The King of Chaos

It’s a new kind of presidency. Get used to it. Donald Trump says outrageous things. He tweets outrageous things. He enjoys it, or he thinks that it’s part of his job, the reason he was elected – to shake things up. He may or may not believe the false statistics he comes up with – three to five million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton – but it hardly matters. The point is to shake things up, and as he likes to say, he heard that somewhere. Maybe it is true. Assume it’s true – or don’t – he doesn’t care. It riles up his base and puts the politically correct and bleeding-heart liberals, and anyone who didn’t vote for him, on the defensive. They get all upset. He likes that. They sputter. They tie themselves up in knots. He laughs at them. They lose.

This is a change. For eight years it was No-Drama Obama. Trump is the King of Chaos. It has served him well. Just enough voters in just the right places wanted to kick over the table. Measured thoughtfulness hadn’t improved their lives in the slightest, even if it had – the economy if now fine, for all but those in dying industries that will never come back, and even those who wanted to kick over the table can now buy no-tricks health insurance at a reasonable price, after subsidies to those living on the edge.

Don’t tell them that. They don’t believe it. They’ll go with the tweets, but the latest was problematic:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!

He was at it again. The media treats him unfairly. Their news of him is fake news – but this was different. The news media itself is now the enemy of the people. Perhaps this was just hyperbole. No one thinks he will issue an executive order designating these five news organizations “terrorist organizations” and shut them down – but no one knows if he won’t do that. He doesn’t explain his tweets. He just puts stuff out there, stuff that makes many uneasy. They should be uneasy. He was elected to make them uneasy. That may get him reelected too.

That’s the plan. Give the people what they want. Be outrageous, but even for a “friendly” news organization not on the list, Fox News, this was a bit much:

Fox News host Chris Wallace on Sunday pressed White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to explain President Donald Trump’s comment that the press is “the enemy of the American People.”

“He said that the fake media, not certain stories, the fake media are an enemy to the country. We don’t have a state-run media in this country. That’s what they have in dictatorships,” Wallace told Priebus on “Fox News Sunday.”

Priebus responded by calling “unsourced” stories about turmoil inside Trump’s administration “total garbage.”

That argument didn’t go well:

Priebus argued that the media has not covered Trump’s actions during his first month in office as closely as it has covered his notable failures.

“We covered all of that,” Wallace interjected. “Here’s the problem. When the President says that we’re the enemy of the American people, it makes it sound like if you’re going against him, you’re going against the country.”

He compared Trump’s response to critical media coverage to President Barack Obama’s response.

“You don’t get to tell us what to do, Reince! You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did,” Wallace said. “I’ve got to say he never said that we were an enemy of the people.”

“You don’t get to tell us what to do?” Add a sixth news organization to the list of enemies of the people, but there was this:

Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis said Sunday that he does not “have any issues with the press” in a break with President Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the media.

“I’ve had some rather contentious times with the press,” Mattis told reporters in Abu Dhabi. “But no, the press as far as I’m concerned is a constituency that we deal with, and I don’t have any issues with the press myself.”

It seems that “Mad Dog” Mattis isn’t mad at anyone, or he didn’t get the memo, or he’ll be fired, or quit – or Trump was just saying things and everyone should just relax. Mattis knows better. Trump didn’t mean it – or he did. No one knows, but one old fuddy-duddy took Trump at his word:

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) defended the free press in an interview aired Sunday and warned that suppressing critical coverage is “how dictators get started.”

“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press,” McCain said in an interview on NBC News’ Meet the Press.

He said that a free press is “vital” to that.

“Without it I’m afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started,” McCain said.

“That’s how dictators get started? With tweets like that?” Chuck Todd asked McCain, referring to a tweet posted by President Donald Trump on Friday…

“No, they get started by suppressing a free press,” McCain said Sunday. “The first thing that dictators do is they shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator, I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

McCain had to be ambiguous. Republicans wanted a Republican president, and got one. Trump will have to do. When Trump reads a bit more and learns a bit more he’ll be fine, but that’s not going to happen, as David Remnick notes here:

For months, cool, responsible heads have been counselling hot, impulsive heads to avoid overreacting to Trump. We must give him a chance. We must not in all our alarm compare him to all the tin-pot dictators and bloody authoritarians who have disgraced history. The Oval Office – its realities and traditions – will temper his rages. His aides, his son-in-law, and his daughter will “soften” his impulsivity. Besides, he doesn’t really mean all he says. Even as Trump was signing one chilling executive order after another – all with the cool counsel of Steve Bannon, late of Breitbart – we were assured that everything was fine. He was simply fulfilling the agenda of his campaign. Calm down. Don’t react to every tweet. Don’t take the bait.

Then came his press conference, last week, his first solo press conference in office, and it was epochal. Ostensibly an occasion to announce a replacement appointment to the Department of Labor after the first had to step aside, Trump instead took it upon himself to denounce repeatedly and at length the sinful, dishonest press and the “very fake news” it produces. It was unforgettable. With all his nastiness, his self-admiring interruptions and commands (“Sit down! Sit down!”) Trump resembled an over-sauced guy at a bar who was facing three likely options in the near term: a) take a swing at someone, b) get clocked by someone else, or c) pass out and wake up on a hard, alien cot.

But the venue was not a bar. It was the White House, and this was hardly a joke. What Trump resembled at the lectern was an old-fashioned autocrat wielding a very familiar rhetorical strategy.

There are, after all, precedents for this:

Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, makes the point that autocrats from Chávez to Erdoğan, Sisi to Mugabe, all follow a general pattern. They attack and threaten the press with deliberate and ominous intensity; the press, in turn, adopts a more oppositional tone and role. “And then that paves the way for the autocrat’s next move,” Simon told me. “Popular support for the media dwindles and the leader starts instituting restrictions. It’s an old strategy.”

Simon pointed to Trump’s lack of originality, recalling that both Néstor Kirchner, of Argentina, and Tabaré Ramón Vázquez, of Uruguay, referred to the press as the “unelected political opposition.” And, as Simon has written, it was the late Hugo Chávez who first mastered Twitter as a way of bypassing the media and providing his supporters with alternative facts.

This is what Trump many not know, which is even worse:

Trump, as indulgent parents say of an indolent child, is “not a big reader.” He may not hear every historical echo in his “enemy of the American people” tweet. What he does know, however, is that the American trust in “the media” – that generalized term that stretches from the Times to NewsMax – is miserably low. He is determined to exploit that to the hilt, if only to distract his base from the disappointments that are sure to come. On Saturday evening, he held a rally in Melbourne, Florida, and doubled down on the familiar theme: putting himself in the same league as Lincoln and Jefferson, he told the crowd, “Many of our greatest Presidents fought with the media and called them out.” The agenda is always to divide. “They have their own agenda, and their agenda is not your agenda,” he said.

Trump of course got Jefferson backwards on the importance of a free and sometimes irritating press, and made sure it was protected in the Constitution, but only historians and school kids know that, so we are where we are:

The attacks on the legitimacy of the courts, on the intentions of the intelligence agencies, and on the patriotism of the press have become too evident, too repulsive to be discounted as mere sideshow. Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Florida and the co-host of “Morning Joe,” tweeted a telling call to the right on Friday: “Conservatives, feel free to speak up for the Constitution anytime the mood strikes. It is time.”

Yes, it is, but shutting down the free press, as the enemy of the people, is only one off-the-cuff idea that Trump has floated, and McCain was at it again:

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) delivered a scathing criticism of President Donald Trump’s worldview on Friday, though he never mentioned Trump by name.

“What would von Kleist’s generation say if they saw our world today?” McCain said at the start of a speech at the Munich Security Conference, referring to the international security policy conference’s founder.

The conference, founded in 1963, now hosts hundreds of diplomats and senior government officials annually. Other American attendees this year included Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chris Murphy (D-CT)

“I fear that much about it would be all too familiar for them, and they would be alarmed by it,” McCain continued.

“They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism. They would be alarmed by the hardening resentment we see towards immigrants and refugees and minority groups, especially Muslims. They would be alarmed by the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies. They would be alarmed that more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”

The last comment was a subtle jab at an interview Trump gave to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly on Super Bowl Sunday. After O’Reilly called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a killer,” Trump responded: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” (McCain indirectly referenced the comment later in the speech, when he said: “I refuse to accept that our values are morally equivalent to those of our adversaries.”)

“But what would alarm them most, I think, is a sense that many of our peoples, including in my own country, are giving up on the West,” McCain continued. “That they see it as a bad deal that we may be better off without, and that while Western nations still have the power to maintain our world order, it’s unclear whether we have the will.”

That was curious. Yes, Trump is big on the ties of blood and race and sectarianism – those, and introducing what he sees as necessary chaos, have served him well – and he’s the President of the United States, not John McCain. Neither are Pence or Mattis, which seems to be confusing our allies:

Diplomats and leaders across Europe had one crucial – if unstated – question for Vice President Pence when he visited Munich and Brussels this weekend: Is he the shadow president or a mere shadow of the president?

And if the mission of Pence’s trip abroad was clear – to reassure worried allies this weekend that, yes, despite what his boss may say, the United States remains committed to the security of Europe and to the historic transatlantic partnership – Pence’s role was anything but.

Although the vice president repeatedly stressed that he was speaking on behalf of President Trump, the two men indeed seemed as though they were separated by an ocean.

Pence offered bland mollifications, forced to calm and cajole European countries that, in the post-Cold War order, until recently never had cause to question the support of the United States. But at a campaign rally Saturday evening in Florida, Trump did the opposite, again criticizing NATO – hours after Pence had extolled its virtues in Munich – and offending yet another ally when he implied that there was a recent terrorist attack in Sweden, one that seemed to exist only in the president’s imagination.

The less said about that Sweden thing the better. Trump had just seen something about something or other on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News and ran with it. He heard it somewhere, but that sort of thing won’t do, as no one knows what to believe anymore:

The day after Trump, in a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, upended decades of U.S. foreign policy by saying that he was open to a one-state solution to the Israeli and Palestinian peace process, Nikki Haley, his U.N. envoy, said the administration was, in fact, “absolutely” committed to a two-state solution. And at a NATO meeting in Brussels last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis seemed to contradict Trump’s claims that Russia had not tried meddle in the U.S. elections, and also reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to NATO.

On Saturday, Pence largely echoed Mattis’ message of support for NATO. And on Monday, in Brussels, he will meet with senior EU leaders before returning to Washington.

Our allies try to make the best of this:

In many ways, like the voters in the United States who took Trump seriously but not literally, some allies are now taking Pence hopefully – because he might be, they say, their best hope at maintaining the existing world order.

“I put my trust in them, so I am definitely reassured,” said Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who met Pence on Saturday with other Baltic leaders.

“He was very understanding, very friendly, and told us that if we ever have any problems we should call,” she said. “He said if you don’t want to call the president, you can always call me.”

Okay, call Mike, not Donald. Mike will set you straight. Donald is a bit… well, you know. He just says things. He’s like that. There’s a workaround.

It seems that the vice president just told our allies to ignore our loopy president, but that won’t do:

Pence and Mattis were “very cautious because they don’t know whether half of what they say could be contradicted by their boss on Twitter,” said Jan Techau, the director of the Richard C. Holbrooke Forum at the American Academy in Berlin.

One European diplomat said they worried that there was no way to bridge the gap.

“There remains by necessity skepticism about the nature of the president Pence serves,” the diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss candidly his conversations at the conference. “No one can dispel that, no matter what he said.”

And there’s this:

In a tweet Saturday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was even more blunt, posting, “Looks like we have two governments.” He wrote that Pence had just delivered a speech about shared values between the United States and Europe while the president “openly wages war on those values.”

Perhaps we do, and Josh Marshall explores the implications of all this:

The really significant comments and warnings came from Germany and France. The countries’ defense and foreign ministers respectively warned the US about trying to sow divisions in Europe or even break up the European Union. As the storied and long-serving retired US diplomat Nicholas Burns put it in a tweet, America’s erstwhile European allies are now worried about America as a threat to the international order.

That may be the real problem here:

While it has received relatively little attention in the US press, the White House has been pursuing an open policy of destabilizing the European Union and using the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU to pry the EU apart with a series of bilateral trade agreements with the US. Whether this is feasible is another question; this is the intent. Why the White House – specifically President Trump and Steve Bannon – would want to do this is an important question. The fact that this aim lines up perfectly with Russian foreign policy goals speaks for itself. But it can equally plausibly be explained by the desire to destroy internationalist, liberal and largely cosmopolitan institutions to pave the way for a new global order based on competing blood and soil nationalisms. The US government is now in the hands of a faction or party the rise of which much of our statecraft has spent almost seventy years trying to prevent from coming to power in the states of Europe.

