Really? I Mean, Really…

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…”

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It Just Will Not Stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew!  A full week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But be careful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Fake News” No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Incompetent or Dangerous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Doing The Right Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Keep Your Eye On The Ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are they so anxiously trying to cover up?

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

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

–President Trump tweet 7:02 4 Mar 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow the Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

You get the idea.

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

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

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

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