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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

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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

When Silence Would Have Been Golden

President Donald Trump mostly spent his extended holiday vacation on the golf course or at fancy dinner parties, but he couldn’t keep from making some news. He had the usual number of insulting “tweets,” several insulting sound bites, and sat down for an impromptu interview with The New York Times that still worth noting after several days.
The interview is so full of eyebrow-raising quotes that one hardly knows where to begin, but we might has well start with the one that got the most attention from the media during a slow and little-watched news cycle. Asked an inevitable question about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s role in the last presidential election, Trump surprised many by saying that “It doesn’t bother me, because I hope he’s going to be fair. I think that he’s going to be fair. There’s been no collusion. But I think he’s going to be fair.”
Which is surprising because Trump has frequently characterized the investigation as a “witch hunt,” and “witch hunts” are by definition unfair, while his most loyal allies in Congress and the conservative media have lately maintained that the investigators are biased and out to get the president. Perhaps it was a holiday spirit that had Trump so hopeful about Mueller’s fairness, perhaps he was taking the high road with confidence his surrogates would take the low, and he perhaps he believes that Mueller might as susceptible to flattery as himself, but in any case it provided fodder for speculation.
When asked about the possibility of re-re-opening an investigation former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices Trump replied that “I have absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department, but for purposes of hopefully thinking I will be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved in this particular matter.” Which is worrisome on a number of levels.
Aside from the fact that a President of the United States speaks such un-parseable English, there’s something chillingly Nixonian about Trump’s insistence that he can use federal law enforcement to persecute his political enemies, and something more chilling yet about his apparent confession that isn’t do so only in hopes of currying favor with the special counsel. Just in case a reader might reach a more generous interpretation, Trump also had some strange praise for former Attorney General Eric Holder that made his rather authoritarian views of presidential power explicitly clear.
“I don’t want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that — I will say this: Eric Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at the IRS scandal, when you look at the guns for whatever, when you look at all of the tremendous, ah, real problems they had — not made up problems like Russia collusion, these were real problems — when you look at the things they did, and Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I’ll be honest, I have great respect for that.”
Aside from mangled syntax and the failure to recall the name of the “Fast and Furious” scandals or come up with any other of the many Obama scandals, Trump is saying that his predecessor committed serious crimes and was allowed to do so by an Attorney General who put personal loyalty ahead of loyalty to the rule of law, and that he wishes his own Attorney General were just as unethical. All of Trump’s allies in Congress and the conservative media used to loathe Holder for doing what Trump respects, and when they get back to work today it will be interesting to see if they recant their past criticisms. We’re sure they’ll come up with something to say, and fully expect that their ongoing attacks on Mueller’s character will continued despite Trump’s hopefulness for fair treatment.
There was plenty of Trump’s widely-ridiculed braggadocio, too, as he claimed Chinese President Xi Jiping treated him “better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China,” that he understands tax law “better than the greatest CPA” and the details of health care policy “better than most.” He also claimed to have vaulted candidate Luther Strange from fifth place to second after endorsing in his Alabama’s Republican primary for a Senate race, even though there were only three major candidates in the race, and the numbers he claimed in Strange’s surge were simply made-up. As usual he could not get through an interview with about bragging about his electoral college victory, which as usual he claims is much harder for a Republican to win than the popular vote, even the Republicans are three-and-two  in the past five electoral votes but only one-for-five in the popular vote.
Trump also used a barnyard epithet to describe the Democrats’ opposition to the tax bill, while unnecessarily insulting potential Democratic ally Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state that Trump claims to have single-handedly restored to economic greatness.
The weirdest part, though, was Trump’s prediction that the mainstream media — those “very bad people” and purveyors of “Fake News” who have been Trump’s favorite target since he launched his campaign — are going to carry him to an easy reelection victory in 2020. “Because without me, their ratings are going down the tube. Without me, The New York Times will indeed be not the failing New York Times but the failed New York Times. So basically they have to let me win. And eventually, probably six months before the election, they’ll be loving me because they’re saying, ‘Please, please don’t lose Donald Trump.'”
Which is to say that the American public only reads or watches the news to hear about Trump, and will lose interest in public affairs all together if he’s not around, and that’s pretty arrogant even by Trumpian standards. He also expects that the news outlets that have seen their readerships and viewerships rise with the constant criticisms of Trump will commence six months of unrelenting praise so that they can go back to luring readers and viewers once he’s safely re-installed in office, which strikes us as worrisomely crazy even by Trumpian standards.
Trump is probably lucky the interview was published when people had better things to do than read or watch the news, but today the holidays are over and the government is back to work and people will once again be paying attention. Our advice is that he avoid impromptu interviews for a while.

