Media (287)

 

The Dog Days of August

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)
The dog days of August are normally a time when politics disappears from the front pages and the main excitement is provided by the weather forecast and sports.  Records are broken in humidity levels and temperatures, facilitated by global warming, and baseball teams gear up for their run towards the post-season while golfers and tennis players get ready for their final major.  I had hoped that there would be an opportunity to reflect on the ‘achievements’ of the Trump administration, which, in spite of its inability to pass health care legislation that would have hurt millions of Americans, has been able to wreak havoc in many other areas.  The EPA has reversed pretty much every environmental protection measure implemented under Obama, affirmative action in college admissions is again challenged in the Supreme Court, Wall Street is being deregulated, setting the US up for the next financial crisis, the Secretary of the Interior is reviewing if the country really needs this many national parks, funding for the National Institutes of Health is cut by $5 billion, and ICE is raging among illegal immigrants.

This is only a modest selection, but there is no room to expand it here because Trump brought politics back with wild rhetoric directed at Kim Jong-un.  After a leaked report from the DIA that North Korea has succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit it on an ICBM – the same assessment the agency produced four years ago and that turned out to be incorrect – the US President surprised even his military advisors with the threat that North Korea would experience never before seen ‘fire and fury,’ doubling down the next day by announcing that US arms are ‘locked and loaded,’ just in case North Korea would threaten any US territory or ally.  There are four competing explanations for Trump’s sudden outburst, two of a domestic nature, one international and one psycho-pathological.  The first is that Trump’s popularity in the polls is going down and that the messaging is really meant to shore up his base, the second is the ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario, the idea that the Mueller investigation will have to back off from a president who is engaged in an international conflict that may very well result in a nuclear war.

The international explanation is that diplomacy and sanctions have failed to make North-Korea abandon its nuclear and long-range missile programs, and that Trump is therefore simply trying something new and can reverse course anytime.  The psycho-pathological narrative, finally, is that Trump experiences the world as a reality show in which he is an action hero who fights evil with all the tools available to him, knowing that his side always wins, as they do in comic books.

The four explanations are not mutually exclusive, although the first three are more or less rational and the fourth is not.  What makes this last explanation extra feasible, however, is the fact that Trump has now expanded his threats to Venezuela, and the visible delight with which he keeps repeating the words ‘military option,’ changing from a bullfrog into a nuclear knight in fluorescing armor.

In spite of his focus on South East Asia Trump also found the time to thank Putin for expelling US embassy personnel and attacking the man he needs most in DC, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.  Rationality is not his strong suit, which once more supports the fourth explanation.

 
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The Art of Lying

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

This week Steve Schmidt compared Trump with a little boy who has cupcake all over his face but tells his parents he hasn’t touched the pastry.  The lies coming out of the Trump camp, some told before this week but now uncovered, followed one another almost too fast to be debunked.  Telephone conversations Trump claimed to have had with the leader of the Boy Scouts and the Mexican president never took place.  Instead of knowing nothing about the ‘adoption memo’ from his son Don Jr. it turns out that Trump wrote it.  Almost two weeks after the meeting of Don Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner with representatives of the Kremlin was revealed, Trump declared that nobody in his campaign saw any Russians, conveniently also forgetting Flynn’s and Session’s meetings with the Russian ambassador. And in spite of hefty denials by the White House there were strong indications that Trump had pushed Fox News to go public with the falsehood that Seth Rich, a tragically murdered DNC employee, had provided files to Wikileaks, which would absolve the Russian hackers.

Although Rich could not defend himself anymore Fox News had to apologize for the story, but Trump never apologized for and preferred to deny calling the White House ‘a dump,’ in spite of the testimony of multiple members of his Bedminster, NJ golf club.  It was a reminder of his sexist remarks about Carly Fiorina’s face during the campaign, which he later retracted by calling her beautiful, as he did with the White House now.  However, Trump never denied having encouraged law enforcement agents to treat suspects with less care, which resulted in a letter from the Head of the DEA urging his people to ignore the president, and his administration succeeded in starting one bizarre investigation and presenting one solution in search of a problem.  The investigation into whether white applicants are being discriminated against by US universities prompted Bill Maher to joke that when he walks around at Harvard or Yale he always wonders where the white students are, and new rules for legal immigration would have disturbing effects on the US economy.

