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The Second Hundred Days Begin

President Donald Trump’s most ardent admirers admire his blunt talk, so we’ll just go right ahead and say that his second hundred days are off a to a rocky start. He gave a couple of interviews that invited ridicule by his liberal critics, signed a spending bill that offered nothing his conservative supporters were hoping for, and had a “very friendly” phone call with the Philippines’ crazy-pants president that alarmed pretty much everybody but Trump’s most ardent admirers.
One of the interviews was aired Monday morning on CBS’ “This Morning” program, and featured host John Dickerson asking Trump about his relationship with preceding President Barack Obama. Trump said “He was very nice to me, but after that we’ve had our difficulties.” Pressed further, Trump said “You saw what happened with surveillance, and everybody saw what happened with surveillance.” Unsure what happened and everybody saw with surveillance, Dickerson asked for clarification. “You can figure that out yourself,” Trump replied. A seemingly befuddled Dickerson stammered about question about Trump “tweeting” that Obama was “sick and bad,” and Trump again replied that “Look, you can figure it out for yourself.”
At that point the interview was already going badly, except for those viewers who always revel in watching Trump be brusque with an interviewer, and then Dickerson had the impudence to ask “But you do stand by that claim about him?” Trump replied that “I don’t stand by anything,” and by then it was destined to go down in history as one of the most disastrous interviews ever. Even Trump’s most ardent admirers will have to admit that “I don’t stand by anything” isn’t something you can post on YouTube with the title “Trump absolutely destroys CBS reporter.”
Trump added that “I just — you can take it the way you want,” and something about how it’s all been proved and everybody’s talking about it and how it should be discussed, and “we should find out what the hell’s going on,” and some more short snippy answers to tuhalf-asked questions before terminating the interview with a polite “OK, it’s enough. Thank you. Thank you very much.” We doubt it did much good, though, and expect that only the line about “I don’t stand by anything” will wind up in future editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.
Trump also sat down in the Oval Office for an interview with the far friendlier Salena Zito of the far friendlier Washington Examiner, but even that friendly conservation went badly awry. As Zito was reading off a carefully chosen list of questions about current issues, all of which provided the president an opportunity to make the case for his policies, Trump suddenly interjected — “apropos of nothing,” as Zito would explain to one of her subsequent interviewers — a rambling soliloquy about his high regard for President Andrew Jackson, whose portrait was hanging nearby.
“They said my campaign and is most like, my campaign and win, was most like Andrew Jackson with his campaign. And I said, ‘When was Andrew Jackson?’ It was 1828. That’s a long time ago. That’s Andrew Jackson, and he had a very, very mean and nasty campaign, because they said this was the meanest and nastiest campaign yet.” Not content to confess his previous ignorance of 19th Century American history, Trump further speculated that “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the the Civil War. He said ‘There’s no reason for this.’ People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that not have been worked out?”
All of which, alas, was irresistible fodder for all the left-wing critics and late-night comics and more respectably leftist press pundits. They had Trump on tape once again veering off topic into some self-aggrandizing non sequitur, and once again into territory he didn’t know much about. Jackson did indeed run an historically nasty campaign against John Quincy Adams, but emulating that it not something that politicians should brag about. Adams did run an historically nasty campaign against Jackson, who plausibly blamed his scandalized wife’s death on the bad press, but Trump getting sentimental about how Jackson visited her grave every day almost writes its own own punch lines.
Jackson sure enough was a tough guy, with the evidence of a lifelong facial scar from the saber of a British officer inflicted on the sassy 13-year-old prisoner of the Revolutionary War — or one of those guys “who got caught,” as Trump put it in another disastrous interview — and a distinguished record in several conflicts with Indians and historic and folk-song worthy victory in the Battle of New Orleans. But given Trump’s military and tough guy record, which involved bone spurs and a “personal Vietnam” of dodging venereal disease on the New York City dating scene, he really shouldn’t be inviting any comparisons. As for Jackson’s “big heart,” Jackson was the guy ordered that the peaceable and productive Cherokee people be forced from their Carolina’s on a death march along the Trail of Tears, and even in his final, frail years he was using his cane against any impudent pressmen. All of that might play well with Trump and his most ardent admirers, but for everybody else it’s a disastrous interview.
