A Nervous Situation in the Middle East

Let us make clear from the outset that we believe the nutcase theocrats running the Iranian dictatorships are, as always, the bad guys in their relations with the United States. Let us stipulate further that President Donald Trump might or might not have been justified in ordering a military strike that killed top-ranking Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, who was undeniably one of the worst people in the Middle East, and that only time and further revelations will tell.
Having said so, we admit it makes us very nervous that Trump is calling the shots for America in its latest spat with Iran. The Iranians have vowed vengeance for the death of Soleimani, Trump has vowed retaliation for anything they might do against American interests, and it’s going to take some complex strategic thinking and expert diplomacy and a cautious hand to avoid either a disastrous war or an embarrassing American retreat. but nothing Trump has ever said or done in his life suggests he is up to that task.
Trump explains that he ordered the killing of Soleimani because of intelligence reports about imminent threats to American lives, which we’d ordinarily be inclined to believe, but Trump has spent the past many years telling the world that America’s intelligence agencies can’t be trusted. He blames them and President George W. Bush for the second Iraq War, takes Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s word for it they are wrong about Russia’s meddling in the past and upcoming presidential elections, and passes along conspiracy theories that the “deep state” spooks were out to get him even before he became president. Which makes it hard for him to sell a provocative military strike to a domestic or global audience on the basis of a America’s intelligence agencies’ reports.
At times like these it’s good to have friends around the globe, but if he somehow stumbles into a full-blown war with Iran Trump and America will probably have to go it alone. Trump’s trade wars and “twitter” taunts and all-around ugly Americanism have alienated our longtime allies in Europe and Asia and Africa and Australia, done little to help economic or diplomatic relations with our adversaries, and even provided the very bad guys of Iran with a plausible case in the court of global opinion that they’re the aggrieved party.
The whole mess arguably started when Trump unilaterally withdrew from the treaty America and six crucial European allies struck with Iran to curtail its nuclear weapons program. The deal that President Barack Obama and the Euro-weenies negotiated was weaker than what Trump and we had hoped for, but it did forestall the Iranian nuclear threat for another decade or so, in which time anything might happen, and according to all the intelligence agencies Iran was in compliance. Trump brusquely dismissed the intelligence agencies’ conclusions and withdrew anyway, keeping a campaign promise to undue Obama’s folly. The other six allies did their best to ensure that Iran would at least keep up its sworn obligations, Trump didn’t get the great deal for America he expected Iran would come begging for, and now Iran has announced it will resume its nuclear weapons program, and the Iraqi government has passed a non-binding request that we leave their country..
These threats of apocalyptic Middle Eastern war have come and gone over the course of our lifetime, and although some of them have turned out tragically we always had a comforting sense that steady hands were guiding the ship of state through the storm. This time around, we’re more uneasy.
Trump fans love his blunt-spoken style, so we’ll come right out and say that he strikes us as an uninformed, impulsive, shallow, and utterly self-interested reality show star who finds himself facing an impeachment and is willing to do anything to once again avert a looming ad well-deserved disaster. He’s threatening to destroy Iranian cultural sites in violation of international law, telling Congress that his blustering “tweets” are all they need in the way of constitutional niceties, and doing nothing to expand his coalition of MAGA-capped rally-goers. All the four-star general and admirals and and wise old men of the foreign policy establishment have been banished from his administration, he mostly relies on his son-in-law and Mar-a-Lago friends and the instincts of his uneducated gut, and so far that hasn’t worked out well. Back in Obama’s day there was another dust-up with Iran, and Trump confidently predicted that Obama would start a war because it was the only way he could win reelection, which proved doubly wrong, as Obama didn’t start a war and won reelection anyway. If anyone is cynical enough to suggest that Trump is now acting for his political interests rather than the nation’s, Trump can hardly call it treason.
We’ll hope for the best, but none of the damn Democrats seem any better, so we’ll remain nervous.

