It’s an oddly quiet evening here in Hollywood. It’s raining. That giddy guy from Pittsburgh should be singing in the rain – but it’s not like that – and that was shot on a soundstage down at MGM in Culver City in 1952 – long ago. It’s not like that. It’s just rain. It’s kind of dismal, and President Trump is in town. He finally made it to California, which Hillary Clinton carried two-to-one against him, where no Republican has been elected to statewide office in a decade, where there’s not much of a Republican Party left. He’s over in Beverly Hills at a private fundraiser, trying to cheer up those who now feel like strangers in a strange land. They’re not going to take back the state. He’ll raise a few million dollars to get himself reelected, if he can. They’ll help with that. That’s the best they can hope for – and it’s raining.
This trip was misbegotten. President Trump flew into San Diego to inspect prototypes for his Big Beautiful Wall – which he says California desperately wants. Everyone out here thinks it’s stupid. There are a hundred other ways people slip into the country – and the economy out here, and everywhere else, needs a lot of those people. He blasted Jerry Brown – a nice guy, he said, but a terrible governor. The state is falling apart. It isn’t – the state is running a surplus and everything is working just fine. Everyone hates the out-of-control high taxes. No, voters out here approved those taxes. People and companies are leaving the state, or soon will be. That isn’t happening either. Affordable housing is an issue. The homeless are an issue. California supplies more than half of the nation’s produce and climate change is about to put an end to that. There are problems, but Trump mentioned none of those. He ranted about high taxes and too much regulation – and then he hopped back on Air Force One for the short hop to Los Angeles, and then a short hop in a helicopter to Santa Monica Airport, and then the massive motorcade up to some mansion just off Mulholland Drive. He was the stranger in the strange land.
California, however, isn’t the rest of America. The rest of America is becoming a strange land, with a strange man in charge. It’s chaos out there. This was the day that Donald Trump fired his secretary of state, announced he would move the head of the CIA into that position, and he would name the second in command at the CIA to run the CIA – the woman who ran the secret “black site” torture operation in Thailand for Dick Cheney and George Bush and did what she was told – she helped destroy all evidence of what the CIA had done there. At the same time Donald Trump’s personal assistant was suddenly perp-walked out of the White House – something to do with some sort of major financial crime that no one will specify – and was immediately hired by the Trump reelection team to work for them – and the Stormy Daniels thing got worse and worse. The porn start won’t keep quiet. And Stephen Hawking died – but that had nothing to do with Trump. At the end of the evening, events just south of Pittsburgh had everything to do with Trump:
A special election for a U.S. House seat was too close to call late Tuesday as Democrat Conor Lamb and Republican Rick Saccone were separated by several hundred votes in a race that had become a test of President Trump’s political clout.
With thousands of absentee and provisional ballots outstanding, Lamb earned 49.8 percent of votes cast and Saccone earned 49.6 percent, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press, which said the race was too close to project a winner.
A recount is possible if the candidates are separated by 0.5 percentage points or less.
Shortly before midnight, Saccone told his supporters that “it’s not over yet.”
A little more than an hour later, Lamb took the stage at his party in Canonsburg to declare victory.
It was over, and Trump hadn’t helped:
Lamb, 33, had waged an energetic campaign in the district that Trump carried by nearly 20 points in 2016 but that opened up after the Republican incumbent was felled by scandal. Republicans cited that scandal, along with the lackluster campaign of their nominee, Rick Saccone, to minimize the closeness of the race. The district itself will disappear this year, thanks to a court decision that struck down a Republican-drawn map.
But led by the White House, Republicans had elevated the race to a high-stakes referendum on the president and the GOP. Trump made two appearances with Saccone, including a Saturday-night rally in the district, and his son Donald Trump Jr. stumped with Saccone on Monday. The president repeatedly linked his brand to Saccone.
“The Economy is raging, at an all-time high, and is set to get even better,” the president tweeted on Tuesday morning. “Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going!”
It seems that wasn’t the issue:
After casting her vote in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, dental hygienist Janet Dellana said she had been outraged to see Trump call for arming teachers instead of limiting access to semiautomatic weapons after the deadly school shooting in Florida.
“He flip-flops on everything, but in the end, he caters to the extreme right,” said Dellana, 64. “I am a registered Republican, but as this party continues to cater to the extreme right, they push me left.”
Someone was feeling like a stranger in a strange land, and there was this:
On the ground, unions ran an aggressive turnout operation, winning back many members who had backed Trump for president. Lamb’s campaign focused on preserving Medicare and Social Security, and warning that Republican policies would put them at risk. The United Mine Workers of America, which had sat out the 2016 election, endorsed Lamb when the Democrat promised to support legislation that would fully fund their pensions.
People want their country back. They want the strangeness to end, and that business with Rex Tillerson was strange, as David Frum notes:
The White House’s account of the Tillerson firing collapsed within minutes.
Senior administration officials told outlets including the Washington Post and CNN that Tillerson had been told he would be dismissed on Friday, March 9.