What is most striking about these warnings from the Europeans, however, is not simply the historical inversion. It is the fact that the Europeans are warning us, sounding the alarm about US attempts to destabilize and destroy the world order – particularly the North Atlantic order – that the US in fact created and which it has been the guarantor of for almost seventy years. The US is not only its creator but it is based on US concepts of government and norms and of course has the US at its center. If the record in what was once called the Third World is more mixed, the US has much to be proud of for the era of relative peace and historic prosperity since the 1940s in Europe and industrialized democracies of Asia. But it also goes without saying that the American-built and American-led world order has driven immense benefits which the US continues to enjoy.

The historic oddity of this situation points to a common dynamic Americans now face at home and abroad.

Our partners in the international order we created – some of whom we conquered to make it possible – are now seeking to defend it from us. Let’s say that again, defend it from us.

Somehow we became the enemy:

We cannot ignore the fact that the American experiment is now in a kind of exile – taken refuge elsewhere – and the executive power of the American state now under a kind of, hopefully temporary, occupation.

And that leads to an obvious question:

What do you do as an institutionalist when the central institutions of the state have been taken over, albeit democratically, by what amount to pirates, people who want to destroy them?

What do you do when the king is the King of Chaos? You turn to history:

This is not the first time this question or this dynamic has been faced. For scholars who study the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, one of the central questions has always been the role of the Social Democrats. The Nazis came to power democratically and the proceeded to dismantle the state using its own power. The Social Democrats were the only political force in the country with a sufficient mass base, contrary ideology and organization to resist. And yet the extremely simplified version of the story is that they did not. The reason is that (again, this is a very simplified version of the story) they were too bought into republican government and constitutionalism to take the actions which would have been necessary in that moment of paradoxical and existential crisis.

We are all warned, rightly, to avoid comparisons to the Nazi Germany whenever possible. But in this case I do so first to note the comparable dynamic – how does one vindicate and defend liberal values and constitutionalism when the people holding the levers of state power are trying to destroy them but even more to point to the ways in which this historical analogy is not at all comparable.

We usually hear the story of the rise of Nazism as a cautionary tale of the way fascism can rise from within a democracy to destroy it. This is a highly misleading description of events. Weimar Germany was in essence a failed state which was born to a relatively brief but intense and brutal period of civil war and political violence, went immediately into a catastrophic, multi-year economic crisis and then briefly stabilized for no more than half a dozen years before lurching again into crisis with the onset of the Great Depression. Imperial Germany had a thin parliamentary tradition but its political culture was deeply illiberal and authoritarian. The democracy Hitler destroyed was at best embryonic and broken. One can easily argue that it scarcely existed.

I say all this because while the danger of the current moment is severe, American is nothing like Germany of the 1920s or 1930s. American democracy is in more danger now than at any time since at least the 1930s and arguably more than at any time in its history. But we have centuries of unbroken history of regular elections, vibrant democratic institutions and most importantly a deeply embedded, though not infrequently challenged democratic political culture. I say this not in favor of complacency but to bolster confidence, which I think is sorely needed.

So there is hope, but only hope:

How do we act within democratic norms to protect our institutions from the piratical individuals who have taken hold of them? McCain gave some hint of this when he pledged that the legislative and judicial branches of the American would be upholding constitutionalism while the executive was in this period of what I would term occupation. This is something of an empty boast as long as the legislative branch, which McCain’s party controls, has done little to nothing to rein in Trump’s rule. It also shows the nature of the challenge since the executive is the branch with executive power, the power to act, especially abroad. Because of that we face a comparable question in how we defend the America-led international order during this period of occupation or this interregnum when the American presidency is under the control of men who openly seek to destroy it.

Yes, the American presidency is under the control of men who openly seek to destroy America-led international order, and who also openly seek to destroy the free press here at home – unless Trump is just kidding – but no one knows that. He doesn’t explain things. He just smiles. The King of Chaos does that, he just smiles, and this may not be a period of occupation or an interregnum. He did win the election. Those who want chaos, no matter what is destroyed, aren’t going anywhere. Now no one else will.

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One Wish Granted

Be careful what you wish for. You might get it. No one quite knows who first said that but now everyone says that, as if that’s a clever thing to say, but it isn’t that clever. It’s just a useful reminder. Donald Trump doesn’t do news conferences – he tweets – and at recent photo-ops with foreign leaders, when a few reporters would shout questions at him, he’d answer only the questions from the Christian Broadcast Network and obscure alt-right organizations. Those questions were softballs. Questions about Michael Flynn and what the real problem there was, and about all the reports of his campaign folks’ many chats with the Russian government and the Russian intelligence services, that our intelligence services leaked that they could document, were met with stony silence. Donald Trump just sat there. The room paused. Reporters waited. There was nothing – but they were reporters from the major news outlets – the Washington Post and New York Times and CNN and the Associated Press and whatnot. Trump froze them out. They asked their questions. He sat there. They gave up.

They didn’t like that. His base liked that, but he finally gave the major news outlets what they wished for – an actual news conference. He’d answer their damned questions, but they’d be sorry. He’d rip them to shreds. He’d mock them. He’d embarrass them. He’d ramble and shift and shimmy and they wouldn’t know what to report, and then they’d report that he had lost it, and that was fine by him:

Tomorrow, they will say, “Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.” I’m not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people. But – but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.

Be careful what you wish for, which Politico reports here:

After stewing in anger during four rocky weeks in the White House, President Donald Trump had his say on Thursday.

He spent 80 minutes in an impromptu East Room news conference shredding his critics, relitigating the election, bragging about his crowds, crowing about his accomplishments and denying, deflecting and obfuscating a series of mushrooming bad stories that have dogged his presidency and depressed his approval ratings.

It was an extraordinary scene in the White House, which Trump essentially turned into a venue for a campaign rally, trashed the country’s most influential news outlets, cited approval polls and spread misinformation. It came two days before Trump hits the road for a campaign rally in Florida, where he said the crowds will be “massive.”

“I won,” Trump said at one point, explaining to the media why they weren’t important, even as he dissected their coverage and said he coveted better stories. “The people get it.”

He did rant and rave, with a touch of paranoia:

He put blame at the feet of his predecessor, Barack Obama, as he lamented that his administration doesn’t get the credit it deserves. “To be honest, I inherited a mess. It’s a mess. At home and abroad, a mess,” he said.

Trump said he was baffled by the “hatred” coming from the media, and insisted that he’s being unfairly picked on – “I’m really not a bad person, by the way.”

He was whining, but he had done no planning or preparation:

It was Trump’s decision to hold such an extended news conference and it was made Thursday morning, according to a White House aide briefed on the matter. After weeks of getting pounded by the media – something the president has privately and publicly fumed about – he made it clear to advisers that he wanted to speak in an unfiltered way.

This would be a stream-of-consciousness thing, which had always served him well before. He’d be authentic. He didn’t have to make sense, as making sense is not what people really want. They want authenticity, a real guy blowing off steam, just like they’d like to blow off steam. He’d be their avatar. This would be expression not explanation – two completely different things, which those pathetic fools the “mainstream” press never understood. So he offered heartfelt nonsense:

The event was supposed to be about his new labor secretary nominee, but was only about Alexander Acosta for the first few minutes. Acosta wasn’t even in the room. Instead, it was about turning fire on the media and trying to regain momentum in a wounded presidency that hasn’t presented a clear policy agenda moving forward.

“There has never been a president that has done so much in such a short period of time,” Trump said, reading a list of his own accomplishments.

Those were his executive orders, small tweaks to existing laws, one of which, the travel ban, had blown up in his face. Fareed Zakaria points out that at this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had signed into law an almost-trillion-dollar stimulus bill to revive the economy, extended health insurance to four million children and made it easier to challenge discriminatory labor practices, and that in their respective first one hundred days in office, FiveThirtyEight calculates that Bill Clinton had passed 24 bills, John Kennedy had passed 26, Harry Truman had passed 55, and FDR had passed 76, and Trump, with his Republican House and Senate has passed next to nothing. “Despite having a Republican House and Senate,” Zakaria points out, “Trump does not seem likely to crack ten.” But never mind. Trump will believe what Trump will believe:

He said his administration is a “fine-tuned machine” after weeks of damaging leaks from his own aides and advisers about chaos and infighting that have slowed progress. He defended Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, who has come under fire from his own advisers.

“We had a very smooth rollout of the travel ban,” Trump said, though he has griped for weeks to allies that the introduction of the controversial executive order wasn’t smooth, with protests across the country and widespread complaints at airports and from his own Cabinet officials.

And there was this:

He said a story by The New York Times on his campaign’s frequent contact with Russian intelligence officials had been “discredited,” though it hasn’t. He called reporting on his campaign’s contact with Russia “fake news” and a “ruse.” But asked about whether any member of his campaign had communication with Russia, he wouldn’t definitively say no. The matter is currently under federal investigation.

“I have nothing to do with it,” Trump said, when asked whether any associates had communications with Russia. He seemed peeved at the continuing questions.

And this:

He torched the intelligence community for leaking damaging information about his administration and said the reporting was “fake” from the news media. “The leaks are absolutely real,” he said, complaining about them. Seconds later, he said: “The news is fake.” It was difficult to understand how both could be true.

Advice to the press – don’t try to make sense of it. The base gets it. It feels right. That’s good enough, and then there was this:

He dissected morning shows and particular panelists on CNN. He called The New York Times “failing” and trashed The Wall Street Journal. He repeatedly and frequently went after CNN, even referring to its president Jeff Zucker, as “Jeff” and partially blaming him for the coverage.

“The press has become so dishonest, the press honestly, is out of control,” he said. He said the news media didn’t matter and that he no longer watched CNN.

That may not be so:

People close to Trump say the idea he doesn’t watch CNN anymore is laughable. He called the BBC a “beauty” and compared it to CNN. And in one of the final questions, he responded to a question from African-American journalist April Ryan about meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus by asking if she could broker the confab.

“Do you want to set up the meeting?” Trump said, in his trademark style. “Are they friends of yours?”

You black people stick together, don’t you? You all know each other, don’t you? What the hell – arrange a meeting if that will make you folks happy. She protested that she was just a reporter. That was an uncomfortable moment.

Amanda Katz noted this:

Forget what you’ve heard: Donald Trump is not anti-Semitic or racist. This was made clear in an astonishing press conference on Thursday, which delivered irrefutable evidence obliterating all ideas to the contrary. What was the irrefutable evidence? Donald Trump said so.

The president made his point plainly: “Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life,” he said. “Number two, racism, the least racist person.”

No matter that he made this statement while cutting off a question from Jake Turx, an Orthodox reporter for the Brooklyn-based Jewish magazine Ami, and no matter that the question Turx was asking had nothing to do with Trump’s own beliefs.

That too was odd:

Called on by Trump toward the end of the press conference – “Are you a friendly reporter? Watch how friendly he is,” Trump warned the press corps – Turx emphasized that no one in his community had accused Trump of anti-Semitism. Instead, he said that they wanted his response on something else:

“What we haven’t really heard being addressed is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it. There’s been a report that 48 bomb threats have been made against Jewish centers all across the country in the last couple of weeks. There are people committing anti-Semitic acts or planning to…”

That was as far as he got. Apparently convinced he was being accused of the grave sin of anti-Semitism, Trump pushed back. Turx continued to try to get a word in, but Trump talked over him: “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he said. He cited his support from Benjamin Netanyahu as supporting evidence, and called the question “very insulting.” He also refused to actually answer it.

The poor guy never got to tell Trump that the question actually wasn’t about Donald Trump at all – but then everything is, and Ed Kilgore says that what was happening was that Trump ended the presidential press conference as we know it:

What seems plain in retrospect is that Trump has no intention, at least at present, to use presidential press conferences the way his predecessors have employed them: to convey information to the American people via the media, sometimes despite the media’s efforts to impose an uncongenial interpretation on the intended “message.”

Presidents have varied in their skill at this game; some, most famously Richard Nixon, descended into an openly antagonistic relationship with journalists; virtually all the others have on occasion played favorites or “punished” disfavored reporters or outlets by denying access. But nobody until now has used a press conference to send one basic message over and over: With a few exceptions the people in this room are all lying scoundrels and you should not believe a word they say. Because that was Trump’s message: Every grievance he could dredge up, dating back to the ups and downs of the campaign trail, found its way into his tongue-lashing of the media today.

