The Old Birthday Boy

Some birthdays are better than others. The fifth through the twenty-fifth are celebrations – life is getting better and better. The fiesta de quince años – Quinceañera – is a big deal out here. It’s a coming of age thing. The little girl turns fifteen. She’s no longer a little girl and there’s a big party – kind of like a debutante ball with fancy gowns and everything – but that’s a Mexican and Central American thing. Valley Girls have Sweet Sixteen parties. Los Angeles is a diverse place – but no woman over twenty-nine admits her age. She’s always twenty-nine, and if she obviously isn’t, it isn’t wise to ask. That can be deadly.

For men, the years simply pass. One turns thirty. One turns forty. One turns fifty, then sixty, and so on. So what? Life may or may not be getting better, but that birthday is just another day. Men shrug. It’s nice when people remember the day and say a kind word, and a small useless present is a nice touch – but it’s still useless. Thank the giver, but the best present is still being around after all those long years. A good birthday is when nothing disastrous happens on that day. That’s a reason to celebrate. It may be the only reason.

Donald Trump turned seventy-one on Wednesday, June 14, 2017, and he had a bad birthday. There must have been a kind word or two, and perhaps a useless present or two – but any present would be useless. He’s so rich that he already owns ten of everything he ever wanted. What do you get the man who has everything? Forget the present. That left the disasters, and he woke up to this on his birthday:

A rifle-wielding attacker opened fire on Republican lawmakers as they practiced for a charity baseball game Wednesday, critically wounding House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and hitting aides and Capitol police as congressmen and others dove for cover. The assailant, who had nursed grievances against President Donald Trump and the GOP, fought a gun battle with police before he, too, was shot and later died…

The events left the capital horrified and stunned, and prompted immediate reflection on the current hostility and vitriol in American politics. Lawmakers called for a new dialogue on lowering the partisan temperature, and Trump urged Americans to come together as he assumed the role of national unifier for one of the first times in his presidency.

Trump later visited the hospital where Scalise was recovering.

That was a hell of a birthday present, and it did change things:

In the hours after a gunman opened fire on a group of Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game, Republicans and Democrats were united on Capitol Hill…

“We can’t let haters win. And we won’t,” said U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan, R-Pennsylvania.

The shooting prompted a pause in partisanship.

“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, to applause from Congress…

Many lawmakers argued they need to turn the microscope on themselves and dial down political rhetoric that has divided the nation.

“I implore all of us to remember that we are first Americans,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina.

So it was time to dial down political rhetoric, and disarm Donald Trump? He gave in:

“Everyone on that field is a public servant – our courageous police, our Congressional aides who work so tirelessly behind the scenes with enormous devotion and our dedicated members of Congress who represent our people,” Mr. Trump said…

Known for his often direct, off-the-cuff style, Mr. Trump chose his words carefully after speaking with Scalise’s wife.

His speechwriter, Stephen Miller, was editing the remarks until moments before Mr. Trump delivered them, with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner standing nearby.

“We are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good,” Mr. Trump said.

A White House official said Mr. Trump is very aware of the delicate nature of what was unfolding Wednesday morning. Mr. Trump worked on his remarks with Vice President Mike Pence, someone who served in Congress himself, to craft a speech that showed reverence and respect for the victims.

So he couldn’t be that naughty Bad Boy even on his birthday, and ended up sounding like that harridan from San Francisco speaking to her far-right colleagues:

“We respect you and your constituents who sent you here,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

But a reminder:

During the campaign, Mr. Trump used incendiary language to describe his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, calling her a “bigot.”

“Such a nasty woman,” he said in a debate.

She, in turn, called Mr. Trump’s supporters deplorable.

“They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic,” Clinton said.

The heated rhetoric has continued since Trump’s inauguration. Comedian Kathy Griffin posted a photo of a decapitated Mr. Trump on social media. And a New York City production of Julius Caesar depicted the assassinated emperor as a Trump lookalike.

Someone’s to blame here:

Shortly after the shooting, New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins pointed the finger at Democrats.

“I can only hope that the Democrats do tone down the rhetoric. The rhetoric has been outrageous in the anger directed at Donald Trump,” Collins said.

But later, he said fault lies with both sides.

“And I think all of us can be a little introspective now. I will be, I promise you. To just say, let’s just notch it down just a couple of decibels,” Collins amended.

That’s nice, but Jeremy Stahl notes it wasn’t all sweetness and light:

Republican legislators and officials spoke throughout the day of “tamping down” rhetoric, without explicitly describing how and what rhetoric. The hints, though, were that the rhetoric that needed to be tamped down was criticism of Trump and his Republican Party, both from Democrats and from a media that the president has called the “enemy” of the American people.

“We’ve got to ratchet down the rhetoric that we’ve seen, not only on social media, but in the media in our 24-hour news cycle,” Rep. Rodney Davis told CNN. “These are the things that have to stop. This is a result of political rhetorical terrorism.”

