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A Beautiful Shakedown

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

In his ‘perfect’ phone call with the Ukrainian president Trump essentially said ‘what a beautiful country you have, wouldn’t it be terrible if something happened to it?’  That was after he had held back $390 million in military aid Ukraine desperately needed to defend itself against Russian attacks that started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.  The ‘favor’ the president expected from Ukraine was help for his gofer Rudy Giuliani and potentially his Attorney General, Barr, in finding dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.  At the time Trump saw Biden as his most likely opponent in the 2020 presidential election, but soliciting as well as accepting foreign help in an election is a crime, and using the power of the presidency for personal gain violates the constitution.  Trump made his phone call the day after Robert Mueller testified in Congress, clearly feeling safe enough to become an active player in the next interference scheme.  However, after a whistleblower informed intelligence authorities of the president’s misbehavior Trump immediately released the money to Ukraine, and this week he released the memo of the phone call in an attempt to put the issue to rest.

In most of these cases the cover up is worse than the crime, but in this case it’s pretty even.  According to the whistleblower the White House decided to hide the word-for-word transcript of the phone call in a secret digital vault, and the Director of National Intelligence, confused by the fact that the whistleblower’s complaint pertained to the president, took it to the White House instead of Congress and was told by Trump’s Department of Justice that it was ‘not urgent’.  Once the dam had broken with the release of the memo it was not possible to keep the complaint a secret so that was released as well, followed by testimony by the DNI in Congress.  Other than an attempt to blackmail a president in desperate need of help against a foreign aggressor the memo contains some other breathtaking information.  Trump re-visited the false narrative that the Democrats hacked their own emails with Ukrainian help, in spite of the fact that Mueller had indicted 12 Russians for that crime, slandered Mueller and the former US Ambassador to Ukraine, and floated the evidence-free theory that Hillary Clinton’s emails and the DNC server were hidden somewhere in Ukraine.

When Trump realized that releasing the memo would not get him off the hook he called Nancy Pelosi to see if they could make a deal about ‘this whistleblower thing.’  By then Pelosi, who months ago had said that the president would ‘self-impeach,’ had already committed herself and her caucus to starting impeachment procedures, and the only advice she gave Trump was ‘to stop breaking the law.’  Some of the president’s cronies may think that impeachment will help him in 2020, but Trump doesn’t think so any longer, realizing that it will be the first line of his obituary.

During a Wednesday press conference at the United Nations to highlight his formidable accomplishments during its annual meeting Trump seemed distressed and deflated, although he still had just enough energy to call the whistleblower complaint fake news and utter a few choice words for the Democrats in Congress.  On Thursday he sounded more belligerent, calling the first person who informed the whistleblower about the phone call ‘almost a spy,’  who should be tried for treason.

All this time Trump did Putin’s bidding.  Withholding military aid to Ukraine obviously helped the Russians, and so did his sowing discord with European countries by blaming them for not sufficiently supporting Ukraine.  Suggesting to the Ukrainian president that he sit down with Putin to work things out was equivalent to having told Churchill to have a chat with Hitler during the Battle of Britain.

 

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For Whom the Whistle Blows

(Door Hugo  Kijne te Hoboken USA)

There were two whistleblowers this summer, at least as far as we know.  The first one, a federal employee, reported improper interference in the IRS’s handling of Trump’s tax returns to House Democrats, who in turn used that information in their lawsuit to have the Treasury Department turn over the returns to Congress, while the Manhattan District Attorney demanded the returns from the accounting firm that handles the president’s taxes.  Trump’s lawyers were able to block this request in the last minute, claiming that ‘the president cannot be investigated.’  In DC a bigger scandal is developing.  A member of the intelligence community, who was stationed at the White House, filed a formal whistleblower complaint about a ‘troubling’ promise Trump made in a phone call to a foreign leader.  The Inspector General found the complaint credible and marked it as of ‘urgent concern’ before sending it over to the Acting Director of National Intelligence, who refused to share the information with the House Intelligence Committee as he is bound to do by law, because ‘it pertains to a person outside of the intelligence services.’

There is plenty of speculation about who the promise was made to and what was promised, but it must go well beyond policy decisions that are the president’s prerogative, like lifting all sanctions on Russia.  According to the Washington Post it involves Ukraine and points at interference in the US elections.  True to form the president called the information fake news, and asked if anybody really thought that he would say something incredibly stupid while many people were listening in.  The correct answer to that question is ‘quite possibly,’ because Trump once revealed classified Israeli intelligence to the Russian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador in the Oval Office and recently tweeted a secret satellite image of the damage caused by an explosion at an Iranian space center.  Yesterday the Inspector General testified to the House Intelligence Committee and wanted but was not allowed to reveal the nature of the complaint, and next week the Acting DNI will testify in an open session.  His attempt to keep the information secret will fail, because too many people in and around the White House know about it and it will inevitably leak.

