Beyond the Personal

Sometimes politics is not much more than feuding. There’s Joe Scarborough – a Pensacola lawyer who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 2001 as a Republican for the 1st district of Florida – part of the Newt Gingrich wave with their Contract with America that was going to change everything. Gingrich vowed his people were going to be nasty and destroy all Democrats – the insults would fly – but Scarborough was a sunny Reagan kind of guy. He walked away. He has a little rock band and now he’s the co-host of Morning Joe on MSNBC with Mika Brzezinski, his wife and not like him at all:

Brzezinski was born in New York City, the daughter of Polish-born foreign policy expert and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Swiss-born sculptor Emilie Anna Benešová. Her mother, of Czech descent, is a grandniece of Czechoslovakia’s former president Edvard Beneš. Her father was teaching at Columbia University when she was born; the family moved to McLean, Virginia, near Washington, in late 1976, when Zbigniew was named National Security Advisor by newly elected President Jimmy Carter. Her brother, Mark Brzezinski, is an American diplomat and was the United States Ambassador to Sweden from 2011 to 2015.

Scarborough married into the rather liberal international life – Elijah Cummings officiated at their wedding – and on July 11, 2017, Scarborough announced on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that he was leaving the Republican Party to become an Independent. Donald Trump doesn’t watch that show.

And a month earlier, the Washington Post had run this:

President Trump’s relationship with the hosts of the MSNBC program “Morning Joe” – which devolved into cringeworthy tweets about facelifts and the size of the president’s anatomy on Thursday – has a long and ugly history, careening from collegiality to hostility, followed by even deeper hostility.

In the earliest days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump was a semiregular guest on the show, hosted by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. He seemed to accord it near-equal status to its direct and higher-rated cable-news competitor “Fox & Friends.”

The three of them appeared to be on friendly terms: Trump thanked Scarborough and Brzezinski for being “believers” in, if not outright supporters of, his candidacy after he won the New Hampshire Republican primary last year.

That didn’t last:

Scarborough, a former Republican Florida congressman, seemed to enjoy a particular rapport with Trump, addressing him by his first name on the air. But that seemed to change last year when Scarborough dared to criticize Trump on the air and in print.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post in May last year, Scarborough questioned whether Trump’s campaign had what it took to win: “Unless the Trump team figures out how to build a campaign operation that focuses more on fundamentals than flashy PR tricks, the next deal Donald Trump will be negotiating will be his return to The Apprentice,” he wrote.

Trump responded as he often does when criticized, hitting back harder.

He called Scarborough’s show “rapidly fading” in one tweet, and in another remarked, “Wow, I hear @MorningJoe has gone really hostile ever since I said I won’t do or watch the show anymore. They misrepresent my positions!”

This prompted Scarborough to respond that his show was generating “our best ratings ever” and to taunt, “Define ‘rapidly fading,’ Donnie boy!”

This was not going to end well:

The reasons for Trump’s latest pique at Scarborough and Brzezinski aren’t clear, but in recent months Scarborough and Brzezinski have called Trump “a jackass” and repeatedly questioned his mental health. Last week, Scarborough released another music video, this one to promote his new rock album. It features images of Trump amid scenes of nuclear war, drug use and riots.

Trump on Thursday was more than happy to respond in kind.

In one of his usual early-morning tweet storms, Trump said, “I hear poorly rated @MorningJoe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!”

And it went downhill from there:

It’s unclear what exactly set Trump off Thursday morning. But the hosts had discussed a Washington Post story about a fake Time magazine cover of him that has hung in several of his golf clubs.

“Nothing makes a man feel better than making a fake cover of a magazine about himself lying every day and destroying the country,” Brzezinski said. “It’s a good feeling.”

The tweet was the first known instance of a president of the United States commenting on a woman’s supposed facelift. Brzezinski replied a few minutes later on Twitter with a photo of a box of Cheerios that carried the slogan, “Made for Little Hands” – a reference to the president’s supposed anatomical deficits.

