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When Nepotism Doesn’t Work

For most of America’s history the public didn’t have to concern itself with what the President of the United States’ son or son-law were up to, but that’s another one of those things you can no longer count on the age of President Donald Trump. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and presidential namesake son Donald Trump Jr. were both once again prominently in the news on Tuesday, and neither looked at all good.
Trump ran for president on the promise he would appoint only the very best people, and it’s turned out that the very best person to negotiate Middle East peace and end the country’s opioid crisis and re-invent government happens to be his favorite child’s husband. Press reports indicate that Kushner has also been charged with the tricky task of reforming America’s immigration policies, and that he’s also struggling with that.
Kushner met with the Senate’s slim majority of Republicans on Tuesday, and although it was a closed-door meeting the inevitable leaks suggest it didn’t go well. Kushner reportedly had trouble answering questions about the several million so-called “dreamers” who were illegally brought into the country as children and have since been verifiably blameless quasi-citizens, which is a political problem that a hard-line anti-immigrant Republican administration will need some pretty damned convincing answers for. Kushner reportedly made a case for a merit-based immigration system that would favor highly skilled workers and scientists and engineers, which still seems reasonable enough even as the booming economy Trump routinely brags about needs ever more hammer-swingers and assembly-line workers to keep up with demand, and some well-credentialed and high-tech and Republican-leaning friends of ours are complaining about foreign competition on the job market.
Despite the president’s son-in-law’s best efforts, we don’t think we’re any closer to a much-needed bipartisan reform of immigration law than we are to Middle East peace or an end to the opioid crisis or the reinvention of American government. Trump seems to think that his favorite child’s husband is smart, which we begrudgingly admire, but to us the kid clearly isn’t that damned smart.
Meanwhile, the president’s namesake son has agreed to an another round of grilling from the Senate’s intelligence committee about that “Russia thing” Trump hoped he had put behind him when a special counsel investigation declined to indict him on anything. The special counsel’s report did include some suspicious facts about the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian operates, notably the meeting that Donald Trump Jr. has admitted taking with some government-connected Russians he clearly understood to be working on behalf of his father’s campaign, and even though the Republicans control the Senate intelligence committee they still have some reasonable questions about that. The younger Trump was able to negotiate that his testimony won’t be in public, but it will be under oath, and given how restive the farm state Republicans are about the elder Trump’s trade wars we expect it will be entirely and embarrassingly leaked to the press.
There are still plenty of people left in prominent political positions who aren’t related to Trump through blood or marriage, on the other hand, so we’ll hold out hope it all somehow works out.

— Bud Norman

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The Character Questions

Michael Cohen, one of President Donald Trump’s many longtime personal lawyers, will be on television today testifying to a congressional committee, which will likely be one of the highest-rated epodes yet in our ongoing political reality show. He’s expected to dish some damning dirt about Trump’s businesses, campaign, and sex life, and how they’ve all run occasionally afoul of the law, so Trump and his defenders are preemptively raising questions Cohen’s character.
There are plenty of questions to be asked, of course. Aside from the suspicious fact that he was admittedly one of Trump’s longtime lawyers, Cohen is soon heading to a three year stay in federal prison for lying to congress and various other crimes, and he’s long relished his reputation for ruthlessness. Trump loyalist and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz also “tweeted” on Tuesday that Cohen has also cheated on his wife.
“Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends?” Gaetz “tweeted” to Cohen. “Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she’ll remain faithful while you’re in prison. She’s about to learn a lot.”
Some of Gaetz’ congressional colleagues thought it was tantamount to witness intimidation, pretty much of all the rest thought it was tacky at the very least, and we can’t imagine anyone thought it a compelling argument. Cohen is undeniably a convicted liar and criminal, and we wouldn’t be much surprised to learn that he has cheated on his wife, but that’s a problematic argument to make in defense of Trump. Our president has been proved to tell an extraordinary number of lies even by presidential standards, Cohen has receipts to prove that the crimes he’s confessed were carried out at Trump’s request, and some of them involve hush money payments made to a pornographic video performer and a nude model who had alleged affairs with Trump, and although Trump denies the allegations he had frequently bragged to tabloid newspapers and shock jock radio hosts about similar extra-marital affairs, and we’re inclined to believe the porno performer and Playboy playmate rather than the President of the United States..
When forced to choose between the claims of two liars and alleged adulterers and generally sleazy characters, we’re inclined to believe the one with nothing to lose and documentary evidence to back him up. Cohen is expected to testify that he was pursuing a deal for a “Trump Tower” in Moscow at a time when Trump was assuring Republican primary voters that he had no business underway with Russia, and by now Trump is going to need some pretty damned convincing documentary to make us disbelieve that. There’s a report in The Washington Post that Cohen will also testify that Trump knew of his longtime and recently indicted friend Roger Stone’s contacts with the Wikileaks organization that was leaking damning hacked e-mails on Trump’s behalf during the presidential election. Cohen is constrained from some testimony about what he knows about the “Russia thing,” as he’s still a witness to an ongoing special counsel investigation in the matter, but we’re inclined to believe whatever it was he told the investigators.
If today’s highly-rated episode in this reality show is even half as soap operatic as the press has promised, Trump and his spokespeople and talk radio apologists will have a lot of explaining to do. They can rightly claim that Cohen is a liar, but they’ll be hard pressed to make that case that Trump isn’t. Cohen is a convicted liar and criminal, but he’s also one of those “very best people” that Trump brags he’s always hired.

