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.

 


Incompetent or Dangerous?

Yesterday, President Donald J. Trump fired James B. Comey Jr., the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  This came in the midst of an ever-increasing FBI investigation into known Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the increasing number of revelations of ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians.  Those are actually two different issues, which our president apparently cannot understand.

There is wide-spread consensus based on the truth and, you know, actual facts that the Russians interfered with the election.  Most likely they interfered because, as former Bush Administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a pay-back kind of guy.  He hated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, primarily because she called his election a sham, and sought the opportunity to work against her campaign.  According to Secretary Rice’s theory, he relished disrupting the election in and of itself, but to have Secretary Clinton as the recipient only made it sweeter.

Every American should be gravely concerned that a foreign power aggressively and with malice of forethought worked hard to disrupt the very foundation of our Republic.  Every American.  This is not a political issue.  Consequently both the Senate and the House of Representatives are conducting bi-partisan inquiries into what happened and how we can protect against it in the future.

However, President Trump seems to believe this is unnecessary.  If one pays only the mildest of attention to the news, you know that he is constantly calling the fact of the interference a “hoax” and the investigations “a waste of taxpayer money.”  He won and that’s all he cares about.  In his mind, end of story.

Secondarily, as the investigation of the Russian interference deepened, it became apparent that there may have been some interaction between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians.  The who, why and what questions remain unanswered.  This also is considered “fake news” by the president and he constantly tweets about issues he thinks are “ridiculous” in connection with the investigation.

He does so even though his first National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn USA (ret.) was fired by the president for working with the Russians, being paid by them, and lying about it.  I suppose we should just let that go.  Nothing to see here, folks, just move along.

This is the short version of the context surrounding the firing of Director Comey.  The president showed real class by not notifying Director Comey of his dismissal, rather the Director learned about it on television while giving a speech in Los Angeles.

So the president whose staff members and campaign members are under investigation by the FBI and the Attorney General of the United States who was forced to recuse himself from the Russian investigation because of his own role in the campaign and “forgetting” to reveal his own Russian contacts, are the folks that fired the Director.  It most definitely does not pass the smell test.

Thus the question, is the president incompetent of trying to cover up misdeeds in his administration? Does he not know what he is doing or is he deliberately undermining our Constitutional balance?  I do not know, but either one is dangerous.

The alleged reason for the firing was the mishandling of the investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails back in July.  Of 2016.  The investigation that then Candidate Trump applauded.  Hmmm.  The timing is also suspicious.  Remember the Trumpian tactic of changing the headlines whenever something critical of him makes the news?  On Monday former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before a Senate sub-committee looking into the Russian connections.  Their testimony was less than flattering to the Trump Administration and in some cases directly contradicted statements made by the president and his spokespeople.  On Tuesday, Director Comey is fired, thus changing the headlines.  I’m just sayin’….

From the time Attorney General Yates notified the White House that General Flynn was compromised and a potential agent of the Russians until he was fired — only after it all became public in the Washington Post — was 18 days.

From the time that the current Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General recommended the dismissal to the president and the FBI director was fired — for something that happened in July 2016 — was minutes.

Also remember that the FBI Director is appointed for a 10 year term.  This is to keep politics and partisanship out of law enforcement in the most critical areas of our national security.  Only one other active Director was fired, and that was William Sessions in 1993 by President Bill Clinton for ethics violations, not for investigating anything to do with the administration.

Many people were upset by the way that Director Comey handled the email investigation of Secretary Clinton.  Some even argue that the way he handled it (a news conference about a lack of evidence to prosecute) was unprecedented and unprofessional and effectively handicapped the campaign of Secretary Clinton.  In a larger context, even as one may have no love for Director Comey, his firing is very troubling at this particular point.  It seems that as the investigation gets closer to the truth, the resistance from the White House increases.  Director Comey must have been very close to finding damaging information.  It only takes a cursory look at any newspaper or other news source to see that this has raised significant bi-partisan concern in the Congress as to the meaning, appropriateness and impact of the firing.  Most Republicans and Democrats have expressed serious concern.  It is not right.

Alarm bells should be going off when taken in connection with this quote from White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders during an interview last night with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. In the same vein as the president and other spokespeople in the White House, she spoke about the Russian investigations and said:

I think the bigger point on that is, “My gosh, Tucker, when are they gonna let that go?” It’s been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it’s kinda getting absurd. There’s nothing there. We’ve heard that time and time again. We’ve heard it in the testimonies earlier this week. We’ve heard it for the last 11 months. There is no there there. It’s time to move on.

