Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria. The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished. This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.
The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple. Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario. They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.
The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences. Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies. It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences. Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.
The larger question is “what next?” Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come. What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.
The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts. The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month. It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.
On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike. What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened. When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook. Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet). Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night. Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.
Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not. There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea. However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.
With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation. Three of those things come to the forefront this week. One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court. The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself. Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal. Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court. In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy. They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.
You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians. Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin. The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different. As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences. When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action. I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.
It looks like the same thing will happen this time around. Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken. President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.
How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself. Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013. He posted the following statement then.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.
Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.
Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad. More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.” Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose. Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.
Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response. It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame. That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.
We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria. The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area. The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him. He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened. Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight. The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own. It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.
One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway. One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do. This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed. I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem. However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.
Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test. He said, in a twenty-three word statement,
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
No one knows what that means. Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.
In total, it is all very strange.
President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future). North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure. Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow. In the interview in the Financial Times referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy. Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.
These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being. They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting. We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand. To me, the signs are that he is not.
These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation. And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security. In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”
“Obamacare is the law of the land. … We’re going to be living with Obamacare for the foreseeable future.” — Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) on 24 March 2017
The last ten days of the Donald Trump Administration has had more drama and newsworthy events than any recent presidency in memory. Most of it was not good news. Not good for the country and not good for the Trump Administration. Ranging from the revelation that the FBI is conducting a long-term investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and foreign entities, to the failure of the House of Representatives to vote on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The American Health Care Act (AHCA) was pulled by Speaker Ryan because of its sure defeat in the House. A defeat I may add, that came despite the fact that the Republicans had a majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.
There are many reasons why the bill failed, and I am sure that pundits will dissect those reasons at length as time goes by. Among the most prominent in my view, is that as the final push began to go from theory to an actual bill, the Republicans lost sight of policy and focused primarily on politics. In so doing they ended up changing the bill in ways that left only 17% of Americans in favor of it replacing the ACA.
Despite President Trump’s promise on 17 January 2017 that his health care bill was nearly finished and would be revealed shortly, he apparently did not have one of his own and went with the proposal crafted by Speaker Ryan. In that January interview, President Trump also insisted that his health care bill would provide “insurance for everybody” and that people “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.” Which, surprisingly from this administration, turned out not to be true.
One could also ask why after seven years of campaigning on “repeal and replace” the Republicans did not have a viable plan, worked on by all factions of their party, with the contentious issues litigated before hand, ready to go? It became a lesson for the new majority that opposition is much easier than leadership.
Speaking of leading, President Trump learned that leading the nation and a divided government is much different, and I would add more difficult, than running Trump, Inc. The “closer” couldn’t close and he found that threats to an equal branch of government do not carry much water when the president’s approval rating is only in the 30’s and his disapproval rating is in the high 50’s.
There are other significant issues at play and we will see how things work out in the coming months as the president moves on to more “fun” (his word) endeavors such as tax reform and infrastructure renewal. However, I think that all concerned are naive to believe that health care is resolved for the future. In many ways, this is just round one of a longer, continuing saga. As always, the devil is in the details and there are many details yet to be resolved before the battle of the ACA vs. AHCA is over.
Recall that President Trump and others continually repeat that the ACA is a “disaster” and in his usual method of communicating complicated issues, tweeted that “ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE. Do not worry!” One of many such tweets where he constantly reiterates that ObamaCare (the ACA) will “explode” or “implode” depending on his mood of the day, and blaming everyone — Republicans, Democrats, bureaucrats, a long list — for the failure of the bill to pass the House. He blames everyone but himself or his dogmatic but very inexperienced staff, even as insiders say that he never really understood the policy behind the bill, nor really had much interest in it other than as a tag line during the campaign.
“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” — President Trump on 27 February 2017
Here is the real point. In fact, President Trump and his administration can turn his prediction into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By regulatory action, or inaction, and by refusing to defend or promote the current system, they can indeed cause it to fail. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but over time they can ensure that it fails without the proper attention to implementing its provisions.
Nearly all impartial adjudicators, including the Congressional Budget Office, state that under current provisions, the ACA will not explode, implode, or otherwise become a disaster. It is working. However, it is not working perfectly and could use improvement. In particular the number of insurance companies participating are decreasing, and deductibles in some areas are increasing. There is some debate as to whether this is happening because of the uncertainty that surrounded the ACA leading into the introduction of the AHCA or other factors. Generally, the experts say that this trend can be reversed and in any case, does not impact all Americans.
