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Lock ‘Em All Up, If That’s What It Takes

President Donald Trump on Wednesday “re-tweeted” a “photo-shopped” internet “meme” that depicts 11 of his political adversaries locked behind iron bars, beneath the heading “Now that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?” The hard-core fans probably found it hilarious, and further that proof that at least their champion fights, but we we found it further frightening evidence of a slow slide toward banana republic authoritarianism.
The “re-tweet” came just eight days after The New York Times reported that Trump had once directed the Justice Department to commence criminal investigations of former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey and his Democratic presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, both of whom are featured in the “meme.” Trump’s apologists insisted he never did any such thing, and that even if he did it never came to pass, but the “re-tweeted” “meme” suggests he probably did give the order, and that it didn’t actually happen only because wiser heads somehow prevailed.
We have no affection for Comey, although we can muster some sympathy for an FBI director who had the bad luck to be in office during a presidential campaign with both major party candidates being the subjects of criminal investigations, and we have as much antipathy to that awful Clinton woman as the next guy, even if we think the everlasting ignominy of having lost to the likes of Trump should be sufficient punishment for anyone. Even so, all those campaign rally chants of “lock ’em up,” and Trump’s campaign promises to do just that, strike us a damned un-American way to make America great again. Locking up vanquished political opponents hasn’t made any of the South American or Eastern European or Middle Eastern or sub-Saharan African nations that do that sort of thing remotely great, and we can’t imagine it working any better here.
Meanwhile a special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” has indeed locked up one of Trump’s former campaign managers and a former campaign national security advisor, and Trump’s former administrational national security advisor has pleaded guilty to felonies and awaits sentencing, with more campaign and administration officials and perhaps some Trump family members seemingly awaiting indictment, and that surely has something to with Trump’s angry “re-tweets.” Trump has frequently called the investigation a “witch hunt” and part of a “deep state” conspiracy to overthrow him, and often complained that it’s not investigating itself and his other enemies instead. The hard-core fans find this quite compelling, and more reason to resume their “lock ’em up” chants at the ongoing rallies, but it’s proving a hard sell to the rest of the country.
All the intelligence agencies agree that the Russians meddled in America’s past campaign to get Trump elected, so the talk radio theory that it was Clinton and the Democrats who colluded with the effort seems downright counter-intuitive, and so far there’s none of extraordinary proof few require or such an extraordinary claim. So far as we can tell both Comey and Clinton are by now every bit as politically powerless as ourselves, so we don’t think all the indictments and guilty pleas the special counsel has racked up are their ingenious revenge. Nor can we see how the allegations of Russian collusion on the part of the Trump campaign have been disproved, as the “meme” claims, and we eagerly await what the special counsel has to report.
In the meantime, and as always, we don’t find any satisfaction in watching anybody get locked up. With no rooting interest in either party at this point, as always we’ll be hoping that eventually the truth will prevail. That will probably involve locking somebody up, as it usually does, but for most of this sorry cast of characters we’ll gladly settle for them suffering ignominy throughout history for their deeds, and hope  the next government starts over with a clean slate.

— Bud Norman

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At Least America Isn’t Yet Enured

