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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

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In Defense of Human Scum

President Donald Trump thinks we’re “human scum” for making our principled Republican arguments against some of his policies and pronouncements, which hurts our feelings something awful, but on the other hand he also thinks he’s building a border wall in Colorado, which makes us feel slightly better about not having to defend everything the man does and says.
There’s a lot to defend these days, and a lot of it requires a strenuous effort. Few Republican politicians dare to criticize the president, except on his most obviously egregious foreign policy mistakes, but fewer and fewer of them seem willing to defend him against the charges that seem hurling at an increasingly rapid rate toward his impeachment. The allegation that Trump withheld congressionally appropriated aid from Ukraine until he won help in his election campaign has been corroborated by the White House’s own rough transcript of a telephone call, the chief of staff’s bold assertion that “we do it all the time” and anyone bothered by it should just “get over it,” and testimony by the ambassador to the Ukraine appointed by the guy Trump appointed as Secretary of State, and so far “get over it” seems the president’s best defense.
Two dozen of Trump’s most loyal followers in the House of Representatives are arguing “shut up,” and attempted to force the Democrats to do just that when they walked uninvited to a House oversight committee’s questioning of another civil servant with first-hand knowledge of America’s dealings with Ukraine. They held up the proceedings for about five hours, during which they had a pizza party and a grand old time, but eventually the impeachment inquiry continued toward its inevitable conclusion. The Republicans were insisting that their party’s members be allowed to question witnesses, which they already were, and that all the testimony be made public, which it eventually will be to the Republicans’ ultimate chagrin.
Trump has famously boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters, and his lawyer was arguing with a lawyerly straight face in federal  court on Wednesday that even if he did he couldn’t even be investigated by any authorities, and we’re eager to hear what the loyalists say when Trump eventually gets around to doing that. Probably something along the lines of “get over it,” “shut up,” and “what about Hillary’s e-mails?”
This will give the talk radio talkers something to work with and suffice to rally much of the faithful, but all the polls indicate that it’s not winning any new converts to the faith, and each day slightly fewer Republican politicians and pundits are rushing to the president’s defense on each and every policy and pronouncement. Each day slightly more Republicans even sign up with we “human scum” who dare to voice any disagreement, and are less intimidated by Trump’s “tweets” and presidential rhetoric.
Two-thirds of the House Republicans voted to rebuke Trump’s retreat from Syria and abandonment of our Kurdish allies, and the usually loyal Senate Majority leader wrote a critical op-ed in the hated Washington Post, and even such an obsequious Republican as South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham has said he might support Trump’s impeachment and removal if confronted with indisputable proof of a quid pro quo with Ukraine, which is a perfectly reasonable position we expect he will have trouble wriggling his way out of when it comes to down to his impeachment trail vote.
When Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called Trump’s supporters “deplorables” they gladly embraced the slur and started wearing it on their t-shirts, and lately they’ve been buying t-shirts emblazoned with “Get over it.” So far we haven’t seen any “human scum” t-shirts, but if we could only play three chords on an electric guitar we’d start up a punk rock band by that name and screech NeverTrump Republican protest songs all night at Kirby’s Beer Store.
This all comes at a time when polling by Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service shows that 67 percent of Americans fear the nation is heading to another civil war, which does not surprise us. Trump and his followers are clearly ready to rumble, and so are a lot of those damned Democrats. We’d like to think there are still enough of us “human scum” Republicans and those corporate sell-out centrist sorts Democrats to work things out according to facts of the matter of the Constitution and its divisive impeachment clauses, but if it comes to worst we’ll try to stay out of it and help rebuild in the aftermath.