Within the hour, the State Department issued a statement insisting that Tillerson “had every intention of remaining” and “did not speak to the President this morning and is unaware of the reason.” CNN reported that Tillerson had received a call from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Friday night indicating that he would be replaced that did not specify timing; a senior White House official told the network that it was Trump himself who had suddenly decided to pull the trigger on Tuesday morning. Tillerson learned of his actual firing the same way everybody else did: By reading about it on Twitter shortly after 8:44 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 13.
This was brutal and uncourteous, but Frum notes the timing:
On March 12, Tillerson had backed the British government’s accusation that Russia was culpable for a nerve-agent attack on United Kingdom soil. If Tillerson had been fired March 9, then his words of support for Britain could not explain his firing three days before. But if the White House was lying about the timing, it could be lying about the motive.
And since it now seems all but certain that the White House was lying about the timing, it looks more probable that it was lying about the motive too.
That suspicion was accelerated by the president’s words to the White House press corps before stepping aboard Marine One – “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
That is not support for Britain. It is the direct opposite.
Trump sides with Russia again:
Britain and the United States share intelligence information fully, freely, and seamlessly. It’s inconceivable that the U.S. government has not already seen all the information that Theresa May saw before she rose in the House of Commons to accuse Russia.
If the U.S. government had a serious concern about the reliability of that information, it would have expressed that concern directly and privately to the U.K. government before May spoke. But the U.S. had no such concern – that’s why the now-fired secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom both endorsed May’s words. When Trump raises doubts about the facts, about American agreement with its British ally, about the accuracy of the British accusation against Russia, Trump is not expressing good-faith uncertainty about imperfect information. Trump is rejecting the consensus view of the U.K. and U.S. intelligence communities about an act of Russian aggression – and, if his past behavior is any indication, preparing the way for his own determination to do nothing.
It echoes the approach he took toward Russian intervention in the U.S. election to help elect him in 2016: Feign uncertainty about what is not uncertain in order to justify inaction.
Frum smells a rat:
Yesterday, the Republicans on the House intelligence committee announced that they had concluded the investigation of the Russian interference – and would soon publish a report acquitting Trump of collusion. Bad luck for them to release the report on the very day that Trump again demonstrated that something is very, very wrong in the Trump-Russia relationship. It’s possible to imagine innocent explanations. And it’s easy to list the plausible explanations. Ominously for the western alliance and the security of the United States, those two sets no longer overlap at all.
Perhaps the Russians have something on Trump, and there was this:
The news that President Trump had abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson while he was on an overseas trip hit Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, as details trickled out throughout the day about the unclear circumstances of the ouster and what will happen in the weeks ahead.
“The State Department is in chaos,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) exclaimed to reporters, shaking his head as he stepped on the escalator in the Capitol’s basement.
Reacting to the news about Tillerson and another top State Department official fired Tuesday for contradicting the White House’s version of events, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) quipped: “At the rate this administration is hemorrhaging staff, pretty soon the President’s barber is going to play a big role in American foreign policy.”
They too felt like strangers in a strange land:
The unceremonious ouster is rankling Republicans and Democrats alike on Capitol Hill, even those who were not great fans of Tillerson’s leadership.
“It’s hard to believe that a president would be so irresponsible to fire the Secretary of State while the Secretary is overseas representing our country,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) vented to reporters Tuesday. “It’s just unfathomable that anyone would think that’s appropriate.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), while praising Tillerson’s likely replacement Pompeo, voiced concerns about the morning’s upheaval.
“It’s not a good sign when you’re fired by Twitter,” he said. “I mean, c’mon. We ought to have a better process than that. That’s just not a very respectful way to do it.”
But it had to happen:
Republican allies of President Trump were unsurprisingly supportive of the sudden cabinet shuffle, noting that it followed months of tension between Trump and Tillerson. The President repeatedly and publicly contradicted and humiliated his secretary of state, while Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning months ago.
“I think it’s important that the President and Secretary of State are on the same wavelength and I think the President now will be,” the normally tight-lipped Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) told reporters Tuesday, adding that he hopes the Senate will act swiftly to confirm Mike Pompeo to the role. “We have not just the North Korea summit coming up in the next two to three months, but the next decision about the Iran certification in two months. It’s important that the President has the team he wants in place before those two events happen.”
But that’s an issue, as is that woman:
On Iran, Pompeo is expected to support Trump’s desire to terminate the nuclear agreement crafted by the Obama administration – a break from Tillerson, who had warned ending the agreement would be extremely dangerous.
“I think it means that the likelihood of withdrawing from the agreement goes up, if you don’t change the sunset clause and deal with some other deficiencies,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told reporters. Graham also expressed unease about the woman tapped to replace Pompeo at the CIA – Gina Haspel – whose record includes overseeing a CIA black site that waterboarded detainees during the George W. Bush administration.
“My main concern is: does she now know that those techniques are not allowed?” Graham said. “At the time, there was doubt. Today, there is no doubt. That will drive my thinking more than anything else.”
