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Shaking Up the White House, Except at the Top

Last week was a rough one for the administration of President Donald Trump, and even his most stubborn apologists can’t deny it.
Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace Obamacare once again went unfulfilled, this time seemingly for good. He was publicly rebuked by the Boy Scouts as well as numerous police chiefs for a couple of widely-panned speeches he recently gave on their behalf. The House and Senate sent him a nearly unanimously-passed and thus entirely veto-proof bill that imposes sanctions on Russia and limits his ability to do anything about it, which was also unmistakably a rebuke of his Russia-friendly campaign promises. Trump continued a war of words against his own Attorney General, who had inconveniently recused himself from the various investigations about Russia’s apparent efforts on behalf of Trump during the campaign, but several important congressional Republicans sternly warned him not to the fire the guy or otherwise try to interfere with all the ongoing inquiries.
There was a Trump-“tweeted” order for the military to no longer allow transgendered troops, but it apparently was a surprise to the vacationing defense secretary, the generals in charge of such things admitted they weren’t sure if a “tweet” was an official order, several important congressional Republicans were also among the critics, and the newly installed press secretary couldn’t answer such obvious questions as how it would affect any transgendered troops currently serving in hazardous duty. The press secretary was newly-installed because Trump had also forced the resignation of his communications director, whose successor almost immediately went on a profanity-laden rant to The New Yorker that very saltily slurred the White House’s chief of staff and chief strategist and threatened to either fire or kill countless other administration officials.
By the end of the week Trump also forced the resignation of his chief of staff, but the apologists are hoping that’s going to turn things around. Newly-installed in the job is John Kelly, who comes in after rising to four-star general rank in the Marines, serving for four years as commander of the United States’ Southern Command despite his frequent clashes with the administration of President Barack Obama over Guantamo Bay and the Mexican border and other issues, and for the past six months has been doing a provably efficient job of fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises about illegal immigration as head of the Department of Homeland Security. A Washington Post headline describes Kelly as someone who “won’t suffer idiots and fools,” and he has a hard-earned reputation for imposing the military-style discipline that even the most ardent apologists will admit the Trump administration sorely needs.
Kelly certainly seems a very formidable force, and we wish him well, if only because we’re exhausted keeping up with all the news these days, but we’ll wait and see how it turns out. It’s hard to see how he would have made much of a difference last week, so we hold out only faint hope for this week.
There’s plenty of blame to be spread around the Republican party for its failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, but it’s going to take a pretty ardent apologist to argue that Trump doesn’t bear some of it, and there’s no reason to think Kelly could have changed that. Kelly’s predecessor was Reince Priebus, who had previously risen through the Republican ranks to be chairman of the Republican National Committee, and with considerable help from Obama he was instrumental in electing many members of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate as well as a Republican president. That wasn’t enough to fulfill the party’s seven-year-old promise of repeal and replacement of Obamacare, as it turns out, but there’s nothing on Kelly’s otherwise impressive resume to suggest he’s any more familiar with health care policy or has any more sway with the suddenly rebellious Republican caucus in Congress.
Neither is there any reason to believe that Kelly would have had any more luck than Priebus in dissuading Trump from making those apologized-for orations to the Boy Scouts and law enforcement. Nor do we think Kelly could have staved off that nearly unanimous sanctions bill, and given his hawkish nature we wonder if he would have wanted to. Given his reputation for rock-solid integrity, and given that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was his best friend in congress during all the fights with the Obama administration over the southern border back in the Obama days, way back when Trump was firing people on “Celebrity Apprentice” and bad-mouthing the Republican nominee’s relatively mild “self-deportation” policy, it will be interesting to see how Kelly handles all that mess and how it affects all the rest of the mess with Russia.
There are plenty of persuasive if politically incorrect arguments to be made against transgendered people serving in the military, but they’re hard to fit into a “tweet,” those 140 characters of social media can’t adequately explain to a vast bureaucracy or a lean White House Communications office how it should be carried out, and we doubt Kelly could have been any more successful in steering a more measured course of bureaucratic review and legally-hashed documents followed by a coordinated communications effort. The whole mess reminds of us when Trump “tweeted” a ban on travel from certain Islamic countries, which also had plenty of persuasive if politically incorrect arguments but hadn’t been run through any bureaucratic or legal review and wasn’t explained to the White House communications team, and what a mess that turned out to be. The cabinet secretary that Trump hadn’t bothered to consult in that case was Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly, but maybe he’ll have better luck next time.
We can, at least, hold out more than faint hope Kelly will be able impose some severe military-style discipline on that newly-installed White House communications director with the foul mouth and tough-guy persona. Former Wall Street shark Anthony Scaramucci got the job and quickly forced the resignation of the previous chief of staff, whom he had so memorably described in that New Yorker rant, but that chief strategist he even more memorably described is still on the job, and the new chief of staff is said not to suffer fools and idiots, so we figure the four-star Marine general will prove the tougher in the inevitable fights.
There’s nothing Kelly can do to shake up the White House that will shake out Trump or his daughter and a son-in-law, however, or shake away all the investigations about Russia or the increasing rebelliousness of the Republicans in congress. Trump was resistant to military-style discipline back when ┬áhis father shipped him off to a military school, hasn’t much changed at age 71, and even such a formidable force as Kelly seems unlikely to restrain his “tweeting” thumbs and oratorical impetuousness, or forestall future rough weeks.

