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Our Ambivalent Endorsement of Gina Haspel

In the extremely unlikely case we found ourselves a United States Senator we’d be inclined to vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee for director of the Central Intelligence, Gina Haspel, but we’d do so with some ambivalence. Some of the arguments made for and against Haspel seem reasonable enough, but the rest of the arguments we’re hearing, both pro and con, strike us as downright dumb.
The fact that Haspel would be the agency’s first female director is entirely irrelevant, as far as our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities are concerned, so we were disappointed but not at all surprised that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders “tweeted” that any opposition to a nominee with such career credentials as Haspel must be motivated by sexism. Way back in the ’16 presidential former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had the far more relevant career credentials for the job of president, despite the many reasons that awful woman was clearly unfit for the job, and even such Trump-averse Republicans as ourselves scoffed at the notion that anyone should ever vote for a candidate based on his or her sex. We still reject that silly claim, and Trump’s White House press secretary — of all people — playing the gender card strikes us as sillier yet.
The Democrats’ opposition to Haspel’s nomination has been led by up-and-coming and potential presidential contender California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose feminist credentials are by far more unassailable than Sanders’, and are based on on an arguable complaint that Haspel’s otherwise exemplary career in the CIA included a stint at overseeing an overseas outpost where where she oversaw an operation that included harsh interrogations of captured suspected terrorists. Haspel admits giving the green to light to “waterboarding” and other undeniably harsh interrogation techniques that Democrats then and now regard as torture. Although she testified has testified before congress that we will eschew such methods in the future, Haspel has also has refused to condemn their use in the past, so the Democrats’ opposition to her nomination doesn’t seem at all hypocritical even if she is a woman potentially empowered to be the first woman director of the CIA.
On the the other hand, we’re not at all convinced that Haspel was overly harsh in the interrogations she oversaw. They happened shortly after Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks killed more than 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, after all, and didn’t involve anything that American troops weren’t trained to endure as they went off to fight various wars in response to that aggression. We’re the queasy sorts who are unable to watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, but even after all these years we’d still countenance getting medieval on some suspected terrorists in those extraordinarily rare “ticking time bomb” situations that only seem to occur in the movies, and we acknowledge it’s a complicated question Haspel faced during an otherwise exemplary career.
On yet another hand, neither are we comfortable with Trump’s and his reconfigured Republican party’s newfound enthusiasm for torture.
During the campaign Trump slanderously excoriated Republican President George W. Bush for lying his way into mercenary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also blamed his processors for being weak-kneed against Islamist terrorism. He vowed that he would he would go way beyond mere “waterboarding” with suspected terrorists, not just in a rare “ticking time bomb” situation but on a regular basis, kill all the families of any suspected terrorists, summarily shoot any suspected terrorists with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, and fire anyone who defied to his orders to commit such internationally-regognnized war crimes. He also derided all his Republican primary opponents who disagreed as “pussies,” and somehow that vulgar argument wound up winning the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency.
Among the few Republicans opposing Haspel’s nomination in Arizona Sen. John McCain, who suffered five years of undeniable torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp during the Vietnam war, three of them voluntarily after he selflessly refused an early release because of his family’s clout rather than desert his comrades and hand the enemy a propaganda victory, which gives us respectful pause about Haspel’s nomination. During the last campaign the draft-dodging Trump said that McCain was only a hero “because he got caught, and I hate to tell you but I like a guy who didn’t get caught,” and although we’re still proud to vote cast our vote despite our many complaints about  Republican nominee McCain way back in ’12 we are also proud that we didn’t vote for either Trump or that awful Clinton woman back in ’16.
All the Trump apologists on the talk radio shows are damning McCain as as traitor to the country, and administration officials are joking about how the brain cancer-striken Senator and war Hero and former Republican presidential standard-bearer will soon be dead anyway. At that this point in ’18 we’d probably vote for Haspel’s confirmations if we were somehow Senators, but we’d feel ambivalent about her ambivalence in answer those questions the damned Democrats are asking about what she’d do if Trump kept his campaign promises and ordered her to commit a war crime without a “ticking time bomb” rationale.

