A Real Crisis

With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea.  It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.

North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons.  That should give us all pause.

Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have.  However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago.  This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM.  This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability.  Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization.  It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.

To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons.  Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25.  A comforting thought.

This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea.  This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure.  Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea.  It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.

History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population.  In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions.  He just doesn’t care.

All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger.  It does say that the equation changed.  As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal.  In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival.  Period.  He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed.  As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.

Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him.  That is not the danger.  The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs.  The possibility of a miscalculation is high.  Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.  They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.”  While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S.  It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that.  However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish.  The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first.  Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.

There is one other little discussed element of this problem.  The North Koreans are all about being anti-American.  A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position.  They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons.  They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.

When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options.  Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them.  All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.

Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small.  Or it should be.  As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high.  Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus.  The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking.  If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces.  Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate.  Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse.  They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out.  It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons.  They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.

The second option is to negotiate.  The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today.  Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs.  This is a non-starter on two levels.  The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies.  Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations.  Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything.  If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.

The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.”  We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime.  He knows this.  Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested.  They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind.  Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems.  There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat.  It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.

Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous.  As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully.  We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater.  At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out.  It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.

Our national security team has its work cut out for it.  Let’s hope they make the right choices.

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It Just Will Not Stop

Just when one thinks that just about everything that could happen under the Trump Administration has already occurred — it can’t possibly get any crazier, but it does.  Last week was chock full of newsworthy items, any one of which would have been worthy of discussion but they just kept coming and coming. Over the last week or so, we’ve seen proof that President Trump still does not understand the dignity and impact of the presidency.

To quickly cover a few of the highlights before getting to the main event — health care bills — let’s do a tour d’ horizon.  Two venerable institutions, the Boy Scouts of America and Police Departments across the country, had to issue apologies and “clarifications” following President Trump’s speeches to the annual Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and to a Long Island New York police department.

In the former he gave a political speech that was short on inspiration to America’s youth and long on past grievances, politics, and a reminder of how personally great everything Trump is and will be. Some parents threatened to pull their kids from the Scouts.  President Trump supporters opined that the “kids loved it” forgetting that they are boys and teens and that when you get 40,000 kids together in one place, especially mostly boys, they will laugh and cheer at just about anything, especially if flatulence is involved. On Long Island the president seemed to say that police brutality when arresting suspects was okay.  As usual, whenever called out on similar pronouncements, it was proposed that it was a “joke.” Police departments around the country could only cringe and issue statements that such statements were no joking matter and that their (fill in the city) police department does not condone such action.

Within days of President Trump announcing the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch”, aka “Mini-me” Mr. Scaramucci went on a rant to a New Yorker Magazine reporter that disparaged key senior members of the White House staff and included numerous references, in full graphic detail, to acts of biology that to my knowledge are impossible.  No comment from the president at the time.  Others in the Administration opined that he’s just a “New Yorker” and apparently that’s how New Yorkers talk about co-workers.  Having lived for a number of years in New York state I don’t recall anyone talking that way and certainly not in the name of the President of the United States.

In Tweets (Tweets!) the president continues to disparage his own Attorney General and his first and for a very long time, only official supporter for president.  According to some accounts this is a prelude to cleaning out the senior levels of the Department of Justice including the Attorney General, his deputy, the Acting FBI Director, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller.  No problem there.  In another Tweet the president arbitrarily told all active duty transgender military personnel that their services were no longer required “in any capacity” because they are a burden and “disruptive.”  Suddenly somewhere around 7,000 soldiers, Marines, Sailors and airmen are in limbo and told that somehow their patriotism and willingness to defend the nation does not count.

In yet another Tweet, the president fired his chief of staff Reince Priebus.  The Tweet announced that retired Marine general and serving Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly would be the new chief.

Whew!  A full week.

On the upside for those of us rooting for a successful and appropriate presidency there were several positive developments.  As I write this, reports are that Anthony Scaramucci was removed from his job of ten days as the Communications Director.  I have no inside information but I suspect that the new chief of staff had something to do with that as Mr. Scaramucci bragged last week that he only reported directly to the president and did not have to answer to anyone else on the staff.  My knowledge of General Kelly, although limited, would indicate that he would absolutely not tolerate antics such as those of Mr. Scaramucci.  Perhaps the General can bring order to the White House staff.  We’ll see, but a good first step.

