What To Think?

You may have missed it with all of the theatrics surrounding the Trump Shutdown, but some potentially mind-blowing news came out last Friday and over the weekend.

Even as I suffer from Trump fatigue, and you know what I think of him as president, it is impossible to ignore this development.  The FBI started a counter-intelligence investigation of the president in 2017. The President. Of the United States.  It is unknown whether that investigation continues under the guidance of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but it is likely that it does.  A counter-intelligence investigation is totally unlike a criminal investigation.  It is a totally different ball game.  It also puts the possibility of the president’s efforts at obstructing justice into an entirely different dimension.  Perhaps instead of trying to protect himself from embarrassment or through some other motivation, his decision to fire then FBI Director James Comey “over this Russia thing” was with a different outcome in mind.  Coupled with all of the subsequent efforts to stop or disrupt Mr. Mueller’s investigation, it appears he was trying to keep the discovery of conspiracy with a foreign power from becoming known.  In other words, the obstruction was the conspiracy (or collusion as it is popularly, but wrongly, called.)

In this context, the Mueller investigation, and Mr. Trump’s actions as a candidate and as president form a continuum across time and are not a series of discreet events.

It is hard to adequately convey how difficult the decision to do this is.  For the Department of Justice (DOJ), that would have to approve the FBI investigation at its highest level, to sign off on it, would indicate that there is or was extraordinary evidence that something was amiss.  This would be no routine investigation.

Apparently, the FBI became so alarmed at Mr. Trump’s actions that it appeared he was acting on behalf of a foreign power.  They knew that a “normal” president would not talk or act as he was, specifically with respect to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and could only explain it by the concern that he must be under the influence of a foreign power.  In other words, they thought the president could be a Russian agent.  No movie studio would make this movie.  Too preposterous.

To be clear, to be a Russian agent does not necessarily mean that the individual was trained in Russia or by Russians, or even that he was directly controlled by a Russian case agent.  As former CIA Director John Brennan said in testimony to Congress, such people can be “wittingly or unwittingly” agents of a foreign power.  I do not know and cannot make a good guess as to whether Mr. Trump is or is not knowingly a Russian agent.  But I do know that he is acting to further the Russian agenda over the best interests of the United States.

Keep in mind, Mr. Putin was a career KGB agent who attained the rank of Colonel before the end of the Cold War.  He knows what he is doing.

This is scary, mind-blowing, and a conundrum.  Our system of government is based on the premise that the president is above reproach when it comes to national security. One may disagree on specific policy decisions, but we must assume that presidents are doing what they believe are in the best interests of the United States, not a foreign adversary. The president is the final arbiter of military, intelligence, and foreign policy issues.  How do intelligence agencies or law enforcement agencies or the counter intelligence arms of various government agencies deal with an individual who, while under investigation, can over turn, hinder or evade those investigations?  And how should they be held to account?  If by definition the president is the lead diplomat for our country, how can he be wrong?  There are many implications and questions that arise when one starts thinking about our president as a Russian agent.  My head hurts.

Keep in mind that counter intelligence agents are some of the most peculiar people one will ever meet.  Thinking about their job, they are suspicious about everyone and everything that does not fit their mold of the “normal.”  Conspiracies lurk everywhere.  None-the-less, there must have been sufficient reasons to open this investigation or it would never have happened.  They do not investigate the president for the fun of it or for political reasons.  They just do not.  Yes, paranoia runs deep.  Into your life it will creep.  (With apologies to Buffalo Springfield.)  You are not paranoid if it is true.

The possibility gains traction through documented reports that Mr. Trump met one-on-one with Mr. Putin five different times over the last two years with only interpreters in the room.  He then collected the interpreters notes and refused to share what was said with anyone else in the government. Two particularly troubling meetings were the one in Helsinki last summer and an unscheduled meeting at a G-20 dinner in Hamburg Germany where only the Russian interpreter was present. (I have written about these meetings before. I was especially alarmed by the meeting in Germany.)  Rest assured the Russians know what was discussed and agreed to, but not those in the highest levels of our own government.

In my view, the most likely foundation to this arrangement rests on sanctions.  The Russians want them lifted and so does the Trump Organization.  The Russians were heavily sanctioned following their annexation of Crimea and it is hurting their economy.  They want them gone.  The sanctions were the genesis of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian representatives to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.  When you hear “Magnitsky Act” think sanctions.  The Russians want them removed.  Now.  Mr. Trump wants them lifted because following his many bankruptcies, nearly all his money came from Russia. The banks that produced the loans are subject to the sanctions. Continued sanctions means no big money for Trump Org.  Additionally, it is well know that Mr. Trump’s business Holy Grail is to put his name on a Trump Tower Moscow.

My view is that of many possible explanations, the simplest is that Mr. Trump wants to do business in Russia when he leaves office and is willing to bargain with Mr. Putin to get the access.  What other evidence exists?

Let’s look at some of the president’s actions and words.  This list is not exhaustive but representative.

