Monday, January 13, 2020

Searching For Intelligence

This headline in the Washington Post can be interpreted in several ways:

Senior administration officials struggle to explain intelligence behind killing of Soleimani

Yeah, I get it that they’re talking about what the spies and drones knew and when they knew it and what they delivered to the Situation Room.  We all saw “Dr. Strangelove.”  But it also brings up the impression that no one really knew who was the brains behind this.

We all agree that Soleimani was a bad guy in the service of a sworn enemy, and getting him off the board was advantageous in strictly tactical terms.  But was it necessary and did he pose an imminent threat, any more than say Kim Jung-un, with whom Trump has been sending birthday cards?  The reality is that the people who were in favor of taking him out cannot agree on who said what and who called the shots, and more importantly, there wasn’t anyone who had the courage to say to Trump that this extreme measure was a lizard-brained response, most likely motivated by the fact that it was, consciously or otherwise, a reaction to the articles of impeachment.  The fact that the administration notified Congress after the fact  — something the Republicans raised holy hell when a Democrat does that — tells us that this was a get-back for the congressional leadership having the nerve to question the executive branch.  The attack notice was classified, probably because it started off with “Neener, neener.”

Trump would not be the first to make up shit about an adversary to justify doing something extreme — does the Gulf of Tonkin strike a familiar chord? — and the timing is always suspicious; Republicans have been swift to point out that Bill Clinton launched an airstrike in Iraq as his impeachment trial got underway.  But in the case of Trump, he lies about everything and with such alacrity that it reminds one of the time the perpetual drunk driver plows into a parked car and claims that this time he hadn’t touched a drop.  And his Obama Derangement Syndrome is so overwhelming that he will find anything at all anywhere to bring his predecessor down regardless of the cost because he knows he will never be as well-liked, admired, and as cool.

We have yet to learn the lesson that combining military strategy with political ambition is a formula that is doomed to end in body counts.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sunday Reading

The Real Backstory — John Cassidy in The New Yorker.

The Trump-Iran story continues to develop in alarming ways. On Thursday, reports that Western governments believe Iranian military forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing a hundred and seventy-six passengers and crew members, produced a predictably divided reaction. “Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic Presidential candidate, said, on Twitter, immediately drawing cries of outrage from Trump supporters who insisted that Iran was entirely responsible. Iran’s government dismissed the reports as disinformation. But, if it does turn out that the Iranian military made a terrible blunder amid the frightening escalation in long-running tensions between Tehran and the Trump Administration, it will be ever more imperative to get a full account, not only of that blunder but also of the escalation.

On that subject, more disturbing details are emerging by the day. The picture we are getting is of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Vice-President Mike Pence both egging on an impetuous President to launch the January 2nd drone attack that killed the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport. None of Trump’s other senior political or military advisers, meanwhile, appear to have urged restraint, despite the near-certainty that the move would inflame the entire Middle East and provoke reprisals. Any deliberative policymaking process appears to have been replaced by a combination of belligerence, toadyism, and saluting the Commander-in-Chief.

In the aftermath of Suleimani’s death, members of the Trump Administration claimed that Suleimani, who held great sway over Iran’s regular and irregular forces, was plotting an imminent attack that could have killed hundreds of American service members. Pompeo said, “We had deep intelligence indicating there was active plotting to put American lives at risk.” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday, “We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy.”

The Administration didn’t present any evidence to back up these assertions. On Wednesday, when it finally briefed Republican legislators about the rationale for the Suleimani killing, two senators—Mike Lee, of Utah, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky—walked out of the meeting and publicly trashed the material that had been presented. “I didn’t learn anything in the hearing that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already,” Paul told reporters. “None of it was overwhelming that X was going to happen.” Lee was even more scathing. Outraged by suggestions from the briefers that Republican senators would be “emboldening Iran” if they even debated the wisdom of further U.S. military actions, Lee called the session “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue, in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.”

Meanwhile, Pence fell back on an old evasive tactic: claiming that the Administration did have real and convincing intelligence to justify the missile strike, but saying that it was too sensitive to be revealed, even in a private briefing on Capitol Hill. “We’re simply not able to share with every member of the House and Senate the intelligence that supported the President’s decision to take out Qassem Suleimani,” Pence told Fox News. “I can assure your viewers that there was—there was a threat of an imminent attack.”

Detailed reports from a number of different media outlets, as well as statements by Iraqi officials, tell a very different story. Just two days after the strike, the Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, in a Twitter thread, cited sources, “including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike on Suleimani,” who said the evidence of an imminent attack was “razor thin.” In the Times itself, a tick-tock account of the decision to kill Suleimani quoted a U.S. official who described the Iranian’s visit to Damascus and Baghdad over the New Year as “business as usual.” Last weekend, Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Prime Minister of Iraq, told the parliament in Baghdad that Suleimani was scheduled to meet him on the day he was assassinated, adding that the general was bringing a response to efforts to mediate the showdown between Riyadh and Tehran. “He came to deliver me a message from Iran responding to the message we delivered from Saudi Arabia to Iran,” Mahdi said.

Pompeo subsequently mocked this claim, saying, “We’ve heard these same lies before.” The fact that Suleimani was met at the Baghdad airport by the head of the pro-Iranian militias inside Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed by the missile attack, suggests that he may have had other reasons for his visit. But, eight days later, it remains true that the Trump Administration hasn’t provided any evidence that a large-scale attack was imminent. By the time Suleimani arrived in the Iraqi capital, the violent protests outside the American Embassy had ended, and Iraqi forces had re-secured the heavily fortified Green Zone, within which the Embassy is located.