There was another mass shooting in America on Tuesday, this time in the usually placid town of Thousand Oaks, California, and another out-in-the-open attempt by President Donald Trump to obstruct a duly authorized special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing,” this time by replacing the recused and thus recently defenestrated Attorney General with a man who has openly stated his desire to shut down the probe. Both of these unsettlingly routine stories somehow made the front pages of the newspapers and the top of the cable news hours, so we were at least heartened to note that America hasn’t yet come to regard them as the new normal.
All the familiar arguments about gun control and mental health care were once again repeated in the wake of the shooting at a popular bar where the many patrons were line-dancing country-and-western music, and as usual none of them changed anybody’s mind, yet it’s good news that the conversation continues.
Perhaps the Democratic majority that was elected to the House of Representatives will pass some crazy gun-grabbing bill, but the slightly padded Republican majority that was returned to the Senate will probably hew to its obstinate opposition even to such minor Second Amendment tweaks as banning the “bump stocks” were used in a even bloodier country-and-western massacre in Las Vegas about a year ago and the extended pistol magazines used at Thursday’s slaughter. It will probably take more American carnage and a couple of extra election cycles before anything  is done, and we have no confidence that either party has any effective solutions to offer, so we’ll take some solace that the country isn’t yet inured to these frequent mass murders.
We’re also pleased to note the mass outrage over Trump’s efforts to install the sort of Roy Cohn pit bull protector that he’s always openly pined for as acting Attorney General. The upcoming Democratic majority in the House and the sizable Democratic minority in the Senate are predictably outraged about itt, and tens of thousands of their voters took to the streets in mosts states to protest Trump’s move, and several prominent congressional Republicans are willing to risk the wrath of Trump’s “tweets” to state their objections, and judging by the many once-Republican House seats now held by Democrats there are a lot of well-educated and white collar suburbanite Republican women out there who are similarly disloyal to their party’s leader.
Trump has convinced most of his party and a big chunk of the country that the special counsel investigation is a “deep state conspiracy” and “witch hunt” led by “angry Democrats” and “globalists” who hate America and don’t want to see it made great again, but it’s a hard sell to the rest of the country. The guy heading the special counsel investigation is an actual Eagle Scout and decorated war hero with many decades of distinguished and scandal-free public service and a lifelong Republican, which is far more than Trump can say, and in his long and heroic career in law enforcement he’s earned bipartisan respect for his character that Trump will never achieve and doesn’t even aspire to have.
There’s also the matter of the meeting that Donald Trump Jr. admittedly arranged with Russian operatives promising dirt on the opposition, the guilty pleas of Trump’s Kremlin-connected former campaign manager and national security advisor on various charges brought by the special counsel, and the many other reasons an objective observer might not regard the investigation as a “witch hunt.” The guy who was promoted over some higher-ranked and Senate-confirmed officials to be acting director of the Justice Department has made quite clear on cable television that without any knowledge of what the special counsel might have learned he’s made up his mind and not at all an objective observer, which is obviously the reason he got the promotion, so that’s also a tough sell for even Trump to make.
A perfectly innocent president would want an Eagle Scout war hero with an unimpeachable bipartisan reputation to conduct an exhaustive investigation to vindicate him, but as always Trump is clearly intent on shutting it down. We have dear friends and family who are part of that most the Republican party and that big chunk of the country outraged that Trump is bedeviled by a witch hunt, but we’re trying our best to be objective observers and are currently sympathetic with all those well-educated suburbanite Republican women and even the angriest Democrats and most of those crucial independents. Our guess is that a slight majority of the country will be outraged if the special counsel’s pursuit of justice is unconstitutionally obstructed, and although we take faint hope in that outrage we figure that no matter how it turns out there will be further days of rage and carnage in our beloved America.
We also have dear friends and family who tell us that our posts lately are rather depressing, and this one’s admittedly glum, but that’s how we see it.

— Bud Norman

On Friends, Family, and Trump

Some old friends and close family members have lately encouraged us to go easier on President Donald Trump, but none of them are obliged to publish political commentary five times a week, and thus they haven’t noticed how hard it is to find anything else to write about these days. Most of the media took time out on Wednesday to report on a near-fatal heroin overdose by a pop singer named Demi Lovato, but as sad as that is we have to admit we had not previously heard of her and have little to say about her apparently troubled life, and as usual almost all of the rest of the non-sports news was about Trump.
Also as usual, we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a convincing defense of Trump about any of it, and our old friends and close family members aren’t offering any helpful suggestions.
The story that took up the most newspaper space and cable news airtime on Wednesday was an audio recording of a telephone conversation between Trump and his longtime but now former lawyer Michael Cohen concerning a $150,000 payment made through the notorious National Enquirer tabloid to a former Playboy centerfold model named Karen McDougal who alleges she had an affair with Trump shortly after his third wife and current First Lady gave birth to his fifth child. Once upon a saner time in America such a story would have had a five-column headline and round-the-clock updates on all of the networks, but these days it’s just one column above the fold and ten minutes at the top of hour, and it’s all so damned complicated that Trump and his apologists found something slightly exculpatory in it.
Trump has already indignantly “tweeted” about “What kind of lawyer would tape a client,” which is indeed a good question, but by now many snarky columnists and all the late night television comics have rightly answered that it’s apparently the kind of lawyer that Trump hires. Due to the low-fidelity nature of the recording there’s some dispute about whether Trump said he would or wouldn’t want to pay the hush money to a Playboy centerfold model in cash, and his die-hard fans believe he insisted on paying with check and therefore demonstrated his commitment to complete transparency. Cohen is the same lawyer who set up a Delaware shell corporation to make a $130,000 payment to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels to stop her from alleging a one-night-stand that allegedly occurred around the same time as the alleged affair with the Playboy centerfold, and federal search warrants have been executed on his office and home and hotel room, and some scary federal and unpardonable state indictments about all sorts of things seem likely imminent, so there’s also an argument to be made that he’s now flipped to the dark side and is complicit in the “deep state’s” and “fake news'” ongoing “witch hunt” conspiracy to make Trump look bad.
Maybe so, but by now there’s no denying that the boastfully adulterous Trump and the lawyer he now admits is sleazy made six-figure payments to a porn star and a Playboy model to hush them up about some quite credibly alleged affairs, and once upon a saner time in America during a Democratic administration all of our old friends and close family members and other fellow Republicans would have been appalled by that. Maybe Trump did insist on paying by check, even though current Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently told a cable news interviewer that “he’d be a fool to do that,” but that still seems a weak defense of our president’s character.
Meanwhile, the European Union has offered to negotiate an end to the trade war Trump has waged against it, which the Trump triumphalists see as another big win, but it remains to be seen if the negotiations will go as well as that free-trade treaty the EU recently negotiated with Japan that left America out of a third of the world’s economy. North Korea continues advancing its nuclear threat despite Trump’s “tweeted” assurances that we can all sleep soundly that’s there’s no longer any threat, and Trump has postponed his White House sequel to the much-panned Helsinki summit with Russian dictator until the “Russia thing” investigation in wrapped up.
Meanwhile, on the freedom of speech front, the Trump administration also barred a Cable News Network reporter from from a public event because of her pesky questions, threatened to revoke the security clearances of high-ranking officials from the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush who have been critical of Trump administration policies, and Trump advised a cheering crowd of sycophants in Kansas City that “What you’re reading and seeing is not what’s happening.” That was at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, whose leadership later apologized for the members who had booed the press, as the press were invited members of the public gathering.
As much as we hate to be at odds with our old friends and close family members and other fellow Republicans, by now there’s no denying that Trump says several things a day that are obviously untrue, and that the “fake news” has a far better batting average for verifiable accuracy than our president. Our old friends and close family members and other fellow Republicans can still make a very convincing hypothetical case that a President “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s administration would be even worse, but they can’t yet convince us that any of this is making America great again.