— Bud Norman

The Threats Keep on a -Threatening

The Senate intelligence committee held hearings Tuesday on worldwide threats, and it all sounded pretty threatening. So far as we can tell the most pressing threat is to the credibility of President Donald Trump.
The hearings opened with testimony from Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray, which wound up dragging out the recent embarrassing storyline about the alleged wives-beater who was allowed to resign last week from his high-ranking position in the White House with fulsome praise from Trump. The president and his chief of staff both claimed to have been shocked by the allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter when they learned of them in a recent Daily Mail expose, but those pesky reporters kept pestering the White House press secretary about why the allegations hadn’t been exposed by an FBI background check, and why the agency hadn’t granted Porter the security clearance he needed to do his high-ranking job, which dragged the story through the weekend an into Monday. The answers weren’t quite clear, but they seemed to suggest that the FBI had failed in its duty to vet the White House staff.
Wray was appointed to the FBI directorship by Trump, but on Tuesday he declined to commit perjury and scapegoat his hard-working agents by sticking to the White House script. Instead he testified that his agency had given the White House a preliminary report last March that two ex-wives saidt Porter had physically abused them, and included corroborating police reports and court filings in a complete report last July. If chief of staff John Kelly is truthfully claiming that he only found out about Porter’s problem when the Daily Mail wrote about it, which seems highly unlikely, it does not speak well for the efficiency of the White House.
The hearing also heard about even scarier threats to the national security than a wives-beating staff secretary, and raised questions about how efficient the White House will deal with them.
Joining Wray at the hearings were Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Central Intelligence Agency director Mike Pompeo, and all agreed that the Russian government meddled in the last American elections in various nefarious ways and is keenly intent on doing so again in the next one. Wray assured the senators that the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter the Russian efforts, but admitted that none were “specifically directed by the president.” Coats also spoke of unspecified specific activities, but acknowledged that “no single agency is in charge.” Pompeo defended his agency’s had work countering the Russian threat and promised more specific information in the closed session that followed, and given his reputation as an efficient man he probably had plenty to tell them, but despite his reputation as a Trump loyalist he didn’t mention anything about the president’s leadership in the effort.
All of which ties into that whole “Russia thing” storyline that has loomed so large in the Trump reality show, and none of which does him much good. Trump’s apparent insouciance about Russian attacks on American democracy is one of the most compelling reasons so many people suspect there’s something to this particular “witch hunt,” and despite his apologists best efforts to blame it on a “deep state” “silent coup” of corrupt FBI agents and CIA spooks we note that Trump’s own appointees aren’t backing them up.
To make things worse, Coats also testified that the federal government’s “increasingly fractious political process, particularly with respect to federal spending, is threatening our ability to defend our nation, both in the short term and especially in the long run.” Given the budget-busting spending bill Trump recently signed, and his own contributions to the fractiousness of the political process, that was hardly a ringing endorsement of his boss.
Perhaps it will be quickly forgotten, though, as that embarrassing storyline about the porn performer who alleged a past affair with Trump and Trump’s lawyer paying her $130,000 during the election was back in the news. The latest hook is that Trump’s longtime lawyer and spokesman and valued advisor is now claiming he made the payment out of his own pocket, for some undisclosed reason we cannot imagine, which he claims clears Trump of any campaign finance disclosure problems. There’s also talk that Kelly will soon be out as chief of staff, and Trump’s longtime lawyer had been rumored as a possible replacement, so we expect more threatening storylines to come.