The ACA — ObamaCare if you will — can be improved and should be improved. Just like Social Security and other programs, the original plans are rarely perfect and it is entirely reasonable to see changes that improve the process and benefits. Hopefully, now that the histrionics from both parties are over, the real leaders of the House and Senate can sit down in a bipartisan way and work on fixing the things that need to be fixed in the ACA. I am not optimistic that it will happen. It will be difficult because from a policy viewpoint it is expensive and from a political viewpoint the Republican majority cannot pass such legislation without significant numbers of Democrats on board. Thus far they have shown themselves to be unbelievably reluctant to pass anything that needs Democrats to carry the day. Conversely, at this point in time, Democrats are unwilling to show support for much of anything that President Trump is pushing. That said, I am more confident that President Trump will be willing to work with Democrats and they may in turn be willing to work with him, on the right issues.
Unfortunately, the Secretary of Human Health and Services Tom Price made a career in the House of Representatives by opposing the ACA. Now that he is the Secretary he can make regulatory changes that lessens the coverage provided by the ACA. He can refuse to defend in it court when challenged and he can refuse to advertise re-enrollment dates and other factors that makes it harder for people to access and benefit from the Act. Whether this will happen or not, time will tell, but as the president and others continue to insist that the ACA will collapse, it is entirely possible that Secretary Price will help to make matters worse.
President Trump now has the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he is the great negotiator that he claims to be. He can choose to show real leadership and bring the parties together and do something positive for all Americans or he can show us that his “repeal and replace” sloganeering was only that — an applause line without substance. So far his stated intention is to “move on.”
What he cannot do is claim that he no longer has any responsibility for the future of health care in the United States, which is what he tried to do last Friday.
“I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer because now they own Obamacare. They own it – a hundred percent own it. And this is not a Republican health care. This is not anything but a Democrat health care. And they have Obamacare for a little while longer, until it ceases to exist, which it will at some point in the near future. And just remember. This is not our bill. This is their bill.” — President Trump on 24 March 2017
Sorry, Mr. President. I regret to inform you that you are the president of the entire nation and that you are responsible for the well-being of all its citizens. And oh, by the way, it was the Republicans that could not get themselves organized to pass their own bill.
Let us all work for a better deal in the future.
Another day, another Trump story dominating the news. I will eventually again write about something other than our president, but it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room when every morning there is some new statement by the president or his staff that is cringe worthy. Be it wire tapping (with or without “quotation marks” — this is what we have come down to — or misspellings) or microwaves as cameras, every day there is something. We as citizens need to look past the daily “guess what they just said” comments and try to discern what is really going on.
Avoiding a discussion on the Trump Administration policies for the moment, which is hard to do, there is a different picture I am trying to understand. And believe me, trying to ignore his proposals is difficult, be it the American Health Care Act (or Trumpcare — no, no, it’s Ryancare — no, no Trumpcare) or the president’s budget proposals that gut many essential programs and departments. Those proposals, as good or as bad as they may be depending on one’s political views, are just that, proposals. The Congress ultimately will pass, or not, the AHCA and any president’s budget proposals are more of a wish list and indicator of their administration’s priorities rather than the actual budget, which is also the purview of the Congress.
I am focused for the moment on trying to figure out exactly what is going on with those things that the president actually controls and what they may portend. To some degree, it is necessary to get down in the weeds to see where things are headed. There are several troubling indicators of how President Trump intends to run his administration.
At first I could not figure out if the nonsensical and illogical tweets, statements, and press briefings were the sign of an administration in disarray, trying to find its bearings or something else. I have come to believe it is something else. Many pundits have already commented on the fact that every time the media or the public focuses on some inane action or statement from the president or his staff, some new, head line grabbing tweet or statement comes out. Some call President Trump the Distractor-in-Chief (DIC?). That may be part of it, but I think there is a larger more insidious goal. President Trump continually calls any reporting he does not like “fake news.” Beyond that he and his staff continually attack the media and put out statements that are proven to be untruthful, yet they double down and insist that it is true by pointing to some off-the-wall media source as the “proof” of their statements. This is deliberate — not flaky, or anti-PC, or any other excuse attributed to the activity. I say again, it is deliberate. The White House staff is deliberately and systematically trying to undermine the credibility of the serious news outlets in the United States. Coupled with the stated disdain of the intelligence community so often reiterated by the president and his advisers, there is a very deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of distrust where nothing is ground truth. Once such an atmosphere exists, the administration can say and do anything that they want to do and they will then claim black is white and only they know what is going on. Trust them. How many times has Senior Adviser Kelly Anne Conway (and others) gone on a news show and defended some outrageous statement from the president? When pressed for evidence that such statements are true, how many times has she said words to the effect that “well, the president has access to information that I do not have so he must know what he is talking about?” No proof. No logic. Only that if the president said it, it has to be true, no matter how outrageous. And how many times when personally pressed does the president decline to give proof to defend a statement and only says something along the lines of “more information will be coming out in about two weeks. It will be amazing. You won’t believe what is going on. It will surprise you. Believe me.” Have you noticed that it is always in two weeks? And then two weeks, months, years, pass and nothing more comes out.