  • As the Republican nominee he had the Republican National Committee 2016 platform changed regarding Ukraine in order to mirror Russian claims and interests.
  • At every opportunity he incessantly praises Mr. Putin which validates Mr. Putin’s self-proclaimed status, empowers him at home, and comes at the expense of our allies and friends.
  • The primary goal of Mr. Putin is to splinter the Western Alliance so that Russia can fill the void and return to the glory days — as Mr. Putin sees it — of the Soviet Union.  Mr Trump aids that goal in many ways.
    • He launches personal and political attacks against the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and others.  He belittles lesser members of the European Union (EU) and NATO.
    • He supports Brexit (The UK departure from the EU) which currently has the UK in turmoil.  This weakens the EU and contributes to chaos in the internal affairs of a key ally.  That internal chaos distracts a force for good and takes a staunch opponent of Russia off of the world stage.
    • When asked in a 2018 interview to name the U.S. “biggest foe globally right now,” Mr. Trump  responded “I think the European Union is a foe.”  The EU contains our closest allies.  The interview was just before he met with Mr. Putin in Helsinki.
    • He continually belittles NATO in public.  It is apparent he does not know how funding for NATO works.  He apparently also does not know that the only time Article V of NATO was invoked (an attack on one nation is an attack on all) was following the terrorist attack in September 2001.  NATO troops have been in Afghanistan from the beginning of the conflict and remain there.  It has been widely reported that Mr. Trump continually pushed his senior aids throughout 2018 to have the U.S. withdraw from NATO.  Such an action would be Mr. Putin’s wildest dream come true.
  • He continually denies that Russia interfered with the U.S. 2016 election. He continually takes Mr. Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere over the facts presented by the entire U.S. intelligence community. Among his justification for taking Mr. Putin’s word is the newly reported reasoning for doing so, including this remarkable quote.  Mr. Trump “said that he raised the election hacking three times and that Mr. Putin denied involvement. But he said Mr. Putin also told him that ‘if we did, we wouldn’t have gotten caught because we’re professionals.’ Mr. Trump said: ‘I thought that was a good point because they are some of the best in the world’ at hacking.”
  • He pushed to have Russia rejoin the G-7 (it was previously the G-8).  The Russians  were expelled following their annexation of Crimea.  Mr. Trump said that he thinks that the punishment is too severe for that act.
  • At the 2018 G-7 summit Mr. Trump opined that of course Crimea belongs to Russia because “they all speak Russian.”  This put fear into the hearts of our Baltic, and NATO, allies that were once part of the Soviet Union and have a large Russian ethnic population.
  • Following the March 2018 poisoning in the UK of the Skirpals, former Russian agents that went over to the West, he said that there was no evidence to support the UK Prime Minister’s denunciations of Russia for an attack on British soil.
  • Last December he called for U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria “now” and turn it over to the Russians.  This is a long-standing goal of the Russians so that they can increase their influence in the Middle East and gain a military presence in the region.
  • He often spouts Russian talking points (propaganda).  The most recent instance was his spontaneous and out of the blue discourse on the Soviet Union, their presence in Afghanistan, and a revisionist history of their reasons for invading. (This was the subject of a recent post in this space, explaining how this promotes Mr. Putin’s view of the restoration of the Soviet empire.)

And so on.  Some big, some small, but all consistent in their praise of Russia and in pushing the Russian agenda.

So, what to think?  Is our president a Russian agent, whether wittingly or unwittingly?  I sincerely hope that the Mueller investigation addresses this issue clearly, either to confirm it or to debunk it.  From where I sit today, and from all that we have seen of Mr. Trump in the last three years, I think it likely.  It is most likely in the nature of long-standing business and other money schemes between Russian oligarchs and Mr. Trump and his family.  That would be in keeping with what we know about him and what he says himself.  With him, no matter the subject, it is all about the money.  Period.

Should this be true, I have no idea how it will be resolved.  It is beyond comprehension.  The President of the United States works for Russia.  Incredible.

The only thing that is clear to me is that Mr. Mueller needs to get the results of his investigation into the open as soon as possible.  I know that he is being meticulous, as he should be.  However, if this is even only a little bit true, our nation is in danger.  We need to know and we need to know before something truly awful happens.  And if it isn’t true, we need to know that as well so that we can move on without distraction to addressing the complex issues that we know await us in 2019

 


Absurd

Mr. Donald J. Trump held his first cabinet meeting of the year on 2 January.  In keeping with his reality show background, the meeting was televised.  The meeting was really a 90 minute monologue on just about everything that Mr. Trump stewed about over the holidays.  There were many newsworthy elements to be found in the transcript ranging from the border wall to the economy.  Many of the statements were provably wrong or misleading.  The list of falsehoods is too long to go through here.

Among the many untruths from the meeting perhaps the most troubling, at least in terms of asking oneself “where the heck did that come from?” were his comments on Afghanistan.  In a discussion about a continued U.S. military presence there, he launched into a bizarre statement full of previously unknown “facts”.  In addition to slandering our allies that have fought and died alongside US troops there he said,

“Russia is there.  Russia used to be the Soviet Union.  Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan.  Russia.  So you take a look at other countries.  Pakistan is there; they should be fighting.  But Russia should be fighting.

The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia.  They were right to be there.  The problem is it was a tough fight.  And literally, they went bankrupt.  They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union.  You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan.”

No one.  No one, on the left, the right or the respective wing nuts of either side have ever said or believed that the Russians went into Afghanistan to fight terrorists or because they had a “right” to invade them.  Bipartisan efforts during the presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush worked to isolate and punish the USSR for that invasion.

The real reason the Soviets invaded was the Brezhnev Doctrine.  In 1968 Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union put forth as a basic tenet of Soviet foreign policy the right to interfere in the affairs of any communist country anywhere in the world.  The Afghan government was communist when the Soviets invaded in 1979 and they occupied the country until their withdrawal in 1989.  While true that the occupation was a drain on the Soviet military and the occupation became unpopular with the Soviet people, it did not bankrupt them or otherwise lead to the fall of the Iron Curtain.  There were numerous reasons for the fall, but Afghanistan was more of a symptom of all that was wrong with the Soviet system rather than the cause.  They definitely did not enter Afghanistan to fight “terrorists.”