— Bud Norman

Mulling the Matter of Mueller and Trump

President Donald Trump and his lawyers and all his unpaid supporters in congress and the Trump-friendly media seem quite cocky that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the past presidential election will completely vindicate Trump of any wrongdoing, but just in case they also want you to know that Mueller fellow can’t be trusted.
There’s an obviously coordinated effort by Trump administration and family members and the more loyal congressional Republicans and Fox News and several prominent talk radio hosts afoot to discredit Mueller and his staff, and it’s lately intensified. Donald Trump Jr. recently warned the “USA Student Action Summit” of college-aged Republicans that “there are people at the highest levels of America who don’t want America to be America.” Some Republican congressmen are calling for a special counsel to investigate Mueller’s special counsel investigation, citing some leaked e-mails and other evidence they believe prove it’s all what Trump himself often calls a “witch hunt.” The Fox Network’s “Judge” Jeanine Pirro wants unnamed-but-Mueller-affiliated peopled hauled off “in cuffs,” and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Mark Levin have lately spent most of their combined nine hours of broadcasts on a local talk radio station casting further aspersions on Mueller and his fellow investigators.
They always note that several members of Mueller’s team have given generous campaign donations to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, which is undeniably true and worth noting, but they never note that so did Trump’s top lawyer Ty Cobb and favorite daughter Ivanka Trump and that idiot husband of her’s who’s somehow a top senior advisor to the White House in charge of solving everything from America’s opioid crisis to Middle East peace, and that Trump himself was once a generous funder of Clinton’s senatorial campaigns and the Clinton family foundation that his supporters now want to investigate. They relish in the suspiciously leaked e-mails between a couple of Federal Bureau of Investigation agents who were having an adulterous sexual relationship and sharing sharply anti-Trump sentiments, but they rarely acknowledge they also shared anti-Clinton and anti-Bernie Sanders and anti-pretty-much-everyone-else sentiments, and that Mueller reassigned both of those bitter agents as soon as he got wind of their outspoken political opinions.
The Trump apologists have some outraged and undeniably true allegations about the past administration’s tapped phones calls of Trump campaign and administration officials, but they don’t mention that the phones being tapped belonged to Russian officials, which Republicans and other conservatives have always wanted tapped. They might have some plausible legal arguments that the Americans on other side of those conversations shouldn’t have been “unmasked,” in the legal jargon, but they’d just wind up making the argument that it’s a bigger scandal that attempts to track a political nominee’s possible collusion with a Russian plot to affect an American presidential election is more abhorrent than the plot itself.
We’ve been Republicans long enough that we still feel the pain of President Richard Nixon going down for his ultimately undeniable misdeeds, and we assess the current situation accordingly. Given how complicated this is, our instinct is to take measure of both Trump and Mueller by some blind test of the two Republicans.
One of the two is a life-long Republican. He was born into a fairly well-to-do family as the son of a high-ranking DuPont executive, and excelled as a student and athlete at the rigorous prep school he was able to attend, and his high marks earned hi admission to Princeton, where he graduated with honors and bachelor’s degree in political science while starring on the lacrosse team. After earning a master’s degree in international relations from New York University he volunteered for service in the Marine Corps and won numerous combats medals including the Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War.
After Vietnam subject A earned a law degree from the University of Virginia, and after three years of distinguished service to a prestigious law firm in San Francisco commend a distinguished career of public service as a U.S. attorney in northern California. In the Reagan year of 1982 he was moved over to the Massachusetts district, where he enhanced his reputation by uncovering all sorts of Democratic misbehavior there. After another brief but noteworthy stint in Boston’s private sector he was nominated by Republican President George W. Bush as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was unanimously confirmed the senate, and served another two years in the post at the request of Democratic President Barack Obama.
He’s also been a lifelong Republican all along, and been married to the same woman, and is not only an Eagle Scout but generously endows a college scholarship for other Eagle Scouts, and as lifelong Republicans and improbable Eagle Scouts we can’t help but like the guy.
Subject B was a Democrat and an independent and Reform Party candidate before becoming the winning nominee and putative leader of the Republican party. He’s the son of a multi-millionaire real estate mogul who was once arrested in a Ku Klux Klan riot, and he was such a proudly defiant punk his father sent off to a military school, where he did well enough in sports but was such a middling student that he wound up at Fordham University for two years. His rich dad made enough contributions to the low-level Ivy League University of Pennsylvania that he was admitted there, and would always lie that he graduated from it’s more prestigious master’-level Wharton School of Business. After that a doctor found some bone spurs that prevented him serving in the Vietnam War but didn’t seem interfere with his much bragged-about-golf game, and he went on to a much-bragged about fortune in real estate and reality television that he freely brags was facilitated by political bribes, and survived several bankruptcies and lawsuits about his penchant for not paying bills and currently has an undeniably odd relationship with his third wife and a penchant for gratuitous insults to fellow Republicans.
Even the blind know by now that Subject B is the President of the United States and the putative leader of our Republican party, but if it comes down to who you’re gonna believe we can’t help a certain affinity for Subject A in our blind test. We’ll let them sort out their arguments in the court of public opinion and the inevitable courts of law and hope that some semblance of our old-fashioned Republicanism survives this awful mess.

