Charles Bishop, RIP

We awoke earlier than usual on Tuesday and donned a tie and coat for the the first time in ages, then drove 25 miles or so south of Wichita on Highway 81 to attend a funeral at the Belle Plaine Cemetery. Charles Bishop was being laid to rest, and it was important we be there.
Bishop was an elder and the preacher at the West Douglas Church of Christ, a small but staunch congregation in the rough Delano neighborhood where we weekly worshipped until the coronavirus shut everything down, and we liked and admired him, and he taught us much about Christianity and bolstered our faith in it. He had a formidable intellect and scholarly understanding of scripture, and in his sermons he would sometimes get bogged down talking about which New Testament translation of a certain scripture was truest to the original Greek, and although he’d always apologize for the digression we found it fascinating. We’d often tell him after services that we found him very rabbinical, and being a philo-Semitic student of the Old Testament he took it as the compliment we intended.
He was a most interesting fellow in a lot of ways. Born in Wellington in the Great Depression year of 1939 he grew up in nearby Belle Plaine, part of a fervently religious farming family that hewed to the Church of Christ’s strict rules against dancing and watching movies on Sunday. As a rebellious youth he argued that he couldn’t find anything about that in the scriptures he carefully read, and even as an aging preacher he didn’t back down from that, but from his youth to his death he was proud to preach about the love and forgiveness and giving spirit he had discerned from the scriptures. As he aged and faced his mortality, God’s grace and the sacrificial suffering of His son Jesus Christ became the usual theme of his carefully-researched and well-spoken sermons.
He preached it in Malaysia and behind the Iron Curtain of the Cold War, and didn’t quit until he was kicked out by the alarmed authorities. When back in Kansas in the big, bad city of Wichita he made a good living for his family as a pharmacist, having graduated with honors in pharmacology from the University of Kansas, and although he was a man of science he’d often preach against scientism, which he defined as a hubristic belief that science is the sole source of understanding the human condition. There was something slightly prideful about his arguments, but he’d freely admit that, and then give reasons why he was right that were hard to argue with.
On one rare occasion Bishop boasted he’d been a standout basketball player for Belle Plaine, with his six-foot-one-inch height and healthy youth allowing him to dominate the paint in small town high school games at the time, and if you coaxed him he had good stories about traveling by bus in Malaysia and behind the Iron Curtain, and the interesting people he’d met at various Churches of Christ. He was a good father and a loving husband, and after his first wife’s death he was a good to husband to an absolutely delightful woman we’re lucky to know, and unless you’re an anti-religious bigot we’re sure you would have liked him, too.
Belle Plaine is one of those very pleasant Kansas small towns that you might want to escape to in case of apocalypse, and it has a fabulous and famous arboretum you really should visit if you find yourself in south-central Kansas after the coronavirus, and the drive from Wichita is always scenic, and on Tuesday all the wheat was gorgeous green. A cold and wet and gray spring day at the Belle Plaine Cemetery is very bleak, though, especially when a congregation of Christians is socially distanced from one another and the specter of death suddenly seems omnipresent.
When we came home and fired up the internet we found that more 81,000 Americans had died of coronavirus, and that the government’s top public health expert was warning congress via video feed that thousands more will die if the government continues easing public health measures. The Supreme Court of the United States had a “virtual” hearing about whether President Donald Trump’s tax returns should be made public, Trump was “tweeting” more accusations that his critics are guilty of felonies and should be jailed, and another federal judge was making it hard for Trump’s Department of Justice to drop charges Trump ally Michael Flynn had already pleaded guilty to.
All the more reason we feel blessed to have known Charles Bishop, and to hear his compelling preaching that God is good and in the end His plan for all of us is perfect.

