“Because it’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history. They have; it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.” — Candidate Donald J. Trump 3 Nov 2015 responding to a question on China.
“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!” — The President on Twitter on 13 May 2018
To some, developments surrounding the giant Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE may be a little too technical and down in the weeds. I think it is a perfect example of how erratically and whimsically the current president operates. It may also demonstrate that the president is primarily interested in policies that benefit him or his company rather than the nation as a whole.
Stick with me while I outline what happened. It really is not that complicated. Consider these facts regarding ZTE.
- ZTE is a Chinese government-owned telecommunications company, based in China, that manufactures cellphones and other equipment with clients in 160 countries and research centers around the world.
- ZTE uses U.S. technology and parts that make up nearly half of the materials they use. They are also the fourth largest seller of smartphones in the U.S.
- In 2012 the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released an in-depth report on ZTE (and another Chinese company named Huawei) saying that the company poses a national security threat because they are stealing U.S. technology. The report recommends that “U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts.” There was, and presumably still is, a concern that ZTE may be using their products to spy on the U.S. or to provide the opportunity to disrupt essential activities.
- In 2016 the Commerce Department found that ZTE was violating sanctions laws by selling devices, that included U.S. made parts, to Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba — all under embargoes at the time.
- In April, the Commerce Department banned it from buying U.S. technology or products for seven years.
- The Defense Department banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones on military bases through the Post Exchange and Navy Exchange systems as they “may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission.”
- Last week ZTE reported that they were stopping all “major operating activities” which was widely understood to mean that they were going out of business because they could no longer get U.S. parts needed to continue their operation.
So, to summarize, the president is helping a Chinese company that is well-known as a sanctions violator and a threat to U.S. national security to get back into business by ordering the U.S. Commerce Department to “get it done!” Why?
To be blunt, no one is quite sure. But of course many people are never quite sure why Mr. Trump does many of the things that he does. There are several theories, however.
The U.S. is about to enter into a major trade war with China if negotiations taking place this week fail. Chinese President XI was reported to be “furious” about the decision to ban sales of parts to ZTE and threatened to impose harsh sanctions on the U.S. and/or to walk away from the trade negotiations. So, apparently, the president on Sunday caved to his demands before ever reaching the negotiating table because it was politically more important to him to get a “deal” than to protect national security. (Some analysts speculate that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un saw how quickly the president gave in to get something he wanted (“better trade deals with China”) and thus, among other reasons, threatened to walk away from talks with the U.S. in order get concessions. But I digress.)
As part of that political calculation, Mr. Trump may be, rightly or wrongly, putting the interests of his supporters above national security. When the Trump administration unilaterally imposed tariffs on Chinese imports earlier this year, the Chinese retaliated by refusing to buy U.S. soy beans. China is the second-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports. According to the Department of Agriculture, soy beans are the main crop sold to them. By the beginning of May, China reportedly cancelled all purchases of U.S. soy beans and turned to Canada and Brazil for their supply. If the ban continues, it will have a major economic impact in farm communities around the country, but especially in the mid-west. Farmers are rightly worried that once the Chinese shift to other markets, they will never return to buying U.S. soy beans, whether or not tariffs and trade wars are resolved. To me, this is yet one more example of Mr. Trump making a grand pronouncement and acting tough without consideration, or more accurately without understanding, the ramifications of his actions. Other nations will not be dictated to by our president, especially other strong countries with their own interests at stake.
Other possible reasons may be that he may wrangle concessions from China as a quid pro quo to helping ZTE, thus helping to avoid a deep and wide-spread trade war. Mr. Trump may also have done it because he needs China’s help and cooperation in dealing with Kim Jong Un in North Korea.
Whichever reason, or combination of reasons, explains his abrupt about face, Mr. Trump’s action sets a dangerous precedent. Besides continuing to reinforce the international perception that Mr. Trump is mercurial and cannot be trusted — thus raising questions as to why enter any deal with the U.S. — it violates the long-standing U.S. principle that trade decisions should not be based solely on domestic political reasons. This is particularly crucial with respect to trade enforcement decisions. Once other leaders discern that Mr. Trump is willing to cave on issues of trade or national security for purely domestic political reasons, expect more of them to demand concessions for their own issues.
Additionally, putting politics above enforcement weakens our positions on the rule of law and the normal course of interactions between nations. If there are no rules, or if the rules can change on Mr. Trump’s whim, we lose all standing to insist that other governments abide by their own agreements. There appears to be little to no consideration by Mr. Trump as to what happens next when he makes these arbitrary decisions. As I wrote in my last piece in this space, a prudent decision maker and government leader will consider the consequences of decisions and the subsequent actions that must take place — whether successful, or not successful, or when perverse and unexpected consequences result.
