This Infinitely Improbable Presidency

Douglas Adams knew human nature:

In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper, and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.

 Elon Musk got it:

SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy rocket – the company’s biggest yet – into space on Tuesday. It i’s carrying Elon Musk’s own midnight-cherry red Tesla Roadster out to Mars orbit. Soon after the launch, Musk tweeted out a live feed of the car, and its driver – a dummy named Starman (after the David Bowie song) – with Earth in the background. It’s not the only pop culture reference in this car. Right in the middle of the car on the center screen are the words “Don’t Panic.”

Musk, who first read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” as a teenager, has said that he loves the book. In a 2015 interview he said the spaceship from the book was his favorite from science fiction.

The spaceship in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – the Heart of Gold – is powered by the “infinite improbability drive” – and Musk likes that concept. Much in life is improbable. Go with the flow. Don’t panic. Things will work out.

Thomas Paine saw things differently. The first line in the first of the thirteen pamphlets he published between 1776 and 1783 – The American Crisis – he made that clear – “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was time to panic, and do something. A revolution would do. Don’t go with the flow – panic – toss the bums out.

Douglas Adams and Elon Musk may be far too mellow. These may be the times that try men’s souls. We have an infinitely improbable president now – Donald Trump – who is trying men’s (and women’s) souls. It’s one improbable thing after another. He’s being sued by both a porn star and a Playboy model, and a third woman is suing him for defamation. He wants them to keep quiet about what he once did. His attorneys are threatening to destroy all three of them, if they talk – about what he says he never did in the first place. None of them will back down, and the nation watches, aghast or at least puzzled. Evangelicals are saying none of this really matters. The infinitely improbable has become real, now.

All of that will work itself out, one way or another, but the improbable keeps happening. The improbable sometimes happens in just one day, and this was that day. Ignoring the advice of every reputable economist in the world, and the pleas of almost every American corporation, and of the agricultural sector too, he announced major new tariffs on China – and the stock market crashed. Ignoring the advice of his attorneys he’s decided to attack Robert Mueller – and his own attorney resigned. He’s decided he knows best – and the end of the day he fired his national security advisor, perhaps the only remaining sensible man in his administration. He prefers a warmonger from Fox News – and he’s considering doing without a chief of staff. He doesn’t need a gatekeeper. He’ll wing it.

Maybe it is time to panic:

The Dow plummeted 724 points, or 2.9%, underlining mounting concerns among investors about looming tariffs on China. It was the fifth-largest point decline in history and the market’s worst day since the extreme turmoil of early February.

The S&P 500 dropped 2.5% and the NASDAQ 2.4%…

“A global trade war, whether it’s real or perceived, is what’s weighing on the market,” said Ian Winer, head of equities at Wedbush Securities. “There’s this huge uncertainty now. If China decides to get tough on agriculture or anything else, that will really spook people.”

Trump announced tariffs on about $50 billion worth of Chinese imports on Thursday afternoon. It’s not clear which products will be hit, but the action is aimed at curbing China’s troubling theft of US intellectual property.

That didn’t go well:

China wasted little time in threatening to retaliate against the United States, underlining the risk of a tit-for-tat escalation that hurts global trade. Beijing warned on Thursday it will “certainly take all necessary measures to resolutely defend” itself…

China is a major buyer of US crops, and Americans purchase tons of Chinese-made products. China is also America’s biggest creditor, owning more Treasuries than any other nation.

This was playing with fire:

Some market analysts questioned the wisdom of broad tariffs to tackle the very real problem of intellectual property theft.

“Isn’t there another way to deal with this that is more targeted?” Peter Boockvar, chief investment officer at The Bleakley Advisory Group, wrote in a report. “The American consumer again will be the pawn that pays for this.”

Apparently not, and so it begins:

Early Friday morning, China responded to the Trump administration’s tariffs by revealing that they are proposing tariffs on 128 U.S. products that had an import value of $3 billion in 2017…

The U.S. goods, which had an import value of $3 billion in 2017, include wine, fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts, steel pipes, modified ethanol, and ginseng, the ministry said. Those products could see a 15 percent duty, while a 25 percent tariff could be imposed on U.S. pork and recycled aluminum goods, according to the statement.

The statement did not go into greater detail. U.S. agricultural products, particularly soybeans, have been flagged as the biggest area of potential retaliation by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration.

This will not go well, but Trump has said this was what he was elected to do. He pulled us out of the Transpacific Partnership. He keeps talking about pulling of NAFTA completely – ending that. He talks about pulling out of the World Trade Organization – effectively ending that too. There should be no trading rules among nations, or we’ll make the rules. Everyone will play by our rules or suffer the consequences. If they retaliate, then we’ll retaliate. This could go on endlessly. All international trade will stop until we get what we want. The rest of the world will give in, in awe and fear. That’s what his voters wanted. They may get something else, but what’s done is done. The markets panicked. Panic might be appropriate.

