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A Troubled Lawyer and His Three Clients

The news was once again jam-packed on Monday, and included a blowout win by The New York Yankees and a very slight uptick in the stock markets, but the two separate but perhaps related headlines that stood out for us involved Russia and Sean Hannity.
If you’ve been following the whole “Russia thing” subplot in President Donald Trump’s latest reality show, you’re already aware that he won the Republican nomination on a platform that was conspicuously more Russia-friendly than any Democrat had ever dared, with fulsome praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and disparaging comments about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that had long thwarted Russia’s ambitions, and news of Russia’s meddling on Trump’s behalf and frequent undisclosed but since acknowledged contacts took place between the Russians and the Trump campaign have been prominent in the media ever since. Lately Trump has been boasting that no president has ever been tougher on the Russkies than Trump, including Truman and and Kennedy and Ike and Nixon and Reagan and all those wimps who temporarily won the Cold War, but the very latest news still sounds suspicious to our ears.
Trump has by now accepted his own appointees’ to the intelligence agencies consensus conclusion that Russia did indeed meddle in the last American presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and he didn’t veto a Russian sanctions bill that was passed by a veto-proof bipartisan majority in both chambers of commerce. American troops recently killed a couple hundred Russians in the Syrian civil war theater, he’s launched two retaliatory strikes against Russia’s Syrian allies after their chemical attacks on civilians, and even named Putin in a “tweet” criticizing his support for a “Gas Killing Animal.” His currently unfilled State Department and a formidably led Defense Department a remarkably sound United Nations ambassador have announced tough sanctions on Russian oligarchs and promised a extended opposition to the Syrian dictatorship.
Which sounds good ┬áto our old fashioned neocon Republican ears, except that we don’t believe a word of it. Trump only grudgingly acknowledged Russia’s meddling in the last election, and still insists that it was Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton who conspired with the Russkies to hand Trump his improbable presidency, clearly regards it as no big deal. He’s been pretty darned slow in enforcing that veto-proof bill he signed imposing Russian sanctions, too. His missile strikes in Libya have carefully avoided Russian casualties, and the two hundred or so Russians he killed were not Russian soldiers but rather mercenaries opposing the Syrian dictatorship, so the Russian government has not been upset by it. The Trump administration’s recent expulsion of Russian diplomats reportedly annoyed Trump, and by Monday he was walking back his stalwart UN ambassador’s tough talk about sanctions.
Meanwhile Trump is dealing with all the legal subplots about pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and the numerous women who claim in court filings and media interviews that Trump has groped them, and Michael Cohen, the lawyer and self-described “fixer” who long handled these sorts of problems for Trump has lately had no-knock search warrants executed at his home and office and most recent hotel room. There are also reports from the same newspaper chain which owes us a pension that the same lawyer was making contact with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign, and at this point both Trump and his longtime lawyer have some explaining to do.
As the court documents reveal, and the mainstream media have giddily disseminated, that Cohen’s main client was Trump. When he pressed in court he revealed that another client was a big Republican who had hired him to pay hush money to a big time Republican fund-raiser who had impregnated another Playboy playmate, and when pressed to name a third client he reluctantly named talk radio host and Fox News personality Hannity. The news broke while Hannity was on the radio waves, and he quickly emphasized that although he had sought Cohen’s legal advice it had nothing to do with paying off any playmates, pregnant or otherwise.
We’ll take the notoriously puritanical Hannity’s word for that, despite his apologetics for Trump’s many undenied and even boasted about adulteries, but we still got a chuckle out of it. Trump and Hannity and their hilariously incompetent lawyer are all properly embarrassed at the moment, as far as were concerned, and although there are many nits to be picked with the far more formidable legal teams arrayed against them, including that former Federal Bureau of Investigation director with the currently best-selling book, and given everything else it seems another bad cycle for Trump and his most die-hard supporters.

