Silence Interrupted by Dread

Before there was No-Drama Obama there was Silent Cal – Calvin Coolidge of course – “I have never been hurt by what I have not said.”

His reticence was intentional. He often said that he knew that any president’s words really matter, and he wasn’t going to screw things up with a careless quip. Obama knew the same thing. He too was as careful as he could be, and in his case he knew that a black man’s casual comments would be misconstrued. He had to sound comfortably white. He did manage that – which drove many on the left crazy – and there was his personality too. He was, and still is, a cautious and careful man – who could occasionally give a stirring speech – a carefully constructed stirring speech that built to his main and inspiring point with impeccable logic. He didn’t mess around. He didn’t go off-script. If he quipped, he quipped privately, and he rarely tweeted. In fact, his few tweets were rather boring. Obama and Coolidge had vastly different politics, but they both understood random comments – even quips or bad jokes – could ruin everything.

It may be that Donald Trump is learning that. Something is up. As someone inevitably says in many a Hollywood junk movie, it’s quiet out there – too quiet – and that’s when all hell breaks loose. But it is quiet out there, and David Graham is puzzled by this:

There are things happening, and even some big ones; the parade of occasional anonymously sourced West Wing stories continue. There are certain risks to writing this on a Wednesday afternoon, but this might be, as Josh Barro says, the first slow news week of the administration… As if to underscore the point, a White House release Wednesday morning noted that the president had signed into law “the ‘Eliminating Government-funded Oil-painting Act,’ which prohibits the use of Federal funds for the costs of painting portraits of officers and employees of the Federal Government.”

That new portrait of Michelle Obama has wowed the nation – so this is Trump’s revenge – but it’s indirect revenge. He didn’t tweet that it was a crappy painting by a nobody-artist and she looked like a cow. He simply signed the bill, in private. She surely got the message, but it was an indirect message. Still, Graham reviews what seems to be happening:

The period of relative quiet began with a classic Trumpian outburst. On Friday, the president found himself compelled to sign an omnibus budget bill that he hated – not unjustifiably, since it was a repudiation of his administration’s budget and many of his own priorities, even if his method of expressing that discontent was ineffective. Since then, he has gone quiet.

For the public, the most notable expression has been that the president’s Twitter feed has been, while not silent, subdued. Wednesday morning he took issue with former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’s Tuesday column calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment, but Trump’s defense of the amendment is unsurprising. He issued some relatively anodyne comments about negotiations with North Korea and China. So it’s been for several days. Even when the president goes to play the hits, he seems to be going through the motions rather than offering anything truly surprising.

Now add this:

It is not only on Twitter that Trump is quiet. Trump’s schedule has been unusually light since the hastily convened session Friday where he railed against the spending bill. He hosted a credential ceremony for ambassadors, attended a private fundraiser in suburban Virginia, and has met with the vice president, treasury secretary, and defense secretary. Beyond that, there’s not much listed…

The schedule doesn’t list everything a president does, but the comparison with Trump’s usual routine is instructive. Furthermore, although the president often makes remarks to pool reporters during the day, there have been no events open to press, and weekend pool reporters at Mar-a-Lago barely set eyes on Trump.

This is beyond unusual:

This offers a nice case study in just how much the president himself drives the news cycle, because it is not as if there are not things that could be bigger news stories. There is Kim Jong-Un’s visit to Beijing, which appears to be part of significant movement on the North Korean nuclear crisis. There is the apparently imminent firing of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. There is a new bilateral trade deal with South Korea, which Trump did tweet about. Most of all, there is the ongoing story of Stormy Daniels, the porn actress and stripper who has alleged an affair with Trump in 2006, and gave a major interview to 60 Minutes that aired over the weekend. Yet Trump has sat these out, for the most part.

Of these, the Daniels story has managed to mushroom, even without Trump’s help. (The White House won’t even say whether the president watched the interview.) His silence here is especially surprising, because Trump is typically so eager to pick fights. He has been willing to scrap with major media organizations, Cabinet secretaries, his then-national-security adviser, the special counsel who could severely damage his presidency, and Kim, a nuclear-armed adversary. Yet anyone expecting a display of Stormy und drang has been confounded: Faced with Daniels, as well as with Karen McDougal, another woman who alleges a Trump affair, the president has clammed up.

Graham thinks something is up:

There are legal and political reasons why it might be wise for the president to keep quiet, but that has hardly swayed him in the past. Trump has defied political conventional wisdom repeatedly, and he’s done things that practically no lawyer would recommend, like quizzing people who have spoken to Special Counsel Robert Mueller about their interviews – especially dangerous given that Trump is already under scrutiny for possible obstruction of justice. Indeed, the president has at times shown a perverse tendency to do something simply because he’s been told not to…

The silence has led to speculation that something nefarious might be afoot. Such worries were fed by a statement Tuesday from Senators Thom Tillis, a Republican, and Chris Coons, a Democrat, who called for Mueller to be allowed to conduct his investigation “without impediment.” The two men previously introduced a bill to legally protect Mueller’s job, though it has languished. The sudden appearance of the statement, with no obvious proximate cause, was enough to spawn worries that what’s happening now is the calm before a much greater controversy.