Finally, there are those in and out of government that worry that the Negotiator-in-Chief really is not that good at it. In this case and others, he demonstrates a propensity to give up leverage (in this case the actions against ZTE) before getting the other side to offer up their own concessions. In this case China offered nothing in return for the president rescinding the actions against ZTE. Based on his tweet on Monday, it may be that Mr. Trump’s biggest concern is keeping his good buddy President XI happy.
“ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.” It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result. Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II. There are many reasons why this may be true.
First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles. It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. It worked. The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement. There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA. Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed. This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.
The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members. During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.” Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.” Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections. There is no evidence of cheating as some claim. No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.
In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.” We have now conceded the initiative to Iran. They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements. We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed. Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.” Presumably, he means that some years in the future, the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors. One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason. First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons. Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years. The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not. They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests. Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.
Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.” Perhaps he is correct. Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits. It might work. However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal. Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal. It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement. What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say? None.
More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around. The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council. All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran. The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them. The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement. Again, this gives the initiative to Iran. They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.
The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go. We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served. Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball. The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure. They are tough. Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.
Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests. Always. However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations. Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition. This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena. We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges. Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”
This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran. This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era. Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO. We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions. As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.
Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead. In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies. He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians. That may or may not be a good bet. Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement. If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals. Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.
All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East. Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time. The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria. The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.
Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea. Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are. Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.” It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.
An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.
Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts. In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”. Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home. However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary. Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD. This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged. The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic. If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night. To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal. They released prisoners in the past, too. Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place. They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result. Talking is way better than fighting. I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath. Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans. More on that in a yet to be post in this space.
Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place. No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.” That makes it one mighty big gamble. Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.” What if we succeed then what do we do? What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step? There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.
One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was. There are no next steps. He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).
Hubris is not a policy.
Earlier this month, the president surprised his senior advisers and the world by agreeing to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “sometime in May.” As of this writing, the details have yet to be worked out, and the details are important. There is no word yet on where or when they will meet and no word on an agenda. Clearly these issues can be worked out, but for such a momentous meeting, planning already should be well underway in order to make it a meaningful meeting.
There are pluses and minuses to this gambit, as with many international affairs of state. Mr. Trump is taking a huge gamble. It could be argued that no approach to stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has worked over the past twenty-five years or more. Certainly, talking is better than fighting, which seemed to be the president’s preferred option right up until it wasn’t. Maybe it will work. However, if history is any guide, it will not. It will especially not work in getting Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
South Korean envoys met with Mr. Kim and members of his regime following the Winter Olympics. This is a huge diplomatic break-through and is significant in trying to reach accommodation on the status of the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Kim had never met with any South Korean delegation, ever. The talks were described as very productive and resulted in some concrete developments. Among them were the opening of a hot-line between Mr. Kim and South Korea’s president Mr. Moon Jae In. Mr. Kim also proposed talks with the United States on denuclearization, and indicated he would suspend nuclear and missile tests before and during any talks. Significantly, he dropped one of his long-standing demands that the United States and South Korea must stop large-scale joint military exercises. In fact, he professed an understanding that the annual joint exercises must proceed this spring. Additionally, he agreed to an April summit with Mr. Moon and chose the “Peace House”, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, as the location of the talks.
All of these developments are significant measures of progress and form the background to the meeting that took place in the White House. After briefing their president, the South Korean envoys flew to Washington to brief their American allies, including a closely held invitation from Mr. Kim to Mr. Trump for a meeting. All involved — North Koreans, South Koreans, U.S. National Security aides — thought that research, debate and analysis would take place before a response would be proffered. Instead, Mr. Trump crashed the meeting between U.S. and South Korean officials (Mr. Trump was scheduled to meet with them the next day) and within a few minutes of a mention of the proposed summit, he accepted it. Mr. Trump caused some consternation as he then hinted at the upcoming announcement himself with an unusual visit to the White House press room, even before Mr. Kim and other important allies in the region, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been informed of the decision. Indeed, it still is unclear whether Mr. Kim actually acknowledges Mr. Trump’s response.
What could go wrong?
Right off the bat, Mr. Trump gave Mr. Kim the biggest international diplomatic success of his regime. Mr. Kim — and his father and grandfather before him — struggled mightily to be seen as serious players in their own right and of equal stature to all major powers in the world. Now Mr. Kim will meet the President of the United States on co-equal terms. He attained his biggest goal with no concessions on his part. Perhaps this development is worth the price of admission, but it is a huge gamble as it emboldens Mr. Kim and further buffs up his supreme confidence in his own abilities and instincts.
