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What Could Go Wrong?

President Donald Trump is now embarking on his first foreign trip since taking office, and we expect he’ll be glad to get out of the country. He’s spent the week griping to the graduates of the Coast Guard Academy that he’s been the most unfairly treated politician in all history, “tweeting” claims that the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s possible role in Russia’s election meddling are a “witch hunt,” and testily denying everything to a pesky pack of the press, so at least he’ll be able to change the subject for a while.
On the other hand, the conversation might well take another controversial turn or two before the nine-long-days trip is over. The celebrity apprentice president has already provoked controversies in his dealings with such friendly countries as Australia and Germany, which takes some doing, and the itinerary for his trip includes some far trickier encounters.
The tour starts out in Saudia Arabia, where the royal family has reportedly prepared to roll out $68 million worth of red carpet, which should be enough to satisfy even Trump’s sense of grandeur. So far Trump has been saying everything the Saudis want to hear about arms deals and their war in Yemen and other and other deals that are  dear to their hearts, but he’s also the guy who called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and until recently he was a vociferous critic of the country, and his planned speech on Islamic radicalism will require more carefully diplomatic language than Trump is accustomed to using. A visit to Saudi Arabia is fraught with peril for even the most seasoned presidents, and Trump is seemingly still starting a learning curve.
The next planned stop is in Israel, which is always tricky. Trump has long been outspokenly supportive of the Jewish state, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he’s lately abandoned his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem and reportedly blabbed some top-secrets shared by the Israelis to the Russians, and has long habit of making stereotypical Jewish jokes in public. His daughter and son-in-law are both Jewish, which provides some cover for such japes, but we expect his aides will be nervous for the duration of the visit.
After that Trump moves on to Italy and the vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis. Back in the campaign the Pope opined that Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico wasn’t consistent with Christian values, Trump replied with characteristic bluntness that the Pope was “disgraceful” to say so, but both men are promising a friendlier conversation when they meet face to face. Absent any inappropriate jokes about a priest and a Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister walking in to a bar it seems a safe enough stop.
Next up is Belgium, where he’s scheduled to meet the king and queen and Prime Minister, and although they probably won’t be spending $68 million for the chat that should go fine. He’s also scheduled to meet the newly elected President of France, after Trump implicitly endorsed his Vichy-linked opponent in the recent French vote, as well as the president of the European Union, an institution both Trump and that Vichy-linked opponent have long outspokenly criticized, so that might also require more diplomatic language than Trump is used to using. There’s another meeting scheduled with the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has lately concluded is not “obsolete,” as he frequently described it during the campaign, but he’s still grousing that its members are mostly a bunch of freeloading deadbeats, so there’s no telling how that might go.
Trump’s European trip then returns again to Italy, where he’ll take his place along the leaders of the G7 nations, and we hope he won’t mind sharing the stage with all of them. All those countries have pretty pesky presses of their own, though, and the American media will also be on hand to egg them on, and at that point the conversation might well take any number of controversial turns.
There’s always a chance Trump will return home with a lot of brand new best friends, and that the media won’t find anything to criticize, but Trump being Trump and the media being the media that’s not the way to bet.

— Bud Norman

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Comey Still Won’t Go Away

Try as you might, there’s nothing to find in the news these days except President Donald Trump’s firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. A Cable News Network reporter tried to do a story on the Republicans’ proposed health care legislation, which was a big deal not long ago and is apparently still something that might happen, but the first question to a couple of politicians was about how Comey’s firing might affect the bill’s chances in the Senate, so of course the conversation never got around to anything else.
There are other things going on with the federal government, too, but for the moment the first thing to ask about almost any of them is how they’re affected by all this Comey business. The Democrats sense an opportunity to use the issue to thwart almost any Trump proposal, and Trump has been seemingly  intent on gold-plating it for them. All the endless stories mention in passing that Trump is entirely within his legal rights to fire an FBI director for any old reason, and briefly acknowledge that both Democrats and Republicans have had their own reasons for wanting to do so over the past election year, but thus far the White House has struggled to make a convincing case of its own.
The official “you’re fired” letter from Trump himself said it was because of the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a newly-hired deputy attorney, who found Comey’s public comments regarding an investigation into the e-mail practices of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton late in the campaign had undermined the public’s faith in his ability, and the was the line that all the obviously unprepared spokespeople parroted the next two days. Those poor spokespeople had to respond to video montages of candidate Trump praising Comey’s “guts” for those same statements, though, and explain why Trump was suddenly so offended on Clinton’s behalf after leading so many rallies in chants of “lock her up,” so the first couple of news cycles went badly. They steadfastly insisted that the president had no choice but to accept the conclusion of that newly-hired deputy attorney general, and of course insisted that it had nothing to with the fact that Comey was heading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government’s meddling in the election.
Trump doesn’t seem the type to follow a newly-hired subordinate’s lead, though, and the Attorney General had promised to recuse himself from anything having to do with the Russian investigation that Comey was heading, and the idea that Russia had nothing to do with it was always going to be a hard sell. Thus Trump found himself sitting down with the National Broadcasting Corporation’s Lester Holt on Thursday and saying, in between frequent interruptions, that “Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” and that “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Russia and Trump is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should have won.'” He also described Comey as a “grandstander” and “showboat,” and the late night comedy show jokes about Trump describing anyone by those terms pretty much wrote themselves.
He also stated his ardent desire for a thorough and independent investigation of the Russia thing with Russia and Trump, but people will draw their own conclusions about that based on who he picks as Comey’s replacement. One hopes the Trump team will have a exceptionally strong pick and a better-planned public relations roll-out for that story, which is likely to be all that’s in the news for a while, if we’re lucky.

