Archive for the ‘ Politics ’ Category

The story couldn’t hang together for even one day

Yesterday we noted that the White House’s amateurish modified limited hangout would not fly because it was inherently unbelievable. It required the listener to believe:

(a) The President didn’t know that his campaign’s foreign policy advisor and soon to be National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was going to (and did) call the Russian ambassador to advise them on how to respond to the United States’s sanctions on Russia for interfering with our national elections.

(b) Even though he didn’t have any knowledge of what Flynn did, he “instinctively” knew that it was not illegal. And in fact it is not (per Spicer).

(c) Shortly after Flynn falsely told Vice President Pence about the phone calls, Trump receives information from the Justice Department advising that Pence had made compromising calls to the Russian ambassador.

(d) After receiving that nonpublic report, Trump fires the acting Attorney General and tells reporters he never heard anything contrary to Flynn’s false description of the phone calls to Pence.

(e) Three weeks after Trump received the intelligence from Justice, newspapers publish the information, and Trump fires Pence noy because he did anything wrong, but because the president had lost trust in him.

Now this cover-up has the weakness that several of the premises can’t be believed at the same time by a rational person, because they cause cognitive dissonance. But cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant feeling that can be understood only by those who are trained not to lie to themselves, something that the Cover-Up planners evidently have no understanding of.

But they couldn’t even float this boat for a day, because the chief actor, Donald Trump, blew the whole premise—that he lost confidence in Flynn—by characterizing Flynn as a “wonderful man” done in by the press, during a joint press conference with the Israeli prime minister today.

Now far be it from me to offer advice to professional liars in how to lie, but why didn’t they follow this line: At first hint of trouble, Trump issues statement: Yes, I told Flynn to talk to Russia because I thought Obama was being precipitous. I would be in office in less than a month and I did not need an unnecessary confrontation with a world power—one precipitated by a president who worked to defeat me. We will get to the bottom of this, but the answer is not throwing a world power’s diplomats out of the country at a sensitive time: during a transition of government. If this was technically illegal, then you can blame me. Frankly, I did it to secure this country from needless hostilities. Particularly when I knew for a fact that Russian did not offer any kind of help to my campaign.”

Could Trump have pulled that off? Maybe. It would still hard to believe that Trump was not acting nefariously. But it would have cut the legs out from under the opposition because it is plausibly related to our national interests. It would have gotten Flynn off the hook, and it would have given Trump the much needed patina of a guy in charge. It would also explain his December 30 tweet, which the modified limited hangout did not.

So why didn’t he do it? My suspicion (and I used to examine people in depositions and courts for a living) was that he could not carry out the deception part: namely, that his campaign had no dealings with Russia. So the usual route had to be followed: Throw underlings under the bus and pretend that the jefe had no knowledge. It is very unlikely, however, that Trump has the self-discipline to have conducted himself to maintain plausible deniability. This, after all, is a guy who tweets in the middle of the night when celebrities are mean to him. But one thing is for sure. Whatever involvement Trump had is far worse than the Cover-Up I propose (even though it probably included his ordering Flynn to make the calls). Anyone who thinks that a rouge general (even one as loopy and delusional as Flynn) did this on his own will probably be in the minority. And in any event will have to explain why Donald Trump still says he is a “wonderful guy.”

Trump’s Amateurish Modified Limited Hangout

Before Donald J. Trump took the oath of office (which seems like two years ago at this point), there was another U.S. President who was addicted to lying as policy—Richard M. Nixon. There are many similarities between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Both are thoroughly dishonest; both are contemptuous of their enemies (which group consists of anyone not showing unquestioned loyalty), and both think they are much smarter than they really are. But there are important differences. While not as smart as he though he was, Richard Nixon was vastly smarter than Donald Trump. And while they both surrounded themselves with men who were bad for the country, Nixon’s men only wanted to enrich his friends a little bit, not bankrupt the country so that they could roll around naked in money, which seems to be Trump’s singular goal. And while their regard for the truth was probably equally nonexistent, Nixon at least understood that other people had some, maybe even a lot of, regard for the truth. It’s uncertain whether Trump’s chronic narcissism allows him to believe that other people exist, let alone concern himself with what they think.