— Bud Norman

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Porno Performers, Evangelical Christians, and Those Hard-to-Answer Questions

Thursday brought both torrential rains and a gloriously warm and blue skies to our portion of the Great Plains, but back east in Washington, D.C., White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced unrelentingly stormy weather. We almost felt sorry for the poor woman.
On Wednesday night one of President Donald Trump’s more recent attorneys, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, had gone on Sean Hannity’s exceedingly Trump-friendly program on Fox News and acknowledged that eleven days before the past presidential election Trump paid $130,000 to a pornographic video performer called Stormy Daniels to not talk about an tryst she claimed to have had with him shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child. Both Trump and his White House press secretary had until then insisted the president knew nothing about any payments to any porno performers, and that you’d have to ask that lawyer the president once called his “fixer” and now describes as someone he barely knows, and has recently had thorough federal search warrant executed on his home and office and hotel room, so Sanders had some serious explaining to do.
She started her Spanish Inquisition of a White House press briefing with upbeat talk about Trump’s enthusiasm for National Prayer Day and the recent hopeful developments on the Korean peninsula, but the press corps were in no mood for that. They had some hard to answer questions about Trump recently blaming President Barack Obama for some Americans being detained by North Korea during his own administration, and the ensuing questions about the past misstatements about a now-acknowledged $130,000 payment to a porno performer made all that talk about National Prayer Day sound ridiculous. That got bogged down in talk about campaign finance law that Sanders had trouble explaining away, too, and those pesky reporters kept asking impossible to answer questions about how often the official White House position has shifted on countless matters, and why anyone should believe anything the White House press secretary has to say.
Sanders insisted that she first learned that the president had paid $130,000 to a porno performer when his lawyer blurted that out on the Hannity show, and even those cynical sorts in the White House press corps didn’t doubt that a bit. She couldn’t bring herself to blame her past misstatements about the matter on being deliberately misinformed by her boss, though, and without that frank admission it was impossible to reconcile what she was saying on Thursday with what she’d been saying until then.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders goes by that name because she’s proudly the daughter of Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who served two fairly successful terms as Governor of Arkansas and ran a couple of futile campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, and she seems to have inherited both her father’s political and religious instincts. Like many other professed evangelical Christians she considers Trump’s appointment of an anti-abortion Supreme Court Justice and revocation of the Johnson Amendment that threatened the tax-exempt status of any pro-Trump preachers and his professed enthusiasm for National Prayer Day more important than any hush money payments he might have to paid to somme porno performer, and of course she’s finding it hard to explain that to both the secular and spiritual sorts.
Our own secular and cynical selves are by now pretty much convinced that the current President of the United States did indeed have an adulterous encounter with a porno performer shortly after his third wife gave birth to his fifth child, and by now the president’s lawyer has admitted on Sean Hannity’s show — of all places — that Trump paid her $130,000 not to say so. Our more spiritual and proudly evangelical Christian side still holds out hope that Trump and Sanders will offer not only confession but some semblance of contrition in the future, and that the routine lies they tell from behind a podium with the official White House seal about all sorts of things will eventually cease, but by now it’s only a faint hope.