And that is why he by no means came across as the fearful Nixonian pol grudgingly giving his media enemies as little time as possible for questioning after his opening remarks, and then getting out of the room with as little damage as possible. As Trump said, he was enjoying the whole spectacle, and extended it again and again – and why not? If his goal was to convince his supporters that the media is their, as well as his, sworn enemy, then the longer he baited reporters and the longer they responded with obvious chagrin and efforts to pin him down, the more he succeeded.

Had it gone on all day, it would have just reinforced the vast gap between his world and that of the people his senior counsel Stephen Bannon calls “the opposition party.”

That presents a problem:

Working journalists are, of course, left wondering how to deal with the role Trump has assigned them as cartoon villains who deploy “facts” and “logic” to try to trip up the man who is just too wily to play their malicious game. It is hard to change the behavior of a politician who craves media criticism – the more the better – the way a wino craves cheap muscatel. The fact that he acts genuinely aggrieved at such criticism even as he courts it – and for all we know, his alleged pain may even be genuine – makes it all the harder to treat him normally.

This also makes it hard for Republicans:

Perhaps the most important thing to happen at today’s press conference is that respectable Republicans in Washington and elsewhere had to be at least disturbed a bit by the spectacle, which no one could imagine any prior Republican president since Nixon, and probably not even the Tricky One, producing. At some point they will have to ask themselves exactly how much damage to traditional politics and government they are willing to accept in exchange for cutting taxes, criminalizing abortion, or giving the people who own most of the country relief from regulations.

How much embarrassment must they endure for what they see as the greater good? That question may keep them up at night, but Edward Morrissey sees something else:

For the last few decades, voters and activists have openly argued that the biggest problem with government is that it’s run by politicians. Frustration with government inaction – or in some cases too much action – have fueled efforts to impose term limits on legislatures in order to turn out the lifers. The founding fathers never meant for political office to be a career, the argument went, but for citizens to serve their country for a short period of time and then return to the private sector.

That includes the presidency. Constant stories of waste, fraud, and abuse anger voters, prompting an almost constant refrain: If I ran my business this way, I’d be out of business. What this country needs, they argue, is an outsider who knows how to run a private-sector organization – someone without the political ties and big-donor relationships that inevitably bring back to the same old failures and frustrations. That would lead America back to greatness – or at least reverse decades of stagnation and bureaucratic bungling.

Despite these long-argued beliefs, only in 2016 did America roll the dice in a presidential election. Republicans nominated their first presidential candidate without public sector or military command experience, and then US voters gave him the job. Donald Trump embodied the anti-establishment fervor that has percolated for decades.

Perhaps that was a mistake:

As it turns out, running government requires a different skill set than running businesses, even though the two overlap to a large degree. Trump’s inexperience in governance has created some of his problems, while some problems have carried over from the campaign. The story of Russian intelligence contacts with key campaign officials, revisited this week by The New York Times, offers the best example of this gap.

Trump had run his primary campaign relatively light on consultants and pollsters, insisting that he could bankroll himself and save voters and taxpayers money. That made for a very popular argument on the campaign trail, and Trump clearly didn’t suffer from a lack of support because of it. However, the campaign didn’t effectively vet the smaller coterie of strategists and consultants who did make it into the campaign, leaving no one to question whether their economic ties to Russian businesses might leave them vulnerable to intelligence access.

The Times’ report on an FBI investigation of those ties states that campaign officials had numerous connections to suspected intelligence operatives, but that no evidence of cooperation with those operatives has emerged. It has still resulted in an embarrassing turnover at the White House, with national security adviser Michael Flynn resigning on Monday night. Perhaps this might have happened anyway, but a president with previous experience in vetting employees with political considerations in mind might have seen this kind of difficulty on the horizon sooner rather than later. It may not be a coincidence that Vice President Mike Pence, a seasoned political hand, has taken over the process of selecting Flynn’s replacement.

But there’s more:

In private business, loyalty and action typically run up and down within the organization, and even the factions that develop are largely contained within the whole and not from outside the business.

That is not true in government, and especially not within Washington DC in any Republican administration. A CEO President might expect that his orders will get carried out by people afraid to lose their jobs, but bureaucrats have civil-service protections and loyalties to parties and ideologies. It takes time, considerable patience, and skills on gathering consensus to make lasting change in Washington.

Business tycoons do not necessarily believe in consensus as much as they believe in coming out on the winning end of deals. Rushing action without that consensus and buy-in from key stakeholders resulted in the other major stumble in Trump’s first month: his executive order on a temporary block on entry to the US by nationals from seven countries with higher risks for terrorist infiltration.

There, a bold CEO was useless:

Rather than wait to consult with the agencies involved or even to get a legal team together first to defend it, the White House rushed it into enforcement and provided the media with a cornucopia of video hits to emphasize the impact of the policy. A judge stopped enforcement of the order with a temporary restraining order, and the administration then lost a chance to win an appeal because of the disorganized approach to the defense of the executive order. That policy remains on hold, whereas someone more acquainted with the pitfalls of governance would have seen those attacks coming and been prepared to meet them.

That seems fairly obvious, but it still isn’t obvious enough:

Voters are likely to keep giving Trump the benefit of the doubt. They want to believe in the businessman model of governance. If Trump delivers on his promises while learning his lessons on the best way to achieve them, he’ll sail to another term in office. If not, it may be a long time before we hear anyone seriously suggesting that government should be run like a business by someone outside of the system.

That may be diving too deep. Trump just wanted to vent and his base wanted him to vent. He did just that, but Josh Marshall sees the danger in that:

This man is not emotionally or characterologically equipped to serve as President. He lacks the focus, the ability to commit to even a passable amount of work without immediate emotional gratification – thus his decision to hold a campaign rally in Florida on Saturday. (It’s literally a campaign event, put on by his 2020 reelection campaign). Trump lacks the emotional resilience or toughness to deal with what is the inevitable criticism and difficulties of being President, which – let’s be clear – are great.

These different deficits all feed upon each other. He lacks the steadiness for the job.

And that’s new:

There are credible reports of Richard Nixon being in this sort of state in the final weeks of his presidency. But Nixon, to give him his due, was at the center of the greatest political scandal in American history, bearing down on him for months and pushing him toward the greatest political disgrace and humiliation in his nation’s political history. He was overseeing the Vietnam War, witnessing various domestic civil disturbances, grappling with foreign policy blowups which neared superpower confrontations. There was a lot going on. Trump has been President for less than four weeks. Aside from domestic, media driven and other crises of his own making, virtually nothing has happened.

But the man who just appeared before the press for a free-ranging airing of grievances looked tired, sullen and half broken. His bracing insistence that everything is going perfectly in his White House sounded desperate and bizarre.

Perhaps he was desperate and bizarre, but the press did get their one big wish – an actual press conference. They got to ask their questions. They got their answers, but be careful what you ask for. You may get it. You may be sorry, and there will be forty-seven more months of this.

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Sources and Methods

It wasn’t fake news. On an odd Tuesday filled with odd news, Donald Trump did fire his rabidly aggressive national security advisor, Michael Flynn, just after the CIA and FBI and all the rest leaked to the press that this guy had lied about how close he was to the Russians and they could easily blackmail him. They had the goods on the guy.

Trump seems to have sat on the information for three weeks, and still says Flynn did nothing wrong, really. But he let him go. But it wasn’t the Russia thing. It was lying to the vice president and the chief of staff and the press secretary about his chats with the Russians. They went out and said that Flynn never talked to the Russians about Obama’s sanctions for messing with our election, and he never hinted to the Russians that those would be lifted soon enough. He had. Pence and Priebus and Spencer were hung out to dry – so Trump cut Flynn lose, not that what he had done was wrong. It was the lies. He screwed those three guys. It was a matter of trust.

That solved that problem, but it didn’t, because the CIA and FBI and all the rest – the intelligence community – would have its revenge:

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s access to classified information was suspended, the Defense Intelligence Agency said Wednesday, pending a review of his compliance with “applicable security clearance directives.”

James Kudla, a public affairs officer for the Defense Intelligence Agency, told Talking Points Memo by phone Wednesday that Flynn’s access to classified information had been suspended pending further review.

Kudla said such a suspension took place when there were questions as to whether “an individual is in compliance with applicable security clearance directives,” but did not go into further detail…

Kudla said on the phone that such a suspension was “purely administrative” and did not “presage” any other action.

No, it did not presage anything. It sent a message. James Clapper and Obama fired this guy. Trump had to fire this guy. He was once good at this intelligence stuff and then he lost it. He went off the deep end, and now he can say, with his odd pride in saying what no one else would say – that Islam is not a religion and all the rest – that he was fired by two presidents in row. He may see that as a badge of honor – he probably will – but the message from the intelligence community to Donald Trump is clear. What the hell were you thinking?

That’s the question that worries them. Late Wednesday night, the Wall Street Journal published another bombshell story alleging that, according to “current and former intelligence] officials” they contacted, the intelligence community has been withholding sensitive intelligence from President Trump:

In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.

A White House official said: “There is nothing that leads us to believe that this is an accurate account of what is actually happening.”

How would they know? They were not given sources and methods, so they don’t know what they don’t know, but maybe they didn’t need to know – and maybe there’s a reason this happened. In late January, someone burned our sources:

Ever since American intelligence agencies accused Russia of trying to influence the American election, there have been questions about the proof they had to support the accusation.

But the news from Moscow may explain how the agencies could be so certain that it was the Russians who hacked the email of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Two Russian intelligence officers who worked on cyberoperations and a Russian computer security expert have been arrested and charged with treason for providing information to the United States, according to multiple Russian news reports.

Someone here who had been briefed on sources and methods knew their names, and then Putin knew their names. We can never use those assets again. No one knows if this was the work of Michael Flynn, doing a little horsetrading with his Russian contacts, but now no one in the White House will be briefed on sources and methods – better safe than sorry:

As in most espionage cases, the details made public so far are incomplete, and some rumors in Moscow suggest that those arrested may be scapegoats in an internal power struggle over the hacking. Russian media reports link the charges to the disclosure of the Russian role in attacking state election boards, including the scanning of voter rolls in Arizona and Illinois, and do not mention the parallel attacks on the DNC and the email of John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman.

But one current and one former United States official, speaking about the classified recruitments on condition of anonymity, confirmed that human sources in Russia did play a crucial role in proving who was responsible for the hacking.

The former official said the agencies were initially reluctant to disclose their certainty about the Russian role for fear of setting off a mole hunt in Moscow.

Now they’ll never disclose the details of their certainty about anything. There’s always a Michael Flynn out there, and John Cassidy adds the necessary context:

On Wednesday, standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House press conference, Donald Trump blamed the press, the intelligence agencies, and Hillary Clinton for the ouster of Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser.

“Michael Flynn, General Flynn, is wonderful man,” Trump said, after a reporter asked about Flynn. “I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it’s really a sad thing he was treated so badly.” Trump went on, “Papers are being leaked. Things are being leaked. It’s a criminal act. And it’s been going on for a long time before me, but now it’s really going on. People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”

Cassidy notes the obvious deflection:

It looks like what actually happened is that the White House, in an effort to quell the growing furor over the President’s ties to Russia, offered up Flynn as a fall guy. It’s an open secret that Flynn didn’t have many allies in the West Wing. It’s also been reported that he had tensions with James Mattis, the Defense Secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State. Over the past few weeks, in fact, it has sometimes seemed like Flynn’s only defender in the Administration was Trump, who had valued his loyalty during the bruising Presidential campaign.

But, when it comes to fending off threats to the President (any President), friendships and loyalties take second place to political necessity. Over the weekend, it was clear that some Republicans on Capitol Hill were getting increasingly concerned about the Flynn/Russia stories and the larger questions they raised. It wasn’t just the usual Trump antagonists – John McCain and Lindsey Graham – who made noise; it was loyal party stalwarts such as Bob Corker, John Cornyn, and Roy Blunt. With GOP members of this ilk going wobbly, it was essential for the White House to respond. That meant that Flynn had to go.

That’s cynical in the way that cynicism is often just the cold hard truth. But that’s not the whole story:

The only new twist was the allegation that some of them – the government officials who’d leaked the Flynn story to the press – were also breaking the law. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” Trump tweeted, on Wednesday morning. “Very un-American!”

This was nothing more or less than a McCarthyite smear. “By oath, intelligence officials’ first duty is to ‘defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,'” Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative and Republican congressional aide, who ran for President last year as an independent, pointed out on Twitter.

In the cases of Flynn and the Trump campaign aides who reportedly were intercepted speaking numerous times with Russian intelligence agents, a case can be made that the leaks were driven primarily by alarm about the possible infiltration and subversion of the US political system. In other words, the leakers were motivated by patriotism, not politics. To quote another of McMullin’s tweets – “So, the real scandal isn’t that the President of the United States of America appears to have been co-opted by America’s greatest adversary?”