While we think that the North Koreans are coming to the table because of the increased sanctions and Mr. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, Mr. Kim is thinking that Mr. Trump is coming to the table because we need to deal with them as a nuclear power. The two views of these vastly different countries are about 180 degrees out of synch due to cultural, regional and political reasons. There is a high probability of miscalculation and misunderstanding on both sides.
On the U.S. side we will be conferring with one hand tied behind our back. There is no U.S. Ambassador in South Korea, no Assistant Secretary of East Asians Affairs in the State Department and the top North Korean expert resigned (many of the other policy analysts and subject matter expert offices are also empty) and we have no Secretary of State. It is unclear whether the Senate can (or will) confirm Mr. Mike Pompeo, the proposed nominee to take Mr. Tillerson’s place, before a meeting in May. Additionally, rumors are rife that the current National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster will depart shortly.
(Intermission: What is up with the way Mr. Trump treats his senior advisers? Is he afraid to confront individuals he wants to remove from service or does he relish humiliating them? Does “winning” mean one has to debase, humiliate and bully people? Let’s just name a few: FBI Director James Comey found out he was fired via cable news; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus learned he was fired via Twitter as he was getting off of Air Force One where he was just with the president; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter as he returned from a diplomatic tour of Africa; and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe found out he was fired via an email three minutes before it broke on cable news. I must have missed finding out about this leadership technique in my many years of service to the nation.)
To Mr. Kim, having nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program got him the recognition that he craved. Additionally, as I have written in this space before, he takes a look at what happened to his former dictator colleagues Gaddafi and Saddam when they gave up their programs developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and I think it naive at best to think that any negotiation will entice him to give his up now. At best, we may get him to freeze further testing, but without knowing exactly how far along his program may be, it might be too late for a freeze to deter him from using his weapons at some point in the future.
And then there is the terminology. Given the cultural differences and mightily different world views, what exactly does “denuclearization” — the administration’s goal for the Korean peninsula — mean, anyway? For us, it is Mr. Kim giving up all of his nuclear weapons, with verifiable inspections and international monitoring to ensure they are gone to stay. To Mr. Kim, at least from past negotiations, it means that the U.S. pulls its military from the Korean peninsula. Which of course, is, or at least should be, a total non-starter for us and our Asian allies. There are other similar areas of concern where words matter but have not, and possible will not, be resolved before the meeting takes place. It is difficult to meet common ground if both sides have different ideas of what is being talked about.
Take another look at the lack of experienced personnel to lead this effort. Compare that to years of negotiations by the North Koreans with the U.S. and other nations. They are reported to be among the toughest negotiators in the world, and even when the West thinks they’ve reached an accord, they are surprised to find that the North Koreans proclaim the opposite and/or quickly break the promises from their side. In every meeting over many years, their negotiators amply demonstrated that they are tenacious, persistent, and determined. They will do everything possible to unwind sanctions and to achieve their goals without making any meaningful concessions.
There is a reason so little progress has occurred over many administrations, Democrat or Republican.
Other area experts worry that we are starting at the top rather than at the bottom. The argument goes that a summit should be the culmination of negotiations rather than the start. As outlined above, the devil is in the details and national leaders are rarely called upon to negotiate specific, very technical aspects of treaties. Their job is to set the tone and resolve any last minute sticking points, not to start from scratch. Given the personalities of the two leaders involved, there is a lot that could go wrong (“Lil’ Rocket Man” vs. “Mentally Deranged Dotard”), should the talks ever actually take place.
Two possible outcomes — one relatively positive and one very negative — could result from these talks. The mostly positive outcome is that no specific agreements come from the summit, but that the meeting of the two leaders “jump starts” meaningful talks that lead to progress. We should be prepared for incremental progress, perhaps starting with an actual peace treaty between the warring factions of the Korean War rather than the continuing armistice. (Many people forget that we are technically still at war on the Korean peninsula.)
The negative outcome could be that both sides see no progress and the two leaders assess the other as “weak” or unwilling to break an impasse. In this scenario, one or both sides could decide that they gave peace a chance, it didn’t work, and the only remaining option is combat — either a renewal of the Korean War, or more likely, a series of aggressive actions, probes, and tests of military resolve that could quickly escalate out of hand.
Big risks sometimes have big rewards. I would feel better about the risk in this case if I believed that Mr. Trump truly understood the situation and had actually calculated the pros and cons of this unprecedented adventure. This gambit has the feel of a game show gamble.
Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as a result of the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the 2016 presidential election and to favor the election of Donald Trump. (Read the full 37 page indictment here.) The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.” This was no fly-by-night operation as the core entity, Internet Research Agency, had at least 80 full-time employees and a monthly budget of approximately 73 million Russian rubles a month (about 1.25 million dollars a month).