Also positive, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, USMC let it be known that the military does not act on Tweets or any other form of informal communications when a policy decision is to be made, even a Tweet by the president concerning transgender policy.  Hurrah. It remains to be seen what actual policy evolves, but it is good to know that spontaneous utterances by the president will not precipitate military action.

Further good news came out of the Congress that overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill strengthening sanctions primarily against Russia, but with some additional provisions against Iran and North Korea. The Congress felt it necessary after listening to, and observing the actions of, President Trump with regards to Russian President Putin and our president’s apparent fascination with him.  The White House staff had worked hard behind the scenes to stop the passage of the bill but both houses of the Congress got up on their hind legs and said “no” to the president on this issue. A positive sign that they may increasingly exercise their role in governing as an equal branch of the government.

Many Republican Senators and Representatives also went on the record along with their Democrat colleagues to oppose President Trump’s Tweet policy on transgender individuals in the military and the treatment of Attorney General Sessions.  Clear signs that the president will not get blanket support from them.  As an aside, the president now taunts Republicans as well as Democrats via Twitter seeming to make it clear that he does not consider himself a Republican.  But to most of us, that is no surprise.

And of course let’s not forget that North Korea tested new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that experts think can reach targets on the U.S. mainland as far as Chicago.

Arguably the biggest news of the week was the failure to repeal or repeal and replace or otherwise get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) lovingly known as Obamacare.  Most of us followed the news and at least heard of the ins and outs of the entire suspense filled week of “will they or won’t they?”  They did not.  One could ask why after seven years of clamoring for (and voting over 50 times for) the repeal of Obamacare the Republicans were not ready to put forward their own coherent health plan. One could also ask why the only argument put forward by most Republicans, and especially by the president, had nothing to do with the merits of the proposed replacement plan(s) but rather the only argument was that Obamacare was “bad” — nothing about why the new plan would be better.  SAD!

But be careful.

I do not think the health care battle is finished, only in a strategic pause.  There will be further efforts to repeal or repeal and replace.  For supporters of Obamacare, or supporters of a bipartisan effort to repair Obamacare and to make it better, do not relax.  The fat lady has yet to sing.

Over the weekend President Trump tweeted out (how else?) that Obamacare was going to implode and implicitly that he would make it happen.  On Sunday the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney went on television to be explicit about the president’s threats/promises. As I have written in this space before, the president can do grave harm to the current Obamacare system, primarily through non-enforcement of the mandate and by withholding funds to subsidize premiums. He also made news by threatening the Congress and Congressional staffers with actions to increase their premiums.  I am no expert in this area, but this is what I understand is the issue.

Is it possible for the president to make Obamacare “implode” as he promises?  As with most things, the answer is “it depends” on what part of Obamacare one refers to during the discussion.  Since Obamacare remains the law of the land, the president cannot make it go away at once.  He can, however, create enough chaos in the system that it can degrade over time.  Remember that most Americans get their health insurance through their employers or through the government (military, VA, military retirees, Medicare, etc.).  For middle to low-income working adults and for children that do not have employer or government health insurance they mostly get their insurance through Medicaid or in a market place created by the ACA.  Although a major factor in the latest debates, Medicaid is provided by law and cannot be legally changed without a change to the law. What is really under discussion are the ACA market places.  Since the ACA was fully implemented, about 10 million Americans get their coverage via the government market place.  These are the people you most hear about on the news and in political rallies, be it how bad the system is or how wonderful the system is.

The administration has a number of ways to degrade the ACA.  In a slow motion effort, they could stop advertising and marketing the exchanges so that people either don’t know that the markets still exist (a lot of Americans are unsure as to what is available after all the latest hubbub) or miss deadlines to sign up because there was no public advertising as to how or when to get on board.  Additionally, if the administration follows through by not enforcing the mandate (either get insurance or pay a fine) healthy people will get out of the market which causes costs to rise for the insurers which is then passed on to those still in the market — their premiums rise — or the insurer gets out of the market because it isn’t profitable for them if they have to eat the added costs.  (Remember the three legs from my 23 June post. To work, if we want to cover pre-existing conditions, the system needs a mandate to keep the pool costs low by balancing healthy folks with those that we already know have problems, but then to be fair, we subsidize those that have to have insurance but cannot afford it.  Get anything out of whack, and the system starts to wobble — the promised “death spiral.”)

