Pompeo and Circumstances

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo served nearly three and half terms as our congressman here in Kansas’s Fourth district before joining President Donald Trump’s administration as Central Intelligence Agency and then becoming America’s top diplomat. He was quite popular around here, routinely winning with more than 60 parent of the vote, and although the local liberals hated him for his old-fashioned conservatism they were never able to pin any scandals on him.
As a member the Trump cabinet, Pompeo now finds himself embroiled in several controversies. An inspector general who was investigating Pompeo from using a taxpayer paid aide to do personal, as well as declaring a national emergency to green light an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, was fired by President Trump, and after Trump said the firing was at Pompeo’s request that is three scandals. Pompeo also stands accused of holding expensive taxpayer-funded dinners for big bucks donors to the Republican Party who have nothing to do with foreign policy, which is a pretty embarrassing fourth scandal.
Pompeo admitted he asked for the firing of the inspector general but insisted it was a not a conflict of interest because he was unaware he was being investigated, but he also admitted that he had been given a written set of questions by the inspector general about both the aide an the arms deals.
There’s one exception: I was asked a series of questions in writing,” Pompeo said. “I responded to those questions with respect to a with respect to a particular investigation … I don’t know the scope. I don’t know the nature of that investigation — of what I would have seen from the nature of the questions that I was presented.” Except that earlier in the same news conference Pompeo said “I couldn’t possibly have retaliated for for all things I’ve seen — the various stories that someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. It’s all just crazy.”
That’s as dismissively sarcastic a reply as Trump himself might offer, but it does amount to an admission that Pompeo knew exactly what that pesky inspector general was looking into when he requested the firing. It was the fourth firing of a pesky inspector general in the past six weeks by the Trump administration, on top of the firings of various pesky “whistle blowers,” and another worrisome example of how anyone in the federal government who doesn’t toe the administration’s line is putting his or her career in jeopardy, which is yet another administration scandal.
The defenestrated inspector general was also looking into the lavish parties Pompeo allegedly hosted on the tax payer’s tab, allegedly welcoming such guests as the chief executive officers of Chik-Fil-La and 7-Eleven and the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, along with others who had no apparent reason for being at a State Department dinner but were potential donors to potential future campaigns, and so far Pompeo hasn’t denied any of the allegations. Pompeo might have some reasonable explanation, but for now we’re expecting only another Trumpian dismissively sarcastic reply.
All of Pompeo’s problems began when he signed on with the Trump administration, and we believe that if he hadn’t done that he’d be sitting pretty right now. His seat in Congress was as safe as a government bond, as they used to say, and the the state’s open Senate seat that’s up for grabs in November would have been his for the asking. Pompeo’s got an impressive resume, including top of his class at West Point and editor of the Harvard Law Review and a successful high-tech aviation company here in Kansas, and he had a masterful knack for appealing to both the fire-breathing anti-establishment elements of the Republican party as well as the party’s establishment types who proudly voted for General Dwight Eisenhower and Senators Bob Dole and Nancy Landon and other erstwhile exemplars of moderate Kansas Republicanism.
Given his impressive resume and political instincts, a lot of us here in the Fourth Congressional district of Kansas thought Pompeo might even wind up as president some day. Pompeo is an obviously and unabashedly ambitious man, so there’s no doubt the same thought had occurred to him, and we suspect he bet that joining the Trump administration would be the shrewd move to get there. With all due respect to Pompeo, we think that in this case his political instincts failed him.
“We’ll always remember Pompeo’s rousing endorsement speech for the very Republican establishment Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at the Kansas Republican caucus in downtown Wichita’s Century II building, and how many of us booed candidate Donald Trump’s appearance and how Trump came in third after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio. Trump wound up winning the nomination and then won Kansas’ electoral votes by the same 60 percent any other Republican nominee would have garnered against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, however, and Pompeo was glad to to accept an offer to hop on board. When he was elevated from CIA director to Secretary of State, with unemployment at record lows and the stock markets at record highs, he seemed poised to take some share of the credit for making America great again.
We’re not nearly as smart as Pompeo, but we’re nowhere near so intoxicatingly ambitious, and from our relatively sober perspective here on the political sidelines, after watching more Kansas politics than Pompeo has been around to see, we think he should have stayed here in the middle of Kansas. He could have supported Trump’s many sensible policies, criticized his more common vulgarism and and divisiveness and other outright corruption an many other offenses, and joined other Kansas Republicans to condemn the trade wars have hurt the state’s crucial agricultural and aviation sectors, and poised himself as a leader of the post-Trump Republican party’s return to greatness that America will much need, given how crazy the Democrats seem these days.
Instead Pompeo has hitched his proverbial wagon to Trump’s proverbial star, and so far that hasn’t worked out for anyone. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be sitting in a safe Alabama Senate seat if he hadn’t endorsed Trump and been rewarded with a Cabinet chair before being fire for dutifully recusing himself from the federal investigation of the campaign he’d worked on, and is currently in a tight battle to win his party’s nomination for the Senate because Trump continues to disparage him. Various Trump appointees appointees have have been fired for doing the right thing and now publicly oppose him, along with others who were hired for no apparent reason and then fired for good cause, and Pompeo might well be another casualty of the Trump administration. So far, no one who’s signed on with Trum0 hasn’t unscathed
Barring some deus ex machina that miraculously cures the coronavirus, and it magically goes away as if by miracle as promised, and the stock market is back at record highs and the unemployment on Election Day, Pompeo’s once-promising presidential ambitions might at an end. The good news is that with the coronavirus dominating the news few people with notice such routine scandals.