— Bud Norman

The Ongoing Campaign’s National Insecurity Statement

Ever since the Reagan administration — and oh how we miss those days, by the way — the congress has required that presidents provide a general statement of their foreign policy objectives and plans to achieve them. Every president has complied, always with a low-key and little-noticed publication carefully written to avoid antagonizing any adversaries or alarming any allies, but of course President Donald Trump seized the opportunity to deliver yet another campaign speech on Monday.
There was some good stuff in the official written statement, we must admit it, despite that “America First” slogan that always reminds us of the pre-World War II era.. Trump vowed that America’s foreign policy would be back up by an ever-more muscular military, and warmed our old-fashioned Republican hearts by quoting President Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength,” although without attribution. He spoke of “rallying the world” to confront North Korea’s nuclear provocations, which holds out some hope of a diplomatic solution, and of reaching a better deal than the current deal to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he didn’t get very specific about what it would be or how he might get it. One sentence promised “gradual reform, not radical change, should be our guiding objective” in the Middle East, and there were other allusions to international alliances and American leadership that had a similarly reassuring steady-at-the-helm sound about them. He mentioned Russia as one of America’s more troublesome countries, but was vague about their interference in the past presidential election.
There was also a lot of nonsense from past national security statements that was left out, we must admit. Climate change wasn’t among the national security threats mentioned, no apologies were offered for pursing American interests, and didn’t describe the obvious threat of radical Islamist terrorism as “religious extremism.” On the whole, the brief written statement wasn’t half-bad by Trump standards.
The much longer campaign speech Trump delivered was far worse, though, for all the usual reasons. It began with his characteristic boasts about the tens of thousands of miles he’s travelled and the hundreds of world leaders he’s met as president, which reminded of us vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s similar campaign boasts about her tenure as Secretary of State, and it was quickly followed by some flattery about how the American people have been “among the greatest forces for peace and justice in the world.” That was followed by the characteristic boast that “just one year ago, you spoke out loud and clear. On Nov. 8, 2016, you voted to make America great again.”
Notwithstanding his three-million-or-so-vote loss in the popular vote, Trump then took the opportunity to criticize at least five of his most recent predecessors, although without mentioning any names. He criticized pretty much all of America’s current trade deals, which date as far back as Reagan, and he blasted “nation-building abroad while they failed to replenish our nation at home,” which clearly means President George W. Bush and the rest of the Bushes and the rest of the Republican establishment. He also spoke of how “they put American energy under lock and key” and “imposed punishing regulations and crippling taxes,” which can only mean Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and lamented how “they” had neglected to solve the North Korea problem, with the “them” presumably stretching back to the administration of President Harry Truman.
All of those darned “them” also negotiated all of the worst-ever trade deals that have done so much damage to the American economy, which Trump frequently brags is humming along better than ever, but Trump made his usual vague promises to set that right. Trump also blamed them for letting a lot of illegal aliens into the country, which is a fair enough point, but followed it up with the usual crazy talk about building a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, even if he didn’t add the long lost crazy talk about making the Mexicans pay for it. Much of the speech was devoted to boasting about America is stronger than ever and standing up for itself like never before, but overall it struck as strikingly whiny.
Trump is quite right that pretty much of the entirety of American history, the past several presidential administrations included, have left him in a rather tough spot. Every president could say the same, though, as could any other world leader about his country and its past several governments. The best of them have never disparaged the past leadership of their countries or the people who put them in power and instead moved forward with steady-at-the-helm leadership, and the worst them have always made vague promises to set things right.
Back in the campaign Trump promised he would never apologize for America, despite a few missteps it has undeniably made, and he would do well to acknowledge that the entirety of its history has also left him a position most of history’s world leaders would have envied. America’s military does need a boost, but it had been the world’s mightiest for more than 75 years before Trump office, despite all those Democrats. The past decades of free trade have driven innovations and increased prosperity not only in America but around a relatively placid globe, and the past 11 months of Trump haven’t much changed that trajectory.
Trump’s campaign speech probably got about as much attention as those low-key and little-read previous national security statements did, but it probably got the usual scrutiny from our anxious allies and recently emboldened adversaries. If they glean the same impression we gleaned of a megalomaniacal yet desperate politician pandering to his base rather than conducting a steady at the helm of American foreign policy in the country’s interests, all the good stuff will be for naught.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Back in Ol’ Alabam

