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”?

Trump and Our Intelligence Services: Two Separate Realities

We have a president elect who has been able throughout the campaign to by and large getaway with creating a reality in a shape that was useful to him at the moment.  And now we have an intelligence community that doesn’t do that.  It creates a reality based on their best understanding of the facts at the moment.    And those two mind sets are now clashing right in front of us as we run up to the inauguration.

General Michael Hayden, former CIA Director, on Smerconish show January 7

Those two mind sets clashed yesterday, not with all sorts of fireworks but with a clear display of separate realities as to the main points of the report those intel chiefs delivered to Trump.   I made some predictions in a post yesterday as to what might transpire.  While I think I was in the ballpark, I missed the chance to hit a  home run, not foreseeing the big fat possibility that Trump would cherry pick a bit here and there from the report while misrepresenting its main substance.  In other words he would publicly interpret the report in a way that fit his separate reality.

The reality of the report was that Russian hacking is a big problem and that it interfered with our election in various ways with a few aims in mind, one of them to reduce the chances of Hillary Clinton winning.   That is an unwelcome reality for Trump because he will not accept any news that might de-legitimize his victory to any degree nor any information that detracts from his desire to develop a closer relationship with Russia.

I should have realized that Trump might just ignore, or misrepresent the findings of the report as he has done so many times in the past with information that doesn’t suit him.  In other words, work it into his separate reality.  I thought he would back off a bit as long as the report did not conclude that the Russians actions helped him win, as he knew it did not, because the intelligence chiefs don’t believe that’s their call.

But in simply discussing Russian efforts to make an impact it raises the possibility that some of those attempts did influence a number of voters who didn’t care for either candidate much, but felt the duty to vote anyway.   Though impossible to know how much of an impact, it seems unlikely to have had no impact at all, which is what Trump insists on claiming.  Even worse, he acts as if the report backs him up.

Here is the beginning of the official response of Trump to the findings of the intel services:   “While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”

That is a textbook case of disinformation as defined in Wikipedia:   “Disinformation is intentionally false or misleading information that is spread in a calculated way to deceive target audiences.”  For one, as Michael Hayden pointed out, the initial part focusses on a cyber problem we have with several nations, which is true, but it wasn’t the focus of the report.   The problem with Russia was the focus of the report and that is obscured here.

After beginning with that misleading statement, the Trump team jumps to “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election”……as if that has anything to do with the initial comments on the general cyber problem or that the intel report concluded that.   Neither is true.   The intel report concluded nothing as to the impact.  Instead it leaves it to us to form our own opinion from their information.

The “no impact” comment is just made up, a fact hidden by connecting the words to the statement about no tampering with the voting machines, which is actually in the report.

Perhaps this break down is tedious to you, but the Trump team is so good at spreading disinformation that a light needs to be continually cast on instances of them doing just that.   Especially on a topic as important as our relationship to Putin’s Russia.

Over these next two or three weeks this war between separate  realities could heat up, as there are several Republican senators who I believe will resist Trump’s continuous attempts to trivialize Russian actions of interference in our political process.

Donald Trump, the Phony Fan of Our Intelligence Agencies

The Donald Show continues to keep us guessing, which is the biggest reason the show remains hot.  Unpredictable is interesting, maybe scary or sickening at times, but interesting.  Today’s guessing game centers around a meeting Trump will have  with top intelligence officials to discuss Russian hacking during the election.

The case has been floated in the news often in recent weeks, raising questions as to both the intentions and success of Russia’s actions in interfering with the election.   Trump has not welcomed either angle, especially the part that raises doubts about the legitimacy of his win and, as usual, when he feels diminished in any way, he comes out swinging, or throwing.

He has disparaged those intelligence agencies in tweets and other statements, even going to the extent of citing Julian Assange for support, though he denied that yesterday as I will get to later.  When battling, Trump will grab anything to throw at you (and often later deny that’s what he did or meant).

Despite several previous statements to the contrary Trumped tweeted yesterday he “is a big fan of intelligence”.   The intelligence community doesn’t believe that, as James Clapper, Director of Intelligence made clear at an open hearing in the Senate yesterday.   He said that while skepticism of intelligence results is warranted, “I think there’s a difference between skepticism and disparagement.”  And there was no question who he thought was disparaging them, the same guy they are meeting with in Trump Tower today.

This intelligence team is not likely to pull any punches, especially since they are all about to leave office, so the media buzz revolves around how contentious the meeting might become:   Will Donald Trump deny their findings or accept them?

I think he will likely accept them for the most part and even praise those agencies in the process because to dismiss those findings, once seeing secret information, would be to put him at odds with Republicans he needs help from.