— Bud Norman

The Second Day of the Comey Firing

Tuesday’s big story about President Donald Trump firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey inevitably led to a lot more stories on Wednesday. None of them made anyone look very good, but on the whole Trump seems to have had the worst of it.
There’s a strong case to be made for the firing of Comey, whose erratic performance over the course of a crazy election year outraged Democrats and then Republicans and then Democrats again, but that was lost in the blizzard of new bulletins. The New York Times reported that Comey’s firing came shortly after he requested more resources for an ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and its possible collusion with Trump’s campaign, The Washington Post reported that Trump was furious that Comey hadn’t corroborated his “tweeted” claim that President Barack Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower, and everybody was reporting that some prominent Republicans were also declining to come to Trump’s defense.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration struggled to amount a defense of its own. White House press secretary Sean Spicer was spotted hiding from reporters behind some bushes before offering a few answers that suggested he hadn’t been expecting Tuesday’s announcement or Wednesday’s revelations, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attributed Comey’s firing to the “atrocities” he’d committed while investigating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices, and occasional spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s first response to a montage of candidate’s Trump’s effusive campaign trail praise for how nicely Comey had handled the matter was to remind her questioner that Trump won Michigan. They all rightly noted that most Democrats were eager for Comey to be fired until Trump did it, but it’s hard to believe that Trump did it for the reasons the Democrats wanted, and at this point there seems plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
Trump himself, who only had an ill-timed meeting with a high-ranking Russian official on the daily schedule, spent much of Wednesday “tweeting” schoolyard taunts against his Democratic critics. He responded to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer by “tweeting” that “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.’ Then acts so indignant.” After Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal appeared on a cable news show offering his own criticisms, Trump responded that “‘Richie’ devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history. For years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam — except he was never there. When caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness … and now he is judge & jury. He should be the one who is investigated for his acts.”
Trump is inarguably right about Schumer’s past criticisms of Comey, but Schumer is surely entitled to “tweet” back a taunt about Trump’s past praise, although we’d advise to him avoid any insulting nicknames. Trump’s also inarguably right that Comey was caught lying about his service record seven years ago, and although we don’t recall him “crying like a baby” he did indeed offer an apology that the voters of his state apparently accepted, and as much as we also dislike the guy we can’t see why a further investigation is now warranted. In any case, making these Democrats look bad doesn’t Trump or his decision to fire Comey look any better. The only “tweet” that made an affirmative case for firing said “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Democrat and Republican alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me.”

That’s not a bad summation of the case, which requires more characters than “tweeting” allows to be persuasively made, but it’s hard to imagine when things might calm down over the next four years or anytime in the coming millennia when everyone will be thanking Trump for anything. Trump’s most die-hard supporters will dismiss anything from “The New York Slimes,” but the paper’s report has four on-the-record congressional sources, including a Republican, hasn’t been denied by anyone at the White House, and anyone who isn’t a die-hard Trump supporters will likely find that it raises some interesting questions that Trump and his spokespeople will have trouble answering. The talk radio hosts and their listeners will dismiss anything from “The Washington Compost,” but even they won’t believe that Trump wasn’t angry about Comey not going along with wiretapping claim, or mind if that was a reason for firing, and everyone else will note that nobody has come forward to corroborate those damning “tweets.” Some of the Republicans who are distancing themselves from the matter are running for re-election in jurisdictions where Trump is not popular, and given the latest national polls more are likely to follow.
Still, Trump was inarguably within his legal rights to fire Comey, and did have reasons for doing so that all those Democrats had previously agreed with, and it might yet work out for the best, and it’s also possible that Trump or someone speaking on his behalf will effectively make those arguments. If he thought the decision would be immediately met with bipartisan praise he was clearly wrong, though, and if he thought it would put an end to all that chatter about the Russians meddling in the election and the Trump campaign being somehow involved he was even more wrong. The next news cycle is going to involve a lot of explaining, and the one after that will also be troublesome.
Up next is Trump’s nominee to replace Comey, and whoever that turns out to be is going to be subjected to such severe scrutiny he or she is unlikely to come out of it looking pristine. If he or she seems the least bit interested in revisiting Clinton’s e-mail practices or entirely dismissive of the idea that Trump’s campaign might have been involved in Russia’s role in the past election that’s going to be a public relations problem for Trump, and if they aren’t that’s yet another problem. All those questions about Russia won’t go away until they’re definitively answered, which will require answers from someone who’s somehow untainted by all of this and has been given access to all the tax returns and financial disclosures and immunity-granted testimony that might involved, and at this point we can’t imagine who that person might be.