— Bud Norman

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Health Care and the Waiting Room

Republicans have been waiting for seven years to repeal and replace the hated Obamacare law, and it looks as if they’ll have to wait a while longer. The Senate’s majority leader has postponed a vote on a Republican alternative until after the summer recess, which will likely include some encounters with constituents that won’t make them any more eager to take up the matter when they return.
The Republicans have a president in the White House and a large majority in the House of Representatives and a slight majority in the Senate, the same advantage the Democrats held back when they rammed Obamacare through without a single Republican vote, but their revenge was never going to come easy. That Republican president ran on promises of no cuts to Medicaid and coverage for everybody, that House majority is largely comprised of more doctrinaire conservatives, and slim Senate margin includes both doctrinaire conservatives and more pragmatic sorts of Republicans from purplish states. Although they all ran on promises of repeal and replacement, the Republicans never did agree on what that should look like.
Back when the Democrats had the House and Senate and the White House they were all in general agreement on the basic principles that the government should be interfering more thoroughly in the health insurance market, consumer choices should be restricted, and more government spending should be allotted, so they had an easier time getting their bill passed. Even with a president boasting approval ratings in the 60s and plenty of support from support from the establishment media, however, the Democrats took until just before Christmas and had to resort to some bare-knuckle politics to ram through what was already an unpopular law.
Although the eponymous President Barack Obama won re-election three years later, the Obamacare law was unpopular enough that it was largely responsible for a Republican president and Republican majorities eight years after his supposedly transformative election. Such are the consequences of ramming unpopular legislation down the public’s throat on a strictly partisan vote, along with all the skyrocketing premiums and punitive mandates and other pains that have been inflicted on so many Americans, so the Republicans should count themselves luck for the delay.
Obamacare remains unpopular yet, and even its more honest defenders are admitting that some serious tweaking is required, both the House bill that was passed after an embarrassing delay and the Senate bill that’s currently delayed are polling far worse. Both cut back on planned increases in Medicaid, and they not only don’t cover everyone but leave an estimated 22 million looking for other options in coming years, and there’s no getting around that the tax implications tend to favor the wealthier taxpayers, so the politics is at least as tricky as the policy.
To our old-fashioned Republican way of thinking both the House and Senate bills represent a slight improvement on Obamacare, but come nowhere near the long-promised full repeal and replacement, we expect that whatever compromise version they might reach and pass on a partisan vote will prove unpopular enough to arrive at a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in at least one house in just three years or so. There’s a conservative case to be made for the the Republican bills, and a conservative case to be made against them, but the Republican president who promised no cuts to Medicaid and coverage for everyone and the free-market ideologues and the more pragmatic sorts of Republicans seem likely to persuade the public.
All of them promised their voters something like a repeal and replacement of Obamacare, though, and all of them are itching for something they can call a legislative win. We hope they get it, but we hope they take their time about it, and come to some agreement on the true principles that underlie a free and efficient health care system, and make that hard-to-explain case to the American people, and use the impending implosion of Obamacare to get recruit a couple of symbolic Democratic votes. They’ll probably take some short-term hits for that, but it’s the best plan for the long run, which will take a lot of time.

— Bud Norman

The Post and a “Tweet” and a Twist in the Russia Story

Over the weekend there was another big Washington Post scoop, another blast of “tweets” from President Donald Trump, and yet another intriguing twist in the ongoing story about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
The Post’s big story was about how President Barack Obama reacted to the intelligence community’s alarmed reports that Russia was meddling in various ways with the American presidential race, all in favor of Trump and by the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it seems to support an unnamed administration official’s conclusion that “We choked.” Although Obama ordered that “cyber bombs” be planted in Russian computer systems to be set off if needed, and confronted Putin about the matter at an international summit, the article notes that Russia suffered only “largely symbolic” economic sanctions for its attempt to sabotage an American election
Trump has previously expressed doubt about whether Russia did anything at all in the election, saying that the e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and disseminated by Wikileaks could have been the work of anyone from the Chinese to “some guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds,” but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at Obama. “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of Nov. 8 about election meddling by Russia,” Trump “tweeted,” adding “Did nothing about it. Why?” Continuing the theme, he later “tweeted” that “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!”
Which makes for an interesting twist in the longer-running story, or at least in the way Trump tells it. Instead of continuing to cast doubt on the conclusions of 15 separate intelligence agencies, and the findings of his own Central Intelligence Director, and scoffing at anything at all that runs in The Washington Post or contains anonymous sources, Trump is now outraged that Russia did indeed try to help him get elected and wants the public to direct its outrage at Obama for allowing it to happen. One of the shriller right-wing talk radio hosts we scan across while driving was making essentially the argument a week earlier, and the fans calling in all found it very convincing, but we wonder how it will play with anyone other than Trump’s most loyal supporters or Obama’s most determined critics. It also invites arguments that Trump will have trouble “tweeting” his way through.
The Post’s story was a novella-length opus, so we’re guessing that Trump’s notoriously short attention span didn’t get him to the part where it did a pretty good job of answering the question about why the Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully. As the reporters document, the intelligence was incomplete about the Russians’ capabilities and what might be provoked, the sanctions imposed after Russia’s violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia didn’t leave many more options, and like most Americans Obama incorrectly assumed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway. We’ve spent the last 10 years criticizing Obama and are as eager to take another swipe at his sorry presidency as anyone, but in this case we can’t think of anything he might have done that would anyone.
As if to further confuse the issue, Trump also “tweeted” that “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?” We’re not at all clear how quashing any effort Russian effort to get Trump elected would have helped Clinton, and we can’t imagine anything that Obama might have done that would have pleased Trump. A White House address warning that the Russians were actively working to elect Trump would surely have been scoffed at by Trump, even with the 15 intelligence agencies all backing it up, and given the suspicious mood of the electorate we doubt that any of Trump’s supporters would have believed a word of it or cared much even if they did. Even now, we suspect most Trump supporters are outraged that Obama let Putin do all those nasty things that Trump previously said he might not have done.
Today’s a new day, and we expect that the White House communications team will be explaining how the “tweets” speak for themselves but don’t necessarily mean what they say. An earlier Trump “tweet” following a Washington Post story about Trump being investigated by a special counsel on possible obstruction of justice charges griped that he was being investigated because he’d fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director because of a recommendation by the man who was investigating him, which was wildly wrong on several levels, and by the weekend one of his lawyers was on all the shows insisting that Trump was not under investigation by anyone. This is a common post-“tweet” occurrence, and you can between that Mike Huckabee’s daughter or some other spokesperson will be explaining how Trump still doesn’t necessarily believe in that Russian meddling that he was blaming Obama for.
They’ll pretty much have to, because all the questions that reporters might not be allowed to recorded are going to about what the Trump administration is doing about Russia’s meddling in the election. Until The Washington Post provided an opportunity to attack Obama with it Trump had never definitively acknowledged that Russia had done anything untoward during the election, his transition team made an aborted effort to lift all those largely symbolic sanctions, even the Senate’s Republicans felt obliged to vote for legislation that would not allow Trump to ease the rest of the sanctions, and there are all those other Russian ties and undisclosed meetings between Trump’s close associates and everything else about that Russian meddling that Trump seems have at long last acknowledged.
These days Obama seems to be enjoying his post-presidency a lot more than Trump seems to be enjoying his presidency, and we think he’ll happily accept history’s verdict that he did choke in one of his final crises so long as Trump is lured into admitting that the Russians connived to help his campaign. How Trump responds to that fact is likely to be far more important to how history eventually regards him.

