The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly News

The economic news has been undeniably good lately, with the unemployment rate lower than it’s been since the height of the Vietnam War and the gross domestic product growing incrementally faster than it has in more recent history, but the rest of the stories in the papers look bad for President Donald Trump.
Although Trump has been doing a celebratory end zone dance ever since the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” ended without any indictments against him, the problem still lingers. Attorney General William Barr had a hard time answering the Senate judiciary committee’s questions about his rather rosy four-page assessment of the report’s 400-plus pages, then declined the House judiciary committee’s request to go through a more thorough grilling about the matter, and now there’s talk of a contempt of Congress citation. Barr had testified to the Senate that he had no problem with special counsel Robert Mueller’s own bad self giving his account of the report to Congress, but Trump has since declared that he won’t allow any further questions from anyone about the report that he claims completely exonerates him, and that doesn’t look good.
The damned Democrats in Congress are asking all sorts of other pesky questions, and Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin is contesting a law which seemingly requires him to turn over the presidential tax records that might yield answers, which also doesn’t look good. The courts will eventually settle all of it in one way or another, but the state and federal judicial system is also pursuing 16 criminal cases that were referred to other Justice Department jurisdictions and therefore redacted from the special counsel’s report, and we expect all of those to look bad. There’s also ongoing news about the illegal immigrants Trump seems to have hired and exploited at his still wholly-owned businesses, the security clearances he granted for family and friends despite the objections of intelligence officials, a few lawsuits filed by state attorneys general alleging that Trump’s still wholly-owned businesses impeachable violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, and a few other problems too numerous to recap here.
So far America isn’t entering any new wars, but the old low-level ones in Syria and other hotspots continue, and Trump is leaving a military option open for Venezuela’s disastrous but purely domestic problems, and he sending a carrier fleet to counter the recent bellicosity of Iran, which Trump promised would never dare challenge America so long as he was president. Trump also promised the American public it could sleep soundly at night without worrying about a North Korean nuclear threat, and although it was obviously premature he was able for a time to note that at least North Korea wasn’t doing any missile tests, but lately they’ve been once again testing missiles.
While the economy continues to chug along, Trump can only claim so much credit. Despite two years of Republican control of both chambers of Congress the only significant legislation affecting the economy that was passed and signed into law was a big tax cut, which so far resulted in the kind of budget deficits that the hated President Barack Obama sanctioned in the darkest days of the Great Recession, and at a time when Republican orthodoxy would be paying down the national debt. Trump has used his executive powers to roll back a lot of ridiculous federal regulations, but a lot of airline travelers and other consumers are likely to note he’s also reversed some reasonable ones that saved them some serious money. As orthodox Republicans we still blame Obama for the late and initially sluggish recovery that followed the Great Recession, which we still insist was caused by the Democrat’s crazy Clinton era subprime mortgage lending policies, but as objective observers we have to admit the economy has lately been more or less on the same upward trajectory that it had been during the final days of the Obama administration. Fairness compels us to admit that at least Trump hasn’t screwed that up.
Being no fans of either Obama or Trump, we give all the credit to the remarkable resilience of America’s free market economic system and the steady hand of those quasi-governmental know-it-all bards at the Federal Reserve Board. Despite our amateur advice they kept the economy going through the dark days by printing up dollars and distributing them at near-zero interest rates, which eventually started something of a boom, so we humbly admit it didn’t result in the hyperinflation we’d worried about and was possibly a good ideal. Now that Trump is bragging about the greatest economy ever, which according to both Republican orthodoxy and the left wing’s Keynesian economics is a time for higher interest rates and quantitative easing of the money supply and paying down debt, Trump is trying to get the Fed to keep the monetary pedal to the metaphorical peddle. Alas, his own chosen Fed chairman disagrees, and Trump’s two latest nominees to the Fed board have been obliged to withdraw their names from considerations because they’re both so ridiculous that even some congressional Republicans wouldn’t go along.
During his surprisingly successful presidential campaign Trump promised to make America great again by bullying the country’s trading partners into more favorable trade deals. “Trade wars are good and easily won,” Trump tweeted to the nation, with the same cocksureness as when he assured us we could sleep soundly without fear of North Korea’s nukes, but so far that’s also not turning out well.
Trump got some billion-dollar concessions for America’s dairy industry when the renegoiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he claimed was the difference between the worst trade deal ever and the best trade deal ever, but his rebranded US-Canada-Mexico Treaty is having a hard time getting ratified by the Senate, where the Republicans still hold a slight majority. Republicans in agricultural states, which as always are crucial to the party, are reeling from from the declining commodity prices that have resulted from the rest of the world’s inevitable retaliation against Trump’s tariffs, and other Republicans from states where their export-driven economies don’t need Trump’s protections are also restive.
Meanwhile,Trump’s trade war with the far more formidable opponent of China doesn’t seem either good nor easily won. Trump continues to play hardball with the Chinese, threatening to up the tariffs on Friday if they don’t accede to his demands, but the congressional Republicans from states and districts that used to do a lot more export business with China are balking, and of course even the Democrats from the states and districts that might benefit from Trump’s protection from China’s imports are disinclined to side with the president, and anyone paying higher prices on the Chinese-made goods at at Wax-Mart is likely to be irked.
The good news for Trump is that for now the economy seems to be chugging along well enough, and that so long as it does and nobody gets nuked a sufficient number of voters spread around the electoral map won’t care much about the rest of the news. The bad news for Trump is that the economy tends to go up and down no matter who’s in the White House, and unnecessary trade wars and military interventions in Latin America never seem to help, and if the economic news sours the rest of the stories in the papers in 2020 will suddenly be outrageous.