— Bud Norman

“Tweeting” Away a Tax Bill

President Donald Trump took to the road Wednesday to rally popular support for the congressional Republicans’ attempts to pass a tax bill, which so far are widely unpopular, but as is his wont he first undermined the effort with a street of outrageous “tweets.” His even busier-than-usual thumbs “re-tweeted” some links to anti-Muslim videos, expressed the usual complaints about the “fake news,” gloated about the firing of a network news anchor for alleged sexual improprieties, and seemed to suggest that another of one of media critics might be guilty of murder.
The outbursts not only gave all the media plenty to talk about other Trump’s sales pitch for whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up, they also made those arguments harder to believe.
Those anti-Muslim videos that Trump “re-tweeted” came from a fringe group calling itself Britain First, which the British government blames for a recent spate of hate crimes against its Muslim citizens, so some controversy ensued. The leader of the the fringe group and former Ku Klux Klan leeader David Duke both “tweeted” their appreciation for the “re-tweet” to to Trump’s millions of “Twitter followers,” but British Prime Minister Theresa May “tweeted” her own opinion that “It is wrong for the president to have done this,” and that seemed more in line with the mainstream media’s reaction.
Then the government of the Netherlands “tweeted” its objection that the video purporting to show a handicapped Dutch youth being savagely beaten by a Muslim immigrant was misleading, because although the depicted attack did occur the crime was not committed by a Muslim immigrant, and that assaulters has since been severely punished by Dutch law. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders would not vouch for the authenticity of any of the videos, and was reduced to defending their “re-tweeting” by insisting the president was making a valid point by arguing that mass Muslim immigration has resulted in problems for Europe.
That is indeed a valid point, and there is plenty of valid evidence for it, and it doesn’t need to be couched in hateful terms, so we would have to hear Huckabee-Sanders why Trump chose to cite some phony-baloney videos from a far-away fringe hate group that’s lately become a problem for a key American ally, and wind up annoying another American ally in the process.
Another big story of the day was the National Broadcasting Company firing longtime “Today Show” host Matt Lauer after a co-worker accused him of sexual harassment and assault, so of course Trump couldn’t resist the chance to insert himself in the middle of that. Even though Trump also stands credibly accused of similar charges, and is championing a Republican Senate candidate down in Alabama who stands credibly accused of even worse, and had just been called out by the Dutch for disseminating inaccurate informations, Trump gloated about Lauer’s firing and wondered “when will the top executives at NBC & Comcast be fired for putting out so much fake news” and urged his followers to “check out” the past of the news division’s chief for some unspecified dirt.
Then he took aim at the NBC-affiliated MSNBC network’s Joe Scarborough, host of the “Morning Joe” program and a frequent target of of Trump’s ad hominem criticism, writing “And will they terminate low ratings Joe Scarborough based on the ‘unsolved mystery’ that took place in Florida years ago. Investigate!” So far as any one can tell, Trump was referring to the 2001 death of a 28-year-old employee who died in Scarborough home district office when he was Florida congressman.
Of course the incident was thoroughly investigated by both the local authorities and the local press, with the local medical examiner concluding the the poor woman had died when an abnormal heart rhythm caused to her to lose consciousness and strike her head on a desk, and the local reporter who’s know a journalism professor at Duke University recalls he could find no evidence of foul play, and for the past 16 years only the kookiest conspiracy theory web sites have suggested that Scarborough had anything to with it.
Trump’s “tweets” don’t offer any reason to suspect Scarborough, either, so it looks an awful like Trump’s suggestion that one time political rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s father had something to do with the Kennedy assassination. Which is hardly how to begin a speech making all sorts of dubious claims whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up.
