Things Do Happen

Al Gore was a prissy scold. George W. Bush was a good ol’ boy – and Bill Clinton was one lucky guy. There was no catastrophic crisis during Clinton’s eight years in office and the economy was booming the whole time. Neither was his doing. Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment – that was his doing. Other than that, he just cruised along, and then it was time for him to go. Al Gore was more than qualified to be the next president. He knew things – the issues, foreign and domestic – and he knew the key players. George W. Bush was hardly qualified at all. He seemed to know none of that at all, and he didn’t seem particularly interested in learning any of that stuff, but somehow that seemed okay to enough voters. Bill Clinton had just cruised along, doing what he did, with the world and the economy on autopilot. He did fine, so a vote for George W. Bush wasn’t risky. He’d be fine. How hard could this presidency thing be?

George W. Bush found out. He wasn’t lucky like Bill Clinton. The presidency could be hard. There was 9/11 – a catastrophic crisis – not his fault but the worst possible thing imaginable. His response, to take over Iraq and get rid of Saddam Hussein, and then… well, there was no plan beyond that. Chaos followed. Chaos persists, and there was Hurricane Katrina and the end of New Orleans, another catastrophic crisis, not his fault but requiring of him what he couldn’t do – go all in to save lives and provide hope. He bumbled. And there was the total collapse of the economy as his second term ended – not exactly his fault either – but the worst mess since the Great Depression. He let Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke handle that. He just watched. Obama would clean that up. Bush was outta there. He’d had enough. This was supposed to have been easy. The whole thing was damned hard, and Bill Clinton had been one lucky bastard.

Donald Trump may be feeling that way now. Things do happen:

The Dow plunged 500 points on Thursday, exacerbating a 800-point drop the day before that marked the blue-chip average’s largest rout since February.

Investors remain on edge over tariff concerns and a recent jump in interest rates. President Donald Trump added fuel to the fire by castigating the Federal Reserve for continuing to hike a benchmark rate that affects both business and consumer loans.

It couldn’t be his tariffs, and this couldn’t be random – because he alone is making the economy great again, as he says – which isn’t random at all – so he had to blame someone. The New York Times’ Binyamin Appelbaum takes it from there:

President Trump responded to falling stock prices on Thursday by continuing to throw rocks at the Federal Reserve, which he has described as “crazy,” “loco,” “going wild” and “out of control” for slowly raising interest rates against the backdrop of a booming economy.

No other modern president has publicly attacked the Fed with such venom or frequency. Indeed, some scholars said the only close historical parallel was with President Andrew Jackson, who campaigned successfully in the 1830s to close the Fed’s predecessor, the Second Bank of the United States.

But he has to blame someone:

Mr. Trump’s pointed remarks reflect the high political stakes less than a month before midterm elections that have been cast by his political opponents as a referendum on his presidency. Mr. Trump has been riding the economy hard, bragging about job creation, tax cuts and reduced federal regulation, and claiming credit for the rise of the stock market. Now that the market has lost 5 percent of its value in the last week, Mr. Trump is insisting someone else is to blame…

After hitching his political fortunes to the rise of the stock market, Mr. Trump is now looking to decouple himself from its fall. Republicans are instead emphasizing continued economic growth and the lowest unemployment rate since 1969.

So, now, blame that other guy over there somewhere:

Unlike Jackson’s concerted campaign, Mr. Trump’s attacks appear curiously unmoored from the policies of his own administration or the longstanding goals of the Republican Party. Mr. Trump’s own aides have insisted that the president’s remarks are personal musings, not an attempt to dictate policy.

The Fed has also brushed off the attacks; it still expected to raise rates in December for the fourth time this year.

In fact, despite the stock market’s plunge, the American economy continues to grow, which is what is prompting the Fed to raise interest rates and drawing the president’s ire. The Fed’s chairman, Jerome H. Powell, has said that the economy is in a “particularly bright moment” and that he sees no clouds on the horizon.

Mr. Powell, selected for the job by Mr. Trump, said at a September news conference that Mr. Trump’s views would not influence the Fed’s decisions. “We don’t consider political factors or things like that,” Mr. Powell said. “That’s who we are, that’s what we do, and that’s just the way it’s always going to be for us.”

That’s the real issue here:

Modern presidents have always kept an uneasy eye on the Fed, because its decisions about monetary policy have a significant influence on the pace of economic growth.