President Trump wants the investigation to go away.  Countless efforts by the president and his spokespeople to undermine the investigations have not worked.  They pretend, as does Ms. Sanders, that the American people do not care.  We won.  End of story.  Yet, the investigations continue and it does not go away.  Next step — fire the Director of the FBI.

One can only conclude that the president must really be trying to hide something big.  Maybe yuuge. Reporting today indicates that last week Director Comey quietly asked Congress for a significant increase in funding for the Russian investigation.  Another coincidence?

President Trump undoubtedly thought that by making Director Comey go away, his troubles would go away as well.  They are just beginning.  Reportedly, the president has little interest in history or understanding exactly how the government works.  Fine.  But someone should tell him that time and time again the cover-up is what brings folks to their knees, doing more damage than the “crime” ever would have.  Maybe he should read up on it.  He may learn something about it when he appoints his next Director of the FBI and the Senate holds confirmation hearings.  If you think there is a fire in the Senate during the current hearings, you haven’t seen anything yet.

A civics lesson might help as well.  Trying to run the United States as a family business operation does not work so well.  Unless his aim is to make a lot of money, which that part so far is working. But that’s a piece for another day.

The investigations will not go away.  They will be slowed down dramatically in the near term.  The FBI is extremely unlikely to report the results of their investigations without a Director in place.  That will take weeks or more likely, months.  James Comey was a Republican appointed by President Obama. President Trump should appoint a Democrat with an impeccable reputation as the next Director.  I am not holding my breath.  His appointment will tell us a lot about the future integrity of anything that comes out of the Department of Justice.

The investigations will continue in the interim.  However, the integrity of those investigations is now compromised. Only by appointing a special prosecutor — which the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are mightily resisting — will there be some assurance to the American people that an independent investigation, unencumbered by political and partisan elements, reports believable results.

This is fundamental to our national security.  Stay awake and keep the pressure on.  Silence and “getting tired of it all” will erode our freedom.

 


Doing The Right Thing

Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria.  The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished.  This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.

The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple.  Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario.  They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.

The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences.  Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies.  It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences.  Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.

The larger question is “what next?”  Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come.  What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.

The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts.  The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month.  It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.

On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike.  What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened.  When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook.  Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet).  Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.  President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night.  Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.

Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not.  There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea.  However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.


A Disturbing Conclusion

Another day, another Trump story dominating the news.  I will eventually again write about something other than our president, but it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room when every morning there is some new statement by the president or his staff that is cringe worthy.  Be it wire tapping (with or without “quotation marks” — this is what we have come down to — or misspellings) or microwaves as cameras, every day there is something.  We as citizens need to look past the daily “guess what they just said” comments and try to discern what is really going on.

Avoiding a discussion on the Trump Administration policies for the moment, which is hard to do, there is a different picture I am trying to understand.  And believe me, trying to ignore his proposals is difficult, be it the American Health Care Act (or Trumpcare — no, no, it’s Ryancare — no, no Trumpcare) or the president’s budget proposals that gut many essential programs and departments. Those proposals, as good or as bad as they may be depending on one’s political views, are just that, proposals. The Congress ultimately will pass, or not, the AHCA and any president’s budget proposals are more of a wish list and indicator of their administration’s priorities rather than the actual budget, which is also the purview of the Congress.

I am focused for the moment on trying to figure out exactly what is going on with those things that the president actually controls and what they may portend.  To some degree, it is necessary to get down in the weeds to see where things are headed.  There are several troubling indicators of how President Trump intends to run his administration.

At first I could not figure out if the nonsensical and illogical tweets, statements, and press briefings were the sign of an administration in disarray, trying to find its bearings or something else.  I have come to believe it is something else.  Many pundits have already commented on the fact that every time the media or the public focuses on some inane action or statement from the president or his staff, some new, head line grabbing tweet or statement comes out.  Some call President Trump the Distractor-in-Chief (DIC?).  That may be part of it, but I think there is a larger more insidious goal.  President Trump continually calls any reporting he does not like “fake news.”  Beyond that he and his staff continually attack the media and put out statements that are proven to be untruthful, yet they double down and insist that it is true by pointing to some off-the-wall media source as the “proof” of their statements. This is deliberate — not flaky, or anti-PC, or any other excuse attributed to the activity. I say again, it is deliberate.  The White House staff is deliberately and systematically trying to undermine the credibility of the serious news outlets in the United States.  Coupled with the stated disdain of the intelligence community so often reiterated by the president and his advisers, there is a very deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of distrust where nothing is ground truth.  Once such an atmosphere exists, the administration can say and do anything that they want to do and they will then claim black is white and only they know what is going on.  Trust them.  How many times has Senior Adviser Kelly Anne Conway (and others) gone on a news show and defended some outrageous statement from the president?  When pressed for evidence that such statements are true, how many times has she said words to the effect that “well, the president has access to information that I do not have so he must know what he is talking about?”  No proof.  No logic.  Only that if the president said it, it has to be true, no matter how outrageous.   And how many times when personally pressed does the president decline to give proof to defend a statement and only says something along the lines of “more information will be coming out in about two weeks.  It will be amazing.  You won’t believe what is going on.  It will surprise you.  Believe me.”  Have you noticed that it is always in two weeks?  And then two weeks, months, years, pass and nothing more comes out.

