The End Games

There’s always a way out, there’s just the problem of discovering what that is. There’s a solution to every hard problem. Someone will find it. Be patient. But all of this is nonsense. Sometimes there’s no way out. Sometimes there’s no good solution to the problem at hand. Sometimes there’s not even a bad solution to the problem at hand. At that point it may be that the only thing to do is to lash out and somehow hurt someone, and Donald Trump is good at that.

He lost the election. There was little that could be done about that. It was time to whine and cause damage, simultaneously. And it’s always good to have others worry about what you’re up to. The New York Times’ David Sanger and Eric Schmitt saw how that worked out:

President Trump’s abrupt installation of a group of hardline loyalists into senior jobs at the Pentagon has elevated officials who have pushed for more aggressive actions against Iran and for an imminent withdrawal of all of the American forces from Afghanistan over the objections of the military.

He’d leave them guessing and no one would defy him now:

Mr. Trump made the appointments of four top Pentagon officials, including a new acting defense secretary, this week, leaving civilian and military officials to interpret whether this indicated a change in approach in the final two months of his presidency.

At the same time, Mr. Trump named Michael Ellis as a general counsel at the National Security Agency over the objections of the director, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone.

What did this mean? Trump was grinning and he wasn’t saying:

There is no evidence so far that these new appointees harbor a secret agenda on Iran or have taken up their posts with an action plan in hand. But their sudden appearance has been a purge of the Pentagon’s top civilian hierarchy without recent precedent.

Administration officials said the appointments were partly about Afghanistan, where the president has been frustrated by what he sees as a military moving too slowly to fulfill his promise that all American troops will be home by Christmas. The Pentagon announced on Wednesday that Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and fierce proponent of ending American involvement in Afghanistan, would serve as a senior adviser.

But this may have had more to do with something else:

The hires come as Mr. Trump and some of his aides have been pressing to declassify documents that would describe sources of information inside the Kremlin. The president’s advocates have long argued that these could prove that four years of allegations about the 2016 actions by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in support of Mr. Trump’s candidacy were a hoax, despite the fact that Mr. Trump’s Justice Department has indicted Russian military intelligence officers.

Administration officials said that Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., could be next on Mr. Trump’s list of dismissals because of her long-running effort to keep classified a series of documents on the agency’s information inside the Kremlin. Among her biggest recent critics is Donald Trump Jr.

The president’s son had been driving this. His father had been framed. Putin had done nothing. Putin had been wonderful. Hillary Clinton had framed Putin, and framed him too. So had Obama. And there were documents. And of course no one cares anymore. But Trump would show them all. He’d been wronged!

That was one theory about what had just happened, but the new appointees didn’t seem part of that effort. They were just his enforcers:

Kashyap Patel, Anthony J. Tata and Ezra Cohen-Watnick – three aides whose promotions were announced in a Pentagon statement on Tuesday – are viewed as highly ideological Trump foot soldiers. Mr. Patel has a long history of trying to discredit the investigations into Russian interference, Mr. Tata’s nomination was withdrawn over the summer in part because he had called President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader,” and Mr. Cohen-Watnick was quietly eased out of the National Security Council in 2017 after clashes with Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, then the national security adviser.

The three are not believed to have the stature to bully Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of the military’s Central Command, into initiating operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries during the final days of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

They’d bluster. The generals would listen. They might do little else. Trump sent over some jerks. They’ll move slowly and wait for Biden. It really was time to wait:

It is possible, some officials say, that what is happening is no more than résumé padding, allowing some of Mr. Trump’s loyalists to claim they held top posts, albeit briefly, or to cement some policy changes before Mr. Biden can take office and seek to reverse them.

Several current and former Pentagon and administration officials expressed concern that the shake-up could usher in a period of instability and possibly even overseas adventurism. But others offered a more prosaic interpretation of some of the events this week.

“I’m only 2-on-a-scale-of-10 concerned,” said Kori Schake, who directs foreign and military policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and served in the Pentagon under President George W. Bush. “It looks like the last gasp of vengefulness and cronyism from an administration that has always preferred unctuousness to qualifications.”

But it won’t matter in just a few weeks, right? Trump will be gone. All he has to do now is work on this:

In his final weeks as president, Mr. Trump faces a series of decisions that could shape his legacy in national security. He must decide whether to leave Iran with far more nuclear material than it possessed when he entered office, a direct result of his decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal that Mr. Biden has said he would seek to rejoin. Similarly, Mr. Trump confronts the likelihood that he will leave his successor with a North Korea armed with more nuclear weapons than it had before multiple summit meetings with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and a China that is more expansionist, and more dismissive of legal constraints, than ever before.

This won’t be easy:

John Gans, a former chief Pentagon speechwriter and author of “White House Warriors,” a history of the National Security Council, said Mr. Patel, Mr. Cohen-Watnick and Mr. Ellis were all veterans of what he called the Trump’s administration’s “war on government.”

The Pentagon, more than other departments, has resisted Mr. Trump’s directives, slowing the withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, a breach that led to the resignation of Jim Mattis as defense secretary.

“The three men have risen, in good measure because they were successful at pushing back against the bureaucracy” Mr. Gans said. “These are the people who go in and do whatever they think is required to achieve his agenda,” he said. “They are true soldiers in the war on government, the war on what Trump calls the deep state.”