If the second whistleblower caused one headache for Trump, another headache is also entirely of his own making.  Pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear agreement and imposing heavy sanctions on that country has put its leadership in a belligerent mood and led to the attack on Saudi oil fields.  Initially the president suggested that the US would do the Saudi’s military business, because ‘they pay cash,’ but he soon backed away from that position, realizing that a new war in the Middle East would totally disrupt the world economy and ruin his chances of being re-elected.

Secretary of State Pompeo called the attack on the oil fields an ‘act of war,’ and seemed ready to respond in kind, but Trump realizes that he has to talk tough but act like a chicken, or, in other words, speak loudly but carry no stick.  One bizarre aspect of this situation is that only last week the president, as well as Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, emphatically stated that Trump would meet with the Iranians without pre-conditions, something he now calls fake news.

Next to harassing the Federal Reserve into another rate cut the president found time to try and revoke California’s authority to set its own emission standards for cars.  This is a complete  exercise in futility, because car manufacturers realize very well that Trump won’t be in the Oval Office forever, and that lowering standards now will only get them into trouble in the future.


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Tango with the Taliban

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Over the weekend the President of the United States, who has nothing better to do, kept harping about the Alabama weather forecasters who had contradicted his warning that their state might be hit by hurricane Dorian.  Trump went even as far as telling his Chief of Staff to instruct his Commerce Secretary to order the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to put out a statement that the Alabama National Weather Service people had been dead wrong, eight days after Dorian had made a right turn and not even hit Florida.  While the president was taking care of this urgent business the news broke that as off 2017 the US Air Force had been making fueling stops at a small airport near Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland.  Not only does the Trump Organization have a business relationship with the airport, but occasionally crews overnighted at the resort, putting badly needed taxpayer dollars in Trump’s coffers.  After the president’s announcement that he wants to host the 2020 G7 meeting at his Doral resort in Florida this is not really surprising, but it takes his grifting to a new level and Congress is starting an investigation.

Also over the weekend Trump tweeted that he had cancelled a meeting with Taliban leaders at Camp David and put an end to all negotiations with them because a US soldier had been killed in an attack in Afghanistan.  The fact that the meeting -apparently ad hoc – had been scheduled was a secret, and there was absolutely no need to trumpet its cancellation, but apparently the president wanted a headline and credit for trying something different.  His effort backfired, because there was almost universal disapproval of even the thought of bringing the Taliban into the US in the week of 9/11, while the foreign policy community condemned the fact that months of difficult negotiations had fallen by the wayside.  The Taliban disaster was followed by National Security Advisor John Bolton’s departure from the White House, according to Trump because he fired Bolton Monday night and according to Bolton because he resigned Tuesday morning.  In the subsequent pissing contest with the president Bolton had the stronger stream, because Tuesday morning he was still announced as one of the speakers at a White House event later that day.

It was no secret that Bolton was already in the doghouse, because when Trump was in Tokyo he had been sent to Tadzhikistan and he gave his critical comments on the Taliban mishap from Warsaw, but the new vacancy means that Trump from now on will be his own NSA, and that is a very scary thought.  In a Q&A on Wednesday the president ping-ponged between trashing Bolton as the ‘not smart but tough guy’ who had gotten us into Iraq, and declaring that they still had a great relationship, probably scared of a tell-all book with which Bolton can make a fortune in 2020.

Next to Trump’s grifting his administration’s cruelty towards immigrants also reached a new level.  The Supreme Court upheld the policy that asylum seekers first have to ask for asylum in a country they are traveling through, in most cases Mexico, before they can ask for asylum in the US, and there is a good chance that very sick people receiving treatment in the US will be sent back to countries where that treatment is not available, as a result of which most of them will die.

In an Oval Office presentation about the dangers of vaping, for which Melania had been drugged and posted on a sofa, Trump declared that ‘she has a son,’ quickly adding ‘together’ because otherwise it would seem as if he had nothing to do with Barron’s conception.  Somewhere in the US Stormy Daniels must have laughed out loud and Karen McDougal must at least have had a chuckle.

 

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Trump is Never Wrong

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

After congratulating Poland with the attack by Nazi Germany 75 years ago and canceling his visits to that country and Ireland, sending Mike Pence instead, Trump spent the weekend playing golf and tweeting about the threat of hurricane Dorian.  In one of his tweets on Sunday he implied that among the states in Dorian’s path was Alabama, an assertion that was almost immediately contradicted by the National Weather Service.  It is against the law to file false reports about weather emergencies, because people’s lives are at stake, but Trump cannot be indicted, so he got away with yet another crime.  To prove his point, on Wednesday Trump produced a map from the National Hurricane Center that had been altered with a sharpie, the president’s favorite writing tool, to put Alabama retroactively in danger.  It is also illegal to modify government documents, but Trump truly believes that he cannot be wrong and that truth is a relative concept.   His mentor, political henchman Roy Cohn, taught the president never to apologize, but Trump did Cohn one better by making ‘never admit a mistake’ the guiding principle of his presidency.