Fortunately those rules, presented by Roy Cohn look-alike Stephen Miller, don’t stand a chance passing Congress, and it appears that Republicans are slowly manning up against Trump, by passing sanctions against Russia with a veto-proof majority and legislation that makes it almost impossible for the president to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has assembled an all-star team of financial crime specialists and prosecutors that must keep Trump awake at night.

In the White House four-star Marine General John Kelly established some order by firing foulmouth Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci on his first day on the job, but it’s still uncertain if he’ll be able to discipline Kushner and Steve Bannon, let alone the president himself.  Ivanka Trump’s message that she’ll work ‘alongside’ but not for Kelly is a bad omen.

Yesterday Trump left the White House for a vacation at his New Jersey golf course that will bring his number of vacation days to three times Obama’s number during his first six months in office.  Ironically the only major legislation Trump signed so far imposes new sanctions on Russia.

 

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Priorities

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Fortunately Donald Trump has his priorities in order.  In a week when his only potential legislative achievement – which would take healthcare away from millions of Americans – was slowly dismantled, until only a skeleton remained and even that could not pass the US Senate, the president was bullying his Attorney General, gave a speech at the Jamboree for which the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America had to apologize, unbeknownst to the Pentagon tweeted that transgender people can no longer serve in the military, and encouraged a Wall Street hedge fund Mafioso, who is slated to become his Director of Communications, to start a knife fight with his Chief of Staff.  Nice work if you can get it.   Searching for rationality in Trump’s actions is usually a futile endeavor, but this time his motives seemed clear: he wants Jeff Sessions to resign so that he can appoint someone who will fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and he wants as many underlings as possible to compete for his favors, just like participants did on ‘The Apprentice,’ the show that never left him.

In terms of effectiveness his results were meager.  Sessions, his very first supporter in Congress, said Trump’s attacks were hurtful but that he did not intend to resign, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff stated that nothing would change until a policy had been announced via the appropriate channels, the Boy Scouts did not transform themselves into ‘Trump-youth,’ and Anthony Scaramucci turned out to be a monumental foulmouth and just about the worst communicator on the planet.  To get rid of Sessions Trump would have to fire him, but the Chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee Grassley has already stated that no new Attorney General would be confirmed, so that a recess appointment would be Trump’s only option.  As Lindsey Graham declared, however, all hell would break loose if Mueller was fired, and many Republicans in Congress who are slowly distancing themselves from Trump would consider it obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.  If anything, the president’s antics show how worried he is about what Mueller might find in his financial records.

In retrospect, this might be labeled as ‘the week Trump broke with the GOP.’  He blames the failure to dismantle Obamacare on Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, who in his perception gave him a politically leaking football to carry into the end zone.  Reince Priebus resigned or was finally fired on Friday, and with him and Sean Spicer gone Vice President Mike Pence is the only link left with the Republican Party, and so far that has not worked very well.

Trump is easily bored and likes to be entertained by chaos, but with Scaramucci spewing vulgarities and terrorizing the White House staff someone convinced him to ask Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to become Chief of Staff.  As a retired four star general Kelly is used to be obeyed, but since he has no policy expertise it will be fascinating to see how his tenure develops.

According to Lawrence O’Donnell the first thing Kelly has to do is kick Scaramucci out of the White House, and then he has to make sure that Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon report to him, not to Trump, who will have to promise that no tweet goes out without Kelly’s approval.


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Chaos and Panic

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

The week started with the revelation that the meeting of Don Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort with a female Russian lawyer ‘who only wanted to talk about adoption’ was also attended by a ‘former’ KGB agent and a Russian money launderer, and it ended with Sean Spicer’s resignation because he doesn’t like his new boss.  In the meantime Trump and the Senate kept struggling with healthcare.  The attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare came to a grinding halt because the replacement was too cruel for some GOP senators and not cruel enough for others, after Trump had not really helped this cause by calling a similar bill that passed the House of Representatives alternately ‘mean’ and ‘beautiful.’ Mitch McConnell – in an apparent attempt to put the issue behind him and go on vacation – proposed to vote only about repeal, knowing that the votes would not be there because 32 million Americans would lose their health insurance.  Trump made a last futile attempt to get the senators in line, and then announced that he had no other choice but to actively contribute to the impending failure of Obamacare.

