The Expected Unpredictability

Congress has left town for the two-week Easter recess, but this isn’t time off. This is work too. This is when these folks meet with their constituents – those who sent them to Washington in the first place – and this is always problematic for the party in power. They were supposed to do stuff. They didn’t. That always happens – or they’ve done stuff they really shouldn’t have done. No one is happy. Those who schedule town-hall meetings regret it. There’s lots of shouting. Republicans wish they were Democrats. No one is yelling at the Democrats. They don’t matter at the moment, so there are things like this:

More than eight years after Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) memorably shouted “you lie” at then-President Barack Obama during a televised broadcast of his speech before a joint session of Congress, constituents in his home state are turning Wilson’s infamous outburst against him.

During a Monday town hall event in Graniteville, attendees shouted down the South Carolina congressman with loud jeers and “you lie” chants over his support for the Trump administration and efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. According to the Post and Courier, the most raucous exchange occurred when Wilson, who in 2013 voted against extending the Violence Against Women Act, told the crowd he had advocated to protect women against violence.

The event comes on the heels of similar events nationwide, where Republican elected officials have been met by angry protests in their home districts over concerns about various White House policies.

It seems these folks are worried about losing their health insurance – approval for Obamacare is now a majority position – don’t repeal it. Its replacement, such as it was, polled at seventeen percent approval – but it’s more than that. Explain Trump and Russia. What’s with that? And explain why no Republican wants Trump to release his tax returns. There must be something there. And are we going to war with Syria, and Iran and Russia in that case, and with North Korea, and with China in that case? And why is Trump cutting everything to pay for that damned wall that no one ever believed would solve anything? The Meals on Wheels program costs next to nothing. Big Bird on PBS isn’t busting the budget. Do you want the kids to cry? And why is Trump tweeting angry nonsense instead of doing the hard detailed work necessary to fix things? Is he easily bored? Does he have Attention Deficit Disorder? Is he in over his head? And why are you standing there defending this guy?

This is a bit unpleasant. They have some explaining to do. More than a few members of Congress hide. Full control of the government turned out to be a pain in the ass, and that one sign everyone seems to be carrying doesn’t help either – “Elect a Clown, Expect a Circus.”

The walls are closing in:

The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.

The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.

This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents.

Oops:

The government’s application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators’ basis for believing that Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, officials said.

Okay, explain that. The White House did. Page was only “an informal advisor” – they hardly knew the guy. He didn’t really work for Trump, even if Trump once proudly said that he did. But Trump says lots of things. Trump is like that. Cut Trump some slack here.

That’s getting harder, because the clown show continues:

White House press secretary Sean Spicer had to do something Tuesday night his boss deeply dislikes: He apologized.

Hours after seemingly minimizing the Holocaust in an attempt to explain the atrocities of chemical attacks the U.S. believes were carried out by the Syrian regime, Spicer went on CNN to ask forgiveness for an “inappropriate” reference and to offer a mea culpa to his TV-obsessed boss for becoming a “distraction.”

“I mistakenly used an inappropriate, insensitive reference to the Holocaust,” Spicer told Wolf Blitzer. “I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

This was an admirable honest apology, and a long time coming:

The press secretary has made headlines in the past for exaggerating the size of President Donald Trump’s inauguration crowd, searching through staffers’ phones in a crackdown on leaks, and citing a Fox News personality to say British officials spied on Trump’s team.

But it appeared to be the first time he apologized. In fact, it seemed to be the first significant apology from Trump’s White House, which has weathered controversies, inappropriate comments and investigations with an apparent axiom: Better to be strong and wrong than to say sorry.

No, that’s not better:

Spicer sought to criticize the Russian government for its support of dictator Bashar Assad by comparing last week’s chemical attack on civilians in Syria to the actions of Adolf Hitler.

“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II,” Spicer told reporters. “Someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

In fact, Hitler’s Nazi Germany did use chemical weapons. Many of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were killed in gas chambers using Zyklon B and other poisons. And sarin gas, the weapon believed to have been used by Assad’s regime, was first created and weaponized by Nazi scientists in 1938.

Oops. Again – but elect a clown and expect a circus:

Spicer’s allies say he has almost an impossible job: Defending a boss who often contradicts himself, makes statements that prove to be untrue and believes he is his own best spokesman. But while Spicer’s briefings sometimes become comically combative, Trump appreciates a vigorous defense, allies and advisers say.

Trump probably told his guy to go out there and use the Hitler analogy – no one will expect that – that’ll stun them.

That’s just what it did:

MSNBC fact-checked Spicer with a chyron summarizing what the press secretary had said and adding parenthetically that “Hitler gassed millions.” The Anne Frank Center accused Spicer of engaging in Holocaust denial. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for the White House to fire him. Even Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter, criticized Spicer.

