Pompeo Stays Put, For Now

According to both The New York Times and The Wichita Eagle, which are usually reliable sources, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo won’t be coming home to Kansas to run for an open Senate seat. This is a big deal all over an uneasy world, but especially so here in our beloved Sunflower State.
The news was surprising to us, but only slightly so. Secretary of State is a more prestigious title than junior Senator from Kansas, and far more lucrative in a post public service career, but we’re sure that even such an ambitious fellow as Pompeo was tempted to return home to Kansas’s welcoming arms. Any old Senate seat is plenty prestigious and potentially lucrative, Pompeo almost certainly could have had a safe one for as long as he wanted. and with a presidential impeachment trial looming and a potential war with Iran brewing and Pompeo up to his neck in all of it the Senate surely seemed a more placid sinecure.
He was intrigued enough by the possibility to spend a lot of time in Kansas in for someone with such a busy international schedule, some of which was spent having discussions about fundraising with the state’s biggest Republican donors, and he was encouraged to resign and run by some high-level Republicans in the state and national party.
The Republicans are facing an unfavorable Senatorial election map next November and worry about retaining their slight majority in the chamber, so current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted Pompeo to lock down the Kansas seat, Trump gave his blessings to the idea, and the state’s Republican party establishment was equally keen on the idea. Kansas has been reliably Republican in federal elections since it entered the Union as a free state after its bloody prologue to the Civil War, and will probably vote Republican once again no matter how the primary turns out, but it’s within the realm of possibility that it won’t.
For now the frontrunner in a crowded Republican primary field is former state Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who lost a gubernatorial race to impeccably moderate Democrat Gov. Laura Kelly back in November ’18. As the state’s Secretary of State Kobach earned a national reputation for his tough stance against illegal immigrants voting in Kansas elections, which led to Trump appointing him to head a federal commission to prove that Trump would have won the popular vote if not for more than there million illegally cast votes, and he now fully identifies as a a Trump loyalist, but so far none of it worked out for him.
The voter identification laws that Kobach lobbied for are reasonable enough, so far as we can tell from our regular voting, but the Harvard grad with the Yale Law School degree decided to represent himself in a lawsuit brought against him by the American Civil Liberties Union, and he wound up proving only nine cases of voter fraud and paying significant fines for contempt of court and proving the old axiom about how a lawyer representing himself has a fool for a client, or vice a versa. Kobach’s federal commission was disbanded before proving that Trump actually won the popular vote, in part because such Republican states as Mississippi and Kansas defied his orders on state’s rights grounds, and his continued fealty to Trump hasn’t been much help.
Trump easily won the state’s electoral votes last time around, but that was because he was running against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and he’ll probably win again next time around, but that’s because he’ll probably be running against some even crazier Democrat. Which is not to say Trump is particularly popular around here. He finished a distant third in the Kansas caucuses back in ’16, the trade wars that have plunged commodity prices haven’t played well with the farmers and cattlemen, his anti-Hispanic rhetoric doesn’t resonate in a state whose southwest quadrant is economically dependent on Hispanic immigrants, and neither the church-going small town Christians nor the educated suburbanites like his style.
The Kansas Republican party is currently in a sorry state, too, for a variety of reasons of strictly local interest. Our old pal Gov. Sam Brownback, who we know to be a good and well-intentioned guy, purged all the cautious Republican types from the legislature and enacted a radical agenda of tax cuts and spending cuts, and although we liked the idea in broad outlines the details turned turned out to objectively blow a hole in the state budget, with deficits piling up despite severe cuts to what even old-fashioned Republicans would consider essential state services. There were various other scandals about corruption and voter suppression, too. That’s how Kobach wound up losing the governorship to an impeccably moderate Democrat, and McConnell is right to worry it’s within the realm of possibility he might wound up losing to a similarly moderate Democrat in a Senate race.
We wouldn’t say it’s probable, though. The crowded Republican field includes Kansas Senate President and impeccable Kansas conservative Susan Wagle, who is almost as irksome to the state’s Democrats as Kobach, and Rep. Roger Marshall from Kansas’ ranch-and-farm First District, who has occasionally dared to voice disagreement with Trump’s trade wars and immigration policies, and either could win the primary and then the general election. At this point Kobach seems a less sure bet, but we wouldn’t bet against him given the state’s long history and stubborn nature.
Pompeo would have been the surest bet for that safe Senate seat, given his extradorinaiy name recognition and formidable fund-raising prowess and the lingering affection he enjoys here in the Fourth District, where he easily won four terms with our votes, especially if he could somehow distance himself from Trump. According to our usually reliable reliable sources at The New York Times and The Wichita Eagle he’s clinging tight to Trump’s ship of state through times of impeachment trials and impending war, however, and we hold out faint hope he gets through it with his once impeccable reputation intact.