Also, more details are emerging about the roles played by Pompeo and Pence in the decision to assassinate Suleimani. Pompeo and Pence “were two of the most hawkish voices arguing for a response to Iranian aggression, according to administration officials,” the Times reported, a couple of days after Suleimani’s death. “Mr. Pence’s office helped run herd on meetings and conference calls held by officials in the run-up to the strike.”

On Sunday, the Washington Post, citing a senior U.S official, reported that “Pompeo first spoke with Trump about killing Suleimani months ago … but neither the president nor Pentagon officials were willing to countenance such an operation.” On Thursday, CNN’s Nicole Gaouette and Jamie Gangel reported that “Pompeo was a driving force behind President Donald Trump’s decision to kill” the Iranian general. The CNN story said that Pompeo, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Trump before he moved to the State Department, viewed Suleimani as the mastermind of myriad operations targeting Americans and U.S interests. It also quoted an unnamed source close to Pompeo, who recalled the Secretary of State telling friends, “I will not retire from public service until Suleimani is off the battlefield.”

We are also learning more about the roles that other senior members of the Administration played in the process that led to the drone attack on Suleimani, including Gina Haspel, the current director of the C.I.A. “In the days before General Suleimani’s death, Ms. Haspel had advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed,” the Times reported on Wednesday. “Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed, the very situation that appeared to be playing out on Tuesday afternoon.”

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal, in yet another lengthy account of the Administration’s decision-making, reported that all of Trump’s top advisers, including “new Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and new national security adviser Robert O’Brien … backed the president’s decision to kill the top Iranian military commander and moved swiftly to carry it out. The new team was cohesive and less inclined than its predecessors to push back against the president’s wishes, according to administration officials and others consulted by the White House.”

Not that Trump needed much encouragement, it seems. “In the five days prior to launching a strike that killed Iran’s most important military leader, Donald Trump roamed the halls of Mar-a-Lago, his private resort in Florida, and started dropping hints to close associates and club-goers that something huge was coming,” the Daily Beast reported, quoting unnamed people who had been at Trump’s resort over the New Year. “He kept saying, ‘You’ll see,’ one of the sources recalled, describing a conversation with Trump days before Thursday’s strike.” We did see, of course, and the reverberations are far from over.

Tucker Carlson Is Still A Jerk — Frank Bruni in the New York Times.

Suddenly you’re digging him. At least a little bit. I know, I’ve seen the tweets, read the commentary, heard the chatter, detected the barely suppressed cheer: Hurrah for Tucker Carlson. If only we had more brave, principled Republicans like him.

Right out of the gate, he protested President Trump’s decision to kill Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military commander, noting that it didn’t square with the president’s determination not to get bogged down in the Middle East and warning of the possibility and horror of full-blown war. Your pulse quickened. You perked up.

He sounded that same alarm on his next show and the show after that. Every night at 8 p.m., he worried about the bellicose itch of our leaders. When all around him on Fox News were playing their usual roles (indeed, his usual role) as masseurs for the president’s tender ego, he administered slaps, hard ones, the kind that leave angry red handprints. Ouch — and don’t stop.

You rejoiced. It’s one thing when Democrats challenge what looks like a rush to war by a Republican president. It’s another when typically fawning members of his own party do.

And while Carlson was hardly alone in his rebellion — three House Republicans voted with Democrats to check the president’s war-waging authority and, over in the Senate, Mike Lee and Rand Paul raised a dissident ruckus — no one else had his ardor, his articulateness, his megaphone.

Carlson to the rescue!

Oh, please.

The fascination with him is itself fascinating, for many reasons. Can you recall a modern president before Trump whose moods and movements could be reflected and predicted simply by watching one news organization and, for that matter, just a few of its offerings? In lieu of a normally functioning White House communications department or a press secretary who holds actual press briefings (what a thought!), we have “Fox & Friends” in the morning and Carlson’s and Sean Hannity’s shows in the evening.

They don’t chronicle this presidency. They shape it, not just in terms of the volume of their applause for Trump, who craves the loudest possible clapping, but in terms of actual interactions. Carlson — like Hannity and another Fox fixture, Lou Dobbs — has in fact advised him behind the scenes.

Hence the rapt reaction to Carlson’s antiwar jeremiads. They may well matter.

Also, those of us who regard Trump as a menace can be so eager — too eager — to welcome newcomers to our shores that we overlook the polluted seas they sailed to get there. In a recent moment on the ABC talk show “The View” that was awkward at best, Joy Behar announced excitedly that the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer had just disavowed Trump because of Iran.

Carlson, mind you, has not disavowed Trump. In fact he performed semantic acrobatics to denounce America’s military maneuvers against Iran without precisely blaming Trump. Those slaps I mentioned landed more forcefully on the administration in general than on the man-child at its apex, who is, in Carlson’s tortured rendition, a gullible marionette, his strings pulled by inveterate, habitual warmongers. If these profiteering elites would just let Trump be Trump and train his wrath on Mexicans instead of Iranians, a great presidency would get its groove back.

During his Tuesday show, Carlson performed political jujitsu and held two of the president’s principal Democratic adversaries responsible for exacerbated tensions with Iran. Referring to the Washington establishment and singling out Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, he said, “These are people who have been basically advocating for a kind of war against Iran for an awfully long time.”

“It’s infuriating,” he added. “It’s because of Schumer and Pelosi and people like them that we got into Iraq in the first place.”

Come again? A Republican president, George W. Bush, urged and oversaw the invasion of Iraq, and while Schumer authorized it, Pelosi voted against it, as did many more Democrats than Republicans.

And Carlson’s portrait of Trump as puppet contradicts reporting from The Times and other news organizations that some Pentagon officials were stunned when the president ordered the strike against Suleimani, a measure more extreme than other options presented to him.

