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On the Ongoing Border War

There’s little in the news these days except the debate over a border wall and its resulting partial government shutdown, which might or might not be good for President Donald Trump. The upside for Trump is that no one’s paying much attention to the latest developments in the “Russia thing,” or talking about what Trump’s longtime lawyer will soon tell an open congressional hearing on his way to federal prison, and Trump’s die-hard fans can console themselves that at least he fights, which they seem to find quite consoling. The downside is pretty much everything else.
Despite the best efforts of Trump and his talk radio apologists, the president is taking a beating on the public relations front.
Past partial government shutdowns have been short-lived and gone largely unnoticed, but this time around is far longer and harsher than usual. The “fake news” media have come up with some all-too-real sob stories about the 800,000 or so federal workers who won’t be getting paid today, scary tales about air traffic controllers and airport security officers calling in sick to protest their lack of pay, and trash and human feces piling up at America’s national parks. There are few more hundred thousand employees of government contractors who also aren’t getting paid, too, and plenty of footage of farmers who are having trouble getting the subsidy checks they were promised when commodity prices dropped in the wake of Trump’s trade wars.
Both sides always play the blame game during these partial government shutdowns, but Trump pretty much gave that away when he invited all the cameras from the “fake news” to record him telling Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and now-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “I will be proud to shutdown the government for border security.” By “border security” Trump clearly meant the big and beautiful border wall he promised he would build along the entire southern border, but the public seems to have figured out that America can have border security without a wall, and that even the biggest and most beautiful wall won’t secure the country’s borders.
Trump has resorted to some easily disproved falsehoods about how all the past American presidents supported a sea-to-shining-sea border wall, and even Fox News has challenged his administration’s claims about the number Islamist terrorists crossing the southern border. He’s bragged about his magnanimity as he’s back downed from previous promises of a concrete to a mere American-made steel fence, and he’s been forced to say that he never really it meant it when he said that Mexico would gladly pay for it. Trump still insists that Mexico is indirectly paying for it by the great yet unratified trade deal that he has so brilliantly negotiated, but even it does raise enough federal revenue to pay for a wall it’s still money that could have been spent elsewhere if Mexico had actually paid for Trump’s big and beautiful border wall.
The objections aren’t just coming from those damned open borders Democrats, who we have to admit have offered billions for all sorts of border security efforts that don’t involve a big and beautiful wall along the entire border, but also some Republicans with old-fashioned pre-Trump conservative notions. The remaining Republicans in the House representing districts along the border are opposed to the idea, as many of their constituents own border land and don’t want a wall on it. Along most of the border Americans have happy and profitable relations with their neighbors to the south, and Trump should note that at one point a golf course would be cut in half, and that pre-Trump conservatism takes a dim view of eminent domain seizures of private property.
Trump is now threatening to use his presidential powers to declare a national emergency and divert funds from the defense budget or money appropriated for disaster relief and efforts to prevent further hurricane damage in Puerto Rico and Texas, but the few remaining pre-Trump conservatives will object on on old-fashioned constitutional grounds, and everyone in the country but the die-hard fans probably won’t buy into that. On Thursday’s photo-op at the southern border Trump riffed about how the wheel proceeded the wall back in the Medieval Age, and he looked even more ridiculous in his white “Make America Great Again” baseball cap and national emergency windbreaker and white slacks, and he seemed to realize the photo-op was a waste of time, as he’d already predicted to some reporters who leaked the off-the-record comment.
Trump is losing the argument in all the opinion polls, that awful but undeniably shrewd Pelosi woman clearly understands her advantage, but Trump can’t back down for fear of what the talk radio hosts might say, so those hundreds of thousands of government employees and government contract employees going without paychecks and the local business that depend on their patronage should probably hunker down for the long haul. Despite Trump’s claim that he’s backed by the entirety of the Republican there are already some dissenting votes, and of course all of those damned Democrats are against anything he wants, and although we have to admit that at least Trump fights he seems to be losing another round, and he won’t keep that “Russia thing” out of the news forever.