— Bud Norman

There’s Still a Threat on the Korean Peninsula, and Elsewhere

According to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the National Broadcasting Corporation, all the American intelligence agencies have concluded that North Korea’s nutcase dictator Kim Jong-Un is still pursuing the development of nuclear weapons despite his recent vague promises to President Donald Trump to pursue denuclearization. Given all the broken promises the three generations of nutcase Kim family dictatorships have offered to previous American presidents, we can’t dismiss this as “fake news.”
Trump continues to insist that the nuclear threat from North Korea has been eliminated by his historic summit and much-photographed handshake with the latest Kim, and his rally crowds are chanting “Nobel Prize!” when he mentions the matter, but given Trump’s track record for veracity and North Korea’s record of playing American presidents we have our doubts. With all due respect to Trump’s boasts, our best guess based on the most reliable sources available suggest that North Korea and America are still at the same scary standstill with pipsqueak North Korea that the two nations have maintained through our entire lives.
Kim Jong-Un got a world-wide photo-op shaking hands with the American president during that historic summit, as well as fulsome praise of his brutal dictatorship from the American president, as well as security guaranties and the cessation of join American-South Korean military exercises, and in exchange he gave the same vague promises of denuclearization that his nutcase dad and granddad had offered and then reneged on. Trump’s die-hard fans can chant “Nobel Prize!” all they want, but we’re more inclined to believe The Economist’s front-page headline that “Kim Jong Won.”
Which is is worrisome by itself, but all the more so considering Trump’s current relations with the rest of the world. For the past several months Trump has been waging rhetorical and trade wars against our most longstanding military allies and trading partners, and he’s got another big summit and photo-op handshake scheduled this month with Russia’s nutcase dictator, whose assurances that he didn’t interfere with America’s last election are contradicted by all of the intelligence agencies but are eagerly accepted by the President of the United States. All of which comes at a time when President of the United States is feuding with our European Union allies and talking about how they shouldn’t be so self-righteous about Russia’s invasion of a sovereign neighbor, and we don’t seem that summit ending well for the self-proclaimed dealmaker.
We’re still hoping it will all out work somehow, but at this point we don’t have much faith in any agreements between Trump and those even more dubious dictatorships he seems to prefer to make deals with.