Trump’s oration before a mid-sized crowd of adoring fans in St. Charles, Missouri, was largely devoted to bragging about his overwhelming electoral victory and how he’s since been making America great again even more rapidly than even he expected, but for the most part he focused on how America would be even greater after he signs whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up with. He touched on all the venerable Republican arguments about tax cuts freeing up money for investments that spur economic growth and thus winds up helping everybody, rightly noted that America’s corporate tax rate is the highest in the industrialized word and thus hinders American competitiveness and create perverse incentives for doing business elsewhere, and all things considered we expected worse.
We’re old enough to remember when President Ronald Reagan was making those arguments, though, so we hoped for better. Back when good ol’ Ronnie Ray-Gun was making the pitch for a Republican tax bill the economic circumstances were starkly different, he thoroughly understood the complicated theories underlying the legislation that had been carefully crafted through hotly-debated hearings and thorough analysis by various nonpartisan agencies, and he had the sunny disposition and a sufficient command of the English language to persuade quite a few Democratic congressmen and a sufficient majority of the American to go along without resorting to any bald-faced lies. This is a different time, though, and Trump is a different president.
One of the obvious reasons that whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up with is so polling so horribly is because it is perceived as giving a massive tax cut to the richest Americans, which is inconveniently but undeniably true according to every analysis we’ve seen by any credible nonpartisan agency or think-tank or business publication on either the left or the right margins of the reasonable middle. Rather than winsomely explaining the complicated theories about why that’s actually a good idea for everyone, as Reagan did back when it was undeniably true of his plan, which worked out well enough for everyone, Trump prefers to deny it.
Trump assures the public that such a famously and fabulously wealthy person as himself is going to take a real hit with whatever tax bill the Republicans might come up with, and he mimics the slightly Jewish-sounding exasperation of his accountant at what he’s doing, and he brags about all the rich friends he has who are angry at him. He then adds his catchphrase “Believe me.” He tells the fans in St. Charles and elsewhere that he doesn’t mind losing all that money or any of those phony rich friends because he’s got the love of all the pipe fitters and coal miners and construction workers out there in the real America, and says “believe me” twice.
We’ll have to take his word for it, of course, because Trump hasn’t released his tax returns or given a full public accounting of the complex world-wide business he continues to hold, and there’s no telling what all those rich friends of his might be up to. All of the credible nonpartisan agencies and think-tanks and business publications are saying that Trump and his dues-paying pals at Mar-a-Lago will come fine, though, and at this point they seem more credible than the guys who’s often “re-tweeting” fake news from all sorts of kooky conspiracy theory internet sites. Most of the analysis from the serious sources we’ve seen suggest that the sorts of lower-income workers who voted in large numbers for Trump are going to take a hit, but we can’t say for sure if that’s fake news, so we’ll leave it to lower-income Trump voters to decide.
Back when Reagan was around the top tax rates were truly exorbitant and the economy was deep into an era of stagflation, while today the top rates are still halved and Trump can’t stop talking about how great the stock market and everything else is going just because he’s there, but there’s still an honest argument to be made for Republican economics. Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Speaker Paul Ryan will stun us by persuasively making that case, but Trump’s obviously dishonest arguments are unlikely to nudge those awful poll numbers upwards, and his “tweets” about “Chuck and Nancy” and the rest of the congressional Democrats are even more unlikely to win any of their much-needed votes.