— Bud Norman

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A Not Bad, Not Great State of the Union

All in all, President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was not bad. Not nearly the oratorical masterpiece that Sean Hannity and the hosts of “Fox and Friends” will surely make it out to be, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
There were no taunting nicknames or needless provocations. It was refreshingly free of “believe me” or “that I can tell you” or any of his other endlessly repeated catchphrases. He didn’t cuss. There was plenty of boasting, of course, but he also lavished praise on a few other people as well. Several of the boasts were wildly overstated or entirely inaccurate, of course, but by comparison to a typical impromptu Trump oration he was relatively restrained and truthful. Except for that annoying sniffle and strange tendency to emphasis seemingly random words, along with an amusingly botched attempt to cover up getting one of his heroes’ nickname wrong, he read the teleprompter well enough.
That’s a rather low standard to set for presidential rhetoric, but here we are. In the interests of fairness we have to note that the Democrats’ response by Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy was at least as lackluster, and that nobody on the current political scene is going to make anyone forget the greatest speeches of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill.
As for the policy part of the speech, there were some good ideas about reforming the legal immigration system and the same old bad idea of a southern border wall to stop illegal immigration. Something about spending $1.5 trillion on infrastructure, too, but that didn’t explain where the money would come from and was otherwise too vague to tell if it was a good or idea or a bad one. In any case, none of the arguments were so well or so badly or so memorably made that they’re likely to influence the upcoming contentious debates about all these issues. Some future “tweet” or impromptu remark will have more effect on how it all turns out.

