What Bonehead Appointed These Boneheads?

President Donald Trump continues to boast about creating the best American economy ever, but he also continues to urge the Federal Reserve Board to pursue the sort of monetary policy usually reserved for recessions and depressions. On Wednesday he “tweeted” that the Fed should be setting zero or even negative interests, and lamented about “A once in a lifetime opportunity that we are missing because of ‘Boneheads.‘”
We can’t claim to be Milton Friedman-level experts on monetary policy, but we think we understand the basics better than Trump seems to, and we’re cautiously hopeful that the “boneheads” at the Fed know best.
Trump’s “tweet” suggests he wants those unprecedented-in-American-history zero or negative interest rates so that he can rack up further trillion-dollar deficits at a lower cost, and perhaps allow him to refinance what America owes its international creditors. The self-proclaimed “King of Debt” believes he can negotiate the same kind of deal that left him rich even after six corporate bankruptcies cost his investors hundreds of million dollars, but we worry that the country would the have the same problem getting a line of credit that Trump has had ever since his casinos went under despite having house odds.
The “tweet” enviously notes that other countries have gone to zero or negative rates, but all of those countries are going into recession, partly because of the slowdown in the global economy that has followed Trump’s trade wars with just about everyone. Recessions require interest rate cuts and deficit spending, at least according to the consensus of economists on both the left and right, which has proved pretty reliable over the past many decades, but the best economy ever should be able to cruise along on the very low interest rates the Fed has lately set. Should the recent slowdown in the American economy slide toward recession, the Fed will need to be able to make cuts, and needs to keep that ammunition in reserve.
The “tweet” didn’t mention it, be we will note that four of the five Fed board governors and the Fed chairman — the aforementioned “boneheads” — were appointed by Trump. Trump also spent much of Wednesday denigrating newly defenestrated national security advisor John Bolton, the third man to hold the post in less than three years, calling him “not smart” and blaming him for starting the Iraq war, and Trump has had similarly unkind things to say about many of the people he appointed to powerful positions.
In his election campaign Trump promised he’d only hire “the very best people,” and he’ll probably repeat the claim during his reelection campaign, but that’s like saying the best economy ever needs negative interest rates.