The difference manifests itself in how they go about deceiving the public. Nixon was smart enough to know how things work. Trump’s one bit of knowledge is that he has fallen into bucket-loads of problems all his life and by lying he has always gotten himself out and with a couple of showers he almost didn’t smell bad. So he leads his life believing in his unceasing luck. Nixon on the other hand knew that luck had to be prodded, and he spent his life plotting his deceptions. He was smart enough to surround himself with men who liked plotting grand deceptions, and on March 22, 1973, two months after his second inauguration and less than a year after the Watergate break-ins, his inner circle was plotting what deception would fly that would extricate them from the tightening noose. With Nixon were Attorney General John Mitchell, White House Counsel John Dean, and two of the most loyal hatchetmen ever to act as White House yes-men. They were plotting The Cover-Up. And the theoretical question came up, How much deception was necessary? They borrowed a concept from the world of spooks, “the limited hangout.” The phrase involves a spy whose cover has been blown. His backup plan is the “limited hangout”: where he admits some minor inculpatory information while hiding the major crimes. The theory of it is that the opponent will jump on the limited information and forego the more damaging rest.

The Nixon people decided that they were going to give a little bit of information to the Senate Watergate Committee that might look politically bad, but deny the truth, saying that none of them were involved in any crime. Nixon hesitated, concerned about what bad stuff they were giving up. Dean tells him that it is really limited. Haldeman jumps in and describes it as a “limited hangout.” Dean agrees. But to mollify the President Ehrlichman tells him, “It’s a modified, limited hangout” because it is really only going to go to the committee, not the public. And hence the most psychodelic phrase of this square but delusional administration was born.

The Flynn case has birthed another modified limited hangout. But this time it was created by a group who really are not skilled at the game, headed by a leader who doesn’t play well with others anyway. Now the chronology that we know is this: Flynn lied about what he spoke about to the Russian ambassador on the day that Obama ordered sanctions in retaliation for Russian interference in the U.S. elections in favor of Donald Trump. (Once you state the issue like this, the question is: Why go on? Shouldn’t this be the end of the Trump administration, without more?) A little more than 3 weeks ago Flynn lied to Vice President Pence about what was discussed. Almost immediately thereafter, the Justice Department advised the White House that Flynn has been compromised, because he discussed the sanctions, contrary to his statement to Pence (would he would continue to insist upon publicly thereafter). the discussions were potentially in violation of the Logan Act and possibly evidenced other felonies. For three weeks the President did nothing. Indeed, Flynn was given access to all national security material in the interim and as late as Monday White House Counsellor (the John Dean equivalent) Kellyanne Conway was telling the press that Flynn had the full confidence of the President. That evening Flynn resigned.

Today White House spokesman Sean Spicer, a man who really is in over his head and maybe (I know you will balk when you read this) even less articulate and intellectually on-the-ball than Donald Trump, was tasked with explaining how the president could have allowed Flynn to remain in his sensitive position given what the Justice Department told him three weeks ago. Here’s the story that came out: The president didn’t know anything about what Flynn discussed with the Russians. But “instinctively” (a word he used five times in the press conference) Trump knew that whatever Flynn talked about (namely, that the sanctions would be re-visited once Trump, the candidate the Russians helped to win the election) was not illegal. And Spicer maintains vehemently that nothing illegal happened. But because over the three weeks the president’s trust in Flynn eroded, he was forced, against his will, to ask Flynn to leave.

Now, given that they had 3 weeks to concoct a story (and that’s if you believe that Trump and Pence first heard of the talks three weeks ago), this would be a pretty flimsy cover-up. What does instinct have to do with it? Why didn’t the President listen to Justice? Why was there no further investigation? The answer might be that these guys are so sure of their ability to come out sweet-smelling from any muck they pour on themselves, that they thought it would go away. Especially since Trump fired the acting Attorney General. (This shows a tragic flaw in narcissism—not understanding that making an enemy unnecessarily will cost you.) So when the New York Times disclosed what Trump knew (at the latest three weeks ago), they finally saw the noose tightening. And they had to come up with a story. Instead of a limited hangout (like: Trump just couldn’t believe the intel because of other signs of honesty by Flynn; it was clearly a mistake) they reached too far. They wanted to make Trump look good coming out of it (intuitively knowing that what Flynn did was legal, even though he did not know what Flynn did) and avoiding any further scrutiny.

The fact is they modified this limited hang-out so much, that it doesn’t work. No one can rightly believe this story. Especially, since the acting Attorney General, the messenger, was fired.