— Bud Norman

Trump Comes Out of the Woods

President Donald seems to have had a nice break from his political torments over Father’s Day weekend. The barrage of bombshell revelations about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia largely ceased fire, the other bad news didn’t implicate him directly and was largely overlooked, and after a long separation he got to spend some quality time with his youngest son.
We truly hope the father-and-son interactions went well, as the kid seems all right to us — by “the kid” we mean the son — and the old guy lately seems in need some of calming quiet time. The weekend was largely spent at Camp David, we note, and we also hope that helped with both the family dynamics and the political problems.
A military-run facility a short helicopter ride away from the White House but hidden in one of the last rural areas of Maryland, Camp David has been the preferred presidential get-away since President Franklin Roosevelt converted the Works Progress Administration’s High Cactocin resort project to an executive retreat and re-named it “Shangri-La.” Former small town Kansas boy President Dwight Eisenhower was particularly fond of the remote location and rustic atmosphere of the place, and re-named it again in honor of a recently born grandson. Since then every president has taken frequent advantage of the world-famous Camp David, with President Jimmy Carter using the place to finalize the “Camp David Accords” that brought a still-lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, President Bill Clinton attempted to use it for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that didn’t work out so well, while all the Republicans reasonably preferred to use it as a convenient and relatively low-cost way to escape from all that for a weekend and get back to nature and play some golf or shoot some skeet.
Until this past weekend, though, Trump had conspicuously avoided the place. After a brief tour of Camp David he told an interviewer that it was “a place you’d like really like, for about 20 minutes,” and seemed to make clear that remote and rustic were not qualities that appealed to his rich New York City tastes, not matter how any previous sorts of Republicans might have liked that kind of thing. In the bitterly cold months of his early presidency Trump preferred to have both his get-away time and his high-level diplomatic negotiations at his very ritzy and wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago resort outside Palm Beach, Florida, and as summer arrived and South Florida seemed less suited to golf and other high-level negotiations he moved his second White House to another very ritzy and wholly-owned resort in the last sparsely-populated portion of New Jersey.
That arrangement worked out well for Trump in financial terms, with much of the even-bigger-than-Obama travel-and-security-and-entourage costs flowing directly into the coffers of wholly-owned Trump businesses and all sorts of people paying higher prices for entree due to the sudden cachet, but it was taking a political toll. All the opinion polls show Trump widely unpopular, even that outlier Rasmussen survey that shows him with a mere 50 percent disapproval rating, and the Palm Beach Post was delighted to inform its recently tax-burdened readership that some more specific polling shows that the extravagant weekends at the wholly-owned properties were unpopular even with Trump’s most loyal supporters. Two state and district attorneys general and a couple hundred members of Congress have lately filed suits about how Trump business are profiting from the Trump presidency, too, so Trump’s many public and private lawyers were probably also recommending some rest and relaxation at Camp David. Call us cynical, but we suspect all that had something to with Trump’s Father’s Day itinerary.
Even so, we truly hope that the rather abbreviated time they spent together at Camp David did both Trump and son some real good. At this point we have an admittedly mythic conception of Camp David, and although we’re pretty sure it’s quite ritzy by our prairie standards we also imagine that there really is something remote and rustic about the place by presidential standards, and we’d like to think that’s what every previous sort of Republican and even the Democrats found so quintessentially American and rejuvenating about it. There’s something remote and rustic about getting away from it all and back to nature that puts things in perspective, even it is still ritzy, and a rich New York City sensibility probably needs that more than most.
We hate to drag Trump’s kid into the this, as he seems all right, and nothing that’s happened is any more his fault that anything all those previous presidential children were dragged into, but he’s there in the news and we can’t help thinking how very weird his life must be, and how much good even a brief connection with the universal experience of nature might do him. By our own good fortune we had a better dad than that kid does, and he often took us out into the woods with guns and fishing rods and cameras to demonstrate the profound life lessons he had learned under the open sky, and although we never acquired his appreciation of hunting and fishing and photography the lessons about the beauty of the natural and good order have served us well, and we hope that the youngest Trump picked up something of that along the way.
Today is Monday and the barrage of bombshell revelations about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia will probably continue, and there will be more bad news that people will say implicate Trump, but here’s hoping that a father-and-son weekend at Camp David will mitigate at least some of that.

