Advertisements

Chinese Torture

China has been feuding with the rest of the world for a while, and for now it seems to be winning. The economic powerhouse shows no sign of retreating from its trade war with the United States, is successfully pushing around such major American businesses as the National Basketball Association, and continues to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong and its Uighur and Kazakh and Uzbek regions with unabashed ruthlessness.
President Donald Trump has famously proclaimed that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” but so far that’s not how the one he started with China has turned out. The tariffs that Trump has imposed on Chinese imports have done harm to the country’s economy, but the American companies and consumers who pay them have also taken a hit, and the retaliatory tariffs the Chinese imposed have hurt the farmers and ranchers and manufacturing workers and service workers even worse.
The American manufacturing sector that Trump promised to restore to its blue-collar glory is now in recession, the white collar guys are cutting back on investment, and farm bankruptcies and suicides are up despite the billions of dollars Trump has doled out in subsidies. The overall economy has slowed, and although we’re still adding jobs it’s at a slower pace, and there’s no consolation in China’s woes or the slowing global economy.
All of which comes at a time when Trump is preoccupied with an impeachment inquiry and an already perilous reelection campaign, while Chinese dictator-for-life Xi Jinping can more easily withstand the economic pain of his people. Trump is the self-proclaimed master of “The Art of the Deal,” as well as a “very stable genius” with a “very big brain” and “unmatched wisdom,” but he finds himself in a disadvantaged position when negotiating with China. He’ll be tempted to surrender to China’s extortionist demands and sell it as the best deal ever, knowing that most of his die-hard fans will believe it, while XI will patiently await either that outcome or the results of the next presidential election, and the smart money seems to be digging in for a prolonged trade war with no happy outcome for anyone.
Meanwhile, the smart money in several major American industries seems willing to accede to China’s extortionist demands. One of the strongest arguments for a trade war with China is its extortionist demand that foreign companies doing business there agree to share their high-tech intellectual property with the country’s competing businesses, but many billions of dollars worth of American companies both big and small have figured it’s worth it to gain access to the market of more than a billion increasingly affluent Chinese.
The increasingly affluent Chinese consumers have a taste for America’s decadent popular culture, which is one of our country’s biggest export industries, and many of the big movie studios and recording companies and comic book publishers and internet streaming services have so far agreed to China’s strict censorship of what they sell to that vast Chinese audience, and have too often altered what they present to American audiences. The current glut of action-adventure movies that have degraded the America is largely because they’re mostly dialogue-free, and easily translated to a larger foreign market that is equally blood-thirsty in its cinematic tastes, but the studios are also steering away from anything politically offensive to the Chinese dictatorship that controls access to the increasingly affluent Chinese market.
The latest example is China’s feud with the National Basketball Association, of all people, which is hard to explain. Back during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese dictatorship tried to erase any western influence from the motherland, including classical music and impressionist art and the western literary canon and the Judeo-Christian tradition, but Chairman Mao Tse Tung was as avid a hoops fan as any Kansas boy and somehow the great American game of basketball was given a pass. Playgrounds and club teams flourished, the Chinese developed an appreciation of the game, and when the freakishly tall and talented Yao Ming started at center for the NBA’s Houston Rockets the increasingly affluent fans got to see him play against the most talented players in the world. It was a hit show in China, even after Yao’s remarkable career was ended by the injuries that usually affect 7’5″ guys, and the NBA has been raking in big bucks in the increasingly affluent Chinese market ever since.
The general manager of the aforementioned Houston Rockets issued a “tweet” that he stood with those Hong Kong protestors, though, and after that China announced it wouldn’t be televising the two NBA exhibition games that had been scheduled, and that the rest of the NBA season was also in doubt. That led the NBA’s commissioner to apologize for the “tweet,” and the enormously talented but entirely self-interested shooting guard of the Rockets to opine that he’d been treated very well by the Chinese during his exhibition game there, and it looked like a sellout of American free speech values to the even more lucrative Chinese basketball market. At this point the NBA commissioner is making clear that he apologizes for the “tweet” but not the American free speech values that allowed it, and he’s on the plane to China for those exhibition games even if they aren’t being televised, and some deal might yet be worked out. By coincidence Yao is now the commissioner of the Chinese Basketball Association, and we assume he has some sway with the Chinese dictatorship.
Those democracy-demanding Hong Kong protestors that the general manager “tweeted” about won’t find any succor, on the other hand, and the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care much about them during ongoing trade negotiations. Some high Chinese officials have been banned due to the crackdowns on the Uighurs and Kazakhs and Uzbekis, but those are all restive Muslim populations, so they shouldn’t count on Trump’s continued support as he pursues the greatest trade deal ever.
China’s a major world power, with economic and military and diplomatic strength to challenge the United States, and it doesn’t have to play by the rules of democratic western world, and it seems to understand that Trump’s self-proclaimed powers seem puny by comparison. China is also a foe of pretty much the rest of the modern world, though, and against its combined might they look puny. If some first world superpower were to give up its petty feuds with its erstwhile allies and lead a united front the Chinese would be at a negotiating disadvantage, and might be forced to allow free trade as well freedom to its people, but for now and the foreseeable future the Chinese are winning.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Choosing Between Scylla and Charybdis