— Bud Norman

Comey’s Firing Is So Damned Complicated

Pretty much all the news these days is reported through the prism of President Donald Trump versus the Democrats, which makes the big story about Trump firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey pretty damned complicated for just about everyone. Over his long and mostly distinguished career Comey has been a villain to both the right and left wings of American politics, and during the last couple of undeniably disastrous years he’s played both roles from month to month, so by the time he got fired no one seemed to like him.
As a young rising U.S. Attorney Comey was frequently promoted by the administration of Republican George W. Bush by vigorously investigating the pardon that Democratic President Bill Clinton had scandalously granted the con man and big-time Democratic campaign contributor Marc Rich and other matters dear to Republican hearts, then clashed with the Bush administration over surveillance matters and so endeared himself to the subsequent administration of Democratic President Barack Obama that he wound up running the FBI. In that capacity he wound up heading an investigation into the highly dubious e-mail practices of former Obama administration Secretary of State and sudden Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and at that point things got even more damned complicated.
In the middle of the messiest American presidential election ever the FBI director held a press conference to announce that he was not recommending criminal charges against the Democratic nominee, which deeply disappointed all the Republicans, but he also noted that the Democratic nominee had been darned careless about national security and plausibly implied that Republican-appointed prosecutors might have found a case against her, which the Democrats could still spin as a win but didn’t fully satisfy them. As the election grew nearer Comey had another press conference to announce that the investigation was back on after some of the Democratic nominee’s classified e-mails had been found on the laptop of close aide’s notorious sex-fiend husband, who had been targeted in a separate and even tawdrier investigation, and although Comey again fell short of recommending a prosecution and the Republicans were again disappointed that no charges were filed the Democratic nominee is still plausibly able to blame her loss to the likes of Trump on Comey’s 11th hour revelations.
All of which makes Comey’s firing pretty damned complicated, for everybody involved, but it’s actually even more complicated than that. Over at The Washington Post the front page headlines explains that “Democrats hate James Comey. But they hate the fact Trump fired him even more,” and all sorts of Republicans should have similarly conflicted feelings. The deputy attorney general who joined in with several other high-ranking officials in calling for Comey’s firing wrote that “Almost everyone agrees that the director has made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that united people of different perspectives,” and although that’s true enough the Republicans also have plenty to worry about.
Any president is perfectly entitled by law and precedent to fire an FBI director for any old reason, although they have rarely done so, and given all the grousing that both Republicans and Democrats have lately been doing Comey it’s hard for anybody to argue that there’s insufficient reason now, which should get Trump through the next 24-hour news cycle, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Trump’s catchphrase “you’re fired” letter to Comey thanked him for his many mostly distinguished years of public service and included his personal thanks for the three separate occasions when Comey said that Trump wasn’t under FBI investigation, but the previous day’s big story was the testimony of a fired acting attorney general and a former national intelligence director that it would divulge classified intelligence to deny that there are also ongoing investigations into people closely involved in the Trump campaign regarding the Russians’ plausibly alleged meddling in the election, which also plausibly played a part in the outcome. That’s enough for the Democrats to peg a story or two on, and they’re bound to last past the next 24-hour news cycle.
Trump should weather the inevitable storm about the firing without any damage to his poll numbers, but who he hires as a replacement will be subjected to the most extreme scrutiny by almost everyone except his most loyal supporters. If the nominee seems eager to revisit the Clinton charges even after she was sentenced to the hell of losing to the likes to Trump that will invigorate most Democrats, and if he or she  seems uninterested in the ongoing investigation about Trump’s associates and their dealing with the Russians who do at this point seem have meddled in the election on Trump’s behalf, we expect Trump will suffer yet another 24-hour news cycle or more.
However it turns out, from our vantage point on the political sidelines we’ll be among the few wishing Comey a happy and blissfully boring retirement. Most of his long career was distinguished, with all of his bi-partisan offenses against both Republican and Democratic sensibilities being arguably justified, and as awful as he’s undeniably been to almost everybody over the last couple of years we can’t think of anyone who’s come out of that dreadful timespan smelling like a rose. We wish well to anyone who replaces him, too, but we’d warn him or her that after such an awful election its going to be damned complicated.

