A Government of One

So, did Trump promise Kim that he’d stop all spying of any kind on North Korea forever, and if so, in exchange for what? Did he promise Putin that we’d pull out of NATO so Putin could have all those countries back, the former Russian satellites, in exchange for permission to build that new Trump Tower right in the middle of Moscow and get three hundred million dollars a year in licensing fees? Or did Trump promise Putin something else, the names of our agents embedded in his government, an NHL hockey team, or Hillary Clinton’s head on a platter?

No one knew, and then they did:

A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.

The complaint involved communications with a foreign leader and a “promise” that Trump made, which was so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who had worked at the White House went to the inspector general of the intelligence community, two former U.S. officials said.

But this wasn’t treason, just wheeling and dealing:

Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and political newcomer who was elected in a landslide in May.

That call is already under investigation by House Democrats who are examining whether Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping Trump’s reelection campaign. Lawmakers have demanded a full transcript and a list of participants on the call.

So that was the “promise” in question. Trump told Zelensky that yes, Congress has appropriated a whole lot of money, for arms and technology, to help Ukraine hold off the slow Russian invasion and occupation of his country, and he was required, by law, to distribute that money to Zelensky, but Zelensky wasn’t going to see a dime of that money, unless Zelensky helped him ruin Joe Biden’s chances of getting the Democratic Party’s nomination next year. So, if Zelensky would do that, Trump “promised” him he’d release the funds.

That would go something like this: Get me dirt on Biden – on his son, actually – and I’ll let you have the funds that Congress appropriated. If not, you’ll soon be defenseless and Putin will assimilate Ukraine into Russia easily enough. I don’t have to do what Congress says, and you know it. Putin and I agree on everything, and you know that too – so destroy Biden and I promise I’ll release the funds.

That’s the new hypothesis. That must be what Trump said in what now seems to have been multiple phone calls with Zelensky, and someone thought that was improper. Congress approved the funding. Trump decided he would not do what Congress had mandated. Or, more precisely, he’d do what Congress wanted if and only if Zelensky destroyed Biden. Trump wanted something out of this, for him and for him alone. Trump is a clever man. But this may be illegal. Someone will have to look that up. This is new.

But there’s a minor matter that should be mentioned. As a builder, Trump seldom paid his vendors. He told them that if they wanted their money they could sue him, but he had a massive legal team and he could bankrupt them with just their legal costs, and he’d make sure their legal costs were astronomical. They had to back off, muttering but powerless, and unpaid. Zelensky should be wary of Trump’s promises. Trump may never release those funds. They can be used to build his wall. And what’s Congress going to do about that, pout, hold their breath until they turn blue?

But all that is speculation:

The Democrats’ investigation was launched earlier this month, before revelations that an intelligence official had lodged a complaint with the inspector general. On Thursday, the inspector general testified behind closed doors to members of the House Intelligence Committee about the whistleblower’s complaint. Over the course of three hours, Michael Atkinson repeatedly declined to discuss with members the content of the complaint, saying he was not authorized to do so.

That means that no one knows anything. Those two people familiar with the matter, who spoke to the Washington Post, may be blowing smoke to cover up something else, so no one was happy:

Atkinson told the committee that the complaint did not stem from just one conversation, according to two people familiar with his testimony.

Following the meeting, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, warned of legal action if intelligence officials did not share the whistleblower complaint.

Schiff isn’t buying any story now, because this is about process and playing by the rules:

Schiff described acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire’s refusal to share the complaint with Congress as “unprecedented” and said he understood the Justice Department was involved in that decision.

“We cannot get an answer to the question about whether the White House is also involved in preventing this information from coming to Congress,” Schiff said, adding: “We’re determined to do everything we can to determine what this urgent concern is to make sure that the national security is protected.”

Someone, Schiff said, “is trying to manipulate the system to keep information about an urgent matter from the Congress… There certainly are a lot of indications that it was someone at a higher pay grade than the director of national intelligence.”

Schiff doesn’t mention Ukraine. That inspector general said this was an urgent matter of national security. By law, Congress, specifically his committee, must be informed about what the hell is going on, within seven days, and Trump and Barr and Maguire said that’s nice, but they’re not going to  tell him or anyone else in Congress what’s going on – and no one can make them. Schiff says watch, just watch. They WILL report on this matter!

Schiff may be right, but something is up with Ukraine:

In letters to the White House and State Department, top Democrats earlier this month demanded records related to what they say are Trump and Giuliani’s efforts “to coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations under the guise of anti-corruption activity” – one to help Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is in prison for illegal lobbying and financial fraud, and a second to target the son of former vice president Joe Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump.

“As the 2020 election draws closer, President Trump and his personal attorney appear to have increased pressure on the Ukrainian government and its justice system in service of President Trump’s reelection campaign, and the White House and the State Department may be abetting this scheme,” the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees wrote, citing media reports that Trump had threatened to withhold $250 million in aid to help Ukraine in its ongoing struggle against Russian-backed separatists.

Lawmakers also became aware in August that the Trump administration may be trying to stop the aid from reaching Ukraine, according to a congressional official.

And now it all fits together:

House Democrats are looking into whether Giuliani traveled to Ukraine to pressure that government outside of formal diplomatic channels to effectively help the Trump reelection effort by investigating Hunter Biden about his time on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.

Did that start all this? The New York Times adds more:

Though it is not clear how Ukraine fits into the allegation, questions have already emerged about Mr. Trump’s dealings with its government. In late July, he told the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, that Ukraine could improve its reputation and its “interaction” with the United States by investigating corruption, according to a Ukrainian government summary of the call. Some of Mr. Trump’s close allies were also urging the Ukrainian government to investigate matters that could hurt the president’s political rivals, including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his family.

Why shouldn’t someone seeking the presidency, for another term in this case, ask a foreign government for help in our next presidential election? And what is wrong with threatening them, or bribing them, to get their direct help? Rudy has no problem with that:

According to government officials who handle foreign policy in the United States and Ukraine, Mr. Giuliani’s efforts created the impression that the Trump administration’s willingness to back Mr. Zelensky was linked to his government’s readiness to in turn pursue the investigations sought by Mr. Trump’s allies.

Mr. Giuliani said he did not know whether Mr. Trump discussed those matters with Mr. Zelensky, but argued it would not be inappropriate.

The president has the right to tell another country’s leader to investigate corruption, particularly if it “bleeds over” into the United States, Mr. Giuliani said on Thursday. “If I were president, I would say that,” he added.

And after all, Rudy is not asking big bad Russia for direct help in an upcoming election here. Rudy is asking dinky little Ukraine for direct help in an upcoming election here. This is no big deal. Think about it. Putin is a brutal ex-KGB agent who has his opponents murdered and grabs other countries left and right. Volodymyr Zelensky is a comedian, a comic. Ukraine elected Jay Leno to run their country. He doesn’t even know how he got elected. He’s faking it. He doesn’t even know the basic rules in these matters.

On the other hand:

Mr. Trump regularly speaks with foreign leaders and is often unfettered. Some current and former officials said that what an intelligence official took to be a troubling commitment could have been an innocuous comment.

But that’s hard to judge:

Mr. Trump’s calls with other leaders are unlike anything his predecessors engaged in, one European diplomat said. The president eschews the kind of structured calls of his predecessors and instead quickly moves from the stated topic of the call to others. He will disclose his ideas for forthcoming summit meetings and test ideas and policies in a seemingly casual way, the diplomat said.

But the whistle-blower complaint renewed questions about whether some of his freelance proposals were inappropriate. The accusation, even with few details, quickly gained traction in part because of longstanding concerns among some intelligence officials that the information they share with the president is being politicized.

There are rules about that, but this is a special circumstance. This is something new. Politico’s Nancy Cook explains why:

The China trade war, talks with the Taliban, the response to Iran after Saudi attacks, gun control, new tax legislation and a long list of other policy issues are up in the air and awaiting decisions from President Donald Trump – and him alone – heading into the 2020 election season.

In many ways, it’s the presidency Trump has always wanted.

He’s at the center of the action. He’s fully in command. And he’s keeping world leaders on edge and unsure of his next moves, all without being hemmed in by aides or the traditional strictures of a White House.

In short, he has become everything:

After four national security advisers, three chiefs of staff, three directors of oval office operations and five communications directors, the president is now finding the White House finally functions in a way that fits his personality. Trump doubters have largely been ousted, leaving supporters to cheer him on and execute his directives with fewer constraints than ever before.

“It is a government of one in the same way in which the Trump Organization was a company of one,” said a former senior administration official.

So the transformation of the nature of the presidency is complete:

“In the first year in office, President Trump was new to the job. He was more susceptible to advisers and advice. There were more people urging caution or trying to get him to adhere to processes,” the former senior official added. “Now, there are very few people in the White House who view that as their role, or as something they want to try to do, or who even have a relationship with him.”

This Presidency of One is now heading into an election year supported by campaign staffers and White House aides who are quick say Trump is the best political strategist as well as the most effective messenger, and they intend to follow his lead wherever 2020 goes.

But of course there was a price to pay for this:

The transformation of the Trump White House, from its early attempts at a traditional structure to its current freewheeling style, has exacted a heavy toll on his staff. But a steady stream of departures – the highest senior staff turnover of any recent president by far – has also left fewer forces trying to bend the president to the usual process of the top ranks of government.

But let them go, because no one needs any of those people anyway:

“It’s very easy, actually, to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work,” Trump told reporters last Friday as he explained why being his national security adviser, in his mind, is now a low-key post.

He’s saying he needs no one at all around him, really, but that might not be so:

There is little policy process left as the White House faces consequential decisions on Iran, North Korea, China, trade and the economy, even as the president intends to use the economy as a major selling point for his reelection bid.

“You can’t just turn the economy on and off. These are big, slow-moving machines. And he’s operating under this major fallacy that he can keep telling the market things, and they will keep believing him on China or whatever else,” said one adviser close to the White House. “And that he can just all of a sudden turn things around with a China deal or whatever it is and it doesn’t work that way.”

That is a problem, but there are other problems:

In addition to the president’s relative isolation, he and the administration face several challenges this fall over which Trump does not have total control, including foreign policy challenges such as Iran, China or North Korea, ongoing risks to the economy, passage of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement or potential congressional action on gun control.

This uncertainty might not sit well with a president who has said he likes to make all the decisions, says Timothy O’Brien, the author of “TrumpNation.”

Whatever actions he does take now will also become part of his record heading into the election. “He will have to answer specific questions about that report card, and he will be frustrated by those,” O’Brien added.

But he will whine and say he’s being treated unfairly by the disgusting media or the disgusting Fed chair or our disgusting allies, or the dog ate his homework, or something. He was the victim. He’s always the victim. His base agrees and loves him all the more. They’re victims too. They’ve got a self-reinforcing perpetual feedback loop there. O’Brien seems to think those outside that loop will be a problem for Trump, because they’ll ask for explanations. And they vote.

Donald Trump is ignoring that:

Now the White House runs as he prefers, with him at the center of the action – speaking directly to reporters from the Oval Office, breaking his own news and laying out policy decisions by tweet.

“This is now more of a government built on the basis of Trump’s reactions to things,” said one of the former senior administration officials.

But that is why he’s in real trouble now. Asking any foreign government for direct help in an upcoming election here is quite illegal, and might seem like treason in some way. It does seem like Trump and Rudy think that they need the help of foreigners, because they think that our folks here are too stupid to do the right thing on their own. Okay, that’s not treason. That’s just a deep insult. But that will do.

That is insulting but Trump doesn’t care. He does what he does, as a government of one, but the New York Times’ Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman point out that that’s self-defeating:

Speaking to a Fox News reporter near the Mexican border on Wednesday, President Trump seemed taken aback when asked if the White House was preparing to roll out gun control proposals the next day, a timeline administration officials had suggested was likely.

“No, we’re not moving on anything,” Mr. Trump said. “We’re going very slowly in one way because we want to make sure it’s right.”

The result is that almost two months after the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso and in Dayton, Ohio, when Mr. Trump said he wanted to pass “very meaningful background checks,” warnings from gun rights advocates and Republican lawmakers about the political blowback that would result from doing that have led to indecision about what to do and what the time frame is for sharing it.

But idling in neutral is not something the president is doing only on guns. In discussions with his staff, Mr. Trump has made clear he wants to accomplish something big, but seems stymied as to what it might be, according to interviews with a half-dozen aides and advisers. In the meantime, he has remained on the sidelines as divisive issues are debated and is treading water even on possible staff changes he wants to make, for fear of how things “play.”

That’s the problem with being a government of one. You’ll be the only one to blame. The only thing to do is to do next to nothing:

On the international stage, Mr. Trump has seemed most conflicted about how to respond to Iran’s attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, threatening to order “the ultimate option” one moment, and then warning that getting involved in Middle East wars was a mistake the next.

And the lack of direction is apparent even in the message he delivers at his campaign rallies. With little in the way of policy proposals or a larger vision, he has been telling crowds from New Hampshire to South Carolina, “You have no choice but to vote for me,” and has been promoting his new slogan, “Keep America Great.”

On guns, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has made it clear he will not take any action until the White House does. “If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly, and I know that if we pass it, it will become law, I’ll put it on the floor,” he said this month.

