A Burning Fuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Battle of Midway Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can all benefit from their selfless example.

We’ll Always Have Pittsburgh

I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.

— President Donald J. Trump on 1 June 2017

As most of you know, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord during a speech in the Rose Garden at the White House.  This announcement fulfills a campaign promise that he continually made in the run-up to the November election.  His base, and several close advisers clearly think that putting the United States in the same company as Syria and Nicaragua (the only other nations not in the agreement), instead of in the company of the other 195 nations that agreed to the Accord in December 2015, is a positive development.  Other advisers, including Secretary of State (and former Exxon-Mobil CEO) Rex Tillerson reportedly did not and advised the president to stay within the boundaries of the agreement. As a consequence, many misstatements were made about what was or was not in the Accord.  Somehow, it got caught up in an argument over whether or not climate change is a hoax, as the president continually claimed on the campaign trail, or is it backed up by a preponderance of evidence that human beings are contributing to the changing climate on Earth.

The main effort of the Accord was to reduce green house gas emissions.  These emissions are the root cause of rising global temperatures, which in turn are melting the polar ice cap, shrinking the ice shelves in Antarctica, and eliminating glaciers around the world.  As the world’s ice melts, sea levels increase putting coastal land, and many island nations, in danger of being covered by water. Will this happen tomorrow or even next year?  No.  However, 196 nations (until the U.S. announced its withdrawal) agreed that it was a real and present danger to life as we know it on this planet. Long-term problems need long-term solutions, and that was the aim of the Accord.

In my view we can restate it another way.  Forget about arguments for or against climate change. Put it in terms of being pro or anti pollution.  Who is for more pollution?  Apparently, the president and his key advisers such as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Edward Scott Pruitt and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon who reportedly convinced President Trump to leave the Accord.

Rather than looking at the Accord as a positive thing for the citizens of the United States and all living things around the world, the president put his opposition to the agreement in economic terms.  To me, this is a short-sighted vision that provides misleading hope for the future for those struggling in the economy with mining and manufacturing jobs that are disappearing whether or not the U.S. remains in the Paris Accord.  The president also claims his decision is a matter of sovereignty and a chance to keep “others” from telling us what to do in our own country.  Or as the president said, “As of today, the United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”  Apparently no one told him what “non-binding” means and also forgot to inform him that the agreement does not set any burdens on any country outside those that the individual countries voluntarily agree to for themselves.

This is what makes the president’s announcement extremely puzzling.  Under the Accord, each country sets its own commitments with the common goal of “holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels” which is intended to begin to reduce the long-term warming trend rather than stop it, but more on that in a minute.  The point is that if President Trump did not agree with the goals laid out by the Obama administration, under the terms of the Accord, he could change them.  He did not have to leave the agreement.  This makes his statement that “we’re getting out, but we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair” even more preposterous.  He is not going to get 195 nations to renegotiate.  And it isn’t necessary, just adjust the commitment under the terms of the existing agreement.  I cannot decide if he is being purposely misleading or if he does not understand what he is talking about.

This is a central point for understanding why it is bad policy for the United States to withdraw and makes me believe that the move was intended as an “in your face” insult to the Europeans (thus the reference to the citizens of Paris) and a purely political decision to appeal to the hard-core base that voted for him in 2016, rather than truly thinking about the long-term needs and welfare of our citizens.

This is also reflected in his claim that the United States could not build new coal plants but China and India can, and will, thus somehow depriving the U.S. of the coal-burning market.  Wrong again.  As has been repeated,  the agreement is non-binding, and also has nothing in it that prohibits the United States from building coal-burning plants and it has nothing in it that “allows” China and India to do so. To so state is purely political demagoguery, or ignorance.  In the United States, coal plants are being replaced not because of EPA regulations or because of the Paris Accord, but because of market forces — mainly, because of the abundance of natural gas at cheaper prices.

Coal jobs currently number about 50,000 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Nearly universally, economic analysts say that the combination of natural gas and technological advances in mining mean that number will not grow, and is likely to decrease.  As pointed out in an article by Christopher Ingraham that number of coal miners compares to about 80,000 employees at Arby’s restaurants or the approximately 150,00 employed in the car wash industry. 50,000 is a drop in the bucket for our entire economy and not at all near the catastrophic impact that the president implies.