President Trump is threatening/promising to speed up the process by withholding cost sharing payments. As I write, they are only released through the end of July — today. (The next deadline is in late August.)  The ACA requires insurance companies to hold down the deductibles, co-pays and premiums for those in the individual market place. However, the insurance companies are not charitable organizations and they are in business to make money.  To make up the loss of revenue to those companies every month the government makes up the difference on the costs — currently about $600 million a month.  Should the Trump administration stop paying those subsidies, premiums for those on the market place would sky-rocket or the insurers would just pull out of the market.  This is a lot of what you hear about when those that oppose the ACA say it is “collapsing.”  Health care and health insurance is not “collapsing” for most Americans, but it could for those middle to low-income Americans that are on the individual markets should the president follow through and try to cause the ACA to “implode”.

He claims the Democrats will “own it” and he will take no blame.  I think he is fooling himself if he takes deliberate action to make it tough on the citizens he swore to protect.

There is one more esoteric wrinkle in the president’s threats that you may hear more about this week. Mr. Mulvaney explained the issue and says that the president is serious about implementing it.  This involves the health insurance for members of Congress and their staffs.  Despite rumors to the contrary, by law the entire Congress and their staffs are on the ACA — they get their insurance from Obamacare. But with a wrinkle.  President Obama’s administration put out a policy that allowed them to treat each individual office of each Senator and Representative each as a small business.  This means that they are eligible for the subsidies just talked about above, saving them lots of money out of their own pockets. Before setting our hair on fire, take a minute to think about it.  Certainly the individual Senators and Representatives could afford to pay full price in an employer plan, but most staffers, interns, administrative personnel, etc. working in their offices are young folks not making much money.  It would have a huge impact on them should President Trump change the policy to exclude them from the subsidy program.

Today is the start of a new week.  Let’s hope it is a dull one.  We need to take a collective deep breath and take a few minutes to enjoy the summer.  And summers in official Washington D.C. are supposed to be dull.  Nothing going on.  If so, hold on to your hats come September.


That Was The Week That Was

Some of us of a certain age can remember the 60’s political satire show “That Was The Week That Was”, or TWTWTW, or simply TW3.  The show launched the American career of the British television host David Frost who went on to do many serious interviews including the definitive series of interviews with former president Richard Nixon.  But in the beginning, think of TW3 as an early, ensemble cast version of the “Daily Show.”  I can only imagine what fun they would have had with this week’s news out of Washington D.C.  Actually, it is hard to keep up with the news from the last 72 hours, but I will try to hit some of the highlights.

First, on the Russian front.  No, not that news, but rather the news that President Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. from a CIA program to provide training and equipment to Anti-Assad forces in Syria. One could argue whether that secret program — different from the American involvement in Syria fighting ISIS — was effective or not, but it was relatively low-cost and showed U.S. support for freedom fighters in Syria.  By pulling the rug out from under them, it seriously undermines confidence in U.S. commitments in the Middle East. Oh, by the way, the Russians’ number one request from the U.S. was to withdraw support from those forces.  They have been demanding it for years.  And now the U.S. has given in to the demand in exchange for, for, well apparently for nothing.  A significant bargaining chip for the U.S. in its relations with Russia (and a symbol of our desire for Bashar al-Assad to go away) is now off the table.  Not sure how or why because the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about it.

In an extraordinary (in every sense of the word) interview with the New York Times President Trump talked about everything from the healthcare bill, to the French Bastille Day celebration, to Napoleon, to Hitler to NATO and many more topics (you can’t make this stuff up).  In total, a bit disconcerting when it is all put together.  Reading the transcript is actually frightening as it shows that the president thinks that the entire federal government is his personal staff — that they owe allegiance to him first, foremost and only, rather than to the American people and the Constitution.  It cements in my mind that he has no real understanding of what it actually means to be president of the entire United States. It is particularly disconcerting when he speaks about the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the senior leaders in both.  By name and with apparent malice of forethought he disparaged Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.  For one example, how would you interpret what he said about Attorney General Sessions?

TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.

HABERMAN {NY Times}: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?

TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.