— Bud Norman

Arrivederci, Scaramucci

President Donald Trump started the work week on Monday with a “tweet” assuring the public “No WH chaos!,” but after that things got pretty chaotic around the White House. By lunch time the communications director was on his way out, after less than two weeks on the job and a full two weeks before he was to be officially installed, which was just the latest and surely not the last in a remarkable number of personnel changes for a still-young administration.
Anthony Scaramucci’s appointment had led to the resignations of the White House’s press secretary and chief of staff, both of whom preferred to quit rather than work with him, and his resignation set off lots of speculation about what comes next. His predecessor’s tenure had also been brief by historical standards, and his predecessor’s shorter yet, so at this point the office is starting to look like being a drummer for Spinal Tap, and so far we haven’t heard any names being floated for who’s next.
The chief of staff that Scaramucci scared away has already been replaced by former four-star Marine General John Kelly, who moves over from his post as Homeland Security secretary, so some people are speculating that the Attorney General that Trump has lately been trying to harangue into resignation will be moved over there, and that he will be replaced by someone free to fire the special counsel who was appointed to investigate Russia’s role in the past election after Trump fired the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
All of which sounds pretty chaotic to us, but still-new-on-the-job press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders assures us that “If you want to see chaos, come to my house with three pre-schoolers.” That’s not a very reassuring comparison to a White House, though, and we hope that none of Sanders’ pre-schoolers are as troublesome as that Scaramucci fellow.
“The Mooch” made a fortune on Wall Street, and although he was an outspoken critic of Trump until the future president wrapped up the Republican nomination, he was complimentary to an almost homo-erotic degree afterwards. He had no experience in politics or media, but Trump admires people who have made a fortune and likes over-the-top flattery, so Scaramucci arrived in the White House with a pair of blue aviator shades and a Trump-like tough-guy persona and plenty of hair gel and swagger. He also arrived with a $200 million dollar sale to a Chinese conglomerate of the SkyBridge Capital  firm that he has a 44 percent stake in still pending before a regulatory review board, conveniently comprised of Trump appointees. That was reportedly one of the main reasons the previous chief of staff was so adamantly opposed to bringing him on board, and the official reason Scaramucci wasn’t officially on the job for another two weeks of consideration of the deal, but Trump doesn’t seem to have any problem with that sort of thing.
Scaramucci’s tough-guy shtick probably would have carried through him such picky-picky ethical controversies, but he somehow managed to take it too far even by Trump standards. When Politico broke the story about his holdings in SkyBridge, Scaramucci immediately “tweeted” what sure seemed to be a threat to have the FBI investigate the chief of staff for leaking the story, only to have the reporter “tweet” back that her source was the public disclosure form he’d filled out for a time-holding job at the Export-Import Bank. After that a New Yorker reporter “tweeted” that Trump and Scaramucci had dined with radio host and Fox News personality Sean Hannity, which is a rather embarrassing but hardly as earth-shaking scoop, Scaramucci responded with a profanity-laden and downright-crazy rant that wound up a few minutes later at the web site of one of America’s most venerable magazines.
The rant was probably the most widely-read piece in the history of the New Yorker, far surpassing anything Dorothy Parker or James Thurber or John Updike ever wrote for the rag, and we have to admit it does make for damned interesting reading. Scaramucci once again alleged that the White House chief of staff was a a possible felon and very certain sort of “paranoid schizophrenic,” described the White House chief strategist performing an extremely difficult sex act upon himself, and threatened to either fire or kill countless other administration officials. That might not have bothered such a tough guy as Trump much, either, but in one of those ironic twists from Greek drama and the Trump administration the chief of staff that Scaramucci forced out was replaced by a former four-star Marine general who is famous for not suffering fools and idiots lightly.
This scaramouche’s exit from this commedia dell’arte was foretold in our posting of yesterday, but even with our powers of prophecy we didn’t see it coming quite so fast. Nor could our literary imaginations have ever imagined such a colorful character or such a cruel fate for him. Shortly after he signed on with the Trump administration his wife filed for divorce during her ninth month of pregnancy, reportedly in part because she can’t stand Trump, and we doubt she felt any differently when he wound up missing the birth of their child because he preferred to accompany Trump to a Boy Scout jamboree, where the president gave a speech that the Boy Scouts later apologized for. The president he showed such loyalty to accepted his resignation a few days later, the press secretary and chief of staff he forced out and all the administration officials he’d threatened to fire or kill were no doubt having a hearty laugh about it, and that genuinely tough new chief of staff might yet have something to say about that $90 million payday he was counting on.
The quick exit and the genuinely tough guy who did the bouncing are hopeful signs for the administration, at least, and we’re wishing Kelly the best. There are a still an awful lot of fools and idiots left that he’ll have to suffer, though, and it’s beyond even his formidable powers to get rid of all of them.