— Bud Norman

The All-Too-Familiar News Gets Worse

The latest horrific American mass shooting got most of the air time and front page headlines, as it should, but there was also plenty of intriguing news about the “Russia thing” on Thursday.
Rod Rosenstein is a life-long Republican who was appointed to his post as America’s deputy attorney general by putatively Republican President Donald Trump, but you wouldn’t have guessed that by the treatment he received from the Republicans during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Because Trump’s pick for Attorney General was obliged to recuse himself from the “Russia thing” Rosenstein has wound up in charge of a special counsel investigation into the matter, and so far he’s letting it proceed without interference, and these days that’s a considered a betrayal of the only Republican principle that matters, which is loyalty to Trump above all else.
Rosenstein was accused of unlawfully withholding information from Congress, even though he’s handed over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and has a strong argument that the law forbids him from turning over what has been withheld. Based on a Fox News report Rosenstein was accused of “intimidating” congressional investigators with threats of subpoenas of e-mails and phone calls, but he plausibly asserted that Fox News was wrong and got a big laugh by noting that “you can’t subpoena phone calls.” South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy angrily insisted that the special counsel investigation that has already numerous indictments and several guilty pleas come to a quick because it’s going for on a year, and Rosenstein was polite enough not to respond that Gowdy’s investigation of the deadly fiasco at Benghazi went on for two-and-a-half without proving anything but the obvious-from-the-outset conclusion that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been fatally incompetent but not at all criminal in their handling of the matter.
Fox News viewers and talk radio listeners probably enjoyed the pummeling they perceived, but we thought Rosenstein punched back quite effectively. In any case, Rosenstein is clearly defiant about allowing the special counsel investigation to proceed without interference, and if the House Republicans try to prevent that they’ll be in for an awful news cycle and a damning verdict from history. Thursday brought more proof, added to all that’s piled up over the past couple of years, that there’s something fishy about the “Russia thing” that demands a special investigation.
The American Broadcasting Company broadcast some pretty persuasive pictures of some some pretty suspicious Russians enjoying their elite access to Trump’s inauguration parties, and the news that the special counsel is scrutinizing all of them.
Buried deep in the news were the finalized details of a planned meeting between Trump and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, and all the numerous reasons our nervous allies and our own skittish selves are worried about that. Trump himself “tweeted” that Russia denies it had anything to do with the last election, andhe wondered why his Justice Department is more concerned with that “Russia thing” “witch hunt” rather than all the crimes his vanquished political opponents should clearly be locked up for by now. Given that all of the intelligence agencies and the people he picked as Federal Bureau of Investigation director and Central Intelligence Agency director and Defense Secretary and Secretary of State and Attorney General agree that Russia is brazenly lying to him, this is not reassuring.
At Axios.com they have a round-up of media reports about Trump telling our most longstanding military allies and trading partners at a recent Group of Seven meeting that “(North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is as bad as (North American Free Trade Agreement)” as a rip-off of the United States, and that Russia probably should be occupying Crimea because so many people speak Russian there. Axios.com is liberal but reliably reality-based internet news publication, and given Trump’s many displeased public pronouncements about our traditional military allies and trading partners in the G-7 and all of his fulsome praise for the dictator of a traditional adversary we see no reason to doubt a word of it. Thursday also brought news from The Washington Post that Trump tried to convince French President Emmanuel Macron to leave the European Union and strike a friendly unilateral deal with America.
The summit with Russia’s dictator should prove at least as friendly as his recent summit with the even more brutal North Korean dictator, where Trump traded fulsome praise and security guarantees in exchanges for the same vague promises the third-generation dictatorship has broken countless times. It will certainly be friendlier than that last G-7 summit with our most longstanding military allies and trading partners, where Trump went out of his way to offend everyone but that wacky populist in Italy.
Trump won’t be pressing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin about that “Russia thing,” or Russia’s occupation of a significant part of a nation whose sovereignty America is obliged by treaty to respect, and he’s apparently cool with Putin’s attempts to undermine the military alliances and trading partnerships that have made the West so dominate in the post-World War II and especially the post-Cold War eras, and he’s fine with Putin’s pal and brutal dictator Bassar al-Asssad staying in power in Libya, so they should get along fine. Now that Trump’s branded vodka is long gone from the marketplace he might even negotiate a trade good deal for lower-priced Stolichnaya, which is the good stuff and will surely come in handy someday soon, but other than we can’t see what the boastful deal-maker hopes to get out of it.
Which strikes us as fishy, given what an adversarial dictatorship Russia is and the conclusions of every Trump administration official except Trump that it did play a nefarious role in our last election, and everything else about Trump’s foreign policy is similarly fishy. The special counsel has Trump’s clearly Russia-tied former campaign manager in jail, has secured a guilty plea from Trump’s clearly Russia-tied national security advisor, Trump’s son has published an e-mail chat that admitted he and his brother-in-law and the campaign manager with someone he understood to be from the Russian with an offer to interfere in the election. and there’s so much else that’s fishy about it we want a special investigation to keeping looking into it.