Only one person is pushing the narrative that the Soviet Union had a “right” to invade Afghanistan to stop “terrorism.”  That one person is Vladimir Putin.  He is pushing a new revisionist history that is pure propaganda and is designed to restore his view of the glory of the Soviet empire in order to stoke nationalist sentiment in Russia, entrench his own power, and provide the basis for his adventurism in Ukraine, the Baltic states, and elsewhere in the hope of restoring that empire.

And now I guess there are two people pushing that line, one of which is the President of the United States.

As the Wall Street Journal put it in part in an editorial,

“Right to be there? We cannot recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan with three divisions in December 1979 to prop up a fellow communist government.

The invasion was condemned throughout the non-communist world. The Soviets justified the invasion as an extension of the Brezhnev Doctrine, asserting their right to prevent countries from leaving the communist sphere. They stayed until 1989.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat. Mr. Trump’s cracked history can’t alter that reality.”

Is the president ignorant of history or is someone feeding him propaganda that he willingly repeats?  I am not a conspiracy theorist, but this should raise alarm bells.  Either the president really is ignorant of important world events that continue to shape international relations today, or he is willingly repeating Mr. Putin’s revisionist history meant to restore the luster of the former Soviet Union.  Either answer is deeply troubling.

What are we to make of this?  In the continued chaos of this administration it is easy to lose track of the multitude of “absurd” statements and actions coming out of the White House.  However, given the president’s propensity to support and defend all things Putin, one must ask again, “what is going on?”  The answer may be even more troubling than we can imagine.


That Was The Week That Was

With apologies to the old 1960’s era television show — the precursor to shows on now such as the Daily Show — That Was The Week That Was, or as it was commonly known TWTWTW, or TW3, we just experienced among the craziest weeks in recent history.  Like the Daily Show, TW3 took actual news events and gave them a “can you believe it” comical twist.  Unfortunately, there was nothing comical about this past week.  If you were busy shopping or attending holiday parties, here are the highlights of what you missed over the past seven days.  In some semblance of chronological order, of which very little exists today in this administration, they include:

  • Late last Friday night a federal judge declared the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional.  The judge said that since Congress lowered the tax for the Individual Mandate to zero, they essentially repealed the tax.  In two Supreme Court decisions the ACA was ruled constitutional because of the tax — which is a right held by Congress.  Since there is now no tax, the whole law was deemed unconstitutional, ignoring the long-standing legal precedent of “severability” which means that just because one part of a contract or law is deemed to be wrong, the whole contract or law is not voided.  More on this in a future post.
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned from the Cabinet to avoid investigation of his actions while in office.  This now means that since the mid-term election in November, Mr. Trump has fired or accepted the “resignations” of the Attorney General, his Chief of Staff, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the Secretary of Defense.  There are still countless White House staff positions, Assistant Secretaries, and Ambassador positions yet to be filled two years into this administration.
  • It was revealed that there are currently at least 17 investigations of Mr. Trump, his organizations, and associates by at least seven different jurisdictions.  (The Special Counsel, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Attorney for  the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Attorneys General from New York City, New York State and other states, and a “mystery” investigation that is under court seal.)
  • Two independent studies reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians’ involvement in social media and efforts to help Mr. Trump and to hurt Secretary Clinton were more widespread than previously understood.  It continued well after the election and shifted focus to undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation of Mr. Trump.  In particular, the Russians took actions to suppress the minority vote.  Since Mr. Trump won the Electoral College by a total of approximately 80,000 votes spread across the three states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan it is probable, but not provable, that their actions changed the election.
  • General Michael Flynn arrived for sentencing thinking that he would get probation.  Judge Emmet Sullivan disabused him of that perception and threatened to lock him up.  “I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense,” said the judge.  Keep in mind that the judge has seen the redacted parts of the case that detail the full extent of the former National Security Adviser’s role in the campaign, transition and administration.  The sentencing was postponed for 90 days to give General Flynn another chance to cooperate with the investigation.  (Hint. Hint.)
  • In an ongoing civil suit in New York State, the Attorney General of New York attained a court order for the Trump Foundation to shut down.  The Foundation will distribute its remaining funds under court supervision.  The suit continues.  The N.Y Attorney General argued that the Foundation was little more than a slush fund for Mr. Trump, the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign.  All illegal activities.
  • Acting Attorney General Whitaker refuses to recuse himself.  The senior career ethics professional in the Department of Justice told the Acting A.G. that he should recuse himself from the Mueller Investigation.  Mr. Whitaker decided not to do so.  Remember that A.G. Sessions forever will feel the wrath of Mr. Trump for having rightly recused himself last year following the appointment of the Special Counsel.
  • The president unilaterally announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria within 30 days. On Twitter. He further ordered that plans be drawn up to withdraw most if not all of our forces from Afghanistan.  This decision was met with great joy and celebration in Russia, Iran, and by Syria’s despotic ruler.  It takes the U.S. out of any significant role in the future of the Middle East and sends a message to our friends and allies that we cannot be trusted.  The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are the Kurds.  Through U.S. training, equipping and our Special Forces fighting alongside, they have become the most effective fighting force in Syria and were our partners in driving ISIS out of the cities.  We are now throwing them under the bus.  The Turkish government (along with Iran) does not want the Kurds to be a strong entity in the region and indeed the Turks are planning to attack them as soon as we leave.  Likewise negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan are now in jeopardy because the president wants us to leave.  All of our opponents now know to just wait us out.  We have lost all credibility in much of the world, but especially in Asia.  We also undermine Israel with this decision as the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah and others can now consolidate their power, gain new territory and not worry about a U.S. presence in the area.  This is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
  • The president agreed to a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until 8 February, the Senate unanimously voted to approve it and then he changed his mind and refused to go along unless he got at least $5 billion for a border wall.  Ironically the approximately 800,00 federal personnel that will be impacted are significantly represented by TSA agents, Border Patrol agents, Coast Guardsmen (the Coast Guard is not part of the Defense Department but falls under the Department of Home Land Security) and others charged with keeping our borders safe.  They will keep working but not get paid until the budget bill passes. For those that have mortgages, Christmas presents to buy, groceries to feed their family and other obligations, getting paid sometime in the future is not helpful to their current situations.  Mr. Trump promises a “very long shutdown” if he doesn’t get his way.  Remarkably, Representative Mark Meadows (Trump-NC) said that federal employees knew what they were getting into.  “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position.”  (Someone should tell Mr. Meadows that a well-run government does not shut down.  Furthermore, the Republicans have controlled the House, Senate and White House for two years.  Apparently that isn’t enough time to, you know, do your job and pass a budget.)
  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned.  Take a look at his resignation letter here.  Those familiar with the way such things normally work, Secretary Mattis’ letter is a direct rebuke of Mr. Trump and his policies and his leadership.  Through the eloquent and gentlemanly language, the Secretary basically tells Mr. Trump that he is full of it and an anathema to all that the United States stood for, for over seventy years.  This is unprecedented in modern times.
  • The stock market is on track to have the worst December on record since 1931 and the Great Depression.  The reasons are varied but include the uncertainty created by Mr. Trump and his impulsive policy decisions, especially regarding trade and tariffs.