Or not:

There’s no way to rule that out, of course, and FBI Director James Comey’s firing took the nation by surprise. The general pattern of the Trump administration, however, would suggest that such a move couldn’t happen without leaking it to the press first. It is usually only when Trump makes a spur-of-the-moment decision, catching even advisers off guard, that there’s no advance notice.

So no one knows what’s happening, and CBS News’ Jacqueline Alemany reports this:

The reign of Hope Hicks, the unflappable White House communications director and the right side of President Trump’s brain, comes to an end this week, leaving a communications team bitterly divided and an impetuous president increasingly isolated.

The enigmatic aide-de-camp who has earned the ear and trust of Mr. Trump – and equally as important, his family – bridged the gulf between the president and the rest of his political staffers, many of whom he has consistently viewed with skepticism throughout his presidency.

And for a president who spends much of his time fuming at cable television or at one staffer or another, from his various chiefs of staff to his national security advisers, Hicks has stood apart in that “he genuinely likes and respects her,” a source close to the president said.

Here too all hell may break loose:

Staffers are approaching the post-Hicks era with trepidation, unsure what to expect in what they describe as a lawless White House featuring a president who thrives on chaos and resents authority, process and order. Hicks even used her standing to shield others from the wrath of Mr. Trump’s explosive outbursts, sources inside the White House say.

“She’s the glue to the entire place,” a White House source said. “She helps keep the White House from fracturing. I don’t think people realize what’s about to happen once she leaves.”

The rest of this CBS News item details all the infighting among those who want Hicks’ old job – there’s a lot of that – but that doesn’t matter much outside the White House. Trump is silent. Everyone is worried. That’s what matters.

No one knows what to make of Trump now, and Lloyd Grove reports this:

Right-wing firebrand Ann Coulter, whose 2016 campaign book In Trump We Trust touted the many virtues of the Republican nominee, is having second, third, and possibly even fourth thoughts about Donald J. Trump.

“I knew he was a shallow, lazy ignoramus, and I didn’t care,” Coulter admitted to an audience largely composed of College Republicans and a few hecklers at Columbia University on Tuesday night.

It was the sort of anti-Trump invective that Coulter would share privately with pals, including this reporter, over a wine-soaked dinner during the first year of the new administration, but in recent weeks she has increasingly voiced her displeasure in public forums.

The ostensible focus of the conversation – moderated by “Kevin Can Wait” showrunner Rob Long, a rare Hollywood conservative – was immigration policy.

That’s the problem. There will be no wall, not yet, maybe not ever, and Mexico won’t be humiliated, nor will our Hispanic citizens:

“It kind of breaks my heart,” Coulter acknowledged of her disappointment with the president, and she recounted a profanity-laced shouting match she had with Trump in the Oval Office last year over what she saw as his lackluster follow-through on immigration policy. “He’s not giving us what he promised at every single campaign stop.”

She’s not happy:

This was four nights after Coulter had aimed a bitter Twitter blast at the 45th president of the United States – who had complained last Friday, after signing the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that contained generous funding for liberal social and cultural programs favored by Democrats, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but zero dollars for his vaunted wall, that he would never do such a thing again.

“Yeah, because you’ll be impeached,” Coulter had tweeted to her 1.94 million followers, one of whom is Trump. Later during the debate, she repeated a report that the president was seriously considering vetoing the spending legislation, but after White House chief of staff John Kelly explained that such a veto would mean missing his planned weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said “fuck it!” and signed the bill instead.

Coulter laughed good-naturedly when asked if she, too, felt like a total idiot.

And now the guy has gone silent, so she’s stuck:

Near the end of the evening Long asked Coulter if her prescription for Trump’s shortcomings “is less cheerleading and more tough love.”

“Tough love, yeah,” Coulter agreed.

“So you are in favor of giving the president a spanking?” Long quipped – the night’s only reference, and a veiled one at that, to the Stormy Daniels situation.

At which Coulter laughed and said, “I do not remind him of his daughter!”

Someone may have chatted with Trump about Calvin Coolidge’s presidency and the usefulness of silence. He has not responded to any of that yet, and he probably shouldn’t respond. Let Ann Coulter be Ann Coulter. His silence will prove that she doesn’t matter, right? He may get that one day, about all his critics. One can hope.

He may have learned that about the Kim fellow too. His bluster and threats haven’t changed much of anything, and now, as Bloomberg News reports, everyone has moved on without him:

Kim Jong Un just sent a powerful message to U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of planned talks: China is back on North Korea’s side.

The North Korean leader and his wife received a warm welcome in his first trip abroad since taking power in 2011, holding talks with President Xi Jinping and meeting a host of dignitaries. Xi told Kim that China has made a “strategic choice” to have friendly ties with North Korea, and they would “remain unchanged under any circumstances.”

In short, let Trump bluster and threaten, and then ignore him, and then move on without him:

The surprise, highly secretive four-day trip ends a period of frosty ties between the longtime allies as China backed increasingly tough economic sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. Xi avoided meeting Kim during his first five years in power, and the countries traded barbs at each other through state-run media.