Carlson remains true to Carlson: selective with facts, slanted with truths and — this is the most important part — committed to his vision of America as a land imperiled by nefarious Democrats and the dark-skinned invaders they would open the gates to if not for sentries like him and Trump.

As Matt Gertz of Media Matters perceptively noted, Carlson’s antiwar stance “is not a break from his past support for Trump or his channeling of white nationalist tropes, but a direct a result of both.” Gertz explained that in the mind-set of Carlson and many of his fans on the far right, energy spent on missions in another hemisphere is energy not spent on our southern border. It’s no accident that, in regard to the Middle East, he and Spencer are on the same page.

Following Suleimani’s death, Carlson asked his audience, “Why are we continuing to ignore the decline of our own country in favor of jumping into another quagmire?”

Carlson is defined not by a bold willingness to check Trump’s excesses or ugliest impulses but by his indulgence — no, his fervent encouragement — of those impulses as they pertain to racism and immigration. On those fronts, Carlson himself grows ever uglier, as my colleague Farhad Manjoo and others have noted. It’s why many sponsors have defected from Carlson’s show.

Carlson repeatedly uses variations of the word “invasion” to characterize migrants from Central America. He insists that “white supremacy” is a fiction, a hoax. He has used language that buys into and promotes “replacement theory” — a far-right fixation on the idea that declining birthrates among whites will cause a nonwhite takeover — and recently castigated immigrants for litter along the Potomac River.

Just last month he gave precious time on his show to an obscure Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina, Pete D’Abrosca, who has warned white Americans that they’re “being replaced by third world peasants.” D’Abrosca has also bragged of his support from the “groyper army,” a far-right group with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism.

Is Carlson himself abetting hatred of Jews? In a rare point of agreement, some Jews and white nationalists believe so, pointing to an on-air rant last month in which he bashed a Jewish billionaire, Paul Singer, by comparing him unfavorably with Henry Ford, who owned a newspaper that ran a lengthy series alleging a Jewish plot to dominate the world.

“The Fox News host goes full anti-Semite,” wrote Tablet, a Jewish publication, while Mike Enoch, who rallied with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., said on his podcast, “If you didn’t catch the German shepherd whistles where he praised Henry Ford and then went into a diatribe of a Jewish financier, you know, I don’t know what universe you’re existing in.”

So that’s some of what Carlson was up to just before he turned his attention to Iran.

How warm and fuzzy are you feeling toward him now?

In other words, he’s Pat Buchanan without the charm.

Doonesbury — Having the vapors.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

They Need Each Other

Here’s where we are with Iran: Trump ordered the killing of one of their generals.  That sets off Iran and they threaten apocalyptic revenge.  Trump threatens to flatten their cultural sites; they come back with more threats of apocalypse.  Then they fire a bunch of missiles into the dirt in Iraq, purposely avoiding hitting anything.  Trump blames Obama, says Iran is backing down, and he’s heading for the golf course.

It’s all for show: Trump bloviates to his base to reassure them that he’s butch (and in desperate need to find a distraction from impeachment), and Iran’s religious nuts-in-charge need to unite their people after some rather unsettling pro-democracy demonstrations.  And other than a couple of dead generals and the collateral deaths in a stampede, this pecker contest with each other’s sworn enemy was about domestic politics and base appeasement.  I’ve seen the same kind of act between two horny peacocks in my backyard.

The difference, however, between Trump and the ayatollahs and the stupid fucking birds is that the guys without the fancy tail feathers have means at their disposal to really kill a lot of people, mainly civilians.  Add to that the fact that Trump is acting, as he always does, via his lizard brain; no strategy, just reflex.  And then when he does react, he recoils and retreats behind bluster and bullshit and lies and obfuscation.  The Iranians know this, and it’s not hard to imagine that they knew that Trump would back down or at least get talked out of nuking Persepolis, so they can carry on with their “Death to America” chants.

This is how dictators and fanatics handle foreign policy.  They need someone else, some common enemy, to blame for all their troubles, most of them self-inflicted.  Trump has done that all his life, as has every other megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur fueled by rampant paranoia and the harsh reality that they will never measure up to the expectations of some mythic father figure; seething with hatred for those who naturally achieve greatness.  (Trump’s call for “peace with all who seek it” is his rather gauche attempt to claim yet another legacy of Obama for himself: the Nobel Peace Prize.)  But at some point, someone always goes too far and the next thing you know, it’s not just preening; it’s a real war.  With real targets, real armies, and millions dead.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Drunk Driver On An Icy Road

Read this twitter thread from Reza Marashi, an American foreign affairs expert based in Washington, D.C. about the Iran/Iraq situation.

This one jumped out at me: “All Trump cares about is shitting on Obama’s legacy, sucking up to donors, and distracting from impeachment.  None of this is about American interests or security.  He’s surrounded by ideological lunatic sycophants like Pence and Pompeo.  But they’re far from the only ones.”

This will not end well.

Monday, January 6, 2020

An Inclined Plane Wrapped Around A Cylinder

I go away for a couple of weeks and wow….

So give me a little time to get my desk cleared off after all my travels and basically ignoring — or at least not sharing much — of what I’m seeing.  But the gist of what is in the papers and what I understand to be respectable insight from people who should know, is that Trump has made the Middle East, already the most trigger-happy and volatile place on the planet and that already hated the West and specifically us, into an even more dangerous place.  It’s like he loaded up a tanker plane with ten thousand gallons of jet fuel and dropped it on the Australian outback.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 or the shooting down of Japanese Admiral Yamamoto during the height of World War II don’t apply here in terms of actual comparison, but the reason they come to mind is that in the first instance, no one had any idea that the murder of an Austro-Hungarian royal would lead to two world wars, and in the second, the war crime of hunting down and killing a military leader can be justified as one way to demoralize the enemy.  Add to that the simple fact that Trump cannot see beyond the end of his election campaign and has yet to come up with an idea of how to formulate a strategy to bring stability and calm to a region that has been in turmoil since the Romans decided to pay a visit to the pyramids.