— Bud Norman

Trump and his Cynical Critics

How remarkable it is that what’s best for America so often coincides with what’s best for President Donald Trump’s businesses. To cite just the latest example, by sheer coincidence an exhaustive search for the perfect place to host the upcoming G-7 summit wound up at a Florida golf course that just happens to be owned by Trump.
By all accounts the Trump National Doral outside of Miami is a ritzy joint with plenty of room for a large gathering of foreign officials, even if business have been down precipitously over the last couple of years, but in this cynical age some will inevitably suspect that the golf resort was chosen to enrich Trump. Perish the thought, according to White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who assured reporters on Thursday that “We used a lot of the same criteria used by past administrations,” even if no previous administration ever chose a Trump property for a summit. Mulvaney also assured the reporters that Trump won’t make any money from the arrangement, and although he didn’t explain why not only a partisan hater would doubt his word.
Trump has received bipartisan criticism for withdrawing American troops from Syria, which has allowed Turkey to seize large swaths of land from our erstwhile Kurdish allies, but only the presidents most mean spirited opponents would think the decision was at all affected by Trump’s personal bottom line. Back in the ’16 presidential campaign Trump admitted to a friendly talk radio show that “I guess I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers — two towers instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two,” but surely that never entered Trump’s mind.
All that fuss about Trump withholding military aid from our Ukrainian allies unless they launched some investigations into corruption was entirely in the best interest of American national security, we’re sure, even if the investigations Trump requested happen to target a potential election opponent and could possibly confirm some fanciful conspiracy theories about why he lost the popular vote last time around.
The trade war Trump has also brought bipartisan criticism, with farmers and manufacturers and consumers taking a big hit for what looks to turn out to be a pretty much status quo trade deal, but it would be downright mean to think that the sweetheart deals First Daughter and senior White House advisor Ivanka Trump got from the Chinese at the outset of negotiations had anything to do with it. Surely it’s sheer coincidence, too,  that Air Force cargo planes were diverted to a civilian airport which happens to be located next to a Trump-owned golf resort where business has also been down lately.
Past presidents have divested themselves of their business holdings and placed their fortunes in a blind trust to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and released tax returns and other financial documents to reassure the public, but Trump figures he doesn’t need such old-fashioned formalities. He’s led such a selfless and blameless life according to the strictest ethical standards, after all, and when he tells you he always puts America first he can look you right in the eye and say “that I can tell you, believe me, OK?”
The die-hard fans trust him, and surely only the most cynical and suspicious  sorts would dare to doubt him.

— Bud Norman

An Angry Day

President Donald Trump is an ill-tempered fellow even on a good day, and Wednesday was not at all a good day.
The House of Representatives passed a resolution rebuking Trump’s widely criticized decision to with American forces from by a vote of 354-60-4, with a majority of the chamber’s Republican members piling on. Yet another administration official was testifying to the House impeachment inquiry despite presidential orders not to, and yet another poll showed that Trump’s impeachment and removal from office already has the support of a majority of the country. A visiting British couple seeking justice for a son who was killed by an the wife of American government employee who was driving on the wrong side of the road refused Trump’s offer of a surprise meeting with the driver, saying they felt “ambushed,” and depriving Trump of what a staffer said he hoped would be a telegenic “hug and make up moment”for an otherwise dreary news cycle.
All of which made Trump even surlier than usual, which is saying something. In a White House meeting with the Democratic congressional leadership he called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “third-rate politician,” said that former Defense Secretary James Mattis was “the world’s most overrated general” and not “tough enough,” with Pelosi calling a “meltdown” and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer describing the conversation as  “not a dialogue but a diatribe, a very nasty diatribe.”
At a later joint news conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella Trump chided his guest for failing to spend 2 percent of his country’s gross domestic product on defense spending, comparing Italy unfavorably to the Turkish government that is currently using its military might to wipe out America’s erstwhile Kurdish allies in Syria. Trump added that the Kurds are “no angels,” and suggested they’re all aligned with a Kurdish terror group active in Turkey, which came after Trump told the Democratic leaders that the Kurds are also communists and that “you’re probably fine with that.” The president even had some insults for Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is usually a reliable sycophant but has lately dare to disagree with Trump’s Syrian policy. For good measure,  he claimed that the conspiracy that’s out to get him goes up to President Barack Obama.
Trump’s die-hard fans love the tough talk, but it doesn’t win any new voters, and it’s hard to see what good it does. The Democratic congressional leaders and the Italian president and the growing chorus of Republican critics clearly aren’t cowed by it, and to most of the country Trump comes off as angry and unhinged. If there were some reasonable explanation for Trump’s seemingly transactional dealings with Ukraine and other foreign governments that could be expressed in a calm and presidential voice the president would be well advised to go with that, but for now he doesn’t have that at his disposal, and is instead going with the raw anger that somehow got him elected.

