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Another Overseas Adventure

Every time President Donald Trump travels overseas he seems to say a series of things that have us slapping up foreheads, perhaps even more prolifically than he does when does when stateside. His recent trip to Osaka, Japan, and then a few steps into North Korean territory was no exception.
The trip was immediately proceeded by Trump insulting his Japanese hosts by grousing to Fox Business News that our longtime ally has been taking advantage of America’s generosity since the mid-’40s. “We have a treaty with Japan — if Japan is attacked we’ll go in and fight World War III. We will go in and protect them and fight with our lives and treasure. We will fight at all costs,” Trump said, adding that “But if we’re attacked Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on Sony televisions, the attack.”
Trump doesn’t seem to realize that Japan is constrained by the constitution that America imposed on it by force in the aftermath of World War II to only self-defense capabilities, and that it has used often those resources on America’s behalf if a non-combat but nonetheless helpful support role throughout the Cold War and in the various wars we’ve fought against radical Islamism in the Middle East, nor that were carefully considered geo-political balance-of-power reasons for that treaty, which still make sense. The average Fox Business News viewer also doesn’t know that, on the other hand, and neither do the die-hard fans, so Trump probably didn’t care much how it badly played in most of the American media and pretty much everywhere in Japan and the rest of east Asia and everyone else at the G-20 and around the world.
Trump was also feuding ahead of the trip with most of the rest of America’s longtime allies and trading partners at the Group of 20 Economic Summit in Osaka, but as usual he was more polite in his face-to-face encounters with the rest of the world’s leaders. He had only nice things to say to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and was on his best behavior with all the European democracies he routinely accuses of ripping us off, but as usual he saved his most obsequious behavior for the murderous likes of Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammad Bin Salman and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
The Saudi Arabian dictator was invited by Trump to stand next to him in the middle of the official G-20 photograph, despite his obvious role in the murder of an American resident and Washington Post journalist, among other recent atrocities. As usual Trump was just as chummy with the Russian dictator, at one point sharing an inside joke with Putin about the Russian election meddling that the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office National Intelligence and the other 13 intelligence agencies and their Trump-appointed leaders all agree did actually happen. The die-hard fans love Trump’s shock jock sense of humor, but the rest of it thought it wasn’t a joking matter.
Worse yet, to our ears, was when Trump yukked it up with Putin about the “fake news.” Trump admitted his envy that there doesn’t seem to be as much of a problem with critical coverage of the government in Russia, where he might or might not know that at least 26 journalists have suspiciously died during Putin’s time in power, but they wound up commiserating with one another that it still sometimes happens even in Russia. America’s “fake news” still got to the pepper the president with questions, though, the foreign trip press conference being one of those rare presidential traditions even Trump can’t ignore, and once again he gave answers to their pesky questions that had us slapping our foreheads to a bright red.
Putin’s trip to Osaka was immediately proceeded by an interview with a British publication in which he said that “Western Liberalism is obsolete,” and when asked to respond Trump said that San Francisco and Los Angeles were in a sorry state because of liberal leadership, which suggests he didn’t quite understand the question. The die-hard Trump supporters might not know nor care, but the rest of the world clearly understood that Putin was talking about the classical Western Liberal tradition of individual rights and representative governments obligated by rule of law to recognize those rights, and not west coast liberalism as it’s understood in the modern context. We share Trump’s contempt for the latter meaning of liberalism, but we do worry he doesn’t share our affection for the the former sense of the term.
Meanwhile, back in the states, California Sen. Kamala Harris was getting headlines by reviving the ’70s era of busing school children to different school districts to achieve racial desegregation in an attack on Democratic primary front-runner and former Vice President Joe Biden, so Trump was of course asked about that. We thought it stupid for any Democrat to dredge up a long-dead ’70s issue that was damned complicated at the time and eventually turned out badly for the Democrats’ political standing, but Trump seemed to think it only had something to do with school districts providing students transportation to their local schools. The dark-hued Harris had an inspiring story about she was luckily bused to a fancy and liberal Berkeley school as an elementary student, we’re a few years older and several shades paler and less happily remember the racial tensions at our newly integrated junior high school, so we figure we’re both entitled to our opinions at the time about the long-forgotten issue, but Trump was already a graduate of an all-white school who didn’t seem to notice what was going on elsewhere at the time. He promised the pesky reporters that he’d soon have a surprise announcement of a brilliant policy to solve the busing problem, but he offered no specifics, and as far as we’re concerned he looked damned ridiculous.
After that Trump made history by being the first American commander-in-chief to step foot on North Korean soil since the country came into existence with the stalemate of the Korean War. It was an historic photo opportunity for both the the American president and the North Korean dictator, and both men seemed to relish it together, and both were very chummy, and there’s always a chance it might avert the exchange of nuclear missiles that the past 50-plus years of Republican and Democratic administrations have worried about. On the other hand there’s also a chance that the fat guy with the bad haircut who murdered his brother and uncle to gain power is playing Trump for a chump, and the he’s not so immune to flattery as Trump, who has gushed about he’s “fallen in love” with the dictator who writes him such nice letters.
Even in the immediate aftermath of his historic photo-op Trump was grousing to the pesky reporters that any speculation it might not amount to much is “fake news,” but we’ll go ahead and speculate it might yet turn out that way. We also notice it was followed by an interesting case of the free American press asserting its First Amendment rights even on foreign soil, and Trump’s newly-appointed press secretary Stephanie Grisham getting slightly roughed up in the process.
It all started when the American president and the North Korean dictator agreed to a historic first-ever American news conference on North Korean soil, and the North Korean security forces apparently didn’t get word of it. Being the pesky and pushy people they tend to be the American reporters stormed into the conference room, the security forces responded with the usual authoritarian sternness, and quite a scuffle apparently resulted. To her credit Grisham was apparently screaming the whole time that they were allowed in by mutual agreement, and took a few bruises by doing so, so as longtime newspapermen we hope she learned something about what reporters occasionally go through and how scary it might be to cover a typical Trump rally.
We also read that as the reporters were eventually allowed to enter The Washington Post correspondent Seung Min Kim was temporarily held up, as the natural born American but Korean-descended reporter was briefly barred because the North Korean security forces insisted on “only U.S. reporters,” but that the rest of the press corps vouched for her all-American credentials and eventually got her in.
We hope it all works out for the best, and that this Grisham woman proves better than the long-forgotten press secretary Sarah Sanders, and that a free press and our longstanding alliances and various other norms of political behavior somehow persist.

