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The Other Steadily Dripping Flood

The historic and ongoing natural disaster in Texas and Louisiana has flooded almost everything else out of the news, except for a few stray reports about the nutcase regime in North Korea escalating nuclear tensions, so you might not have noticed that the steady drip, drip, drip of leaks about “Russia” is also approaching flood levels.
The past week has provided at least three new plot twists in the ongoing unnatural disaster, none of which are helpful to President Donald Trump. None are the evidence of impeachable offenses that his most strident critics have been hoping, but they all require some creative explaining from his staunchest admirers.
The Washington Post reported that the congressional investigating committees will soon have documentary evidence that in October of 2015 Trump signed a letter of intent for an ambitious skyscraper project in Moscow, which isn’t necessarily illegal but doesn’t look good. Trump was four months into his presidential campaign at the time, running on a strikingly Russia-friendly foreign policy platform and offering unusual praise for the country’s dictator and predicting on “Face the Nation” that “I think I would probably get along with him very well,” while indignantly denying any suspicion that it might be for self-interested reasons. At the time he categorically denied any business dealings with any sorts of Russians, seemed quite offended that anyone would suspect otherwise, so the skyscraper project he was pursuing with the apparent help of a Russian-mob connected associate who kept dropping the Russian dictator’s name in the ensuing e-mail chain might not be illegal but doesn’t look good.
If we know about that letter of intent it’s a safe bet that so does famously dogged special-counsel-into-the-matter Robert Mueller, who apparently already had enough reason to suspect other fishy deals between Russians and people near to Trump to obtain all sorts of extraordinary subpoenas and search warrants, and it’s another interesting plot twist that Politico reports Mueller has lately been working on the case with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The more attentive fans of the long-running Trump reality show might recall Schneiderman as one of the attorneys general who brought a civil case against Trump University, which ended with Trump paying a $25 million settlement but not having to acknowledge the undeniable fact it was pretty much a scam all along, and how Trump had frequently “tweeted” about what a “lightweight” Schneiderman is, so his reintroduction into the plot does not bode well.
There’s widespread press speculation that Mueller brought Schneiderman aboard because a few people who held high levels in the Trump campaign that he clearly regards as criminal suspects can’t get a presidential pardon on state charges, a concern heightened by Trump’s controversial pardon of an Arizona sheriff for seemingly political reasons last week, and that seems reasonable to us. Anyone Trump did preemptively pardon would forfeit a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, though, and Mueller seems to think he has even higher-level fish to fry this in this investigation, so it also seems reasonable that Schneiderman’s longstanding scrutiny of Trump’s New York-based and still wholly-owned business empire has come up with some hard-to-explain evidence of its own.
One of the people near to Trump that Manafort clearly considers a potential criminal suspect is the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has plenty of Russian connections from his lobbying-for-dictators business that he doesn’t even deny, and Mueller has enough reason to suspect Manafort of something or another that he persuaded a federal judge to grant an extraordinary pre-dawn search warrant on Manafort’s home, so of course Manafort was also back in the news. The National Broadcasting Company reported that the notes he took on his smart phone during a meeting he took with the president’s son and son-in-law and a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer and a couple of other fishy Russians, which are now in the hands of those pesky congressional investigations and presumably Mueller, and that they mention the word “donor.” Trump’s most staunch defenders described the meeting as meaningless, and pointed to everyone’s account that Manafort was staring at his smart phone the whole time as proof, but they’d also previously insisted that no one near Trump ever had any sort of meeting with anyone remotely Russian.
It might nor might not have anything to do with all this, but Bloomberg News also reported that Trump’s son-in-law and highest-level advisor Jared Kushner and his family’s still wholly-owned New York-based real estate empire is desperately seeking foreign financial aid to stave off bankruptcy. That happens to the best of families and isn’t illegal, we suppose, but neither does it look good.
Sooner or later the sun will shine down on the good people of Texas and Louisiana, and the hard work of recovery will commence, and we’re hopeful that politics won’t prevent the federal government from doing its part. All the drip, drip, drip from the Korean peninsula to the ongoing investigations in Washington and New York will sooner or later bob up above all the water on the front page, though, and don’t say you weren’t warned.