— Bud Norman

On a Stormy Day at Home

Stuck at home on a cold and stormy Kansas day, we spent most of it reading the news. Needless to say, it did not cheer us up.
Turning to Facebook, which is the closest thing we have to hanging out with friends, we found some of nutty right wing friends recommending the latest conspiracy theory video and insisting that the coronavirus death toll is being grossly exaggerated if not entirely fabricated to further a left-wing “deep state” plot to keep everyone at home. They’re all avid supporters of President Donald Trump, so we wonder if they’re disappointed that their hero hasn’t yet thwarted this dastardly plot and locked up the conspirators, but for now they don’t say and we don’t dare ask.
One day Trump will tout the strict guidelines his administration came up with for easing the emergency restrictions, the next day he’ll be “tweeting” his encouragement to states to reopen businesses, and when he’s not vacillating between the positions he’s blaming China and President Barack Obama and distracting Democratic oversight hearings for the problem, and noting that things could be worse. What he hasn’t done, so far at least, is embrace the conspiracy theory that most of the executive branch of the federal government he’s in charge of, including the expert scientists Trump has praised and allowed to speak freely, are carrying out the most elaborate conspiracy in the history of conspiracies.
We also have many friends who are pretty loony left, but for now even the looniest of them are sounding compartively sane. They’re all posting words of encouragement to keep up the social distancing and hand-washing and face-masking-wearing to fight what they perceive as a major public health crisis, and we give them credit for posting ample amounts of information from credible sources to refute the conspiracy theories coming from sources of very dubious repute. They have their own theories that Trump has underestimated the threat posed by the coronavirus and is urging a premature return to business as usual for purely self-interested political reasons, but damn it, we find it harder to argue that.
One of our loony left friends is a very gentle and generous and loving soul but possibly the looniest of them all, and she’s still siding with Trump’s endorsement of hydroxychloroquine even after Trump and his allies on Fox News and talk radio have abandoned the cause, but we noticed all the comments tried to dissuade her and had ample amounts of information from credible sources. We were surprised to see a couple of liberal friends charge that there is a plot to create a false crisis and keep us all at home, but that Trump is in on it, but most on the left prefer the theory that the crisis is real and Trump has failed to adequately respond.
In a rare non-coronavirus story, charges against former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn were dropped by the Department of Justice. What one makes of that is also determined by whether he’s looking at it from the right or the left. If you’re on the overwhelming majority of what’s now the right that supports Trump no matter what it’s a victory for justice, a happy case of a solid soldier and good man prevailing over false accusations wrought by President Barack Obama’s conspiracy with corrupt federal officials to bring down Trump. If you’re on the left, it’s a case of a man who had already pleaded guilty to lying to public officials and was getting money as a lobbyist from Turkey while he advised the president on foreign getting a get-out-of-jail card from a politicized Trump Justice Department.
The other non-coronavirus news that penetrated the front pages and was talk of our Facebook friends circle was that two man have been charged for the murder of a 25-year-old man named Ahmoud Arbery in Georgia. Arbery is black, the two men charged with his murder are white, and as always in America that matters.
By all accounts so far Arbery was an average unarmed American guy with no criminal record out for his daily 2 mile jog when he was gunned down on an empty stretch of road between a forest. The two men charged with his murder are an ex-sheriff and his son, who by all accounts roamed the roads as an unofficial patrol, and there’s video that’s surfaced of them confronting Arbery as a burglary suspect and Arbery being subsequently shot, which after more than two weeks led to the arrest of the two men after two local district attorneys recused themself an the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over.
The left is calling it another example of America’s racist strain, and rightly so, but the right isn’t disputing that. Georgia’s Republican governor praised the GBI’s work, Trump said that Arbery’s death was “a very sad thing,” and no one we know is posting any offensive “memes” about Arbery’s deaths. Our diverse group of black friends often have diverse opinions about the topics of the day, but they all share the same worry that Arbery won’t get justice in an American court, and we try to reassure them that this time will be one of the many times justice has prevailed in America.
Perhaps the worst thing we hate about the Trump era even before all this coronavirus catastrophe is how often find ourselves siding with those damned Democrats we’ve been squabbling with for years, since way back when Trump was a Democrat. At this peculiar moment in history we find ourselves stuck at home and on the political sidelines, our only rooting interest being our hope the center somehow holds. We hopefully retain some hope in the principles and the institutions and American spirit that have somehow guided this nation toward greatness through hard times, no matter what sort of corrupt and incompetent officials had been elected to high office.