Jackson was also an ardent defender of the peculiar institution of slavery, so a less friendlier interview might well have asked Trump how he thought Jackson might have averted a Civil War in a way that Americans of that time or this time would have found acceptable. Although Trump seems not have given it much thought until recently, the question of why the Civil War happened as been a matter of ongoing debate ever since, and most Americans who have passed a sixth grade history test or earned a doctorate in the field have reached the same conclusion President Abraham Lincoln did in his second inaugural address: “One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.”
There were also arguments between North and South over tariffs and taxes and all the immigrants pouring into the north, to be sure, but so far that’s not the sort of thing Americans have civil wars over. Trump is clearly speculating, apropos of nothing, that the pro-slavery guy would have settled the far more pressing, far more irresolvable question of slavery, and that such a savvy deal-maker and tough guy with a big heart would have done the same, and unless you’re an ardent admirer that’s a hard interview to defend.
Several of Trump’s usual defenders were too busy, though, grousing about that spending bill that got passed and signed and was hopefully overlooked in all the rest of the chatter.
We won’t recount all the gripes that the talk radio hosts had, but we’ll link you to the gloating of The Washington Post that headlined it “Eight ways Trump got rolled in his first budget negotiation.” They note that Trump not only didn’t get his one billion dollar request for a border wall, which sometime supporter called a “measly one billion,” but the bill includes explicit language against any spending on a border wall. Trump had vowed no increase in spending, but the bill includes no cuts and $4.6 billion for Trump’s Appalachian coal miners and $295 million for the Puerto Rican Medicaid recipients that Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi insisted on, and the $61 million that Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer got for the New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, law enforcements that are paying for Trump’s frequent visits, which even the right wing talk radio hosts are starting to sour on.
Obama’s $1.2 billion funding for a “moonshot” cancer program was renewed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget was cut by 1 percent rather than the requested one-third, and Planned Parenthood was defunded at all. The defense budget was raised by less than half of what Trump insisted on, 160 Republican riders were dropped, and as early as last week the White House was agreeing to keep stringing along the Obamacare subsidies. There’s more, but The Washington Post ran out of column inches for its gloating. Lest you think it’s all “fake news” from “The Washington Compost,” all the talk radio hosts seemed to be grousing about the very same things.
It’s all temporary, with more battles vowed to be more vigorously fought, and there’s plenty of blame to go around to those establishment Republicans that Trump vowed to bring to heel, and as always the Democrats are nothing to brag about, but for now there’s no denying it makes for a bad news cycle. The headlines and the poll results would been even worse if a Republican president and Republican congress hadn’t come up with something to avert a government shutdown, but we doubt even Trump will tout that victory.
That’s enough to keep even such political junkies distracted, but we couldn’t help noticing that phone call between Trump and the Philippines’ Duterte. It’s a long story but we were born in the Philippines and have tried to keep abreast of the news there ever since, and we’re aware that the current leader is a foul-mouthed and boastfully murderous fellow who has lately been waging a “war on drugs” that has gunned thousands of people who might or might not have been involved in drugs, as no courts or evidence were involved, and has had the most profane words for American ambassadors and Roman Catholic Popes but a friendly relationship with the dictatorship in China. Trump has had only kind words for the man, though, and his own State Department’s synopsis of their most recent phone call described it as “friendly” and including an invitation to the White House, which Duterte has yet to accept.
That’s more fodder for the left, especially after his recent congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Raccip Erdogan after winning a clearly rigged election to give his Islamist government dictatorial powers, and anther move that the right is struggling to defend. There might well be some brilliant strategy at play here, and we surely hope so, but if Trump is just trying to drive a plot line he’s going to need some new writers.

