Choosing Between Scylla and Charybdis

There’s a very complicated situation in the Middle East, as always, and President Donald Trump is of course “tweeting” about it.
A drone attack destroyed much of a major Saudi Arabian oil field, and although a Yemeni rebel group that has been fighting a bloody defensive war with Saudi Arabia and is allied with Iran has claimed responsibility the State Department and America’s intelligence are blaming the Iranian government. Trump’s first “tweet” on the matter said “There is reason to believe we know the culprit, but are locked and loaded depending upon verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.”
Trump’s “tweet” was characteristically hard to parse, but there was no mistaking a certain belligerence in its tone, as well as certain deference to the Saudis, who have concluded the Iranians are to blame, and Trump and his spokespeople have spent the past two days dialing that back. The Pentagon would reportedly prefer not to fight a war on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, even if the Saudis pay for it, as Trump has suggested, and Trump has repeatedly assured the news media that he does not want another war, although he continues to boast of how ready the military is to wage one.
Our best guess is that Trump genuinely wants to avoid any new Middle East wars. Trump ran as a peacenik, even going so far as to accuse President George W. Bush of lying America into a war with Iraq, a claim previously made only by the far left, and although he fancies himself a tough guy he takes even more pride in his dealmaking prowess, and a new war in the Middle East would be embarrassing. So far Trump hasn’t been able to keep his campaign promises to extract American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and critics will plausiblyblame his unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear treaty with Iran for provoking any conflict that might follow, and there will also be troublesome questions about why Trump seems so eager to do the bidding of Saudi Arabia’s awful government.
As Trump’s favorite Rolling Stones song says, though, you can’t always get what you want. The Iranian government is even more awful than Saudi Arabia’s, and Trump will not want to negotiate a new nuclear deal from a position of weakness. He also “tweeted” a grip that the “fake news” media had peddled the lie that he was willing to meet the Iranian dictatorship without any preconditions, which prompted all the networks except Fox News to gleefully replay all the videotape of Trump and his spokespeople repeatedly and explicitly saying he was willing to meet without any preconditions, so he clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an accommodationist.
The Iranians have become increasingly provocative since America reimposed economic sanctions, seizing commercial oil tankers and threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and shooting down an America drone in international air space, and if they continue to escalate their misbehavior even the most pacifist president will eventually have to do something about it. America can’t apply any more economic sanctions, as we’ve already cut off all trade with the regime, which so far hasn’t had the effect that was hoped for, and given Trump’s tenuous relations with the rest of the world he’s unlikely to recruit other countries to join the boycott.
Thanks to fracking and other new technologies America has produced enough energy to sustain its economy since the final years of President Barack Obama’s administration, with no thanks to either Obama or Trump, but oil is an internationally traded commodity and a blow to a major supplier such as Saudi Arabia will result in high prices at your local pump. The global economy was already slowing before the latest Middle East flare-up, in large part because of the global trade war Trump started, so a war would be very bad for everyone’s business, including Trump’s reelection campaign.
If the Iranians continue to impede the flow of oil and thereby cause a global crash that would also look bad. For now Trump finds himself in a damned-if-you and damned-if-you-don’t situation, he has no national security advisor and only an acting Secretary of Defense, he seems beholden for some reason or another to the Saudis, and so far his much bragged about gut instincts and dealmaking prowess haven’t proved impressive.
Here’s hoping it all works out somehow.

