Fareed Zakaria on Trump’s Rocking Chair Presidency

President Trump’s news conference/tirade last Thursday was really something.   Much of the 70 or so minutes was Trump blasting the media for “fake news” that ignored his many achievements thus far as president and cast an unwarranted pall over his White House staff.  In the process Trump told several easily verifiable falsehoods himself and made illogical arguments, but to dwell on them is to dwell on distractions.   He always does that.

The heart of the matter is:  “….. in the midst of it all, what has he actually done?” That question is raised by Fareed Zakaria, one of my favorite political  commentators.  And his answer detailed in a recent column is:  “Hardly anything.”

Zakaria employs an analogy proffered by philosopher Alfred Montapert:  “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.’ We are witnessing a rocking-horse presidency in which everyone is jerking back and forth furiously, yet there is no forward movement.”

Here is a synopsis of Zakaria’s main points.  Trump has claimed “There has never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time.”  Zakaria points to several presidents who accomplished much more in their first 100 days than Trump is likely to, including Barack  Obama.

Trump has said his White House “is running like a fine-tuned machine”, but it “has not even begun serious discussions with Congress on major legislation. (also) According to The Washington Post, of the 696 positions that require Senate confirmation, the president has yet to nominate 661 of them.”  

Also, while Trump has “issued a series of executive orders with great fanfare” the only one that affects much is the travel ban that was so badly conceived and written that it got stuck in the courts.  Seems like that machine has a lot of important parts missing.

Zakaria quotes a piece by Zachary Karabell in a recent Politico Magazine that sums up Trump’s presidency.  “So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done.”

In short, the fine-tuned machine works best blowing smoke.

Zakaria concludes with two aspects of the Trump presidency.  There is the “freak show” that dominates the headlines but there is also “the savvy businessman” who picked some intelligent heavy weights like Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis to key positions.

It seems to boil down to this:   “For many people, the bargain of the Trump presidency was that they would put up with the freak show in order to get tax reform, infrastructure projects and deregulation. That may still happen, but for now at least, reality TV is in overdrive, and not much is happening in the realm of serious policy.”

Those interested in reading the full editorial can go here.

Trump’s Lies and B. S. and the Press

I believe this to have been a watershed week for the press when it comes to covering Donald Trump.  It finally put its foot  down.   Finally.  After all of these months treating Trump as if he were normal.

President Trump would have had a good first week in terms of optics if he could have just kept silent, and untweeted, but of course like an insecure little boy he can’t resist slapping back at anything that makes him feel diminished.

As for the good week part, he certainly appeared to be making things happen, what with meetings with auto execs, other business leaders, labor leaders, congressional leaders and undoubtedly others I’ve missed.  Also, a slew of executive orders which, whether you like them or not, suggest things will be different just as he said they would in his campaign.  No, same ‘ol, same  ‘ol with him.

But he could not leave well enough alone.   He just can’t get over the fact that his win wasn’t as impressive as he believes it should have been.  The lying press just aren’t giving him enough credit.  “They” just talk  of Russian interference in the election, the relatively small size of his inauguration crowd, the fact that Hillary garnered more votes, and the huge number of women demonstrators decrying his policies the following day.  All stuff that seems to cheapen his victory.

To counter balance that Trump has insisted that his inauguration crowd was bigger than the press reported, and for good measure, later repeated to some congressmen that he would have had the popular vote if it weren’t for some three to five million “illegals” who tipped the scales.

As for the first part, Chuck Todd on Meet the Press did something I have not seen another journalist do, he refused to let Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s whirling dervish of spin, get away with deflecting the question as to why in a statement to the press it was asserted that the crowd there was huge, when it was clearly far less than for Obama in 2009  as can be seen in a photo of each.

Todd never got her to answer the question, but he stuck with it for about 20 minutes prompting her to say that their portrayal came from “alternative facts”, to which Todd responded:  “You mean falsehoods.”  The words “alternative facts” captures much of what the Trump team does, as was clear when Trump made his statement about the illegal immigrants.   He had said it before, but it wasn’t glommed onto then like now.

The New York Times called it a “lie” on its front page, and I’ve never seen them do that before.  You see the main stream press avoids using the word “lie”, as if it were a four letter word, as it implies intentionality which gets tricky to assess.  As Ben Mathis-Lilley argued in a piece in Slate yesterday, it was more B. S. than a lie, and I agree with him (check  out the link), but let’s not quibble.   “Lie” like in whopper, is often what the Trump team has gotten away with.

Of course, this all started years ago with the birther controversy that Trump kept fueling while never producing any facts, just indicating his investigative team was discovering things that made him question.  I never saw anyone demand to see his research, or even who was doing it.  He was good for ratings and kind of joke, nothing to really worry about, so why rock the boat.