— Bud Norman

As the Impeachment Soap Opera Turns

The star of Wednesday’s episode in the impeachment inquiry show was Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and despite his dull appearance he proved a fascinating character.
Sondland testified that President Donald Trump pursued a quid pro quo with the Ukrainian government to get political favors, and that the Vice President and Secretary of State and White House chief of staff and various other administration officials were in on it, and that he has e-mails and text messages and other evidence to back the claim. He also had an interesting back story about how he wound in the middle of it all.
Unlike the career diplomatic and military officials who had previously testified to a quid pro quo, having worked their way up the ranks through both Democratic and Republic administrations to find themselves working in Ukraine, Sondland had no previous foreign policy experience and seems to have bought his ambassadorship by donating a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee. He’s said to have made $60 million with a chain of upscale hotels, and for some reason rich guys often want to be ambassadors somewhere, and there’s a longstanding tradition of presidents rewarding big donors with a fancy title in some warm and scenic country of little economic and geopolitical importance.
Past presidents have always appointed more seasoned and well-credentialed ambassadors to the hot spots, but that’s another one of those longstanding presidential traditions that Trump cares nothing about, and he figured that his fellow hotelier was just the guy to represent America with the world’s third largest economy and our most important allies. Sondland seemed in over his head from the outset, and was unable to smooth over spats Trump was having with the EU over trade and defense issues, but Trump also dragged him into his dealings with non-EU member Ukraine, presumably because Trump expected him to loyally do whatever was asked of him.
Which is exactly what Sondland did, which is why he wound up testifying under oath on national television Wednesday. He remained loyal enough to Trump that he offered no damning testimony to a House committee in a closed session, but then hired a high-powered Washington lawyer who’s a veteran of some high-profile political scandals, and was persuaded to be more forthcoming and more in line what the career officials had testified in closed sessions and what the texts and e-mails and other evidence showed.
All of which made him a hard witness for his Trump’s dogged defenders among the Republican committee members to handle. They tried to cast the previous career professionals as traitorous “deep state” conspirators, and even one of the vice president’s top aides was slurred as a “Never Trumper,” but this was a guy who’d given Trump more than a million dollars and done the president’s bidding right up to the moment his lawyer explained the penalties for perjury and the way things often turn out for rank amateurs who find themselves in over their heads in a big political scandal. The Republicans seized on the fact that Sondland had amended his sworn testimony, which does raise credibility issues, but getting Sondland to admit that he’d erred by saying Trump hadn’t done anything wrong wasn’t much help to their cause.
Near the end of his testimony Sondland loyally testified that in his last telephone conversation with the president about the matter Trump had said he wanted nothing from Ukraine and offered no quid pro quo and asked Sondland to tell the Ukrainian president to “do the right thing.” Die-hard Trump defender California Rep. Devin Nunes demanded to know why that tidbit wasn’t in Sondland’s opening statement, and all the Republicans on the committee and the conservative media tried to make hay of it. Trump addressed a gaggle of media with Marine One’s rotor whirring in the background and dramatically read the statement, and declared he was therefore cleared of everything and everyone can move on, as there’s nothing to see here..
The show will go on though, for several reasons. For one, even someone so brazen as Trump is hard-pressed to argue that he’s been cleared by the lying rat who testified at the beginning of opening statement that Trump had pursued a quid pro quo for political gain. There’s also all that corroborating testimony from those career professionals with the impeccable records, and the texts and e-mails and other corroborating evidence. Not to mention the secular timing of that call when Trump suddenly sounded uncharacteristically high-minded about foreign policy.
Records indicate that the call came after Congress had a received a “whistle blower” complaint, deemed “urgent and credible” by two layers of Trump appointees in the intelligence community, about a shady quid pro quo Trump was working up with the Ukrainian government that was afoot, and we’re certain some Republican in Congress gave the White House warning about it. It was at that point that Trump chanting the mantra of “no quid pro,” and he’ll likely stick with the defense to the end.
Trump and the rest of his Republican party are still wanting to know everything about that “whistle blower” whose complaints started all this mess, and whatever Ukraine can say about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and potential Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s son and how Ukraine rather Russia meddled in the last election. They’re also arguing that Trump never got his quid in exchange for Ukraine’s quo in the end, so it’s no big deal, and certainly not impeachable, even as Trump insists against all evidence there was never any talk of a quid pro quo.
Even so, this byzantine reality show will surely slog on, and might well feature some big-name guest stars. Sondland’s testimony will likely result in subpoenas for the Vice President and Secretary of State and White House chief of staff and other administration officials, and if they’re compelled to testify under oath and on live television the ratings will be sky-high. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has also been frequently mentioned in the testimony, and he winds up as witness there’s no telling what he’ll say.. If they all  somehow manage to dodge the duty, because of bone spurs or some legality technicality, that won’t look good.
Here’s hoping that it all ends with Sondland returning to his happy rich guy life of well-deserved anonymity, as we’ve come to rather like this character. Such an amiably idle rich guy who finds himself way in over his head in a big political scandal could have conjured only by real life or the great British satirists Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, and with his balding head and sad sack face Sondland plays the part perfectly. Throughout hours of grilling from Republicans and Democrats alike he seemed quite comfortable, and occasionally even jocular, as when he admitted that telling Trump the president of Ukraine “loves his ass” sounded like something he would say.
This is an entirely subjective opinion, we must admit, but Sondland struck as someone who felt blissfully unburdened by telling the truth. He seemed to realize that his rich guy hubris had gotten him in way over his head in a historic political scandal, and that like others who had pledged loyalty to Trump he was best advised to exit the public stage with truthful testimony and a since mea culpa. His hotel business is already suffering from the Democratic backlash against his million dollar donation to Trump and his shady dealings on Trump’s behalf, and the Republicans all regard him as traitor to the cause, even as they cite him as proof that Trump was blameless all along.
At this point we have no rooting interest in either side, but we liked the satisfied look on Sondland’s face when he finished his testimony. That he ended with the beginning of Trump’s “no quid pro quo” defense only made him more believable. He seemed a man that had done the right thing in the end, putting his faith in truth ahead of his faith in princes, and was free at last. How it turns out for the rest of the Trump loyalists remains to be seen.

