Siege Engines

Take the two-lane blacktop south from Avignon and grab lunch in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. That’s the ultimate Provençale village, absurdly charming but a little spooky. That’s the birthplace of Nostradamus, and there’s the asylum where they locked up Van Gogh after he tried to cut off his ear – there are tours. Move on. Drive further south to Les Baux-de-Provence. That’s a cool place – a medieval fortress town high in the rocky hills, where the Huguenots held out against the forces of Cardinal Richelieu. Check out the catapults and siege engines – reproductions of course – and understand that Richelieu’s years-long siege worked. Their fortress was impressive but the Huguenots were driven from it, and then driven from France. They ended up in eastern Canada – in what they called Arcadia – Longfellow wrote an epic poem about those days – and then the Canadians tossed them out. They ended up in Louisiana, which was French at the time. The Arcadians became our Cajuns and still speak French or something like it – but this all started with a siege long ago in Les Baux. Sieges work.

The siege is the deadliest form of warfare. Let the enemy sit in what they think is a safe and strong place, but cut off their supply lines. Don’t fight them. Cut those supply lines. There will be no reinforcements, and then no food, and then no water – and then move in the catapults and siege engines when they’re so weak and demoralized that they just give up. Assad is doing something like this in Syria. It worked in Aleppo. It always works. Those under siege try to make the best of it, but day after day there are fewer and fewer options, and they kind of lose it. They don’t know what to do. Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong – and then it’s all over.

That works in politics too. Donald Trump had a bad week. Maggie Haberman argues that he’s under siege:

President Trump was still upbeat Wednesday night, as he settled into dinner in the White House residence with his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, some 24 hours after giving the most consequential speech of his brief presidency.

But not long afterward, the glow from Mr. Trump’s best day in office began to fade with the breaking news that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, had met with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign. Mr. Sessions failed to mention those conversations in his Senate confirmation hearing, or, according to presidential advisers, to tell Mr. Trump at all.

The story overshadowed Mr. Trump’s visit the next day to the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, a classic presidential opportunity to highlight his role as commander in chief. And by the time he got back to the White House on Thursday night, the president let his frustration show.

In a statement repeating a familiar critique that Democrats were on a “witch hunt” over the administration’s ties with Russia, Mr. Trump offered a passing but pointed public jab at how Mr. Sessions had handled the matter. “He could have stated his response more accurately,” Mr. Trump said.

Haberman calls this “the latest unforeseen obstacle preventing him from gaining traction after a historically bumpy first month in office that has been marked by massive national protests, the dismissal of his national security adviser, and historically low approval ratings” – so everything that could go wrong has gone wrong:

The president was irritated that Mr. Sessions did not more carefully answer the questions he was asked under oath, according to people who spoke with him. His larger frustration, however, was not with Mr. Sessions, but with whoever revealed the meetings to reporters for The Washington Post.

But that’s just part of it:

Mr. Trump, according to his advisers inside and outside of the White House, has felt besieged by what he regards as a mostly hostile bureaucracy, consisting in part of Democrats and people who opposed his election who are now undermining his presidency with leaks. He believes that they are behind the stories about confusion and dysfunction in his administration and, most of all, that they have made his relationship with Russia a recurring issue.

Everyone is out to get him, and they actually are:

“The Trump team needs to better stay on the offense with their reform agenda, take out the trash, and get on with governing,” said Scott Reed, the top political strategist for the United States Chamber of Commerce, in a typical critique.

Well, he’s trying to do that:

Mr. Trump’s aides were heartened by his relative calm even amid the flap around Mr. Sessions. And he stayed on message during his appearance on the Gerald R. Ford and on Friday in an appearance in Florida, declining to weigh in then as new reports emerged about previously undisclosed meetings between additional advisers and the Russian ambassador.

But that doesn’t solve the Russia problem:

During the transition he publicly called out the intelligence community for being behind the leaks and at one point, he compared them to smears conducted by the Nazis in the 1940s. More recently, he has blamed Democrats bitter over the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

But while Mr. Trump puts the blame on leakers for his administration’s rough start, it has not helped that the White House has been distracted by internecine skirmishes, partly dictated by lingering tensions between long-serving advisers and aides to the Republican National Committee, who came to work for the president after he tapped the committee’s chairman, Reince Priebus, as his chief of staff.