Okay, now it’s Political Rhetorical Terrorism – a new threat to America – the position of Alex Jones who decided to talk about “media-inspired terror attacks” now:

“We have been warning for months that the mainstream media’s hysterical anti-Trump narrative and the left’s insistence that Trump is illegitimate will radicalize demented social justice warriors and prompt them to lash out with violence,” the site wrote. “It looks like that’s exactly what happened today. The blood is on their hands.”

Stahl wonders about that:

With the empowerment of voices like Jones’ by the president and the Republican Party, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what the GOP means when it asks for toned down rhetoric. Should the media stop publishing stories about the congressional investigations into Trump, or the credibility gap between the president and his main accuser James Comey? Should those investigations be put to a halt, as Trump has suggested in deed with the Comey firing and reportedly in word with his reported desire for special counsel Robert Mueller to also lose his job?

This leaves Donald Trump in an awkward position. He thinks the world of Alex Jones – he has appeared on Jones’ radio show and praised him – so does he now say everyone should stop criticizing him, and that all these damned investigations should stop too – every one of them – before crazed political-rhetorical terrorists get us all killed?

That must be tempting. The alternative is to say he is deeply sorry for all the insults and sneering and incitements to violence – he did say he’s pay the legal fees of anyone who punched out any protesters at his rallies – and from now on he would treat absolutely everyone with respect – no name-calling and no ridicule from now on – period. He’d be a new man.

The first alternative is absurd. Everyone should shut up? This is America. We do have rules about that, but the second alternative is impossible. He is who he is, and this is how he got to where he is and it’s worked so far and the only thing he knows how to do. Is he supposed to change the essence of who he is on the very day he turns seventy-one, on his birthday?

Some birthdays are better than others, but on this one, things got even worse for him:

The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice, officials said.

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.

This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did:

Trump had received private assurances from then-FBI Director James B. Comey starting in January that he was not personally under investigation. Officials say that changed shortly after Comey’s firing.

Five people briefed on the interview requests, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Rogers’s recently departed deputy, Richard Ledgett, agreed to be interviewed by Mueller’s investigators as early as this week.

There’s a reason for that:

Officials said one of the exchanges of potential interest to Mueller took place on March 22, less than a week after Coats was confirmed by the Senate to serve as the nation’s top intelligence official.

Coats was attending a briefing at the White House with officials from several other government agencies. When the briefing ended, as The Washington Post previously reported, Trump asked everyone to leave the room except for Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

Coats told associates that Trump had asked him whether Coats could intervene with Comey to get the bureau to back off its focus on former national security adviser Michael Flynn in its Russia probe, according to officials. Coats later told lawmakers that he never felt pressured to intervene.

A day or two after the March 22 meeting, Trump telephoned Coats and Rogers to separately ask them to issue public statements denying the existence of any evidence of coordination between his campaign and the Russian government.

If so, that’s obstruction of justice. Mueller will get these guys to talk about that under oath, for good reason:

The obstruction-of-justice investigation of the president began days after Comey was fired on May 9, according to people familiar with the matter. Mueller’s office has taken up that work, and the preliminary interviews scheduled with intelligence officials indicate that his team is actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government.

The interviews suggest that Mueller sees the question of attempted obstruction of justice as more than just a “he said, he said” dispute between the president and the fired FBI director, an official said.

And there’s this:

Mueller is overseeing a host of investigations involving people who are or were in Trump’s orbit, people familiar with the probe said. The investigation is examining possible contacts with Russian operatives as well as any suspicious financial activity related to those individuals.

That’s a hell of birthday present for Donald Trump, but Josh Marshall thinks Trump gave himself this present:

Reading through this article, contemplating that the President less than five months in office is already being investigated for obstruction of justice, what is so mind-boggling is that the case isn’t even really a he said, he said dispute. How do we know the President fired Comey because of the Russia investigation? He said so on national television! And he said something similar the day before, on May 10th, only this time in a private setting.

On May 19th, the Times reported a White House memorandum summarizing Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office. In that meeting President Trump said “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

This meeting was on May 10th, the day after Comey’s dismissal. The memorandum was likely written later that day. In other words, almost immediately after firing Comey, within the following two days, President Trump made at least two statements in which he essentially admitted or more like boasted about firing Comey with the specific goal of impeding or ending the Russia probe. There are various and highly significant complexities tied to the unique role of the President. He is the only person in the country who can, arguably, obstruct an investigation by exercising his statutory right to fire a member of the executive branch. But on its face, this is essentially admitting to obstruction.

And there’s this:

The additional detail about this part of the Russia investigation writ large is that Mueller appears to see this potential obstruction of justice as either including Trump’s requests to DNI Coats and NSA chief Rodgers or in some way evidenced by what he asked these two men to do. The article also says preliminary interviews suggest Mueller’s team is “actively pursuing potential witnesses inside and outside the government.”

What does this mean?