These are only the quick highlights.  And only one week’s worth of news is listed here.  In “normal” times this much activity in a month would be noteworthy.

Much of this will play out over the next few weeks and months.  I am sure we will all have plenty to say about it as events unfold.  Right now I want to emphasize what much of this means to us with respect to national security and foreign affairs.

Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” agenda.  Nice slogan.  As has been pointed out by many, this was also the slogan of the fascist leaning, isolationist wing of American politicians in the 1930s that refused to oppose the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.  I am not hinting that Mr. Trump is a fascist sympathizer, I am merely pointing out that there are historical roots to the thoughts, and policies he espouses.

Given Mr. Trump’s use of hyperbole in everything that he does, many thought that “America First” was just a catchy phrase that he liked.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that the words are more than a slogan.  He believes them in the sense that it governs his views on trade, national security, military action and our role in the world.  It is reflected in his decisions (against nearly unanimous caution not to do so) to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, his decisions to impose tariffs, and his desire to build a wall on the southern border.  It is an entirely isolationist, transactional way of thinking.  In this way of thinking we do not help or stand by allies unless there is something tangible in it for us — in Mr. Trump’s view, money.

This way of thinking is dangerous — to the interests of the United States and to peace and stability in the world.  It cedes the playing field to Russia and China who are more than happy to fill the void.

Re-read Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter. He resigned because of those “America First” policies.  This is what he is not so subtly saying.  Mr. Trump is a danger to all that we as a country have held dear for over 70 years and a danger to the influence and power for good that the world used to count upon from the good old U.S. of A. Not anymore.

Expect it to get worse as Mr. Trump has systematically removed all of those in his administration that were not afraid to tell him “no” and stood against his misguided plans.  The president acts impulsively and erratically and it seems that with two years of data, we now know that his instincts are either no good, or his knowledge of the world is sorely inadequate.

We are fast approaching a time where the United States government is run like the Trump Organization.  It will be in the hands of Mr. Trump, his daughter and son-in-law.  Period.

Likewise, the world — our friends and allies as well as our enemies — now know that the president is weak and ill-informed.  The decision to leave Syria proves it to them.  The icing on the cake was his decision to cave to the whining from hard-core right-wing pundits on television calling him out on not shutting down the government over his wall.  It makes Mr. Trump look scared of losing his base and gives power to the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh.  Along with Sean Hannity, those apparently are his real cabinet.

On the other hand, this is a season of great joy!  Celebrate with friends and family.  Remember that we are all God’s children and enjoy the gift of life.  For a few days, we can put aside the worries of the secular world and revel in the power of the spiritual world.

Best wishes to all.


Where Are The Patriots?

“You know, they have a word.  It sort of became old-fashioned.  It’s called a nationalist.  And I say, ‘Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?’  You know what I am?  I’m a nationalist, okay?  I’m a nationalist.  Nationalist!  Use that word.  Use that word!”

—  Donald J. Trump at a political rally in Houston, 22 October 2018

And there we have it.

The President of the United States is proudly using a word that is full of historic negative connotations.  Mr. Trump stated yesterday in response to a reporter’s question that he didn’t know why people were upset with his use of the word and implied that it meant the same as “patriotism.”  It is not the same, and anyone with any sense of history knows that.  While the president is famously ill-informed, and proud of it, I have no doubt he knew exactly what he was saying.  His own words tell us that: “we’re not supposed to use that word.”