— Bud Norman

Another Episode of the Russian Soap Opera

Those afternoon soap operas usually have no appeal to us, but we found ourselves fascinated on Monday with the oh-so-slowly developing plot on that one about the Russians meddling in America’s most recent presidential election. On the latest episode they had a congressional hearing, with a former acting attorney general and a former director of national intelligence testifying, which might sound rather dry, but if you’ve been following the story closely there were a couple of subtle twists.
The stars of the episode were Sally Yates, a career Department of Justice lawyer who had risen through the ranks over 25 years and briefly filled in at the AG spot after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had served in a variety of high-level intelligence posts in all the administrations from President George H.W. Bush to President Barack Obama, which might also sound rather dry. Neither delivered the knockout blow that the Democratic characters asking the questions were clearly hoping for, but they shared some information that was pretty darned embarrassing to Trump, fared well against the more hostile questions asked by the Republican characters, and tantalizingly refused to divulge the still-classified answers to all the questions that every up-to-date viewer was asking.
Surprising no one, Yates testified she had warned the Trump administration that its pick for National Security Advisor, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Flynn, had been giving false information about his contacts with Russian officials to Vice President Mike Pence, who was then passing the same false information along to the public. Flynn offered his resignation after a mere 24 days on the job, which was quickly and gratefully accepted, but that was nearly two weeks after Yates gave them the heads-up that he was susceptible to Russian blackmail, and nothing about that story makes Trump look good. Since then it had been revealed that Flynn is also being investigated for illegal business dealings with foreign governments, both the Democratic and Republican ranking members on yet another committee have concluded Flynn probably broke the law, and however it turns out it won’t make Trump look any better.
Trump has “tweeted” in response that “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” all of which is true enough, but Flynn was also fired by the Obama administration, and it’s been widely reported that Obama personally warned Trump not to hire the guy. The White House press secretary acknowledged the accuracy of those reports, saying that Trump dismissed the suggestion, figuring Obama was merely sore about Flynn’s post-firing criticisms of the administration, which might have been at least partly true, and probably made Trump all the more eager to hire him, but that still doesn’t make Trump look good.
Yates was fired as acting attorney general after she refused to order her staff to defend Trump’s proposed ban on travel from certain Muslim countries, and although that had nothing to do with l’affaire Flynn all the Republican characters wanted to ask about that. As far as we’re concerned the travel ban was legally defensible, although she made a very lawyerly case to contrary that the courts so far seem to agree with, and in any case Trump was clearly within his rights to fire her for insubordination, which Yates frankly acknowledged, but we expect that only those viewers already rooting for the Republican side found her less credible because of it.
Trump had sent out a preemptive “tweet” to “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council.” The “W.H. Council” was apparently a reference to the White House counsel, and of course the Republican characters did ask if she had been an anonymous source for any of the news stories. She quickly replied “Absolutely not,” and if she was lying under oath she was remarkably confident about it. We expect that to most viewers she came off as poised, professional, and highly competent. For a 25-year veteran of the Justice Department she’s rather attractive, too, in a poised and professional sort of way, with a soft southern accent that doesn’t sound at all crazy liberal, and that seems to matter on these afternoon soap operas and ongoing reality shows.
Both she and the far less telegenic Clapper, who was there for some reason we never quite discerned, were also very poised and professional and competent-sounding as they dodged all the questions by explaining that an answer would require revealing classified information. That’s the juicy part, so the rote testimony was something of a teaser.
Flynn’s just a subplot is a far bigger story about how the Russians meddled in various ways with the past election, apparently working against Trump’s Democratic opponent, which by now all the intelligence agencies and Trump’s own intelligence agency picks and even Trump himself don’t deny, and all the investigations concern whether any of Trump’s people or perhaps even Trump himself had anything to do with it. That’s the most embarrassing thing about Flynn, and when you throw in the campaign chairman that Trump had to fire over possibly illegal dealings with the Russians and the current full-blow Attorney General who’s had to recuse himself from the ongoing because of his own unacknowledged contacts with Russians, and Trump’s past excuse-making for the Russian regime, the story seems likely to drag on.
The Republican characters were clearly annoyed by the continuing series, and asked a lot of questions about how all this embarrassing information has been getting out. Flynn and that campaign chairman and a former campaign foreign policy were all overheard by the intelligence agencies with they spoke with Russian operatives that were being tapped, and according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper a number of allied intelligences were also listening in and sending warnings back to the states, but American citizens who wind up thus being tapped are supposed to be kept anonymous, except in certain circumstances. There’s some argument about whether the “unmasking” of Trump’s associates met those certain circumstances, and how they wound up in the press surely involved a crime by someone or another, but so far none of the leaks have been denied, and they’re all pretty embarrassing and might add up to a far bigger crime.
The Republican characters were eager to know if Yates was aware of any information that would suggest any collusion between the Russian meddlers and the Trump campaign, and by now that’s surely what most viewers are asking, but the anti-climactic response was that an answer would require divulging classified information. Sounding very poised, professional, competent and downright non-partisan, Yates stressed that no one on the committee or anywhere else should make any assumptions, one way or the other, based on that non-answer, but the Democratic characters were clearly more pleased than the Republican.
We’ll keep following this very slowly-developing story and try not to make any assumptions how it turns out, but for now it seems likely to take a long, long time.

