Friday, June 2, 2017

Job Openings

Following up on what I noted the other day: working in the Trump White House is career suicide.

BuzzFeed News spoke with 20 Republican communicators and operatives, many of whom have worked on Capitol Hill and in presidential campaigns and some who have declined previous offers to join the Trump administration. Nearly all said they would be unwilling to accept an offer to replace [White House Communications Director Mike] Dubke.

“Hell no!” said one Republican — one of the most common types of response BuzzFeed News got from operatives. “That would be career suicide.”

Others brought a mix of dark humor.

“That’s like asking someone who just witnessed a horrific bungee jumping accident whether they would like to go next,” one Republican source responded in a text message.

“It would be only a few months on the job before tapping out the ‘I want to spend more time with family’ email,” another said.

One operative whose spouse works in the Trump administration dissolved into laughter upon being asked if they would want the role.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” the source said between stifled laughs. “Oh, you’re being serious? Oh my god, I’m crying of laughter. Why would anyone in their right mind want to be his communications director?”

Even some responses that weren’t entirely terrible were still bad for the White House. “Coming on board now is a bit like taking over communications for the White Star Line after the Titanic has sunk,” a former George W. Bush staffer said. “I mean, no one is going to blame you and how much worse can it possibly get?”

Bomb disposal? Giving a bath to a bobcat?

The only upside is that you would be guaranteed a guest slot on Fox News.

Fear and Petulance

Josh Marshall looks at the bigger picture.

This isn’t about climate and it isn’t about Trump’s base. It’s about sticking it to the leaders of Europe. That’s what gave the Bannonites the edge. That and one other thing.

Trump is scared. He’s entering a a widening gyre of political crisis over Russia. He’s scared and he’s angry and he needs friends. So he’s more and more likely to hug his base – both the most aggressive advisors and the most committed supporters. He’s trying to bring back Corey Lewandowski, his wildest and most troubling-driving advisor who has the unshakable loyalty and lickspittledom Trump now requires. Indeed, we can take it as a given that as the Russia scandal crisis deepens Trump will become more aggressive and more extreme in his policies both to maintain his emotional equilibrium and reinforce his backing from a shrinking base of supporters. This is as certain as night follows day.

It’s worth noting, if it is not obvious, that the growing rupture in Trump’s relations with Europe is also driven by the Russia issue and Trump’s desire to hamstring or break apart the EU and NATO. Whether Trump’s affinity for Russia is legitimate or corrupt, the reality itself is indisputable. That drives his hostility to the EU and NATO.

In any case, this is about wanting to lash out at enemies, strike a blow in a context in which people can’t easily fight back and try to assert control over a situation that increasingly feels (and is) out of control. Rewrite the last four weeks, leave Trump less angry and threatened, I’m confident the US would still be in the Paris accord. That’s how he operates.

That’s also how spoiled children and dictators operate: they lash out with vengeance.  “I’ll show THEM who’s boss around here!”

In a way, though, this further revelation of his petulant and irrational behavior makes it clear to the world that he is fully capable of acting out in response to nothing more than hurt feelings — or covfefes — and must be dealt with swiftly.  There is no negotiating with someone backed into a corner.

Dumb Show

Charles P. Pierce on Trump’s exit from reality.

It used to be the young bucks and their T-bones, or the welfare queen with her Cadillac, who were leeching off good, hard-working Real Americans. It turns out Ronald Reagan was modest. On Thursday, in a speech that was such a towering pile of complete horseshit that it may well reach the moon, President* Donald Trump told the country that the rest of the world is now the craftiest welfare queen of them all.

I didn’t think he could top his ghastly American Carnage inaugural address for sheer fact-free and paranoiac mendacity, but he managed to do it on Thursday. By announcing that the United States was withdrawing from the groundbreaking Paris Accords regarding the world climate crisis, the president* wallowed in rank, xenophobic victimhood while basking in the scattered applause of the otherwise unemployable yahoos whose self-respect is sufficiently low that they still work for him. Any doubt that Steve Bannon is running this White House now, either personally or through his finger-puppet, obvious anagram Reince Priebus, now has evaporated. The transformation of the American government into a Breitbart comments thread is complete.

It was appalling. It was condescending. It was awful content delivered by a dolt who wouldn’t know the Paris Accords from a baguette without the shoddy talking points that someone put in front of him. For example, he read off a fanciful list of “consequences” for adhering to the Paris Accords down through the next decades. Afterwards, Ali Velshi, a welcome addition to the MSNBC cast of regulars, pointed out that the president* was reading from a debunked report that presumed in its analysis that the U.S. would fulfill every one of its agreed-upon conditions while no other participating country would fulfill any of theirs. This is not surprising. The president* would have read a commercial for hair-replacement if someone had put it in front of him.

The least objectionable element of the speech was its utter internal incoherence.

The United States will cease all implementation of the non-binding Paris Accord and the draconian economic and financial burden the agreement imposes on our country.

Paris was a non-binding and ineffective agreement, but it was “draconian” nonetheless. The economy is booming under his leadership, but the Paris Accord was destroying it at the same time. This was a speech written by a fool, to be delivered by a fool, with the presumption that a great percentage of its target audience is made up of fools.

