Gloom and Misery Everywhere

Some years are just awful. There was 1933 – the economy had collapsed and the Great Depression had shut down just about everything. There was the Reichstag fire and the Reichstag Fire Decree – Hitler was on the move. German civil liberties were gone. The Gestapo secret police were established by Hermann Göring that year. Here, Franklin Roosevelt was sworn in as the thirty-second president and told the nation that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” – right there in his inaugural address. He may have been wrong. He did what he could. Hollywood tried to cheer everyone up with King Kong – starring the fetching Fay Wray – and there was Duck Soup from the Marx Brothers. That might have helped. In December, the Twenty-First Amendment was finally ratified, repealing prohibition. That might have helped more. Everyone could now drown their sorrows, legally, and that was the year that Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler wrote Stormy Weather – the torch song that was more than a torch song. The words stuck with everyone – “don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky” – “gloom and misery everywhere” – “all I do is pray the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more” – that sort of thing. It was a song for the times. It may be a song for all times.

That song is used on Marketplace with Kai Ryssdal – the daily public radio show on what the markets just did that day. When the markets drop they play Stormy Weather in the background. When the markets drop a lot they play a special version, with wailing trombones. They’ve been playing that a lot:

Stocks around the world plunged Friday as investors feared that a trade conflict between the U.S. and China, the biggest economies in the world, would escalate. A second day of big losses pushed U.S. stocks to their worst week in two years.

As of Friday afternoon, China’s only response to the tariffs President Trump announced this week was to say it would defend itself. But investors are concerned that tensions will keep rising, and that a round of sanctions and retaliation will affect the global economy and corporate profits…

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 55.43 points, or 2.1%, to 2,588.26. The index skidded 6% this week, its worst since January 2016. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 424.69 points, or 1.8%, to 23,533.20. The NASDAQ composite sank 174.01 points, or 2.4%, to 6,992.67.

Bank stocks took steep losses as interest rates decreased. The stocks climbed this week after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates, but then they tumbled after the tariffs were proposed. If the tariffs and counter-tariffs reduce economic growth in the U.S., the Fed is likely to raise rates at a slower pace.

There’s gloom and misery everywhere, and out here in California too:

China on Friday announced it would impose retaliatory import tariffs on 128 U.S. products – goods that amount to $3 billion – targeting staples that include California wines, fruits and almonds.

California will take a big hit, but so will everyone:

China’s tariffs would first hit U.S. products such as avocados and nuts, with 15% duties. Beijing, if officials deemed it worthwhile, could also place 25% tariffs on American-made goods such as pork and aluminum. Friday’s statement did not indicate a specific date the tariffs would go into effect, but noted that businesses had until March 31 to offer opinions. It said officials would “take legal action within the framework of the World Trade Organization.”

This announcement did not mention Trump’s latest tariffs, which follow an investigation into China’s intellectual property practices and its harm to American businesses. Officials, as expected, found that China forced U.S. companies to hand over their trade secrets or make unfair concessions for access to its vast market. But in a separate statement, Chinese officials called Trump’s intellectual-property investigation “typical unilateralism and trade protectionism.” China doesn’t want a trade war, it said, “But is absolutely not afraid of a trade war.”

Trump’s announcement battered the stock markets in Asia and the U.S., where the Dow Jones industrial average has sunk more than 1,100 points the last two days.

Cue the wailing trombones, but there’s much more than a trade war that will tank the economy to consider. The New York Times’ Mark Landler and Julie Hirschfeld Davis report on the general heavy weather at the White House:

President Trump decamped to his oceanfront estate [in Florida] on Friday after a head-spinning series of presidential decisions on national security, trade and the budget that left the capital reeling and his advisers nervous about what comes next.

The decisions attested to a president riled up by cable news and unbound. Mr. Trump appeared heedless of his staff, unconcerned about Washington decorum, or the latest stock market dive, and confident of his instincts. He seemed determined to set the agenda himself, even if that agenda looked like a White House in disarray.