It revealed a peculiar aspect of Trump’s thought process.  He seems to think that if he sabotages Obamacare by not enforcing the mandate and canceling subsidies and outreach, the public will blame the Democrats, and he doesn’t realize that he now owns Obamacare.  But his troubles didn’t end there.  In the middle of the week it became known that next to their formal two-and-a-half hour meeting Trump had a one hour conversation with Putin during a G20 dinner, assisted only by Putin’s interpreter.  According to Trump the two spoke about adoption, which is shorthand for repealing the Malinsky Act that imposed sanctions on Putin and some of his cronies, something Putin is furious about and retaliated against by prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by American citizens.  The pressure of the Mueller investigation into collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin and the criticism of this second meeting seemed to get to Trump.  In a spontaneous, rambling interview with the New York Times he attacked his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, for having recused himself from the Russia investigation.

But the president didn’t stop there.  He also declared that it would be unacceptable if Mueller would extend the investigation and look into his finances.  This appears to be Trump’s most serious concern, and is therefore an open invitation for Mueller to see if the combination of real estate and money laundering existed in the Trump organization, which is more than likely, since in the past Don Trump Jr. has said that most of the organization’s funding comes from Russia.

Subsequently the news leaked out that Trump’s outside lawyers are looking for information to discredit Mueller’s team, and that Trump has inquired if he can pardon associates, family members and even himself.  He seems to think that criminal activities will potentially be revealed, and although Trump doesn’t know much, this is an area where he has expertise.

Today Sean Spicer decided to jump off the sinking ship, and by the close of business the news broke that Sessions had discussed the Trump campaign with the former Russian Ambassador, Kislyak.  It may force Sessions to follow Spicer, in spite of his determination to stay on after Trump’s attack.


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All in the Family


(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

To me, the highlight of the week was Sean Hannity’s interview with Don Trump Jr.  At the time of the interview the White House’s story about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia had evolved through the following stages: 1. There was no collusion; 2. There was a meeting on June 9, 2016 of Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort with a Russian lawyer, but only the adoption of Russian children by American citizens was discussed (this version was concocted by Donald Trump Sr. on his flight back from the G20, after leaks from White House advisors had revealed that the meeting took place); 3. The Russian lawyer had gotten Trump Jr.’s attention via an intermediary, with the promise to provide information about Hillary Clinton’s campaign that would be useful to the Trumps, but at the meeting she could not deliver so it was almost immediately over.  The information that ‘dirt’ about Hillary Clinton had been promised had also been leaked to the press, and the New York Times got hold of the e-mails that were exchanged between Trump Jr. and the intermediary about setting up the meeting.  Preemptively Trump Jr. released the e-mails himself, exhibiting his eagerness to collude.  “I love it,” he wrote.

So there they were, Hannity, the junkyard dog of Fox News, and Don Jr., the Fredo of the Trump family.  Ignoring all the lies that up to that point had been told by the president and his spokespeople, they limited themselves to the meeting.  It all happened at the height of the campaign, said Jr., when things were moving so fast that you had barely time to think about something like that.  He might do it differently a second time, but probably everybody would have taken the meeting.  Ultimately it amounted to nothing, Jared left within ten minutes, Manafort only looked at his I-phone, and it wasn’t even important enough to tell Trump Sr. about it.  Hannity boiled over with understanding, sneered at the fake news media who had blown the story out of proportion, and had one last critical question, namely if Trump Jr. had been completely transparent. “This is everything,” was the answer, and Sean was more than satisfied, as was the president who later praised his ‘boy.’ And then something strange happened.  It turned out that a fifth person had been in the room, a former Russian counter-intelligence officer who is now a shady DC lobbyist, and that the lawyer had handed over a file with information about the Clinton campaign for Trump’s perusal.

So far Don Trump Jr. appears to be the leading character of these dramatic events, but he is only a pawn in Putin’s game and certainly not the brightest bulb on the porch.  The real star, or better, black hole, is his brother-in-law Jared Kushner, who failed to report the meeting on his security clearance application.  Other meetings Kushner ‘forgot’ to mention were with Sergey Gorkov, who runs a bank that is generally considered Putin’s foreign slush fund, and with Russian ambassador Kislyak, about setting up a secure backchannel with the Kremlin.

Kushner’s amnesia could land him in federal prison for five years, but his sky got even darker when former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter told McClatchy DC that the Russians could only have targeted American voters via social media as accurately as they did with domestic assistance, for instance from the digital network and database that Jared Kushner managed for the Trump campaign.

The House Intelligence Committee wants to interview Trump Jr., but they might as well leave that to Sean Hannity.  Kushner, who would never talk to Hannity, is the fish they, and Robert Mueller, should be after, because only he can answer the old familiar question: What did the president know, and when did he know it?

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