As the Impeachment Soap Opera Turns

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

— Bud Norman

Un-Blowing the Whistle

Donald Trump Jr. has “tweeted” the name of a man alleged to be the “whistleblower” who set off the current impeachment inquiry regarding President Donald Trump, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is demanding that the national media also publish the name. The alleged “whistleblower” is allegedly a Democrat fond of former Vice President and current presidential contender Joe Biden, and for now that’s best defense Trump’s Republicans can muster.
Alas, it’s a weak defense. Never mind that the erstwhile party of law and order is flouting a federal law intended to protect the anonymity of “whistleblowers,” which the Republicans will surely revere if there’s another Democratic president, the inquiry has moved well beyond him.
Regardless of his or her political biases, the “whistleblower’s” claim that Trump sought political help from Ukraine in exchange for military was deemed credible and concerning by two Trump-appointed intelligence officials, has since been corroborated by sworn testimony from the highest-ranking career foreign service and military officials serving in Ukraine, along with text messages and other documentary evidence. Perhaps they’re all “deep state” conspirators out to frame the president, despite their previously unsullied reputations, but the political appointee who got his job as Ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee has now amended his testimony to corroborate the other witnesses, and former Trump-appointed national security advisor and impeccably credentialed right-wing Republican John Bolton is expected to say the same thing live on television next week, and there’s no telling what will happen if Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani winds up under oath and on the air..
An incomplete and presumably carefully edited transcript of the call between Trump and the Ukrainian president also backs up the story, Trump has made clear on several occasions that he’s open to political help from foreign governments, and his chief of staff told the national media that “we do it all the time,” adding “get over it.” Why Trump and his apologists continue to deny it is unclear to us, especially when they have that “so what?” defense at their disposal.
Trump claims that he was only interested in ending Ukraine’s entrenched political corruption, but he’s rarely shown any concern about other country’s corruption problems, and as a businessman he publicly complained that under American law he couldn’t hand out bribes in other countries like his foreign competitors, and as president he has cut funding for anti-corruption assistance to reformist movements. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence that his sudden anti-corruption fervor is mostly focused on something that might provide dirt on a potential election rival, and even disprove the consensus opinion of the national intelligence community that Russia helped Trump get elected last time around, but maybe not.
Better to go with the “so what?” defense. The die-hard fans will love such defiance of the hated establishment, with all its fussy notions of political propriety, another sizable portion of the country isn’t paying any attention, and last time around Trump somehow won an electoral majority on basically the same argument. Most of the the country isn’t buying it, but for now they don’t have enough Senators to remove Trump from office, and it’s unclear if the majority is spread around the electoral map well enough to deny Trump reelection.
One can only bang his head against the stone wall of facts for so long, even one so hard-headed as Trump, and sooner or later he’ll take to the presidential podium and admit that he did indeed solicit political help from a foreign government in exchange for military aid, he won’t appear the least bit embarrassed, and he’ll be hurling accusations that it his was enemies who were doing improper things. He might as well cut to the chase now, to borrow an old Hollywood cliche, before all that boring but damning testimony is aired live on national television.