Much more recently a TV commentator pressed Kellyanne Conway on the fact that despite Trump’s talking about being audited, no proof of that had been given.  And Ms. Conway, with a look of shock (that would have made the “overrated” Meryl Streep envious) shot back:  “Are you saying he is lying?”  The flummoxed commentator backed off.   You see, the press has not wanted to make that kind of accusation, which is why the Times headline is important.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a more feisty press corp that will actually keep pressing when fed a line of bull by this administration.

The Impending Reign of King Don

Observing the Donald J. Trump show since election day I am most struck by this:  We have not elected another president.  We have elected a king.  Every other American president has adjusted his life to this uniquely powerful position.   With Trump, our government and we the people are doing most of the adjusting, and at this point who knows how many more adjustments we will have to make.

Take King’s Don’s global business empire.   Because he can’t be forced to, he certainly won’t divest his businesses nor show his tax statements, so we’ll just have to keep guessing what conflicts of interest he has.   An ongoing distraction, but probably just one of many.  Get used to it.

And the rest of the world must as well.   For example, Trump makes an off hand comment or tweet vilifying NAFTA, and the Mexican peso goes down.   Or the Japanese Prime Minister visits his majesty at the tower and is probably surprised to find Princess Ivanka, who has her own business interests in Japan and no security clearance, joining them to chat.   Diplomatic protocols schmotocols.

In addition to protocols, Trump has ignored previous U. S. foreign policy positions, such as the one China policy (which recognizes big China as China, not little island Taiwan, which still thinks it’s the real China).   King Don has stated everything with big China is negotiable, including it being the only China.   This is likely but one foreign policy that the king will likely reconfigure in an offhand manner, while the rest of the world tries to figure out what he just tweeted.

Judging from the reaction of the heads of countries like China and Germany, they already realize the tweets of our boy king don’t mean much, which is a relief, as odd as it may be.

The label “King Don” occurred to me watching our soon to be No 1 Guy interviewing supplicants at Trump Tower seeking positions in the new administration.   I heard this described often as “going by to kiss the ring.”  Meanwhile New York City has been forking out about $750,000 per day in security and traffic control, and still will because King Don’s queen is staying put until their young son, the Barron, finishes out the school year.  Also, the king seems partial to sleeping in Trump Tower, so New Yorkers:  Get used to the detours and budget crunch.  The king is concerned about his comfort, not yours.

I think his royal majesty will largely reshape presidential life in whatever way that suits him.   For example, the White House might become more of a stopover  between Trump Tower and Mira Lago than a final destination.

After all he can make royal proclamations  (and slap back at critics) from anywhere a cell phone can be recharged.  Why get stuck in Washington with its often lousy weather, when VP Mike Pence and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus can take care of most of what Trump wants from congress, whatever that may be.

Also, his majesty’s royal court, his cabinet, are strong and capable (for the most part). Though many have never worked in government, most undoubtedly know more about his or her area of governance than King Don knows or would ever want to know.

Oh, I forgot.  His majesty has said he’d be putting his prodigious energy so fully into his job as president that he wouldn’t have time to go golfing or take vacations like other presidents who obviously were slackers in comparison.   So, maybe I’m completely wrong and he will stick to the national governing body like a tick.

I’m not sure which scenario I’d prefer.


P. S. – Barron’s remaining at his private school in Manhattan might work well for him, and Queen Mel, but others at the school aren’t so happy.  See this piece.

How Will Trump’s Cabinet Work?

One theme of the confirmation hearings was that Trump’s nominees often seemed to disagree with him on at least one important issue, such as whether to honor the Iran nuclear agreement or whether to have full confidence in our intelligence services.  So, I will be curious to see who will influence whom more?

The fact that I still don’t know what Trump really believes about anything, other than his own greatness, adds to the uncertainty.   Columnist Ruth Marcus ponders these questions in a piece titled:  Can Trump’s Cabinet Save him from himself?.  If you want to ponder along with her click the title link.

Also, tonight Ivanka Trump will be interviewed by CNN starting 9:00 pm Eastern Time, 6:00 pm Pacific.   I imagine her father listens to her as much as to anyone, so you might want to tune in to get to know her better.

 

Why I Want Cabinet Nominees Rex Tillerson and James Mattis Confirmed

Tillerson for Secretary of State and Mattis for Secretary of Defense.  It is unlikely they will be stopped in a Republican dominated congress, but I think both outstanding picks in any event.   General Mattis is highly respected on both sides of the aisle, while Mr. Tillerson brings much experience in international affairs as the head of ExxonMobil.  His prominence in that company make some question whether he will be able to place serving our country above serving ExxonMobil.   I think he will and, if it seems useful, will argue that in another post.