Inside the West Wing, aides described an atmosphere of bewildered resignation as they grappled with the all-too-familiar task of predicting and reacting in real time to Mr. Trump’s shifting moods.

Bewildered resignation is not a pleasant state, even if it’s appropriate:

Aides said there was no grand strategy to the president’s actions, and that he got up each morning this week not knowing what he would do. Much as he did as a New York businessman at Trump Tower, Mr. Trump watched television, reacted to what he saw on television and then reacted to the reaction.

Aides said he was still testing his limits as president while also feeling embattled by incoming fire – from Congress, the Russia investigation, foreign entanglements, a potential trade war and a pornographic film actress and a Playboy model who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump and were paid to keep quiet.

And that led to the absurd non-crisis of the day:

The president, furious over the failure of Congress to pay for his wall on the southern border with Mexico, began Friday by threatening in a Twitter post shortly before 9 a.m. to veto a $1.3 trillion spending bill passed hours earlier by Congress. That raised the specter of another government shutdown at midnight, this one precipitated entirely by Mr. Trump.

He had to be talked down from that:

By 1:30 p.m., Mr. Trump had begrudgingly signed the bill and, in a hastily arranged appearance in the Diplomatic Reception Room, called it a “ridiculous situation.”

In the frantic hours before the signing, two senior officials said they were uncertain whether the president would veto the measure and prompt a shutdown or ultimately relent. White House officials raced to schedule an afternoon briefing for the news media, although they had no idea what they would end up telling reporters.

John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, in the meantime swung into action to pull the president back from the brink of a veto. Mr. Kelly summoned Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to the White House, aides said, to make the case for the military funding included in the bill.

They explained things slowly and carefully, using small words:

In the Oval Office, Mr. Mattis; the homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen; and Vice President Mike Pence – who had postponed a trip to Atlanta because of the president’s veto threat – told Mr. Trump that the military spending level in the bill was historic and urged him to sign. Mr. Trump finally agreed. He then tweeted that he would hold a “news conference” on the subject himself.

It wasn’t a news conference:

What followed was a bizarre spectacle that was part-signing ceremony and part venting session as Mr. Trump presented his audiences with his dilemma in real time. He raged against the bill’s contents and the process that yielded it.

“Nobody more disappointed than me,” Mr. Trump said in a verdict from a president who has called himself a master dealmaker.

He said he would never sign anything like this again, ever, but the military needed the money, so he’d sign this bill, but he hated this bill, and it seems as if he hated Congress now, and the system, or maybe everyone everywhere now. Kevin Drum sums it up:

President Trump has signed the 2018 spending bill, but he wants everyone to know he’s not happy about it. You see, Democrats hate America and keep demanding that we fund domestic programs like national parks and food stamps and clean water and other frills that we don’t need. This makes it hard to build border walls and additional aircraft carriers, especially after cutting taxes by $1.5 trillion. The answer, Trump says, is to eliminate the filibuster so that Republicans can just pass anything they want. Also, he wants a line-item veto, even though that’s unconstitutional.

So that’s that for the big press briefing.

And there were the details:

I’m watching right now, and Trump is laboriously reading off all the various military toys that have been funded by this bill. Helicopters, ships, planes, tanks – you name it, Trump is going to build it…

He’s not happy with the $1.6 billion for the wall…

DACA didn’t get funded because of Democrats. Republicans wanted to fund it, but Democrats just wouldn’t do it. There is not a single Hispanic in the entire country who is going to buy this.

This was a rant. He was pouting. This was a tantrum. He really wanted twenty-five billion for his wall. He seems to have felt humiliated, but Landler and Davis have more:

The whipsaw on spending came hours after the president forced out his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, and replaced him with John R. Bolton, a hardline former American ambassador to the United Nations, catalyzing fears of a sharp turn toward military confrontation on Mr. Trump’s national security team.

Mr. Mattis, viewed as a moderating force on the president, told colleagues before the appointment was announced that he would find it difficult to work with Mr. Bolton, people briefed on the conversation said.