But the really noxious stuff was the attempt at transforming a worldwide agreement to combat an existential threat to life on this planet into what he stupidly called a scheme to redistribute our wealth to China, as if we’re all not going to be buying our solar panels from China for the next 50 years because of this cluck. The really noxious stuff was all that simpering about how the rest of the world is playing us for suckers and laughing at us, as though the rest of the world doesn’t think we’ve lost our mind as a nation simply by electing a vulgar talking yam. The really noxious stuff was all his crocodile tears about the Forgotten People, as though a lot of them are not suffering through drought, or losing their houses to floods and to landslides, about which he and his people care nothing at all.

The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris agreement. They went wild. They were so happy, for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage. A cynic would say that the obvious reasons were for economic competitiveness and their wish to see us remain in the agreement is that we continue to suffer from this self-inflicted economic wound.

You see what’s happening. It’s pretty obvious to those who want to keep an open mind. At what point does American get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us at a country? We want fair treatment for our citizens, and fair treatment for our taxpayers and we don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us any more.

It was a speech written by an angry child, to be delivered by an angry child, with the assumption that its targeted audience was made up of angry children, too. And it was of a piece with that lunatic Wall Street Journal op-ed from Tuesday in which H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn pretty much decided that international diplomacy is nothing more than a larger-than-usual barrel of cannibalistic crabs.

Not content to have lined the United States up with the anti-science side of the most pressing global issue of our time, he brought up Scott Pruitt, the head vandal at EPA, after the speech, so that Pruitt could say great things about him, and actually talk about freeing the government from “special interests” without his tongue turning to sand. (Pruitt, you may recall, is the guy who, while Oklahoma’s attorney general, literally passed an oil company letter along to the EPA by signing his name to it. He also doesn’t believe that human activity causes the climate crisis.) The idea that these people put together a party in the Rose Garden to celebrate the withdrawal of American leadership in the world leads me to believe that they’d host a barbecue to celebrate a public execution.

None of that matters. While the president was speaking, as it happens, a huge chunk of Antarctica was preparing to break off. Meanwhile, Wednesday was the first day of hurricane season, and this president*, who cares so much about the duties of his office and the people of this great land, still hasn’t bothered to appoint a FEMA director yet. The nonsense he spewed on Thursday doesn’t matter, either, even if it continues to gull the suckers out in the sticks. The oceans are not listening to him.

While Trump was deciding to trash the planet, I had the honor of speaking to a drama class at a local high school about playwriting.  They were eager, enthusiastic, full of energy to explore the magical craft of creating theatre.  I loved every minute of it, but I couldn’t help thinking that my generation is doing them a great disservice by basically leaving this world worse off than we found it.  More galling is that I remember when I was their age, my friends and classmates were just as eager, enthusiastic, and full of energy to do right by our world; to make it better, more peaceful, more loving.  We failed them.

I wish I could tell them that we did our best, and I hope they will forgive us.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Horrible Boss

From the New York Times:

…Trump appears increasingly isolated inside the White House, according to advisers, venting frustration over the performance of his staff and openly talking about shaking it up. But as he considers casting off old aides, Mr. Trump is finding it challenging to recruit new ones.

The disclosures from investigations stemming from Russian meddling in last year’s election — coupled with the president’s habit of undercutting his staff — have driven away candidates for West Wing jobs that normally would be among the most coveted in American politics, according to people involved in the search.

By the time the first change in what may be a broader shake-up was announced Tuesday, the White House was left without a replacement. Michael Dubke, the White House communications director, said he would step down, but four possible successors contacted by the White House declined to be considered, according to an associate of Mr. Trump who like others asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

At the same time, talks with two former advisers, Corey Lewandowski and David N. Bossie, about joining the White House staff grew more complicated. Mr. Bossie, a former deputy campaign manager, signaled that he does not plan to join the staff, citing family concerns, one person close to the discussions said Tuesday. It was not clear what that might mean for Mr. Lewandowski, who was the campaign manager until being fired last summer but who has remained close to Mr. Trump.

Would you want to work for him?  Not only does he sound like a total jerk to work for, the place itself has a toxic atmosphere that rivals “Game of Thrones.”  And after you’ve worked there, no matter how long your tenure is, you still have “Trump White House” on your resume.  That’s roughly equivalent to having “Edsel design team” or “came up with New Coke” plastered next to your name.

Short Takes

Huge explosion near presidential palace in Kabul; at least 49 dead.

UN: Yemen faces “total collapse.”

US tests anti-missile defense system.

Russia inquiry expands to Trump lawyer.

Cleveland officer fired in Tamir Rice shooting.

White House communications director quits after three months.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Blabbermouth Cont’d

I’m not a military strategist by any means — nor would I aspire to be one — but even I can figure out that one of the reasons the Navy has submarines is because they don’t want other people to know we have warships in certain places.  You can’t hide a battleship — they are a show of power — but a submarine is stealthy and contains the element of surprise.

So it’s probably not a good idea to tell other people where we have them, especially if you’re a narcissistic braggart with size issues and happen to have access to nuclear codes.  Via Buzzfeed:

Pentagon officials are in shock after the release of a transcript of a call between President Donald Trump and his Philippines counterpart revealed that the US military had moved two nuclear submarines towards North Korea.