— Bud Norman

Draining the Ukrainian Swamp

President Donald Trump’s strongest defense of his decision to withhold congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine, which is the basis of the impeachment inquiry against him that renews this week, is that he was trying to get the country to clean up its undeniable problem with political corruption. According to a report from The Washington Post the ploy seems to have worked, but not the way Trump probably intended.
What’s driving the impeachment inquiry is the suspicion that Trump was leaning on the Ukrainian government for dirt on potential Democratic opponent Joe Biden’s son and a confession that the previous Ukrainian government had meddled in the past election and then framed Russia for the crime. So far all the sworn testimony from respected military officers and foreign service officials and a million-dollar Trump donor, as well as some pretty damning texts and e-mails and other documentary evidence backs this up.
For now Trump is blocking any testimony from a former White House legal counsel and national security advisor and the current Secretary of State and and his-still-on-retainer personal lawyer, all of whom clearly know something about all this and there might be able to say something exculpatory, and declining to send a lawyer to the hearings, but he’s still got a plausible enough corruption argument for the talk radio hosts and Republican politicians and the die-hard fans to cling to.
Biden’s son admittedly made a lot of money in Ukraine while the former Vice President was in charge of the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy, some very funny dealings have undoubtedly occurred in the country during its long and fitful struggle toward democracy since America helped liberate it from Soviet domination, and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has assured Trump that Russia sure didn’t meddle in the last election, and according to Trump some people are saying that Ukraine has the mysteriously missing Democratic National Committee computer server with all of the e-mails that should lock up Hillary Clinton. None of this comports with any established facts or the weight of evidence, and would be laughed out of any judicial proceeding, but impeachment is a political matter and the fans seems to love it.
No matter how that works out, Trump probably won’t get what he was hoping for from Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced a purge of more than 500 prosecutors suspected of corruption, but so for none are accused of anything having to do with Biden’s son or Clinton’s e-mails, and one of them is closely tied to Rudy Giuliani, the Trump personal lawyer who’s up to his neck in this Ukrainian impeachment mess and is refusing to testify about to Congress. Now that he’s got his military aid, which came shortly after Trump learned a “whistleblower” report about an alleged aid-for-dirt deal, Zelensky can make good on his campaign promise to root out corruption and stay on good terms with whoever the next president might be, and he’s wise to stay out of America’s affairs as much as possible.
Zelensky seems a savvy fellow, and just as interesting as Trump. He was a comedian who had no apparent qualifications except that he’d starred in a hit sit-com about a comedian who became president of Ukraine, just as Trump without any apparent qualifications except that he’d starred as a successful businessman on a hit reality show. Both men have outgoing personalities, a certain buffoonish self-consciousness, ridiculously bad hair cuts, and their own agendas.As Trump did, Zelensky ran as an outsider who would shake up the establishment, and like Trump he promised to be immune to corruption.
Unlike Trump, Zelensky inherited a country that had been largely annexed by a Russian government that was working to further exert its influence, and was eager to find whatever foreign assistance he could, whereas Trump spoke openly of his ambivalence about Russia claim on Ukrainian territory and cast doubt on any claims of undue Russian influence anywhere. Zelensky was thereby obliged to say during a White House visit that he’d felt no pressure to provide any dirt on the Bidens or Clinton’s in exchange for the aid, but at this point he’s got his military aid and is surely following American politics well enough to know that he doesn’t owe Trump any further favors. If he’s following all the trend-setting television comedians in America he’s probably betting on the Democrats, and if he’s serious about rooting out corruption in Ukraine he won’t give any cover to Giuliani.
We don’t nearly know nearly so much about Ukrainian politics as the former Trump campaign chairman who’s now in federal prison, or the Trump personal lawyer who’s now under federal investigation for his dealings in that country, or the various high government officials who are barred from testifying about any of it, but Zelensky seems to have a pretty good hand for the president of such a beleaguered country. Come reelection time he can tell the Ukrainian electorate that he stood up to the bullies of two nuclear superpowers, got millions of dollars from one to deter the other, and pulled it off with sit-comic flair.
Trump’s reality show presidency will be hard-pressed to compete with that. The big bucks Biden’s son made in Ukraine were already part of the the public record and would have been more useful without leaning on Ukraine for further dirt, and the stuff about Ukraine getting Clinton elected is a hard sell to all but the most die-hard fans.