But there is one little thread that might unravel the whole story if it’s given a little tug. The conversation between Flynn and the Russians took place on December 29. We can speculate that he advised the Russians not to retaliate against expulsion of their diplomats and other sanctions in like manner, because Trump would undo them. In fact, the Russians did not retaliate. The very next day, the compulsive Twitter-in-Chief pushed the send button on this message to Twitterdom:

Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

Richard Nixon was undone after careful, long and intense scrutiny by dozens of lawyers in several branches of government and relentless investigative journalists turning over every rock. He was never dumb enough to create his own incriminating evidence.

We are not alone

For those who might be saying, I’m probably over-reacting, nobody believes this is for real, here’s some crowd-sourced information that might both assure you (that you are not the only one) and terrify you (that it probably is for real):

Amazon’s top 12 editions of political fiction as of right now (Feb 10, 12:50 .m. EST):

1. 1984 by George Orwell (Signet ed.)
3. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Signet ed.)
6. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Kindel ed.)
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell (Signet ed.)
10. 1984 by George Orwell (Berkley; 60th anniversary ed.)
11. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
12. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (Audible ed.)

What’s Poland among us autocrats?

I promised myself I wouldn’t obsess over the insanity of the fringe characters our new madman has assembled.  Really, it’s not possible to keep it up. When the inmates are running the asylum, one could spend his entire time pointing out how insane they are. But the leaks are coming so fast and furious, and they reveal a mind-set that is so antithetical to those few bits of bipartisan axioms that we have left that I really have to remark on them to see if other people see what is going on or whether I’m just a lunatic screaming in the wilderness.

The latest outrage (or at least the latest outrage that I have had time to read and consider) comes from an AP report today entitled “On foreign policy, Trump still speaking campaign language.” It is about how the new “national security” team is settling in with the real professionals (the deep state, so to speak). And as you would expect, the Trump team, headed by Michael Flynn, a parody of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, equally dangerous but not nearly as smart, is seen with their pants down, making fools of themselves and showing they are in over their heads. But one paragraph is astounding, even for this group, and even knowing how much Trump admires the one global leader who assisted him to salvage his flailing international real estate ventures, Vlad the Impaler. Here is the paragraph. And consider that AP says its report is sourced by “three U.S. officials and three others” (!):

“According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump’s friendlier tone on Russia.”

Consider this: Our president’s main security advisers are asking for evidence that Poland, a NATO ally, is making border incursions into a neighbor that is currently ruled by a Putin-styled autocrat. And no one has ever heard one credible shred of evidence about this. But it is precisely the kind of unfounded accusation that have “justified” Prussians, Austrians, Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union from repeatedly carving up the country since the last part of the 18th century through the last part of the twentieth. (Note that all the partitioners were cut from exactly the same kind of authoritarian stripe that our current Strong Man has been cut from.) Did Trump hear this from Putin? Or was it just the scuttle-butt passed between Russian and Trump campaign officials when they were cooperating during the election?  We now live in a world where “alternate facts” are becoming the basis of policy. Perhaps the only possible response is for “other facts” to become the basis of the resistance. I keep having to check when the Inauguration was, because clearly this level of surreal lunacy unmoored from our established worldview could not have happened in less than two weeks.

I keep wondering where Trump developed this Russian-authoritarian-mobocratic view of the world. It had to come from a deal. Deals are the only thing Donald Trump thinks exist in this world. It’s the only thing he has done in life. (Except calling New York tabloid reporters, claiming to be Trump’s press agent, to notify them of what models he was out with the night before.) So it had to come from some sort of “deal” involving his Russian business interests. But this could not have been one of his more successful negotiations. Because it looks like whatever he walked away with, Putin kept his balls, the organs which, for Donald Trump, perform the same function that brains do in other people.

Week 2: Benghazi #1

According to reporting by Reuters, our severely impulse-control-challenged President launched a covert military operation, resulting in the death of one Navy SEAL operative and an undetermined number of civilians including children, without adequate preparation or intelligence. The tragedy took place in Yemen amidst a three-way conflict that we were dragged into during the Obama administration when the U.S. blindly sided with Saudi Arabia in its religiously-driven strike aimed at severely hurting, if not eliminating, a Shi’a-oriented party regardless of civilian casualties. The dispute in Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, is complex in itself, and it’s layered over with the Saud family’s need to placate the Wahabi faction that could topple it in its own country. So it has always made Iran (a Shi’a majority country) as the boogeyman. Yemen, however, practices a different form of Shi’a than Iran, and the evidence that the two countries were allies before the Saudi intervention is slim.

Given how complicated the situation in Yemen is, there is absolutely no possibility that Donald Trump has any idea of what is going on. Nor does he care. His contempt for understanding a situation was given its right title last week by Kelly Conway: “alternate facts.” Nor does he have much affection for America’s intelligence services. Why should he when he is, after all, “um, like a smart person”? When you think you are like a smart person, what need is there for intelligence?