— Bud Norman

On the Lull Before Christmas

According to longstanding American political tradition the final days of a lame duck Congress and the last few days before Christmas are supposed to be a slow news cycle, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s newfangled conservatism such longstanding American traditions have been jettisoned. Thursday brought news that Trump’s defense secretary has resigned in apparent protest of Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone decision to withdraw a small but effective force from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump and his remaining allies in the temporary Republican House majority are threatening to force government shutdown over Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone insistence on a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, and largely as a result the stock markets had yet another dreadful day instead of the traditional “Santa Claus rally.”
The resignation of Defense Secretary and former four-star Marine general James Mattis struck us as the most worrisome development of the day. Despite the “Mad Dog” nickname that Trump seemed to love, Mattis was well regarded by both the center-left and center-right consensus that had successfully guided through the Cold War and has done about as well as can reasonably be expected with the resulting and relatively low-level wars against Islamist terrorism, and his departure leaves him pretty much without any of those wise old hands.
Flynn resigned from his post in record-setting time after being charged with felony perjury charges and making admission to administration that he’d lied about his contacts with Russian officials, and he’s currently awaiting sentencing from a judge who has openly wondered in court why he’s not being charged with treason given all the credible accusations of undisclosed shady dealings with the Turkish and Russian governments, despite the special counsel investigation into the whole “Russia thing” pleading he should get no jail time because of his cooperation, which also doesn’t look good for Trump. He was replaced by McMaster, who didn’t last much longer, reportedly because Trump was annoyed three-star general’s know-it-all attitude during the daily briefings. The post is now held by John Bolton, a President George W. Bush holdover from the late and lamented Republican establishment who’s a bit more aggressive about American internationalism that even our Reagan-esque tastes would prefer, but he’s also advised against Trump’s Syrian withdrawal and might be on the way out.
The four-star chief of staff Kelly has also been pushed aside, reportedly in part because he didn’t get along with Trump’s favorite daughter and son-in-law, and he will temporarily be replaced on a moonlighting basis by acting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney,  who will also be charged with deciding which agencies should be shut down in case of a partial government shutdown. Whatever advice Trump might be getting from the son-in-law in charge of everything from Middle East peace and the opioid crisis and re-inventing the federal government, and whatever  remains of the rest of his staff about domestic policy, the unpopular president has apparently committed to an unpopular partial government shutdown over Christmas to get a few billion in funding for his unpopular idea of a big beautiful wall along the entire Mexican border, and we don’t see that turning out well. In a few weeks the House of Representatives will install a significant Democratic majority with no political or ideological reason to fund Trump’s big beautiful border wall, much of the slight Republican majority in the Senate is already in revolt over Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and other foreign policy matters, political realities almost always prevail, and without any generals or wise old hands backing him up he seems in a weakened position.
The stock markets seem to agree, given their recent dour mood, and although Trump can plausibly partially blame that on the damned Federal Reserve Board chairman he did appoint the guy, and after what looks to be losing year on the exchanges, which can also be plausibly blamed on the yet-unwon trade wars Trump had declared on our erstwhile allies, but for now Trump  can no longer brag about delivering the best economy ever. No one’s currently predicting a recession, and we’re certainly hoping for one, but the best that all establishment forecasters are predicting is the same sort of slow but steady economic growth that has been the bipartisan norm over the decades. Perhaps Trump will eventually prove smarter than all those multi-starred  generals and economists and the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives and all of us old-fashioned Republicans, as well as  the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictators, but for now only the true believers who still shot up at the ongoing rallies  in those “Make America Great Again” ball caps seem to be betting on it.

— Bud Norman

Another Bad Day at Mar-a-Lago

At this point we almost hate to pile on, and worry that we’re getting repetitive, but we’re obliged to say that Tuesday was another bad day for President Donald Trump. The stock markets were slightly up, the temperatures at the ritzy Mar-a-Lag oresort  where Trump was vacationing were in the mid-70s, and Trump was pocketing a nice sum from from the room and board the federal budget was paying to his still-wholly owned business, but the rest of the news was bleak. In a couple of courtrooms and the halls of Congress Trump suffered stinging defeats, and things aren’t likely to get better when a Democratic majority is installed in the House of Representatives next month.
Trump’s former campaign foreign policy advisor and administration national security advisor had a sentencing hearing in Washington, D.C., for his confessed felonies on Tuesday, and his more hopeful apologists in the media were expecting the judge to dismiss the guilty pleas and blame it all on a “deep state” conspiracy, but that didn’t happen. The judge delayed the sentencing for another 90 days, but not before having retired three-star Army General and former national security advisor reiterate that he had indeed lied to federal investigators about his contacts with Russian officials while serving on Trump’s campaign and transition team. Trump’s more hopeful apologists had predicted that the judge would share their outrage that Flynn hadn’t been warned that lying to federal officials was a crime, but the former three-star Army General and national security had to admit in open court on Tuesday that he was well aware of that fact. At one point the judge asked the prosecution if they considered charges of treason, given that Flynn had been an unregistered agent of the Turkish government and then advised pro-Turkish policies as national security adviser, and although Flynn’s unregistered dealings with the Turkish and Russian governments had ended before he assumed the role of  national security advisor, and the judge quickly backed off from any talk of treason, it didn’t look good for either Flynn or Trump. The prosecution is recommending no jail time for Flynn’s confessed crimes, given how much dirt he’s provided the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing,” and for now Trump hasn’t “tweeted” anything disparaging about Flynn, but we can’t see how this ends well for either of them.
Meanwhile, in another courtroom in New York City, the Trump Family Foundation was taking a similarly brutal beating. Trump announced he was dissolving his charity and giving away its remaining assets to various court-directed causes, part of a settlement he’d once vowed not to negotiate. The charity is quite credibly accused of using donors’ money to contribute the impugn of a Florida candidate for Attorney General who then withdrew the state’s support of a lawsuit alleging fraud by Trump’s “Trump University” real estate, buying a large portrait of Trump for one of his businesses, several charges of “self-dealing,” and various other matters involving his three favorite children, who are temporarily barred from serving on any other charity boards, and we don’t see that ending well. The Trump apologists can rightly point to all of the credibly alleged yet unpunished shenanigans by the Clinton Family Foundation, but it still looks downright awful for all the Trumps.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, those damned Democrats who are poised to take the House majority are calling Trump’s bluff on his threat to partially shut down the government if they don’t cough up a mere five billion dollars for the big and beautiful southern border wall he promised to his dwindling number of die-hard fans. Partial government shutdowns don’t poll well, and neither does Trump’s big and beautiful border wall, the lame duck Republican majority aren’t much interested in the project, with the remaining Republicans in the border districts also in opposition, so we’ll be interested to see how eventually claims a victory in that fight.
There are several other troublesome investigations regarding Trump afoot, and surely more to come when those damned Democrats take over the House committees, and for now Trump and his legal team and media apologists and other die-hard fans have a lot of explaining to do. They might yet come up with something credible for all of it, but until then they won’t be tired of winning.

