The New World of Nonsense

Back in 1984 there was that movie Stop Making Sense – the Talking Heads live on stage, shot at the Pantages Theater in December 1983, just down the street here in Hollywood. Leonard Maltin said it was “one of the greatest rock movies ever made.” Perhaps so, but American politics weren’t supposed to end up like that, with key players demanding that anyone talking sense to anyone else should just stop that, right now. Rock is supposed to be anarchic. Public service isn’t. Focus on the problem at hand. Fix it, if possible. If not, mitigate the damage. Don’t change the subject. Do your job, but these are strange times, and E. J. Dionne sees this:

President Trump clearly knows that accurate, meaningful information is his enemy. Too many voters whose support he needs have decided that his epic mishandling of the covid-19 crisis has made both the pandemic and its economic consequences worse than they had to be.

As a result, chaos and mystification are his only friends. He wants the electorate and the media to focus on absolutely anything except the virus’s death toll and rising unemployment. Thus his targeting of former president Barack Obama on the basis of an entirely false narrative about the Michael Flynn case and his claim to be taking hydroxychloroquine, a drug whose use health experts declare unproven against the novel coronavirus – and potentially dangerous.

And on Wednesday came the ultimate subject changer, as Trump’s supine Republican allies on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee subpoenaed documents concerning the work of former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter for a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.

Senate Republicans are in no hurry to challenge Trump’s efforts to shut down proper investigations of his own administration by firing one inspector general after another. But they sure would love the word “Burisma” to push aside the words “pandemic” and “unemployment” in as many news cycles as possible.

You’re sick and might die? Burisma! Your elderly parents have just died? Burisma! You lost your job and few jobs are ever coming back and you have no money and you’ll be living in the streets soon? Burisma! Trump stopped making sense, and then went one step beyond that:

Trump took to Twitter at 7:51 a.m. on Wednesday to lie by denouncing the state of Michigan for sending out “absentee ballots to 7.7 million people,” and to issue a dark threat to “hold up funding to Michigan if they want to go down this Voter Fraud path!” He later made a similar threat against Nevada.

Michigan’s Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson called out Trump’s stupid but frightening nonsense by turning to Twitter herself to point out that her office had sent out “applications, not ballots,” and in doing so, she had acted “just like my GOP colleagues in Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska and West Virginia.”

Her response was not nice – What the HELL are you talking about!

Dionne argues that almost doesn’t matter now:

To understand Trump’s frantic scramble to get us talking about anything except the one issue that matters, look no further than Maricopa County in Arizona. It bodes to be the swing county for the entire 2020 election, since Arizona is one of the likeliest battleground states in the country.

The county cast about 60 percent of the state’s ballots in 2016 and gave Trump a 3.5-point advantage. It thus sent shock waves through the state, said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), when a poll conducted earlier this month not only showed Trump seven points behind Biden statewide but an astounding 13 points behind in Maricopa, which includes Phoenix and its suburban cities and towns. Stanton, former mayor of Phoenix, told me it was a break with the state’s political history for a Democrat to be “up more in Maricopa than he is statewide.”

But the result did not surprise him, he said. “Suburban moms and dads and aunts and uncles are swinging against the president” because of “a belief among these moderate voters that he has mismanaged this crisis.”

“When you put people’s own health and their children’s health at risk,” he said, “it’s almost impossible to recover from that.”

And there’s this:

Adding to Trump’s anxiety: He has been running slightly behind Biden in Wisconsin, generally seen as one of his best bets among the swing states. Ben Wikler, chair of the state’s Democratic Party, said that Trump has been a master at using “the most high intensity, divisive, emotionally fraught tactics with the hope that those tactics will dominate the conversation and make people forget the things that are happening in their own lives.”

But this approach is hitting its limits in the current crisis. It’s hard to believe that “people will care more about the intricacies of our Obama-era counterespionage rather than the fact that family members are on ventilators in the hospital and lost their jobs.”

Trump stopped making sense. People finally noticed. Paul Waldman adds this:

Trump has shown us how much we took for granted, such as the idea that the president wouldn’t hire his unqualified relatives and use his office to enrich himself, or that the attorney general wouldn’t use his powers to help the president’s friends and target his enemies, or that while the branches might sometimes argue about the limits of oversight, everyone agreed in principle that oversight is necessary and Congress has a legal right to perform it.

While Trump tears through our government trying to destroy every worthwhile thing it does, he also devotes endless energy to sowing resentment and hatred, on the theory that he can be reelected only if Americans are as angry and divided as possible. Even if he is voted out of office, the poison he has poured into our national bloodstream will continue to course through it.