Oh, and Australia is turning into a cinder.

What it comes down to is the answer to the question posed by Dr. Leonard Hofsteder: What would you be if you were an inclined plane wrapped around a cylinder?  Screwed.

Nice to be back.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Looking Back/Looking Forward

Time for my annual recap and predictions for the coming year.  Let’s see how I did a year ago.

Barring natural causes or intervention from an outside force, Trump will still be in office on December 31, 2019. There is no way he will leave voluntarily and even with the House of Representatives in Democratic control and articles of impeachment being drafted they will not get to the Senate floor because the Republicans are either too afraid to rile up the base or they’re too enamored of their own grip on power to care about the government being headed by a poor imitation of a tin-pot banana republic authoritarian douche-canoe.

That was an easy A.  As of today, the articles of impeachment are still with the House as Speaker Pelosi holds on to them.

The Mueller Report will be released to Congress and even though it’s supposed to be classified it will be leaked with great fanfare and pundit predictions of the end of the Trump administration with calls for frog-marching him and his minions out of the West Wing. Despite that, see above.

I get a C on that.  There were no leaks and the Mueller report was too nuanced for the punditry to read it and spit out sound bites.  The unintended consequence, though, was that the day after Mr. Mueller testified before Congress, Trump picked up the phone and placed an overseas call to Ukraine.

There will be no wall. There never will be. Immigration will still be a triggering issue as even more refugees die in U.S. custody.

That was a gimme.

There will be no meaningful changes to gun laws even if the NRA goes broke. There will be more mass shootings, thoughts and prayers will be offered, and we’ll be told yet again that now is not the time to talk about it.

Another gimme, more’s the pity.

Obamacare will survive its latest challenge because the ruling by the judge in Texas declaring the entire law unconstitutional will be tossed and turned into a case study in law schools everywhere on the topic of exasperatingly stupid reasoning.

Roe vs. Wade will still stand.

With the Democrats in control of the House, the government will be in permanent gridlock even after they work out some sort of deal to end the current shutdown over the mythological wall.  House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will become the Willie Horton for the GOP base and blamed for everything from budget deficits to the toast falling butter-side down.

An A- on these three.  As of today, Obamacare is still in place but the Supreme Court is sniffing around the whack-ass lower court ruling, so see below, and the same goes for Roe v. Wade.  The House has passed over 250 bills and sent them on to the Senate, but Mitch McConnell has not touched them, and won’t.

We will have a pretty good idea who the Democratic front-runner will be in 2020. I think Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s chances are still good (she announced her exploratory committee as I was writing this), as are Sen. Kamala Harris’s, and don’t count out Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, but who knew that Beto O’Rourke, a charismatic loser in the Texas senate race, would raise a lot of hopes? That said, fifteen years ago when I started this blog, Howard Dean looked like the guy who was going to beat George W. Bush.

A big old red F on that one.

The economy will continue with its wild gyrations, pretty much following the gyrations of the mood of Trump and his thumb-driven Twitter-fed economic exhortations. The tax cuts and the tariffs will land on the backs of the people who provide the income to the government and the deficit will soon be out there beyond the Tesla in outer space. But unlike that Martian-bound convertible, the economy will come crashing back to Earth (probably about the time I retire in August) and Trump will blame everyone else.

That’s a C.  It hasn’t happened yet, but with the deficit doubling since Trump took office, something will have to give.  The question was — and remains — when will it?

There will be a natural event that will convince even skeptics that climate change and sea level rise is real and happening. Unfortunately, nothing will be done about it even if lots of lives are lost because [spoiler alert] nothing ever is done.

That’s an A.  It’s already happening.

I’m going out on a limb here with foreign affairs predictions, but I have a feeling that Brexit will end up in the dustbin of history.

Another big old red F, right up there with the Dolphins and the Lions ending up in the Superbowl in 2020.

Personally, this will be a transition year.  My retirement from Miami-Dade County Public Schools occurs officially on August 31, 2019, and I’m already actively looking for something both meaningful and income-producing to do after that.  (E-mail me for a copy of my resume; nothing ventured, nothing sprained.)  My play “Can’t Live Without You” opens at the Willow Theatre in Boca Raton, Florida, for a two-week run on March 30, and I’m planning on returning to the William Inge Theatre Festival for the 28th time, either with a play or most assuredly with a scholarly paper.  I have my bid in for a variety of other theatre events and productions; I think I’m getting the hang of this playwriting thing.

Things went pretty much as planned this year.  I retired on August 31 and started my new part-time jobs the next week.  The run of “Can’t Live Without You” was great, and I had a very busy year in getting plays done and conferences attended and new friends made from Miami to Alaska.