— Bud Norman

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Another Scare from the Korean Peninsula

The nutcase dictatorship of North Korea has been a problem for America since before we were born, but lately it has become scarier than ever. Fox News had a story about the North Koreans recently loading cruise missiles aboard a patrol ship, the Washington Post reported they now have a nuclear missile small and light enough to fit atop the intercontinental ballistics missiles they’ve recently successfully tested, and on Tuesday President Donald Trump responded that “North Korea best not make any more threats” lest it be “met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
That successful ICBM test brought down severe economic sanctions on North Korea from the entirety of the United Nations, and Trump’s rhetoric drew the predictable bipartisan criticisms, but as usual neither seems to care much what the rest of the world thinks. As has been the case since before we were born there are no easy solutions to the problem, but this time around are openly threatening the hard ones. By now we’ve lived through more North Korea scares than we can recall, but this time around seems different.
As discomfiting as Trump’s remarks were, we won’t pile on the bipartisan heap with our usual criticisms. The critics rightly noted that Trump’s characteristically un-parsable language was eerily similar to the apocalyptic hyperbole the North Koreans have long spewed, but the past 50 years of more diplomatic language haven’t prevented this scary moment, so there might be something to to be said for saying things in a way the nutcase North Koreans understand. All through the past 50-plus scary years of both Democratic and Republican administrations America’s clearly understated policy has been that any nuclear attack on our soil will be met with a devastating response, which has thus far worked well enough with far more formidable enemies than the North Koreans, so we won’t object if Trump is merely overstating the same old policy in typically Trumpian fashion.
That ominously-named policy of mutually assured destruction maintained a relative peace in the post-nuclear age because America has has been demonstrably able to make good on the threat, so neither do we mind that Trump is proceeding apace with the previously scheduled war-game exercises with the South Korean democracy and other relatively sane Asian allies and other displays of America’s military might. We’re not sure if the more war-wary and wised-up generals and admirals who surround Trump signed off on that “fire and fury and frankly power” statement, but we’re sure the rest of it wouldn’t be happening without their assent, and we trust that like any soldiers they’re more interested in deterring a war than provoking one.
Which is not to say that Trump’s role in all of this isn’t also a bit discomfiting. His characteristically mangled English leaves some room for doubt about whether that “fire and fury and frankly power” would follow mere threats, and what levels of threat would trigger it, and sometimes there’s something to be said for more diplomatic language. On Tuesday he was “tweeting” that Fox News report full of the anonymously-leaked intelligence sources he usually rails against, seemed to be taking some heed of the Washington Post story with same intelligence agencies whose conclusions about Russian meddling in the past election he has scoffed at, and he wasn’t ready to meet the press and formulate anything at all reassuring. Should the hard solutions become necessary Trump will need bipartisan and widespread public support to pursue them, and so far he’s failed to achieve that. Most of the rest of the world tries to translate his un-parsable English and finds him a bit nutty, too, and that also doesn’t help.
Which is not to say that Trump is nearly as nutty at that nutcase North Korean dictatorship, though, and we hope that both the domestic and international audience will keep in mind that they’re bad guys of this scary moment. Trump’s intrepid if occasionally independent United Nations ambassador did a great job of bringing even the Russians and Chinese on board with the sanctions, and those planned war games exercises might prove an effective bargaining chip in yet another round of negotiations, and for now we can still hope that with the help of all those war-way and wised-up generals his famed real-estate-deal negotiating abilities will suffice to at least kick this radioactive can a bit further down the road toward some sensible solution. We’ll also hope that the nutcase North Korean dictatorship has a few war-wary and wised-up generals of its own, too.