— 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

Sometimes No Deal is the Best Deal

President Donald Trump came home from his big summit in Vietnam with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without a great deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, much less a Nobel Peace Prize, but it could have been much worse.
In the days leading up to the summit Trump had touted his close personal relationship with Kim, saying he “fell in love” with the “honorable man” who is notorious for his brutal repression of the North Korean people and is clearly intent on building a nuclear stockpile to protect his family’s dictatorship, and there were worries that he’d wind up singing on any old deal that Kim proposed. Kim wanted either a complete or partial lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for a cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to end his nuclear weapons program, and to Trump’s credit he walked away from the negotiating table. Trump could probably have spun that deal as a great win to his die-hard defenders, even if more objective observers would have realized its worthlessness, but his more seasoned remaining foreign policy advisors apparently talked him out of it, and we’re glad they did. The die-hard Trump defenders were able to compare him to President Ronald Reagan and his famous walk-away from a summit with the Soviet Union in Iceland, and although we don’t think either president or the situations were very similar Trump does deserve our begrudging respect for leaving the summit empty-handed, and we hold it hope it ends as well as it did Reagan and western civilization.
Trump’s sales pitch that he could negotiate America out of any crisis with his irresistible charm and “Art of the Deal” negotiation skills never much impressed us, although it did take in a lot of suckers over his long career as a real estate and casino and pro football and airline and scam university operator, and we never expected it to end the decades old stalemate on the Korean peninsula. The past three generations of the Kim Jong dictatorships have left North Korea an impoverished a miserable nation, but the’ve been pretty good to the Jim Jong dynasty, and they’ve await been backed up the Chinese nuclear arsenal and lately have nukes of their own, as well as plenty of of conventional artillery within range of the populous South Korean and and Japanese capitals, and that leaves them with a pretty strong negotiating position with even the most charming and skillful negotiator.
Trump and his apologists can rightly claim at that least North Korea isn’t lobbing any more missile tests over south Korea or Japan or toward Guam and other American lands, and that high-level negotiations are underway, and that all the rhetoric about “fire and fury like no one’s ever seen” and who’s nuclear button is bigger has been tamped down, and although tat’s clearly a good thing we’re not much impressed. So far as we can tell the North Koreans have temporarily suspended their missile tests because they’re satisfied with the results so far, the high-level talks have been no more successful than the traditional low-level talks would have been over the past decades, and the various Kim Jong dictators were always eager for high-level negotiations even before Trump started “tweeting” all his trash talk. None of Trump’s predecessors dating back to President Harry Truman were able to solve the tricky situation on the Korean peninsula, and all of them saw North Korea’s military steady position improve, but they can all make the boast as much as Trump that at least South Korea was thriving and mushroom clouds appeared on their watch.
We’ve been living with that uneasy situation all our lives, though, and by now we’re so inured to it we assume it will outlast even Trump’s presidency. If it comes down to a nuclear exchange America and it allies have always been the presumptive “winner,” and despite Trump’s trade wars and other tough negotiating tactics with America’s allies we expect that scary balance of power will prove more persuasive to the North Korean dictatorship than Trump’s personal charm and artful negotiating skills.

So far there are no mushroom clouds, which means the news will continue to focus on Trump’s longtime lawyer’s testimony to Congress and other embarrassing domestic matters, and although we hold out the best for the future for now we’ll happily settle for that.