That is the problem here:

The White House will be content if it can confine the Russia inquiries to the congressional intelligence committees, which have already said they will look into Russian hacking. But make no mistake: Trump is facing some dangerous developments, including the sight of Senator Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spelling things out bluntly. “The basic issue is getting to the bottom of what the Russian interference was, and what the relationship was with associates of the Trump effort,” Corker said, appearing on “Morning Joe” on Wednesday. “That is the big elephant in the room that has to be dealt with in the most appropriate way.”

Still, where there is a problem, there is a solution:

President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview.

The possible role for Stephen A. Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management, has met fierce resistance among intelligence officials already on edge because of the criticism the intelligence community has received from Mr. Trump during the campaign and since he became president. On Wednesday, Mr. Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Michael T. Flynn, his national security adviser, whose resignation he requested.

There has been no announcement of Mr. Feinberg’s job, which would be based in the White House, but he recently told his company’s shareholders that he is in discussions to join the Trump administration. He is a member of Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council.

Mr. Feinberg, who has close ties to Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, declined to comment on his possible position. The White House, which is still working out the details of the intelligence review, also would not comment.

So the solution is in the works, and he’s their kind of guy:

Bringing Mr. Feinberg into the administration to conduct the review is seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into a world the White House views with suspicion. But top intelligence officials fear that Mr. Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.

Trump could eventually put him in charge of the CIA or something, and thus fix things:

On an array of issues – including the Iran nuclear deal, the utility of NATO, and how best to combat Islamist militancy – much of the information and analysis produced by American intelligence agencies contradicts the policy positions of the new administration. The divide is starkest when it comes to Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin, whom Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised while dismissing American intelligence assessments that Moscow sought to promote his own candidacy.

Feinberg will get the CIA to prove that Putin in a fine fellow, but that sort of thing hasn’t worked before:

The last time an outsider with no intelligence experience took the job was in the early days of the Reagan administration, when Max Hugel, a businessman who had worked on Mr. Reagan’s campaign, was named to run the spy service. His tenure at the CIA was marked by turmoil and questions about the politicization of the agency. He was forced to resign after six months, amid accusations about his past business dealings.

That could be a problem here:

Cerberus also owns Remington Outdoor, a major firearms manufacturer.

In 2008, Mr. Feinberg also considered investing in Blackwater, the security firm founded by Erik Prince, a former member of the Navy SEALs, before it was ultimately acquired by other investors.

New York magazine reported last year that Mr. Feinberg went to Blackwater’s North Carolina compound in 2005 to take firearms training.

Now, Feinberg’s Cerberus owns the renamed Blackwater:

Academi is an American private military company founded in 1997 by former Navy SEAL officer Erik Prince as Blackwater, renamed as XE Services in 2009 and now known as Academi since 2011 after the company was acquired by a group of private investors. The company received widespread notoriety in 2007, when a group of its employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 in Nisour Square, Baghdad for which four guards were convicted in a United States court.

Just like Blackwater, Academi provides security services to the United States federal government on a contractual basis – and their guys with guns don’t have to follow the rules. That was the problem in Baghdad ten years ago. They killed all those civilians. There was outrage. Then more than a few of our real soldiers died. Oops. Everyone should follow the rules.

Donald Trump doesn’t think that way, but Michael Crowley argues that Trump isn’t solving the underlying problem:

A barrage of damning revelations about contacts between Donald Trump’s associates and Russian officials threatens to derail his plans for a closer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Growing political pressure on Trump to stand up to Putin rather than work with him could even escalate tensions between the United States and Russia to dangerous levels.

U.S. officials, Russia experts and Kremlin officials are all lowering their expectations for a thaw in relations after the ouster of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn…

Trump may now be forced to play the tough guy, and things get dicey:

“It feels to a lot of us like something’s off” about the Trump team’s thinking on Moscow, said one career government official whose duties include Russia.

But, the official added: “After the past 48 hours, I think it’s unlikely they’re going to push this hard anytime soon.”

The president also has found that congressional Republicans are not as warm to the idea of a closer relationship with Putin.

“Russia is not our friend,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Wednesday…

“The big issue right now is dealing with this Russia issue, making sure that it doesn’t destabilize our ability to move ahead as a country,” Corker added.

This will not go well:

“Trump will find it difficult to do anything that looks like he is reaching out to Russia without sparking a firestorm about what his real intentions are, whether he’s trying to sell out American interest,” said Thomas Graham, a former top Russia official in George W. Bush’s White House.

“The relationship was dangerous before because of the lack of communication. But even more so now if Trump concludes that he needs to overcompensate,” Graham said.

And, on the other side, Josh Marshall has been following the official Russian press:

Russian government officials say President Trump is the target of an information war and a purge of pro-Russian officials on a part with the Great Terror of the 1930s when Stalin purged vast numbers of party officials and military officers. No, I’m not kidding.

Nikolai Kovalev, former head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB told Interfax: “This is disinformation. There’s an information war against Trump in which, as we can see, all means are [considered] necessary. These political games will continue as long as anti-Russian sentiment has a serious presence in the American establishment.”

Leonid Slutsky lamented that Trump may turn out to be pro-American rather than pro-Russian. Russia had “decided too soon, for all our unconditional sympathy to President Trump’s constructive rhetoric, he’s pro-Russian in some way – he’s pro-American.”

They aren’t happy with that, but Trump isn’t happy either:

President Donald Trump blamed “conspiracy theories and blind hatred” – and an attempt to “cover-up” for Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign – in a series of tweets Wednesday morning as he tried to distance himself from any links to Russia.

Trump tweeted that the “fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred,” and added that “this Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”

In short, blame Hillary, and stop talking:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday ignored shouted questions about his administration’s reported ties to Russia.

During a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House, Trump took two questions from U.S. media outlets about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Iran nuclear deal.

Neither of those questions centered on Russia – the biggest issue this week that ultimately led to the resignation of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who served less than 30 days at the post.

When CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to ask Trump about Flynn, the president smiled, thanked the audience and walked away.

He’s not taking questions from the likes of CNN:

Wednesday’s event marked the third straight press conference where reporters were not able to ask the president about the biggest issue of the day. Trump has mostly called on friendlier outlets in the conservative space: The New York Post, Fox News, Sinclair’s ABC7, The Daily Caller, Christian Broadcasting Network and

He’s freezing out CNN and MSNBC and CBS and the majors, everyone major network but Fox News, and the Washington Post and the New York Times and all the rest, so they’ll have nothing to report. Good luck with that. Now they’ll be eager to find lots to report.

He’ll shut down or at least tame the intelligence community too, with his New York billionaire buddy, but there are always workarounds. In Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald reports that US allies in Western Europe have been conducting intelligence operations against the United States for months:

Sources said the interceptions include at least one contact between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a Russian official based in the United States…

The sources said the intercepted communications are not just limited to telephone calls: The foreign agency is also gathering electronic and human source information on Trump’s overseas business partners, at least some of whom the intelligence services now consider to be agents of their respective governments.

Moreover, a Baltic nation is gathering intelligence on officials in the Trump White House and executives with the president’s company, the Trump Organization, out of concern that an American policy shift toward Russia could endanger its sovereignty, according to a third person with direct ties to that nation’s government…

These operations reflect a serious breakdown in the long-standing faith in the direction of American policy by some of the country’s most important allies. Worse, the United States is now in a situation that may be unprecedented – where European governments know more about what is going on in the executive branch than any elected American official.

Well, someone has to check on what’s really going on, even if they don’t tell us:

The information gathered by the Western European government has been widely shared among the NATO allies, although it is not clear how much has been provided to American intelligence officials.

That’s a bit distressing, but we might as well get used to being in the dark, if we can:

The number of Americans stressed about the election and its aftermath has risen sharply, according to a report released Wednesday.

The American Psychological Association (APA) poll, conducted between Jan. 4-19, revealed that 57% of adult Americans consider the current political climate to be a significant source of stress. That’s up from 52% of Americans who felt the same in August. Americans also felt increasingly more stressed, with people on average reporting that their stress levels rose from 4.8 to 5.1 (out of 10) between August and January. The increase is the fastest rise on record since the APA’s Stress in America survey first began in 2007, the report stated.

There’s only one answer to that:

“For many, the transition of power and the speed of change can cause uncertainty and feelings of stress, and that stress can have health consequences. If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption,” Katherine Nordal, APA’s executive director for professional practice, said in a statement. “Read enough to stay informed but then plan activities that give you a regular break from the issues and the stress they might cause. And remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to other areas of your life.”

Everyone has their sources and methods.

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Adventures in Crisis Management

There’s a reason that once you get past the odd childproof cap on your little bottle of Tylenol there’s that foil safety seal to get through, even if you are in pain. In 1982 someone was slipping cyanide into a few of the capsules. Three people in Chicago died, and then a few others. Johnson and Johnson had to do something, and they did that, and now everyone does that. The clever cap and the safety seal were expensive but that made them the good guys, and then the leader in consumer safety. The initial cost, in millions of dollars, was worth it, and now they sell tons of that stuff. In business schools they use this as a case study in effective crisis management, and now there are consulting firms that specialize in nothing but crisis management.

Those consultants are necessary. Two years ago the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain didn’t seem to use them – their “fresh” ingredients made a lot of people sick, and promising to do better and a few freebies impressed no one. They’re still recovering, and then there’s Ralph Nader. The Ford Pinto, with the gas tank just behind the rear bumper, is long gone. The cars exploded. Ford gave up, and Chevrolet redesigned their original Corvair, which tended to swap ends on slick roads, but no one would buy the new one, which didn’t. They didn’t explain things well enough. Ralph had. The key to effective crisis management is demonstrating, without question, that you’re the good guy here – perhaps sorry for your mistakes but more than willing to fix things at any cost. Be humble, but be aggressive. You’re the good guy. You always were.

Donald Trump should know such things. They teach crisis management at Warton. He went there, but he only seemed to have picked up the aggressive part of effective crisis management, not the humble part. He fired his rabidly aggressive national security advisor, Mike Flynn, when the CIA and FBI and all the rest leaked to the press that this guy had lied about how close he was to the Russians and they could easily blackmail him. They had the goods on the guy.

That’s a crisis, but Trump seems to have sat on the information for three weeks, and still says Flynn did nothing wrong, really. But he let him go. But it wasn’t the Russia thing. It was lying to the vice president and the chief of staff and the press secretary about his chats with the Russians. They went out and said that Flynn never talked to the Russians about Obama’s sanctions for messing with our election, and he never hinted to them that those would be lifted soon enough. He had. Pence and Priebus and Spencer were hung out to dry – so Trump cut Flynn lose, not that what he had done was wrong. It was the lies. He screwed those three guys. It was a matter of trust.

And that solved the problem, but it didn’t, because the problem wasn’t Flynn. Trump misunderstood the crisis, which Josh Marshall summarizes nicely:

The role of Russia in the 2016 election and the President’s relationship to Russia has been the un-ignorable question hanging over President Trump for months. Flynn’s resignation does not come close to resolving it. It is highly likely that the Flynn/Russia channel was authorized by the President himself. There’s much more to come.

That came the next day in one more blockbuster story from the New York Times:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

Four independent sources saying the same thing isn’t fake news, and this wasn’t good news:

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time that they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. At one point last summer, Mr. Trump said at a campaign event that he hoped Russian intelligence services had stolen Hillary Clinton’s emails and would make them public.

This wasn’t fire, but the smoke was thick, and there were specifics:

The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Russia and Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls…

Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts of the American officials in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.”

Mr. Manafort added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.'”

To borrow a term from the Watergate era, that’s a non-denial denial, and it wasn’t just Manafort:

Two days after the election in November, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy Russian foreign minister, said that “there were contacts” during the campaign between Russian officials and Mr. Trump’s team.

“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Mr. Ryabkov said in an interview with the Russian Interfax news agency.

The Trump transition team denied Mr. Ryabkov’s statement. “This is not accurate,” Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, said at the time.

Now, forget that:

The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the communications between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance. After that, the FBI asked the NSA to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.

The FBI has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.

All of the men have strongly denied they had any improper contacts with Russian officials.

Fine, but now they don’t deny the contacts. You’ll just have to trust them on the propriety of all those conversations. And your Pinto won’t explode.

This is not effective crisis management, and Kevin Drum adds this:

If Trump thought that firing Michael Flynn was going to stop the recent bloodletting, he thought wrong.

Just to make this clear: At the same time that Russian intelligence was hacking various email accounts in order to sabotage Hillary Clinton, multiple members of the Trump team had repeated phone calls with senior Russian intelligence officials. And during this entire time, Trump himself was endorsing a foreign policy that appeared almost as if it had been dictated to him by Vladimir Putin.