There’s a very complicated situation in the Middle East, as always, and President Donald Trump is of course “tweeting” about it.
A drone attack destroyed much of a major Saudi Arabian oil field, and although a Yemeni rebel group that has been fighting a bloody defensive war with Saudi Arabia and is allied with Iran has claimed responsibility the State Department and America’s intelligence are blaming the Iranian government. Trump’s first “tweet” on the matter said “There is reason to believe we know the culprit, but are locked and loaded depending upon verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.”
Trump’s “tweet” was characteristically hard to parse, but there was no mistaking a certain belligerence in its tone, as well as certain deference to the Saudis, who have concluded the Iranians are to blame, and Trump and his spokespeople have spent the past two days dialing that back. The Pentagon would reportedly prefer not to fight a war on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, even if the Saudis pay for it, as Trump has suggested, and Trump has repeatedly assured the news media that he does not want another war, although he continues to boast of how ready the military is to wage one.
Our best guess is that Trump genuinely wants to avoid any new Middle East wars. Trump ran as a peacenik, even going so far as to accuse President George W. Bush of lying America into a war with Iraq, a claim previously made only by the far left, and although he fancies himself a tough guy he takes even more pride in his dealmaking prowess, and a new war in the Middle East would be embarrassing. So far Trump hasn’t been able to keep his campaign promises to extract American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and critics will plausiblyblame his unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear treaty with Iran for provoking any conflict that might follow, and there will also be troublesome questions about why Trump seems so eager to do the bidding of Saudi Arabia’s awful government.
As Trump’s favorite Rolling Stones song says, though, you can’t always get what you want. The Iranian government is even more awful than Saudi Arabia’s, and Trump will not want to negotiate a new nuclear deal from a position of weakness. He also “tweeted” a grip that the “fake news” media had peddled the lie that he was willing to meet the Iranian dictatorship without any preconditions, which prompted all the networks except Fox News to gleefully replay all the videotape of Trump and his spokespeople repeatedly and explicitly saying he was willing to meet without any preconditions, so he clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an accommodationist.
The Iranians have become increasingly provocative since America reimposed economic sanctions, seizing commercial oil tankers and threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and shooting down an America drone in international air space, and if they continue to escalate their misbehavior even the most pacifist president will eventually have to do something about it. America can’t apply any more economic sanctions, as we’ve already cut off all trade with the regime, which so far hasn’t had the effect that was hoped for, and given Trump’s tenuous relations with the rest of the world he’s unlikely to recruit other countries to join the boycott.
Thanks to fracking and other new technologies America has produced enough energy to sustain its economy since the final years of President Barack Obama’s administration, with no thanks to either Obama or Trump, but oil is an internationally traded commodity and a blow to a major supplier such as Saudi Arabia will result in high prices at your local pump. The global economy was already slowing before the latest Middle East flare-up, in large part because of the global trade war Trump started, so a war would be very bad for everyone’s business, including Trump’s reelection campaign.
If the Iranians continue to impede the flow of oil and thereby cause a global crash that would also look bad. For now Trump finds himself in a damned-if-you and damned-if-you-don’t situation, he has no national security advisor and only an acting Secretary of Defense, he seems beholden for some reason or another to the Saudis, and so far his much bragged about gut instincts and dealmaking prowess haven’t proved impressive.
Here’s hoping it all works out somehow.

— Bud Norman

Casualties of the Trade War

Trade wars are harder to assess than military wars, where you can tell who’s winning and losing by such metrics as ground gained or lost and casualties inflicted or suffered. The stock markets are probably the best indicator of how a trade war is going, and lately they indicate that President Donald Trump’s trade war with China is not going well.
When the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit a record high on July 15 Trump took full credit, but we don’t expect he’ll assume any responsibility for the 2.9 percent drop on Monday nor the 6 percent drop since the record high. The huge sell-offs in nearly every sector of the economy have clearly been a response to the tariffs Trump had imposed on Chinese imports and the retaliatory tariffs China imposed on the considerable exports America’s agricultural and aviation and other high-tech industries relied on selling to the first or second largest economy in the world. China has also signaled it will resume manipulating its currency to gain a foreign trade advantage, Trump has urged via “tweet” that the Federal Reserve Board retaliate by artificially weakening the dollar, and so far the smart money isn’t buying Trump’s assurances that America is going wind up with the greatest deal in the history of the world.
We can’t claim to be smart money, but we’re longtime observers of geopolitics and global trade and domestic political pressures, and we figure the smart money is right to be worried. Trump claims to have a Nietzschean will to power and personal rapport with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping that will soon result in that greatest deal in the history of the world, but he went bankrupt several times in the casino business despite house odds and he’s clearly in the inferior position in these asymmetrical negotiation.
Trump’s trade policies are inflicting severe damage on China’s economy, but his good buddy and brutal dictator Xi needn’t worry about that. He doesn’t have to face reelection, the repressed Chinese press isn’t going to make a fuss about an economic downturn, protesters will be cowed from gathering on the streets, the country’s privately held businesses will try to stay privately held, and in keeping with China’s ancient traditions Xi’s looking well past the current spat and a hundred or so years down the road.
Trump, on the other hand, has to deal with the daily headlines from that pesky free press and independent Fed and powerful companies and restive farm state Republicans and the rest of our democratic process, and he never thinks beyond the next news cycle. As much as he clearly envies his dear friend Xi’s dictatorial powers, Trump is obliged to appease the gods of the stock market and public opinion. There are just 15 months until the next presidential election, which is a blink in the eye of a Chinese dictator and an eternity to an American president, so between now and election day we don’t expect Trump to deliver to America the greatest trade deal in the history of the world.
The best case scenario is that Trump agrees to a desultory return to the status quo, with China making some slight concessions in their undeniably unfair trading practices, and Trump’s die-hard fans calling it the best trade deal in the history of the world. The smart money won’t be impressed, but given how crazy the Democrats are these days Trump might yet win reelection if the stock markets are slightly up and the unemployment rate remains low.

