Trump: The Sequel

Hollywood should know better. Sequels suck. “Jaws” (1975) was a nifty movie – but Jaws 2 (1978) and then Jaws 3-D (1983) and then Jaws: The Revenge (1987) were progressively less nifty. They were progressively more stupid. John Williams won an Oscar for his score for that first movie, with that iconic menacing two-note theme. Spielberg later said that without Williams’ score the film would have been nothing much, and Williams scored the second film – and then he bailed. Things were getting too stupid. In February 2010, the word was that Universal Pictures was “strongly considering” remaking the original “Jaws” in motion-capture 3-D just like Avatar – which had made an ungodly amount of money for them – but nothing came of that. Universal Pictures had squeezed the last bit of money that could be squeezed out of that big mechanical shark. They decided to underwrite Avatar sequels instead – but Paramount keeps pumping out Star Trek sequels. That franchise has kept that studio afloat – and every year or two, more or less, everyone can return to Jurassic Park again. There’s more money to be squeezed out of Superman and Batman and Spiderman, and that Kung-Fu Panda too. Something worked really well once. Do it again. It may be crap this time. There will be diminishing returns on that subsequent investment of course – but there will be some returns on that investment. Hollywood does know that.

Donald Trump knows that too:

President Donald Trump issued a furious, all-caps challenge to the Iranian regime late Sunday night, warning that any threats to the US would be met with unspecified dire consequences.

The tirade signaled an immediate escalation of tensions between Washington and Tehran, and capped a weekend of angry tweets by the President on the Russia investigation and the legal problems facing his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

“To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” Trump tweeted after returning to the White House from a weekend at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey. “WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”

What the hell was that about? Iran was just being Iran:

Trump’s comments were in response to earlier remarks by Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who warned the US that war with Tehran would be the “mother of all wars.”

Rouhani warned Trump not to “play with the lion’s tail, because you will regret it eternally.” He also held out the possibility of a peaceful relationship with the US, in remarks reported by Iranian state media.

Rouhani also mentioned “mother of all” peace was possible too. Rouhani says such things all the time. Everyone usually shrugs. There was nothing new here, but there was something new here:

Even by Trump’s standards, the language was harsh, and surprised many Middle East watchers.

“We’ve seen a lot of very bellicose words from Mr. Trump in the past, but this tweet… I think it takes it to a new level,” said CNN military analyst Rick Francona.

“This seems to be a little out of character and really a little alarming for many people,” said Francona, a former US Air Force intelligence officer who worked in the Middle East and retired as a lieutenant colonel. “This is really dangerous.”

Maybe it is:

Asked if Trump risked inciting a war with Iran with the tweet, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Monday morning, “if anybody is inciting anything, look no further than to Iran.” She wouldn’t directly say whether Trump consulted with his national security team before the tweet. He speaks with them daily, she said, but declined to give any details about any steps Trump is looking to take with Iran.

This is a worry, but it’s also a sequel, a sequel to the original hit movie –”The Miracle in Singapore” – Donald Trump singlehandedly solves the problem of North Korea and Kim Jong-Un and ends the nuclear threat from North Korea once and for all.

The plot is the same. North Korea had tested a few nuclear bombs, one clearly a hydrogen bomb. North Korea had tested-fired all sorts of missiles, one a long-range missile that could reach Washington or Now York. Trump warned them. He promised “fire and fury like the world had never seen” if they didn’t stop. He spoke at the United Nations and said the United States could wipe North Korea off the face of the planet if they didn’t stop – and the United States just might do that – and maybe it worked. Kim stopped all the testing and agreed to meet Trump in Singapore. The two of them sat down together – just the two of them and their translators – and Trump worked his charm. Kim agreed to complete and verifiable total denuclearization.

Trump has showed them all. The United States would stop all joint military readiness exercises with South Korea. Kim would do the rest. Kim would also arrange for the return of the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War in the early fifties. Trump said he had spoken to the parents of the long-dead soldiers, personally, and promised them that he would make that happen. He kept his promise. Of course the parents of the long-dead soldiers would be about one-hundred-fifteen-years old now, or older, but it was great story. Trump may even believe it.

Kim is doing nothing of the sort – not any of it. Trump is fuming – in private. In public, he’s crowing. Threats work wonders. Threats in ALL CAPS are even better. This is the sequel to the “The Miracle in Singapore” – the hit movie where Kim came around. Hassan Rouhani will come around.

Or maybe not:

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded to Trump on Monday afternoon tweeting that Iran was “UNIMPRESSED” by the president’s threat.

“The world heard even harsher bluster a few months ago. And Iranians have heard them – albeit more civilized ones – for forty years. We’ve been around for millennia,” he said.

Zarif’s use of ALL CAPS was cute. He was laughing at Trump, and his English is perfect. Zarif also knows how to use Twitter. Zarif is not Kim. Hassan Rouhani is not Kim. And Trump is not Trump:

Trump’s tweet followed a familiar pattern: When mired in an especially negative situation, change the subject. So a week after his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was heavily criticized by Democratic and Republican leaders, and after waffling over his faith in U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump took to Twitter to issue an all-caps bulletin to Iran.