— Bud Norman

After the Storms, the Gathering Drip, Drip, Drip

Hurricane winds and epic flooding on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean have blown most of the rest of the news off the cable news channels for the past couple of days, with President Donald Trump’s recent dalliance with the Democrats grabbing the rest of the attention, but the steady drip, drip, drip of leaks about “Russia” have continued.
It’s an ill wind that blows no good, as the saying goes, and the recent natural disasters and self-inflicted political disasters have at least served Trump well by largely blowing away some of the recent revelations. Right around the time Hurricane Harvey started battering Houston and environs it was revealed that Trump had signed a letter to build a Trump Tower in downtown Moscow in late 2015, which was right around the time he was starting to campaign for president and saying suspiciously nice things about the Russian government and indignantly denying that he had any business dealings with anyone in Russia. This doesn’t look good, even if the die-hard supporters can insist it’s not at all illegal, and it would have looked a worse if there had been room for it on the front page.
There’s also recent news that the son of retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former top campaign foreign policy advisor and a transition team member and briefly the national security advisor, has also come under the scrutiny of the special counsel investigation that seems to be coming along at a brisk pace. The elder Flynn is already in legal jeopardy for failing to disclose his lucrative earnings as an agent for foreign governments in Turkey and Russia, as well as conflicts of interest regarding the advice he gave Trump on issues involving Turkey and Russia, and at the very least his failure to disclose this on his ever-updated security clearance forms. It was bad enough to get Flynn kicked out of the Trump administration after less than a month on the job, although questions about why he was there in the first place will continue to linger, and it’s bad enough to drag his son into the mess.
The son has long been on the father’s payroll as a chief of staff, even though hi most impressive credential seems to be an associate’s degree in golf course management, and he was already a controversial figure in his own right. He got kicked off the Trump campaign after he “tweeted” about the nutcase “Pizzagate” conspiracy that had Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton running a satanic child sex-abuse ring in the basement of a Washington pizzeria, and has apparently been knee-deep in his father’s begrudgingly disclosed dealings with foreign governments. His dad’s lawyer has stated that his client has “a story to tell,” presumably about people even more high up than a national security advisor, and will be willing to tell in exchange for immunity, and we imagine the downright Trumpian go-after-the-families strategy that the special counsel is pursuing will probably make him all the more willing.
Trump’s own son got dragged before a congressional investigative committee to talk about that meeting in Trump Tower he agreed to with a Russian lawyer that he understood to be a representative of the Russian government and its ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign, which also included four other Russians with ties to alleged money laundering schemes and other Russian mischief, as well as Trump’s son-in-law and campaign chairman, but at least it was in a closed session. There were leaks of of the testimony, of course, which of course had Democrats grousing that it should have been televised, so Trump is also feeling the pressure of when they come after your family.
There’s also a noteworthy development that the powerful Facebook social media site has admitted it sold $100,000 of ad space to a Russian “troll farm” that targeted certain of its readers with dubious stories regarding Clinton’s fitness for the presidency and Trump’s unprecedented credentials for the job, which seems to corroborate the conclusions of all the intelligence agencies that the Russians tried to meddle in our election. A hundred grand of internet advertising buys a lot more than a similar amount spent on a broadcast network, given how the internet knows everything about everyone and can specifically target the most susceptible audience for any given messages, so it’s harder than ever for Trump and his most ardent supporters to deny that Russia played any role in the past election.
They used to grouse that the real scandal was that we only know about any of this if because President Barrack Obama tapped Trump’s phones at Trump Tower and led the “deep state” to stage a silent coup, but the past weeks have dealt a further blow to that silliness. Trump’s “tweeted” accusation about Obama ordering a tap on his phones was never backed up with any proof, but the past week brought quietly conceded admission that a White House ordered review found none of the top-secret warrants that would have been needed, but he’s long since shifted to the claim it was a broader pattern of surveillance that he was talking about. To his most ardent supporters that meant how Obama-era officials were eagerly leaking the intercepted conversations that Trump campaign officials were having with Russians tied directly to the Russian government, but that narrative also took a blow during the hurricane lull.
The chief villainess of the “deep state” conspiracy theory was Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, who stood accused of “unmasking” the identities of Trump campaign officials whose conservations with foreign officials had been intercepted by the intelligence community. The intercepts occurred because the government was taking an interest in the communications of foreign officials, and they just happened to involve some that occurred with Trump campaign officials, but Rice stood accused of “unmasking” the redacted identities of the people they were talking about. We’re no fans of Rice, who blatantly lied to the American people about the causes of the tragedy at Benghazi and advised all sorts of policies we though ill-advised, but we could never see why it was wrong for her to to ask which Americans the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates were talking to about setting up a back-channel of communications with the Russians, who turned out to be the next president’s son-in-law and most trusted advisor.
Even such a conservative talk radio hero as South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy had to admit that “I thought she gave a very good accounting of herself, frankly, and I’d be the first to say otherwise.” Rice was entirely within her rights as a national security advisor to ask how the Americans were on those tapes she was listening to, and for matter obliged by the duties of her job as a national security advisor, and so far no one is alleging that she illegally leaked information about what she had learned. Even if she did, we’re still grateful for the heads up.
By now these bombshells seem mundane, and there are always so many other natural and man-made disastors that Trump’s most ardent supporters and most strident critics can seize on, but the drip, drip, drip seems heading to flood levels.