And then there’s the second item:

John Dowd resigned on Thursday as President Trump’s lead lawyer for the special counsel investigation as Mr. Trump signaled that he was prepared to ignore his advice and wanted a sit-down with investigators.

After days of uncertainty among the president’s lawyers about their status, Mr. Dowd ultimately broke with Mr. Trump over whether he should agree to be questioned in the inquiry, a person briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Dowd viewed an interview as too risky; the president reiterated shortly after Mr. Dowd resigned that he wanted to clear his name. “I would like to,” the president told reporters at the White House when asked about meeting with investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. “I would like to.”

That means that things will get nasty:

Mr. Dowd’s departure cleared the way for the president to embrace a more aggressive posture toward the investigation and marked another reshuffling of personnel for Mr. Trump. In the most politically consequential investigation in decades, the president has refashioned his legal team several times, a revolving door that mirrors the high turnover among senior White House and campaign aides…

Now, as he weighs whether to be interviewed by Mr. Mueller, the president will be advised by a cadre of lawyers better known for their television and advocacy work than their courtroom triumphs.

This week, the president hired Joseph E. diGenova, a longtime Washington lawyer who has pushed the theory on Fox News that the FBI and Justice Department framed Mr. Trump.

The former United States attorney in Washington, Mr. DiGenova has been on television in recent years more than he has been in court. He has appeared in only three federal criminal cases in the past two decades, according to the national database of federal court records, and has not filed an appearance in a federal criminal case in eight years.

Trump doesn’t care, and there’s this:

Mr. DiGenova was brought aboard by Jay Sekulow, his longtime friend and the president’s other personal lawyer for the Mueller investigation.

Mr. Sekulow, a constitutional lawyer and radio host, has specialized in religious freedom and campaign finance cases and appeared in numerous civil cases, including filing lawsuits and amicus briefs in recent years against the Obama administration. Most notably, Mr. Sekulow sued the Internal Revenue Service over improper delays in processing tax-exempt status for conservative groups.

These are not great legal minds, but good help is hard to find:

Mr. Trump tried last summer to hire some of Washington’s top lawyers to represent him. But many shied away, aware of the president’s history of ignoring his lawyers’ advice and frequent failure to pay his legal bills. He was left to choose among a more willing but less attractive crop of lawyers, many of whom who were either considered past their prime or had gained prominence through news media appearances rather than legal work.

Trump may not want good legal work, at least that’s what Gabriel Sherman reports:

For the better part of the last month, Donald Trump has been winging it. His standoff with his chief of staff, John Kelly, appears to be resolved for the time being – with Trump having decided to return to the seat-of-the-pants decision-making that he believes won him the presidency. That doesn’t mean he has fully given up the idea of firing Kelly, though. One outside adviser to the White House said Trump has recently mulled the concept of creating a new West Wing structure without a chief of staff, one that would instead have four co-equal principals reporting directly to him. Trump seems to be loving his new freedom. “He was fucking excited and jubilant,” said one Trump friend who spoke to him in recent days. “He was like, everything’s great and these fuckers in the media are beside themselves.”

But Trump’s self-liberation comes at a dangerous moment, with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation reaching closer and closer, stoking Trump’s impulses to go to war. Earlier this month, Mueller crossed one of Trump’s stated “red lines” when he subpoenaed Trump Organization business records. According to four Republicans in regular contact with the White House, the move spurred Trump to lose patience with his team of feuding lawyers. “Trump hit the roof,” one source said.

That’s not encouraging:

Trump’s new offensive is a sign that he’s unilaterally abandoning the go-along, get-along strategy advocated by Dowd and Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer overseeing the response to Mueller. Cobb’s standing with Trump has been falling for months, after Cobb made the now-infamous prediction that the Russia probe would be over by Thanksgiving 2017. Dowd assured Trump that he had a “great relationship with Mueller” and could manage him, according to sources. That obviously hasn’t happened. “Trump just wants something to change and nothing was changing,” the outside adviser said. The genial and mustachioed Cobb has always been somewhat of an odd fit for Trump, whose mental picture of a lawyer is Roy Cohn, his early mentor. Sources said Trump reluctantly conceded to allow Cobb to play good cop. “Trump is looking at this saying, I did it your way for months, now I’m fucking doing it my way,” a former West Wing official said.

That’s the danger:

In private, Trump friends and outside advisers have been stoking his desire to go on the offensive for months. Trump has heard that his lawyers are “idiots”; that Mueller’s probe is a “coup d’état”; and that Trump’s only crime is having “won the election.”