Everyone is waiting. Don’t screw up. Better yet, punt:

When William P. Barr, the attorney general, and Eric Ueland, the White House legislative director, met with Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, distributing a plan to expand background checks, he did so with the blessing of the White House, according to people briefed on what took place. But White House communications officials immediately distanced the president from what they described as a “test run” on a proposal they expected would meet resistance and ultimately convinced Mr. Barr, who some Trump aides view as overly aggressive, that the plan was a nonstarter.

“The president has not signed off on anything yet,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman. Of the plan that was being distributed by a White House staff member and a senior administration official, he said, “This is not a White House document, and any suggestion to the contrary is completely false.”

What? Well, there’s only one reason for this:

Despite wanting to give the impression that he is decisive, said one person close to Mr. Trump, part of his holdup is that the president constantly changes his mind and equivocates. While Mr. Trump often worries about how his decisions will play, he is also anxious about other people making decisions for him.

He’s in a bind. He will not screw up! He needs more time! But then someone else might decide things without him! But that would make them more important that he is! That cannot be allowed to happen! He must block them! He must humiliate them! Maybe he should sue them…

That means nothing much gets done. That’s what happens with a government of one. That’s why we’ve never had one, until now. And now we have to decide what to do about that.

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High Stakes Now

Richard Nixon had nothing to do with the Watergate break-in and he was not a crook, and Bill Clinton never had sex with that woman, but Washington doesn’t work that way. Investigative reporters investigate and report. They do that because there’s a market for what they report. Much of the public wants to know what its government is doing. They are paying for that government. Maybe they’re paying far too much, but they did elect these people to keep the nation safe and prosperous, or at least stable if they can’t manage that. These people should do what they’re supposed to do, and Nixon and Clinton didn’t. Something had to be done about that. Nixon was about to be impeached. He couldn’t face that. He resigned. Clinton was impeached by the House, but then tried and acquitted by the Senate. He survived. But things were never the same. Investigative reporters investigate and the stakes got higher. Nothing can stay hidden. What was hidden will not remain hidden. And what was hidden can end everything.

Long ago, the Washington Post’s Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward dug and dug and reported and reported and then Nixon was gone. That may be happening again, given the Washington Post’s new scoop:

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

So, what was Trump “promising” to which foreign leader, and what was he to get in return, that so alarmed the intelligence community that one of them actually filed a complaint? No one knows yet:

It was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver, but his direct involvement in the matter has not been previously disclosed. It raises new questions about the president’s handling of sensitive information and may further strain his relationship with U.S. spy agencies. One former official said the communication was a phone call.

The White House declined to comment. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a lawyer representing the whistleblower declined to comment.

But no one was denying anything. Bernstein and Woodward called that the “non-denial denial” and that meant it was time to dig deep and find out more about that was going on. No one has denied anything after all. And something is up:

Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson determined that the complaint was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern,” a legal threshold that ordinarily requires notification of congressional oversight committees.

But acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire has refused to share details about Trump’s alleged transgression with lawmakers, touching off a legal and political dispute that has spilled into public and prompted speculation that the spy chief is improperly protecting the president.

Woodward and Bernstein would now have to look into that, and now the mysterious hearings behind closed doors begin:

The dispute is expected to escalate Thursday when Atkinson is scheduled to appear before the House Intelligence Committee in a classified session closed to the public. The hearing is the latest move by committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) to compel U.S. intelligence officials to disclose the full details of the whistleblower complaint to Congress.

Maguire has agreed to testify before the committee next week, according to a statement by Schiff.

That might be closed to the public, but there are a few breadcrumbs to follow:

The complaint was filed with Atkinson’s office on Aug. 12, a date on which Trump was at his golf resort in New Jersey. White House records indicate that Trump had had conversations or interactions with at least five foreign leaders in the preceding five weeks.

Among them was a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the White House initiated on July 31. Trump also received at least two letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un during the summer, describing them as “beautiful” messages. In June, Trump said publicly that he was opposed to certain CIA spying operations against North Korea. Referring to a Wall Street Journal report that the agency had recruited Kim’s half-brother, Trump said, “I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices.”

So, did Trump promise Kim that he’d stop all spying of any kind on North Korea forever, and if so, in exchange for what? Did he promise Putin that we’d pull out of NATO so Putin could have all those countries back, as Russian satellites, in exchange for permission to build that new Trump Tower right in the middle of Moscow and get three hundred million dollars a year in licensing fees? No one knows, but Woodward and Bernstein didn’t know what they would find either, and there is context:

Trump’s handling of classified information has been a source of concern to U.S. intelligence officials since the outset of his presidency. In May 2017, Trump revealed classified information about espionage operations in Syria to senior Russian officials in the Oval Office, disclosures that prompted a scramble among White House officials to contain the potential damage.

But this is a bit different:

The dispute has put Maguire, thrust into the DNI job in an acting capacity with the resignation of Daniel Coats last month, at the center of a politically perilous conflict with constitutional implications.

Schiff has demanded full disclosure of the whistleblower complaint. Maguire has defended his refusal by asserting that the subject of the complaint is beyond his jurisdiction.

Defenders of Maguire disputed that he is subverting legal requirements to protect Trump, saying that he is trapped in a legitimate legal predicament and that he has made his displeasure clear to officials at the Justice Department and White House.

That makes Maguire the hero here. Trump or Attorney General Barr, or both, made Maguire break the law, and he really did complain to them about that, but he did break the law:

After fielding the complaint on Aug. 12, Atkinson submitted it to Maguire two weeks later. By law, Maguire is required to transmit such complaints to Congress within seven days. But in this case, he refrained from doing so after turning for legal guidance to officials at the Justice Department.

In a sign of Atkinson’s discomfort with this situation, the inspector general informed the House and Senate intelligence committees of the existence of the whistleblower complaint – without revealing its substance – in early September.

That makes Atkinson the hero here. He spilled the beans. He told Adam Schiff that Trump and Barr and a reluctant Maguire were hiding something rather awful, illegally. Atkinson had no authority to say what that was. That wasn’t his job. But that was Maguire’s job. And thus he screwed Maguire, because he was angry – and patriotic. This was about something like betraying the country. And this was the president.

Woodward and Bernstein would have loved this, but Kevin Drum hates this:

I can’t tell you how much I would like to never write or hear the name Trump ever again. I mean, an intelligence official filing a whistleblower complaint against the president? That’s insane. And yet, here we are.

That sounds like despair, but Josh Marshall decided to be methodical:

Obviously, anyone in the government can file a whistleblower complaint. They can be frivolous or nonsensical. But the Inspector General determined it was serious and of a pressing nature. Atkinson was nominated to the position by President Trump in 2018 but he appears to be a career government lawyer. He worked at DOJ for 15 years prior to his nomination.

The decision to withhold the information from Congress was made by acting DNI Joseph Maguire, who’s in that position after the dismissal of Dan Coats. But the Post suggests that it’s not actually Maguire’s choice. The Department of Justice told him to withhold the information from Congress.

It appears that in the guise of legal guidance the DOJ instructed Maguire not to share the complaint with Congress. Atkinson took matters into his own hands, informing Congress of the existence of a complaint while not sharing its substance, in deference to the DOJ’s legal guidance.

And that’s the problem:

Bill Barr runs the Justice Department. He protects Donald Trump. Period. So the DOJ’s role here is little mystery.

But there’s more to that:

It is worth noting here that this is a case in which there are legitimate constitutional issues. When it comes to classified information, the whole system is a bureaucratic system to operationalize judgments which are nominally the President’s. That’s why the President can actually declassify information by the very act of sharing them. It was his decision to make them secrets in the first place. He’s just changing his mind. Those who believe in maximal presidential power think the President’s authority is basically unconstrained dealing with foreign leaders.

Bill Barr is one of those people. And he also wants to protect Trump from the rule of law. So Barr’s jurisprudence and personal corruption point in the same direction.

And then there’s the mystery. Woodward and Bernstein had “Deep Throat” on the inside pointing them in the right direction and that may be happening here too:

The Post article is sourced to “two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.” That’s odd. This only happened about a month ago. Former officials shouldn’t really know anything about this unless somehow they were in the loop and retired like last week or something. That’s not totally implausible as people seem to be being pushed out of the ODNI [Office of the Director of National Intelligence] in the wake of Coats’ departure. But it sounds (and this is just speculation based on news experience) that this information is being pushed out into the public realm using ex-officials as intermediaries. In other words, people on the inside think something is wrong and they’re using go-betweens with high level clearances to get the information public. Again, this last point is speculation. But I think it’s a logical surmise.

It sounds like something pretty serious is up here.

That’s what Woodward and Bernstein thought too. But lots of big things are going on:

Tensions between the United States and Iran ratcheted up Wednesday as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decried the weekend attacks on the Saudi oil industry as an “act of war” and President Trump ordered a substantial increase in sanctions against the government in Tehran.

With the Trump administration linking the sanctions step to the airstrikes, Iran warned the United States that it would retaliate for any attack against it, Iranian news agencies reported Wednesday. An attack on Iranian territory would be met with a “rapid and crushing” response, the Fars News Agency said.

Five days after the strikes on Saudi oil facilities, which were claimed by a Yemeni rebel group, U.S. and Saudi officials all but explicitly accused Iran of launching the attacks from its territory. They presented physical evidence and other details that they said bolstered their assertions of direct Iranian culpability.

So this is war, but Pompeo didn’t say that this is our war against Iran now. But he didn’t say this was the Saudi’s war either, or that we’d wage war against Iran with the Saudis, alongside them, or we wage war for the Saudis so none of them would get hurt. His was more of a general observation. This was war of some kind. But things were murky:

The initial claim of responsibility for the weekend attacks by the Iranian-allied rebels, known as the Houthis, “doesn’t change the fingerprints of the ayatollah as having put at risk the global energy supply,” Pompeo told reporters, in an apparent reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, while traveling to Saudi Arabia. His comments set the tone for a day of developments that raised temperatures across the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. and Saudi governments have yet to provide solid evidence of where the attacks originated. In the absence of such proof, Iran has forcefully pushed back against the accusations and warned of consequences if it is attacked.

And then it was time for bluster:

The day’s first salvo came from President Trump, who wrote in a tweet that he had “just instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to substantially increase Sanctions on the country of Iran!” He later told reporters traveling with him in California that “very significant” sanctions would be announced “over the next 48 hours.”

Trump warned of “a very powerful attack” against Iran Wednesday afternoon as he toured the U.S.-Mexico border in Otay Mesa, Calif., near San Diego. He said his plans are “very fluid” and that “a lot of things can happen – rough things and not so rough things.”

Trump told reporters he was being judicious in evaluating whether to respond with military force. “We are doing it the right way,” he said. “We’re doing it the smart way. We will see what we will see.”

But, the president added, “One call and we can go in.”

Or we may not, and there was a response:

Iran delivered its warning to the United States via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles U.S. affairs in Iran. The official message condemned remarks by Pompeo and other officials linking Iran to the attacks.

“Iran’s response will be prompt and strong, and it may include broader areas than the source of attacks,” the Mehr News Agency reported the official note as saying.

Iran’s Fars News Agency said any response to an attack would target “more extensive areas than the origin of the attack.” There have long been fears that Iranian proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere might attack U.S. forces in the region.

And then they pulled a fast one:

The Iranian mission to the United Nations declined to comment on Trump’s tweet but a spokesman repeated an assertion that “the U.S. economic terrorism is illegal.”

Iran considers U.S. sanctions to violate the U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, which was signed between Iran and world powers, including the United States but which the United States has disavowed under Trump.

That was not nice. That was a reminder that the whole world thinks Trump is a dangerous fool, and Max Boot argues that he is:

Trump said he was “locked and loaded” for a response, but rather than hitting back militarily, he has (so far at least) merely chosen to order more sanctions. It’s hard to imagine the mullahs will be impressed given how many sanctions the United States has already piled on as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. Is this the supermax policy?

This is not an argument for attacking Iran – which Trump might still do. A small U.S. airstrike won’t deter Iran – and a big one risks a major conflict. That’s why I thought it was a mistake to leave a nuclear accord that Iran was abiding by – and why I think it’s imperative to rejoin if possible. Most experts feared Trump’s move to leave the nuclear deal would only embolden Iranian hard-liners who never liked the deal in the first place – and that is precisely what has happened.

This was predictable, and really did make things worse:

Rather than decrease the danger from Iran, Trump has turbocharged it. Iran is enriching more uranium and still supporting brutal proxies. Either Iran or its Houthi allies – the difference is cosmetic – are responsible for a long series of missile attacks on Saudi airports and oil infrastructure. These attacks are, at least in part, retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s unsuccessful and unconscionable war in Yemen. But that doesn’t change the fact that Iran is almost certainly guilty of cross-border aggression – an “act of war,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, and all the more so if, as leaks from the U.S. government claim, the latest attack was launched directly from Iranian soil.

Iran is practically daring Trump to retaliate – but having goaded Iran into the latest round of aggression, he is incapable of formulating an effective response.

And of course everyone knows why:

Trump doesn’t listen to his own aides and gets rid of those who disagree with him – hence the ouster of John Bolton as national security adviser and his replacement with Robert C. O’Brien – a presidential envoy whose claim to fame is observing the trial of A$AP Rocky in Sweden. His chief qualification seems to be his willingness to flatter Trump.