This approach seriously undermines the credibility of the president. If anyone were to pay attention. Seemingly most Americans shrug it off as that’s “Trump being Trump” or as the “mainstream media” trying to undermine his presidency. Never mind that the media merely plays what the president or his advisers actually say and then for some strange reason ask them to provide the basis for the statement. How unfair!
You can take it to the bank that our friends and enemies are paying attention.
That is why I am so troubled. Either the president does not care that his credibility suffers, credibility that will be crucial when a real crisis hits our country, or he is risking his credibility in order to undermine the veracity of any source of information outside the White House so that only his version of the truth is available. A harsh assessment, I admit, but increasingly I am unable to come up with any other explanation for the way that he and his staff conduct business. What began as mildly amusing behavior morphed to incredulity to concerns about sanity to fear that it is intentional.
And there is more.
There are some good people working in the Trump administration. Secretary Mattis is one, Lt General McMaster is another, and others, who while I may disagree with their policy views, I respect their integrity and willingness to try to do the right thing. Many of them signed up with this administration with the caveat that they be able to pick their own people and not be micro-managed by the White House. So far, that is not happening.
Secretary Mattis has yet to get a second in command, the Deputy Secretary of Defense. He tried three times so far to get three different people in place. All rejected by the White House. There are no other political appointees below the Secretary level at DOD thus far. One may claim that we need to “drain the swamp” but the reality is that the Secretary cannot do everything by himself. Skilled, knowledgeable people with expertise in everything from procurement to regional alliances need to be in place to make U.S. policy effective. Right now, nobody. Likewise, in the State Department. Secretary Tillison’s nominees for his subordinate political positions are zero for everyone. None has gotten past the White House. Just as troubling to those that understand how such things work, last week the Mexican Foreign Minister, the direct counter part to Secretary Tillerson was in Washington for talks and the State Department did not even know he was in town, much less participate in the discussions. Only the White House inner circle participated. National Security Adviser McMaster found out last week that, in fact, he cannot pick his own staff. He tried to have a Trump campaign supporter now in charge of national intelligence for the National Security Council moved to a different job so that NSA McMaster could put a more qualified and effective person in that slot. The staffer went to the president, on the advice of Mr. Steve Bannon, and NSA McMaster was overruled. There are a multitude of similar examples were one to peel away the layers and look inside the various departments and agencies in the Executive Branch.
Even if all that is true, who cares? So what? Why write about it except for sour grapes?
There are at least two reasons to take note. The most benign concern is that our nation’s defense and foreign policies, to name two, cannot be thoroughly vetted, reviewed and implemented without the right people (any people!) in place. No matter how good the Secretary may be, he or she is only one person and cannot do it all alone. The more serious concern is that the White House staff, the close inner circle to the president, may not want any effective push back from the Defense or State Departments or other agencies. They may want only the White House inner circle to promulgate and execute policy. The Cabinet’s job is merely to act as props (see almost every signing ceremony in the White House) or cheerleaders for the president.
President Trump’s style as a businessman was to have a small, totally loyal, inner circle that carried out his decisions. By all accounts describing his style, President Trump is not much for details and makes decisions by using his “gut instincts.” His close inner circle then carries on and implements what they understand to be his intent. This may work in a real estate business, but it does not work well in an undertaking as large as the United States government, especially when the current inner circle takes great pride in stating that they have no experience. When they also refuse, or limit, the input from those that do have knowledge and expertise, something is brewing. It is either a disaster waiting to happen, or something more sinister, such as a drift towards centralized, autocratic control of the nation.
When all of the pieces of the puzzle are together — and there are more including Mr. Bannon’s view of the world, his declaration to “dismantle the administrative state,” blaming “the deep state” for the failures of their policies, lashing out at the judiciary, claiming that former President Obama is running a shadow government with the aim of stopping the Trump administration, among others — it paints a troubling picture.
At first I thought that maybe they were just experiencing growing pains, not unusual for a new administration. Then I thought that maybe the staff was just trying to deal with a loose cannon in President Trump — which could be dangerous, but the experienced hands would eventually bring him back to reality. Now I am beginning to see that it is actually a plan. What I have not decided upon is whether President Trump is the visionary using his staff, or whether Mr. Bannon is the visionary using the president to fulfill his own view of re-ordering the world.