— Bud Norman

Happy Loyalty Day

Today is Loyalty Day in America, and we have to admit we wouldn’t have known that if President Donald Trump hadn’t proclaimed it.
So far as we can tell from Wikipedia the first of May was designated “Americanization Day” at the height of the first Red Scare in 1921, intended as a response to all the commies around the world coopting May Day as a celebration of their ideology. Neither the commie version of May Day nor “Americanization Day” really caught on, but during an even scarier Red Scare the Congress declared July 18, 1955, for some reason, to be “Loyalty Day,” and the President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed it ahead of schedule on May First of that year, which apparently necessitated moving Child Health Day to the first Monday in October. Then, as now, the observance invited Americans to reaffirm their commitment to American values.
So far as we can further tell from Wikipedia the holiday has been happening ever since, each year with a presidential mention of some sort, but it entirely escaped our notice until Trump weighed in. He issued a statement that the day is intended to “express our country’s loyalty to individual liberties, to limited government, and to the inherent dignity of every human being,” and of course such anodyne sentiments caused enough of an uproar to push the previously little-noted holiday into in our news feed. Barring some unforeseen developments on the Korean Peninsula or on Wall Street, Loyalty Day should get more than its usual share of air-time today on the cable news and late night comedy shows.
Our liberal Facebook friends who only read the headlines were freaking out about Trump proclaiming Loyalty Day, assuming it was a command to pledge loyalty to his newly formed reich, but that strikes even such conservative NeverTrumpers as ourselves as a wild overreaction. The presidential proclamation clearly wasn’t written by the president, who was almost certainly also unaware of the holiday’s existence, and there’s nothing in any of the suspiciously parseable and superlative-free sentences that equates a commitment to individual liberties and limited government and the inherent dignity of every human being with unquestioning fealty to Trump. The language used in the proclamation is more suited to a Loyal Day card that you’ll never send than fascist manifesto. Our guess is that the administration let the routine holiday observance be handled by the routine writers, who regurgitated pretty much every previously ignored statement by every administration back to Ike, and they simply failed to anticipate that Trump will always get different a kind of coverage.
The sorts of liberals who do read past the headlines seem to have realized that Trump hasn’t proclaimed any kind of dictatorship, and that it’s just one of those serendipitous holidays that comes along on a slow news day, but they can’t help availing themselves of the opportunity to how faithful the Trump administration has been to the ideas of individual liberty and limited government and the inherent dignity of every human being. They’re on firmer ground there, as even such conservative NeverTrumpers as ourselves have questions along the same lines, and even the Russia Today propaganda network that once employed former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn couldn’t help piling on. Although we have no patience for Russian propaganda we won’t mind if a day of loyalty to American values winds up with a widespread debate about current issues.
Such a debate would have been nice back when President Barack Obama was issuing his widely-ignored proclamations about Loyalty Day, which we now note were also rather anodyne yet full of hypocritical words that both liberals and conservatives could have called him out on. For that matter, we don’t doubt that pretty much presidential proclamation all the way back to good ol’ Ike could have been harshly scrutinized.
Nobody’s sending Loyalty Day cards, though, and the local supermarket that’s always filling a whole aisle with things for the next big holiday seems to have overlooked the occasion, and we think that’s probably for the best. Even our most liberal Facebook friends won’t be singing The Internationale and commemorating the Haymarket Massacre, all of our conservative buddies will surely have better things to do than pledge their unquestioning fealty to Trump. Independence Day and Presidents’ Day and Veterans’ Day should provide more tangible reasons for America to reaffirm its commitment to American values, whatever we might decide that means.
Better to spend the day doing some fool dance around a maypole and welcoming the warmth of spring, as far as we’re concerned. The weather’s been crazy around here lately, though, with the spring thus far being much worse than the remarkably mild winter, and our forecast is for further political turbulence. We’ll try to console ourselves that it’s a longstanding American value.