— Bud Norman

As Bad As It Is, It Could be Worse

America seems a pretty prosperous and placid place when you read the latest news from Venezuela or most of the countries in this troubled world, but there’s still plenty of desultory domestic news to argue about.
The economy continues to chug along, although interest rates are historically low and the national debt is unprecedentedly high and no one knows how we’ll deal with the inevitable downturn, and the income inequality is such that the Democrats are waging successful class warfare about it. For now President Donald Trump seems safe from impeachment proceedings, but there are still plenty of scandals and constitutional showdowns and unsettling issues he has to deal with.
When special counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation of the “Russia thing” without bringing any charges against Trump, and a four-age summarization of the 400-plus page report written by Trump’s Attorney General stressed that, Trump claimed not only vindication but also victimization by a “deep state” conspiracy of federal officials who attempted a treasonous coup d’tat and should presumably be hanged. The redacted 400-plus pages of Mueller’s report have proved somewhat more embarrassing to Trump, however, and although he still claims the report completely exonerates him — which the 400-plus pages plainly state on several occasions that it does not — and with his characteristic presidential eloquence Trump now calls the exonerating document “total bullshit.”
Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to testify before Congress today about the matter, and the Democrats are expected to ask some tough questions about the rather smiley-faced summation of the Mueller report that he issued. The report confirms the unanimous conclusions of the intelligence community that the Russian government meddled in the past election on Trump’s behalf, which Trump continues to deny and has done nothing about. The report documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government, and the investigation has won indictments and guilty pleas and convictions against Trump’s campaign manager and national security advisor and personal lawyer for lying about it, so we can’t blame the damned Democrats if they ask about any of that. All in all, it should be a hard day on the job for Barr and the rest of the Trump administration.
The report explicitly states that it does not exonerate Trump of obstruction of justice, and makes clear to even a lay reader that the only reason the investigation didn’t charge Trump with that crime is because Justice Department policy forbids indictment of a sitting President, and because Trump’s underlings disobeyed his orders in fear of the law. The report leaves it up to the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives to decide if it constitutes the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are constitutionally impeachable offenses, and there are a lot but probably not quite enough Democrats who find that offer tempting. Former White House counsel Don McGahn is featured prominently in the report, describing several instances when he defied Trump on orders he considered illegal, and McGahn is scheduled for upcoming testimony before Congress, and Trump is already accusing him of perjury, so that should prove interesting.
Meanwhile, all those blacked-out redactions have to do with criminal cases where the special counsel found evidence of criminal actions that it considered outside its jurisdiction, and those investigations are ongoing. We anxiously await to learn what that’s all about, and we can well understand why the damn Democrats literally can’t wait to find out, as they’re already subpoenaing everything they can about Trump’s still wholly owned businesses and surpassed tax returns and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration. It’s all going to wind up in the courts, and Trump is counting on his two Supreme Court appointees to bail him out in the court of last resort, but that remains to be seen. There’s always a chance that Trump’s appointees are the principled conservative constitutionalists he said they were, and they’ve disappointed Trump on a few rulings.
Our guess is that the damned Democrats’ investigations will turn up something damned embarrassing to Trump, and that Trump and his die-hard supporters won’t be the least bit embarrassed about any of it. Our hope is that at least we don’t wind up fighting it out on the streets the way they’re doing down in Venezuela.