I absolutely have not given up on the ship of state being righted and put back on a steady course. There are positive signs such as the Congress (after only about 8 months!) investigating the impact of Russian meddling on our national election. Equally soothing is that more and more Representatives and Senators, of both parties, have nicely said that the president lied when he stated that President Obama had Trump Towers and the campaign “wire tapped.” The judicial system is working to check the executive over reach of some of the president’s Executive Orders. The system is working as intended, even if in fits and starts. It remains incumbent on all Americans to keep our eyes wide open and call “foul” when appropriate. Likewise, we need to give credit where it is due. All is not lost, not even close, but I still worry. If we see this seeming chaos from self-inflicted crises within the White House, one wonders what will happen when a real crisis erupts. History teaches us that one eventually will come along. And probably sooner than later.
When it happens, that will be the true test of this administration. My nightmare scenario is given the chaos and attempts to undermine anything that runs counter to White House wishes now, while in a period of relative calm with a strong economy and no direct existential threats to our well-being, what will happen in a major crisis? Will the administration draw upon the many talented and experienced resources our nation and our government has to solve the problem or will they draw even more inward in an attempt to use the crisis to consolidate more power and move further towards autocracy?
I have no crystal ball and have no idea how things will unfold. The signs thus far leave me greatly troubled about the future of our great nation, more so than at any point in my life.
A basic admonition for success in a variety of sports such as baseball, golf and many others, is to keep your eye on the ball and follow through. The same is true for politics. Distractions come easily and it is easy to lose track of the original issue. Such seems to be the case with the fireworks surrounding the knowledge that Russia interfered with our 2016 presidential election.
In a rare show of unanimity, last fall and again in January this year, the U.S. intelligence community briefed the outgoing and incoming presidents on the Russian meddling. Much of the information is highly classified, but we as citizens can be sure that it happened, otherwise, we can trust nothing that our professionals in intelligence and highly respected leaders tell us. They do not make such accusations lightly or without serious and deep consideration as to the facts and the repercussions. As a result of their findings, President Obama in September 2016, in a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, told him to “cut it out” with regards to Russian cyber attacks and hacking — notably before the election. Claims that he did so to create a “ruse” because the Democrats are “sore losers” holds no validity when the warning came before the election. In October, again before the election, President Obama used the “red phone” — used to avert nuclear attacks between the two nations — to again warn Mr. Putin about the continued interference in the election. In late December President Obama implemented additional sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats accused of spying within the United States because of the Russian attempts at meddling. These are facts.
In and of itself, every American should be outraged that there is incontrovertible evidence that the Russians attempted to interfere with our most sacred ritual as a nation — the election of our president. This outrage should supersede any sense of Republican, Democrat, Independent, liberal, conservative or any other political category one can imagine. America was under attack. This seemed to be forgotten as our new president initially, and for a lengthy amount of time, refused to acknowledge these facts. Facts that should outrage any serious leader of our nation. Instead in a news conference on 11 January 2017 he attacked our intelligence community and compared them to “Nazis.” He only reluctantly concluded that “as far as the hacking, I think it was Russia” before adding “it could have been others also.”
For whatever reason — ego, appealing to his base, purposely trying to create chaos for some political objective, or trying to cover up the truth — President Trump continues to deny that the Russians had any significant effect or were in fact trying to influence, if not to change, the election. This continued denial, along with accusing the intelligence community of trying to undermine him and all the other shenanigans now coming out of the White House must stop. Enough! This is not a serious presidency if this is the way that they will conduct themselves over the next four years. It is amateur hour.
The current brouhaha surrounds who did or did not meet with representatives and agents of the Russian government and for what reasons. This is where the obfuscation continues. While we argue over whether then Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) met with the Russian Ambassador in his role as a Senator or as a member of the Trump campaign and oh by the way Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) ate donuts with the Ambassador in 1992 is beside the point. Way beside the point. One could argue, on purpose beside the point. Deliberate distractions to keep our eyes off the ball.
Now Attorney General. Mr. Sessions says he “misspoke” about his contact with the Ambassador. Perhaps so. The problem is that in both oral and written testimony during his confirmation hearing he claimed that he had no contact with any member of the Russian government. Just as former (remember he got fired) National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn said nearly the same thing. Just as more and more members of the Trump campaign claimed that they never had contact with any representatives of the Russian government and it is becoming clear that in fact, they did have contact.
Focusing on all of those individual circumstances may or may not have significance. We simply do not know. Here is what we do know. Starting with the first reports of the hacking of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta’s emails (an event seemingly predicted by one of Mr. Trump’s then advisers Mr. Roger Stone before they were released by Wikileaks), Mr. Trump and his staff continually denied that any, repeat any, contact with the Russians simply did not happen. For example, in November 2016 the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded to a press question about contacts with the Trump campaign and said that “there were contacts” with influential people in Trump’s circle. “I don’t say that all of them, but a whole array of them supported contacts with Russian representatives.” In response, Trump campaign spokesperson Ms. Hope Hicks said, “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” This is one of at least twenty separate official denials that there had been any contact with the Russians. Assertions we now know to be false.
Remember that this is an administration that deals in “alternative facts.”