— Bud Norman

The Point of No Tax Return

President Donald Trump spent an early part of Sunday “tweeting,” as he does most mornings. He wished everyone a Happy Easter, which suited the occasion, and he boasted of a military build-up that is apparently somehow already underway, but mostly he seemed annoyed the previous day’s protests around the country demanding the release of his tax returns.
The first “tweet” once again recounted his “almost impossible” electoral college victory, then asked “Now Tax Returns are brought up again?” His second outburst suggested “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday, adding that “Election is over!” Both were composed before Trump got around to wishing the country a Happy Easter, so together they suggest the protestors at least succeeded in rankling the president.
Many of the protests were indeed small, and the election is indeed over, but Trump should nonetheless get used to it being brought up again and again. Although he did win electoral college victory Trump lost the popular, many of those who voted against him don’t have to be paid to show up somewhere and wave a sign and chant slogans about it, and Trump’s capitalized Tax Return is too tempting an issue for them to drop it. The protestors allies in Congress and many of the media don’t intend to, and Trump will need better “tweets” to counter their arguments.
Campaign issues don’t end with the campaigns, as Trump should know after the decades he continued to make the same criticisms and conspiracy theories about every president since Ronald Reagan throughout their terms, and there’s no apparent reason this one should. Although Trump is not required by law to disclose his tax returns, with or with capitalization, there are valid reasons that for the past forty years every presidential nominee has done so and solid majorities of the public have come to expect it. Those reasons are all the more valid when a president retains a global empire business that is bound to be affected by what the federal government does over the next four years, as this one does, another break from a longstanding informal agreement that there are also valid reasons for, and which is also something that Trump’s critics can be expected to keep bringing up.
Worse yet, it’s hard to concoct a convincing argument for why Trump doesn’t release his tax returns. The sorts of Trump supporters who don’t need convincing will accept the stated reason that he’s under audit, even though that doesn’t prevent him from making his returns public, and shouldn’t put him in any sort of legal jeopardy, but eventually Trump will need to persuade some more skeptical sorts. His more stubborn apologists point out the educational records and other documents that Obama declined to release, and note that Democrats didn’t seem to mind that lack of transparency, but of course those supporters very much minded, and kept bringing it up throughout and now even after his term, and so did Trump himself, who “tweeted” repeatedly about it, so they also have to explain why things are now so different. For those of us who wanted to see Obama’s grades and Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and anything else we could get our hands on about any any office-holding Democrats, but also want to see Trump’s tax filings and anything else we can learn his or any other Republican politician’s potential conflicts of power, that argument is utterly unconvincing.
Although it will drift on and off the front pages, we expect the stories and and the protests will continue. All the stories about investigations underway into Russia’s role in the past campaign will make mention of it, and so will all the stories about Trump-owned businesses benefiting from some deregulation or tax shift or federal contracts that are bound to come up. There will be plenty of speculation, too, and Trump’s “tweets” and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer don’t seem likely to allay the resulting suspicions. The only way to end it is to just go ahead and release the damned things, the way Obama did with the birth certificate he was pestered about by certain people even long after his victorious election was over.
That would not only put the issue to rest and allow Trump to “tweet” about more important issues, but also quell some of that speculation about what those unseen returns might reveal about Russia or any possible conflicts of interest from that global business empire. Surely there’s nothing the least bit compromising in those documents, after all.

— Bud Norman

A Big Blast in Afghanistan

America’s war in Afghanistan has dragging on for so long that by now most Americans have largely forgotten about it, but it was back in the news on Thursday with a literal bang. The Air Force dropped the Mother of All Bombs on an Islamic State encampment, and that’s not just Trumpian hyperbole but the actual nickname of the weapon.
The official moniker is Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but the initials naturally inspired the more apt term that all the military types apparently use. It weighs 22,000 pounds, packs a net explosive weight of 18,700 pounds, and is said to be the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the long history of war. That’s still probably insufficient to bring a conclusion to what is already America’s longest-running military conflict, but surely enough to have a literal impact on the Islamic State.
Such serious ordinance suggests a renewed American seriousness about the Afghanistan war, and the broader war on terror, so even if it doesn’t serve any broader military strategy that’s good enough for us. There can be no pity for the Islamic State savages that the bomb fell on, who are just one of the problems we face in Afghanistan but a bigger threat in Iraq and Syria and all the places around the globe where they’ve pulled off terror attacks, and it’s hard to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate so many of them in one fell swoop. Although the Islamic State usually embeds itself in civilian areas the target was carelessly free of any non-combatants, and the Russians and Iranians and Sunni Arabs and other players that make fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so complicated don’t care about godforsaken and mostly oil-free and perpetually troublesome Afghanistan, and that big bomb had been sitting around in a warehouse for years with no good reason not to use it. A 22,000 pound bomb can’t be launched from even an almighty B-52 or placed atop even the most powerful missiles and instead has to be pushed out of a cargo plane, meaning it’s only useful against enemies who lack even World War II-vintage anti-aircraft systems, so that’s another reason to grab the rare chance to try it out on the likes of the Islamic State.
Coming shortly after the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were launched at an airbase in the trickier Syrian terrain, it also sends a potentially useful signal of resolve. President Donald Trump’s administration has since sent mixed signals about that Syrian strike, with the Secretary of State warning that anybody who murders young children anywhere in the world can expect more of the same and the White House Press Secretary stressing that what the president had said just a days before about not being the policeman of the world still applied, and those more conventional bombs don’t seem to have stopped that airbase from launching it’s own conventional bombs in its long-running civil war, but the message with the Mother of All Bombs probably won’t be so muddied. Although the Syrian strike eked out a 51 percent approval ratings in the first poll, there was also heated criticism from both the peacenik left and the isolationist right, as well as principled constitutional conservatives who had insisted that President Barack Obama seek congressional approval for such an action and the sorts of intellectually honest liberals who had to admit they had defended Obama’s inaction. Trump himself had also urged inaction at the time, and “tweeted” the missiles strikes were only used to prop up sagging poll number, and plenty of others on both left and right proved just as flip-floppy, and there’s no telling where they might all flip and flop to next.
What just happened in Afghanistan is a whole lot simpler, though, in military as well as domestic and international politics terms. America went to war in Afghanistan because that is where the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were launched, and similar intolerable acts were still being planned, and not just President George W. Bush but also future Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council and the leaders of pretty much every decent democratic nation agreed that was sufficient reason to wage war there. Since then there’s been plenty of argument about how it should be fought, although the troop levels and casualty rates have lately been so low you wouldn’t have noticed it during the past campaign, but even after so many years there’s still a bipartisan consensus that America remains entitled to drop any old bomb on that troublesome land that it chooses.
Trump’s action was still empowered by the military authorization that bipartisan majorities granted way back when it all started, too, so there’s no trouble with the argument that critics on both the left and right are raising about the constitutionality of that Syrian strike, and it’s not the same betrayal of his isolationist campaign rhetoric, which also included explicit promises to bomb the barnyard epithet out of the Islamic State. The Russians still want nothing to do with Afghanistan ever again, the Syrians and Iranians and their Sunni antagonists have little reason to care, the United Nations and all the decent democratic nations have more pressing concerns, and the Democrats have better fights to pick, so we can hope that he’s taking advantage of a rare opportunity take care of some business in Afghanistan. Should Trump administration articulate how it’s serving some broader strategic purpose, which it very well might, that would also be nice.
There’s really no getting out of Afghanistan until we leave a country that’s unlikely to ever try anything like Sept. 11 again, and even that low bar seems awful high for a long time to come, and unlikely to be achieved even with the Mother of All Bombs, but with low troop levels and relative-to-the-history-of-war low casualties America has kept the country’s long history of hate from infecting the rest of the world for the past 16 years or so. Such small victories aren’t satisfying to any American, and especially to such accustomed-to-winning-big-league types as Trump, but that’s how the score is kept in a season that’s arguably been lasting the Seventh Century or so.
Dropping that Mother of All Bombs on a remote and conveniently civilian-free camp full of murderous Islamic State thugs during a unique opportunity to do so was a good idea, and kudos to the generals who came up with it and the president who listened to them, despite his campaign promise that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals did. We’ll count it as one of those small victories in a long, long war, and faintly hope that Trump will settle for that claim.