This approach seriously undermines the credibility of the president.  If anyone were to pay attention. Seemingly most Americans shrug it off as that’s “Trump being Trump” or as the “mainstream media” trying to undermine his presidency.  Never mind that the media merely plays what the president or his advisers actually say and then for some strange reason ask them to provide the basis for the statement. How unfair!

You can take it to the bank that our friends and enemies are paying attention.

That is why I am so troubled.  Either the president does not care that his credibility suffers, credibility that will be crucial when a real crisis hits our country, or he is risking his credibility in order to undermine the veracity of any source of information outside the White House so that only his version of the truth is available.  A harsh assessment, I admit, but increasingly I am unable to come up with any other explanation for the way that he and his staff conduct business.  What began as mildly amusing behavior morphed to incredulity to concerns about sanity to fear that it is intentional.

And there is more.

There are some good people working in the Trump administration.  Secretary Mattis is one, Lt General McMaster is another, and others, who while I may disagree with their policy views, I respect their integrity and willingness to try to do the right thing.  Many of them signed up with this administration with the caveat that they be able to pick their own people and not be micro-managed by the White House.  So far, that is not happening.

Secretary Mattis has yet to get a second in command, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.  He tried three times so far to get three different people in place.  All rejected by the White House.  There are no other political appointees below the Secretary level at DOD thus far.  One may claim that we need to “drain the swamp” but the reality is that the Secretary cannot do everything by himself.  Skilled, knowledgeable people with expertise in everything from procurement to regional alliances need to be in place to make U.S. policy effective.  Right now, nobody.  Likewise, in the State Department. Secretary Tillison’s nominees for his subordinate political positions are zero for everyone.  None has gotten past the White House.  Just as troubling to those that understand how such things work, last week the Mexican Foreign Minister, the direct counter part to Secretary Tillerson was in Washington for talks and the State Department did not even know he was in town, much less participate in the discussions. Only the White House inner circle participated.  National Security Adviser McMaster found out last week that, in fact, he cannot pick his own staff.  He tried to have a Trump campaign supporter now in charge of national intelligence for the National Security Council moved to a different job so that NSA McMaster could put a more qualified and effective person in that slot.  The staffer went to the president, on the advice of Mr. Steve Bannon, and NSA McMaster was overruled. There are a multitude of similar examples were one to peel away the layers and look inside the various departments and agencies in the Executive Branch.

Even if all that is true, who cares?  So what?  Why write about it except for sour grapes?

There are at least two reasons to take note.  The most benign concern is that our nation’s defense and foreign policies, to name two, cannot be thoroughly vetted, reviewed and implemented without the right people (any people!) in place.  No matter how good the Secretary may be, he or she is only one person and cannot do it all alone.  The more serious concern is that the White House staff, the close inner circle to the president, may not want any effective push back from the Defense or State Departments or other agencies.  They may want only the White House inner circle to promulgate and execute policy.  The Cabinet’s job is merely to act as props (see almost every signing ceremony in the White House) or cheerleaders for the president.

President Trump’s style as a businessman was to have a small, totally loyal, inner circle that carried out his decisions.  By all accounts describing his style, President Trump is not much for details and makes decisions by using his “gut instincts.”  His close inner circle then carries on and implements what they understand to be his intent.  This may work in a real estate business, but it does not work well in an undertaking as large as the United States government, especially when the current inner circle takes great pride in stating that they have no experience.  When they also refuse, or limit, the input from those that do have knowledge and expertise, something is brewing.  It is either a disaster waiting to happen, or something more sinister, such as a drift towards centralized, autocratic control of the nation.

When all of the pieces of the puzzle are together — and there are more including Mr. Bannon’s view of the world, his declaration to “dismantle the administrative state,” blaming “the deep state” for the failures of their policies, lashing out at the judiciary, claiming  that former President Obama is running a shadow government with the aim of stopping the Trump administration, among others — it paints a troubling picture.

At first I thought that maybe they were just experiencing growing pains, not unusual for a new administration.  Then I thought that maybe the staff was just trying to deal with a loose cannon in President Trump — which could be dangerous, but the experienced hands would eventually bring him back to reality.  Now I am beginning to see that it is actually a plan.  What I have not decided upon is whether President Trump is the visionary using his staff, or whether Mr. Bannon is the visionary using the president to fulfill his own view of re-ordering the world.