On to the predictions:

  • Trump will survive impeachment.  The fix is in.  Revelations about his corruption will keep on coming, and yet the Republicans will cower with him.  It will be his big campaign rallying point.
  • I have no idea who the Democratic Party will nominate for president, and neither do you, but whoever it is will beat Trump in November despite the best efforts of the Kremlin.  I hope it is by such a margin that even Fox News will call it a blowout.  Trump will scream and carry on about it being rigged, but by this time in 2020, he’ll be doing everything he can to trash the place on the way out the door with pardons and lame-duck appointments of Nazi sympathizers and pedophiles.  (If I’m wrong on this and Trump is reelected, I’m moving to Montserrat.  It’s safer to live on an island with an active volcano.)
  • Obamacare will survive in the Supreme Court but by a 5-4 ruling.
  • There will be more restrictions placed on reproductive rights, but Roe v. Wade will not be struck down.
  • The Democrats will take back the Senate by one seat and all that bottled-up legislation will finally get through in time for the House, still under Nancy Pelosi, to pass them all again and get them signed by the new president.
  • The economic bubble will burst, the trade deals with China and Europe will screw over the American consumer, and it’s going to look like one of those 19,000 piece domino videos.  Trump and Fox will blame the Democrats for the monster deficit and carry on about how we need to cut more taxes and destroy Social Security and Medicare to save them.
  • Even with the Democrats taking over in 2020, they won’t be in office until January 2021, so I’ll save predictions for what they’ll come up with in terms of health care, gun safety, and climate change until this time next year, assuming my house in the suburbs of Miami at 10 feet above sea level is still on dry land.
  • As for me, my playwriting and productions thereof will continue.  I’m planning on my 29th trip to the Inge Festival in May and hope to be invited back to Alaska in June.  As I’m writing this, the novel that I started twenty-five years ago tomorrow is on the glide path to land by the time I go back to work next week.  I can predict that it will never be published because I never meant it to be.
  • As for hopes for the new year, I hope for continued good health and fortune for my friends and family.  I can’t ask for more than that.

Okay, your turn.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Happy Friday

The House Judiciary Committee, after 14 hours of antics, hypocrisy (really, Matt Gaetz, you want to bring up someone else’s substance abuse problem?) and tin-foil hat accusations, put off the vote on the articles of impeachment until today, thereby depriving the Republicans of their “in the dark of the night” claims about the vote.

Clearly some of them needed a nap.

Meanwhile, the UK voted in a majority of Tories that will ensure Brexit. No, it’s not a lesson for the Democrats unless they nominate Jeremy Corbyn.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

For All To See

Everybody loses their shit every now and then.  If you’re in a very high-profile job with urgent matters coming at you in every direction and everyone expects you to make very tough decisions, you’re going to let off steam.  But you don’t do it in front of people who will walk outside and tell a gaggle of reporters that they just saw someone turn into a six-year-old brat in front of them.  You keep it together until the doors are closed and there’s no one who can hear you.

Not this guy.

Trump faced off against both parties in Congress on Wednesday in an extraordinary confrontation over his decision to abandon America’s Kurdish allies as the vast majority of House Republicans joined Democrats to condemn his policy in an overwhelming vote.

Mr. Trump found himself increasingly isolated after withdrawing troops from Syria and clearing the way for a Turkish offensive against Kurds who had fought alongside the United States. The president all but washed his hands of the conflict, saying that it “has nothing to do with us,” generating withering criticism from Republicans and leading to a stormy clash with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Bereft of supporters and under pressure from an impeachment inquiry, Mr. Trump spent much of the day defending his decision and lashing out against rivals. He dismissed the Kurds, who until last week shared outposts with American soldiers, saying they were “no angels” and fought for money. And he berated Ms. Pelosi as a “third-grade politician” or “third-rate politician,” depending on the version, prompting Democrats to walk out of a White House meeting.

“I think now we have to pray for his health,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters afterward. “This was a very serious meltdown on the part of the president.” She said Mr. Trump seemed “very shaken up” by the cascade of criticism.

Mr. Trump said it was the other way around. “Nancy Pelosi needs help fast!” he wrote on Twitter. “She had a total meltdown in the White House today. It was very sad to watch. Pray for her, she is a very sick person!”

Yeah, that last little bit of projection shows that he’s got all the tantrum moves down pat.

This will either be another bit of evidence at his impeachment trial or the invocation of the 25th Amendment.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Follow The Money

We’re getting closer to seeing Trump’s tax returns.

A federal judge on Monday dismissed President Trump’s lawsuit seeking to block the Manhattan district attorney from obtaining the president’s tax returns as part of an investigation into hush-money payments during the 2016 campaign.

That decision does not mean Trump’s tax returns will be handed over immediately. Trump appealed within minutes, and an appeals court put the case on hold until it can hear the president’s challenge.

But Monday’s ruling by U.S. Judge Victor Marrero was still a broad rejection of Trump’s precedent-shattering argument in this case.

The president argued that, as long as he is president, he cannot be investigated by any prosecutor, anywhere, for any reason.

Marrero said that was “repugnant” to an American ideal as old as the Constitution: that no man, even a president, is above the law.

So, you ask, why does it matter?  Who cares what’s buried in the morass of IRS mumbo-jumbo and legalistic terms?  Because buried in there is the truth about his dealings with foreign powers, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of whom have benefited from Trump’s handling of foreign policy to the detriment of other allies who have not been so willing to work out some kind of deal with Trump’s business ventures.

Paul Waldman:

For instance, Trump has just decided that the United States will be withdrawing troops from an area along Turkey’s border with Syria, which many are justifiably arguing is an abandonment of Kurdish forces there to be overrun and even slaughtered by the Turkish military, our lengthy alliance with the Kurds notwithstanding. Trump apparently made the decision after a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

So one might reasonably ask: How much income does Trump derive from Trump Towers Istanbul? Does that play into his thinking as he tries to balance the interests and desires of two U.S. allies that are in conflict? At the very least, we should know the extent of his financial interests in Turkey.