— Bud Norman

Dueling Headlines

As usual in the age of President Donald Trump, there’s more in a day’s news than one can find time or space to comment on, and as always it’s hard to say what’s the biggest deal. On a typically busy Tuesday the two main contenders were the House of Representatives joining the Senate in passing a tough Russian sanctions bill that explicitly restricts Trump’s power to do anything about it, and the other was Trump’s rapidly escalating war of words with his own Attorney General, both of which are just subplots in the bigger ongoing story about what Trump now calls “Russia.”
The sanctions bill passed the House with a vote of 419 to three, which is a remarkably lopsided margin in these divisive and divided days, and a similar bill had already passed the Senate by a similar blow-out score of 98 to two, so whatever minor adjustments are made in the conference committee both the sanctions and the presidential restrictions will arrive on Trump’s desk with the same overwhelming bipartisan support. Trump can still veto it, but by now someone has probably explained to him that 419 to three and 98 to two are veto-proof margins would become law anyway, and he probably knows by instinct given all the other stories in the news lately it wouldn’t look good to be one of only six elected officials in Washington going soft on the Russkies.
On one of the Sunday morning shows newly-promoted White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was saying the president had decided to the sign the bill, while at the same the newly-appointed White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci was saying on another show that the president hadn’t yet decided, but we’ll wager a small amount that Sanders winds up being right. Signing the damned thing will probably infuriate Trump, as the bill represents an almost unanimous rebuke to the Russian-friendly foreign policy he campaigned on, and the restrictions on his presidential power will surely chafe at his neck, but not signing wouldn’t stop it from happening, and no matter how much the hard-core fans might love it the broader political consequences would be dire.
Those blow-out bi-partisan margins portend some perilous political consequences, as well. Trump’s ability to negotiate all those great deals with Russia he promised is for now and well into the foreseeable severely restricted, as all those campaign statements have not only left him isolated from our democratic western allies but also the domestic Democrats and Republicans who were elected with majorities by almost the entire country. Trump will probably “tweet” some insult at all of them, and his most hard-core fans will no doubt love it, but we doubt they’re tired of winning yet.
Which makes that escalating war of words between Trump and his Attorney General all the more portentous. Trump now regrets having hired Attorney General Jeff Sessions after he recused himself from anything having to do with that ongoing “Russia” storyline, and has not only “tweeted” about it and said so to The New York Times. He’s also “tweeted” his annoyance that Sessions hasn’t pursued criminal investigations against vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which candidate Trump promised to do and president-elect Trump said he wouldn’t do and President Trump is once suddenly very enthusiastic about.
Sessions was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, and we well remember how that “Make-America-Great-Again”-ball-cap-donning endorsement at a well-attended Alabama rally was touted to prove Trump’s true-blue conservatism, but on Tuesday Trump told The Wall Street Journal that “But he was a senator, and he looks at probably 40,000 people and says, ‘What do I have to lose?‘ So it’s not like a great loyal thing by that endorsement.” That 40,000 total was of course overstated by 100 percent, and there’s no telling how many of them were there to see the Senator they’d long voted for, but a president is entitled to his own conclusions. He followed that insult up with a brief news conference next to the President of Lebanon, where he declined to say if he was going to fire Sessions but added “time will tell.”
Which will probably please many of Trump’s most hard-core fans, but leaves Trump further isolated from the rest of the country. Sessions not only risked his Republican respectability with that endorsement, but he also gave up a comfortable lifelong seat in the Senate to serve in Trump’s cabinet, so the many kinds of conservatives who warmed to Trump’s candidacy only because of Session’s endorsement are not cheering his impending defenestration. Sessions was a hard-liner on illegal immigration back when Trump was hiring illegals and calling Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s mild “self-deportation” policies “mean,” and he was an unabashed Republican and conservative way back when Trump was donating to Democrats and trying to be cool, so Trump can’t count on his right flank’s loyalty in this skirmish.
Sessions has annoyed much of the libertarian and state’s rights sorts of conservatives by giving the cops wider latitude to seize your assets for whatever reason and cracking down on the states that take a lenient attitude toward marijuana use, both of which are far more annoying to us than his admirably ethical decision to recuse himself from “Russia” after giving false statements about it to the Senate. The left always hated the poor guy from get-go, caricaturing the unabashedly anti-illegal-immigration and Alabama-accented Jefferson Beuaregard Sessions III as an unrepentant Confederate racist, but in the war of words with Trump even they have his back. All those folks in the middle are probably wondering why Trump is so angry that his Attorney General isn’t on the job of squashing all the ongoing investigations in to that “Russia” thing, which leaves Trump rather isolated.
Perhaps Trump can “tweet” his way out of this mess, too, but it looks tricky. Sessions might make a final act of a obeisance by resigning, but there’s hope everywhere on both the right and left he’ll hold out to force Trump to fire him, and in any case it will be very interesting to see who Trump nominates next for such a thankless job and how that will play in Congress. The Democrats who are suddenly on board with Romney’s anti-Russian stand in the ’12 election are of course craven partisan hypocrites, which will surely be the main argument against them, but all those Republicans who are still on board enough to give that sanctions bill their vote are being quite  consistent in their convictions, so winning the argument with all of them will require more than 140 characters.

