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The Latest Round in Trump’s Bout Against Mexico

As it turns out President Donald Trump won’t be imposing drastic new tariffs on Mexican imports, an idea he proposed that alarmed every serious economist and all the stock markets and big businesses and small farmers and even more than a few congressional Republicans, and he’s proclaiming a great victory about the concessions Mexico has yielded in response to the threat. At the very real risk of being called enemies of the people, we think Trump merely averted disaster.
Trump threatened the tariffs to get Mexico to do more to stop the flow of migrants from Central America, and Mexico has apparently agreed to deploy some military units to its southern border and detain on its own soil the asylum-seekers who have recently reached its northern border while the American justice system sorts out all the tricky legal details of their numerous cases. That’s enough that Hugh Hewitt, the conservative commentator and radio talk show host who was a fellow steadfast Never Trump type until Trump won the Republican nomination, proclaimed in the headline of an op-ed piece in The Washington Post — of all places — that “Trump’s big win leaves critics sputtering.”
With all due respect to the once-respectable Hewitt, the critics don’t seem to be sputtering. In its usual careful and confident cadence The New York Times reported that the Mexican government had already agreed to both demands months before Trump issued the threat, other conservative and liberal media have noted without any discernible stuttering that the Mexican government has been either unwilling or unable to make good on promises made in the face of Trump’s even crazier threat to shut down the entire border between Mexico and the United State. For now it’s probably best to wait and see if Trump’s big win resolves or even slightly eases the admittedly serious situation on our southern border, and to hold out only faint hope.
Trump responded to The New York Times with an extended “twitter” tirade, concluding that “the failing @nytimes, & ratings-challenged @CNN, will do anything to see our Country fail! They are truly The Enemy of the People!” He returned to “twitter” to gripe that if President Barack Obama had struck such sweet deals “the Corrupt Media would be hailing them as Incredible, & a National Holiday would be declared.” We’re supposed to pity Trump even in his moment of triumph, as there are clearly seditious sorts out there who dare question what he says, but it looks like sputtering to us, and poorly punctuated sputtering at that.
The disaster that surely would have followed those threatened tariffs or a complete border shutdown has for now been averted, though, and for now Trump is entitled to crow about that. Sooner or later Mexico’s nationalist instincts will be roused to resist Trump’s nationalism, on the other hand, and there’s no telling what Trump do then, except to say it will work out badly for all involved. Mexico will probably get the worst of it, which will allow Trump to claim another big win, but that doesn’t mean that America will be any better off.

— Bud Norman

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Tweeting and Twisting the GOP