— Bud Norman

Another Overseas Adventure

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

— Bud Norman

Would He or Wouldn’t He? That Is the Question

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s private meeting and public news conference with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in Finland on Monday was so bad it spilled over into Tuesday, with even the sycophants at “Fox and Friends” finding fault with his abysmal performance, and before the day was over Trump had beat a rare retreat. It looked less like the heroic rescue at Dunkirk than Bonaparte’s famously disastrous retreat, though, and guaranteed at least another another day’s bad news cycle.
In case you’ve been wisely averting your eyes, all the fuss started with Trump having a two-hour meeting with only Putin and himself and a sole Russian translator involved, which somehow raised only a minor and for-now-forgotten fuss but will probably yield many future bad news cycles. The bigger story on both Monday and Tuesday was the international news conference, where Trump told the whole world’s media that the sorry state of Russo-American relations was mainly the fault of past American presidential administrations and the ongoing efforts of America’s justice system and the pesky reporting of its press, making no mention of Russia’s numerous offenses against international law and human decency. He was clearly more concerned about the alleged dastardly deeds of his vanquished Democratic opponents than Russia’s than Russia’s three-pronged cyber attack on the last election, and often seemed to give equal credibility to Putin’s denials that it happened than he did the American intelligence agencies’ and congressional committees’ and his own administration’s top officials that it most certainly did.
At one point Trump was asked by one those pesky reporters who he believed, and offered the President of the United States a chance to warn the Russian dictator that had surely attacked American democracy not to do it again, and Trump replied that he’d spoken with his intelligence officials and “They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia … I will say this, I don’t see any reason would it be … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Which was too much for even “Fox and Friends” to defend, and had poor Sean Hannity sputtering some incoherent apologia, which soon led to Trump making a rare admission that he had gotten one single word wrong.
Seeming to acknowledge the bad news cycle, Trump said “Now, I have to say, I came back, and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?’ So I got a transcript. I reviewed it. I actually went back and reviewed a clip of an answer I gave, and I realized there is need for some clarification. It should have been obvious — I thought it would be obvious — but I would like to clarify, just it case it wasn’t. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.” The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t — or why it shouldn’t be be Russia. So just to repeat, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ And the sentence should have been — and I thought it would be a little unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video — the sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
As with most of Trump’s fourth-grade  verbal gobbledegook this requires further clarification for us, but so far as we can tell he’s making a very rare admission that he misspoke at least one contracted word, which we appreciate. He also seems to be blaming us and of all the rest of the world’s media and most of his country for not immediately understanding that of course he meant “wouldn’t” when he said “would,” though, and we don’t at all appreciate that.
Even if you do add that contraction of “not” to “would” the rest of the rest of the summit with the Russian dictator is still seemed damned obsequious, and even as Trump affirmed in his faith the conclusions of America’s intelligence community that Russia had cyber-attacked America’s democracy he ad-libbed that “Could be other people also, a lot of people out there,” which is not the conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies.
By the end of Tuesday’s bad news cycle Trump had not done much to reassure us or America’s most important allies that there’s not something awfully fishy about what he once called “This Rusher thing with Trump and Russia,” and regularly denounces as a “witch hunt” that’s the main impediment to friendly Russo-American relations, and he should expect another bad news cycle today.

— Bud Norman

Trump’s Inevitable Descent into Helsinki

There are still a a few of President Donald Trump’s die-hard supporters and a couple more reluctant fans among our readership, mostly family members and old friends, and they occasionally let us know how weary they are of our constant criticisms. Like all Trump fans they seem to relish blunt talk, though, so we’ll just come right and out say that Trump has just concluded the most disastrous and disgraceful presidential trip in the modern history of diplomacy.
We’ve already written out our aghast objections to Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Belgium, where his bully boy diplomacy clearly weakened the alliance despite his parting boasts it was stronger than ever. Between slaps to the forehead we also expressed our disfavor with his behavior in Britain, where he insulted the Prime Minister and lied that he didn’t and acted like a stereotypically boorish American tourist around the Queen and annoyed the general population of both the United Kingdom as well as Ireland, and didn’t get any lucrative deals except for some much-need publicity for a struggling golf course he owns in Scotland.
Somehow, however, Trump saved the worst for the last with his much-ballyhooed meeting with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in Finland. One hardly knows where to begin the describing the awfulness of the debacle, but we might as well start with Trump meeting Putin in the first place.
The appearance of the American president and the Russian dictator standing as equals on a stage with festooned with equal numbers of American and Russian flags was a needless concession to a tin-pot dictatorship that has lately been invading its neighbors, propping up brutal Middle Eastern regimes, shooting down civilian aircraft, assassinating domestic enemies on our allies’ soil, as well as launching a three-pronged cyber attack on America’s last presidential election. To compound this offense to America’s dignity, Trump also told a whole world’s media that he blamed “both sides” for the recent unpleasantness in Russo-American relations.
Trump had little to say about Putin’s invasion of his neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine except to nod as Putin said they’d agreed to disagree. Trump also had little to say about Putin’s support for those brutal Middle Eastern regimes, except to say he hoped to work out a deal that would also make Israel happy, which is a plausible but imperfect argument and one too damned complicated for Trump to make. Trump had nothing to say about Russia shooting down civilian aircraft or killing state enemies and the occasional unintended British life on British soil, and what he said about Russia’s three-pronged cyber attack on the past American presidential election was most disgusting of all.
The day Trump left on his disastrous diplomatic tour the special counsel investigation into the “Russian thing” announced a detailed and well-sourced indictment of 12 Russian officials for meddling, and laid out a convincing explanation of how they did it, and by now the only people who harbor any doubts about Russia’s role are Sean Hannity and this guy we know from Kirby’s Beer Store and Putin and Trump himself.
Trump acknowledged that all of his advisors had “said they think it’s Russia,” but added “I have President Putin — he’s just said it’s not Russia.” Trump said he couldn’t imagine any reason why Putin would have favored him in the election, although Putin later told that international press that he did indeed favor Trump, and Trump added that “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Unless you’re Sean Hannity or that guy at Kirby’s or another unusually die-hard and fact-resistant Trump fan, it was an humiliating performance, and raises all sorts of suspicions about that “Russia thing.”
Trump was conspicuously polite to the Russian dictator, especially in contrast to his characteristically rude treatment of the leaders of our democratically-elected allies, and was most harsh about his past two presidential predecessors and that “witch hunt” of a special counsel investigation that just handed down those detailed and well-sourced indictments of 12 Russian officials, and went on a rant about why the DNC’s computer server wasn’t seized and how frustrated he was that even a President of the United States couldn’t any answers. It’s hard to concoct any explanation that’s not fishy, but the die-hard fans are giving it their best.
The general gist of it seems to be that the “Russia thing” really is a “witch hunt” no matter what all those Trump appointees might say, and that the real scandal that will get the real villains shot for treason is on that DNC computer server, and that a friendship with such a puny economy and tin-pot dictatorship as Russia will do more to make America great than those freeloading Euro-trash in the European Union and United Kingdom or Great Britain or England or whatever you call it ever could. They’re also citing America’s past sins and making the “blame America first” arguments that the Democratic left once used to justify Democratic weakness in the Cold War and President Obama’s awful apology tours, and they’ve forgetten how outraged they used to be.
So far, though, neither Trump nor any of his apologists have yet been able to convincingly point to anything tangible that the great dealmaker Trump got out of this trip.