— Bud Norman

Things Go Further South Down South

That awful Senate race down in Alabama somehow got more awful yet on Wednesday, and by now it’s hard to see how it ends well for the Republican party. Two more women came forward to the Washington Post alleging Republican candidate Roy Moore acted quite creepily toward them when they were teenagers working at the mall Moore was said to hang out at, yet another woman told a similar but even creepier story to the Alabama-based and widely read AL.com site, which brings the running total to eight accusers.
None of the women have any apparent reason to risk their reputations among their mostly Republican Alabama neighbors by telling a lie, all have named and unnamed women who recall them telling the very same stories from time the incidents allegedly happened, and the national and state media have found co-workers of Moore who recall his well known predilection for teenaged girls, along with workers at the mall who recall that Moore was not welcome there because of frequent complaints about his behavior there. Already it adds up a compelling case, with more sure to come, and so far the rebuttal hasn’t been at all convincing.
Moore himself went on Sean Hannity’s exceedingly friendly radio show ┬ábefore the latest accusations, and wound up answering questions about whether he’d ever dated teenage girls while a 30-something assistant district attorney by saying “not generally, no,” and “it would be out of my customary behavior,” and regarding one of his specific accusers he replied that “If we did go out on dates, then we did, but I don’t recall that,” and offered assurances that “I don’t remember dating any girl without permission from her mother.” The former state Supreme Court justice’s lawyer has proved just as inept, trying to ingratiate himself to the dark-skinned and funny-sounding-named host on a liberal network by noting that different cultures have rules regarding courtship, which prompted his co-host to note that “He’s from Canada,” and he kept referring to an even-darker skinned host on another liberal network by constantly calling him by a chummy nickname, which prompted his host to say “That’s what not what my mother named me, and I’d never call you by anything other than your given name,” and the rest of it went as badly.
Moore still has his defenders in the most die-hard redoubts of the conservative media, but they’re also having a hard time of it. Even Hannity expressed doubts after some advertisers threatened to pull out, although he’s gone back to his presumption of innocence after winning one back. On Wednesday he led his Fox News show with decades-old news about Presidents Bill Clinton’s hound dog ways, rightly recalling how many Democrats who are now offended by Moore’s behavior were willing to give their a man pass for purely partisan reasons, and so far as we can discern the argument is that Hannity and other Moore apologists are therefore entitled to do the same for their man. Right-wing talk radio king Rush Limbaugh reminded his audience that Moore was a registered Democrat at the time he was alleged to have been the creepy 30-something guy hanging out at the mall, and as far we can discern the argument is that whatever Moore might have done it should be held against his Democratic opponent, then went on a longer rant about how it’s all being cooked up by Republican majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and the rest of the rascally Republican establishment, which fears the populist insurgency that President Donald Trump has unleashed.
That’s a popular theory among all the talk radio show callers and the commenters on every conservative web site, too, but it’s a hard sell to the rest of the country. McConnell has indeed clearly stated that he believes the women who have accused Moore, the official national Republican party has withdrawn its financial and logistical support for Moore’s campaign, and several other prominent officials have taken the same stand, but so have such grass roots old-fashioned heartland Republican conservatives such as ourselves. Those establishment Republicans have also let us down more than a few times over the past years, but they’ve a won a few battles along the way, and we have to figure that if they were smart to enough to come up with eight ordinary Alabama women and former district attorney office employees and mall workers with corroborating witnesses and documentary evidence in their devious plots they probably would have been able to repeal and replace Obamacare and pass a massive tax cut by now.
Those establishment Democrats are by now admitting that Clinton was an indefensible hound dog, as Hannity and Limbaugh and the rest of die-hard insurgents gleefully note, but the only ones who have consistently maintained an anti-hound dog stand up to now are those establishment Republicans and such grass roots types as ourselves. Way back before the biggest Clinton scandals McConnell led the effort to expel Republican Sen. Robert Packwood from Congress for sexual harassment, he voted to impeach Clinton for lying under oath about his well-documented hound behavior, he’s applying the same standards of proof during the current imbroglio, so we’re pleased to see he’s earning some begrudging respect from his die-hard Democratic critics.
There’s a big chunk of the party that hates him and the rest of the Republican establishment all the more for it, though, and it’s not clear where the party is heading. Putatively Republican President Donald Trump has only warily waded into the controversy so far, citing his preoccupation with a trip to Asia, and upon his return he pretended not to hear any of the reporters’ shouted questions about Moore, so it’s not at all clear what he’ll do. Trump supported McConnell’s choice in the Republican primary, which mightily annoyed his supporters in the die-hard redoubts of the right wing, and although he did so half-heartedly and with open reservations he’s not tied to Moore, but he did endorse Moore after the primary, and fully cutting ties will be troublesome.
Trump is politically savvy enough to know that he doesn’t want to associated with a candidate who is credibly accused by numerous women of creepy behavior, but he can’t join with his party’s Senate majority leader or his own Attorney General in saying “I believe the women” without the next question asked by those pesky reporters being why the public shouldn’t also believe the larger number of credible women who accuse him of creepy behavior. After an audiotape of Trump boasting to an “Access Hollywood” host that he grabbed women by their wherevers several witnesses went on the record about how he had done just that. A short time later the media dug up an old tape of Trump yukking it up with shock jock Howard Stern about how he liked to invade the dressing rooms at the teenaged beauty pageants he produced, which was followed by by interviews with several former pageant contestants who recalled Trump doing exactly about what he’d bragged about.
Trump won anyway with the Hannity defense that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s hound dog husband had gotten away with worse, because of course none of those women were lying, and therefore Republicans are entitled to a pass, but these days even the Democrats aren’t defending the formerly lovable rascal and most of the American seems fed up with such behavior no matter the hound dog’s party affiliation. The official statement from Moore’s campaign about the latest accusations says that “If you are a liberal and hate Judge Moore, apparently he groped you. If you are a conservative and love Judge Moore, you know these allegations are a political farce.” It’s true enough that if you’re the sort of conservative who loves Moore you probably somehow know these allegations are untrue, and might eke out a win in Alabama, but around the rest of the country and even in the establishment sort of Republican households that’s not a winning electoral majority.
Which seems to leave Trump and the rest of party he putatively leads in a no-win situation. They can enrage a vocal and energetic and significantly sized part of the conservative coalition by jettisoning Moore, or embrace a candidate who was the Democrats’ dream caricature of a Bible-thumping and gay-bashing and law-defying theocrat even before he started looking a lot like the creepy 30-something guy who used to hang out at the mall. The Republicans were already stereotyped as the party of old white men, and as much as it would pain us all to lose a Senate seat in Alabama of all places it might be worth it to avoid the reputation as the party of dirty old white men.