— Bud Norman

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Showdown at High Nunes

By now there’s no avoiding the necessity of all sorts of official investigations into the widespread suspicions that the campaign of now-President Donald Trump colluded with Russian efforts to affect the past election, as well as the Trump administration’s various and variously credible counter-claims of all sorts of still-ongoing Democratic skullduggery, but at this point we think its best for everyone if they don’t involve California’s Republican Rep. Devin Nunes.
Nunes is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which puts him squarely in the middle of this very muddy mess, but thus far he’s only the muddied the situation even further. He was an advisor to the Trump transition team, then issued a joint statement with the top Democratic committee member that they were looking for “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.” After President Trump issued a series of early-morning “tweets” alleging that President Barack Obama had ordered “wiretapping” of his home in Trump Tower Nunes told the press “I don’t think we should attack the president for ‘tweeting,'” but when the White House press secretary took care to note that “wiretapping” was said in quotes and could therefore mean just about anything from improper leaks about campaign officials’ calls to people who were being wiretapped and another White House spokeswoman suggested it might have been a spying on Trump through a microwave oven Nunes told the press that “I don’t think there was an actual tap of Trump Tower. Clearly the president was wrong,” but insisted that some of Trump’s associated might have been caught up in wiretaps of other individuals, which Trump cited as vindication of “tweets,” and Nunes was compelled to say still didn’t prove the “tweeted” allegations.
Meanwhile, it was all growing muddier even without Nunes’ involvement. The White House press secretary charged that Obama had used a British intelligence agency to do the very much in quotation marks “wire tapping,” which the British government quite indignantly denied, and Trump himself explained during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he was relying on the word of a Fox News commentator, so you’d have to talk to Fox about it, and when the rest of the media went to Fox to talk about it they said they couldn’t confirm its commentator’s assertion. Trump’s National Security Advisor resigned after 24 days on the job following revelations about previously-undisclosed contacts but eventually leaked contacts with Russia, Trump’s Attorney General recused himself from the Justice Department’s official investigation after his own previously denied contacts with Russian officials were leaked, and it was also leaked that there was an ongoing investigation into former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s business dealings with Ukrainian politicians linked the to Russian government, as well as a meeting between Trump’s son-in-law and top-advisor with the Russkies that might or might not have had something to do with the son-in-law’s own family real estate business, all of which gave some credibility to Trump’s thus-far-unsubstantied conspiracy theories about a coordinated leaking campaign against his administration.
Although assigned to the unenviable task of making sense of all of this, Nunes proceeded to make it all the more nonsensical. After inviting the FBI to testify that it had no evidence of Obama wire-tapping or otherwise surveilling Trump but was conducting an ongoing investigation about the Trump campaign and administration’s ties to Russia, Nunes told the press that “We know there was no physical wiretap of Trump Tower” but that “it’s still possible that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates.” Shortly after that he made secret visit to White House grounds to conduct what he later explained when it was inevitably found out was an effort to “confirm what I already new” about wiretapping. The next day he held a press conference where he refused to cite any sources or provide any documentation, but boldly asserted that “What I’ve read seems to be some level of surveillance activity — perhaps legal, but I don’t think that it’s right. I don’t know that the American people would be comfortable with what I’ve read,” then repeated that no, Obama didn’t literally tap Trump’s phones. He admitted that he’d brief Trump on this bombshell information he’d learned from the White before he passed it along to his House Intelligence Committee colleagues, Trump told Time Magazine in a bizzar-throughout that he felt “somewhat vindicated” by Nunes’ press conference, which he worried wasn’t getting enough attention, and by that point all the Democrats were calling on Nunes to recuse himself of the rest of this mess and so were some prominent Republicans.
For now Nunes is defying those calls, claiming his critics want him out “Because they know I am effective at getting to the bottom of things,” but for now we’ll have to join in with those prominent Republicans who are calling for his recusal from this whole mess. Even if he were to somehow stumble into the bottom of things, as Inspector Clouseau did in all those “Pink Panther” movies, we can’t imagine anyone believing the ending. Which is too bad for everyone, no matter how this convoluted plot turns out.
By now there’s no avoiding official inquiries widespread suspicions about possible collusion between the Trump campaign with Russian efforts to affect the past election, and if it’s true no true Republican should impede that conclusion, and if it’s not true that conclusively true conclusion should be untainted by any suspicion it was reached by partisan motivations. At this point pretty much everyone including Trump admits that all talk about Obama wire-tapping Trump was quotation-marked and not at all meant literally, and that all that stuff about snoopy microwave ovens was pretty much crazy-talk, but even if you’re paranoid that doesn’t mean that all those leaks haven’t been against you, and even if they were from calls monitored on some Russkie’s lines that happened to pick up some Trump associates that doesn’t necessarily prove anything worth fretting about, and if it doesn’t it would do Trump well to have someone more convincing than Nunes make that case.
Trump was reportedly infuriated after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the ongoing Justice Department investigation into all this mess, as it violated his principle of never of apologizing, but we respect Sessions’ principled and apologetic reasons for doing so and it makes us feel somewhat vindicated for the respect we’d long had for his character. Until recently we’d never heard of Nunes, but if he were to recuse himself of any role in the congressional investigation and similarly bow out of this whole mess he might earn a similar measure of respect. By the end of it we expect that as always the truth will come out and pretty much everyone involved will be implicated, so we intend to stand far enough way enough away from it all to be unsullied by any of the inevitable mud, and at this point we advise whatever’s left of both the Republican and Democratic parties to do the same.

— Bud Norman

Who’s Bugging Who?