“We never talk about subs!” three officials told BuzzFeed News, referring to the military’s belief that keeping submarines’ movements secret is key to their mission.

While the US military will frequently announce the deployment of aircraft carriers, it is far more careful when discussing the movement of nuclear submarines. Carriers are hard to miss, and that, in part, is a reason the US military deploys them. They are a physical show of force. Submarines are, at times, a furtive complement to the carriers, a hard-to-detect means of strategic deterrence.

According to the transcript, released Wednesday, Trump called Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte April 29, in part to discuss the rising threat from North Korea. During that call, while discussing ways to mitigate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions, Trump said: “We have two submarines — the best in the world. We have two nuclear submarines — not that we want to use them at all. I’ve never seen anything like they are but we don’t have to use this, but [Kim] could be crazy, so we will see what happens.”

Not only that, he thinks Duterte is doing a bang-up job of running his country.

During the same call, Trump also called the North Korea leader a “madman with nuclear weapons” and celebrated Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.” The Filipino leader has supported the alleged extrajudicial killing of 8,000 people since he took office in June, part of his purge to rid his nation of drugs. Duterte has bragged about committing murder himself, called former president Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and once threatened to suspend the bilateral agreement between his nation and the United States that allows US troops to visit the Philippines.

“Keep up [the] good work, you are doing an amazing job,” Trump told Duterte during the call.

And then he turns around and lectures NATO, pissing off the European allies.

He’s not just an embarrassment at home; he’s sharing his idiocy with the world.  It’s a good thing we don’t have warp capability; he’d probably cozy up to the Romulans and admire the way they keep order.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Sticks and Stones

The leader of the free world on the Manchester bomber:

Trump has called those behind the Manchester suicide bombing and other similar attacks “evil losers in life”.

“I won’t call them monsters because they would like that term. I will call them losers,” he said in a speech during a visit to the Middle East.

And then he challenged them a race to the top of the monkey-bars.

Well, at least he didn’t call them “poopyheads.”  That would have been silly.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Follow The Money

The news that the criminal investigation into Trump is looking at a “person of interest” in the current White House administration points to more than just Russian meddling in the election via trolls on Facebook.  It has to do with where Trump got all his capital to finance his businesses over the last 25 years.  It wasn’t from the local bank.

It also explains his fondness for Russia.

Major Upset

From Augie Ray via Facebook:

People think that those of on the left are upset about Trump. They’re right, but not completely. Trump is a symptom, not the disease.

We’re upset that some people lose their shit about a quarterback taking a knee during the anthem but have nothing say when a crowd of torch-bearing white supremacists chants “Russia is our friend.”

We’re upset that while the President of the United States gets caught in one lie after another, some possibly pointing to impeachable offenses in just the first 120 days of his administration, some of you are more concerned about the leaks that permit us to learn about the potentially criminal and dangerous activity.

We’re upset because no one owns the idea of wanting to make American great, and it certainly won’t be done by giving tax breaks for the rich and paying for it with the health care used by the sick, poor and elderly.

We’re upset because truth matters and too many Americans feel it is acceptable to chase insane conspiracy theories spouted by the likes of Alex Jones and Infowars while choosing to ignore and deride the hard work of news organizations following ethical processes to source and verify the news they publish.

We’re upset that some people are so committed to free speech they are moved to complain when a handful of conservative speaking events on college campuses are shut down, preventing hundreds from hearing the same people they watch every night on TV and YouTube, but not when systemic gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts prevent tens or hundreds of thousands from having their voice heard at the election box.

We’re upset that 12,000 people are murdered in gun violence each year, yet most of those are greeted with indifference until the rare instance when an undocumented immigrant commits a crime, and then it becomes a reason to smear large groups of people.

We’re upset that some claim to love the Constitution but constantly complain about the equal protections it provides to people they don’t like.

We’re upset that our planet’s climate is changing but some would prefer to fight for yesterday’s fuel sources rather than support tomorrow’s, even if it risks their children’s and grandchildren’s futures.

We’re upset that a significant portion of our nation agrees with the wealthy, white man born of privilege when he whines about being mistreated but is silent when unarmed people of color are shot and killed by police.

We’re not upset about Trump. We’re upset so many people were willing to elect him and even now support him as his administration hurts the poor and needy, diminishes public education, attempts to reinstate unfair and racist sentencing policies, shreds protection of our air, water and planet, embarrasses the US with allies, and tries to evade the basic rules of transparency and ethics that are key to our Democracy.

If you think we’re upset now, wait until he actually manages to pass something through Congress.  So far the only thing holding us back has been his colossal ineptitude and inability to do anything more than just talk and trip over his own corruption.

HT to CLW.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday Reading

Ford Had a Better Idea — Matthew Rozsa in Salon on the differences between Gerald Ford and Mike Pence.

As Democrats focus more and more on the possibility that President Donald Trump has committed impeachable offenses, many are also asking whether they should place the spotlight on Vice President Mike Pence. After all, Pence has so far joined the rest of the Trump administration in defending the president despite the numerous scandals that swirl around him and continue to get worse. Wouldn’t that undermine his credibility if Trump was forced to resign in disgrace and Pence became the 46th president of the United States?

I am reminded of an anecdote by the only other vice president to find himself in this position, Gerald Ford.