— Bud Norman

Fusion GPS Goes Public at Last

One of the main subplots of the “Russia thing” soap opera, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is a dossier of information compiled by a former British intelligence agent alleging that President Donald Trump had a long history of shady business dealings with various Russian organizations and that the Russian government worked diligently to get him elected. It also had some very salacious stories about Russian prostitutes, which delighted all the late night comics, and it’s gotten a lot of attention.
To Trump’s die-hard defenders, what was scandalous about the dossier was its very existence. Although it was first commissioned by the right-of-center Washington Free Beacon, which was hoping to stave off Trump’s insurgent campaign for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, and then funded by some unknown Republican donor who still held out faint hope in latter stages of the primary race, it was eventually funded by the Democratic National Committee and the campaign of Hillary Clinton, and that’s enough to taint it on talk radio. The former British intelligence agent relied on the sources he’d developed as the MI6 agency’s top Moscow spy, and apparently that’s what Trump means when claims that Clinton and the Democrats colluded with the Russians. There were a couple of quickly proved errors, too, and much was hard to verify.
What Trump’s defenders called the “dodgy dossier” or the “debunked dossier” and even the mainstream news is now calling the “infamous dossier” quickly became it’s own scandal. It was alleged that the dossier was the evidence presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to open the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s counter-intelligence probe into Russian meddling in the American presidential election, and therefore all of its findings should are the fruit of a poisoned tree. Last summer that Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee hauled in the top two people at Fusion GPS, the private investigating firm started by former Wall Street Journal investigative reporters that had hired the former British intelligent agent, and grilled them for ten straight hours of a closed hearing. Information about the testimony was leaked that allowed the talk radio hosts to paint the pair as a couple of conspirators out to smear Trump’s stellar reputation, and their dossier as “dodgy” and “debunked” and at the very least “infamous.”
On Monday the top two Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee, chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, even referred that British intelligence agent to federal law enforcement for criminal investigation. That was apparently a step two far one of the committee’s top Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who audaciously defied her Republican colleagues and longstanding tradition by releasing all 300 pages of that long ago testimony by the two guys at Fusion GPS.
The two guys at Fusion GPS had always insisted their testimony be made public, and so had a lot of other people who suspected that they’d made a better case for themselves than the talk radio talkers suggested with the selectively leaked information. As it turns out, it’s clear why they wanted the testimony made public and the Republicans didn’t.
They credibly deny any political motivations, rightly noting they offer their opposition research services to both Republicans and Democrats, testified they found reasons to believe federal law enforcement also had sources warning of Russian meddling in the election, and noted that Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence agent they’d hired, had an excellent reputation with America’s intelligence agencies. Recent reports suggest that one of those sources was the Australian ambassador to the United States, who reported to the American former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Popadopoulos had been drinking with him one evening and bragged that his candidate had dirt on his Democratic rival straight from the Russian government, reports indicate that others who listen in on Russian calls had passed along similar warnings, and that happened before Steele started snooping around.
We’re not clear what criminal acts Grassley and Graham think that Steele might have committed, but he doesn’t seem convincing as the bad guy in the whole “Russia thing.” Despite the aforementioned quickly proved errors in what he frankly acknowledged was raw and unfinished intelligence gathering, and even though a lot of it has not yet been verified by a subpoena-wielding special counsel probe, much of it holds up well. Steele’s early allegation that the Russians were making a concerted effort to help Trump in the election is now the consensus opinion of America’s intelligence community, Trump’s Central Intelligence director has blamed the Russians for the hacking of the DNC, his Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged Russian hacking attempts on 20 state election offices, all the social media sites have testified to Congress that the Russians used them to spread propaganda, and Trump himself begrudgingly mumbles his slightly equivocating agreement. Steele called the FBI to warn them of Russian meddling, which is more than Donald Trump Jr. did when some Russians he knew to be connected to the Kremlin offered dirt on Clinton, and even the talk radio conspiracy theories are based on the assumption that his word was good enough for the FBI and the FISA court.
There’s also been a lot of solid reporting by respected publications and broadcast programs around the world that backs up Steele’s accounts of Trump’s shady dealings with Russians, the aforementioned idiot Trump Jr. has bragged to the press about all the Russian money flowing into the family’s still wholly-owned businesses, and the special counsel team of investigators includes some lawyers famed for their past money-laundering and Russian mob prosecutions. The special counsel already has a couple of guilty pleas, including the aforementioned idiot Papadopoulos, as well Trump’s short-lived and very Russia-connected national security advisor Mike Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is currently contesting a variety of Russia-related charges, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is clearly in the investigative cross-hairs, and the special counsel has reportedly requested an interview with Trump himself.
Trump’s lawyers will probably protect him from anything short of some written answers to written questions, and his defenders on “Fox & Friends” and talk radio and the Senate intelligence committee will surely come up with some spin, but from our seat on the sidelines the “Russia thing” doesn’t seem likely to end soon. We’ll not venture any predictions how it all turns out, and it may all turn out to be a grand conspiracy between the “deep state” and the “globalists” to prevent Trump from making American great again, but we don’t expect that those Fusion GPS guys and that former British intelligence agent turn out to be the bad guys.