Clearly coal mining jobs are important to the 50,000 so employed, but dropping out of the Paris Accord is not going to help them in the future.  When the Pony Express went out of business because of the telegraph and railroads, those people found new jobs.  And so it goes throughout history — innovation and technological progress cause people to lose jobs, but new jobs are created.  For example, the energy efficiency industry had about 2,700,000 jobs in 2016 of which about 677,000 jobs were in the renewable energy sector (solar, wind, hydro, etc.).  President Trump should be putting effort into retraining and educating miners and others in dying industries to allow them to help themselves and the economy in the future rather than promising them a past in which they cannot long survive.

At the same time, those that find environmental issues important, and a threat to our survival, need to do a much better job at making the case.  When asked to choose between the environment and jobs as our president states it, many Americans will choose jobs every time.  It is important to educate voters and all our citizens about the importance of working towards improving our environment.  It is also important to explain and educate voters that a clean environment and jobs are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, environmentally related jobs are a growth industry and go a long way in reducing unemployment.  Railing and ranting will not convince others.  Education and reasoned arguments as to why we are better off under an agreement such as this one, including how it creates jobs (and not in the government bureaucracy), is important to our long-term goals and well-being.  Use this as a wake up call.

Without going through every portion of President Trump’s speech on departing from the agreement and comparing it with the actual Accord, there is one thing he got right — sort of — although it did not appear that he understood what he was saying.  He said, “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a 2/10 of one degree – think of that. This much [held his fingers nearly close together] Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny tiny amount.”  The size of the reduction is unknown and several experts contend that it will be more significant than the president intimated.  But here’s the point, the signatories of the Accord acknowledge that the limits pledged thus far will not meet the 2 degrees Celsius goal, but the efforts to reach that goal will be better than just letting the pollution continue and allow temperatures to continue to rise unabated.  In other words, the signatories were working on the premise that something is better than nothing and that as technology and developments continue evolving in the coming years, new ways of reaching those goals will become apparent. Time will not stand still and the world and its technology will not always be the same as it was in 2015 or now.  The president seems to miss that point.  He seems to think that the world won’t reach the goal anyway so screw it.

Since the president’s speech really did not discuss the issue of global climate change, how to deal with it best, or point out misguided practices, it can only be seen in this light.  It was instead one more example of his belief that some kind of conspiracy — primarily by our closest and most important allies — is holding the United States back and dictating what we do or cannot do.  His belief appears to be that by putting “America First” that he can do, or not do, whatever he feels like, the rest of the world be damned. This is extremely dangerous to the future of the United States and its place on the world stage.

It Will Be Amazing. Believe Me.

Amazing:  causing astonishment, great wonder, or surprise

— Merriam Webster Dictionary

We have now experienced the first week of the administration of President Donald J. Trump.  And it was quite a week.  I am not sure that the country can survive many more of these types of weeks. Among other highlights we have the following:

