The Age of Smoke

Something big is happening. No one seems to know what it all could mean. It has to mean something big – the Trump presidency is over or Robert Mueller is gone – but sometimes it’s best to wait. These four short paragraphs from the Associated Press could go either way:

The breakdown of a plea deal with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an explosive British news report about alleged contacts he may have had with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threw a new element of uncertainty into the Trump-Russia investigation Tuesday.

A day after prosecutors accused Manafort of repeatedly lying to them, trashing his agreement to tell all in return for a lighter sentence, he adamantly denied a report in the Guardian that he had met secretly with Assange around March 2016. That’s the same month Manafort joined the Trump campaign and Russian hackers began an effort to penetrate the email accounts of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The developments thrust Manafort back into the investigation spotlight, raising new questions about what he knows and what prosecutors say he might be attempting to conceal as they probe Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates in the campaign that sent the celebrity businessman to the White House.

All the while, Manafort’s lawyers have been briefing Trump’s attorneys on what their client has told investigators, an unusual arrangement that could give Trump ammunition in his feud against special counsel Robert Mueller.

There’s a smoking gun in there somewhere but this will take weeks to sort out, and there are the minor characters too:

As Trump continues raging against the investigation – he tweeted Tuesday that Mueller was doing “TREMENDOUS damage to our Criminal Justice system” – others in the crosshairs have filled the vacuum of Mueller’s recent silence by publicly declaring their innocence, accusing prosecutors of coercing testimony or tempting fate by turning aside negotiations.

One associate of Trump confidant Roger Stone is contesting a grand jury subpoena in court. Another, Jerome Corsi, said he was rejecting an offer to plead guilty to a false statements charge and has complained in news media interviews about his interrogations by prosecutors.

Stone, under investigation himself for connections to WikiLeaks, has repeatedly disparaged Mueller’s investigation and said his friend Corsi was at risk for prosecution “not for lying but for refusing to lie.”

That’s bullshit – the AP item goes on discuss the emails between Corsi and Stone about coordinating all this with the Russians. Those emails are out there now. These two are blowing smoke, but it’s all smoke. Robert Mueller hasn’t done anything much yet. He’s not brought down the hammer, and Donald Trump hasn’t fired him. This is all big news that’s not news at all yet.

That’s a problem for news organizations. They can only report that something big is about to happen, but they’re not sure what that will be or what that will mean – but it will be big, really big, whatever it is. Wait for it. Don’t change channels.

That won’t do, and Erik Wemple reports that one channel decided not to play along:

It had been nearly a month since Sarah Sanders had held what was once known as a “daily” briefing. So when the White House press secretary – along with White House officials Larry Kudlow and John Bolton – took the podium on Tuesday afternoon, cable-news channels jumped right on the proceedings. Well, most of them, anyway.

While CNN and Fox News carried the tripartite briefing from the very beginning, MSNBC stayed away – until it had blown off the entire session.

In doing so, it had missed a chance to beam a live presentation of Kudlow saying, “We’ll see what happens… Our economy’s in very good shape right now”; of Bolton saying he hadn’t listened to the audio recording of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi (“I guess I should ask you, why do you think I should, what do you think I’ll learn from it?”); of Sanders saying this about Trump and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation: “I don’t think the president has any concerns about the [Mueller] report because he knows that there was no wrongdoing by him and that there was no collusion.”

They decided that wasn’t news but this was:

Instead of all that, MSNBC carried segments on the following topics: Trump’s trade wars; the state of the auto industry, in light of GM’s announced plant closings; the stock market and the welfare of the U.S. worker; a deadly attack on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; a Guardian report that Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, had met with Julian Assange; and the U.S. Senate election in Mississippi. After the press briefing concluded, MSNBC plowed ahead with more on GM, including an interview with Hamtramck, Mich., Mayor Karen Majewski, a segment on the Mueller investigation, a politics roundup, a mention of “giving Tuesday.”

That was odd, but Wemple says they were being traditionalists:

There was a time, before Sean Spicer turned press briefings into I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-that extravaganzas, that the rest of the world would continue with its business as the White House press briefing chugged along. When there was big news afoot, perhaps the cable-news networks would carry it live. And they might cut away from other coverage to a newsworthy scene in the briefing room. But as a general rule, some flack dishing out talking points at the White House wasn’t worthy of live, hold-everything televised coverage.

With this approach, journalists at MSNBC can evaluate what happened at the briefing and reach measured decisions about whether to incorporate the goings-on into its work…

Asked about Tuesday’s decisions, an MSNBC source said, “Given the pace of the day’s news we decided to monitor the briefing and to report on any major developments afterwards.”

There were no “major developments” this time around. It was the old same old same old. This wasn’t news. These were three Trump folks blowing smoke. That’s not news, but this is the age of smoke, not the age of fire, and that makes this news:

Mary Kissel often took a dim view of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. As a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, she tweeted about his “frightening ignorance,” criticized his approach on Syria and China, and said Putin “scored a great propaganda victory” at the Helsinki summit in July.