— Bud Norman

The Sessions Sessions and All That

The administration of President Donald Trump is like that weird drawing in which some people see a beautiful young lass and others a wrinkled old hag, or that great Japanese movie “Rashomon” where the sordid tale is told and re-told by varying accounts to no definitive conclusion.
Shown the same endlessly replayed footage of Trump pushing his way past the Prime Minister of Montenegro to the front of a diplomatic photo-op, some cringe in embarrassment at a stereotypically ugly American behaving boorishly in front of the the other countries while others perceive an alpha male at long last asserting America’ss dominance on the world stage. The endlessly replayed footage of Trump’s cabinet members taking turns offering fulsome praise for the boss struck many as slightly North Korean in creepiness and was greeted as a great gift by all the late night comics, but a lot of the commenters at the bottom of the Trump-friendly news sites found it touching. People read the same words and abbreviated semi-words in every presidential “tweet,” but some readers discern only self-destructive blather while others discover a subtle literary and political genius.
So it is with the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which some see as fake news made up by sore losers who hate America, and others regard as the most diabolically treasonous plot by a self-interested scoundrel since Aaron Burr, but in any case is undeniably the big story of the day. The latest installment in that Rorshach Test of a story was Tuesday’s testimony before a Senate committee by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and how that went depends on who you listen to. The right-wing talk radio hosts and all the commenters at the bottom of the Trump-friendly news sites thought that Sessions emerged as triumphant from the grilling as Shadrack, Meschach, and Abendego coming out of the fiery furnace, but the fake news had enough real footage and backstory to make it look bad to everybody else.
The last time Sessions testified before a Senate committee was during his confirmation hearing, and he wound up volunteering some arguably inadvertent but inarguably innate statements about his recent contacts with Russian officials, which led to him recusing himself from anything having to do with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, so his second time around was being widely watched. There were more questions about the previous testimony, along with some questions about other contacts with the Russians that have since been alleged, and some brand new questions about why Sessions signed off on the firing the Federal Bureau of Investigation who was investing the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, despite his avowed recusal from anything having to do with all that.
Sessions handled it pretty well for most of the seven or hours of hot light interrogation, but even such a seasoned lawyer and politician had some awkward sound bites. He confirmed the fired FBI guy’s story about Trump ordering everyone else out of the room before a private meeting in which the fired FBI guy says the president asked for his personal loyalty, dodged a question about the fired FBI guy’s request that the Attorney General prevent any further private meetings with the president, and further declined to talk about all the recent leaks and “tweets” that suggest Trump isn’t pleased with Sessions’ performance as Attorney General. All in all, it was enough to fill a news cycle for people who see things that way.
Sessions also steadfastly declared in his defiantly Confederate accent that neither he nor Trump had anything to with that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, which was endlessly replayed by the right-wing talk radio shows oft-quoted by the commenters at the Trump-friendly news sites, and despite all the suspicions that were raised nobody had that much-anticipated sound bite to prove that he was lying about that central fact of the story. Sessions was long a member of the same World’s Greatest Deliberative Body as his Democratic interrogators on that Senate committee, and for whatever it’s worth he’s proved as honorable over his long career as any of them, so we can see how some people see it a certain way. Some of the Republican Senators helped out, too, while others seemed to be hedging their bets, and we really can’t blame any of them of for any of it.
These days we’re watching it all from the sidelines, where we’re pretty much contemptuous of all the players and have no dog in the fight except for truth, justice, and the American way, and from our perspective they didn’t really nail Sessions or Trump on anything but significant but it does look pretty darned bad. The likelihood is that the Senate and House and FBI and special counsel investigations will continue, along with all the knowledgeable named and unnamed sources in the mainstream press and the speculative deconstruction of it all on right-wing talk radio and the comments sections of Trump-friendly news sites, and that a certain portion of the country will see a pretty young lass while the other sees an ugly old hag.
So far the sees-it-san- ugly-old-hag contingent seems in the majority of American public opinion, and most of the rest of the world sees a stereotypically ugly American rather than a dominant alpha male, and in the end that might matter more than truth, justice, and the American way. Elite opinion on both the right and left and around the the globe especially is critical of Trump, which only hardens the certainty of the talk radio hosts and those Trump-friendly commenters, who do have a good case to make about how the elites have screwed things up, but we’re not at all convinced that anybody’s going to do a much better job of stewarding a multi-trillion economy and a darned complicated geo-politcal situation than the people with the credentials.
There’s plenty of story left to be told, from all the varying accounts, so we’ll await the inevitably indefinite resolution.