Like Pence, Ford was heavily criticized for his public defenses of President Richard Nixon at a time when the walls of the Watergate scandal were starting to close in. Yet when Ford slipped up and told a reporter that he believed Nixon would have to resign but he didn’t want anyone thinking he (Ford) had contributed to that resignation, he immediately panicked and realized that he had to keep a lid on his moment of unintentional candor.

This is as good a place as any to examine the similarities and differences between Ford and Pence. Both men are Midwesterners (Ford from Michigan, Pence from Indiana) with extensive political experience and a reputation for being cool-headed and affable. Each one is definitely “establishment” in terms of their standing within the institutional Republican Party itself, and both have avoided developing too many deep personal enmities despite their extensive political careers.

On the other hand, Ford was an ideological moderate (arguably the last GOP president deserving of the term), while Pence was the most right-wing vice presidential nominee in 40 years when Trump picked him. Ford had a squeaky clean reputation, while Pence has a major corruption scandal in his own past and owes his very selection as Trump’s vice president to the intervention of former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who has since been disgraced (Ford didn’t even become Nixon’s vice president until Nixon’s initial vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned).

All of this means that, while Ford was well-poised to heal the nation upon inheriting power in 1974 (and his approval ratings were quite high until his controversial decision to pardon Nixon), Pence would likely face more of an uphill battle.

While I have no idea whether Pence, like Ford, believes that his boss is doomed, I suspect that he shares Ford’s trepidation about being perceived as adding fuel to the fire of the president’s scandals. The reason is obvious: He’d be the major beneficiary if Trump left the Oval Office.

Is Pence in the right for doing this? Maybe.

While it’s valuable to not be viewed as a Machiavellian schemer, Pence risks swinging too far in the other direction and being perceived as part of the same set of problems that are being created by Trump and Trumpism. If Trump needs to resign, Americans will have to turn to Pence to restore faith in the American government. That will not be possible if Pence is viewed as an extension of the corruption that took down Trump, rather than an antidote to it.

When it comes to avoiding that outcome, Pence may be running out of time. Although he has not been personally implicated in any of Trump’s scandals, a point is being reached in which continuing to lie on behalf of this president will seem not only willfully obtuse, but downright complicit. One of the reasons Ford was such a great president (an opinion that many historians do not share) is that he was able to set a good example with his personal character. Trump, by contrast, is a president whose personal character is appalling, regardless of whether one believes he engaged in criminal activity — you don’t have to think he committed sexual assault to be disgusted by his willingness to brag about it, or to think he means what he tweets to think his incessant online sniping is beneath the dignity of his office.

The president is supposed to do more than craft policy. He or she is also supposed to be a role model, someone that we can say embodies the basic decency that we expect from every American citizen. Ford had that quality, even when he was trying to publicly avoid believing the worst about Nixon.

If Pence has that same characteristic, he needs to start showing it — and soon.

How Roger Ailes Degraded America — Stephen Metcalf in The New Yorker.

What surprised me most about Gabriel Sherman’s excellent 2014 biography of Roger Ailes—who died on Thursday, at seventy-seven—was how much of Ailes’s upbringing was a gift of America’s postwar social contract. He was born in 1940 and raised in Warren, Ohio, a town with a beautiful post office, adorned with W.P.A. murals, that was built by the New Deal. His father was a union worker in the nearby Packard Electric plant, and retired with a pension. Ailes idealized growing up in Warren; he thought of it as the real America, which had been degraded by the eggheads and the snobs. When he created his own production company, in 1990, it was named after his childhood street.

He was a hemophiliac, and as a boy often stayed home from school. He grew up a loner, absorbing hours of daytime programming and, in the evenings, sometimes, beatings from his father. The portrait Sherman draws of Ailes’s father is of a man who felt thwarted by the very things that made and sustained him: marriage, a labor union, suburbia. Unable to see the glory in any of it, he took to abusing those around him who couldn’t defend themselves. (A court later found him guilty of “extreme cruelty” to his wife.) Once, when Roger was small, his father told him to jump off a top bunk into his arms; his father let him crash to the floor and said, “Don’t ever trust anybody.” (As Jill Lepore notes in her review of the Sherman biography for this magazine, a man who worked with Ailes in the nineteen-seventies called this Ailes’s “Rosebud story.”)

Having been a student of both his father’s mood swings and televisual technique, Ailes, unsurprisingly, became, in Sherman’s words, a “big fan” of Leni Riefenstahl. At virtually every point that television played a role in degrading American life, Ailes was there: the repackaging of Nixon, the destruction of Michael Dukakis, the hyping of the Lewinsky scandal and the Iraq War, and on and on. He was less a right-winger or believer in family values than a hustler and an opportunist, and, from the evidence Sherman assembles, a badly damaged human being. But he was a consummate talent. You’d have to be to turn Nixon into a likable man, or Dukakis, with his easygoing manner and charming immigrant backstory, into a race traitor and backstabbing Fifth Columnist.

The outsized profits that Ailes created for Fox came from doing something he instinctively understood: simultaneously alarming and comforting people who were home alone watching television. To justify himself to himself, he had to believe that “real” journalism, with its supposed canons of “objectivity,” was dishonest, self-serving, slanted. All he was doing was issuing corrective after corrective to a world vilely corrupted by liberalism. But this was less partisan politics than the strategic use of misanthropy to hide from one’s own self-hatred—or at least that is the overwhelming impression given by Sherman’s book.