— Bud Norman

Across the Street From Kirby’s Beer Store

While we were watching “Jeopardy!” and drinking a Pabst Blue Ribbon at Kirby’s Beer Store on Thursday there was some big news going on across the street at Wichita State University. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was back in his hometown for a photo-op at WSU’s high-tech aviation training program and a friend’s wedding, and he brought along First Daughter and White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump, as well as a lot of questions about state and international politics.
Pompeo is up to his neck in the administration’s controversial Syrian policy and that hubbub about American-Ukrainian relations that seems to be leading to President Donald Trump’s impeachment, and here in Kansas and around the nation there’s been much speculation that he’ll get out of the administration while the getting’s good and come home to run for an open Senate seat that is pretty much his for the asking. This was the fourth time the Secretary of State has taken time out from his busy schedule of globe-trotting to vista Kansas in the past few months, and all the latest national and international news makes a nice safe sinecure in the Senate look all the more tempting, so questions were inevitable.
The local television stations were understandably grateful for the more star-studded than usual photo-op, and obligingly aired footage of the Barbie-esque Ivanka Trump doing her best impersonation of Rosie the Riveter, but one of the last standing reporters from the now emaciated local newspaper where we toiled for 25 years got a lengthy interview, and we’re proud to say he gave Pompeo a good grilling. The national media were largely shut out of the visit, so the local paper’s reporting was widely quoted and linked to by  some of the nation’s biggest media, which we hope helps with its clicks.
The reporter asked Pompeo if a photo-op in Wichita was the best use of a Secretary of State’s time at the moment, if the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria undercut rest of the world’s faith in America’s alliances, some pesky questions about the Ukraine matter, and of course some peskier question about his possible future in Kansas politics, which at this point is also of national interest. For the most part Pompeo handled the interrogation well, deftly blaming President Barack Obama for some of the mess and dodging some questions that weren’t related to aviation workforce development and challenging the “predicate” of others, and our experienced local news watching eyes noticed he was more genteel than the usual Trump administration in bashing the media when being interviewed by his hometown paper. The hometown paper’s reporter also works for its corporate sister at what’s left of Kansas City’s hometown paper, even though the papers used to vie for statewide scoops back our in day, so any shrewd politician seeking statewide office would be well advised to at least be polite.
Pompeo is a first-in-his-class West Point grad and Harvard Law Review editor who made a fortune in the high-tech aviation business in Wichita, easily won four terms as the Fourth District’s congressman before becoming director of the Central Intelligence and then Secretary of State, and he remains a big deal here and all around this Republican state. The old-fashioned establishment wing of the Republican party is panicked by the possibility that the nomination will go to former state Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is so much an anti-immigration zealot and Trump impersonator that he lost the last gubernatorial election to a center-left Democrat — and a woman, at that — even in such an anti-immigration-with-certain-exceptions and reluctantly pro-Trump state as this, and for now Pompeo is the establishment choice while his close association with Trump only bolsters his chances in an already certain Senate race.
Close associations with Trump have often run awry, though, and by now Pompeo is surely shrewd enough to have noticed. In the interview with the local paper that was linked to an international audience he continued to insist he was solely focused on doing his job as Secretary of State, which is what one does in such a situation, but he seemed to leave open other possibilities of public service. Things are now going swimmingly with America’s foreign policy, Pompeo argued, but that might be all the more reason to get out while the getting’s good. Assuming the getting’s still good.
The Republican party’s representatives in Congress have have already largely repudiated the Trump Syrian policy that Pompeo has gone along with, and if Trump is impeached over that Ukrainian thing Pompeo likely will be as well, as he’s up to his neck in it, which would make for a damned interesting Senate race here in Kansas. We’ve watched enough Kansas Senate races in our many years to figure that any old Republican would continue the party’s eight decades-long winning streak, no matter what happens back in Washington, but we’d hate to see the state go through it. Although we proudly voted for Pompeo to represent our beloved Forth District four times, in the next Republican Senate primary we’ll cast our ballot for some center-right establishment woman you’ve never heard of, who we’re sure would just as easily beat any nominee that the Democrats might come up with.
That’s the view from the notorious dive bar just across the street where this story of national interest was unfolding, at any rate, and for now we stand by it. One of the Kirby’s regulars is an old friend who used to be a Democratic legislator and now holds a patronage workman’s comp judgeship, and he’s convinced his party has gone almost as crazy ours, and for what it’s worth he shares our bleak assessment of the situation.