Lawmakers noted that it’s uncertain whether Haspel or Pompeo can muster the 60 votes necessary for their Senate confirmations. Even Democrats who voted for Pompeo’s confirmation to lead the CIA last year now say they have concerns.
Everyone has concerns, and the Washington Post’s David Nakamura and Damian Paletta get to the heart of the matter:
For much of his tumultuous tenure, President Trump has made impulsive, gut-level pronouncements – about dealing with Democrats on immigration, tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and supporting stricter gun control – only to be walked back by his more cautious staff.
Those days, it appears, are over.
In the past two weeks, Trump has ordered tariffs on steel and aluminum imports over the fierce objections of his top economic adviser and agreed to an unprecedented meeting with North Korea’s dictator despite concerns from national security aides. On Tuesday, Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had forged a tight working relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to try to rein in some of Trump’s most impetuous decisions.
Trump’s moves have shaken and alarmed a West Wing staff that fears the president has felt less restrained about acting on his whims amid the recent departures of several longtime aides, including communications director Hope Hicks and staff secretary Rob Porter. Late Monday, Trump’s personal assistant John McEntee, who had served from the earliest days of his campaign, was fired after losing his security clearance, further depleting the ranks of those the president feels he can trust.
White House allies in Washington suggested that Trump has been liberated to manage his administration as he did his private business, making decisions that feel good in the moment because he believes in his ability to win – regardless of whether those decisions are backed by rigorous analysis or supported by top advisers.
This, they said, is the real Trump – freewheeling by nature, decisive in the moment, unafraid to chart his own course.
And maybe this had to happen:
Other people who have worked with Trump said his recent moves are an indication that he is concerned with the state of his presidency.
“When he’s under pressure is when he tends to do this impulsive stuff,” said Jack O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. “That’s what I saw in the business. When he began to have pressure with debts, when the [Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City] was underperforming, is when he began acting very erratically.”
O’Donnell pointed to the increasing pressure on Trump with the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and the scandal surrounding Trump’s alleged affair with a pornographic film star. “I think he likes the vision of himself being in control,” O’Donnell said. “I doubt he realizes the consequences of North Korea, just like he didn’t realize the consequences in business of walking in and firing someone at the Taj without thinking about it. It’s Trump.”
And one thing leads to another:
Critics warned that Trump was overseeing a massive consolidation of groupthink within the West Wing, driving out top advisers who have challenged him on national security and economic decisions and elevating those who confirm his protectionist leanings – a signal, perhaps, to Cabinet members that they must fall in line or be the next to go…
Attention is now focused on the fate of national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who has had a rocky relationship with the president and has battled an internal power struggle for months.
And if McMaster goes, all bets are off:
Eliot Cohen, who served as a State Department counselor in the George W. Bush administration, said Tillerson was the worst secretary of state in recent memory. But Cohen, who led one of the two “never Trump” letters signed by dozens of national security experts during the campaign, said Trump’s intent to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson will lead to even less internal debate.
Tillerson had dismissed the idea of direct talks with North Korea just days before Trump announced a summit with Kim Jong Un. By contrast, Pompeo on Sunday lavished praise on Trump’s strategy with Pyongyang.
“We have a very similar thought process,” Trump said of the CIA chief.
“This means conversations will be more of a never-never land than they already are,” Cohen said. “You will hear nothing faintly resembling candid disagreements.”
And this has been never-never land:
On Thursday, Trump decided on the spot during a 45-minute meeting with South Korean officials in the Oval Office that he would accept an invitation from Kim to meet for talks – stunning senior aides, including Mattis and McMaster, who warned about moving too quickly.
Jon Wolfsthal, who served as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said most presidents would have convened an interagency meeting with the relevant federal agencies before making such a momentous decision.
“A president could hear from his Cabinet about whether it was worth the risk and, if it was worth the risk, how they would make the announcement, who to inform first,” Wolfsthal said.
It didn’t work that way:
Trump asked his South Korean interlocutors to announce the news in the West Wing driveway as he hastily tried to reach the leaders of Japan and China. Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa, was represented at the Oval Office meeting by a deputy.
The following day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders sowed confusion by telling reporters that the meeting was contingent on Pyongyang taking active steps to denuclearize, before one of Sanders’s aides later clarified by saying there were no preconditions to the summit.
This is not a world anyone knows, even worldwide:
The turmoil has unsettled U.S. allies and rivals across the globe.
“I think the Chinese are reeling from this presidency,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
She noted that Beijing has sought to develop ties to both Tillerson and Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has lost standing amid questions about his inability to gain a security clearance and financial debts tied to his family’s real estate business.
“The Chinese ambassador has been going around quietly seeing very senior former officials and asking them who to talk to,” Glaser said. “How can they influence this administration? Every day is a new surprise for them.”
Every day is a new surprise for everyone. We’re all strangers in a strange land now. And it’s raining. And singing in the rain won’t help at all.