— Bud Norman

Parnas, Bolton, and the Impeachment Mess

The Democrats in the House of Representatives had some very compelling testimony and documentary evidence from credible witnesses when they impeached President Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, and since the news has been full of interviews and documents and surreptitious video recordings that seem to bolster their case. For now the president and his defenders would prefer the public not hear about it during the impeachment trial.
Two relevant witnesses who did not testify in the House but are very much in the news lately are former national security advisor John Bolton and a fellow named Lev Parnas, a Russian-born American citizen and associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani who is currently under federal indictment for funneling Russian and other foreign campaign contributions to Republican candidates. Both are problematic for the president’s defense.
Parnas and his lawyer have gone on two cable news networks to describe how he assisted Giuliani’s efforts on the president’s behalf to extort the Ukrainian government’s help in smearing potential Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden, which is basically what all this impeachment brouhaha is about. He’s undeniably a shady character, being an associate of Giuliani and under indictment for funneling foreign money to Republican candidates and all, and Trump has said he doesn’t even the know the guy, but at this point we’re inclined to believe him than the President of the United States.
Presidents get their pictures taken with a lot of people, but the news media have come up with a lot of pictures of Trump and his sons and administration officials looking very chummy with Parnas, and Giuliani admits that Parnas and fellow indictee Igor Fruman were involved in his efforts on Trump’s behalf to get dirt on Biden from the Ukrainian government. Parnas has also handed over to the news media some surreptitiously taken audio tape that clearly shows Trump knew him well enough to host him at a dinner in Trump’s swank Washington hotel’s restaurant, and to share some laughs with him about ousting the Ambassador to Ukraine, which is one of the very suspicious subplots in this impeachment drama.
Bolton, who has reportedly written a soon-to-be-published tell-all book alleging that Trump did indeed demand the quid pro quo deal with the Ukrainians that Trump is accused of in the articles of impeachment, is another problem. He’s got a lucrative book deal, and after his rude defenestration from the Trump administration while this Ukraine business was going down he’s arguably a disgruntled former employee, but if he’s called to testify under oath before the Senate he’ll bring both a begrudging credibility from the right and a newfound respect from the left. Trump can’t credibly claim to hardly know the guy, as he once entrusted Bolton with the job of national security advisor, and they’ve been photographed together a gazillion times, and Bolton got the job because he was once a hero of the erstwhile Republican party’s most hawkish foreign policy wing. The liberals hated him for that, even if it brought him into conflict with Trump’s Russia-friendly and post-war world order policies, but if Bolton keeps a promise to honor a Senate subpoena and says what he’s expected to say, and what his book reportedly says he wrote, the liberals will dearly love him for that.
All the polls show the viewing public will disappointed if such intriguing characters in this his reality show aren’t given sufficient camera time, which is a problem for the Republicans, who had once hoped to dismiss the charges without any bother of witnesses and testimony. Recent news reports indicate a sufficient-for-a-majority number of four Republican Senators and maybe even as many ten will join all of the Democrats in a vote to allow witnesses and evidence in the trial, which will likely make it much harder for any of them to justify a vote for Trump’s acquittal.
On the other hand, Trump could call to the stand Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and moonlighting Office of Management and Budget director and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Trump attorney Giuliani, along with everyone else in the administration that’s been implicated in the mess, and let them clear up this whole whole mess up with their sworn testimony. He could also have his crack legal team and Senate allies call back to the stand the respected ambassador to Ukraine that he removed and the ambassador appointed by his Secretary of State to her succeed her and the respected military man and Purple Heart recipient and the million-dollar Trump donor who testified against Trump in the House impeachment hearings.
For whatever reason, though, Trump would prefer you just take his word for it that he did nothing wrong.

