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What Goes Unbuilt to Build a Wall

As every civic-minded American newsreader already knows by now, President Donald Trump has declared a national emergency to re-appropriate a few billion dollars from the defense budget to build a big beautiful wall along America’s southern border. By now you should also know that majorities in both chambers of Congress voted to block the action, but Trump vetoed it, and it seems unlikely that a super-majority in the Senate will be able to override it, and despite some court challenges Trump seems likely to eventually get some wall money.
We commend you for having followed it that closely, but if you’re as obsessively civic-minded a newsreader as we are you might want to know from where those few billions of dollars will likely be re-appropriated.
A couple of intrepid reporters at The Washington Post were curious enough to look into it, and although we’re supposed dismiss their findings as “fake news” from “enemies of the people” their conclusions sound plausible enough to us, and better sourced than what Trump usually has to say about what some people are saying. Much of the report is based on a list that the Defense Department reluctantly released under pressure from Congress that identifies $12.9 billion of military construction projects that been funded but not yet contracted, which according to the convoluted theories of the vaguely written law that Trump is invoking are fair game for presidential re-appropriation. The Pentagon has ruled out defunding the projects they expect to finalize contracts for within the year, which leaves only $4.35 billion available, and Trump has announced he expects to spend $3.6 billion of it on his wall, an a civic-minded newsreader can make an educated guess about which projects are most vulnerable.
There are 10 projects with a combined cost of $403 million slated for Puerto Rico, which has no electoral votes and has long seemed of little concern to Trump, so they seem likely to be slashed. The projects include a school for military children on former Air Force base and improved training for the Puerto Rican National Guard, which previous Defense Departments and congresses had considered important to the national security, but Trump will easily able to explain to the die-hard fans that $403 million worth of wall along a few miles of the southern border is more important than anything that might happen in Puerto Rico.
There’s another $745 million to be had from the European Deterrence Initiative, which includes 23 projects spread throughout Europe and was launched by President Barack Obama back in 2014 after Russia’s assaults on the sovereignty of Ukraine and Crimea, that’s surely a tempting slice of the budget to Trump. He can still tell the die-hard fans that no president has ever been tougher on Russia, and that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a nice guy who’d never do anything to hinder American democracy, anything Obama did had to be wrong, and all those supposedly allied countries where the money was being spent are all taking advantage of us and laughing behind our backs. What’s more, none of those countries have any electoral college votes.
Another $258 is slated to be spent in Guam, which is mostly a strategically crucial military base but has no electoral votes, and the rest is spread out over eight states. The Washington Post generously provides a graph showing how much spending had been slated for each state, and without bothering to dig into what the projects are we assume the cuts will be made according to how many votes each state is expected to deliver in the next electoral college. That’s bad news for Washington and Maryland, good news for Texas, and probably the best news of all for states the Republicans hope they can possibly flip and suddenly have to worry they might lose. The math might require that some Republican district or another will take a hit, but Trump can still count on its Representative’s support.
Which is no way to appropriate money for the national defense, of course, but we suppose it’s always been so. The smart defense contractors always spread their work around the country just enough to sway congressional and electoral college majorities, the smart politicians always defend their home turf’s share, and we notice that a significant portion of Obama’s spending went to such reliably Democratic states as Washington and Maryland, even if we also notice that Boeing is still big in Washington and has always gotten its share based on merit. Even so, the politics of this particular moment seem especially peculiar.
For one thing, we’re not at all persuaded that a big beautiful wall along the entire southern border is a pressing national security need, much less the stuff of a state of national emergency. Our assessment of the worldwide threats to national security finds far more pressing needs, and the very official-souning “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the National Intelligence Community” seems to agree with us. According to all the polls everybody but the die-hard Trump fans are similarly unimpressed, and so are majorities of the people’s representatives in both chambers of Congress also disagree, even if they can’t muster a super-majority in the Senate to override a veto.
For another thing, the few measly billions of dollars that Trump intends re-appropriate will only pay for a relatively few miles of it, and much of that will be tied in legal fees fighting the landowners who have been happily living along an unwalled border objecting to the government’s eminent domain seizure of their private property. An affinity for private property and an aversion to government seizures used to be a defining characteristic of American conversation, which is yet another thing we don’t like about the politics of the moment.
Conservatives also used to believe in the Constitution, which gives the legislative branch the power to appropriate funds and doesn’t mention the executive branch doing any re-appropriating, and that’s even one more thing we don’t like about the politics of moment.

— Bud Norman

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Trump Jumps the Shark

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

— Bud Norman

Worldwide Threats and Other Worries

For those of us clear-eyed realists who are gloom and doom worrywarts, the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” by America’s collective intelligence agencies is always a must-read. This year’s edition is especially worrisome, especially when you notice how starkly different it is from President Donald Trump’s foreign policy priorities.
The 42-page document continues to stress the danger of the Islamic State, although Trump has declared complete victory over the terror gang and announced a withdrawal of all troops from the fight against it in Syria. Trump has proudly “tweeted” that he eliminated any threat from North Korea, but the intelligence agencies agree that the nutcase dictatorship is continuing to pursue a nuclear arsenal. The intelligence agencies also concluded that Iran is keeping to a deal to cease its nuclear weapons development, although the country continues to support all sorts of non-nuclear terrorism, while Trump continues to withdraw America from the deal and hasn’t yet negotiated a better one. Trump has yet to address the problem of Russian’s cyber-meddling in American democracy, and continues to countenance Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s instance he’d never do that, but the intelligence agencies are still alarmed.
The “Worldwide Threat Assessment” also concludes that the past two years of American trade policy and diplomacy have weakened ties with longstanding allies and prompted traditional friends to seek new relationships, and makes only brief mention of the southern border where Trump wants to build a big beautiful wall. As frightening as the 42 pages are, it’s more worrisome yet that Trump seems to disregard them.
Trump and his die-hard fans can assure themselves that these are the same intelligence agencies that have blundered America into endless wars useless alliances, and that they’re a bunch of fancy-pants Ivy League elitists who think they know everything, and that the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” is another example of the nefarious “deep state” conspiring to thwart Trump at every turn. We’ve been assured by Trump that he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and more about America’s military alliances than the four-star general who was forced to resign as Secretary of Defense, and that Putin sure seemed sincere when he said that the Russians weren’t meddling in our democracy, and that “my gut sometimes tells me more than anybody else’s brain can tell me.
Go ahead and call us gloom and doom worrywarts, but we are not reassured. Trump’s own appointees have signed off on the “World Threat Assessment” and testified to Congress about it, and they seem far more knowledgeable about world affairs than Trump’s unaccountably educated gut, and we think they’re more interested in a clear-eyed assessment of reality than advancing Trump’s populist political rhetoric. Even Trump’s own appointees agree with the carefully considered bipartisan consensus of expert opinion that has guided American foreign policy since the end of World War II, and although the results have admittedly been imperfect America and the rest of world have generally become more prosperous and free, and there hasn’t yet been a World War III, so we trust the brains of those fancy pants know-it-alls more than we do Trump’s gut.
There’s a lot to worry about in the world these days, but we feel slightly better knowing that at least some of Trump’s appointees and few brave congressional Republicans are worrying about it.

— Bud Norman