— Bud Norman

News and Fake News and What’s in Between

The long war between President Donald Trump and certain members of the news media has lately escalated, and from our perspective on the sidelines we can’t see anyone coming out a winner.
Trump’s tormentors at the Cable News Network took a hard hit this week when they were obliged to retract a story that tied longtime Trump business associate Anthony Scaramucci to a federal investigation of the Russian Direct Investment Fund. The story had only a single anonymous and other journalistic flaws that should have been obvious to the most cub reporter, proved to be utterly wrong, and can reasonably be attributed to the network’s unabashed zeal to air stories damaging to the Trump administration, so score one for Trump. Of course the president “tweeted” some about gloating about it, but of course he overplayed his hand by “tweeting” the non sequitur that everything else CNN and all of his other media tormentors have ever reported is therefor also wrong.
To its credit CNN did frankly acknowledge the error and retract the story, apologize profusely, then accept the resignations of three journalists including a Pulitzer Prize winner recently hired away from The New York Times. That inspires more confidence than Trump’s longstanding and clearly stated never-apologize-and-never-retract policy regarding his far more frequent statements that are anonymously sourced and utterly wrong, which a chastened CNN is for now not mentioning but has been widely remarked on in all those other Trump-tormenting media, and despite all the internet glee that CNN has been “destroyed” we expect they’ll stick around at least as long as Trump does.
CNN also got “stung” by the “sting” journalism of an independent filmmaker named James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas outfit, which caught a CNN producer on hidden camera describing his network’s coverage of the Russia thing with Trump and Russia with a barnyard epithet, but we expect that won’t prove much more than mosquito bite. O’Keefe is a protege of the late conservative provocateur Stephen Breitbart, who gave birth to the eponymous Breitbart.com internet news site where future Trump consigliere Stephen Bannon later became editor-in-chief, and although he once did a true public service by bringing down the notorious community-organizing racket called ACORN with a hilarious hidden camera video of them offering financial advice for his scam pimping business, he hasn’t scored any wins in a while. He was convicted of a felony for using a false identity to the infiltrate the offices of a Democratic Senator for some story or another, it turned out those hilariously over-the-top ’70s-blaxploitation pimp costumes he’d worn to the ACORN offices were an editing trick, and he’s generally engaged in the sort of journalistic trickery that no true conservative would tolerate if any of those Trump-tormenting outlets dared such a thing.
Still, Trump’s spokespeople in his administration and certain parts of the media tried to make the best of it. Official White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that she couldn’t vouch for the video’s accuracy but nonetheless urged everyone in the country to watch it, which strikes us as a damned odd thing for an official White House spokeswoman to say, and all the right-wing radio we heard on our drive time was endlessly replaying the video. After 36 years or more in the biz we think ourselves more savvy than most, so we don’t doubt the the tape’s accuracy but have to roll our eyes at its significance. As O’Keefe is obliged to admit, all he has here is one of countless CNN editors griping that his bureau’s stories aren’t getting as much airtime as as the Washington bureau’s stories, and although he’s the editor of the health bureau he’s based in Atlanta some reason and all those juicy and time-consuming stories about the health care debate also seem to be coming out of the Washington bureau, so his gripes are hardly newsworthy.
After 36 years or so of experience with various news organizations we can tell you there’s always someone swimming against the collective consensus, usually us, and we’ll score a point to CNN that they didn’t fire the guy and instead endorsed his right to a dissenting opinion. Back in our newspaper days we often butted heads with our executive editor, who had all sorts of crazy liberal notions, but we admired the way he butted heads with his corporate bosses, and he gave us the same respect he expected from his much higher-up bosses, and for the most part it kept us all honest.