Nationalism:  Loyalty and devotion to a nation.  Especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or groups.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Patriotism: Love for or devotion to one’s country.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Note the difference, and it’s a big one.  One espouses devotion to a nation, one to a country.  While we say that we “are one nation under God” we are really a country, not a nation in the sense that it is used in these definitions.  In this sense a nation is a group of people with a common language, ethnicity, and an outlook that manifests in a common culture.  In other words, it is exclusive of those that do not share the same traits.

Nationalism is a relatively recent development in history, coming into wide-spread usage starting in the 1800s and resulting in the founding of nation-states in place of empires or kingdoms that had dominated previously.  The idea came of age in the 20th century and was one of the key causes leading to World War I and World War II.  In truth, nationalism can be a positive force, such as in the end of colonialism and the emergence of many new countries from nations across Africa, Latin America and Asia, or it can be a negative force such as the rallying cry of fascist dictators and others.  Vladimir Putin is using Russian nationalism to consolidate his power and as an excuse for the annexation of Crimea and for threats against the Baltic States, especially Estonia which has a high percentage of ethnic Russians in its population.

E Pluribus Unum.  “Out of many, one.”  Our country’s motto reflects the fact that our country is made of people from around the world, from many nations, that have come together to form a “more perfect union.”  We put aside our devotion to the nation of origin and pledge our allegiance to a new country.  This is what made, and keeps, America great and is significantly different from what it means to be French, or Spanish, or Chinese.

The history of nationalism in this country is sordid.  Historically it means a belief in a country dominated by white Christian males and is most closely associated with white nationalism.  The march in Charlottesville Virginia last year was a white nationalist rally which included overt neo-Nazi groups.  Mr. Trump opined that there were “good people on both sides” thus validating the cause of those groups, at least in their eyes.  Nationalism means that one promotes one’s own culture and values ahead of those of others.  Nationalists do so not just because they believe in them but because they believe that their culture and values are inherently better than those of any other one’s or any other nation’s culture and values.  Thus, it means that in the context of the Charlottesville rally, for example, that white interests should supersede those of any other group in the U.S.

In the 1930’s the Nationalist Socialist German Worker’s Party used nationalism to legally rise to power in a republican Germany.  The rallying cry was that German culture and ethnicity was superior to any other nation’s and therefore Germans should dominate the world.

In the U.S., mainstream politicians and citizens celebrate our diversity.  We have a history of people of different ethnic groups, nationalities, religions, cultures and customs coming together in a common cause.  It is what makes for American Exceptionalism which is, well, exceptional because we are one of the few, if not the only, country in the world that not only believes in our diversity, but celebrates it.

Mr. Trump claimed yesterday in response to a question about white nationalism during a press availability in the Oval Office, as to whether he intended his remarks to encourage white nationalists. He responded incredulously to the question and said “no, I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist.”

Really?

Where are the patriots?  Who is standing up and saying, “no, Mr. President, we are not nationalists, we are patriots.”  We do not celebrate the demonization of other ethnic groups or nationalities. Patriots celebrate our country and are proud of the fact that from our various backgrounds we come together in common purposes.  We are a beacon to the world.  Extinguishing that beacon through a misguided belief that we are somehow being “screwed” by “others” will not improve the life of any American.  Should we follow the path that Mr. Trump espouses we lose the essence of what has served us so well for so long.  Anger and fear are the basic ingredients of a “nationalist” ideology.  We are better than that.

 

 


A License To Kill

As the evidence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi continues to grow, the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State expand their dissembling and cover up on behalf of the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

It is embarrassing in one sense and appalling in every way.

Whether or not Prince Mohammad thought that he would be able to murder someone on foreign soil with impunity and without consequence or not, with the complicity and direct efforts of the President of the United States he will get away with it.  The president trotted out his tag line that worked so well in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh by accusing the press and world leaders elsewhere of jumping to conclusions.  Or as he said in an interview with the Associated Press,  “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.  We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh.  And he was innocent all the way.”

The preponderance of evidence, including from Turkey our NATO ally, indicates that the Saudis certainly did murder Mr. Khashoggi and given the way the Saudis govern, it is preposterous to stipulate that Saudi hit men that are known to work directly for the Crown Prince would have gone “rogue” and killed him without the Prince’s knowledge.

One element that indicates the president is involved in a cover up is the fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies were directed not to follow through with scheduled briefings for the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning events surrounding the murder.  As Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), the Chairman of the committee told reporters yesterday, the administration has “clamped down” on providing information to the committee and cancelled a scheduled briefing on Tuesday.  Senator Corker went on to say that before his committee’s oversight of the Executive Branch was blocked, that the intelligence he had seen indicates that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis.  He added, “everything points to MBS.  This could not have happened without his approval.”

Once again, this administration is driven by money and money alone.  Apparently they are not knowledgeable enough or competent enough to figure out how to condemn the actions resulting in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi without breaking off relations with Saudi Arabia, an important, if unreliable, friend in the Middle East.  The Saudis (and their money) are important players in the region and can be a counter to Iran.  Diplomacy and foreign relations require skill and knowledge of the trade craft involved in the push and pull of world events.  Evidently this administration cannot pull it off.

For example, back in the day I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in dealing with regional issues, including in Saudi Arabia.  The Bedouin tradition is one of extreme hospitality, based on their origins as nomads in the desert where survival might depend on help from others.  This ingrained hospitality has carried over to modern Saudi Arabia.  Part of that tradition is to never say “no.”  They don’t.  But it doesn’t take long to figure out that not saying “no” doesn’t mean “yes.”  An apocryphal but not too unrealistic negotiation would go something like this:  “Will you commit to buying $110 billion in U.S. arms?”  “It would be a great honor.” “So that means you will?”  “Inshallah!”  (God willing!)  And so it goes.  One walks away thinking that there was a deal until it comes time to put ink to paper.