Bolton shredded the national security decision-making process, and it’s unlikely O’Brien will revive it, because Trump is averse to regimentation. He thinks he has all the answers (Trump said the job of the national security adviser is “easy” because “I make all the decisions”), and he won’t listen to information that contradicts his preconceptions. He dismissed intelligence-community assessments that Iran was abiding by the nuclear accord even as he now cites the intelligence community to blame Iran for attacks in the region.

In the summer, Trump tried to assemble a coalition to safeguard shipping in the Persian Gulf. He largely failed because most of our allies don’t want to be dragged into a war with Iran and don’t have any faith in Trump. Even the United Arab Emirates is bailing out of the anti-Iran coalition – it is scaling back its involvement in the war in Yemen and entering into talks with Iran over maritime security. Trump is left with only one ally – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – and even he so far shies away from a direct confrontation with Iran.

So we are left with this:

Trump could not be doing more damage to U.S. standing and security if he tried. For the record, I don’t think his epic failure is dictated from Moscow. He simply doesn’t know what he is doing. He doesn’t think before he acts – or tweets. He makes threats that he can’t – and shouldn’t – back up. He bullies the weak but cowers before the strong.

“Iranian hard-liners consider Trump’s inconsistency to be weakness,” Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history, told the New York Times.

The Iranian hard-liners are right: Trump is weakening the United States with his incoherent foreign policy. Our enemies don’t fear us, and our allies don’t trust us.

And there’s an intelligence official filing a whistleblower complaint against the president. Yes, that’s insane. And yet, here we are. And the stakes keep getting higher.

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Trump Ends California

The president has had a problem with Hollywood that resurfaced again in October 2016:

At the presidential debate on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said that Mr. Trump blamed a rigged system whenever something didn’t go his way. One example she cited was the Emmy Awards, which had never given Mr. Trump’s hit reality television show, “The Apprentice,” the accolades that he thought it deserved.

“There was even a time when he didn’t get an Emmy for his TV program three years in a row and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged against him,” she said.

Mr. Trump’s own extensive record of Twitter posts backs up Mrs. Clinton’s claim…

“The Apprentice” aired on NBC for seven seasons between 2004 and 2010, followed by a spinoff, “Celebrity Apprentice.” It was nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program in 2004 and 2005, but it lost to “The Amazing Race” both times – even after Mr. Trump agreed to sing a song alongside the actress Megan Mullally during the 2005 telecast.

And he never forgave and he never forgot, and this year, in January, just after the worst wildfires in California in a century, with many lives lost and billions in property damage, he decided that he had a problem with the whole State of California:

In the midst of a government shutdown, President Trump has threatened to cut off federal emergency aid to California for forest fires.

Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that “billions of dollars” are sent to California to help with its wildfire recovery efforts and claimed, without evidence, that the state would not need the funds if forests were properly managed.

“Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money,” Trump stated. “It is a disgraceful situation in lives and money!”

It is unclear, based on the tweet’s wording, if Trump already directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to withhold funds or if he would be doing so.

He did neither. He was just venting. He had shut down the government to force Congress to pay for his giant wall to keep Mexicans and other riff-raff out, and even his own Republican Senate wouldn’t authorize a cent. His government shutdown failed spectacularly. He was embarrassed. And since Hillary Clinton had won California in a landslide – and since Republicans out here had become few and powerless over the years since Pete Wilson stuck it to all Hispanics and thrown away that giant voting bloc – he decided that he was going to get his revenge against this state. Many had died, and there were tens of thousands who had lost everything, but they’d get nothing. He kept saying that the Finnish prime minster had told him they had no forest fires over there because they raked the deal leaves under the trees. California should do that!

The Finnish prime minster said he never said any such thing. Everyone out here pointed out that the fires out here didn’t involve trees. These were brush fires. The chaparral was burning. And then someone talked Donald Trump down. Sure, his base hates California and everything it stands for and everyone who lives out here, but one can be too mean. These people had lost everything. Don’t kick them in the teeth. It’s a bad look. Be the good guy now and then. No one expects that. That’ll keep people on their toes. Mix it up now and then.

So nothing came of that, but earlier this month there was this:

California is close to adopting strict Obama-era federal environmental and worker safety rules that the Trump administration is dismantling. But as the legislative session draws to a close, the proposal faces fierce opposition from the state’s largest water agencies.

To shield California from Trump administration policies, lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow state agencies to lock in protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Fair Labor Standards Act and other bulwark environmental and labor laws that were in place before President Trump took office in January 2017.

The issue is how to fight what is essentially the end of the federal Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and all the rest. Californians like those things and Donald Trump hates them. The battle over this will rage on, but sometimes it’s the small stuff:

Governor Gavin Newsom issued the following statement today following new details emerging on the Trump Administration’s plan to use military construction funds to build a border wall. The plan, which was released this week, will divert $8 million in funding to build the California National Guard’s 146th Airlift Wing flight simulator for C-130J pilots and aircrew members, a critical tool that is used to train and prepare National Guard pilots to provide swift response and assistance during wildfires and other emergencies.

“Instead of focusing on the real threats of wildfires, earthquakes and other natural or man-made disasters, the President is throwing away millions of dollars in critical funds so he can build a giant vanity project that will not make anyone safer. It’s totally backwards, and puts Californians’ safety at risk.”

Trump wants his wall. Go buy rakes, assholes! But then there was this from March:

When President Trump proposed opening nearly the entire U.S. coastline to more offshore oil and gas drilling, the backlash from states seeking exemptions was swift.

Governors, both Republican and Democratic, and state legislatures up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, protested so vigorously that the administration promised to consult with them before finalizing any plans.

Instead, Trump is quietly laying the groundwork to weaken a decades-old federal law that empowers California and other states to slow and even stop offshore development in federal waters.

“Republicans are always supposed to be in favor of states’ rights,” said Richard Charter, who has worked on oil issues for 40 years and is a senior fellow at the marine conservation nonprofit Ocean Foundation. “But this is in fact an effort to take away states’ rights when it comes to offshore drilling.”

But of course this is spite. Real Americans have always resented those Gidget and Beach Blanket movies and surfers and all the Endless Summer crap. This is revenge. Oil spills will ruin all those beaches forever, and as Californians rage, Trump will sneer, and Malibu will become Tulsa. And then those tan and fit and smug Californians will know how the rest of America has to live. No one will ever hear a Beach Boys song again. You people can’t have paradise, damn it!

All of this has not made Donald Trump popular out here, but tonight the streets are closed because of this:

Donald Trump remains unpopular in the state where he lost to Hillary Clinton by a landslide: His job approval ratings in California are among his worst in the country.

But among state Republicans here, it’s a different story. And they’ve snapped up tickets to four sold-out, high-dollar fundraisers for the president.

The events are shrouded in secrecy to a large extent, necessitated by the deep hostility many in the state feel toward the president.

Still, the tickets have sold “faster than Mick Jagger,” laughs former state party chair Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member and a Trump bundler.

Some do love the guy:

The president will fly to Southern California for an evening event in the Beverly Hills-Bel Air 90210 area code. The fundraiser, held during Emmy week – when awards celebrating the television industry, a favorite target of Trump’s commentary, are handed out – is hosted by a longtime supporter, billionaire real estate mogul Geoffrey Palmer.

Palmer, who donated more than $4 million to GOP causes in the 2018 cycle, is one of the early donors to Rebuilding America Now, the pro-Trump super PAC founded by former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort – now serving time for fraud – and Trump business ally Tom Barrack.

Tickets go from $1,000 to $10,000 per couple for a photo op at the event…

Trump never did get an Emmy but he’ll get the money – during Emmy week out here – to rub it in – because he has his own fans now:

Among those eager Republicans ready to write checks to Trump’s campaign are Celeste Greig, a former head of the California Republican Assembly – one of the most conservative grassroots groups in the GOP – who will be at his event in Bel Air.

“I’m going because he’s done a great job, maybe not perfect – but a great job,” said Greig. “Yes, he’s pissed some people off, but that’s what he is… people have to get over that.”

Greig says attendees have been promised appearances by Clint Eastwood – a movie icon who also served as the former mayor of Carmel, Calif. – and Mel Gibson, another conservative Hollywood voice.

And Mel is quite the guy:

On July 28, 2006, Gibson was arrested by Sheriff’s Deputy James Mee of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for driving under the influence (DUI) while speeding in his vehicle with an open container of alcohol, which is illegal in California… According to the arrest report, Gibson exploded into an angry tirade when the arresting officer would not allow him to drive home. Gibson climaxed with the words, “Fucking Jews… the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?”

After the arrest report was leaked on TMZ.com, Gibson issued two apologies through his publicist, and – in a televised interview with Diane Sawyer – he affirmed the accuracy of the quotations. He further apologized for his “despicable” behavior, saying that the comments were “blurted out in a moment of insanity” and asked to meet with Jewish leaders to help him “discern the appropriate path for healing.” After Gibson’s arrest, his publicist said he had entered a recovery program to battle alcoholism…

Gibson’s controversial statements resulted in his being blacklisted in Hollywood for almost a decade.

But then Gibson is a Sedevacantist traditionalist Catholic – the post-Vatican II popes have forfeited their position through their acceptance of heretical teachings connected with the Second Vatican Council and consequently there is at present no known true pope. The Second Vatican Council finally said no one should hate all Jews, clearly heretical teaching, because the Jews killed Jesus! That’s the dispute. And don’t get Gibson started on “niggers” – a word he uses quite a bit – and Gibson will be at Trump’s Alternative Emmys Party – as he perhaps should be.

But this whole business is odd:

President Trump maligned the problem of homelessness in California as he arrived in the nation’s most populous state Tuesday, arguing that people living on the streets here have ruined the “prestige” of two of the state’s most populous cities and suggesting the possibility of federal action.

“We can’t let Los Angeles, San Francisco and numerous other cities destroy themselves by allowing what’s happening,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Silicon Valley, where he hosted a campaign fundraiser to kick off a two-day visit to California.

And there is a plan to do what FDR did with Japanese-Americans to the homeless, to put them in camps perhaps forever, no matter what anyone else says about that:

Under Trump’s direction, the administration has been eyeing sweeping unilateral action on homelessness, with top government officials from multiple agencies touring California this month to formulate a strategy. Housing Secretary Ben Carson was also visiting San Francisco on Tuesday, and had plans to discuss the issue. It is unclear what legal authority the federal government has to clear the streets and how that might be accomplished, however.

But this is a property-values crisis:

As he arrived here, Trump claimed that he had personally heard complaints from tenants in the state, some of them foreigners. He expressed sympathy for real estate investors here and other Californians whose property values or quality of life are threatened.

“In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles or they moved to San Francisco because of the prestige of the city, and all of a sudden they have tents,” Trump said. “Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building, and they want to leave.”

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Trump said, people are living on the “best highways, our best streets, our best entrances to buildings, where people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”

And that drew the expected reaction:

“The president’s remarks are abhorrent. He’s apparently more concerned with the doorways and streets than with the people who are homeless and sleeping on them,” said Diane Yentel, president and chief executive of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

This is not a lack of sympathy, not really. Diane Yentel has sympathy for the homeless. Donald Trump has sympathy for the property owners who spend big money for a “prestige” address and now see it becoming worthless. All the elegance – gone – and all the “class” gone too. These homeless people have ruined everything:

Trump has characterized the homeless problem in California and other places as a “disgrace,” saying this July: “We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate.” He more recently directed aides to figure out “how the hell we can get these people off the streets,” one senior administration official said.

This, then, is a matter of appropriateness, and he’s made sure that has been hammered home:

Fox News has aired at least 18 segments on California homelessness in 2019, according to a review of Fox closed-captioning transcripts.

Those segments are all the same. Who are these disgusting people, if they even are people? And what are they doing in our America? What are they doing in YOUR America?

Philip Bump sums this up:

The focus of his concern, as presented to reporters on Air Force One, wasn’t Americans or homeless veterans, but foreigners who rent or buy high-end real estate, people who get frustrated at seeing those experiencing homelessness at the entrance to their office buildings. It’s the sort of complaint that might resonate with someone who owns real estate in major U.S. cities that is used for housing or office space.

Someone, in other words, like Donald Trump, whose Trump Organization owns 30 percent of what used to be known as the Bank of America tower in San Francisco, an office building in that city. The Trump Organization also owns properties in Los Angeles and, of course, New York City.

Trump has been in the business of appealing to real estate investors for a lot longer than he’s been in the business of running the United States, so it’s not really a surprise he would view the homelessness problem through the lens of someone who needs to get people to see Trump Tower as the pinnacle of refinement.

So this had to happen, but with a twist:

It’s remarkable that Trump went as far as to frame this as a concern for foreign tenants. Foreign investors are central to much of the high-end real estate market, prompting Donald Trump Jr. in 2008 to remark that “in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”

But even if that is a central concern of Trump’s in this case, it seems odd to mention it explicitly. To reporters, it’s apparently about tax bases and appealing to the foreign market.

These, it seems, are the sorts of immigrants that Trump is happy to welcome, the sorts who want to ensure the properties they buy are prestigious.

If we need to move those experiencing homelessness to an old FAA building, so be it.

But there is a problem with that very cool building – designed by Cesar Pelli and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Someone bought it and is turning it into something snazzy again. And this isn’t a real estate problem. Lives have been ruined. How can the government help? These are real people. These are our fellow citizens. The government should help its citizens.