As a number of people have pointed out, the American intelligence community has all but declared war on Trump since his inauguration. I hardly need to spell out why this is dangerous. At the same time, it’s sure becoming a lot clearer why they’re so alarmed by the guy.

Drum adds only one other detail:

FBI Director James Comey, who knew all about this, pushed hard not to make it public during the campaign. Instead he considered it more important to inform Congress that he had discovered additional copies of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.

And then he said that was a false alarm – sorry about that – and Clinton was history a few days later.

This was a mess, but messes can be cleaned up, and the Washington post covers how Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, was sent out to do just that:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that it was “highly likely” that the events leading to Flynn’s departure would be added to a broader probe into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election. … McConnell’s comments followed White House revelations that Trump was aware “for weeks” that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and others about the content of his late-December talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

“We’ve been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth,” Spicer said at the daily White House press briefing. He emphasized that an internal White House inquiry had concluded that nothing Flynn discussed with the Russian was illegal but that he had “broken trust” with Trump by not telling the truth about the talks.

When asked whether Trump told Flynn to talk to Kislyak about sanctions, Spicer responded: “No, absolutely not.”

Asked why Trump had waited nearly three weeks to act after what Spicer called a “heads-up” from the Justice Department, he said that once the question of legality was settled, “then it became a phase of determining whether or not [Flynn’s] action on this and a whole host of other issues undermined” Trump’s trust. He declined to specify the “other issues.”

That doesn’t clarify much, and there’s this:

In an interview conducted early Monday and published Tuesday by the Daily Caller, Flynn said that he did not specifically discuss sanctions with Kislyak but rather President Barack Obama’s simultaneous expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. He said he told the ambassador that “we’ll review everything” following Trump’s inauguration.

Current and former U.S. officials have said, however, that much of the conversation was about sanctions and that Flynn suggested that Moscow not respond in kind to the expulsions – advice that Russian President Vladimir Putin took in declining to take retaliatory action.

Putin took his advice, or Trump’s advice, if Trump had told Flynn what he wanted Putin to do, and there’s this:

Although Trump has not publicly mentioned his view of the sanctions, Spicer said that the president “has made it very clear he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea,” even as he hopes to cooperate with Putin on terrorism.

That’s new. During the campaign Trump had said that he understood that the people of Crimea really wanted to be part of Russia – as the Russians had been saying – and that the Russians had never invaded eastern Ukraine at all. He finally did concede they had, reluctantly. Now he’s saying they should stop that nonsense, and get out of Crimea too. Perhaps that’s crisis management. He’s been on the side of Russia far too long.

That’s curious. Perhaps he owes them. His sons did brag about all the Russian money that had financed his amazing projects over all the years. A look at his tax returns would clear that up, but there he has someone else doing the crisis management:

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) said that he will not order the Treasury Department to provide President Donald Trump’s tax returns to his committee.

“If Congress begins to use its powers to rummage around in the tax returns of the President, what prevents Congress from doing the same to average Americans? Privacy and civil liberties are still important rights in this country and the Ways and Means Committee is not going to start to weaken them.”

That’s taking the high road:

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) called on Brady earlier in February to order the Treasury Department to provide 10 years of Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I believe the powerful Ways and Means Committee has the responsibility to use that power to ensure proper oversight of the executive branch by requesting a review of President Trump’s tax returns,” Pascrell wrote.

Brady said in his statement that he disagrees with “all of” Pascrell’s argument.

“I’ve read his letter and I disagree with all of it,” Brady wrote. “That letter misrepresents the legislative intent of that provision, which in fact creates confidentiality and privacy for Americans in their tax returns.”

So now we’ll never know – effective crisis management at work – and there’s this:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said Tuesday that he didn’t think it would be “useful” to investigate conversations between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and a Russian ambassador that led to Flynn’s resignation.

“I think that might be excessive,” Paul said in an interview with “Kilmeade and Friends” first surfaced by CNN’s KFILE.

Paul said that Republicans will “never even get started” with major policy changes like repealing Obamacare if they are focused on investigating their colleagues.

“I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party. We’ll never even get started with doing the things we need to do, like repealing Obamacare, if we’re spending our whole time having Republicans investigate Republicans. I think it makes no sense,” Paul said.

He said that President Donald Trump has apparently “handled the situation…”

That’s an odd sort of crisis management – Obamacare is the real crisis – change the topic.

Josh Marshall suggests we don’t:

We have before us a question that has stood before us, center stage, for something like a year, brazen and shameless and yet too baffling and incredible to believe: Donald Trump’s bizarre and unexplained relationship with Russia and its strongman Vladimir Putin.

It is almost beyond imagining that a National Security Advisor could be forced to resign amidst a counter-intelligence investigation into his communications and ties to a foreign adversary. The National Security Advisor is unique in the national security apparatus. He or she is the organizer, synthesizer and conduit to the President for information from all the various agencies and departments with a role in national security. This person must be able to know everything. The power and trust accorded this person are immeasurable. It is only really comparable to the President. And yet, we are talking about the President. A staffer or appointee can be dismissed. The President is the ultimate constitutional officer.

And that’s the problem:

All the claims about Trump and Russia rely on suppositions which are unproven and hard evidence we don’t have. But the circumstantial evidence, the unexplained actions, the unheard of spectacle of a foreign power subverting a US election while the beneficiary of the interference aggressively and openly makes the case for the culprit, the refusal to make even the most elementary forms of disclosure which could clarify the President’s financial ties – they are so multifaceted and abundant it is almost impossible to believe they are mere random and chance occurrences with no real set of connections behind them.

Step back for a second and look at this. While certainties are hard to come by, it seems clear that Russia broke into computer networks and selectively released private emails to damage Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump. When President Obama took a series of actions to punish the Russian government for this interference, President-Elect Trump’s top foreign policy advisor made a series of calls to the Russian government’s representative in the United States to ask him to have his government refrain from retaliation and suggested that the punishments could be lifted once the new government was sworn in. Then he lied about the calls both publicly and apparently within the White House. What has gotten lost in this discussion is that these questionable calls were aimed at blunting the punishment meted out for the election interference that helped Donald Trump become President. This is mind-boggling.

And there’s this:

Through the course of the campaign, transition and presidency, three top Trump advisors and staffers have had to resign because of issues tied to Russia – Paul Manafort, Carter Page and now Michael Flynn. Page might arguably be termed a secondary figure. Manafort ran Trump’s campaign and Flynn was his top foreign policy advisor for a year. The one common denominator between all these events, all these men is one person: Donald Trump…

This has all been happening before our eyes, the train of inexplicable actions, the unaccountable ties and monetary connections, the willful, almost inexplicable need to make the case for Vladimir Putin even when the President knows the suspicion he’s under. When I was writing my first post on this topic more than six months ago, I had the uncanny feeling of finding what I was writing impossible to believe as I wrote it. And yet, I would go through the list of unexplained occurrences and actions, clear business and political connections, sycophantic support and more and realize there was too much evidence to ignore. It was fantastical and yet in plain sight.

That’s where we still are. There is a huge amount we don’t know. We don’t know the big answers. But to use the language of the criminal law, there’s probable cause to have a real investigation. Not a rush to judgment, but an investigation.

That would be nice, but it’s more than that:

There is so much smoke that you could choke on it. It’s time to find out what Donald Trump’s relationship is to Russia, his and his associates’ contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, whatever business ties there might be. If you were Vladimir Putin you could not have done more to help the cause of Donald Trump. And if you were Trump, you could not have done more in actions and statements to repay the favor. The only question is whether the trajectory of perfectly interlocked actions was simply chance or tacit.

And meanwhile on CNN:

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) said Tuesday that it would be “the definition of treason” if members of President Donald Trump’s administration are “conspiring with Russia.”

“If members of the administration are essentially conspiring with Russia either through the campaign earlier or now in the administration itself, I mean, look, Wolf, that’s the definition of treason,” Moulton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

“Let me just be precise on this. You’re throwing out a huge word, treason. Explain exactly what your concern is,” Blitzer said.

“The definition of treason is putting the interests of our enemy ahead of our own,” Moulton replied. “It seems like there’s a lot of evidence that there are members of the administration who are more concerned about Russia’s goals than our own.”

There will be more of that. That’s the crisis that Trump must manage, the cyanide in the Tylenol capsule, although Eli Lake is now talking about The Political Assassination of Michael Flynn:

It’s possible that Flynn has more ties to Russia that he had kept from the public and his colleagues. It’s also possible that a group of national security bureaucrats and former Obama officials are selectively leaking highly sensitive law enforcement information to undermine the elected government.

Flynn was a fat target for the national security state. He has cultivated a reputation as a reformer and a fierce critic of the intelligence community leaders he once served with when he was the director the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama. Flynn was working to reform the intelligence-industrial complex, something that threatened the bureaucratic prerogatives of his rivals…

Representative Devin Nunes [the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee] told me Monday night that this will not end well. “First it’s Flynn, next it will be Kellyanne Conway, then it will be Steve Bannon, then it will be Reince Priebus,” he said. Put another way, Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.

The hidden shadow government, the “national security state” that has nothing to do with the people, or democracy, is taking over. It’s a military/intelligence coup. It’s the end of America. Wake up, people!

Two weeks earlier it was Paul Sperry in the New York Post:

When former President Barack Obama said he was “heartened” by anti-Trump protests, he was sending a message of approval to his troops. Troops? Yes, Obama has an army of agitators – numbering more than 30,000 – who will fight his Republican successor at every turn of his historic presidency. And Obama will command them from a bunker less than two miles from the White House.

In what’s shaping up to be a highly unusual post-presidency, Obama isn’t just staying behind in Washington. He’s working behind the scenes to set up what will effectively be a shadow government to not only protect his threatened legacy, but to sabotage the incoming administration and its popular “America First” agenda.

He’s doing it through a network of leftist nonprofits led by Organizing for Action. Normally you’d expect an organization set up to support a politician and his agenda to close up shop after that candidate leaves office, but not Obama’s OFA. Rather, it’s gearing up for battle, with a growing war chest and more than 250 offices across the country…

Far from sulking, OFA activists helped organize anti-Trump marches across US cities, some of which turned into riots. After Trump issued a temporary ban on immigration from seven terror-prone Muslim nations, the demonstrators jammed airports, chanting: “No ban, no wall, sanctuary for all!”

Yes, wake up:

Obama will be overseeing it all from a shadow White House located within two miles of Trump. It features a mansion, which he’s fortifying with construction of a tall brick perimeter, and a nearby taxpayer-funded office with his own chief of staff and press secretary. Michelle Obama will also open an office there, along with the Obama Foundation.

That’s another odd sort of crisis management – forget Trump and Russia – Obama is plotting a coup.

Of course the best form of crisis management is to be bold, even if you can’t be humble. Trump could come out and just say that yes, he did make a deal with Putin and the Russian intelligence services. They get him elected and he gives them Ukraine and Crimea and perhaps the Baltic States. He could say he makes deals, and he always wins, and he is president. He won big. We should be in awe of him. This was a masterpiece.

That could happen. The key to effective crisis management is demonstrating, without question, that you’re the good guy, and everyone loves a winner. Then we all take a lot of Tylenol.

Posted in Trump and Russia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Flynn No More

There are things that no one is supposed to know, and that no one knows. Russia has spies, America has spies, everyone has spies – but no one knows who they are or what they do or have done. There’s only pop culture. James Bond was manly (Sean Connery) and then he was an impeccably dressed witty fop (Roger Moore) and then he was a nasty cynical killer-for-the-good-guys (Daniel Craig) – and in the movies made from the Tom Clancy books, the CIA guys are superbly informed and devastatingly efficient technocrats, and brave too. Harrison Ford took care of the Irish terrorists and then the Columbia drug lords in two successive movies. In the Jason Bourne movies, however, the guys at the CIA and NSA and all the rest are nasty folks who break all the rules, who have decided that they answer to no one, and are out to kill Matt Damon, one of their projects gone wrong, or gone right, depending on your point of view. And then there’s real life. Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent and then ran the place – a ruthless stone-cold nationalist. Donald Trump likes him a lot. That may be the reason.

That may be nonsense. Last month. in the Observer, John Schindler looked into the real stuff going on:

Donald Trump’s aggressive comments about American spies – mocking them and comparing them to Nazis on Twitter, for example – have generated unprecedented enmity in our Intelligence Community. Going to war with the IC is a bad idea for any new administration, particularly given the new commander-in-chief’s rumored links to Vladimir Putin, which are keeping American spies up at night.