— Bud Norman

A Mere 18 Years Later

Way back when we were 18 years old that seemed a very long time, but at our current age it seems just a blink of the eye since Islamist terrorists toppled the World Trade Center and crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Enough time has passed, however, to change everything.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks America had a rare moment of national unity, unseen since the similarly deadly Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and there was bipartisan support for President George W. Bush waging war against the Taliban government of Afghanistan that had hosted the training camps of the Al-Qaeda terror gang responsible for the atrocity. When Bush later sought to wage war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship it was more controversial, but two subsequent Democratic presidential nominees voted to authorize the use of military force, and there was a strong consensus that America had to take the fight to Islamist terrorism.
Public opinion started to shift when both wars proved harder than expected, and without any spectacular attacks on the west the threat of Islamist terrorism seemed to wane over time, and the Democrats were the first to abandon the cause. By 2011 President Barack Obama, who had won the Democratic nomination over former Sen. Hillary Clinton in large part because of her vote for the Iraq War, announced a complete withdrawal of American forces from the country, although he reluctantly remained in Afghanistan. By 2016 the Republicans nominated a candidate who claimed to have been opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, and echoed the radical left’s false claim that Bush had lied to the country into the conflict, and the consensus of opinion had clearly turned against taking the fight to Islamist terrorism. President Donald Trump has “tweeted” a confession that he even invited the Taliban leadership to Camp David just before the anniversary of the terror attacks they had sponsored, and although the war against radical Islamist terror continues for now it is no longer anyone’s campaign issue.
Our opinion is quite clearly in the minority, but we hate to see America backing off. The war in Afghanistan has been going for nearly 18 years, making it by far America’s longest war, and despite Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq we still have troops there fighting the Islamist State terror gang and the rest of the chaos that predictably resulted, and there is no complete victory in sight, so we can well-understand the war weariness. There haven’t been any “9/11” sized terrorist attacks for so long that many 18-year-olds figure it’s like Fort Sumter or Pearl Harbor or another of those boring chapters in the history books, and there are plenty of problems here at home, so we can’t hardly blame the country for its complacent non-interventionism.
Even so, we think it shortsighted. The long, long wars in the Middle East over the past 18 years have resulted in the deaths of 7,000 or so military personnel, and a similar number of American contractors, and we don’t want to diminish any of these deaths, but by the ruthless mathematics of war that’s just a couple of bad afternoons at Antietam or on Normandy beach, on a monthly basis more people are killed by nut cases with AR-15s at a Wax-Mart or music festival, and it’s a fatality rate that would have convinced previous generations that God had blessed their fight. By now both parties figure that the Islamist terrorism threat is a mere nuisance, as it hasn’t pulled off anything on a 9/11 scale for eighteen years, but both fail to honor those 7,000 or so fallen heroes for making that possible.
America’s Korean War was considered a stalemate, and its Vietnam War an ignominious loss, but despite the horrific fatalities both can now be see as lost battles in a broader Cold War that America and the West won by demonstrating resolve. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars are also seen at last, at least for now, but in the long run history might well note that Islamist radicalism did not prevail in its jihad against the resolve of the infidels.
We’ll not be so absurd as to propose a complete ban on any Muslims entering the country, as Trump once did, but there is a small but troublesome part of the Islamic world intent on making war against us, and for the foreseeable future we figure we’ll have to be at war against them. At least Trump didn’t go ahead and surrender to the radical Islamists from the Taliban he had invited to Camp David on the 18th anniversary of their terror attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., but he did fire the national security advisor who had advised against it, and he seems eager to end the centuries old war between radical Islam and the West on any terms that will get him reelected next year.
None of those damned Democrats running for president seem any more willing to continue the painful prosecution of a war that the radical Islamists declared against us, but we expect they’ll be as constrained by reality expert opinion as Trump has been and Obama and Bush were. America and what’s left of its diplomatic and military alliances are far stronger than their radical Islamist enemies, but our adversaries won’t soon stop blowing things up and killing innocents in their quixotic war for global domination, and we might yet get used to it. On the 18th anniversary of the deadliest attacked ever launched against American soil, though, we’ll hope that both parties will remember why we fight.