— Bud Norman

Pompeo vs. National Public Radio

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is having a nasty spat with a National Public Radio reporter named Mary Louise Kelly, and we’re sure that President Donald Trump and his most ardent admirers are loving it. The true Trump believers despise pretty much all media except for Fox News and the Sinclair Network and their favorite talk radio talkers, and have a special disdain for such fancy-pants and know-it-all outlets as NPR, so they love seeing those pesky reporters being treated rudely.
Since the age of 19 we’ve been involved in some journalism pursuit or another, and that’s been such a long, long time we’ve become inured to a certain amount of press-bashing. There was no way of avoiding someone’s anger when we covered Wichita’s divisive anti-abortion protests and pro-abortion rights counter-protests back in the ’90s, and even though we’d been interns in the office of Sen. Bob Dole and always voted for him he tried to score some points by lashing out at us, and no matter how meticulously we balanced the Republican and Democratic arguments in our coverage of ant campaign we always got hateful letters from one side or the other and usually both.
Although we well understand the conservative complaint that most of the press leans toward liberalism, and have made that case in countless editorial meetings and internet essays, but that nasty spat between Pompeo and Kelly seems another example of how it’s gone too far. We voted for Pompeo every time he ran for Kansas’ fourth district House seat, but we’ve lost a lot of respect for him since then, and in this case it appears he’s being dishonest and dodging legitimate questions and losing his temper in a way that Secretaries of State should never do.
It all started during a long-scheduled interview when Kelly asked Pompeo about the firing of Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, which is an important matter in the current impeachment trial of Trump, and Pompeo replied that “I agreed to come to on your show today to talk about Iran,” then angrily answered follow-up questions by insisting that he’d defended all State Department employees, and according to NPR he then “stood, leaned and silently glared at Kelly for several seconds before leaving the room.”
By NPR’s account, a few moments later Kelly was called into Pompeo’s private living room at the State Department, where he shouted at her for asking questions about Ukraine, which he insisted had not been agreed to when scheduling the interview. Kelly said Pompeo shouted “Do you think the American people care about Ukraine?,” with Kelly adding that he’d used the “f-word” a couple of times during the tirade. She also said Pompeo dared her to find Ukraine on a map with no names.
When NPR reported this, Pompeo charged that they’d violated a journalistic oath to keep the second conversation off the record. A later Pompeo statement called it “another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this administration.”
NPR is indeed a left-leaning news organization, and they have that annoying soft-spoken and haughty-sounding way of broadcasting that always grates on our ears, but their account of the matter seems more true to our experienced eyes, and they don’t just make stuff up the way the Trump administration does. Both Iran and Ukraine are matters of public interest that any experienced journalist would want to talk about with the Secretary of State, and we can’t imagine that the seasoned Kelly and her seasoned producers would have agreed to leave Ukraine out of the interview. Kelly didn’t bring a microphone into Pompeo’s personal living room, but according the the rules of the journalism game that’s not the same as agreeing to go off the record, and we can’t imagine Kelly doing that. Pompeo confirmed the part about daring Kelly to find Ukraine on the map when he “tweeted” that “Ukraine is not Bangladesh,” but we can’t imagine that a woman with a Master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge University who has also extensively reported from south Asia would make that glaring mistake.
We can far more easily imagine that Pompeo was simply in no mood to answer any questions from a pesky reporter about the arguably impeachable Ukraine matter, which he’s up to his neck in and keeps looking worse with each passing day of audio and video recordings and other evidence in the hated mainstream media, and he became, for lack of a better word, unhinged, and in a way that Secretaries of State should never do. By now lashing out at anyone who asks a question rather than answering it is either a feature or a bug of the Trump administration, depending on your point of view. He was mostly well-hinged back when he had the relatively easy job of being Kansas’ fourth district congressman, with only the decimated Kansas media and its mostly Republican audience to contended with, but he lately seems under more stress.
The die-hard fans will continue to love the administration’s robust resistance to hated media, and believe they’re just speaking truth to power, but the rest of the country will want to some hear honest answers to the pesky but quite reasonable questions that are being asked of the people who are actually in power.