Prior to cable, television news had been regulated by the standards of William Paley, the founder of CBS, and by the fact-finding probity of his first breakout star, Edward R. Murrow. It was this legacy that Ailes set out to destroy. Television produces simultaneity but at a great distance; intimacy but—at low levels and at all times—feelings of alienation. The genius of Paley, as expressed by Murrow to Walter Cronkite, was putting forth figures that soothed the alienated response, allayed and minimized it, in favor of an elevated idea of both the country and the medium. The genius of Roger Ailes is that he intensified and played upon that alienation, and then, as it shaded into paranoia, channelled it against his enemies, or anyone who dared tell him that his childhood was a lie.

But perhaps it was. Throughout his childhood, Ailes was told that his paternal grandfather had been killed in combat in the First World War. In fact, as he discovered only later in life, his father’s father was living a few towns over during Ailes’s childhood and was a “a respected public health official with a Harvard degree.” Ailes’s father was the son of a proper Wilsonian, an accomplished and credentialed public servant.

There was a time in my life when, every so often, I would watch Fox News for hours at a time. My wife and I used to fly through Atlanta and into the rural airport in Dothan, Alabama, to visit her grandparents. If her grandparents were religious, they kept it quiet. There was no Jesus in that house, no Bible, no devotional materials of any kind, no crucifixes or homiletic asides, nothing. The absence was explained once, cursorily, by the story of how Grandaddy, at the age of ten, had been forced to go to church wearing shorts. He hated wearing shorts, and never went to church again. He had been a cook in the Navy, and was the kind of quiet man who refused his shore leave. When he retired, he promised himself he would never cook again, and never leave his cattle farm.

He would wake up early and work outside before the heat descended, then recline on his sofa and watch soap operas. He gardened, he whittled, he pastured cows, and he almost never spoke. After the soap operas, he would turn on Fox News. Every year, the television got a little louder. It was on these annual visits that I came to understand that Fox News, for all its outrageous excesses, is a low-level inflammation-delivery system, the real effects of which are felt only over time.

The day my wife was born, her grandfather bought a cow in her name, and used the money from selling its calves to put her through college. He once said, with a conviction so total I have never forgotten it, that he didn’t mind the Wall Street bankers and their bonuses because “they don’t have anything I want.” Deep into his eighties, his convictions seemed to shift in both direction and ferocity. He believed that the subprime crisis involved only public housing, the malfeasance of the government, and unqualified minority borrowers. Only in retrospect did I align a growing coldness in his manner toward us with the milestones of Ailes’s later career: the launching of Fox News, in 1996; its deepening paranoia during the Obama years. I saw up close how Roger Ailes implanted beliefs in people that were beneath their good character.

I would distill Ailes’s genius down to the following formula: There is a person at a great distance from you who, simply by existing, insults your existence; therefore, that person does not have a right to exist. Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy, and, even the day after his death, it is a struggle to write about him without borrowing from that tone.

The Rituals of Spring — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.

I’ve been meaning to write this column for years.

The inspiration will invariably come some warm May evening as I am standing in the lobby of a downtown hotel and, suddenly, a limousine sweeps up and disgorges these boys in crisp tuxes, these girls in sparkly dresses, T-shirts and hoodies abandoned for the night, looking handsome and gorgeous and startlingly adult as they seek the ballroom where the prom is being held.

Or the inspiration will arrive on a June afternoon as I am passing a chapel where some poor photographer is wrangling children, flower girls and ring bearers much more interested in frolicking on the grass than in posing for posterity, as groomsmen and bridesmaids arrange themselves just so while the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. beam, having just vowed to face together whatever comes.

Or, the inspiration will show up as it did a few days ago when I served as commencement speaker for Willamette University. The stately strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang in the damp Oregon air, then bagpipers played and cheers rose as a procession of black-robed young people made their way forward to meet a moment many years and tears in the making. And I heard a familiar whisper.

It said, You really ought to write a piece celebrating the rituals of spring.

I’ve toyed with the idea many times. But invariably, the notion of some such languid meditation is burned away in the fire of more urgent news.

It almost happened again this year. Lord knows there is no shortage of urgent news. Did you hear about the president blabbing classified intel to the Russians? Did you see where he apparently asked the FBI director to back off an investigation? Did you know about the appointment of a special prosecutor?

The guy who promised to “drain the swamp” is snorkeling in it. The president — and, thus, the country — lurch from crisis to crisis like a drunk on the deck of a ship in high seas, and there is a queasy sense of America unraveling.

What are a prom, a wedding, a graduation against all that? These are not special things. These things happen all the time.

But that, of course, is precisely what makes them special. These things happen all the time.

Or, more to the point, they have happened, always. In the years when men went to war wearing pie pan helmets, during the gin and jazz of the ’20s, the brother, can you spare a dime of the ’30s, in the blood and sacrifice of the ’40s and the rock, riot and political murder of the ’60s, through gas lines, Max Headroom, and the meaning of is, through upheaval, change, and all the unravelings that have come before, certain things have always happened.