— Bud Norman

Missile Strikes and the Days to Ponder Them

A Friday and a weekend have passed since President Donald Trump ordered those 59 Tomahawk missiles launched against a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons strike it had launched on a village during its prolonged civil war, but so far it’s all being assessed through the fog of war.
There are reports that the same Syrian air base has since launched another deadly attack on the same village, albeit with conventional weapons, so the debate about the effectiveness of Trump’s strike goes on. Some of the Democrats who supported Democratic President Barack Obama’s reluctant effort to win congressional approval for a “pinprick” retaliation against the Syrian regime for a similar atrocity back in ’13 offered begrudging praise, while others took a principled stand for congressional approval and quite hypocritically criticized Trump for both a untoward aggression against a sovereign state and a mere “pinprick.” Some of the Republicans who criticized Trump for the isolationist positions he staked out in the campaign offered begrudging praise for the assertiveness of the strike, even if it was the same “pinprick” they’d ridiculed Obama for asking Congress to approve, which at the time they thought was a constitutionally necessary, so the mainstream of both parties wound up looking pretty ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the fringes of both the left and right proved far more principled but even more ridiculous. Over on the fever pits of the right of the tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who ardently supported Trump had already concluded that the Syrian dictatorship hadn’t launched a chemical weapons attack on that that village, and that all footage of gassed children who so moved Trump was faked was staged by the same globalist conspiracy that had recently expelled the righteous nationalist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council at the behest of Trump’s wouldn’t-you-know it Jewish son-in-law who is now in charge of Middle East peace and re-inventing government and solving the opioid problem and getting Mexico to pay for the wall along the Mexican border. Far-flung Democratic fever pits and even the recently popular MSNBC network are meanwhile speculating that the strike against a Russian ally was only intended to distracting from the ongoing speculation about Trump’s ties to Russia, which is a crucial supporter of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which the Trump administration had declared last Wednesday it no was no longer interested in toppling but over the weekend warned Russia to stop supporting.
At this point we don’t have anyone to root for, and from our view on the sidelines it all seems quite foggy. We’re inclined to believe that the Assad dictatorship did indeed launch that horrific attack on that village, just as we believe it did back in ’13, and several times before that during the dictator’s dictatorial reign, and something in our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities has no problem with a muscular response to such outrages. Back in ’13 we opposed Obama’s proposed response because his Secretary of State had described it as a mere “pinprick,” which didn’t seem to serve any strategic purpose, but we must admit the current Republican administration doesn’t seem to have thought any of this out any further. It would take some pretty convoluted theorizing to explain how all of this is an elaborately convoluted plot twist in an ongoing Russo-Trump conspiracy, but it still remains hard to explain away all of the connections between Trump’s past rhetoric and his past associates associations with the Ruskies.
At this point we’re waiting for the fog to lift, and hoping it doesn’t get any foggier.