  • A public battle over the size of the crowd on Inauguration Day (somehow with Mr. Trump it always involves size), including a personal call from the president to the head of the National Park Service to have him produce pictures to prove he had the biggest crowd ever.  “Period.”  There are no such pictures.
  • In his first full day in office, he went to the CIA, stood in front of the Wall of Heroes, and proceeded to mislead about crowd sizes, the role of the media, and deny that he said the intelligence community was like “Nazi Germany.”  I watched it live and not once did he mention the ultimate sacrifice of those listed on the wall, some of whom still cannot be named because of the sensitivity of their actions. They died for their country yet somehow it was all about him. I have been to the Wall.  It is humbling. It was appalling to see our president be so unaware, or uncaring, of his surroundings and their meaning.
  • A senior adviser to the president introduced the administration’s use of “alternative facts.”
  • A claim by the president that 3 to 5 million “illegals” voted in the presidential election and that every single one of them voted for Secretary Hillary Clinton.  No proof was provided.
  • A self-created diplomatic crisis with our neighbors in Mexico when they said that they would not pay for a wall along the border.
  • A declaration that torture works and should be used in interrogations because terrorists do a lot worse than that.  Torture is illegal under U.S. law including the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and under international law.
  • A draft Executive Order to bring back the “black sites” overseas where the CIA and other agencies can take terrorists secretly and interrogate them outside of international and U.S. law. The new Director of the CIA and the new Secretary of Defense say they were not consulted on the order.
  • A presidential pronouncement that lifting sanctions on Russia might be a good thing.  This while we still await the results of inquiries into their interference with our election and while they still illegally occupy Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.
  • An Executive Order halting immigration from seven Muslim countries including Iraq.  We currently have troops on the ground along side Iraqi military units fighting ISIS.  We will arm them and train them and send them into battle, but we will not let them into the country.  The ban includes those in danger because they worked with and helped U.S. forces as interpreters, informants, and fighters.
  • A presidential statement that his immigration ban is not anti-Islam, even though the only countries banned are Islamic and the president said that Christians from those countries would be admitted.  A gentle reminder may be in order that our Constitution prohibits discrimination due to one’s religion.
  • A host of other Executive Orders and Presidential Memoranda that create questions about the future of programs and freeze numerous regulations from the Affordable Care Act to inspections of commercial airliners.

There are more, but you get the idea.  Taken as a whole it is amazing.  Depending on your view of President Trump, it is amazing good or it is amazing bad.  But most of us can agree that as a whole his actions to date meet Webster Merriam Dictionary definitions and are certainly creating “astonishment” and “surprise”.  We may also “wonder” what is going on?

There are several ways to look at his words and actions thus far.  Some may think that President Trump is the ultimate egotist, thin-skinned and overly concerned about being the best ever — it is all about him and very little about the country’s well-being.  Some may say that he and his administration are rookies and that many of the rough patches will smooth out as they get accustomed to governing rather than campaigning — which is not unusual with changes in administrations.  Some may say that no one has ever told him “no” and that he is used to running a one man show and that eventually he will figure out that even though he ran as an autocrat, that is not how our government works.  Some may think that he is, simply put, a nut case.  Some may think that he is doing exactly what they voted for him to do and by golly he is out there doing it.

Of course, some or all of those opinions may be true in part or in whole.  The real question is whether the nation as we know it will withstand his impetuous actions and words.  And no, that is not a “sky is falling” we are all doomed statement.  It is too early to see how all of this will settle out.  More on that in a minute, but first let me digress for a few sentences.

Famously in the aftermath of the election, it was said that members of the press did not take him seriously, but they took his statements literally, while his supporters took him seriously but did not take his words literally.  An interesting way of looking at things. Maybe we should take him both literally and seriously as his actions thus far seem to indicate that he looks at himself that way. Regardless, here is the problem.

As president, words matter.  What the president says is often taken literally, or taken as a signal of intentions, in foreign capitals and can impact international relations, trade, economic matters and other elements of our national interest.  When he says he is building the wall and Mexico will pay for it with a 20% tax, the leadership in Mexico has to take him seriously.  When he says that 3 to 5 million illegals voted in the election and therefore it was rigged (yet he won!) it plays right into the hands of those in Moscow and other places that Americans are no better off than they are and that democracy is a sham. People around the world listen.  I have no idea if he believes what he says or not, but he must understand that as President and Commander-in-Chief he can no longer say the first thing that pops into his head.

There is an old military saying that he should become familiar with — “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Our opponents always have a vote in what happens because they have their own self interests and national goals to defend.  You can slap a 20% tariff on another country out of pique, but you have no say in what they do in return.  And you can be sure that they will react, often in ways that are unpredictable and harmful to our own interests.

Here is my opinion of Mr. Trump’s actions so far.  They are based on two factors.  He has never functioned as a part of government or of the military.  In his life all he has ever had to do was say he wanted something done, and it pretty much got done.  The government does not work like that. For better or for worse, there are a lot of moving parts.  The president alone cannot change laws or hand down court rulings.