— Bud Norman

The Next Big Debt-Ceiling Fight

Yet another fight over once again raising America’s debt ceiling is coming up, and we expect it will be even uglier than usual. For one thing the September deadline will come as the presidential and congressional primaries are heating up, which always complicates things, and for another thing the federal government is more dysfunctional than ever.
Treasury Secretary has met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the matter, but Pelosi is for now insisting on a two-year budget deal. Several Republican Senators also want an actual budget instead of yet another continuing resolution that provides at least two years off from these every six months or so squabbles, but that’s easier said than done.
There hasn’t been an actual budget passed by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by a president for more than a decade, and you have to go back to the days of President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich to find one that balanced. Since then both parties have waited until the last minute before the global economic catastrophe that would result from the government defaulting on its very large debt, playing brinksmanship to extract whatever concessions the parties could gain from another, and wound up a with a deficit-spending resolution that kicked the can another six months down the road. This time will probably be the same, but different.
This time the congressional Democrats are more restive than usual, with Pelosi publicly feuding with several recently famous freshman members of her caucus, and all the Democratic presidential contenders pushing the party further to the left. Not long ago Pelosi was the Republican party’s poster girl for San Francisco-style liberalism, but these days she’s the relatively sane center of the Democratic party, and she’s always been a pragmatic enough politician to cut those last minute deals that saved the global economy from catastrophe. For the moment she seems firmly in control of her party, but September’s a long time from now.
For the foreseeable future President Donald Trump is firmly in control of the Republican party, but that’s not reassuring. Trump ran on the argument that he’s history’s greatest master of the art of the deal, based on his business record, but so far he’s proved no more successful in negotiating deals with the congressional Democrats than he was with his six-times bankrupt casinos. While he “tweets” schoolyard taunts against Senate majority leader “Cryin'” Chuck Schumer and t”Nervous Nancy” Pelosi, he’s yet to best them in a political showdown on almost anything. He crashed claimed credit for the last of those occasional partial government showdowns, then blamed the Democrats when the shutdown didn’t poll well, and wound up signing off on another continuing resolution that fully funded lots of bleeding heart social programs beloved by the Democrats.
This time around should be the same. The talk radio talkers will grouse about Trump’s concessions, but they’ll quickly move on to what the damned Democrats did, and Trump’s die-hard fans will forgive him anything. There are also a few on-the-fence voters who will give him credit for his centrist pragmatism, nobody will be able to blame him for the default that brought down the global economy, and that this point nobody cares about those several Republican senators’ old-fashioned idea of getting back to passing budgets with bi-partisan support and a presidential signature. Trump’s position of strength gives him every incentive to cave.
At this point large portions of both parties only care about depriving the other party of any tangible victory, and won’t yield an inch toward any kind of national consensus about how to spend the public’s money. They wouldn’t mind a global economic catastrophe, either, so long as they could blame it on the other side. As the presidential and congressional primary races heat up, those elements will have some influence on the debate.
Still, we expect this time around will be largely the same as the last many times around. We no longer have much faith in the leaders of either party, but we retain a cynical and hopeful faith in human nature. None of our elected leaders want to have been around during a global economic catastrophe, if only because it’s a bad career move, even if they could plausibly blame it on the other side. At some point, according to our observation of recent politics and human nature, both sides will eventually blink, and both will get enough and give enough for their voters to brag and grouse about.
Which is about the best we can hope for these days. That idea Pelosi and those prominent Senate Republicans have about a two-year budget seems pretty far-fetched for the moment. The idea that it might be balanced is preposterous.