The shift ensures that China’s interests are protected during Kim’s planned summit with Trump, and also gives North Korea an insurance policy if talks collapse. While the White House said the Kim-Xi summit showed that its pressure campaign was working, closer China ties would help North Korea undermine sanctions and raise the cost of any U.S. military action even further.

The new Wild Man of Washington got outplayed:

“If you are the Trump White House right now, you’ve got to be very concerned,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard Kennedy School. “As much as the official White House line says that maximum pressure is what brought about yet another diplomatic summit, the reality is you move away from the primary focus on maximum pressure to one huge massive pressure release valve.”

This wasn’t pretty for us:

North Korea’s official media made no mention of denuclearization or Kim’s planned meeting with Trump, instead focusing on the lavish greeting he received in Beijing. China’s readout said Kim was willing to meet Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and said that he could give up his nuclear weapons if both countries took “progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”

That’s where any talks risk breaking down. Trump last week fired H. R. McMaster as national security adviser and replaced him with John Bolton, a former envoy to the United Nations who last month wrote a commentary titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”

That’s the bluster:

While Bolton has said that he’ll start with a fresh slate, earlier this month that Trump should demand North Korea immediately agree to pack up and ship its nuclear program to the U.S. – similar to what happened in Libya. If Kim refused, he added, it could be a “very short meeting.”

Alternatively, there could be no meeting at all now, as all parties in the region don’t really care what John Bolton thinks, and there’s this:

The meeting also gives China more leverage as Xi faces a potential trade war with Trump. Earlier this month, the U.S. president signed allowing high-level diplomatic visits to Taiwan, a move that risks inflaming tensions with China.

That’s additional bluster, which will be ignored too:

In the near term, Kim will be looking for relief from sanctions that have crimped exports of everything from coal to seafood while also curbing oil imports. Over the long term, he wants a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean War and ensures that his family’s interests are protected.

To achieve those goals, it was essential for Kim to shore up the support of North Korea’s biggest trading partner and economic lifeline before heading into talks with Trump.

This will be over before it starts, or may be over now, and Matt Kwong adds this:

To the probable chagrin of American diplomats, experts say, Kim was able to assure that the Middle Kingdom will have a formidable seat at the negotiating table. It also presents challenges to U.S. President Donald Trump as it shows that isolation of North Korea has not succeeded, said Adam Mount, a North Korea and nuclear specialist at the Federation of American Scientists.

“Frankly, I think that Kim Jong-un outflanked the Trump administration in making it to Beijing first,” he said. “It impresses upon the United States that Kim has other options to gain leverage. It raises the stakes for this meeting.”

A date for the Trump-Kim summit is not yet set, though it’s expected to happen before May. Kim has also secured a meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for late April.

“I’m sure they wanted to discuss and compare notes on how to talk to Donald Trump,” Mount said of Kim’s meeting with Xi.

This is, in fact, over:

According to a Chinese readout of the meeting, Xi told Kim, “We speak highly of this visit.” The readout goes on to say that Kim personally informed Xi about upcoming Korean Peninsula talks “out of comradeship and moral responsibility.”

That statement was “stunning” to Adam Mount, as a remarkable display of support.

One possible practical result of this?

“If Donald Trump walks away from the meeting with Kim first, it’s more likely China would lift sanctions,” Mount said.

And there’s this:

Former U.S. State Department official Mintaro Oba, who worked on North Korea policy in the Obama administration, believes the advancements in North Korea’s nuclear program and the number of high-level talks it suddenly has on the table have girded Kim’s negotiating position with China as well.

“Kim Jong-un is ticking a box before doing those summit meetings. He’s tightening up unity so he has as many options going into other summits as possible,” Oba said.

Oba can make out the outlines of a diplomatic roadmap in Kim’s political maneuvering. What worries him, he said, is how little preparation he sees coming from Washington, where it seems to him that an integrated plan to take full advantage of a unique tactical opportunity is being taken less seriously.

“My best guess is that the United States doesn’t have any real strategy for going into this,” Oba said.

The United States has Trump’s tweets instead, and earlier Kwong had noted this:

The president’s personality is a wild card in the possible U.S.-North Korea talks, said Joel Wit, a former State Department official who worked as a nuclear negotiator with the North Koreans.

“I’m assuming there’s a lot of nervousness about what President Trump might say once he gets into a room with Kim Jong-un,” said Wit. “And I suspect Kim has a much better grasp of the situation, certainly on the peninsula and when it comes to his own country’s foreign policy and security threats.”

That’s a worry. Kim blusters and threatens, but he knows the situation there. Trump blusters and threatens and ignores the few regional experts left in our government after he and Tillerson decided we didn’t really need such folks. He tweets wildly anyway. And there is history. Calvin Coolidge said that he had never been hurt by what he had not said. Trump, and the United States, has been hurt by what Trump has said – but now Donald Trump has spent days and days being been silent about almost everything. That’s either a good sign, or all hell is about to break loose. It’s quiet, too quiet. We all know that movie.

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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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