Still, I think all of this who-talked-to-who-and-when is beside the point. It indicates that there is probably some “there” there, but in and of itself is inconclusive. Any single or even series of contacts could have multiple explanations, some of which are benign. What is concerning to me, when taken as a whole, is that so many of them occurred and that the campaign and now the administration, continues to cover up and deny that anything at all took place, even in the face of video and audio that refutes their claims.
What are they so anxiously trying to cover up?
Today was the last straw. One might say that President Trump deployed the metaphorical nuclear option this morning when he tweeted out that President Obama broke the law. More specifically, in a series of tweets this morning he said:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!–President Trump tweet 6:35 AM 4 Mar 2017I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!–President Trump tweet 6:52 AM 4 Mar 2017
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
–President Trump tweet 7:02 4 Mar 2017
Actual quotes from the President of the United States! Unconscionable! Statements such as these are unreasonable and can easily be interpreted to be a calculated effort to create turmoil and unrest in our nation.
There is so much that is wrong with his latest undisciplined reactions it is hard to know where to start. (And it is particularly interesting, or appalling depending on one’s view, that Mr. Trump’s in-your-face style was cultivated by his long time mentor, Mr. Roy Cohn, who was Senator Joe McCarthy’s primary adviser when the McCarthy witch hunt was in full bloom. I suppose that the circle stays unbroken.) Keeping our eyes on the ball, there are a few facts involved with possible underpinnings in the law — unlike the tweets from President Trump who has offered no evidence or other substantiation of his claims. This tweet storm is merely intended to divert attention and to change the narrative. His usual, now predictable, tactic. When under siege, attack. (And exactly why do you think you are under siege Mr. President? Something to hide?)
It is outrageous for a current president to call his predecessor “bad” and it is especially outrageous to call him “sick.” Perhaps if the shoe fits….
But again, this is a diversionary tactic. The facts tell a different story. For example, the president cannot order wire taps on his opponents. It is against the law and only the most screwball, or clinically paranoid, opponents of President Obama would think that he would blatantly break the law by ordering wire taps.
The most inconvenient fact of all for President Trump is this. Should it be true that taps of some sort were placed on Trump Tower, they can only be done when a federal judge under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is presented with probable cause that “foreign powers” or “agents of foreign powers” — which may include U.S. citizens or permanent residents — are suspected of terrorism, colluding with agents of foreign governments against the interests of the U.S., or espionage. When presented with evidence, the judge may approve physical and electronic surveillance of those individuals and their likely places of operation for espionage or other nefarious purposes.
If the FISA statute was implemented by the FBI and NSA through the Department of Justice, utilizing the provisions of the law through the proper court, then President Trump does indeed have reason to distract us from the real problem.
The president may be out of his league. It may turn out that he is not so “big league” (often transcribed as “bigly”) as he assumes. He is up against the full power and strength of the national government and the national press, sworn and determined, respectively, to uphold and protect the Constitution.
President Trump will no doubt continue to make wild, baseless and counter-factual claims. Sad! We need to keep our eye on the ball and follow through.
We are now just a bit over a month into the administration of President Donald J. Trump. Many of us that pay close attention to current events and especially to national politics already feel a bit worn out. Based on recent reports, some are thrilled with the way that the Trump Administration is taking action and carrying out his campaign promises. Others worry that a political disaster is looming just over the horizon. It will impact our national way of life due to the unbridled pursuit of absolute power by those in the White House, or conversely by an administration that has no real idea of what it is doing.
I am closer to the view of an impending disaster than the to the rosier view of our president. I think President Trump, just as he demonstrated on the campaign trail, has no realistic understanding of what it means to be President of the United States. He may be the most unprepared and undisciplined president we have had in our lifetimes. I continue to be troubled by the apparent lack of intellectual curiosity to find out what is actually going on and in particular, how the government functions. He belittles or ignores the contextual surroundings of why certain customs and traditions came to be important in running the country. I am sure he is a smart man. I surmise that he just does not care to learn about all of that. As he might say, he doesn’t have to — he won. As a result, he has no boundaries.
In fact, that may be what got him elected. A large segment of our population wanted him to “blow things up in Washington” and that is certainly what he is doing. As the old adage goes, however, be careful what you ask for. Once he finishes blowing things up, his administration still has to govern and I wonder what will take the place of the current system.
There are some clues, and yesterday, the president’s chief adviser Mr. Steve Bannon gave direct testimony as to his vision, and by extension, the president’s vision on the future of the federal government. I find it deeply troubling. I will explain in a moment, but part of what troubles me is that I am not convinced that President Trump has a personal vision of governing and he does not have a governing ideology, be it conservative, liberal, or something else. In my view, he has ideas that pop into his head and then he acts on them when he perceives that they get a positive response from his base. They are seemingly random and are merely manifestations of the things that popped into his head on the campaign trail. Indeed, I am not sure that the president has much enthusiasm for the mundane aspects of governing. If possible, he would be on a permanent campaign as evidenced by his rally in Florida last weekend that he touted as the beginning of his 2020 re-election campaign — less than a month into his current presidency. I am sure there will be plenty more.
