What Just Isn’t So

fThings weren’t always this way. There’s the curious case of George Aiken – one of those old-school “progressive” Republicans of the Teddy Roosevelt sort. Aiken arrived in the Senate in early 1941 and did turn out to be a bit iconoclastic. Toward the end of his Senate career he was all for food stamps and taking care of the poor, and he was big on the environment long before Nixon suggested the Environmental Protection Agency – he had been president of the Vermont Horticultural Society after all – and he was big on infrastructure spending before Eisenhower came up with the Interstate Highway System. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to make things better. There’s nothing wrong with adding a bit to the deficit to make things better.

Maybe he wasn’t a Republican. Aiken had been elected as speaker of the Vermont House in 1933 – over the opposition of the Republican establishment at the time. He then passed the Poor Debtor Law to protect people who could not pay back the big banks during the Great Depression, further infuriating the Republican establishment. He’d say he was a pragmatist, but he was still a damned good Republican. He was conservative in the old-fashioned sense of that word. Be careful and cautious, taking small steps, but also do what’s necessary for the greatest good, for everyone, even the poor folks. The whole Ayn Rand concept of there being only Makers and Takers in this dog-eat-dog world would have puzzled him.

Admittedly the guy is obscure. The only thing anyone remembers him for was what he said about the Vietnam War in 1966 – maybe we should just declare victory and head on home. He explained that “the United States could well declare unilaterally” that “we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

What more do you want? And that wasn’t copping-out either. This was sensible and pragmatic, because such a declaration “would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam.”

That would change everything. People would shout at each other, not shoot each other. Isn’t that more sensible? There’s no need for any more to die, and he added this – “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”

Everyone ignored him. It couldn’t be that simple. Sure, we could declare victory, but who would believe us? It’s foolish to say something is so when it just isn’t so. No one ever tried that again, until Donald Trump:

Obamacare is finished. It’s dead. It’s gone. You shouldn’t even mention it. It’s gone. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore.

Trump simply declared victory. Move on. His very own Republican Congress couldn’t manage any form of “repeal and replace” at all. That doesn’t matter. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore. Everyone knows this is so – or so he says – but Kevin Drum sees foolishness here:

Needless to say, this is just the latest part of Trump’s campaign to prevent people from signing up for Obamacare. Cut the signup period in half. Eliminate outreach. Eliminate advertising. Shut down the website periodically on weekends. Cut CSR subsidies in a way that makes people think benefits have been cut. Tell everyone Obamacare is dead.

That doesn’t have to be so:

When Republicans started passing photo ID laws, progressives fought back with campaigns to get people registered to vote. Because of this, ID laws probably had only a very small effect on the election. Are progressives doing the same thing for Obamacare? It sure seems like there ought to be a huge campaign to publicize the Obamacare signup period and help people get through it. This might help fight some of Trump’s doom-saying and keep signups high. This in turn will keep Obamacare healthy despite Trump’s best efforts.

That may happen, and Josh Marshall adds this:

President Trump just gave an angry, thrashing, desperate sounding series of remarks about Obamacare. He pressed the point that people think it’s an emergency now that he’s cut off CSR payments. And he thinks that’s good. He went on about how the health insurers only fund Democrats, lashed out at Democrats, and said that health care is going to be great once they repeal Obamacare. It struck me as more unhinged and febrile than usual for Trump. One continuing theme is that even through his anger and need to lash out he seems not to understand even the most elemental details of how the health care system or Obamacare works.

In short, saying something is so doesn’t make it so, and he did get caught on another matter:

During a press conference on Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump made the dubious claim that former President Barack Obama and other former presidents did not personally call the families of soldiers who died in combat.

Trump quickly walked back the claim when a reporter followed up.

Oops:

The President first told reporters that he had written letters to the families of soldiers who died in the recent attack in Niger and said he would soon call the families as well. He then claimed that his approach was unique, and that not all past presidents made those calls.

“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls,” he said. “I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice so generally I would say that I like to call. I’m going to be calling them.”

Former aides to Obama quickly pushed back on Trump’s claim, calling it a “lie.”