To me two things jump out.  First, in the best case scenario, the president does not understand the role of the DOJ and that those attorneys do not work for him as Mr. Trump.  They work for the American people and need to have a loyalty to the Constitution rather than to an individual in the White House. Mr. Trump always insisted on loyalty from employees and so it appears President Trump insists on loyalty to him from his “employees.”  A second more sinister interpretation would be that President Trump would not have nominated Mr. Sessions if he knew that the Attorney General was not going to keep any investigation into the Russian interference in the election and possible Trump campaign involvement in it from gaining any traction.  Apparently, he expected the Attorney General to keep things under control and away from the president and his family.  Otherwise, why appoint him?  Read it for yourself, but if you look closely, you will see that he is castigating Mr. Sessions for doing the right and honorable thing.  There are now reports from multiple sources revealing that President Trump is reviewing his options on pardoning friends, family, and himself.  Very Nixonian.  Take a look at these three quotes and guess which are which from President Trump and President Nixon.

“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

“When you’re a star, they let you do it.  You can do anything.”

“The law’s totally on my side.  The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

The first one is from President Nixon, the other two from President Trump.

The biggest issue of the last few days is healthcare.  What the House and the Senate decide, or don’t, in the coming days and weeks will have an impact on millions of people and on billions of dollars in our economy.  It should not be something that is just pushed through for the sake of “getting something done” alone.  I agree that the Congress should get something done — so far not much of substance has gained escape velocity from Capital Hill — but something this big should be carefully considered. Kudos to Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other Republican Senators that examined the proposed bill and found it woefully wanting.

Claims that Trumpcare is dead are, however, exceedingly premature.  Likewise reports of the death of Obamacare are premature.  But the president can murder Obamacare if he wants to, and there is some indication that he wants to do so.  By withholding subsidies for insurance premiums, which he says he may do, and by not enforcing the mandate, which is already the case, the president can make portions of Obamacare collapse — not the whole thing, but parts.  Claims that he “doesn’t own it” will not hold.  If he actively undermines the law, people that lose it will notice.  Bad policy.  Hopefully some of his advisers and others in Congress will convince him not to take that path.

The Senate will vote on something next week, but even the Senators themselves do not know what that will be.  Not good news. Currently there are at least two basic versions of “repeal and replace” legislation, with the possibility that those two bills will change before voting occurs, and one version of “repeal and replace later” with the possibility that one will also change.  It is surprising and disconcerting that a vote will be held early next week, with wide-ranging consequences on real people’s lives, not just in theory, and no one yet knows what will be up for a vote.

Dare I hope?

Here is what I hope for.  There are definite signs that moderate Republicans and Democrats are making the early moves to work for a bipartisan bill to “repair” the flaws in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare.  Flaws do exist.  But there is no reason to get rid of the entire program — assuming one believes that health care should be affordable and available to all as I wrote about in my 23 June post. To be realistic, no Democrat will budge until the word “repeal” gets buried.  They also won’t support anything called Trumpcare.  Conservative Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) won’t support anything that does not completely repeal the ACA “root and limb.”  But I hope that enough good folks, willing to put country above party, still exist in the Senate in both parties and that cooler heads will prevail.  If that happens, it could be the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  Getting something as tough as health care tackled on a bi-partisan basis would go a long way in having Republicans and Democrats getting back together to tackle other long-standing problems.  What a concept. I am always told how naive I am, but I hope that we have a break through on this issue and that it leads to accomplishments in many more areas.

Finally, and I leave it here despite many more developments of the last 72 hours, speaking of putting country above party I have always had the deepest respect for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz).  That doesn’t mean I always agreed with him but I always thought he was trying to do what he thought best for the nation and its people.  As you know, he is battling a particularly nasty form of brain cancer. I hope that he is back on his feet and back to the Senate before too long.  There are not many like him left in today’s Senate chamber.


“Fake News” No More

With the daily evolution of the story of Mr. Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer that offered to help the Trump campaign work against Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, one can no longer claim that reports of Russian efforts to impact the election is “fake news.” I have always believed that the Russians clearly worked to influence the election, taking as accurate the consensus of the American intelligence community that they stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the Clinton campaign manager Mr. John Podesta.  Other evidence of Russian influence, especially in the realm of social media, is beginning to emerge.  It is fact.  I was not at all certain that senior members of the Trump campaign would have actively worked to aid and abet the Russian effort. One way or the other I figured that the ongoing investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller would conclusively resolve that part of the issue.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Well now we know a lot more.

