Media (421)

 

Escalation of Commitment

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Escalation of commitment is a decisional error that occurs when an individual or a group stays with, and usually doubles down on, a wrong decision, doing significant harm to themselves and their environment.  When I explained the concept to students until now the early 1990s New York Yankees have been my example.  Every baseball fan knows that pitching is the name of the game, but the Yankees had an owner who figured that as long as his team got more runs than the opponent the pitching didn’t matter.  So for years he spent heavily on sluggers, counting on multiple grand slam homeruns per game, and ignored the pitching.  The result was a number of poor seasons and too many disgruntled long ball hitters, of which only one or two could be in the game, sitting on the bench and losing their skills.  Things got better when the owner removed himself from decision making about the team and let his general manager invest in pitching.  Soon the Yankees had a more balanced team and started winning World Series again, four between 1996 and 2000 alone.

From now on I will use the Republicans in congress as the perfect illustration of escalation of commitment.  Long before the presidential election everybody could have known that Donald Trump is a pathological narcissist and a serial liar, but until he got elected Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell didn’t really care, and when he won the presidency they got stuck with him.  Since then, Trump has created one embarrassment after another, for himself, for his party, and for the USA, culminating in his firing of James Comey after he had asked Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn.  Trump’s interactions with Comey were entirely improper, and according to most experts border on obstruction of justice, but so far the only response from Paul Ryan has been that ‘Trump is new to the presidency,’ and therefore not aware of established protocols, while McConnell must have gone fishing somewhere, because he hasn’t been heard of for a while.  It appears that both Ryan and McConnell still see president Trump as the umbrella under which they can make policy.

Their attitude is somewhat understandable but foolish at the same time.  If they decide to disassociate from Trump now they antagonize the approximately 35% of Americans who still consider him a good president, and all but guarantee a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2018, after which their agenda can no longer be implemented.  But if they stay with Trump they share responsibility for his current and future scandals.

The latter may hurt them more than the former.  Robert Mueller has only just started his investigation of Russian interference with the election and of collusion by the Trump campaign, and at some point there will be a report showing Trump’s involvement, either passive, by ignoring his subordinates’ misconduct, or active, by directing and encouraging them.

By that time Trump’s presidency will have become even more ineffective than it is now.  The ‘cloud’ will have been hanging over him all the time, and the current congress will only be known for destroying Obamacare without replacing it and subsidizing the ultra-rich.


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The World’s Laughingstock

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

About ten years ago, in my last job, I hired an associate director who turned out to be a staunch conservative.  He didn’t stay very long in my office, not because of his politics but because his bookkeeping skills cost me about 5% of my annual budget, approximately $100,000.  Well before I fired him he confided in me that of all American presidents he had hated Jimmy Carter the most.  It was not the first time I heard a conservative US citizen express contempt for Carter, but this time I asked for the cause of those feelings.  His answer was brief: “Jimmy Carter made you ashamed to be an American,” he said, “by constantly apologizing for alleged crimes the US had committed around the world.” Only Ronald Reagan’s moral indifference to such issues had cured him from his temporary inferiority complex.  I had always felt that Carter was a better than average president who had been screwed out of a second term, so I didn’t understand him then, but I do now.  I’ve been a US citizen for the better part of fourteen years, and last Thursday Donald Trump made me ashamed.

There are a lot of dimensions to the way Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Accord on climate control.  First there were the usual falsehoods about the agreement itself.  You cannot accuse Trump of lying, because he doesn’t know better than what he says, partly because he is too lazy to read an agreement he is about to cancel, and partly because he is too dumb to understand it and has nobody who can explain it in the White House, so that vicious Trump-whisperers like Bannon and Miller have free reign.  Of all the CEOs who have commented on the decision, before and after it was made, only two, both representing the coal mining industry, were supportive, in spite of the fact that, unlike Trump, they know that lost mining jobs won’t come back.  And even Ivanka’s sweetest smile and Jared’s masculine silence could not convince the president that he was about to make the mistake of a lifetime.  For the whole world to see he joined Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries who have not signed the agreement, the latter because the accord’s goals are too modest.

Apart from making the US the laughingstock of the world and reaching a new, so far unimagined, low in his presidency, Trump’s decision also had some upsides for him.  It all but wiped out the memory of his recent buffoonish behavior in Europe and took some attention away from Jeff Sessions, who apparently for the third time failed to report a meeting with the Russian ambassador, as well as from Jared Kushner’s dance with an oligarch.