— Bud Norman

Another Day at the White House Communications Office

Every single day these days seems to bring another story that the beleaguered souls at the White House communications have to somehow explain. The latest comes courtesy of that pesky Washington Post, which reports that President Donald Trump blabbed some top-secrets to those two Russian officials he met with last week.
The Post was palpably disappointed to concede there’s nothing at all illegal about that, as any president has the clear authority to declassify anything he wants, but they nonetheless made a strong case that it was damned stupid. They didn’t divulge much of what was shared, except that it had something to do with the Islamic State, and that it was something that had been passed along from an allied country’s intelligence agencies, which might not be pleased that it was then passed on the Russians. Respected national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who replaced the currently scandalized-because-of-Russia Michael Flynn on the job, said that the story “as reported, is false,” but a few hours later the Post made a strong case that the rest of his statement wasn’t nearly so definitive, except for a clear denial that Trump hadn’t revealed the foreign source of any information or how they might have got it.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer eventually “tweeted” that the story is “100 percent false,” but by now most people don’t regard him as any more trustworthy than The Washington Post, and all but the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters will have to admit that it sounds like something he might do. By now the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters say it was actually another masterstroke of diplomacy, ensuring the promised rapprochement with Russia that will defeat the Islamic State, but at the moment that’s a hard sell and being made only on the far fringes of the media.
That meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister came the very day after Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director who was leading an inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and the only media allowed in the meeting was a photographer from Tass, which everyone old enough to remember the Cold War knows is a Russian propaganda outlet, and the pictures showed Trump looking far more happy and friendly than in any of those more photographed moments with Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May or the other world leaders have that lately passed through Washington. The FBI firing and all the glaring mismatch between what the White House communications said and what the president himself said the next day on television had already carried a bad news cycle for Trump through the weekend, so Monday’s story in The Washington Post was surely a strain on those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office.
They’ll surely do their usual yeoman’s work muddying the waters, though, and as usual they’ll make some perfectly valid criticisms of that pesky press, which never does get these things 100 percent right. ¬†There’s something likely to be something else to come up today, though, and those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office aren’t the only ones dreading it.