— Bud Norman

A Quick Response to a Quick Response

Just as we were sitting down to write about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the news came across the internet that President Donald Trump had ordered a launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The wisdom of America fighting in World War I is still a matter of heated debate a century later, so of course it’s far too soon to say how that missile strike will play out.
The potential consequences of such military actions are as numerous as the trillions of possible moves in a chess game, and finding the most promising line among them requires far more serious contemplation, but the decision was apparently made with some haste. On Tuesday the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a village caught up in the country’s seven-year-old civil war and killed scores of innocent men, women, and children, and the Trump administration immediately condemned the atrocity and blamed in the past inaction of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Wednesday Trump told the press that he was personally affected by the footage of the gassed children, and that “It is now my responsibility.” On Thursday afternoon, the 59 or so missiles were launched against the same air base where the chemical attack originated. There are time pressures in both chess and geopolitics that sometimes force players to act quickly and intuitively, but at this point there’s no apparent reason those missiles had to be launched on Thursday.
That horrific Syrian civil war has been dragging on for more than seven years, after all, and Tuesday’s atrocity was by no means the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The Syrian air base and all those Tomahawk missiles would have still been there on Monday morning after a weekend of careful thought, which the situation seems to require. Trump was quite right that Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had carelessly drawn over a previous chemical attack on innocents had emboldened Assad to do it again, even if Trump was “tweeting” advice not to do anything at the time, but that’s as much an argument for not drawing red lines as it for enforcing them. Trump is also quite right to regard the chemical attack as a humanitarian outrage and clear violation of international law, but so were the previous chemical attacks that Trump didn’t want to respond to and a Republican Congress eventually declined to authorize the use of military force to punish. There’s also an argument to made, and naturally some people are making it, that Trump’s announcement that the United States no longer sought regime change in Syria also emboldened Assad to undertake his latest atrocity.
This time around the situation is even more complicated. The Syrian regime is hanging on because of support from Iran, who Obama was eager to reach a friendly deal with and Trump has promised to strike a far harsher deal with, as well as the dictatorship in Russia, which both Obama and Trump have seemed all too eager to get along with for probably very different reasons. One of the Syrian regime’s most formidable enemies is the equally abhorrent and potentially more troublesome Islamic State, which Obama infamously dismissed as the “jay-vee team” of terrorism and Trump has promised to destroy, so there’s a tricky problem of trying to harm one without helping the other. Much of Syria is now controlled by Kurdish forces, who about the closest thing to good guys that you’ll find in the Middle East, and have been of much help in America’s complicated dealings with Iraq, but the Kurds are a problem for Turkey, which is also a problem but nonetheless a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an occasional ally, and Trump once infamously confused them with Iran’s Quds Forces. At this point any rebels remotely resembling modern and democratic types have been pretty much wiped out, thanks to years of inaction, but a few hundred American servicemen are currently in Syria and probably on heightened security at the moment.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuesday’s chemical attack was so horrific it demanded an immediate muscular response, and some people are naturally making that case, but events will surely muddy the argument. The initial reports say that the Russians were given a heads-up on the attack and that care was taken not to bomb the Russian parts of that air base, so some care has been taken not to widen the conflict, but given the extremely complicated state of Russo-American relations at the moment it’s hard to say how that will pan out. By now most Americans don’t care much what that awful government in Iran thinks of all this, but for the past 38 years they haven’t seemed to care what Americans think. Americans have never cared much what the rest of the world thinks, either, but that usually winds up making some difference.
Meanwhile, back in the States, there will be political consequences that no one can possibly predict. Trump ran on promises to beef up America’s military might and criticisms of Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy, but he also explicitly promised an “America First” foreign policy that would avoid the interventionism of the war-mongering neocon establishment that had fallen out of favor with many Republican primary voters and the Rust Belt Democrats who didn’t like Hillary Clinton. He stressed his eagerness to get along with Russia, accused President George W. Bush of lying the country into a Middle East war, lied blatantly about his past support for intervention in Iraq and his more full-throated support for the ill-fated Libyan war, and promised to spend all that war money on re-building America. The comments section at all the Trump-friendly news sources are full of griping by Trump supporters who don’t much care about anyone in Syria and feel betrayed by the missile strike, and we expect that all those Trump-friendly talk radio show hosts wish he’d at least given them a weekend to come up with a justification. It’s hard to see any Democrats siding with Trump on the issue, although they’ll have to add the usual tsk-tsking about Assad gassing those innocents, and unless this missile strike yields unexpectedly quick positive results we don’t see the usual rally-round-the-president sentiment happening.
Fifty or so Tomahawk missiles will hinder Assad’s military capabilities for a while, and might just force him to use conventional bombs rather than chemical weapons in his ongoing war, but unless the missiles keep coming for a while that probably won’t last long. Perhaps Chinese President Xi Jiping will be a bit more wary of Trump during the negotiations at the Mar-a-Lago resort today, but we don’t expect he’s worried that Trump will be lobbing any missiles at his country in the near future, and the nutcase running his client state in North Korea might feel all the more threatened. The strike might also prove to a masterstroke of geo-political 3-D chess playing, as Trump’s more smitten supporters always claim, even when talking about such obvious failures as the recent demise of his health care reform bill, but we’d be mighty impressed if he calculated all those possible combinations in such a short time.
Even after a hundred years people are still sorting out that whole World War I thing. Although we’re no fans of President Woodrow Wilson, and hate the way he used the war to suppress free speech and expand the administrative state and threw away a victory for utopian dreams of a global government, we were planning to write to that he didn’t have much choice but to enter the horrible fray. The alternative was a Europe and world dominated by German militarism and Ottoman theocracy, and the Germans were sinking American ships and waging a war of sabotage and trying to lure Mexico in a revanchist war on our border, and our alliances with Great Britain and France and the emerging democracies were on the line, and our involvement did hasten the end of what was then history’s bloodiest conflict. It’s also true that the war didn’t all wars, as Wilson had promised, and the resulting peace carved the Middle East into all the currently warring states, and Ireland was emboldened to start a bloody war with England that would last for decades, and sub-Saharan Africa wound up with decades of wars, and a not-fully-conquered Germany and an emboldened Japan and a Italy suddenly on the other side would start a far bloodier conflict just two decades later.
These things always take time to sort out, so we’ll reserve a final judgment on Trump’s missile strike. We do hope, though, that some time will be taken before the next military action.