— Bud Norman

Checks, Balances, and other Trump Woes

President Donald Trump seems cocksure he could singlehandedly make America great again if only certain pesky people would get out of his way, but he’s finding that’s not the way things work in America or the rest of the world. The courts and the Congress and various other institutions have their own ideas about what to do, and are increasingly willing to assert themselves without fear of Trump’s “tweets.”
One of the peskiest institutions is the Federal Reserve Board, a stubbornly independent quasi-governmental body that plays an outsized role in the American economy by setting interesting rates and therefor determining monetary policy. Fed chairman Jerome Powell is Trump’s handpicked appointee, but like many another handpicked Trump appointee he’s greatly disappointed the president, in this case by very gradually raising the historically low interest rates and slightly easing the unprecedentedly voluminous money supply. Given the low-unemployment and chugging-along-well-enough economy that Trump routinely boasts about that’s what the Fed is supposed to do, according to the prevailing and usually reliable economy theory, but Trump would prefer the easy money that keeps the economy and stock market setting records he can brag about until the hyperinflation comes along during a future Democratic administration.
Trump has tried to solve this problem by packing the Fed’s board of governors with more compliant appointees, but the latest two have failed been forced to drop out..
One was Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza chain boss who ran for the Republican presidential bar in ’12 on a catchy “Nine Nine Nine” economic plan that somehow concluded that nine was the perfect number for the national income tax and business tax and sales tax, and even before a couple of extramarital sex scandals chased him out of the race most Republicans had concluded that despite his business success and master’s degree in business and knack for catchy slogans Cain didn’t much know about economics. Once it became clear he wasn’t going to get affirmed by Congress, Cain withdrew his name for consideration for the Fed Board.
Trump appointee Stephen Moore has also withdrawn his name from consideration, although for different reasons. The damned Democrats who control a majority in the House and are only slightly behind in the Senate didn’t like Moore’s long history of undeniably sexist public statements about uppity women playing basketball, nor his habit of making arguably racist jokes while on microphone, and a sufficient number of the slight majority of Republicans in the Senate were so put off by his utter lack of any discernible qualifications for the job that they risked the wrath of Trump’s “tweets” Moore has said on camera and written in print that he favors a return to the gold standard, which economists on both the left and right sides of the sensible mainstream consider crazy talk, and when confronted with that in his confirmation hearings Moore took the Trump-ian way out and insisted that he’d never said or written any such thing, so that didn’t go well
Meanwhile Trump’s Attorney General didn’t show up for his scheduled testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, the White House and its various executive agencies are similarly resisting Congress’ very extensive efforts to exercise its constitutional oversight powers about a wide range of Trump’s ongoing businesses, which will all be eventually settled in those pesky courts that don’t always rule in Trump’s favor, despite Trump’s serendipitous efforts to pack the Supreme Court.
Gasoline prices are also rising, despite all the “fracking” that’s going on and Trump’s chummy relationship with the unctuous king of Saudi Arabia. Trump’s greatest trade deal ever with Canada and Mexico to replace the worst-ever North American Free Trade Agreement is also facing a bipartisan tough fight in Congress despite the slight Republican majority in the Senate. There still seems to be a worry about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, despite Trump’s love affair with Kim Jong Un and his assurances we can all sleep soundly at night. The damned Democrats have some pretty fair questions to ask Barr about his rose-colored-glasses handling of the pretty darned damning Mueller report, and the Democrats are calling on Mueller himself to sort it out in public testimony, and we expect that to take up much of the coming news cycles.
Which is mostly fine by us. We don’t think any of these damned Democrats know any better, but we’ve seen enough of Trump to root for any established institutions that might restrain him. So far as we can tell, the hated establishment and its usual way of doing things is more reliably right than Trump.