The president is being hoodwinked if he thinks that the value of the Saudis to U.S. security interests is so immense that it outweighs human rights, and thus he needs to cover up the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.  They need us more than we need them.  Some examples. The U.S. is now a net exporter of oil, thanks to the expansion of the commercial viability of shale oil.  We do import oil, but our biggest supplier is Canada.  Oil is a fungible commodity, the Saudis need to sell their oil as their economy is nearly entirely dependent on it.  They aren’t going to stop.  The arms sales the president is so afraid of losing constitute a small percentage of the U.S. defense industry.  More to the current point, most of the Saudi’s military equipment is U.S., especially their aircraft and the munitions they carry.  They will need U.S. spare parts and maintenance contracts for years to come.  They will not cut those off as it would be against their own best interests especially as they continue to interfere in the war in Yemen.  Should war break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are toast without us.  And so on.  One gets the idea.  The Saudis need us economically and militarily more than we need them. We hold most of the cards and a skillful administration would know how to parlay them into the Saudi’s taking accountability for a crime against humanity. Diplomatically and through intelligence sharing they can provide the U.S. some real value.  However, the president argues in terms of the bottom line — money — and not in terms of their other value added.

Apparently, human rights has no place in U.S. foreign policy, a break in our traditions since World War II.  That is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t looked the other way in the past in order to attain our national interests.  We have, in some truly shameful circumstances.  Rarely, if ever, however, has the president actively worked in favor of a foreign power to cover up a heinous crime.

Perhaps there are other motivations such as personal financial gain for the president and his family?

Over the last 18 months the U.S. has given the dictators of the world a license to kill.  In addition to the unfolding events in Saudi Arabia, the president has shrugged over Russian president Vladimir Putin ordering a poison attack on British soil, congratulated Philippine president Duterte’s hit squads killing thousands of people on the streets in his war on drugs, congratulated China’s president Xi on changing the succession of government to become President for Life, as he did with Turkey’s president Erdogan who undermined democracy in his own country and installed himself as a de facto autocrat, and of course expressed his admiration for the world’s current most ruthless dictator North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.  As the President of the United States said about the Great Leader, “We went back and forth, then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters. We fell in love.”

How nice.

Meanwhile he trashes our allies in the U.K,, Germany, Japan, Canada and the entirety of NATO, to name a few of the nations we actually depend upon .

Let’s look from the outside in.  Were I sitting in North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia or a host of other nations led by autocrats and dictators, I would conclude that all one needs to do to silence and paralyze the United States is to impress the president on how wonderful he is and to put some money on the line.  After that, anything goes. “And when you’re a star they let you do it.  You can do anything.”  Maybe those despots just “gotta use some Tic Tacs” to get what they want.

Of course poor people in Africa or Latin America are a direct threat to the survival of the United States.  I guess that’s why today the president threatened to put the military on our border with Mexico to stop the “invasion” coming from Central America.

Something is upside down in our country.

 


How Much Is A Life Worth?

Roughly two weeks ago Jamal Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.  Mr. Khashoggi, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime who was living in exile as a permanent green card holder in the United States and was a Washington Post journalist.  Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate, as seen on security cameras outside the building, but was never observed coming out and has not been heard from since.  The Saudis claim that he left the Consulate in fine condition but can provide no proof and cannot say where he may be.  The Turkish government states that it has hard evidence — reportedly audio and possibly video recordings — that Mr. Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the Consulate.  The Turks report that a fifteen man “hit squad” flew in and out of Turkey from Saudi Arabia on two private aircraft before and after the alleged murder.

This incident is getting the full attention of both political parties in the United States Senate as well as freedom loving nations around the world.  Demands for answers from the Saudis and a full investigation into the disappearance of a respected journalist are growing.  For those nations that care about human rights, this is an egregious and blatant act of state sponsored terrorism against an innocent civilian conducted on the foreign soil of a NATO ally.  It cannot be tolerated.

While acknowledging that a state ordered murder of Mr. Khashoggi  (“if it’s true”) would be a problem (“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a bit.”),  the President of the United States has been clear over the last several days that restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not be on the table.  Or as he said on Thursday, ” I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” (Mr. Trump keeps touting the $110 billion arms deal, but analysts say that the Saudis have only committed to about $10 billion and it is debatable that the Saudis will ever buy the full $110 billion as their military cannot assimilate all of those weapons.)  So we know that Mr. Khashoggi’s life is not worth $110 billion or even $10 billion.  What is it worth?

This murderous development significantly impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  The Trump Administration, through the president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, has put all of their Middle East policy eggs in the Saudi basket.  The reasons are many, varied and complicated, but if you can’t tell the players without a score card, a quick summary follows.

The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1930 under King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud.  The relationship with the United States began following the discovery of oil in the kingdom in 1938 and dates to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy while anchored in the Suez Canal.  A hand shake between the two took on the force of a treaty.  The kingdom would supply oil to the U.S. in exchange for security and protection guarantees from the U.S.  That same basic agreement is still in force today, but with greater complications.