But that was two years ago. Scarborough and Brzezinski have walked away from all that since then. Petty personal spats are a junior high kind of thing. They wouldn’t be drawn in. They’d be the grown-ups in the room. They’d let Trump be the bitchy twelve-year-old girl flailing around trying to be nasty. Let him mock her imaginary face lift – there was none – and brag about the wonderful size of his enormous penis. There were bigger issues.

It was time to move beyond the personal, and Joe Scarborough just did that:

Where does one look for a political equivalent in a year when the president’s supporters chanted “send her back” about a nonwhite member of Congress?

Should we attach a bland label like “illiberalism” to such a wretched public display when “fascism” fits so much better? And what term best describes a 2019 political rally where a U.S. president, who had previously suggested the shooting of migrants, laughed as a supporter shouted that they should be gunned down at the border?

Do we bite our tongues as Trump apologists dismiss this rhetoric as harmless? Do we stay silent as left-wing commentators claim this to be the natural progression of Reagan conservatism? How do we define Trump’s slandering of Hispanics as breeders? How should newspaper editors and political leaders label a presidency that inspired white supremacists such as David Duke to celebrate Trump’s moral equivocation after Charlottesville?

Terms such as “illiberalism” and “conservatism” seem both inaccurate and inadequate.

For Scarborough, this is not the natural progression of Reagan conservatism. This is worse than the nastiness of Gingrich. This is the end of everything:

It is difficult to remember a time when Trump was seen as little more than a bumptious reality star who plastered his name on steaks, water bottles and apartment buildings around the world. Manhattan society long viewed the reality host’s career as the vulgar elevation of a trashy aesthetic, but millions of Americans always saw something more. Even during his political ascent, Republican and Democratic leaders alike shared Lindsey Graham’s view that the future president was a clown who had neither the character nor intelligence to be America’s next commander in chief. But elites’ failure to grasp Trump’s appeal, then and now, made him a greater threat to the natural checks and balances of Madisonian democracy.

In short, no one saw the danger:

One should never compare Trump’s rise directly to that of German fascism, and still there are lessons that can be drawn from every era. Sebastian Haffner’s 1939 memoir “Defying Hitler” spoke of influencers who initially dismissed the Nazi party for its “violent stupidity” much like Trump’s critics mocked the reality star’s candidacy with a chuckle. The “Saturday Night Live” skit with Hillary Clinton laughing at her good fortune for drawing Trump as a political opponent comes to mind.

“I was inclined not to take them very seriously,” Haffner wrote in 1939, “a common attitude among their inexperienced opponents, which helped them a lot.”

It would be best not to make that mistake about “violent stupidity” again, even if no one is a Nazi here:

A cursory review of Auschwitz or Dachau’s history reveals how the evil of Hitler’s reign does not remotely compare to the current state of U.S. politics. The cost of illiberalism’s spread in the age of Trump may be better understood by studying the erosion of democratic norms in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or the further strengthening of China and Russia’s autocratic regimes.

Trump loves dictators and sneers at our allies who try to run something like democracies, which may be the real issue here:

We should still remain mindful that the failure of Germany’s political, financial and media elites to serve as a bulwark against the illiberal impulses that seized that country then mirrors the failure of American leaders initially to grasp the consequences of Donald J. Trump. Three years later, the question remains of how best to respond to that threat.

And it is high time to respond:

I knew Trump fairly well before he entered politics. Like many, I saw him first as a cartoonish figure, colorful but innocuous. Then I saw him as an entertainer, superficial but engaging. Then I saw him as a threat, appealing but erratic. Then, at last, I saw this reality TV president as a malevolent character, inspiring fascist chants while proving to be more hapless than any of his 43 predecessors.

All versions of Trump have been cynical and manipulative, but his latest incarnation has proved to be destructive to his party, his country and the world.

Scarborough notes that “only a weak man speaks endlessly of his strength and only an ignorant man brags incessantly of his wisdom” – and we have both in combination now.