— Bud Norman

Tweeting Up Another Controvery

President Donald Trump “tweeted” up another political storm over the weekend, this time with a series of messages that alleged President Barack Obama had tapped his telephone and asked if that was legal and bet that a lawyer could make a good case that it was illegal and compared it to the Watergate scandal and described the previous president as a “Bad (or sick) guy.” According to the president’s more ardent defenders in the comments section of all the resulting new stories it was another brilliant move, and given all the other outrageous “tweets” that somehow landed Trump in the White House that might yet prove true, but for now it strikes us as damned odd behavior by a President of the United States.
All though there were four “tweets” that started at 5:49 a.m. on Saturday the medium only allows for 140 characters including spaces in each thought, so all of the media reports gleefully and quite undeniably reported that Trump offered no evidence whatsoever for the explosive charges and damning characterizations. All the media also noted that a short time later Trump also “tweeted” a taunt about Arnold Schwarzenegger leaving “Celebrity Apprentice,” but the allegations about Obama were even bigger news. The story spilled into the little-watched but widely-quoted Sunday morning news shows, where not only every Republican congressperson but all the Trump spokespeople stammered as they took a stab at some explanation. Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the daughter of former Republican Arkansas Governor and Trump ally Mike Huckabee, was reduced to telling the American Broadcasting Company’s “This Week” that “I will let the president speak for himself.”
Trump might well have something to say for himself, but so far his source for the allegations seems to be a story that ran shortly before the “tweets” began at Brietbartnews.com, the news site that was formerly run by Trump consigliere Steve Bannon, who once described it as a “platform for the alt-right,” which summarized a rant shrieked by conservative talk radio host Mark Levin, who had shrieked it on the radio the day before. Levin is not at all a Trump sycophant and very often right despite his tendency to shriek, and he cited reporting by the very reliable Andrew McCarthy of the National Review, an impeccable conservative publication also stubbornly resistant to Trump’s charms, that the Department of Justice did indeed seek a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act wire tap on certain Trump-related phones and did keep tabs on a computer served linked between Trump’s business headquarters and a suspicious Russian bank. There have also been a number of leaks from the intelligence communities and other federal agencies clearly motivated by political animus, and all that right-wing radio talk about a “deep state” rebellion isn’t entirely far-fetched.
After eight long years of Obama and all his scandals even such anti-Trump conservatives as ourselves wouldn’t put it past that damned old Democrat and his thoroughly politicized Justice Department to be up to some Nixonian dirty tricks, and if Trump has anything to back it up we’ll be rubbing our hands with anticipation to hear it. There’s nothing in any of those 140-character-including-spaces “tweets” that comes remotely close to backing it up, though, and all those spokespeople’s more expansive sound bites on the Sunday shows were no more convincing. For now the Democrats are gloating that Trump either fabricated the story out of whole cloth and no wire tapes were ever sought, and that if any were indeed granted that meant a federal judge had decided there was sufficient suspicion about Trump’s dealings with Russian interests to warrant it, which is another favorite Democratic talking point of the moment, and that in any case Trump will be hard-pressed to prove Obama’s direct involvement, which eight long years have taught us is undeniably true. The rest of it should be convincing to that portion of the public that isn’t hopelessly partisan, too, and Trump will need better answers that what his people came up with on Sunday morning to counter that.
Maybe Trump is just baiting the trap so he can spring it on Obama at just the opportune time, as he did with that brilliant tactical admission that Obama was born in the United States, period, or offering just another distraction from the ongoing Russia stories that have already led to the resignations of a campaign chairman and National Security Advisor and the recusal of an Attorney General, and it really is a brilliant masterstroke. Then again, maybe Trump just can’t helping “tweeting” stupid things based on what he’s just read at some offbeat internet site at an ungodly early hour on a Sunday morning. We’re no fans of Obama, but Trump does strike us as that kind of guy, and it’s easy to imagine both of them looking very bad when all this sorts out.

— Bud Norman

Diplomacy in the Post E-Mail Age

Although we pride ourselves on a stubborn resistance to the latest technology and the rest of the modern world, and endure merciless kidding about it even from our octogenarian folks, the next President of the United States seems somehow even more Luddite than ourselves. You’ll find no high-definition televisions or global positioning systems in our possession, nor any smart phones or sultry-voiced Siri or any other gizmo smarter than ourselves, but at least we’ve learned enough computer code to indent these paragraphs the way God intended and post on them on the internet, and for crying out loud we’ve been sending and receiving e-mails since the paleolithic dial-up days.
President-elect Donald Trump testified in one of his 2007 lawsuits that “I don’t do the e-mail thing,” and he seems to not have budged from that stand. At a February rally he assured the raucous crowd “I go to court and they say, ‘Produce your e-mails,’ I say ‘I don’t have any,'” which his supporters seemed to find reassuring. When the Democratic Party’s hacked e-mails were leaked across the internet in July, and Trump publicly invited the Russians or whoever else might have done it to hack and leak Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails as Secretary of State as well, he once again assured his supporters that “I’m not an e-mail person myself. I don’t believe in it because I think it can be hacked, for one thing.” Now there’s a controversy regarding the intelligence community’s seeming conclusion that the Russians did the hacking and leaking to influence the election that Trump won, and Trump remains stubbornly insistent that some hypothetical 400-pound fellow in a New Jersey basement is as likely a suspect, and through it all he’s still assuring his supporters that whatever shenanigans he might be up to at least they won’t be revealed in an electronically purloined e-mail.
Which might work well enough for Trump, as every other of his crazy ideas seemingly has, but we can’t help wondering how well it will work for the rest of the federal government. Trump has now suggested that “If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way, because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe.” He cited the authority of his 10-year-old son, who reportedly “can do anything with a computer,” but if the kid can tell us how to get our bills paid by government-paid postal couriers just ahead of the utility cut-offs and pass along diplomatic communiques by such old-fashioned means just ahead of a nuclear conflagration we are eager to hear it. At our age we’ve read enough romantic novels and watched enough black-and-white movies about the French and American revolution days to know that those old-fashioned couriers encountered plenty of intrigue, too, and we’re eagerly awaiting what Trump’s 10-year-old kid has to say about that.
A federal government-wide return to ink and paper and actual file cabinets and dashing couriers on horseback will no doubt help bring the country to full employment, and might even undo some of the damage that Trump’s illiterate “tweets” have done to the English language, but even to our Luddite eyes it seems inefficient. Perhaps Trump and his 10-year-old computer wiz of a son have it all figured, though, and we’ll hear about over social media.

