Trump Consumes All the Oxygen in Washington

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Comey and Trump: Back in the news

W.J. Astore

Another day, another Trump scandal, this one stemming from a memo written by the former FBI director, James Comey, in the aftermath of a private conversation he had with the President.  According to the Comey memo, the president urged him to drop the FBI’s investigation into Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, using these words: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Obstruction of justice?  Impeachable offense?  That’s debatable.  But the alleged conversation obviously takes on heightened meaning after Trump fired Comey, in part because of frustration with the FBI’s investigation into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election.

It’s unclear if any crimes were committed here.  What is clear is that Trump is a poor manager of himself as well as his staff.  Flynn, with his dodgy record, should never have been hired.  Furthermore, the president should not have gone out on a limb to defend him, cajoling the FBI director, in so many words, to go easy on my guy.

Perhaps Trump’s biggest flaw is his combination of boastfulness, lack of judgment, and his ego-driven need to take charge.  He reminds me of an Air Force saying: “He’s all Mach and no compass heading.”  He’ll break the sound barrier while moving in the opposite direction to sound governance.

I wrote back in March of 2016 that candidate Trump had disqualified himself from the presidency by boasting about how America’s generals would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  My main point was that Trump had no understanding of his Constitutional responsibilities, nor did he seem to care much about learning them.  If Comey’s memo is accurate, I think it’s another instance of Trump either not knowing or not caring about propriety, about the rule of law.

Trump’s experience in life is as a CEO of a family business.  Everyone has always worked for him; in essence, he’s been King Trump.  Even though he’s now president, he still acts like a king, making up his own rules as he goes along, not knowing a rule book already exists.

Will Trump survive his first term?  As Yoda might say, Difficult to see — always in motion the future.  One thing is certain: Trump continues to consume all the oxygen in Washington, extinguishing any hope of real progress or effective governance at the federal level.

Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

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Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

Comey’s Firing Is All About Trump

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Comey is terminated. An ineffective leader? It takes one to know one.

W.J. Astore

Sometimes it’s necessary to state the obvious.  The firing of FBI Director James Comey is not about his job performance and especially his handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails.  It’s all about Donald J. Trump.

Consider Trump’s terse letter of termination to Comey.  Here’s the key passage:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

The bolded phrase is remarkable.  Trump is at pains to suggest that Comey is not investigating him, yet the FBI is indeed looking into Russian influence in the 2016 election, including ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

Whether you believe the whole Russian influence dispute is a made-up scandal, a red herring, so to speak, the fact is that Trump sees it as a major threat to his prerogatives and power. That’s why he’s at pains to state bluntly that Comey is not investigating him. Comey, Trump says, told him three times — three times! — he’s not under investigation.

The president doth protest too much.  If you think Comey is unable to lead effectively, fire him for that reason.  You don’t need to include a self-aggrandizing statement of how blameless or innocent you are in the ongoing Russian investigation.

Trump’s firing of Comey, moreover, displays his petulance, his impetuousness, and indeed his nervousness about the trajectory of his presidency.

As the CEO of a family business, Trump is used to firing people who don’t kowtow to him. Running a nation, however, is not like running a family business.  Right?

Will Trump prevail?  Time will tell.  One thing is certain: American democracy — what’s left of it — suffered another body blow yesterday.

Get Another Goat

Michael Murry

Democrats need an honest post-mortem – not dishonest scapegoating – in the aftermath of their devastating 2016 defeat.

Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one’s conduct. – George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism” (London: Polemic, 1945)

Many have written about the recent Women’s March in Washington, D.C. — and in other cities across the United States – which occurred in response to President Donald Trump’s early executive orders, cabinet appointments, in-your-face culture-war media-baiting, and (of course) his signature late-night twitter trolling. Lots of things to legitimately oppose and protest, surely, but to my knowledge, few of these articles have analyzed the women-led protest marches from the standpoint of exculpatory political scapegoating, if not transferred nationalism, as George Orwell explained the meaning of that term in his famous essay. For my part, I would like to try and address this imbalance.

First off, several signs that I saw from the Women’s March addressed President Donald Trump personally in terms that I had difficulty connecting with Women’s Rights, such as I understand them. I don’t have a problem with either the imagery or the language, however crude or even profane, since Donald Trump himself seems to delight in offending as many persons, nations, and institutions as he possibly can if it serves his purposes. So, if he receives rough treatment, in picture or word, then he has it coming. He gets no sympathy from me. My problem with these signs stems not from their tone of deserved disrespect, but from their strange fixation on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin who – as far as I can tell – has no power to deny an American woman equal pay, access to a safe abortion, maternity leave, or quality public education for her children, among other issues that women – as women – typically consider important.