There’s all sorts of consequential politics going on these days to keep a president busy, what with repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Trumpcare and passing a thus-far unpopular budget and whatnot, but that’s all pretty dry stuff and involves a lot of math. Which makes it all the harder to turn one’s gaze away from the far juicier ongoing allegations coming from all directions about all sorts of international espionage and high-tech skullduggery and assorted movie-worthy twists. Monday alone provided enough plot twists to fill up several sequels.
The already convoluted plot plot started way back during the past presidential election, when Republican nominee Donald Trump was praising the strength of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s leadership and shrugging off the occasional extra-judicial killing and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was taking a hit from some embarrassing e-mails that had been suspiciously hacked, and suspicious sorts started wondering if that was entirely coincidental. The resignation of Trump’s campaign manager after business ties to a Russia-friendly Ukrainian were revealed and the resignation of a foreign policy advisor for similar reasons did nothing to quell the suspicions, and neither did Trump’s still-unreleased tax returns, and although he nonetheless became President Donald Trump the news hasn’t helped much. His already-controversial National Security Advisor had to resign after a few days on the job because he’d lied to the Vice President about having been in contact with Russian officials, his already-controversial Attorney General recused himself from any role of a potential investigation into the matter of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials after similar revelations, and the late night comics and other conspiracy theorists have been having a ball with it.
Trump, of course, has been doing the counter-punching he so boastfully prides himself on. On an early morning a couple of weeks ago he “tweeted” a series allegations that past President Barack Obama had tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower, which, if true, would truly be worse than the Watergate scandal that Trump mentioned. That was immediately followed by a “tweet” ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s paltry ratings on “The Apprentice,” the reality show Trump starred in prior to his presidency, but the president still stands by his allegations. His press secretary has since explained that Trump had taken care to put quotation remarks around “wire tapped” to emphasize that he didn’t literally mean that Obama had tapped his wires, and occasional spokeswoman and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway further explained that he could have meant that Obama was spying on Trump through the Trump Tower microwave oven, and of course the late night comics have been having even more of a ball with it. Subsequent “tweets” and presidential interviews have promised that would proof would be forthcoming, and that his Republican allies in Congress would provide it through hearings, but so far that has not happened.
Trump still has plenty of supporters in the comments sections of all the internet stories about all of this, and is still cheered on by some old-time Republicans who should know enough to at least hedge their bets with some skepticism, but Monday provided another public relations beating. Those Republican allies in Congress have thus far admitted they don’t have any proof to back up Trump’s allegations, and on Monday they invited Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey to testify that the allegations are untrue and that the Department of Justice has authorized him to say so, and that he was also authorized to says investigations of Russia’s meddling in the past election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was ongoing, and in the absence of any classified documents that a president could unilaterally un-classify that was bound to be Tuesday’s big headline and the punchline of all the late night jokes.
The more determined Trump apologists will continue to explain how a “deep state” shadow government is still doing the bidding of Obama, and they’ll be quite right that Obama’s administration tapped so many phones and did so many shadowy things over eight years that you can’t put anything past them, and we’ve seen enough Hollywood movies to always be suspicious about those intelligence agencies, but such old-school Republicans are ourselves still expect some proof. All those intelligence agencies and their more boring bureaucratic colleagues are clearly opposed to Trump for reasons different than our own, all the leaks lately have clearly served their agenda, and there’s still some reason to keep most classified information classified, but for now we’re still waiting for proof of Obama’s worse-than-Watergate behavior and something in the way of usual financial disclosure to assure us that Trump’s seeming Russophilia is just bad ideology and not something to do with the global business empire that Trump still owns.
Which is a shame, as far as old-fashioned Republicans such as ourselves are concerned, because Obamacare really does need to be repealed and there’s still some hope that the old-fashioned Republicans left in office will be able to come up with something too imperfect for any hyperbole but at least better than what we’ve got. We find a lot to like in that unpopular budget proposal, too, and would even be cheering if a Republican president had the extra amount of guts to take aim at the popular entitlement programs that are driving the national debt to eventual bankruptcy. Fiscal solvency and other matters requiring hard choices and hard math are always a hard sell, and all the harder when you squander your credibility with claims that are never proved and only cast further lingering suspicion on yourself.
Trump’s supporters can also rightly note that none of his critics’ have yet proved their most damning allegations, but at this moment in the news cycle the claims are at least as plausible as that story about Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad being in on the Kennedy hit and President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War that Trump was never for, or that one about Obama being born in Kenya that Trump took credit for putting to rest, and these days it all a needless distraction. At this point we want Trump to put up or shut up, disprove his conspiracy-minded critics with full financial disclosure and an independent investigation, then lay off the “tweets” and get on with all the boring but consequential stuff.

— Bud Norman