I absolutely have not given up on the ship of state being righted and put back on a steady course. There are positive signs such as the Congress (after only about 8 months!) investigating the impact of Russian meddling on our national election.  Equally soothing is that more and more Representatives and Senators, of both parties, have nicely said that the president lied when he stated that President Obama had Trump Towers and the campaign “wire tapped.”  The judicial system is working to check the executive over reach of some of the president’s Executive Orders.  The system is working as intended, even if in fits and starts. It remains incumbent on all Americans to keep our eyes wide open and call “foul” when appropriate. Likewise, we need to give credit where it is due.  All is not lost, not even close, but I still worry.  If we see this seeming chaos from self-inflicted crises within the White House, one wonders what will happen when a real crisis erupts.  History teaches us that one eventually will come along.  And probably sooner than later.

When it happens, that will be the true test of this administration.  My nightmare scenario is given the chaos and attempts to undermine anything that runs counter to White House wishes now, while in a period of relative calm with a strong economy and no direct existential threats to our well-being, what will happen in a major crisis?  Will the administration draw upon the many talented and experienced resources our nation and our government has to solve the problem or will they draw even more inward in an attempt to use the crisis to consolidate more power and move further towards autocracy?

I have no crystal ball and have no idea how things will unfold.  The signs thus far leave me greatly troubled about the future of our great nation, more so than at any point in my life.

 


Keep Your Eye On The Ball

A basic admonition for success in a variety of sports such as baseball, golf and many others, is to keep your eye on the ball and follow through.  The same is true for politics.  Distractions come easily and it is easy to lose track of the original issue.  Such seems to be the case with the fireworks surrounding the knowledge that Russia interfered with our 2016 presidential election.

In a rare show of unanimity, last fall and again in January this year, the U.S. intelligence community briefed the outgoing and incoming presidents on the Russian meddling.  Much of the information is highly classified, but we as citizens can be sure that it happened, otherwise, we can trust nothing that our professionals in intelligence and highly respected leaders tell us.  They do not make such accusations lightly or without serious and deep consideration as to the facts and the repercussions. As a result of their findings, President Obama in September 2016, in a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, told him to “cut it out” with regards to Russian cyber attacks and hacking — notably before the election. Claims that he did so to create a “ruse” because the Democrats are “sore losers” holds no validity when the warning came before the election.  In October, again before the election, President Obama used the “red phone” — used to avert nuclear attacks between the two nations — to again warn Mr. Putin about the continued interference in the election. In late December President Obama implemented additional sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats accused of spying within the United States because of the Russian attempts at meddling.  These are facts.

In and of itself, every American should be outraged that there is incontrovertible evidence that the Russians attempted to interfere with our most sacred ritual as a nation — the election of our president. This outrage should supersede any sense of Republican, Democrat, Independent, liberal, conservative or any other political category one can imagine.  America was under attack.  This seemed to be forgotten as our new president initially, and for a lengthy amount of time, refused to acknowledge these facts.  Facts that should outrage any serious leader of our nation.  Instead in a news conference on 11 January 2017 he attacked our intelligence community and compared them to “Nazis.”  He only reluctantly concluded that “as far as the hacking, I think it was Russia” before adding “it could have been others also.”

For whatever reason — ego, appealing to his base, purposely trying to create chaos for some political objective, or trying to cover up the truth — President Trump continues to deny that the Russians had any significant effect or were in fact trying to influence, if not to change, the election.  This continued denial, along with accusing the intelligence community of trying to undermine him and all the other shenanigans now coming out of the White House must stop.  Enough!  This is not a serious presidency if this is the way that they will conduct themselves over the next four years.  It is amateur hour.

The current brouhaha surrounds who did or did not meet with representatives and agents of the Russian government and for what reasons.  This is where the obfuscation continues.  While we argue over whether then Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala) met with the Russian Ambassador in his role as a Senator or as a member of the Trump campaign and oh by the way Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) ate donuts with the Ambassador in 1992 is beside the point.  Way beside the point.  One could argue, on purpose beside the point.  Deliberate distractions to keep our eyes off the ball.

Now Attorney General. Mr. Sessions says he “misspoke” about his contact with the Ambassador. Perhaps so. The problem is that in both oral and written testimony during his confirmation hearing he claimed that he had no contact with any member of the Russian government.  Just as former (remember he got fired) National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn said nearly the same thing. Just as more and more members of the Trump campaign claimed that they never had contact with any representatives of the Russian government and it is becoming clear that in fact, they did have contact.