— Bud Norman

A Slight Republican Revolt in Congress

On Wednesday seven Republican senators helped pass a resolution opposed to President Donald Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and it’s expected that today enough Republicans will join the Democrats in voting for a resolution opposed to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to divert funds for a wall along the southern border. There aren’t enough of these restive Republicans to help the Democrats override the expected presidential vetoes, and most of the party remains willing to go along with anything Trump wants, but Trump should probably be worried about what happens after that.
The only apparent reason for the defections of the seven Republican senators who voted against Trump’s middle east foreign policy and the four announced senators and perhaps as many as six more who will be voting against Trump’s national emergency is that they’re standing on traditional Republican principles. Defying the wishes does not serve the political interests of any Republican politician at the moment, even the ones in the most purplish states and districts, as Trump is more popular with the party at the moment than any longstanding Republican principles. An occasional show of independence from the more broadly unpopular president might prove useful in a general election in a lot of states and districts, but a politician needs his party’s nomination to get there, and an annoyed “tweet” and a disparaging nickname from Trump has already knocked a lot of incumbents from their seats.
The purging of Republicans suspected of less-than-complete loyalty to Trump is one of the reasons the party has such a slim majority in the Senate and the Democrats have such a sizable majority in the House of Representatives, but for now the party is sticking with complete loyalty to Trump. Even so, Trump’s weird indulgence of Saudi Arabia’s worst behavior, and his outrageous power grab of the Congress’ power to appropriate public in pursuit of a damned dumb border wall, are both so antithetical to traditional Republican values that are still a few Republicans left in Congress who have to draw a line somewhere.
America has maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia since President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, and put up with a lot of bad behavior through the past many decades of Democratic and Republican administrations alike, but Trump’s effusive affection for the Saudi dictatorship exceeds the post-war bipartisan foreign consensus that was probably too indulgent all along. America also has some carefully-negotiated and strategically important military and economic arrangements with the government of Yemen that Saudi Arabia has been ruthlessly trying to topple, even such stalwart cold warriors as President Ronald Reagan would cut loose allies in the Philippines and South Africa and elsewhere when their human rights abuses became intolerable to a western conscience, and there is something suspiciously weird about Trump’s policy in the region.
Suspicious types such as ourselves will note that Trump has publicly boasted about the millions of dollars of business he does with the Saudis, and seemed to love the lavish red carpet they rolled out for him on his first state trip, and that the son-in-law Trump has charged with bringing about Middle East pace also has an ongoing business relationship with the Saudis, which does seem one apparent explanation. On the other hand, perhaps Trump just likes the Saudis’ style. He happily accepted dictator Mohammed bin Salman’s assurance that he had nothing to do with the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Turkish embassy, but he also accepted Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s assurance that he would never have meddled in America’s election, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s assurances that he felt terrible to hear about the death-by-torture of American Otto Warmbier in one of his torture chambers.
Perhaps there’s some hyper-sophisticated genius to to all of this that such lesser minds as ourselves and all of Trump’s top advisors and appointees and the consensus opinion of the intelligence and foreign policy experts can’t quite discern, but we can’t blame any traditional Republican for voting against it.
There’s all the more traditional Republican reasons, as far as we’re concerned, to vote against that national emergency declaration that Trump openly admitted in front of all the “fake news” cameras he didn’t really need to declare. As always there are serious problems at the border, but somehow the nation has survived and even thrived without a big beautiful border wall or orphaning blameless children and similarly harsh measures, and until recently Republicans were satisfied with that. Back when Democratic presidents were brazenly exceeding their constitutional executive powers Republicans used to rightly object to that, but for now most of them will loyal stand by as Trump usurps the Congress’ constitutional power to appropriate funds and the property rights of the landowners along the southern border who see no need for a big and beautiful and downright dumb wall.
What’s more, Trump is planning to use the national emergency declaration to build the wall with funds that had been appropriated for military spending in various states and districts around the country. Some Republicans will therefore wind up voting against military spending in the states and districts, and at that point the Grand Old Party will have abandoned one of its most cherished principles.
So we’re glad to see there at least a few Republicans left in Congress who aren’t completely loyal to Trump, and we’re especially happy to see that one of them is Kansas’ own Sen. Jerry Moran, who always struck us as a traditionally Republican sort of guy, He’s not up for reelection in this reliably Republican state until after the 2020 presidential election, and the state’s two big export industries aren’t sold on Trump’s protectionism and the churches have some mild discomfort about Trump’s character, and most of Moran’s fellow defectors are similarly well positioned, so perhaps they are making some political calculations.
We surely hope so, as we’d very much like to see some semblance of the traditional Republican party survive Trump.

— Bud Norman

Et Tu, Republicans?

President Donald Trump claims full credit for a slight Republican majority in the Senate, but he shouldn’t count on it to always do his bidding. On Thursday the Senate passed one resolution rebuking Trump’s support of Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, and then another resolution contradicting Trump’s claim that Saudi dictator Mohammed bin Salman didn’t necessarily order the murder of a legal American resident and Washington Post columnist, The votes mostly came from the Democrats’ slight and unanimous minority, but enough Republicans defied the president to pass the resolutions and give Trump reason to worry.
Trump highly prizes his close relationship with the Saudi dictatorship, for reasons ranging from arguably pragmatic geopolitical considerations to corporate America’s and Trump’s personal business relationships to the way they’ve always flattered him, so he’s surely irked at the Republicans who aren’t on board with his agenda. Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen is a humanitarian disaster disrupting America’s long and carefully made alliances in that volatile region, and all of America’s intelligence agencies and everyone around the world who’s been paying attention know good and well that the Saudi dictatorship quite obviously ordered the gruesome murder of that American resident journalist, but Trump expects the sort of loyalty that overlooks such troublesome facts.
The constitution grants the executive branch broad authority to conduct foreign policy, for whatever its reasons, so a couple of Senate resolutions won’t change things much, but such feistiness from even a few Republicans is a worrisome development. The Senate will soon be dealing with issues involving various legal investigations into Trump’s businesses and presidential campaign and presidency, so will a soon-to-be-installed Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and Trump is currently finding it difficult to replace even he erstwhile administration allies he’s recently defenestrated.
Trump still holds considerable sway over the Republican party, which still holds significant sway over America’s destiny, but Thursday’s Senate votes exposed his weakened position. Trump takes no blame for the Republicans’ loss of 40 House seats by nine million votes in the past midterm elections, but he’s stuck with that Democratic majority that will surely be joined by at least a few of those House Republicans from suburban districts in Democratic states who somehow survived the Republican carnage. The past election had several Democratic Senators facing reelection in states that went for Trump, but the next one has several Republicans facing reelection in states that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won, and some of those Democrats in Republican states won last time around, and some Republicans will be running in in traditionally Democratic states that Trump barely won, and we don’t think Trump should expect blind loyalty from any of them. Trump ran against the Republican establishment as hard as he did against the Democrats, and except for the Saudis he suddenly finds himself without many loyal friends.