The internecine Republican feuding has lately become more complicated. It’s still the same old story of the establishment versus the insurgents, the squishy moderates versus the principled conservatives, and the real Republicans versus the Republicans In Name Only, but the days it’s hard to tell who’s on which side. At this point in the plot President Donald Trump is “tweeting” threats against the House of Representative’s “Freedom Caucus,” so all the old labels of establishment and insurgent and principled and squishy no longer make any sense, and who the real Republicans are is very much up for debate.
As a relatively recent Republican Trump won the party’s nomination with a plurality of primary and caucus votes by running as an outsider and populist renegade hellbent on burning down the hated GOP establishment, as exemplified by party chairman Reince Priebus and House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, but following his improbable win of the electoral vote he seem surprised to find that he suddenly was the establishment. After running on grandiose promises of repealing Obamacare within days of taking office and replacing it with coverage for everyone at and lower costs and so beautiful it would make your head spin, Trump made Priebus his White House Chief of Staff and turned to Ryan McConnell to make good on his word, then went off to golf at his fabulous Mar-a-Lago resort, as populists do.
That was fine with the plurality of the party that now defines Republicanism as obeisance to Trump, and when it all went down in flames many of them were eager to blame Priebus and Ryan and McConnell and the rest of the hated establishment who had hoodwinked the naive Trump, even if he had also been elected because of his boasts of being both anti-establishment and the savviest deal-maker ever, and there was plenty of blame to be spread around the whole party. Some of those squishy moderates who somehow survived the past six years of insurgent anti-establishment primary purges bucked the party line on the bill because they were cowed by its 17 percent approval rating and all the looming sob stories from the 24 million people expected to lose health care coverage the first three years of premium hikes that were also forecast. More votes were lost from the “Freedom Caucus,” the same insurgent populists who had gained office by running on the original “Tea Party” wave of dissatisfaction with the Republican establishment, as they objected to the bill because it didn’t fully repeal Obamacare and replaced it with something that retained too many of the taxes and regulations and outrageous infringements of free market principles and individual liberty that the entirety of the party had claimed to be against from the get-go.
Trump took to “Twitter” to blame the “Freedom Caucus” members and threaten them with primary challenges by more obeisant Republicans if they didn’t come around. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don’t get on the team, & fast,” Trump “tweeted,” adding with similar eloquence that “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” Later “tweets” mentioned individual members by name, with similar political intimidation repeated, which leaves us wondering what the Republican establishment but not doubting that it’s likely to be burned down.
The “tweets” don’t seem likely to settle the matter, though, as the “Freedom Caucus” members defiantly “tweeted” back in Trump’s own blustery style. Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie responded with a snarky “#Swampcare polls 17%. Sad!” Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia “tweeted” a simple “Stockholm Syndrome?” to suggest that Trump was now stuck with the hated establishment label. None appeared to be at all intimidated, and we can’t see why they should be. It’s easy to resist a populist movement that’s polling 17 percent in the polls, which is truly is sad, Trump’s numbers are hovering around 40 at a time when a president should be getting a honeymoon bump, and most of those “Freedom Caucus” members won their districts by bigger margins than Trump. Some of them really believe what they ran on, too, and can more persuasively argue why they voted against the bill Trump backed than Trump can argue for it.
To the extent that they can’t “tweet” the argument, conservative media ranging from the rabble-rousing radio talkers to the old eggheaded and think-tanky ink-and-paper publications will make it for them. Given that Trump’s remaining support won’t listen to any media that isn’t explicitly conservative, that’s a problem. Some of the conservative media are by now obeisant to Trump, but given their past full-throated supported for the “Freedom Caucus” and its anti-establishment stand they’re going to have some tricky talking to do. There are still enough Democrats hanging around Congress that Trump will need pretty much Republican vote to “get on the team, & fast,” which will be hard to do with a party that prides itself on its rugged individualism and stubborn independence and despite a certain reverence for order and tradition has lately come to regard any sort of establishment as needing to be burned down.
All of which leaves the Republicans with a whole lot of soul-searching about what their party really stands for. Given the current state of the Democratic Party, the country desperately needs the Republicans to get on with it.