My view is that the flurry of activity since the president entered office is a distraction. The Executive Orders and other actions are meant to give the perception that the president is carrying out his promises to those that elected him and are based on his campaign promises. Looks great. The reality, ignoring for the moment whether or not it is good policy, is that not much is actually happening. He makes empty statements that may sound good to his base, but has no substance behind it. For example, unlike numerous presidents from both parties, no significant legislation has passed since he took office. Most past presidents rolled out some milestone legislation and had it passed in the first 30 days of their term. President Trump has yet to send any major proposals to Congress. Meanwhile, leaders in Congress are ignoring the, shall we say, shenanigans taking place in the White House. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are taking the long view and trying to ignore the day-to-day turmoil created by the president’s tweet storms and press conferences and the like. (One may wonder, however, how long of a view they are taking. It has been over six years since they promised to repeal and replace The Affordable Care Act and they still have nothing close to a realistic proposal to do so.) They may end up being ambushed and/or deceived by the White House in unexpected ways that limits their ability to pass a health bill and other long awaited legislation.
Another piece of the puzzle in figuring out the future intentions of the president, and more accurately Mr. Bannon’s plans, comes in the form of foreign policy and cabinet positions. Although he has a few outstanding Americans in key cabinet positions — such as Secretary James Mattis at Defense (I briefly served with him in the Pentagon during the transition from the President Bill Clinton to the President George W. Bush administration), Secretary Rex Tillerson at State (although his Russian ties are still troubling), Secretary John Kelly at Homeland Security and the new National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster — one wonders as to their influence in the White House. Several examples seem to indicate that they may have little to no influence on decision-making. In particular, Secretary Tillerson does not seem to be much involved in crafting foreign policy. His assignment seems to be more of a public relations job. The three secretaries mentioned above have spent more time going around to various foreign leaders, along with Vice President Pence, explaining “what the president really meant to say” and patching up the resulting frayed relationships with friends and allies. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the United States and President Trump fundamentally changed decades of U.S. Middle East policy, no representative of either the State or Defense Departments were present in the meetings. The president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner was there. Mr. Bannon was there. Mr. Bannon’s acolyte Mr. Stephen Miller was there. But by all credible reports, not one member of the departments responsible for the policy was included.
Other signs that the cabinet may not have much influence in the White House include the fact that individuals picked by several Secretaries for their staffs were summarily fired by the White House when staffers learned that they had made critical comments about Mr. Trump during the campaign. Another clue is that nearly all political appointees were summarily removed after the inauguration. While clearly the incoming president has every right to put his own people in those positions, the usual practice is to keep some appointees from the previous administration in place to keep the government running while the new nominees go through confirmation hearings. Every Ambassador overseas was removed. It is hard to keep things rolling smoothly along when there is no one there to do the job. While much criticism is directed at the Democrats for “slow rolling” the confirmation process of Cabinet officials, the truth is that many of them were poorly vetted prior to their hearings. One Cabinet nominee and two Service Secretaries nominated by the president withdrew their names when unusual entanglements were uncovered. This of course doesn’t include retired Lt. General Michael Flynn resigning as the National Security Adviser weeks into the administration. More significantly in terms of actually making things work, there are roughly 549 political positions in the federal government that require confirmation by the Senate. 14 slots are filled with about 20 others nominated. That means that roughly 515 senior and vital positions in the government have not been nominated. While such hearings can go slowly, previous administrations would have nominated or known who they want to nominate to those positions by now. For info, there are about 3500 additional political positions in the federal government that do not require Senate confirmation. Nearly all of them remain empty.
Here is another piece in the puzzle leading up to my conclusion that something nefarious is going on in the White House. President Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, the intelligence community (yet another one just today), and the press may be his childish backlash to decisions or stories he does not like. I am beginning to think that there is more to it. It may be the president’s own doing or he may be put up to by key members of his staff. Either way, it is potentially dangerous. I am beginning to think that it is a concerted effort to delegitimize those bulwarks of our freedoms. So far Congress seems unable or unwilling to push back against the president. The only institutions that are attempting to keep the president honest are the ones he is attacking. If they are undermined, or ignored, or intimidated, then there is no institution ready to call him out when required. His power would increase. This is not a pretty picture for a man who knows no boundaries.
Least we get distracted, please remember that a foreign power tried to interfere with our election and as late as yesterday, the president called the whole investigation a “ruse.” And we still have not seen any of his tax returns.