— Bud Norman

The President’s I.Q. vs. the Late Night Comics

The topic of all the late night comedy show monologues on Tuesday night was all too predictable. In an interview with Forbes Magazines published Tuesday morning President Donald Trump boasted of his scores on intelligence quotient tests, and that’s like catnip to all the catty and Trump-hating comics on late night television.
Trump walked right into it with his response to a question about recent reports that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called the president an expletive-deleted sort of “moron,” which had gone conspicuously undenied by Tillerson during an otherwise obsequious public statement and provided loomed large in the day’s news cycle and provided plenty of late-night fodder for the comics. The president plausibly denied the widely-verified and conspicuously undenied reports as “fake news,” but couldn’t help adding that “if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare I.Q. tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
As die-hard a Trump supporter as you might be, it takes a heart of stone to deny those smug liberal late-night comics their cheap laughs about it. Late night audiences and pretty much everyone else knows that the really smart guys don’t brag about how smart they are, even if the late night comics do, in a clear way, and that a President who’s making that boast in response to the by-now-apparently true stories that his Secretary of State called him an expletive-deleted sort of “moron” is in an even more ridiculous position.
Trump’s die-hard supporters can rightly note that he’s very wealthy, although several reliable publications report he’s only as a third as rich as he claims, and he did indeed win the presidency, although he had the extraordinary good fortune to be running against Hillary Clinton and still finished second in the popular and by now there’s no denying that the man does possess an extraordinary intelligence of a certain sort. He’s had some spectacular personal and financial failures in his historic career, but enough successes that he’s wound up with an undeniable fortune and an objectively hot third trophy wife and the White House, so he can’t be so dumb as those late night comics claim.
There are all kinds of smarts, though, and not all of them are well matched to the challenges of statesmanship. Trump’s challenge to his Secretary of State’s I.Q. score involves a very perilous situation on the nuclear-armed Korean peninsula, and comes in the middle of another feud with the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee about the president’s temperament and stability, along with other pressing legislative matters requiring the votes of numerous other congressional Republicans the president has been feuding with, and even Trump’s most die-hard supporters are struggling to make it sound reassuringly smart.

— Bud Norman

Through Hell and High Water, “Russia” Persists

Throughout all the hurricanes and mass murders and threats of war, the “Russia” story persists. On Wednesday the Senate’s intelligence committee made clear that it’s not going away soon.
The eminently Republican chairman Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina told an unusual press conference that “There is consensus among members of staff that we trust the conclusions of the (intelligence community assessment),” which concluded that the Russian government attempted to affect the past presidential election by hacking information from the Democratic party, promulgating false propaganda through the internet, and an apparently unsuccessful effort to manipulate vote-counting in several states. He also admitted that “the issue of collusion is still open.”
President Donald Trump has expressed doubt that the Russians did anything untoward at all, argued that even if they did other countries probably did as well, and repeatedly sworn that in any case he and his campaign didn’t have anything to with any Russians. Almost all of which, alas, has lately been so thoroughly disproved that even the Republicans on the Senate intelligence agency vow to continue the investigation.
You still have to rely on those intelligence officials to believe that Russia that hacked the Democratic party’s computers and leaked all those e-mails, but Trump’s own Central Intelligence Agency director agrees and by now only Trump and his most die-hard supporters doubt it. Facebook and Twitter now acknowledge that their popular social media services were extensively used by Russian interests to spread false stories clearly intended to harm the Democratic campaign. Also, Trump’s own Homeland Security Secretary has recently and belatedly advised 21 states of Russian attempts to infiltrate their computer system, then clarified that in two of them Russians had attempted to scan other state networks. At this point the intelligence community is look pretty intelligent, and so far they aren’t mentioning any other countries that might have similarly meddled or acting as if it’s no big deal if they did.
Hurricane winds and sniper fire swept away many of the headlines, but the past weeks have also brought documented news that Trump was pursuing a business deal in Moscow during his campaign, his campaign manager was offering briefings to Kremlin-connected Russians, and Trump’s son and son-in-law and former national security advisor and various other administration officials have been updating their security clearance forms with numerous meetings with Russians that they had previously forgotten to mention. Throw in the Trump campaign’s conspicuously Russia-friendly rhetoric, the way those Russian propagandists seem to know exactly which counties and precincts to target in the states Trump narrowly won to give him an electoral majority, along with all the other news that has been piling up over the past months, and even such an eminently Republican sort of fellow as Sen. Burr has to concede that the question of collusion is still very much open.
The Senate’s investigation will continue, and there’s a special counsel on the job who has a reputation for doggedness and has already executed a no-knock warrant on that former campaign manager and seems to have some serious goods on that former national security advisor, so we’ll venture to guess that the “Russia” story will persists through the coming storms and crimes and the rest of the governmental fiascos.