— Bud Norman

How a Bill Doesn’t Become Law

The news was mostly relegated to the back pages and the scroller at the bottom of the cable news screens, what with the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director’s testimony and all the resulting presidential “tweets” taking up all the good space, but the House of Representatives last week passed a bill that would largely repeal and replace the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
The Dodd-Frank financial reform law is the dry and complicated and downright boring sort of thing that would get more attention during a typical presidential administration, which makes us all the more nostalgic for those good old days before President Donald Trump. We never liked the Dodd-Frank bill, so far as we can tell the repeal-and-replace law would be a significant improvement, and in a more normal news cycle a well-spoken Republican president would be able to enjoy a winning political argument. Instead, the matter is relegated to the back pages and the scroller at the bottom of the string, and the bill will probably be stalled in the Senate.
The few stories on bill note that Dodd-Frank was passed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown with the aim of preventing it from happening again, and for the sake of argument we’ll stipulate the Democrats’ good intentions, but the few allotted inches can’t make a case that the legislation did any good. Ostensibly in order to prevent the big banks from making reckless bets on subprime mortgages Dodd-Frank imposed thousands of pages on new regulations to prohibit commercial banks from certain kinds of “proprietary trading” and investments in hedge funds and private equity transactions, but none of that had anything to do with the financial meltdown. All the restrictions are imposed on commercial banks rather than the investments banks that were most involved in the crisis, and all of them had been compelled by the Carter-era Community Reinvestment Act that the Clinton administration started enforcing with crazed vigor, and most of those risky subprime mortgages were held by the quasi-governmental Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac outfits, and the Democrats should be glad they don’t have to talk much about that.
Nor did the bill do anything at all about those “too big to fail” banks that the Democrats were so worked up about when Dodd-Frank was passed by Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and signed by a Democratic president, and it wound up hampering the small banks and credits unions that Democrats have been romanticizing since before Frank Capra filmed “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The damned thing even forced us to spend an hour filling out forms to excise a nickname from a 47-year-old checking account a while back, and one can only guess at the extraordinary amount of time and money that the overall economy has spent on complying with all those thousands of pages of regulations. Banks will be able to accumulate more reserves to deal with shocks under the House Republicans’ alternative, which also wisely lets the bankruptcy courts sort out the inevitable failures, and the freedom and competition it allows would likely have a stabilizing effect on the financial system.
That’s hard to explain in the 140-character “tweets” and fourth-grade level orations that Trump favors, though, and these days he has other things to “tweet” and talk about. The press has plausible reasons for relegating it to the back pages and the scroller at the bottom of the screen, and it’s hard to imagine the general public taking a sudden interest in financial regulatory reform. The House bill now goes to the same Senate where the House’s Obamacare repeal-and-replacement bill currently languishes with 12 percent approval ratings, and the rules are different there and the Republican majority is slimmer and the Republican incumbents up for re-election in 2018 have their own reasons for striking a bipartisan pose, so this might be the last your hear of it.