— Bud Norman

Another Day on a Long Trip

The third day of President Donald Trump’s nine-day foreign voyage went well enough that the more hostile media did their best to change the subject back to all the scandals that he hoped he’d left behind, but there was no keeping anybody’s eyes off it. There were a couple of things the critics could reasonably carp on, and all the more momentous things that can’t help being debated during any presidential visit to Israel, where Trump found himself the day after his royal welcome to Saudi Arabia, which further complicates that already complex debate, but at the end Trump seemed to have muddled through a relatively good news cycle.
Trump donned a yarmulke and went down to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to pay his respects to several millennia of Jewish tradition, becoming the first American president to do so at the much-disputed site while holding the office, and even such staunchly old-fashioned yet neo-conservative and philo-semitic and NeverTrumper Republican goyim as ourselves had to admire the chutzpah of that. Although he’s still backing away from that oft-stated campaign promise to relocate the embassy from Tel Avid to Jerusalem, which was a step too far even for the likes of us, we’re surely not the only ones who are pleased to see the stark difference with President Barack Obama’s anti-Israeli policies. Some of Trump’s supporters on the alt-right are no doubt disappointed, and the more blatantly anti-semitic portions of the left are also offended, but we hope that most of us are rooting for the Israelis rather than the people who have vowed to exterminate them.
Some of those Jew-haters are in Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni nations that Trump had been partying with the two days before, and some are in Iran and the rest of the Shiite sphere that Trump had thundered against, and nobody here or in the Middle East seems to know how that’s all going to work out in the end. We’d like to think that Trump has ingeniously calculated some great deal that will bring about peace in that eternally warring region just as surely as President Andrew Jackson would have averted America’s Civil War, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it, so for now we’ll take solace in the face that at least he’s not disrespecting the Israelis the way Obama used to do.
Still, there’s no denying the Trump-bashers some fun from such a marathon journey. All our liberal Facebook friends were sharing the footage of Trump noticing that Natanyahu and his wife were holding hands as the walked from the runway and then trying to do the same with his First Lady and having her slap his hand away, and we’ll have to leave it to the more ardent Trump apologists to explain how it doesn’t look bad. Some of Trump’s slighter lapses have been attributed by his communication team to “exhaustion,” which is credible enough excuse on behalf of an obese 70-year-old who eschews any exercise other than a weekly round on a Trump-banded golf course, but the late night wags are entitled to their montages of Trump bragging about his stamina, and it is only three days into a night-day tour.
There are the usual reasonable arguments from both the left and the right about how Trump’s pro-Saudi and pro-Israel and vaguely pro-Russian-yet stridently against aligned-with-Russia Iran stance will eventually work out, but for now we’ll be glad that unlike Obama he’s not apologizing for American influence in the region, even that Iraq war he claimed President George W. Bush lied us into, which even Obama didn’t claim. Things don’t seem any more muddied in the Middle East than before showed up, and even after that admittedly awkward hand-holding incident we’ll hold out out hope it will also continue to forestall the inevitable conflagration. All in all, that’s a pretty darned good news cycle from Trump these days.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the anti-Trump press has been able to take advantage of the dullness of it all by posting some stories hard to deal with for an administration on an ambitious foreign tour. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is defying a congressional subpoena and invoking the Fifth Amendment in the various ongoing investigations into that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, as Trump calls it, and that’s enough to intrude on the front pages. Flynn’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment doesn’t imply any guilt, as his Trump-friendly advocates can rightly say, but Trump’s critics are entitled to gleefully run the the late night comedy montage of Trump saying that his opponents’ use of the Fifth Amendment was the refuge of the guilty.
Sooner or later Trump will return to that temporarily paused news cycle, and although he hasn’t made any glaring missteps on his trip he’s yet to bring any undeniable foreign achievements, so we’d call it a draw so far. The next six days will involve a Pope and G-7 worth or world leaders that Trump has publicly feuded with, and it’s bound to be exhausting, but we’ll hope for the best. Not for Trump’s sake, but the sake of peace, and some respite this awful ongoing news cycle.