There seems to be a stronger consensus at all those right wing talk radio shows and the rest of the Trump-friendly media, and we can’t say it’s serving them well. The formerly formidable Rush Limbaugh gloated that one of the fired CNN reporters as Thomas Frank, who had some years ago written a controversial and best-selling jeremiad called wither “What’s The Matter With Kansas” or “What’s Wrong With Kansas,” with Limbaugh not being quite sure, and later in his jeremiad against “fake news” had to retract and apologize for the inaccurate claim that it was the same Thomas Frank. Sean Hannity predicted the “collapse” of CNN based on the O’Keefe tape and the retraction about his friend Scaramucci, but his cable network is currently in third place, and has recently retracted that weird conspiracy theory he’d been touting about how the Russians had nothing to with the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails. He also wondered why a White House press pass had been issued to a reporter who challenged Sanders’ “inflammatory” attacks on the press, describing him as a “contributor to Playboy,” even though the fellow is also the executive editor of two newspapers, and William F. Buckley was also once a contributor to Playboy, and he never griped that the nutcase conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose reputation has Trump has praised along with The National Enquirer, was also granted credentials.. We think Hannity could also do with some dissenting opinions at the morning news budget meetings.
Trump’s tormentors could do with some more of that, too. All of the media organizations we’ve dealt with over the past 36 years have had their biases, and although they rarely just made stuff up out of whole cloth almost every time they got things utterly wrong it was because of a collective zeal for a certain outcome. That tough old executive editor of ours had a particular dislike for nuclear energy, one of his more ambitious underlings obliged him by altering some documents to implicate a local energy corporation running a nuke up in the Flint Hills, and all the lesser mistakes we noticed over the years followed the same pattern. Our executive editor and his paper ultimately acknowledged the mistake and retracted the story, and apologized profusely, and the reporter wound up at a better gig at a bigger paper where he did an even more scandalously wrong story, and we always read the paper with confidence that it was unabashedly biased but not entirely fake.
These days we’re skeptical of both the president’s “tweets” and his tormentors latest scoops, and we’re carefully considering all the claims. Some are obviously wrong, others are hilariously spun, and none are at all encouraging.
Trump has proclaimed his media tormentors “the enemy of the people,” and on the campaign trail he threatened to “open up the libels” so he could be enriched by any negative coverage, and he recently “tweeted” another threat to impose an internet tax on the billionaire Washington Post publisher’s Amazon business in retaliation for the paper’s unfavorable coverage, and lately the war isn’t so much against certain segments as the media as it against the very notion of freedom of press. He and his media allies are railing against the disrespect for the presidency, as if Trump hadn’t alleged with unnamed that his Republican predecessor had lied the country to into a war and his Democratic predecessor was born outside the country and was a “bad (or sick) guy,” and all the outside-the-mainstream media have been unerringly accurate.
We hope that all those media and the freedom of the press somehow survive this. The right wing media have noted that several of the lawyers that the special counsel investigating the Russia thing with Trump and Russia were contributors to the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which is accurate even if the oft-stated claim that they’re all Clinton donors isn’t, and they don’t note that Trump was also a Clinton contributor, but that’s still information that should reported. Those lawyers were chosen by a special counsel who is a registered Republican and rose through three Republican administrations during his distinguished career, and were more likely chosen for their highly specialized expertise in eastern European organized rackets and money-laundering, so that’s also useful information those right wing radio talkers should be warning their audiences about. Any information from either side, so long as its true, is welcomed.
The glaring mistakes that have to be retracted and apologized for are almost always a result of zeal, which is why our lazy selves found few scoops for our tough old executive editor but had fewer retractions to apologize to him for, and what with all the zealousness going around these days we’re being very careful in our reading of the news.