That’s unhinged, but again, good help is hard to find:

Sources said Cobb is unlikely to be fired imminently – although with Trump you never know – but in the meantime, Trump is prospecting for a potential replacement. In recent days, he has made overtures to Emmet Flood, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s impeachment defense team, as well as Ted Olson, George W. Bush’s solicitor general. (Olson declined.) Their reticence highlights a larger problem for Trump: no heavy-hitting white-shoe law firm seems to want to represent him. According to two former administration officials, before hiring Cobb last summer, Trump was turned down by major white-shoe law firms that would have normally jumped at the opportunity to represent a president.

And there’s this:

Sources also said that Trump is considering hiring back Marc Kasowitz to serve on his defense team. “They’re talking a lot,” one Republican briefed on the conversations said. (Kasowitz did not respond to a request for comment.) Bringing back Kasowitz would be a sign of how rattled Trump is by the looming prospect of being interviewed by Mueller. Last July, Trump sidelined Kasowitz after it was revealed he struggled with alcoholism and told a stranger to “watch your back, bitch” in an e-mail. (Kasowitz has denied reports of alcohol abuse.) Sources also said Kasowitz’s return would be a signal that Trump is willing to put his own survival ahead of his family. A month before Kasowitz was ousted, a former White House official told me, he had told Trump that Jared Kushner needed to leave the White House.

Trump is willing to put his own survival ahead of his own family? What else is he willing to do? What is he willing to do to stop an obvious coup d’état? Panic might be appropriate.

And there was this:

President Trump named John R. Bolton, a hardline former American ambassador to the United Nations, as his third national security adviser on Thursday, continuing a shake-up that creates one of the most hawkish national security teams of any White House in recent history.

Mr. Bolton will replace Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the battle-tested Army officer who was tapped last year to stabilize a turbulent foreign policy operation but who never developed a comfortable relationship with the president.

The move, which was sudden but not unexpected, signals a more confrontational approach in American foreign policy at a time when Mr. Trump faces mounting challenges, including from Iran and North Korea.

Now, Trump has two of these guys:

The president replaced Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson last week with the CIA director, Mike Pompeo, a former Army officer and Tea Party congressman who has spoken about regime change in Pyongyang and about ripping up the Iran nuclear deal…

Mr. Bolton, an outspoken advocate of military action who served in the George W. Bush administration, has called for action against Iran and North Korea. In an interview on Thursday on Fox News, soon after his appointment was announced in a presidential tweet, he declined to say whether Mr. Trump should go through with a planned meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

And there was a bit of panic:

Democrats greeted the news about Mr. Bolton with deep alarm. “The person who will be first in first out of the Oval Office on national security matters passionately believes the U.S. should launch pre-emptive war against both Iran and North Korea with no authorization from Congress,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut. “My God!”

Fred Kaplan says it’s time to panic:

John Bolton’s appointment as national security adviser – a post that requires no Senate confirmation – puts the United States on a path to war. And it’s fair to say President Donald Trump wants us on that path.

After all, Trump gave Bolton the job after the two held several conversations (despite White House chief of staff John Kelly’s orders barring Bolton from the building). And there was this remark that Trump made after firing Rex Tillerson and nominating the more hawkish Mike Pompeo to take his place: “We’re getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things I want.”

That’s the problem:

Bolton has repeatedly called for launching a first strike on North Korea, scuttling the nuclear arms deal with Iran, and then bombing that country too. He says and writes these things not as part of some clever “madman theory” to bring Kim Jong-un and the mullahs of Tehran to the bargaining table, but rather because he simply wants to destroy them and America’s other enemies too.

His agenda is not “peace through strength,” the motto of more conventional Republican hawks that Trump included in a tweet on Wednesday, but rather regime change through war. He is a neocon without the moral fervor of some who wear that label – i.e., he is keen to topple oppressive regimes not in order to spread democracy but rather to expand American power.

And there is this guy’s history:

In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney finagled Bolton a job as undersecretary of state for arms control – an inside joke, since Bolton has never read an arms-control treaty that he liked. But his real assignment was to serve as Cheney’s spy in Foggy Bottom, monitoring and, when possible, obstructing any attempts at peaceful diplomacy mounted by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

When Powell got the boot, Cheney wanted to make Bolton deputy secretary of state, replacing Richard Armitage, who resigned along with his best friend Powell. But Powell’s replacement, Condoleezza Rice, who had been Bush’s national security adviser, blocked the move, fully aware of Bolton’s obstructionist ideology.