Donald Trump doesn’t think that way. He wants to embarrass California. The state rejected him. This is still about revenge, and he seems to think he has found the ultimate revenge:

The Trump administration plans this week to revoke California’s long-standing right to set stricter air pollution standards for cars and light trucks, the latest step in a broad campaign to undermine Obama-era policies aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, two senior administration officials said.

The move threatens to set in motion a massive legal battle between California and the federal government, plunge automakers into a prolonged period of uncertainty and create turmoil in the nation’s auto market.

And there’s only one question here, about Californians. Who do these people think they are? That is how this is being framed:

The Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment on the matter. But in a speech Tuesday to the National Automobile Dealers Association, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made his intentions clear.

“We embrace federalism and the role of the states, but federalism does not mean that one state can dictate standards for the nation,” he said.

Well, we’ll see about that:

Already, 13 states and the District of Columbia have vowed to adopt California’s standards if they diverge from the federal government’s standards, as have several major automakers. California leaders on Tuesday said they will fight any challenge to their autonomy.

“While the White House has abdicated its responsibility to the rest of the world on cutting emissions and fighting global warming, California has stepped up,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said. “It’s a move that could have devastating consequences for our kids’ health and the air we breathe, if California were to roll over. But we will not.”

Echoing the governor, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration on a range of issues, vowed to head back to court, saying California’s clean car standards are “achievable, science-based, and a boon for hard-working American families and public health.”

What is Trump thinking? You didn’t vote for me, so die, you arrogant bastards who think you’re so damned cool? The rest of America hates you as much as I do!

That may not be so:

Trump’s move is likely to be unpopular nationwide and in California, with Americans widely supportive of stricter fuel efficiency standards. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Friday found 66 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s plan to freeze fuel efficiency standards rather than enforce the Obama administration’s targets for 2025.

A nearly identical 67 percent majority says they support state governments setting stricter fuel efficiency targets than the federal government.

Among Californians, the survey found 68 percent oppose Trump’s relaxation of mileage standards, while 61 percent support California’s stricter standards.

What did he expect? This is life and death, and not all that complicated:

The standoff began last year, when the EPA and Transportation Department proposed taking away California’s waiver as part of a rule that would freeze mileage standards for these vehicles at roughly 37 miles per gallon from 2020 to 2026. The Obama-era standards had required these fleets to average nearly 51 mpg by model year 2025.

In July, California forged an agreement with four companies – Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW of North America – under which they pledged to produce fleets averaging nearly 50 mpg by model year 2026. The Justice Department has opened an inquiry into whether the accord violated antitrust law.

That may be hard to prove. Those four car companies see the whole world, going green. They’re just aligning with California, and the worldwide future, but that will be dangerous:

By seeking to strip California of its autonomy, Trump officials are forcing auto companies to choose whether they will side with the state or with the federal government. As part of July’s deal with the California Air Resources Board, the four carmakers agreed to support the state’s right to set its own tailpipe standards.

Environmentalists promised to join California in its legal opposition.

“There’s nothing in the Clean Air Act or EPA regulations providing for this unprecedented action,” Martha Roberts, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an interview. “The legislative history is explicit about broad authority for California. This is very well established legal authority that’s firmly anchored in the Clean Air Act.”

But they could lose and be forced to build cars to Trump’s standards, not to California’s or the world’s evolving standards, given the science:

The state’s air regulators have consistently argued that they are limiting carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles, rather than overtly setting mileage standards.

Margo Oge, who directed the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, said in an interview that California can make a strong case that it needs to curb these pollutants because climate change worsens ozone, which helps create smog.

“California has demonstrated that by getting a greenhouse gas emissions waiver, it can also reduce ozone pollution, because the data is very strong,” she said.

Obama administration officials acknowledged that efforts to curb CO2 emissions from autos are inextricably linked to stricter mileage standards. The 2010 rule published by EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted that nearly 95 percent of emissions from cars and light trucks stem from motor fuel combustion.

And there are memories of the old days:

California’s long-standing ability to write its own emissions standards has seldom been questioned in Washington. In part, that’s because of the history that led to the state’s unique authority.

Smog in Los Angeles had become crippling at times throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. As scientists focused on motor vehicle exhaust as a key culprit, state officials worked to develop the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards in 1966.

The following year, the state’s new Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, established the California Air Resources Board to undertake a statewide effort to address widespread air pollution.

Why is Donald Trump sneering at Ronald Reagan? But yes, blame Ronald Reagan:

As it crafted landmark clean-air legislation for the country, Congress granted California special status, saying the state could request a “waiver” to require stricter tailpipe standards if it provided a compelling reason for why they were needed.

Over time, emissions control strategies first adopted by California – catalytic converters, regulations on oxides of nitrogen, and “check engine” systems, to name a few – have become standard across the country.

Can we get rid of all that? Should we get rid of all that?

All of this would have been much easier if Hollywood had only given Trump an Emmy or two, or three or four, fifteen or twenty years ago. He wouldn’t be seeking revenge now. He wouldn’t be trying to end California. He might have not run for president and then gained the power to end California. But he can now. Someone needs to talk to those Emmy people. Perhaps it’s not too late.

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Regarding Effective Management

Effective management is a skill set that can be learned. Or it’s a gift that some people have and others will never have. Or it’s a personality disorder – a kind of curse, a compulsion to organize that can’t be turned off. Or there’s no such thing and effective management just happens, by luck. And then there’s bad management, and incompetent managers who say they’re wonderfully competent. And then there’s Donald Trump. Those who write about business and management had his number from the start. On the anniversary of Trump’s first year in office, the New York Times’ James Stewart summed up the situation this way:

Throughout his presidential campaign Donald J. Trump extolled his business acumen and management skills, and just before his inauguration he insisted the transition to his administration was going “very, very smoothly.”

Yet so chaotic was his first year in office that in January after publication of the Michael Wolff tell-all, “Fire and Fury,” the president had to publicly defend himself as a “stable genius.”

The White House suffered a staff turnover rate of 34 percent during Mr. Trump’s first year, a rate that would be unfathomable at nearly any for-profit enterprise. Even by political standards, it’s off the charts – triple that of the Obama administration, and twice that of Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder – according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

What happened? Stewart asked around. He got answers:

“It’s much worse than I expected,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University and the author of “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.”

“The most important thing you need as a chief executive is the ability to hire and retain talent,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “Trump said he’d get all these great people to work for him. But the rate of departures is unprecedented. Either he hired badly, or he hired well but couldn’t retain them. Either way, this reflects badly on his leadership.”

And there was more:

Mr. Trump does appear to solicit and consider the opinions of others, but they are as likely to be random guests at Mar-a-Lago, or television pundits, as they are experts in the field, or even his own appointees.

“The lack of attention to data drives me nuts,” Mr. Pfeffer said. Mr. Trump, he said, “seems to have no interest in science, social science or data,” citing White House initiatives to repeal Obamacare and to rescue the coal industry as glaring examples.

But the man hates data. Everyone knew that all along. That’s why his base loved him. He decides from his gut, not his brain, and that’s much more authentic or American or whatever. But there also this way of looking at this man’s management style:

“Nothing about the chaos and turnover in the White House surprises me,” said Charles M. Elson, a professor and director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

“He hasn’t changed in 30 years,” Mr. Elson added. “He isn’t bound by any traditional norms of management.”

Mr. Elson said Mr. Trump acted more like the typical entrepreneur than an experienced manager. “A problem with entrepreneurs is that people get tired of it and they move on,” he said. “People just get worn out. At some point you need a real manager. A lot of entrepreneurs sell their businesses when they reach a certain size and they realize they can’t manage them.”

But more than two years have passed and that was never an option anyway. Donald Trump is stuck with what he has, and he really is stuck. The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan reports on how stuck he is:

President Trump has said Iran is the greatest threat in the Middle East, a would-be nuclear power that he has brought low through the stiffest sanctions ever applied to a single nation. He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded” to punish Iran if it is found to be responsible for the attack on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.

But Trump has also eagerly courted a sit-down negotiation with the leader of Iran, called off a military strike earlier this year because it could have killed too many Iranians and flirted with a plan to offer Tehran a $15 billion lifeline to help it deal with the crushing U.S. sanctions.

On Monday in the Oval Office, Trump told reporters “we don’t want war with anybody” and then less than an hour later said he thinks a U.S. military strike on an Iranian oil facility would be a proportional response.

Which is it? No one knew, because he didn’t know:

Trump is caught between a political imperative to confront Iran – pleasing hawkish Republican supporters and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia – and his own political instincts against foreign intervention and toward cutting a deal.

But uncertainty over where Trump stands has complicated every other foreign policy challenge the United States faces in the Middle East, unnerved Israel and helped push out the administration’s leading Iran hawk, former national security adviser John Bolton.

“It’s not the way you do diplomacy” and heightens the risk of “miscalculation” on both the Iranian and U.S. sides, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said Monday during an interview with MSNBC. Cardin is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Trump, however, did have a plan:

Trump’s dual approach on Iran is premised on the idea that by walking out of the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran and replacing the pact’s concessions with new sanctions, Trump can both please the hawks and force Iran to the bargaining table for a deal that would carry the Trump brand.

But the hawks like Bolton weren’t pleased – they wanted regime change over there, not a deal – and Iran wasn’t feeling forced into anything. They had the rest of the world on their side and Trump has a mess:

Trump would be the first U.S. president to meet an Iranian president since the 1970s, an idea that appeals to him, said advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the president’s views. He has made an offer that has no precedent since the Islamic republic was born out of a bitterly anti-American revolution in 1979, saying repeatedly that he would sit down with “no conditions.”

Political allies have also advised Trump that a military attack could escalate and hurt him with key supporters who like his “America First” pledge to limit U.S. obligations overseas, one senior administration official and one outside adviser said Monday.

Although Trump campaigned in 2016 on closing down what he called endless wars, he has not brought troops home from Afghanistan or Iraq and would not want to head into reelection next year saddled with a new conflict in the Middle East, these advisers said. To do so would hand Democrats a compelling argument that Trump bumbled his way into a war, according to one of the advisers.

Gearan, however, notes the real problem everyone saw from the start:

He wants to best the legacy of former president Barack Obama.

Under that umbrella, the locked-and-loaded comment on Sunday comes from a desire to confront a tough adversary with greater toughness, something he says Obama failed to do. And the invitation to Iran to negotiate comes from Trump’s thinking that he can drive a harder bargain than his predecessor.

Trump particularly wants to show up traditional foreign policy hands and U.S. allies who point to the 2015 nuclear deal as a signature Obama achievement, people who have discussed Iran policy with him said.

Trump himself pointed out how his deal would be different from Obama’s last week when he said Iran wants a deal.

“We cannot let Iran have a nuclear weapon, and they never will have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said Wednesday. “And if they’re thinking about enrichment, they can forget about it, because it’s going to be very, it’s going to be very dangerous for them to enrich.”

That was Obama’s deal. Trump is not managing anything well, but the Post’s Ashley Parker notes an even odder part of his management style:

President Trump has used it with groups and individuals. He has used it for family members and employees. And he has bestowed it on Washington politicians and middle-of-the-country farmers.

For Trump, the possessive pronoun “my” is a term of endearment – one he dispenses with freely, from “my generals” to “my Peter” Navarro, one of the president’s senior economic advisers, to “my little Melania,” his wife.

Trump uses the pronoun affectionately, part of an almost subconscious effort to shine warmth on someone in his orbit, say current and former aides, who describe the linguistic tic as a doting gesture. But others say the habit can also seem belittling and, for Trump, that it may be as much about dominance and control as familiarity.

This does seem like manipulation:

Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer who is critical of the president, said that while he has never heard the president use the phrase dismissively – “he always uses it to convey you’re part of the home team,” O’Brien said – the practical reality is more complicated.

“He thinks he’s conveying a compliment to the people he says it about, but in fact, it’s not really about putting them on equal footing,” said O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. “I read anytime President Trump starts a statement with ‘my’ that it’s completely in the possessive, and it’s about ownership, and it’s about control.”

And with Trump, O’Brien added, the modifier provides only minute-to-minute reassurance. “You can go from being ‘my’ to being gone in a tweet that goes out in 15 seconds,” he said.

In short, consider it a threat, and one often made:

The president’s preferred possessive was in the spotlight most recently on Friday, when the Wall Street Journal reported that as Trump awaited Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at the Group of Seven summit last month in France, he jokingly called out, “Where’s my favorite dictator?”

In response, Maggie Haberman, a New York Times reporter who covers the White House, tweeted a “partial list of people the president has recently referred to as ‘my,’ ” including Sissi, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, an unnamed reporter and an unidentified African American man at one of his campaign rallies.

Indeed, Trump deploys “my” widely and frequently. Just before his January 2017 inauguration, the president-elect gazed across a ballroom during a celebratory lunch at the Trump International Hotel and used the diminutive for then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) – a pet name that was viewed as verbal evidence of the two men’s strong political relationship.

“Where’s Kevin,” Trump asked. “There’s my Kevin.”

And there’s this:

Trump also refers to “my farmers” with some regularity. Speaking in the Roosevelt Room in May in solidarity with the nation’s farmers and ranchers, the president was clear in his support: “I have to take care of my farmers with disaster relief,” he said.