Mr. Bolton’s appointment followed Mr. Trump’s announcement of tariffs…

If it isn’t one thing it’s another:

The tumult occurred against the ominous backdrop of the Russia investigation. The resignation of Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer, John Dowd, on Thursday signaled that the president was determined to sit down with investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, even as he takes a more combative stance toward the overall investigation.

Shortly before the president went on television on Friday to fume about the spending bill, several of his top advisers – including Mr. Mattis; the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross; Ms. Nielsen; and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner – could be seen huddling in the Palm Court of the White House. They were deep in what appeared to be serious conversation.

Also on Friday, the departing national security adviser, General McMaster, bid farewell to the staff of the National Security Council. Staff members gave him a three-minute standing ovation, and there was talk of an exodus of career officials.

Get out while the getting is good, because Politico’s Andrew Restuccia reports this:

There is growing concern in the West Wing that the president’s unpredictable behavior is undercutting staffers’ credibility, according to two people who have spoken to White House officials in recent days.

“The press and communications team, more than others, are at their wits’ end,” a former White House official told POLITICO. “I don’t blame them for being frustrated, because they’re on the front lines of this and are directly responsible for dealing with the blowback of the president’s un-planned tweets.”

Frustration is appropriate:

Less than 24 hours before Trump threatened to blow up the deal to keep the government open, the White House sent two senior staffers – Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short – to brief reporters about Trump’s support for the spending bill.

“Let’s cut right to the chase. Is the president going to sign the bill? Yes. Why? Because it funds his priorities,” Mulvaney told reporters.

Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence touted the legislation during a Thursday speech in New Hampshire, telling Trump’s supporters it includes a crucial down payment toward building a massive wall along the Mexico border. And, despite Trump’s misgivings, the White House itself circulated statements saying the administration supports the bill and casting the legislation as a “win for the American people.”

Trump’s Friday tweet unleashed a wave of confusion in the White House…

It’s not just confusion. Work for Trump and sooner or later he’ll make you look like a fool:

Friday’s tweet again raised questions about whether the president’s senior advisers are capable of following the president’s ever-evolving stances on crucial issues of national importance.

“This is a reminder that if you’re working in this White House, you either need to spend the time with the president on the front end to know exactly what his thinking is or you need to be in constant communication with him,” said Jason Miller, Trump’s former campaign spokesman. “If you’re just responding to what some other staffer sent you on email, then of course you’re going to be disconnected.”

But that doesn’t work:

Sometimes regular contact with Trump isn’t enough to anticipate his next move. White House officials say they’ve left meetings believing an issue is settled only to see the president publicly re-litigate the issue after speaking to an outside ally on the phone or seeing an alternative take on cable news.

White House officials may have to watch every minute of Fox and Friends, every single day, to know what’s happening, if that’s even knowable:

“The biggest challenge is when staff thinks they’ve talked him out of something he initially supported only for it to resurface, sometimes publicly, at a later date,” another former White House official said.

Trump’s aides often try to account for the possibility that the president’s positions will shift, telling reporters asking about anything from trade to personnel that “nothing is final until it’s announced.” For the press, the phrase has come to symbolize a simple reality in this White House: nobody knows what’s going to happen until it happens.

That’s an impossible situation, and Alex Ward adds another dimension to this:

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is about to face one of his biggest challenges since joining the Trump administration: handling incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Mattis and Bolton are diametrically opposed on the two biggest national security issues facing the United States – North Korea and Iran. Mattis wants to keep the US in the Iran nuclear deal; Bolton previously advocated for bombing the country and removing the US from the agreement. And Mattis argues diplomacy is the best way to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program, while Bolton warns against negotiations and last month advocated for striking North Korea.

But it gets worse for Mattis. Experts tell me Bolton is a seasoned bureaucratic infighter who has the skills to press forcefully for his views – and that could keep Trump from hearing Mattis’ advice. “There is an open question about whether he will allow multiple views to be aired in front of the president,” Evelyn Farkas, a former senior Pentagon official, told me. “His reputation is not good when it comes to how he has treated his colleagues in the past.”