Focusing on all of those individual circumstances may or may not have significance.  We simply do not know.  Here is what we do know.  Starting with the first reports of the hacking of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta’s emails (an event seemingly predicted by one of Mr. Trump’s then advisers Mr. Roger Stone before they were released by Wikileaks), Mr. Trump and his staff continually denied that any, repeat any, contact with the Russians simply did not happen.  For example, in November 2016 the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded to a press question about contacts with the Trump campaign and said that “there were contacts” with influential people in Trump’s circle. “I don’t say that all of them, but a whole array of them supported contacts with Russian representatives.”  In response, Trump campaign spokesperson Ms. Hope Hicks said, “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.”  This is one of at least twenty separate official denials that there had been any contact with the Russians. Assertions we now know to be false.

Remember that this is an administration that deals in “alternative facts.”

Still, I think all of this who-talked-to-who-and-when is beside the point.  It indicates that there is probably some “there” there, but in and of itself is inconclusive.  Any single or even series of contacts could have multiple explanations, some of which are benign.  What is concerning to me, when taken as a whole, is that so many of them occurred and that the campaign and now the administration, continues to cover up and deny that anything at all took place, even in the face of video and audio that refutes their claims.

What are they so anxiously trying to cover up?

Today was the last straw.  One might say that President Trump deployed the metaphorical nuclear option this morning when he tweeted out that President Obama broke the law.  More specifically, in a series of tweets this morning he said:

How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

–President Trump tweet 7:02 4 Mar 2017

Actual quotes from the President of the United States!  Unconscionable!  Statements such as these are unreasonable and can easily be interpreted to be a calculated effort to create turmoil and unrest in our nation.

There is so much that is wrong with his latest undisciplined reactions it is hard to know where to start. (And it is particularly interesting, or appalling depending on one’s view, that Mr. Trump’s in-your-face style was cultivated by his long time mentor, Mr. Roy Cohn, who was Senator Joe McCarthy’s primary adviser when the McCarthy witch hunt was in full bloom.  I suppose that the circle stays unbroken.) Keeping our eyes on the ball, there are a few facts involved with possible underpinnings in the law — unlike the tweets from President Trump who has offered no evidence or other substantiation of his claims.  This tweet storm is merely intended to divert attention and to change the narrative.  His usual, now predictable, tactic.  When under siege, attack.  (And exactly why do you think you are under siege Mr. President?  Something to hide?)

It is outrageous for a current president to call his predecessor “bad” and it is especially outrageous to call him “sick.”  Perhaps if the shoe fits….

But again, this is a diversionary tactic.  The facts tell a different story.  For example, the president cannot order wire taps on his opponents.  It is against the law and only the most screwball, or clinically paranoid, opponents of President Obama would think that he would blatantly break the law by ordering wire taps.

The most inconvenient fact of all for President Trump is this.  Should it be true that taps of some sort were placed on Trump Tower, they can only be done when a federal judge under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is presented with probable cause that “foreign powers” or “agents of foreign powers” — which may include U.S. citizens or permanent residents — are suspected of terrorism, colluding with agents of foreign governments against the interests of the U.S., or espionage.  When presented with evidence, the judge may approve physical and electronic surveillance of those individuals and their likely places of operation for espionage or other nefarious purposes.

If the FISA statute was implemented by the FBI and NSA through the Department of Justice, utilizing the provisions of the law through the proper court, then President Trump does indeed have reason to distract us from the real problem.

The president may be out of his league.  It may turn out that he is not so “big league” (often transcribed as “bigly”) as he assumes.  He is up against the full power and strength of the national government and the national press, sworn and determined, respectively, to uphold and protect the Constitution.

President Trump will no doubt continue to make wild, baseless and counter-factual claims.  Sad!  We need to keep our eye on the ball and follow through.


Follow the Money

I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist.  I have a healthy sense of skepticism about would-be conspiracies and I normally take things at face value until I can see that the facts point in a different direction.  That said, there is an increasing number of people who are beginning to wonder about President-elect Donald J. Trump and his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian oligarchs.  I am not saying that there is an untoward relationship, or necessarily a relationship of any kind, I am just saying that people are beginning to wonder what is going on. Perhaps when Congress conducts the investigation into the Russian interference with our recently completed election, they will dig deeper into the situation and see if there is any connection to all of the dots that are there.

And what are those dots you may ask?  Off the top of my head, let’s name a few.