— Bud Norman

Pompeo Stays Put, For Now

According to both The New York Times and The Wichita Eagle, which are usually reliable sources, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo won’t be coming home to Kansas to run for an open Senate seat. This is a big deal all over an uneasy world, but especially so here in our beloved Sunflower State.
The news was surprising to us, but only slightly so. Secretary of State is a more prestigious title than junior Senator from Kansas, and far more lucrative in a post public service career, but we’re sure that even such an ambitious fellow as Pompeo was tempted to return home to Kansas’s welcoming arms. Any old Senate seat is plenty prestigious and potentially lucrative, Pompeo almost certainly could have had a safe one for as long as he wanted. and with a presidential impeachment trial looming and a potential war with Iran brewing and Pompeo up to his neck in all of it the Senate surely seemed a more placid sinecure.
He was intrigued enough by the possibility to spend a lot of time in Kansas in for someone with such a busy international schedule, some of which was spent having discussions about fundraising with the state’s biggest Republican donors, and he was encouraged to resign and run by some high-level Republicans in the state and national party.
The Republicans are facing an unfavorable Senatorial election map next November and worry about retaining their slight majority in the chamber, so current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted Pompeo to lock down the Kansas seat, Trump gave his blessings to the idea, and the state’s Republican party establishment was equally keen on the idea. Kansas has been reliably Republican in federal elections since it entered the Union as a free state after its bloody prologue to the Civil War, and will probably vote Republican once again no matter how the primary turns out, but it’s within the realm of possibility that it won’t.
For now the frontrunner in a crowded Republican primary field is former state Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost a gubernatorial race to impeccably moderate Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly back in November ’18. As the state’s Secretary of State Kobach earned a national reputation for his tough stance against illegal immigrants voting in Kansas elections, which led to Trump appointing him to head a federal commission to prove that Trump would have won the popular vote if not for more than there million illegally cast votes, and he now fully identifies as a a Trump loyalist, but so far none of it worked out for him.
The voter identification laws that Kobach lobbied for are reasonable enough, so far as we can tell from our regular voting, but the Harvard grad with the Yale Law School degree decided to represent himself in a lawsuit brought against him by the American Civil Liberties Union, and he wound up proving only nine cases of voter fraud and paying significant fines for contempt of court and proving the old axiom about how a lawyer representing himself has a fool for a client, or vice a versa. Kobach’s federal commission was disbanded before proving that Trump actually won the popular vote, in part because such Republican states as Mississippi and Kansas defied his orders on state’s rights grounds, and his continued fealty to Trump hasn’t been much help.
Trump easily won the state’s electoral votes last time around, but that was because he was running against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and he’ll probably win again next time around, but that’s because he’ll probably be running against some even crazier Democrat. Which is not to say Trump is particularly popular around here. He finished a distant third in the Kansas caucuses back in ’16, the trade wars that have plunged commodity prices haven’t played well with the farmers and cattlemen, his anti-Hispanic rhetoric doesn’t resonate in a state whose southwest quadrant is economically dependent on Hispanic immigrants, and neither the church-going small town Christians nor the educated suburbanites like his style.
The Kansas Republican party is currently in a sorry state, too, for a variety of reasons of strictly local interest. Our old pal Gov. Sam Brownback, who we know to be a good and well-intentioned guy, purged all the cautious Republican types from the legislature and enacted a radical agenda of tax cuts and spending cuts, and although we liked the idea in broad outlines the details turned turned out to objectively blow a hole in the state budget, with deficits piling up despite severe cuts to what even old-fashioned Republicans would consider essential state services. There were various other scandals about corruption and voter suppression, too. That’s how Kobach wound up losing the governorship to an impeccably moderate Democrat, and McConnell is right to worry it’s within the realm of possibility he might wound up losing to a similarly moderate Democrat in a Senate race.
We wouldn’t say it’s probable, though. The crowded Republican field includes Kansas Senate President and impeccable Kansas conservative Susan Wagle, who is almost as irksome to the state’s Democrats as Kobach, and Rep. Roger Marshall from Kansas’ ranch-and-farm First District, who has occasionally dared to voice disagreement with Trump’s trade wars and immigration policies, and either could win the primary and then the general election. At this point Kobach seems a less sure bet, but we wouldn’t bet against him given the state’s long history and stubborn nature.
Pompeo would have been the surest bet for that safe Senate seat, given his extradorinaiy name recognition and formidable fund-raising prowess and the lingering affection he enjoys here in the Fourth District, where he easily won four terms with our votes, especially if he could somehow distance himself from Trump. According to our usually reliable reliable sources at The New York Times and The Wichita Eagle he’s clinging tight to Trump’s ship of state through times of impeachment trials and impending war, however, and we hold out faint hope he gets through it with his once impeccable reputation intact.

— Bud Norman

Across the Street From Kirby’s Beer Store

While we were watching “Jeopardy!” and drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon at Kirby’s Beer Store on Thursday there was some big news going on across the street at Wichita State University. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was back in his hometown for a photo-op at WSU’s high-tech aviation training program and a friend’s wedding, and he brought along First Daughter and White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump, as well as a lot of questions about state and international politics.
Pompeo is up to his neck in the administration’s controversial Syrian policy and that hubbub about American-Ukrainian relations that seems to be leading to President Donald Trump’s impeachment, and here in Kansas and around the nation there’s been much speculation that he’ll get out of the administration while the getting’s good and come home to run for an open Senate seat that is pretty much his for the asking. This was the fourth time the Secretary of State has taken time out from his busy schedule of globe-trotting to vista Kansas in the past few months, and all the latest national and international news makes a nice safe sinecure in the Senate look all the more tempting, so questions were inevitable.
The local television stations were understandably grateful for the more star-studded than usual photo-op, and obligingly aired footage of the Barbie-esque Ivanka Trump doing her best impersonation of Rosie the Riveter, but one of the last standing reporters from the now emaciated local newspaper where we toiled for 25 years got a lengthy interview, and we’re proud to say he gave Pompeo a good grilling. The national media were largely shut out of the visit, so the local paper’s reporting was widely quoted and linked to by  some of the nation’s biggest media, which we hope helps with its clicks.
The reporter asked Pompeo if a photo-op in Wichita was the best use of a Secretary of State’s time at the moment, if the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria undercut rest of the world’s faith in America’s alliances, some pesky questions about the Ukraine matter, and of course some peskier question about his possible future in Kansas politics, which at this point is also of national interest. For the most part Pompeo handled the interrogation well, deftly blaming President Barack Obama for some of the mess and dodging some questions that weren’t related to aviation workforce development and challenging the “predicate” of others, and our experienced local news watching eyes noticed he was more genteel than the usual Trump administration in bashing the media when being interviewed by his hometown paper. The hometown paper’s reporter also works for its corporate sister at what’s left of Kansas City’s hometown paper, even though the papers used to vie for statewide scoops back our in day, so any shrewd politician seeking statewide office would be well advised to at least be polite.
Pompeo is a first-in-his-class West Point grad and Harvard Law Review editor who made a fortune in the high-tech aviation business in Wichita, easily won four terms as the Fourth District’s congressman before becoming director of the Central Intelligence and then Secretary of State, and he remains a big deal here and all around this Republican state. The old-fashioned establishment wing of the Republican party is panicked by the possibility that the nomination will go to former state Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is so much an anti-immigration zealot and Trump impersonator that he lost the last gubernatorial election to a center-left Democrat — and a woman, at that — even in such an anti-immigration-with-certain-exceptions and reluctantly pro-Trump state as this, and for now Pompeo is the establishment choice while his close association with Trump only bolsters his chances in an already certain Senate race.
Close associations with Trump have often run awry, though, and by now Pompeo is surely shrewd enough to have noticed. In the interview with the local paper that was linked to an international audience he continued to insist he was solely focused on doing his job as Secretary of State, which is what one does in such a situation, but he seemed to leave open other possibilities of public service. Things are now going swimmingly with America’s foreign policy, Pompeo argued, but that might be all the more reason to get out while the getting’s good. Assuming the getting’s still good.
The Republican party’s representatives in Congress have have already largely repudiated the Trump Syrian policy that Pompeo has gone along with, and if Trump is impeached over that Ukrainian thing Pompeo likely will be as well, as he’s up to his neck in it, which would make for a damned interesting Senate race here in Kansas. We’ve watched enough Kansas Senate races in our many years to figure that any old Republican would continue the party’s eight decades-long winning streak, no matter what happens back in Washington, but we’d hate to see the state go through it. Although we proudly voted for Pompeo to represent our beloved Forth District four times, in the next Republican Senate primary we’ll cast our ballot for some center-right establishment woman you’ve never heard of, who we’re sure would just as easily beat any nominee that the Democrats might come up with.
That’s the view from the notorious dive bar just across the street where this story of national interest was unfolding, at any rate, and for now we stand by it. One of the Kirby’s regulars is an old friend who used to be a Democratic legislator and now holds a patronage workman’s comp judgeship, and he’s convinced his party has gone almost as crazy ours, and for what it’s worth he shares our bleak assessment of the situation.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Far South of the Border

