A Return to Normal

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” – but really, who is allowed to say what, and when? You can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater just for the fun of it, and you cannot incite violence, and libel and slander are crimes, although shouting out an opinion is not. Which is it? Things get tricky there. And public figures get less protection – when they entered the public realm they gave up any rights to privacy regarding their public words and public actions. They are expected to expect and accept criticism, however unsettling and misinformed. But the rules aren’t all that clear.

That might explain this Reuters item:

Lawyers for U.S. President Donald Trump and his re-election campaign have threatened in a letter to sue CNN for what they said was the network falsely advertising itself as a news organization, calling on executives to first discuss an “appropriate resolution” to the matter that would include a “substantial” payment to cover damages.

The letter, dated Oct. 16 and made public on Friday, is the latest threat by Trump to sue a media organization over what he sees as unfair media coverage since launching his 2016 presidential campaign, although no lawsuits have been filed.

It was a threat, not a lawsuit at all, and CNN ignored the whole thing, because this was to please Trump’s base and had nothing to do with them:

The letter was signed by Charles Harder, who has sent similar threats to media organizations on Trump’s behalf.

Last year, Harder suggested Trump would take legal action against the New York Times for an investigative report on his business empire, calling it “highly defamatory.”

Harder also threatened a libel lawsuit over “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” by author Michael Wolff, a book that portrayed an inept president in a fumbling White House.

This was the same old stuff:

On Nov. 7, 2018, the day after congressional elections, Trump erupted into anger during a news conference when CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta questioned him about the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and a migrant caravan traveling through Mexico.

The White House suspended Acosta’s credentials later that day, alleging Acosta had put his hands on an intern who was trying to take a microphone from him. Videos of the encounter show Acosta pulling back as the intern moved to take the microphone.

The White House later restored Acosta’s press access, ending a lawsuit brought by CNN challenging the revocation as a violation of the reporter’s constitutional rights. A judge had issued a temporary ruling in CNN’s favor.

There was no other possible outcome, and Talking Points Memo has more detail about this latest move:

Citing videos created by Project Veritas, the conservative conspiracy group run by James O’Keefe, Attorney Charles Harder argued that CNN violated a law that prevents entities from misrepresenting themselves to the public and advertisers. In the letter, Harder lists out the pillars of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics, as well as ethical rules specific to CNN, claiming CNN’s reporting on Trump is “contrary to your own mission.”

Harder lists out several key quotes from the O’Keefe video, which purport to include an interview with CNN employees who claim that CNN President Jeff Zucker has a “personal vendetta” against Trump and that the network wants to “take down President Trump.” Another alleged employee is quoted in the video saying that Zucker only allows CNN to cover “impeachment every single day” and that “our Democratic interviews are like softballs, compared to Republicans.”

“Never in the history of this country has a president been the subject of such a sustained barrage of unfair, unfounded, unethical and unlawful attacks by so-called ‘mainstream’ news, as the current situation,” Harder wrote, before declaring his client’s intent to sue the network for violating the Lanham Act, “among other applicable laws.”

The Lanham Act (the Trademark Act of 1946) is the federal statute that governs trademarks, service marks, and unfair competition. It was passed by Congress on July 5, 1946 and signed into law by President Truman, and has nothing to do with anything here. And there’s this too:

O’Keefe’s gained notoriety for publishing undercover videos that are usually intended to damage the media or left-leaning groups, typically garnering fruitless results. Most notably, O’Keefe was tied to a woman who attempted to convince the Washington Post that she had credible allegations against then-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. That endeavor backfired. The allegations were ultimately exposed as fake and the Post was praised for walking away from a source whose story the paper couldn’t corroborate.

CNN has nothing to worry about. They can report news Trump doesn’t like and their opinion people can state their opinions, even their low opinion of this Trump guy. He ran for office. He became president. He’s a tough guy. He can take it. He is required to take it. And he does have the option to laugh at these CNN people.

Donald Trump doesn’t laugh. And there will be news he doesn’t like, filled with facts he hates, and the New York Times’ Peter Baker is still allowed to report this:

The Taliban have wanted the United States to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Turkey has wanted the Americans out of northern Syria and North Korea has wanted them to at least stop military exercises with South Korea.

President Trump has now to some extent at least obliged all three – but without getting much of anything in return. The self-styled dealmaker has given up the leverage of the United States’ military presence in multiple places around the world without negotiating concessions from those cheering for American forces to leave.

But that had to happen:

For a president who has repeatedly promised to end the “endless wars,” the decisions reflect a broader conviction that bringing troops home – or at least moving them out of hot spots – is more important than haggling for advantage. In his view, decades of overseas military adventurism has only cost the country enormous blood and treasure, and waiting for deals would prolong a national disaster.