They were late to the game:

A reporter followed up with Trump later in the press conference, prompting Trump to walk back his claim and say that he “was told” that Obama didn’t call the families of fallen soldiers.

“I don’t know if he did. No, no. I was told that he didn’t often and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters,” Trump said.

“President Obama I think probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals,” the President continued.

This wasn’t his fault. His generals had misled him. Damn those generals! He was the victim here.

That wouldn’t fly, and Dave Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation, reports this curious reaction to all this:

We’ve all seen the San Antonio Spurs’ future Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich in a state of exasperation on the sidelines, or in postgame news conferences. Many of us have also heard him speak with great vexation and clarity about the direction of this country and the actions of Donald Trump, particularly on Trump’s “disgusting tenor and tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic.” But I have never heard this man more frustrated, more fed up, and more tense with anger than he was today.

Coach Pop called me up after hearing the president’s remarks explaining why he hadn’t mentioned the four US soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger.

Maybe it was bald-faced nature of this lie. Maybe it is Pop’s own history in the military, but the coach clearly had to vent. He said, “I want to say something and please just let me talk and please make sure this is on the record.”

Popovich did vent:

“I’ve been amazed and disappointed by so much of what this president had said, and his approach to running this country, which seems to be one of just a never ending divisiveness. But his comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families, is so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words.”

At this point, Coach Pop paused, and I thought for a moment that perhaps he didn’t have the words and the conversation would end. Then he took a breath and said:

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner – and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers – is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House: unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this President should be ashamed because they know better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”

Okay. Now the thirty-four percent of the country that will never watch an NFL game ever again will now never watch an NBA game ever again, and Popovich coaches the men’s Olympic basketball team, so they won’t watch those ever again either. Is that cynical? Charles Pierce, a former sportswriter turned political writer, is even more cynical about this:

Why make the assertion at all? Because he knows that tens of millions of Americans are right now emailing and texting each other about how Obummer never called the families of soldiers who were KIA. A third of the country will believe it by Thursday no matter how much we mock it, or how often it is exposed for the sickening fabrication that it is. I’m sure Benghazi, Benghazi!, Benghazi! is in there somewhere, too.

Of course it is. Saying something is so, that just isn’t so, even if you walk it back, does sometimes make it so – to some – to the right sort of people – the people who actually vote when others don’t. That works too. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore. Sure, why not? Declare victory and go home – but that still leaves that soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others, by saying things that just aren’t so.

Such people are hard to manage, and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Greg Jaffe report on that difficulty:

During the campaign, when President Trump’s advisers wanted him to stop talking about an issue – such as when he attacked a Gold Star military family – they sometimes presented him with polls demonstrating how the controversy was harming his candidacy.

During the transition, when aides needed Trump to decide on a looming issue or appointment, they often limited him to a shortlist of two or three options and urged him to choose one.

And now in the White House, when advisers hope to prevent Trump from making what they think is an unwise decision, they frequently try to delay his final verdict – hoping he may reconsider after having time to calm down.

This is a difficult business:

When Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described the White House as “an adult day-care center” on Twitter last week, he gave voice to a Trumpian truth: The president is often impulsive, mercurial and difficult to manage, leading those around him to find creative ways to channel his energies.

Some Trump aides spend a significant part of their time devising ways to rein in and control the impetuous president, angling to avoid outbursts that might work against him, according to interviews with 18 aides, confidants and outside advisers, most of whom insisted on anonymity to speak candidly.

“If you visit the White House today, you see aides running around with red faces, shuffling paper and trying to keep up with this president,” said one Republican in frequent contact with the administration. “That’s what the scene is.”

These people worry all the time:

Trump is hardly the first president whose aides have arranged themselves around him and his management style – part of a natural effort, one senior White House official said, to help ensure the president’s success. But Trump’s penchant for Twitter feuds, name-calling and temperamental outbursts presents a unique challenge.

But there is a way to deal with this:

One defining feature of managing Trump is frequent praise, which can leave his team in what seems to be a state of perpetual compliments. The White House pushes out news releases overflowing with top officials heaping flattery on Trump; in one memorable Cabinet meeting this year, each member went around the room lavishing the president with accolades.

Senior administration officials call this speaking to an “audience of one.”