The weather around here has been awful lately, but we’ve taken some comfort in reading about how much worse it’s been to the north and east. Similarly, no matter how bad America’s politics get we can still be glad that we’re not living in Venezuela.
Not so long ago in our lifetimes the oil-rich nation of Venezuela was prosperous and peaceful by Latin American standards, but the socialist regimes of President Hugo Chavez and then President Nicolas Maduro have wrought an unmitigated economic disaster. Unemployment is sky-high, such basic necessities as toilet paper are desperately hard to find, and the inflation rate is a staggering one million percent. Mass protests are filling the streets of the capital and other cities, the guy who lost the last presidential election under highly suspect circumstances is plausibly claiming to be the legitimate head of state, and it makes America’s protracted and seemingly intractable partial government shutdown look like no big deal.
President Donald Trump’s administration has pleasantly surprised us by siding with opposition leader Juan Guaido’s claim to the Venezuelan presidency, which is backed by those hundreds of thousands of protestors packing the streets, as well as the governments of several of the country’s South American neighbors. It’s surprising in part because Russia and the Venezuelan military and the more autocratic government of America are still backing Maduro, as well as the fact that Trump typically admires his strong man style of governance, and that Trump doesn’t usually much care what goes on south of America’s border so long as it stays there. We’ll attribute it to a traditional Republican revulsion for Latin American socialism and the clout of the very traditional Republican Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but give Trump some credit nonetheless.
Which is not to say that it will prove helpful to Venezuela, and it’s possible it could make things worse. There’s an understandable if not entirely unjustified resentment of Yankee imperialism throughout Latin America, which Latin American dictators have long used to rally public opinion against even the best-intended and well-considered efforts to intervene in their affairs, and Maduro should and Maduro should be able make even more hay of it when the Yankee imperialist is the hated-throughout-Latin-America Trump. Maduro retains the the support of the military, which we doubt Trump wants to tangle with, as well as Russia and Cuba and Bolivia and other countries Trump is eager to make deals with, while China and Mexico and other important trading partners are staying on the sidelines, and Trump is known for making his own sudden expedient policy shifts to the sidelines.
Even so, for now Trump finds himself on the side of Canada and most members of the Organization of American States and those hundreds of thousands of protestors taking to the streets, and we’re hopeful he’ll stay there. Chavez and to a lesser extent Maduro were once the darlings of America’s radical left, and the American right’s favorite cautionary tale about the consequences of socialism, and for now the right is clearly winning that argument. Although Maduro is a classic populist strongman autocrat and that Guaido fellow is a thin and youthful and handsome and glib fellow who reminds of a Venezuelan version of America’s Democratic center-left darling Beto O’Rourke, Trump is probably politically astute enough to know his stand will play well with all sorts of freedom-loving Americans.
Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world also seems worse off than we are here in frigid Kansas. Crazy Venezuelan-style left wing populism has much of Central America heading to the United States border, and crazy Trump-style populism is currently making things worse in Brazil and Poland and Hungary and Italy and the Philippines. The sensibly centrist governments of France and the United Kingdom are currently in crisis, too, with the streets of Paris once again burning and the Parliament in London trying to find its way out of a slumping European Union.
Better by far to be here in frigid Kansas than in China or Russia, or anywhere in Africa and the Arab world, or even the most up-to-date and well-heated cities of Asia and Europe. We’re still eagerly awaiting spring and the reopening of the federal government, and in the meantime we’ll warm ourselves with the knowledge of how much worse most of the rest of world’s unlucky folks have it.