Fumbling fingers have always pinned corsages to girl’s dresses. Nervous couples have always pledged themselves one to the other. “Pomp and Circumstance” has always heralded the graduates.

I think that’s why, when you witness spring’s rituals, you almost always smile. Who can help smiling as some girl goes tottering on skyscraper heels into her prom or some graduate pumps his fist as he crosses the stage?

You smile, remembering. You smile because these are signs of continuity. You smile because they are acts of faith.

Yes, the president lurches. Yes, one feels an unraveling.

But the bride stands beneath the garland clutching her bouquet, as brides always have, the students move the tassel from right to left as students ever will. There is renewal in these rituals of spring. They allow you to remember that even now, some things are still good.

And to believe they always will be.

 Doonesbury — Niche market.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Moscow On The Potomac

Time magazine’s current cover.

Reuters:

Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters.

The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and Trump advisers, including Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, three current and former officials said.

Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current U.S. officials said.

Here’s what I don’t understand, and I’m hoping someone can explain it to me: what’s the attraction for Trump and his minions with Russia?  It’s a huge country with a lot of natural resources like oil and gas and raw materials, but it is still functioning like it’s the 1930’s and still under Stalin.  It makes nothing we want to import: would you buy a Russian car or cell phone or TV?  Do they even make them beyond what they cranked out under Communism?  Unlike China, Russia has not embraced the benefits of capitalism — a booming middle class — without abandoning the strict controls of dictatorship — who needs freedom of the press when you can drive a Maserati into Tienanmen Square?

The only thing Russia has going for it is that it’s ruled by a man who doesn’t take shit from anybody and can pretty much do what he wants and still be considered “duly elected.”  Vladimir Putin is everything Trump is not but would like to be: strong, confident, ruthless with his opponents, able to keep a story straight, and doesn’t care what anyone outside his country thinks of him.  He’s disciplined — when was the last time Putin tweeted his innermost thoughts at 4 a.m.? — and even when he bullshits he at least makes it sound plausible.  He’s even unashamed to show his bald head in public.

But other than the fact that Trump clearly has a teenage-boy style crush on the big badass jock, I don’t get it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

This Is Special

Some reactions to the appointment of Robert Mueller as the special counsel.

Charles P. Pierce:

This administration is the worst thing to happen to D.C. cocktail hours since Prohibition. The end of business is no longer the end of business. It’s like being a volunteer fireman in hell. The best news is that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein took a good look at the dents in his reputation and appointed Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI, to be a special counsel to oversee the DOJ in its investigation not only Russian meddling in the 2016 election, but also into “related matters.” Which means, well, everything.

If you want to know more about Mueller, then consult Dr. Google on the subject of “Stellar Wind.” That was the Bush Administration’s extra-constitutional surveillance follies. Mueller (along with James Comey, the Zelig of federal law enforcement) threatened to resign if the administration and its lawyers didn’t find a way to make Stellar Wind conform to constitutional norms. It’s important to remember that Mueller, at the time, was trying to find a way to rehabilitate the Bureau’s image after the intelligence community failed altogether on 9/11, but even Mueller found what the Bush NSA was doing was a long step over the line.

In short, if you were looking for someone with Washington street cred and a history of not being intimidated by people like presidents, even semi-competent ones, Mueller is as good as it gets. The administration’s toes just lost contact with the bottom of the pool.

Josh Marshall:

This is important and necessary but not sufficient.

There also needs to be an independent commission to investigate what happened in the 2016 election. These two options – special counsel or independent commission – are often bandied about as two separate options, one or the other, or as steps of escalation in a scandal. None of those things is true.

It is critical to understand that the most important details we need to know about the Russian disruption campaign and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with it may not be crimes. Indeed, I would say that the crimes we’re likely to discover will likely be incidental or secondary to the broader actions and activities we’re trying to uncover. Just hypothetically, what if Russia had a disruption campaign, Trump campaign officials gave winks and nods to nudge it forward but violated no laws? That’s hard to figure but by no means impossible. (Our criminal laws are not really designed for this set of facts.) The simple point is that the most important ‘bad acts’ may well not be crimes. That means not only is no one punished but far, far more important, we would never know what happened.

People who committed crimes should be punished. Unquestionably. But the truest and deepest national interest is that the whole story be thoroughly investigated and the full story get a public airing. That is far more important to the health of the Republic and its safety than whether particular individuals spend time in prison. Again, it’s not either/or. But one is far more important than the other. A counter-intelligence probe or even a criminal investigation could wind up and the details and findings never be known. That can’t be allowed to happen. We need a fully empowered commission charged not with investigating and prosecuting criminal conduct but ascertaining, as far as possible, what happened and then bringing that information before the public.

That’s critical. This is an important step. Great that it happened. But the country can’t get past this without that full accounting.

digby:

He’s a good choice if only because he was FBI chief for a dozen years without a whole lot of drama. Presumably he’s well respected by the rank and file and both parties will be satisfied. If nothing else, the Republicans won’t be able to whine too much about it.

The best aspect of this is if Trump picks Joe Lieberman for FBI chief, as is rumored. Having a Mueller as special counsel will spare us having to put up with him using the Russia investigation to punish liberals for beating him in a primary.

Yes, he is that petty.

