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Trying to Read Between the Lines and Behind the Headlines

The political news requires an extremely careful reading in the age of President Donald Trump. One must not only read between the lines, but also try to get a peek behind the story by speculating on the identity of all those unnamed sources and what their motives might be for providing the information.
Whenever the stories reflect poorly on Trump he insists that the sources simply don’t exist, which his rally crowds always cheer lustily, but after four decades in and around the news business we don’t believe the claim. Journalists do occasionally make things up, but they tend to get caught, especially when they’re on a story that other journalists are also covering, and the consequences always prove a deterrent to the rest of the profession. We’ve also noticed that an awful lot of those stories Trump dismisses as “fake news” wind up being corroborated by congressional hearing testimony and court documents and are eventually explained rather than denied by the White House press secretary.
Which makes the identity of a few of Monday’s unnamed sources a most intriguing mystery.
The National Broadcasting Company’s “Nightly News” aired a widely noted story that White House chief of staff John Kelly had a tenuous relationship with both Trump and pretty much the rest of his administration. The network reported that Kelly has called Trump “an idiot,” complained about the president’s shallow understanding of complicated policy matters, and told staffers that he was heroically preventing an impulsive president from disastrous actions. It also said that Kelly has annoyed women staffers with sexist remarks and his defense of a former top White House official who had been accused by two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend.
Less than 45 minutes after the story aired Kelly issued a statement through the White House press office calling it “total BS,” affirming his undying loyalty to the president and his agenda, and decrying “another pathetic attempt to smear people and distract from the administration’s many successes.” Which might be true, as Kelly came into the White House as a four-star Marine general with a rock-solid reputation for integrity, but at this point he’s been there’s long enough we’re more inclined to believe the unnamed sources.
It’s not at all hard to believe that Kelly is of the many millions of Americans frequently frustrated by Trump’s study habits and impetuous temperament, after all, and pretty much everyone has at some point called his boss an “idiot.” Recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never did forthrightly deny that he’d called Trump a “moron” — which he’d reportedly emphasized with a certain gerund form curse word we’ll not repeat here — and although Trump claimed not to believe it he did feel compelled to “tweet” a challenge to Tillerson in an intelligence quotient test contest, and more unnamed White House officials than any fiction writer could create have anonymously shared similar gripes. Kelly did have some strangely nice things to say about credibly accused wife-beater, his reputation for rock-solid integrity took when his statement issued through the White House press office about the firing largely untrue, and he strikes as the sort of four-star Marine general who probably has some ideas about the differences between the sexes that are too old-fashioned even for the sort of women who work in the Trump White House.
Most of those women seem to remain loyal to Trump, though, and the unnamed sources are clearly more interested in taking down Kelly. Which has led to widespread speculation that the sources are closely associated with presidential daughter Ivanka Trump and presidential-son-in-law Jared Kushner, who were prominent figures in the administration figures when Kelly was installed as chief of staff but have since disappeared almost entirely from the news. Trump’s former campaign “chief executive officer” and White House “chief strategist,” who was ousted after Kelly became chief of staff and has since lost his media gig and billionaire backers and is now known to Trump as “Sloppy Steve,” is always considered a suspect, and there’s a chance he still has a few allies in the White House. On the other hand it could be almost any of those seemingly loyal women hanging around, as Kelly has reportedly described the fairer sex as overly emotional.
All of the unnamed sources are described as administration officials, and we doubt that NBC would run the risk of one of its many competitors more convincingly reporting otherwise, so at least we can be sure they’re not Democrats. In the mysterious case of it was who handed over to The New York Times the list of subjects that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation would like to ask Trump about in an interviews, which the investigators had turned over to Trump’s legal defense team just a short time earlier, it’s momentarily impossible to rule out anybody.
According to the document provided by the Times’ unnamed source, the special counsel intends to ask some pretty tricky questions about the Trump campaign’s previously denied or undisclosed but now thoroughly documented contacts with Russian government operatives, and the Trump administration’s actions that might be construed as obstructing the subsequent investigations into that. The Times might have made it up, unconcerned that its reputation would be unsullied by convincing denials of both the special counsel and the Trump defense team, but so far that hasn’t happened, and if the interview ever does come to pass it sounds exactly like the sort of things we’d be asking.
Maybe the special counsel dropped it off at the Times’ Washington bureau shortly visiting Trump’s legal defense team’s offices, but they’ve been a remarkably un-leaky so far, to the extent that all the search warrants and indictments and guilty pleas they’ve racked up have all taken everybody by surprise. There’s rampant speculation it was leaked by members of the Trump legal defense team who are hoping in God and pubic opinion to persuade Trump not to sit down with that ruthlessly efficient special counsel team and answer their very tricky questions in his usual impulsive style, but the Times itself has tamped that down. Someone in the White House but not on the defense team, maybe, or perhaps some “deep state” operative that probably does exist among all thousands of workaday feds.
In the checkout line at the neighborhood grocery store we noticed the headline about “Trump’s Fixer” and his sordid dealings, and although we were too stingy to pay for a copy we had no trouble discerning where that story came, and what it means. The “fixer” in the headline is Trump’s longtime attorney Michael Cohen, who has admitted making a $130,000 payment to a pornographic video performer to prevent from talking about an alleged affair with Trump, which led to the Justice Department’s southern district of New York office executing a very thorough search warrant on his home and office and hotel room, based on a tip from the special counsel. That led to widespread speculation that Cohen was going to provide some answers to those pesky special counsel questions that would reflect poorly on Trump.
Porn stars and presidents are perfect fodder for The National Enquirer, but in this case the president is a good friend and loyal supporter of the president, so to the casual supporter it might seem odd they’re screaming headlines about “Trump’s Fixer.” If you’ve been following the complicated story so far, though, you’re well aware that Trump’s even more longtime lawyer, the one who negotiated his great divorce settlements, has assured him that Cohen is going to sing like the cliched canary, so the all-out assault on the integrity of somehow Trump was recently calling a “great guy” has begun. It also undercuts any Democratic efforts to exploit the shady dealings of Trump’s longtime attorney and “fixer.”
In any case, the truth will out, somewhere down the line, maybe in some little read history book published far in the future. In any case, Kelly probably does think Trump is an idiot, and he does strike as the sort of old-fashioned sexist pig you’d want in a four-star Marine General, we sort hope he’s obsequious enough to hang around and tackle the president before he gets to the nuclear football, Trump’s eventually going to have answer those pesky questions, if not to the special counsel then surely to subsequent historians, and we can well understand why any lawyer would advise him to put the final verdict as far into the future as possible.
At this point all we know for certain is that poor Cohen fellow is in quite a fix. We know that for a fact, oddly enough, because we saw in the headline of The National Enquirer at the local grocery checkout line.