While there are a multitude of things to judge a president on, I value most a presidential team who can best handle a “world in disarray”, in the words of foreign policy expert Richard Haass.   The potential for a more chaotic international situation abounds and that makes me more anxious than anything else.

That’s why I backed Hillary Clinton, not because I’m a flaming liberal as my more conservative friends think, but because she had the best credentials to deal with this chaos.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, may be more likely to add to it, if judged by his statements.   Fortunately, I do not take his statements seriously, unless he keeps repeating them, like building a wall on the Mexican border.

A contrary example is his proclaiming if elected he would launch an investigation of Hillary Clinton.  Once he won he didn’t care about that and chided his fans for dwelling on the idea, as if he needed to teach them the difference between what one says to win (which can be anything) and what one really cares about.

Beyond wanting full attention all the time, I’m still trying to figure out what Trump cares about.  I guess endless adulation might be a new goal.  Or being the second coming?

Whatever Donald Trump says is what he feels is useful to him at the moment.  He will change it later if some other words seem more useful.   He thinks he has great political instincts and he must have some or he wouldn’t be president.

Back to Mattis and Tillerson.    And I would add Michael Flynn.   General Flynn makes Mattis and Tillerson all the more important.  Flynn is Trump’s national security advisor, the guy tasked with basically synthesizing the foreign security information for the president each day.  He may often be the last guy in the room.

The three men make up the most significant advisers to President Trump when it comes to foreign affairs (1).  And, unlike the other two, Flynn seems a loose canon.   He has called Islam a “cancer,” not radical Islam, but Islam itself.   He also retweeted false and/or scurrilous information during the campaign (2).

While both Mattis and Tillerson seem more inclined to push back harder on aggressive efforts by Russia and other adversaries than has been true with President Obama , both seem likely to offer more measured responses than General Flynn might advise.

Consider this analogy.   Think of President Trump as a guy who drives around with the other three and often gets too drunk to drive, but at times can be persuaded to give up the keys.    I’m hoping that Mattis or Tillerson will be the one to grab them (3).


(1)  A caveat about those three being Trump’s primary advisers on foreign affairs.  It is impossible to know a this point how much Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, or his Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, might influence any decisions he will make.  Kushner is hard to peg, but Bannon’s being the former head of Britebart News, which thrives on conspiracy theories, might give you a clue.

(2)   This article at CNN gives details on Flynn’s provocative tweets.

(3)  Yes, I know Trump doesn’t even drink.  But he often says things that remind me of a nasty drunk.   I do not feel much compunction to be fair to a man who was patently unfair to so many in his clamber to the top.  I will point out, however, things he does do that make sense to me, like nominating Mattis and Tillerson.

The Rex Tillerson Senate Hearing and Donald Trump

Too much news coming too fast to deal with in a post other than to do so impressionistically, which means I might regret something I say.   So be it.  The alternative is for me to not post at all.  I see an avalanche of Trump news forming this week, so I have to act fast.

Today two big events, Donald Trump’s first press conference since elected and, simultaneously, a senate hearing for Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon Mobil, who is nominated for Secretary of State.   The Tillerson hearing seems more significant and more interesting.   The guy is impressive, so much so I thought at times:  Too bad we can’t make him president.

The hearing was impressive, too, with better questions asked than I usually see at such events.  In other words, questions from both sides of the aisle were tough and seemed fair, with not much pressing of either party agenda.   Though the general tenor was that our foreign policy under Obama has made us weaker on the world stage.

Tillerson’s diplomatic skill showed when he talked about a lessoning of American prestige world wide over the last couple of decades (meaning he was not only blaming Obama but G. W. Bush, too).

Also, when pressed by Marco Rubio to call Vladimir Putin a war criminal, Tillerson asserted he could not say without access to secret intelligence.  Rubio cited a number of public instances indicating that in fact Putin is a war criminal, but Tillerson held his position.

Many would think that a bad thing, but if we want a working relationship with Vladimir Putin, we can’t begin by publicly labelling him a war criminal, even if we believe he is.  Need I remind anyone that we did not trash Joe Stallin when he was a key alley during World War II, and he was responsible for mass murders in Russia.

A common theme during the hearing was the tricky issue of responding to Russian aggression while also recognizing that there are areas that are  in our interest to cooperate.   Even if we might have a Jekyl and Hyde relationship with Putin, that’s the way it is and both nations have enough nuclear arms to destroy the world several times over.