— Bud Norman

The Penalty for Early Withdrawal

President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of American forces in Syria in advance of an invasion of the country Turkey being widely criticized, even by such reliably sycophantic supporters as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and televangelist Pat Robertson. The move is seen as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies that will make future alliances harder to forge, an appeasement of Turkey’s authoritarian government that will eventually redound to the benefit of Russia and Iran, and an opportunity for the brutal Islamic State to regroup.
Scarier yet, as far as we’re concerned, is Trump’s “tweeted” attempt to reassure the public that he knows what he’s doing.
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” Trump wrote. “They must, with Europe and others, watch over the capture ISIS fights and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!”
The die-hard Trump defenders will once again insist that he was being jocular with that line about his “great and unmatched wisdom,” and it did get a lot of laughs on the late night comedy shows, but a “tweet” about national security seems an odd place for a joke. Trump told the Republican party’s convention that “Only I can fix” the nation’s problems, has boasted of his “very big brain” and repeatedly described himself as a “very stable genius,” and he’s never given a wink or any other indication that he was joking rather than bragging. His confidence in his instincts are such that he reportedly didn’t bother to consult anyone at the Pentagon or State Department about his Syrian withdrawal, which does not inspire our confidence.
One also wonders what Trump’s great and unmatched wisdom might consider “off limits” for Turkey, which is poised to invade Syria with the obvious intention of fighting the Kurds rather than the remnants of the Islamic State, and when Trump ever destroyed the Turkish economy.
The betrayal of the Kurds, along with Trump’s withdrawal from several treaties and constant badgering of longtime military and trade partners, will make it harder for self-proclaimed greatest negotiator ever will make it harder for America to enlist international support when it is inevitably needed. Giving free rein to the Turks will delight the Russian and Iranian governments, who don’t have America’s best interests at heart. The Islamic State won’t soon regain its caliphate, but without America helping the Kurds keep a foot on its throat the terror gang will be better able to launch attacks against America and whatever allies it has left.
It’s hard for us and even the likes of Graham and McConnell and Robertson to see how this is making America great again, but we don’t have Trump’s great and unmatched wisdom.