Trump’s lack of interest in details (or even correct general points of view) is made lethally dangerous by his impulse to lash out rather than understand. And that is made chillingly clear in this part of the Reuters report:

“U.S. military officials told Reuters that Trump approved his first covert counterterrorism operation without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”

This sentence is remarkable for two reasons. First, it shows that the President ordered a military operation apparently knowing that it was poorly prepared and without the necessary assurance that it would succeed. This is not an indictment of his lack of policy knowledge (although it will also undoubtedly show that). It is an indictment of his judgment as an executive. Wasn’t this supposed to be his big selling point? Moreover, it shows that he is not even minimally responsible enough to be in charge of the largest armed forces in the world. This is something that requires Congressional investigation. What is the chance of that?

If I were not cynical, I would point to four years of multiple Congressional investigations into the possible responsibility of Secretary Clinton into the deaths during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Repeated failure to find any evidence of culpability didn’t deter these Republican patriots. Over and over they plowed the same ground, looking for just one hint. Why wouldn’t these faithful watchdogs of the Executive branch not want to get to the bottom of these charges? After all, they are far more damning and more worrisome because they condemn as unfit the president himself.

But of course we know the answer. It all depends on whose ox is being gored. You might as well expect the Republican party to care about the public welfare rather than their plutocratic masters as expect an investigation into Trump’s handling of the military. Of course, to be fair to the Republicans, there are differences between Benghazi and the Yemen fiasco, most prominent of which is that the former was a scandal of their own making and the latter a cause of serious international concern over the fitness of their own party leader.

But the second thing that is remarkable about the quote is that “U.S. military officials” are already leaking their discontent with their new master only two weeks into the new term. And they are criticizing not the policy that put their men in harm’s way, but the competence of the Commander-in-Chief. When “U.S. military officials” believe the president is acting recklessly in deploying force, there is serious cause for worry. People have already died needlessly because of the impulsiveness of this man-child. And it’s going to get worse, because he has already signaled that he wants less intelligence and more covert actions. Something he has already shown he’s not good at. It’s as though Trump has decided that he is presiding over the end of the American Empire and wants to use everything in his power to cause as much damage as possible before he’s gone.

Ten days in. Is anyone surprised?

Well, the new president has hardly had the time to finalize the security arrangements at Tromp Tower, but here we are. And it’s everything his supporters could have wished for. No messy policy wonkery, just policy bombs. Hurling monkey wrenches into the machinery of government is going to be the theme of this administration: The Screw You Deal.

The Executive Directive on the affordable Care Act (screw it up to the extent possible) didn’t generate enough Reality TV level outrage. So he had to fling excrement at the press (“the most dishonest human beings”); it’s what non-hominid primates do. Even that didn’t have enough WOW factor. (The Republicans have been repeating this lie for years, how does one more clown repeating it cause a general panic?) For pure brazen lying (probably the greatest of the great talents of this minimally talented president) the speech before the CIA should should get a lifetime acting award. (That would show Meryl!) Only a very practiced liar, one surrounded his whole life by yes-men, could tell the CIA that he didn’t call them liars and (get this) Nazis, something he did only the week before. He used the occasion once again again stress a fact that few if anyone else would: “Trust me. I;’m like a smart person.” In what respect he is “like” a smart person, he did not explain. Perhaps they are similar to him because they say things he doesn’t understand.

None of this, however, could deliver what his most fervent supporters wanted: Some that really causes pain to people not only unlike them but also unable to fight back. This is the central core belief of Trumpism: Pull wings off flies and say you are studying biology. And so for the most dramatic step so far, he issued an “order” banning travel from seven countries. The action is called “temporary” because it only expressly lasts for four months for six of the countries. But there is no termination for travelers from Syria. By its terms it applied to persons with permanent residence status in the U.S. The blowback over that outreach has since caused the Secretary of Homeland Security (soon to be renamed Heimatschutzministerium) to deem green card holders not a threat to national security (at least not now). This maneuver has all the hallmarks of Trump as we learned during the campaign: brutal, lacking in human decency, pure right wing theater, and, above all, not attended with even a minimal of thought. As a result, confusion reigned at the nation’s airports, our closest allies are shocked, left holding the bag, spontaneous protests arise, and Trump announces how “beautiful” the plan is in its implementation.