— Bud Norman<

Enquiring Minds Want to Know

The National Enquirer isn’t usually on our reading list, but on our last trip to the supermarket we couldn’t resist plunking down five bucks to see what was behind the tantalizing headline. “At last the truth about Russia,” that tabloid boasted over a picture some people familiar from the more respectable press, “What Trump Doesn’t Know!”
We were further struck that the front page also promised “Revealed: 10 spies murdered in 15 months to bury proof of Putin’s election hacking,” not to mention those pictures of Trump next to such infamous and now former associates as Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page. For more than a year now we’ve checked out the covers of the National Enquirer during our supermarket check-outs the same way Kremlinologists used to scrutinize the front page of Pravda, for the same reason that it provides the same official line, so the headline brought an intriguing plot twist.
Back in the ’80s The National Enquirer used to torment the young the celebrity billionaire Trump with salacious stories about the alleged infidelities of his wives and mistresses, but ever since he cultivated a a friendship with the tabloid’s editor in the early ’90s the coverage has been far friendlier. His presidential campaign received adulatory attention, while the rest of the Republican field was either ignored or scandalized. When retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was inching ahead in the polls the Enquirer ran a story alleging he’d left a sponge in a patient’s sewed-up skull, and when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was last the challenger it ran a picture purporting to show his father standing next Lee Harvey Oswald just before the assassination of President John Kennedy, and when it came down to Trump against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton there were all sorts of stories about her even worse than the ones the more respectable press were obliged to run.
Since his election Trump has been getting the same support from the Enquirer, with a recent front page proudly proclaiming the president’s war on dictators, with sinister photographs of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia Vladimir Putin, so it was quite a surprise to see them follow with another headline linking Putin to four people who have elsewhere been directly linked to Trump.
The article claims that Putin ordered meddling in the election that included the hacking and public release of embarrassing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, an allegation which has of course been widely reported, but it leads with the “bombshell finding” that he also ordered the assassination of 27-year-old Clinton campaign aide Seth Rich and nine Russian operatives to cover it up, which of course has not been as widely reported. Although the article makes no mention of the aforementioned Stone, Flynn, Manafort and Page, who have been fired from their prior respective positions as longtime friend and National Security Advisor and Campaign Chairman and campaign foreign policy advisor over their Russian relations, which the more respectable press have reported are all under investigation, but it does run their pictures again on the inside, which is also darned curious.
Throughout the campaign Trump took an unusually friendly stand toward Putin, basking in the compliments Putin had reportedly paid him and talking about how great friendship with Russia would be and how obsolete the anti-Russian North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in one debate he said the hacking of the DNC e-mails was just as likely “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” and he dismissed a question about the occasional Putin assassination order by asking “Do you think we’re so innocent?” After the election he conceded the Russians had “probably” hacked the DNC, but continued to avoid saying that the Russians had done anything improper at all. The Enquirer story, therefore, seems to deviate from the party line.
This comes a week or so after Trump’s newly appointed Central Intelligence Agency gave a speech that reiterated the intelligence community’s consensus conclusion that the Russians did meddle in the election, days after the Republican head of the House committee that’s looking into the matter said that Flynn had likely committed a crime by not disclosing his contract work for the Russians and Turks, and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation still looking into Page, and God only knowing what such a “political dirty trickster” as the Enquirer euphemistically describes Stone is currently facing. By now there’s enough suspicion about it that all of the official investigations are likely to continue, and unlikely to lead to any conclusions that the Russians are blameless and even if they aren’t no one in the Trump campaign had anything to do with them, so our guess is that the National Enquirer is trying out a new party line that at least the president himself had nothing to do with it.
All of the reiterated charges and “bombshell findings” and guilt-by-association photographs are huddled under the headline “What Trump Didn’t Know,” after all, and his most vociferous critics will have to admit the possibility that he didn’t know anything about what was going on. If we were one of the infamously defenestrated four on the cover of this week’s National Enquirer we’d read between the lines to see that we count on any further favors from Trump, and would be lawyering up to tell whatever we have to tell, and hoping that people are more interested in Wynnona Judd’s daughter being jailed in a meth bust. The more respectable press is likely to keep looking into this Russian thing, though, and so will the FBI and the Republican-led House committee, without any interference from the Trump-appointed Attorney General who has recused himself from all that Russian stuff and the former Trump-friendly committee chairman who has done the same, so we expect more intriguing headlines.