According to the indictment, the purpose of the covert Russian activity, which included putting undercover Russian operatives in the United States, was to engage “in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” Once the nominees were selected, the operation focused solely on supporting Mr. Trump and denigrating Mrs. Clinton, including active efforts to discourage possible Clinton supporters from voting for her by spreading false and misleading information.
The Internet Research Agency had hundreds of additional support employees (trolls and other social media experts) beyond the core 80 and included a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department, an IT department and a finance department. It was organized with branch heads and assigned duties. Very sophisticated.
Ultimately the operation’s interference in the 2016 election was not limited to social media or cyberspace. They also played “dirty tricks” at campaign rallies, organized their own rallies and otherwise put out derogatory and inflammatory information. For example, in the indictment it states that at one such event they tried to promote the idea that Mrs. Clinton was pro-Muslim by convincing an unaware American citizen to carry a sign “depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating ‘I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of Freedom.'” They also bought ads on Facebook and other sources claiming that Mrs. Clinton committed “voter fraud” amplifying one of Mr. Trump’s constant refrains. And more.
But you can read the indictment for yourself.
Here’s the rub.
What is the President of the United States doing to protect our country from a sophisticated asymmetrical attack on our homeland? So far? Nothing.
As the NY Times says, Mr. Trump’s “conspicuous silence” is a clear lack of leadership. His only reaction as of this writing is to tweet that “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” It’s only about him — not the nation or our security. Oh by the way, how do you think the Russians and other adversaries around the world view his response? One word. Weak.
There are many factual errors in his tweet, among them the fact that the indictment said nothing about whether there was or was not collusion — a totally separate issue from this one — and the start date also has nothing to do with the activities of the Russians or the fact that they favored Mr. Trump and actively worked to get him elected.
(As and aside, for all you conspiracy theorists out there, Mr. Trump visited Moscow in 2013. Is it not conceivable that he conspired with the Russians then to aid an upcoming presidential campaign? Even though he had not announced it publicly? Or maybe the Russians blackmailed him into running with the express purpose of undermining U.S. democracy and attempting to install him in the White House? The operatives arrived in 2014 because it takes time to set up an effective covert operation, integrate into the community, establish ties and learn the lay of the land before Mr. Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. But then, I am not a conspiracy theorist.)
Here’s my real point.
Where is the outrage? Where is the United States’ response to a clear and present danger? What are we doing to punish the Russians for this grievous attempt to undermine our democracy? No outrage from the administration. No warnings to Russia. Gosh, the president refuses to implement sanctions against Russia already overwhelmingly approved by bipartisan votes in both the House and the Senate last summer. What is wrong with him? Will he continue to call the Russian involvement a “hoax” perpetrated by the Democrats as he has consistently and constantly done? Apparently so, if the statements coming from his press office today are any indication.
Remember that this is only one area of the Special Counsel’s investigation. Still to come is the result of investigations into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee; the hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails; a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower which Mr. Trump Jr. thought would deliver “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton; and the guilty pleas of Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and another campaign adviser. Mr. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates have been indicted. Not to mention possible obstruction of justice charges. There is a lot going on for a “hoax.” Additionally, just because there is no allegation made in one indictment does not mean that it won’t be made in other ones in the future. If one saw or reads Mr. Rosenstein’s announcement releasing the indictments, he was very, very careful in his wording. To me he seemed to be signalling that just because no campaign or other U.S. officials were named in this indictment, it does not mean that there will not be some in other indictments yet to come.
Again. Read the indictment. Decide for yourself. I find it to be dereliction of duty by the Commander-in-Chief if the United States does not respond to this attack by the Russians. I am trying to give the president the benefit of the doubt thinking that maybe a response is being planned even as I write this. I hope so. However, even if the administration is planning such a response, one would rightly expect a clear, precise and strongly worded statement from the president condemning the Russian activity by now. It is discouraging to note that this administration has yet to hold even one cabinet level meeting or even one inter-agency task force meeting to address the issue. Just this week, all of the heads of our intelligence agencies testified before Congress that the Russians were still trying to disrupt our democracy and would surely attempt to disrupt the 2018 and 2020 elections. And we do nothing.
Where is the outrage? More importantly, where is the action to combat an attack by the Russians?
QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have any response to the Russian president expelling 755 workers from our embassy in Russia?
TRUMP: No, I want to thank [Putin], because we’re trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There’s no real reason for them to go back. So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.
President Trump made these comments during an impromptu press conference on Thursday at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. He doubled down on them on Friday.
His press secretary related that the president was “joking” and being “sarcastic” — seemingly the go-to response for every comment he makes that receives significant push back for its outrageous nature. But let’s assume that, in fact, he is joking. It is still an outrageous comment coming from a president and it shows no respect for his diplomats and the important work that they do, including at times putting their own well-being at risk. Perhaps a little context will help to bring this home.