— Bud Norman

Amateur Hour on the World Stage

President Donald Trump was in Japan over the Memorial Day weekend, negotiating all sorts of foreign policy deals around the world, and we must admit it made us nervous.
Trump won office with an electoral majority despite a lack of any political or foreign policy experience on the promise that he’s the best deal-maker anyone’s ever seen, and his sizable number of die-hard supporters still believe it, but we maintain the doubts we’ve had all along. In his best-selling and ghost-written self-help book “The Art of the Deal” Trump bragged about how he got the better of talk-show host and game-show mogul Merv Griffin to acquire what was re-branded as the Trump Taj Mahal casino in New Jersey, but that soon went belly-up and has since been demolished. He boasted of how he won an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League, but his New Jersey Generals and the rest of the United States Football League won only $3 in damages, and soon went belly-up. Trump Airline, Trump University, Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine and various other Trump-branded businesses have proved even more expensively unsuccessful deals.
Trump never seemed to learn anything from any of it, except not to put his own money on the line, and none of it was adequate preparation for dealing with the devious likes of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un or Russian dictator Vladimir Putin or the dictatorial mullahs of Iran. So far Trump has had more contentious relationships with the democratically-elected governments of our longtime North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization allies and western civilization trading partners, and he hasn’t yet come up with any deals with anyone that much impress us.
He did negotiate a slightly better deal with Canada and Mexico over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said was the difference between the worst and best trade deals ever negotiated, but it remains to be seen if he can get any of the Democrats and quite a few Republicans from states hit hard by Trump’s wars against Canada ad Mexico to ratify it. There’s nothing on the table about a trade deal with the European Union, nor with the United Kingdom that is currently involved with a difficult divorce from the EU, and for now Trump doesn’t have much on the trade front to brag about, although we’re sure he’ll keep bragging.
That’s just money, of course, but on the arguably more important matters of war and peace Trump seems even more out of his depth. Even during the campaign Trump admitted to his die-supporters that he had only nice things to say about world leaders who had nice things to say about him, and so far that seems have guided his foreign policy toward the despotic but very flattering governments of Saudi Arabia and Russia lately North Korea, among other rogue nations. Our democratically-elected military allies in NATO and SEATO and trading partners in the EU and NAFTA have been disinclined to be so obsequious, on the other hand, which seems to explain why we’re tied up in interminable negotiations.
Which brings us at long last to what we set out to write about, which is the very nervous situation on the Korean peninsula, and how very nervous Trump makes us feel about that.
The situation on the peninsula has been nervous since several years before we born. In the immediate aftermath of World War II the Soviet Union was spreading communism to the west and south, the commies won control of China shortly after that and was infecting countries all over southeast Asia, and a Marxist dictatorship took over in the northern half of the Korean peninsula. America intervened in the horribly bloody war between North and South Korea to protect its democratic and capitalistic allies in the region, and although it ended in a desultory draw with the Chinese-backed North Korea along the demilitarized zone, South Korea is still a free country, with a modern economy and very sexy popular culture, and Japan and the rest of free and mostly thriving southeast Asia continue to do a mutually beneficial business with us, while North Korea is mired in poverty and darkness while developing a transcontinental nuclear missile capability.
Maintaining that tenuous status quo has been official American foreign policy ever since, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and although North Korea has crept ever closer to nuclear power status it has thus far worked out well enough, as nervous as it’s been. The Trump administration is of course more ambitious than that, and months ago we were assured via “Twitter” that we could sleep soundly at night without fear of a nuclear exchange with North Korea. After some very provocative missile tests by North Korea toward South Korea and Japan, as well as one that could have reached the west coast of the United States, Trump started off the negotiations by threatening “fire and fury like no one’s ever seen,” and taunting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as “rocket man” and joking about Kim’s height and and weight. That led Kim to the negotiating table with Trump, along with some preceding flattering letters by Kim, and when Kim tentatively agreed to a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula during a summit in Singapore Trump “tweeted” about his triumph.
The critics quibbled that all three generations of Kim dynasty dictators had been seeking the prestige of a seat at the negotiating table on any terms they could get with an American president or other western civilization leader since the stalemate of the war, that the Kim regime had only tentatively agreed to a vague term about “denuclearization” that it clearly took to mean the withdrawal of the land-and-sea-and-air-based nuclear threat that America posed to North Korea, and the summit didn’t make make them sleep any more soundly at night. For a while Trump could crow that at least North Korea wasn’t making any more missile tests, but that claim went belly-up by the time Trump landed in Japan.
Trump’s appointees to all of the intelligence agencies as well as his national security agree that North Korea has recently been testing medium-range missiles that could deliver a nuclear warhead to a target 300 miles away, but Trump shrugged it off with a “tweet.” The “tweet” read:
“The North Koreans fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me, & also smiled when he called Swampman Joe Bidan a low IQ individual, & worse. Perhaps that’s sending me a signal?”
This might reassure those with an abiding faith in President Donald Trump, but it’s going to keep the rest of the world up at night. Those “small weapons” North Korea fired off couldn’t reach any of Trump’s properties on the west coast of the United States, but they’re well within range of Tokyo or Seoul, and we can well understand why the entire American foreign policy establishment and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or South Korean President Moon Jai In or Trump’s other polite hosts on this foreign policy junket are less sanguine. Trump’s trust in the vaguely-worded promises of such a brutal dictator as Kim confound us, but then again Kim has never written any flattering letters to us. Trump admittedly smiles Kim is taking potshots against Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, whose name Trump initially misspelled, and he doesn’t seem to mind that yet another brutal dictatorship is campaigning on his behalf.
Meanwhile Trump is stuck with a decades-old beef with a perhaps nuclear-armed and in any case militarily-formidable Iran, which is a major player in a Middle Eastern theater of conflict that Trump clearly wants no part of. The dictatorial mullahs who run Iran have nothing flattering to say about Trump, but they’re backed by Russian dictator Putin, who seems to have a swell mutual admiration society going with Trump, so there’s no telling how that might work out. There are also all those ongoing negotiations with our longstanding democratically-elected yet insufficiently obsequious allies that haven’t been yet been worked out.
Go right ahead and accuse of us being deep-state globalist establishmentarians, or suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, but at this point we place no faith in the president’s self-proclaimed unprecedented genius to work this all out.