The kingdom was ruled for most of its existence by one of the sons of King Abdul-Aziz.  As one half-brother died, another would succeed him as king.  For all of this time, the main focus of Saudi policy was, and is, the preservation of the rule of the royal family (which now numbers in the thousands with uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. that can trace lineage back to King Abdul Aziz) and their wealth.  As the brothers died off, there was a power struggle within the family as to how succession would be passed down for the future.  Currently, the winner of that struggle is Mohammad bin Salman, at 33 the current Crown Prince, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as his father, King Salman, the nominal ruler of the kingdom is reported to be in poor health.

Crown Prince Mohammad, commonly referred to as MBS, is also good friends with Mr. Kushner.  Both are young and apparently bonded in the days following the election in 2016.  Many thought originally  that Prince Mohammad would be a reformer within the kingdom and bring it into the 21st century through economic and social reform.  Recently, analysis of his efforts indicates that he is a good public relations man in pushing the appearance of reform, but in fact his efforts are focused on establishing himself as the autocratic head of state and in consolidating power for himself, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.  For example in 2017 he had over 40 members of  the royal family and senior government officials arrested and imprisoned along with roughly 200 other businessmen, bankers, broadcasters and others.  Ostensibly this was to rid the government of corruption but it is widely viewed as a test of his power and an attempt to eliminate any competition for his leadership.  Most were eventually released after paying “fines” (read bribes) to the Crown Prince worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is widely believed that Mr. Kushner may have shared highly classified intelligence with the Prince prior to the purge naming those in the country that opposed his taking the reins .

Mr. Kushner sees MBS as the key to countering Iran in the region and as the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The prince positioned himself to be a “player” but so far the Saudis have not delivered on their promises (as anyone knowing how things work in that area would know) even as the U.S. has delivered on their end, most controversially by supporting the Saudis with arms and intelligence during their ongoing military involvement in Yemen.

Additionally, and not surprisingly, both the Trump and Kushner family business organizations have long-standing and wide-spread business involvement in Saudi Arabia.  When Mr. Trump was in serious financial trouble in the 1990s, for example, he sold condos, a hotel, parts of his business and his yacht to Saudis to raise money.  It is rumored that the Saudis saved the Kushner family business by taking on the loan for a prominent New York land mark.  There are other business connections that have been detailed in many venues, but without the release of a certain president’s tax returns and other normally provided financial information, the true extent of the deals cannot be determined.  Oh by the way, the biggest spender at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC since the election is the Saudi government.

Mr. Khashoggi wrote often and furiously about the corruption in the Saudi royal family, their business ties and the efforts by Prince Mohammad to take control of the country.  Or as he said last year to The New Yorker, “It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi Arabia.  MBS is now becoming the supreme leader.”

Mr. Khashoggi would never have been murdered without the knowledge of Prince Mohammad.

And all of this is the tip of the iceberg.  Our relationship is a complicated one, on all levels.  There are advantages and disadvantages to working with the Saudis.  The alleged murder of Mr. Khashoggi puts a lot of the national and personal goals of this administration in peril should the president choose to act on punishing the Saudis.  The Senate is invoking the Global Magnitsky Act based on a December 2016 law that invokes sanctions against anyone or any government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.  The president is resisting.  (Ironically the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr. Trump, Jr. and the Russians concerned the Magnitsky Act which at the time involved sanctions against Russians committing human rights abuses. In December of that year it expanded to a global scale.)

Mr. Trump knows he must act tough, but my bet is that he hopes that it all blows over.  Today he reportedly spoke to King Salman, the titular head of Saudi Arabia, who assured him that the Saudis had nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.  He flatly denied it.  Or as Mr. Trump told reporters today, “It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind.  The denial was very strong.”  (As one recalls, anyone or any government that strongly denies a murder by chemical attack — hello Russia — or preying on young girls — hello Roy Moore — or anything else is believed by Mr. Trump because they are “very strong” in their denials.)

To add injury to insult, Mr. Trump added to his statement by saying that “It sounded to me like it could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?”  Indeed.  Can you say “cover up”?

I can see it developing already.  No official U.S. government action will ensue as Mr. Trump says we can’t be sure who did it.  The Saudis deny it.  Very strongly.  It could have been rogue killers.  We cannot give up billions in arms sales.  Too bad.  I feel bad for his family.  Hey, look over there!

And we move on.

There was a time when the U.S. cared about and set an example for human rights, freedom of the press and other values we held dearly as a nation.  Now, not so much.  Apparently all of our relations are now transactional and only get fully considered based on the financial bottom line.  It only matters how much money is involved, not what is right.

Apparently a human life isn’t worth anything to the United States anymore.


Are You Exhausted?

I am.

From legal developments surrounding Mr. Donald J. Trump to the continued revelations of evil emanating from the Catholic Church it is hard to catch one’s breath.  It seems that institutions that one could look to for ethical and moral guidance are themselves the worst kind of example for any of us.

It would take me pages to even quickly recap the events from the last week.  I think we will look back on it as some kind of turning point, although I am firmly of the belief that we have only just begun a new “long national nightmare” (as President Gerald Ford said on 9 August 1974 at his inauguration) before we reach an understanding of the totality of the illegal and immoral actions surrounding Mr. Trump, his family, his business and his efforts to skew the 2016 election.

