hoping for Strange, as weird as it feels, and we’re still hoping that in any case Moore won’t be all that bad.

— Bud Norman