Sessions might have to resign as Attorney General, but Kushner is in even bigger trouble.  He claims that his meeting with Gorkov, president of the bank that is in reality Putin’s foreign slush fund, the VEB, was strictly business, but the VEB is under US sanction, and therefore not open for Kushner’s business unless the sanctions are lifted.

The latest news on this front is that immediately after Trump’s inauguration his staff started the process of rescinding the sanctions.  Syria’s dropping poison gas on women and children, with Russian support, put a halt to those attempts, and for now denied Kushner the money he so badly needs to pay his $1.3 billion debt.

 
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Collusion, Espionage or Treason?

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

According to the White House Trump’s first foreign excursion as president was a slam dunk.  In Saudi Arabia he declared his allegiance to the Sunni side of the ideological gorge that splits the Muslim world, in a company of autocrats, dictators and war criminals with which he seemed to feel very much at home.  In the process Trump succeeded in peddling $110 billion in military hardware.  
      His decision to completely deride the Iranian Shiites must have been confusing for the government of Iraq, nominally a US ally but ruled by Shiites, and will inevitably give Iran even more control over their country, but Trump doesn’t understand complex relationships and it will hurt American troops stationed in Iraq.  In Israel all went well, except that the president appeared to have forgotten that the country is part of the Middle East and spilled the secret that Israel is the source of the intelligence he shared with the Russians.  In Europe Trump really went off the rails.  He failed to say that the US is a committed NATO member, scolded and insulted European leaders, acted like Uncle Scrooge at a Holiday Party and let the world see what a genuine boor looks like.
      According to leaks out of the presidential entourage all the while Trump was obsessing about the Russia probe at home, and he had reason to do so.  NSA Director Rogers held a town hall for his personnel in which he declared that he had intelligence showing collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and the news broke that Jared Kushner is a person of interest in the FBI investigation.  During the week the allegations became more specific and it turned out that Kushner and Flynn, in secret meetings with Russian ambassador Kislyak, had asked him to set up a backchannel with Moscow for the Trump White House, using secure Russian communication channels.  Even for spymaster Kislyak this was a bizarre request, and when he reported it to Moscow apparently the channels were not secure and US intelligence services intercepted his message.  At this point it is still unclear what the backchannel’s intent was and which way the information would have flown.  From the White House to Moscow it could have been espionage, and the other way around treason, if instructions were given and followed by the administration.
       Possibly as a distraction from the Russia probe, in Washington budget director Mulvaney tried to explain and defend a budget that is so insanely cruel that moderate GOP senators declared it dead upon arrival.  Next to huge cuts in programs for the poor and huge tax cuts for the super-rich it contains the usual pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking about economic growth, and a calculation error by which $2 trillion would be spent twice, once for tax cuts and once for deficit reduction.
       Last night the New York Times’ Nick Confessore explained that for real estate moguls like Trump and Kushner Russia is not an adversary but an important funding source, and that their business has always involved a significant amount of gambling, which would explain the high risk request for a secret backchannel, almost certainly made with the president’s approval.
       The FBI probe will show if crimes were committed, but the US President cannot be charged, only impeached.  Recent polling shows that Trump’s support is slowly eroding, and if that continues at some point House Republicans may have to prioritize their own political survival.

 

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Field Trip

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Yesterday Donald Trump, his wife, daughter and son-in-law flew to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by the blundering bunch that is also known as the senior White House staff, Priebus, Bannon, Spicer and some underlings. They leave behind a nation reeling from this week’s events: Trump’s suggestion that he had taped his conversations with James Comey and the threat to make those tapes public, countered by the revelation that Comey had written detailed memo’s after every meeting with Trump; the news that there had been at least eighteen contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents before the presidential election, and the shocking information that a senior member of the White House staff, ‘close to the president,’ is a person of interest in the FBI probe into possible collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin; the appointment of a Special Counsel by the Deputy Attorney General, who had been thrown under the bus by Trump when he fired Comey, a firing which, as Trump told the Russians in the Oval Office while he was spilling Israeli intelligence, was quite a relief because Comey was a ‘nut job.’