If you are not familiar with the story, you can read Mr. Trump Jr.’s emails for yourself. In sum, a friend of the Trumps named Mr. Rob Goldstone with close Russian ties offered to arrange a meeting with a Russian national in order to give damaging information about Secretary Clinton to the Trump campaign. In the email exchange Mr. Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically and set up a meeting with the Russian emissary to hear her out.  The key passages of the email that jump out at me follow.   Mr. Goldstone wrote that the Russians “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.  This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump….”  To which Mr. Trump Jr. replied in part “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

At the subsequent meeting were Mr. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and current Senior Adviser in the White House, and Mr. Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign manager.  And others, which I will get to momentarily.

End of discussion.  After months and months of denying vehemently that they ever had any meeting with the Russians where cooperation or coordination with the Russians was ever discussed, it turns out that there was one.  At least.  Additionally, since the story broke last Saturday, nearly every day a different story as to what was discussed and who was present came out.  Can you spell “cover up”?

To be honest, I am exhausted by all things Trumpian.  It is very difficult to keep track of all the misleading statements, innuendo and out right lies that come out of the White House or from others associated with President Trump.  The tangled webs of who knows who, or more importantly has significant business ties to the Trump Organization is hard to follow as well, or as they say at the ballpark, “you can’t tell the players without a score card.” But we need to try.

Today’s events caused me to say “that’s it” — I cannot ignore the outrageous carrying on any longer. I planned to write about other issues, but when it came out today that at least one other previously undisclosed person (as I write, some news outlets are reporting that it may actually be two other people) with Russian ties (the new attendee was born there, served in the Russian Army and may be a lobbyist or may be a former intelligence officer or both as this unfolding story develops) was in the room.

After days of Mr. Trump Jr.’s denials and obfuscation about everything, until it is uncovered by reporters at which point his story changes — despite his claims of total transparency — this takes the cake. Appearing on the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News, Mr. Trump Jr. was asked multiple times by the very friendly to the Trumps interlocutor Mr. Hannity if there was anything else that would come out or if any other people with Russian ties had met with him.  He gave a vigorous and straight forward “no” answer. Check it out. And yet… there was more to the story.  It seems there is always more to the story with the Trumps.

Mr. Trump Jr. claims that “nothing” came of the meeting and that it was a waste of time.  Given the events of the last week, and many more before that, I am unwilling to take the word of Mr. Trump Jr.  I am sure that Special Counsel Mueller will be very interested in following up on this story.

It is indeed a weak defense of these actions to claim that nothing came of the meeting and that they did not get any “dirt” on Secretary Clinton.  To them this means that it was a “nothingburger” of a meeting. Very troubling.  Read the emails.  The Trump campaign was eager to get negative information on Secretary Clinton.  Fine.  That happens in many, many campaigns.  But not from the Russian government! Or any foreign government.  End of story.  Just because they got nothing — as if we can believe anything Mr. Trump Jr. says about this situation — they clearly were willing to take this information and to use any ties to the Russian government that they thought would help them win. Nice. Strong ethics. Look, I know that politics is a full contact sport and that it can be really nasty. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, it doesn’t matter.  It gets personal.  But really?  The Russians? C’mon man!  It only shows that with this outfit, there are no boundaries.  Mr. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former chief speech writer for President George W. Bush has an excellent piece today.  Basically he argues that the Trumps are clueless about all the fuss because they have no concept of right and wrong, they have a set of values “in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules.”  Mr. Gerson explains that “it is the banality of this corruption that makes it so appalling. The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.”

Most troubling to me in terms of national security is the portion of the email train that says, emphasis mine, that this “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Part.  What else was going on?  What else is going on?  Coupled with all that we know so far, and the inability of Mr. Trump Jr. and the White House to accurately and correctly deal in facts, I would read that section to mean that the Russians were actively interfering in the election, and that quite plausibly, the Trump campaign knew about it in other ways.  Just because they may or may not have walked out of this particular meeting with dirt in hand, it clearly implies that they were ready and willing to work with the Russians and may in fact have other sources and methods where they were doing so.