One regular practitioner is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who praised Trump’s controversial statements after white supremacists had a violent rally in Charlottesville and also said he agreed with Trump that professional football players should stand during the national anthem. Neither issue has anything to do with the Treasury Department.

So one way to keep this president from doing stupid stuff, from suddenly saying what clearly isn’t so at all, is to calm him down by telling him that he’s wonderful:

Especially in the early days of his presidency, aides delivered the president daily packages of news stories filled with positive coverage, and Trump began meetings by boasting about his performance, either as president or in winning the White House, according to one person who attended several Oval Office gatherings with him.

Some aides and outside advisers hoping to push their allies and friends for top postings, such as ambassadorships, made sure their candidates appeared speaking favorably about Trump in conservative news outlets – and that those news clippings ended up on the president’s desk.

Others, however, are more subtle:

H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser, has frequently resorted to diversionary tactics to manage Trump.

In the Oval Office, he will volunteer to have his staff study Trump’s more unorthodox ideas. When Trump wanted to make South Korea pay for the entire cost of a shared missile defense system, McMaster and top aides huddled to come up with arguments that the money spent defending South Korea and Japan also benefited the U.S. economy in the form of manufacturing jobs, according to two people familiar with the debate.

“He plays rope-a-dope with him,” a senior administration official said. “He thinks Trump is going to forget, but he doesn’t. H.R.’s strategy is to say, ‘Let us study that, boss.’ He tries to deflect.”

This too is a tricky business:

Some aides and advisers have found a way to manage Trump without seeming to condescend. Perhaps no Cabinet official has proven more adept at breaking ranks with Trump without drawing his ire than Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has disagreed with his boss on a range of issues, including the effectiveness of torture, the importance of NATO and the wisdom of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.

The president appreciates how Mattis, a four-star Marine general, speaks to him candidly but respectfully and often plays down disagreements in public. A senior U.S. official said that Mattis’ focus has been on informing the president when they disagree – before the disagreements go public – and maintaining a quiet influence.

But even this guy has his limits:

Unlike his fellow Cabinet secretaries, Mattis has also gone out of his way not to suck up to the president – a stance made easier perhaps by his four decades in uniform and his combat record. At the laudatory Cabinet meeting this summer, he was the lone holdout who did not lavish praise on the president. Instead, Mattis said it was “an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.”

Trump didn’t fire him on the spot. Mattis lived to fight another day, but Daniel Drezner still sees this:

What’s next? Ordinary toddlers eventually tire out after throwing a tantrum. But this is when the analogy breaks down. Full disclosure: Trump is not really a toddler, but an overindulged plutocrat who has never had to cope with political failure. With each negative shock or story he faces, his behavior worsens, and that just leads to a new cycle of negative press and disaffected GOP officials. The political effects of this are to weaken his historically weak presidency, making it harder for him to do anything that would counteract this trend. This doom-loop means that his behavior is only going to get worse.

Drezner says it did get worse – “By the end of the week, Trump had gone after Obamacare, the Clean Power Plan, UNESCO, and the Iranian nuclear deal.”

Trump was off to the races, saying what just wasn’t so, and Drezner cites Peter Baker of the  New York Times:

President Trump leaves little doubt about what he thinks of his predecessor’s top domestic and international legacies. The health care program enacted by President Barack Obama is “outrageous” and “absolutely destroying everything in its wake.” The nuclear deal with Iran is “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

Yet as much as he has set his sights on them, Mr. Trump after nearly nine months in office has not actually gotten rid of either. Instead, in the past few days, he took partial steps to undercut both initiatives and then left it to Congress to figure out what to do next. Whether either will ultimately survive in some form has become a central suspense of Mr. Trump’s first year in office.

In the case of health care, Mr. Trump is making a virtue of necessity. Having failed to push through legislation replacing the Affordable Care Act, he is taking more limited measures on his own authority aimed at chipping away at the law. On the other hand, when it comes to the Iran deal, he has the authority to walk away without anyone else’s consent but has been talked out of going that far by his national security team. Instead, by refusing to recertify the deal, he rhetorically disavows the pact without directly pulling out.