In the midst of it, Mr. Trump, who has a famously short attention span, has at times had trouble staying on course. He is pondering a broader response to the Russia issue, people close to him say, but he is so far stymied by opponents he can’t see, but who have clearly knocked him off track.

That meant that the angry and petulant juvenile tweets stopped for a time, but there may have been more to that:

Instead of the intemperate messages that Mr. Trump has often deployed, he had help from the White House social media team in crafting the Twitter posts. But in doing it, he ended the week by breathing more oxygen into the Russia issue.

Any tweets are trouble, even carefully edited ones, and they may be beside the point:

Such daily skirmishes might satisfy the need to fight back, but Republicans who want him to succeed caution that Mr. Trump’s fate as president will lie in his actual accomplishments.

“If they get some legislative successes, they’ll be fine,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, “and if they don’t, that’s when the real trouble begins.”

But how do you get some legislative successes with massive national protests, the dismissal of his national security adviser, and historically low approval ratings – when you’re under siege? There are no reinforcements. His supply lines have been cut.

Maybe he cut those supply lines himself. That’s what Josh Marshall argues:

In the late 90s and early aughts, Donald Trump ran out of lenders. A string of bankruptcies on top of numerous ventures where he walked away unscathed and lenders lost their shirts convinced every major US bank to stop lending to him. The only exception is DeutscheBank, which of course is not a US bank. This put Trump’s whole family business under great strain. In response he increasingly took capital from abroad, especially from Russia and other post-Soviet successor states. Whether this was the influence of lawyer Michael Cohen or his almost decade long business partnership with Felix Sater and his coterie doesn’t really matter for present purposes. It did happen. None of this is speculation. All of this happened. What we don’t know is quite the degree of his dependence on money from the former Soviet Union, both for investment capital and for the purchase the numerous apartment units which make up his ubiquitous high-rises. None of this is illegal or wrong. Foreign capital is pervasive in the New York City area real estate market.

Now add this:

Trump gets into this world. He associates with these people. He starts thinking like they do. Perhaps along the way people in this murky Russian world, where oligarchs and Mafiosi and legitimate businesspeople are hard to differentiate and perhaps not really different at all, find out about his dirty laundry – nothing extravagant like sex tapes. Just the more garden variety stuff business associates find out about each other from long association. We know Trump is highly secretive. His myriad partners and investors likely know a lot of those secrets.

And add this:

One thing I think we’ve learned about Trump over the last almost two years is that what’s helpful to Trump is good. People who are helpful to Trump are also good. In fact, they’re the best people. Things that aren’t helpful to Trump are bad. Things that threaten Trump are especially bad. Trump is highly malleable in his thinking and he doesn’t do detail. From watching him casually for decades and intensively for almost two years, it seems clear to me that, in his mind, what Donald Trump thinks is right. Not just right but the rightest. We probably all think this about our deeply ingrained beliefs. It’s almost a tautology. But for Trump I don’t think that it matters whether it’s deeply ingrained or just something that seemed convenient to say for some situational purpose or provided some momentary advantage the day before. The key point is that it’s not that Donald Trump thinks the right things. Whatever he thinks or says is by definition right. What’s good for Donald Trump is not just right but obviously right – and vice versa.

And then this happens:

Now the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea comes along, to be followed by the low intensity intervention in eastern Ukraine and, critically, the imposition of western sanctions. If Trump is significantly dependent on capital out of Russia, those sanctions are going to put a crimp on all his ventures. It won’t be fatal. But it will hurt – potentially a lot. They’re also bad for a lot of people he works with and likes and needs. That also means they’re bad. Remember, what is good for Donald Trump is right and vice versa. The sanctions regime is bad for Donald Trump. It’s bad for his friends. Ergo the sanctions regime is bad. We should also remember that by 2015 Trump had spent 10 to 15 years working in the company of people like Felix Sater, Tevfik Arif, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort. They are all from or invested in or implicated in that world. They think a certain way and he does too. Even if we posit no bad faith on Trump’s part, it would be surprising if some number of people that Trump and his people come into contact with did not have relationships with or work for Russian intelligence.