— Bud Norman

A Quick Response to a Quick Response

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

— Bud Norman

J’Accuse, Recuse, Repeat

Any old spy novel or ongoing news story that involves Russia inevitably becomes complicated, but the latest sequel in that long-running series became altogether labyrinthine after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on Thursday from the rest of the inevitable unfolding plot.
As per usual in these sordid tales, pretty much even everyone is somewhat compromised. Session’s critics are making a flimsy case for perjury charges and calling for his resignation after he denied during his confirmation hearings that he’d had any contact with any Russian officials on behalf of the campaign of now-President Donald Trump and calling for his resignation, even though his only proved contacts with Russian officials during the time in question were arguably in his capacity at the time of a ranking member of Senate foreign relations committee and not on behalf of the Trump campaign. His defenders had a good old time laughing at Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill for “tweeting” that her fellow Senators on the committee never met with Russian fellows after making some dug-up “tweets” boasting of her own personal contacts with Russian officials, and of course recounting the countless episodes of equally questionable behavior during the past administration of President Barack Obama that some never raised any Democrat or many media eyebrows.
Despite all the gloating there was no denying by any of Session’s defenders that his answer to that under-oath question about his contacts with Russian officials, which had been poorly framed by a former Saturday Night Live comedian, did seem to imply he’d had no contacts at all with any Russian officials at all, and although the government’s top lawyer found plenty of wiggle room between himself and a perjury charge it looked bad enough even to some congressional Republicans that Sessions was forced to bow out of any ongoing investigations to the other alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign and various officials of the Russian government or its broader oligarchy. For an administration that prides itself on denying everything and apologizing for nothing that’s a rather loudly tacit admission that things do indeed look back, and after Trump’s firing of a campaign manager and campaign foreign policy adviser because of their financial ties to Russia, and his accepting the resignation of duly confirmed National Security Advisor because of similar contacts with Russian officials, and the ongoing leaks about Russian attempts to influence the past election, that looks even worse.
Trump’s and Sessions’ defenders have plenty to say, and much of it is well worth hearing. All those leaks are obviously coming from disgruntled Democrats left over from the gone but not forgotten Obama administration, there are legal and national security implications to that, and it’s quite fair to say to say there wasn’t such a fuss about it when Obama’s people were offering the Russians plastic reset buttons and promises of greater flexibility after the next election and having countless questionable foreign relationships, and by now no one bothers to deny that the Democrats are out to get Trump any way they can. The spectacle of Democrats regaining a Cold Warrior attitude they’d hadn’t used since the late and lamented Sen. “Scoop” Jackson and had ridiculed as recently as Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign in ’12 is pretty ridiculous, too, as is their suddenly re-found enthusiasm for that old “question authority” bumper sticker slogan.
Starting with the Bolshevik Revolution the Republican Party stood steadfast against Russian expansionism, and except for a brief lull after Pearl Harbor that ended at the Yalta Conference they kept it up right through the ’12 presidential campaign when nominee Mitt Romney was ridiculed by all the Democrats for his old fogey Cold War foreign policy, so it’s also odd to hear a Republican president talking about the Russkies with all the flattery and morally relativistic friendliness of some university-addled lefty. There’s something ridiculous, too, about the spectacle of Republicans pretending their heads wouldn’t have exploded if Obama had ever sloughed off a question about the ex-KGB dictator of Russia’s political crimes by saying “Do you think we’re so innocent?”
Trump’s defenders still have plenty to say, but at the moment they also have plenty to defend, and as of now his Attorney General has recused himself from the thankless role. It’s been leaked and not denied that the intelligence agencies are generally agreed that the Russkies meddled in the past election, there have already been two high-ranking campaign officials and a high-ranking administration official defenestrated over this Russia stuff, the tax returns and other financial disclosures that would surely prove Trump himself has no financial entanglements with any Russian oligarchs remain undisclosed, and just because the accusers are politically motivated doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We could go at length about the dubious dealings of the Obama administration, but we did so for eight long years, so we won’t be hypocrites and pretend that there’s nothing at all dubious going on here. Even the most crazed conspiracy theories people are concocting about it on the internet are at least as plausible as Trump’s claims about President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War or Obama being born in Kenya or Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad being in on the Kennedy assassination, or the stories in The National Inquirer that Trump has nominated for a Pulitzer Prize or the InfoWars outfit whose respected reputation Trump has praised, and there’s enough that the more reasonable liberals can make a reasonable case for further investigation. It’s damned dubious enough to us a few other remaining old school and consistent-on-the-Russkies Republicans to warrant an independent investigation by the duly authorized authorities, but not an independent prosecutor, and the continued scrutiny of the press, but not the partisan and prosecutorial sort so many of them are inclined to in the case of Republicans.
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the whole mess was principled, which should help him retain his widely respected reputation in conservative circles, even if doesn’t change the liberals’ opinion that he’s a unrepentant old racist reactionary with a souther accent, and we expect he’ll at keep his job and generally do well at it. Not having to answer all the questions that are about to be asked about the Russians should free up a lot of his valuable time.

— Bud Norman

About That Ballyhooed Speech

President Donald Trump’s much-ballyhooed address to a joint session of Congress wasn’t awful, at least by his usual standards. There was none of the “that I can tell you” and “believe me” and “OK?” or other tics that usually pepper his speeches, the characteristic boastful hyperbole was toned down a more typical political level, his sentences were parseable and occasionally almost oratorical, and he didn’t give the late night comics anything obvious to ridicule.
That was sufficient that even the media Trump has identified as enemies of the American people were offering begrudging praise, and although his most ardent supporters might have found it a bit boring and been disappointed that there it offered nothing to chant they probably liked it as well. Still, by the standard of what was needed it wasn’t a very good speech. Once people start to recover from the shock of a presidential-sounding Trump, pretty much everyone will find something in it to grouse about.
Trump shrewdly disarmed his most hysterical critics by opening with a condemnatory few words about a recent shooting in Olathe, Kansas, of two immigrants from India by a man who shouted “Get out of my country” as he opened fire, as well a recent uptick in anti-semitic incidents and other crimes apparently motivated by racial or ethnic animus, but it won’t stop complaints that his previous nativist rhetoric has contributed to the problems. His critics will also note that later spoke at greater length about the crimes committed by immigrants, and had a couple of widows on hand to illustrate the point, and emphasized how big the problem was by creating a new agency in the government to deal with its victims. Although we were advocating stricter enforcement of immigration laws way back when Trump was calling Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “cruel” for his relatively modest proposals, we’re also leery of new agencies and can’t help wondering why the country can’t better serve victims of crime no matter who perpetrated it.
Trump also made clear he was steadfast against all crime no matter who perpetrates it, and he wasn’t quite so extravagant about overstating the extent of it as he has been in the recent past, but he didn’t offer any specific solutions, He spoke of supporting “the men and women of law enforcement,” which we take to mean to that his Justice Department won’t be harassing local police departments into retreat from their more aggressive tactics, as the administration President Barack Obama did, which almost certainly has to do with that undeniable if overstated recent uptick in crime driven largely a few cities where the Obama administration was particularly tough on the cops and crimes rates have indeed been soaring, but we would have liked to have seen that argument more fully developed.