History has shown that when a special counsel is appointed, the investigation becomes real.  Money is going to be spent, staff is going to be hired, and there will be results.  It also means that no one knows where it will go.  The special counsel hired to look into Whitewater ended up with Monica Lewinsky, and an investigation into the money paid to the perpetrators of a third-rate burglary led to the resignation of a president.

So here we go.

No Kidding: “Putin Pays Trump”

Via the Washington Post, we get to eavesdrop on what the GOP leadership really thought about the relationship between Trump and Putin almost a year ago.

A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately interjected, stopping the conversation from further exploring McCarthy’s assertion, and swore the Republicans present to secrecy.

Before the conversation, McCarthy and Ryan had emerged from separate talks at the Capitol with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladi­mir Groysman, who had described a Kremlin tactic of financing populist politicians to undercut Eastern European democratic institutions.

News had just broken the day before in The Washington Post that Russian government hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee, prompting McCarthy to shift the conversation from Russian meddling in Europe to events closer to home.

Some of the lawmakers laughed at McCarthy’s comment. Then McCarthy quickly added: “Swear to God.”

Ryan instructed his Republican lieutenants to keep the conversation private, saying: “No leaks. . . . This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

When the Post asked Speaker Ryan’s office for a comment on the story, at first they denied it.  Then they were shown a transcript, which they said was made up.  Then the audio recording of the conversation was played.

When initially asked to comment on the exchange, Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, said: “That never happened,” and Matt Sparks, a spokesman for McCarthy, said: “The idea that McCarthy would assert this is absurd and false.”

After being told that The Post would cite a recording of the exchange, Buck, speaking for the GOP House leadership, said: “This entire year-old exchange was clearly an attempt at humor. No one believed the majority leader was seriously asserting that Donald Trump or any of our members were being paid by the Russians. What’s more, the speaker and leadership team have repeatedly spoken out against Russia’s interference in our election, and the House continues to investigate that activity.”

“This was a failed attempt at humor,” Sparks said.

Yeah, so funny I forgot to laugh.

Rep. McCarthy is well-known for shooting off his mouth.  After former Speaker John Boehner (remember him?) resigned in the fall of 2015, there was talk of making Mr. McCarthy the Speaker of the House.  But he went on live TV and told the world that the House panel on Benghazi was specifically tasked with taking out Hillary Clinton; she was “untrustable,” which is exactly what the GOP planned to do as long as nobody actually admitted it.  But Mr. McCarthy couldn’t restrain himself.

So it’s no surprise that he would be caught on tape talking about Trump and Putin and Paul Ryan had to shut him up.

In the larger context, even if Mr. McCarthy was joking, the rest of the GOP had to know that even the illusion of collusion between Trump and Putin was already making itself known.  A year ago the press was already sniffing around Paul Manafort’s connection with the pro-Putin forces in Ukraine, and it was only after it was made glaringly obvious he was on the take from the Russians that he left the campaign.  And now we have the staff meeting of the Trump-Putin alliance in the Oval Office last week.

I’m old enough to remember that time when even a hint of a Russian influence in American politics was the kiss of death.  Now it’s an endorsement.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Not Guilty By Reason Of Stupidity

The New York Times has a backgrounder on the mood and atmosphere at the White House.

The bad-news stories slammed into the White House in pitiless succession on Tuesday, leaving President Trump’s battle-scarred West Wing aides staring at their flat screens in glassy-eyed shock.

The disclosure that Mr. Trump divulged classified intelligence to Russian officials that had been provided by Israel was another blow to a besieged White House staff recovering from the mishandled firing of James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director.

And the day was capped by the even more stunning revelation that the president had prodded Mr. Comey to drop an investigation into Michael T. Flynn, his former national security adviser. That prompted a stampede of reporters from the White House briefing room into the lower press gallery of the White House, where Mr. Trump’s first-line defenders had few answers but an abundance of anxieties about their job security.

The president’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, has left his staff confused and squabbling. And his own mood, according to two advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity, has become sour and dark, and he has turned against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — describing them in a fury as “incompetent,” according to one of those advisers.

Yeah, it’s the White House aides who are “incompetent.”  Who hired those bozos in the first place?

The stress was taking its toll. Late Monday, reporters could hear senior aides shouting from behind closed doors as they discussed how to respond after Washington Post reporters informed them of an article they were writing that first reported the news about the president’s divulging of intelligence.

So they sent out H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, to issue a flat non-denial denial, hoping that a combat veteran could take the heat.

As he was working on his statement, General McMaster, a former combat commander who appeared uncomfortable in a civilian suit and black-framed glasses, nearly ran into reporters staking out Mr. Spicer’s office.

“This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,” he said, perhaps in jest.

Meanwhile, the administration is coming a rather unique defense of why Trump blabbed to the Russians.

In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president for divulging classified intelligence to the Russians: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of his briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or the knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would harm American allies.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client is too stupid to have knowingly committed this crime.”

That might actually work.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trump To Comey: Back Off

From the New York Times:

Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.

“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.

The existence of Mr. Trump’s request is the clearest evidence that the president has tried to directly influence the Justice Department and F.B.I. investigation into links between Mr. Trump’s associates and Russia.