So, what is it that I am leading up to? Yesterday, Mr. Bannon — former editor of the alt-right publication Breitbart news and current senior adviser to the president — went before the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) and declared that the goal of the new administration is to dismantle the federal government and re-build it in his image. Or has he said, they are entering in an unending battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” In their view, the “administrative state” is the career civil servants in the government that do not see their role the same way as do Mr. Bannon and his cohorts. Included in his vision of the “enemy” is the intelligence community, judiciary, press and the other institutions that they continually attack. As delineated in the article linked above, Mr. Bannon proclaimed that the president will never moderate his positions or seek consensus. Apparently, it is as we used to say “my way or the highway.”
What will replace the old order? It would take me too much time to go into all of the devilish details of their world view. A short explanation would be that in their view the world order that has prevailed in economics, politics and foreign policy since the end of World War II is no longer relevant for the future and has to be dismantled to give power back “to the people.” “Power to the People!” Sounds familiar. It is also fiercely nationalistic, thus the slogan “America First.” Trade pacts, military alliances, and other areas that you have seen President Trump and his minions talk about as being “obsolete” and “bad for America” are manifestations of this world view.
One may argue that it is time to shake things up (Yea Trump!) and there may be a case to be made there. I am not sure if President Trump fully avows to such a world view or whether it was merely a convenient path to the presidency. He used Mr. Bannon to achieve his ends. The unsettling part is that Mr. Bannon is also using the president to get what he wants. In either case, Mr. Bannon espoused his “pride” in the president for his unwavering pursuit of his new world order and his unwillingness to compromise. To me that does not bode well for our future. Contrary to hard-liners on both sides of the aisle, politics is by nature a compromise. Without it, nothing will get accomplished.
The deeper one dives into Mr. Bannon’s vision and specific statements the more worrisome it becomes that he and his minions in the White House — Mr. Stephen Miller and other former Brietbart writers — are in charge. When one puts all of the pieces of the puzzle together, it is eerily reminiscent of many a work of political fiction outlining a path to autocratic power in our nation.
Whenever one or two people in power declare that they alone know how to set things straight it should be troubling. I think that there is a method to the seeming madness in the White House and in my view it could easily result in a direct assault on the values we hold dear. Our democracy is only as good as the people in it. It will be incumbent on all of us to look with clear eyes as the next few months unfold and to cry foul as appropriate. To our great benefit, it is already beginning to happen in the many town halls held (or not — and that is very telling as well) around our nation with our representatives in Congress.
Whether President Trump represents the good, the bad or the ugly depends on one’s political view-point. None-the-less, we live in interesting times. Hold on to your hat, because I think our national journey is going to get pretty wild in the coming months.
We are approaching the end of the third week of the administration of President Donald J. Trump. For some reason it seems more like the end of three years of his administration. I am already getting worn out from seeing All Trump, All The Time. I suppose that his ever-present countenance would be a natural result of the characteristics of the type of person, campaigner, and president that he is — all based on his perceived success as a “brand” and a television reality star. Like the old cliché goes, even bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, apparently.
By nature, I am not prone to hyperbole and have worked in Washington D.C. long enough to know that sometimes people make mistakes and that the learning curve can be very steep. Missteps blow up on the national stage. So I would like to think that the Trump Administration is growing into the job. Three weeks is not enough time to get everything in order. Indeed, his cabinet is mostly just now reporting for duty. And yet. And yet.
It is difficult for me to ignore or give the benefit of the doubt to his words and actions thus far. In truth, many of his actions — the Executive Orders — are mostly PR events, with the obvious exception of his ban (his word not mine) on refugees from seven Muslim countries. One can debate whether that is a good or bad policy — personally from a national security perspective I think it does far more harm than good — but my interest is bigger than just one particular Order. Since it came out, I have watched with interest all the activity around it, from the White House, to Congress, to the judicial system, to the press corps .
From what I have seen, I am deeply concerned that a Constitutional crisis is not far ahead.
Here is why I think so. At the risk of taking a “Chicken Little” approach to his administration, and understanding that any criticism is labeled as whining and makes me a “LOSER!”, there are some troubling indicators. As I think about these indicators, I am unsure whether they are part of some master plan, or if the president and some of his senior staff are just unable to deal with reality, or if their management style may be likened to a three wood shot in a tiled bathroom.
President Trump lashes out at everyone that he believes is in his way. It doesn’t matter if it is a television host or the leader of another country. If he wants it, he should get it. Childish? Perhaps. Impetuous? Perhaps. Dangerous? Yes, but in what way? Is it dangerous because it is a master plan to create chaos and let things get so bad that our fellow citizens look for a savior to reclaim the land? What powers will be given to that savior that undermine our core values? Or is it dangerous because the president really does not know what he is doing and may in fact have some disability that precludes rational behavior? Deliberate or accidental? I am not sure it matters if the result is the same.