— Bud Norman

Media Critic in Chief

After a weekend largely spent “tweeting” his indignation about a curtain call oration at a Broadway play and a skit on a satirical comedy show, president-elect Donald Trump returned to work on Monday with an effort to bully the television news media into giving him more favorable coverage. That’s how we’ll describe his off-the-record-but-inevitably-leaked meeting with the heads of several networks, at any rate, at least while we still can still do so without fear of recriminations.
The meeting was first reported by the tabloid New York Post, which described it as a gerund-form-of-the-F-word “firing squad,” quoting an unnamed source, and the more polite broadsheets found more suitable language to say pretty much the same thing. The New York Post’s unnamed source recounts Trump telling Cable News Network’s head honcho Jeff Zucker that “I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar, you should be ashamed,” with a second unnamed source saying that Trump called the news outlet “a network of liars” and singled out the National Broadcasting Corporation for similar disparagement. The Washington Post’s article, headlined “A defiant Trump meets the TV news crowd in private — and let’s them have it,” corroborates that “The president-elect specifically called out reporting by CNN and NBC that he deemed unfair, according to four people who attended the meeting, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was off the record.” The scooped New York Times headlined its report with a familiar-sounding “Trump Summons TV Figures for Private Meeting, and Lets Them Have It,” citing unnamed sources with the same information. Each paper added some quotes by Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway about how very “cordial,” “productive,” and “congenial” the meeting was, but even she acknowledged it was also “very candid and very honest,” which we’ll interpret to mean a gerund-form-of-the-F-word firing squad.
All of which was lustily celebrated in the newer and more Trump-friendly media. The Drudge report linked to the New York Post story with the headline “BEAT THE PRESS: TRUMP TOWER SHOWDOWN WITH MEDIA ELITE,” and the Breitbart News site, until recently run by Trump’s newly appointed “Chief Strategist,” went with “Trump Eats the Press.” We spent our driving-around time on Monday listening to old rockabilly and garage band mix tapes rather than talk radio, but we’re quite sure all the hosts were happy to hear that all the media they constantly rail against got a presidential dressing-down. The more die-hard sorts of Trump supporters, who routinely harassed the same networks and newspapers at Trump’s urging during his rallies throughout the campaign, were no doubt similarly delighted.
Which is not hard to understand, given that much of the ancien regime media have indeed long been relentlessly hostile toward Republicans in general and the putatively Republican Trump in particular, and often unfairly, but we still find it somewhat unsettling. Although we are also frequent critics of the press, we think that Trump’s critique is conspicuously self-serving, and in many cases unfair. We wonder why Trump isn’t thanking CNN for all those endless hours of live coverage of his raucous rallies while almost completely ignoring his many vastly more qualified challengers during the Republican primaries, and although we have to admit that he’s got a point about NBC he should admit they also didn’t do those primary challengers any favors, nor did they do his Democratic rival much good. The Washington Post and The New York Times and other singled-out media gave thorough coverage of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s countless undeniable scandals, even if it was less prominent than on the front pages than their thorough coverage of Trump’s countless undeniable scandals, and by now their biases are as familiar to the public as those of The Drudge Report or Breitbart News or any of those talk radio show hosts.
Our view is that all of the media, both those hostile to Trump and those angrily supportive of him, should be able publish or broadcast whatever they want. They should all be subject to the same sort of scrutiny to they apply to public figures and one another as well, and a president or president-elect should have the same rights to express an opinion about it as anyone else, but no one should have the power of retribution or censorship. Trump’s past vows to “open up the libel laws” and to target certain press barons’ other business interests and cut off media access to his administration lent an air of menace to Monday’s meeting, and those cheering him on should take a moment of self-interested consideration about how it might affect them during an inevitable future Democratic administration.

— Bud Norman

Turning Off the Radio and Tuning Into Reality

While scanning the AM band on an otherwise lovely fall evening’s drive, we found ourselves being screamed at by one of the more prominent right-wing radio talkers. The fellow has always been prone to screaming — or, as he prefers to call it, “passion” — but of course in this crazy election year the tendency has been more pronounced. Usually he’s screaming at the sorts of people who vote for Democratic presidential candidates, which makes it somewhat more tolerable, as we would never do such a damned fool thing as that anyway, but in this case he was screaming at such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves who won’t go so far as to cast a vote for this crazy election year’s Grand Old Party nominee.
He made a completely convincing case about how very awful the Democratic nominee is, but he didn’t even attempt to argue that the Republican isn’t also very awful, and his screaming somehow didn’t make his screed any more persuasive. The guy with the preceding time slot on our local right-wing talk radio station’s line-up has lately been talking about how he’s going to “even the score” with all us old-fashioned Republicans who aren’t fully on board with this crazy election’s year GOP nominee, but such idle threats are also unlikely to sway us. That more highly-rated guy on the mid-day shift and the rest of the right-wing radio talkers are for the most part on too early for our nocturnal selves to pay full attention, but so far as we can tell while the coffee’s brewing they’re all making pretty much the same arguments with the same level of unpersuasive acrimony.
Should all those “rigged-by-the-Democrats polls” and the Republican nominee’s own prediction of a “rigged election” election prove true in less than a couple of weeks, we don’t expect that the rhetoric of the internecine Republican war will become any more civil. Which is a shame, because no matter how this crazy election year turns out the Republican Party is going to need to have a long, hard talk with itself about why it came up with such an awful nominee, and the undeniable and arguably even worse awfulness of the Democratic nominee will provide no satisfactory excuses. Screaming and schoolyard taunts and threats of evening the score won’t help at all, no matter how much faith the right-wing radio talkers put in such tactics, and it require a more introspective sort of discussion that that too many Republicans now seem to consider sissified.
For those sorts of old-fashioned Republicans who occasionally turn off the radio and start reading print publications there was a commendably smart essay recently over at the formerly venerated and now-reviled National Review about the coming conversation, and it linked to a video of an old “Firing Line” debate that featured the publication’s founder William Buckley and and its senior editor James Burnham along with columnist George F. Will and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt squaring off against former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and columnist Pat Buchanan and Latin American expert Roger Fontaine and Admiral John McCain Jr. on the matter of handing over control of the Panama Canal. Although the matter is now largely forgotten it was a hot button issue back in 1978, contentious enough that such conservative grandees as the aforementioned found themselves on opposite sides of the debate, but it’s still worth watching to see how they argued with such collegiality, intellectual depth, and a lack of schoolyard-taunting or screaming or threats of evening the score. They all came together a couple of years later to elect Reagan to the presidency, which led to a pretty good 12 years for the Republican Party and the country, and  it would be nice to see that happen again.
It’s hard to envision that happening again, and impossible to imagine the Republican nominee of the crazy election year sounding so soft-spoken and reasonable as Reagan did, but when we turn the AM dial to that old folks’ station that still plays Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee or the country oldies station that has Buck Owens and the Buckaroos singing “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” anything seems possible.