Imagine, if you will, what the response to the immigration issue on the southern border would be if in 2008 Trump worked out a deal with the president of Mexico to build a luxury hotel in Mexico City or one of the destinations of cruise ships such as Puerto Vallarta, and to get the deal he had to work some way of making the president of Mexico grease his palm and vice versa.  We wouldn’t be building a wall; we’d be building casinos and resorts in Juarez and Nogales and providing jobs for undocumented workers, just like he did in his own little test market, Mar-a-Lago in Florida.

In reality, I think the revelation of Trump’s taxes will show that he’s no different than any other corporation that has done everything they could within the tax code to protect their money from the IRS.  If he had truly broken the law the IRS wouldn’t be auditing him, they’d be ransacking his office; they don’t mess around.  So he’s got something to hide and is loath to reveal it.  Not that he has any sense of shame; he just thinks that it’s nobody’s business.

As to the long-term implications of Trump’s tax returns, they will likely offer the public one of the most vivid possible illustrations of how America’s wealthy avoid paying taxes. In effect, they will be nothing short of an advertisement for the campaign of the Democratic nominee for president in 2020, especially if that nominee is Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, both of whom want to impose wealth taxes and make it harder for people such as Trump to cheat, remaking the tax code so that the wealthy pay something resembling their fair share.

And right now, they don’t. As David Leonhardt details, in recent decades the combined rate of taxes paid by the ultra-wealthy (he uses the richest 400 families as an illustration) has fallen down and down: In 1950, their combined federal, state, and local taxes were 70 percent; today, the figure is only 23 percent. The result is that despite what you might think, we don’t actually have a progressive tax system but something more closely resembling a flat tax.

At their second debate in 2016, Hillary Clinton suggested that Trump was hiding his tax returns because he didn’t want the public to know that he doesn’t pay any taxes. Trump interrupted her, leaning into his microphone to say, “That makes me smart.”

That may fly in the boardroom, but when the public realizes that the guy making $7.50 an hour pays more in taxes dollar for dollar than Trump does and brags about it, it could blow up in his face.  And when it turns into how foreign policy is guided and people are literally dying for the sake of a hotel in Istanbul, it’s impeachable.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Foreign Aid

This is weird.

Trump pushed the Australian prime minister during a recent telephone call to help Attorney General William P. Barr gather information for a Justice Department inquiry that Mr. Trump hopes will discredit the Mueller investigation, according to two American officials with knowledge of the call.

The White House curbed access to a transcript of the call — which the president made at Mr. Barr’s request — to a small group of aides, one of the officials said. The restriction was unusual and similar to the handling of a July call with the Ukrainian president that is at the heart of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

Like that call, Mr. Trump’s discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia shows the president using high-level diplomacy to advance his personal political interests.

The discussion with Mr. Morrison shows the extent to which Mr. Trump views the attorney general as a crucial partner: The president is using federal law enforcement powers to aid his political prospects, settle scores with his perceived “deep state” enemies and show that the Mueller investigation had corrupt, partisan origins.

In a way, it’s kind of a relief to find out that Attorney General Barr is just as much of a political lackey and bag man as the guy who hired him.  Having a cabinet member who has morals and a sense of what’s legal would be so out of character.  It will also assure the historians that the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of President Harding and his gang is going to be a lot easier now that there’s even more blatant corruption lying out there in the sun.

Aside from that, what is it telling our allies and adversaries in other countries about who’s running the store here?  They have their own problems and interests at stake in dealing with the U.S., and all of it has to be funneled through Trump’s political ambitions.

If that’s all he cares about, why should they lift a finger to help us when we really need it?

Monday, September 23, 2019

Lying And Dividing

Anyone who’s watched law and order TV shows, including the actual “Law & Order” series and their offspring (all over cable TV if you look beyond the paid programs for skin cream and boner pills) knows the drill: a suspect will first deny any knowledge of the alleged crime.  “I had nothing to do with it; it’s all bullshit.”  Then under questioning and faced with the evidence, the line will shift to “Well, maybe I did know something, but it wasn’t me.”  Then with more evidence, such as pictures or recordings, it becomes “Well, yeah, okay, but there was nothing wrong with it; it was just two people talking.  Can I see my lawyer now?”

I think we’re getting to that last part now with Trump and the whistle-blower and Ukraine.  He’s gone from claiming it never happened (“Fake News”) to admitting — boasting — that he did bring it up more than once in his phone call in July with the president of Ukraine.

“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters Sunday morning. “And Ukraine, Ukraine’s got a lot of problems.”

And while Trump and his minions may try to cling to their stories as well as their Miranda rights, a large number of Republicans are making tracks.

Since Trump’s inauguration, a Washington Post analysis shows, nearly 40 percent of the 241 Republicans who were in office in January 2017 are gone or leaving because of election losses, retirements including former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), and some, such as [Rep. Paul] Mitchell, who are simply quitting in disgust.

As the article in the Post notes, as they go, the party is remaking itself in the image of Trump.  That means that for every Republican that retires or quits, there’s a bench of MAGA-hat wearing xenophobic evangelical hypocrites and know-nothings who will rush in to fill the void, especially in blood-red districts where fear and loathing of Others runs rampant even as their businesses and crops go rotting thanks to Trump’s tariffs and immigration deportations continue.

That scenario may be making it easier for the Democrats to take control of the House by a wider margin than they have now, and take back the Senate.  But that’s more than a year away, and meanwhile, we have a White House that is being run like a bad spinoff of “The Sopranos.”  And our adversaries are watching it.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Can’t Keep His Mouth Shut

Via the Washington Post:

The whistleblower complaint that has triggered a tense showdown between the U.S. intelligence community and Congress involves President Trump’s communications with a foreign leader, according to two former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Trump’s interaction with the foreign leader included a “promise” that was regarded as so troubling that it prompted an official in the U.S. intelligence community to file a formal whistleblower complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, said the former officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

It was not immediately clear which foreign leader Trump was speaking with or what he pledged to deliver, but his direct involvement in the matter has not been previously disclosed. It raises new questions about the president’s handling of sensitive information and may further strain his relationship with U.S. spy agencies. One former official said the communication was a phone call.