For example, take the following piece of work, a pointed paraphrase of an old children’s nursery rhyme:

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I saw other signs of a similar nature, another of which I will cite later as a further example. I cannot speak to the generality of such sentiments, and I would hope that only a few persons harbor them, but this unfortunate expression of malignant partisan irrelevancy immediately gets to the point raised by Robert Parry in an article he wrote for Consortium News (February 1, 2017): namely, “Dangers of Democratic Putin-Bashing – Exclusive: As national Democratic leaders continue to blame Russian President Putin for their 2016 defeat, they’re leading their party into a realignment with the neocons and other war hawks.”

While I concur with Mr. Parry’s article in the main, I have to disagree with his use of the present progressive tense and the word “realignment.” As a matter of fact, the alignment of the Democratic Party with “neocons and other war hawks” took place decades ago, with President Bill Clinton. President Barack Obama and the hapless Democrats in Congress, for their part, have only reinforced and strengthened this alignment.  To speak of this dreadful reality as if it exists only as a possible development in the future rather misstates the truly grim and long-established reality. Otherwise, and specifically as this article relates to the Women’s March, consider a comment I came across in response to Robert Parry’s article:

“evelync”
February 1, 2017 at 11:35 am

I have to admit that I was unable to drag myself to the women’s march because I was unsettled by the concern that it was being used, perhaps, to try to keep Hillary Clinton’s foot in the door.

Another commenter wrote:

“D5-5”
February 1, 2017 at 2:15 pm

I don’t know that having allowed themselves to sink into the behaviors employed to knock off [Senator Bernie] Sanders, then expanding these to Russia-bashing, as the Dems and Clinton did, will likely take them in the direction of an ‘oh, let’s get honest here and see why we lost the election, and straighten ourselves right out to become an actually decent alternative to offer to the American people.’

Two points here:

(1) Why not blame the Democratic Party and its deeply unpopular, demonstrably inept, largely unaccomplished, and repeatedly discredited candidate, You-Know-Her [Hillary Clinton], for losing instead of crediting the political rookie Donald Trump – and by extension, Russian President Vladimir Putin – for “winning”?

(2) Why not insist that the losing Democrats conduct a long-overdue autopsy, summarily purge their Wall-Street/Permanent-War “leadership” (the names Clinton and Obama come to mind here), and reform themselves into a truly working-class, anti-war party capable of winning back the loyalty of those impoverished Americans whom they have betrayed and abandoned for Ivy-League University degrees and swell vacations on Martha’s Vineyard with other newly rich members of their privileged “professional” class?

But attaining emotional salvation through scapegoating – so as not to require actually doing anything to cure the real political and economic disease of neoliberalism – does seem the order of the day among these marchers, most of whom one must suppose voted for You-Know-Her and the neoliberal status quo that downwardly dropping American workers hate with an abiding and vengeful passion. The Damsel of Distress has done it again, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as only a “New Democrat” named Clinton could manage. How that must hurt!

Moving right along, I came across another image from the Women’s March that showed a man holding a mask of Vladimir Putin in front of his face while holding what looked like marionette strings from which dangled the image of Donald Trump as a puppet.

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Now, I know You-Know-Her openly called Donald Trump a “puppet” of Vladimir Putin during one of the fall campaign debates, so it does not surprise me that some of her partisan supporters would credulously accept this gratuitous slur without bothering to think through the preposterous illogic behind it. For as those who have read the WikiLeaks documents have explained, the Clinton campaign tried everything they could to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump on the theory that he would make the weakest opponent, one whom You-Know-Her would have the least trouble vanquishing. Consider the following excerpt from the articleThey Always Wanted Trump: Inside Team Clinton’s year-long struggle to find a strategy against the opponent they were most eager to face”, by Gabriel Debenedetti, Politico (November 07, 2016):

Clinton’s team drew up a plan to pump Trump up. Shortly after her kickoff, top aides organized a strategy call, whose agenda included a memo to the Democratic National Committee: “This memo is intended to outline the strategy and goals a potential Hillary Clinton presidential campaign would have regarding the 2016 Republican presidential field,” it read.