— Bud Norman

Trump Jumps the Shark

The folks who provide entertainment programming for television often use the expression “jump the shark,” which derives from the episode late in the last season of “Happy Days” when Fonzie ski-jumped over a tank of sharks, and it’s meant to convey when a show has run out of ideas and become completely ridiculous. On Thursday President Donald Trump’s long-running yet low-rated reality show arrived at its “jump the shark” moment.
On Tuesday Trump’s own heads of his own administration’s intelligence agencies testified under oath and camera before Congress about various national security issues, and differed with the president on matters ranging from Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs to China’s and Russia’s cyber-terrorism intentions to the remaining strength of the Islamic State to the need for a big beautiful wall along the entirety of the southern border. On Wednesday Trump “tweeted” that the men and women he had appointed to assure America’s safety were “passive and naive” and “wrong” and “should go back to school,” which was embarrassing enough. By Thursday Trump was telling an impromptu news conference that it was all “fake news,” as his chiefs had all assured him they were merely misquoted and were in fact entirely in agreement with him, and at that point President Fonzie looked likely to crash into the sharks.
Go right ahead and believe that the undeniably hostile-to-Trump news media overemphasized the intelligence agencies’ many disagreements with Trump, but if you think the Trump appointees were misquoted or taken out of context you can easily watch their full testimony from Congress’ own C-Span or any of the networks that covered it live, including Fox News. You can also read the intelligence agencies’ 42-page “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report at their own official “.gov” website, or request a copy from the Government Printing Office. It might all be a “deep state” conspiracy that created all the networks’ video footage with computer generated imagery, and then hacked into the government’s web domain and printing warehouses to plant that phony document, and is now coercing Trump’s appointees not to confirm his latest claims that their testimony was “fake news,” but if so the conspirators are so damned good that resistance is certainly futile.
Trump also told the “fake news” cameras that his border wall is currently being built, claimed credit for the portion build years before his administration near San Diego, and predicted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would soon be humbly begging him to build a wall, and boasted of such successes that no one will care if he doesn’t get a wall built. The die-hard fans will buy all of it, but most of the rest of the country seems to be growing weary of the storyline.
For now all the hostile-to-Trump news media and all the late night comedy shows are having great fun with it, and we’re eager to hear what all the right-wing talk radio talkers and the rest of the obsequious-to-Trump news media have to say. On several occasions over the past many years Trump has asked his die-hard supporters to believe him rather than their lying eyes, and they’ve always been willing to do so, but this time the more reluctant supporters aren’t playing along.
Not only are Trump’s own appointees to head the national intelligence agencies stubbornly insisting on their clear-eyed assessments of the actual facts rather than Trump’s “alternative facts,” but so are several other members of his foreign policy-making team, as well as a decisive number of congressional Republicans. Trump boasted that he had wiped out the Islamic State when he announced a controversial decision to withdraw all American forces from Syria, but his Secretary of State and national security advisor seem to have talked him into to only a partial withdrawal, his intelligence agencies continue to warn that the Islamic State still poses a threat to America and its allies, and on Thursday Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and a majority of his Republican caucus joined in a 68-to-23 vote for a resolution rebuking Trump’s claims and announced policy on Syria.
A similar number of Senate Republicans have voted to protect a special counsel investigation into Russia’s cyber-meddling in America’s elections, which the intelligence agencies all agree is ongoing, despite Trump’s assurances that he’s been assured by the Russian dictator that it’s all a “witch hunt.” There seems a be a similar skepticism in the Senate about Trump’s boasts that he’s eliminated the nuclear threat from North Korea, or soon will, which the intelligence agencies also dispute. Based on the latest reports about the congressional negotiations underway to pass some sort of funding agreement to keep the government open for a while longer, the Republicans seem to agree with the intelligence agencies that big beautiful border wall isn’t such an urgent need as Trump insists.
The president probably has a more loyal following among the Republicans in the House of Representatives, but they’re a minority in that chamber, and Trump’s version of the truth is currently running into a great deal of resistance from his own party and own administration and the rest of the government. Worse yet, his reality show is jumping into the shark tank of actual reality.

— Bud Norman

Welcome to the Actual New Year

Today is the actual first day of the new year, no matter what the calendar says. Anyone who can takes the official if fake first of day January off from the time and space continuum, for darned good reason, and procrastinates at least until today what sooner or later needs to be done. Everyone’s back on the job of getting through another year starting today, unless you’re one of those federal employees temporarily furloughed by the latest partial government shutdown.
That’s just one of the dreary stories that civic-minded citizens will be obliged to read about in the coming days and weeks and months, although it will probably at least the next several 24-hour news cycles. President Donald Trump has vowed he won’t sign anything keeping the government fully funded that doesn’t pay billions for the big and beautiful wall running across the Mexican-American border that he promised his voters, the Democratic majority that’s to be installed in the House of Representatives tomorrow morning won’t be inclined to pass anything that includes any funding for even a small and ugly border barrier, and we expect a bad start to the new year for all those federal employees.
The stock markets reopen today, too, and we’ll not venture any guess about that how turns out. There are stock markets all over the crazy planet, each reacting to their own internal craziness as well as the craziness elsewhere, but on the other hand the American economy is still on a sluggish but upward trajectory and the unemployment rate is still low and the resulting interest rate increases are well within historic norms, but on yet another hand there are trade wars and all sorts of other populist uncertainties afoot. In any case, we’ll hope for the best and expect the worst.
Meanwhile, on the domestic political news front we civic-minded citizens are obliged to follow, there’s already enough pent-up news to fill a year. The special counsel’s investigation into the “Russia thing” surely will shortly start announcing more subpoenas and indictments and guilty pleas, the newly-installed Democratic majorities on all those House investigative committees will no doubt begin making their own trouble, and all the “fake news” will make hay of it. Along with the ongoing scandals about alleged trysts porn stars and Playboy playmates and all the resulting alleged campaign law violations, as well as the other scandals and hubbub-causing “tweets” that can be counted on, we expect this to be a busy year for for Trump’s apologists.
The rest of the world doesn’t offer much hope, either, with the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis poised to take control of a big chunk of the Middle East, Trump-ian populist and protectionist and unabashedly nationalist movements gaining power around the globe, and the weenie sort of semi-socialistic parties resembling America’s current Democratic are faltering elsewhere. For now Trump is relying on an acting Secretary of Defense with no military experience, following the resignation of the four-star general who told the public that his four decades of immersion in foreign policy led him disagree with Trump’s gut instincts about America’s international alliances, and for now we’re inclined to worry that the four-general is right.
Even so, we’ll hope for the best and know for sure that things could be worse.
The temperatures didn’t top the low-30s today here in Kansas, by the time we dropped by Kirby’s Beer Store after sunset for a procrastinating swig before another damned year the wind chill was down in the teens, and oh how we hate this time of year. Except for a bearded and burly and very friendly bartender and a charmingly crabby old homosexual there was no one else to enjoy the cranked-up if ratchety old furnace, but we were soon joined by three rather short and squat and heavily-adorned but somehow attractive in a young hipster sort of way women and a young hipster man, who introduced themselves as the evening’s band, whose name we already forget. Hoping to show them the gracious hospitality one can expect at Kirby’s Beer Store and Wichita and Kanas in general, we asked where they were from, and they replied that they lived in North Dakota. In that case we didn’t feel obliged to apologize for the bad weather, as the wind chills are  in the minus-20s up there, and they all remarked about how balmy they found it down here.
Better to begin our new year here rather than in North Dakota, we suppose, and we certainly wouldn’t trade places with Trump.