— Bud Norman

Another Muddled Situation in the Middle East

The Iranian military shot down an American drone aircraft on Thursday, and neither side disputes that. Pretty much everything else about the incident is unclear, however, as is the rest of the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries.
Iran claims the drone was within its sovereign airspace, making the craft fair game to be shot down under international rules, but President Donald Trump claims to have conclusive proof from his intelligence sources that the aircraft was in neutral airspace, which makes the downing an arguable act of war. This further muddles an already muddled situation between the two countries, which is further complicated by the fact that both countries currently have very unpredictable leadership.
The problem started long before Trump way back in the administration of Jimmy Carter when a harsh theocratic dictatorship seized power in Iran, as far as we’re concerned, although they do have a plausible argument it started with America’s backing of the harsh but secular and America-friendly dictatorship of the Shahs way back in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. In any case, the first thing the theocratic dictatorship did when it took power was to take fifty-two American diplomats hostage, and hold them in inhumane conditions for 444 days until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and things between the two countries have been complicated ever since.
We concluded at the time, and to this day believe, that the hostages were released because the nutcase Iranian theocracy had concluded Reagan was going to be far tougher on them than Carter had been, and all of our Democratic friends were equally convinced that Reagan was just as willing to start a global conflagration with even the Soviet Union, so we still figure there’s something to be said for tough diplomacy. Reagan’s administration wound up trading arms with the Iranian theocracy for some hostages it and its terrorist gang proxies still held and using the extra profits to fund anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, on the other hand, and neither the sticks nor the carrots of the subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations have adequately solved the Middle Eastern problem.
With help from six of our most longstanding and militarily formidable European allies and the mighty combined weight of their economic sanctions President Barack Obama persuaded Iran to agree to a temporary shutdown or at least a shutdown of its nuclear weapons program. Critics such as ourselves argued at the time it was only temporary shutdown and arguably just a slowdown of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, and did nothing to curtail its intercontinental missile program or funding of terrorist gang proxies throughout the Middle East, or the nefarious meddling in every Middle Eastern crisis that popped up, and that given the western leverage a better deal could have been reached. All that still rings true, but Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and and despite his much-bragged about negotiating skill hasn’t yet delivered the promised better one, and things remain unsettled.
Trump has reimposed severe economic sanctions on Iran’s already struggling economy, but none of those six longstanding and militarily formidable European allies have followed suit, and without their combined economic weight and assured military alliance the Iranians are less likely to blink. Trump has been squabbling with all of our longstanding allies around the world ever since he took office, and nutcases though they are the Iranian theocrats have surely noticed, and they might also sense other signs of weakness.
Trump ran for office as a a tough guy who wouldn’t let America be pushed around, but he also ran as Vietnam War draft dodger who alleged President George W. Bush lied America into a Middle Eastern quagmire, even as he criticized Obama for his premature withdrawal from the Iraqi conflict that Bush had allegedly lied us into, and while in office his foreign policy has been similarly schizophrenic. Currently he’s got some old school Cold War Republican internationalists  as Secretary of State and national security advisor, and for embarrassing reasons has no Secretary of Defense at all at the moment, yet he retains his cocksure and surprisingly risk-averse and isolationist instincts, and so far it’s led to a muddled message in the current crisis.
Trump “tweeted” that Iran had made a “very big mistake” by shooting down the drone, adding the usual exclamation mark at the end, but he later clarified that. Trump’s most ardent apologists always tell us we should take his rhetoric seriously but not literally, but in this case Trump explained that he was being literal rather serious. Trump explained he meant to say that Iran had made an actual mistake, with some trigger happy lower-ranking military officer launching the shoot down the $100 million yet unmanned drone without orders from the nutcase theocratic dictatorship, which is just one of those those things that happen in such a complicated world and no reason for nations to go to war.
Trump has also given credence to Iran’s explanations of a couple of attacks on oil tankers on the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran’s terrorist proxies have claimed credit for and which Iran has plausibly claimed it had nothing to do with. Trump’s old school Secretary of State and national advisor have blamed have blamed Iran for threatening a shipping lane crucial to the economies of our longstanding European allies and the rest of the world, but Trump himself has dismissed both incidents as “very minor,” and the self-described tough guy seems in no mood for a fight.
Which is probably for the best, given the current circumstances. We doubt that the nutcase theocratic regime in Iran is any more eager for a fight with the far more formidable United States military, as nutty as the theocratic regime might be, so there’s hope the desultory status quo will last until at least the next American presidential election.
In a more perfect world America wouldn’t have a president who has repeatedly cast international doubt on the conclusions of America’s intelligence, and one who has continued to negotiate with the puny likes of Iran as the leader of a unified coalition of the democratic and militarily and economically formidable western world, but here we are. We can’t say that any of these damned Democratic contenders for the presidency would fare  any better, on the other hand, so for now we’ll hold out hope for even the most desultory sort of  peace.