It’s not just Washington that’s worried. Throughout the Western spy alliance, intelligence agencies are pondering the previously unthinkable: Is the American president compromised? On several occasions over the decades, the IC had to reduce spy-links, usually only temporarily, to various partners when a new government contained too many cabinet ministers with Moscow linkages. Now the shoe is on the other foot and it’s the American government that seems to have a Kremlin problem.

Just how alarming things are was revealed by a recent report in The Times of London that British intelligence has asked the IC for reassurances that the new administration – which has several officials with Kremlin ties that aren’t exactly hidden – won’t compromise British spies operating clandestinely inside Russia. When America’s oldest and most intimate intelligence partner is worried that the White House can’t be trusted with secrets, we’re in uncharted and dangerous waters.

It seems that our intelligence folks have mentioned to the Brits and the Israelis, and others, and they might want to be careful about what they have found out that they might want to share with us – it might end up in Moscow in an hour. Our folks can guarantee nothing at the moment. The situation is fluid.

Schindler is at it again now, with The Spy Revolt Against Trump Begins:

A new report by CNN indicates that important parts of the infamous spy dossier that professed to shed light on President Trump’s shady Moscow ties have been corroborated by communications intercepts… SIGINT [signals intelligence, the stuff we get electronically] confirms that some of the non-salacious parts of what Steele reported, in particular how senior Russian officials conspired to assist Trump in last year’s election, are substantially based in fact.

Christopher Steele is the former MI6 agent (a real James Bond from the real MI6) that they’ve worked with before and trust, so this is not surprising:

Our spies have had enough of these shady Russian connections and they are starting to push back… In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move.

They have their reasons:

What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.

Kevin Drum follows such things and adds this:

“Inside” reporting about the intelligence community is notoriously unreliable, so take this with a grain of salt. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. But just the fact that stuff like this is getting a respectful public hearing is damning all by itself. For any other recent president, a report like this would be dismissed as nonsense without a second thought. But for Trump, it seems plausible enough to take seriously.

Well, if our guys are a bit put out that the Russians know so much about what is said in the Situation Room, immediately, there might be a reason, and that might explain this:

Michael Flynn, the national security adviser to President Trump, resigned late Monday over revelations about his potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and his misleading statements about the matter to senior Trump administration officials.

Flynn stepped down amid mounting pressure on the Trump administration to account for its false statements about Flynn’s conduct after The Washington Post reported Monday that the Justice Department had warned the White House last month that Flynn had so mischaracterized his communications with the Russian diplomat that he might be vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.

In a letter to Trump, Flynn said he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president.”

That’s not the whole story, because the Washington Post had the scoop:

The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.

The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice ­President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.

The Trump administration had known about this for a month, but the Post’s scoop forced their hand on what was essentially hidden old news:

In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House. They feared that “Flynn had put himself in a compromising position” and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled, according to one of the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that “we’ve been working on this for weeks.”

But there’s a kicker:

The current and former officials said that although they believed that Pence was misled about the contents of Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador, they couldn’t rule out that Flynn was acting with the knowledge of others in the transition.

So, did Trump tell Flynn to assure the Russians things would be just fine for them in the new Trump years? No one knows, but this has been going on for quite some time:

Flynn told The Post earlier this month that he first met [Russian Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak in 2013, when Flynn was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and made a trip to Moscow.

U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, officials said. Communications between the two continued after Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, according to officials with access to intelligence reports on the matter.

Kislyak, in a brief interview with The Post, confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, but he declined to say what was discussed.

All the leaks from the DNC that ruined things for Hillary Clinton, that all of our intelligence agencies say they can prove were the work of the Russians, might make sense now, as the work of Flynn under the direction of Trump. That’s possible but only implied, as this developed slowly:

For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec. 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlin’s interference in the election in an attempt to help Trump.

After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.

Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.

From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.

Something was fishy. They didn’t know what, but something had to be done:

The internal debate over how to handle the intelligence on Flynn and Kislyak came to a head on Jan. 19, Obama’s last full day in office.

Yates, Clapper and Brennan argued for briefing the incoming administration so the new president could decide how to deal with the matter. The officials discussed options, including telling Pence, the incoming White House counsel, the incoming chief of staff, or Trump himself.

FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed notification, citing concerns that it could complicate the agency’s investigation.

Clapper and Brennan left their positions when Trump was sworn in, but Yates stayed on as acting attorney general until Jan. 30, when Trump fired her for refusing to defend his executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries – an action that had been challenged in court.

But firing her, for an unrelated reason, didn’t fix things:

A turning point came after Jan. 23, when [Press Secretary Sean] Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue “again last night.” There was just “one call,” Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation.

Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House. Yates and the senior career national security official spoke to McGahn, the White House counsel, who didn’t respond Monday to a request for comment.

Trump has declined to publicly back his national security adviser after the news broke.

And then he accepted his resignation.

The New York Times has more:

In addition, the Army has been investigating whether Mr. Flynn received money from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015, according to two defense officials. Such a payment might violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without consent from Congress. The defense officials said there was no record that Mr. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, filed the required paperwork for the trip.

That was some trip:

During his 2015 trip to Moscow, Mr. Flynn was paid to attend the anniversary celebration of Russia Today, a television network controlled by the Kremlin. At the banquet, he sat next to Mr. Putin.

Mr. Flynn had notified the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he once led, that he was taking the trip. He received a security briefing from agency officials before he left, which is customary for former top agency officials when they travel overseas.

Still, some senior agency officials were surprised when footage of the banquet appeared on RT, and believed that Mr. Flynn should have been more forthcoming with the agency about the nature of his trip to Russia.

Flynn leading the standing ovation for Putin was a bit much too, but all will be well:

One person close to the administration who was not authorized to discuss the personnel moves and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that retired Vice Admiral Robert S. Harward is the leading candidate to replace Mr. Flynn, although Mr. Kellogg [that would be retired Lt. Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg Jr. who was under Flynn] and David H. Petraeus are being discussed. It was not clear whether Mr. Petraeus is still expected to appear at the White House this week, as initially discussed by advisers to the president.

The smart money is on Harward, a protégé of “Mad Dog” Mattis, the new defense secretary, who is a stable and quite sane fellow. Harward is also sensible. Petraeus, however, pled guilty to sharing highly classified information with his mistress, who was writing a glowing biography of him. Petraeus is brilliant, and measured, but he’d need a court waiver to handle classified material again. Trump doesn’t need more trouble.

And Trump wasn’t in the dark in all this, as Josh Marshall argues:

President Trump is in a unique position. He doesn’t have to guess or cultivate intelligence sources. The FBI and the CIA work for him. What we learned on Thursday night was that there are transcripts of at least one of these conversations and they directly contradict Flynn’s denials. He did discuss the sanctions. This information has been available to President Trump since he became President on the 21st. He could have gotten it from FBI Director Comey or possibly from CIA Director Pompeo after he was confirmed on the 23rd. I should note I’m not sure whether these transcripts were only with the FBI or also with the CIA. There are rules about which agencies can scrutinize intelligence collected in the US or on US citizens. But I’m not certain just how they apply in this, shall we say, rather unique situation. In any case, this information was available to President Trump.

Why didn’t he get it? Why wasn’t he told?

Now, one might speculate that Flynn told Trump one thing, Trump believed him and Flynn is Trump’s conduit to most national security related information. So perhaps Trump didn’t know who to ask or didn’t think there was any need to ask. This is conceivable. Maybe. But the stream of leaks is people in law enforcement and the intelligence worlds trying to get this information out. I don’t think it would have been hard for President Trump to find this stuff out.

But there’s a much simpler explanation to all of this – one that does a much better job making sense of the Transition’s and then the White House’s weird indifference to all these leaks: President Trump knew that Flynn was in touch with the Russian Ambassador, not just about the calls on December 29th but the ones before the election too. Remember that when President Putin said he would not retaliate for the sanctions, the day after Obama imposed them, Trump went on Twitter and said how he’d always known Putin was smart.

Now that we know that Trump’s top foreign policy advisor was on the phone with the Russian Ambassador the day before suggesting that Russia not overact but wait for Trump to be sworn in, does this read like someone who was involved in sending that message? I would say so.

That’s not a certainty, but connect the dots:

Flynn has been a close advisor to Trump since the spring of 2016. Trump has consistently championed closer relations with Russia through the campaign. The subject of Russia came up repeatedly in the final months of the campaign as it became increasingly clear that Russia was involved in the hacking campaign against the Democrats. Does it seem likely that Flynn kept his communications with the Russian Ambassador secret from Trump this whole time? To me, it seems highly unlikely.

Again, we have no proof of this. But in all the conversations about Flynn’s fate I see very little discussion about whether he did what he did at the President’s behest and with his knowledge. That seems odd since it seems like by far the most likely explanation.

Consider another part of this. We’ve known about these calls for a month. There has been no word from the President about whether he knew about the Flynn/Russia channel. There’s been no word from the President since February 9th when we had the first definitive reports that Flynn discussed sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak on the day President Obama imposed them.

The Flynn drama is interesting. But whether he lied to Vice President Pence is maybe the 20th most consequential part of this story. What did Flynn do? What did he tell Trump? What did Trump do? These are very pressing questions.

Marshall then adds this:

The role of Russia in the 2016 election and the President’s relationship to Russia has been the un-ignorable question hanging over President Trump for months. Flynn’s resignation does not come close to resolving it. It is highly likely that the Flynn/Russia channel was authorized by the President himself. There’s much more to come.

That’s a bit of an understatement. Trump may continue his unrelenting praise of Vladimir Putin – not one bad word ever – but this complicates that. Flynn seems to have been their man in Washington, their mole, unless Trump had been fine with that, until all hell broke loose as this Great Spy Revolt against Trump began. John Schindler was right. Don’t mess with the intelligence community. They’ll win. They always do – and Flynn is gone.

Donald Trump could be next. There’s now a way to force the release of his tax returns – his sons did brag about all the Russian money that had financed his amazing projects over all the years. That might worry him, but the real worry is in Moscow. Putin, that ruthless stone-cold nationalist, lost an asset, as they say in the trade – and this isn’t a James Bond movie.

Posted in Michael Flynn, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


Anyone who has taught high school English has had problem students – the smart-ass, the brooding potential psychopath, or the class clown, or the rebel, with or without a cause, but usually without a cause. Anyone who has taught high school English at a prep school – think Dead Poets Society – has had those too, with an extra dimension – a sense of privilege. Those kids think they have a right to be a pain in the ass. The family money gives them that right. There is a ruling class. They’re part of it, although they might not put it that way. They just sense it. They’ll be fine. They can say what they want – and they’ll go through life being a pain in the ass. Who is going to call them out? Those who might call them out don’t really matter. They’re nobody.

Six years of that, a long time ago, was enough. It was time to leave teaching and move to California. There’s very little “old money” out here. There’s very little old anything, actually, but, oddly, there is a sense of privilege. California kids know they’re cool, because they’re in California. Everyone else is stuck in places that don’t matter – with no surfing or skateboards or anything else. Blame the Beach Boys. There’s something in the air. High school kids out here can be a pain in the ass too. They’ll go through life being a pain in the ass.

Some of them end up in government. Santa Monica north of Montana – exclusive and expensive – to Santa Monica High School and then to Duke University and then to this morning on national television – “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will NOT be questioned!”

Yea, the California kid said that. He was probably the kid in US Government who argued that Jefferson really wanted a theocracy, and he still has an odd concept of the separation of powers:

White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller said on Sunday that President Donald Trump’s authority to impose an executive order temporarily barring visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States is “beyond question.”

“The President’s powers here are beyond question,” Miller said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

He said that the federal appeals court that upheld a stay on the executive order “has a long history of being overturned and overreaching” and that the government is “pursuing every single possible action” to counter it.

And it wasn’t just Fox News:

“A district judge in Seattle cannot make immigration law for the United States, cannot give foreign nationals and foreign countries rights they do not have, and cannot prevent the President of the United States from suspending the admission of refugees from Syria,” Miller said Sunday in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“What the judges did, both at the 9th and at the district level, was to take power for themselves that belonged squarely in the hands of the President of the United States,” he said.

Miller said that there is “no such thing as judicial supremacy.”

“We’ve heard a lot of talk about how all the branches of government are equal,” Miller said. “That’s the point. They are equal. There’s no such thing as judicial supremacy.”

Yes there is – Marbury-Madison settled that in 1803 – the role of the judicial branch is to look at the Constitution and tell the legislative branch that a law they passed breaks the rules, when it does, and to tell the executive branch the same sort of thing, when appropriate. The president has to follow the rules too. The rules are right there in the Constitution, as amended. The three branches of government are equal, but they do three different things – one makes laws, one executes laws, and one makes sure everyone’s playing by the rules.