A month earlier, at a rally in Michigan, Trump urged the nation’s farmers to hold tough in his trade wars with China and the European Union, saying, “There may be a little pain for a little while, but ultimately for my farmers, I love my farmers.”

Trump also regularly refers to “my generals” and “my military,” seeming to assert a type of ownership over the nation’s civilian defense institutions that has irked some in the U.S. military community.

He seems to be saying he owns you, so don’t cross him or he’ll destroy you, but the military is not his:

Former Army Officer Mark Hertling recently told Business Insider he found Trump’s language “extremely offensive.”

“The US military belongs to the nation, not the president. We’re not his,” Hertling said.

Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and director of the CIA, has also objected to the president’s choice of words.

“When it comes to the military, the military belongs to the country. Our defense system belongs to the country. And it’s not the president’s military, it’s the military of the United States of America,” Panetta said on MSNBC in April.

“He has responsibility obviously, as commander in chief, to be able to make decisions with regards to our military. But I think if you ask the men and women in uniform who they are responsible to, I think their answer would be, ‘We’re responsible to the United States of America.'”

Perhaps so, but Parker notes this:

Trump has also referred to “my base” in almost paternalistic terms, such as last month when, shortly before boarding Marine One, he was asked by reporters whether his base supported background checks for gun purchases.

“I think my base relies very much on common sense, and they rely on me, in terms of telling them what’s happening,” the president said.

That’s beyond paternalistic and Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor and a professor of public policy at the UC Berkeley – and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good – sees more than confused bad management. Reich sees this:

In retrospect, what’s most disturbing about “Sharpiegate” isn’t Trump’s clumsy effort to doctor a National Weather Service map or even his brazen move to get the same agency to lie on his behalf.

It is how utterly petty his motive was. We’ve had presidents trying to cover up a sexual liaison with an intern and a botched burglary, but never have we had one who went to such lengths to cover up an inaccurate weather forecast. Alabama being hit by a hurricane? Friends, this is not rational behavior.

Trump also cancelled a meeting with the Taliban at Camp David. The meeting was to have been secret. It was scheduled for the week of the anniversary of 9/11. He cancelled it by tweet.

Does any of this strike you as even remotely rational?

Before that, Trump cancelled a state visit to Denmark because Denmark wouldn’t sell Greenland to the US. Hello? Greenland wasn’t for sale. The US no longer buys populated countries. The state visit had been planned for months.

He has repeatedly told senior officials to explore using nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes hitting the US. He believes video games cause mass shootings. He thinks climate change is no big deal.

He says trade wars are “good and easy to win”. He insists it’s Chinese rather than US consumers who pay his tariffs. He “orders” American firms to stop doing business in China.

He calls the chairman of the Federal Reserve an “enemy”. He retweets a comedian’s sick suggestion that the Clintons were responsible for the suicide of convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

And thus this:

I think we have to face the truth that no one seems to want to admit. This is no longer a case of excessive narcissism or grandiosity. We’re not simply dealing with an unusually large ego.

The president of the United States is seriously, frighteningly, dangerously unstable. And he’s getting worse by the day.

But there’s a problem:

It’s almost too late for an impeachment. Besides, no president has ever been sent packing. Nixon resigned because he saw it coming. Trump would sooner start a civil war.

Also, being unstable is not an impeachable offense.

The rest is an argument for invoking the 25th Amendment, and an admission that that’s a longshot. But something has to be done. Alberto Nardelli reports this:

It has become Donald Trump’s anecdote of choice for world leaders. At the last two G7 summit meetings – which bring together the heads of government of Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, the UK and the US – the president has launched into the same lengthy monologue about what a “great guy” Kim Jong Un is.

The story got its latest outing at last month’s summit in Biarritz, France, as the world leaders were gathered around the table for the formal meeting. When the discussion turned to North Korea – which had spent much of the month firing short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in a serious threat to stability in the region – Trump went off on a tangent, spending some 10 minutes rambling about his great relationship with Kim, leaving the other G7 leaders mostly speechless, three sources with direct knowledge of the discussions told BuzzFeed News.

All the leaders – apart from new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was making his G7 debut – had heard Trump tell the exact same story the same way the last time they all gathered round the summit table, in Canada last year.

That is an old man telling the same joke to the same people over and over, and it’s not that good of a joke:

When Trump first met Kim, in Singapore in June last year, the two men talked about the tweets that Trump had posted in 2017, nicknaming the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man.”

In Trump’s retelling, during a back-and-forth exchange about the name-calling the two men had engaged in over many months before the meeting in Singapore – “You called me fat… and then you called me this,” – Kim asks Trump why he’d called him that.

“Don’t you know Elton John? It’s a great song,” the president, who is a big fan of the British musician, says.

To which Kim responds, “But you called me ‘little.'”

Then comes Trump’s punchline: “That’s what he didn’t like!”

And everyone is supposed to laugh, but that stopped happening long ago:

Trump repeating the same anecdote about Elton John and a brutal dictator to a bemused set of world leaders sounds like the latest Twitter joke about America’s president…

But Trump’s G7 soliloquy is not a parody. And it captures a more serious truth of the Trump administration: the president, viewed from afar as a dangerous buffoon by his liberal critics, often elicits a similar response from other world leaders who deal with him up close.

The real-life outbursts behind the closed doors of a high-level summit are not very different to what people see on his Twitter feed. While one source dryly described the ramblings on Kim as “very entertaining,” they’re laughing at him, not with him, and it is behavior like this that has dramatically undermined the president’s global political power at a time when the US is trying to build support for action against China and Iran.

Trump’s words and views about Kim in private are not too dissimilar to those he has expressed many times before in public, another G7 source noted.

And now this is simply embarrassing:

A source emphasized the absurdity of Trump departing on a strange tangent in the middle of serious G7 discussions to wax lyrical about Kim.

Trump described Kim as “brutal” but at the same time explained “what a great guy he was,” the source recalled. Trump then went on to tell the other leaders how Kim had risen to power aged only 25 in a difficult environment.

“He is so fascinated with him,” a source said. “He has a childish fascination with brutality,” they added, before speculating that in part this was possibly a convoluted way for Trump to express how tough he was in dealing with Kim.

His remarks had no coherent thread or real purpose, according to the source.

Johnson, the UK prime minister, briefly tried to engage, the source said. “The other leaders just sat back, and didn’t know what to say.”

No one knows what to say now, although Eugene Robinson suggests this:

I want to hear the Democratic presidential candidates explain, convincingly, how they’re going to beat Donald Trump. Then I want to hear how they propose to repair the devastating damage Trump has done to all three branches of government – and to our trust in our institutions.

But he also admits that might be too much to ask:

One of the most underreported stories about the Trump administration is its basic incompetence. Perhaps Trump’s biggest con of all was convincing his supporters that he was some sort of business wizard with a genius for management. In truth, the Trump Organization was a mom-and-pop family business that he repeatedly micromanaged to the brink of collapse. He is doing exactly the same with the government of the United States.

The White House itself is less like “The West Wing” than “Game of Thrones.” Courtiers vie for the favor of the Mad King, unable or unwilling to perform normal duties for fear of risking Trump’s ire. Usually, the White House is a place where information from outside sources is synthesized and digested so the president can make the best possible decisions. Under Trump, the flow is reversed – his whims, however ill-informed or contradictory or just plain loopy, are tweeted out and must be made into policy.

And that has consequences:

Agencies vital to our national security – including the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency – lumber along, month after month, without permanent leadership. “It’s easier to make moves when they’re acting,” Trump has said, but really the situation reflects his own insecurity. By keeping his underlings weak and beholden only to him, he limits their power – and thus hamstrings the departments they nominally lead.

So the first job of the next president will be to restock the executive branch with the kind of competent, dedicated professionals who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations in the past. This will be a big endeavor, but it’s relatively straightforward.

But then there’s this:

More difficult is figuring out how to address the damage Trump has done to the legislative branch. With the help of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Trump has rendered Congress all but impotent. Even measures with upward of 90 percent public support, such as universal background checks for gun purchases, cannot get an up-or-down vote because Senate Republicans are so terrified of Trump’s displeasure.

And there’s this:

Hardest of all will be fixing what Trump has done to the judicial branch. Trump and McConnell have confirmed more than 150 new federal judges, most of them far-right ideologues. Their impact on jurisprudence in the coming decades will be bad; their impact on public perception of the judiciary is already worse.

We need to be able to believe that justice is blind, that our judges are fair and impartial – including those who serve on the ultimate tribunal, the Supreme Court. Trump’s brazen court-packing threatens to shatter that belief, and I don’t know whether anything but probity and time can restore that faith.

There may not be enough probity and time in the whole universe to fix this, but the nation was fooled. This was not a business wizard with a genius for management. He only said that. Why did anyone believe him? Effective management may be a skill set, or a gift, or a curse, but it can be observed. Has everyone seen enough yet?

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When It’s Too Late

This is getting tiresome. Sometimes it really is too late:

Several Democratic presidential candidates called for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh on Sunday after the New York Times published new information about allegations of sexual misconduct against him, while Republican leaders condemned the reporting as irresponsible and defended him.

President Trump on Twitter accused news outlets of trying to pressure the justice into taking more liberal positions and suggested, without elaborating, that the “Justice Department should come to his rescue.”

It’s too late. He was confirmed to the Supreme Court. His appointment is a lifetime appointment, and impeachment is impossible. As with a presidential impeachment, the House would bring charges and the Senate would try him. And the Senate is firmly Republican. They would refuse to try him. They’d shrug. And the Senate has been Republican since the 2010 midterms – the Tea Party takeover. And even if all this is true, which it very well might be, Kavanaugh is the key vote that will one day, soon, overturn Roe and make abortion illegal – and birth control is next – and then maybe the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Does no one read Margaret Atwood? She’s at it again:

When Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, the Christian right was on the rise in the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed an indelible element of the global political landscape. It would be a mistake to think that the former had a greater influence on Atwood’s masterpiece than the latter. True, the novelist has said that, before writing it, she’d been researching the small-scale theocracies the Puritans established in colonial America. (That’s one reason the book is set in Massachusetts.) But The Handmaid’s Tale is a direct descendant of George Orwell’s 1984, the kind of bleak literary contemplation of the human spirit under the totalitarian regimes that flourished in the post-World War II era, when it often felt like such states were inevitable. “Always, at every moment,” Winston Smith’s torturer tells him in Orwell’s novel, “there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

Atwood’s Gilead is that kind of place, and it’s infused with the understanding that, for much of human history, most places were that kind of place if you had the misfortune to be a woman. The citizens of Gilead spend remarkably little time thinking about God or Scripture, and its leaders, even less so. Ideology – communism, fascism, religion, racial supremacism – merely provides a rationale for the exercise of raw power and conveniently designates a class of victims and slaves. “The same wailings from the new arrivals, the same barking and shouts from the guards,” a character in Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, recalls of Gilead’s convulsive birth. “How tedious is a tyranny in the throes of enactment. It’s always the same plot.”

And the victims and slaves are women. They’re entirely disposable. They don’t matter at all. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever – or follow the current news:

On Saturday, The Times published an essay in its Opinion section adapted from a forthcoming book “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation,” by two Times reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, who helped cover his confirmation hearings.

The reporters wrote that they spent 10 months investigating the allegations of sexual misconduct and assault at the center of the hearings, including one by a former Yale classmate, Deborah Ramirez. She recalled being at a dorm party where participants were drinking heavily, and Mr. Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face, prompting her to swat it away and inadvertently touch it.

While Senate investigators concluded at the time that Ms. Ramirez’s account lacked corroboration, the authors said at least seven people “heard about the Yale incident long before Mr. Kavanaugh was a federal judge,” including Ms. Ramirez’s mother and two classmates who learned of it just days after the party.

The book also reports that Ms. Ramirez’s lawyers gave the FBI a list of at least 25 people who may have had corroborating evidence, but that the bureau interviewed none of them.

No one should have expected anything else. That’s the boot on the face, but was too late to do anything about this many years ago. Democrats now want to impeach Kavanaugh. Donald Trump now wants his very own justice department to shut down the New York Times once and for all. Neither will happen. And no one should expect anything else. And people will keep reading Margaret Atwood. She’s Canadian. She keeps an eye on things down here. And she knew it was too late for us long ago.

And it’s too late to stop the new war:

President Trump said Sunday that the United States was prepared to respond to the devastating attacks on two oil installations in Saudi Arabia that halved the state oil company’s production output, while Iran rejected U.S. accusations that it was responsible.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit,” Trump said in a tweet Sunday evening. He said the United States was “locked and loaded depending on verification.”

Trump did not name Iran, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had on Saturday, or specify whether he was contemplating a military response. He said he was waiting to hear from the Saudis on “who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

What? Long ago, Congress outsourced any declaration of war to the president. Let him wage full-scale war – in Korea – and then in Vietnam – and then in Afghanistan and the Iraq. Just do it, and come back sixty days later for an actual “authorization to use force” – which is almost always automatic but not really a “declaration” of war. The original Constitution is too dangerous. Congress will no longer touch that “declaring war” business. Let the president take the political heat for any war that might go bad. And now Donald Trump had outsourced this declaration of war to the Saudi government. We’re locked and loaded. They’ll tell is what to do and when.