That Southern Gothic novel of an Alabama special election race was weird enough from the outset, then got weirder yet with the The Washington Post’s bombshell account of four women credibly alleging that the Republican nominee had creepy to downright criminal relationships with teenaged girls while he was a 30-something district attorney, and got still weirder on Monday with another middle-aged woman coming forward to allege that the then district attorney and now Republican Senatorial nominee had attempted to rape her when she was a 16-year-old high school and part-time waitress at a local diner.
Given that Republican nominee Roy Moore is running on his long cultivated reputation as a staunch defender of the Christian faith, bolstered by the two times he was removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court for defying federal decisions he regarded as a violation of God’s law, that’s a problem for both Moore and the Republican Party writ large. Given the general craziness of the entirety of the country’s politics there’s still a chance the Republicans might come out more or less unscathed, but at this point it’s hard to see how the state of Alabama and the rest of the country aren’t diminished by the whole affair.
Moore’s strident views on defying federal court orders o Old Testament grounds and criminalizing homosexuality and how the terror attacks on on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the perhaps even the Capitol were God’s just retributions for America’s sins were already hard hard to defend on New Testament and old-fashioned Republican grounds. That bombshell Washington Post report seemed well nailed-down with four named Alabama who did not know one another and had no apparent political axe to grind, with documentary evidence backing up what can be backed up about all four women’s claims, and the fifth woman who’s come out on her own has a signed high school year book to dispute Moore’s claim he never met and also seems quite credible. Moore and his die-hard supporters can blame the first four accusations on The Washington Post and it’s establishment allies, but the paper had nothing to do with the fifth accuser coming forward on her own, and Moore’s interviews with far more friendly media have basically admitted that he did take an interest in teenaged girls as a 30-something prosector.
The suspiciously left-of-center Cable News Network has video testimony of a woman who also worked in the district attorney’s office around the same time saying it was well-known Moore’s was hanging out at shopping malls and high school football games n search of teenaged girls, while Moore has plenty of supporters saying so what if he did. By now most of the Republican establishment are bailing on Moore, with the Senate’s Republican majority leader going from saying that Moore should drop out if the allegations are true to saying he should simply drop out, and the past two Republican nominees for president saying the same thing even earlier on, the putatiive Republican president with his own lecherous reputation to deal with is so for staying out of it during his convenient Asian tour, and it looks like Moore will have to hold off a sudden and unexpected Democrat challenge without without any of the national Republican party’s much-needed money or expertise.
None of which will make much difference down in Alabama, where the Republicans hate that damned Republican establishment almost as much as they hate the damned Democrats, and would sooner vote for a damned child molester, and although it’s not likely to play well elsewhere we have to admit that’s the state of our formerly beloved Republican party writ large. If Moore loses it’s a gloating headline for all the the Democrats about a win in staunchly Republican state, but if he wins it wins it will surely generate three years of embarrassing headlines for his term. There will be plenty of embarrassing sex scandals for the Democrats over that time, to be sure, but having Moore among the Republican senators won’t make that any easier to exploit.
At this point the Republicans’ best bet seems to be having former Alabama senator and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions retire from his post and announce himself as a write-in candidate for his old seat, which just might hold the seat and have the added benefit of allowing Trump to appoint an Attorney General who hasn’t recused himself from interfering with that pesky investigation of the whole “Russia thing,” but by that seems a long shot. A Republican write-in candidacy would only prevail if Moore bowed out gracefully, which doesn’t seem likely, given the cantankerous nature his admirers so much admire, and even if it did happen any further attempts to impede that rapidly developing case about the “Russia thing” would only bolster the growing case about obstruction of justice.
As always there are plenty of Democratic scandals that still deserve public opprobrium, and we wish the conservative media still defending Moore plenty of luck in pointing that out, but by now we count ourselves among the rest of us and none of it seems to do us any good. We’ll stick with those citizens still defending some standard of decent behavior, and wish them the very best of luck.