“The variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right. In this scenario, we don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party,” read the memo.

“Pied Piper candidates include, but aren’t limited to: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Ben Carson

We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”

Now, aside from the arrogant (but not implausible) notion that You-Know-Her’s campaign could tell [as in, “command”] the press whom to take seriously, no one has ever questioned the accuracy of these memoranda from John Podesta to You-Know-Her’s campaign. But just consider what they tell us.

First, if Donald Trump owed his candidacy to You-Know-Her’s campaign to promote him as a Pied Piper over all the other Republican candidates, and if Russian President Vladimir Putin somehow contrived to make all this happen, then that would credit Vladimir Putin with first manipulating one puppet, You-Know-Her, to control Trump, another puppet. In the interest of metaphorical accuracy, then, the marching protester here should have worn a Putin mask while holding the strings to a puppet of You-Know-Her holding the strings to another puppet, All-About-Him [Trump].

Second, if President Putin had successfully pulled off this convoluted manipulation of both presidential candidates, then why would he possibly let that fact come to light in these WikiLeaks memos? Wouldn’t he want to keep his sinister Machiavellian machinations a secret, so as not – as America’s CIA spooks like to say – reveal his “sources and methods”? As a former KGB intelligence officer, surely he knows his espionage tradecraft better than that. So, logically, President Putin would have no interest in revealing his omnipotent control of America’s two hapless presidential candidates. It makes no sense that Russia would leak anything about this to WikiLeaks or any other journalistic source. That would only discredit Trump as a dupe of both You-Know-Her and Vladimir Putin.

Complete bullshit, either way. It would appear that – in truth – John Podesta and You-Know-Her got just the opponent they wanted to run against: Donald Trump. Then they lost to their own “Pied Piper” puppet. But still they want to scapegoat Russian President Vladimir Putin for their own manifest failure to recognize and respond to the seething desperation of America’s working class. The people want jobs and incomes, not more NAFTA or TPP trade deals. You-Know-Her promised more of the latter. Trump promised at least some of the former. Gee whiz. Who could have ever figured out which way that “choice” would go?

Not that Republican Donald Trump will necessarily deliver anything more than tax cuts and deregulation to the Corporate Oligarchy while shoveling loads of crappy culture war to the proles who voted for him, but sheer luck, some media-sense, and good timing have given him the chance. I seriously doubt that he has the knowledge and competence to pull off anything resembling PEACE, but he does now have that opportunity. Who knows if he has the wit to seize it?

At any rate, it appears as if the defeated Democrats have chosen Russian President Putin as an attractive scapegoat simply due to (1) his “foreignness” and (2) the nature of transferred nationalism. This psychological transference, Orwell wrote, “has an important function. … It makes it possible for [the nationalist] to be much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he [or she] could ever be on behalf of [their] native country, or any unit of which [they] had real knowledge.”

Americans know little, if anything, about the Russian Federation or its duly elected, competent, domestically popular, and internationally respected president. Creative costumes and too-clever-by-half slogans aside, it seems like a monumental waste of time, energy, and limited American attention span for the Democrats to scapegoat President Putin for their own stupidity, arrogance, and insensitivity to their party’s traditional base.

The Democrats had better look inward and get their own act together. Either that, or get another goat.

Michael Murry is a Vietnam Veteran, gargoyle sculptor, and poet.  A loyal correspondent to Bracing Views, he is also a contributor to The Contrary Perspective.

The Trump Cabinet of Billionaires and Generals

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Coming soon to a community near you

W.J. Astore

There’s an obvious trend in Trump’s cabinet picks: billionaires and generals. The billionaires favor private enterprise, capitalism unconstrained by regulations (especially those pesky environmental ones), and a view of the world in which global warming either doesn’t exist or can be ignored for the purposes of economic growth and higher profits. The generals?  Well, they’re military men, “lifers” experienced in the ways of weapons and war, with a reputation for no compromise, especially against radical Islamic terrorism.

Trump’s latest cabinet pick (pending official announcement) is Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Tillerson is currently the president, CEO, and chairman of Exxon Mobil Corporation.  He’s done some big petro deals with Russia and favors lifting sanctions against that country for its actions in the Crimea.  Expect relations with Putin’s Russia to improve under Trump, not necessarily a bad thing considering the nuclear arsenals that each country has.