  • At the end of July 2016, following the announcement that the U.S. intelligence services had “a high confidence” that the Russian government was behind an intrusion into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), President-elect Trump said at a news conference in reference to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.  I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
  • At that same press conference, the last one he held  (we are now at nearly six months and counting), he seemed to indicate that the Russian annexation of Crimea and continued efforts against Ukraine were acceptable and that as president he may lift sanctions against Russia. When specifically asked if he would recognize the annexation of Crimea he said, “We’ll be looking at that. Yeah, we’ll be looking.”
  • Last summer President-elect Trump said in an interview that he did not know if he would fulfill the nation’s NATO obligations in Europe.  To him, it depended on whether or not they had paid their bills.  Such a stance is in direct conflict with decades of U.S. policy founded on collective defense. Such a stance is also extremely encouraging to Russia as their long-standing policy goal is to break up NATO and undermine the European Union.
  • In August 2016, Roger Stone, a close adviser to the president-elect hinted that hacked emails from the Clinton campaign manager would be forthcoming.  This is before they were actually released.
  • In the lead-up to the election, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies agreed and the Director of National Intelligence announced that the Russians were attempting to interfere with the election.
  • After the election the U.S intelligence agencies put forward that the Russians were releasing the DNC emails to try to influence the election in favor of Mr. Trump.
  • President Obama called on the intelligence agencies to provide a report before he leaves office on the extent of Russian involvement.  A bi-partisan group of Senators is calling for a Congressional investigation of the Russian involvement and for greater sanctions on Russia than those already imposed.  The president-elect does not agree that either is necessary.
  • As post-election press coverage of the Russian attempts increased (finally moving from being preoccupied with the embarrassing, but relatively normal content of the emails to focusing on the attempts of a foreign government to tamper with our election), President-elect Trump and his transition team belittled the U.S. intelligence community and called the notion “laughable” and “ridiculous.”  Or as Mr. Trump said, “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.”
  • In response to U.S. actions against Russia, the president-elect dismissively said “I think it’s time we get on with our lives.”  And later he said, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things.”
  • President-elect Trump continually compliments Mr. Putin over each and every thing, especially with his Twitter praise of the Russian dictator.
  • On New Year’s Eve President-elect Trump had this to add, “I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove.  So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”

As the conservative columnist Mr. George Will would say, “Well.”

In and of themselves such continued admiration for a dictator and a dismissive attitude towards the very people who will need to help him keep our country safe would be troubling.  Equally troubling would be the president-elect’s dismissing a foreign power’s attempts to change our election. Troubling, but perhaps not worthy of the conspiracy theorists.  Until one puts it all in context with other statements and actions.

  • The president-elect continues to keep the nation in the dark about his business transactions and possible commercial connections to President Putin and/or other Russian oligarchs and/or other world leaders and some very shady characters.
  • The president-elect continues to refuse to release his tax returns so that the American people can judge for themselves whether or not the president-elect has conflicts of interest that could impair his ability to do the right thing for the country.
  • Due to his many bankruptcies, President-elect Trump had trouble raising money from U.S. banks for his business ventures.  Consequently, he went outside the country to raise cash.  Among other foreign entities, his son Donald Trump, Jr. said that Russian money was behind some of the projects. As he said in 2008, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
  • For much of the past summer, Mr. Paul Manafort was the Trump campaign manager.  Before working for the Trump campaign he was for many years a senior adviser to Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Yanukovych was the pro-Russian Ukrainian Prime Minister before his ouster which resulted in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Mr. Yanukovych is now in Moscow and remains close to President Putin.
  • LT. General Michael Flynn, USA (ret) is President-elect Trump’s designated National Security Adviser.  General Flynn was notoriously known for a paid speaking engagement in Russia, doing an unflattering assessment of the U.S. on Russian Television and cozying up to President Putin at dinner.  And along the way, comparing CNN, MSNBC, and other U.S. news networks to the state-run system in Russia.
  • The president-elect’s nominee for Secretary of State Mr. Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon-Mobil is on the record in favor of lifting sanctions against Russia.
  • There have been reports, as yet unverified, that there were secret communications during the campaign between the president-elect and/or senior campaign staff and the representatives of Mr. Putin.

You get the idea.

I am not sure what we should make of all that (and there’s more but that should be enough).  One or two or three of those developments would be interesting, but perhaps not alarming.  When taken together, it paints a picture that makes it easier to understand why a would-be conspiracy theorist could have a field day.

I hope that there is no fire, but there does seem to be a lot of smoke.  So, what to make of it?  If the president-elect indeed wants to “drain the swamp” he can easily do so by starting with himself.  If there is nothing to hide, if there is “no there, there” then shine a light on his business dealings, detail where the conflicts may arise, detail how he will build a fire wall between himself and his business dealings and release his tax returns, as a start.