So by 2015, this gets you to a pretty clear storyline: Sanctions wrong; Russia good; Putin good; Putin strong. To me this provides a fairly satisfying explanation for most of what we’ve seen over the last year and a half: Trump’s weirdly fawning attitude toward Putin, hostility toward Russia sanctions, insistence on the obviousness of ‘getting along’ and ‘making a deal’ with Putin. It also gets us most of the way to explaining why he has so many people in his orbit with conspicuous on-going communications and relationships with suspicious figures in the Russian intelligence world or the criminal underworld. The point we cannot understate with Trump is the man’s bullheadedness and the iron equation of what’s good for Trump being right, good and obviously the best. The final reason this theory makes sense to me is that Trump’s world is pervasively disorganized and corrupt. That’s less fertile ground for conspiracies than influence operations, which is easy to reconcile with what I’ve set forth above. It also gives some explanation or some logic to the fact that Trump’s Russia-infused coterie includes a lot of people who just seem like idiots.

Again, I think what I’ve described here gets you most of the way toward an explanation of at least most of the facts we currently know. And it requires no fantastical facts not currently in evidence: no extortionate sex tapes, no treasonous deals with Putin. It all comes more or less together by long association, interest and some specific and clear characteristics of Trump’s personality. It’s not clear these broad outlines require anything illegal or any one thing beyond putting personal financial interest above the national interest. To me, this seems obvious with Trump. It requires little imagination. And, as I’ve said, I think his mind doesn’t really distinguish between these things. What’s good for Trump is right. Everybody wants to do what’s right. And if they don’t, they should.

This seems to be Marshall’s Grand Unified Theory of Trump – so far – but it still ends up with a man under siege:

It’s just the way that world works, especially when you have a principal who has a vast ability to justify what satisfies his self-interest, his desires, his need to dominate and be right. As we’ve already seen, even the fairly innocent stuff is hard not to lie about. Eventually that will get someone in trouble. There’s too much dirty money, too many things that may be narrowly legal but need to be lied about, too many scams and bad actors.

Trump is stuck, now under siege, but Andrew Sullivan has another take on this. We’re the ones who are under siege, starting with that address to Congress:

After the terror, the smile. It suddenly beams and the voice calms. You feel the warmth again and are momentarily overcome with gratitude and relief. Suddenly, all the man’s malice and rage and narcissism disappear and the world turns suddenly normal. And you thrill to that normality. It’s what you’ve craved for so long, and been denied for so long. You forgive. You hope. You wonder if all the fear and dread you felt only a few moments ago were just in your imagination.

Any victim of an abusive spouse knows this dynamic. And now America is getting used to it. The Donald Trump who put on his grown-up voice last Tuesday night, and fit into a reassuringly familiar ritual of civic democracy, was the very same Donald Trump who had spent much of his first month in office in a series of unprecedented dyspeptic fits against the media, NATO allies, illegal aliens, Meryl Streep … well, you know the list by now. For the first time in public, he spoke in his “indoor voice.” He occasionally smiled, even as he can’t quite rid himself of the Mussolini back-step whenever he earns his craved applause. He used a teleprompter. And of course the media swooned. Who wouldn’t at this point? It’s somewhat unfair to lambaste them for their instant acknowledgment of the speech’s success. It was a success – an emotional blast of pseudo-normality for a serial abuser of liberal democratic norms.

It was an irresistible moment when the foreboding and fear suddenly became sunlit uplands in a near parody of political happy talk: “Dying industries will come roaring back to life. Heroic veterans will get the care they so desperately need. … Crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, airports, and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.”

“Beautiful.” He loves that word. You always know when Trump is putting on the charm – because he randomly attaches it to anything. And it’s all a complete fantasy, of course – a campaign speech without the snarl or chants, a rapture with absolutely no explanation of how this new beautiful world will be paid for, or legislated. But it works because it’s such a dramatic switch, and for a moment, even Jake Tapper’s amygdala seemed flooded with relief.

And then, a few hours later, it was all gone:

We can all now thank Jeff Sessions for bringing us back, bumpily, to the far more sinister reality.

And he lied, of course. And I don’t mean in the speech itself. He lied directly to the faces of the media muckety-mucks that afternoon, telling them that he was going to embrace some kind of immigration reform. For a few hours, much of the press duly reported this – until they heard the speech itself, which did no such thing. The lie, we were told, was a “misdirection” in order to get some favorable coverage from the media that afternoon.

But think about that for a minute. This wasn’t a trial balloon, delivered by some anonymous sources to see the impact of a potential policy. This wasn’t even a defensible fib, for national-security reasons. It was an outright lie from the president himself in order to delegitimize the press. If the New York Times or the evening news reports something completely untrue – indeed refuted just a few hours later – what happens to their credibility? Bannon is not kidding when he describes the free press as the opposition. For shameless demagogues, it always is. And this creepily authoritarian administration will happily lie to its face.