— Bud Norman

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Kim, Cohen, Trump, and the Other Questionable Characters Currently on the World Stage

The three most prominent names in the news Wednesday were North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, American President Donald Trump, and Trump’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen.
Cohen took time before starting a three year federal prison to testify to a congressional committee that Trump is “a racist, he is a con man, and he is a cheat,” along with more specific claims about Trump’s hush money payments to a pornographic video performer and various other unseemly businesses and potentially illegal business practices, including some suspicious thing that have occurred during Trump’s presidency. Trump took time out from a high-stakes summit with Kim in Vietnam to “tweet” that Cohen is a lying liar who is represented by “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, while his allies back in Washington cast similar aspersions on Cohen’s character. Kim is a brutal dictator who has murdered close family members and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of his people and subjected most of the rest to severe poverty and starvation, but Trump has declared him an “honorable man” and gushed that “We fell in love,” so Kim somehow got the best press of the day.
The public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans had already concluded that Trump is a racist and a con man and a cheat, and there was already ample evidence for the conclusion. Trump found “very fine people” on both sides of a deadly neo-Nazi hate rally, has paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims of Trump University and various other scams, and boasted to tabloids and radio shock jocks about his extra-marital affairs, and once told a presidential debate audience that even if he doesn’t pay any income taxes “that makes me smart.” By now there’s really no reason for denying any of it, as the die-hard fans don’t seem to mind a bit, but Trump can credibly point to the human failings of his many critics, and he always enjoys doing so.
This Cohen fellow that Trump long hired to do his legal work certainly seems as flawed a human being as the next guy in the news. He’s pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations and filing false financial statements, as well as lying to Congress about it all, not to mention that he was long hired by Trump for legal services. The Republicans at the committee hearings made much of that, with one having a large sign saying “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” behind his seat, and another parking a black woman who works for Trump behind his seat to rebut the charges of racism, and while the die-hard fans probably loved it we don’t expect that anyone else was convinced. The lawyer that Trump long hired to handle his hush money payments to porno performers and possible campaign finance violations and alleged false financial statements does seem to have been rather sleazy in going about it, but that doesn’t logically refute his charges that longtime client Trump is a racist and a con man and a cheat.
As unsavory as both Cohen and Trump seem to us, we still think that Kim, the “honorable man” that Trump “fell in love with,” is probably the worst of the three men who dominated Wednesday’s news. The heads of all of America’s intelligence agencies have testified to Congress on live television and provided a written report that Kim continues to pursue a nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile program, but Trump then denied that they said any such thing, and in any case is always more inclined to believe the assurances of Kim. Trump clearly doesn’t mind a bit about the imprisonment and poverty and starvation and suffering that Kim inflicts on his people, as he doesn’t consider it any skin of his or America’s ass, and when asked once about Kim’s murder of relatives with anti-aircraft guns and other tactics Trump expressed admiration that “If you can do that at 27-years-old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 who can do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.”
Trump has called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “weak and dishonest,” accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of being a deadbeat debtor, engaged in “twitter feuds” with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and hung up on the Prime Minister of Australia, and imposed punitive tariffs on pretty much every other democratic ally, and is generally more inclined to take the word of more authoritarian and dictatorial advertises over his putative allies and duly appointed intelligence chiefs. He’s praised Filipino dictator Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese dictator Xi Jiping for their extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers, refused to believe the intelligence agency’s conclusions about Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammed Bin Salman’s dismemberment of a American resident and Washington Post journalist, assured his rally crowds that Russia dictator Vladimir Putin is “terrific,” and has had only good things to say about the rise of authoritarian populism in Poland and Hungary and Italy and Brazil and other formerly liberal-in-the-best-sense-of-the-term allies.
Trump’s apparent antipathy for ethical and legal norms and affinity for ruthless types such as himself haven’t always worked out for him, as his longtime lawyer’s convincingly damning testimony to Congress on Wednesday demonstrates, but we worry it might work out even worse for the rest of the world. There’s always a chance that Trump will persuade Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for a business deal to build Trump-branded resorts and golf courses on its beautiful beaches conveniently located between the prosperous economies of communist China and capitalist South Korea and and Japan, which indeed would be a good deal for North Korea and the world, but the intelligence agencies aren’t betting on it, and neither are we.
We’ll hold out hope that Trump comes up with something in Vietnam to knock his domestic problems out of the headlines, but it will have to be pretty darned good. Our Republican conservatism goes back even farther than the great President Ronald Reagan, whose ultimately successful negotiations with the even scarier Soviet Russkies were informed by a philosophy of “trust, but verify,” and we’ll hold out hope that any agreement that Trump and Kim reach will meet that same standard. Reagan negotiated a peaceful end to the Cold War with the support of the international military and economic alliances that America had long carefully cultivated, which still seems best, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that Trump’s more counterintuitive approach is just as successful.
Back on the domestic front, though, Trump’s affinity for similarly sleazy characters doesn’t seem to be working out.

— Bud Norman