Worse still is that we have a president that lashes out in retaliation for any sort of criticism.  He lashes out not just as a cyber bully (Be Best Mr. President!) but in harming the ability of people to earn a living.  He takes no responsibility for anything, and in fact is actively trying to shut down investigations into his and his associates activities that are against the law.  Duly authorized federal investigations, monitored by Republican political appointees, directed by a former FBI Director under a Republican president, resulting in court cases under duly appointed judges, and verdicts returned by twelve ordinary citizens as provided for in a civilized democracy are branded as “unfair” or “witch hunts”.  There is clear evidence of foreign intervention in our democratic processes and the president not only wants to shut it down, he praises the autocrat responsible for the actions.  Meanwhile he supports white nationalists, repeats provable lies, shows no respect for minorities, and searches for ways to increase his power without the constraints of Congress or the courts.

Everything is personal with him.  Everything.  Mr. Trump has absolutely no understanding of the ideals that support our nation.  The only things that cause him to act — in between golf rounds, “Executive Time” (ie., watching Fox News), and Tweeting — are to do things that benefit him personally.  He sees everything through that light, and it appears to me, assumes that everything anybody else does is similarly guided only by their respective self-interests.  There is no greater good.

He does not understand that there are actually people that serve honorably in government without partisan or personal gain.  He demands loyalty to himself and himself only, not to country or to what is right, or to the ideals of our nation.  His understanding of government, and especially those in the Executive Branch, is that it is merely an extension of the way that he ran Trump Inc. — he gets to be the boss and anyone that has a different idea, or worse tells him he cannot do something, is clearly just trying to screw him over.  In this way he is very petty and childish.  If he doesn’t get his way he acts out.  In Trump Tower as the head of Trump Inc. it is something to read about in the gossip columns and be amused.  In the Oval Office it is dangerous and un-American.

There are still over 500 children separated from their parents in “kiddie jails” created by this president’s policies.  North Korea makes our president look like a laughing-stock as they have gotten away with everything they wanted from Mr. Trump for nothing in return.  The press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin was the most disgusting, vomit inducing performance I have seen from an American president on foreign soil.  The “winning” trade wars over tariffs continue to expand with an increasing threat to our economy and has already driven numerous small businesses under because they could not afford raw materials like steel and aluminum.  The list is endless.  Congress is missing in action (“at least we got Gorsuch” is too high of a price to pay.)

And now we have the Chief Federal Law Enforcement Official in the land acting like the Mafia boss that he really is.  To call Mr. Paul Manafort a “brave man” and that he has “respect” for him because he didn’t “break” is disgusting.  He also belittles our court system by talking about “Justice.”  Mr. Manafort is a convicted felon that took advantage of American tax payers and knowingly broke the law in numerous ways for his own benefit.

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. “Justice” took a 12-year-old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to “break” – make up stories in order to get a “deal.” Such respect for a brave man!”  Mr. Donald J. Trump via Twitter on 22 August 2018

As an aside, one wonders what news Mr. Manafort could “break” (the inference of Mr. Manafort as a POW under torture is further evidence that Mr. Trump has no clue).  To me, for the president to congratulate him for not breaking means that Mr. Trump knows that Mr. Manafort has information to “break” about Mr. Trump and his probable illegal activities.

On the other hand Mr. John Dean, who famously testified against President Richard Nixon, thus breaking open that conspiracy, is a “RAT” (in all caps).  He had choice words for his personal attorney Mr. Michael Cohen who is now a convicted felon after pleading guilty to seven counts, including two that effectively name the president as an unindicted co-conspirator and said that “flipping” should be illegal.  In other words, the primary tool used by law enforcement to solve cases should not be allowed.  Nice.  Oh yeah, he also said that violations of campaign law were “not a big deal.”

“It almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair. Because if somebody’s going to give—spend five years like Michael Cohen, or 10 years, or 15 years in jail because of a taxi cab industry, because he defrauded some bank—the last two were tiny ones. You know, campaign violations are considered not a big deal, frankly. But if somebody defrauded a bank and he’s going to get 10 years in jail or 20 years in jail, but if you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you’ll go down to two or three years, which is the deal he made.”

An excerpt from Mr. Donald J Trump’s interview on “Fox and Friends” aired 23 August 2018

Let’s see.  Mr Trump’s personal attorney guilty of numerous crimes including tax evasion.  Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman convicted of numerous crimes including tax evasion.  What are the odds that Mr. Trump also evaded paying taxes?  No wonder he won’t release his tax returns.  Besides, he basically already told us about his crimes.  Remember that during the first presidential debate in 2016 he was accused of not paying taxes and his reply was “That makes me smart.”

And there is so much more.  Instead of draining the swamp he replaced the alligators with crocodiles and turned it into an infinity pool.  Only the best people, indeed.

I worry because we have already seen nasty instances of the president lashing out when something doesn’t go his way.  We have already seen him search for new and creative ways to use his Executive Powers in ways not imagined by the Founding Fathers.  When the heat comes, and it is coming, and we learn the full breath-taking scope of his law breaking over the years, only one’s imagination limits what possible scenarios might play out.

I have written in this space before that any comparisons to Watergate are misguided.  As nasty as he may have been, President Nixon recognized the limits to his power and had at least a modicum of pride in the proper functioning of a democracy.  He resigned.  Mr. Trump has no modicum of decency in any sense.  He proves that daily.  His mantra is that if he gets hit he hits back ten times harder.  There is nothing that we have seen that indicates that he will go quietly into the night when the full scope of his misdeeds are revealed.  I have no idea how this will end in the coming months.  One thing I would bet on, however, is that It isn’t going to be pretty.

If you are as exhausted by all of this as I am already, rest up.  Mr. Trump and his cohorts are counting on us thinking of all of his shenanigans as “normal” and on no one holding him accountable.  It will be “we the people” that are going to have to get the job done.  Vote in November!