Here’s one guess. We know that President Trump has a number of close friends who he calls frequently to shoot the shit, rant or just unwind. Newsmax owner Chris Ruddy seems to be one of these. There appear to be plenty more. We can see that Trump was far from discreet in sharing his thinking and motivation about firing Comey. He literally said it in a nationally televised TV interview and in a conversation with the Russian foreign minister. We also know that he spent the previous weekend at his Bedminster golf club stewing in his anger at Comey and finally deciding it was time to fire him. Given all this, it seems close to impossible that Trump didn’t stream of consciousness with many of his sundry associates and toadies about what he was planning to do and why.

Those people are all now witnesses.

And there’s this:

The seeming multiplicity of investigations speaks for itself. But it is the repeated reference to “financial crimes” or “suspicious financial activity” that grabs my attention.

Experts will tell you that “financial crimes” can often mean technical infractions, ways of structuring or organizing movements of money, failures to disclose, certain actions that are prima facie evidence of efforts to conceal, etc. This doesn’t mean these are just ‘technicalities’ in the colloquial sense. They are rather infractions the nature of which may be hard for a layperson to understand but which often end up snaring defendants when other crimes are too difficult to prove. But here’s the thing about the Trump world. I don’t have subpoena power. And we’ve yet to assign a reporting crew to the Trump entourage beat full time. But even with my own limited reporting, it is quite clear to me that there are numerous people in Trump’s entourage (or ‘crew’, if you will) including Trump himself whose history and ways of doing business would not survive first contact with real legal scrutiny. It sounds like Mueller sees all of that within his purview, in all likelihood because the far-flung business dealings of Trump and his top associates are the membrane across which collusion and quid pro quos could have been conducted.

A basic perusal of business in the Trump world makes clear that serious legal scrutiny would turn up no end of problems. … If Mueller is taking a serious prosecutor’s lens to Trump’s financial world and the financial worlds of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn and numerous others, there’s going to be a world of hurt for a lot of people. And that is if no meaningful level of 2016 election collusion even happened.

That’s also one hell of birthday present for Donald Trump, the second, and then there’s the third:

The sanctions legislation the Senate passed overwhelmingly Wednesday afternoon would represent a major power grab from the White House on U.S.-Russia policy… It would pave the way for Congress to wield far more control over the country’s fraught relationship with Russia… If it becomes law, the president would find it far more difficult to pursue the kinds of Russia sanctions relief that his team is said to have discussed with Russian officials before his inauguration. Those discussions, and potentially others, are what have gotten this White House in the hot water it’s in now.

You’re not supposed to take things FROM the Birthday Boy, but they did:

Two Republican senators, Bob Corker and Mike Crapo, emphasized to reporters Tuesday that the Russia sanctions bill they helped negotiate gives the president plenty of flexibility to implement his Russia policy. But Corker also affirmed that the proposal would help “reassert congressional authority.” The reality is the proposal would tie the White House’s hand vis-a-vis Moscow on a number of different levels. And it would also give Congress a way to block the president from repealing any sanctions against Russia that it wants to keep on the books, the same way the Senate attempted (but narrowly failed) to do vis-a-vis the sale of weapons to the Saudis.

Republican Senator John McCain, one of the leading proponents of tougher sanctions on Russia, agreed Wednesday after the Senate’s amendment vote that it would give Congress far more control over U.S. policy. “That’s why my folks got heavily engaged” in writing the amendment, he told Newsweek, adding that he’d been one of the lawmakers who’d pushed hard to limit the White House’s discretion. He’s not the only Republican who has openly disagreed with Trump on Russia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, among others, have called repeatedly for taking a tougher line with Moscow.

And the worst thing is that they agree with Barack Obama:

The legislation also would enact into law several sanctions policies against Russia issued by the Obama White House. Because those policies were initiated as executive orders, they could be withdrawn by any future president, regardless of Congress. The amendment would make the policies far more difficult to overturn.

That’s a bummer, as is this:

The amendment would also require the president to impose new economic and defense-related sanctions on Russian entities as punishment for its hacking of the U.S. election and its human rights abuses.

The new Russia sanctions proposal would also allow Congress to review any proposal the president makes to lift or waive sanctions against Russia before it goes into effect. And if Congress voted to disapprove of the move, it could block the White House action. The president could then veto Congress’s disapproval resolution, however, which lawmakers would have to override. But it would add yet another hoop Trump would have to go through if he wanted to soften the penalties against Moscow.

Some birthdays are better than others, but this was the third disaster of the day. Because of that shooting, now Donald Trump has to play nice – no more name-calling and insults and sneering, and no more playful incitements to violence, because people get shot. Someone just got shot – and now that obstruction of justice thing is no longer a vague and unlikely possibility. That’s now an active investigation. Active investigations usually lead to charges – and his “friends” in Congress just told him that they prefer Obama’s way with Russia, not his, and they won’t let him do anything stupid. Damn!

What do you get a man who has everything? Nothing – you take things away. from him. But maybe there was cake. It was his birthday after all.

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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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