— Bud Norman

A Trumpian Thanksgiving

Presidents traditionally refrain from making news on Thanksgiving Day, but of course President Donald Trump is not a traditional president. While the rest of the country was feasting with family and friends and giving thanks to God for it all, Trump was making the day all about himself with a variety of newsworthy outbursts, and when asked what he was grateful for he replied, “I made a tremendous difference in our country.”
Trump started the day with a “tweet” wishing a “HAPPY THANKSGIVING DAY TO ALL!,” which except for all the Trumpian capital letters is the sort of anodyne statement that most presidents would have settled for, but after that he started seeking attention.
There was a phone call to all the men and women in the military currently deployed overseas, which would have been a nice gesture if he’d limited himself to some fulsome thanks and best wishes, but Trump is not one to limit himself. At one point Trump asked one Naval officer if he preferred the old steam-powered system or the newfangled electromagnetic system for catapulting fighter jets from an aircraft carrier — he’s long made clear he prefers the steam-powered system, and seems quite confident that his expertise in the matter is better than the admirals’ and their experts — and was clearly disappointed when the officer bluntly endorsed the electromagnet method. At another Trump asked yet another officer to endorse his trade policies, and was once again clearly disappointed when the officer replied that he hadn’t noticed any trade problems in the part of the world he’s current patrolling. There was a couple of times when Trump asked questions about troop deployments that arguably revealed sensitive information to the world, and inadvertently suggested that Trump doesn’t know such important information.
Trump also renewed his war of words with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the judiciary in general, and of course lobbed a few more verbal grenades in his ongoing war of words with the press. He reiterated that he doesn’t believe the Central Intelligence Agency’s report that it assesses with “a highest level of confidence” that Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of an American resident and Washington Post journalist, and is more inclined to believe the dictator’s assurances the he feels even worse about the slaying than Trump himself. He threatened deadly force against a large group of asylum-seekers heading toward America’s southern border, and then threatened to shut down the entire border with America’s second-biggest trading partner, and then reiterated a threat to shut down the American government if the soon-to-be Democratic majority in the House of Representatives doesn’t give him billions to build a wall along the entire border. There was more than the usual number of misstated facts, too, about everything from the CIA’s assessment about bin Salman to the number of jobs that Saudi Arabia funds in America and how bad the economy was in the last days of President Barack Obama and how well it’s been doing since Trump was elected.
Despite his busy schedule, Trump fit in a round of taxpayer-funded golf at his opulent Mar-a-Lago resort in warm southern Florida, as well as a what sounds like a delicious meal of turkey, ribs, Chilean sea bass, Florida stone crab and beef tenderloin. He’ll probably need the recreation and repast, as there’s no longstanding tradition against presidents making attention-grabbing news on Black Friday. God and football hogged all the attention Thursday, and Trump can’t rightly object that today will be mostly consumed by crass consumerism and Wal-Mart riots, but we expect he’ll continue to attempt to dominate all the news cycles through Christmas.