The second factor is that much of Mr. Trump’s success, however big or small or entangled with overseas governments and entities (we still wait for him to reveal their extent), his biggest successes are in marketing and self-promoting — branding as it is now called.  His brand is brash and huge and a take no prisoners approach.  I am surmising that in his mind, he needs to keep the brand alive with his supporters and therefore he is continuing to be outrageous, bullying and a man of action. All of that feeds back into his own perception of himself as the best at whatever he does and the cycle continues. When it stops is anyone’s guess.

I am very concerned about the damage to our world position of leadership that will occur if he continues on his “America First” doctrine.  It may be a good marketing slogan, but isolationism is not in our own best interest and does not help us with our interests overseas.  Our history is replete with such attempts in our past and the result inevitably is war or a depression or both.  Neither of those outcomes are in our national interests.

I am less concerned about his actions thus far on the domestic front.  When looked at carefully, most of his Executive Orders are more like outlines of where he would like to go.  He is fairly restricted in what he can and cannot do without the House and Senate in agreement.  Thus far the Republican controlled Congress has begun to realize that governing, rather than just opposing the other party’s initiatives, is hard to do.  The first real test of President Trump will be when enough Republicans say “no” to one of his proposals. Hopefully when Congress collectively says no, it will be a political lesson to Mr. Trump and not result in a Constitutional crisis.

My biggest and most fundamental concern are his and his administration’s attacks on the First Amendment.  Most modern presidents have had a dim view of the media coverage they receive and some have had an adversarial relationship with the press.  That’s fine and to some extent it is good for our Republic’s health.  However it does no one any good for President Trump to continually and perpetually call the press dishonest, the worst people on earth, liars or any of the other epitaphs that he throws their way. His senior adviser told the press to “shut up.”  He went on to call the press the “opposition party” — not the Democrats.  The attacks come because the press reports what Mr. Trump and his advisers actually do and say.  As they used to say, “let’s go to the video tape!”  It’s there.  It’s a matter of public record and yet Mr. Trump continues to deny that a given action or statement took place.  This is dangerous.

I fear that over time the outrageous comments and attacks on the press will become old news. People will stop paying attention.  Or worse — justify the outrageous and potentially unconstitutional behavior because we got some jobs back, or some other narrow, short-range goal at the expense of what we hold dear. Most autocrats gain power that way.

None of us has any idea how the next four years will unfold.  Based on the last week, we know that it will indeed be amazing.  I trust that the Congress and the American people will begin insisting that we get more from our president than a sweeping “believe me” when it comes to critical issues.


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.

A Test Of Patience

In this space I recently wrote that I would be patient and give President-elect Donald J. Trump a chance to show that he understands what it takes to lead this country and to deal with the many issues confronting us today.  As we approach the three-week mark from the election, and as Secretary Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote now approaches 2.5 million more votes than what Mr. Trump received, I find that my patience is being severely tested on many levels.  I am keeping an open mind, but several troubling incidents surrounding his transition are making it difficult.

One begins to wonder if he really understands what it means to be President of the United States. Admittedly, we are only three weeks into the process and he deserves more time to get his administration and, frankly, his act together.  Few (and I suspect that does not include Mr. Trump) truly thought that he would win the election.  He did, and now he and his aides are facing a steep learning curve to get ready to serve the country.  Not unprecedented, especially since he has no prior governing experience.  That said, there are several troubling aspects to his transition that signal that he may not be ready, and even more troubling, unwilling, to assume the responsibilities of the office in a manner consistent with the customs and traditions of our great country.  It appears that he has not yet figured out that he now works for us, the citizens that hired him, rather than the other way around. It has become a cliché that he promised to “shake things up” and that he was a non-traditional candidate so expect him to be a non-traditional president.  I get it.  However there are certain basic norms of good governing and representing our country that need to be appreciated and adopted by him.

Please!  Take away his cell phone and take away his Twitter account!