I have no idea what will come of this.  I have no idea if anything illegal occurred or if any of the attendees can be held accountable under the law.  I do have an idea, however, that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  I am sure more and more will slowly be uncovered as the Senate, House, and Special Counsel’s office continue to investigate the Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

I also know that for the President to continue to deny that it happened is unhelpful to our country. For him to continue, as recently as two days ago, to continue to call this the “greatest WITCH HUNT in political history” (his emphasis) is also unhelpful.  In every way, President Trump is actively working to undermine every U.S. institution that may stand in his way.  Fake news, indeed.

What is clear, is that it is becoming impossible to breathe with all the smoke rising out of the Russian election interference issue.  It is only a matter of time before the conflagration flares up.  I pray that we don’t all get burned by the resulting fire and that we are not left with only the smoldering ruins of our great democracy.


Whither Healthcare?

“Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”  — President Donald Trump 27 February 2017

And you know what?  He is correct.

As the Senate debates and votes on Trumpcare to repeal and replace Obamacare over the coming days, much will be written and talked about regarding its impact and efficacy.  Some will think it is great and others will think it a travesty.  It all depends on what the goal for the program might be and how one thinks that goal should be attained.  Is Trumpcare, or the American Health Care Act (AHCA) (as it is called in the House of Representatives while the Senate Bill is called the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017) designed to help Americans and keep them healthy or is it an attempt to do the bare minimum while saving the government, and ultimately tax payers, money?  One’s view of Trumpcare also depends on whether or not Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is working for you.

Put more succinctly, is healthcare in the greatest country on earth a right or a privilege?  Should it be open to a free market — those that can afford to pay do, those that can’t need to earn more money — or something that every citizen deserves?  If you happen to think that healthcare is a privilege, you get what you pay for, then you may as well stop reading here because you basically think that the government should have nothing to do with healthcare.  If you think that access to healthcare should be a right, then read on. Be forewarned however, that this is, as the president says, complex. Politicians of every stripe also parse and obfuscate elements of healthcare to their own advantage. It can be difficult to determine where the truth lies — especially since many times two people can both be technically correct while interpreting the meaning in totally different ways.  As I like to say, it is the difference between what things are and what things mean.

Here is the crux of the problem.  The United States does not suffer from poor medical care.  People come from all over the world to have their health problems resolved here in the U.S. — if they can afford it. That is the problem.  It is not the quality of care, but rather having access to good care and being able to afford it. Access and affordability are the reason we need insurance plans which is what both Trumpcare and Obamacare are really about.

The U.S. does not really have a health system.  It has a series of health systems depending on whether the individual is on Medicaid or Medicare (the dreaded by conservatives single payer system), or on the VA or Tricare (military) system (basically socialized medicine), or gets insurance through an employer (where most people get their insurance), or buys it on the open market (usually very expensive).

A pervasive goal in the U.S. should be that no one goes bankrupt due to an unexpected illness or injury. Likewise no one should have to forgo medical treatment because they cannot afford it.  Both happen in the U.S., although by most accounts, Obamacare went a long way in reducing the numbers of people in either situation.

So let’s design a system that helps people get care without using their every last dollar.  Let’s assume we want a system where no one can be turned down — or charged unattainable amounts of money — for a pre-existing condition.  This seems to be one area that most politicians can agree upon and one of the most popular aspects of Obamacare.  How to do that?  It does not take a genius to see that maybe I won’t buy any insurance until I get sick or injured and I will save a lot of money in the meantime.  That leaves only those with pre-existing conditions on the insurance rolls — a situation which will either leave the premiums so high as to be unaffordable, or leave the insurance companies holding the bag and going bankrupt.  To even out the costs and make them more affordable to all, we would then require everyone to have insurance — the dreaded mandate. However, it may not be fair or even affordable for everyone to buy insurance, especially for people that do not receive insurance through their employer, so if we are going to require it, then we should come up with a system to help people pay for it — the other debated aspect, subsidies. Those three elements are the basis for every proposed health care plan concocted by politicians.  If you play around with one of the three, it impacts the other two.  It becomes a very complicated game.  How one plays the game depends on my opening statement — what is the goal for the plan?

On top of that throw in hot button issues such as who can do what (Planned Parenthood anyone?), whether in our proposed system we “punish” young healthy citizens by making them subsidize the old “sick” citizens, should the government have the power to tell people that they “have” to have insurance, and who pays for all this, the wealthy or the poor who are most likely to benefit from a plan like this.  It does indeed get complicated in a hurry, and also very emotional for a lot of people.