— Bud Norman

The Latest on the “Russia” Thing

The “Russia” thing was back in the news with a vengeance on Monday, with federal indictments of two officials from President Donald Trump’s campaign and the revelation that a lower-ranking third official had already pleaded guilty to charges and is cooperating with the ongoing investigation, and both sides of the matter had plenty to work with.
One of the indicted was Paul Manafort, who served for five months as Trump’s campaign manager and now stands accused of failing to disclose his lobbying efforts on behalf of the Russia-friendly parties in Ukraine, illegally laundering the huge amounts of money he made and otherwise failing to pay taxes on the lucrative business, and 11 other counts that include “conspiracy against the United States.” Most of the charges pre-date his involvement with the Trump campaign, so they don’t definitively provide proof of the collusion with Russia’s meddling in the past election that Trump’s critics have been so ardently hoping for, but he lasted long enough to get the Republican convention to remove language from its platform about arming the anti-Russian elements in Ukraine, and he was for five months the campaign’s manager, so it doesn’t look good for Trump.
Also indicted was Rick Gates, a former business partner in Manafort’s lucrative lobbying efforts on behalf of some of the world’s worst dictators and wannabe dictators. but as obsessively as we’ve been following the “Russia” thing we have to admit he never heard of him before. Another partner in the firm was longtime Trump friend and advisor Roger Stone, whose sleaziness goes back to the Nixon administration and has recently been kicked off “Twitter,” and who would be well-advised to hire some high-priced legal representation of his own, so Trump’s involvement with the whole sleazy operation does not look good.
We’d also previously never heard of George Papadapoulos, the relatively low-ranking national security advisor to the campaign who had already copped a no-jail-time plea by admitting to making false statements to investigators about his Russian contacts in an apparent exchange for dirt on the higher ups, but that also doesn’t look good for Trump. He probably wouldn’t have been able to swing such a sweet deal without some tales to tell on the higher-ups, and we expect he’ll do some damage to the Trump brand before this is all over.
None of it  yet  amounts to the smoking gun that Trump’s most strident critics have all been hoping for, as all of Trump’s most ardent defenders are rightly gloating, but they can’t deny that it all looks bad. All of the right wing talk radio hosts and the rest of the Trump-friendly made the case that there’s still no smoking gun, but spent most of their airtime minutes and column inches reviving years-old stories about Trump’s vanquished Democratic opponent “Crooked” Hillary Clinton, and although that awful woman is no doubt guilty of some of the charges none of it means that Trump’s high-ranking associates and perhaps Trump himself  isn’t guilty of something serious.
In any case, we expect the “Russia” thing will continue to be in the news for a while.

— Bud Norman