As a compromise, Bush nominated Bolton to be United Nations ambassador, but that move proved unbearable to even the Republican-controlled Senate at the time. It was one thing to be critical of the U.N. – it’s a body deserving of criticism – but Bolton opposed its very existence. “There is no such thing as the United Nations,” he once said in a speech, adding, “If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference.”

More than that, he was hostile to the idea of international law, having once declared, “It is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so – because over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrain the United States.”

Trump feels the same way about the World Trade Organization, but Bolton ran into trouble:

How could someone with these views serve as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.?

In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bolton put on a dreadful show, grumbling and scowling through his walrus mustache. Finally, in a tie vote, the committee sent Bolton’s nomination to the full Senate “without recommendation.” Properly fearing that this foretold a rejection on the floor, Bush gave Bolton the job as a “recess appointment” after Congress went on holiday. But the law allowing this evasion gave the Senate a chance to take a vote 18 months later. In the second round of hearings, Bolton behaved even more obnoxiously than in the first. When one Republican senator asked him whether his year and a half in the U.N. had altered his ideas about the place, Bolton – rather than seizing the chance to mollify skeptics – replied, “Not really.” The head counters in the White House withdrew the nomination, and Bolton headed back to neocon central at the American Enterprise Institute.

But he’s still around:

During Trump’s presidential transition, Bolton made the short list of candidates for deputy secretary of state, but Tillerson – who would soon get the nod for secretary – expressed misgivings about working with the guy. (Trump might have recalled that conversation earlier this month, when he decided to fire Tillerson.) After Michael Flynn flamed out as national security adviser, Bolton was also on the short list to replace him. Gen. H.R. McMaster got the nod, but Trump publicly said he liked Bolton and that he too would soon be working for the White House “in some capacity.”

And now, here he is.

So this is a big change:

In his only tour as a policy adviser in Washington, McMaster has wrecked that reputation, committing his own derelictions by pandering to Trump’s proclivities and tolerating his falsehoods. But at least McMaster assembled – and often listened to – a professional staff at the National Security Council and insisted on ousting amateur ideologues, several of them acolytes of Flynn.

Bolton is not likely to put up with a professional staff, and the flood of White House exiles will soon intensify. One subject of discussion at Bolton’s Senate hearings, back in 2005, was his intolerance of any views that differed from his own. He displayed this trait most harshly when, as undersecretary of state, he tried to fire two intelligence analysts who challenged his (erroneous) view that Cuba was developing biological weapons and supplying the weapons to rogue regimes.

Nor is Bolton at all suited to perform one of a national security adviser’s main responsibilities – assembling the Cabinet secretaries to debate various options in foreign and military policy, mediating their differences, and either hammering out a compromise or presenting the choices to the president.

Panic might be appropriate:

The last of the grown-ups is Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the retired Marine four-star general, who got that job mainly because Trump had heard his nickname was “mad dog.” He didn’t know that Mattis regularly consulted a personal library of some 7,000 volumes on history and strategy, that (like most generals) he’s not too keen to go to war unless he really has to, and that (also like most generals) he takes the Geneva Conventions seriously and opposes torture.

In recent weeks, Trump was said to be tiring of aides who kept telling him no. He might soon tire of Bolton, who, whatever else he is, can’t be pegged as a yes man. But in the short term, Bolton may be just the man to excite Trump’s darker instincts, to actualize the frustrated he-man who raged about pelting Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” or fomenting “the total collapse of the Iranian regime,” which he somehow believes was about to happen, if only Obama hadn’t signed the nuclear deal and lifted sanctions.

Kaplan is panicked about all this:

With Tillerson out, Bolton in, and Pompeo waiting in the wings for confirmation, Trump is feeling his oats, coming into his own, like Trump is free to be Trump. Finding out just who that is may make the rest of us duck and cover.

This is dire, and Gabriel Sherman reported that Trump is also considering creating a new West Wing structure without a chief of staff, one that would instead have four co-equal principals reporting directly to him – just to add to the chaos. This will not end well, but perhaps the words DON’T PANIC should be inscribed in large friendly letters on the front wall of the White House. That might help – but probably not.

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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1 Response to This Infinitely Improbable Presidency

  1. Rick says:

    l’m now remembering that I was one of those who urged thinking, the best thing to do is just allow Trump to be Trump, sure that the American people wouldn’t allow him to succeed. What was I thinking!

    This is dire, and Gabriel Sherman reported that Trump is also considering creating a new West Wing structure without a chief of staff, one that would instead have four co-equal principals reporting directly to him…

    And the world will finally realize what’s up, and will know it’s time to worry after he names these four co-equal principals Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence, after the Four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

    It’s amazing how unpredictably tedious it turned out to be to watch Evil triumph on Earth, with nothing for the rest of us to do but sit and watch it happen.


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