Until the early 1950s, the Fed essentially operated as an arm of the Treasury Department. Even after the Fed gained operational independence, presidents often opined publicly about what the Fed should do and, if the Fed ignored their advice, they sometimes sought to bend its officials to their will.

President Lyndon B. Johnson protested a decision to raise interest rates in the late 1960s by summoning the Fed chairman at the time, William McChesney Martin, to his East Texas ranch and pinning the smaller man against a wall. President Richard M. Nixon instructed aides to blackmail Mr. Martin’s successor, Arthur Burns. President George Bush declared in a State of the Union address that the Fed should keep rates low.

But the volume of public commentary greatly diminished in recent decades as politicians concluded that pressuring the Fed was counterproductive. The administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all made a policy of silence on monetary policy.

That’s a good idea:

Krishna Guha, the head of the central bank strategy team at Evercore ISI, said he did not expect Mr. Trump’s remarks to influence the Fed, and he saw no evidence that markets were paying attention. But he added that if Mr. Trump did succeed, he would most likely regret doing so.

In short, Trump may not want to own this, but he said he knows more about all this stuff than Powell and all the economists in the world, presumably just like he knows more about global warming than all the scientists in the world, and more about ISIS than all the generals combined, and so on. Note that Guha said no one is paying attention to Trump anyway, and the word is that no one should:

Mr. Trump’s aides have sought to play down his broadsides. Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, said Mr. Trump was just offering his two cents. “I don’t think he’s ‘calling out the Fed,’ quote unquote,” Mr. Kudlow told reporters outside the White House on Thursday morning. “I really mean this. I think he’s giving you his opinion. He is a, obviously, successful businessman, he’s a very well-informed investor. He has his views. But he’s not saying to them, ‘Change your plan.'”

Mr. Kudlow added, “He knows the Fed is independent, and he respects that.”

He does? No one is sure of that, because Donald Trump is now finding out that things do happen, things that are not exactly his fault but can ruin everything. He needs someone he can blame. Nothing is easy, and this just got harder:

The Turkish government has told U.S. officials that it has audio and video recordings that prove Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul this month, according to U.S. and Turkish officials.

The recordings show that a Saudi security team detained Khashoggi in the consulate after he walked in Oct. 2 to obtain an official document before his upcoming wedding, then killed him and dismembered his body, the officials said.

The audio recording in particular provides some of the most persuasive and gruesome evidence that the Saudi team is responsible for Khashoggi’s death, the officials said.

“The voice recording from inside the embassy lays out what happened to Jamal after he entered,” said one person with knowledge of the recording who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss highly sensitive intelligence.

“You can hear his voice and the voices of men speaking Arabic,” this person said. “You can hear how he was interrogated, tortured and then murdered.”

A second person briefed on the recording said men could be heard beating Khashoggi.

They’ve got the evidence:

The journalist has had long-standing ties to the Saudi royal family, but has written critically of the current government and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman… It’s not clear that U.S. officials have seen the footage or listened to the audio, but Turkish officials have described their contents to their American counterparts.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is, of course, the problem here:

Mohammed has billed himself as a reformer and moderating force in Saudi Arabia, and he has become a key strategic partner in particular to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.

Kushner has tried to promote Mohammed to skeptical national security officials, who have long viewed him as an impetuous and ruthless leader who has an overly simplistic view of the complex challenges the United States faces in the Middle East.

This puts Trump in an awkward position. He has said Jared Kushner is a genius, who will, among other things, bring an end to all conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians forever. So, has Jared Kushner become best friends with a guy who orders the torture and dismemberment of a journalist he finds a bit pesky? Trump was trapped:

During a bill signing Thursday in the Oval Office, President Trump called Khashoggi’s suspected killing “a terrible thing,” but stopped short of assigning blame.

Trump will not question Jared Kushner’s judgment, but that won’t do now:

On Wednesday, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle wrote to Trump and asked him to impose sanctions against anyone found responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance, including Saudi leaders. The lawmakers invoked the Global Magnitsky Act, giving the president 120 days to make a decision.

On Tuesday, Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton called Mohammed and encouraged him to be transparent about what Riyadh knows about Khashoggi, said officials familiar with the call.

Mohammed may have laughed at Bolton and Kushner. The press is the enemy of the people. Why are you two, and your boss, so squeamish about that? Mohammed knows what matters here:

U.S. officials pushed back on calls to halt arms sales to Riyadh, calling such demands premature. Trump also dismissed the possibility.