A new year’s resolution is to get back to shorter posts, so I’ll only say this about the Trump press conference.   One point in Trump’s favor was his denouncing a dubious two page memo that asserts Russia has information on Trump that could be black mail material.    I saw reports on CNN and MSNBC which I hope they regret, as the information is unverified by any substantial source.   In fact, those cable stations kept reminding us the report was unverified, so I would ask:  If it is unverified then why do you keep talking about it?

Ah, what’s sensational grabs attention?

On the other hand, Trump overplayed his hand (as usual) by angrily denouncing the fact that  “information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public.”

Oh my, how terrible!   This from the guy who for years kept spreading false information about Barack Obama’s birth place.   Citing his investigators who had raised serious questions about Obama’s birth, while never revealing who they were or what evidence they found.

And this guy is going to talk about “false and fake”?

President Obama’s Legacy and the Trump Wrecking Crew

It’s been over four weeks since I last posted.  I have been watching and waiting for things to unfold.   The problem is with Donald Trump stuff unfolds like a laundry basket in a hurricane, leaving my thoughts bumping into each other while trying to grab one thing to write about.

I’ve never seen the selection of a cabinet attract so much attention.  I’d say it’s because Trump has turned it into a show, like everything else.  The best story line is his  belated choice for Secretary of State, which prompted much speculation and will remain suspenseful because of nomine Rex Tillerson’s working too closely with Vladimir Putin while head of Exon Mobile.  That and CIA assertions that Putin himself directed the hacks of those emails of the Hillary team.  A charge which Putin denies and Donald Trump calls “ridiculous.”

So, before he even begins his new job our new president is dismissing the competency of our intelligence services, especially the CIA.   And at odds with several Senators in his own party who think both he and Tillerson have been too chummy with a virtual dictator and thug.  This is an ongoing story I’ll get back to in a future post.

Today, however, I want to concentrate on something else, the Obama legacy in the hands of Trump’s other cabinet members.  After putting the Republican establishment through a series of nightmare scenarios during the election process, President-Elect Trump has given them a cabinet that is basically a conservative Republican’s dream team.  The never-Trumper likes of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush (sort of) are nearly drooling over this bunch, and those two are more moderate than many in the party.  His win and his selections have turned night into day.

This unity figures to be tested down the road,  but the selections show Trump acting like a conservative Republican despite spending most of his life appearing moderate and in the campaign saying all sorts of things.  This team figures to roll back government restrictions on business, especially climate change measures, enact a more unsympathetic policy towards immigrants in general, especially the illegal or Middle East kind,  and provide greater support for police actions and less sympathy for those who protest mistreatment.

Trump’s foreign policy is fuzzy at best, but the rest of his governing slant seems pretty clear and, I would say, well thought out from a staunchly conservative perspective.  His team is made up, for the most part, of impressive people.  However, from a liberal point of view, or even that of a moderate conservative, many of the cabinet picks are like hiring arsonists to run your fire department.  Try to imagine who Hillary Clinton might have appointed and President Obama would have seconded as defenders of his legacy, and these are definitely not them:

For Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a senator who has been a staunch opponent of immigration reform and when AG in Alabama prior to that had a debatable record on supporting civil rights.

For Secretary of Housing and Urban development (HUD), Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon whose primary qualification for the job is that he overcame a poor background and became a stalwart supporter of Trump.  He seems more likely to stress a pull-yourself-up by the bootstraps approach as opposed to developing programs to aid the poor.

For Secretary of Labor, Andrew Puzder, a billionaire head of two fast food chains who has been against the minimum wage and certainly is against raising it.

For  Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, another billionaire who has spent much time and money as a “lobbyist” for charter schools while seeming to give up on public ones.

For Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), Tom Price, a congressman and former orthopedic surgeon  who has been a staunch critic of Obamacare while a steady supporter of laws that favor doctors over patients.

For Secretary of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, a Kansas state AG who has a law suit pending against the EPA and has often been characterized as a climate denier.

For  Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke,  a Montana congressman who frequently votes against environmentalists on issues ranging from coal extraction to oil and gas drilling.

For Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, a former Texas governor who in a 2012 presidential election debate would have said he wanted to cut the Department of Energy, but couldn’t remember its name.

Do you see a pattern here?   Sure my one sentence depictions are simplistic, but these are picks I’m sure President Obama finds hard to swallow.  While insuring a smooth transition may be a big motive for  Obama’s doing all he can to reach out and help Trump, I imagine there is another powerful motive at work and that is the realization that what he has worked so hard on over the past eight years might be torn apart by the Trump administration and all Obama can do at this point is to develop a good relationship with the incomer in hopes he can sway some thinking privately that he could never do publicly.

Obama must have a wry recollection at times of how in 2009, when he and Senator John McCain differed over a policy in a meeting, he told McCain:  “Elections have consequences.”

We are just beginning to see some of the latest ones.