— Bud Norman

The Mueller Report and Its Thus Far Inconclusive Findings

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his investigation into the “Russia thing” has proved disappointing to President Donald Trump’s critics, as it didn’t recommend any criminal charges be filed against Trump. On the other hand, Trump and his die-hard supporters have some explaining to do.
The 448-page report confirms the findings of all of America’s intelligence agencies that the Russian government tried to tilt the last presidential election in Trump’s favor, which is no surprise given that it won an indictment of 13 specific Russian operatives. Trump continues to take Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s word that it must have been some other country — or perhaps some 400-pound guy sitting in his bed — who hacked the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails and coordinated an internet disinformation campaign and attempted to sabotage state voting systems, and that requires some explanation. A nation also anxiously awaits Trump’s explanation for why his administration has taken no measures whatsoever to prevent foreign interference in an American presidential election from happening again.
Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge Trump or his campaign with conspiring with those Russian efforts, so Trump and his supporters are entitled to gloat about that, but the report also cites convincing evidence that the Trump and his top campaign officials knew about the Russian effort, welcomed the assistance, repeatedly lied about its contacts with Russian officials, which has already resulted in guilty pleas and guilty verdicts against Trump’s campaign chairman and national security advisor personal lawyer, and that Trump himself lied to the American public during the Republican primary race about his business dealings in Russia.
This might not amount to a federal conspiracy case, as the special counsel’s “witch hunt” seems to have reluctantly concluded, but it doesn’t look good.
The report also declined to charge Trump with obstructing justice during the special counsel investigation, but as Trump’s carefully chosen Attorney General William Bar admitted in his four-page version of the 448-page report “it also does not exonerate him.” Mueller was a well-regarded director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation during both Republican and Democratic administrations, and he’s the sort of stickler for the rules who followed a Justice Department guideline against indicting sitting presidents, his report notes that the Congress is constitutionally allowed to decide what constitutes an impeachable high crime or misdemeanor, and it also documents several instances when Trump wanted to obstruct justice but his administration underlings prevented him from doing so. Most of those administration underlings are now long gone, but there’s a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives these days, and they’ll surely be holding hearings and demanding explanations.
Much of the 448-pages of the report are blacked out, as they involve the 14 ongoing criminal cases that were referred to various jurisdictions of the Justice Department, and when they eventually come to light they’ll surely requiring some explaining.
Mueller’s punctiliously by-the-book report notes that it’s up to Congress to decide what constitutes impeachable “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and seems to suggest that’s an open question requiring Congressional consideration. Our guess is that the feisty Democratic majority in the House will see it one way, but despite a few defections the slim Republican majority the Senate won’t agree by the needed super-majority to remove Trump from office.
By the time Trump runs for reelection in ’20 it probably won’t matter much. Trump’s foes already believe the worst ¬†about him, and Trump’s fans don’t care about anything he might have done to defeat that awful “Crooked” Hillary Clinton last time around. There’s still something to be said for punctiliously sticking the rules, but these days it’s a matter of situational ethics.