So the worst thing for us would be to assume that if Trump is defeated then everything will snap back to the way it used to be. It won’t, any more than you can move right back into your house after toxic floodwaters rose to its roof. The structure may still be there, but you have to shovel out the muck and do something about the mold growing in the walls.

That’s the damage that talking nonsense creates, and this is the price to be paid to fix that damage:

We’ll have to restock the agencies to replace all the qualified, committed public servants who have fled or been pushed out over the past few years. We’ll have to restore the ethical standards Trump has worked so hard to subvert. And we’ll have to revive the idea that government is supposed to serve all of us.

It will be an enormous task, equal to that faced by any president in our history. But if we’re lucky, perhaps a year from now you’ll be able to pick up the newspaper and see not a litany of horrors but a few stories about good things happening in Washington. We have to believe it’s possible.

Why? That may not be possible. Sometimes the small stuff tells the real story. Josh Rogin notes this:

On Friday, President Trump announced the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, based on the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a move that surprised official Washington and infuriated Democrats. Now, there is additional concern about Linick’s replacement, Stephen Akard, who is already on the job – and is also keeping his existing State Department position, setting up a clear conflict of interest.

According to the law, the administration must notify Congress 30 days in advance before firing an inspector general. But multiple sources told me that Linick’s last day was Friday, the same day Congress learned about his ouster. Akard showed up at the office on Monday morning and immediately assumed the boss’s role. Yet Akard is keeping his job as the head of the State Department’s Office of Foreign Missions, a Senate-confirmed political appointee position he has held since September. Adding the inspector general’s job to his duties essentially means he will be overseeing himself.

And he really needs to fire himself:

The Office of Foreign Missions has the job of supporting more than 800 U.S. embassies and consular offices around the world and over 100,000 diplomatic staff serving abroad, as well as dealing with foreign diplomats inside the United States. Before he joined State, Akard served as chief of staff at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation under then-Gov. Mike Pence. A former career Foreign Service officer, in 2018 he withdrew his nomination to be director general of the Foreign Service, following criticism that he was not senior enough for that role.

Last May, the State Department Inspector General’s office issued a report after inspecting – you guessed it – the Office of Foreign Missions. This was before Akard took over, but the report was scathing. Twenty-two of the 93 positions at the office were unfilled at the time. OFM had spent $48 million over the years to build an information system that didn’t work and warranted urgent management attention, the OIG reported.

“The Office of Foreign Missions had neither a strategic planning process nor a Functional Bureau Strategy,” the Inspector General’s office wrote.

Of course none of this makes sense. Dionne argued that was the whole point. But it gets stranger:

No one but Pompeo really knows why Linick was fired. Pompeo has repeatedly said it couldn’t possibly be an act of “retaliation” because Pompeo wasn’t privy to Linick’s ongoing investigations – such as the secretary’s alleged use of staff for personal errands, or his emergency declaration to push through Saudi arms sales against congressional wishes.

“I’ve seen reports someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner. It’s all crazy stuff,” Pompeo told reporters Wednesday.

Ah, no, not exactly:

Pompeo could be retaliating for the investigations Linick conducted in the past. For example, there’s this one from last November about how State Department officials improperly punished career staffers over their ethnicity and perceived political views. Or Pompeo could have been upset that Linick handed over to impeachment investigators the dossier of smears that Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani prepared about Marie Yovanovitch, the now-former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Or it could be that arms deal:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disregarded the advice of high-level officials at the State Department, Pentagon and within the intelligence community in invoking an emergency waiver last year to circumvent congressional review of billions of dollars in arms sales to the U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf region, according to two former administration officials and three congressional sources.

That decision was under investigation by a government watchdog who was fired last week at Pompeo’s urging, and it has fueled renewed accusations from lawmakers that the Trump administration bucked the will of Congress and even violated the law when it fast-tracked the weapons sales.

That would make this a big deal:

In justifying the move to Congress, Pompeo wrote that “Iranian aggression” and “increasing regional volatility” necessitated an urgent delivery of certain weapons to U.S. partners in the Middle East.

But during meetings last spring of the National Security Council at several levels, high-level career and political officials from the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence community agreed that there had been no change in Tehran’s behavior to justify invoking emergency authorities and advised against doing so, according to a former administration official who attended the meetings.

“There is nothing going on right now that we could point to that would say it was any different than the month before,” the former official said.

And that matters:

The move infuriated lawmakers from both parties. Current law requires the executive branch to formally notify Congress of an arms sale of this nature; the House and Senate then have 30 days to vote to block the sale.

At the time, it was thought to be highly unlikely that a weapons sale to Riyadh would pass muster in Congress, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have become increasingly skeptical of the U.S. relationship with the kingdom. The regime’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its continued participation in Yemen’s bloody civil war have prompted several lawmakers to propose sanctions against the Saudi government, a longtime close but often nettlesome American ally.

