Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Fire and Fury, Fizzles

Call me crazy but this week's news that North Korea has produced a missile-ready nuclear warhead doesn't scare me.

Sure, if the North Koreans wanted to deploy it, whether atop of one of their inchoate ICBMs or with a big sling shot, that would be worrisome. But doing so would mean the end of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

While the DPRK is given to a brand of lunacy so villainous and vile it strains credulity, they've yet to cross the line into suicidal.

No, what has me worried is President Trump who responded to another in a long line of threats from an unhinged dictator by using the language of...wait for it...
an unhinged dictator.

Of course, the DPRK called Trump's bluff with... wait for it ... more threats against the United States, in particular missile strikes on the U.S. territory of Guam and other attacks that would "hasten the demise" of America.

To recap, Trump says, "If they threaten us again, we're going to do this!" DPRK responds by threatening the U.S. again and Trump does nothing.

In uttering the now oft-repeated "fire and fury" line, Trump drew an unnecessary red line and was made to look foolish on the world stage – again. In the process, he escalated tensions across the globe, my rosy, "not-scared" outlook notwithstanding.

Donald Trump just demonstrated to our planet that he clearly doesn't know what just about every kid who's ever been in a fight on the playground learns: to be effective, threats have to be believable.

What we're looking at now – a president who's word is worth little and who lowered himself to the level of his terrorist-state adversary – is the best-case result of this incident.

It could have been worse and, indeed, Trump's threat and subsequent lack of follow through sets the stage for just such an outcome with bad actors across the globe emboldened by a President's empty rhetoric.

Trump took one step toward nuclear brinksmanship ala the Cuban Missile Crisis for no good reason. It's no stretch to suggest neither of these two leaders bears resemblance to JFK and Nikita Khrushchev and that fact is plenty scary.

North Korea is led by a micro-man who's sole talent is being the son of the previous micro man who led the country. Along with his dad's height, taste for $2,000 bottles of liquor and complete lack of conscience, Kim Jong Un inherited the family propensity for cartoonish craziness. This includes killing adversaries by such means as siccing dogs upon them or, using an anti-aircraft gun.

The DPRK imprisons hundreds of thousands of its citizens in forced labor camps without justification. About one-tenth of the country's population died in a preventable famine in the mid-nineties and the U.N World Food Program estimates that 70 percent of North Korean citizens were malnourished in 2015 while 25 percent of the children are physically stunted.

Tight international sanctions have forced the DPRK to fund themselves through a variety of illegal enterprises from counterfeiting U.S. currency to illegally trafficking ivory (yes, they're evil enough to kill elephants).

Donald Trump Jr. pictured with the severed
tail of an elephant he killed. Just sayin'.
Jong Un and his enablers keep the downtrodden down, the small population of elites terrified and do whatever is required keep the pork from Denmark and luxury yachts flowing.

Every once in a while they remind the outside world they're crazy and they're nuclear and the world responds with more sanctions which ultimately aren't enough to dissuade leadership from acting out, because the pattern repeats itself. 

No one could blame Donald Trump for being tired of that cycle but that's not why he uttered the infamous "fire and fury" line.

As they have so often, Trump loyalists stepped forward to let the world know – yet again – that the President who got elected for "saying exactly what he means"  didn't mean what he said.

All of which leaves the rest of the world wondering just who the hell should they be listening to?

Former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, Abraham Denmark (how's that for a name?) told CNN the mixed messages are dangerous because they "could create confusion for both allies and adversaries."

"Our adversaries and our allies are getting very mixed messages from the Trump administration, and this is why you need to have experienced people in government," he said. "This is why diplomacy requires more than a Twitter account and some bravado."

Amen, Abraham.

Friday, August 4, 2017

"Walk Loudly and Carry a Small Stick"

If you're planning on calling the White House to tell President Trump what you really think of him, the leaking of transcripts of conversations between Trump and two world leaders is a warning to keep your comments to yourself, funny though they might be.

So, you and every other world leader has been warned and, while I've no doubt you're a powerbroker in the circles you travel in, it's the implications this could have on those other VIPs that most concern me.

A former National Security Council Spokesman sums
up the leaking of these transcripts quite nicely. 
Lots of commentators have focused on the nutty nature of Trump's chats and, since I'm no better, I'll start there.