It was time for damage control:

Spicer called the office of Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, a major giver to Jewish causes, soon after making the statements, according to Andy Abboud, an Adelson spokesman. “Sean called shortly after and said he made a terrible mistake and apologized if he was offensive,” Abboud said.

The White House had earlier faced criticism from Jewish groups for not mentioning Jews in an annual Holocaust statement, but Adelson has generally had a friendly relationship with Trump and likes his hawkish support of Israel.

Forget the Anne Frank crowd. The potential damage that the White House saw was that this might piss off that strange old Jewish man in Las Vegas with all the money – during Passover. They took care of that. They have some explaining to do there too.

Heather Parton offers this explanation:

This kind of argument was actually pretty common back in the run-up to the Iraq War. These wingnuts really love to see themselves as heroes Greater than the Greatest Generation.

Chris Hayes wrote a great piece called The Good War on Terror about this early in his career. They are dying for a Big War, although very few of them want to fight it themselves. They just want to (cheer) lead it and take credit for saving the world. That’s why they have tried to turn “radical Islamic terrorism” into an existential threat greater than Hitler.

Spicer marinated in that nonsense for the past fifteen years. He just blurted it out without thinking to make it seem that his boss’s hands are uniquely yuge for taking on such a uniquely evil enemy. And it’s ridiculous.

Actually, there’s a lot of sympathy out there for Sean Spicer. It’s not him. It’s Donald Trump – the boss who often contradicts himself, makes statements that prove to be untrue and believes he is his own best spokesman. Sean Spicer probably knew better than to do the Hitler thing, but he soldiers on – he does his job. The boss said Hitler. Sean Spicer said Hitler. He did his job. It’s hard working for a clown. Everything’s a circus. Everything is a surprise.

Rex Tillerson is finding that out too, as Spencer Ackerman explains here:

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is to fly to Moscow on Tuesday, where the novice US diplomat is expected to discuss the fate of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, the world is still trying to understand just what goal Trump’s fledgling administration is pursuing in Syria.

For years, Trump advocated against intervention in Syria’s war, except to attack the Islamic State militant group in a related but separate conflict. That policy seemed to end on Thursday, after the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April. Yet almost as soon as Trump ordered retaliatory strikes on a Syrian airbase from which the US said the regime had launched the chemical attack, his aides suggested that the one-off strike had satisfied US objectives – until they contradicted themselves again.

For those keeping score, here are the contradictions:

Policy 1 – Assad can stay: 2013 – 30 March 2017

Policy 2 – Assad must go, after chemical attack: 5-6 April 2017

Policy 3 – The issue is chemical weapons use, not Assad: 6-10 April 2017

Policy 4 – Attack Isis first, then Assad can stay or go depending on whether Russia agrees: 9 April 2017

Policy 5 – The US will respond militarily to barrel bombs: 10 April

Each of those subheads is followed by four or five long paragraphs documenting who said what, and their reasoning. Read it all for that – not that it maters now – and Ackerman ends with this:

It remains to be seen whether Tillerson will announce a sixth policy for Syria when in Moscow.

Everything is a surprise now. Actually, that seems to be the plan, as Kevin Sullivan and Karen Tumulty explain here:

Back during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump summed up his approach to foreign policy this way: “We must as a nation be more unpredictable.”

But now that he is commander in chief, anxious allies say that unpredictability might be better described as incoherence – a dangerous tendency at a moment of high tension with Russia and Syria, and with U.S. warships heading toward the Korean Peninsula.

It seems that our allies are not fond of clowns:

In recent weeks, the new president has held meetings with his counterparts from other countries. But in some cases, those sessions have only heightened doubts that Trump has a clear sense of what direction he intends to take U.S. foreign policy.

Few if any world leaders, for example, have had as much experience in dealing with U.S. presidents as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is on her third.

During their White House meeting last month, Merkel tried to pin down Trump on one of the top concerns of U.S. trading partners – a proposed “border adjustment tax” to be imposed on imported goods. Publicly, Trump has signaled openness to the idea, but he also said it has drawbacks.

“Don’t worry,” Trump told Merkel, holding his thumb and forefinger close together. “It will only be a little bit.”

No one was impressed:

Trump’s breezy answer – and Merkel’s exasperation – has been the talk of diplomatic circles in Washington and Europe.

“So all the chancellor of Germany knows is that, ‘It will only be a little bit,'” said a senior European diplomat in Washington, holding up his fingers as Trump did, and repeating an account confirmed by others in anxious embassies in Washington. “It’s very puzzling.”

Sullivan and Tumulty note that this is worse than puzzling:

Ambiguity has always had a place in diplomacy, of course. But Trump adds to that a freestyle approach to international relations. He has a disregard for norms and protocol, an impulsive nature and a tendency toward making contradictory statements.