Now add this:

Mattis has already lost some leverage within Trump’s team. President Donald Trump fired a key Mattis ally, Rex Tillerson, as his secretary of state two weeks ago, and it is rumored Chief of Staff John Kelly may soon head out the door. Mattis helped Kelly remove outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, in part because they fought over how to deal with North Korea. But now, ironically, Mattis has to contend with an even more pugnacious rival in the White House.

“I expect even more internal drama and choppy waters ahead for the Pentagon,” Derek Chollet, a former top National Security Council (NSC) and Pentagon official, told me. “The tensions that existed with the NSC under McMaster are likely going to get exponentially worse.”

Nobody knows what’s going to happen, but Eliana Johnson notes this:

Last July, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson arranged a tutoring session at the Pentagon for President Donald Trump in the secure, windowless meeting room known as “The Tank.” The plan was to lay out why American troops are deployed in far-flung places across the globe, like Japan and South Korea. Mattis spoke first.

“The postwar, rules-based international order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation,” Mattis told the president, according to two meeting attendees. The secretary of defense walked the president through the complex fabric of trade deals, military agreements and international alliances that make up the global system the victors established after World War II, touching off what one attendee described as a “food fight” and a “free for all” with the president and the rest of the group. Trump punctuated the session by loudly telling his secretaries of state and defense, at several points during the meeting, “I don’t agree!” The meeting culminated with Tillerson, his now ousted secretary of state, fatefully complaining after the president left the room, that Trump was “a fucking moron.”

James Mattis would never make that mistake:

Trump is said to divide the members of his Cabinet into first-tier “killers” and second-tier “winners.” Mattis is indisputably a killer, but he’s also something rarer: a sometime loser – of policy arguments, that is – who manages to disagree with the president without squandering his clout or getting under Trump’s skin. He opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal, slap tariffs on steel and aluminum, and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He opposes the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members and has reportedly ignored requests from the White House to see plans for a military strike against North Korea.

Yet Mattis has been able to present the president with views he doesn’t like without bearing the brunt of his frustration. The departure of H. R. McMaster, his national security adviser, was announced Thursday amid rumors that the president is poised to fire beleaguered Cabinet secretaries like David Shulkin of Veterans Affairs and Ben Carson of Housing and Urban Development, and is agonizing over whether to dismiss John Kelly, his chief of staff. Mattis’ name has been conspicuously absent. One senior administration official called him “bulletproof.”

There may be a simple reason for that:

People close to the president sense that on a subset of important issues, he will defer to Mattis, who represents an institution, the military, that the president venerates, and whose status as a combat veteran has earned him Trump’s respect…

The president goes gaga for the sort of tough talk Mattis dished out on the battlefield. “There’s nothing better than getting shot at and missed,” Mattis has said. He doesn’t run the Pentagon like “Mad Dog” the Marine, but White House aides say he has endeared himself to President Trump by continuing to play the part in front of him – never showing weakness and maintaining the aura of invincibility with which he entered the job.

“Mattis has figured out how to play Trump perfectly. He keeps his head down and keeps his face out of the news,” says Tom Ricks, a columnist for the military news site Task & Purpose and the author of several books on military affairs. Mattis, said Ricks, is a “natural-born killer,” and “Trump, just like dogs smell fear, I think somebody like Trump who has very little natural courage, just smells it.”

Mattis can play that game:

Appearing on Face the Nation last May, Mattis played the warrior when CBS News’ John Dickerson asked him, “What keeps you awake at night?”

“Nothing,” Mattis told him. “I keep other people awake at night.”

The response delighted the president, who told several White House aides how much he liked it. In private, Mattis talks with the president the same way. “He’s said similar things several times,” said a former White House aide. “Trump loves it.”

That’s it? It seems that the one thoughtful man left standing, the only left with any sort of impulse-control, pretends to be that “Mad Dog” that he really isn’t, to save the world from the impulsive man-child who pouts and throws tantrums, while everyone is singing Stormy Weather and drinking heavily. Of course, a few years later, Harold Arlen wrote Over the Rainbow – so things may work out, where blue birds fly and dreams that you dream of really do come true. But that might not be this world.

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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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