— Bud Norman

On the Odd New Detente with the Damned Old Russkies

One of the foremost reasons we’ve long suspected that there’s something more to the “Russia thing” than a “WITCH HUNT!” is President Donald Trump’s undeniable Russophilia. It’s been apparent from the start and was once again on full display again Tuesday’s news.
Trump boastfully acknowledged to the press that during a president-to-dictator phone call the president congratulated the dictator on his landslide victory over the last unbanned-from-the-ballot opponent in an obviously phony-baloney race, and his press secretary acknowledged that he didn’t bring up any of that unpleasantness regarding the people that Russia quite clearly poisoned on the sovereign soil of our longtime ally Great Britain. Instead the president and the dictator focused on areas of possible agreement, according the press secretary, and the president himself called it a “very good call.” Certain Republicans and most Democrats were appalled, but no one should have been appalled.
During his unlikely presidential campaign Trump boasted of his close personal relationship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and although he later denied any relationship with Putin at all he wound up predicting they’d eventually be good friends. He praised Putin’s “strong leadership” and reveled in similar compliments from the dictator, and scoffed at the emerging reports of Russian interference in the election, saying it was just as likely some obese fellow in his New Jersey bedroom. Trump denied that Russia had invaded Ukraine, then clarified that he meant Russia had indeed done so but only “in a sense.” Trump also touted the many advantages of a Russo-American alliance in dealing with such threats as the Syrian civil war and terrorism in general and Chinese trade or whatnot, and described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance as “obsolete.” Even the erstwhile Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was taken aback when Trump defended Putin’s indisputable assassinations of journalists and political rivals by saying “We do plenty of killing here.”
As president Trump has mostly hewed to the same Russo-friendly foreign policy. He’s eventually conceded to all of his intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russian did meddle in the last election, but still figures some fat guy in Jersey might have also been in on it and show far has shown any little interest in doing anything about it. His aides, by now mostly fired or on their way out, at long last persuaded Trump to affirm America’s commitment to the NATO agreement, although he continued to castigate them all as freeloaders. He claims credit for the sanctions that even most the Republicans in Congress insisted on, but he took his own sweet time about it, and although his United Nations ambassador and recently-fired Secretary of State took strong stands on the Russkies poisoning people on British soil Trump hasn’t “tweeted” a thing about it.
Trump’s defenders point to the “dozens” or “near 200” Russkies killed by American forces during a recent skirmish in the war going on in Syria and Iraq, depending on which media reports you read, but the lieutenant general that was on the ground and in charge says they were mercenary forces not aligned with the Russian government and the American forces got permission to wipe them out from the frustrated Russkie command. They also note that war is going so quite swimmingly in defeating the Islamic State, the vilest villain in the conflict, but at this point it’s hard predict how American and Russian and that very odious Syrian dictatorship come out of it. They also note that Trump has been trumpeting a surge in military spending, but what should Russia care if it’s not about them? In the aftermath of that president-to-dictator phone call both Trump and his press secretary said the two heads of state of would soon met to discuss way ways to avoid an arms race.
The most benign explanation seems to be that for entirely disinterested reasons Trump truly admires Putin’s authoritarian rule, thinks our long trading and military partners are a bunch of freeloaders, and that however things turn out in Syria or elsewhere at least you don’t worry about the Islamic State anymore. It’s an openly held opinion on some of the far right message boards, and has slightly more carefully-worded apologists on talk radio and certain other conservative media, but that’s a hard sale these days. A small but significant percentage of Republicans are still standing on the same Cold War-era and Russo-phobic foreign policy ground that President Barack Obama ridiculed just just six short years ago, and all the Democrats seems to have suddenly found the same anti-Russian religion.
Given all the rest that’s going on in the “Russia thing,” it still looks suspicious to us. As we wondered back during the primaries, what the heck kind of Republican talks like that?