— Bud Norman

A Morning in Washington and an Evening in Wichita

Unless you had the good fortune to be in Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday, where the all-time great gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples was wowing a vast and varied River Festival crowd under a starry sky on the banks of the Arkansas River, the big story of the day was probably the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation’s testimony before a Senate committee about that Russia thing with President Donald Trump and Russia. Much of it had already been leaked weeks ago and then confirmed by Wednesday’s written statement, but it was something to see a longtime public official coming right out and saying under oath and live on all four broadcast networks that the president is a liar, and by the end it was all the talk.
There was some new stuff, too, including James Comey’s admission that he leaked information to The New York Times through a law professor pal about his private conversations with the president, and Flynn’s claim that the president said he hoped the FBI’s investigation of the president’s recently fired National Security Advisor would wind up without any charges, and asked for the director’s loyalty. That was a big talking point on the conservative talk radio shows, who were more outraged about the leaking part than any of the rest of it, but we don’t expect that argument will resonate far beyond their audiences. Trump’s lawyer, the same guy who handled his divorces and bankruptcies, tried to impugn Comey’s testimony by noting that the leak occurred before the presidential “tweet” about possible White House that was given as the reason for the leak, which was reported as a fact on one of the conservative talk radio shows we heard on the way to the concert, but our reading of the published record suggests he was wrong about that.
Comey testified that “lordy” he hopes there are White House tapes to back up his sworn testimony and contemporaneous memos and administration officials who can back up corroborating details such as the president ordering everyone else out of the room prior to one uncomfortable meeting, so a lawyer more seasoned in these political matters might not have brought that up. Trump’s lawyer’s other big argument was that Comey confirmed Trump’s claim that he had been assured on three separate occasions that the president was under an individual criminal investigation, but by now it’s pretty clear that the FBI as well as the House and Senate Committees and a special counsel are investigating the heck out of Trump’s campaign and some very, very close associates. He also seemed pleased that Comey had confirmed there was no o evidence the Russians electronically altered any voting machines, but nobody ever said they did.
Having a longstanding public official testify on live television that the president is a liar is a public relations as well as legal problem, especially when more than 60 percent of the country had already concluded he was a liar on election day, which included a significant number of people who voted for him rather than his similarly distrusted Democratic opponent, so even the most seasoned lawyer would have his hands full. Trump claimed in a famously against-his-legal-interest interview with the National Broadcasting Corporation that he never asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty, although he immediately added that “It wouldn’t be a bad question to ask,” and that he never said anything that could possibly be interpreted as a request for leniency to Flynn, but by now no one finds it hard to imagine him saying either thing. Trump’s most strident critics will find it characteristically unethical and heavy-handded, and his most stance supporters will consider it just the kind of tough tactics against the hated establishment that they voted for.
There were plenty of intriguing questions that went unanswered, too, but the senators apparently learned more in closed session that followed. Questions that could not be answered without divulging classified information included: What Comey knows about the sanctioned Russian bank that the president’s son-in-law met with during the transition; was the FBI able to confirm any of the salacious allegations in a leaked dossier compiled by a British intelligence agent; does Flynn remain a central figure in an ongoing investigation concerning the Russians and the Trump campaign; was he aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the government that have not been acknowledged by the White House; several questions regarding recused-from-the-Russia thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and does Comey have reason to believe that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.
That’s a lot to ponder, but fortunately there was no time for all that when Mavis Staples was in town. The grand dame of gospel and soul is 77 years old, 67 years removed from her first classic recordings as the prodigy daughter of all time great gospel guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and lead singer of The Staples Singers, but we can testify that she’s as good as ever. She had a crack band and a couple of perfectly simpatico backup singers, her voice was full of the spirit and her joyous charm was irresistible. Her set dipped into that deep gospel vein that began her long career, slipped into the funky and danceable social justice soul songs that landed her top of the pop charts and continued her family’s ministry, and occasionally dipped into some surprisingly cutting-edge blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
She did such expected hits as “Come Go With Me” and “I’ll Take You There,” and although we were disappointed she didn’t do “Sit Down, Servant” or that spooky death song “I’m Coming Home” she did do “Wade in the Water” and added plenty of other heartfelt gospel and shouts of the savior’s name to the show, and it was a much-needed boost to our soul. We kept running into dear friends who aren’t so attuned the spirituality of Mavis Staples, but they all know good music when they hear it, and they shared our bliss in a very heartening way.
She also did a memorable rendition of “Shake a Hand, Make a Friend,” and at that point several thousand Wichitans seemed on very friendly terms with one another on a perfect summer evening on the banks of the Arkansas River. These annual River Festival crowds are a remarkable bunch, full of tattooed south siders in wife-beater t-shirts and east side corporate family guys in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts as well as housewives and hipsters from all over, all in search of turkey legs and Pronto Pups and bouncy houses for the kiddos and zip rides across the river for the teenagers and cheap entertainment for all. Lots of very fat people, no shortage of attractive young lasses in slutty short shorts and fashionably retro summer dresses, and all the race and class and gender and intersectionality a multicultural studies major could hope for.
We stood next to a woman in a hijab and her westernized-looking kids at a table where a guy was daring people to cover a red square with five smaller discs, had a pleasant interchange with a pretty young black woman whose view we had inadvertently blocked, and chatted briefly with a muscle-bound cop about how great the show had been. There were a lot of cops, too, probably a continued consequence of a few years back when they had a block party a little too far east on Douglas and close enough to the bars it went bad, but they all seem happily bored. Everyone was getting along, people were shaking hands and making friends, and there was great American music on a great American night.
The River Festival rolls on through Sunday, when they have the big fireworks finale, and they’ve got the estimable musical talents of Randy Newman scheduled for tonight, so if you’re in the vicinity of Wichita we urge you drop by and shake a hand and make a friend. Our best guess is that the president is a liar, and most of the country seems to agree, including a lot of the people who voted for him, and so was his arguably worse Democratic opponent, but we can testify that there is still great American music on great American nights out there.