At the end of July Russian President Putin gave the United States until 1 September to remove 755 diplomatic and technical support personnel from our embassy in Moscow. In addition, he seized two properties used by the U.S. embassy. All of this was in retaliation for the sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress a few days earlier.
Until last Thursday, the president made no comment about the Russian actions. None. Eleven days without comment on that situation despite having lots to say about stories on “Fox and Friends” and a significant number of insignificant matters. He had time to Tweet numerous attacks on his own Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but has yet to utter one negative word about Russia, or Mr. Putin. He still has not done so. His first comment on a long-standing dispute with Russia was to “thank” Mr. Putin. Ha. Ha.
His remarks also reveal a lack of understanding of how these things work. It is also possible that he thinks of the diplomats as “employees” — perhaps the same way he thinks of the workers that make his shirts in Bangladesh. Obviously, Mr. Putin did not “let go” U.S. diplomats. He can’t, they are American citizens working for the U.S. government. And Mr. Putin did not “cut the payroll” or “save a lot of money” because those impacted people still receive pay checks. They will return to the U.S. or posted elsewhere overseas. Mr. Putin’s actions will have some impact on his own citizens’ pay checks, as there are some Russian nationals that work in our embassy and consulates in supporting roles that will lose their jobs.
The reported response from the career diplomats, current and past, was predictably swift. And they were not pleased. Coupled with what appears to be a secondary role for Secretary of State Tillerson and the fact that countless senior positions in the State Department critical to shaping and implementing U.S. foreign policy have yet to be nominated, much less in position to help — including an ambassador to South Korea, which might be useful about now — it appears that President Trump has little use for, and certainly no regard for, the role our professional diplomats play in keeping our nation safe. I expect many to start voting with their feet and leaving the foreign service, further debilitating our ability to meet our national goals. Of course, to some presidential advisers, those that work in the Department of State are the worst of the “deep state.” They will be happy to see these professional diplomats resign. Apparently, President Trump agrees with that view.
He also apparently does not understand that far more U.S. government departments work in our overseas embassies than just from the Department of State. In an embassy such as ours in Moscow (the largest we currently have) there are personnel from the CIA, FBI, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury and just about every agency in between. Losing these positions inhibits our ability to maintain some programs (remember, for example, that our NASA astronauts ride Russian rockets into space) but also inhibits our ability to gather valuable intelligence on every facet of life in Russia. The reduction will also have a significant impact on services provided to Americans in Russia as well as on Russians that may need visas or other assistance in travelling to the U.S.
President Trump’s cavalier attitude about nearly everything that does not benefit him directly is not only short-sighted in ensuring an effectively functioning government, it also shows his disdain for patriotic Americans that are at the front lines in keeping our nation safe.
In a week of events that were mind-boggling, one more reckless statement from the president was probably lost in the news of so many outrageous statements and careless Tweets. To me, however, his Russian statement represented all of the things that I worry about concerning our president. His lack of knowledge, his lack of intellectual curiosity about anything that has to do with basic civics, his lack of concern over anything that does not involve him personally, and the cavalier way that he treats people trying hard to serve him and the American public. I could go on.
Really Mr. President? I mean, really. As my grandmother would have said, “for goodness sake…”
With the president on vacation — or “working vacation” as he prefers — and many of us likewise enjoying some time off and therefore not paying much attention to world events, it is possible to overlook the quickly unfolding events surrounding North Korea. It appears that what was possible “five to ten years” from now may have already happened, or is about to happen.
North Korea has or is very close to having Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with a range to reach the U.S. mainland, carrying nuclear weapons.
Kim Jong Un with nuclear weapons. That should give us all pause.
Given that North Korea is the toughest place on earth to penetrate for accurate information, no one really knows what they do or do not have. However, at the end of July they tested an ICBM that credible experts say has the potential to reach at least to Chicago. This afternoon, the Washington Post has a breaking story that reports that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed in late July that the North Koreans have the ability to miniaturize nuclear weapons to fit on an ICBM. This is no small technical accomplishment and one that only earlier this summer analysts did not think was within their capability. Giving more weight to the assessment, the Japanese Ministry of Defense concluded that there is evidence to suggest that North Korea has indeed achieved miniaturization. It is still unclear whether they have reached the ability to keep the re-entry vehicle (the bomb) from burning up upon re-entry, but they will achieve that feat as well in due order.
To add to our degree of safety, according to the report, the North Koreans may also have as many as 60 nuclear weapons. Other analysts think the number is much lower, somewhere around 20 to 25. A comforting thought.