— Bud Norman

Hoping the Third Time’s a Charm at the Department of Defense

Army secretary Mark Esper has been named acting defense secretary, making him the third person to head the Department of Defense of during Trump’s two-and-a-half years in office. Here’s hoping he has better luck at the job than his predecessors.
Esper got the nod after acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew his nomination for the official post because of a domestic violence scandal. Unlike the three previous Trump administration appointees and the former Trump campaign official who resigned due to domestic violence scandals, in this case it was Shanahan’s now ex-wife who was arrested for battering him. That’s still something Shanahan didn’t want to have to explain at a confirmation hearing, and he was probably even less eager to answer questions about a son’s arrest for beating his mother with a baseball bat, and why Shanahan told the police and courts it was a case of self-defense.
Shanahan was preceded by Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general with a spotless reputation who breezed through his confirmation hearings and won bipartisan respect for his performance in the job, but he wound up resigning in less than a year, making it clear in his resignation letter that he disagreed with President Donald Trump on several important issues of national security. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malignant actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have to the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down.”
Esper’s confirmation hearing for his Army post didn’t turn up any scandals, so it’s unlikely the next round will dig up some dirt that the Trump administration’s notoriously lax vetting process overlooked. It’s also unlikely he’ll dare to differ with Trump with about anything, no matter how obviously wrong Trump might be.
The Democrats on the confirmation committee will probably have some questions to ask about Esper’s tenure as top lobbyist for Raytheon, the military’s second biggest contractor, but they would have had the same questions about Shanahan’s long career as high-ranking executive at Boeing, the military’s biggest contractor. The Democrats will probably have the same questions for any fourth nominee Trump might put forward, as he’s clearly comfortable with the military-industrial complex, and has jettisoned all the multi-starred generals and admirals he once bragged about for daring to disagree with him.
Esper’s outstanding resume includes the dean’s list as West Point, a master’s degree from Harvard’s school of government, and a doctorate in philosophy of all things from George Washington University. He served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, was chief of staff at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and has held various government posts in the executive and legislative branches.
Despite such impeccable credentials, he was Trump’s third choice for Army secretary after the first two withdrew their nominations, in one case because the nominee didn’t want to divest his business holdings in defense-related business, in the other because of controversial comments about transgender bathrooms and Islam.
Esper will have to answer some tough questions from the Democrats about his handling of several sexual assault and harassment cases he handled as Army secretary, but the Republicans who hold a sight majority in the Senate probably won’t much care about that. We expect he’ll once again be easily confirmed, and will wind up doing as good a job as can be expected in an administration where the president and his national security advisor and Secretary of State are feuding about how to handle Iran’s recent aggression . He no doubt knows far more about defense issues than Trump does, as do Trump’s national security advisor and Secretary of State,  but Esper also seems shrewd enough to not let the boss know that.