This is simple stuff. It’s covered in high school. It was probably covered at Santa Monica High, but as Lisa Mascaro explains in the Los Angeles Times, things were strange there:

Too-cool-for-school upper-class students at Santa Monica High scoffed when administrators in 2002 reinstated a daily recitation of the pledge of allegiance.

Most students in the liberal enclave slouched in their chairs and chatted over the morning ritual, which was widely viewed as a throwback to an American patriotism that seemed outdated in the multicultural mash-up of L.A.’s Westside.

Not Stephen Miller. Every day, the student body’s best-known and least-liked conservative activist stood at his desk, put his hand over his heart and declared his love of country.

He was a bit of a patriot-provocateur:

As he was finding his voice at Santa Monica High, Miller bemoaned the school’s Spanish-language announcements, the colorful festivals of minority cultures, and the decline, as he saw it, of a more traditional version of American education.

Yet that robust progressive tradition nurtured Miller’s rise, teaching him how to fight for his beliefs, even if it meant he had to stand alone, in his tennis shorts and polo shirts, as he often did.

That’s an odd image, but it served him well:

After graduating, Miller went on to Duke University and found himself on the far right of the GOP. He landed a job on Capitol Hill with then-Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and later with Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama conservative and next likely attorney general who relied on the young conservative to help him defeat immigration reform in 2013. Miller also came into the orbit of Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon and eventually Trump’s campaign, for which Miller became a trusted advisor and often served as a warm-up act at big rallies.

And it all started out here:

It was the picturesque campus blocks from the Pacific Ocean where Miller engaged in his first political battles: in the classroom, where teachers didn’t know what to do with him; at the school newspaper, where he wrote an op-ed, “A Time to Kill,” supporting the Iraq War; at district offices, where he tangled with administrators.

Oscar de la Torre, a former counselor and now school board member who sparred publicly with the young student, recalled the frustrations of working with the teenage Miller on a district committee that was scrutinizing the community fundraising imbalance between wealthier and poorer campuses.

“Early on in life, he was on a crusade against liberalism and liberals,” said De La Torre, who grew up in Santa Monica’s historically Latino and African American Pico neighborhood and graduated a decade before Miller. “He just didn’t buy it. He didn’t believe the oppression existed. This guy is 17 years old, and it’s like listening to someone who’s 70 years old – in the 1930s.”

Trump is seventy years old, and America’s best-known and least-liked (sort of) conservative, and it seems like that late thirties again, but Miller is a special case:

Santa Monica was experiencing growing pains as Miller came of age at the start of the 21st century. The city was transforming from a laid-back coastal community of rundown rent-controlled apartments into an upscale celebrity and tourist mecca. But it still suffered from entrenched working-class poverty and on-again, off-again gang violence.

Samohi [the school’s nickname out here] – the city’s biggest public high school – served as a laboratory for addressing the clash between cultures and rising income inequality.

These were the late 1990s, the years immediately after a mostly white jury acquitted Los Angeles police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King, sparking days of civil unrest; when Latino students staged walkouts to protest Proposition 187, a California ballot measure that would have prohibited children who illegally immigrated from going to public schools or receiving government-paid medical care.

Those were the times, and enter our hero:

Miller grew up in the north-of-Montana neighborhood, the middle child, in a Jewish family of longtime Franklin Roosevelt Democrats. He played tennis and golf. But their status abruptly shifted when his parents’ real estate company faltered and the family moved to a rental on the south side of town.

A subscription to Guns and Ammo magazine introduced him to the writings of National Rifle Assn. leader Wayne LaPierre, sparking Miller’s interest in politics. The conservative ideas were like nothing he had ever heard.

By the time Miller began his freshman year in 1999, minority students were the majority on campus, and the community was engulfed in conversations about race and class. The district was working to improve the educational outcomes for all students, not just the wealthier graduates scooped up by Stanford University and UC Berkeley, in part by emphasizing an inclusiveness that has become a mainstay at schools elsewhere today.

Then 9/11 hit, and as Miller watched Samohi respond to the 2001 terrorist attacks – he says teachers and administrators openly opposed the Iraq war and mocked then-President George W. Bush – he “resolved to challenge the campus indoctrination machine,” he wrote in Frontpage Magazine, a publication from David Horowitz, the 1960s Marxist-turned-conservative author.

And the rest is history:

Miller contacted radio show host Larry Elder, the conservative African American commentator, becoming a regular guest and attacking the liberal bias he says he felt at school. He welcomed Horowitz to speak on campus, sparking resistance, as he tells it, from the administration.

And he began to garner his first national audience as conservative listeners from around the country called or faxed complaints to the school, much to the dismay of administrators.

“He would take the opposing position and almost shock people. It would send reverberations through the room,” said one acquaintance granted anonymity to speak frankly about Miller. “He would sort of chuckle and enjoy that.”

He was made for the Trump administration:

Kesha Ram, a student activist who led “racial harmony” retreats and often sparred with Miller, said his views, not surprisingly, made him an outsider at a school where multiculturalism was valued and a white male-dominated society was challenged.

“Stephen really did grow up in an environment where he could feel what it was like for white males to feel like the minority,” said Ram, the daughter of an immigrant Pakistani-Hindi father and American-born Jewish mother.

“I think he was one of the first examples we all had of someone who really felt threatened and left out by our celebration of multiculturalism and diversity,” said Ram, a former Vermont state representative who campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

And those who are threatened lash out:

Miller also repeated the false claim that Trump underperformed in the general election because of “massive voter fraud.” Miller provided no evidence to support his assertions in his ABC appearance – something [host George] Stephanopoulos pointed out to viewers.

Miller repeated claims Trump made privately to senators this past week that he narrowly lost the general election in New Hampshire because thousands of Massachusetts residents were bused into New Hampshire to vote illegally there.

“I can tell you that this issue of busing voters into New Hampshire is widely known by anyone who’s worked in New Hampshire politics.”

Those who work in New Hampshire politics were quick to say, no, that’s not so, but never mind:

Miller went on to say that there is “enormous evidence” of people being registered to vote in more than one state, of “dead people voting” and noncitizens being registered to vote.

“George, it is a fact – and you will not deny it – that there are massive numbers of noncitizens in this country who are registered to vote,” Miller said. “That is a scandal. We should stop the presses. And, as a country, we should be aghast about the fact that you have people who have no right to vote in this country registered to vote, canceling out the franchise of lawful citizens of this country.”

At that, Stephanopoulos intoned: “For the record, you have provided zero evidence that the president was the victim of massive voter fraud in New Hampshire. You provided zero evidence that the president’s claim that he would have won the popular vote if 3 million to 5 million illegal immigrants hadn’t voted – zero evidence for either one of those claims.”

The fact-checkers had a lot of fun with all this – it’s all total nonsense – but it doesn’t matter. It was Santa Monica High School all over again. Like his new boss, Miller is a patriot-provocateur:

Miller’s combative appearances pleased his boss, who apparently was watching from Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump tweeted: “Congratulations Stephen Miller- on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”

Fine, but the White House isn’t Santa Monica High School, and as Politico reports, in the White House patriot-provocateurs make for lousy staffers:

President Donald Trump, frustrated over his administration’s rocky start, is complaining to friends and allies about some of his most senior aides – leading to questions about whether he is mulling an early staff shakeup.

Trump has told several people that he is particularly displeased with national security adviser Michael Flynn over reports that he had top-secret discussions with Russian officials about and lied about it. The president, who spent part of the weekend dealing with the Flynn controversy, has been alarmed by reports from top aides that they don’t trust Flynn. “He thinks he’s a problem,” said one person familiar with the president’s thinking. “I would be worried if I was General Flynn.”

Michael Flynn is a provocateur. He’s on record saying that Islam is NOT a religion – it’s a political ideology, no more, no less – and the CIA folks are all fools, and the Russians are our buddies, and so on and so forth. He’s like Miller. He’ll take the opposing position just to shock people and sort of chuckle and enjoy that, but he’s only one guy:

Trump’s concern goes beyond his embattled national security adviser, according to conversations with more than a dozen people who have spoken to Trump or his top aides. He has mused aloud about press secretary Sean Spicer, asking specific questions to confidants about how they think he’s doing behind the podium.

Others who’ve talked with the president have begun to wonder about the future of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Several Trump campaign aides have begun to draft lists of possible Priebus replacements, with senior White House aides Kellyanne Conway and Rick Dearborn and lobbyist David Urban among those mentioned. Gary Cohn, a Trump economic adviser, has also been the subject of chatter.

Perhaps so, but Miller saved his ass:

For now, Priebus remains in control as chief of staff. He was heavily involved in adviser Stephen Miller’s preparation for appearances on Sunday morning talk shows, which drew praise from the president.

Still, there are other problems:

If there is a single issue where the president feels his aides have let him down, it was the controversial executive order on immigration. The president has complained to at least one person about “how his people didn’t give him good advice” on rolling out the travel ban and that he should have waited to sign it instead of “rushing it like they wanted me to.” Trump has also wondered why he didn’t have a legal team in place to defend it from challenges.

Hey! Everyone was out there being provocative! What did he expect?

He didn’t expect this:

White House aides say it can be hard to know what will make Trump happy, or what will anger him. Some aides chafed at Conway’s decision to plug Ivanka Trump’s merchandise line on television, a move that drew widespread criticism, including from ethics experts who said she was walking a dangerous line. But, far from hurting her internally, Trump liked the appearance, and her standing has increased in his eyes, said several people close to the president.

Yet, as the notoriously image-conscious president endures days of negative headlines, some aides have begun to worry. One person who spoke with the president recently said he seemed to be looking for someone to point his finger at.

“You’re not going to see Trump come out and say I was wrong,” this person said. “If you’re waiting on him to take the blame, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

Heads will roll. Those kids think they have a right to be a pain in the ass. They don’t. That’s his job.

That also assures chaos:

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who recently met with Trump, said the presidency had been “off to the rockiest start that I can remember.”

“Everything he rolls out is done so badly,” Brinkley said. “It reeks of being short-staffed and not having a true pecking order of production from the White House. They’re just releasing comments, tweets and policies willy-nilly. It’s been a very convulsive and confusing first few weeks, but nevertheless it’s been salad days if you care about Republican policies.”

Maybe so, but even that has its limits. There are leaks from those in distress, and the New York Times covers the latest batch of those:

These are chaotic and anxious days inside the National Security Council, the traditional center of management for a president’s dealings with an uncertain world.

Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them. Most are kept in the dark about what Mr. Trump tells foreign leaders in his phone calls. Some staff members have turned to encrypted communications to talk with their colleagues, after hearing that Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an “insider threat” program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.

The patriot-provocateur tweets. They try to turn that into policy, as they also fear they’ll be shown the door if they bitch about it. It might be better to quit:

President Barack Obama replaced his first national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, a four-star former supreme allied commander in Europe, after concluding that the general was a bad fit for the administration. The first years of President George W. Bush’s council were defined by clashes among experienced bureaucratic infighters – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell among them – and by decisions that often took place outside official channels.

But what is happening under the Trump White House is different, officials say, and not just because of Mr. Trump’s Twitter foreign policy. (Two officials said that at one recent meeting, there was talk of feeding suggested Twitter posts to the president so the council’s staff would have greater influence.)

A number of staff members who did not want to work for Mr. Trump have returned to their regular agencies, leaving a larger-than-usual hole in the experienced bureaucracy.

They’re fed up:

Trump appointees are carrying coffee mugs with that Trump campaign slogan into meetings with foreign counterparts, one staff member said.

Nervous staff members recently met late at night at a bar a few blocks from the White House and talked about purging their social media accounts of any suggestion of anti-Trump sentiments.

And add this:

While Mr. Obama liked policy option papers that were three to six single-spaced pages, council staff members are now being told to keep papers to a single page, with lots of graphics and maps.

“The president likes maps,” one official said.

Paper flow, the lifeblood of the bureaucracy, has been erratic. A senior Pentagon official saw a draft executive order on prisoner treatment only through unofficial rumors and news media leaks. He called the White House to find out if it was real and said he had concerns but was not sure if he was authorized to make suggestions.

And then there’s their boss, Michael Flynn:

Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia – which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted – or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.

Michael Flynn is a provocateur. Details are for others – but this isn’t high school – but maybe it is. Those of us who once taught high school remember those years. Some high school kids can be a real a pain in the ass, and they’ll go through life being a pain in the ass, and then they’ll run the country, badly. Some people are born provocateurs. Others grow up. Perhaps we should have elected them, not that it matters now. We didn’t, and now it’s just another day at Santa Monica High School.