And Trump swatted back. After Kissel said in a March 2016 appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Trump has “no principles, he has no policies,” the president counter punched on Twitter. “Major loser!” then-candidate Trump wrote, adding that Kissel had “no clue!”

Now, Kissel is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new senior adviser for policy and strategic messaging.

“We could not be more thrilled to have her on board,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, in a statement, announcing her arrival.

It is unclear whether the president – if he is even aware of Kissel’s arrival – feels the same way.

“Trump would lose his mind if he knew about this,” a former administration official who has witnessed Trump reaction to past criticism told Politico.

That makes this a news story about a befuddled president:

While other foreign policy experts have found themselves blacklisted for trashing Trump, Kissel is Pompeo’s second recent hire who has done so: In August, he appointed Jim Jeffrey – who joined dozens of GOP foreign policy insiders in signing a letter denouncing Trump – as special representative for Syria engagement.

Whether the hires signal a kind of amnesty for former Trump critics is unclear. Neither Kissel nor Jeffrey has taken jobs requiring Senate confirmation hearings that might bring their criticisms to the president’s attention.

But he’s not paying attention, because he’s blowing smoke himself:

President Trump placed responsibility for recent stock market declines and this week’s announcement of General Motors plant closures and layoffs on the Federal Reserve during an interview Tuesday, shirking any personal blame for cracks in the economy and declaring that he is “not even a little bit happy” with his hand-selected central bank chairman.

In a wide-ranging and sometimes discordant 20-minute interview with The Washington Post, Trump complained at length about Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. “Jay” Powell, whom he nominated last year. When asked about declines on Wall Street and GM’s announcement that it was laying off 15 percent of its workforce, Trump responded by criticizing higher interest rates and other Fed policies, though he insisted that he is not worried about a recession.

“I’m doing deals, and I’m not being accommodated by the Fed,” Trump said. “They’re making a mistake because I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”

His gut tells him more than any brain anywhere? This is absurd, but not news, unless a befuddled president is big news:

Sitting at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Trump also threatened to cancel his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a global summit this week in Argentina because of Russia’s maritime clash with Ukraine.

Asked whether he thought Putin was within his rights to capture three Ukrainian ships and their crews Sunday in the Black Sea, Trump said he was awaiting a “full report” from his national security team Tuesday evening about the incident. “That will be very determinative,” Trump said. “Maybe I won’t have the meeting. Maybe I won’t even have the meeting.”

That was more smoke, as was this:

Trump also dismissed the federal government’s landmark report released last week finding that damage from global warming is intensifying around the country. The president said that “I don’t see” climate change as man-made and that he does not believe the scientific consensus.

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers,” Trump said. “You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean.”

We are? Matthew Yglesias wonders about this man:

I happen to be among the minority of policy analysts who thinks there is some merit to Donald Trump’s argument that the Fed is a bit too eager to raise interest rates, and if he ever wants to give me a call I could walk him through some arguments in favor of this position. That way, the next time he’s asked about this by reporters he could say something that makes some kind of sense…

The entire interview is littered with pronouncements that are bizarre (“oceans are small”), nonsensical (“we lose $800 billion a year on trade”), or so incoherent that when he comes out and just tells a lie (like that in the past there were many articles worrying about global freezing) it comes almost as a relief.

But there are the Saudis:

Obviously the historical roots of the US-Saudi alliance lie in the geopolitical significance of Saudi oil reserves, and that significance has often led US officials over the years to downplay Saudi human rights abuses. Today, with US oil production soaring, this aspect of the relationship is less relevant than it’s ever been. Yet here’s Trump all but chanting “blood for oil!” as his battle cry when asked about the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi:

“If you look at my statement, it’s maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. But he denies it. And people around him deny it. And the CIA did not say affirmatively he did it, either, by the way. I’m not saying that they’re saying he didn’t do it, but they didn’t say it affirmatively. I’m saying this: We have $52-a-barrel oil right now and I called them about three months ago, before this whole thing happened with Khashoggi, and I let him have it about oil. We were up to $82 – probably two and a half months ago – we were up to $82 a barrel and it was going up to $100 and that would’ve been like a massive tax increase and I didn’t want that. And I called them and they let the oil start flowing and we’re at $52.”

Yglesias doubts that:

Here’s the thing about the Saudis and oil sales. They sell oil on the global market because they get money in exchange. It’s not a favor they are doing for us, and we don’t need to kiss their butts to get them to sell oil. People disagree about the appropriate US policy toward Venezuela, but everyone understands we don’t need to say nice things about Maduro to beg him to keep the oil flowing – he needs to keep the oil flowing because he needs the money.

Yet Trump is so in the tank for the House of Saud that he thinks the Saudis are doing us a favor when they sell us oil, and doing us another favor when they buy our military equipment…

Many observers have remarked over the past several weeks on the extraordinary crassness of this calculus that it’s okay for the Saudis to murder a US resident who is a father to US citizens because the Saudis give us money. But it’s also just incredibly shoddy economics.