— Bud Norman

Et Tu, Drudge?

Ever since it started linking to Infowars and Gateway Pundit and other crackpot conspiracy theory sites we’ve gotten out of the habit of reading The Drudge Report, but we’ll still occasionally take a look to see the latest spin on behalf of President Donald Trump. Imagine our surprise, then, when the high-traffic internet site’s top headlines were  Trump’s lowest-ever public approval rating in the Rasmussen poll and then “Shutdown Turns Nightmare Govt Paralyzed.”
Trump’s approval rating in the latest Rasmussen poll is 43 percent, which is still higher than in any other poll, but given the source it’s a worrisome number. Rasmussen has long had a reputation as a Republican-leaning firm, and consistently been an outlier among the polling on Trump, and has recently reported his approval rating over 50 percent. In in the past its polling has been vindicated by election results, but it’s policy of only calling land line phones seems outdated, as the only remaining people with landslides are either very wealthy or very old and are thus more inclined than the rest of to appreciate Trump’s tax bill and nostalgic appeals to a bygone era of manly coal miners and steel workers and not so many Mexicans. That Trump can’t garner majority approval from such a favorably skewed sample should cause him to reconsider several things he’s doing.
It’s bad news that the likes of The Drudge Report was trumpeting the numbers, too, and worse yet when the Trump-friendly site is guiding its millions of viewers to a story about how the recording-setting partial government shutdown is causing long delays at America’s airports as unpaid federal security officials start calling in sick.
The more reliably pro-Trump media are arguing that the shutdown is no big deal, as all those lazy federal workers are going to get paid eventually, and that there’s something to be said for a small government in the meantime, but the “fake news” keeps countering with all-too-real stories about how those government workers won’t be compensated for the interest they pay borrowing money to pay their bills, the hundreds of thousands of government contract workers who won’t be compensated, farmers having trouble getting the subsidies they were promised when Trump’s trade wars drove commodity prices down, and all sorts of regular people having problems that will go uncompensated. According to all the opinion polls, including Rasmussen, most people seem to agree the partial government shutdown is bad for America.
Trump is blaming it on the Democrats’ obstinate refusal to appropriate a measly few billion dollars to build a big and beautiful wall along the entirety of America’s border with Mexico, but after Trump told the Democratic congressional leaders a national television that he would be proud to shutdown the governor for his wall and would blame them the opinion polls show most Americans disagreeing. Trump and his defenders argue that without a big and beautiful wall America’s southern border will soon be overrun by caravans of terrorists and gang members and fecund families itching to cast illegal votes for Democrats, but the opinion polls suggest he’s losing that argument in the court of public opinion as well.
Trump ran for president on the boast that he’s the greatest negotiator in history, and despite his several bankruptcies and more numerous failed businesses a sufficient plurality of the electorate provided him with an electoral victory, but for now he seems in a bad negotiating position. His most hard-core fans will be dispirited by any concessions to the Democrats on funding a big and beautiful wall along the entire southern border, but the Democrats have their own hard-core supporters to worry about and no apparent reason to make any concessions to Trump. The longer this already-longest partial government shutdown continues the worse it will get for Trump in the polls, eventually even more Republicans will succumb to political reality, and it will be interesting to see what the greatest negotiator in history will come up with.
For now the stock markets are slugging along and no new wars have broken out, but that means except for a record-setting increase in America’s trade deficit with China the only other news in the papers is about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s suspicions that Trump is a Russian operative and Trump’s former campaign manager admitting he shared polling data with the Russkies and Trump keeping his discussions with the Russian dictator a secret from his own administration. None of that seems likely to help Trump’s poll numbers, either, and we’ll be checking in occasionally to see what The Drudge Report has to say about that.