Meanwhile the grifting went on.  Trump ‘advised’ Pence to stay at his Irish golf resort – which would put a significant amount of taxpayer dollars into the president’s pockets – even though the resort is on the west coast and Pence’s meetings were on the east coast, meaning that the taxpayers would also incur costs for two cross country flights of Airforce Two, and in DC it was revealed that Attorney General Barr will throw a $30,000 holiday party in Trump’s hotel.  To make Washington even more dysfunctional the president is encouraging Corey Lewandowski, a first class thug and his former campaign manager, to run for the US Senate in New Hampshire.  In order to build at least part of ‘the wall,’ one of his campaign promises, Trump diverted $3.6 billion from the Pentagon’s budget, money that was intended for military construction.  He may think that this will keep his base happy, even though the funding doesn’t come from Mexico, but in all 127 projects are affected in a large number of states, some of which Trump has to win to get re-elected.  Taking away federal money and thus jobs doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

The Washington Post observed that during this last summer before an election year the president has done nothing to expand his base.  His plan, if there is one, appears to be to follow a very narrow path to a majority in the Electoral College, presumably with Russian assistance, leaving the national popular vote to the Democratic nominee.  However, with the manufacturing sector crimping for the first time in years and markets in disarray because of Trump’s tariffs, his approval ratings finally start to go down, not in the least because ‘Trump fatigue’ is slowly settling in thanks to all the drama the White House is responsible for.

Trump’s presidency is one of unkept promises: a significant tax cut for the middle class, great and affordable healthcare for everybody, and mining and manufacturing jobs coming back to the US, to mention a few.  The 33% wack jobs in the US population who are now members-for-life of the Trump cult will vote for him, but others may have their doubts: farmers, whose businesses have been destroyed by the trade war with China, and miners and factory workers, who begin to realize Trump lied to them.

A third group Trump cannot automatically count on consists of high earning executives, doctors and lawyers, who benefited from his tax cuts for the wealthy, but realize that no more give-aways are coming and dislike the president as a person.  Unlike these unprincipled opportunists the president is loyal to his soulmates:  in the middle of the UK’s current political mess he said: ‘Boris is a friend of mine and he’s going to win.’

 

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Home from Abroad

(Door Hugo Kijne te Hoboken USA)

Donald Trump flew back to the US the day before I flew to Holland for a family visit.  Before the president left for the G7 he slapped more tariffs on imports from China, called both Fed chairman Jerome Powell and China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping  ‘enemies of the people,’ and ‘ordered’ US companies to get out of the latter’s country.  In Biarritz, France, where the G7 was held, Trump said that he had second thoughts about the tariffs, raising some experts’ hopes that the president understood the damage they were doing to American farmers and consumers, but his remarks were followed by a statement from the White House that Trump meant the tariffs might be too low.  Apparently understanding, however, that his actions were hurting his chances at getting re-elected, Trump continued his bizarre flip-flopping by suggesting that a deal with China was very close because the Chinese had already called him, something China denied.  In Biarritz the president did not attend the session on the environment, in light of the fires in the Amazon rainforest probably the most important part of the event in the eyes of the other leaders.

From France Trump sent a number of ludicrous tweets, among others that the question he was being asked most by the other participants of the G7 was why the US media hate America so much.   The president announced that he was strongly considering his struggling Doral Golf Course in Florida, a loss leader in the Trump Organization, as the site for the next G7, apparently because Doral has the biggest ballrooms in the state and no bed-bugs.  Trump added that he didn’t want and was not going to make any money from the event, something that is even less believable than his tweet about the US media.  Since France had surprised Trump by having the Iranian Foreign Secretary pay a visit to the G7 it is almost inevitable that the president will invite Putin to the next one, even though Putin’s presence in the US a couple of months before the elections may not help Trump, especially if there already are signs that Russia is again trying to interfere.  When the president was on his way back to the US the news broke that on numerous occasions he had suggested to bomb, even to nuke, hurricanes that are on their way to the US, ‘to prevent damage.’

In Biarritz it became obvious that the G7 is now the G6+1. The other participants treated Trump like an irritable child and tried to take care of business on the side.  At his closing press conference the president was good for a few more shockers.  He lied that he had missed the environmental session because he had meetings with Angela Merkel and India’s Prime Minister Modi, who each were shown attending the session.

Another beauty was his declaration that Melania liked Kim Jong-un, although she never met the Korean dictator, and his re-branding of Xi Jinping as a ‘great leader,’ in an attempt to flatter Xi into a trade deal.  The president called himself an environmentalist because he ‘likes clean air and water,’ and said that Obama could have prevented Russia’s annexation of Crimea by doing ‘whatever.’

In Amsterdam I decided to pay no attention to Trump for the rest of the week, which meant staying off Twitter, a welcome relief.  Still, almost everybody I spoke with wanted to talk about Trump, and the two most common questions were: ‘how much crazier will he get?’ and ‘can he be beaten?’  My answer: we’ll see what happens.


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