— Bud Norman

The Media and the “Mooch”

By now you’re probably already familiar with the name of Anthony Scaramucci, but if not you soon will be. He’s the fellow who’s been hired to head President Donald Trump’s communication office, which is the kind of tough gig that ensures a household name level of celebrity.
The Scaramucci show will replace the cancelled Sean Spicer program, which Trump once praised for its “great ratings” but eventually decided should only be done with the cameras off. Spicer’s first day on the job was devoted to insisting that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, which was easily disproved by an ample amount of photography and video tape and eyewitness accounts, as well as a common sense understanding that even the usual sorts of Republicans much less Trump aren’t going to outdraw the First Black President in the District of Columbia and environs, and it pretty much went downhill from there.
Spicer was every bit as rude and insulting and dissembling to the press as his boss could ever be, and the Trump show’s biggest fans seemed to love it, but it never translated in higher presidential approval ratings with the overall audience. Melissa McCarthy’s scathing and you have to admit pretty-damned-funny impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” was a far bigger hit, and is probably how he’ll be long remembered for the next 15 minutes, if that long, just as people still confuse Gov. Sarah Palin with Tina Fey’s scathing and you have to admit pretty-damned-funny “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of her. Trump had guest-hosted the long-running comedy during the campaign, and scored huge ratings and no doubt thought he killed, so we can see why he’d think that Spicer just wasn’t doing the old rude and insulting and dissembling shtick like a pro.
By this point Spicer’s already been out of the limelight for a conspicuous while, with deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders taking his place at the White House briefings. She’s gotten slightly better reviews from the mainstream media, as she honeys her assaults on the media’s integrity with a soft southern accent and frequent theologically questionable allusions to the Christian faith she learned from her dad, humble country preacher and former Arkansas Governor and current talk show host Mike Huckabee, but it’s not so big with the fans that Trump has allowed the cameras to be turned back on. With Spicer’s resignation she’s now the full blown press secretary, but we expect that Scaramucci will be the bigger celebrity.
Scaramucci became fabulously wealthy wheeling-and-dealing on Wall Street, where he was fearfully known as “Mooch,” and except for a knack for publicizing himself he has no relevant experience in either politics or communications. That’s apparently considered a qualification to a president who became fabulously wealthy through various wheeling-and-dealings and has no other relevant experience for his current position Still, Trump is admittedly entitled to note that Spicer had previously been communications director the Republican National Committee, whose ratings are currently awful, so sometimes experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Scaramucci’s already had lengthy auditions defending Trump on all the broadcast and cable news shows, too, and he showed all the combativeness that Trump could hope for, as well a certain telegenic flair for it that Spicer never quite achieved and Sanders can’t even attempt.
Scaramucci wasn’t always on the Trump train, and in fact “tweeted” some sharp criticisms of the man right up to the moment that Trump clinched the Republican nomination, but since then he’s been as full-throated a defender as Trump could hope for. All those heretical “tweets” have now been removed and recanted and apologized for, and the leftward sides of the media are convinced that he’s the latest weapon of mass distraction Trump has deployed against them, but we think he might prove more savvy than they fear. A while back the Cable News Network had a big story about how Scaramucci was tied to some shady Russian deal, and it when it turned to to be all wrong and was removed and retracted and apologized for, with three resignations thrown in as well, all the Trump-friendly media went wild about “fake news” while Scaramucci simply “tweeted” that he accepted and appreciated the apology.
The previous expunged reservations about Trump and that reserved response to a story that Trump’s media tormentors also had to remove and recant and apologize for suggest some qualifications for the job, as far as we’re concerned. From what we’ve seen Scaramucci can reasonably confront the often questionable assumptions of an interviewer’s questions without being an utter jerk about it, which is a surprisingly crowd-pleasing shtick that Trump has never mastered, and although he’s a bit too close to that Gordon Gekko character in “Wall Street” for the late night comics to resist we doubt they’ll nail it quite like McCarthy did with Spicer.
As savvy as Scaramucci seems to be, though, we doubt it will suffice in his new and vastly-underpaid gig. He’s still expected to maintain with a straight face that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest ever, and since then there have been lots of other things about the Trump administration that are equally defend, and more are sure to come. Sooner or later it all seems to wind up in congressional hearings and special investigations and court hearings where all those Democratic scandals and retracted news stories are not germane to the questions being asked, and the answers are under oath, and things are so crazy these days that the truth might yet prevail. He got off to a start by appearing on
Scaramucci’s first full day on the job had him telling CNN’s Sunday morning “State of the Union” show that Trump hadn’t yet decided about a pending bill that would impose sanctions on Russia and restrict the president’s power to to limit them, or that at least he didn’t know if the president had decided, and simultaneously Sanders was telling the American Broadcasting Company’s “This Week” that Trump was ready to sign the bill. On another channel one of the president’s lawyers was denying that the president’s legal team had ever given any thought to the presidential pardon powers that the president had just “tweeted” about. Scaramucci seems a savvy fellow, though, so there’s no reason to think it will be all downhill from here.