If anyone believes that this “approach” to governing (it can’t actually be called governing) will be smoothed out when this presidents becomes more experienced, he is indulging in the practice of putting hope above experience. Donald J. Trump has not learned anything since his days on the Apprentice. He there discovered a secret to his peculiar form of “popularity”—a buffoonish ogre-like persona, unrestrained by any principles and unleashed without warning, brutally if at all possible. Given that at least the buffoonery is a comfortable mesh with his conduct for his entire adult life, he is unlikely 70s to give it up. Moreover, Trump has never been one for accumulating information. He doesn’t have the patience, desire or need (“I’m like a smart person”).

Before any successful opposition can arise, it’s necessary to confront this reality: Trump is interested in minimally planned theatrical effects. He really has no interest whatsoever in policy. He is now a right-winger because the reactionaries are the party that celebrates rudeness, cruelty, minimal thought and spectacular destruction. If there were the equivalent of the Khmer Rouge in this country, he would probably be equally comfortable there (provided he were in charge).

Not since the dangerous days of Watergate (played out against a potential U.S.-Soviet confrontation in the Middle East) has there been so much discussion about whether the president is psychologically fit for the office. And we are not even two weeks in.

The Liar in Winter

Last night I was finally able to see the new 4K restoration of The Lion in Winter on a large screen. What better time than now after the Inauguration, to watch a film with old actors in a drama of the dark ages in which all the characters are only interested in personal goals and are willing to break all civilized norms to achieve them (including making deals with avowed national rivals)? In the middle of things, Henry II (Peter O’Toole) even says, “God I love winning” (or something to that effect) and he is constantly telling other people how he has just won. Owing to the need to preserve the 12th century atmosphere, however, the King did not use twitter to express himself.

Henry’s family is also surprisingly contemporary. All of his children are unattractive schemers. I won’t involve our current ruler’s wife in comparisons, because my suspicion is that her own gold-digging would have been satisfied being the wife of the owner of the hideous tower on Fifth Avenue where she would happily live. (Like Eleanor in the London Tower?) But if anyone is like her in the film, it is the innocent pawn Alais (Jane Merrow), mistress of Henry, who by treaty with France is require to marry her off to one of his sons. That would make Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn) who? Marla Maples?

The movie itself is quite entertaining, and you owe it to yourself to re-visit it. The acting is the kind of mid-twentieth century stage-for-screen type acting (as in Streetcar Named Desire and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that we see no more. Today’s substitute is the pretentious mannered dramas, usually period pieces, where acting is designed to garner awards and burnish a star’s seriousness cred. (Independent filmmakers, of course, don’t have the capital to purchase rights to plays, so the field is left to the majors,. who see these as prestige projects—Hollywood’s version of pro bono work.)

What separates the film (and the play it was based on) from our current tragico-farce is of course the language. The stage- and screen-play by James Goldman is witty and intelligent. There are just enough references to the age of Henry and before to anchor the play in the middle ages, but there are intentional anachronisms designed to advise the viewer not to become too concerned about the historicism of the work. Disregard of factual and historical accuracy is a hallmark of the current administration as well, but our present day actors on the national stage have no wit and are not playing to an intelligent audience. I could not bring myself to watch the inaugural address, but reading the text impressed on me how verbally stunted and rhetorically challenged our new president is. If the goal was to impress upon his followers that he was not among the elites of the country in terms of intellect, gracefulness, eloquence or knowledge, he surely accomplished that with his speech. Big ideas generally cannot be expressed by one simple declarative sentence after another. But even the small ideas which he had seemed uncomfortably confined.

In the end of the film we grow to respect, if not admire, both the ancient king and queen, even after we acknowledge Eleanor’s confession that “we are jungle creatures.” Henry discloses to his wife that he wants to control succession because he has learned that peace and honest government are preferable to war, something he spent his life pursuing. . And so even though the ambitions of both Henry and Eleanor seem checkmated in the end, we have some sort of sympathy for both of them. Having seen the nominees of our current leader, his advisors and confidants and watching him act the snarling bully and ungrateful recipient of nearly a plurality of the nation’s vote (short by 3 million or so), breaking tradition, however quaint, that requires the new president to at least act humbled by the responsibility, we have no similar admiration or sympathy for this vulgar egoist. So when the movie ended, the faint good feeling from watching professionals act in a polished and eloquent production, the dark reality of our current situation returns. This is the beginning, not the end, of a national nightmare. And it’s going to get much uglier and more tragic before it’s over. And it won’t be amusing or edifying to watch.