— Bud Norman

A Good Day For Trump, For Now

A steady rain was falling on the just and unjust alike all across the prairie states throughout Wednesday, and it was a cold rain from a gloomy dark gray sky that to seemed to emphasize how all the Christmas cheer was over for another long year, but elsewhere President Donald Trump wound up having one of his better days.
The recently swooning stock markets had an unprecedented rally, and all the cable news networks were obliged to air some flattering footage of Trump being welcomed by the troops at an air base in Iraq, and pretty much everyone in Congress was back home with family and constituent and not making any news trouble for him. Although Trump might have preferred to be golfing at his ritzy Mar-a-Lago resort in sunny south Florida, as previously planned, he surely enjoyed a 24-hour news cycle for the first time in quite a while.
Today brings yet another 24-hour news cycle, however, so we’d advise Trump not to get too cocky.
Our best explanation for that inexplicable surge in the stock markets is that after the past few months of steep declines the investors woke up on the day after Christmas went bargain hunting and wound up in a bidding war, so there’s no telling how long that might last. The unemployment rate is still low by historical norms and the global and domestic economies are clearly slowing they’re also still expanding at their typically slow paces, but that’s all the more reason for the Federal Reserve Board to nudge interest rates slightly closer to historical norms, and a global trade war is still being waged, and there’s more than the usual amount of certainty in the politics almost everywhere, so we’ll wait and how the smart money sorts all of that out. If you’re at all familiar with the most fundamental laws of high finance you by now know that when the stock market goes up it is because of Trump, and when it goes down it’s somebody else’s fault, so no matter how it turns out at least we’d be willing to wager some serious dough on how Trump will spin the next few news cycles.
Even the “enemies of the people” in the “fake news” media had to acknowledge that Trump had paid a potentially risky visit to the brave and selfless men and women who had been working through Christmas in a war zone, so such old-fashioned Never-Trump Republican types as ourselves are also obliged to give credit where credit is due. The traditional presidential visit that all of the past several Democratic and Republicans presidents made came after nearly two years of criticism from most quarters for failing to do so, which was heightened last November when Trump skipped a visit to an American World War I cemetery in France during a commemoration of the centennial of Armistice Day, which was attended by all of the heads of states of the winning allies but skipped by Trump due to a light rain, and then again when played golf rather than the lay the traditional presidential wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veteran’s Day, but there’s still no denying Trump did eventually make the trip.
The trip also raised questions about Trump’s overall foreign policy performance, though, which have been raised on both sides of the political aisle, and they’re likely to linger through the coming year of 24-hour news cycles and probably won’t provide such favorable photo opportunities. Trump felt obliged to explain his recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria and draw down troops in Afghanistan, which led to the resignation of the wise and wizened and widely respected four-star general who had been his Secretary of Defense, and although he’d earlier said that it because the mission of defeating the Islamic State had been won he wound up telling the troops that he expected our newfound friends in the Russian and Iranian dictatorships to help the Syrian dictatorship finish the job. Most of those brave men and women wearing boots on the ground have the poetic idea that theirs is not to make reply, their is not to question why, but theirs is but to do and die, and they seemed genuinely grateful for a visit from their commander in chief. Much of the higher brass watching over them seems to have its doubts, as do many of America’s erstwhile allies in Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere, and under a gloomy and rainy Kansas sky far away from the front lines we indulge in the luxury of our own worries.
All of those Senators and Representatives will be soon back in Washington and supplying critical sound bits to the cable news networks and damning quotes to the mainstream press, and early next year a sizable majority of the Representatives will be damned Democrats and lately even some of the slight majority of Republicans in the Senate have been restive on a number of issues. The special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” will be back from its Christmas holiday, too, and it seems a sure bet that Trump will have some less happy 24-hour news cycles in the coming year.
He should get in a few more golf rounds, though, and we’ll generously wish him and the rest of the world nothing but fairways and greens.