— Bud Norman

Theater Critic-in-Chief

President-elect Donald Trump is no doubt busy these days making appointments and planning his agenda, but he took time out over the weekend to criticize his theatrical critics.
It all started on Friday when Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in New York City because that where the transition team is located, decided to take some time out with his family and watch the big hit show on Broadway. That would be “Hamilton,” of course, a hip-hop musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton which was won rave reviews along with 11 Tony Awards and already sold out a year’s worth of tickets at exorbitant prices. Pence entered the theater to a mix of cheers and boos from the audience, by most accounts with the latter drowning out the former, and left while being personally addressed in a curtain call oration. The actor who plays Aaron Burr was chosen to speak on behalf of the ostentatiously multi-ethnic cast and producers to ask Pence to “uphold our American values” and “work on behalf of all of us.” He asked the audience to refrain from booing Pence, prefaced his remarks respectfully, and the screed was rather polite by contemporary standards of political discourse, but in all the New York papers it made for a bigger story than the $25 million that Trump agreed to pay to settle that Trump University lawsuit.
The incident certainly caught the attention of Trump, who took to “Twitter” to write, in his usual Lincoln-esque prose, “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” Lest you think that Trump believes that any request for his administration uphold American values and work on behalf of all citizens should not happen, he clarified in a later “Tweet” that he was only referring to the theater. “The Theater must always be a safe and special space. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man. Apologize!” Apparently peeved that no apology was forthcoming, he “Tweeted” again, adding “Very rude and insulting of Hamilton cast to treat our great future V.P. Mike Pence to a theater lecture. Couldn’t even memorize lines.” We’re encouraged by Trump’s newfound dislike of rude and insulting behavior, but hate to hear him using such a politically correct phrase as “safe place.”
Pence seemed unfazed by the incident, telling Fox News that “I nudged my kids and told them that’s what freedom sounds like,” and “I wasn’t offended by what was said.” He also lavishly praised the production, making no mention of any unmemorized lines, and said that Trump does indeed plan to work on behalf of all Americans. All in all, we thought it a very presidential response.
By the time Pence had largely put the controversy to rest a new “Saturday Night Live” was airing, though, so Trump was back to “Tweeting.” The show featured a skit with actor Alec Baldwin reprising his popular Trump impersonation, this time portraying the president-elect as overwhelmed by his newfound responsibilities and panicked that he won’t be able to keep his campaign promises, and Trump was clearly not amused: “I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” All in all, we thought it was very stupid “tweet” and not at all presidential.
Saturday Night Live is totally one-sided and biased, of course, and always has been. That was true last summer when the show offered Trump a guest-hosting role, with no equal time for the far more qualified candidates he was running against in the ongoing Republican primary race, and we can’t remember Trump having any complaints about it at the time. Nor can we recall him ever complaining that Breitbart News and The Sean Hannity Show and that crazypants Alex Jones’ InfoWars and all of Trump’s other favorite media are also totally one-sided and biased. If Trump intends to reinstate that Fairness Doctrine of “equal time” that President Ronald Reagan quite wisely rescinded, his pals in the talk radio business are not going to be happy. Satirists will still be happily exempted, barring any changes to the First Amendment, and we can’t imagine how they practice their art in a way that wasn’t one-sided and biased. Perhaps Trump can get some writers to come up with some knee-slapping comedy about how totally awesome is Trump, but they’ll have to better than the ones who wrote his material for that Al Smith memorial dinner.
Perhaps Trump feels that his office deserves a certain respect, but that’s a newfound notion for a man who spent much of the past eight years peddling what he now admits was all along a cock and bull story about President Barack Obama being born in Kenya, and frequently accused President George W. Bush of telling a treasonous lie to get America into the Iraq War. That kind of vitriol, and the more thoughtful sort of satire and criticism Trump spent much of a busy weekend “tweeting” about, come with the job. We hope that in the future Trump will stick to more important tasks, let the theater do its job, and allow freedom of speech to live on.

— Bud Norman