Mr. Comey wrote the memo detailing his conversation with the president immediately after the meeting, which took place the day after Mr. Flynn resigned, according to two people who read the memo. The memo was part of a paper trail Mr. Comey created documenting what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation. An F.B.I. agent’s contemporaneous notes are widely held up in court as credible evidence of conversations.

Mr. Comey shared the existence of the memo with senior F.B.I. officials and close associates. The New York Times has not viewed a copy of the memo, which is unclassified, but one of Mr. Comey’s associates read parts of the memo to a Times reporter.

This shit’s getting real.  We now have evidence that Trump willfully and willingly tried to obstruct the investigation.  I believe that is not only a felony but falls under the definition of a high crime and misdemeanor.

Okay, Republicans, over to you.

Blabbermouth

From the Washington Post:

Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

I don’t think Trump did this to subvert the U.S. intelligence services or give away code-word secrets to the Russians.  He did it because he can’t help himself.  He’s a narcissist and a braggart and he has to show off to anyone who’s in the room.  It doesn’t matter who they are; it could be the Quad Cities bridge club or the inner circle of the Kremlin.  He just has to shoot off his mouth.

This is yet other example of Trump’s razor: When seeking an explanation for the behavior of Donald J. Trump, always choose the stupidest possible explanation.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Withdrawal Symptoms

Via Mike Allen at Axios:

At the urging of longtime friends and outside advisers, most of whom he consults after dark, President Trump is considering a “huge reboot” that could take out everyone from Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon, to counsel Don McGahn and press secretary Sean Spicer, White House sources tell me.

Trump is also irritated with several Cabinet members, the sources said.

“He’s frustrated, and angry at everyone,” said one of the confidants.

The conversations intensified this week as the aftermath of the Comey firing pushed the White House from chaos into crisis. Trump’s friends are telling him that many of his top aides don’t know how to work with him, and point out that his approval ratings aren’t rising, but the leaks are.

“The advice he’s getting is to go big — that he has nothing to lose,” the confidant said. “The question now is how big and how bold. I’m not sure he knows the answer to that yet.”

If Trump follows through, his innermost White House circle would shrink from a loop to a straight line of mid-30s family members with scant governing experience: Jared and Ivanka. So while the fighting and leaking might ease, the problems may not because it’s the president, not the staff, calling the shots.

One note of caution: Trump often talks about firing people when things go south and does not follow through on it. So it’s possible these conversations are his way of venting, and seeking reassurance.

[…]

The sources say Trump feels ill-served by not just his staff but also by several of his Cabinet officials. Trump has two complaints about Cabinet members: Either they’re tooting their own horns too much, or they’re insufficiently effusive in praising him as a brilliant diplomat, etc.

He’s not even four months into his term and he’s already thinking about a wholesale housecleaning and reduction in counselors.

This is surely a result of Trump being used to running the whole show and being surrounded by sycophants who would make sure that his every wish and need was taken care of without question.  That’s how it worked at his business, so that’s what he expects as president.  The very idea of being held accountable to Congress or the voters?  You’re kidding, right?

I think what we’re seeing here is the result of Trump taking on a job he thought would be so easy — after all, Dubya and Obama did it — but is not only much harder than he thought but it requires a skill set that he doesn’t have: the ability to get along with people, listen to them, and actually follow their advice, even if it goes against his instinct.  All signs, either now or in his past, indicate that he’s never had to do that, and even when faced with defeat, bankruptcy, or defiance, he’s managed to absorb it not as a failure or mistake on his part but as a betrayal or failure by someone else.

So far the failures and fumbles of this administration have been minor compared to what could really happen, and in the hands of other administrations, they would have been dealt with swiftly and moved on; Hillary Clinton’s attempt at healthcare reform didn’t result in the purge of the cabinet, and if the Trump administration faced the backlash that greeted the arrival of the Obamas, he would have lined up his cabinet against the wall at Mar-a-Lago.  What is really scary is contemplating what’s going to happen when the inevitable major challenge comes along: an economic downturn, a major terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or any one of the number of things that happen in the life of a presidency.  Those won’t be resolved by firing the staff and leaving it up to your son-in-law and retreating to the residence to wait for the adulation from Sean Hannity.

Bonus Track from D.R. Tucker in Washington Monthly:

Donald Trump did not make himself President. A significant portion of the American electorate begged for a candidate like Trump–someone who scorned expertise, someone who believed that talking tough constituted leadership, someone who believed America fell into degeneration in the years following Brown v. Board of Education. Trump is the natural consequence of a generation of folks that watched All in the Family and actually thought the Archie Bunker character would make a one heck of a president.

The folks who voted for Trump knew exactly what they were doing. It wasn’t desperation. It wasn’t confusion. It was a willful and deliberate attempt to turn the clock back, to “deconstruct the administrative state,” to live out a fantasy of privilege, prejudice and power.

When Trump attacks our institutions, he is doing so with the full and total imprimatur and approval of those who voted for him. They like what they’re getting. Progressive nightmares are the same as their dreams.

It’s easy to put this all on Trump. It’s easy to say he’s out of control. It’s harder to countenance the idea that those who voted for Trump wanted chaos and disorder, wanted national and international harmony destroyed, wanted to eliminate all vestiges of progressivism and enlightenment in this country. No one wants to believe their neighbors hate them.

Which means that even if Trump can’t handle the job, they’ll still say they support him.