— Bud Norman

On the Lull Before Christmas

According to longstanding American political tradition the final days of a lame duck Congress and the last few days before Christmas are supposed to be a slow news cycle, but in the age of President Donald Trump’s newfangled conservatism such longstanding American traditions have been jettisoned. Thursday brought news that Trump’s defense secretary has resigned in apparent protest of Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone decision to withdraw a small but effective force from Syria and Afghanistan, Trump and his remaining allies in the temporary Republican House majority are threatening to force government shutdown over Trump’s derided-by-almost-everyone insistence on a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, and largely as a result the stock markets had yet another dreadful day instead of the traditional “Santa Claus rally.”
The resignation of Defense Secretary and former four-star Marine general James Mattis struck us as the most worrisome development of the day. Despite the “Mad Dog” nickname that Trump seemed to love, Mattis was well regarded by both the center-left and center-right consensus that had successfully guided through the Cold War and has done about as well as can reasonably be expected with the resulting and relatively low-level wars against Islamist terrorism, and his departure leaves him pretty much without any of those wise old hands.
Flynn resigned from his post in record-setting time after being charged with felony perjury charges and making admission to administration that he’d lied about his contacts with Russian officials, and he’s currently awaiting sentencing from a judge who has openly wondered in court why he’s not being charged with treason given all the credible accusations of undisclosed shady dealings with the Turkish and Russian governments, despite the special counsel investigation into the whole “Russia thing” pleading he should get no jail time because of his cooperation, which also doesn’t look good for Trump. He was replaced by McMaster, who didn’t last much longer, reportedly because Trump was annoyed three-star general’s know-it-all attitude during the daily briefings. The post is now held by John Bolton, a President George W. Bush holdover from the late and lamented Republican establishment who’s a bit more aggressive about American internationalism that even our Reagan-esque tastes would prefer, but he’s also advised against Trump’s Syrian withdrawal and might be on the way out.
The four-star chief of staff Kelly has also been pushed aside, reportedly in part because he didn’t get along with Trump’s favorite daughter and son-in-law, and he will temporarily be replaced on a moonlighting basis by acting Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney,  who will also be charged with deciding which agencies should be shut down in case of a partial government shutdown. Whatever advice Trump might be getting from the son-in-law in charge of everything from Middle East peace and the opioid crisis and re-inventing the federal government, and whatever  remains of the rest of his staff about domestic policy, the unpopular president has apparently committed to an unpopular partial government shutdown over Christmas to get a few billion in funding for his unpopular idea of a big beautiful wall along the entire Mexican border, and we don’t see that turning out well. In a few weeks the House of Representatives will install a significant Democratic majority with no political or ideological reason to fund Trump’s big beautiful border wall, much of the slight Republican majority in the Senate is already in revolt over Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and other foreign policy matters, political realities almost always prevail, and without any generals or wise old hands backing him up he seems in a weakened position.
The stock markets seem to agree, given their recent dour mood, and although Trump can plausibly partially blame that on the damned Federal Reserve Board chairman he did appoint the guy, and after what looks to be losing year on the exchanges, which can also be plausibly blamed on the yet-unwon trade wars Trump had declared on our erstwhile allies, but for now Trump  can no longer brag about delivering the best economy ever. No one’s currently predicting a recession, and we’re certainly hoping for one, but the best that all establishment forecasters are predicting is the same sort of slow but steady economic growth that has been the bipartisan norm over the decades. Perhaps Trump will eventually prove smarter than all those multi-starred  generals and economists and the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives and all of us old-fashioned Republicans, as well as  the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictators, but for now only the true believers who still shot up at the ongoing rallies  in those “Make America Great Again” ball caps seem to be betting on it.