The same lack of specificity permeated the rest of the speech. Trump swore his fidelity to “free trade,” but he sounded so perfunctory about it and so impassioned when he went on at much greater length about “fair trade” we would have appreciated a clearer description of what he wants the international commerce to look like. There is still an influential number of Republicans who still hew to the party’s erstwhile free market principles in Congress, and all the Democrats there who still aren’t so far left as self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were all for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals that Obama negotiated, and we expect they’re also wanting some further clarity about the matter. Anyone employed by or invested in one of America’s many export-dependent industries, such as the agricultural and aviation sectors that make up the biggest chunk of the economy around here, are also bound to be anxious for further details. He spoke of how America’s iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycles have a 100 percent tariff slapped on them by some unnamed countries, which so far as we tell are India and the Maldives, which is indeed unfortunate for any aspiring Indian and Maldivian biker gangs, but we like to hear more about a trade war might affect the wheat and airplane markets. He’s for getting rid of Obamacare’s individual mandate that requires people without health insurance to pay for the privilege, which is fine by us and a great relief after his campaign statements to the contrary, and he’s for interstate insurance markets, as is every sentient being on the planet, but he’s for that preexisting conditions part of Obamacare and was conspicuously vague about how he’s going to make all that work.

Speaking of the Republican party’s erstwhile free market principles, Trump also took some largely unearned credit for strong-arming and bribing some recognizable brand names into keeping some of their American workers on the job, and he promised more of the same. There were no flow charts or graphs to exactly how Trump intends to personally manage a $17.4 billion economy with all of these great deals, and we couldn’t help recalling how he’d run his casinos and airline and real estate university and various other namesake ventures, but we were reassured that at least he didn’t say “believe me, OK?” He promised to do a lot of de-regulating, which warmed our principled free market Republican hearts, and even announced a policy of only allowing one new regulation for every two repealed, which struck us as rather arbitrary but nonetheless reasonable, but all that talk about intervening in every corporate re-location suggests that the one new regulation will be more far-reaching that those few forgettable lines from section two A part IV of the This Thing or the Other Thing Act of 1936 and that bit about proper wattage of lighting in federal buildings from the Affordable This or That Act of the dying days of the Obama Administration that are tossed out.
Trump read the usual Republican boilerplate about the national debt, and rightly noted how it had nearly doubled during the Obama administration, but he also proposed enough infrastructure spending to re-build the entire country, and suggested we could do it maybe twice or even three times if we don’t get it just right, and surely we’re not the only ones left hoping for a more explicit explanation of how he plans to pull that off without the debt. He’s talking big tax cuts and promising that along with all de-regulating they’ll speed up the sluggish pace of economic growth, which we our free market sensibilities regard as good bet, but we’re not such risk-takers that we wager it will be enough to rebuild an entire country of this size a couple of times over. Trump said we’d already spent that much in fighting the war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is only true if you very much want to believe Trump because that he can tell you, OK?, and he seemed to promise there’d no more such foolish spendthriftiness for at least the next four years, but he also promised to eradicate the Islamic State terror gang and radical Islamic extremism in general, so we’re still unclear how those numbers will work out.
The only other mention of foreign policy was some talk about new alliances with old enemies, which Trump likened to our post-World War II arrangements with Germany and Japan, which we took to mean that he’s going full steam ahead on selling both of them and number of other countries out to the Russian dictator that he has frequently praises. It got short mention in the speech and the immediate stories about it, but given all the allegations of Russian meddling in the election and the recent leaks about the Trump campaign’s contacts and the past officials with undeniable ties to the Russkies who have been kicked off team Trump and whatever might or might not be in those still-undisclosed tax returns, as well as all that gushing praise Trump keeps heaping on Putin, the story is likely to linger.
All those Democrats who laughed at Romney’s Cold War-era foreign policy are suddenly sounding like John Birchers, and there is still a significant number of Republicans left who hold to the party’s erstwhile stern position about the Russkies, and we expect they’re eagerly awaiting more details about the matter. The same coalition is likely to take a look at the fine print in all that infrastructure spending, too, as every last pre-Trump Republican stood firm-fast against such spendthrifty tomfoolery back when Obama was proposing it, and all those Democrats who used to think it was a great idea will hate it because it’s now Trump’s idea, and we have to admit that they’ll have an argument that the private investment part of the spending is an invitation to outright corruption, and even the Sanders wing of the Democratic party will probably oppose Trump-branded protectionism. The Democrats were mostly well-behaved during the address, but they couldn’t suppress a laugh when President Trump repeated candidate Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corruption, and given that Trump retains full ownership of business interests that don’t necessarily align with the national interest we expect the late night comics will provide plenty more laughs about it in the coming months and years.
For now, though, Trump will probably enjoy a few days of relatively good press. That shtick of reading parseable sentences without provoking any “Twitter” feuds worked well enough for Trump that even the enemies of the American people are glumly admitting a certain presidential tone, and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with it.