But there’s not much new here:

Once the longest-serving Navy SEAL on active duty, Adm. William McRaven played a key role in thousands of dangerous missions abroad, including commanding the one that cost Osama bin Laden his life.

McRaven, who is retired, warns that the greatest threat to American democracy he’s seen during his decades in national security comes not from a rogue regime or a terrorist group but from the caustic rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

“An attack on the press or an attack on the Department of Justice, or to imply that there are dirty cops at the FBI or to ignore the intelligence community, I think, really undermines our institutions,” McRaven told USA TODAY in an interview about his memoir, “Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations,” out Tuesday. “And that makes me fearful of the future direction of the nation.”

McRaven has the experience that might lead to fear:

In 2017, during a stint as chancellor of the University of Texas, McRaven began raising objections to Trump’s attacks on the press in an address that also called on journalists to hold themselves accountable for accuracy and fairness. Last year, he wrote an open letter protesting the president’s decision to revoke the security clearance of a frequent critic, former CIA director John Brennan, and asking that his own security clearance be revoked as well…

That brought a rebuke from the president – he dismissed McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” who should have caught bin Laden faster – and blowback from some of his former military colleagues, who argued that it was inappropriate for him to publicly criticize the commander in chief.

“It has been an unwritten rule that senior military officers don’t come out against the president, and I think that’s a good unwritten rule,” McRaven said. “But I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and make sure I’m doing what I think is the right thing.”

And now there’s no turning back:

His concerns about Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions have only deepened, he said, noting the president’s increasingly defiant response to congressional investigations.

“When the lawmakers of this nation ask for a person to testify or ask for certain documents, I think sooner or later, the White House needs to comply, as does the military or anybody else that’s being subpoenaed to provide information,” he said.

At stake, in his view, is faith in the foundations of democracy.

“If the American people feel like they can’t trust those institutions, then what do they turn to?” he asked. “Our institutions really have got to be able to survive whoever’s in the White House.”

So this isn’t personal, but it is. The New York Times dropped another bombshell:

Deep into a long flight to Japan aboard Air Force One with President Trump, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, dashed off an email to an aide back in Washington.

“I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends,” Mr. Mulvaney wrote. “Did we ever find out about the money for Ukraine and whether we can hold it back?”

It was June 27, more than a week after Mr. Trump had first asked about putting a hold on security aid to Ukraine, an embattled American ally, and Mr. Mulvaney needed an answer.

The aide, Robert B. Blair, replied that it would be possible, but not pretty. “Expect Congress to become unhinged” if the White House tried to countermand spending passed by the House and Senate, he wrote in a previously undisclosed email. And, he wrote, it might further fuel the narrative that Mr. Trump was pro-Russia.

And so he was:

Mr. Blair was right, even if his prediction of a messy outcome was wildly understated. Mr. Trump’s order to hold $391 million worth of sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, night vision goggles, medical aid and other equipment the Ukrainian military needed to fight a grinding war against Russian-backed separatists would help pave a path to the president’s impeachment.

The Democratic-led inquiry into Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine this spring and summer established that the president was actively involved in parallel efforts – both secretive and highly unusual – to bring pressure on a country he viewed with suspicion, if not disdain.

And that was that, and Greg Sargent provides the context here:

If Mitch McConnell is going to pull off his scheme to turn President Trump’s impeachment trial into a quick and painless sham with no witnesses, the Senate majority leader needs the story to be covered as a conventional Washington standoff – one that portrays both sides as maneuvering for advantage in an equivalently political manner.

But extraordinary new revelations in the New York Times about Trump’s corrupt freezing of military aid to Ukraine will – or should – make this much harder to get away with…

The report demonstrates in striking detail that inside the administration, the consternation over the legality and propriety of the aid freeze – and confusion over Trump’s true motives – ran much deeper than previously known, implicating top Cabinet officials more deeply than we thought.