— Bud Norman

Watching the Sausage Get Made

There’s a wise old saying, apocryphally attributed to Otto Von Bismarck, that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not see them being made.” In this reality show age of politics and food shows the gruesome spectacles are always on display, however, so Tuesday brought the live-on-television opening round of negotiations between President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer over an upcoming spending bill. Suffice to say it provided more melodrama than anything the competing soap operas had to offer.
To sum up the episode up in a TV Guide-sized synopsis, Trump insists any spending bill include at least $5 billion for a big and beautiful wall across America’s entire southern border, Pelosi and Schumer don’t want want to give it to him, and Trump is threatening a partial government shutdown if they don’t. Most followers of the ongoing political saga already have a rooting interest in either Trump or Pelosi and Schumer, and will cheer their heroes and boo their villains accordingly, but for those of us worriedly watching from the sidelines it just seems a damned mess. At this point in the plot our best is guess is that there won’t be any significant funding for a wall, there will be a partial government shutdown of unknown duration, and no one comes out of it looking good.
Nobody looked at all good on Tuesday. Trump and Pelosi and Schumer each played their reality show parts to their usual hilts, and their discussion of the nation’s pressing issues was as full of sound and fury signifying nothing as a typical cable news show’s panel debates or one of those pro wrestling skits Trump used to participate in, with both sides asserting their dominance rather than making rational arguments based on agreed facts.
As far as that went, we’d have to say that awful Pelosi woman and that awful Schumer guy got the better of the power play than that awful Trump fellow. Trump boasted live-on-air that for the next few days he can muster the votes in House of Representatives to give funding for his border wall, but he also admitted that because of the 60-vote rule for spending bills he didn’t have the needed votes in the Senate, and Pelosi could rightly note that when a sizable Democratic majority is installed in the House early next month he won’t get any border wall funding there. The Democrats clearly have the stronger hand, to borrow a poker metaphor, and even after seeing all his casinos go bankrupt Trump still doesn’t seem to know when to cash in.
Trump can rightfully boast he somehow how has the powers of the presidency, including the veto power that would lead to a partial government showdown, but we can’t see how that does him much good. Even partial government shutdowns are always unpopular, and Trump once “tweeted” back during the Obama that they were proof of a failure of presidential leadership, now he’s boastfully threatening one, and although that big beautiful border wall is always an applause line at Trump’s rallies it also doesn’t poll well. Pelosi and Schumer are more veteran players of politics, which is still mostly played by the constitutional and legal and traditional rules Trump is still learning, so we don’t see them folding to a president who has preemptively claimed credit for an unpopular government shutdown over an unpopular wall.
A more objective and deliberative consideration of government and border security would be welcome, but both sides would be still look bad. Those damned Democrats are far too weak on border enforcement for our tastes, and some of them are downright crazy about despite Pelosi’s and Schumer’s assurances, but Trump’s longstanding pledge of a big and beautiful border wall has always struck as one of the most cockamamie campaign promises ever made. Even if Trump could keep somehow keep his even more cockamamie campaign promise to have Mexico happily pay for it, which he no longer mentions, the wall is opposed by most Americans residing near the southern border and all of their Republican and Democratic representatives, its cost would surely exceed Trump’s pie-in-the-sky budget estimates just in court expenses for eminent domain seizures that offend our old-fashioned conservative sensibilities, and the money could surely be better spent on high-tech surveillance, border walls at a few essential points, and cracking down on the vast majority of illegal immigrants who arrived via airplane and outstayed their visas.
A smart and fair and vigorous enforcement of America’s border laws would surely round up several employees of Trump’s still wholly-owned businesses, and probably cause some Democrats much embarrassment along the way, so we don’t see that happening. Instead we expect a prolonged partial government shutdown and legislative gridlock, plenty of booing and hissing according to partisan preferences, and that separate subplot about the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” proceeding apace to its cataclysmic conclusion.
Oh well, at least it could be worse if either side were to win.