And no one would dare to argue with Trump on this:

Some in the Pentagon were said to be urging restraint. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

They know better than to discuss, openly, the idea of letting the Saudis tell us when and where to go to war and with whom. Trump seems to be fine with that. He’ll handle other details:

Oil futures jumped Sunday evening as markets opened for the first time since the attacks. The price of Brent crude surged 18 percent before falling back to a 12 percent increase; the U.S. benchmark West Texas intermediate climbed 12 percent before easing to a 10 percent gain. Trump said he had authorized the release of oil from strategic reserves, “if needed,” to blunt the market impact of the attacks.

He’s just waiting for the Saudi decision, but there are complications:

The attacks on Saturday could upend Trump’s hopes for new U.S.-Iran negotiations, an effort in which he has faced opposition from close ally Israel and many of his own hawkish foreign policy aides. Trump said last week that he would not rule out a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this month.

But the Iranians refuse to meet with him. He has to lift his nasty sanctions first. Then they’ll talk. And of course he fired John Bolton because Bolton told him not to lift the damned sanctions for just a chance to talk. Those sanctions are leverage. Don’t give that leverage away. And now he’s ready for war with Iran. Go figure.

And things are murky:

The Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen allied with Iran, asserted responsibility for the attacks, saying they had sent a fleet of drones toward the Aramco facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, which said on Saturday that it was still probing the source of the attack, was silent on Sunday about the possible culprit. Media outlets in Kuwait, which sits between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, reported that officials were investigating a drone sighting over the country, deepening the mystery.

Anyone can claim anything, but all of this is heading in a bad direction:

The possibility that Iran had played a direct role in an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure unnerved a region already reeling from multiple conflicts: a war in Yemen, a feud between Qatar and its neighbors, and the confrontation between the United States and Iran.

And our president seems confused:

The United States blamed Iran for mysterious attacks on commercial tankers in the Persian Gulf region; in June, Iranian forces shot down a U.S. Navy spy drone. The incident nearly prompted a U.S. counterstrike. Trump said he called off the attack at the last minute, saying it would be disproportionate and a hindrance to diplomacy.

That incident opened a window on Trump’s dual approach to Iran, which has increasingly included invitations for negotiations to replace the 2015 deal with one he says would be stronger.

Trump’s desire to meet Rouhani with no preconditions has roiled his own advisers and was a factor in last week’s departure of national security adviser John Bolton. Bolton opposed calling off the strikes in June and was deeply skeptical of the value of new diplomacy with Iran. A person close to Bolton said Saturday that Bolton had submitted his resignation after a suggestion from Trump a week ago that the United States could drop some sanctions as a sweetener for talks.

But what does Trump want, Obama’s nuclear deal back in force so he can call it his own, or just being done with this and turning Iran to no more than smoking rubble if the Saudis tell him to do that? And they may not:

Houthi spokesman Mohammed Albukhaiti reiterated the group’s claim that it had carried out the strikes. “We confirm that the Yemeni forces are the ones who hit the oil fields, and everyone knows our credibility, in every attack we announce,” he said in a telephone interview.

“We don’t need to provide evidence,” he added, and pointed out that Pompeo had not provided any proof that strikes had come from Iran or Iraq.

They may be protecting Iran but that hardly matters now:

The weekend incident will probably heighten concerns at the Pentagon that increasing tensions with Iran expose U.S. troops, who are stationed at facilities across the Middle East, to greater risk of Iranian-sponsored attack.

Israeli officials said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not expected to comment on the strikes in Saudi Arabia or Pompeo’s assertion of Iran’s role.

We may lose troops but Netanyahu has his own problems. There’s an election there in a few days. He may be tossed out. But he does have Trump in his pocket:

President Trump said he had discussed a possible new defense pact with Israel during a phone call Saturday with Benjamin Netanyahu, highlighting the Israeli prime minister’s close ties to the Trump administration days before Netanyahu faces a difficult reelection vote.

Trump did not promise to install a mutual defense pact, nor divulge further details of the conversation. The idea is generally popular in Israel, where the United States is the most important ally and defense partner.

“I had a call today with Prime Minister Netanyahu to discuss the possibility of moving forward with a Mutual Defense Treaty, between the United States and Israel, that would further anchor the tremendous alliance… between our two countries,” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets Saturday.

The language of the tweets suggests he is contemplating a formal treaty, which would have to be submitted to the Senate for ratification.

They might or might not ratify a treaty that says that any attack on Israel, from a few rocks thrown by Palestinian teenagers to nukes from Iran, is an attack on the United States itself. The model is NATO which Trump hates but this is Israel. So this is a matter of the new geopolitical alignments:

Ahead of Israel’s early parliamentary election next week, Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Kremlin has an interest in who wins power.

Putin spoke Thursday at the opening of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

Putin says “over 1½ million immigrants from the Soviet Union live in Israel. We always considered them our people, compatriots. And, of course, we are not indifferent to what kind of people will come into the Israeli parliament.”

It’s a club – Trump and Netanyahu and Putin and the new Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia, and this guy too:

President Trump left a group of officials in “stunned silence” last month when he called out for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in a Paris hotel, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Where’s my favorite dictator?” Trump asked within earshot of several US and Egyptian officials attending the G7 summit.

Kim Jong-un must be jealous. But they’re all part of the same club now. And there will a war, because, as Max Boot explains, Trump has a favorite:

Saturday’s attacks on two major Saudi oil facilities appear to represent a sharp escalation in the struggle for regional primacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A drone strike was said to have knocked out half of the Saudis’ daily oil production. The Houthi rebel group in Yemen assumed responsibility, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pinned the blame on Iran.

This is a claim that Iran denies and that few may take on faith given how often the administration has lied about even minor matters. President Trump and his aides just tried to falsify information about a hurricane. Why believe them about an attack in the Middle East?

Nevertheless, it appears, based on the sophistication of this attack, that Iran is indeed the real culprit. The Houthis have their own grudge against the Saudis, who have been waging a brutal war against them, but they lack the sophistication to carry out such a surgical strike without a lot of help from their allies in Tehran.

But even so, that hardly matters now:

At the root of the problem is Trump’s decision to outsource Middle East leadership to Israel and Saudi Arabia – unlikely allies united by their mutual (and understandable) antipathy toward the Iranian regime.

And it’s far too late to fix that:

Previous presidents have long made their first trips abroad to Canada or Mexico. Trump instead went to Riyadh in May 2017. He was delighted by the reception he received from the Saudi royals, who fawned over him and made sure there were no pesky protesters to be seen. (Protesting in the kingdom can get you beheaded.) In return for an empty promise to buy $350 billion of U.S. weaponry (the actual figure is less than $30 billion, and most of the sales already occurred), Trump gave Mohammed bin Salman (better known as “MBS”) a blank check to cash however he saw fit.

And that’s just what he did:

Within a month, MBS had staged a palace coup to elevate himself from deputy crown prince to crown prince, thereby making him the undisputed power behind the throne of his elderly father, King Salman. MBS did a few good things with his unlimited authority – notably letting Saudi women drive – but for the most part he has used his power recklessly and maliciously.

MBS launched a blockade of Qatar, another important U.S. ally, in an unsuccessful effort to pressure its royal family to stop supporting Islamist causes. He locked up some of the kingdom’s wealthiest men to extort money he claimed they had acquired corruptly. He kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon in a failed attempt to force him to stand up to Iran’s proxies in Lebanon. He escalated the war against the Houthis, creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Yemen (10 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine) without dislodging the Houthis. And, of course, he was almost certainly responsible for the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Ah, but he is a member of that exclusive club:

Every step of the way, Trump either cheered the Saudis on or looked the other way from their appalling misconduct. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted after MBS locked up dozens of wealthy Saudis without trial… Yet Trump keeps covering for the Saudis: He refuses to name MBS as the culprit behind Khashoggi’s murder and he has vetoed two bills to end U.S. support for the bloody war in Yemen. Most significant of all, Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal in spite of Iran’s compliance – just as his friends in Riyadh and Jerusalem urged him to.

And now things get darker:

Iran is signaling that it will break out of the fuel enrichment limits of the nuclear deal and that it will not scale back its destabilizing activities. Israel has responded by stepping up airstrikes against Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. A costly war with Iran that could drag in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States looms ever closer.

And now it’s too late to stop that:

In recent months, Trump seemed to be having second thoughts about his misguided approach to Iran. Hence his decision to get rid of national security adviser John Bolton, an anti-Iran uber-hawk, and has signaled his openness to talks with Iran – even to easing Iran sanctions. The attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure will make it harder for Trump to compromise; if the Iranian regime was responsible, it may have just shot itself in the foot.

A sponsor of terrorism and a heinous human rights abuser Iran deserves an outsize share of the blame for destabilizing the Middle East. But Trump has only aggravated the crisis by blindly backing his friends in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The attack on Saudi oil production is only the latest blowback — and far from the last.

And when did this all start?

That would be Tuesday, November 8, 2016. Donald Trump entered office with no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he had no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. That was the general idea.

That was good enough for just enough voters in just the right places – and that was the day when it was already too late to do anything about any of this. Justice Kavanaugh will stay and it will be war with Iran. And yes, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. Welcome to Gilead, where it’s always too late.

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No Surprises Now

Donald Trump has been in office for two and a half years and there are no surprises. He wakes up before dawn, alone and angry, and rage-tweets. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve is an enemy of the state. Everyone at the Wall Street Journal is a fool. Fox News has abandoned him so America should abandon Fox News. This or that celebrity is a real loser. Kim Jong-un is a wonderful person, and so is Vladimir Putin. And the Democratic Party is a terrorist organization, and full of racists who hate blacks and Hispanics and Asians – and they hate religion too. And all our allies are screwing us. They’ve been doing that for years. We need to slap them around. And we don’t need China, we don’t need their goods and services, and we don’t need access to that market – so we’ll destroy them with tariffs. It’ll be fun. And then Donald Trump starts his day – three or four hours watching Fox News and the morning talk shows, and then off to the office downstairs just before noon. And the nation shrugs. This is how things are. None of this is surprising anymore.

Nothing is going to change, not now, and that means there are people who now feel freed:

Gregory Cheadle, the black man President Donald Trump once described at a rally as “my African American,” is fed up.

After two years of frustration with the president’s rhetoric on race and the lack of diversity in the administration, Cheadle told PBS NewsHour he has decided to leave the Republican Party and run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representative as an independent in 2020.

Now, the 62-year-old real estate broker, who supported the Republican approach to the economy, said he sees the party as pursuing a “pro-white” agenda and using black people like him as “political pawns.” The final straw for Cheadle came when he watched many Republicans defend Trump’s tweets telling four congresswomen of color, who are all American citizens, to go back to their countries, as well as defend the president’s attacks on Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and his comments that Cummings’ hometown of Baltimore is “infested.”

“President Trump is a rich guy who is mired in white privilege to the extreme,” said Cheadle, of Redding, Calif., who switched from being an independent to a Republican in 2001. “Republicans are too sheepish to call him out on anything and they are afraid of losing their positions and losing any power themselves.”

Gregory Cheadle had waited. He had expected Donald Trump to pivot to something that Donald Trump never was and never will be. Donald Trump is this:

Thursday afternoon, when asked by NewsHour on the White House lawn about Cheadle leaving the Republican Party, President Trump claimed he has a lot of support from African American voters.

“We have tremendous African American support,” Trump told NewsHour. “I would say I’m at my all-time high. I don’t think I’ve ever had the support that I’ve had now. I think I’m going to do very well with African Americans. African American support has been the best we’ve had.”

When pressed about whether he thought Cheadle was wrong to say Trump was pursuing a “pro-white” agenda, Trump said he didn’t know who Cheadle was.

Cheadle should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man again:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

That is what happened:

Cheadle became widely known in June 2016 when Trump, then a presidential candidate, pointed to him at a rally in Redding, Calif. and said, “Look at my African American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?”

At the time, Cheadle took the president’s comments as a joke and laughed along with the president and the crowd of largely white supporters. Now, his view of that moment has changed.

But this is how things are. None of this is surprising anymore, not even in Baltimore:

President Trump kicked off a policy retreat for House Republicans with an address that bashed his potential Democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton and the media, receiving a full embrace from GOP lawmakers converging on a city the president disparaged as a “rodent infested mess.”

“They’re colluding and they’re obstructing,” Trump said of Democrats and the media, a not-so-veiled reference to the potential impeachment charges against him.

And he’s being clever:

He started his speech an hour later than planned, but in so doing managed to take the stage in Charm City at the exact minute that the 2020 Democratic presidential debate got underway.

Trump took shots at the candidates with dismissive nicknames.

The nearly 70-minute speech opened House Republicans’ three-day huddle here in Baltimore, a soul-searching exercise that comes as the GOP tries to chart a course back to the majority amid a raft of retirements from incumbents.

So, Trump was sneering and calling all those stupid Democrats belittling little names, and the rest of the party was trying to figure why their House members and a senator here and there are retiring early, one after another, two or three each week. Could those two things be connected?

No one dared to say that, so Trump did what he does:

For the first half-hour, Trump’s speech slowly moved along at the pace of a State of the Union address. He ticked through what he considered GOP accomplishments – slashing thousands of rules, including the decision Thursday to scrap the Obama-era regulation on the wetlands and tributaries that feed into the nation’s largest rivers – and through tax cuts.

All the “clean water” rules are gone now, and there was polite applause there, but then the real show began:

Trump became more animated later on, going off script to rant about Democrats wanting to take away plastic straws and what he called their outrageous demands for how to recycle lightbulbs.