Of course, there's plenty of the awkward Trump speak that's now burned into our brains (Gems like: "I am the world’s greatest person that does not want to let people into the country," come to mind) and there's an awful lot of referencing of Jared Kushner too. From peace in the Middle East, to trade and immigration with Mexico, the President's son-in-law is nothing if not ubiquitous.

And what would any of his conversations be without Trump – apropos of nothing – shoehorning in the particulars of his election win, complete with the electoral vote count, as he did with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull?

The conversation with Turnbull concluded with some tense exchanges regarding an immigration agreement between the two countries brokered when Obama was president.

At one point it reads as if the Australian PM is dressing Trump down saying, "You can certainly say that it was not a deal that you would have done, but you are going to stick with it."

For what it's worth, and it might be a lot, Trump's performance in these conversations is being skewered by media and diplomats across the globe.

Mexican Dipolmat Jorge Guajoardo received the following text about Trump from a former Mexican official: "He's the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt. He speaks loudly and carries a small stick."

I've never had high-level conversations with a world leader.

Malcolm Turnbull. Just looks like the sort of guy who
 doesn't care if you like or not. 
I shook Presidential Candidate Barack Obama's hand once. He asked how I was doing and I merely smiled, nodded my head and said nothing because I'd drank too much and was concerned my breath smelled like booze. (Don't judge. I had no idea I'd be anywhere near the guy when I drank that first beer.)

That regrettable story and press scrums with former Illinois Governor (and current jailbird) Rod Blagojevich are the extent of it.

But I have daily conversations I'd prefer no one, outside of the person I'm talking with, ever, ever, ever be privy. If you're a world leader speaking with the President of the United States, you should be afforded the same privilege. Of course, transparency dictates that those conversations should be documented and released when appropriate.

But now, just six months into Trump's first term, is clearly not an appropriate time.

We've likely got 3.5 years of this presidency remaining. From here forward, every world leader Trump talks to or attempts to cut one of his infamous deals with, should not feel free to speak their mind without fear their words could end up on the Internet the next day.

To be clear, private discussions between world leaders are kept secret so they can speak their minds and establish trust. The benefits of a rapport between world leaders are self-evident and the reality is that a true rapport between any two humans can only happen when there is some mutual trust.

Put more bluntly, President Donald Trump can no longer tell another world leader, "Just between you and I..." and be taken at his word.

For a President who's word isn't worth much to begin with, that's a troubling, troubling development.

How troubling?

To frame the answer to that discussion, I'll refer to former George W. Bush speechwriter, Canadian and all-around smart guy, David Frum, who suggested in the Atlantic that the chaos of Trump's administration is causing others within the government to reach for extraordinary measures that "violate basic norms of government" to combat the president.

"Trump’s violation of basic norms of government has driven people who would otherwise uphold those norms unto death to violate them in their turn," Frum wrote. "Contempt for Trump’s misconduct inspires counter-misconduct."

In Frum's view, the situation has created a cycle of mistrust in which Trump can't trust the government, which causes him to act more "irregularly." Those "irregular actions" then cause more "counter-irregularity from the rest of the government."

Frum concludes: "Donald Trump has launched the executive branch into a cycle of self-destruction for which he bears ultimate blame—but whose ultimate cost will be borne by his successors and the American nation."

Well, tell us what you really think David. Better yet, give me a call, we can have a chat about it, just between you and I.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Chaos Provides Perfect Cover for the Real Hustle

Ferris Bueller warned us all.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

To put a finer point on those wise words: one moment you're hired to handle communications for the leader of the free world, you're doling out whimsical bon mots to the New Yorker and the next moment you're, well, not.

Such is the fate of Anthony Scaramucci, the one time hedge-fund manager who sold his company and then waited months for his seat at Trump's White House table.
Nice work Don but you might want to look into
those numbers a little more closely. 

It must have been a shock to the Mooch to have his place mat ripped out from under him just ten days into his tenure. But was it a shock for anyone else?

Since the inauguration, the safest place to keep your job could be best described as "anywhere not near the President."