— Bud Norman

Sometimes There Is Such a Thing as Bad Press

Donald Trump Jr. has been a big name in the news for the past few days, getting even more ink and airtime than his presidential eponym, but he’s surely not relishing the attention. All the stories have been about a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer closely linked to the Kremlin, and over the past few days they’ve become progressively worse.
It all started with a New York Times report on Saturday that Trump Jr., along with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with the aforementioned Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnistkaya, at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016. The Trumps’ most staunch defenders usually dismiss anything in “The New York Slimes” as “fake news,” which is often a plausible defense, but in this case the meeting was corroborated by a statement from Trump Jr., which described the meeting as a discussion about lifting a Russian ban on its orphans being adopted by Americans, but “did not address whether the presidential campaign was discussed.” Given that Trump Jr. had previously denied any meetings with any Russians during the campaign, and that he and those two other top Trump campaign aides and that Kremlin-linked lawyer would have been the only four people talking about the Russian adoption issue at the time, it looked bad.
On Sunday The New York Times reported that the campaign was indeed discussed at the meeting, and that in fact the reason for it was to hear some promised information from the Kremlin-linked lawyer that the campaign might use against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which looked worse. This blast of “fake news” from “The New York Slimes” cited five unnamed sources, three of them described as White House advisors, but it was also corroborated by a more forthcoming statement by Trump Jr.. In the statement, Trump explained that the promised dirt wasn’t delivered, that the conversation somehow turned to talk about the Russian adoption issue, and at that point he ended the meeting. “It became clear to me,” he wrote, “that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
On Sunday The Washington Post piled on with a story that the meeting had been arranged by a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, who represents a Russian pop star named Emin Agalarov, whose wealthy family is Kremlin-linked and has also done business with the Trumps. There was no statement from anyone named Trump in the story, but the deal to put the Trump name atop a Moscow tower had been publicly acknowledged by both parties. That’s not proof of anything nefarious, of course, but it also looks bad.
On Monday The New York Times was back on top of the story with a report that Goldstone had e-mailed Trump Jr. prior to the meeting to say that the promised dirt on Clinton was coming direct from the Kremlin as part of its efforts to help the Trump presidential campaign. There was no corroborating statement from Trump, whose newly-hired lawyer has probably advised him not to say anything, but if the e-mail does exist and the subpoena-powered special counsel gets his hands on it that will look even worse yet.
All the president’s spokespeople have done their best make it look better, but they’ve had a tough time of it. The original claim was that no one in the Trump campaign ever had any contacts with any Russians during the race, but since then a national security advisor has resigned and an Attorney General has recused from the whole matter and that son-in-law and past campaign chairman are both under investigation for their now-admitted meeting with Russians during the race, so that’s been abandoned. The next claim was that all the meetings were perfectly innocent, either momentary social encounters at cocktail parties or discussions by campaign associates in their other political or business capacities or high-minded talk about such non-campaign related things as Russians adoptions, but now Trump Jr. has admitted that at least on one occasion the campaign was quite willing and eager to talk with a Russian who might provide to help Trump win the election.
Trump Jr. is for now sticking to his story that he had no idea the Russian he met with had any ties to the Kremlin, and that he and two of Trump’s other closest advisors took time out of a busy campaign schedule to welcome her to Trump Tower with the hope she was getting her promised dirt from a clean source, but even if you buy that it still doesn’t make him look good. For now everyone Trump is insisting that no matter what went down the president didn’t have the slightest idea that his son and son-in-law and campaign chairman were having at a meeting a Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, but even if that’s true it doesn’t make him look any better.
For the moment the White House and its media allies are insisting that the bigger scandal is that fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who was fired because of his investigation of all the Russia stuff, had leaked classified information along with a much more widely noted claim that Trump had implicitly tried to quash an investigation about that national security advisor who had resigned over some undisclosed contacts with Russians. The president “tweeted” about how it was “Totally illegal!,” his indefatigable spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway kept trying to bring it up during her inquisitions on the cable news, and that was what all the right-wing radio talk shows we heard on our drive around town wanted to talk about. Their source is a report in The Hill, which is an inside-the-beltway establishment paper that also relied on unnamed sources for its scoop, but if they’d read all the way through they’d have noticed it only said some of Comey’s memos were classified, did not allege that the one he long ago admitted he leaked was one of them, and even in the worst case it isn’t nearly so juicy as what The New York Times and The Washington Post have been coming up with the past few days.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has been filling in for a while for the conspicuously absent White House press secretary Sean Spicer, even tried to claim in an another camera-free pressing briefing that it was more scandalous that people had leaked information about the Trump campaign’s effort to acquire leaked information from a Kremlin-linked lawyer. Three of those unnamed leakers were reportedly White House advisors, the denunciation basically confirmed the leaks, and Trump Jr.’s written statements to the press corroborated the worst of it, so it hardly seems a winning argument.
The already emerging next claim is that so what if the Trump campaign sought the help of the Russians to win the election. During the campaign Trump said he hoped the Russians would leak any of the e-mails they might have hacked from Clinton, and although he later said he was just joking it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear him say that so what if he wasn’t joking. There’s already talk in the Trump-friendly media about past Democratic efforts to get opposition research information from foreign governments or meddle in their elections, much of it provably true and some of it unproved but plausible, and as understandably cynical a nation as ours might just buy the argument that, c’mon, everybody does it.
We hope not. Whatever nefarious scandals the Democrats might have gotten away with in the past — and we’re sure there have been damned more than just a few — that doesn’t mean a Republican should get away with working with a business-connected foreign adversary to influence an American presidential election. So far there’s no definitive proof it happened, but by now we can’t take seriously anyone’s claim that there’s no basis for suspicion, and we’re hoping that the press and the congressional investigative committees and the special counsel will eventually let us know one way or another.

— Bud Norman