— Bud Norman

Sayonara, Syria

President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his intention to withdraw all American forces from Syria, which probably surprised the vast number of Americans who were previously unaware that America had had any forces fighting in Syria. The news apparently also surprised all of our allies in the conflict, as well as Trump’s usually reliable Republican congressional allies and his own administration’s top officials and everyone at the Pentagon, most of whom seemed none too pleased.
Trump has long maintained he was only in Syria to fight the Islamic State, a particularly nasty bunch of Islamist terrorists known for beheadings and crucifixions and other nasty methods of imposing a particularly severe theocratic vision on the people they’ve subjugated, and on Wednesday he declared victory and said that some 2,000 or American troops could thus come home for Christmas. The Islamic State has indeed been driven from almost all of the territory it had conquered during Syria’s horrifically bloody civil war, in some cases by our Kurdish and more or less democratic allies and those outstanding 2,000 or so Americans backing them up, in most cases by the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his equally unsavory Russian and Iran allies, but there are still an estimated 30,000 Islamic State fighters hanging around, according to what top Trump administration officials were saying just before Wednesday, and the situation in Syria remains quite complicated.
Trump’s decision went against the advice of his defense secretary, James Mattis, a four-star Marine general whose advice Trump routinely rejects, as well as the Republican senate foreign relations committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was left waiting outside the Oval Office after a scheduled meeting, and even such a sycophantic sort of Republican as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went so far as to call it a “huge Obama-like mistake,” which is about as harsh an insult as a Republican can muster. We’re by no means experts on these complicated geopolitical matters, but so far as we can tell neither is Trump, and for now Trump’s Republican and Democratic critics both seem to have the better arguments.
Those 30,00 or so Islamic State fighters will surely boast of how they expelled the American crusaders, and thus recruit a few thousand more, unless the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictatorships kill them all, but even that’s not an ideal outcome. There is no ideal outcome in such a convoluted portion of our complicated world, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a best-case scenario that involves American ceding its longstanding global leadership role in the most troublesome part of the world to those awful Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictatorships. The abandonment of our erstwhile more or less democratic allies, while Trump also feuds with pretty much all of our most longstanding and undeniably democratic allies, also offends our traditionally Republican sensibilities. The Democrats who apologized for President Barack Obama’s premature abandonment of our allies in Iraq’s more or less democratic government, which arguably led to the Syrian civil war, can at least note Obama was persuaded by his wiser advisors to main the presence in the region that began the defeat of the Islamic State and that he was never the isolationist that Trump wants to be.
Back during the campaign Trump bragged that he knew more about the Islamic State than any of the military’s generals did, and that his main foreign policy advisor would be himself because “I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” and he’s claimed to know more about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the four-star Marine general he appointed as defense secretary, and he’s more recently bragged that his gut tells him more than any man’s brain can, so Secretary Mattis and Senators Corker and Graham can’t say they weren’t warned about how he makes decisions. There’s some cynical speculation by some of the more snide commentators that Trump made the announcement about the boys and girls coming home for Christmas to detract attention from the stock markets’ bad year and the latest developments in the “Russia thing” and other bad domestic news, which we heartily agree with, but he seems to have lost at least another news cycle.

— Bud Norman