— Bud Norman

“Truthful Hyperbole” vs. Truth

Late in his hour-and-a-half long speech to a rally crowd in Cincinnati on Thursday, President Donald Trump assured his adoring audience that AIDS and childhood cancer will soon be cured, which is something most presidents would have mentioned earlier. The boast probably would have gotten more attention if anyone believed it were actually true, and there weren’t another hour’s worth of similar unverifiable and untrue boasts for the fact-checkers to go over. Trump believes in what he calls “truthful hyperbole,” and apparently so does his nominee to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence.
Rep. John Ratcliffe was a controversial choice for the job from the outset, given his apparent lack of relevant qualifications for the job, but Democratic opposition has grown stronger and Republican support less solid since it’s become clear he has a Trumpian tendency to overstate his accomplishments.
Earlier Ratcliffe had been forced to admit he wasn’t as successful a prosecutor of terrorism during his brief term as an acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas as he’d earlier claimed. It turns out there weren’t a whole lot of terrorism cases to be prosecuted in east Texas during his short stint on the job, and that Ratcliffe played a more limited role that he’d bragged about in the cases that did come up. He did get a psychologically troubled Iraq war veteran to plead guilty to possession of a pipe bomb, but that seems to have been his biggest contribution to the war on terrorism.
Ratcliffe has also boasted on his congressional web site that he arrested 300 illegal immigrants in a single day, which on its face is as fanciful as boasting of curing AIDS and childhood cancer, and now he’s been forced to admit that was overstated. He was involved in a five-state sweep of poultry plants that resulted in approximately 300 arrests, but of course it was Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who actually did the arresting, and the results were underwhelming. Only 45 of the arrestees were actually prosecuted by Ratcliffe’s office, and six of the cases were dismissed, in two instances because the defendants turned out to be American citizens, one of whom was a 19-year-old woman dragged from her bed by immigration agents in a pre-dawn raid.
Trump can hardly object to such harmless exaggerations, nor does he seem to mind the apparent lack of qualifications for the job. Coats had been a Representative and Senator with a stellar reputation for his service on the intelligence committees in both chambers, and then served four years as ambassador to Germany before taking charge of the the national intelligence agency, but he constantly annoyed Trump by agreeing with the rest of the intelligence community that Russia meddled in the last presidential election on Trump’s behalf. Ratcliffe has signaled that he’ll take the word of Trump and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that no such thing happened, so there’s no need to do anything to prevent it from happening again, and that’s the only qualification Trump needs.
If Ratcliffe doesn’t have a traditional intelligence background, so much the better as far as Trump is concerned. “We need somebody who can really rein it in,” Trump told reporters, “because as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They run amok.”
Trump’s own Secretary of State and Central Intelligence Agency director and Federal Bureau of Investigation director and the rest of his intelligence appointees don’t seem to have learned the lesson, though, as they’re all running amok and agreeing with Trump’s outgoing National Intelligence Director and special counsel Robert Mueller and anyone who’s been paying attention that Russia did indeed middle in the last election. They also all agree that Russia’s gearing up to do it again, and we’re more inclined to take their word for it rather than Trump’s and Putin’s and Ratcliffe’s.
Ratcliffe never did win Senate confirmation as a U.S. Attorney, and it’s hard to say if he’ll fare better at his next confirmation hearing, as there are a few Republicans who are openly skeptical of his fitness for the job, and it’s easy to predict he won’t be getting any Democratic votes. We’ll also go out on a limb and predict that Trump won’t soon cure AIDS and childhood cancer, and cautiously hope that Ratcliffe doesn’t rein in America’s intelligence from countering Russia meddlesome plots.

— Bud Norman

Another Muddled Situation in the Middle East

The Iranian military shot down an American drone aircraft on Thursday, and neither side disputes that. Pretty much everything else about the incident is unclear, however, as is the rest of the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries.
Iran claims the drone was within its sovereign airspace, making the craft fair game to be shot down under international rules, but President Donald Trump claims to have conclusive proof from his intelligence sources that the aircraft was in neutral airspace, which makes the downing an arguable act of war. This further muddles an already muddled situation between the two countries, which is further complicated by the fact that both countries currently have very unpredictable leadership.
The problem started long before Trump way back in the administration of Jimmy Carter when a harsh theocratic dictatorship seized power in Iran, as far as we’re concerned, although they do have a plausible argument it started with America’s backing of the harsh but secular and America-friendly dictatorship of the Shahs way back in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. In any case, the first thing the theocratic dictatorship did when it took power was to take fifty-two American diplomats hostage, and hold them in inhumane conditions for 444 days until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and things between the two countries have been complicated ever since.
We concluded at the time, and to this day believe, that the hostages were released because the nutcase Iranian theocracy had concluded Reagan was going to be far tougher on them than Carter had been, and all of our Democratic friends were equally convinced that Reagan was just as willing to start a global conflagration with even the Soviet Union, so we still figure there’s something to be said for tough diplomacy. Reagan’s administration wound up trading arms with the Iranian theocracy for some hostages it and its terrorist gang proxies still held and using the extra profits to fund anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, on the other hand, and neither the sticks nor the carrots of the subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations have adequately solved the Middle Eastern problem.
With help from six of our most longstanding and militarily formidable European allies and the mighty combined weight of their economic sanctions President Barack Obama persuaded Iran to agree to a temporary shutdown or at least a shutdown of its nuclear weapons program. Critics such as ourselves argued at the time it was only temporary shutdown and arguably just a slowdown of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, and did nothing to curtail its intercontinental missile program or funding of terrorist gang proxies throughout the Middle East, or the nefarious meddling in every Middle Eastern crisis that popped up, and that given the western leverage a better deal could have been reached. All that still rings true, but Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and and despite his much-bragged about negotiating skill hasn’t yet delivered the promised better one, and things remain unsettled.
Trump has reimposed severe economic sanctions on Iran’s already struggling economy, but none of those six longstanding and militarily formidable European allies have followed suit, and without their combined economic weight and assured military alliance the Iranians are less likely to blink. Trump has been squabbling with all of our longstanding allies around the world ever since he took office, and nutcases though they are the Iranian theocrats have surely noticed, and they might also sense other signs of weakness.
Trump ran for office as a a tough guy who wouldn’t let America be pushed around, but he also ran as Vietnam War draft dodger who alleged President George W. Bush lied America into a Middle Eastern quagmire, even as he criticized Obama for his premature withdrawal from the Iraqi conflict that Bush had allegedly lied us into, and while in office his foreign policy has been similarly schizophrenic. Currently he’s got some old school Cold War Republican internationalists  as Secretary of State and national security advisor, and for embarrassing reasons has no Secretary of Defense at all at the moment, yet he retains his cocksure and surprisingly risk-averse and isolationist instincts, and so far it’s led to a muddled message in the current crisis.
Trump “tweeted” that Iran had made a “very big mistake” by shooting down the drone, adding the usual exclamation mark at the end, but he later clarified that. Trump’s most ardent apologists always tell us we should take his rhetoric seriously but not literally, but in this case Trump explained that he was being literal rather serious. Trump explained he meant to say that Iran had made an actual mistake, with some trigger happy lower-ranking military officer launching the shoot down the $100 million yet unmanned drone without orders from the nutcase theocratic dictatorship, which is just one of those those things that happen in such a complicated world and no reason for nations to go to war.
Trump has also given credence to Iran’s explanations of a couple of attacks on oil tankers on the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran’s terrorist proxies have claimed credit for and which Iran has plausibly claimed it had nothing to do with. Trump’s old school Secretary of State and national advisor have blamed have blamed Iran for threatening a shipping lane crucial to the economies of our longstanding European allies and the rest of the world, but Trump himself has dismissed both incidents as “very minor,” and the self-described tough guy seems in no mood for a fight.
Which is probably for the best, given the current circumstances. We doubt that the nutcase theocratic regime in Iran is any more eager for a fight with the far more formidable United States military, as nutty as the theocratic regime might be, so there’s hope the desultory status quo will last until at least the next American presidential election.
In a more perfect world America wouldn’t have a president who has repeatedly cast international doubt on the conclusions of America’s intelligence, and one who has continued to negotiate with the puny likes of Iran as the leader of a unified coalition of the democratic and militarily and economically formidable western world, but here we are. We can’t say that any of these damned Democratic contenders for the presidency would fare  any better, on the other hand, so for now we’ll hold out hope for even the most desultory sort of  peace.