Extremely troubling to this observer is his what can only be called a bizarre Tweet yesterday claiming that he actually won the popular vote. (Why do we call it the “popular vote” since it is the vote?  It is the Electoral College that is the “other” vote.)  He said that:

“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

No evidence.  No proof.  Just a reaction to the continued reporting that the gap in the vote continues to grow and another example of his wild and undisciplined need to lash out whenever he is criticized. Fake news presented as a fact.  For a president-elect to make such a pronouncement is a serious threat to the legitimacy of our nation and the voting process.  Very troubling. Even as he condemns the efforts of Dr. Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party to get recounts in Wisconsin and possibly Michigan and Pennsylvania where the margin of victory was very, very thin, he gives the best reason yet for holding such a  recount.  Investigate the results, in accordance with the law and established procedures, and see if all is okay.  Even Secretary Clinton’s senior aides say that a recount is unlikely to change the result.  So what is Mr. Trump’s problem?

Further evidence of his thin skin — and let’s face it, Democrat or Republican every president in this day and age is going to be criticized for something by someone every day — is his Tweet about the “totally biased” show that contains “nothing funny at all” when Saturday Night Live did a skit on him after the election (he has gone after them before).  Stand by.

But here is what is most bothersome.  He goes after SNL and other media presentations, which arguably is beneath the expected stature of the president-elect, but he does not go after the white supremacists that now believe they have a leader in Mr. Trump.  He has called for unity and in an interview with, as he calls it, the “failing” New York Times, Mr. Trump said that “I disavow and condemn them.”

My question is if that is so, and he claims that no one reads the newspapers anymore, and that he wants to communicate directly with America by using Twitter, why hasn’t he sent a Tweet, or better yet, a series of them, specifically denouncing them, their leaders and their actions?  For that matter, just saying “I want unity” is not the same thing as making a coherent speech to the American people, and I don’t mean on YouTube which appears to be his other outlet of choice.  How about a speech that lays out his plan to unite us and specifically denounces the hate crimes that have sprung up around the country following his election?  To borrow from the old Nike ads, “just do it.”  Incidentally, Mr. Trump has not held a news conference since July.  Just sayin’.

There may be a reason why he does not more forcefully denounce the white supremacists and other haters.  Another way that we can judge Mr. Trump and his administration is by the people that he picks to fill key jobs.  This is still a work in progress, but already some troubling appointments and processes are coming to the fore.  To me, it is a bad sign that among his first three appointments were Mr. Steve Bannon and Lt. General Michael T. Flynn, USA (ret.). Before joining the Trump campaign,  Mr. Bannon was the chief of Breitbart News, a publication known for supporting the white supremacist movement. (They call themselves the alt-right, but if you’ve seen any of  their work, it is just another name for white supremacist filth.) General Flynn is known for sharing fake news in his speeches (such as saying Democrats in Florida tried to impose Sharia law) and his hard-line anti-Islamic rhetoric includes this memorable line in a speech that I am sure warmed the hearts of our ISIS enemies, as it is great propaganda for them:

“We are facing another ‘ism,’ just like we faced Nazism, and fascism, and imperialism and communism. This is Islamism, it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.”

So he believes a religion is the same as fascism and communism?  1.7 billion people need to be “excised”? Does that mean kill them all?

Both men are favorites of the white supremacists and so it is more than a little scary that the two most influential men in his administration that do not need Congressional approval to serve, are both haters of segments of our nation, and a larger segment of the world.

Published reports recount that Mr. Trump has been offered the same daily intelligence brief that the current president gets.  In three weeks, he has received the brief only twice, rather than daily.  (Vice President Pence, thankfully, is reported to take the brief almost every day.)  The stated reason is that “he is busy.”  I suspect that it has more to do with the influence of General Flynn who claims to know more than the briefers, and supposedly told Mr. Trump that the intelligence he was getting as a candidate was “wrong”.  If Mr. Trump has time to meet with business associates from India and elsewhere during his working days, much less to Tweet so much, it would seem he could take a brief more than twice in twenty days.  I fear that it reflects his lack of intellectual curiosity and his propensity to “wing it” rather than to have, you know, actual facts.

Other potential Cabinet appointments announced or considered by the Trump administration, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) may not have vast national or international experience, but I am at least confident that they are principled, earnest and respected individuals.  As Mr. Trump fills out his Cabinet, I hope that we see more nominations in line with the likes of Governor Haley and none in the line of General Flynn.