But veteran diplomats, foreign policy experts and key lawmakers fear that Mr. Trump is squandering American power and influence in the world with little to show for it. By pulling troops out unilaterally, they argue, Mr. Trump has emboldened America’s enemies and distressed its allies. Friends like Israel, they note, worry about American staying power. Foes like North Korea and the Taliban learn that they can achieve their goals without having to pay a price.

Those two views can never be reconciled, but some see an even bigger problem:

Reuben E. Brigety II, a former Navy officer and ambassador to the African Union under President Barack Obama who now serves as dean of the Elliott School for International Affairs at George Washington University, said just as worrisome as the decisions themselves was the seemingly capricious way they were made.

Mr. Trump, he said, often seems more interested in pleasing autocrats like Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey than in organizing any kind of coherent policymaking process to consider the pros and cons.

“When he canceled the South Korea military exercises, the only person he consulted was Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Brigety said. “The decision to abandon the Kurds came after a brief phone call with Erdogan. So they weren’t taken because he had personally reflected on the strategic disposition of American forces around the world. They were taken after he took the counsel of strongmen over that of his own advisers.”

That’s what worries everyone, and we did have a good low-cost thing going on for years in northern Syria, and now we don’t:

It took only a few dozen Special Forces operators near the border in northern Syria to deter Turkey from assaulting America’s Kurdish allies there, but soon after Mr. Trump talked with Mr. Erdogan on Oct. 6, the president announced on a Sunday night that they would be pulled back. Turkey then launched a ferocious attack on the Kurds, and by the time a convoy of American troops moved away over the weekend, they were shown in a widely circulated video being pelted by angry Kurds throwing potatoes to express their sense of betrayal.

There will be more of that, given this:

In Afghanistan, Mr. Trump’s special envoy spent months negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban militia that would provide guarantees that the country would not be used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States if it reduced its troop presence to around 8,600. The talks fell apart, but Mr. Trump is drawing down American forces anyway, pulling out 2,000 troops in the last year, leaving 12,000 to 13,000. Plans are to keep shrinking the force to around 8,600 anyway.

So now there’s this – Pentagon Draws up Plans for Quick Afghanistan Withdrawal Just In Case Trump Blindsides Military – a useful precaution, given what else Baker notes:

In Asia, Mr. Trump voluntarily canceled traditional large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea at the behest of Mr. Kim even though the two have yet to reach any kind of concrete agreement in which North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons. The decision frustrated not only allies like South Korea and Japan but senior American diplomats and military officers, who privately questioned why North Korea should be given one of its key demands without having to surrender anything itself.

This is odd, but there is an explanation:

“Trump is a win-lose negotiator,” said Wendy R. Sherman, a former undersecretary of state under Mr. Obama who helped broker the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran that Mr. Trump abandoned last year. “That’s what he did as a real estate developer. He doesn’t see the larger landscape, the interconnections, the larger costs, the loss of greater benefits.”

And that leads to this:

When he has sat down at the negotiating table, Mr. Trump’s record on the world stage has been mixed or incomplete. He has sealed an accord to update to the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, revised a free-trade agreement with South Korea and reached a limited trade pact with Japan.

But in addition to the collapse of the Afghan talks, he has gotten nowhere in nuclear negotiations with North Korea, made no progress in a long, drawn-out Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, has yet to even reach the table with Iran despite his stated desire and remains locked in a high-stakes, big-dollar negotiation with China over tariffs.

For Mr. Trump, though, the desire to “end the endless wars,” as he puts it, may override his instinct for deal-making.

This is emotional for him. He now, for the first time, wants to walk away with no real deals on anything at all. That would have to end those endless wars. We’d walk away from everything. It would all be over. He’d be the hero.

But there was news that he is hated out there still, and the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick and Eric Schmitt reported that:

American forces and their Kurdish-led partners in Syria had been conducting as many as a dozen counterterrorism missions a day against Islamic State militants, officials said. That has stopped.

Those same partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, had also been quietly releasing some Islamic State prisoners and incorporating them into their ranks, in part as a way to keep them under watch. That, too, is now in jeopardy.

And across Syria’s porous border with Iraq, Islamic State fighters are conducting a campaign of assassination against local village headmen, in part to intimidate government informants.

This is a mess, and Donald Trump made it a mess:

When President Trump announced this month that he would pull American troops out of northern Syria and make way for a Turkish attack on the Kurds, Washington’s onetime allies, many warned that he was removing the spearhead of the campaign to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Now, analysts say that Mr. Trump’s pullout has handed the Islamic State its biggest win in more than four years and greatly improved its prospects. With American forces rushing for the exits, in fact, American officials said last week that they were already losing their ability to collect critical intelligence about the group’s operations on the ground.