And then there’s Trump on those GM layoffs:

“And I’m not blaming anybody, but I’m just telling you I think that the Fed is way off-base with what they’re doing, number one. Number two, a positive note, we’re doing very well on trade, we’re doing very well – our companies are very strong. Don’t forget we’re still up from when I came in 38 percent or something. You know, it’s a tremendous – it’s not like we’re up – and we’re much stronger. And we’re much more liquid. And the banks are now much more liquid during my tenure. And I’m not doing – I’m not playing by the same rules as Obama. Obama had zero interest to worry about; we’re paying interest, a lot of interest. He wasn’t paying down – we’re talking about $50 billion lots of different times, paying down and knocking out liquidity. Well, Obama didn’t do that. And just so you understand, I’m playing a normalization economy whereas he’s playing a free economy. It’s easy to make money when you’re paying no interest. It’s easy to make money when you’re not doing any pay-downs, so you can’t -and despite that, the numbers we have are phenomenal numbers.”

Yglesias:

I have basically no idea what Trump is talking about here, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t either. The good news is it’s not clear that Trump can actually do any harm here.

But there’s why he disagrees with government scientists about climate change:

“You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including – just many other places – the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say, where does this come from? And it takes many people to start off with.”

Yglesias:

This is true enough as far as it goes. Air pollution is a global problem, and while the US is a major contributor to climate pollution, we are not the only culprit or necessarily even the biggest culprit. The international cooperation problem is a hard one to solve, but nothing in this answer even remotely begins to justify his administration’s policy course of doing less than nothing to reduce emissions.

And oceans are very small. But then so is Donald Trump, as Emily Stewart reports here:

President Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened to retaliate against General Motors for its decision to shutter plants and slash jobs by cutting the automaker’s federal subsidies, including for electric cars. But he can’t act unilaterally to do it.

The president has become increasingly incensed publicly since GM said on Monday that it would make overhauls that would lead to $6 billion in cost reductions by 2020, including shuttering up to five plants in the US and Canada and slashing 15 percent of its salaried workforce, a total of some 14,700 jobs.

“We don’t like it,” Trump told reporters on Monday. He said that he told CEO Mary Barra, who met with National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow regarding the decision, “You better get back in there soon.”

On Tuesday, Trump upped the ante even more, firing off a pair of tweets at GM.

“The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get!” he wrote, before going on to say he was considering cutting GM’s electric car subsidies.

That won’t happen:

Trump appears to have been referring to a $7,500 federal tax credit for consumers who buy fully electric cars. The credit currently phases out after an automaker sells 200,000 such cars. It originated in the 2009 stimulus bill and was extended in the 2017 Republican tax bill Trump signed last year.

Tesla already hit the 200,000-car mark in July. GM is expected to reach it by the end of the year, and actually, Tesla, GM, and Ford have been lobbying lawmakers to lift the cap or get rid of it altogether. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Dean Heller (R-NV) have also proposed raising the cap or extending the credit.

Trump now appears to want to do the opposite, but he can’t do it by himself.

“Trump would need Congress to pass legislation amending the IRS tax credits for electric vehicles that were in the tax reform passed last year,” Garrett Nelson, a senior equity analyst at research investment firm CFRA Research.

If Congress were to revise the electric vehicle tax credit, it would also likely have to change it entirely – not only focus on GM.

“Don’t imagine they can go back and single one company out in the tax code,” Clayton Allen, an analyst at research firm Height Capital Markets, said.

He was just blowing smoke, but he does that:

President Trump this week renewed his questioning of the military’s new system for launching aircraft at sea, underscoring his skepticism about a technology the Navy has put at the center of its future aircraft carrier fleet.

In a call to service members on Thursday marking the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump asked the commander of the USS Ronald Reagan, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier deployed in the Pacific, whether he supported using electromagnetics rather than the traditional steam system to catapult aircraft off carrier decks and land them safely back on board.

Trump has repeatedly criticized General Atomics’ Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), installed on the Navy’s newest carrier and slated to be used on other new ships.

“Steam is very reliable, and the electromagnetic – I mean, unfortunately, you have to be Albert Einstein to really work it properly,” Trump said. “What would you do?”

He got his answer:

Capt. Pat Hannifin, articulating the Navy’s view, responded by telling Trump that EMALS would lessen the burden that steam-powered systems exact on carriers and was within sailors’ power to operate successfully.

“You sort of have to be Albert Einstein to run the nuclear power plants that we have here as well, but we’re doing that very well,” Hannifin said.

That was a bit cheeky but that was the news:

Trump has singled the system out before, saying last year that it cost more and was “no good,” suggesting the Navy should return to steam. More recently, he called the technology “ridiculous” while complaining broadly about the military’s desire for new equipment. It’s not clear how the president became interested in this somewhat obscure military technology issue.

Unlike the older system, which uses a large, maintenance-intensive system of pipes and pistons to propel planes into flight, EMALS uses a more efficient linear-induction motor and is seen as more suitable for launching an array of aircraft, from drones to heavy jets. Shipbuilding firm Huntington Ingalls Industries has likened it to “the system that powers many of today’s roller coasters.”

And this is what is on the president’s mind, and thus that’s news, the big story of the day – but it’s still smoke, and smoke is not news. Wait. Some big news is coming, one day, but this was not the day.

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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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