— Bud Norman</

Calling a Bluff on a Trump Card

Donald J. Trump, the bullying billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-television-show mogul who is somehow the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has long had a habit of frequently threatening and oftentimes even filing frivolous lawsuits against anyone who gets in his way. This time he’s making the threats against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is suddenly challenging Trump’s front-runner status, but Cruz seems an unpromising target for such slip-and-fall-lawyer legal tactics.
There’s a reason, after all, that Cruz’s many Democratic detractors prefer to portray him as evil rather than stupid. Cruz is a graduate of almighty Harvard’s oh-so prestigious law school, where even such leftist professors as Alan Dershowitz and Laurence Tribe acknowledged his brilliance. Only the most brilliant law students find work as Supreme Court clerks, and Cruz stood out among them as a trusted clerk of the great Chief Justice William Rehnquist. During a brief exile from politics Cruz earned millions as an associate at one of the country’s most prestigious firms, which by Trump’s bottom-line standards suggest some legal acumen. Upon his voluntary pay-cut return to public service as the state of Texas’ Solicitor General, he was mostly victorious in his nine arguments before the Supreme Court, and even in defeat earned a reputation as a formidable lawyer that is now begrudgingly acknowledged by the likes of Politico and The New York Times.
Cruz also relishes the same politically-incorrect and anti-establishment tough guy reputation that has somehow propelled a bullying billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-television-show mogul such as Trump to front-runner status, so he would seem especially unlikely to cower in the face of some frivolous threat. Sure enough, Cruz’s Wednesday press conference could be aptly summed up by Clint Eastwood’s pithier “Go ahead, punk, make my day.
In response to one of those cease-and-desist letters that well-lawyered people are always sending out to easily-bullied types these days, Cruz defiantly insisted he would not cease nor desist from airing a campaign commercial that showed some old footage of Trump telling one of his constant interviewers that he had “New York values” about a wide range of social issues, up to and including late-term and even partial-birth abortion, which is to say values that are in many cases in conflict values of the electorate in the upcoming South Carolina primary. Trump’s claim is that the commercial is slanderous, and try as we might we can’t quite surmise his argument why. The closest we ever got to an argument before the highest court in the land was running briefs between offices during a delightful teenaged summer as Supreme Court messengers, but even we know that the truth is always an absolute defense against a slander charge, and we spent enough time in the newspaper business to know that the thank-God-for-it Sullivan decision sets an extraordinarily high standard of proof for slander against any public figure, which allows us even from our humble internet porch to poke unremitting fun at the likes of the thin-and-orange-skinned and ridiculously coiffed Donald J. Trump, so we expect that the more knowledgeable-about-these-things Cruz will quickly prevail in the courts.
Cruz also seem undaunted by Trump’s threat to challenge his eligibility to serve as President of the United States unless some groveling apology for all disagreements was forthcoming. Although Cruz was admittedly born in Canada, as well as he can recall, and although his father was a naturalized citizen who had fled a dictatorship in Cuba, his mother was a natural born citizen who had lived the requisite number of years in the country, and that’s good enough for the Illinois election board, and we expect that most Americans will also be satisfied. We note that Trump hasn’t yet filed suit, whatever standing he might have, or whatever lawyers he might hire to find some, and further note that he’s willing to let this matter of constitutional law drop if he gets an honor-satisfying apology.
There’s also the problem that Trump would be deposed on video after filing suit, and that Cruz has indicated interest in doing the honors himself, and that it wouldn’t go according to World Wrestling Entertainment rules.
Perhaps this will be prove another one of those brilliant maneuvers that Trump has made on his way to front-runner status. Trump does have considerable legal experience of his own, after all, after two divorces and one post-divorce lawsuit regarding a decree that the party of the second part never say anything bad about him, as well as at least 169 federal lawsuits that he brought against others or were brought against him, including one suit against two fellows named Trump for doing business in their family name, which alleged that Trump’s Trump trumped all other Trumps’ Trump, even though the defendants’ family had been using the name longer than Trump’s family, and there was the successful lawsuit brought by the Justice Department for anti-trust violations, and the ongoing lawsuits by the New York State Attorney General and a lot of disgruntled students over the scam Trump University, as well as all the nuisance suits that billionaires attract, so maybe he knows what he’s doing. If  so, we’ll be intrigued how it plays out. Trump can make good on his threat to have an opponent’s political advertisement banned by the government, and it will cost Cruz some campaign funds to deal with it and fringe media that openly support Trump will be gleeful about, but the case will be quickly laughed out of court and pilloried in the press and laughed at on all the late night comedy shows, and for one brief news-and-joke cycle Cruz won’t be the butt of the jokes. Trump’s “birther” bit has about as much chance of knocking Cruz out of the race as it did of knocking Barack Obama out of the presidency, and we notice that he hasn’t filed that suit yet.
Trump could back off his threats, with some blustery explanation about how he won again, because he always wins, and so he couldn’t have lost, and perhaps that will satisfy his fans. We’ve witnessed these sorts of confrontations between tough guys before, though, and we’ve never seen anyone pick a fight and back off a winner.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, Back at the Asylum