— Bud Norman

The Lonesome Death of Jamal Khashoggi

The government of Saudi Arabia now acknowledges that dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey, but we’re assured by the government of Saudi Arabia that it had nothing to do with it. To hear the Saudi Arabian government tell it, the pudgy and 59-year-old Khashoggi started a fistfight with 15 Saudi Arabian government operatives who had been flown into Turkey for a polite conversation, and that it ended to everyone’s regret.
The story is so blatantly preposterous that even such loyal American friends of the Saudi Arabian government as President Donald Trump are expressing some skepticism, but it probably won’t much. matter. Khashoggi was a legal American resident and a writer for one of America’s most longstanding and prestigious newspapers, and the best evidence suggests that he was mutilated and then murdered and then dismembered on the orders of the Saudi Arabian government, but on the other hand Saudi Arabia has done tens of millions of dollars of business with Trump and hundreds of billions of dollars of business with other American businesses.
All the right-wing talk radio talkers are stressing that Khashoggi had a past relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and was a noisome critic of a Saudi Arabian government so enlightened that it has lately granted some women the right to drive an automobile, as well as a writer for those enemies of both the Saudi Arabian and American people at The Washington Post, and to hear them tell it you’d think the guy had some mutilation and murder and dismemberment coming. Besides, as the President of the United States has frequently noted, he was merely a legal resident rather than a fully-fledged citizens, and his murder wasn’t committed on American soil, and Saudi-American relations are  very tricky.
The hundreds of billions of dollars of business that America does with the Saudi Arabians can’t be dismissed lightly, and they do indeed play a very complicated role in the exponentially more complicated Middle East foreign policy mess, and we’re open to an argument for the cold-blooded calculation that even the mutilation and murder and dismemberment of a single human being must be weighted against that. Even so, we’d rather the argument was made honestly, and without the apparent disregard for the fate of a fellow human being. Surely America is still great enough relative to Saudi Arabia to insist on such niceties.
Last week Trump got a big response from a Republican rally crowd by recalling how the state’s Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte had committed criminal assault against a reporter shortly before his election to Congress. “Any guy who can do a body slam, that’s my kind of guy,” said Trump, a former professional wrestler himself, followed by uproarious laughter. Even in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s now-acknowledged demise Trump has praised the Saudi prime and dictator Mohammad bin Salman’s “strong control” of his country, and he seems to have a similar affinity for strong men rulers everywhere, including the nutcase North Korean dictator that he told a cheering rally crowd  he “fell in love with.”
All this international business and politics is indeed damned complicated, and we can’t pretend to know how it should proceed from here, but we’d like to think that the mutilation and murder and dismemberment of a legal American resident and fellow human being should carry some weight in our country’s considerations, even if he did write for The Washington Post.

— Bud Norman

The Strange Case of Jamal Khashoggi

Over the years we’ve read a lot of improbable cloak-and-dagger novels and watched many fanciful films about international intrigue, but we’ve never come across a story quite so fascinating as the real-life disappearance and almost certain murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even with unfettered access to the very best findings of America’s crack intelligence agencies President Donald Trump will not say with any certainty what has become of Kashoggi, and we can’t claim to have any better information. but we are far more objective and fairly certain of a few established facts. Khashoggi provably entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2 to deal with paperwork for an upcoming wedding, and so far neither the fiancee who was waiting outside nor the consulate’s constant security cameras nor anyone else can testify that he ever came out. It’s also a verifiable fact that Khashoggi was considered an enemy of the people by the Saudi Arabian government, with no other obvious enemies who might have access to a Saudi Arabian consulate, and although that’s not conclusive proof of anything it’s worth keeping in mind.
So far the government of Turkey is officially coy about its conclusions, but unofficially it’s been leaking a flood of information to various world media that they have audiotape from Khashoggi’s cell phone of his brutal torture and murder and dismemberment, that on the day after Khashoggi’s disappearance their investigators found the consulate both thoroughly scrubbed and freshly painted, and they’ve got the flight records of 15 suspicious Saudis with provably close ties to their government and an autopsy specialist with a bone saw who flew into Istanbul just shortly before Khashoggi’s arrival at the consulate. Turkey’s government is lately almost as Islamist and authoritarian and untrustworthy as Saudi Arabia’s, and has its own complicated geo-political reasons to embarrass Saudi Arabia, but they’ve also got the sort of highly effective domestic security apparatus that could prove such claims, and would be just as happy to embarrass Saudi Arabia with the truth.
By now even such steadfast Trump loyalists as South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham say that the Saudis look pretty damned guilty, and it would take a pretty imaginative novelist or screenwriter to come up with some other plausible plot twist, but Trump holds out for the possibility that some group of “rogue killers” might have killed Khashoggin in defiance of the Saudi government’s wishes.
;Some of those cloak-and-dagger novels we’ve read and foreign intrigue films we’ve watched had some pretty glaring plot holes, but even dime novels and $10 Hollywood movies could never come up with such a convoluted plot twist as that. Getting a group of “rogue killers” into a Saudi consulate in Istanbul just as an expatriate Saudi journalist and enemy of the Saudi people showed up would be tough enough for the “Mission: Impossible” screenwriters, much less why fellow enemies of the Saudi people would want to kill him, and never the mind the crews of rogue cleaners and painters who showed up in the immediate aftermath to scrub the alleged crime scene clean.
One never really knows, though, so perhaps Trump is right to hold out hope that neither Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud nor current dictator Prince Mohammad bin Salman had anything do with whatever unpleasantness that might have transpired at a Saudi consulate. Back during the campaign Trump publicly boasted that he got along great with the Saudis because they did tens of millions of dollars of business with him, and they rolled out quite the red carpet for him on his first state visit abroad, and these days Trump can rightly argue that they do billions in business with far bigger American companies and as always play a crucial strategic role in America’s tricky middle-eastern foreign policy. Surely they deserve some benefit of the doubt.
Besides, as Trump as always reminds his interviewers, this Khashoggi guy wasn’t an American citizen, and even if he did get tortured and murdered and dismembered it didn’t happen here, so it arguably isn’t any of America’s business. Khashoggi was a legal American resident, which by law means he’s entitled to same protections of the state as anyone else living here, but what’s that against the millions and billions of dollars in trade that Trump and America get from the Saudis. That Khahshoggi guy also wrote for The Washington Post, long considered a leading light of America’s free press, but these days they’re also deemed enemies of the people.
The biggest mystery at this point is why Trump doesn’t just come right out and say, “Yeah, so what if the Saudis tortured and killed and dismembered this guy?” Khashoggi wasn’t even an American citizen, after all, and he wrote regularly for those enemies of the American people at The Washington Post, so we doubt that many of Trump’s die-hard defenders give much of a damn about what happened to that guy. What happened to that Khashoggi guy might slightly heighten the fervor of Trump’s opponents, but it probably won’t much swell their number.
In any case, this poor Khashoggi guy’s tale seems headed to a more desultory conclusion than any cloak-and-dagger novel we’ve ever read or any foreign intrigue film we’ve ever seen, and we worry that America won’t come out any greater.