This past weekend a step in the right direction occurred when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously to significantly increase the world-wide sanctions on North Korea. This is a noteworthy event as both Russia and China voted for the measure. Most times they veto almost anything proposed by the U.S. involving North Korea. It remains to be seen whether they enforce those sanctions, but it is a positive step.
History indicates however, that Kim Jong Un cares little for sanctions, no matter how debilitating they may be to his nation’s population. In the past, he allowed his population to starve by the thousands under previous sanctions. He just doesn’t care.
All this is not to say that we in the U.S., or anywhere else in the world, is in immediate danger. It does say that the equation changed. As I have written in this space before, such as on 27 May this year, I do not believe that there is anything currently on the table that will cause Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. In his mind, those weapons are the key to his survival. Period. He gives them up, the regime will be destroyed. As I’ve written, all he has to do is look at Saddam Hussein and Moahmar Qadhafi, both of whom gave up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and ended up dead.
Likewise I do not subscribe to the theory that Kim is “crazy” or a “madman” or any other such characterizations of him. That is not the danger. The danger is that he is young, relatively unsophisticated and with little practical experience in world affairs. The possibility of a miscalculation is high. Unfortunately, it is even higher as President Trump talks about North Korea in belligerent terms. This afternoon at his golf course in Bedminster New Jersey, the president said that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” While deterrence is based on making a clear and credible threat of retaliation, and certainly we need to be clear about the fact that we will retaliate, this type of language increases the possibility of Kim miscalculating the threat from the U.S. It also is not clear as to what exactly the president means by that. However, again, Kim is all about survival, he does not have a death wish. The danger comes in him believing a presidential statement or Tweet and calculating that the U.S. and/or our allies are about to attack and therefore he decides to strike first. Cool heads must prevail and look to the long-term to solve this problem.
There is one other little discussed element of this problem. The North Koreans are all about being anti-American. A quick look at their history, and especially their terrible losses in the Korean War, help to explain their position. They may find it convenient to use a proxy, such as a terrorist group or other bad actor, to use one of these weapons. They could sell a weapon or the knowledge of how to build one in order to achieve two goals, hard currency and an attack on the United States.
When the dust settles, the U.S. basically has three options. Conduct a preemptive military strike, negotiate a freeze on further development of North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles or accept the fact that they already have them. All three should be pursued in their own way, but we need to be realistic as to their impact on the situation and understand that there may be no one answer.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, and rightly saying that all options remain on the table, the likelihood of the U.S. precipitating military action is small. Or it should be. As I wrote in May, the costs of a military conflagration on the Korean peninsula, that will surely spread to Japan and elsewhere in the Pacific, are just too high. Not that it could not happen, just that it is very unlikely in a rationale calculus. The one exception I might put out there is an attack to decapitate the North Korean leadership — Kim Jung Un and his cronies — but that is a very risky undertaking. If we miss, Kim will unleash his forces. Even if we succeed, there is no guarantee his successors will not retaliate. Complicating the issue is neither Russia or China desire regime change in North Korea and greatly fear its collapse. They will have a vote — real or in projected reaction — on how things play out. It is nearly impossible to expect a U.S. military preemptive attack to take out the missiles and weapons. They are in hardened locations and are nearly impossible to reach, even if we are sure where they are, which we are not.
The second option is to negotiate. The Russians and Chinese are trying to facilitate those negotiations even as we sit here today. Their proposal is to have the U.S. and South Korea pledge to never again hold military exercises on or near the Korean peninsula in exchange for the North Koreans freezing their nuclear and missile programs. This is a non-starter on two levels. The U.S. will not (or should not) abandon its allies. Secondly, over several decades, the North Koreans have never seriously sat down at the table for negotiations. Negotiations were held in the past, but it quickly became apparent that the North Koreans had no intention of acquiescing to anything. If Kim believes his survival means keeping his programs then there is no reason to believe he will negotiate them away.
The third option, accept the new development as we did when the Soviet Union and later China developed nuclear weapons, is not “giving up.” We have a credible deterrent in both nuclear and conventional weapons that can do great harm to Kim and his regime. He knows this. Additionally, the U.S. has Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMD) in California and Alaska that have been successfully tested. They were built with a regime like North Korea in mind. Additionally the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have BMD systems. There are additional diplomatic and economic measures that can be taken to continue to contain the North Korean threat. It is not a hopeless cause and a North Korean attack is not inevitable in any respect.
Unfortunately, the world just became more dangerous. As a result, the U.S. and our allies must negotiate this new terrain very carefully. We should not take the threat lightly and it does change how we deal in the Pacific Theater. At the same time, never make a threat that will not be carried out. It results in a loss of credibility, which impacts deterrence, and may end up causing the very act that one is trying to deter.