— Bud Norman

Hoping the Third Time’s a Charm at the Department of Defense

Army secretary Mark Esper has been named acting defense secretary, making him the third person to head the Department of Defense of during Trump’s two-and-a-half years in office. Here’s hoping he has better luck at the job than his predecessors.
Esper got the nod after acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew his nomination for the official post because of a domestic violence scandal. Unlike the three previous Trump administration appointees and the former Trump campaign official who resigned due to domestic violence scandals, in this case it was Shanahan’s now ex-wife who was arrested for battering him. That’s still something Shanahan didn’t want to have to explain at a confirmation hearing, and he was probably even less eager to answer questions about a son’s arrest for beating his mother with a baseball bat, and why Shanahan told the police and courts it was a case of self-defense.
Shanahan was preceded by Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general with a spotless reputation who breezed through his confirmation hearings and won bipartisan respect for his performance in the job, but he wound up resigning in less than a year, making it clear in his resignation letter that he disagreed with President Donald Trump on several important issues of national security. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malignant actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have to the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down.”
Esper’s confirmation hearing for his Army post didn’t turn up any scandals, so it’s unlikely the next round will dig up some dirt that the Trump administration’s notoriously lax vetting process overlooked. It’s also unlikely he’ll dare to differ with Trump with about anything, no matter how obviously wrong Trump might be.
The Democrats on the confirmation committee will probably have some questions to ask about Esper’s tenure as top lobbyist for Raytheon, the military’s second biggest contractor, but they would have had the same questions about Shanahan’s long career as high-ranking executive at Boeing, the military’s biggest contractor. The Democrats will probably have the same questions for any fourth nominee Trump might put forward, as he’s clearly comfortable with the military-industrial complex, and has jettisoned all the multi-starred generals and admirals he once bragged about for daring to disagree with him.
Esper’s outstanding resume includes the dean’s list as West Point, a master’s degree from Harvard’s school of government, and a doctorate in philosophy of all things from George Washington University. He served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, was chief of staff at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and has held various government posts in the executive and legislative branches.
Despite such impeccable credentials, he was Trump’s third choice for Army secretary after the first two withdrew their nominations, in one case because the nominee didn’t want to divest his business holdings in defense-related business, in the other because of controversial comments about transgender bathrooms and Islam.
Esper will have to answer some tough questions from the Democrats about his handling of several sexual assault and harassment cases he handled as Army secretary, but the Republicans who hold a sight majority in the Senate probably won’t much care about that. We expect he’ll once again be easily confirmed, and will wind up doing as good a job as can be expected in an administration where the president and his national security advisor and Secretary of State are feuding about how to handle Iran’s recent aggression . He no doubt knows far more about defense issues than Trump does, as do Trump’s national security advisor and Secretary of State,  but Esper also seems shrewd enough to not let the boss know that.