Compounding the chaos is the fact that those who claim to speak for Trump – Cabinet officials and top White House advisers – also have offered conflicting pronouncements on basic questions about the direction of U.S. policy.

Trump aides boasted, for instance, of a “positive” chemistry between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping during their two-day session at Trump’s Florida resort over the weekend.

But there was no apparent progress on U.S. efforts to have China put pressure on North Korea. And by Tuesday, Trump was engaging in diplomacy via Twitter.

“I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” he tweeted, suggesting that national security concerns might override his long-standing promise to crack down on Chinese trade practices.

Four minutes later, Trump followed with another tweet suggesting he might be leaning toward unilateral action: “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”

Which is it? No one knows what’s coming next:

In interviews over the past few weeks with a half-dozen foreign ambassadors based in Washington, most complained – diplomatically, of course – that thin lines of communication have made it difficult for them to explain U.S. intentions to officials in their home capitals. That is creating strain on traditionally solid alliances, they said.

That also changes the nature of diplomacy:

Several diplomats said that early Trump meetings with Merkel, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British Prime Minister Theresa May also raised concerns over Trump’s unorthodox style of working largely without detailed notes and speaking off the cuff.

“He doesn’t have a paper in front of him. It’s up to the visitor to declare the agenda,” one said. “He just sits there. It’s like you are in a bar, and you just start talking to him.”

That’s not comforting, and so far the only explanation is this:

White House officials insist that the president has been fully briefed before his meetings with foreign leaders, and that adequate advance work has been done in bilateral sessions that precede them. But they also note that the specifics of Trump administration policy are still a work in progress.

In short, cut the guy some slack, or adapt:

While some diplomats and leaders puzzle over how to decode an opaque and often contradictory presidency, they have figured out one language to which Trump responds: flattery.

In his joint appearance with Trump, Jordan’s King Abdullah II lathered the president with praise for a “holistic approach” to the Middle East, which he said is “a move in the right direction.”

It was their second meeting since Trump’s election, and Trump returned the compliments, calling Abdullah a “warrior.” Their joint news conference was the first of Trump’s presidency to be held in the Rose Garden.

Cool, but nothing came of that. Sullivan and Tumulty go on to explain that the normal channels of communication seem blocked. Our friends and allies have no one to talk to and nobody can get even basic information about the issues – and they’ve been told not to expect the state department to be fully staffed for months – if at all. Trump is cutting this and that to fund his wall. The Pentagon is still available but Sullivan and Tumulty report that our friends and allies are scrambling to find back-channels to figure out what the hell is going on, like this:

Another channel is Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, to whom diplomats are turning for information on economic policy, including the border adjustment tax.

Cohn has been responsive and seems to have the president’s ear, one diplomat said. “For us, he’s been the guy.”

Fine, but Gary Cohn is a nobody:

If a foreign policy crisis were to flare, perhaps over North Korea or Iran, several ambassadors expressed worry that the lack of the usual contacts at many levels of government could keep them from being able to fully explain Trump’s actions to their leaders back home.

One ambassador said that when he approached the State Department and the White House recently, he was told to come back if he has an emergency to discuss.

Think of W. C. Fields – “Go away, kid, you bother me!”

That’s not diplomacy, and there’s this:

Several added that they have tried to be creative in their approaches to the Trump administration, increasingly going outside the normal channels. Some said they have tried to leverage friendships with people in business who have ties to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner or daughter Ivanka Trump to get access to those key members of Trump’s inner circle.

That may have to do for now, but that won’t do at all:

“The question is, will the close allies maintain that same natural cooperation that we have had for 70 years?” one ambassador said. “The leaders of those allies want to maintain a relationship of trust with the traditional leader of the Western world. But today we have the impression that the chair of the leader of the Western world is a little bit empty…”

Said another: “It’s quite distressing that the Americans are so unpredictable. Unpredictability is the worst.”

The chair of the leader of the Western world is a little bit empty? Heather Parton also addresses that:

The US has the most powerful military on earth and the biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons. Everyone knows that. We don’t have to be wily or cunning about national security. It’s important that the US is seen as almost ploddingly predictable in order to preclude some adventurous types from thinking they have an opportunity to test the waters.

If this keeps up we are going to see a major military buildup around the world. You cannot expect people to trust that this hot-headed ignoramus and his band of fourth rate weirdos isn’t a threat. He seems to want people to believe that he is. They’re going to start arming up.

But this is Trump’s expected unpredictability:

This was all predicted during the campaign, of course. He didn’t hide his puerile worldview. He reveled in it. And a tiny majority of people in three states preferred it. And now we are in a fine mess.

Congress has left town for the two-week Easter recess, and that’s what they’re hearing back home in all the shouting. They see that sign everywhere. Elect a Clown, Expect a Circus. And they hear that question. Why are you standing there defending this guy?

There’s no good answer to that anymore.

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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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