Our national security team has its work cut out for it. Let’s hope they make the right choices.
Just when one thinks that just about everything that could happen under the Trump Administration has already occurred — it can’t possibly get any crazier, but it does. Last week was chock full of newsworthy items, any one of which would have been worthy of discussion but they just kept coming and coming. Over the last week or so, we’ve seen proof that President Trump still does not understand the dignity and impact of the presidency.
To quickly cover a few of the highlights before getting to the main event — health care bills — let’s do a tour d’ horizon. Two venerable institutions, the Boy Scouts of America and Police Departments across the country, had to issue apologies and “clarifications” following President Trump’s speeches to the annual Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia and to a Long Island New York police department.
In the former he gave a political speech that was short on inspiration to America’s youth and long on past grievances, politics, and a reminder of how personally great everything Trump is and will be. Some parents threatened to pull their kids from the Scouts. President Trump supporters opined that the “kids loved it” forgetting that they are boys and teens and that when you get 40,000 kids together in one place, especially mostly boys, they will laugh and cheer at just about anything, especially if flatulence is involved. On Long Island the president seemed to say that police brutality when arresting suspects was okay. As usual, whenever called out on similar pronouncements, it was proposed that it was a “joke.” Police departments around the country could only cringe and issue statements that such statements were no joking matter and that their (fill in the city) police department does not condone such action.
Within days of President Trump announcing the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci, aka “The Mooch”, aka “Mini-me” Mr. Scaramucci went on a rant to a New Yorker Magazine reporter that disparaged key senior members of the White House staff and included numerous references, in full graphic detail, to acts of biology that to my knowledge are impossible. No comment from the president at the time. Others in the Administration opined that he’s just a “New Yorker” and apparently that’s how New Yorkers talk about co-workers. Having lived for a number of years in New York state I don’t recall anyone talking that way and certainly not in the name of the President of the United States.
In Tweets (Tweets!) the president continues to disparage his own Attorney General and his first and for a very long time, only official supporter for president. According to some accounts this is a prelude to cleaning out the senior levels of the Department of Justice including the Attorney General, his deputy, the Acting FBI Director, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. No problem there. In another Tweet the president arbitrarily told all active duty transgender military personnel that their services were no longer required “in any capacity” because they are a burden and “disruptive.” Suddenly somewhere around 7,000 soldiers, Marines, Sailors and airmen are in limbo and told that somehow their patriotism and willingness to defend the nation does not count.
In yet another Tweet, the president fired his chief of staff Reince Priebus. The Tweet announced that retired Marine general and serving Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly would be the new chief.
Whew! A full week.
On the upside for those of us rooting for a successful and appropriate presidency there were several positive developments. As I write this, reports are that Anthony Scaramucci was removed from his job of ten days as the Communications Director. I have no inside information but I suspect that the new chief of staff had something to do with that as Mr. Scaramucci bragged last week that he only reported directly to the president and did not have to answer to anyone else on the staff. My knowledge of General Kelly, although limited, would indicate that he would absolutely not tolerate antics such as those of Mr. Scaramucci. Perhaps the General can bring order to the White House staff. We’ll see, but a good first step.
Also positive, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, USMC let it be known that the military does not act on Tweets or any other form of informal communications when a policy decision is to be made, even a Tweet by the president concerning transgender policy. Hurrah. It remains to be seen what actual policy evolves, but it is good to know that spontaneous utterances by the president will not precipitate military action.
Further good news came out of the Congress that overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill strengthening sanctions primarily against Russia, but with some additional provisions against Iran and North Korea. The Congress felt it necessary after listening to, and observing the actions of, President Trump with regards to Russian President Putin and our president’s apparent fascination with him. The White House staff had worked hard behind the scenes to stop the passage of the bill but both houses of the Congress got up on their hind legs and said “no” to the president on this issue. A positive sign that they may increasingly exercise their role in governing as an equal branch of the government.
Many Republican Senators and Representatives also went on the record along with their Democrat colleagues to oppose President Trump’s Tweet policy on transgender individuals in the military and the treatment of Attorney General Sessions. Clear signs that the president will not get blanket support from them. As an aside, the president now taunts Republicans as well as Democrats via Twitter seeming to make it clear that he does not consider himself a Republican. But to most of us, that is no surprise.
And of course let’s not forget that North Korea tested new Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that experts think can reach targets on the U.S. mainland as far as Chicago.
Arguably the biggest news of the week was the failure to repeal or repeal and replace or otherwise get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) lovingly known as Obamacare. Most of us followed the news and at least heard of the ins and outs of the entire suspense filled week of “will they or won’t they?” They did not. One could ask why after seven years of clamoring for (and voting over 50 times for) the repeal of Obamacare the Republicans were not ready to put forward their own coherent health plan. One could also ask why the only argument put forward by most Republicans, and especially by the president, had nothing to do with the merits of the proposed replacement plan(s) but rather the only argument was that Obamacare was “bad” — nothing about why the new plan would be better. SAD!