— Bud Norman

Kansas Politics Takes a National Stage

Kansas rarely makes the national news, which is fine by us and most other Kansans, as it’s usually something embarrassing, but we were intrigued to see the latest development in our state politics on the front page of The Washington Post. The paper reports that Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to come home and run for a Senate seat that’s recently opened up, which is pretty darned intriguing for a number of reasons.
The Senate seats for Kansas are rarely open, as Kansans pragmatically tend to reelect the Republicans with the seniority and significant committee assignments needed to protect the farmers and airplane builders and natural gas drillers and other key components of the state’s economy, but 2020 will be one of those occasions. At the relatively young of age 82 Sen. Pat Roberts has decided to end a locally legendary political career that started way back in the ’60s — that’s the 1960s, although it sometimes seems to have stretched back to the “Bleeding Kansas” days of the 1860s — and there’s already a crowded field of notable Republicans vying to succeed him.
The rumored candidates include former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an anti-immigration hard-liner who made a failed effort to prove that at least three million illegal voters robbed President Donald Trump of a popular vote victory in the last presidential election, and wound up losing the last Kansas governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. There’s also former Gov. Jeff Colyer, who took office after wildly unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback resigned to became President Donald Trump’s ambassador for religious freedom, whatever that is, and then lost the Republican gubernatorial nomination by a few hundred votes but probably would have the general election if he’d been nominated. Another frequently mentioned name is Matt Schlapp, who used to be an aide to long-forgotten Fourth District Rep. Todd Tiahrt and has since gained a high profile on Fox News and talk radio as the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and whose wife, Mercedes, is Trump’s director of strategic communications, whatever that is. Such well-regarded state legislators as Rep. Roger Marshall are also reportedly in the running.
Despite such a formidable field, the Republican nomination would be Pompeo’s for the asking, and given that the only time Kansas has ever elected a Democrat to the Senate was for one term back in the Great Depression, the general election would be easy. He’s a first-in-his-class graduate of West Point, a former editor of the Harvard Law Review, a successful entrepreneur in Wichita’s high-tech aerospace industry, and after Tiahrt abandoned his Fourth Congressional seat for an ill-advised and ill-fated Senate run he won four congressional elections by landslide margins. His service as Trump’s director of the Central Intelligence and then Secretary of State have surely endeared him to the Trump-loving sorts of Kansas Republicans, and his occasional differences of opinion with Trump on such important matters as Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election will satisfy the large and growing number of Republicans who are weary of Trump’s generally shoddy character and the endless trade wars that have hard hit the agriculture and aviation sectors and his strange preference for coal over natural gas.
In normal circumstances no savvy politician would rather be a junior Senator from a sparsely populated state rather Secretary of State, but Pompeo is surely savvy enough to know that the Trump administration is not normal circumstances. Pompeo might or might not know what Trump has been saying to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin during the occasional conservations, as Trump keeps it a very closely guarded secret, but in either case Pompeo probably shares our concern it won’t end well. With a presidential resume and presidential ambitions, Pompeo might decide he could make a better run as a centrist junior Senator from Kansas who did his best to warn of Russian meddling and restrain Trump’s worst instincts rather than a hard-line loyalist who went down with the Trump ship.
It’s intriguing, too, that McConnell is urging Pompeo to jump from the Trump ship into the Senate. By all accounts Pompeo is Trump’s most favorite cabinet member, probably because it’s hard for Trump to find lackeys with such excellent credentials, and a third Secretary of State of in four years would be hard for Trump to explain, especially after Trump calling his first choice “dumber than rocks,” so it suggests that McConnell might be hedging his bets on the Trump presidency. The map for the 2020 Senate races is even more unfavorable for the Republicans than 2018 races were for the Democrats, and the way things are going they won’t have any presidential coattails to cling to, and we can’t blame McConnell for being more worried about his status as majority leader than he is about Trump’s presidency. Kansas is a reliably Republican state in federal elections, but last November it elected a Democrat as governor over Trump’s heartily endorsed Republican, and up in the Third District, the sort of well-educated suburban jurisdiction the Republicans been losing ever since Trump took office, they even elected a Native American lesbian kick boxer, so McConnell is probably wise to back to the surest bet.