And then there is Michael Flynn.  Formally Flynn was fired after three weeks as National Security Advisor because he had lied to the vice president about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador, but now we have learned that the White House knew that Flynn was under investigation before he was appointed, because he acted as an un-registered agent for Turkey, paid with money that partly came from Russia. Flynn’s affiliation became clear when he wrote an op-ed demanding that Fethullah Gülen, an enemy of the Turkish president, be extradited, and when he stopped a military action against ISIS in Syria because Turkey had a problem with it.  Trump’s firing of Comey may at some point be classified as obstruction of justice, but Flynn’s behavior smells like treason, and yet Trump cannot let go of him.  He has already expressed his regrets that he fired Flynn, sent him the message to ‘stay strong,’ and said that eventually he wants him back in the White House.  It makes you wonder what Flynn knows that Trump desperately wants to remain a secret.

As much as he hates not sleeping in his own bed Trump’s first foreign trip may provide some relief, both for him and his traveling companions and for the exhausted home front.  He will meet only people he has antagonized, leaders of fifty Muslim nations, the Pope, and representatives of NATO countries, but they have all been instructed to keep their speeches short, because Trump has the attention span of a six year old, so what can go wrong?

Still, what awaits Trump and his associates when they return home has to be on their minds.  There can be little doubt that the person of interest is Jared Kushner, who is probably suspected of something more serious than having his sister peddle green cards to Chinese biljonairs in exchange for half-a-million dollar investments in a Jersey City apartment building.

Also waiting is James Comey, who has just agreed to testify in public for the Senate Intelligence Committee to tell his side of the story about how he was fircd, and finally there is Robert Mueller, the Special Counsel, who will undoubtedly find a way to get Flynn to start talking.

 
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Patterns

 
(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Sally Yates informed the White House about an investigation into Michael Flynn’s Russia connections and she was fired.  Preet Bharara was investigating a possible Russian money laundering operation via the Trump organization and he was fired.  James Comey was supervising an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence agents to affect the outcome of the presidential election and he was fired. You could say that there is a pattern, and then there are the lies.  Initially the White House said that Trump fired Comey exclusively at the recommendation of the Deputy Attorney General, Rosenstein, who at Trump’s request had documented the unfair treatment Hillary Clinton received from Comey.  White House spokespeople and the vice president were sent out to convey that message to the public, but of course nobody but Trump’s base believed it, so the president took corrective action.  He went on national TV to declare that he had decided to fire Comey a long time ago, because he wanted the investigation into the collusion, according to him ‘a hoax,’ to end.

For once, Trump spoke the truth, although there were also plenty of lies in his TV appearance.  He claimed that Comey had requested to have dinner with him at the White House to ask if he could keep his job, and had told him he was not under investigation.  According to people who know Comey well and spoke with him around the time of the dinner meeting none of those things can possibly be true.  They, in return, revealed that Trump inappropriately had asked Comey for his ‘loyalty,’ to which the FBI director responded that he could only pledge his honesty. Trump could have fired Comey for any reason, but not for the reason he gave.  It borders on obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense, and it will energize FBI agents, who are furious about Comey’s dismissal, to double down on the collusion investigation.  And if Trump, as is widely expected, appoints a partisan FBI director who tries to end the investigation, the scandal will be so colossal that Rosenstein will be forced to appoint a Special Counsel and/or Congress to install a Special Committee, which will only be more damaging for Trump.

In the meantime Senator Lindsey Graham is pursuing information about Russian money in the Trump organization.  Trump still refuses to make his tax returns public, but he had his lawyers draw up a bizarre letter stating that there are no financial ties to Russia ‘with a few exceptions.’ The document says that money paid for goods and services (like luxury apartments) cannot be traced, which means that it can very well come from shell companies loaded with rubles.

In the shadow of Comey’s firing the moral destruction of the United States continues.  Trump installed an ‘election integrity group’ to find the three million illegal immigrants who voted for Hillary Clinton.  Betsy DeVos lifted restrictions on for-profit colleges, many of which scam their students out of money, and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions intensified the racist ‘war on drugs.’

There is a rule in decision theory that says ‘if you cannot solve the problem, enlarge it,’ and something similar appears to be Trump’s guiding principle.  Like some farm animals, he runs into the fire and not away from it.  Those animals usually don’t survive, and neither will Trump’s presidency.

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