There is no need for a witch hunt.  There is no need for the president-elect to be challenged at every turn as the public increasingly wonders about his intentions and probable conflicts of interest.  Just do the right thing.  The same thing that every president and presidential candidate has done for decades. Tell the truth.  Put it out there.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Let the American people follow the money and see where it leads.

Recall that the theme song for Mr. Trump’s “reality” show The Apprentice was For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays.  It could become the president-elect’s theme song as well.


It’s Not Funny Anymore

“What in the wide, wide, World of Sports is going on here?”

— Slim Pickens as “Taggart” in Blazing Saddles

I made a promise to myself, and to many others, that I would give President-Elect Donald J. Trump a chance to prove himself as our next president.  After all, I reasoned, he has yet to take office, has not had any Cabinet officers confirmed or proposed any legislation to the Congress.  I thought to myself, let’s give him a chance and see what he actually does rather than what he might do.

Too late.  Mr. Trump is already showing us what kind of president he will be.  In so doing, it appears to me that he has forgotten that he is not yet the president.  We only have one president at a time and currently Barack Obama is our president, like it or not.  Yet Mr. Trump has already meddled in foreign affairs, the market place, labor union affairs, and other areas properly the purview of the person that is the president.  In addition he continues to refuse to reveal anything about his business interests, or tax returns or any other aspect of his dealings that may well impact his decisions as president.  Mr. Trump was to have a news conference this Thursday to outline how he will deal with all of those interests, but he announced yesterday that the news conference has been deferred to an unspecified date in January. Don’t count on him actually holding it.  Despite frequent promises, he has not held a news conference since 27 July 2016.  In that one, he famously invited the Russians to hack Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails.

My biggest concerns with his actions thus far relate to national security.  He has been reckless in his statements and actions to date.  One can argue that in the United States domestic economic concerns are the biggest motivators to the voting public.  However, the number one role of a national government is national security.  If the government cannot protect its citizens from all enemies foreign and domestic, then it has failed.  Otherwise, there is no ability to focus on any other aspect of government.  I find that Mr. Trump is woefully uninformed and reckless in his actions thus far and has already put our national interests in jeopardy.  One can only imagine what may take place once he assumes the office.

If you have only glanced at the news (real news, not fake news) you know that Mr. Trump has muddled our relations with both China and Taiwan.  His original conversation with the Taiwanese President sent shock waves through our diplomatic corps and the Chinese were not amused.  This week, Mr. Trump compounded the mess by saying in an interview on Fox News Sunday that in essence, his comments on China and Taiwan was an opening gambit in trade negotiations.  This thrilled Taiwan because now they are considered bargaining chips in our relations with China.  Their take away over the last 48 hours is that Mr. Trump would not expand the relationship with Taiwan but rather bargain them away as a pawn if it meant a “good deal” with China on trade.  In only a few days he managed to scare and to irritate both a friend and a foe, without stating any clear policy to move forward.

There are always new policies and ways of doing business with each new administration.  But as they say on Monday Night Football, “c’mon man!”

Most troubling, and seriously dangerous, is Mr. Trump’s reaction to the profoundly disturbing news that the Russian involvement in the presidential election is much deeper than imagined.  As I have written in this space before, it was disturbing to me that during the campaign the discussion was about the juicy tidbits in the hacked information and not that it was illegally obtained through the auspices of a foreign nation.  If you have not recently read about the intricate details, there is a primer in the New York Times that provides the outline of the case and what is known and unknown.

In short, the Russians have been acting deliberately to interfere with our election in a wide variety of ways.  One can argue whether the intent was to “merely” undermine the integrity of the democratic process or whether it was actively trying to derail Secretary Clinton’s campaign in order to help Mr. Trump.  Either way, we as a nation should be outraged and demand an investigation.

Unless you are Mr. Trump or his advisers that is.  They repeatedly called the notion “laughable” and “ridiculous.”  Or as Mr. Trump said on Sunday;

“I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why, and I think it’s just — you know, they talked about all sorts of things. Every week it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College.”

— Mr. Donald J. Trump on Fox News Sunday on 11 December 2016

This followed a Friday night press release where they ridiculed the CIA and Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that he does not take the daily intelligence briefs because “I am a smart person.”

It baffles me why Mr. Trump and his advisers didn’t just say something along the lines of this:

We are deeply troubled by the revelations of possible Russian intrusion into the 2016 presidential election.  While there is no evidence that the election results were tampered with or otherwise illegitimate we welcome the Congressional investigation into what happened in order to confirm the basic tenets of our democracy.  President-Elect Trump looks forward to working closely with the intelligence community to keep our nation safe.