— Bud Norman

That Big Event in Singapore, According to Various Media

“Little Rocket Man” and the “Dotard,” also known as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and American President Donald Trump, shook hands Monday on a Singapore stage festooned with American and North Korean flags, then sat down and smiled together for the cameras of the world’s media, and everybody agreed it was a very big deal. Of course there was also much disagreement about how to cover it.
The more cautious and respectable American press outlets, even those considered left-of-center and overly eager to report news casting a negative light on Trump, stuck mostly to the objective who, what, where and when it, and were especially cautious about the unavoidably subjective why of it, but they also frankly acknowledged what a very big deal it was. The Washington Post’s top-of-the-front-page headline was “Trump, Kim shake hands, begin historic summit,” and the “lede” paragraph — as we spell in the newspaper biz — quoted Trump’s prediction that “We will have a terrific relationship, I have no doubt.” The New York Times’ top-of-the-front-page headline was “Handshakes, and Hope for an Agreement,,” which was just as careful and also adhered to our preferred style of capitalizing headlines, and the “bullet items” — as we call them in newspaper biz — stressed that it was indeed a very big deal but also very complicated as to how it might turn out.
The Cable News Network, or the “fake news CNN” as Trump calls it,  was similarly cautious in its coverage., with the anchors talking about how historic it was and the guest commentators expressing both hope and worries.  Over at the MSNBC cable news network, where they frankly acknowledge a left-of-center perspective and unabashedly delight in anything factual they can come up with that sheds a negative light on Trump, even Rachel Maddow was acknowledging it was a big deal. She had several guests fluent in the Korean language with impressive credentials for commenting on the military and political and economic and diplomatic situation who had some pretty convincing reasons to be worried it will all go awry, but they all had to admit a possibility they still hoped for that things would turn out well.
Meanwhile, over at Fox News, Sean Hannity was already spiking the ball in the end zone in on Trump’s behalf. He parroted Trump’s attempts to downplay expectations, and that “it’s a process, a long a process,” and helpfully recalled all the times North Korea had duped past Democratic and pre-Trump Republicans and hopefully assured his viewers Trump wouldn’t make that same mistake, and ran some old footage of President Ronald Reagan confronting Russia. As far as Hannity is concerned, if Trump wins an unexpected-by-almost-everyone complete capitulation from Kim he’s a sure bet Nobel Peace Prize winner, and if he walks away without any agreement at all he’s the second coming of St. Reagan walking away from the Soviets at Reykjavik, so it’s a win-win for Trump either way. Due to the time zones the historic handshake occurred after the morning and afternoon right-wing talk radio talkers went off the air, and they’ll be on before today’s-in-Singapore’s actual summit begins, but we’re sure that Hannity and the rest of them will see it pretty much the same way.
The National Review and The Weekly Standard and the rest of the cautious and respectable pre-Trump right-of-center publications are weeklies, and go home to their wives and children at a decent hour, so they haven’t yet weighed in, but we expect they’ll have some of the same worries that were voiced on Rachel Maddow’s show. The Weekly Standard did get in a short story about the involvement of Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, the former National Basketball Association rebounding champion and “Apprentice” contestant who is somehow on the scene and somehow  figures in all of this, but that’s not hopeful, although Trump did rightly note he was once a hell of a rebounder despite being short by NBA power-forward standards. Even if Trump does walk away from today’s summit he’ll have granted an odious third world dictator a long-desired starring role on the sage he walks away from, and with an endorsement of his abysmal human rights record in dealing with his own people, and for many other reasons it’s not at all analogous to Reagan walking out of Reykjavik. Trump’s many domestic scandals and recent squabbles with our traditional allies do seem to make him more desperate for any old deal that odious third world dictator might be willing to cut, too. We like to think we’re a cautious and respectable pre-Trump right-of-center publication, and without any wife or kids to worry about we’re up late and watching the latest developments, so we’ll hedge our bets just like those other cautious and respectable right-of-center and left-of-center institutions we’ll go no further than saying that we’re hoping for the best but still have our worries.
At least Trump and Kim are smiling for the photo-ops, rather than calling one another “Little Rocket Man” and the “Dotard.” As Trump is so fond of saying, “we shall see.”

— Bud Norman

Why Not Call it Treason, and Other Negotiating Ploys

The cable news networks and the big newspapers’ internet sites will soon start running their countdown-to-a-government-shutdown clocks again, with the latest deadline looming tomorrow, and all the savvy negotiators in Congress are reportedly trying to work out some sort of cockamamie deal to keep the government running for at least another couple of weeks. At a meeting ostensibly about immigration reform, President Donald Trump did his part by telling the gathered television cameras and microphones that “I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of. If the Democrats don’t want safety, let’s shut it down.”
This might be one of those masterful three-dimensional chess moves that Trump’s fans always figure he’s making, but our guess is it’s just another one of those ill-advised things he all too frequently blurts out.
Trump is apparently hoping that the Democrats will be so frightened by the prospect of being blamed for a government shutdown that they’ll agree to whatever draconian measures he thinks necessary to get that immigration stuff taken care of, and after their quick capitulations during last month’s government shutdown he has reason for such hope. There was so much Republican gloating and Democratic gnashing of teeth about it that the Democrats are likely to be in a less accommodating mood this time around, though, and they’re probably less worried about being blamed for a government shutdown the Republican president has told the nation he’d love to see.
Trump is also apparently calculating that his draconian immigration measures are are so popular that the public will blame the Democrats for allowing a partial but painful government rather than enact them, and given how unpopularity permissive some of the Democrats’ demands are he has good reason to think so. That stupid idea of a big, beautiful wall across the entire southern polls poorly, though, and those illegal immigrants who were brought here as children and have since proved upright semi-citizens poll so well that Trump is dangling an amnesty offer even more generous than anything President Barack Obama ever dared.
The die-hard Trump defenders are furious about the generous amnesty offer he’s dangling for the so-called “dreamers” who are illegal immigrants through no fault of their own, with some now calling him “Amnesty Don,” and Trump tried to placate them with stalk in his now-forgotten State of the Union address about how native-born Americans are “dreamers” too, and his Chief of Staff blurted out an ill-advised about remark about how they amnesty was being offered even to those “dreamers” who were “too lazy to get off their asses” and apply for it. All of which is so infuriating to those die-hard Democrats that it makes them all the less likely to concede even to the many reasonable and popular immigration reform proposals Trump is holding out for, and it’s hard to see how it will all be worked out by tomorrow night.
We can’t resist a nostalgic hope that Democrats and Republicans alike are working into the night to find something between a too-soft and too-hard immigration policy that at least keeps the government up and running for another couple of weeks, but that’s hard to sustain when the president is accusing the opposition of treason for failing to applaud at his long-forgotten State of the Union address. He was just kidding, of course, saying “Hey why not call it (treason)” in much the same way some street corner bully might just be kidding about your sister being a whore, but it doesn’t bode well for that spirt of bipartisan cooperation that Trump called for in that long-forgotten State of the Union address.
Maybe it’s just another one of Trump’s moves in that masterful three-dimensional chess game that never seems to reveal itself, and he did have “The Art of the Deal” ghost-written for him, but unless this mess somehow makes America great again the more likely explanation is that it’s all just those ill-advised things that he all too frequently blurts out.