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.” — 1984 by George Orwell
(Most of us read 1984 in High School. I just re-read it and recommend it to you.)
President Trump seems to be the type of person that has always used power, in one form or another, to achieve his personal goals. When thwarted, he lashes out. When he lashes out, he does so to belittle and demean those that have displeased him. He has a long history of doing so. When he was a television personality it didn’t matter and may have been mildly amusing. As a presidential candidate it was troublesome, but had no direct impact on policy and the well-being of the nation. As president, it has direct consequences.
The most disturbing aspect of his attacks is where they are directed. We have three equal branches of government. They often disagree and criticism of one branch by another is not unheard of in our history. However, at least publicly, those criticisms were of a decision or a policy and not directed at the individual or the institution. President Trump attacks the person and the institution. For example, when his ban on refugees entering the country was put on hold by a Federal judge, he attacked not only the decision, but the individual.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” –President Trump on Twitter 4 February
Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad! — President Trump on Twitter 5 February
These are but two of his many tweets about the case. (I never thought I would use the words “tweets” and “president” in the same sentence and actually have it make sense.) Besides attacking the judge, and in a speech this week he attacked the entire judiciary system, he is removing himself from any responsibility for keeping the nation safe. Claiming that if “something happens” (note he doesn’t just say a terrorist attack) it is the fault of the judge and judiciary system and not his as Commander-in-Chief. Sorry, Mr. President. Your job is to use every legal method available to you to keep our nation safe. Period.
Fear-mongering seems to be another aspect of this presidency and helps to create the conditions for a “savior”. President Trump’s tweets, statements, and those of several of his advisers make it sound like a catastrophe is at hand. In their telling, since the stay went into effect thousands of people, most of whom are terrorists, woke up and decided to go to the airport, buy a ticket and fly to the USA. Gotta get the terrorists there now, now, now. Profoundly untrue. The “people pouring in” have gone through “extreme vetting.” They are green card holders and people, usually families with wife, husband and kids, with visas. It is easy for anyone to know (and one would think the president would be one) what procedures the newly arriving refugees (not “illegal immigrants”) go through. And if you don’t know, I recommend this article written by a person that conducted those interviews and reviewed the cases. No visa was granted in less than 18 months of vetting, most take three to five years, and far more people are denied entry than are allowed to enter the country.
When established news outlets try to present such information, the president attacks the media with continual claims of “fake news” for every story unfavorable to his preferred narrative. Apparently, if one criticizes anything related to the president (including the sale of his daughters apparel) you are “unfair” or “very, very dishonest”. Speaking of which….
No, I won’t go that far yet. It just is amazing to me, however, that the president and his advisers can pretend that something didn’t happen or that they never said something when the video and audio exists to prove that in fact they did. I don’t want to exaggerate, but it is eerily reminiscent of what came out of the Ministry of Truth in the use of “doublethink” in Orwell’s 1984. Here is an explanation of doublethink from the book.
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”
Congress thus far chooses not to exercise its role as a further balance to the president. With four or five individual exceptions in the Senate for very specific issues, the Republican controlled Congress has not challenged the president. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in particular goes out of his way to ignore the daily tweets, misstatements and falsehoods coming from the White House. He is probably taking the long view that the president will eventually come around and that the Republican Congress can get its agenda past the president. Why he still thinks that, I have no idea. President Trump is the same guy as Candidate Trump and the same guy as The Apprentice Trump. Until the Republican Congress (Democrats cannot do it, they are all whiners and losers) stands up to the president and calls him out for his more egregious actions, there will be danger in the air.
To me, that is why President Trump is going after the judiciary and the media. Congress has provided no resistance. Only the bench and the journalists are holding him to account. If he can discredit both of those institutions, then he may decide that he can ignore them with impunity. There goes the system of checks and balances.
Remember that President Trump continually reminds the nation that he does not have to do certain things (like reveal his taxes, divest his business interests, and countless other issues) because the law exempts the president, and besides, as I’ve heard him say way too many times “I won. I don’t have to do it. The people who voted for me knew all about me and XX.” (Fill in the blank — feel free to use just about any issue one can think of.)
Am I ready to man the barricades? No. I do think that it is incumbent on all of us to continue to watch developments very closely and to not become desensitized to the outrageous words coming from the White House, or worse, become bored with it all. The minute we stop paying attention is when we enter the most dangerous period.
We may not all agree on the policy questions, but I think that we all agree that keeping an eye on all three branches of government is important to our way of life. Is the current atmosphere a case of rookie mistakes, undisciplined advocates, unhealthy egos, part of a plan, or all of the above? I have no idea what to think, but in the end, it just doesn’t matter. All are potential threats to our well-being.