Here is the problem.  He must believe that the CIA and other intelligence agencies — which are unanimous in their conclusion that the Russians tried to influence the election, but not on why they did so — are not good at their job and politicized.  Either or both assumptions are dangerous to our well-being.  Today Michael V. Hayden, former director of the NSA and later of the CIA wrote an opinion piece that explains the danger.  The question is not really about whether or not there are political overtones to the Russian involvement or what their intent may be.  The real question is why Mr. Trump refuses to seek the assistance of the intelligence agencies in solving problems and to use the information to help inform his decisions.  An adversarial relationship with the intelligence agencies is not going to help protect our nation.  To be dismissive of the information that they provide is reckless.

Through my personal experience and confirmed by all knowledgeable accounts, the members of our intelligence communities work very hard to keep us safe.  More importantly in this context, they are career professionals that have faithfully served both Republicans and Democrats.  They are apolitical. They seek only the facts.

There are cultural differences between the agencies, which could be used to the new president’s advantage rather than as a weapon to delegitimize their efforts.  For example, the CIA lives in a mushy world where the preponderance of evidence gives them signals to interpret events and to predict potential adversarial relationships in order to inform decision makers as they set policy.  They themselves do not set any policies.  The FBI on the other hand, has a different culture.  They are a law enforcement agency that works to convict criminals and others in a court of law.  They must gather proof beyond a reasonable doubt that can stand up in court.  An entirely different mission.  Add to that the fact that the CIA is focused on the international scene and that the FBI has an internal domestic focus. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are areas for disagreement as to the degree of surety about a particular case.

Look at it another way.  Many CIA employees risk their lives to gather information to keep our nation safe.  How motivated are they going to be to do so if the Commander-in-Chief basically calls them liars and political operatives attempting to “re-litigate the election”?

As a side note, but related, Mr. Trump seemingly due to his thin skin and lack of understanding, attacks anyone that he surmises does not support his election.  And that happens to anybody that does not tout his “landslide” victory.  I have yet to conclude whether Mr. Trump’s numerous untruths are the result of wishful thinking, studied ignorance or outright lies.  I suppose it could be all three, but it is continual. Let’s just use the election results as an example.  Mr. Trump claims that he won the election in a landslide.  The fact is that his percentage of electoral votes ranks him 46th out of the 58 presidential elections in our history. Not even the top half.  He is also losing to Secretary Clinton in the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes — her total is more than that received by any presidential candidate in history except Barack Obama — a result he claims is the result of “millions” of illegal voters that otherwise would have afforded him the outright win.  There is no proof of any voter fraud, much less “millions.”  I could go on but I don’t have enough time or space to enumerate the misinformation that comes from him and his aides — even if I just limited it to the last seven days.

This is dangerous.  We need an informed and truthful president — or at least one that doesn’t create his own facts.

Even more troubling is his cozy relationship with Russia and seemingly endless admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Let’s take a look at but a few examples.

Mr. Trump’s son said that Russian investors are a major factor in the family business.  Or more precisely he said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Members of his campaign and future administration have close business ties with Russia, including his national security adviser LT General Michael Flynn, USA (ret.).  He famously sat at a banquet with Mr. Putin and lambasted American news media outlets during a Russian propaganda television broadcast.

Mr. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State is a personal friend of Mr. Putin and was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013.  Oh, by the way, Mr. Rex Tillerson, as the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, has done a lot of business with Mr. Putin and other Russian oligarchs over oil.  Secretary-nominee Tillerson is a staunch advocate for removing sanctions against Russia imposed after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. He is quoted as saying the sanctions cost his company one billion dollars.  I am sure that will have no bearing in his dealings with the Russians.

I have no doubt that Mr. Trump did not personally collude with the Russians to interfere with the election and I am equally sure that no actual votes cast changed as a result of the Russian actions. I do feel strongly that their actions did impact the election, but it is impossible to know whether the outcome would have been any different without the Russian efforts.  Mr. Trump will be our president.

That said, I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate the extent and intent of Russian interference.  I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate Mr. Tillerson’s ties to Russia and his other dealings.  I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate Mr. Trump’s business dealings and relations with foreign powers. I think it perfectly reasonable for Mr. Trump to continue to receive pressure to release his tax returns and to build a firewall between himself and his businesses — just like everyone that works for him will have to do.

Thankfully, members of the Senate are going to do that on a bi-partisan basis.  They should dig deep and hard.  The point is not to undo the election.  That will not happen.  The point is make sure that undue influence from foreign powers is deterred in future elections and to make sure that going forward, the ties to Russia that are obvious to all but Mr. Trump do not inhibit the national interests of the United States of America.  Our nation and citizens come before the business interests of the billionaires that apparently will be running our country.  Let’s keep the pressure on Congress to provide the over sight needed to keep our nation safe.