— Bud Norman

A Good Time to be in Switzerland

President Donald Trump is in Davos, Switzerland to hobnob with all the globalist elites who gather there every year, while back in the states all his nationalist and more working-class fans are fuming about his latest position on illegal immigration. This isn’t likely to last long, but it is a moment worth noting.
On Wednesday night Trump told an impromptu news conference that the “dreamers” who had been illegally brought here as children “had nothing to worry about,” as he jetted off for Switzerland on Thursday morning his staff was announcing a proposal to not only keep some 1.8 million of them here but also offer a path to citizenship, and by Thursday afternoon his usual apologists on right wing talk radio were quite literally screaming their objections. The proposal also included a demand for a $25 billion “trust fund” to to build a big, beautiful wall along the southern border, along with several far more reasonable proposals to curtail illegal immigration, but talk radio talkers and their callers were clearly unimpressed. A mere 25 billion won’t build the kind of sea-to-shining-sea 50-foot-tall and translucent and solar-power-generating wall that Trump vividly described during the campaign, and even the die-hard supporters who never took all that wall stuff literally did believe Trump’s oft-stated campaign assurances that he was going to kick out even the most unwitting and sympathetic illegal immigrants.
That $25 billion for a border if for now  too much ask of the Democrats, who even objected some of the far more reasonable border enforcement measures Trump was demanding, and the negotiations will be tricky. The Democrats are obliged by political reality to protect all those “dreamers” from deportation, and will eventually be obliged to give up something in return to the Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress and the Republican president, but they still hold a strong hand. All the opinion polls show that a vast majority of the country has no stomach for kicking law-abiding and military-serving and college-going semi-citizens out of the country they grew up in, several Republican congresspeople from the soft-hearted Chamber of Commerce wing of the party, and by now even Trump is in full retreat from his hard-hearted campaign trail talk and even talking about his love for the “dreamers.”
Some of those more reasonable border enforcement proposals Trump is proposing also poll well with a populace that is rightly alarmed by the country’s still-high levels of illegal immigration, and we expect the Democrats will eventually relent to most of them, but we doubt they’re quite dumb enough to up cough $25 billion for a border wall. Most of the non-talk-radio media are going to explain the negotiations as the cruel Republicans threatening to kick out a bunch of telegenically sympathetic “dreamers” to build some small portion of a wall that even the president’s chief of staff now admits was oversold on the campaign trail, Trump will be hard-pressed to argue that’s all “fake news,” there are a lot of soft-hearted Chamber of Commerce types of Republicans and all those congressional Republicans whose states and districts abut the southern border who also realize how silly the border wall ideal was all along, and as dumb as those Democrats undeniably are they’re not quite stupid enough to lose this fight.
Meanwhile, Trump was faring better at that fancy-schmantzy gathering of globalist elites in Switzerland. He had an awkward moment sharing a stage with British Prime Minister Theresa, gushing about all the rumors of tension in Anglo-American relations were “fake news” and insisting he and his British counterpart had a mutual admiration society, while she responded with classically British quietude and an apparent relief that Trump has backed out of a visit of her to country, but otherwise it went well. You don’t get to be a globalist elite without being shrewd enough to notice that Trump is highly susceptible to flattery, so most of his fellow hoity-toity hob-nobbers lavished it on, and Trump didn’t shove any prime ministers out of the way or otherwise embarrass himself as he’s done on past on international occasions.
The globalist elitists seem to genuinely like Trump’s tax-cutting and de-regulating agenda, as we generally do, yet they object to all that anti-free trade campaign trail talk he still claims to believe, as we more enthusiastically do, and we expect they’ll gain more concessions from Trump with their flattery than we have with our snarky criticisms. Trump has recently imposed tariffs on washing machines that have had the effect of making American-made washing machines more expensive, but he’s largely abandoned all that campaign trail talk about 45 percent tariffs on anything Chinese, and unless the talk radio-talkers get annoyed about that we’re hopeful that all of Trump’s promised trade wars can be averted.
When he gets back to states Trump will have to answer to all those talk-radio talkers and all those hard-line anti-illegal immigration and nationalist and protectionist Trump voters they speak for, though, and we’ll be interested to see where he winds up. If Trump’s not going to build that wall just to let a bunch of “dreamers” avoid the deportations he promised he’ll lose that 25 percent of the the country that comprises about 50 percent of his support, if he holds firm he’ll further annoy the other 75 percent, and on the whole we guess he’d rather be hobnobbing with all those billionaires in Switzerland.

— Bud Norman