But be careful.
I do not think the health care battle is finished, only in a strategic pause. There will be further efforts to repeal or repeal and replace. For supporters of Obamacare, or supporters of a bipartisan effort to repair Obamacare and to make it better, do not relax. The fat lady has yet to sing.
Over the weekend President Trump tweeted out (how else?) that Obamacare was going to implode and implicitly that he would make it happen. On Sunday the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Mick Mulvaney went on television to be explicit about the president’s threats/promises. As I have written in this space before, the president can do grave harm to the current Obamacare system, primarily through non-enforcement of the mandate and by withholding funds to subsidize premiums. He also made news by threatening the Congress and Congressional staffers with actions to increase their premiums. I am no expert in this area, but this is what I understand is the issue.
Is it possible for the president to make Obamacare “implode” as he promises? As with most things, the answer is “it depends” on what part of Obamacare one refers to during the discussion. Since Obamacare remains the law of the land, the president cannot make it go away at once. He can, however, create enough chaos in the system that it can degrade over time. Remember that most Americans get their health insurance through their employers or through the government (military, VA, military retirees, Medicare, etc.). For middle to low-income working adults and for children that do not have employer or government health insurance they mostly get their insurance through Medicaid or in a market place created by the ACA. Although a major factor in the latest debates, Medicaid is provided by law and cannot be legally changed without a change to the law. What is really under discussion are the ACA market places. Since the ACA was fully implemented, about 10 million Americans get their coverage via the government market place. These are the people you most hear about on the news and in political rallies, be it how bad the system is or how wonderful the system is.
The administration has a number of ways to degrade the ACA. In a slow motion effort, they could stop advertising and marketing the exchanges so that people either don’t know that the markets still exist (a lot of Americans are unsure as to what is available after all the latest hubbub) or miss deadlines to sign up because there was no public advertising as to how or when to get on board. Additionally, if the administration follows through by not enforcing the mandate (either get insurance or pay a fine) healthy people will get out of the market which causes costs to rise for the insurers which is then passed on to those still in the market — their premiums rise — or the insurer gets out of the market because it isn’t profitable for them if they have to eat the added costs. (Remember the three legs from my 23 June post. To work, if we want to cover pre-existing conditions, the system needs a mandate to keep the pool costs low by balancing healthy folks with those that we already know have problems, but then to be fair, we subsidize those that have to have insurance but cannot afford it. Get anything out of whack, and the system starts to wobble — the promised “death spiral.”)
President Trump is threatening/promising to speed up the process by withholding cost sharing payments. As I write, they are only released through the end of July — today. (The next deadline is in late August.) The ACA requires insurance companies to hold down the deductibles, co-pays and premiums for those in the individual market place. However, the insurance companies are not charitable organizations and they are in business to make money. To make up the loss of revenue to those companies every month the government makes up the difference on the costs — currently about $600 million a month. Should the Trump administration stop paying those subsidies, premiums for those on the market place would sky-rocket or the insurers would just pull out of the market. This is a lot of what you hear about when those that oppose the ACA say it is “collapsing.” Health care and health insurance is not “collapsing” for most Americans, but it could for those middle to low-income Americans that are on the individual markets should the president follow through and try to cause the ACA to “implode”.
He claims the Democrats will “own it” and he will take no blame. I think he is fooling himself if he takes deliberate action to make it tough on the citizens he swore to protect.
There is one more esoteric wrinkle in the president’s threats that you may hear more about this week. Mr. Mulvaney explained the issue and says that the president is serious about implementing it. This involves the health insurance for members of Congress and their staffs. Despite rumors to the contrary, by law the entire Congress and their staffs are on the ACA — they get their insurance from Obamacare. But with a wrinkle. President Obama’s administration put out a policy that allowed them to treat each individual office of each Senator and Representative each as a small business. This means that they are eligible for the subsidies just talked about above, saving them lots of money out of their own pockets. Before setting our hair on fire, take a minute to think about it. Certainly the individual Senators and Representatives could afford to pay full price in an employer plan, but most staffers, interns, administrative personnel, etc. working in their offices are young folks not making much money. It would have a huge impact on them should President Trump change the policy to exclude them from the subsidy program.
Today is the start of a new week. Let’s hope it is a dull one. We need to take a collective deep breath and take a few minutes to enjoy the summer. And summers in official Washington D.C. are supposed to be dull. Nothing going on. If so, hold on to your hats come September.