Fine, whatever, but this seems like a soon-to-be-gone nothing much. Unless it isn’t. Kenny Stancil covers the other talk:

Fears that a possible slow-motion coup is in progress in the United States continued to grow on Wednesday, as observers sounded the alarm over President Donald Trump’s decision to install “extreme Republican partisans” at the Pentagon after his firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper resulted in resignations by numerous top officials at the department earlier this week.

The stacking of the Pentagon with Trump loyalists – combined with the president’s ongoing refusal to accept his electoral defeat and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Tuesday comment that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” – has heightened concerns about the Republican Party’s authoritarianism and left experts and lawmakers warning that the country is in the midst of an extremely dangerous moment.

And there was this:

The Guardian reported that defense experts believe “there was little the new Trump appointees could do to use their positions to the president’s advantage” given that high-ranking military leaders, including General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have vowed to keep the armed forces out of the political process.

Nevertheless, others view this week’s personnel changes, which amount to the appointment of pro-Trump officials to key national security roles during the interregnum, as more evidence that Trump intends to use what one current defense official called “dictator moves” to cling to power despite receiving more than five million fewer votes than President-elect Joe Biden…

That is the worry:

“It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition,” wrote Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday.

The development, he said, “should alarm all Americans.”

“If this is the beginning of a trend of the president either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him – then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst,” Smith added.

But this may be nothing either. Trump is an odd man. The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey and Ashley Parker note this:

President Trump declared Wednesday on Twitter, “WE WILL WIN!”

But, in fact, the president has no clear endgame to actually win the election – and, in an indication he may be starting to come to terms with his loss, he is talking privately about running again in 2024.

Trump aides, advisers and allies said there is no grand strategy to reverse the election results, which show President-elect Joe Biden with a majority of electoral college votes, as well as a 5 million-vote lead in the national popular vote.

Asked about Trump’s ultimate plan, one senior administration official chuckled and said, “You’re giving everybody way too much credit right now.”

There seems to be no plan for anything:

Republican officials have scrambled nationwide to produce evidence of widespread voter fraud that could bolster the Trump campaign’s legal challenges, but no such evidence has surfaced. And Biden’s lead in several states targeted by the Trump campaign has expanded as late-counted votes are reported. In all-important Pennsylvania, the Democrat now leads by more than 50,000 votes.

Still, the absence of evidence and of a comprehensive and realistic plan to overcome Trump’s significant deficit and secure him a second term have not stopped some of the leading figures in the administration and the Republican Party from amplifying the president’s misinformation about the election outcome.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent pledge for “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” and Vice President Pence’s assertion that the election was not over have helped sow public doubt about the integrity of the vote and raised concerns from allies abroad about the state of America’s democracy.

This is a mess and the president seemed befuddled:

Save for a visit Wednesday to Arlington National Cemetery in observance of Veterans Day, Trump has not appeared in public since last Thursday, when he delivered a statement challenging preliminary election results. He has instead addressed the election in social media posts or through his spokespeople, promising to keep fighting until he is declared the winner.

Trump has been spending his days largely on the phone, calling advisers, allies and friends. The president has been “trying to find people who will give him good news,” one adviser said.

And then there’s this:

Trump has indicated in some of these conversations that he understands Biden will take over the presidency on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. Rather than talking about a second term, Trump has been matter-of-factly discussing a possible 2024 campaign – an indication that he knows his time as president is coming to an end, at least for now.

“I’m just going to run in 2024. I’m just going to run again,” Trump has been saying, according to a senior administration official who has spoken with him this week.

He may be getting used to the idea that this really is over:

Doug Deason, a top Trump donor who attended the election night party at the White House, said the president deserves “two or three weeks” to investigate his assertions, despite no evidence of widespread fraud so far. Deason said “some people are writing big checks” to fund legal challenges because they are so fired up, but he has not.

“More than likely, they will find some fraud, but there won’t be enough to justify disqualifying enough votes for Trump to win enough states to win the presidency, but it could,” Deason said. “It probably won’t. But it will give Trump supporters the comfort that Biden won it fair and square.”

And that leaves just one last option:

Trump has also raised the idea of pressuring state legislators to pick electors favorable to him, in the hope that could offer a viable path to an electoral college victory, though most of his advisers are warning against such a tactic.

The scenario is highly unlikely, legal experts say, and Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania have already indicated that they are not interested in that approach.

Still, the idea is this:

In this long-shot scenario, Trump and his team could try to block secretaries of state in contested states from certifying results. That could allow legislatures in those states to try to appoint new electors who favor Trump over Biden.

“It’s basically hijacking the democracy,” one lawyer familiar with the process tells Axios. “They’ve got nothing else; you’d be trying to deny Joe Biden 270.”

Trump has not directly said he would pursue this strategy. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo each noted on Tuesday that the election results don’t become official until electors cast their votes next month.

So they do have a plan:

If a lawsuit successfully stops certification of results in a state, legislators there could step into the void and pick a pro-Trump slate of electors.

One lawyer, who requested anonymity to speak about the scenario, said Trump’s team now appears to be trying to throw enough dirt at the process for counting late ballots to argue that accurate results can’t be ascertained.

The next step could be to try to get federal or state courts to enjoin secretaries of state from certifying results.

But nothing is easy:

Even if the GOP was able to get injunctions, it would be an arduous legal process before legislatures could take the matter into their own hands.

“How many compliant judges are going to throw themselves on the ground in front of that train?” the lawyer said. “And how many legislatures are going to go along with it?” Instead, he said, Trump may try to “scare the living bejeezus out of everyone to gain leverage and then cut a deal for him and his family.”

And then they could all leave and this would be over, or not. Nothing is likely now.

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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