— Bud Norman

Kansas Politics Takes a National Stage

Kansas rarely makes the national news, which is fine by us and most other Kansans, as it’s usually something embarrassing, but we were intrigued to see the latest development in our state politics on the front page of The Washington Post. The paper reports that Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to come home and run for a Senate seat that’s recently opened up, which is pretty darned intriguing for a number of reasons.
The Senate seats for Kansas are rarely open, as Kansans pragmatically tend to reelect the Republicans with the seniority and significant committee assignments needed to protect the farmers and airplane builders and natural gas drillers and other key components of the state’s economy, but 2020 will be one of those occasions. At the relatively young of age 82 Sen. Pat Roberts has decided to end a locally legendary political career that started way back in the ’60s — that’s the 1960s, although it sometimes seems to have stretched back to the “Bleeding Kansas” days of the 1860s — and there’s already a crowded field of notable Republicans vying to succeed him.
The rumored candidates include former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration hard-liner who made a failed effort to prove that at least three million illegal voters robbed President Donald Trump of a popular vote victory in the last presidential election, and wound up losing the last Kansas governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. There’s also former Gov. Jeff Colyer, who took office after wildly unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback resigned to became President Donald Trump’s ambassador for religious freedom, whatever that is, and then lost the Republican gubernatorial nomination by a few hundred votes but probably would have the general election if he’d been nominated. Another frequently mentioned name is Matt Schlapp, who used to be an aide to long-forgotten Fourth District Rep. Todd Tiahrt and has since gained a high profile on Fox News and talk radio as the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and whose wife, Mercedes, is Trump’s director of strategic communications, whatever that is. Such well-regarded state legislators as Rep. Roger Marshall are also reportedly in the running.
Despite such a formidable field, the Republican nomination would be Pompeo’s for the asking, and given that the only time Kansas has ever elected a Democrat to the Senate was for one term back in the Great Depression, the general election would be easy. He’s a first-in-his-class graduate of West Point, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a successful entrepreneur in Wichita’s high-tech aerospace industry, and after Tiahrt abandoned his Fourth Congressional seat for an ill-advised and ill-fated Senate run he won four congressional elections by landslide margins. His service as Trump’s director of the Central Intelligence and then Secretary of State have surely endeared him to the Trump-loving sorts of Kansas Republicans, and his occasional differences of opinion with Trump on such important matters as Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election will satisfy the large and growing number of Republicans who are weary of Trump’s generally shoddy character and the endless trade wars that have hard hit the agriculture and aviation sectors and his strange preference for coal over natural gas.
In normal circumstances no savvy politician would rather be a junior Senator from a sparsely populated state rather Secretary of State, but Pompeo is surely savvy enough to know that the Trump administration is not normal circumstances. Pompeo might or might not know what Trump has been saying to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin during the occasional conservations, as Trump keeps it a very closely guarded secret, but in either case Pompeo probably shares our concern it won’t end well. With a presidential resume and presidential ambitions, Pompeo might decide he could make a better run as a centrist junior Senator from Kansas who did his best to warn of Russian meddling and restrain Trump’s worst instincts rather than a hard-line loyalist who went down with the Trump ship.
It’s intriguing, too, that McConnell is urging Pompeo to jump from the Trump ship into the Senate. By all accounts Pompeo is Trump’s most favorite cabinet member, probably because it’s hard for Trump to find lackeys with such excellent credentials, and a third Secretary of State of in four years would be hard for Trump to explain, especially after Trump calling his first choice “dumber than rocks,” so it suggests that McConnell might be hedging his bets on the Trump presidency. The map for the 2020 Senate races is even more unfavorable for the Republicans than 2018 races were for the Democrats, and the way things are going they won’t have any presidential coattails to cling to, and we can’t blame McConnell for being more worried about his status as majority leader than he is about Trump’s presidency. Kansas is a reliably Republican state in federal elections, but last November it elected a Democrat as governor over Trump’s heartily endorsed Republican, and up in the Third District, the sort of well-educated suburban jurisdiction the Republicans been losing ever since Trump took office, they even elected a Native American lesbian kick boxer, so McConnell is probably wise to back to the surest bet.