In evaluating a planned system, lots of politicians focus on premiums and deductibles — and not always together.  It is possible to devise a plan with very low premiums, lower than Obamacare, but does it cover everything?  Does it have a high deductible?  Does it have annual or lifetime caps? What pre-existing conditions are covered?  Those and other details mute any discussion about premiums.  To coin a phrase, we cannot compare apples with oranges.  Premiums are certainly relevant when discussing the cost of a particular plan, but it is not sufficient to get a true picture of the impact or value of that plan.

To muddy the issue, the president makes unfounded claims about Obamacare.  He says “it is dead.” Except it isn’t.  But the president and the Republican leadership are trying hard to kill it, partly to force through Trumpcare.  Insurance exchanges are drying up and companies are pulling out because of the biggest fear they have — uncertainty.  The Congress has yet to decide if they will provide the money for the aforementioned subsidies to help people afford the mandated insurance.  And they have announced that they will not enforce the mandate.  Two of the legs of our three-legged plan are being distorted, that means the third leg is terribly out of balance which makes it appear the system is not working.  If insurance companies don’t think they are going to get paid — or that they will be left holding the bag for high cost pre-existing conditions which they are required to cover — then there are two choices.  They can raise premiums or leave the market.  Most experts assert that without the uncertainty coming from the White House and Capital Hill, the health insurance system in the U.S. would be stable and hold down costs for most (most — not all) Americans seeking health care.  Many people now have insurance that would not otherwise have it.  The result is “wellness checks” and other preventive health measures now sought out by people that did not seek it before.  Therefore they are healthier and the over all expenditures for larger, more catastrophic care comes down because they are less necessary.  Like it or not, the states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare generally have more small hospitals and clinics serving the poor or rural areas of their states because those hospitals have a known source of income for the care they provide.  Many of those small hospitals and clinics closed in states that did not expand Medicaid and there is significant concern over the reduction of those Medicaid funds under Trumpcare. In mostly rural states such as Alaska and Maine, even their Republican Senators are concerned and may vote against the proposed Senate bill.  Senators Murkowski and Collins both realize what the proposed reductions in Medicaid mean to their states and are worried, as are others.

Whatever your own views on healthcare in the U.S. take a good hard look at any plan floated to solve the problem.  I am no expert on this subject.  Not at all.  I recognize that we do not have a bottomless purse to pay increasing costs for social programs.  I get it.  Personally, I think we leave a lot of possible solutions (such as a single payer system which prevails in many modern nations, such as Canada) on the table because of emotional political arguments rather than a factual airing of the pros and cons to different solutions.

It boils down to one’s personal views.  Do you get what you pay for and if you can’t pay you don’t get it? Or should the greatest nation on earth also provide the best healthcare available to its citizens?  If so, how is it paid for?  There are no easy answers, but I think we are making it harder on ourselves than needed.  Democrats and Republicans state that they both have the same goal — to make healthcare available to our citizens and at a cost that is sustainable.  If that is the case, then everything else is politics.

To me, we have a system for providing affordable care through an insurance program called the ACA — Obamacare.  No one thinks that system is perfect.  Democrats affirm that they are willing to work with Republicans to fix what needs to be fixed.  Republicans shout that Democrats are obstructionists while jamming through a bill that even most Republicans did not get a chance to look at.

You can look it up, you don’t have to take my word for it, but in putting together Obamacare the Democrats took nearly a year, held countless hearings, folded Republican amendments into the final bill, and tried to put together a bipartisan bill.  Politics interfered at the end of that process and one could argue that Democrats jammed it through at the end.  But contrary to what you now hear, it was not a secret process and it wasn’t a slap dash final product.  I am not sure what the rush is in the Republican held Congress at this point.  This is major legislation that will impact many Americans and a large chunk of our economy. There is no need to play hurry up ball at this point.  Every piece of legislation has some perverse and unintended consequences.  Obamacare has some.  Trumpcare certainly will if it has not been properly vetted and reviewed.  It is too important to just slam through, whether or not you support the fundamental political and social theories behind it.

This process is not in the best interests of our country.  I hope that cooler heads prevail and that everyone takes a step back.  Take a deep breath.  Let’s regroup and come forward with a bipartisan approach to helping every citizen find effective and affordable healthcare.

I’m not holding my breath.


A Burning Fuse

As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber.  This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16.  Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action.  In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.