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

President Donald Trump picked as good a time as any to embark on an extended multi-nation tour of Asia, given all the bad political news for the Republicans over the past week, but as usual he managed to grab his share of the attention.
During the campaign Trump frequently claimed that America had been “raped” by China in their trade relationship, but while in China he basically said that America was asking for it. “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for their benefit of their own citizens?,” he said to an audience of Chinese political and business and leaders quite a few American businessmen, who responded with a slight and nervous-sounding laughter. He placed the blame for America’s trade deficit with China squarely on “past administrations,” apparently beginning with the Nixon administration, a charge he later reiterated via “tweet,” and the die hard-supporters back home were all more robustly cheering the implication that things are going to be different from now own.
Trump wasn’t talking the campaign talk labelling China a currency manipulator or slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports or holding the negotiations over a Big Mac and fries rather than a state dinner, though, and he didn’t give any details about what he wanted to change. We don’t claim to be the masterful negotiator that Trump claims to be, but we note he also didn’t give any details about how he’s going to persuade the Chinese to go along with his announced plan to take advantage of them for the benefit of his citizens, and most of the business leaders in the audience seemed to be hoping for a different tactic.
China is going to have to reconfigure its entire economy to get its citizens buying enough Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gibson electric guitars to make much of a dent in the trade imbalance, and although it probably would make the country a whole lot cooler they’re unlikely to do so for Trump’s sake. America’s economy will also require a lot of reconfiguring before Americans stop snatching up low-priced Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart, although doing without some of that junk might also make America cooler, and there’s also the matter of the high-end airplanes and delicious wheat that folks here in Kansas make and the Chinese spend a lot of money on, so the Chinese will have some some threats of their own to make when any treaty is being debated in the Senate. Something better than the status quo is possible, and we wish Trump well in achieving that, but for the foreseeable future a balance of trade isn’t possible, and neither is it necessary desirable, so we hope Trump will be more understated and realistic in the future.
The trip also took Trump to Vietnam, which gave his critics an opportunity to chortle about the bone spurs that prevented him from serving in a war there, and brought him into direct contact with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which also gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump told reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia didn’t do the tiniest bit of meddling in the past American presidential, and Trump said that he believed him, although after the predictable outrage he quickly revised that to mean that he believed that Putin actually believed that, and that in fact he believes the contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies, at least now that they’re headed by his appointees and saying the same things they said under Obama’s appointees.
Continuing his penchant for disparaging past American governments in front of foreign audiences, Trump dismissed Obama’s past intelligence chiefs as “political hacks,” although both began their careers in Republican administrations and were decorated combat veterans of the war in Vietnam, and said the same things about Russian meddling that the Trump appointees are saying. In any case, Trump made clear that he didn’t see any reason why Russian attempts to sabotage an American should stand in the way of friendly relations.
There was also a stop in the Philippines, where the current President is Rodrigo Dueterte, who has cursed the Pope as the “son of a whore” and called an American president a “black bastard” and routinely forces kisses on women at his campaign rallies and unleashed gangs of vigilantes who have killed thousands of suspected drug users. Trump has previously praised Dueterte’s approach to the country’s problem, and always seemed quite comfortable with the rest of it, and Dueterte seems to like Trump’s style, too, so their meeting was fairly cordial. There’s a huge “Trump Tower” being built in downtown Manila, too, and Trump hasn’t divested himself of the branding agreement that’s expected to earn him millions of dollars, and the real owner of the property also happens to be Dueterte’s trade minister, so we expect it to remain cordial no matter how many suspected drug users are shot down without so much as a warrant.
The Philippines has lately benefited from America’s military support in quashing one of its occasional outbreaks of terrorism from it’s long-troublesome Muslim minority in the southern islands, too, and Dueterte has tamped down his anti-American rhetoric. He remains resistant to restoring America’s past military presence in the country and continues to make concessions to the Chinese in an apparent belief that they’re a more reliable diplomatic and economic partner.
During a stop in South Korea Trump managed to avoid making many big headlines, at least not to big enough to nudge the electoral losses or a Southern Gothic sex scandal out of the way, as he carefully avoided to referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jon-Ung as “Little Rocket Man.” The talk was tough, but within the usual diplomatic bounds, so the critics couldn’t muster of a case that he was taunting the North Korean nutcase into a nuclear confrontation by lowering himself to the dictator’s level of personal insult. After Kim once again called Trump a dotard, meaning an old and demented person, though, Trump “tweeted” back that “Why should Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat.’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe that will someday happen!” Around the same time he offered to arbitrate some of China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, citing his great negotiation skills, but was politely declined by all parties.
At every stop along the way the leaders went out of their way to provide the most lavish welcomes and flattering praise, however, and Trump seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Our guess is he and his fans will take it was proof that they’re making America great again, but that’s about all they’ll get out of it.