Another Round of Dueling Scandals

One tale of Russian intrigue is tough enough to follow, but there are two of them running in the news lately, both quite convoluted, they intertwine in all sorts of hard-to-follow ways. There’s really no one to root for, too, and so far no one seems to know anything for sure. There have lately been plot twists in both tales, and they only make things more confusing.
The first story concerns the Russian government’s alleged attempts to interfere with the American presidential election, and alleged collusion with those efforts by the campaign of President Donald Trump, which if true is undeniably a big deal. All the intelligence agencies have concluded the Russians did meddle in the race, although they wisely decline to say if it any effect on the outcome, even if all the leaks and other efforts alleged did seem aimed against Trump’s challenger, because she was so awful a candidate that no one could say with any certainty, and even committees in the Republican-controlled Congress agree the matter deserves further investigation. There’s less consensus about the allegations of Trump or his associates colluding with the meddling, but there’s ample evidence of business ties between state-controlled Russian interests and several of Trump’s associates, as well as countless contacts with Russian officials that were suspicious enough they were lied about, and a past campaign manager and National Security Advisor have already been defenestrated as a result and the Attorney General has been gladly forced to recuse himself from the whole mess. The latest revelation from The Washington Post is that yet another meeting between Trump’s transition team and Russian officials was arranged by the United Arab Emirates, which might or might not be anything nefarious, but it’s surely further proof that the story isn’t going away any time soon no matter how much Trump and his more stubborn supporters might wish it so.
Meanwhile, though, there’s always the ongoing saga of how President Barack Obama’s administration alleged meddled in the election. That all began one early morning when Trump “tweeted” the allegation that Obama — a “Bad (or Sick)” person — had wire-tapped Trump Tower during the “very sacred election process,” and it’s been mutating into an exponentially endless number of stories ever since. So far there’s absolutely no evidence offered by anyone at all that Obama literally wire-tapped Trump Tower, and the White House spokespeople have gone to great lengths to emphasize that of course Trump did not mean that allegation literally, but there has been reason to believe the more carefully vague claim that there was some sort of shenanigans going on. All the post-election leaks have indeed been damaging to Trump, some have surely violated some classified information law or another, and all have come from the kinds of federal government employees who have access to such information and probably preferred to Obama to Trump. Long before anyone considered the possibility of a Trump administration there were stories about Obama’s administration tapping the phones of Fox News and Associated Press reporters, as well as collecting phone information on just about everybody, which came to light after another leak the Russkies were probably in on, and they were also caught in enough big and small lies that almost anything seems possible, even all those talk-radio and YouTube theories about a “deep state” plot to destroy a populist threat.
The latest twist in this plot is that former Obama administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been unmasked as the woman who “unmasked” defenestrated Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and other Trump associates in the widely leaked accounts of wire-tapped conservations with Russian officials. Those Trump associates weren’t being wire-tapped, by all accounts, but the Russians officials they were conserving with were under surveillance, so the wire-tapping was “incidental contact” and thus legal and justified by the most strict Republican standards, but “unmasking” the identity of American citizens overhead in such circumstances requires legal justifications that weren’t met to Republican standards, so it was all the talk on the right-wing redoubts of talk radio and YouTube. It didn’t help that it was Rice, well known for peddling such big Obama-era lies as the Benghazi fiasco being the result of an obscure YouTube video rather than the administration’s utterly incompetent handling of the entire Libyan fiasco, or Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being a sympathetic hero rather than a deserter the administration traded five high-level terror leaders for, and that she was careful to say that any unmasking was “absolutely not for any political purposes.” At this point we wouldn’t anything past the Obama administration, but by now we know better than to try to prove that any of it was for a political purpose.
We don’t mind the government listening in on Russian officials no matter which party controls the executive branch, and we understand the reasons for classified information and protections, but we also appreciate knowing if someone in the government is involved in any shenanigans no matter which party is currently in power, and at the moment we wouldn’t put anything past anybody, so we’re following both plots through all the obligatory investigations with a desultory interest. We’ll venture no guesses how either story might end, except that as always the Russians don’t turn out to be the good guys and nobody winds up a unblemished hero.