— Bud Norman

The ’70s and Now, and the Big Difference Between the Two

Former White House counsel John Dean testified before the House judiciary committee on Monday, and it gave us a nostalgic feeling. The last time Dean was before the committee was way back in the early ’70s days of the Watergate scandal, and we well remember what a very big deal it was.
Although we were mere junior high school students at the time we already had a precocious interest in politics, and closely followed the Watergate story from the first day a couple of Washington Post reporters relegated to the late night crime beat reported that some burglars had broken into the Democratic party’s national headquarters in the fancy Watergate complex and attempted to place a wire-tape on the phones. That initial short story buried in the inside pages of the paper included the intriguing detail that all of the burglars and would-be wiretappers were closely associated with the Committee to Reelect President Richard Nixon, already better known as CREEP, and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation after impeachment charges had been brought by the House of Representatives.
There was an interminable two years or so before it all played out, which included Nixon winning reelection with a popular and electoral landslide, but it was a fascinating and unforgettable spectacle for an impressionable young political geek to watch. We read everything about it that ran in the local morning and afternoon newspapers — Wichita had both back then, and both were well worth the dime-a-day subscription rates our parents happily paid — and during summer vacation we’d take time out from bicycle-riding and basketball-playing and other normal boyhood pastimes to watch the congressional hearings that preempted the soap operas and game shows and old movies on the city’s three television stations.
One of the most compelling episodes of that reality show was Dean’s televised testimony to the House judiciary committee. The youthful lawyer who had already risen to the job of White House counsel freely confessed to various crimes he had committed at the behest of President Nixon to cover up the campaign’s clear connection to the break-in, spoke of various other requested crimes he had declined to carry out in service of the cover-up, and had a quotable line about a “cancer at the heart of the presidency.” After that the Watergate scandal inevitably hurtled toward Nixon’s resignation, with significant help from some conversations that Nixon had ill-advisedly recorded on audio tape, which the courts ordered released to the public and corroborated pretty much everything Dean said, including the self-incriminating parts of his testimony/
Dean wound up being disbarred and serving a short time behind bars for his confessed crimes, along with Nixon’s Attorney General and a few other high-ranking administration officials, but so far history has treated Dean more kindly. He did admit to the crimes he committed at Nixon’s behest, was provably innocent of other crimes he’d been requested by Nixon to commit, and ultimately told the verifiable truth and accept its consequences, which is more than you can say for any of the people who have been caught up in any subsequent political scandals.
Dean’s latest testimony to the House judiciary committee is far less consequential. At this point he’s an 80-year-old and graying and balding ex-lawyer and ex-felon, appearing on some very low-rated hearings televised on a few of the thousands or so television channels, and he has no more personal knowledge of President Donald Trump’s alleged scandals than we do. The Democratic majority running the committee inquiry called him to testify again for the clear purpose of getting some stories in the newspapers that mention both Watergate and Trump, which obviously have nothing to do with one another, but there are enough similarities that we can’t blame the Democrats for asking Dean’s opinions.
One of the many currently litigated spats in the current presidential scandals is whether former White House counsel Dan McGahn will testify to the various congressional committees looking into the matter. A 400-plus-page report by the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” included several pages about McGahn testifying to the investigation about diligently declining presidential orders to obstruct the investigation, so the Democratic majorities in Congress have ordered him to testify about that, while McGahn’s ex-boss is ordering him not to testify, and we’ll have to await the courts’ rulings about that. Our guess is that McGahn eventually testifies, and will reiterate the exculpatory-to-himself but damning-to-Trump testimony he gave to the special counsel investigation, but it probably won’t have the same effect as when Dean spoke out way back in the ’70s.
For one thing there are now a few hundred other reality shows to watch on television during summer vacation, and far fewer junior high political geeks tuning into the congressional hearings. For another thing, many of the new media that Nixon didn’t enjoy back in the day will be providing coverage that portrays McGahn or anyone else casting aspersions against Trump as an enemy of the people, and these days the people seem to believe whoever’s telling them what they want to hear. Back in the Watergate days the Republicans had relatively liberal members in the northeast, and the Democrats had some very conservative members in the the south and west, and politics was more a matter of facts than party affiliation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case these days.
Trump would have been well advised to ignore Dean’s inconsequential testimony on Monday, but he couldn’t help “tweeting” that Dean is a disbarred lawyer and ex-felon and yet another loser who dares criticize our dear leader, and once betrayed the Republican party’s deal leader Nixon. That’s all true enough, we suppose, but Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen is also disbarred and in prison, and his former campaign manager is also in prison on charges that involve his dealings with hostile foreign governments, and his past national security advisor is awaiting sentencing on charges that arguably rise to the level of betraying his country, and his former White House counsel is clearly ready to testify to Congress about all the obstruction of justice order he disregarded. By comparison, Dean doesn’t look so bad.
Nixon still has his die-hard defenders, but Trump doesn’t seem to be one of them. Trump couldn’t help “tweeting” that the cowardly Nixon had resigned, something Trump boasted he would never do in the currently more favorable media and partisan political landscape, even as he blamed Dean’s betrayal for the resignation. At this point your average die-hard Trump supporter is too young to know or care about any of it, and the oldsters hanging on for the next election won’t mind that Trump’s discreetly dissing Nixon, while the young Democrats who know nothing of history seem intent on nominating the same sort of too-far-left candidate who lost by a popular and electoral landslide to the already obviously corrupt Nixon back in ’72.
Politics remains a compelling show, even to our jaded eyes, and despite our advanced age and all the tempting diversions of those hundreds of other channels we’ll remain tuned in.