Surprisingly there is a very public battle over the nomination for Secretary of State.  This will tell us a lot about the future of the Trump administration and their methods of governing.  Mr. Trump seems to be favoring former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (R) as his choice.  The Governor is another individual that I can respect as having principles and a love for our country that is greater than his own ambitions.  In a nearly unprecedented move yesterday, leading Trump transition team advisers such as Kellyanne Conway were on the morning news shows publicly campaigning against Mr. Romney’s selection.  Statements and reports indicate that the Trump insiders, with the exception of Vice President-elect Pence, are pushing hard for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R).  Mr. Giuliani’s credentials are thin at best and if voters thought that Secretary Clinton’s speeches were over paid and to the wrong people, look up Mr. Giuliani’s record of having given speeches at very high prices to some not-so-nice folks around the world.  If Mr. Trump picks Mr. Giuliani over Mr. Romney (or another equally qualified individual) that will be a tremendous signal that he cares more about “loyalty” to him personally rather than what is best for the country.

Finally, and equally trying of my patience, and I really am trying because if he does well, we all do well, is his refusal to divest or otherwise separate himself from his business dealings.  To questions about releasing his tax returns and his intent to divest himself of his businesses, he basically said in interviews, “I don’t have to.  I won.”  He further pointed out that under the law, he has to do neither, which is true. The president and vice president are exempt under the law.

One would hope that a great leader would recognize the inherent doubt and constant conflict that will ensue if many of our citizens wonder about his decisions — are they based on the nation’s needs or on his personal business needs?  Importantly, a great leader would recognize that although perhaps legal, it is not ethical.  If everyone that will serve in his cabinet and below will be required to follow the law over conflicts of interest, tax returns and the like, shouldn’t the man at the top also reveal this information? To me, this will be another test of his character.  Does he hide behind the law and continue with his “I won” mantra, or does he man up and do the right thing?

Placing his business dealings with his children, while they continue to sit in on high level meetings with foreign leaders, as has happened twice already in the last ten days, does not solve the problem. There are so many twists and turns in this story that the more he enlightens the nation, the more credible he becomes and the better able he will be to focus on the nation’s issues.  We shall see.

It is early and there is still a chance for Mr. Trump to demonstrate that we should trust him and his decision-making ability.  Unfortunately, the early signs are not all positive. The time between now and the first of the year will tell us a lot about the fate of our country in his hands over the coming years. The early signs seem to indicate that it will be a bumpy 2017.  Hold on to your hats.


We Live In Interesting Times

“Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”  — Hillary Clinton in her concession speech on 9 November 2016

In her concession speech, Secretary Clinton exhibited the best of our electoral traditions and history. She lost and he won and it is time to keep an open mind about the future.  Like it or not, he’s the guy.

But, man oh man, I didn’t think it would be this hard.

There is one thing that sticks in my mind as I try to get my head around the idea of a President Donald J. Trump, and that is that he is the same person on 9 November that he was on 7 November. That may not be a good thing.

So many things come to mind about the election and about the future of our country under a President Trump.  I could write multiple pages, and indeed I am sure people already have and any number of books will be written about this campaign in the coming months and years.  However, I won’t go into all of that now.  At the same time there are a few things that I do want to mention as I, and millions of others, try to make sense of this election.

I have been around the block a few times, and have believed strongly in other candidates that lost elections.  I was disappointed but did not think badly of the candidates that won.  I merely disagreed with their policies compared to my candidate, but as the Rolling Stones proclaim (and apparently Mr. Trump agrees as he used it as his theme song),

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need.”

I am not so sure this time around.

To me, this time it is not about whether a Republican or a Democrat won or even that Secretary Clinton lost. It is that Mr. Trump won.  Or at least he won the Electoral College, which in our system is all that counts.  But lest we forget, for the second time in 16 years a candidate lost the election even though they won the popular vote.  I will save for another time a discussion about the Electoral College.  It could be anachronistic, but it is probably a good thing over all in that candidates must think about the nation as a whole, rather than individual centers of population.