— Bud Norman

A Not-So-Innocent Abroad

President Donald Trump’s second official foreign tour hasn’t yet gotten to the juicy part, which will be today’s long-awaited face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it’s already generating plenty of news.
The trip shrewdly began in Poland, where Trump could expect a much-needed welcoming reception. Poles have been favorably inclined to Republican American presidents since at least the days of Ronald Reagan, whose staunch cold warrior stance did much to liberate Poland from the the totalitarian rule of the Soviet Union, and these days their government has a nationalist and protectionist and anti-immigration bent and is waging a war on the local media that make it all the more inclined to embrace such a Republican as Trump. With fans bused in from the Polish hinterlands, Trump delivered a scripted oration denouncing Russian meddling in Ukraine and elsewhere that revved up a huge Polish crowd and confounded the American media.
There was a brief news conference with the American media, though, and of course there were questions about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia that has been a bigger story here than it’s probably been in Poland. Standing next to the Polish head of state, Trump reiterated his view that no matter what his intelligence agencies say Russia might or might not have meddled in the past election to Trump’s benefit, and that if they did it was all the fault of President Barack Obama for letting it happen, and besides everyone does it, and we’re not sure how that will play. There’s no telling what the Poles will make of it, especially when you take into account the press crackdowns on fake news we’ve been reading about, but here in the states all of the putatively fake but still-free press was highlighting that Trump seemed more concerned about Putin’s meddling in Ukraine than his meddling in America’s past election.
All of which makes today’s face-to-face and officially bi-lateral meeting with Putin all the juicier, of course, and it was already juicy enough. That robustly anti-Russian speech Trump gave to the adoring Polish crowd included a robust and widely applauded affirmation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual defense clause, which was conspicuously absent from his big oration on his first European and clearly annoyed all our western European NATO allies, but the following press conference probably exacerbated their more general annoyance. Most of those NATO allies have lately survived challenges by the same nationalist and protectionist and anti-immigration impulses that have lately prevailed in Poland in America, and have come up with some proposed globalist free trade arrangements that leave America out and rival the economic clout of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump has threatened to dissolve, so the geo-political and global economic implications of that Putin meeting are pretty darned complicated.
If you’ve been following the fake-or-not coverage of that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, it’s exponentially more complicated yet. Russia has lately been joining with China to propose that America abandon a longstanding alliance against with South Korea against the North Korean government that just launched a missile test that might deliver a nuclear strike against Alaska, and Trump had plenty of things to say about both regimes during his campaign, all of which have been changed since, so todays big meeting will be damned juicy.
The meeting with Putin will take place in Germany as part of the G-20 summit of the world’s twenty biggest economies, and Trump can’t expect such a friendly reception. There are already angry and violent protests against the globalist world order, which are too angry and stupid to realize that Trump is a sort-of ally, and of course all the establishment types of western Europe have a lingering disdain for Trump since his last foreign trip. There’s little chance that Trump will charm or bully Putin into abandoning North Korea, less chance that he’ll take a firm stand with Putin to defuse all that domestic talk about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and no chance at all he’ll come home to the heroic welcome he found in Poland.
The best-case scenario is the least juicy, with Trump and Putin having a boring feeling-out meeting that is full of sound and fury yet signifying nothing, but given the personalities involved that seems unlikely.