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— Bud Norman

The “Russia Thing” Comes to an End

The nearly two-year-long special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing with Trump and Russia” has come to an anticlimactic conclusion, with a four page summary of its findings issued by the Attorney General stating that it did not find President Donald Trump or his campaign guilty of conspiring with the Russian government to affect the last presidential election. That’s great news for Trump and his fans, who are claiming complete exoneration, even if the four page summary of the voluminous report issued by Trump’s own Attorney General says that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, “it also does not exonerate him.”
For now Trump and his fans can plausibly claim vindication, however, and we’re sure they will. The special counsel’s investigation concluded the Russian government did meddle in the past election on Trump’s behalf, and brought an indictment against 12 specific Russians, and it won indictments and guilty pleas and convictions against Trump’s campaign manager and deputy campaign manager and campaign foreign policy advisor and other campaign operatives for lying about their numerous contacts with Russians during the campaign, among other things, but it’s still a big deal that no one named Trump was indicted at the end of the investigation. For now it’s a huge disappointment to the Trump foes who had so dearly hoped the special counsel investigation would end the Trump presidency, but we’re sure they’ll keep trying.
There’s bound to be something embarrassing to Trump in the voluminous full report that didn’t make the four-page summary issued by his Attorney General, and in the coming days the big story will be the congressional Democrats’ efforts to make it all public, and the Trump administration’s effort to keep it out of view. Some of the report will surely be redacted so that the investigation’s counter-intelligence sources and methods aren’t revealed, but we expect that eventually the president’s foes will feast on the rest of it. Press reports indicate that the special counsel handed off a number of suspected crimes outside its scope to various jurisdictions of the Justice Department, mostly to the very aggressive Southern District of New York, and there will be no way of keeping that out of the news.
Trump and his supporters will continue to insist that it’s all a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” and “witch hoax,” but the fact that the “deep state conspiracy” declined to frame them for “collusion” somehow undermines their claims. Special counsel Robert Mueller remains a decorated Vietnam war hero and former Federal Bureau of Investigation director who earned bipartisan praise and appointments over his long and distinguished career of public service, and if Mueller’s conclusions disappoint his Democratic fans they also make his Republican critics’ slurs against his character look slanderous. The rest of Mueller’s work will play out in American courts of law, and we expect that in the end Mueller’s character will fare better than Trump’s.
Nothing in the Attorney General’s four-page summary of the special counsel investigation’s report exonerates him from the already proved charges that his campaign associates repeatedly lied under oath about contacts with Russian operatives, or that he himself lied to the public during the campaign about his business dealings with Russia, or that he broke federal campaign laws to cover up alleged affairs with a pornographic video performer and a Playboy playmate, or that his foreign policy has been unaccountably friendly to Russia and other authoritarian regimes. Nor does even the four-page summary of the report indicate that Trump isn’t a vulgar and dishonest and bullying and entirely self-interested fellow.
Nothing in even the four–page summary of the special counsel’s report indicates that Trump’s trade wars and budget deficits and feuds with longstanding allies are making America great again, and the latest economic data suggest they are not, and that’s what will probably decide the next election not matter what scandals beset Trump. For now the Democrats seem intent on nominating some some suicidally socialist candidate who could easily lose to Trump not matter what scandals might accrue, so for now we will glumly await that conclusion without any expectations.