— Bud Norman

The Trumpinization of a Grand Old Party

The big story on Tuesday was President Donald Trump’s anticlimactic photo-op with North Korea’s nutcase dictator, but but Wednesday people were taking notice that he’d somehow strengthened his control of the Republican party.
Tuesday was also primary day in South Carolina and Virginia, and by Wednesday morning the Trumpier candidates had prevailed.
In South Carolina incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford, who had voted with Trump 87 percent of the time but occasionally criticized him on television, lost to a more full-throated Trump loyalist after a presidential “tweet” that Sanford wasn’t “helping MAGA.” In a Virginia senate primary, the Republicans picked Corey Stewart, another Trump loyalist who ran on his Trumpian affection for Confederate monuments and antipathy to illegal immigration and abiding belief that were good people on both sides of that deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Sanford had won his seat despite an unusually tawdry sex scandal while he was governor of South Carolina, as unusually tawdry sex scandals are of little concern to the erstwhile “family values” party in the age of Trump, but a bare majority of the state’s Republicans apparently found that 13 percent of the he voted against and the few times he went on television to criticize something Trump had said or done unforgivable. His opponent, state lawmaker Katie Harrington, had run a television advertisement promising that she wouldn’t appear on any cable news programs criticizing the president no matter what he might say or do or “tweets.”
Such North Korean fealty to the party’s dear leader will probably play well in South Carolina, where Trump is unaccountably popular, but Stewart will probably have a harder time with in Virginia. In the last presidential election Trump lost the state by five points to the awful Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee easily won last year’s gubernatorial despite Trump’s efforts, and the Democrats have been winning formerly Republican seats in most of the congressional and state and local races since Trump’s election. The damage has been especially acute in the mostly white and well-educated upper-class suburbs of the state, and although those are mostly federal government workers in Virginia the same problem has occurred in special elections almost everywhere since Trump was inaugurated.
Even here in reliably Republican Kansas there’s reasonable talk that the second congressional district, which is mostly the white and well-educated upper-class suburbs of Kansas City, is ripe for a Democratic upset. The mediocrity who replaced Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will probably prevail down here in the more blue-collar fourth district, but he won by an embarrassingly 7-point margin in the special election and actually lost the Wichita vote.
Tuesday also saw Tennessee’s Republican Sen. Bob Corker take to the Senate floor to fulminate about Trump’s crazy trade wars with our most longstanding allies, and grouse that so few Republicans supported his efforts to restrain such craziness, but he’s already announced he won’t run for reelection because his party won’t allow such heresy. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona has been similarly courageous in confronting Trump, but he’s also announced he’s not bothering with another Republican primary. Arizona’s senior Sen. John McCain has been especially outspoken in his critique of the draft dodger who scoffed at his heroic war record, but he’s battling a likely fatal disease. The few other Republicans who dare to disagree with whatever Trump says or does or “tweets” are damned careful and deferential about how they say so.
We haven’t had the chance to visit the rest of the country recently, but our guess as rock-ribbed pre-Trump Kansas Republicans our guess is that fealty to Trump no matter what he says or does or “tweets” is not a longterm winning strategy for the the Republican party. Which is a damned shame, because we still don’t like those Democrats.

— Bud Norman

Pomp, Circumstance, and the Unvarnished Truth

‘Tis the season for college commencement speeches, and the controversies a few of them annually cause. Even the most controversial commencement speeches are usually forgettable affairs, but we did take notice of the one that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered on Wednesday to the most recent graduates of the Virginia Military Academy.
Tillerson was once the well-regarded and objectively successful chief executive officer of the multi-national and very big deal Exxon Corporation, but during his brief tenure as Secretary of State he was harshly criticized from both the left and the right. The left resented his corporate downsizing of the State Department and seeming abandonment of diplomacy as a means of American influence, the post-President Donald Trump right found him insufficiently committed to an “America First” isolationism and militarism, and even from our newfound perspective on the sidelines he was so clearly ineffectual we were glad to see him replaced by our formidable former District of Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo.
Even so, Tillerson’s bold address to the VMI graduates give us hope that he’ll prove one heck of an ex-Secretary of State. Although he never mentioned Trump by name, Tillerson opened the speech by talking of his own higher education in engineering and the need for structural integrity, the similar need to maintain the personal integrity that is prized by every great faith and every tradition, and the importance of maintaining longstanding alliances and the challenges of an ever changing world,and it was obvious to anyone on the left or right or on the sidelines that he was talking about Trump. He also described a “growing crises in integrity,” recalled his alma mater of Texas A&M New Testament motto of the “the truth shall set you free,” and warned that if citizens ‘becoming accepting of ‘alternative realiities’ that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”
Just in case it wasn’t clear enough that Tillerson was talking about Trump,Trump’s under-penalty-of-law financial disclosure forms were simultaneously admitting that he had indeed lied to the media and the nation aboard Air Force One about his $130,000 payment to a porno performer who quite credibly alleges a one night stand with the future president. Tillerson couldn’t have possibly predicted it, but Trump’s inevitably Nobel Peace Prize-winning negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear weapons program had hit hit a sudden snag, Trump’s bellicose “America First” stance on trade had complicated relations with out our longstanding allies in southeast Asia and elsewhere, and those widely reported reports that Trump’s sudden conspicuous friendliness to a Chinese telecommunications that was previously sanctioned for intellectual property theft on spying on Americans coincided with the Chinese government’s $500 million dollar investment in a Trump-branded development deal in Indonesia.
We’ll have to wait and see how that all turns out, as Trump likes to say, but in the meantime the guy he appointed and then fired as Secretary of State seems to have the upper hand with commencement speech. We always voted for the current Secretary of State when he was running for our fourth congressional seat here in Kansas, and hold out hope that he’ll somehow negotiate some settlement to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula that doesn’t leave hundreds of thousands of people dead, but his ineffectual and defenestrated predecessor’s words about the need for integrity and acknowledging truth ring disquietingly true.