— Bud Norman

On the Lull Before Christmas

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

— Bud Norman

Another Bad Day at Mar-a-Lago

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

— Bud Norman

Blind Loyalty and Its Perils

New York City attorney Michael Cohen, who once handled such sensitive legals chores as making hush money payments to pornographic video performers and Playboy models while pursuing multi-million dollar Moscow real estate deals for longtime client and then-citizen Donald Trump, was sentenced to three years in federal prison on Wednesday on various confessed federal charges. As bad as that sounds for now-President Donald Trump, the rest of the sordid details are even worse.
Some of the charges sending Cohen to prison are about some relatively small time scams involving New York City taxi medallions and routine tax evasions that have nothing to do with Trump, but he’s also pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations committed in the course of making those hush money payments to silence Trump’s alleged mistresses, and to lying to Congress about Trump’s business dealings in Russia in order to be consistent with the lies Trump was telling the public. Trump’s remaining loyalists on talk radio and one of the cable news channels are spinning it as best they can, and Trump himself is claiming complete vindication, but the president won’t come out of this spin cycle smelling clean.
Trump is now claiming that his six-figures payments to the porno performer and the nudie model were a “private transaction” involving private funds, and obviously had nothing at all to do with the presidential campaign he was waging at the time, and were therefor entirely legal, but a federal prosecutor considered it a crime and a federal judge accepted a guilty plea on the charge from the very same lawyer that Trump once entrusted with such sensitive legal chores, so we have our doubts about Trump’s legal theory. Even if it was quite legal and no big deal, as Trump claims, an objective observer is left wondering why Trump chose to lie to the American public about  it while aboard Air Force One that he had nothing to do with it and was indeed entirely unaware of the payments.
Which leaves us all the more doubtful about Trump’s claims he never cheated on his third wife with either that porno performer or that nudie model, especially after his past boasting about all the fabulous babes he’s bagged in his tabloid-fodder infidelities against his first two wives, and although such hound dog behavior is not illegal it is the sort of thing that Republicans used to find objectionable.
Nor is it illegal to pursue a multi-million dollar real estate deal with an adversarial dictatorship while also pursuing the presidency of the United States, and so far as we can tell it’s legal to tell the American electorate a brazen lie that no business deals of any kind are being pursued with adversarial governments during presidential campaign, but that’s also the sort of thing that Republicans used to find objectionable. Cohen’s confession that he was pursuing a Moscow Trump Tower deal at Trump’s request while Trump insisted he wasn’t should be considered skeptically given his confessions to various perjuries, but the very fastidious prosecutor investing the “Russia thing” and the sentencing judge wouldn’t have given it credence without corroborating evidence, which we assume was obtained during raids on Cohen’s home and office and favorite hotel room. Trump is already arguing that it’s another legal and no big deal thing that he nonetheless chose to lie about, which might eventually prevail in a court of law, but it doesn’t make him look very good in the court of public opinion.
Which makes all the rest of the developments in the “Russia thing” look a lot less like a “WITCH HUNT!” and a “HOAX!” than a serious legal matter deserving thorough investigation. One of Trump’s former campaign managers is already in jail while awaiting sentencing on various charges including his work as an unregistered foreign agent for a Russian-aligned government, with Trump “tweeting” about his courage for not cooperating with the feds, and the special counsel investigating the “Russia thing” is recommending and Trump’s former campaign foreign policy advisor and his first administration’s national security advisor get off with no jail for several serious admitted felony charges because of his fuller cooperation with the investigation. Trump and his loyalists are already arguing that it’s entirely legal to pursue business deals with an adversarial foreign dictatorship while running for president and brazenly president and brazenly lying about it, and that might yet prevail in a court of law, but we’d like to think that some rump faction of the Republican party will join the rest of the court of American public opinion in taking a dimmer view of such behavior.
Cohen showed up in court for his sentencing accompanied by a pretty and youngish wife limping in a crutch and a couple of cute kids, and although we consider ourselves rock-ribbed law-and-order Republicans our occasionally bleeding hearts had some sympathy for him. Trump has “tweeted” attacks on his longtime attorney for being “weak” and “stupid” in the half-hearted cooperation with the special counsel, and Cohen even had to plead to guilty those charges. “Recently the president has tweeted a statement calling me weak, and it was correct,” Cohen told the court. “But for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.” He went on to say that he had trusted Trump’s moral compass more than his own, and that the personal failing that led to to his upcoming three years of imprisonment was “blind loyalty to Donald Trump.
There are persuasive arguments to be made for many of Trump’s policies, given that the unemployment rate is unusually low and the stock markets are still ahead of when Trump won office, despite the past year’s gains being largely wiped out by his stupid trade wars and the swelling national debt and the inevitable slight rise in interest rates, and of course those damned Democrats are as bad as ever. By now only the weak and stupid will blindly trust Trump’s character, however, and although they won’t likely run afoul of the law for doing so we expect they’ll also be judged harshly by history.