— Bud Norman

Tortured Logic

Although we are squeamish about torture, to the point we can barely sit through a Quentin Tarantino movie without experiencing nausea, under certain specific circumstances we reluctantly countenance our government engaging in what is euphemistically called “enhanced interrogations.” Whenever American lives are imminently at risk, and there is a high degree of certainty that a captured unlawful enemy combatant has information that might help avert their deaths, we are inclined to allow the authorities wide latitude to interrogate away.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her fellow Democrats on the Senate’s intelligence committee take a harder line against torture, judging by the much ballyhooed report they issued about the matter. After six years and $40 million and no interviews of anybody they have accused, they have uncovered a few instances where agents of the United States government apparently interrogated suspects when there was no imminent risk and no certainty of useful information to be gained and the methods went even beyond the widest latitude we would allow, which is a service to the country, but we think they take an otherwise admirable aversion to torture too far. They are critical of techniques that have demonstrably proved helpful in the past, and are well within the bounds of the the public understands is going on, and would surely inhibit agents dealing with future imminent risks from subjecting potentially useful sources to anything harsher than a comfy chair and a cup of tea.
The report is clearly intended to remind America of the bad old days of George W. Bush, when Dick Cheney used to stick needles into the arms of innocent Afghan goat herders just for kicks, no matter how dissatisfied it might be with Obama and the out-going Democratic Senate majority. After so many years without a major terrorist act on American soil, unless you count the countless “lone wolf” attacks and plots that failed entirely to their own ineptitude or the sporadic incidents of “work place violence,” or the successful slaughter of Americans overseas, Feinstein and her fellow Democrats believe they can once again be indignant about the rough men who have been keeping them safe. The sense of moral superiority that comes with a willingness to sacrifice American lives rather than cause pain to an unlawful enemy combatant is irresistible to the likes of Feinstein and her fellow Democrats, especially when they sense a political advantage.
Recent polling suggests that much of the public shares the Republicans’ reluctant willingness to pay rough, though, and the argument quickly leads to the Obama administration’s alternative method of sending drones to vaporize the unlawful enemy combatants and whatever innocent Afghan goat herders happen to be standing nearby. This has the advantage of sparing the president the awkwardness of sending the unlawful enemy combatants to that nasty Guantanamo Bay detention camp that he’s been promising to close for the past seven years, and there won’t be any of that rough stuff that was done back in the bad old days, but it doesn’t provide any useful information from the sort of suspects that used to be nabbed by the special forces, and it tends to lose the hearts and minds of the relatives of those innocent Afghan goat herders who happened to be standing nearby, and we doubt that the unlawful enemy combatants find it preferable to a few rounds of water-boarding.
Current policies should offend the more refined sensibilities of the left, and alarm the more pragmatically ruthless right, so let that debate begin.

— Bud Norman

A Not-Yet Final Report on Benghazi

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s final report on the Benghazi tragedy comes far too late to change the results of the last the presidential election, and perhaps too early to affect the next one, but it is welcome nonetheless.
Although history’s final report on the matter will surely be even harsher, the report provides a damning indictment of the administration’s competency and honesty as well as a definitive rebuttal to its apologists. The report concludes that an American ambassador and four other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack in the consulate at Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, because the State Department ignored numerous credible warnings to deny them adequate security, and that contrary to the repeated claims of the president and various subordinates during his re-election campaign the deaths were not the result of a spontaneous reaction to an obscure anti-Islamic video but rather a carefully planned military assault by an al-Qaeda-affiliated terror group. Both of these points have long been made in the conservative press, but after the desperate attempts of the administration and its allies in the mainstream media to deny them as right-wing conspiracy-mongering it is nice to have confirmation from a congressional committee dominated by partisan Democrats.
The report further acknowledges that none of the terrorists responsible have suffered any consequences, despite the promises of the administration, and quotes witnesses who frankly admit the political nature of the State Department’s actions before and after the attacks. It doesn’t call into question the disastrous Libyan policy that preceded the attacks, or note the outrageous damage done to the First Amendment when the filmmaker falsely of that anti-Islamic video blamed for the attacks was imprisoned on the pretext of a parole violation, but it’s still strong stuff coming from a committee headed by California’s reliably left-wing Sen. Dianne Feinstein. While some conservative critics have complained that the report does not explicitly blame President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, neither does it attempt to exonerate the two people ultimately responsible for the conduct of the State Department.
Obama’s brazen lies about Benghazi were sufficient to win him re-election, with considerable help from his adoring allies in the media, and he will therefore be able to maintain his incompetent and dishonest control of the State Department for the next three years. By the time Hillary Clinton begins her widely-presumed campaign for the presidency many Americans will likely agree with her famously callous opinion that “What difference, at this point, does it make,” but one can hope that at least one person responsible for the Benghazi tragedy will at least be held responsible.

— Bud Norman