— Bud Norman

Another Round of Dueling Scandals

One tale of Russian intrigue is tough enough to follow, but there are two of them running in the news lately, both quite convoluted, they intertwine in all sorts of hard-to-follow ways. There’s really no one to root for, too, and so far no one seems to know anything for sure. There have lately been plot twists in both tales, and they only make things more confusing.
The first story concerns the Russian government’s alleged attempts to interfere with the American presidential election, and alleged collusion with those efforts by the campaign of President Donald Trump, which if true is undeniably a big deal. All the intelligence agencies have concluded the Russians did meddle in the race, although they wisely decline to say if it any effect on the outcome, even if all the leaks and other efforts alleged did seem aimed against Trump’s challenger, because she was so awful a candidate that no one could say with any certainty, and even committees in the Republican-controlled Congress agree the matter deserves further investigation. There’s less consensus about the allegations of Trump or his associates colluding with the meddling, but there’s ample evidence of business ties between state-controlled Russian interests and several of Trump’s associates, as well as countless contacts with Russian officials that were suspicious enough they were lied about, and a past campaign manager and National Security Advisor have already been defenestrated as a result and the Attorney General has been gladly forced to recuse himself from the whole mess. The latest revelation from The Washington Post is that yet another meeting between Trump’s transition team and Russian officials was arranged by the United Arab Emirates, which might or might not be anything nefarious, but it’s surely further proof that the story isn’t going away any time soon no matter how much Trump and his more stubborn supporters might wish it so.
Meanwhile, though, there’s always the ongoing saga of how President Barack Obama’s administration alleged meddled in the election. That all began one early morning when Trump “tweeted” the allegation that Obama — a “Bad (or Sick)” person — had wire-tapped Trump Tower during the “very sacred election process,” and it’s been mutating into an exponentially endless number of stories ever since. So far there’s absolutely no evidence offered by anyone at all that Obama literally wire-tapped Trump Tower, and the White House spokespeople have gone to great lengths to emphasize that of course Trump did not mean that allegation literally, but there has been reason to believe the more carefully vague claim that there was some sort of shenanigans going on. All the post-election leaks have indeed been damaging to Trump, some have surely violated some classified information law or another, and all have come from the kinds of federal government employees who have access to such information and probably preferred to Obama to Trump. Long before anyone considered the possibility of a Trump administration there were stories about Obama’s administration tapping the phones of Fox News and Associated Press reporters, as well as collecting phone information on just about everybody, which came to light after another leak the Russkies were probably in on, and they were also caught in enough big and small lies that almost anything seems possible, even all those talk-radio and YouTube theories about a “deep state” plot to destroy a populist threat.
The latest twist in this plot is that former Obama administration National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been unmasked as the woman who “unmasked” defenestrated Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and other Trump associates in the widely leaked accounts of wire-tapped conservations with Russian officials. Those Trump associates weren’t being wire-tapped, by all accounts, but the Russians officials they were conserving with were under surveillance, so the wire-tapping was “incidental contact” and thus legal and justified by the most strict Republican standards, but “unmasking” the identity of American citizens overhead in such circumstances requires legal justifications that weren’t met to Republican standards, so it was all the talk on the right-wing redoubts of talk radio and YouTube. It didn’t help that it was Rice, well known for peddling such big Obama-era lies as the Benghazi fiasco being the result of an obscure YouTube video rather than the administration’s utterly incompetent handling of the entire Libyan fiasco, or Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being a sympathetic hero rather than a deserter the administration traded five high-level terror leaders for, and that she was careful to say that any unmasking was “absolutely not for any political purposes.” At this point we wouldn’t anything past the Obama administration, but by now we know better than to try to prove that any of it was for a political purpose.
We don’t mind the government listening in on Russian officials no matter which party controls the executive branch, and we understand the reasons for classified information and protections, but we also appreciate knowing if someone in the government is involved in any shenanigans no matter which party is currently in power, and at the moment we wouldn’t put anything past anybody, so we’re following both plots through all the obligatory investigations with a desultory interest. We’ll venture no guesses how either story might end, except that as always the Russians don’t turn out to be the good guys and nobody winds up a unblemished hero.