— Bud Norman

A Busy and Upset Thursday, for Better and Worse

Thursday was a busy day for us, what with rehearsals for our annual theatrical turn and Kansas State University’s Wildcats pulling off a big upset in the national college basketball tournament and the trash needing to be taken to the curb, which made it hard to keep up with a busier than even usual news day.
The stock markets swooned as a trade war with China broke out, a former Playboy “playmate of the year” gave a lengthy interview about her past adulterous affair with then private citizen Donald Trump, and a national security advisor regarded as one of the steady hands in the White House was replaced with a hothead from Fox News, along with other noteworthy developments.
Candidate Trump ran on a promise to protect certain American industries with punitive tariffs, and President Trump has “tweeted” that “Trade wars are good and easy to win,” and after he fired the steady hand who’d been his economic advisor who’d urged restraint it was no surprise that he announced stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum on $60 billion worth of tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. Neither was it a surprise when the European Union threatened retaliatory tariffs, nor when China announced them on Thursday, nor when stock markets around the world swooned on the news.
Perhaps the trade war will prove as good and easily won as Trump predicts, but we share all of the stock markets’ doubts. There is no historical precedent for a good and easily won trade war, after all, and they’ve all gone so badly they wound up with everyone losing. For all its faults the free-trading post-World War II global economic brought great prosperity and relative peace to both America and the rest of the world, and despite his salesmanship we can’t see Trump persuading all those other countries to give up their share of the pie.
Although it’s less likely to immediately affect your next 401K statement, the former Playboy “playmate of the year’s” interview with the Cable News Network’s Anderson Cooper was of more than prurient interest. Not that there wasn’t plenty of prurient interest to be had, of course, what with a billionaire playboy and future president doing the nasty with his nudie model girlfriend while his nudie model wife was at home nursing their recently born son, but at this point in the post-President Bill Clinton era even the evangelicals seem rather jaded about that sort of thing. The bigger problem is yet another blow to Trump’s believability, because he’s denying the affair and the former Playboy “playmate of the year” seems by far the more credible of the two.
She’s got notebooks and photographs and hotel receipts and other corroborating evidence of an affair, and her on-camera account of the affair has a verisimilitude no actress can achieve. She freely acknowledges that the adulterous affair was mutually consensual, didn’t describe any of the unwanted groping that Trump has bragged about and numerous women have alleged, said that he was handsome and charming, sadly recalled how he had offered to pay their sexual encounters, and even insisted that she voted from Trump and still supports his presidency. So far she doesn’t seem to have profited from the past affair, and when she credibly says she doesn’t want to hurt Trump we can’t imagine what her motive might be other than to come clean.
Which only adds to the credibility of the pornographic video performer who is also alleging an adulterous affair with Trump right around the same time, and whose interview with the same Anderson Cooper is scheduled to air on Sunday’s episode of the Columbia Broadcast System’s “60 Minutes.” Trump likes to brag about how he drives the news ratings, and our guess is that on Sunday night Cooper and CBS will benefit from that more than he does.
The porn performer’s story has an even more prurient appeal than that centerfold model’s, as it doesn’t have any of the weepy and cliched I-thought-he-loved-me parts and includes salacious details about rolled-up copies of Forbes Magazine with Trump’s picture on the cover. She describes a more transactional relationship where provided what she considered routine sex in exchange for a chance to be a contestant on Trump’s reality show, and although she’s brazenly capitalizing on her notoriety with a “Make America Horny Again” strip club tour her story also has a ring of truth to our ears.
The $130,000 that Trump’s lawyer admits he paid the porno performer just before the election might constitute a violation of campaign finance law, too, which adds to Trump’s already expensive legal bills from the ongoing “Russia thing” and various other matters. Trump has lately been shaking up his legal team, with Washington’s most high-powered attorney declining the offer but a conspiracy theorist from Fox News joining the team, but their task of defending his credibility will be even harder.
The recent shakeups in the administration are also unsettling. The outgoing national security adviser was three star Army general H.R. McMaster, one of the steady hands who offered such sage advice to Trump as “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in a recent phone call with dubiously reelected Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which Trump of course rejected, and the incoming national security advisor is John Bolton, who does not strike us as an upgrade. He’s a past United Nations Ambassador and longtime figure in national security circles, but his brusque style seems to have found a better fit at Fox News, where he routinely has urged Trump to follow his natural and nationalist instincts. He’s no more likely to restrain Trump’s impulsive temperament that the Fox News guy who replaced the steady hand economic advisor that warned against a trade war.
On a busier than usual Thursday news cycle, it all adds up a certain unease. It’s a sad state of affairs when a Playboy model and porno performer are more believable than a president, but here we are. The same recklessly impulsive fellow who got himself into those tawdry messes is now waging a global trade war and in charge of preventing the military kind, and he’s firing steady hands and hiring cheerleaders.
On the other hand, rehearsals went well, K-State whipped that snooty Kentucky squad and moves on to its 13th “elite eight” game, and we got the trash out to the curb.