A sampling here listed chronologically:

Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates - Fired
The National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn - Resigned
The FBI Director, James Comey - Fired
Communications Director, Michael Dubke - Resigned
Director Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub - Resigned
Assistant Press Secretary, Michael Short - Resigned
White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer - Resigned
White House Chief of Staff, Reince Preibus - Resigned
Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci - Fired

It's worth noting too, that a few of those resignations should be equipped with ironic quotation marks. Some of those folks were being handed their hats (I'm looking at you Reince). Regardless of the particulars of their departures, that's a lot of movement amongst a handful of important, in some cases vital, positions.

What's motivating this craziness? There's gross ineptitude for sure but there's some folks who might have answers that explain a bit more than what the President's defenders chalk up to a disregard for convention.

Within the above list, and next to headline grabbers like Flynn and Comey, the name Walter Shaub just kind of flies by doesn't it? But, then look at his title.

Director of the Office of Government Ethics.

Then look at what he said to the New York Times on his way out the door.

"It's hard for the United States to pursue international anticorruption and ethics initiatives when we're not even keeping our own side of the street clean. It affects our credibility. I think we're pretty close to a laughingstock at this point."

The Times framed Shaub's comments as being leveled on "a weekend Mr. Trump let the world know he was spending at a family-owned golf club that was being paid to host the U.S. Women's Open tournament."

It's worth noting too that the White House responded by calling Shaub a power-hungry, grandstander.

"Mr. Shaub's penchant for raising concerns on matters well outside his scope with the media before ever raising them with the White House — which happens to be his actual day job — is rather telling."

For perspective, look no further than the Onion.
Shaub went on to tell The Guardian, that he feared the United States would be viewed a "kleptocracy."

“The fact that we’re having to ask questions about whether he’s intentionally using the presidency for profit is bad enough because the appearance itself undermines confidence in government.”

In any other presidency this would have stolen the show for a news cycle or two. But, not in the Trump era where we're all shoving ourselves headlong into a gushing fire hydrant and trying to tease out one discernible sip from the deluge of daily dysfunction.

The resignation of Walter Shaub, the reasons for it, the conversations it should ignite, just fly under our radar. And who can blame us?

Just when you think you can pause and reflect on a matter of greater importance than the President's weird speech to the Boy Scouts, he goes out and does something nuttier.

But maybe we should skip pause and just hit the rewind button back to last November when the President declared he would dispense with the presidential custom of divesting his financial assets and putting the proceeds in a blind trust. JFK did it. LBJ did it. Jimmy Carter did it. But not President Trump who, instead of liquidating those assets, which are spread around 20 countries, put his son in charge of them.

And, just like that, there's no concerns about a conflict of interest anymore, right? Eee-zee. Pee-zee.

Wrong, or as the L.A. Times nicely summed up: "Americans cannot know for sure whether a sitting president is making decisions based on what's best for the country, or what's best for his own portfolio."

Talk of blind trusts and the emoluments clause of the Constitution evaporated shortly after the President took office and haven't stood a chance of getting the attention they deserve in the insanity since.

Well, we're not thinking about his tax returns anymore are we? 
But a revival of this conversation might be under way in the form of three lawsuits filed against the President, including one by ethics attorneys for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

There are subtleties differentiating them but at their core each suit alleges the President has conflicts of interest after he failed to liquidate his businesses and place the assets in a blind trust. He "violated the US Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments clause, for example, when he hosted foreign diplomats at his new hotel in Washington DC. "

Membership at the President's Florida Country Club, Mar-a-Lago doubled in January to $200,000. The Trump Organization CEO says he expects the company's hotel portfolio to grow and the President's two sons say the Trump brand is "the hottest it's ever been."

Yes, the business of Trump has never been better and I'm sure that's purely coincidental with his becoming president. But, amidst the steady string of embarrassments and the slow churn of investigators' work into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, this is where I'll try to keep my attention.

It's not always easy and it's tough to ignore the bedazzling chaos this White House emits. But, we currently have a President who, it's fair to say, could be profiting handsomely from his office. That's wrong and it'll be up to the courts to decide if it's illegal.

It's not as interesting as talking about the host of Morning Joe's facelift but, to be frank, boring would be a welcome change of pace, until the next firing that is.