Sargent then distills the extraordinarily long and detailed Times item down to the basics:

As early as June, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney worked to execute the freeze for Trump, and a top aide to Mulvaney – Robert Blair – worried it would fuel the narrative that Trump was tacitly aiding Russia.

Internal opposition was more forceful than previously known. The Pentagon pushed for the money for months. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-national security adviser John Bolton privately urged Trump to understand that freezing the aid was not in our national interest.

Trump was unmoved, citing Ukraine’s “corruption.” We now know Trump actually wanted Ukraine to announce sham investigations absolving Russia of 2016 electoral sabotage and smearing potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden. The Times report reveals that top Trump officials did not think that ostensibly combating Ukrainian “corruption” (which wasn’t even Trump’s real aim) was in our interests.

Lawyers at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) worked to develop a far-fetched legal argument that Trump could exercise commander-in-chief authority to override Congress’ appropriation of the aid, to get around the law precluding Trump from freezing it.

Michael Duffey, a political appointee at OMB, tried to get the Pentagon to assume responsibility for getting the aid released, to deflect blame away from the White House for its own role in blocking it. This led a Pentagon official to pronounce herself “speechless.”

Duffey froze the aid with highly unusual bureaucratic tactics, refused to tell Pentagon officials why Trump wanted it withheld and instructed them to keep this “closely held.” (Some of this had already been reported, but in narrative context it becomes far more damning.)

In short, the entire governments said don’t do this, you cannot do this. Trump and Rudy Giuliani and Vladimir want to do this. Trump did this, and Sargent points out the obvious:

It’s impossible to square all this with the lines from Trump’s defenders – that there was no pressure on Ukraine; that the money was withheld for reasonable policy purposes; and that there was no extortion because it was ultimately released.

But wait, there’s more:

What makes all this new information really damning, however, is that many of these officials who were directly involved with Trump’s freezing of aid are the same ones Trump blocked from appearing before the House impeachment inquiry.

This should make it inescapable that McConnell wants a trial with no testimony from these people – Democrats want to hear from Mulvaney, Bolton, Duffey and Blair – precisely because he, too, wants to prevent us from ever gaining a full accounting.

But these people should testify:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reportedly tried to persuade President Donald Trump to release the congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine that he had frozen… The three senior officials had met with Trump in the Oval Office on a “late-August day,” in the Times’ words, so that they could each explain why it was important for Ukraine to receive the nearly $400 million in aid.

An unnamed official told the Times that Bolton told Trump the aid was “in America’s interest.”

Esper reportedly assured the President that much of the funds went to purchasing U.S.-manufactured military equipment and that the aid was therefore an asset to the country.

“This defense relationship, we have gotten some really good benefits from it,” he said, according to the Times.

However, Trump was reportedly unconvinced, telling his top officials that Ukraine is “a corrupt country” and that “we are pissing away our money.”

The President continued to hold up the funds until September 11, when he abruptly released them after Democrats announced an investigation into the unexplained aid freeze.

Is that what happened? And then there’s this in the Times item:

By the second week of August, Mr. Duffey had taken to issuing footnotes every few days to block the Pentagon spending. Office of Management and Budget lawyers approved each one. Mr. Trump spent the weekend before the Pentagon’s Aug. 12 deadline at Bedminster, his New Jersey golf resort.

In a previously unreported sequence of events, Mr. Mulvaney worked to schedule a call for that day with Mr. Trump and top aides involved in the freeze, including Mr. Vought, Mr. Bolton and Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel. But they waited to set a final time because Mr. Trump had a golf game planned for Monday morning with John Daly, the flamboyant professional golfer, and they did not know how long it would take…

In Bedminster with Mr. Trump, Mr. Mulvaney finally reached the president and the answer was clear: Mr. Trump wanted the freeze kept in place. In Washington, the whistle-blower submitted his report that same day.

Is that what happened? Who knows? But we’re in trouble. All of this has moved beyond the personal now, except for this president. It’s all personal to him. It always was. And that is a threat to any democracy.

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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