— Bud Norman

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When the Scapegoats Bite Back

Having grown up on cloak-and-dagger movies, a favorite genre of our father, we know better than to provoke the wrath of an espionage agency. Those guys are always portrayed as ruthlessly efficient sorts, and they’ve put more athletic and handsome men than ourselves in perilous situations we do not wish to endure, so we make it a point not to say anything unflattering about them. President Barack Obama has apparently been watching too many “chick flicks” and arty independent releases, however, as he’s foolhardily started a public relations fight with the entire intelligence community.
It’s all a result of that Islamic State terror gang that’s lately been conquering huge swaths of Syria and Iraq and spreading the most gruesome sort of mayhem along the way, including the widely publicized beheadings of two Americans and other westerners. The situation is all the more embarrassing for the president because he had run for re-election on the boasts that American troops had been withdrawn from a stable and secure Iraq, that Islamist terrorism was “on the run” and “the tide of war is receding,” and that as recently as last winter he was telling a fawning interviewer that the Islamic State terror gang was the “jayvee team” of Islamist terrorism and nothing to worry about. Now that the “jayvees” are within a mile or so of Baghdad that the president is insisting he never called them that, a claim so preposterous that even the friendliest press won’t pretend otherwise, so he’s been casting about for another explanation that confirms his infallibility. What he came up with during a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” which is where Democratic presidents go to get some much-needed sympathy, is that his Director of National Intelligence has already volunteered that the intelligence community got it wrong.
The Director of National Intelligence might have professional reasons to throw himself under the proverbial bus, but his underlings in the various agencies are apparently less willing to take the blame. They’ve responded not with wristwatch-laser beams fountain pen explosives or the other high-tech gadgetry that always figures in the movies, but rather by reaching into their old fashioned Rolodexes for the phone numbers of well-placed reporters who owe them favors. No less a fancy-schmantzy newspaper than The New York Times, which has previously been willing to re-write the history of the Iraq war and the rules of English grammar to accommodate the president, was indebted enough to its deep-cover sources to produce a damning rebuttal to the administration line. According to the inevitably unnamed but assuredly senior intelligence and military sources, the president had been warned in alarmed language as early as late last year about the rising threat of the Islamic State but failed to pay heed.
One wonders that those unnamed sources were owed, because a close reading of the article buttresses conservatives articles that The New York Times is usually inclined to ridicule. Even the token right-winger at The Washington Post was allowed to note that it shows that Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq rather than negotiate a new status of forces agreement has proved unwise, that the resulting sectarian violence was foreseeable, and that the president ignored the intelligence community’s warnings for political and ideological reasons. All of these revelations feed a growing public perception that the president is too busy with golf and fund-raising to be a serious steward of America’s foreign policy, and it doesn’t help to have new revelations about how often he skips his national security briefings altogether. The last time this was in the news was right after the tragic fiasco at the American consulate in Benghazi, when the administration laughed it off with claims that the president didn’t need to question is advisers because unlike his illiterate predecessor he could read reports and was “among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet.” That explanation was sufficient to win the president re-election, but with the Islamic State at the gates of Baghdad and the cloak-and-dagger guys now in full revolt it might not prove as effective in the upcoming mid-terms.

— Bud Norman