— Bud Norman

The Not Ready for Prime Time News Conference

During his Thursday news conference President Donald Trump took a moment to brag about the huge ratings he draws on all the networks, so that was at least one thing he said that can’t be disputed. The press conference was more compelling viewing than any of the soap operas or brawling talk shows it was up against, and provided every viewer with somebody to boo and his, so we’ll assume the numbers were yuge by daytime standards. All the talk radio hosts and the rest of Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters were delighted by his snarling contempt for the assembled press, a greater number of people who don’t support Trump were entertained by the many preposterous things they prodded him to say, and only those of us who were hoping for some reliable information on matters of greater importance were likely to be dissatisfied.
Having no affection for either Trump or his media interrogators we feel quite objective in saying that Trump somehow came off the worst of two. His opening remarks lasted for 24 minutes of typically un-parsable kvetching about what a mess he’s inherited from Obama and how bad it would have been if Hillary Clinton had won and how various media have failed to inform the public about it, all of which we could have a made a more intelligible case for if he’d only asked us, but except to the people who are used to hearing about it on three-hour blocks on talk radio it probably came off as whiny and self-serving. He also faulted for the media for reporting on the “fake news” that there are concerns about his foreign policy with Russia, although even he has recently accepted the resignation of a National Security Advisor for lying about contacts with the Russians and previously jettisoned a campaign manager who’d made a lot of bucks working with the Russian’s puppet government in Ukraine and a campaign foreign policy advisor with financial ties to the Russian oil oligarchy and he’s decrying but not denying the leaks that several other of his campaign members had frequent contacts with the Russian throughout the campaign, not to mention his own repeated apologetics for the Russian dictator’s habit of killing political opponents and pesky journalists. The rest of is largely forgettable, except for his memorably rambling and disjointed style.
He also bragged about his record-setting electoral college victory, as is his wont, and when he finally got around to taking to questions he had to admit to a National Broadcasting Company employee, of all people, that while the claim might not be objectively true “It was the information I was given,” which he seemed to think was as good a it being true. He got into a veritable shouting match with some fellow from the British Broadcasting Company, and although we can’t quite recall what it was about we’re sure the chap’s effeminate-sounding accent was enough to sway Trump’s hard-core supporters. He invited a black reporter to ask a question even though he predicted it would be dumb, and it turned out to be about whether Trump would seek the input of the Congressional Black Caucus in his promised efforts to bring peace to America’s cities, which Trump acknowledged was a “very professional question,” and then he asked if she was friends with the CBC and could set up a meeting, which might or might not be racist but sounded racist enough to cause some inevitable sidebars to the story. He defended his departed National Security Advisor as a “fine person” who had done nothing wrong, explained his decision to ask for a resignation by saying the NSA had lied to the vice-president about one of those things he hadn’t done wrong, and was shrewd enough not to allow any follow-up questions. He also claimed his administration was a “finely tuned machine,” and no one disputed that lest any of the anonymous administration officials who have been gushing leaks to the contrary dry up.
After rambling at some length in his opening remarks about the hateful tone of some of the media’s reporting, Trump made it clear throughout the proceedings that he hated those some media, and of course of his supporters in other media were cheering that on. He’s got plenty of erroneous stories to point to, just as the adversarial media can and continuously do recount the numerous false statements that Trump and his spokespeople daily trot out, so whichever side you’ve decided to boo and hiss the press conference featured plenty of ratings-boosting villainy. If you’re tuning in hopes of finding out believable information on which to make sound decisions about policy, however, you’d do just as well with The Jerry Springer Show or that one where you find which of the promiscuous woman’s potential pops is the real father.
— Bud Norman