— Bud Norman

America First, Morality After That

President Donald Trump sat down for an interview with Lesley Stahl of the “60 Minutes” program that aired on Sunday, far away from the friendly confines of “Fox and Friends,” and of course it was full of news.
He suggested that Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, widely considered a restraining influence on Trump’s more rash foreign policy impulses, is “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” and might soon be leaving the White House. He wouldn’t comment on how long Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be around, except to say “We’ll see what happens come midterms,” which suggests that something will happen after the looming midterm elections. He denied mocking the woman who alleged that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault while they were both high schools, although Trump sure did seem to revel in all the laughs he got talking about her at a recenta campaign rally. He effused about the trustworthiness of murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, but added “That doesn’t mean I can’t be proven wrong,” which is newsworthy for its uncharacteristic modesty.
More striking to us, though, was Trump’s continued affinity for murderous Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and murderous Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammad bin Salam, and his apparent insouciance about murderous dictatorships in general.
Although Trump  now grudgingly acknowledges that yeah, Putin probably did meddle in America’s past presidential election, which all of America’s intelligence agencies insist with complete certainty,  he added that China’s murderous dictatorship probably did the same, which no intelligence agency has suggested, and he seemed to shrug it all off as business as usual. Way back in the campaign Trump told friendly Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly that yeah, Putin occasionally a journalist or dissident or political opponent or two, but “There a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, do you think our country’s so innocent?,” and he told the far feistier Stahl the relies on Russia, and he noted with apparent satisfaction that Putin none of Putin’s recent assassination attempts have happened in America or to Americans abroad.
Trump has talked tough about “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it’s proved the government brutally murdered and dismembered self-exiled Saudi dissident and Washington Post writer and legal American resident Jamal Kashoggi, as all of the world’s intelligence agencies and every sane observer has concluded, but we expect it will require some rather extraordinary proof before he’s nudged to say that yeah, they probably did it. Even if he is somehow convinced that the Saudi friends who treated to him to such a flattering state visit and do billions of dollars of business with American corporations of millions of dollars of business with his own still wholly-owned companies, he’s already pointed out that the alleged killing happened in Turkey, “and to the best of our knowledge, Kashoggi is not a United States citizen.” An American president should speak with more certainty about such easily learnable facts, and should also be aware the a legal residency in the United States also entitles one to the protection of the state, but Trump clearly thinks America lacks the moral standing to fuss about such things.
Trump bluntly told the country as much before he was elected. He said so not only to O’Reilly and his Fox viewers but to all the revved-up rally crowds that chanted along with his “America First” slogan, not knowing or caring it faithfully echoed the pre-World War II isolationist movement that thought Fortress America could get along just fine in a world otherwise ruled by the Axis powers. Long before he started his unlikely political career Trump had hired a ghostwriter to pen “The Art of Deal,” which explicitly described his Machiavellian worldview of everything in life from love to business to foreign relations as a zero-sum game that comes down to winners and losers, with the rules being strictly for suckers. Even as he successfully courted the evangelical Christian vote, he made it quite clear he didn’t believe in all that nonsense loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek and the meek being blessed.
On one warm and sunny Hawaiian December day in ’41 America realized that despite two oceans and a couple of placid neighbors to the north and south America could not get along just fine with the Axis powers, and with the help of some carefully cultivated democratic allies the country waged a costly but ultimately victorious war against those murder dictatorships. The allies also  much needed the help of a murderous communist dictatorship in Russia, which waged a fare more costly war but a sizable victory of it, as well as an unpleasantly authoritarian regime in China that soon fell to an even more murderous communist dictatorship, but somehow the free and democratic nations of the world cobbled together trade agreements and diplomatic arrangements and military alliances that have worked the necessary moral compromise out pretty well for most part over the past 70-plus, at least relative to most of humankind’s bloody and impoverished history.
There have been plenty of wars and moral compromises along the way, of course. Fighting Chinese and Soviet communism involved a couple of horrific wars that resulted in a still-troublesome tie on the Korean peninsula and a arguable loss to a unified and more-or-less capitalist Vietnam that now offers potential strategic advantages to the United States, and America has overlooked some unsavory behavior from anti-communist regimes and any country that can help keep the international economy well lubricated with oil. There were greater moral exigencies to be arguably considered at the time, though, and at no point did any Republican or Democratic president ever signaled that he didn’t much about such behavior. Those bipartisan fancy-pants “experts” got a lot of things wrong, but they also rebuilt former vanquished adversaries into formidable friends, nurtured the free and democratic nations they had rescued from murderous dictatorships, and we think they know better than Trump, and we’ll hate to see the last few of them leave his administration.
Trump is quite right that America has done a lot of killing, and that like any country populated by mere human beings we’re not so innocent, but we think he’s quite wrong to suggest America should begin to atone for its sins by giving the green-light to any of his favored murderous dictators to keep killing off any pesky journalists or political opponents or assorted dissidents. We don’t think it will help make America great again.