“There’s nothing going on here except he wants to change the subject,” said one Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

The adviser noted that Iran’s leaders have uttered similar “mother of all wars” taunts over the years and that little has substantively changed in recent days to indicate a real escalation of tensions.

There is no sequel here and there cannot be one:

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that these tactics may not succeed with Iran.

“Iranian officials tend to be more prideful. Unless supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is facing significant economic distress and existential angst, I suspect he will avoid negotiations with the United States during the Trump era,” he said. “The depth of mutual mistrust and contempt is too great.”

And there’s this:

Jarrett Blanc, who worked on Iran issues at the State Department during the Obama administration, said Trump’s threats did not appear to be connected to a larger plan making a case for war, similar to what occurred with Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

“I don’t think Donald Trump has decided, in the way George W. Bush and Cheney decided with Iraq, that ‘I’m going to go to war, and I’m going to build up this narrative and escalatory spiral to get me there,'” he said.

That’s what worries Jennifer Rubin:

Commentators might become alarmed that Trump’s rhetoric will set off a rhetorical escalation that leads to increasing conflict on the ground in the Middle East tinderbox. Instead, we should be more concerned that we have no Iran policy to speak of and, in fact, are encouraging Iranian aggression by our passivity in Syria and indulgence of Iran’s ally Russia.

To be specific:

Aaron David Miller, a veteran of Middle East negotiations, tells me: “One of my former bosses, George Shultz, used to say that when you don’t have a policy, the temptation grows to give a speech, or in Trump’s case to tweet. We have no coherent Iran policy.” He explains: “We can’t change the regime; won’t talk to them; won’t challenge them in Syria, let alone confront them unilaterally. And so we’ll re-impose sanctions waiting and hoping that by some miraculous process, the regime will collapse and all our Iran problems will be resolved. And if you believe that, I have an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to sell you.”

So this is not a sequel to the Kim movie:

The North Korea negotiations, if you believed Team Trump, were supposed to demonstrate to Iran how tough we were on nuclear proliferation. Trump, in fact, got nothing, gave Kim Jong Un a PR win and undermined the U.S. pressure campaign against North Korea. Tehran has been watching Trump’s belly-flop in Singapore and his obsequiousness to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continues to support Iran’s operations in Syria.

And this has everything to do with Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal:

Middle East expert Dennis Ross explains that “it will be hard for the administration to re-create the pressures that existed when we had the whole world joining in our pressure campaign. Then Iran could not do business in the international financial system and could not sell a significant part of its oil. Today, the Chinese will not stop buying Iranian oil – though they may insist on discounted prices. The Europeans will probably cut back purchases even as they try to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” He adds: “Bottom line, the administration has no real counter-strategy in the region; instead their policy is basically sanctions-driven. It is up to the Israelis to counter them in Syria, counting on Russia to give them a free hand.”

So there it is. Israel does stuff. Russia does stuff. That leaves the United States doing nothing:

The lesson learned in Tehran from 18 months of Trump foreign policy chaos is clear: Trump is a blowhard, a paper tiger…

No matter how many tweets Trump sends, Iran’s aggression in the regime continues; its economy is weak, but it’s better than it was when the West was united in support of a sanctions regimen. Iran has successfully split the P5+1 (thanks to Trump) and sees no real downside to its regional adventurism. Former ambassador to Turkey Eric S. Edelman tells me that it isn’t wise “to elevate that by responding with a presidential tweet. Particularly since it will certainly be compared to the ‘fire and fury’ statement and the result of that which was the Singapore Summit and the North Korean stonewalling that has followed.” He concludes, “It is never good for the president to issue a bellicose threat if he really isn’t prepared to follow it up with action.”

This is not the portrait of a coherent, let alone successful, policy for Iran.

Max Boot sees that too:

The president loves to bluff, but, like many bullies, he is actually a coward who is afraid of real conflict. When Trump picked John Bolton as his national security adviser in March, Kaitlan Collins of CNN reported that he made the ultra-hawk promise that he “wouldn’t start any wars.” I heard something similar from my own sources. Bolton denied it, but the sentiments ring true, because Trump has turned out to be less bellicose than expected.

There’s only this:

Trump has started trade wars but, mercifully, not shooting wars. Aside from a few raids by Special Operations forces and the continuation of existing conflicts against the Islamic State and the Taliban, Trump has used force twice – his ineffectual cruise missile attacks against Syria in 2017 and 2018 to punish Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons. These were precisely the kind of “unbelievably small” strikes that President Barack Obama contemplated in 2013 – and that Trump criticized at the time.

But there is a problem with that:

It is, of course, a good thing that Trump is not turning out to be the warmonger that many feared he would be. But there is a real danger from having the president revealed as a BS artist, too: His threats carry less weight. That, ironically, makes it harder for him to achieve his objectives without resorting to force.

At one time it appeared that Trump would be able to implement Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of international relations and scare other states into acquiescence more successfully than Nixon had done. But Trump’s approach failed with North Korea, and there is no reason to think it will work with Iran. If past is prologue, maybe next year Trump will be claiming credit for averting war and praising Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as talented, funny, intelligent and a strong leader who loves his people.