— Bud Norman

An Unduly Hard Month of May in the Current Age of Reason

This month of May has already taken a deadly toll on the intellectual life of America, in ways both figurative and literal. Aside from all the daily dumbing-down of the United States that you’ll note in the headlines and talk radio chatter, we’ve also lost some of the very best minds from the previous better era of high culture and academia.
Earlier this month we penned a heartfelt farewell to Tom Wolfe, who was the greatest American writer of the past half-century in our opinion, and now we find ourselves respectfully noting the past week’s deaths of both Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who in our opinion were the two most formidable thinkers of their time in their essential academic fields
Neither Pipes nor Lewis were ever nearly as household-name famous as any of the Kardashians or the latest rap star or that lawyer for a porno performer who’s lately been on the cable channels causing all sorts of problems for the President of the United States, but in the long run we expect they’ll prove far more consequential.
Pipes, who died on May 17 at the age of 94, was a Harvard professor of Russian and Soviet history. That sounds pretty boring by current pop culture standards, and that Harvard professorship will immediately raise suspicions among the current version of conservative talk radio chatter, but his scholarly analysis of the Cold War, which was a hot topic at the time, played a key role in bringing that conflict to a for-now successful conclusion for what’s left of Western Civilization and classically liberal democracy.
Despite his Harvard professorship and the academic fashions of his moment, which politely agreed that international communism was an historical inevitability, Pipes daringly predicted that the Soviet model’s fundamental flaws doomed it to failure that a robust challenge from a more culturally and economically vibrant and militarily stronger West could more quickly bring about. President Ronald Reagan had already reached the same conclusion, but he still drew on the depth of Pipes’ analysis as he pursued that agenda, and he was quite effective in noting to the press and public opinion that his policies had the imprimatur of a some fancy-assed Harvard professor who scholarship was unchallenged even by his critics. Both Pipes and Reagan suffered the derision of the left, which was probably harder on the academic Pipes, but for now they seem vindicated by history.
Lewis, who died Saturday at the ripe old age of 101, was a longtime professor of Middle Eastern studies at the equally fancy-pants Princeton University. That sounds pretty boring to the popular culture and suspicious to the talk radio chatter, too, but he also did Western Civilization a huge favor by defying academic fashions about the great global civilizational clash that was unleashed at the end the Cold War.
Lewis was born into a middle-class Jewish American family around the same time T.E. Lawrence, who had majored in was was then called “Orientalism” at an elite British University, was leading an Arab revolt to help Britain’s efforts in World War I. By the time Lewis was pursuing his higher education in the same discipline it was called Middle Eastern studies, but he went at it with the same diligence and cultural confidence as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He mastered Hebrew far beyond what his Bar Mitzvah reading required, became equally fluent in Farsi and Arabic, modestly joked that he could “make the noises” of another 11 languages, and dug deeply into all of the cultures those languages represented and reported his finding in pristine English prose.
Although he inevitably found plenty of good and bad in all the cultures he surveyed, as well as the intrusive and all-too-human culture he came from, Lewis never shied from the necessary judgments needed to make sense of it all. He frequently defied the academic fashions of his time by opining that fundamental differences between the Islamic and more or less Judeo-Christian cultures made a “conflict of civilizations” inevitably in an increasingly small world, and that in the long run the world would be better off the more culturally and economically and military stronger West prevailed.
Despite his undisputed scholarship and Ivy League credentials, in the 1990’s Lewis was challenged as the premier Middle Eastern scholar by Columbia professor Edward Said, whose surprisingly best-selling book “Orientalism” charged that the academic field was still tainted by a Occidental bias against the poor victims of the West’s rapacious colonialism. The debate was still raging when some suicidal Islamist terrorists crashed hijacked airplanes into the Wold Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field way back in ’01, and for a while there the debate between Lewis and Said was a hot topic. Both sides have since had considerable influence on subsequent events, for better and worth, but for now Lewis has been more influential, and we expect that in the long he will be vindicated.
For now, though, one month’s loss of the likes of the clear-eyed likes of Wolfe and Pipes and Lewis gives some worry,  especially when the rest of the news and talk radio chatter is so alarmingly divorced from the sort of fact-based and dispassionately objective analysis these men once provided.

— Bud Norman

A Troubled Lawyer and His Three Clients

The news was once again jam-packed on Monday, and included a blowout win by The New York Yankees and a very slight uptick in the stock markets, but the two separate but perhaps related headlines that stood out for us involved Russia and Sean Hannity.
If you’ve been following the whole “Russia thing” subplot in President Donald Trump’s latest reality show, you’re already aware that he won the Republican nomination on a platform that was conspicuously more Russia-friendly than any Democrat had ever dared, with fulsome praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and disparaging comments about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that had long thwarted Russia’s ambitions, and news of Russia’s meddling on Trump’s behalf and frequent undisclosed but since acknowledged contacts took place between the Russians and the Trump campaign have been prominent in the media ever since. Lately Trump has been boasting that no president has ever been tougher on the Russkies than Trump, including Truman and and Kennedy and Ike and Nixon and Reagan and all those wimps who temporarily won the Cold War, but the very latest news still sounds suspicious to our ears.
Trump has by now accepted his own appointees’ to the intelligence agencies consensus conclusion that Russia did indeed meddle in the last American presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and he didn’t veto a Russian sanctions bill that was passed by a veto-proof bipartisan majority in both chambers of commerce. American troops recently killed a couple hundred Russians in the Syrian civil war theater, he’s launched two retaliatory strikes against Russia’s Syrian allies after their chemical attacks on civilians, and even named Putin in a “tweet” criticizing his support for a “Gas Killing Animal.” His currently unfilled State Department and a formidably led Defense Department a remarkably sound United Nations ambassador have announced tough sanctions on Russian oligarchs and promised a extended opposition to the Syrian dictatorship.
Which sounds good  to our old fashioned neocon Republican ears, except that we don’t believe a word of it. Trump only grudgingly acknowledged Russia’s meddling in the last election, and still insists that it was Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton who conspired with the Russkies to hand Trump his improbable presidency, clearly regards it as no big deal. He’s been pretty darned slow in enforcing that veto-proof bill he signed imposing Russian sanctions, too. His missile strikes in Libya have carefully avoided Russian casualties, and the two hundred or so Russians he killed were not Russian soldiers but rather mercenaries opposing the Syrian dictatorship, so the Russian government has not been upset by it. The Trump administration’s recent expulsion of Russian diplomats reportedly annoyed Trump, and by Monday he was walking back his stalwart UN ambassador’s tough talk about sanctions.
Meanwhile Trump is dealing with all the legal subplots about pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and the numerous women who claim in court filings and media interviews that Trump has groped them, and Michael Cohen, the lawyer and self-described “fixer” who long handled these sorts of problems for Trump has lately had no-knock search warrants executed at his home and office and most recent hotel room. There are also reports from the same newspaper chain which owes us a pension that the same lawyer was making contact with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign, and at this point both Trump and his longtime lawyer have some explaining to do.
As the court documents reveal, and the mainstream media have giddily disseminated, that Cohen’s main client was Trump. When he pressed in court he revealed that another client was a big Republican who had hired him to pay hush money to a big time Republican fund-raiser who had impregnated another Playboy playmate, and when pressed to name a third client he reluctantly named talk radio host and Fox News personality Hannity. The news broke while Hannity was on the radio waves, and he quickly emphasized that although he had sought Cohen’s legal advice it had nothing to do with paying off any playmates, pregnant or otherwise.
We’ll take the notoriously puritanical Hannity’s word for that, despite his apologetics for Trump’s many undenied and even boasted about adulteries, but we still got a chuckle out of it. Trump and Hannity and their hilariously incompetent lawyer are all properly embarrassed at the moment, as far as were concerned, and although there are many nits to be picked with the far more formidable legal teams arrayed against them, including that former Federal Bureau of Investigation director with the currently best-selling book, and given everything else it seems another bad cycle for Trump and his most die-hard supporters.