If past is prologue, I’d say we can count on a few big changes from Trump and his cabinet in the coming months and years:

1. Privatization and profit are the bywords.  For example, expect more charter schools and lower government funding for public schools.  Expect a low federal minimum wage (it will probably remain stagnant at $7.25 an hour), sold as helping companies with job creation. Expect an emphasis on helping the “job creators,” i.e. rich people, and a revival of trickle down economics.

2. An embrace (or re-embrace) of fossil fuels.  You can forget about major funding for alternative or green energy.

3. A rejection of global warming/climate change as “speculative” and “unproven” by science, thereby enabling more fossil fuel exploration and production.  Remember, there are still trillions of dollars to be made by extracting fossil fuels.  With that much money at stake, it’s not staying in the ground, America.

4. A repudiation of environmental protections as making America “uncompetitive” in the global marketplace.

5. More military interventionism in the cause of combating radical Islamic terrorism.  And more endless wars as those interventions fail to end the threat, creating blowback and more conflict instead.

6.  A health care system that is increasingly privatized, complicated, and expensive, making many people long for the days of Obamacare.  (People are going to love shopping for their own health care in the private sector under Trump, right?)

7. Renewed emphasis on an ethos based on endless work, knee-jerk patriotism (“We’re Number One!  At something!  Military spending!  The number of hours we work for low pay!  And for no health care!  America!”), and violence both here and abroad.  The rejection of diversity and attacks on “the Other” in the false (and dangerous) cause of “making America American again.”  Prejudice and vulgarity disguised as principled rejection of “political correctness.”

Despite Trump’s thin-skinned nature and relative ignorance of foreign affairs, I don’t see nuclear war in the immediate future.  But I do see creeping militarism and growing authoritarianism, always disguised as “necessary” and “to keep us safe.” I see more people suffering, some even dying, due to cutbacks in government aid, also in the name of “security,” e.g. cutting the deficit. I see more passion directed against marginalized people and less compassion for the afflicted. This will be couched as “realism” and as “fiscally responsible.”  I see “rugged individualism” extolled, even as government welfare is extended to corporations and financiers, again in the name of “competitiveness” and “job creation.”  In the meantime, life will indeed become more rugged for individuals as government welfare for them is cut.

As the holidays approach, many of us will watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” yet again, starring a true war hero, Jimmy Stewart.  In that movie, he wages a long battle against Mr. Potter, a greedy and unprincipled banker, the Trump of his community.  In a brief scene near the end of the movie, Stewart’s character is given a glimpse of how his beloved community of Bedford Falls would have fared if Potter had ruled unchallenged.

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Pottersville: Trump’s kind of place

The lurid and tawdry streets of “Pottersville” are a vivid reminder to Stewart of the value of principled resistance against petty tyrants.

Whether you call it Pottersville or Trump Towers, naked greed and exploitation must be fought.  Just remember: the Potters and Trumps of the world do not fight fair.

On Nuclear Weapons, Trump is Nightmarishly Scary

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An Ohio-class nuclear submarine

W.J. Astore

Much of the post-debate analysis I’ve read from last night’s presidential debate has focused on Donald Trump’s crudeness, his threat to prosecute and jail his political opponent, the way in which he stalked her on the stage, looming in the background and crowding her, and finally his non-apology apology about “locker room banter.”  Yes: Trump is most definitely lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable, but that’s hardly the worst of his qualities.

His worst quality?  His sweeping ignorance to the point of recklessness when it comes to matters of national defense, and specifically America’s nuclear arsenal.

This is what Trump had to say last night about the U.S. nuclear deterrent:

But our nuclear program has fallen way behind, and they’ve gone wild with their nuclear program. Not good. Our government shouldn’t have allowed that to happen. Russia is new in terms of nuclear. We are old. We’re tired. We’re exhausted in terms of nuclear. A very bad thing.

This is utter nonsense.  First off, nuclear weapons are not people.  They don’t get “tired” or “exhausted” or “old.”  Second, the U.S. nuclear program has not “fallen way behind” the programs of other nations, certainly not Russia’s.  Third, even if portions of Russia’s nuclear program are “new” (whatever that means), that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the United States.  “New” in this case may mean safer and more reliable systems that are less prone to catastrophic error.

Here’s an undeniable fact: The U.S. nuclear arsenal is by far the world’s most powerful and advanced.  The key aspect to nuclear capability is survivability, and nothing is more survivable than America’s force of Trident nuclear submarines.  Virtually impossible to detect, America’s Trident force is essentially capable of destroying the world.  One submarine carries enough missiles and warheads to devastate every major city in Russia (or any other country, for that matter).  What more is needed as a deterrent?