— Bud Norman

Through Hell and High Water, “Russia” Persists

Throughout all the hurricanes and mass murders and threats of war, the “Russia” story persists. On Wednesday the Senate’s intelligence committee made clear that it’s not going away soon.
The eminently Republican chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina told an unusual press conference that “There is consensus among members of staff that we trust the conclusions of the (intelligence community assessment),” which concluded that the Russian government attempted to affect the past presidential election by hacking information from the Democratic party, promulgating false propaganda through the internet, and an apparently unsuccessful effort to manipulate vote-counting in several states. He also admitted that “the issue of collusion is still open.”
President Donald Trump has expressed doubt that the Russians did anything untoward at all, argued that even if they did other countries probably did as well, and repeatedly sworn that in any case he and his campaign didn’t have anything to with any Russians. Almost all of which, alas, has lately been so thoroughly disproved that even the Republicans on the Senate intelligence agency vow to continue the investigation.
You still have to rely on those intelligence officials to believe that Russia that hacked the Democratic party’s computers and leaked all those e-mails, but Trump’s own Central Intelligence Agency director agrees and by now only Trump and his most die-hard supporters doubt it. Facebook and Twitter now acknowledge that their popular social media services were extensively used by Russian interests to spread false stories clearly intended to harm the Democratic campaign. Also, Trump’s own Homeland Security Secretary has recently and belatedly advised 21 states of Russian attempts to infiltrate their computer system, then clarified that in two of them Russians had attempted to scan other state networks. At this point the intelligence community is look pretty intelligent, and so far they aren’t mentioning any other countries that might have similarly meddled or acting as if it’s no big deal if they did.
Hurricane winds and sniper fire swept away many of the headlines, but the past weeks have also brought documented news that Trump was pursuing a business deal in Moscow during his campaign, his campaign manager was offering briefings to Kremlin-connected Russians, and Trump’s son and son-in-law and former national security advisor and various other administration officials have been updating their security clearance forms with numerous meetings with Russians that they had previously forgotten to mention. Throw in the Trump campaign’s conspicuously Russia-friendly rhetoric, the way those Russian propagandists seem to know exactly which counties and precincts to target in the states Trump narrowly won to give him an electoral majority, along with all the other news that has been piling up over the past months, and even such an eminently Republican sort of fellow as Sen. Burr has to concede that the question of collusion is still very much open.
The Senate’s investigation will continue, and there’s a special counsel on the job who has a reputation for doggedness and has already executed a no-knock warrant on that former campaign manager and seems to have some serious goods on that former national security advisor, so we’ll venture to guess that the “Russia” story will persists through the coming storms and crimes and the rest of the governmental fiascos.

— Bud Norman