— Bud Norman

A Two-Front, or More, War for Trump

President Donald Trump spent some of the past weekend lobbing actual missiles at Syrian chemical weapons sites, and the rest lobbing rhetorical missiles at former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. In both cases, it remains to be seen how effective those attacks will prove.
The actual missiles lobbed into Syria were a justifiable response to a vicious dictatorship’s use of chemical weapons in its brutal prosecution of a civil war that America has reluctantly wound up in, as far as our old-fashioned Republican selves are concerned, and we were pleasantly surprised to note the strikes were carried out in coordination with the militaries of France and England the diplomatic approval of several other important allies. The last time Trump lobbed missiles at Syrian targets he got some rare bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls, but it didn’t deter the latest chemical attack by the Syrian dictatorship, and this time around some of his most vocal supporters are grousing about another one of those neo-con military-industrial complex establishment entanglements, so there’s no telling how it plays out now.
Trump had earlier “tweeted” the complete withdrawal of American forces from the entire Syrian civil war mess, claiming undue credit for the recent near-annihilation of the head-chopping and crucifying Islamist terrorist gang that had declared itself the Islamic State in much of Syria and Iraq, and he didn’t seem to mind that meant leaving the vicious Syrian dictatorship in permanent power to do what illegal atrocities it might. Nor did he he seem to mind that he was also allowing Syria’s equally odious dictator partnerships in Iran and Russia an extraordinary influence in the volatile and still strategically important region.
After the tear-jerking footage of the aftermath of the last chemical attacks were broadcast on all the networks, and the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and Berlin and in Trump’s own administration and the bipartisan press argued that such a cruel violation international law must be met with a forceful response, Trump was “tweeting” a warning to Russia to get ready for a strike by his “shiny, new and smart” missiles. This apparently took the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and the military brass in the Pentagon by surprise, so the next day Trump was “tweeting that the missiles might take a while, and the day after that we hit those Syrian chemical weapons sites. For now Trump has taken the position that America will sustain its diplomatic and economic as well as military influence in the region, but all reports suggest he’s been talked into that by by all those “deep state” and “New World” types, so those erstwhile non-interventionist talk radio hosts might prove more persuasive..
In any case the Syrian dictator is broadcasting images on the state-controlled Syrian media of himself walking calmly into work, visibly unworried by the paper tiger of the west’s ineffectual pinprick missile strikes, and on their state-controlled media neither Russia nor Iran seem at all unfazed, and despite the best efforts of Fox News and his most loyal talk radio allies Trump was unable to do the same.
Instead Trump spent much of the rest of the weekend “tweeting” insults about the FBI director he fired, calling him a liar and a “leaker” and “slime ball,” and otherwise undermine the credibility of Comey’s soon-to-published and already best-selling book. The advance publicity has already revived talk of Russian prostitutes urinating on one another in a Moscow hotel room at Trump’s request, the size of his hands and unusual hue of his skin, possibly impeachable attempts to obstruct justice, and counter charges by Comey that Trump reminded him of the organized crime figures he’d prosecuted earlier in his career, and it wound up hogging up much of the front pages and news hours from the missile strikes in Syria.
Our guess is that neither Trump nor Comey comes out of this battle metaphorically unbloodied. Comey did do some undeniably dumb things during his otherwise distinguished career, especially when he found himself directing the FBI at a time when both major party presidential campaigns were under investigation for some pretty appalling reasons, so the advance copies of the book are already getting some very mixed reviews from bipartisan media. On the other hand, many Americans will probably regard Comey as less a “slime ball” than the failed casino-and-strip bar magnate who’s also currently fending off legal problems with pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and various women who allege he groped them, not to mention all the creepy recordings from Trump’s appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and “Access Hollywood” and soft-core Playboy videos and his boasts in his best-selling self-help books.
Even if Trump succeeds in convincing his die-hard fans that Comey’s a a “leaker” and a liar and a “slime ball,” the increasingly scary investigation into the “Russia thing” by special counsel Robert Mueller that resulted from Comey’s firing continue. Despite attempts by Trump and his supporters to impugn the character of the Eagle Scout war hero with a distinguished and blessed by both parties career of public service leading that investigation, Trump’s “tweets” indicate he regards that investigation as a bigger deal than any old Syrian civil war.