— Bud Norman

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Watching the Sausage Get Made

There’s a wise old saying, apocryphally attributed to Otto Von Bismarck, that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not see them being made.” In this reality show age of politics and food shows the gruesome spectacles are always on display, however, so Tuesday brought the live-on-television opening round of negotiations between President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer over an upcoming spending bill. Suffice to say it provided more melodrama than anything the competing soap operas had to offer.
To sum up the episode up in a TV Guide-sized synopsis, Trump insists any spending bill include at least $5 billion for a big and beautiful wall across America’s entire southern border, Pelosi and Schumer don’t want want to give it to him, and Trump is threatening a partial government shutdown if they don’t. Most followers of the ongoing political saga already have a rooting interest in either Trump or Pelosi and Schumer, and will cheer their heroes and boo their villains accordingly, but for those of us worriedly watching from the sidelines it just seems a damned mess. At this point in the plot our best is guess is that there won’t be any significant funding for a wall, there will be a partial government shutdown of unknown duration, and no one comes out of it looking good.
Nobody looked at all good on Tuesday. Trump and Pelosi and Schumer each played their reality show parts to their usual hilts, and their discussion of the nation’s pressing issues was as full of sound and fury signifying nothing as a typical cable news show’s panel debates or one of those pro wrestling skits Trump used to participate in, with both sides asserting their dominance rather than making rational arguments based on agreed facts.
As far as that went, we’d have to say that awful Pelosi woman and that awful Schumer guy got the better of the power play than that awful Trump fellow. Trump boasted live-on-air that for the next few days he can muster the votes in House of Representatives to give funding for his border wall, but he also admitted that because of the 60-vote rule for spending bills he didn’t have the needed votes in the Senate, and Pelosi could rightly note that when a sizable Democratic majority is installed in the House early next month he won’t get any border wall funding there. The Democrats clearly have the stronger hand, to borrow a poker metaphor, and even after seeing all his casinos go bankrupt Trump still doesn’t seem to know when to cash in.
Trump can rightfully boast he somehow how has the powers of the presidency, including the veto power that would lead to a partial government showdown, but we can’t see how that does him much good. Even partial government shutdowns are always unpopular, and Trump once “tweeted” back during the Obama that they were proof of a failure of presidential leadership, now he’s boastfully threatening one, and although that big beautiful border wall is always an applause line at Trump’s rallies it also doesn’t poll well. Pelosi and Schumer are more veteran players of politics, which is still mostly played by the constitutional and legal and traditional rules Trump is still learning, so we don’t see them folding to a president who has preemptively claimed credit for an unpopular government shutdown over an unpopular wall.
A more objective and deliberative consideration of government and border security would be welcome, but both sides would be still look bad. Those damned Democrats are far too weak on border enforcement for our tastes, and some of them are downright crazy about despite Pelosi’s and Schumer’s assurances, but Trump’s longstanding pledge of a big and beautiful border wall has always struck as one of the most cockamamie campaign promises ever made. Even if Trump could keep somehow keep his even more cockamamie campaign promise to have Mexico happily pay for it, which he no longer mentions, the wall is opposed by most Americans residing near the southern border and all of their Republican and Democratic representatives, its cost would surely exceed Trump’s pie-in-the-sky budget estimates just in court expenses for eminent domain seizures that offend our old-fashioned conservative sensibilities, and the money could surely be better spent on high-tech surveillance, border walls at a few essential points, and cracking down on the vast majority of illegal immigrants who arrived via airplane and outstayed their visas.
A smart and fair and vigorous enforcement of America’s border laws would surely round up several employees of Trump’s still wholly-owned businesses, and probably cause some Democrats much embarrassment along the way, so we don’t see that happening. Instead we expect a prolonged partial government shutdown and legislative gridlock, plenty of booing and hissing according to partisan preferences, and that separate subplot about the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” proceeding apace to its cataclysmic conclusion.
Oh well, at least it could be worse if either side were to win.

— Bud Norman

The Second Day of the Comey Firing

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

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

— Bud Norman