— Bud Norman

A Blue Moment in a Red State

After a full week of counting and re-counting votes, the Kansas Republican party at last has a a gubernatorial nominee. The by-the-skin-of-his-teeth winner turns out to be Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and we expect he’s in for a tough general election.
Although a reliably Republican state in congressional and presidential elections, Kansas hasn’t rewarded either the Republicans or Democrats with a third consecutive term since the 1960s, when conservative Democrat Robert Docking won four straight two-year terms, and the past eight years of Republican rule haven’t gone so well. For seven of those years the governor was former Senator Sam Brownback, whose radical tax cut agenda required purges of establishment Republicans in some ugly primary fights and didn’t deliver the promised economic boom and enhanced revenues, and after he resigned to become something called Ambassador for Religious Freedom in the administration of President Donald Trump his Lieutenant Governor and accidental Gov. Jeff Colyer could do little to reverse the state’s fortunes in a year’s time, even though his fellow establishment Republicans had won a second round of ugly primary fights against the hard-liners and some common-sense fixes to the tax code were enacted.
Kobach further complicates the Republican’s problems. He only beat Colyer by a hundred votes or so, with about 60 percent of the party voted for another of the crowded field of candidates, and his audaciously far-right stands on various issues will be a hard sell to a state that’s lately reverting to its cautiously center-right character. Nationally-known for his obsessions with illegal immigration and voter fraud, Kobach won our votes in two races for Secretary of State with such common sense reforms as photo identification requirements for voting, but since his reelection many Kansans such as ourselves think he’s taken things a bit too far.
He was tabbed by Trump to head a federal commission to prove that more than three million illegal immigrant voters had robbed the president of his rightful win in the popular vote, but that went down in flames when both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state refused for both Democratic and Republican reasons to comply with the commission’s demands for their voter data, with even Kansas refusing on the basis of state law to comply with all of it. Some rather stringent voter registrations requirements that we’re not sure we could comply with were challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union, and when Kobach represented himself in the lawsuit he not only wound up on the losing side of the verdict but racked up thousands of dollars in contempt of court fines and much public ridicule in the process. Kobach has fully embraced the snarling Trump style of campaigning and credits the president’s endorsement for his victory, but more than 70 percent of Republican caucus-goers voted against that in ’16 and about 60 percent of Republican primary voters didn’t fall for it in ’18.
Longtime state legislator Laura Kelly won more than 50 percent of the Democratic party’s votes against a crowded field that included such formidable challengers as former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and the folksy rural legislator Joshua Svaty, and we can’t imagine any Democrat in the state opting for Kobach. Democrats are only about 30 percent of the state, but that’s always a good start in any race, and our guess is that most of Kansas’ numerous independents are leaning Democratic about now, and that many of the state’s stubbornly independent Republicans are getting fed up with their party. Trump won the state’s six electoral votes by the usual Republican landslide, but he was running against the historically horrible Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and such a scandal-free and not-at-all-shrill centrist as Kelly is unlikely to inspire such widespread loathing in the Grand Old Party.
The wild card in the race is independent candidate Greg Orman, a rich businessman making his second electoral run in Kansas. Back in the state GOP’s anti-establshment fervor of ’14 longtime Sen. Pat Roberts narrowly escaped a primary challenge, so Orman ran an independent campaign to the right of Roberts, and the Democratic nominee was so lame that the party withdrew him from the ballot and hoped that Orman would at least remove a sitting Republican from the Senate, but he wound up losing by a lopsided margin and Roberts is still in office and at least resisting Trump’s stupid trade wars. This time around Orman is running on the argument that a two-party system of democracy is a rigged game that has brought the state to its knees, and that only a rich businessman can make Kansas great again, and he’s offering few specific plans.
This strikes us as a losing argument around here, but there’s no doubt some significant number of Kansans will fall for it, so it’s a question of whose voters it will attract. The answer, we dare say, is that the vast majority of Orman’s support will come from the Trump-endorsed Kobach’a column.
Kobach’s national notoriety will probably funnel plenty of out-of-state money to Kelly’s campaign coffers, too, and we expect she’ll spend that far-left money on some very centrist advertisements. We don’t expect Kansas’ nationally notorious mega-donor Charles Koch will make up much of the difference, given Koch’s libertarian views on immigration and genteel aversion to the snarling Trump style of campaigning, and the funding gap will be a problem in the expensive media markets up in those well-educated and well-off Kansas City suburbs that are typical of the places where the Republicans have been having a hard time lately.
November is a long time from now, but the days grow short when you reach September, as the old song says, and on this rainy August day we’re wishing Colyer had won. As things now stand, we might have to vote for a damn Democrat.

— Bud Norman

Pomp, Circumstance, and the Unvarnished Truth

‘Tis the season for college commencement speeches, and the controversies a few of them annually cause. Even the most controversial commencement speeches are usually forgettable affairs, but we did take notice of the one that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered on Wednesday to the most recent graduates of the Virginia Military Academy.
Tillerson was once the well-regarded and objectively successful chief executive officer of the multi-national and very big deal Exxon Corporation, but during his brief tenure as Secretary of State he was harshly criticized from both the left and the right. The left resented his corporate downsizing of the State Department and seeming abandonment of diplomacy as a means of American influence, the post-President Donald Trump right found him insufficiently committed to an “America First” isolationism and militarism, and even from our newfound perspective on the sidelines he was so clearly ineffectual we were glad to see him replaced by our formidable former District of Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo.
Even so, Tillerson’s bold address to the VMI graduates give us hope that he’ll prove one heck of an ex-Secretary of State. Although he never mentioned Trump by name, Tillerson opened the speech by talking of his own higher education in engineering and the need for structural integrity, the similar need to maintain the personal integrity that is prized by every great faith and every tradition, and the importance of maintaining longstanding alliances and the challenges of an ever changing world,and it was obvious to anyone on the left or right or on the sidelines that he was talking about Trump. He also described a “growing crises in integrity,” recalled his alma mater of Texas A&M New Testament motto of the “the truth shall set you free,” and warned that if citizens ‘becoming accepting of ‘alternative realiities’ that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on the pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”
Just in case it wasn’t clear enough that Tillerson was talking about Trump,Trump’s under-penalty-of-law financial disclosure forms were simultaneously admitting that he had indeed lied to the media and the nation aboard Air Force One about his $130,000 payment to a porno performer who quite credibly alleges a one night stand with the future president. Tillerson couldn’t have possibly predicted it, but Trump’s inevitably Nobel Peace Prize-winning negotiations with North Korea about its nuclear weapons program had hit hit a sudden snag, Trump’s bellicose “America First” stance on trade had complicated relations with out our longstanding allies in southeast Asia and elsewhere, and those widely reported reports that Trump’s sudden conspicuous friendliness to a Chinese telecommunications that was previously sanctioned for intellectual property theft on spying on Americans coincided with the Chinese government’s $500 million dollar investment in a Trump-branded development deal in Indonesia.
We’ll have to wait and see how that all turns out, as Trump likes to say, but in the meantime the guy he appointed and then fired as Secretary of State seems to have the upper hand with commencement speech. We always voted for the current Secretary of State when he was running for our fourth congressional seat here in Kansas, and hold out hope that he’ll somehow negotiate some settlement to the latest crisis on the Korean peninsula that doesn’t leave hundreds of thousands of people dead, but his ineffectual and defenestrated predecessor’s words about the need for integrity and acknowledging truth ring disquietingly true.