— Bud Norman

Swimming in a Flood of News

The news comes at a fast and furious rate in the age of President Donald Trump, but Wednesday’s pace was downright discombobulating. Some bigger than usual bombshells about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia came not from anonymous sources somewhere in the bureaucracy but rather from four under-oath high level figures, here in Kansas the more conservative sort of Republican economic philosophy took a hard hit, and just to the south the University of Oklahoma’s longtime football coach unexpectedly up and quit.
The most attention was paid to the written testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, which confirmed all those previously anonymously-sourced stories that Comey says Trump had expressed a hope that the FBI would relent in its investigation of Trump’s fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and had asked for a pledge of loyalty to the president. As far as Trump’s most strident critics are concerned that’s sufficient for an impeachable obstruction of justice charge, which seems a bit of an overreach, for now at least, and Trump’s staunchest supporters are claiming vindication by Comey’s admission that he had indeed assured Trump on three separate occasions that the president wasn’t being investigation as an individual, as Trump had noted in Comey’s termination letter, which is not likely to make anybody but other staunch Trump supporters feel good.
Comey will provide oral testimony and answer questions from Republicans and Democrats today, and Trump’s staunchest supporters should be ready with some better arguments. All of the broadcast networks will be televising the Senate hearings live, just like in the Watergate days, and the bars in Washington, D.C., are opening early and offering such specials as “covfefe cocktails” for the expected audience, and the story Comey will tell is far more fascinating than anything that’s going on in the pre-empted soap operas.
Comey’s seven pages of written testimony, apparently backed up by some very contemporaneous notes he’d written on the way home from his encounters with the president, include some novelistic but believable details.
He recalls a moment during a private presidential dinner when “the president said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” Comey later recalls that “Near the end of our dinner, the president returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo that I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
Today’s rating-grabbing telecast will likely include further literary flourishes, along with Republicans and Democrats and Trump’s most strident critics and staunchest defenders understanding the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but our guess is that Trump should ready himself for another bad news cycle. Comey’s recollections are apparently backed up by provably contemporaneous notes, and all the dialogue does seem to have a certain verisimilitude about it, based on what we’ve seen of Comey and Trump. Although Comey has infuriated Democrats by announcing an investigation of the Democratic nominee during the late stages of the campaign and infuriated Republicans by failing to lock her up, at least his bipartisan honesty has never been questioned, while Trump has undeniably been caught in some whoppers. Even if the public does accept Comey’s version of events it’s still an overreach to make an obstruction of justice case, given the different interpretations of “honest loyalty” and almost anything else Trump says, but it’s going to be hard to make Trump look good.
You might not have seen it floating by in the flood of news, but The Washington Post had also reported in a mostly-anonymously-sourced story that Trump had also asked a couple of other top-notch national security types to push back against that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and two of them gave under-oath testimony to that pesky Senate committee. National intelligence director Dan Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, both denied they had ever been asked by anyone to do anything untoward, but when the questions got more specific they declined to answer, and at one point Coats freely admitted he didn’t have any particular legal basis for not answering. Even the Republicans seemed peeved by the arguable contempt of Congress, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, taunted by Trump as “Little Marco” during their primary duel, made some good points.
All that is obviously getting in the way of Trump’s infrastructure and health care reform and tax reform agenda, and the tax reform part of the agenda took way out here in Kansas. Enough establishment-type Republicans joined with the Democrats to override the staunchly anti-establishment Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a tax increase, which pretty much brings to an end the tax-cutting program that Trump is proposing. Economics is a complicated science, and there’s an argument to be made that the Kansas economy wouldn’t have thrived any better under the tax-and-spend schemes that have harmed so many blue states, but the Brownback tax cuts inarguably haven’t produced the economic growth that was promised and we’ve even lagged behind the Obama-era overall economy, and the state’s school and social service funding were getting down to the bare bones that alarm even such old-fashioned Kansas Republicans as ourselves, so of course even the national press is gloating. The old-fashioned establishment sorts of Republicans around here arguably acquitted themselves in the matter, but Trump shouldn’t count on them having his back in the coming news cycles.
It was such a busy day we’re still not sure why Bob Stoops relinquished control of that OU Sooners football team, which looks to have another exciting and maybe even championship season coming up. Over the years he’s infuriated Sooners fans with some inexcusable bowl game losses and then delighted them with some chapionship-trophy-hoisting upsets, but he’s got Kansas State ties and seems a decent sort of fellow and after 18 years he’s leaving his successor a much better team than the one he inherited, so we wish him well in his future endeavors.
As for all the rest of these characters in the news these days, we’re wishing all them and all the rest of us our best.