The Fast Food Nominees Goes Fast

Although we can’t for the life of us think of the name of the last Secretary of Labor, we’re momentarily aware of the fellow who won’t be the next one. President Donald Trump’s choice for the post, business executive Andrew Puzder, has withdrawn his briefly famous name from consideration, and for several reasons his departure is more newsworthy than the the position usually merits.
Puzder was a controversial nominee from the outset, even by the extreme standards of the Trump era. He’s an executive in the fast-food restaurant business, heading up the corporation that that owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s chains that proliferate throughout the land, so he’s an outspoken advocate against raising the minimum wage, which has long been a favored cause of the Democratic Party, and the company’s television advertisements have used attractive women in ways that aroused the ire of the Democrats’ feminist wing, and of course the vegan wing was also offended. He’d also faced credible and nationally-televised-by-Oprah but later recounted accusations of spousal abuse, which offended both the feminist wing of the Democratic Party and what’s left of the chivalrous wing of the Republican Party, and he was also an advocate for mass legal immigration and a lax response to the illegal sort, which amused the Democrats but troubled all sorts of pre- and post-Trump Republicans, and he’d also had one of those illegal alien domestic servants that have derailed both Democratic and Republican cabinet nominees over the past few decades.
Add it all up, and it was enough to unify all the Democrats and sway a decisive number of Republicans and force Puzder to withdraw. Other controversial Trump nominees have managed to squeak through, including the recently resigned National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn, whose departure is an ongoing scandal, and Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who needed Vice President Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote, so Puzder’s scalp is being widely celebrated by the Democrats and their media allies. There are always a few nominees who don’t get confirmed, and so far Trump is batting better than the league average, but add Puzder’s embarrassment to Flynn’s departure and that scandals that entails, along with all the other leaked-from-the-White-House tales of White House dysfunction and the Democrats and their media allies are entitled to a certain amount of gloating.
Much like that decisive number of Republican congressmen who said they’d vote against the nomination, though, we’re not disappointed by the withdrawal. We’re also opposed to a raise in the minimum wage on the grounds that it will only hasten the automation that’s taking more American jobs than Mexico and China ever will, but such a self-interested advocate as Puzder seem a poor choice to make that argument. We don’t mind the sex appeal in the fast food commercials, and of course the strip club and beauty pageant mogul who nominated him didn’t either, but the domestic abuse charges offended our old-fashioned chivalrous Republican sensibilities, even if they didn’t bother a president who has faced similarly credible but ultimately withdrawn accusations, and the illegal alien housekeeper also seemed a disqualifying incident in the life of a potential Labor Secretary, even if the illegal-alien-hiring but tough-on-illegal-immigration president who appointed him didn’t have a problem with it. Even the conservative media more inclined to defend Trump seem to be having trouble working up much indignation about Puzder’s withdrawal.
Every administration has its confirmation failures, and as previously noted Trump is doing better than usual so far, but Puzder’s ignominious withdrawal and Flynn’s more noteworthy resignation and all the resulting stories from that, along with all the White House-leaked tales of White House dysfunction, all add up to a bigger story that the Democrats and their media allies are eager to tell. How big remains to be seen, but we suspect that in the end it won’t be just the Democrats telling it.

— Bud Norman

Out Like Flynn

The resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as President Donald Trump’s National Security is not only the biggest story of the moment, it seems to have spun off into a dozen or so biggest stories of the moment.
At such a very early point in an administration such a high-ranking official’s resignation, or “ouster” if you prefer the more recent term that keeps popping up in the press, is going to be a story with legs and sidebars. This unusually quick departure seems to have more than the usual subplots, however, and at this point in this particular administration the press is especially eager to pursue them every one of them. The fact of Flynn’s resignation or ouster or whatever you call it seems to confirm press reports that he had questionable contacts with the Russian government during the transition period and lied about it to Vice President Mike Pence, which does not make Trump look good, so the established media are delighted to have that at the top of the front pages and hourly broadcasts. Some of the radio talkers and other anti-establishment media are continuing to insist that whatever contacts Flynn had with the Russians weren’t at all questionable, and that he never lied about it, but they glumly admit that also makes Trump look bad.
Trump is “tweeting” that big story is Flynn’s conversations with Russia being leaked to the press in the first place, and his more creative supporters in the anti-establishment media are elaborating that it’s another example of the intelligence community and the “deep state” trying to undermine Trump’s administration, and it’s plausible. Meanwhile the establishment press is putting the whole affair in the context of the intelligence agencies’ consensus conclusion that the Russians meddled in the past presidential election in an apparent attempt to help Trump, and Trump’s denunciation of the intelligence agencies and apologetics for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and the various contacts that several of Trump’s business and campaign and administration officials have with with the Russian oligarchy, and all the implications they can make out of that also seem well within the realm of plausibility.
There also stories about who knew what and when they knew it, and they all feature prominent administration spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway telling television audiences that Flynn had the president’s full confidence just hours before Trump accepted the resignation, and none of them are helpful to Trump or any of his more ardent defenders in the anti-establishment media. They all seem to confirm a popular press narrative about a dysfunctional White House riven by all the petty power-grabbing and back-stabbing machinations you’d want from a reality television show, which is altogether too plausible, and all of those leaks are coming straight from contestants. At the moment Trump’s anti-establishment media allies have been reduced to the Nietzschean argument that out of chaos comes order, and let’s us hope they’re right.
There’s also surely a sidebar somewhere out there about how all of this hubbub will affect national security, but so far we haven’t found it. We were never fond of Flynn, who seemed far too chummy with the Russkies and is prone to crackpot conspiracy theories and always reminded us of Sterling Hayden’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper character in “Dr. Strangelove,” and although he’s properly tough on Islamism we figure Trump is more in need of someone to advise occasional restraint and not encourage all the war crimes that were promised during the campaign. Press reports indicate that one of the possible replacements is Gen. David Petraeus, whose military brilliance turned the tide in the Iraq War before he competently assumed the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency, but who also pleaded guilty to providing his mistress with classified material and then lying about it, and it will be interesting to see if Trump sets all those storylines off. The other names seem reasonable career national security, and of course aren’t any of the Republican establishment professionals who took public stands against Trump during the campaign, and in the end we effect that the national security will be as insecure as always.

— Bud Norman