So, no, it isn’t that my candidate lost.  You have read in this space before about how I am confounded by Mr. Trump and his apparent lack of understanding of the important issues of our time, of the language he used while campaigning and his demonizing and/or demeaning every segment of our society save white men.  That is well documented and I won’t rehash all that here.  But it does have consequences.

Even though more people voted for Secretary Clinton than for Mr. Trump, I am worried that I thought the United States was something that apparently it is not.  Many good people, Democrat and Republican, did not feel that Mr. Trump reflected or represented American values.  What if we are wrong?  What if his words and actions represent the America that we have become?  That is truly chilling and worrying to me.  His approach was validated.  He gave validation to a worrisome fringe element in our society that now thinks it is mainstream.  Before you blow a gasket, I am not inferring that all of Mr. Trump’s supporters were on the fringe.  People voted for him for a vast number of reasons.  But it remains a fact that his persona is not what we think of, or maybe I should say it is not what I think of, when I think of America.  He took the politics of fear and anger and turned it to his personal advantage in the worst possible way. I will try to keep an open mind as his administration forms, but I will struggle to get beyond that fact.

I am particularly upset by the reaction of people close to me, and others that I have observed. Primarily women that worked in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s in an era where sexual harassment was a part of going to work.  Those women experienced some form of harassment and discrimination almost daily, worked through it, and worked very hard to change the system.  To them, Mr. Trump symbolizes every male that harassed them in the work place or on the streets.  The women coming of age today face a totally different work place environment than their mothers and grandmothers faced.  Thankfully. Unfortunately, the election of Mr. Trump in spite of his known actions, his recorded remarks and his crude on-the-record comments seem to many of these older, experienced women, to give the green light to go back to a time where women were judged on their appearance and not on their ability.  It is a very sad and difficult time for them to see Mr. Trump in the White House.

One potential positive outcome of the election is that Mr. Trump, who in reality is neither a Republican nor a Democrat but more of third-party candidate that managed to get the Republican nomination, will have his opportunity to govern with the support of a Republican controlled Congress.  To all of those disaffected voters who put him in the White House, stand by.  In my mind this is a domestic version of President Nixon going to China.  There will be no excuses if the lot of those supporters does not improve. Mr. Trump and the Republicans are in charge.  They can only blame themselves if things don’t go their way.  After years of “just say no”, anger and obstructionism, they have the chance to do all of the things that they promised.

But I am extremely skeptical that they can deliver.  Most jobs in the Rust Belt and elsewhere were not lost to “deals” and trade pacts.  They were lost to automation and technology.  They aren’t coming back. The coal industry is not coming back.  Steel mills are not coming back.  One industry towns are not coming back.  All of the things that white working class Americans think they will now see restored are extremely unlikely to return. We cannot turn back the clock to a nostalgia tinged 1950’s era.  Perhaps in the coming years when the realization sets in that none of that will ever come back again, we can move forward into the 21st Century.  We don’t need to bring back the old jobs, we need to educate and train our citizens for the jobs of the future.  We cannot hold out for a white dominated society, we are headed for a multi-cultural society, like it or not, and no amount of anger will change that.  So, perhaps when their guy is unable to deliver the goods, people will remember those days fondly, but finally move on and face reality.  Perhaps that is the positive side of Mr. Trump as our president.

I suppose a true test of how willing Mr. Trump will be to bring the nation back together again will be two-fold.  First, does he reach out to all of those he has offended during his campaign, and more importantly does he send a message to those that think it is now okay to demean and demonize portions of our society and tell them that he will not accept that?

Secondly, I think we will learn a lot about the direction he intends to take the country by his cabinet nominations.  He hasn’t made any yet.  Will he pick serious, qualified individuals willing to do what is right for our country even if it means disagreeing with the President, or will he pick a series of sycophants and has-beens?  Only time will tell, but it isn’t a good sign that many of the names floated as trial balloons so far fall into the latter category.

In the end, I hope he surprises all of us and ably and well leads our nation.  If he does well, our country does well.  I am willing to keep an open mind and give him a chance, but it will be a short window of opportunity for him to convince me that he can keep America great.