“They’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things,” he said of the Saudis. “If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, ‘Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Russia.’ Or ‘Thank you very much. We’ll buy it from China.’ That doesn’t help us – not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work.”

That’s his position. We need the jobs. We need the cash, desperately. We have no alternative. Mohammed is not to blame, and he’s Jared’s best friend too. They’re both Crown Princes.

The New York Times reports on how that is going down:

The suspected murder of a prominent Saudi journalist exposed a growing rift on Thursday between the White House and Congress over American policy on Saudi Arabia, as Republican lawmakers demanded an investigation of Jamal Khashoggi’s whereabouts even as President Trump declared his relations with Riyadh “excellent.”

The Saudi-led, United States-backed bombing campaign of Houthi rebels in Yemen – which has killed thousands of civilians – was already a source of tension between Congress and the Trump administration.

But last week’s disappearance of Mr. Khashoggi, a well-connected Saudi columnist for the Washington Post living in Virginia, has incensed Republicans and Democrats in Congress, who accused the White House of moving too slowly in pressing the kingdom for answers.

“The Saudis will keep killing civilians and journalists as long as we keep arming and assisting them,” Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said on Twitter on Thursday. “The President should immediately halt arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia.”

Ah, well, no:

But Mr. Trump quickly made clear he would not.

“What good does that do us?” Mr. Trump asked, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office.

But he may have no choice:

The pressure from Congress could force the White House and the State Department to change important aspects of foreign policy – including, possibly, withdrawing support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen’s civil war. In June, a key vote on arms sales to the Saudis narrowly passed, and future munitions sales have been held up.

On Wednesday, the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent a bipartisan letter to Mr. Trump demanding an investigation of whether “the highest ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia” were responsible for human rights abuses in Mr. Khashoggi’s case.

The letter invoked a statute that Congress enacted in December 2016 that says the executive branch, upon receipt of such a letter, has 120 days to decide whether to sanction foreign officials.

But that last part may not be so:

It is not clear, however, whether the Trump administration will consider itself bound to comply if the president does not want to tangle with the Saudis. When President Barack Obama signed the legislation creating that law, he issued a signing statement challenging it as an unconstitutional intrusion on executive power.

That too will be an issue now:

Congress has have grown increasingly angry over the conduct of the bombing campaign, which is part of a proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran. An Aug. 9 airstrike that hit a school bus, killing more than 40 children, was particularly shocking – even for a war in which children have been the primary victims, suffering through one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The war in Yemen had killed more than 10,000 people before the United Nations stopped updating the death toll two years ago.

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has held up a proposed sale by Raytheon of 60,000 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia, a deal worth about $1 billion.

But it all comes back to Jared:

The intense scrutiny of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, may strain his close relationship with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and top Middle East adviser. Mr. Kushner had been cultivating the prince’s support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, but King Salman of Saudi Arabia has rejected it.

Some analysts have also questioned whether financial ties between Mr. Trump and Saudi businessmen compromise his policies.

“The unanswered questions about the extent to which Trump’s personal interests – as well as those of his family and associates, including Jared Kushner – have had an effect on the U.S. approach to Saudi Arabia makes the close Saudi ties all the more troubling,” said Jeffrey Prescott, a senior White House director on the Middle East during the Obama administration.

There are indications that the operation targeting Mr. Khashoggi was at least approved by Prince Mohammed.

It does all come back to Jared, and a backgrounder in the New York Times frames that as a bet:

More than anyone in the Trump administration, Mr. Kushner has cultivated Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman – whose family may have played a role in the disappearance of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi – elevating the prince into a key ally in the Arab world and the White House’s primary interlocutor to the kingdom.

Mr. Kushner championed Prince Mohammed, 33, when the prince was jockeying to be his father’s heir; had dinner with him in Washington and Riyadh, the Saudi capital; promoted a $110 billion weapons sale to his military; and once even hoped that the future king would put a Saudi stamp of approval on his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

While the fate of Mr. Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia and a columnist for The Washington Post, remains unclear, allegations that he was killed on the orders of the royal court have thrown Mr. Kushner’s grand bet on Prince Mohammed into doubt.

He may be less the risk-taking reformer the Trump family eagerly embraced than a reckless, untested ruler, who critics say has been emboldened by his ties to the Trumps to take heavy-handed actions at home and abroad.