People who are much more knowledgeable about the inner workings of operations like this are speculating that this phone call and the risk to U.S. intelligence are what caused John Bolton to quit/resign/get fired.

If so, and if what was in the phone call to the foreign leader was such a breach, it’s just another log on the fire of what should constitute grounds for impeachment.  And now the House Intelligence Committee, lead by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) will, after threats of contempt of Congress citations, get to hear from the acting DNI next week.

So who did Trump call?

Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson determined that the complaint was credible and troubling enough to be considered a matter of “urgent concern,” a legal threshold that ordinarily requires notification of congressional oversight committees.

[…]

The complaint was filed with Atkinson’s office on Aug. 12, a date on which Trump was at his golf resort in New Jersey. White House records indicate that Trump had had conversations or interactions with at least five foreign leaders in the preceding five weeks.

Among them was a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin that the White House initiated on July 31. Trump also received at least two letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the summer, describing them as “beautiful” messages. In June, Trump said publicly that he was opposed to certain CIA spying operations against North Korea. Referring to a Wall Street Journal report that the agency had recruited Kim’s half-brother, Trump said, “I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices.”

He’s running the White House like he ran his businesses — always skirting the law and ethics — and compromising our intelligence networks to make some kind of deal  — for what, who knows? — and all to prove that he’s the bestest dealmaker around ever, especially better than that gay Kenyan Muslim with the butch wife and funny-looking dog.

This is madness.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Optical Illusion

Whoever it was that put it in Trump’s head to invite the Taliban to come to Camp David for a secret meeting around the same time as the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks needs to be fired.  Oh, wait… it was probably Trump himself.

But never mind.  Trump called the whole thing off, firing off a series of tweets that both revealed this mind-spinning idea and then put the kibosh on it because the Taliban did what the Taliban does: blow up cars and kill people.

Digby:

The fact that the president tweeting out a temper tantrum about a supposed secret meeting with the Taliban at Camp David that was scheduled for the next day being canceled isn’t even considered weird is astonishing enough. That he thought this would be a good idea in the first place is simply gobsmacking. Presumably, he wanted to have the Taliban leaders around for the 9/11 commemorations so he could do some sort of Kim Jong Un photo-op and declare the Taliban a lovely group of guys who are looking to build some condos in Kabul.

Unfortunately for him, they don’t seem to understand the way to Trump’s heart is to kiss his ass first and save the violence for later when he will defend them in order to save face.

It also occurs to me that someone — certainly not Trump himself — remembered that Jimmy Carter negotiated a peace agreement between Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel at Camp David in 1978, and Bill Clinton did the same with the PLO and Israel in 2000.  It was great optics for the presidents and there were Nobel Peace Prizes in play.  So someone must have put a bug in Trump’s ear that if he was able to work out some kind of deal with the Taliban, he’d be hailed as a peacemaker and have a lock on the Nobel.  (Trump’s interest in making the trip to Stockholm is based solely on his obsession with Barack Obama and his winning the prize in 2009.)

The fact that the high-profile meetings that Trump has had with our foreign adversaries such as Russia, China and North Korea have all blown up like a wet firecracker and that Putin, Xi, and Kim have played Trump like a five-dollar fiddle doesn’t mean anything to Trump.  He wants the optics and the BREAKING NEWS banners on cable so he can call into Fox and Friends and bloviate about what a Dear Leader he is.  That’s all that matters to him, and he knows the base will eat it up.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Desperadoes

Aside from the blatant bigotry that it exposes on the part of both Trump and Netanyahu, the move to bar two U.S. members of Congress from visiting Israel strikes me as a truly desperate move.

Trump is being his usual infantile self, striking out at Rep. Ilan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the only two Muslim women in Congress.  Getting Netanyahu to go along with him shows that the Israeli prime minister, already in a precarious position in his upcoming election — called because he couldn’t form a government after the last one — is not only a sniveling bigot — not a shock — but is Trump’s puppet, dancing to his tune.  How does that convey strength?  All it tells the Israeli electorate is that Bibi is under the thumb of a foreign power, and a manifestly dangerous one at that.  That’s how he conveys strength?  Oy.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Idiots Abroad

Can’t take these people anywhere.

Via TPM:

Trump brought Fox News host Tucker Carlson to North Korea on Sunday instead of his own national security adviser, John Bolton.

Several journalists reported seeing Carlson on the sidelines of Trump’s historic visit to the the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, and the hosts of “Fox & Friends” confirmed Carlson was there during a phone interview with him.

Meanwhile, Bolton was shipped off to Mongolia over the weekend.

While speaking to his Fox colleagues, Carlson defended Trump’s friendliness with the brutal North Korean dictator.

“[North Korea]’s a disgusting place, obviously. So there’s no defending it,” Carlson said. “On the other hand, you’ve got to be honest about what it means to lead a country. It means killing people.”

“Not on the scale that the North Koreans do, but a lot of countries commit atrocities, including a number that we’re closely allied with,” he continued.