 He jabbed at his 2016 rival Clinton, saying she “didn’t like stairs, didn’t like airplanes, didn’t like a lot” – and would rest for weeks between stops.

 At one point, Trump veered off script to take a shot at the Democrats onstage in Texas at that moment, calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” and Sanders “Crazy Bernie.”

“I hit Pocahontas way too early,” he said, referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “I thought she was gone. She’s emerged from the ashes and now it looks like she could beat Sleepy Joe, he’s falling asleep. He has no idea what the hell he’s doing or saying.”

The crowd went wild. It was time to impeach Hillary Clinton, not him – or lock her up – or something. But then he got down to business:

Trump, who just weeks ago endorsed stronger background checks for gun owners, made no mention of gun control at all. The president has since rescinded that position.

“Republicans will always uphold fundamental rights to keep and bear arms,” he promised to applause.

So that’s that. Nothing will happen. Mitch McConnell said the House can pass whatever gun legislation they want over there, they’re Democrats, but he’s in charge of the Senate, and they’re Republicans. He will bring no House bill to the Senate floor. Their bills will be filed and forgotten, and his Senate won’t even begin to chat about any of this, even in the hallways and at lunch, because Trump can veto anything they come up with. He’ll wait for Trump to tell him what he won’t veto, if the president ever gets around to that. Why even bother to discuss this? This is not his call.

But earlier in the day there was this:

A group of 145 CEOs from some of the largest companies in America have sent a letter to senators demanding they pass stronger gun control laws, calling firearm violence “a public health crisis that demands urgent action.”

The letter, signed by the chief executives of Uber, Levi Strauss & Co., Twitter and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., among other companies, urges Congress to expand background checks and “red flag” laws, legislation that would enable law enforcement to temporarily take guns away from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

“We are writing to you because we have a responsibility and obligation to stand up for the safety of our employees, customers and all Americans in the communities we serve across the country. Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable and it is time to stand with the American public on gun safety,” the letter, dated Thursday and first reported by the New York Times, said.

“Gun violence in America is not inevitable; it’s preventable. There are steps Congress can, and must, take to prevent and reduce gun violence. We need our lawmakers to support commonsense gun laws that could prevent tragedies like these,” it continued.

McConnell shrugged. This is not his problem. Send a letter to the president, not Mitch’s senators. Sure, more than ninety percent of the public wants background checks for guns sold on the internet and at gun shows, which of course includes most Republicans, but Donald Trump decides this – and it seems he already has.

Perhaps he’ll call for a boycott of all these major corporations now, but it doesn’t matter:

On Sept. 3, Walmart announced it would no longer sell ammunition used in high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons and asked its customers not to openly carry weapons in stores, even in states where it is permitted. That announcement came after last month’s El Paso shooting, which killed 22 people at a Walmart and nearby shopping mall.

That’s where this stared. Kroger followed. But those who live in an “open carry” state have every right to walk into a Walmart or any store wearing full body armor and fully armed with giant guns of any sort and point their guns at the head of any kid and laugh at that kid’s mother and then point the gun at anyone at all, and pretend he’s about to open fire. And he can laugh manically. He has that right. Walmart is run by snowflakes who hate America. None of this is going to change. And a guy in full body armor pointing his big gun at your kid in Walmart should not be surprising at all.

And no one should have been surprised by this:

President Trump’s emerging plan to address California’s homeless crisis includes ideas that have been tried unsuccessfully before, namely the mass housing of people living on the streets, and proposals that have been ruled illegal by federal courts.

The White House effort has taken state officials by surprise, as the president has shifted from criticizing California’s management of homelessness on social media to proposals that would insert the federal government directly into the crisis, including relocating homeless people living on the street and in tent camps to a federal facility.

It’s like what FDR did with Japanese-Americans a few months after Pearl Harbor – put them all in camps. The original detention camps may still be available, but yes, there is a problem:

About 140,000 people in California are without permanent housing, roughly a quarter of the country’s total homeless population. The numbers are rising fast, driven by the highest housing costs in the nation, enduring mental health and substance abuse issues, and legal barriers that prevent authorities from simply removing people from the streets, even those who cannot take care of themselves.

Angry local politics has also emerged around the issue. In recent months, residents have organized against plans for neighborhood homeless shelters, from once-solidly conservative Orange County to the liberal Bay Area. Local ballot measures approved in recent years to raise money to address homelessness have become tangled in legal challenges.

But no one is ready for massive detention camps or reeducation camps or whatever. FDR wasn’t a hero for what he did, nor was Pol Pot for doing this in Cambodia in the late seventies:

“I am wary because every time this president does anything involving people who are vulnerable, they are the ones who get hurt,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg (D), who is chairman of the state Commission on Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

But he hardly matters:

The president’s domestic policy advisers have been discussing options to clear what are often highly unsanitary street-side homeless camps. Earlier this week, administration officials toured an unused Federal Aviation Administration building in California, presumably as a possible shelter site.

Trump has expressed particular interest in Los Angeles, where 60,000 people live without permanent housing, nearly half of them outdoors. At the same time, he has proposed reducing the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget by 18 percent from the previous year, a deep cut to the agency primarily responsible for helping cities pay for and subsidize affordable housing.

So that’s the plan, cut funding for the homeless and put them in camps, but folks out here have long memories:

Actor George Takei says he’s determined to keep talking about the imprisonment of his family and 120,000 other Japanese Americans during World War II because he wants a new generation to know what happened and fight similar injustices today.

On Tuesday night, Takei recounted the morning his father abruptly woke him and his younger brother to get dressed and pack. They were going on vacation, his father explained to 5-year-old Takei as his mother bundled up his baby sister and the few belongings they could carry.

Armed soldiers forced Takei’s family from their Boyle Heights home and imprisoned them in a Santa Anita racetrack horse stall that reeked of manure.

“I thought everyone went on vacations escorted by soldiers,” Takei told the Los Angeles Times Book Club at the Montalbán Theatre.

Takei and his family were shipped to internment camps in Arkansas and Northern California, spending four years behind barbed wire. His new graphic memoir, “They Called Us Enemy,” is told through the eyes of a child growing up incarcerated, detailing the day-to-day hardships and humiliating experiences of the camps.

What will the Trump folks say to that, that he’s gay and he was never that good as Sulu in the original Star Trek series? No, the Trump folks said this:

Even with the additional shelter space the FAA building might provide, city officials would face the challenge of getting homeless residents to use it. One Trump administration official said Wednesday, “We’re not rounding up anyone or anything yet.”

That last word sounded like a threat, and Kevin Drum just sighs:

This whole charade with Trump and the homeless is hard to figure out. I mean, it’s obvious that Trump can’t actually do anything. The homeless haven’t broken any laws, and they certainly haven’t broken any federal laws. They can’t be swept up off the streets. Nor does the federal government have a police force to sweep them up even if they wanted to. Even Trump isn’t dim enough to think otherwise. So why the kabuki?

The most obvious answer is that Trump is putting on a show for his fans. We wanted to get the homeless off the streets but Democrats fought to keep their squalid, disgusting, disease-ridden camps right on city sidewalks where they’re free to murder your children!

Everyone knows who Trump always talks about, and this is what Gregory Cheadle was talking about. He won’t be Trump’s House Nigger anymore.

And meanwhile, the Democrats had a debate:

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. clung tightly to the legacy of the Obama administration in a Democratic primary debate on Thursday, asking voters to view him as a stand-in for the former president as an array of progressive challengers, led by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, brandished more daring policy promises and questioned Mr. Biden’s political strength.

Facing all of his closest competitors for the first time in a debate, Mr. Biden, the Democratic front-runner, repeatedly invoked President Barack Obama’s name and policy record as a shield against rivals who suggested his own record was flawed, or implied his agenda lacked ambition. On health care, immigration, foreign wars and more, Mr. Biden’s central theme was his tenure serving under Mr. Obama.

In short, there were no surprises:

In an early exchange over health care, Mr. Biden referred to Ms. Warren’s support for Mr. Sanders’s “Medicare for all” plan. “The senator says she’s for Bernie,” Mr. Biden said. “Well, I’m for Barack – I think the Obamacare worked.”

Explaining his preference for more incremental health care improvements, like the creation of an optional government-backed plan, Mr. Biden challenged Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders to defend the cost of their plans, warning that they would require tax increases on middle-income Americans.

Mr. Biden was steadier in what was his third debate of the primary contest, rattling off statistics and parrying attacks with good cheer, though he still rambled at other moments. And despite their criticism, none of the nine other candidates onstage appeared to significantly damage his candidacy.

This was a bit boring, actually, but not that unpleasant:

Biden’s resilience has prompted some of his rivals to recalibrate their approach as the race enters the fall. After unleashing one of the contest’s toughest attacks against Mr. Biden in the first debate, Senator Kamala Harris of California steadfastly avoided critiquing the former vice president or any of her Democratic opponents.

Ms. Harris used her opening statement to speak directly to, and criticize, President Trump. During the health care contretemps she lamented that “not once have we talked about Donald Trump.” And when she made the case for using executive action to overcome legislative gridlock, she turned to Mr. Biden, let out a laugh and borrowed Mr. Obama’s signature line. “Hey Joe, let’s say ‘yes we can,'” she said.

No hard feelings, right? And there was this:

There was consensus on the stage when it came to praising the leadership of former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas in the aftermath of the mass shooting last month in El Paso, his hometown. And Mr. O’Rourke won a booming ovation from the audience when he was asked whether he would try to confiscate some weapons.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against fellow Americans anymore.”

Mr. Booker, who lives in Newark, said the outrage over gun violence was long overdue. “I’m sorry that it had to take issues coming to my neighborhood or personally affecting Beto to suddenly make us demand change,” he said. “This is a crisis of empathy in our nation. We are never going to solve this crisis if we have to wait for it to personally affect us or our neighborhood or our community before we demand action.”

He said he stood with Beto. Biden said the same thing. They all argued many things, but they didn’t quarrel. They’re not Republicans, and Alyssa Rosenberg saw this:

Sometime in the first hour of Thursday’s debate, I realized something surprising: The Democratic debates are actually making me feel a little better about the state of America.

It’s not that the debates are uniformly nice: Former vice president Joe Biden’s opponents have used the events to question him in strikingly personal terms. It’s not that the candidates agree on everything: Gestures of unity aside, they are deeply divided on policy and style, and their constituents are, too. Rather, the debates have served as a reminder that Americans can differ on hugely important questions; they can rub each other the wrong way; they can even hurt each other; and they can still find ways to talk to each other.

That was the surprise:

Stephen Miller, the architect of President Trump’s immigration policy, was publicly condemned by his uncle. A Supreme Court case about gerrymandering was thrown into turmoil by files uncovered by a Republican redistricting expert’s estranged daughter. Families have been torn apart by bizarre conspiracy theories. President Barack Obama’s career-making refusal to believe that there are two Americas has never seemed more distant.

Obviously, the Democratic contenders for president have not been exactly kind to the man they hope to defeat in November. Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) called him out in her opening statement on Thursday and suggested that Trump has been “tweeting out the ammunition” for mass shootings such as the one in El Paso. But given how imperative beating Trump is, and how bitter the post-2016 recriminations have been, it wouldn’t have been shocking to see the Democrats tear into each other with the same sort of ferocity.

That didn’t happen.

This happened instead:

Former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke may be fading, but his competitors chose to finish him off with kindness, praising his response to a recent mass shooting in his city, rather than trying to destroy him. When Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) challenged the other contenders on criminal-justice reform, he did it in a detailed and constructive way, asking them to talk specifically about which incarcerated people they’d give clemency to if they had the power of the presidency at their disposal.

Even the difficult moments have been oddly heartening. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro’s efforts to call Biden’s memory into question seemed like a necessary line to press to some and a shocking breach of decorum to others.

These were decent people who disagreed but could talk through their disagreements with each other. No one was out to hurt anyone. The idea was to find a way to make things better for everyone, while the current president, alone in the cold hours before dawn, rage-tweets in response to imaginary slights he thinks he has just unfairly endured.

And none of this is a surprise. But he may be surprised one day fairly soon. We still have elections.

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The New Age of Kafka

The handsome and noble and brave Victor Lazlo in Casablanca – played by an Austrian, Paul Henreid – was Czech. That character had to be Czech. Czechs were heroes back then, and Neville Chamberlain had a bit to do with that. In 1938 he gave Hitler a big chunk of Czechoslovakia to assure “peace in our time” and got a World War instead. And then the Czech resistance gave Hitler no end of problems. And then the world suddenly loved the Czechs. They were the real good guys back then. They didn’t whine. They did the right thing. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) was in awe of Victor Lazlo.

Those days are long gone, but those of us who are Czech still have our pride and our heroes. In politics it’s the late Václav Havel – the witty and humane dissident playwright and philosopher, and friend of Frank Zappa. Havel was the last president of the newly freed Czechoslovakia and then the first president of the new Czech Republic, the way-cool guy who blew away all the nastiness of the Soviet years with grace and irony. In music it’s Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana of course, and in literature it’s Milan Kundera – because The Unbearable Lightness of Being makes existential despair into a pleasant dance. Kundera may not count, however. He moved to Paris long ago and writes in French now.