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Perhaps a Madman

Hollywood is always looking for that big meaningful film, all evidence to the contrary. It’s a prestige thing – Tom Hanks saves Private Ryan and Schindler has his list – and in 1940 it was The Great Dictator from Charlie Chaplin. It was pretty cool. Chaplin plays both leading roles – the ruthless fascist dictator, pretty much Hitler, and the plucky oppressed little Jewish barber. It was also pretty obvious – Chaplin never was subtle – but it was nominated for five Academy Awards and made a lot of money.

Then it kind of disappeared. We took care of Hitler. That wasn’t going to happen again and Chaplin’s 1917 studio complex where it was filmed – just down the street here on La Brea at Sunset – is now the Jim Henson Company Lot. There’s a big fiberglass Kermit-the-Frog on the roof, dressed as Chaplin’s Little Tramp. There’s a strip club across the street. It’s all Muppets and strippers now. No one remembers that “great dictator” – that unhinged madman who was taking over the world.

We don’t have those anymore. Charles de Gaulle was an eccentric pain in the ass. Silvio Berlusconi was a buffoon. Putin is a nasty piece of work. And here, Nixon was paranoid, Reagan lost it to Alzheimer’s in his final year or two, the second George Bush was a bit dimwitted – but none of them was batshit crazy. No unhinged madman was taking over the world, but maybe our luck is running out.

No one will ever know what Chaplin would make of Donald Trump – Chaplin died in 1977 in glorious neutral Switzerland – but this could be a scene if he remade his most successful movie:

On Thursday, during a meeting with 10 senators that was billed as a listening session about Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, the president went off on a familiar tangent, suggesting again that he was a victim of widespread voter fraud, despite the fact that he won the presidential election.

This is three months after he won that election:

As soon as the door closed and the reporters allowed to observe for a few minutes had been ushered out, Trump began to talk about the election, participants said, triggered by the presence of former New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost her reelection bid in November and is now working for Trump as a Capitol Hill liaison, or “Sherpa,” on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

The president claimed that he and Ayotte both would have been victorious in the Granite State if not for the “thousands” of people who were “brought in on buses” from neighboring Massachusetts to “illegally” vote in New Hampshire.

According to one participant who described the meeting, “an uncomfortable silence” momentarily overtook the room.

The screenplay practically writes itself, and then there was this:

During the meeting, Trump also reacted to Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren being silenced on the Senate floor while trying to read a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King and in objection to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions before he was confirmed as attorney general. According to participants in Thursday’s meeting, Trump referred to Warren several times as “Pocahontas,” the moniker he gave her during his campaign, and told the Democrats he was glad Warren is becoming the face of “your party.”

Thursday’s meeting was an attempt to foster bipartisan support for Gorsuch.

Something was amiss, and two weeks earlier it was New York Times’ Glenn Thrush reporting the same thing – Trump saying he secretly came in first in November, after the votes from undocumented immigrants are tossed out. Democrats at this meeting balked, but Trump had his proof – a second-hand story he heard from Bernhard Langer, a professional golfer that Trump said was a good friend:

The witnesses described the story this way: Mr. Langer, a 59-year-old native of Bavaria, Germany – a winner of the Masters twice and of more than 100 events on major professional golf tours around the world – was standing in line at a polling place near his home in Florida on Election Day, the president explained, when an official informed Mr. Langer he would not be able to vote.

Ahead of and behind Mr. Langer were voters who did not look as if they should be allowed to vote, Mr. Trump said, according to the staff members – but they were nonetheless permitted to cast provisional ballots. The president threw out the names of Latin American countries that the voters might have come from.

That too “was greeted with silence” – something was amiss – and Steve Benen puts two and two together:

Trump isn’t great at picking up on social cues, so let’s make this plain: when Trump shares these delusional conspiracy theories, adopted because they make him feel better about the fact that he came in second, it makes those around him uncomfortable and worried about the president’s stability.

He doesn’t understand the silence, so he keeps raising ridiculous assertions, which he appears to sincerely believe, despite the growing gap between his ideas and our reality.

It’s an uncomfortable subject, but the need for an awkward national conversation is growing more apparent.

Something is amiss, and Josh Dawsey at Politico, taking advantage of all the leaks from the White House from panicked staffers, adds detail to the script Chaplin would have written:

Being president is harder than Donald Trump thought, according to aides and allies who say that he’s growing increasingly frustrated with the challenges of running the massive federal bureaucracy.

In interviews, nearly two dozen people who’ve spent time with Trump in the three weeks since his inauguration said that his mood has careened between surprise and anger as he’s faced the predictable realities of governing, from congressional delays over his cabinet nominations and legal fights holding up his aggressive initiatives to staff in-fighting and leaks.

The administration’s rocky opening days have been a setback for a president who, as a billionaire businessman, sold himself to voters as being uniquely qualified to fix what ailed the nation. Yet it has become apparent, say those close to the president, most of whom requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of the White House, that the transition from overseeing a family business to running the country has been tough on him.

It’s the Chaplin madness-at-the-top thing:

Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject – to “seem in control at all times,” one senior government official said – or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay – or even stop – him from filling positions and implementing policies.

After Trump grew infuriated by disclosures of his confrontational phone calls with foreign leaders, an investigation was launched into the source of the leaks, according to one White House aide. National Security Council staffers have been instructed to cooperate with inquiries, including requests to inspect their electronic communications, said two sources familiar with the situation. It’s not clear whether the investigation is a formal proceeding, how far along it is or who is conducting it.

The administration is considering limiting the universe of aides with access to the calls or their transcripts, said one administration official, adding that the leaks – and Trump’s anger over them – had created a climate where people are “very careful who they talk to.”

It’s Nixon’s paranoia, early, in the first three weeks of his presidency, not at the bitter end:

The president and his allies believe career National Security Council staff assigned from other agencies are out to get them. In turn, some NSC staff believes Trump does not possess the capacity for detail and nuance required to handle the sensitive issues discussed on the calls, and that he has politicized their agency by appointing chief strategist Bannon to the council.

Last week, Trump told an associate he had become weary of in-fighting among – and leaks from – his White House staff “because it reflects on me,” and that he intended to sit down staffers to tell them “to cut this shit out.”

Trump likes that word:

He also became aggravated after learning about complications surrounding his appointment of one of his top fundraisers, Anthony Scaramucci, to a plum White House job, which Trump blamed on internal jockeying between aides, according to one person with knowledge of the situation.

Trump “was furious,” this person said. “He doesn’t like this shit.”

This is an angry and confused man lashing out – perhaps a madman. And add this scene to the hypothetical screenplay in development:

For all his frustrations, Trump has reveled in the trappings of the presidency. He has taken a liking to the Oval Office, where he spends much of his time working. Following a recent gathering of business leaders, he brought the group into the storied room and showed them around.

But he has also sought refuge from the pressures of the presidency, frequently calling up old friends and sounding them out about golf.

He’s seems to be a lonely man, but it’s the lonely men who are dangerous:

Most of those interviewed for this story requested anonymity to describe the inner workings of a White House where they say the tension has been intensified by the president’s propensity for knee-jerk micromanaging when faced with disappointment, and jockeying among aides to avoid blame or claim credit when possible.

The interviews paint a picture of a powder-keg of a workplace where job duties are unclear, morale among some is low, factionalism is rampant and exhaustion is running high. Two visitors to the White House last week said they were struck by how tired the staff looks.

Of course they’re tired, but the man at the top is lonely and frustrated and lashing out. Cut him some slack, or like Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog, show him no mercy:

The poor dear – he was supposed to make America great again single-handedly, and lesser mortals were just supposed to yield to him. He was supposed to face no congressional or popular resistance when he nominated the most radical cabinet in modern history; affected parties, the courts, and the public were just supposed to suck it up and give in when he issued extreme, hastily drawn-up executive orders. He’s the alpha male! Why isn’t everyone just acknowledging his obvious dominance?

Yes, he may be a madman:

Trump was raised to believe that life is war and the way to win is to be a lone wolf and the meanest SOB on the planet – and then, perhaps more important for the present circumstances, he was politicized by Fox News, a channel run for years by Roger Ailes, who also believes that life is war and America needs a strongman. The new Ailes in Trump’s life, Steve Bannon, also believes in strongmen and perpetual war.

This is the worldview of modern conservatism: cooperation is evil, and collective action even by allies isn’t as good as heroic individualism. And when heroes act, it’s all supposed to work the way it does in the movies: Their bullets always hit their targets, their enemies are always permanently vanquished, and only good things result from their actions.

Trump was supposed to just roll right over the rest of us. His fan base believed that. He believed that. Strongmen always win, you see, and conservatives who talk tough are always strongmen.

It’s not working out like a movie, or a Fox tribute to Ronald Reagan. No wonder Trump is confused.

Actually it is working out like a movie, that 1940 Chaplin movie with that unhinged madman taking over the world.

Andrew Sullivan calls this The Madness of King Donald:

I want to start with Trump’s lies. It’s now a commonplace that Trump and his underlings tell whoppers. Fact-checkers have never had it so good. But all politicians lie. Bill Clinton could barely go a day without some shading or parsing of the truth. Richard Nixon was famously tricky. But all the traditional political fibbers nonetheless paid some deference to the truth – even as they were dodging it. They acknowledged a shared reality and bowed to it. They acknowledged the need for a common set of facts in order for a liberal democracy to function at all. Trump’s lies are different. They are direct refutations of reality – and their propagation and repetition is about enforcing his power rather than wriggling out of a political conundrum. They are attacks on the very possibility of a reasoned discourse, the kind of bald-faced lies that authoritarians issue as a way to test loyalty and force their subjects into submission. That first press conference when Sean Spicer was sent out to lie and fulminate to the press about the inauguration crowd reminded me of some Soviet apparatchik having his loyalty tested to see if he could repeat in public what he knew to be false. It was comical, but also faintly chilling.

That’s what Charlie Chaplin, like Sullivan, another Brit who ended up in America was getting at – his Great Dictator was also comical, but also faintly chilling, or not so faintly chilling but right out there, which of course leads to the key question:

What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s, and half what it was in 1980. What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address – when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie – along with an ad hominem attack.

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie.

Who has time for that? Who would listen? America has shrugged at the lies, but not because America accepts the lies. Only about forty-five percent of America accepts those lies as the truth about things. Everyone else is exhausted. There are too many of them, but Sullivan argues that in itself is the real problem:

There is the obvious question of the president’s mental and psychological health. I know we’re not supposed to bring this up – but it is staring us brutally in the face. I keep asking myself this simple question: If you came across someone in your everyday life who repeatedly said fantastically and demonstrably untrue things, what would you think of him? If you showed up at a neighbor’s, say, and your host showed you his newly painted living room, which was a deep blue, and then insisted repeatedly – manically – that it was a lovely shade of scarlet, what would your reaction be? If he then dragged out a member of his family and insisted she repeat this obvious untruth in front of you, how would you respond? If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return. You’d warn your other neighbors. You’d keep your distance. If you saw him, you’d be polite but keep your distance.

Sure, but that’s not possible these days, which are dismal days:

I think this is a fundamental reason why so many of us have been so unsettled, anxious, and near panic these past few months. It is not so much this president’s agenda. That always changes from administration to administration. It is that when the linchpin of an entire country is literally delusional, clinically deceptive, and responds to any attempt to correct the record with rage and vengeance, everyone is always on edge.

There is no anchor any more. At the core of the administration of the most powerful country on earth, there is, instead, madness.

Where is Charlie Chaplin when you need him? Chaplin’s 1940 movie argued what Sullivan argues here:

With someone like this barging into your consciousness every hour of every day, you begin to get a glimpse of what it must be like to live in an autocracy of some kind. Every day in countries unfortunate enough to be ruled by a lone dictator, people are constantly subjected to the Supreme Leader’s presence, in their homes, in their workplaces, as they walk down the street. Big Brother never leaves you alone. His face bears down on you on every flickering screen. He begins to permeate your psyche and soul; he dominates every news cycle and issues pronouncements – each one shocking and destabilizing – round the clock. He delights in constantly provoking and surprising you, so that his monstrous ego can be perennially fed. And because he is also mentally unstable, forever lashing out in manic spasms of pain and anger, you live each day with some measure of trepidation. What will he come out with next? Somehow, he is never in control of himself and yet he is always in control of you.

There’s only one answer to that:

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days – but he is not omnipresent – and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you – to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves – to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes.

Sullivan seems to think that we are living through an emergency. So did Charlie Chaplin, once. There’s an unhinged madman taking over the world. It happens – but it wasn’t supposed to happen again. And no clever movie will fix this.

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