— Bud Norman

Another Day of Foreign Intrigues

President Donald Trump’s first foreign tour has produced some notable but hard-to-explain successes, as well as some relatively minor but easy-to-ridicule missteps, but it hasn’t been able to keep what Trump calls “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia” out of the news.
While Trump was making what can be considered an inappropriately upbeat comment in the guest book of Israel’s holocaust museum, The Washington Post was running a story that he had asked national intelligence director Daniel Coats and National Security Agency director Admiral Michael Rogers to deny that there was anything to that whole Russia thing with and Russia. This might not be the evidence of obstruction of justice that so many of Trump’s critics have been hoping for, but it’s still far more inappropriate than what Trump wrote in that guest book, and noisily intruded on what Trump had surely hoped would be a much-needed favorable news cycle.
Trump and his most ardent defenders could have dismissed it as just another fake news smear from the “Washington Compost,” but Tuesday also saw the under-oath congressional testimony of former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan and the aforementioned Coats and Rogers, and it did nothing to undermine the story. Brennan not only declined to dismiss the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia but spoke at length about his certainty that Russia did indeed meddle in America’s latest presidential election and his concerns that some people in the Trump campaign were either wittingly or unwittingly involved. Both Coats and Rogers declined to either confirm or deny the Post’s latest big story, citing the now familiar reason that doing so would involve divulging classified information, which is not necessarily damning but not at all what Trump and his most ardent defenders wanted to hear.
That’s not to mention all the other ongoing news about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is still exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and resisting a congressional subpoena for his financial documents, which is not necessarily damning but never looks good, and it invites all the snarkier Trump critics to dredge up video montages of Trump saying that all the Hillary Clinton who staffers who the Fifth were clearly guilty and Flynn himself leading chants of “lock her up” at the Republican convention. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort remains under investigation, too, and The Washington Post is still claiming that some senior-level administration member who was a senior-level campaign staffer is as well, and all the talk is that it’s son-in-law. Fox News has also retracted a story about how a murdered 27-year-old staff at the Democratic National Committee had leaked all those e-mails during the crime, and Sean Hannity also agreed to back off the story at the request of the family, which was the last alternative theory to the idea that the Russians did it.
Trump’s embrace of a youthful Saudi king who so far seems genuinely committed to modernizing his kingdom might yet prove a diplomatic masterstroke, and it’s worth noting that the undeniably Islamophobic Trump seems to have a better rapport with at least the Sunni Muslim world than the embarrassingly Islamophilic President Barack Obama ever did. Given how much more troublesome the Iranian regime has been lately, the inevitable backlash from the Shiites might prove worth the provocation. Despite his clumsy attempts at holding hands with his wife and writing in guest books seems to have reassured the Israelis of America’s continued support for their survival, which is a welcome relief to them and ourselves after all the blatant offenses of the Obama years.
That’s all theoretical for now and very to hard to explain, though, and we expect that Trump’s best explanation will be that it was stupendous and the best and everyone says so. So far he’s handled his foreign adventure well enough, but the remaining itinerary includes plenty of opportunities for missteps, and even if he gets through that the Russia thing with Russia and Trump will likely still be there when he arrives home.