Was he given permission to be a thug? That’s the question:

Policymakers across Washington expressed concern that the Saudi government’s lack of transparency and refusal to provide any information about Mr. Khashoggi’s whereabouts reflected a darker consequence of the kingdom’s relationship with the Trump White House.

“It does seem like the Saudis are less concerned about U.S. views than ever before, both because they assume Trump won’t care and because they think they don’t need U.S. approval,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen who was the State Department’s second-ranking diplomat for Middle East policy from 2013 to 2016.

That seems to be the pattern here:

Mr. Kushner’s relationship with Prince Mohammed dates to March 2017, when the two bonded over lunch at the White House. Mr. Kushner, 37, persuaded Mr. Trump to make Riyadh his first foreign trip as president. In return, he extracted commitments from the Saudis to take steps to curb terrorism, including a new center to monitor militants.

The blossoming relationship paid quick dividends for Prince Mohammed when Mr. Trump backed Saudi Arabia in its feud with Qatar, even over the reservations of his secretary of state at the time, Rex W. Tillerson.

But there was something odd about this:

Even in those days, a former administration official said, Mr. Trump’s aides regarded the ties between Mr. Kushner and Prince Mohammed as a mixed blessing. While it gave the White House a channel to Saudi Arabia’s designated heir, it ruled out the possibility of sending an older, more seasoned official to give advice to the young prince.

Mr. Tillerson, who had a bad relationship with Mr. Kushner, could not play that role, and even Mr. Pompeo, who made an early trip to Saudi Arabia as secretary of state, has deferred to Mr. Kushner on the crown prince.

Mr. Pompeo recently certified to Congress that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were doing enough to minimize the deadly consequences of their aerial campaign in Yemen. This came despite an Aug. 9 airstrike on a school bus in Yemen that killed more than 40 children.

He also overruled the recommendations of State Department experts who concluded that the Saudi-led coalition had not yet demonstrated enough progress in mitigating civilian casualties, according to Andrew Miller, a former State Department official.

Now there is much more to “overlook” about Prince Mohammed’s new Saudi Arabia. Where does this end? Donald Trump is learning that unexpected things do happen:

MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace drew on her past experience as White House communications director to explain the political liability the Trump administration is facing due to senior advisor Jared Kushner’s close relationship with Mohammed bin Salman.

“In a normal White House, the fact that one of the president’s closest allies on the world stage, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – known as MBS – reportedly ordered an operation to lure Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia with a goal of detaining him would be big news,” Wallace noted.

This president thing is hard:

“In a normal White House, a president would want to know if his ‘Presidential Daily Brief’ – or PDB – included the signal intelligence reported by the Washington Post that suggests that U.S. intelligence officials knew about the Saudi leader’s desire to detain the Washington Post columnist,” she continued.

“If the president didn’t know, how high up did the intel go? Did the Director of National Intelligence know? The director of the CIA?” she asked.

But wait, there’s more:

“In a normal White House, the president’s national security team might just want to start a list of all of Jared Kushner’s contacts with the young crown prince of Saudi Arabia, out of concern that the optics alone of the two hubristic young men huddled closely – literally and figuratively – might be damaging if we come to learn the Turkish reports of 15 Saudis flying to Turkey and entering the consulate there to kill and dismember the Washington Post columnist are true and that the administration knew that the Saudi leader intended to detain Khashoggi,” Wallace explained, while rolling tape of MBS and Kushner.

“In a normal White House, that would all count as a full-blown national security crisis,” Wallace concluded. “But this isn’t a normal White House, not even close.”

She would know. On January 5, 2005, George W. Bush named her White House Communications Director. She had to explain, day after day after day, that he was just doing his best, but things just kept happening. None of it was Bush’s fault, not really. She left the White House in July 2006 to relocate to New York City, where her husband was representing the Bush Administration at the United Nations, under John Bolton, now Trump’s national security advisor. She’s seen it all. Things do happen, and blaming others only makes you look small and stupid. Yes, Bill Clinton was lucky – no 9/11 – no Katrina – no economic collapse – no catastrophic crises – but no other president ever was that lucky and no other president ever will be.

And that leaves Donald Trump with a stock market crash and his obvious support of a murderous thug, the best friend of his son-in-law. Trump saw Obama do well enough. How hard could this be? Now he knows. Things do happen.

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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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