These are not the only instances in which Mr. Trump’s expansive language has not been matched by his actions during this opening phase of his presidency. On immigration, diplomatic relations with Cuba and international accords like the North American Free Trade Agreement and a separate trade pact with South Korea, he has denounced decisions made by Mr. Obama or other previous presidents without fully reversing them.

All that was odd, but Drezner also notes this:

To be sure, there are conservatives who defend Trump’s actions as a means to reverse executive-branch power grabs by prior administrations. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York offers the best case for this interpretation. Even York, however, concedes that, “Trump’s actions might not work. After all, he is pressuring Congress to act, but that doesn’t mean Congress will act, especially when the president is feuding with some key members.”

If the best spin of Trump’s actions relies on Congress acting like a mature political organization, that is a thin reed…

It is certainly possible that Trump will walk away from NAFTA or KORUS [the Korean Free Trade Agreement] – the Trump administration’s style is gleefully aggressive enough to alienate countries that want closer ties with the United States. The data are already starting to come in on how loyal allies are reacting to Trump’s disruptive style, and that data is not encouraging.

Drezner cites Politico’s Adam Beshudi on that:

Japanese officials are expressing growing frustration with the Trump administration’s economic policies, vowing to continue striking trade deals with other countries that undercut U.S. agricultural exports rather than seek a new trade agreement with the United States.

The frustration comes both from President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric on trade and from his pullout from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Japan still hopes can provide a bulwark against China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region…

In interviews with POLITICO, more than half a dozen senior Japanese officials said they were uneasy with a so-called bilateral – two-nation – deal to replace the TPP, arguing that the goal of the multinational agreement was to create a wide international playing field. They said they are dismayed by Trump’s seeming inability to understand the importance of a multinational pact to establish U.S. leadership in the region and set the trade rules for nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean as a counterweight to China’s rising influence.

Drezner also cites Karen DeYoung on that:

Instead of leading, Trump’s “my way or the highway” approach has been a detour from the multilateral road the United States has traveled since World War II. And as Trump has left behind, or threatened to, the premier international agreements of this century, from the Paris climate accord to global trade alliances and now the Iran nuclear deal, he has not had many willing followers… Even those who have proclaimed him as a leader have sometimes not felt bound by his demands.

Drezner notes that “from Israel to the Persian Gulf, to Kurdistan to Turkey to NATO to East Asia, even Trump’s few allies have been perfectly happy to ignore him.”

There’s a reason for that. When the President of the United States persists in saying things that just aren’t so it’s probably best to ignore him, and then there’s Josh Marshall:

Peer nation-states make agreements with the US in part because we tend to stick to our agreements, even with the change of administrations. The entirety of Trump’s vision of ‘deal-making’ is one in which you bully and cajole and threaten the other party until you get a deal that works for you and not them. That may make sense in the highly shystery world of New York real estate. But in the global order we’re going to be dealing with Germany and France and China and Mexico … well, we’re going to be dealing with them forever. Not everything is Kumbaya in international relations. Far from it – but except in war, and not even always them, it’s not zero-sum…

Both abroad and with Congress we can see clearly what should have been clear in advance: President Trump has no idea how to negotiate international accords or treaties or how to pass laws. These require building coalitions and trust because you’ll need to work with the same actors again in the future. You also need to build coalitions of people or nations each of which thinks they have something to gain from the effort… Trump’s idea of business is basically cheating. That doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the law, though Trump does plenty of that. It means making money by trickery and hard-dealing in which the other party usually ends up screwed. Those just aren’t the skills that end up being effective for a President. But that’s all Trump knows. That’s why we currently have what amounts to governance via chaos and outburst. Trump doesn’t know how to be President.

Trump, however, does know how to say things that just aren’t so, to declare victory where there is none. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore. President Obama, and all other presidents before him, never spoke with the families of those who died in military action, or even wrote condolence letters to them, but he will – when he gets around to it. None of it is remotely true.

In 1966, George Aiken said we should declare victory in Vietnam and leave. We had “won” after all – but he knew that wasn’t remotely true. He himself called that idea farfetched – but nothing is farfetched to Donald Trump. The only alternative may be to turn the tables on Donald Trump and declare that he was never elected president. He’s not the only one that can play this game.

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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