But what scares me is that, after so much bluster and braggadocio, to make his threats believable Trump may actually have to start carrying them out.

That should FRIGHTEN EVERYONE of course, but Trump had another sequel in mind that same day. Nixon had his enemies list – everyone from Daniel Schorr to Paul Newman – and Trump wanted one of those too. It was time for The Presidential Enemies List: The Sequel:

President Trump threatened on Monday to strip the security clearances of top former officials who criticized his refusal to confront Russia over its election interference, signaling a willingness to use the powers of the presidency to retaliate against some of his most outspoken detractors.

Among those who could lose access are John O. Brennan, the former CIA director; Susan E. Rice, the former national security adviser; and James R. Clapper Jr., the former director of national intelligence, said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.

“The president is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearances because they politicized, and in some cases monetized, their public service and security clearances,” Ms. Sanders said.

Trump has monetized his public service. Foreign leaders stay in his hotels, hoping to please him. The Secret Service has to rent rooms at his resorts almost every weekend, at full price, to protect him when he plays golf all weekend. The profits go to him. Ivanka is making lots of money selling her fashion stuff – a presidential thing now – and China and other foreign governments are extending her trademark and copyright protection, for free, hoping to please her father. There’s another Trump Tower going up in Manila – Duterte is no dummy. The press corps must have been rolling their eyes at that point, but this is odd:

The suggestion marked an unusual politicization of the security clearance process by a president who has routinely questioned the loyalties of national security and law enforcement officials and dismissed some of their findings – particularly the conclusion that Moscow intervened in the 2016 election – as attacks against him.

They can say those things. They’re private citizens now and it’s a free country with that First Amendment and all. He can’t stop them, but he can hurt them:

Former high-ranking officials in defense, intelligence, diplomacy, and law enforcement usually maintain their clearances to advise those still in government, former officials said. A clearance also serves a more personally profitable function: helping departing officials get jobs at security contractors or similar firms.

Revoking their access to classified information could weaken their ability to work as consultants, lobbyists and advisers in Washington. Nearly 4.1 million people have security clearances, according to the most recent report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, including 1.3 million with top secret clearances.

These few will be the exception, but they don’t care:

Mr. Clapper declined to discuss the threat in detail but repeated comments he first made in an interview on CNN: “This is just a very, very petty thing to do. And that’s about all I’ll say about it.”

Another former official being targeted, Michael V. Hayden, the former head of the CIA and National Security Agency during the George W. Bush administration and a principal at the Chertoff Group who just wrote a book, said the removal of his security clearance would not affect “what I say or write.” He added on Twitter that he does not go to the White House for classified briefings.

In short, Trump can hurt them, but he can’t stop them:

Senior intelligence officials generally consider themselves, and the information they provide, nonpartisan. During past administrations, they have attempted to maintain an apolitical posture once they left the government, limiting their public criticism of successors.

But Mr. Trump has routinely attacked intelligence agencies, portraying them as part of a so-called deep state, an unelected cabal seeking to steer United States policy and undercut him. Last year after a meeting with Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump called Mr. Brennan, Mr. Clapper and Mr. Comey “political hacks” as he cast doubt on Russia’s interference.

After Mr. Trump again stood alongside President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Finland last week and sided with him over the intelligence community to cast doubt about the campaign meddling, the trio renewed their denunciations.

Mr. Brennan, a fellow at Fordham Law School who is under contract as an analyst with NBC, called Mr. Trump’s performance “treasonous” and said it warranted impeachment. Mr. Comey, whose best-selling book portrays the president as a liar, tweeted that he “sold out our nation on an international stage.” Mr. Clapper, who serves on the advisory board of the Committee to Investigate Russia, a group co-founded by the Hollywood director Rob Reiner, mused aloud about “whether the Russians have something” on Mr. Trump.

This may prove their point and there was this:

On MSNBC Monday, host Nicolle Wallace asked Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who worked for George W. Bush, his thoughts on the President’s threat.

“This is a very dangerous day for American democracy. This is the move of an autocrat, not an American president,” Schmidt declared.

“Trump began politicizing the intelligence services from hour one,” Schmidt pointed out, reminding viewers of the President’s disrespectful address to the CIA after he entered office. “This is just a culmination of his increasingly erratic behavior.”

Schmidt also ripped Trump for seeming to trust Russian President Vladimir Putin more than US intelligence agencies.

“This President’s continuing abuse of power, his authoritarian instinct in full use here. And it is alarming, to say the least,” Schmidt concluded.

These two are, by the way, not liberal snowflakes. Steve Schmidt ran John McCain’s presidential campaign. He did everything he could to get McCain elected, everything he could to defeat Barack Obama. He assigned Nicolle Wallace to Sarah Palin. Her job was to make Palin seem reasonable and well-informed and quite sane. Nicolle Wallace did what she could. And now these two see Trump releasing his sequels – the miracle of loud threats ending all problems with North Korea now ending all problems with Iran and “The Presidential Enemies List: The Sequel” too.

They know better. Hollywood knows better. Sequels suck. But Rambo V is in the works. It may be that Trump thinks he’s Sylvester Stallone. That might explain everything.

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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