— Bud Norman

Another Day on a Long Trip

The third day of President Donald Trump’s nine-day foreign voyage went well enough that the more hostile media did their best to change the subject back to all the scandals that he hoped he’d left behind, but there was no keeping anybody’s eyes off it. There were a couple of things the critics could reasonably carp on, and all the more momentous things that can’t help being debated during any presidential visit to Israel, where Trump found himself the day after his royal welcome to Saudi Arabia, which further complicates that already complex debate, but at the end Trump seemed to have muddled through a relatively good news cycle.
Trump donned a yarmulke and went down to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to pay his respects to several millennia of Jewish tradition, becoming the first American president to do so at the much-disputed site while holding the office, and even such staunchly old-fashioned yet neo-conservative and philo-semitic and NeverTrumper Republican goyim as ourselves had to admire the chutzpah of that. Although he’s still backing away from that oft-stated campaign promise to relocate the embassy from Tel Avid to Jerusalem, which was a step too far even for the likes of us, we’re surely not the only ones who are pleased to see the stark difference with President Barack Obama’s anti-Israeli policies. Some of Trump’s supporters on the alt-right are no doubt disappointed, and the more blatantly anti-semitic portions of the left are also offended, but we hope that most of us are rooting for the Israelis rather than the people who have vowed to exterminate them.
Some of those Jew-haters are in Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni nations that Trump had been partying with the two days before, and some are in Iran and the rest of the Shiite sphere that Trump had thundered against, and nobody here or in the Middle East seems to know how that’s all going to work out in the end. We’d like to think that Trump has ingeniously calculated some great deal that will bring about peace in that eternally warring region just as surely as President Andrew Jackson would have averted America’s Civil War, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it, so for now we’ll take solace in the face that at least he’s not disrespecting the Israelis the way Obama used to do.
Still, there’s no denying the Trump-bashers some fun from such a marathon journey. All our liberal Facebook friends were sharing the footage of Trump noticing that Natanyahu and his wife were holding hands as the walked from the runway and then trying to do the same with his First Lady and having her slap his hand away, and we’ll have to leave it to the more ardent Trump apologists to explain how it doesn’t look bad. Some of Trump’s slighter lapses have been attributed by his communication team to “exhaustion,” which is credible enough excuse on behalf of an obese 70-year-old who eschews any exercise other than a weekly round on a Trump-banded golf course, but the late night wags are entitled to their montages of Trump bragging about his stamina, and it is only three days into a night-day tour.
There are the usual reasonable arguments from both the left and the right about how Trump’s pro-Saudi and pro-Israel and vaguely pro-Russian-yet stridently against aligned-with-Russia Iran stance will eventually work out, but for now we’ll be glad that unlike Obama he’s not apologizing for American influence in the region, even that Iraq war he claimed President George W. Bush lied us into, which even Obama didn’t claim. Things don’t seem any more muddied in the Middle East than before showed up, and even after that admittedly awkward hand-holding incident we’ll hold out out hope it will also continue to forestall the inevitable conflagration. All in all, that’s a pretty darned good news cycle from Trump these days.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the anti-Trump press has been able to take advantage of the dullness of it all by posting some stories hard to deal with for an administration on an ambitious foreign tour. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is defying a congressional subpoena and invoking the Fifth Amendment in the various ongoing investigations into that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, as Trump calls it, and that’s enough to intrude on the front pages. Flynn’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment doesn’t imply any guilt, as his Trump-friendly advocates can rightly say, but Trump’s critics are entitled to gleefully run the the late night comedy montage of Trump saying that his opponents’ use of the Fifth Amendment was the refuge of the guilty.
Sooner or later Trump will return to that temporarily paused news cycle, and although he hasn’t made any glaring missteps on his trip he’s yet to bring any undeniable foreign achievements, so we’d call it a draw so far. The next six days will involve a Pope and G-7 worth or world leaders that Trump has publicly feuded with, and it’s bound to be exhausting, but we’ll hope for the best. Not for Trump’s sake, but the sake of peace, and some respite this awful ongoing news cycle.

— Bud Norman<