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Who’s Bugging Who?

There’s all sorts of consequential politics going on these days to keep a president busy, what with repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Trumpcare and passing a thus-far unpopular budget and whatnot, but that’s all pretty dry stuff and involves a lot of math. Which makes it all the harder to turn one’s gaze away from the far juicier ongoing allegations coming from all directions about all sorts of international espionage and high-tech skullduggery and assorted movie-worthy twists. Monday alone provided enough plot twists to fill up several sequels.
The already convoluted plot plot started way back during the past presidential election, when Republican nominee Donald Trump was praising the strength of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s leadership and shrugging off the occasional extra-judicial killing and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was taking a hit from some embarrassing e-mails that had been suspiciously hacked, and suspicious sorts started wondering if that was entirely coincidental. The resignation of Trump’s campaign manager after business ties to a Russia-friendly Ukrainian were revealed and the resignation of a foreign policy advisor for similar reasons did nothing to quell the suspicions, and neither did Trump’s still-unreleased tax returns, and although he nonetheless became President Donald Trump the news hasn’t helped much. His already-controversial National Security Advisor had to resign after a few days on the job because he’d lied to the Vice President about having been in contact with Russian officials, his already-controversial Attorney General recused himself from any role of a potential investigation into the matter of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials after similar revelations, and the late night comics and other conspiracy theorists have been having a ball with it.
Trump, of course, has been doing the counter-punching he so boastfully prides himself on. On an early morning a couple of weeks ago he “tweeted” a series allegations that past President Barack Obama had tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower, which, if true, would truly be worse than the Watergate scandal that Trump mentioned. That was immediately followed by a “tweet” ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s paltry ratings on “The Apprentice,” the reality show Trump starred in prior to his presidency, but the president still stands by his allegations. His press secretary has since explained that Trump had taken care to put quotation remarks around “wire tapped” to emphasize that he didn’t literally mean that Obama had tapped his wires, and occasional spokeswoman and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway further explained that he could have meant that Obama was spying on Trump through the Trump Tower microwave oven, and of course the late night comics have been having even more of a ball with it. Subsequent “tweets” and presidential interviews have promised that would proof would be forthcoming, and that his Republican allies in Congress would provide it through hearings, but so far that has not happened.
Trump still has plenty of supporters in the comments sections of all the internet stories about all of this, and is still cheered on by some old-time Republicans who should know enough to at least hedge their bets with some skepticism, but Monday provided another public relations beating. Those Republican allies in Congress have thus far admitted they don’t have any proof to back up Trump’s allegations, and on Monday they invited Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey to testify that the allegations are untrue and that the Department of Justice has authorized him to say so, and that he was also authorized to says investigations of Russia’s meddling in the past election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was ongoing, and in the absence of any classified documents that a president could unilaterally un-classify that was bound to be Tuesday’s big headline and the punchline of all the late night jokes.
The more determined Trump apologists will continue to explain how a “deep state” shadow government is still doing the bidding of Obama, and they’ll be quite right that Obama’s administration tapped so many phones and did so many shadowy things over eight years that you can’t put anything past them, and we’ve seen enough Hollywood movies to always be suspicious about those intelligence agencies, but such old-school Republicans are ourselves still expect some proof. All those intelligence agencies and their more boring bureaucratic colleagues are clearly opposed to Trump for reasons different than our own, all the leaks lately have clearly served their agenda, and there’s still some reason to keep most classified information classified, but for now we’re still waiting for proof of Obama’s worse-than-Watergate behavior and something in the way of usual financial disclosure to assure us that Trump’s seeming Russophilia is just bad ideology and not something to do with the global business empire that Trump still owns.
Which is a shame, as far as old-fashioned Republicans such as ourselves are concerned, because Obamacare really does need to be repealed and there’s still some hope that the old-fashioned Republicans left in office will be able to come up with something too imperfect for any hyperbole but at least better than what we’ve got. We find a lot to like in that unpopular budget proposal, too, and would even be cheering if a Republican president had the extra amount of guts to take aim at the popular entitlement programs that are driving the national debt to eventual bankruptcy. Fiscal solvency and other matters requiring hard choices and hard math are always a hard sell, and all the harder when you squander your credibility with claims that are never proved and only cast further lingering suspicion on yourself.
Trump’s supporters can also rightly note that none of his critics’ have yet proved their most damning allegations, but at this moment in the news cycle the claims are at least as plausible as that story about Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad being in on the Kennedy hit and President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War that Trump was never for, or that one about Obama being born in Kenya that Trump took credit for putting to rest, and these days it all a needless distraction. At this point we want Trump to put up or shut up, disprove his conspiracy-minded critics with full financial disclosure and an independent investigation, then lay off the “tweets” and get on with all the boring but consequential stuff.

— Bud Norman