Sometimes we get the unsettling feeling that our government doesn’t take the threat of Islamic terrorism quite seriously enough. The most recent time was when we read about the 1,519 foreigners who have been granted asylum in the United States despite their known ties to terrorist groups.
The report was in the internet publication The Daily Caller, which can easily be dismissed as one of those crazy right-wing sites, and its source was the activist group Judicial Watch, which suffers a similarly conservative notoriety, but they were simply publishing a copy of a report to Congress prepared by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, whose reputation is quite unsullied by any taint of conservatism. We’re therefore inclined to believe that are indeed 1,519 people with known ties to anti-American terror organizations enjoying refuge in the United States, especially because the government seems so very proud about it.
Although the USCIS concedes that the 1,519 asylum seekers all provided some sort of support to terrorist groups, with 627 providing the more ominous-sounding “material support” to undesignated terrorist groups and another 198 providing “material support” to the more ominous-sounding designated terrorist groups, they insist these asylum-seekers did so only “under duress.” This is plausible, we suppose, given how much duress there is in the Middle Eastern countries from whence these 1,519 individuals came, but given that there are 1,519 of them we can’t help wondering how sure the government is that they all were unwitting accomplices. We also wonder if they won’t come under similar duress here, given that homegrown terror networks tend to be even more duress-ing than that federal government wants to be.
These concerns are not addressed in the USCIS report to Congress, but even the bureaucratese of document they are clearly proud of their willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who has has provided “material support” to even designated terror groups but has a story about under duress. At least it’s only 1,519 of them, and not the hundreds of thousands of suspiciously young and male and abled bodied and non-Syrian “refugees” who are flooding into Europe, while our own government is hoping to give at least 10,000 of the same benefit of the doubt, but it’s still another one of those frequent times when we worry that the threat of Islamic terrorism isn’t be taken quietly seriously enough.

— Bud Norman