Specifically, an Ohio-class Trident submarine can carry up to 24 nuclear missiles, each with up to eight nuclear warheads, each warhead equivalent to roughly six Hiroshima bombs.  That represents a potential for hitting 192 targets, each with six times the impact of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (which killed up to 200,000 people). That’s 1152 Hiroshimas from one submarine — a rough calculus, I know, but accurate enough to show the awesome might represented by a small portion of America’s nuclear force.

The Trident missiles are also incredibly accurate, with a circular error probability of less than 150 meters.  And the U.S. has 14 of these submarines.  (Not all are on patrol at any one time.) These highly sophisticated and ultra-powerful submarines are further augmented by land-based ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and bomber planes (the “air-breathing” element), forming the other two legs of the American nuclear triad. Again, when it comes to redundancy, accuracy, and survivability, no other country comes close to America’s nuclear capability.

This awesome nuclear force is not a sign the U.S. is “old” and “tired” and “exhausted.” It’s a sign that the U.S. is incredibly powerful, and, if you’re a foreign leader, incredibly dangerous, especially if America’s next commander-in-chief is undisciplined, thin-skinned, and in possession of a scattershot knowledge of military matters.

Back in March of this year, Trump boasted at a debate that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality.  In this latest debate, he yet again revealed that he has no real knowledge of America’s nuclear capability and how modern and powerful (and scary) it truly is.

Sure, Trump is crude, lewd, and sexist, but those qualities won’t destroy the world as we know it.  Ignorance about nuclear weapons, combined with impetuosity and an avowed affection for he-man wild-card generals like George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, is a recipe for utter disaster.

War as a Business Opportunity

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There’s lots of money in war (and rumors of war)

W.J. Astore

A good friend passed along an article at Forbes from a month ago with the pregnant title, “U.S. Army Fears Major War Likely Within Five Years — But Lacks The Money To Prepare.” Basically, the article argues that war is possible — even likely — within five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran, or maybe all three, but that America’s army is short of money to prepare for these wars.  This despite the fact that America spends roughly $700 billion each and every year on defense and overseas wars.

Now, the author’s agenda is quite clear, as he states at the end of his article: “Several of the Army’s equipment suppliers are contributors to my think tank and/or consulting clients.”  He’s writing an alarmist article about the probability of future wars at the same time as he’s profiting from the sales of weaponry to the army.

As General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, said: War is a racket. Wars will persist as long as people see them as a “core product,” as a business opportunity.  In capitalism, the profit motive is often amoral; greed is good, even when it feeds war. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is willing to play along.  It always sees “vulnerabilities” and always wants more money.

But back to the Forbes article with its concerns about war(s) in five years with Russia or North Korea or Iran (or all three).  For what vital national interest should America fight against Russia? North Korea?  Iran?  A few quick reminders:

#1: Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia or with Russia (Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler all learned that lesson the hard way).

#2: North Korea? It’s a puppet regime that can’t feed its own people.  It might prefer war to distract the people from their parlous existence.

#3: Iran?  A regional power, already contained, with a young population that’s sympathetic to America, at least to our culture of relative openness and tolerance.  If the U.S. Army thinks tackling Iran would be relatively easy, just consider all those recent “easy” wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria …

Of course, the business aspect of this is selling the idea the U.S. Army isn’t prepared and therefore needs yet another new generation of expensive high-tech weaponry. It’s like convincing high-end consumers their three-year-old Audi or Lexus is obsolete so they must buy the latest model else lose face.

We see this all the time in the U.S. military.  It’s a version of planned or artificial obsolescence. Consider the Air Force.  It could easily defeat its enemies with updated versions of A-10s, F-15s, and F-16s, but instead the Pentagon plans to spend as much as $1.4 trillion on the shiny new and under-performing F-35. The Army has an enormous surplus of tanks and other armored fighting vehicles, but the call goes forth for a “new generation.” No other navy comes close to the U.S. Navy, yet the call goes out for a new generation of ships.

The Pentagon mantra is always for more and better, which often turns out to be for less and much more expensive, e.g. the F-35 fighter.

Wars are always profitable for a few, but they are ruining democracy in America.  Sure, it’s a business opportunity: one that ends in national (and moral) bankruptcy.