Pennsylvania and Pompeo and the Rest

The big story on Tuesday was supposed to be that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania, but of course President Donald Trump wound up grabbing all the headlines. He fired his Secretary of State, which would be newsworthy story in any administration, and given these peculiar circumstances there were enough subplots to fill countless side bar stories.
Although none of ever much liked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, some of us are sorry to see him go. He came into the job with no previous diplomatic experience, save for negotiation some big-money deals as the head of the giant Exxon corporation with the Russian government that were being hampered by American sanctions, so he started off on the wrong foot with the foreign policy establishment. He proved more of a hard-liner on Russia than Trump would prefer, so the establishment press came to regard him as a restraining influence on the president, but that only made him all the more unpopular with Trump and his hard-line supporters. Meanwhile Tillerson went ahead with his budget-cutting and downsizing plan for the State Department, which did not endear him to any of his employees, and in the end it didn’t spare Tillerson from his own boss’s wrath.
Trump’s announced replacement is Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, which is another interesting story. As much as we hate to name drop, we’ve actually schmoozed with the guy on a couple of occasions, which is one of the perks of being well-connected on the theatrical and political and social scenes here in Wichita, Kansas, which has somehow produced two CIA directors in our lifetimes, and we have to say we found him a friendly enough fellow. He’s a formidable fellow, too, top of his class at West Point and editor of the Harvard Law Review and founder of a successful high-tech aviation business here in town, and as traditional Kansas Republicans we enthusiastically voted for him in all three of his successful runs in our Fourth Congressional District. Why, wee still have a red-white-and-blue “I Like Mike” button on our desk, which we proudly use to prick the pinholes on our pesky electronic devices.
Pompeo gave an eloquent endorsement of Sen. Marco Rubio during the Kansas Republican party’s primary caucus down at Century II, and was among the Republican resisting Trump right up until the nomination, but since then he’s been more accommodating to Trump. Early on in his is CIA role he reaffirmed the agency’s conclusion that the Russian government had indeed meddled in the past presidential election, and that the “Wikileaks” operation leaking all the hacked Democratic e-mails was acting on Russia’s behalf, but he was careful not to implicate Trump. Over time he reportedly won Trump over with his schmoozing and his educational and military and business and Kansas conservative credentials, along with his increasing willingness to insulate Trump from any of that “Russia thing,” and we’re not surprised by Pompeo’s latest promotion.
Trump was reportedly considering firing Tillerson months ago, although dismissed it as “fake news” at the time, so there was naturally some speculation about why it happened on Tuesday. Tillerson had survived the reports that he’d called Trump a certain profane sort of “Moron,” which he neither confirmed nor denied, and Trump’s “tweets” about challenging his Secretary of State to an I.Q. test competition, and all the times that Tillerson had distanced himself on whatever story was dominating the day’s news cycle, from the Paris Climate Accord to the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia to the wisdom of negotiating with the North Korean dictatorship, so one can’t help wondering what straw at long last broke the metaphorical camel’s back.
The British government is currently indignant about a couple of political assassinations that were quite apparently committed on their sovereign soil by agents of the Russian government, and Tillerson expressed his shared indignation shortly after the White House press secretary had stressed that maybe the Russians had nothing to do with it, so naturally there was some speculation about that. Trump has since said that yeah the Russians probably did it, although he didn’t seem the least big indignant about it, and he’s previously expressed his opinion that hey what the hell we do lots of extra-terrritorial killings here in the good ol’ USA, so there’s some expected speculation about that.
If we were the type to indulge in conspiracy theories, we’d chalk Tillerson’s firing up to that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania. We stayed up all night to the results but it was still too close too call, but the Democrat was clinging to a slim over the Republican, and no matter how the lawyers work it out we’re sure Trump would rather not talk about that.
Trump won the district by 20 points in the election landslide, even better than the 15 or more point victories that Republicans had long expected, but since then things have changed. The Republicans have won most of the special congressional elections since Trump’s inaugural, but that’s mostly because they’ve been in districts or states where Trump promoted a popular Republican to a cabinet position, and all of the races have been conspicuously closer than the last time around. The Republicans even managed to lose a Senate seat in Alabama, of all places, for crying out loud, and a loss in northern Pennsylvania would bode ill for a lot of Republicans next November.
That Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts creepy and criminal behavior, while that Republican up in Pennsylvania is more frequently criticized for being boring, unlike the pro-life and family values Republican incumbent who’d resigned the seat after his mistress told the press about he’d pressed to get an abortion. In both elections Trump held well-attended and raucous rallies in support of his fellow Republicans, and although in both in cases he talked mostly about himself they wound up well short of his victory margins, even the Republican lawyers somehow eke out a victory. which does not portend well for Trump or the rest of the Republicans in fall’s mid-term elections.
All politics really is local, though, even in the age of Trump. The Democrat in Pennsylvania was just as supportive of Trump’s crazy-ass steel tariffs as the Republican, and he was a handsome ex-Marine and former prosecutor who’d killed or locked up all sorts of sinister types, and was centrist on guns and such, and had the endorsement of the remaining steelmaking unions. The Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts of creepiness, and the opposing Democratic took his own boring and centrist position, which eventually won the day.

Maybe Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State will turn it all around, but we doubt it. He strikes us as a nice enough and serious enough fellow, but these are trying times.

— Bud Norman