Pennsylvania and Pompeo and the Rest

The big story on Tuesday was supposed to be that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania, but of course President Donald Trump wound up grabbing all the headlines. He fired his Secretary of State, which would be newsworthy story in any administration, and given these peculiar circumstances there were enough subplots to fill countless side bar stories.
Although none of ever much liked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, some of us are sorry to see him go. He came into the job with no previous diplomatic experience, save for negotiation some big-money deals as the head of the giant Exxon corporation with the Russian government that were being hampered by American sanctions, so he started off on the wrong foot with the foreign policy establishment. He proved more of a hard-liner on Russia than Trump would prefer, so the establishment press came to regard him as a restraining influence on the president, but that only made him all the more unpopular with Trump and his hard-line supporters. Meanwhile Tillerson went ahead with his budget-cutting and downsizing plan for the State Department, which did not endear him to any of his employees, and in the end it didn’t spare Tillerson from his own boss’s wrath.
Trump’s announced replacement is Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, which is another interesting story. As much as we hate to name drop, we’ve actually schmoozed with the guy on a couple of occasions, which is one of the perks of being well-connected on the theatrical and political and social scenes here in Wichita, Kansas, which has somehow produced two CIA directors in our lifetimes, and we have to say we found him a friendly enough fellow. He’s a formidable fellow, too, top of his class at West Point and editor of the Harvard Law Review and founder of a successful high-tech aviation business here in town, and as traditional Kansas Republicans we enthusiastically voted for him in all three of his successful runs in our Fourth Congressional District. Why, wee still have a red-white-and-blue “I Like Mike” button on our desk, which we proudly use to prick the pinholes on our pesky electronic devices.
Pompeo gave an eloquent endorsement of Sen. Marco Rubio during the Kansas Republican party’s primary caucus down at Century II, and was among the Republican resisting Trump right up until the nomination, but since then he’s been more accommodating to Trump. Early on in his is CIA role he reaffirmed the agency’s conclusion that the Russian government had indeed meddled in the past presidential election, and that the “Wikileaks” operation leaking all the hacked Democratic e-mails was acting on Russia’s behalf, but he was careful not to implicate Trump. Over time he reportedly won Trump over with his schmoozing and his educational and military and business and Kansas conservative credentials, along with his increasing willingness to insulate Trump from any of that “Russia thing,” and we’re not surprised by Pompeo’s latest promotion.
Trump was reportedly considering firing Tillerson months ago, although dismissed it as “fake news” at the time, so there was naturally some speculation about why it happened on Tuesday. Tillerson had survived the reports that he’d called Trump a certain profane sort of “Moron,” which he neither confirmed nor denied, and Trump’s “tweets” about challenging his Secretary of State to an I.Q. test competition, and all the times that Tillerson had distanced himself on whatever story was dominating the day’s news cycle, from the Paris Climate Accord to the neo-Nazi rally in Virginia to the wisdom of negotiating with the North Korean dictatorship, so one can’t help wondering what straw at long last broke the metaphorical camel’s back.
The British government is currently indignant about a couple of political assassinations that were quite apparently committed on their sovereign soil by agents of the Russian government, and Tillerson expressed his shared indignation shortly after the White House press secretary had stressed that maybe the Russians had nothing to do with it, so naturally there was some speculation about that. Trump has since said that yeah the Russians probably did it, although he didn’t seem the least big indignant about it, and he’s previously expressed his opinion that hey what the hell we do lots of extra-terrritorial killings here in the good ol’ USA, so there’s some expected speculation about that.
If we were the type to indulge in conspiracy theories, we’d chalk Tillerson’s firing up to that portentous special House election in Pennsylvania. We stayed up all night to the results but it was still too close too call, but the Democrat was clinging to a slim over the Republican, and no matter how the lawyers work it out we’re sure Trump would rather not talk about that.
Trump won the district by 20 points in the election landslide, even better than the 15 or more point victories that Republicans had long expected, but since then things have changed. The Republicans have won most of the special congressional elections since Trump’s inaugural, but that’s mostly because they’ve been in districts or states where Trump promoted a popular Republican to a cabinet position, and all of the races have been conspicuously closer than the last time around. The Republicans even managed to lose a Senate seat in Alabama, of all places, for crying out loud, and a loss in northern Pennsylvania would bode ill for a lot of Republicans next November.
That Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts creepy and criminal behavior, while that Republican up in Pennsylvania is more frequently criticized for being boring, unlike the pro-life and family values Republican incumbent who’d resigned the seat after his mistress told the press about he’d pressed to get an abortion. In both elections Trump held well-attended and raucous rallies in support of his fellow Republicans, and although in both in cases he talked mostly about himself they wound up well short of his victory margins, even the Republican lawyers somehow eke out a victory. which does not portend well for Trump or the rest of the Republicans in fall’s mid-term elections.
All politics really is local, though, even in the age of Trump. The Democrat in Pennsylvania was just as supportive of Trump’s crazy-ass steel tariffs as the Republican, and he was a handsome ex-Marine and former prosecutor who’d killed or locked up all sorts of sinister types, and was centrist on guns and such, and had the endorsement of the remaining steelmaking unions. The Republican down in Alabama was credibly accused of all sorts of creepiness, and the opposing Democratic took his own boring and centrist position, which eventually won the day.

Maybe Pompeo’s appointment as Secretary of State will turn it all around, but we doubt it. He strikes us as a nice enough and serious enough fellow, but these are trying times.

— Bud Norman