— Bud Norman

Enquiring Minds Want to Know

The National Enquirer isn’t usually on our reading list, but on our last trip to the supermarket we couldn’t resist plunking down five bucks to see what was behind the tantalizing headline. “At last the truth about Russia,” that tabloid boasted over a picture some people familiar from the more respectable press, “What Trump Doesn’t Know!”
We were further struck that the front page also promised “Revealed: 10 spies murdered in 15 months to bury proof of Putin’s election hacking,” not to mention those pictures of Trump next to such infamous and now former associates as Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page. For more than a year now we’ve checked out the covers of the National Enquirer during our supermarket check-outs the same way Kremlinologists used to scrutinize the front page of Pravda, for the same reason that it provides the same official line, so the headline brought an intriguing plot twist.
Back in the ’80s The National Enquirer used to torment the young the celebrity billionaire Trump with salacious stories about the alleged infidelities of his wives and mistresses, but ever since he cultivated a a friendship with the tabloid’s editor in the early ’90s the coverage has been far friendlier. His presidential campaign received adulatory attention, while the rest of the Republican field was either ignored or scandalized. When retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was inching ahead in the polls the Enquirer ran a story alleging he’d left a sponge in a patient’s sewed-up skull, and when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was last the challenger it ran a picture purporting to show his father standing next Lee Harvey Oswald just before the assassination of President John Kennedy, and when it came down to Trump against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton there were all sorts of stories about her even worse than the ones the more respectable press were obliged to run.
Since his election Trump has been getting the same support from the Enquirer, with a recent front page proudly proclaiming the president’s war on dictators, with sinister photographs of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia Vladimir Putin, so it was quite a surprise to see them follow with another headline linking Putin to four people who have elsewhere been directly linked to Trump.
The article claims that Putin ordered meddling in the election that included the hacking and public release of embarrassing e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, an allegation which has of course been widely reported, but it leads with the “bombshell finding” that he also ordered the assassination of 27-year-old Clinton campaign aide Seth Rich and nine Russian operatives to cover it up, which of course has not been as widely reported. Although the article makes no mention of the aforementioned Stone, Flynn, Manafort and Page, who have been fired from their prior respective positions as longtime friend and National Security Advisor and Campaign Chairman and campaign foreign policy advisor over their Russian relations, which the more respectable press have reported are all under investigation, but it does run their pictures again on the inside, which is also darned curious.
Throughout the campaign Trump took an unusually friendly stand toward Putin, basking in the compliments Putin had reportedly paid him and talking about how great friendship with Russia would be and how obsolete the anti-Russian North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and in one debate he said the hacking of the DNC e-mails was just as likely “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds,” and he dismissed a question about the occasional Putin assassination order by asking “Do you think we’re so innocent?” After the election he conceded the Russians had “probably” hacked the DNC, but continued to avoid saying that the Russians had done anything improper at all. The Enquirer story, therefore, seems to deviate from the party line.
This comes a week or so after Trump’s newly appointed Central Intelligence Agency gave a speech that reiterated the intelligence community’s consensus conclusion that the Russians did meddle in the election, days after the Republican head of the House committee that’s looking into the matter said that Flynn had likely committed a crime by not disclosing his contract work for the Russians and Turks, and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation still looking into Page, and God only knowing what such a “political dirty trickster” as the Enquirer euphemistically describes Stone is currently facing. By now there’s enough suspicion about it that all of the official investigations are likely to continue, and unlikely to lead to any conclusions that the Russians are blameless and even if they aren’t no one in the Trump campaign had anything to do with them, so our guess is that the National Enquirer is trying out a new party line that at least the president himself had nothing to do with it.
All of the reiterated charges and “bombshell findings” and guilt-by-association photographs are huddled under the headline “What Trump Didn’t Know,” after all, and his most vociferous critics will have to admit the possibility that he didn’t know anything about what was going on. If we were one of the infamously defenestrated four on the cover of this week’s National Enquirer we’d read between the lines to see that we count on any further favors from Trump, and would be lawyering up to tell whatever we have to tell, and hoping that people are more interested in Wynnona Judd’s daughter being jailed in a meth bust. The more respectable press is likely to keep looking into this Russian thing, though, and so will the FBI and the Republican-led House committee, without any interference from the Trump-appointed Attorney General who has recused himself from all that Russian stuff and the former Trump-friendly committee chairman who has done the same, so we expect more intriguing headlines.