We’re all under siege. Our civic supply lines have been cut, and it’s simply one thing after another:

Women and children crossing together illegally into the United States could be separated by U.S. authorities under a proposal being considered by the Department of Homeland Security, according to three government officials.

Part of the reason for the proposal is to deter mothers from migrating to the United States with their children, said the officials, who have been briefed on the proposal.

The policy shift would allow the government to keep parents in custody while they contest deportation or wait for asylum hearings. Children would be put into protective custody with the Department of Health and Human Services, in the “least restrictive setting” until they can be taken into the care of a U.S. relative or state-sponsored guardian.

Take their children. They won’t get them back.

Who’s under siege here? Donald Trump had a bad week. He’s still in charge. Maybe it’s time for a long lunch in Saint-Rémy. Van Gogh recovered there. He painted some of his best stuff there. There are alternatives to this.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Siege Engines

  1. Rick says:

    Halfway through reading this “Siege Engines” column, I was preparing to comment, asking the question of who is sieging whom, but then saw Andrew Sullivan asking the same question. Given your setup of the siegee always losing, I’d say it’s Trump who has the strong hand here, since there’s not much any of us can do about this but sit and hope for some help from the outside — which, at this point doesn’t exist — or else wait for the sieger to accidentally shoot himself in the head — which, in our case, still seems to be a real possibility.

    As I write this, there’s so-called “Breaking News” (is there any other kind anymore?) on CNN of our so-called president tweeting that he just learned that Obama tapped his Trump Tower phones back in October. I haven’t heard any details yet, but it may very well be “fake news”, the only question being whether the faking is being done by the mainstream media, or alternatively, by the so-called White House.

    After all, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, while we have no examples of the former, we definitely do of the latter — or at least we allegedly do, from some possible “alternative facts” given to CNN’s Sara Murray by some anonymous “senior administration official”, that some other “senior administration official” (which turned out to be — surprise! surprise! — Donald Trump!) “lied” to the press (that’s my word for it; the White House didn’t call it that, they called it a “misdirection play”) when he promised he was going to reveal himself to be a humane and reasonable man in his speech to Congress that night, while in fact his real plan turned out to be that, although speaking in his inside voice in the speech, he would be the same shithead that more than half the nation already knew him to be.

    Then again, we can’t be sure he lied, since we never can be sure that he didn’t just forget what was in the speech, although he’s also been known to change his mind between the time he says he’s going to do something and when he actually does it. Maybe the “misdirection play” claim was itself just some “misdirection play” of its own, a coverup of sorts, just to make Trump look less like an idiot, as if he did it on purpose. Although I could be wrong about all that.

    (HEY, ARE YOU STILL AWAKE? Don’t fall asleep! That’s just what they want you to do!)

    Given the fact that Trump has publicly admitted he likes to keep everyone guessing, will we ever know for sure when he’s lying and when he’s only lying about being a liar? My guess is, no, we probably won’t.

    And that brings us back to the question that was being asked the other day:

    If the media knows the White House will be lying to us all the time, shouldn’t it just boycott them?

    My answer is, tempting as that is, no. The reason is, the purpose for media coverage of the White House isn’t just for whatever actual information they might give to the American people, but also just to report what they say, whether it be a lie or the truth. And if we have reason to believe it’s not the truth? Then we also report that, making sure we back it up with evidence.

    As for off-the-record “backgrounders”, we should be very careful and use our best judgement before using whatever information they give us, since we already have good reason to know it may not be true.

    As for “not revealing confidential sources”? That’s a little trickier. Here are some guidelines on use of anonymous sources from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ):

    Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. Keep your promise not to identify a source of information and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. …

    The SPJ Code of Ethics contains two pointed statements on anonymous sources:

    1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability. …

    2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

    But is it okay to include in your agreement with the source, that “If I find out that you, the source, have deliberately lied to me, our deal is off, and I may just feel free at that point to reveal my source, whether you like it or not”?

    This SPJ position paper doesn’t say anything about that.

    Still, maybe you could try it, but if you do, I’d advise you to do it very carefully, since you’ll be messing with long-standing ethical traditions — and upending ethical traditions may be something best left to the likes of Donald Trump.

    Rick

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