And then there’s Franz Kafka – born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, and trained as a lawyer, but who worked at an insurance company and wrote in his spare time. That might explain a lot. He’s dark. There’s that tale of the guy who wakes up to find that he’s a cockroach – a metaphor of modern life perhaps. And there’s The Trial – about the guy locked up with no explanation. Even those who are putting him on trial don’t know what the charges are – but everything proceeds anyway. It can’t be stopped. He’s guilty, of something. No one’s sure what that is.

And he matters now, because this is the Age of Kafka, not the Age of Trump, unless they’re the same thing. It’s not just the thousands of little kids locked up alone in cages at our southern border, not knowing why they’re there or if they’ll ever see their parents again (they won’t) and not knowing what they can do about any of it (nothing) while our government doesn’t even know what comes next. That’s the Kafka tale come to life. But that may be our whole criminal justice system. We put a higher percentage of our citizens in prison than any other nation, anywhere, and everyone knows much of that is bullshit. Anyone can end up in jail, and not know why. Now and then, but not often, someone on death row, expecting execution, will be freed. They were innocent after all. Someone had been too eager. Someone had lied. Someone had been simply incompetent. Oops. But others we execute anyway. That’s why everyone talks about criminal justice reform. But nothing much changes. Kafka would understand.

All of that is dramatic, but it’s the small stuff too, the feeling big stuff is going on that no one will ever tell you about, even if they could, which perhaps they can’t, because everyone is a pawn in some game being played by others. Of course you’ll have questions. Don’t ask. You won’t get an answer. Just keep going. Maybe you’ll wake to find that you’re a cockroach, if you’re lucky, but would that even make a difference? Face it. You’re on trial every minute of every day and you’ll never know the charges. The most you can hope to do is to occupy a few cubic feet of space, with as much quiet dignity as you can manage, until you die. You’ll understand what Kafka was getting at.

Now people understand that. Consider the headline – ‘You’re a prop in the back’: Advisers struggle to obey Trump’s Kafkaesque rules – a bit of careful reporting from Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker in the Washington Post. Yes, it’s a Kafka thing:

In President Trump’s renegade orbit, there are unspoken rules he expects his advisers to follow. He tolerates a modicum of dissent, so long as it remains private; expects advisers to fall in line and defend his decisions; and demands absolute fealty at all times.

These rules and more were broken by John Bolton, the national security adviser who left the White House suddenly Tuesday on acrimonious terms.

The rupture between Trump and Bolton, as chronicled in public and in private accounts of administration officials, is a case study of the president’s sometimes Kafkaesque management style – an unusual set of demands and expectations he sets for those in his direct employ.

But really, you just don’t matter:

“You’re there more as an annoyance to him because he has to fill some of these jobs, but you’re not there to do anything other than be backlighting,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a former White House communications director who is now critical of Trump. “He wants, like, a catatonic loyalty, and he wants you to be behind the backlights. There’s one spotlight on the stage, it’s shining on Trump, and you’re a prop in the back with dim lights.”

And you won’t be there long:

Trump’s desires for his advisers range from the trivial – someone who looks the part – to the traditional – someone willing to vigorously support him and defend his policies in media appearances. But these demands can be grating and at times terminal for members of his staff – especially for those who, like the national security adviser, may find themselves at odds with the president on critical issues.

“There is no person that is part of the daily Trump decision-making process that can survive long term,” said a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “The president doesn’t like people to get good press. He doesn’t like people to get bad press. Yet he expects everyone to be relevant and important and supportive at all times. Even if a person could do all those things, the president would grow tired of anyone in his immediate orbit.”

There’s no possible way to win. Kafka would understand, but Kafka saw random indifference as the problem and never thought up a villain like this:

Current and former White House officials stress that Trump brokers and even encourages disagreement, but only to a point and only on his terms. The president enjoys gladiator fights – pitting his aides against one another like so many ancient Romans – but only if he can play emperor, presiding over the melee and crowning the victor.

“He has become more convinced than ever that he is the ‘chosen one,'” said Tony Schwartz, who co-wrote Trump’s 1987 bestseller, “The Art of the Deal” but has since become critical of the president. “The blend of the megalomania and the insecurity make him ultimately dismissive of anybody’s opinion that doesn’t match his own.”

But it’s more complicated than that:

Trump’s advisers can be arranged into several categories, as one former senior White House official explained. In bucket one, this person said, are those aides whose demise – often via tweet – is all but foregone, the result of the president’s coming to suspect that an adviser thinks he or she is smarter than he is or is trying to undermine him in some way. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, is a cautionary tale of this category.

In bucket two sits the adviser who simply doesn’t gel with the president, ultimately failing to build the personal rapport necessary to survive, this person said. Trump may think this official is a good person who genuinely wants to help implement his policies – but for whatever reason, the adviser just irritates the president. H.R. McMaster, who preceded Bolton as national security adviser, is an example.

There is the politically expedient adviser, who brings Trump utility in the short term. Stephen K. Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, was useful early in the administration in helping to channel the hard-right base that lifted Trump to victory.

A final category is the shiny new toy – an adviser Trump has recently hired and is excited about, whether because of a tough nickname (James “Mad Dog” Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense) or because he or she has vigorously defended Trump on television.

Bolton moved through all the buckets before being unceremoniously dismissed.

And of course it actually comes down to this:

“He really doesn’t believe in advisers,” said a Republican in close touch with Trump, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations. “He really just has people around him he asks questions of. John Bolton saw his role as advisory, but Trump thinks he’s his own adviser, and I don’t think people fully appreciate this.”

Some people do appreciate that now, having learned the hard way this time:

Former Secretary of Defense Rex Tillerson, speaking to CBS News’s Bob Schieffer in December, described the president as “pretty undisciplined” and someone who “doesn’t like to read.” Tillerson also described an imperious president who would sometimes suggest ideas that were illegal.

“So often, the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it,’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law,'” Tillerson said.

And there’s that other general:

After leaving the administration, John F. Kelly said serving as Trump’s second chief of staff was “the least enjoyable job I’ve ever had.” Asked during an appearance at Duke University what advice he had given to his successor, Mick Mulvaney, Kelly joked, “Run for it.”

Not everyone has that option, so it’s Kafka Time for them:

People who have known the president over the years stress that, for Trump, everyone is eventually expendable.

“When you use people like Kleenex, eventually the Kleenex is filled with snot, and you throw it out,” said “Art of the Deal” co-author Schwartz. “That’s the way Trump treats everyone.”

That may be so, but Kevin Drum sees a man in conflict:

Donald Trump has two warring traits when it comes to foreign policy. First, he likes to think of himself – and he likes others to think of him – as a tough guy. It’s central to his self-image. Second, he likes to think of himself as a dealmaker. He wants a deal in the Middle East. He wants a deal with North Korea. He wants a deal with China. He wants a deal with Iran.

And that means he doesn’t fit in on his own side of things:

Most conservatives don’t want deals at all. Most of them won’t quite say this outright, but they don’t. We see this over and over, from START to the Law of the Sea to Iraq to Israel. They want to squash their enemies, not compromise with them.

And that’s why John Bolton was doomed, but perhaps the best Trump could do at the time, but then perhaps the whole thing was hopeless from the start:

This leaves Trump with no good people to hire. He could hire a dealmaker, but most dealmakers are too dovish for his taste. He can hire tough guys, but he’ll soon learn that they have no interest in deals. There’s hardly anyone around who truly shares Trump’s values.

Drum, however, sees some good here:

One of Trump’s few redeeming qualities is that he genuinely isn’t very keen on military intervention. I suspect this stems more from a fear of losing than anything else, but who cares? At least it’s the right instinct. If he could find a competent NSA who shared his nationalistic impulses but was also eager to make deals with adversaries, he might actually get somewhere.

But there is no such person, The last person who wanted to make deals, not war, was Barack Obama – the wimp who was always talking about “leading from behind” and made bad deals – that TPP thing that had all the Pacific Rim nations ganging up on China and forcing China to behave better – the Iran nuclear deal that stopped all their work on these weapons for at least ten years – the Paris Climate agreement where each nation sets its own goals – all lousy deals made by a man who knew nothing about how a real (white) man makes good deals and doesn’t give away the store. Trump would show the world how it’s done – and right now he would cause so much pain in Iraq that they’d have to give in and bend to his will. Cause massive pain. They’ll give in. If they don’t give in, cause even more pain. They’ll give in. That’s how it’s done. Donald Trump is not Barrack Obama.

Fine, but Kevin Drum was right. This guy makes deals, not war, at least not now:

President Donald Trump has left the impression with foreign officials, members of his administration, and others involved in Iranian negotiations that he is actively considering a French plan to extend a $15 billion credit line to the Iranians if Tehran comes back into compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Trump has in recent weeks shown openness to entertaining President Emmanuel Macron’s plan, according to four sources with knowledge of Trump’s conversations with the French leader. Two of those sources said that State Department officials, including Secretary Mike Pompeo, are also open to weighing the French proposal, which would effectively ease the economic sanctions regime that the Trump administration has applied on Tehran for more than a year.

This is Trump saying he’d be willing to have the United States government pay Iran big bucks if they’d just agree to return to Obama’s original agreement with them to stop building nuclear warheads for at least ten years. He can be Obama too. He will be Obama:

The deal put forth by France would compensate Iran for oil sales disrupted by American sanctions. A large portion of Iran’s economy relies on cash from oil sales. Most of that money is frozen in bank accounts across the globe. The $15 billion credit line would be guaranteed by Iranian oil. In exchange for the cash, Iran would have to come back into compliance with the nuclear accord it signed with the world’s major powers in 2015.

Obama had been right all along, and now it was time to build on that:

Tehran would also have to agree not to threaten the security of the Persian Gulf or to impede maritime navigation in the area. Lastly, Tehran would have to commit to regional Middle East talks in the future.

While Trump has been skeptical of helping Iran without preconditions in public, the president has in public at least hinted at an openness to considering Macron’s pitch for placating the Iranian government – a move intended to help bring the Iranians to the negotiating table and to rescue the nuclear agreement that Trump and his former national security adviser John Bolton worked so hard to torpedo.

At the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France last month, Trump told reporters that Iran might need a “short-term letter of credit or loan” that could “get them over a very rough patch.”

What ever happened to inflicting massive pain and causing total humiliation as the only tools to win in these matters? That’s what Trump sold his base. That’s not what this is, because this is pure Obama:

The French proposal would require the Trump administration to issue waivers on Iranian sanctions. That would be a major departure from the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign to exact financial punishments on the regime in Tehran. Ironically, during his time in office, President Barack Obama followed a not-dissimilar approach to bring the Iranians to the negotiating table, throttling Iran’s economy with sanctions before pledging relief for talks. The negotiations resulted in the Iran nuke deal that President Trump called “rotten” – and pulled the U.S. out of during his first term.

And now it’s not rotten? Perhaps so, but this item in the Daily Beast notes that Trump is not like Obama at all, having his own special motivations:

Trump’s flirtations with – if not outright enthusiasm toward – chummily sitting down with foreign dictators and America’s geopolitical foes are largely driven by his desire for historic photo ops and to be seen as the dealmaker-in-chief. It’s a desire so strong that it can motivate him to upturn years’ worth of his own administration’s policymaking and messaging.

That seems to be what’s happening here:

While President Trump has not agreed to anything yet, he did signal a willingness to cooperate on such a proposal at various times throughout the last month, including while at the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France, according to four sources with knowledge of the president’s conversations about the deal.

Several sources told The Daily Beast that foreign officials are expecting Trump to either agree to cooperate on the French deal or to offer to ease some sanctions on Tehran. Meanwhile, President Trump is also considering meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

“I do believe they’d like to make a deal. If they do, that’s great. And if they don’t, that’s great too,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “But they have tremendous financial difficulty, and the sanctions are getting tougher and tougher.” When asked if he would ease sanctions against Iran in order to get a meeting with Iran Trump simply said: “We’ll see what happens. I think Iran has a tremendous, tremendous potential.”

He’s wavering, and this seems to be why John Bolton quit, even if Trump says he fired him:

Trump’s willingness to discuss the credit line with the French, the Iranians and also Japanese President Shinzo Abe frustrated Bolton who had for months had urged Trump against softening his hard line against the regime in Tehran.

Bolton, who vociferously opposed the Macron proposal, departed the Trump administration on explicitly and mutually bad terms on Tuesday. On his way out of door, Trump and senior administration officials went out of their way to keep publicly insisting he was fired, as Bolton kept messaging various news outlets that Trump couldn’t fire him because he quit. The former national security adviser and lifelong hawk had ruffled so many feathers and made so many enemies in the building that his senior colleagues had repeatedly tried to snitch him out to Trump for allegedly leaking to the media.

On Tuesday afternoon, Bolton messaged The Daily Beast to say that allegations about him being a leaker were “flatly incorrect.”

But of course all of this may be wrong:

Whether or not the president follows through with supporting Macron is unclear, as Trump is known to consider or temporarily back high-profile domestic or foreign policy initiatives, only to quickly backtrack or about-face.

That’s the Kafka part of this. No one ever knows what’s really going on. Big stuff is going on that no one will ever tell you about, even if they could, which perhaps they can’t, because everyone is a pawn in some game being played by others. Of course you’ll have questions. Don’t ask. You won’t get an answer. Just keep going. And be Czech. Elegant irony is the answer.

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