While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area.  This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident.  In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives.  Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult.  The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions.  Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April.  The relationship then was shortly restored.

The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air.  Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.

It is difficult to tell the players without a score card.  In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France.  Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world.  Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region.  And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command.  It’s complicated.)

U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.”  This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition.  The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran.  The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S.  Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS.  Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS.  Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar.  In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.

Got all that?  And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.

U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled.  Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria.  Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks.  At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up.  There was no strategy behind the strikes.  (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen.  If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price.  Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base.  To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)

The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort.  Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other.  But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.

These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously.  While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball.  The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda.  If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.

 


The Battle of Midway Island

Yesterday, 4 June, marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway Island in 1942 where the U.S. Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy and reversed Allied fortunes in the Pacific campaign. Prior to the battle, the Japanese were on the offensive throughout the Pacific area.  Following the battle, they fought a series of defensive operations and steadily retreated back to the home islands.

In a nutshell, the battle entailed an all-in strategy by the U.S. commanders, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Admiral Chester Nimitz and the tactical commanders Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher.  Thanks to cryptologists that broke the Japanese code, the U.S. was aware of the Japanese plan to attack Midway Island and presumably, remove the U.S. from any further ability to thwart Japanese expansion.  The attack on Midway was accompanied by a nearly simultaneous (due to circumstances the attacks were actually a day apart) on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska — an attempt to remove U.S. Army Air Corps aircraft from being in range of the Japanese home islands.

In the battle four Japanese aircraft carriers went up against three from the U.S. Navy.  In short, all four Japanese carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu — sank, along with the resulting loss of airplanes, pilots and crews.  They also lost a heavy cruiser, a destroyer, and other ships were badly damaged.  The Japanese Navy was never able to recover from those losses as their industrial capacity simply could not replace what was lost, along with the lack of seasoned pilots.  The U.S. Navy lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown and one destroyer.  Military historians such as John Keegan call the victory “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Without going into all the details of the battle, it is apparent that there many instances of heroic actions. In our present days of troubled times and divisive political arguments, I find it worthy to focus on a small, but significant portion of the battle.  I trust that today, we can find men (and now women) that hold the same high level of selflessness, courage and devotion as those of the torpedo squadrons of the Douglas TBD Devastators from VT-3 on Yorktown, VT-6 on Enterprise, and VT-8 from the Hornet. These airplanes flew low and slow in order to attack surface ships with torpedoes.  In order to get the torpedo on target, it meant a long, slow, straight approach into the teeth of the Japanese air defenses.

The Devastators were on their own due to inexperience on the part of the American commanders coupled with the desire to strike the Japanese first.  Therefore they launched their aircraft piecemeal which resulted in an uncoordinated attack by the torpedo bombers without fighter escorts.  They were doomed.  Of the forty-one aircraft launched, thirty-five were lost attacking the targets, with no hits against the enemy.  On each of those airplanes, a three-man crew piloted and fought the aircraft.  A heavy loss of life.  The aircraft was never used again in battle in the Pacific.

Their sacrifice secured the victory because while the Japanese were preoccupied with the torpedo bombers, they became confused as to the big picture.  This allowed the Navy’s dive bombers and remaining fighter escorts to arrive over their targets virtually undetected and caught the bulk of the Japanese aircraft on the deck of the carriers while refueling and rearming.  Three Japanese carriers were destroyed in about five minutes and the fourth sank from its damage later in the day.

The pilots and crews of the Devastators did not think that they were on a suicide mission.  No one expects anything bad to happen to them, individually, when on a mission.  Yet, they understood the odds and that they weren’t good.  By the time of the battle, the U.S Navy knew that the aircraft was obsolete and vulnerable, but no replacement aircraft had yet made it to the fleet.  Additionally, once over the Japanese fleet they knew that they were alone, without fighter escort, and had no idea where the dive bombers might be.  They knew that the plan, a coordinated attack with all forms of aircraft striking the Japanese simultaneously was out the window. They were on their own.  And yet, they went forward, alone.

As we argue over less important issues today, it serves us well to remember the sacrifices made by those that went before us.  They knew that they were involved in a cause bigger than their individual lives, and they knew that only true sacrifice would carry the day.  Along with our thoughts as a grateful nation, we should also step back and think of our own lives and ability to follow in their foot steps.

We can all benefit from their selfless example.