Trump is not the winner here at all:

News of the American withdrawal set off jubilation among Islamic State supporters on social media and encrypted chat networks. It has lifted the morale of fighters in affiliates as far away as Libya and Nigeria.

And, by removing a critical counterforce, the pullout has eased the re-emergence of the Islamic State’s core as a terrorist network or a more conventional, and potentially long-lasting, insurgency based in Syria and Iraq.

Although Mr. Trump has repeatedly declared victory over the Islamic State – even boasting to congressional leaders last week that he had personally “captured ISIS” – it remains a threat.

That’s simply a matter of statistics and geography:

After the loss in March of the last patch of the territory it once held across Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State dispersed its supporters and fighters to blend in with the larger population or to hide out in remote deserts and mountains.

The group retains as many as 18,000 “members” in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners, according to estimates cited in a recent Pentagon report. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, is still at large.

“Our battle today is one of attrition and stretching the enemy,” Mr. al-Baghdadi declared in a video message released in April. Looking comfortable and well-fed, he sat on the floor of a bare room, surrounded by fighters, with an assault rifle by his side.

“Jihad is ongoing until the day of judgment,” he told his supporters…

Perhaps Charles Harder should threaten to sue him too, but something is changing. No one is hiding anymore. No one seems to fear that career-ending single Trump Tweet of Death anymore. Reporters now just report and ignore the empty Charlie Harder threats.

That’s what Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist, sees happening now:

Although it drew little notice, Richard Engel’s report from northern Syria on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” struck me as stunning.

“While this is happening,” the NBC chief foreign correspondent told viewers, speaking about the temporary Turkish cease-fire, “there is ethnic cleansing underway.”

He acknowledged that “that is a very, very big word,” but based on his reporting about the Kurds under siege, there was just no other way to say it.

And although the Engel moment was notable in its forthrightness – simply stating the facts without hedging – it wasn’t the only one of its kind in recent days.

The mainstream media seems to have quietly removed its Trump-normalizing gloves in the past few weeks.

And she has her evidence:

The New York Times’s veteran correspondent, Peter Baker – no hothead – wrote a “White House Memo” that appeared on Saturday’s print front page.

It wasn’t cluttered with “critics say this” but “Trump loyalists say that.”

Rather, it included straightforward, though damning, observations and facts regarding the state of Trump world on the 1,001st day of the president’s tenure when “all pretense of normalcy went out the window.”

Baker wrote this:

It was a day when he boasted of saving “millions of lives” by temporarily stopping a Middle East war that he effectively allowed to start in the first place, then compared the combatants to children who had to be allowed to slug each other to get it out of their system.

It was a day when he announced without any evident embarrassment that officials of the federal government that answers to him had scoured the country for a site for next year’s Group of 7 summit meeting and determined that the perfect location, the very best site in all the United States, just happened to be a property he owned in Florida.

Sullivan sees what’s happening here:

“I do think a corner has been turned in the way he’s being covered,” Nate Silver, editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.com, the data-driven news organization, told me in a phone interview Monday.

“There’s just a degree of directness in the way things are being stated that feels new.”

Trump himself seems to think so – and to find it vexing to no longer be able to control the narrative.

“The President is increasingly frustrated with what he sees as his inability to communicate on impeachment,” Dana Bash, a political correspondent for CNN, tweeted, citing her reporting.

 And there’s this:

“The Fifth Avenue Murder Theory now faces its toughest test,” wrote my colleague E. J. Dionne in a weekend column, recalling Trump’s bragging in 2016 that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. He cites as a crack in the foundation that more than two-thirds of Republican House members joined with every Democrat in criticizing Trump’s Syria move.

So there you have it:

Public support for the House’s impeachment inquiry may have stiffened the press’s spine. A slim majority of Americans, according to recent research from Gallup, support not only impeachment but also removing Trump from office.

Silver suggests a different dynamic.

“The myth of Trump as a brilliant tactician has been punctured,” he said – initially by the results of the midterm elections and then by the increasingly hard-to-defend decisions and events that have followed, which have caused even stalwart Republican loyalists to criticize him, even if only anonymously and behind the scenes.

And now, with an unafraid press, the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey can report this:

The Cabinet meeting was billed as a discussion of the administration’s “successful rollback of the abuses and the high cost of the bloated regulatory state.” It began with a prayer from Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. A large cardboard poster titled “CHAMPIONS” was perched behind the president’s head.

Then with the cameras rolling and the administration facing criticism over its Middle East policy and presidential self-dealing at the same time as an impeachment inquiry from House Democrats was gaining momentum, President Trump made it clear he had other things on his mind than cutting regulations. He had stayed inside the White House all weekend, sending more than 80 tweets and playing no golf.