— Bud Norman

The Passing Storm and the Gathering Storm

A windy and gully-washing thunderstorm rolled through our portion of south central Kansas on Thursday evening, and we wound up watching some ominously dark clouds continue to gather over Washington, D.C.
The storm hit as we were driving through downtown, and because it seemed to imminently threaten the tennis ball-sized hail that had been reported nearby on the radio we took refuge in one of the parking garages. With the car safely tucked under several feet of concrete we decided to wait out the storm with a beer at the nearest tavern, which happened to be a friendly little gay bar ironically called Rain, so we weren’t the least bit surprised to find Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC blaring from one of the several televisions. She was gleefully to the point of gigglingly reporting on the latest developments about the Russia thing with President Donald Trump and Russia, and we had to admit she had some juicy stuff.
The special counsel who was appointed after Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation is actively pursuing an obstruction of justice case according to The Washington Post, which also reports that the business dealings of the president’s son-in-law and all-purpose advisor Jared Kushner is also getting the fine-tooth-comb treatment, and the Vice President has lawyered up with a high-powered attorney whose previous cases have included the Watergate and the Iran-Contra scandals. None of this is conclusively damning, of course, but neither does any of it look at all good. Trump retaliated with some “tweets” about the investigators being “very bad people” and how his vanquished Democratic opponent “Crooked” Hillary Clinton did all sorts of very bad things that didn’t result in any charges, but Maddow and the rest of the mainstream media seemed just as gleeful about reporting that.
Trump is right that Clinton was crooked and did so some very bad things, and her husband did meet the Attorney General while she was being investigated by the Justice Department, and the fired FBI director did follow an order to refer to that investigation as a “matter,” and he’s also quite right that many of his tormenters were hypocritically fine with that. As we always remind our remaining Republican friends, we were tormenting Clinton back when Trump was contributing to her campaigns and inviting her to weddings and praising her as the best Secretary of State ever, and we strongly suspect that a more apolitical justice system would have found her guilty of something. One can hardly begrudge Trump and his allies the satisfaction of making the points.
You won’t find us joining in on any “lock her up” chants, though, and Trump seems quite hypocritical for his sudden insistence that an investigation is not a proof of guilt, and we don’t expect that Trump’s “tweet” will persuade anyone who’s not already a die-hard supporter. No matter what Clinton might have done in her long and tawdry career, up to and including that satanic child sex abuse ring she was allegedly running in the back of a pizza joint, that does not have any bearing whatsoever on the question of whether Trump or any of his close associates have done very bad things. Our most determinedly pro-Trump friend argued the other night that Trump should be legally entitled to do everything illegal thing that the past two Democratic administrations have gotten away with, and at that point the country can get back to everyone doing things on the up-and-up, but we don’t think that will prove any more persuasive.
The argument that Trump’s investigators are very bad people will also be a tough sell. The special counsel is Robert Mueller, who was chosen as FBI director by President George W. Bush and after ten scandal-free years was asked to stick around for an extra two years by President Barack Obama, so he enjoys a bi-partisan reputation as a non-partisan player. He’s also known as tough and ruthless, but those are qualities Trump usually finds endearing, and he’s very much a member of the establishment that Trump has vowed to burn down and so many of his supporters loathe, but surely the broader public will expect more credentials from a special counsel than from a president.
Another interesting development gleefully noted by the mainstream media were some prominent Republicans who were making that point that if Trump has nothing to fear from an investigation he should welcome it, as only a thorough vindication by a widely respected investigator will lift the cloud of suspicion, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see more Republicans taking this sensible stand. If you dig deeper into the news you might have noticed that some Republican members of the House of Representatives are steaming to the point of leaking that Trump has lately chastised them for drafting a “mean” bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, including moderates who were muscled by Trump into voting for what they thought was a too-austere bill and conservatives who were muscled by Trump into voting for what they thought wasn’t austere enough. If you don’t believe leaks, Trump also “tweeted” that the country needed to spend far more money on health care, rather than the less that he’d muscled those members into voting for, and one can hardly blame them if they’re not entirely loyal on that Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
Trump had a pretty good story about an unfortunate man released from North Korean captivity in horrible medical condition after two years, and the man’s father making a strong statement about how Trump had succeeded where Obama had failed, which fits into a usual narrative that the Obama foreign policy was weak and feckless, with Trump’s arguably more reckless approach being arguably more effective. There was also that story about the Australian Prime Minister cracking up a crowd with his mocking of Trump, however, and the sense that there’s a lot of that going on around the world.

A rather attractive woman who was also waiting out the storm struck up a conversation with us as we were watching the news according to Rachel Maddow and MSNBC, and she remarked that Trump doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, and we couldn’t disagree. She’d complimented our straw fedora and and seemed a bit flirty, but we figured she was probably just mistakingly trying make another fashionably homosexual friend, so we wound up having a nice chat about how very strange the world seems these days. Eventually the storm passed, as storms always do, but on the way home we had to avoid all the streets prone to flooding and dodged plenty of down tree limbs on the way home. The power and internet where still working when we arrived, but no matter the forecasts we checked the storm brewing in Washington looks far more damaging.

— Bud Norman