Carlson’s declamation is the diplomatic equivalent of “I’m not a racist, but…” or “Some of my best friends are gay.”  And we’ve heard this bothsiderism excuse from Trump himself when asked about Russia’s treatment — and murder — of dissidents and journalists.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Monday, May 20, 2019

Foreign Cars

Sixty years ago imported (or “foreign”) cars were an interesting if not important part of the U.S. auto market.  If you wanted to go exotic you could get a Mercedes-Benz through the local Studebaker dealer, and of course everybody thought the VW Beetle was cute but not what you’d call a family car if you were used to driving a Ford Country Squire with room for nine passengers and a dog.  Japanese cars?  Are you kidding?

Well, that was then, and so was Ike and the Edsel.  Today the American car market is dominated by vehicles whose headquarters may be in Tokyo or Seoul but who build them here to the point that they’re exporting cars built in Ohio back to Japan.  Not only that, they have taught the American manufacturers how they did it, and now if you buy a Ford or Buick chances are it has parts brought in from their factories overseas (my 2007 Mustang’s engine is from Germany) and even certain models are badge-engineered to look and sound like American cars.

But apparently this represents a national security threat to some dipshit in the White House.

A US Commerce Department report has concluded that American auto imports threaten national security, setting the stage for possible tariffs by the White House, two people familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The investigation, ordered by President Donald Trump in May, is “positive” with respect to the central question of whether the imports “impair” US national security, said a European auto industry source.

“It’s going to say that auto imports are a threat to national security,” said an official with another auto company.

The report, which is expected to be delivered to the White House by a Sunday deadline, has been seen as a major risk for foreign automakers.

Trump has threatened to slap 25 percent duties on European autos, especially targeting Germany, which he says has harmed the American car industry.

Toyota is neither amused or impressed.

“Today’s proclamation sends a message to Toyota that our investments are not welcomed, and the contributions from each of our employees across America are not valued,” the company said.

The statement says Toyota has 10 manufacturing plants in the United States, some 1,500 dealerships, an extensive supply chain and directly and indirectly employs 475,000 US workers.

“Most every American has a Toyota story and we are very proud of the fact that over 36 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles are still on U.S. roads today. Our operations and employees contribute significantly to the American way of life, the U.S. economy and are not a national security threat.”

But Trump promised those workers at the Studebaker plant he’d save their jobs, and by golly he’s gonna do it.

PS: The last Studebaker plant to build cars for the U.S. market was in Canada.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Trade Marks

Via the New York Times:

Trump’s tariffs were initially seen as a cudgel to force other countries to drop their trade barriers. But they increasingly look like a more permanent tool to shelter American industry, block imports and banish an undesirable trade deficit.

More than two years into the Trump administration, the United States has emerged as a nation with the highest tariff rate among developed countries, outranking Canada, Germany and France, as well as China, Russia and Turkey. And with further trade confrontations brewing, the rate may only increase from here.

On Tuesday, the president continued to praise his trade war with China, saying that the 25 percent tariffs he imposed on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods would benefit the United States, and that he was looking “very strongly” at imposing additional levies on nearly every Chinese import.

“I think it’s going to turn out extremely well. We’re in a very strong position,” Mr. Trump said in remarks from the White House lawn. “Our economy is fantastic; theirs is not so good. We’ve gone up trillions and trillions of dollars since the election; they’ve gone way down since my election.”

He called the trade dispute “a little squabble” and suggested he was in no rush to end his fight, though he held out the possibility an agreement could be reached, saying: “They want to make a deal. It could absolutely happen.” Stock markets rebounded on Tuesday, after plunging on Monday as China and the United States resumed their tariff war.

Additional tariffs could be on the way. Mr. Trump faces a Friday deadline to determine whether the United States will proceed with his threat to impose global auto tariffs, a move that has been criticized by car companies and foreign policymakers. And despite complaints by Republican lawmakers and American companies, Mr. Trump’s global metal tariffs remain in place on Canada, Mexico, Europe and other allies.

The trade barriers are putting the United States, previously a steadfast advocate of global free trade, in an unfamiliar position. The country now has the highest overall trade-weighted tariff rate at 4.2 percent, higher than any of the Group of 7 industrialized nations, according to Torsten Slok, the chief economist of Deutsche Bank Securities. That is now more than twice as high as the rate for Canada, Britain, Italy, Germany and France, and higher than most emerging markets, including Russia, Turkey and even China, Mr. Slok said.

The shift is having consequences for an American economy that is dependent on global trade, including multinational companies like Boeing, General Motors, Apple, Caterpillar and other businesses that source components from abroad and want access to growing markets overseas.

While trade accounts for a smaller percentage of the American economy than in most other countries — just 27 percent in 2017, compared with 38 percent for China and 87 percent for Germany, according to World Bank data — it is still a critical driver of jobs and economic growth.

For now, the American economy remains strong, with rising wages and the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. But with less trade, American jobs up and down the value chain that are seemingly unrelated to importing and exporting goods could suffer, including research and development, retail and marketing products.

Trump has promised, as he has in the past, to make it up to the farmers who lose money by having China hit back with retaliatory tariffs against their products.  In other words, he’s saying he’ll get them $15 billion in subsidies to keep them afloat because of something he did (as opposed to helping, oh, say, Puerto Rico recover from a hurricane or Flint get drinkable water).  He apparently thinks the farmers of America can be bought off like his one-night stands with women-not-his-wife.  And I think we all know how well he keeps his promises.

The sad fact is that the majority of the farmers who are hit by these tariffs in all likelihood supported Trump in the last election and are with him now even as he takes away their markets and promises to put them on the welfare rolls.  He’s seen it work before — frighten them with abstract fears about Others like undocumented immigrants (many of whom keep farms in business by doing the labor) or lesbians getting married in New York, unlike that nice couple who run the candle store in town — so why not try it again?  He knows his marks; he’s run his businesses that way for fifty years and gets his jollies — if not his profits — by getting away with the con.