— Bud Norman

Pennsylvania and Pompeo and the Rest

The big story on Tuesday was supposed to be that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania, but of course President Donald Trump wound up grabbing all the headlines. He fired his Secretary of State, which would be newsworthy story in any administration, and given these peculiar circumstances there were enough subplots to fill countless side bar stories.
Although none of ever much liked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, some of us are sorry to see him go. He came into the job with no previous diplomatic experience, save for negotiation some big-money deals as the head of the giant Exxon corporation with the Russian government that were being hampered by American sanctions, so he started off on the wrong foot with the foreign policy establishment. He proved more of a hard-liner on Russia than Trump would prefer, so the establishment press came to regard him as a restraining influence on the president, but that only made him all the more unpopular with Trump and his hard-line supporters. Meanwhile Tillerson went ahead with his budget-cutting and downsizing plan for the State Department, which did not endear him to any of his employees, and in the end it didn’t spare Tillerson from his own boss’s wrath.
Trump’s announced replacement is Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, which is another interesting story. As much as we hate to name drop, we’ve actually schmoozed with the guy on a couple of occasions, which is one of the perks of being well-connected on the theatrical and political and social scenes here in Wichita, Kansas, which has somehow produced two CIA directors in our lifetimes, and we have to say we found him a friendly enough fellow. He’s a formidable fellow, too, top of his class at West Point and editor of the Harvard Law Review and founder of a successful high-tech aviation business here in town, and as traditional Kansas Republicans we enthusiastically voted for him in all three of his successful runs in our Fourth Congressional District. Why, wee still have a red-white-and-blue “I Like Mike” button on our desk, which we proudly use to prick the pinholes on our pesky electronic devices.
Pompeo gave an eloquent endorsement of Sen. Marco Rubio during the Kansas Republican party’s primary caucus down at Century II, and was among the Republican resisting Trump right up until the nomination, but since then he’s been more accommodating to Trump. Early on in his is CIA role he reaffirmed the agency’s conclusion that the Russian government had indeed meddled in the past presidential election, and that the “Wikileaks” operation leaking all the hacked Democratic e-mails was acting on Russia’s behalf, but he was careful not to implicate Trump. Over time he reportedly won Trump over with his schmoozing and his educational and military and business and Kansas conservative credentials, along with his increasing willingness to insulate Trump from any of that “Russia thing,” and we’re not surprised by Pompeo’s latest promotion.
Trump was reportedly considering firing Tillerson months ago, although dismissed it as “fake news” at the time, so there was naturally some speculation about why it happened on Tuesday. Tillerson had survived the reports that he’d called Trump a certain profane sort of “Moron,” which he neither confirmed nor denied, and Trump’s “tweets” about challenging his Secretary of State to an I.Q. test competition, and all the times that Tillerson had distanced himself on whatever story was dominating the day’s news cycle, from the Paris Climate Accord to the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia to the wisdom of negotiating with the North Korean dictatorship, so one can’t help wondering what straw at long last broke the metaphorical camel’s back.
The British government is currently indignant about a couple of political assassinations that were quite apparently committed on their sovereign soil by agents of the Russian government, and Tillerson expressed his shared indignation shortly after the White House press secretary had stressed that maybe the Russians had nothing to do with it, so naturally there was some speculation about that. Trump has since said that yeah the Russians probably did it, although he didn’t seem the least big indignant about it, and he’s previously expressed his opinion that hey what the hell we do lots of extra-terrritorial killings here in the good ol’ USA, so there’s some expected speculation about that.
If we were the type to indulge in conspiracy theories, we’d chalk Tillerson’s firing up to that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania. We stayed up all night to the results but it was still too close too call, but the Democrat was clinging to a slim over the Republican, and no matter how the lawyers work it out we’re sure Trump would rather not talk about that.
Trump won the district by 20 points in the election landslide, even better than the 15 or more point victories that Republicans had long expected, but since then things have changed. The Republicans have won most of the special congressional elections since Trump’s inaugural, but that’s mostly because they’ve been in districts or states where Trump promoted a popular Republican to a cabinet position, and all of the races have been conspicuously closer than the last time around. The Republicans even managed to lose a Senate seat in Alabama, of all places, for crying out loud, and a loss in northern Pennsylvania would bode ill for a lot of Republicans next November.
That Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts creepy and criminal behavior, while that Republican up in Pennsylvania is more frequently criticized for being boring, unlike the pro-life and family values Republican incumbent who’d resigned the seat after his mistress told the press about he’d pressed to get an abortion. In both elections Trump held well-attended and raucous rallies in support of his fellow Republicans, and although in both in cases he talked mostly about himself they wound up well short of his victory margins, even the Republican lawyers somehow eke out a victory. which does not portend well for Trump or the rest of the Republicans in fall’s mid-term elections.
All politics really is local, though, even in the age of Trump. The Democrat in Pennsylvania was just as supportive of Trump’s crazy-ass steel tariffs as the Republican, and he was a handsome ex-Marine and former prosecutor who’d killed or locked up all sorts of sinister types, and was centrist on guns and such, and had the endorsement of the remaining steelmaking unions. The Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts of creepiness, and the opposing Democratic took his own boring and centrist position, which eventually won the day.