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Another Farce in France

As bad as the choices were in the past American presidential election, which was pretty darned bad, the French seem to have sunk even lower. They had an open field primary to pick a new president on Sunday featuring candidates ranging from outright communists to outright fascists, and wound up with a run-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marie Le Pen, who aren’t quite outright about their respective communism and fascism but are close enough to the descriptions by American standards.
Macron is the more moderate of the alternatives by French standards, but even the Sen. Bernie Sanders sorts of voters in this country’s Democratic Party would find him a bit extreme. He’s a graduate of the country’s most prestigious university program for civil servants, served a key role in the government of Francois Hollande after earning a sizable fortune in the current Francois Hollande administration, talks tough on increased defense spending and the war against terror, and proposed some business-friendly economic policies, but Hillary Clinton had similar credentials and Macron is way to the left of her on almost everything else.
Until recently Macron was a member of the same Socialist Party as Hollande, as well as being part of his government, but Hollande is lately polling at an eye-popping 4 percent approval rating, which even the most loathsome American political figures somehow never achieve, so he ran as an independent. Given France’s apparent anti-establishment mood that was a shrewd move, and the official candidate of the Socialist Party, which is pretty much the equivalent of the Democratic Party over there, fell far short of the two-way run-off election. Despite the independent status and the centrist rhetoric, though, Macron seems to have been largely responsible for the soak-the-rich economics that have left the country in a state of decline, he’s also touting higher pay for teachers in the country’s various public school war zones and the usual slate of socialist goodies, and his enthusiasm for a war on terror seems suspiciously newfound. He’s only 39 years old, too, and his wife is 64, and he strikes us quite inscrutably modern and French.
There’s no doubting Le Pen’s longstanding enthusiasm for a war on terror, but there are plausible concerns all over the world about how she might wind up waging it, and other worries as well. She ran as the candidate of the Front National, but on Monday she also declared herself an independent, probably because her party is even more unpopular than the Socialists. The Front National was formed in 1972 by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to oppose the nascent European Union and mass immigration while restoring traditional values and boosting the country’s ever-low immigration rate, but he also denied the Holocaust, peddled various anti-semitic conspiracy theories, at times seemed to welcome the newfound allies arriving in the Muslim neighborhoods, called for the quarantine of people with HIV, and groused about the darker players on France’s World Cup soccer team. He was an apologist for the Vichy government’s Nazi collaborators, too, but he still made it to a run-off back in 2002. Everyone but his 18 percent of the voters in that crazily fractured field then united against him under the slogan “vote for the crook, not the fascist,” so he lost in a landslide against a guy who really was a crook, and a few years ago he was kicked out of his own party.
Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter is an attractive and articulate 48-year-old Member of the European Parliament and a former well-regarded councilwoman in a major French city who sounds perfectly reasonable making arguments against the European Union and mass immigration and terrorism, and she seems to embrace the Jewish community as part of a coalition against the Muslims arrived, and knows better than to wade into soccer controversies, and she’s far enough removed that Vichy legacy that France would just as soon forget. Still, she apparently felt it necessary to shed her father’s party label. The younger Le Pen advocates the same nationalize-and-socialize economic prescriptions for the country’s already over regulated economy, and she keeps the to the same nationalist themes, to there remains a rather unpleasant redolence of past nationalist-socialist movements in Europe, and she’s still considered a 20-point underdog in the run-off race.
Not only is the entirety of the left sure to rally to Macron, but a large portion of the right will probably do so as well. The closest thing to a traditional American conservative in the primary was a guy named Francois Fillon from the Republican Party, which is the closest thing you’ll find to America’s Republican Party, and although the sorts of American Republicans who grumble that John McCain and Mitt Romney were a couple of damned liberals would surely hate this guy he was about the best you can hope for in France. He was outspokenly pro-American and pro-Western in his foreign policy speeches, tough but carefully nuanced in his talk about the threats from mass immigration and Islamic terrorism, and his business-friendly economic proposals seemed heartfelt rather than newfound, but he’d also been caught giving some lucrative taxpayer-paid sinecures to his wife and kids, and he came in a close-but-no-cigar third place with 20 percent of the vote behind Le Pen’s 21 percent. He has urged his followers to join with the 24 percent who voted for Macron, to some degree or another most of the center-right parties throughout Europe have done the same, and so far the bets are mostly against Le Pen.
The bettors have been taking a beating lately, though, so we won’t be laying any money down on this unfamiliar game. As odd as the French are we suspect they’re still prone to some of the basic human behaviors we’ve observed elsewhere, and by now we can well understand why they’d be fed up with all those terrorist attacks coming from recent Muslim arrivals and looking for any old idea about how to stop the chronic unemployment, and if the French yahoos are anything like the ones around here we’re sure they found that almost-Republican candidate far too nuanced in his tough talk. We’ve warned for years that if the mainstream parties don’t forthrightly address the very serious if somewhat embarrassing problems posed by immigrations, it will be left to the fringe candidates to do it, and that seems to have proved true both here and in France.
Some of those center-right voters are going to go with Le Pen, just as many wary Republicans went with Trump, some of the voters for the outright communist candidates are going to sit it out rather than vote for such a sell-out as Macron, just as many Sanders sorts of Democrats did with Clinton. Even if she doesn’t make up a formidable 20 percent deficit — far bigger than the polls had Brexit or President Donald Trump’s election or all the recent mis-called races that are being invoked — we expect it will be close. France is split 50-50 on the European Union, all those Muslims and the tiny number of Jews left in France will likely join with some wary allies against Le Pen, and just as in America everybody in France seems to hate everybody else and anything that reeks of of any kind of establishment.
America seems relatively sane by comparison, but our Republican president, who ran on an anti-Republican-establishment platform, has been “tweeting” comments about how a recent Islamist terror attack in Europe vindicates the same anti-immigrant stand that he and Le Pen ran on, even as his spokespeople insist that he didn’t mean to endorse anyone. American presidents are best advised not to comment on French elections, but if a Republican one were to do so we would have expected him to tout that Fillon guy, and surely this president can’t fault him for using his office to funnel some money towards his wife and kids, so that’s also curious. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is reportedly helping Le Pen’s campaign, just as he’s supported anti-establishment nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe, and there are ongoing investigations about how Putin meddled in the election that resulted in Trump’s anti-establishment and nationalist victory, and even if there’s nothing to it that’s all the more reason Trump should have stayed neutral.
In any case, we have a slightly familiar and all-too-desultory feeling that neither of these awful candidates are going to make France great again.