But then Trump has a good friend over there, who is also his son-in-law’s best friend:

Trump’s first overseas trip as president was to Riyadh, where he met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom he has cultivated a close relationship.

Trump stood by his Saudi counterpart and resisted congressional efforts to impose human-rights sanctions even after U.S. intelligence officials briefed lawmakers on their conclusion that the crown prince directed the murder of Khashoggi.

Mohammed bin Salman does, after all, know how to deal with the press, but here, once again, Trump wins. Think about that and it’s hard to remember the nearly one hundred thousand dead here, and, of course, that’s getting harder every day:

In the early weeks of the US coronavirus outbreak, staff members in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had tracked a growing number of transmissions in Europe and elsewhere, and proposed a global advisory that would alert flyers to the dangers of air travel. But about a week passed before the alert was issued publicly – crucial time lost when about 66,000 European travelers were streaming into American airports every day.

The delay, detailed in documents obtained by CNN, is the latest example to emerge of a growing sense of disconnect between the CDC and the White House.

In interviews with CNN, CDC officials say their agency’s efforts to mount a coordinated response to the Covid-19 pandemic have been hamstrung by a White House whose decisions are driven by politics rather than science.

The result has worsened the effects of the crisis, sources inside the CDC say, relegating the 73-year-old agency that has traditionally led the nation’s response to infectious disease to a supporting role.

These people want to talk sense, to save lives, but now accurate meaningful information is Trump’s enemy:

Rising tensions between CDC leadership and the White House over the perception that the agency has been sidelined has been a developing story in the media for weeks. But now, mid- and higher-ranking staff members within the agency – six of whom spoke with CNN for this story — are starting to voice their discontent. Those six spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

“We’ve been muzzled,” said a current CDC official. “What’s tough is that if we would have acted earlier on what we knew and recommended, we would have saved lives and money.”

Of course they were muzzled, but that was months ago, and now that’s been expanded:

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has been conspicuously absent from national television interviews over the last two weeks, as the White House moves ahead with reopening the economy.

Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, last gave a television interview when he spoke to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo on May 4th.

Prior to his recent absence from the airwaves, Fauci was regularly appearing on national news programs to update the American people on the country’s fight against the coronavirus.

He was talking sense, and making sense, and now he’s being a good boy and standing silently in the corner:

Fauci’s absence was particularly noteworthy this week, given the positive early results regarding a vaccine developed by the biotech company Moderna in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, which Fauci’s NIAID falls under.

Despite the NIH’s role in helping to develop the vaccine, Fauci did not appear for interviews to discuss the promising results.

Fauci was present at Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” briefing last Friday, when the administration detailed a plan to roll out an eventual vaccine. He was wearing a mask and standing behind the President. But he didn’t make any comments, unlike at other briefings and events where he was front and center.

Keep him quiet. Keep him quiet and maybe people won’t notice this:

Dallas, Houston, Southeast Florida’s Gold Coast, the entire state of Alabama and several other places in the South that have been rapidly reopening their economies are in danger of a second wave of coronavirus infections over the next four weeks, according to a research team that uses cellphone data to track social mobility and forecast the trajectory of the pandemic.

The model, developed by PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and updated Wednesday with new data, suggests that most communities in the United States should be able to avoid a second spike in the near term if residents are careful to maintain social distancing even as businesses open up and restrictions are eased.

But the risk for resurgence is high in some parts of the country, especially in places where cases are already rising fast, including the counties of Crawford, Iowa; Colfax, Neb.; and Texas, Okla. and the city of Richmond. Since May 3, Crawford County’s caseload has risen by 750 percent, and Colfax County’s has increased 1,390 percent…

Those are Trump spots, and soon may be the only hotspots around:

This is an anxious moment for the nation as people emerge from shutdowns and communities try to reinvigorate economic activity. Scientists and public health experts are monitoring rates of infections and hospitalizations, but it is difficult to forecast during this transitional period because models struggle to capture how people actually behave, including adherence to social distancing and hand-washing practices.

There are preliminary signs, however, that hot spots, new clusters of coronavirus spread, could soon flare across parts of the South and Midwest.

In Texas, there has been an outbreak of cases in El Paso and in meatpacking plants in the Panhandle. The rate of positives in coronavirus tests has gone down as the number of tests has increased, and hospitalization rates are holding steady. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has sent “surge response teams” to places where there are spikes in infections. But the number of daily active cases is still rising in some parts of the state. Dallas and nearby Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, each had its highest single-day death toll Tuesday.

So, let’s talk about Hunter Biden, shall we?

Let’s not, not right now. Stop making sense? Start making sense.

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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