— Bud Norman

Another Episode of the Russian Soap Opera

Those afternoon soap operas usually have no appeal to us, but we found ourselves fascinated on Monday with the oh-so-slowly developing plot on that one about the Russians meddling in America’s most recent presidential election. On the latest episode they had a congressional hearing, with a former acting attorney general and a former director of national intelligence testifying, which might sound rather dry, but if you’ve been following the story closely there were a couple of subtle twists.
The stars of the episode were Sally Yates, a career Department of Justice lawyer who had risen through the ranks over 25 years and briefly filled in at the AG spot after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, and James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had served in a variety of high-level intelligence posts in all the administrations from President George H.W. Bush to President Barack Obama, which might also sound rather dry. Neither delivered the knockout blow that the Democratic characters asking the questions were clearly hoping for, but they shared some information that was pretty darned embarrassing to Trump, fared well against the more hostile questions asked by the Republican characters, and tantalizingly refused to divulge the still-classified answers to all the questions that every up-to-date viewer was asking.
Surprising no one, Yates testified she had warned the Trump administration that its pick for National Security Advisor, retired Air Force Gen. Michael Flynn, had been giving false information about his contacts with Russian officials to Vice President Mike Pence, who was then passing the same false information along to the public. Flynn offered his resignation after a mere 24 days on the job, which was quickly and gratefully accepted, but that was nearly two weeks after Yates gave them the heads-up that he was susceptible to Russian blackmail, and nothing about that story makes Trump look good. Since then it had been revealed that Flynn is also being investigated for illegal business dealings with foreign governments, both the Democratic and Republican ranking members on yet another committee have concluded Flynn probably broke the law, and however it turns out it won’t make Trump look any better.
Trump has “tweeted” in response that “General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama administration — but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” all of which is true enough, but Flynn was also fired by the Obama administration, and it’s been widely reported that Obama personally warned Trump not to hire the guy. The White House press secretary acknowledged the accuracy of those reports, saying that Trump dismissed the suggestion, figuring Obama was merely sore about Flynn’s post-firing criticisms of the administration, which might have been at least partly true, and probably made Trump all the more eager to hire him, but that still doesn’t make Trump look good.
Yates was fired as acting attorney general after she refused to order her staff to defend Trump’s proposed ban on travel from certain Muslim countries, and although that had nothing to do with l’affaire Flynn all the Republican characters wanted to ask about that. As far as we’re concerned the travel ban was legally defensible, although she made a very lawyerly case to contrary that the courts so far seem to agree with, and in any case Trump was clearly within his rights to fire her for insubordination, which Yates frankly acknowledged, but we expect that only those viewers already rooting for the Republican side found her less credible because of it.
Trump had sent out a preemptive “tweet” to “Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Council.” The “W.H. Council” was apparently a reference to the White House counsel, and of course the Republican characters did ask if she had been an anonymous source for any of the news stories. She quickly replied “Absolutely not,” and if she was lying under oath she was remarkably confident about it. We expect that to most viewers she came off as poised, professional, and highly competent. For a 25-year veteran of the Justice Department she’s rather attractive, too, in a poised and professional sort of way, with a soft southern accent that doesn’t sound at all crazy liberal, and that seems to matter on these afternoon soap operas and ongoing reality shows.
Both she and the far less telegenic Clapper, who was there for some reason we never quite discerned, were also very poised and professional and competent-sounding as they dodged all the questions by explaining that an answer would require revealing classified information. That’s the juicy part, so the rote testimony was something of a teaser.
Flynn’s just a subplot is a far bigger story about how the Russians meddled in various ways with the past election, apparently working against Trump’s Democratic opponent, which by now all the intelligence agencies and Trump’s own intelligence agency picks and even Trump himself don’t deny, and all the investigations concern whether any of Trump’s people or perhaps even Trump himself had anything to do with it. That’s the most embarrassing thing about Flynn, and when you throw in the campaign chairman that Trump had to fire over possibly illegal dealings with the Russians and the current full-blow Attorney General who’s had to recuse himself from the ongoing because of his own unacknowledged contacts with Russians, and Trump’s past excuse-making for the Russian regime, the story seems likely to drag on.
The Republican characters were clearly annoyed by the continuing series, and asked a lot of questions about how all this embarrassing information has been getting out. Flynn and that campaign chairman and a former campaign foreign policy were all overheard by the intelligence agencies with they spoke with Russian operatives that were being tapped, and according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper a number of allied intelligences were also listening in and sending warnings back to the states, but American citizens who wind up thus being tapped are supposed to be kept anonymous, except in certain circumstances. There’s some argument about whether the “unmasking” of Trump’s associates met those certain circumstances, and how they wound up in the press surely involved a crime by someone or another, but so far none of the leaks have been denied, and they’re all pretty embarrassing and might add up to a far bigger crime.
The Republican characters were eager to know if Yates was aware of any information that would suggest any collusion between the Russian meddlers and the Trump campaign, and by now that’s surely what most viewers are asking, but the anti-climactic response was that an answer would require divulging classified information. Sounding very poised, professional, competent and downright non-partisan, Yates stressed that no one on the committee or anywhere else should make any assumptions, one way or the other, based on that non-answer, but the Democratic characters were clearly more pleased than the Republican.
We’ll keep following this very slowly-developing story and try not to make any assumptions how it turns out, but for now it seems likely to take a long, long time.

— Bud Norman