First of all the meeting won’t be all that contentious because Trump has a history of vile attacks at a distance in public, while congenial with the same people in private.  At meeting’s end Trump will announce he has been convinced that Russia did try to interfere with the election, but did not succeed in tipping it (since Clapper has already stated the intelligence agencies have made no conclusion on that, so there is no knowing, just lots of opinions).   Trump will then make a show of the respect he has long held for the intelligence agencies and what a serious matter the hacking is, and might even talk tough, but he won’t do much about it right now

He has boxed himself in here.  The Russian hacking evidence interferes with his apparent desire to be more cozy with Russia by riling up the likes of Republican senators McCain and Graham, the latter having talked about Obama’s response as “throwing pebbles” while Graham wants to throw “rocks” at the Russians.  Those senators likely will push for a stronger reaction, something Trump will have to deal with later.

Right now his biggest consideration is getting  Rex Tillerson, the Exon Mobil chief, confirmed for Secretary of State.  Both a pro and con with Tillerson is that he has worked out various energy deals with Putin over the years, so he knows him well, but maybe too well, too close, too friendly to many who think of Putin as a thug and a virtual dictator.

It would only take a few Republican senators to stop Tillerson’s nomination, so I predict we will see less of the tweeting teen-ager on the attack, and more the conciliator for a few days at least.

By the way, what gives me some confidence in my predictions is this tweet from Trump yesterday, in which he clearly has begun to reverse his story about the dubious intelligence services.  Of course he never thought that way.  It was the dishonest media that made it seem so.

“The dishonest media likes saying that I am in Agreement with Julian Assange – wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people…. to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media lies to make it look like I am against “Intelligence” when in fact I am a big fan!”

Thank you for clarifying that misunderstanding Mr. Trump.  Now excuse me as I need to refrain from upchucking all over my computer.

Donald Trump: Conducting Foreign Policy via Twitter. Sort of.

(This is another long one folks, so you might want to grab a drink or postpone it until you’ve whipped through your other emails.  I will try to get back to shorter posts, but the omnipresent Trump is tough to nail in a few words.)

The Trump show has basically remained the same as when he was a candidate, but now his tweets go beyond a campaign tactic.  Now they impact our foreign policy, but who knows just how much, as those tweets raise many questions but provide few answers.  This point was made in a Chinese newspaper earlier this month.  It indicated Trump’s tweets about serious matters are “impossible to fathom”, so it is better to pay close attention to his actions, not his words.

I’m happy that the Chinese government seems to understand that, figure Vladimir Putin understands it even better and hope the rest of the world follows suit.   It is bizarre to say to the world that they shouldn’t take many of our president’s tweets seriously, but that is where we are.

Tweets, by nature, are very short and not usually well thought out, which often leaves more room for ambiguity than most forms of communication.  That’s perfect for Trump, as the ambiguity in controversial tweets provide tons of speculative fodder for the press.

Part of the ambiguity lies in the limitation to 140 characters, but with Trump, maybe a good share of that lack of clarity is intentional.  The more provocative and ambiguous a tweet seems the more it prods the TV chattering class to dissect and speculate it ad nauseam, which then prompts his word handlers to walk the statements back which then gives the pundits further fodder to digest, until some new provocative statement over shadows the last one.

The effect is to make Trump the center of our attention most of the time.   What more could a supreme narcissist want?

A typical example is the kerfuffle spawned by Trump’s tweeting last Friday about the need to “expand our nuclear capability.”  That seemed to come out of the blue unless you realized Vladimir Putin spoke about strengthening the Russian nuclear capability last Thursday.   The important nuance here (for those who still care about such things) is that Putin seemed to be talking about modernizing his force, not actually expanding it in terms of war heads.

Trump either saw that as a challenge, or just an opportunity to reinforce his tough guy image by shadow boxing with this buddy Vlad, knowing that Putin wouldn’t get up in arms, so to speak.   Hey, as many have noted, they have a bromance going

The press interpreted Trump’s words as a call to grow our nuclear arsenal, just the opposite of American policy for decades, but his word whizzards denied that.  What he meant, they said, was to strengthen and update our nuclear capability, not expand it in size.  Actually Obama has had a plan in place since last January to do just that, but of course Trump always ignores whatever facts fail to support the point of his story.

The next morning, to keep us all on pins and needles and remind us of his boldness, Trump ignores his spinners and doubles down on the possibility of nuclear expansion, not just modernization, in a phone conversation with a morning talk show host:  “Let it be an arms race, we will outmatch them at every pass.”