“Everybody feel comfortable over there?” he said at the opening of the 71-minute affair that was part news conference, part stream-of-consciousness bragging and all about Trump.

Dawsey can say that. What’s the president going to do, sue? Dawsey can present the highlights:

The president boasted of personally being responsible for the capture of Islamic State soldiers; decried the criticism that he was receiving “emoluments” from foreign governments as phony; insinuated that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) gave information to the whistleblower who raised concerns about the administration’s actions toward Ukraine; attacked his predecessor for signing a deal with Netflix; and turned the Cabinet Room into a stage for a lengthy advertisement for his Florida golf resort, which he originally picked to host a meeting of international leaders before backtracking this weekend in the face of bipartisan criticism.

Dawsey can present the details:

“You people with this phony emoluments clause,” he said, dismissing concerns that hosting international leaders at the Trump National Doral Miami resort would have violated the constitutional ban on presidents accepting gifts or money from foreign governments.

That clause is a joke, if it even exists, and then there’s this:

He batted back questions about whether his decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria and the ensuing Turkish military offensive led to the release of Islamic State fighters being guarded by the Kurds. And he cited a loud cheer from a rally crowd in Texas to back his decision to remove the U.S. forces.

“I’m the one who did the capturing,” Trump, who avoided military service with a bone spurs diagnosis, said of Islamic State militants. “I’m the one who knows more about it than you people or the fake pundits.”

He did keep saying, in the 2016 campaign, that he knew more about ISIS than all the generals combined, and now he’s saying he rid the world of ISIS altogether, alone, with his bare hands – no Kurds involved and no military involved either – and there was this:

“I’m very good at real estate,” he said, without being asked about his real estate prowess. For several minutes, he used the White House setting to talk up his resort in Florida while defending himself against claims that he uses the presidency to help his properties.

“It would have been the best G-7 ever,” he said, now saying he would have held it “for free.”

Critics charging that the meeting would have offered a high promotional value for Trump’s business was also a canard, according to the president.

“I don’t need promotion,” he said. “I get more promotion than any human being that’s ever lived.”

Without prompting, he informed the government’s top officers – and the assembled news media – about his prowess at filling arenas.

“I can set a world record for somebody without a guitar,” he said of his rally crowds.

What? And then there was this:

At times he segued into criticizing former president Barack Obama, suggesting that he made money off his presidency, conflating his predecessor’s post-presidency book deals and contract with Netflix with charges that Trump’s businesses have directly benefited from his time in office.

“Obama made a deal for a book. Did he run a business?”

No one knew what to make of that, or this:

Defending his attempt to stage the G-7 at his resort, he cited the benefit of having the Miami International Airport nearby. “It’s right down the road,” he said. “Some say it’s the biggest in the world.” The airport does not rank in the international top 20 for size.

Trump said the presidency was costing him “between $2 billion and $5 billion,” though there is no evidence for such a claim – and his own disclosures show he has continued to profit while in the Oval Office.

The president said only George Washington had given away his salary like Trump does, though historians say John F. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover donated their pay.

And so on, ending with this:

Toward the end, he turned to the day’s official agenda – touting the economic benefits of the number of regulations his administration has cut or weakened.

For that he first turned to National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, a man Trump described as a “great, great remark-maker.”

“I’m sure it will be great. Let them know how we are doing. We’re doing poorly, let them know,” he told Kudlow. “But I don’t think that is going to happen.”

It didn’t.

Nothing happened. Trump got his big numbers. Larry Kudlow is no dummy. Tell the guy what he wants to hear. But something is changing. No one else will do that now. This president is not normal. Go ahead, say it. That’s actually allowed.

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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1 Response to A Return to Normal

  1. Rick says:

    Three thoughts:

    (1) Of course, this is not really a “return to normal”. Normal was back when reporters and anchors would never call ANYONE, much less an elected official, much less an American president, a liar. Trump changed all that, and there may be no going back.

    (2) Also, something that may or may not quality as irony here is, if Trump really wants to “end the endless wars”, he should start by ceasing his destruction of all the institutional war-ending mechanisms the world has studiously created since the First World War, including the UN, NATO, and yes, even the EU. Famously not a very learned man, he doesn’t seem to even realize that all these, and many other peace-mongering instruments of international order, have been working quite stealthily to keep the relative peace for about a century.

    (3) And finally, maybe someone at CNN should countersue TRUMP for false advertising every time he brags in public about Trump Doral, while including mentions neither of (a) the resort’s famous bedbug problems, nor of (b) how hot and uncomfortable it is in Miami in June.

    And that’s all I have to say. For now.


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