— Bud Norman

Friends and Enemies and Their Proper Treatment

There was little mention of it in the American press, which was understandably preoccupied with the the president’s executive orders regarding illegal immigration and the upcoming race riot in Missouri and other pressing domestic matters, but last week President Barack Obama thoroughly annoyed Australia.
En route back from China’s Asia-Pacific conference, where he’d grandly announced a deal with the host country that would reduce America’s carbon emissions in exchange for a guffawed promise that in 16 years the Chinese would consider doing the same pointless damage to their own economy, Obama stopped his jetliner in Australia to continue his efforts against anthropogenic global warming. During a speech in Brisbane that was added at the last minute to the president’s schedule he made repeated references to climate change, spoke in worried tones about the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef, and.seemed to criticize Australia for inefficient use of energy. Australians, the vast majority of whom recently voted in a conservative government because of the depressing economic effects of the previous government’s cap-and-trade policies, and who have taken expensive steps to ensure the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef, and whose fondness for their freedom of mobility around their vast empty country can only be explained by the “Mad Max” movies, understandably took it as an insult. One of the big Australian newspapers found that the American embassy staff had advised against the speech, reported that the Australian Prime Minister and other officials were not given the usual diplomatic courtesy of an advance copy, and noted that “Historians of the US-Australia relationship are unable to nominate a case of a visiting president making such a hostile speech for the host government.”
Such disrespect for America’s most stalwart allies has been a consistent trait of the Obama administration. It started with his decision to return a bust of Sir Winston Churchill to Great Britain and honor its queen with an I-pod full of his own speeches, then went on with the reneging on a missile defense deal with Poland and the Czech Republic, continued through the undiplomatic treatment and anonymously foul-mouthed descriptions of Israel’s Prime Minister, and is still playing out over the XL Keystone Pipeline and a conspicuously nit-picky enforcement of the norther border and other petty issues with Canada, among numerous other examples. The “open hands” and “reset buttons” have been reserved for such adversaries as the Iranians and Russians, who have benefitted greatly such friendliness while offering little in return but bomb-making and land-grabbing trouble, which seems a peculiar way to conduct a foreign policy.
At this late point in his presidency, however, Obama seems to care little about public opinion in any country except perhaps the ones where he hopes to redistribute the west’s wealth. The same cap-and-trade policies that the Australians rejected were also rejected by America’s Congress even when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House and Harry Reid controlled a supermajority in the Senate, but Obama continues to impose as much of them as he can through executive action. The long delays in construction of the XL Keystone Pipeline that are infuriating the Canadian government are also infuriating the American public, but expect a veto that will bring at least another two year’s delay. An executive order to stop enforcing America’s immigration laws for an estimated five million illegal aliens is proving so widely unpopular that even such formerly steadfast supporters as the black American punditry and the “Saturday Night Live” writing staff are critical, but he seems ready to defend it to the point of a politically advantageous government shutdown. If the Australians feel insulted by the president’s blatant disregard for their opinions, at least they have some idea how Americans feel.

— Bud Norman