Who knows what he meant by that, even him?  I’m not even sure who the “them” is.  Surely, not his bro-buddy, Vlad, who later that day asserted he certainly didn’t want a renewed arms race.   And today I hear that Putin has invited the children of American diplomats to a big Christmas/New Year’s party normally reserved for Russians.

Certainly Uncle Vlad wouldn’t be rattling the nukes.

But of course the TV press goes into a frenzy about reversing decades of nuclear policy, just as Trump wants.  Once getting the issue to a boiling point, our president-elect decided to turn it down to simmer later Friday.  He unveiled a letter received a week ago from Vlad congratulating him on his election victory (a hug to you buddy).

Then later still on Friday Trump pointed to a tweet from Putin criticizing Hillary for bad sportsmanship.  Wrote Putin:  “In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.”…….(this from a world class thug)

“So true!” responded Trump, making that earlier talk of an arms race seem what it was, a playful tug on the marionette strings of the press.

I have bothered to break down a Trump induced frenzy of non-news because I think we will get a lot of this sort of nonsense over the next few years and we’ll all have to handle it the best we can.   It is of little use to parse his words unless those words tie to actions, which at the moment are largely a matter of the selection of his governing team.

Foreign policy feints through off hand tweets?  That is the way Trump has set up his show and our media keep distributing tickets while many of the rest of us watch the performances.   Even if we don’t watch them, we hear about them.  Those damn little tweets remind me of the West Nile Virus.

P. S. – The “arms race” incident I referred to includes several interesting aspects succinctly described in an article in the  The Week written by Peter Weber, including a short video of foreign policy expert David Ignatius.  Ignatius suggests there may be some value in Trump’s disruptive moves, but adds that value would depend on a vision and discipline that Trump has yet to display.

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.

Can Donald Trump Finally Privot to Being Presidential?

“I’m just now slowly emerging from what feels like a horrible hangover, “wrote a friend  a couple of days following the Donald Trump presidential victory a week ago.  I have felt a little nauseous myself, though alcohol over indulgence quite likely contributed to that.  Now my condition is best described as one of cognitive dissonance.  I’m having trouble stringing together the words “President” and “Donald Trump.”  They don’t fit.

The problem is he will be President soon, so I’ll have to get used to it.

I do not assume the worst of Trump as many other never-Trumpers seem to.  While he has obvious prejudices, I have thought emphasizing them missed the mark.  The key aspects of his personality are his drive for self-aggrandizement which includes a need to always be perceived as a winner.  Both of those needs has produced a man with a genius to manipulate others.   And he did it brilliantly in working his way from being an initial laughing stock, except to his immediate followers, to becoming, sigh, President Trump.

Trump’s manipulative ways disgust me, and I think his narcissism produces a total unconcern for those harmed by his ways of winning.  But I do not think of him as someone evil, like Hitler.   I think of him as shallow and, except for treasuring loyalty, largely amoral, which certainly can do much harm, but I fear those qualities less than I would a fervent ideologue.   Again he will often sound like one, but the way he keeps reshaping his positions suggests otherwise.

He’s a guy who wants to make deals that make him look smart.  He employs hyperbole as a way of firing up his base and to give himself a lot of room to negotiate later.   How many things has he said, such as his policy towards illegal immigrants, that he has “walked back” over time?

The puzzle here is while winning the presidency is a clear cut matter, winning as the president is far from it.   To begin with there are no exact standards of measurement, an arbitrariness that leaves room for historians to reevaluate greatness over time.  I would think that ambiguity would bother Trump.   But I also think he will come up with some kind of definition for himself.

It would seem a good part of that definition would likely depend on getting laws passed through Congress.  Because he is not rooted in an ideology and cares little about the future of the Republican Party (unless it continues to bow down to him), he might be in a unique position to break through the gridlock and get some useful legislation passed.

I’m not counting on it, but I have some hope.

On the night of Trump’s election win Chris Mathews of MSNBC, no great fan of Trump, captured my sense of wanting to wait for awhile to see what plays out rather than vilifying our new president right off the bat.   He put it this way:

“I am just determined to find an optimistic notion here which is there must be some talent here to be president because he is going to be our president.  Is he going to recoil everything he said because it was all just a game?

Is it ‘that got me what I wanted to get but I don’t need that anymore.  What I need now is calm confidence building measures that I can actually build this economy back up again.’

Do the brains that got this guy elected president tonight apply to being a good president.  I leave it as an open question.”

Though recent talk of Trump’s White House team, including his children, and prospective cabinet members do not ease my mind, hey, President Obama shook Trump’s hand and wished him success because America’s success depended on his own.

In honor of our president, I can wait for awhile to rush to judgement on the next in line.