Maybe Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State will turn it all around, but we doubt it. He strikes us as a nice enough and serious enough fellow, but these are trying times.

— Bud Norman

Bannon Bows Out

That awful Steve Bannon fellow was back at the top of the news on Wednesday, but at least we can at long last hope it will be for the last time.
In case you haven’t been following President Donald Trump’s tawdry reality show, Bannon is the former Naval officer and Goldman Sachs executive and Hollywood investor who went from the “alt-right platform” of Breitbart.com news site to become Trump’s campaign “chief executive officer” and then the “chief political strategist” and National Security Council member for the Trump administration. He was largely credited for crafting the nationalist and populist platform that won Trump the presidency, or largely blamed for it depending on your political perspective, and he was also largely credited and blamed for holding Trump to his nationalist and populist promises after the election. This made him an enemy of the more traditional Republicans who somehow wound up in the administration, as well as the Democratic daughter and son-in-law of the president, and Bannon’s prominence clearly an annoyed a president who prefers all the attention be focused on himself, so a while back he was predictably defenestrated.
He continued to converse frequently with the president, who still said nice things about him, and in his reassumed editorship of Brietbart.com he continued to propagate the more nationalist and populist elements of Trump’s presidency. With financial backing from a billionaire family he threatened to run primary challengers against any Republican congress member who wasn’t sufficiently loyal to Trump, and thus establish a brand new Grand Old Party along nationalist and populist lines. One of his early efforts included his full throated support of Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore, who had twice been kicked off the state’s Supreme Court for defying federal court authority and professed antebellum opinions about slavery and women’s suffrage and homosexuality and was clearly an unusually lousy candidate even before credible accusations arouse that he’d sexually preyed on underaged girls surfaced, and when Moore somehow lost a senate seat in Alabama of all places that should have been the last we ever heard of Bannon.
It probably would have been, but a reporter named Michael Wolff has a soon-to-be-published booked called “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” and the excerpts that have been run in New York Magazine are already dominating a still-slow post-holiday news cycle. The excerpts paint a picture of a dysfunctional and infighting administration presided over by an inept and immature president, and for the moment the media mostly seem interested in the quotes attributed to Bannon. Among other things, Bannon called Donald Trump Jr.’s by-now admitted meeting with a Russian lawyer offering dirty of Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton not only stupid but “treasonous,” added some similarly and by now familiar disparagements of Trump son-in-law Jarden Kushner, and seems to suggest that the investigations into Trump’s relationship with Russia isn’t a witch hunt. There was no way to keep that off the top of the news.
Trump promptly responded with a statement that “Steve Bannon has nothing to with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” The statement went on to blame Bannon for Moore’s loss in the Alabama senate race, allege that Bannon had long leaked damaging information to the hated mainstream media, and dismissed Wolff’s book as fake news.
All of which is at least partly true, but none of which is at all helpful. Bannon has indeed clearly lost his mind, but that happened long before Trump made him his campaign’s “chief executive officer” and his administration’s “chief political strategist,” so it’s far too late to lie he had nothing to do with Trump or his presidency. Trump did give a half-hearted endorsement of Moore’s establishment primary opponent, telling a rally crowd that “I might be wrong,” but he did wind up more fully endorsing Bannon’s crackpot anti-establishment candidate even after the credible allegations of creepy behavior toward underage girls, and they both share in the blame for that debacle. Bannon almost certainly was one of the frequent unnamed sources that the hated mainstream media cited, but by alleging that Trump concedes it wasn’t all “fake news.” Wolff’s book is bound to include some errors, too, but it’s bound to include some verifiable bombshells and with Trump’s unwitting help looks to be a huge best-seller.
At least Trump seems to be finally rid of Bannon, and perhaps so are the rest of us. All those nationalists and populists who rooted for Trump will continue to do so, all those newfangled liberals and the more old-fashioned sorts of conservatives who loathed Bannon will continue to loathe Trump, and Bannon seems left without any support except maybe that billionaire family of right-wing kooks. He never was an appealing character in the Trump reality show, even in the public-loves-to-hate-’em sort of way as Omarosa Manigault or Anthony Scaramucci or various other grotesque cast members, and we’re hopeful he’ll soon be consigned to the dreary sort of anonymous life one can buy with Goldman Sachs and Hollywood and Trump money.
Trump is still stuck with the worst of the populist and nationalist platform he ran on, however, and it’s not yet known if Bannon’s promise to burn down the Republican establishment will eventually be kept.

— Bud Norman