World, Politics

US: Donald Trump’s presidential transition to remember

By J Brooks Spector 9 January 2017

After a few weeks of reading in the quiet of his garden, J. BROOKS SPECTOR has looked at the evolving American political scene with “fear and trembling unto death” as the president-elect Trump tangles with major foreign and domestic businesses, the business of setting up a new administration, and responding to the challenge of the charges that his best buddy in the Kremlin was trying to tip the scales of the US election in his favour.

While many in South Africa spent the past several weeks resting up after an extraordinarily punishing year, and as some of us were even too exhausted to flee to the beach or the mountains to nurse our wounds, events continued to move inexorably in the United States as the latest round of gun violence took its toll, and politicians insisted on doing whatever it is that politicians do until they are caught.

In particular, because the country is in that peculiar space where an incumbent president’s powers and influence continue to drain away, just as the incoming president-elect starts flexing his verbal muscles, and trying out the levers of influence with his words, there is that increasingly uncomfortable feeling of what South Africans would recognise immediately: the “two bulls in one kraal” effect.

Of course, while he is still president for two more weeks, Barack Obama will become a decidedly unordinary private citizen at mid-day on 20 January, just as Donald J Trump becomes the country’s 45th president the moment he repeats the short, 35-word oath of office. As soon as that happens, the military aide with the special briefcase begins to walk a few metres behind him instead of his predecessor. That officer carries the codes and communications needed to turn the surface of the planet into a fairly good replica of the surface of Venus if the president so decides.

In the meantime, over the past several weeks, the president-elect has been busy on many fronts. First was the need to flesh out the list of his nominees for cabinet positions, a list that wags quickly dubbed a cabinet of billionaires and generals, or more creatively still, a “cabinet of cronies”. That was a wry tip of the hat to the way Abraham Lincoln’s own cabinet – “a cabinet of rivals” – had been described, in recognition of his inclusion of all his chief rivals from among the senior leaders of his party as his new subordinates.

In Trump’s case, of course, he had gone deep, with several retired generals and a gaggle of seriously moneyed folks – including billionaires like Betsy DeVos, his pick for Education, Rex Tillerson at State, and Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, among others. This would not have been so outrageously remarkable – other presidents have included some rather wealthy folks in their cabinet ranks over the years. The difference this time around, however, is that virtually none of those with the megabucks had ever held government offices and so their many and extremely complex financial affairs have never been scrutinised by the Senate, disclosed on the required financial disclosure forms, or vetted by ethics officers for potential serious conflicts of interest.

As things stand now, the Republican majority in the Senate is expecting to hold confirmation hearings for a whole gaggle of these nominees this week, including a clutch of them, simultaneously, this coming Wednesday. This is now the plan, even if the standard financial and security vetting efforts are not yet completed. This tactic may well lead to some distinctly testy and unpleasant hearings – even apart from the content of their respective statements on their political or economic views – or their responses to questions from the gathered senators at their respective committee hearings. Some of this fire may well have been a decision by the Trump transition to deflect some attention (and criticism) away from the president-elect when he has an already-announced media conference set for the same Wednesday, given the issues he has been bringing upon himself in recent days.

A second push in these pre-inauguration days by Donald Trump has been to engage his by now well-known compulsion to tweet about everything and everybody to prove he was right about everything; to demean and demolish anyone deemed an opponent – and, in particular, to browbeat companies over jobs, in order to prove that he could, just like Zeus, bend the heavens his way. It hasn’t actually mattered whether or not the tweets and his views were accurate, or even if they were largely acts of narcissist showmanship.

In one early adventure, he had personally claimed victory over the Carrier Corporation for rolling back a planned plant relocation to Mexico, thereby reportedly saving a thousand jobs in Indiana. The facts were more complex, and the cost of this victory included millions of dollars of tax incentives from the Indiana state government, as well as fewer saved jobs than Trump had claimed. (There is also the possibility of some hidden quid pro quos down the line in the government contracts department, since Carrier is a part of major defence contractor, United Technologies). But never mind. A self-congratulatory victory tweetathon ensued anyway. In his Twitter feed, Trump has clearly imbibed a lesson from his mentor, the late Roy Cohn, the hard-edged, never surrender, never admit anything attorney who had cut his teeth working for Senator Joseph McCarthy at the height of the red scares of the 1950s.

Thereafter, the president-elect took on Ford Motor Company and its reported relocation of a plant to Mexico. Another dazzling victory and Ford capitulated, although the planned assembly line was still to be in Mexico and Ford shifted around some of its production instead to get out of the limelight. No real net increase in jobs for Americans, but still a victory and victory lap for the president-elect.

Finally, and most recently, Donald Trump took on Toyota, claiming it was poised to shift the making of Corollas to Mexico and bootleg some of them into the garages of unsuspecting Americans. According to Trump, if any of these dastardly vehicles ever made it into America, there would be punitive taxes to be paid by this company. However, Toyota replied that the cars to be made in Mexico were largely destined for export to third countries and that Trump hadn’t even got the location of the supposedly offending plant right. Eventually, even the Japanese government uncharacteristically weighed in to complain about a president-elect’s comments, saying this company employs many tens of thousands of Americans across the US in showrooms and production plants and that this company is an excellent corporate citizen.

While all this has been going on, of course, it should be recalled that during the Obama administration, its “failed” economic record had generated 75 months of continuous economic growth and more than 15-million new jobs over the past eight years – despite starting from that nearly ruinous economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration. Economists like Paul Krugman have made the point that what Trump has been doing – and what he apparently plans to do, going forward – has some serious negatives. First, of course, is that such behaviour creates economic uncertainty as it unduly roils the financial markets and panics investors, stockholders and customers – let alone workers and foreign nations.

But, second, and still more important, is the fact that a president is simply not going to be able to set economic policy for an entire nation by picking a tweeted snit fight with every corporate decision about job relocations, automation, plant closures and investment choices throughout the nation. This way lies towards endless special pleading and the unsuccessful picking of winners and losers in an economy – and the consequent risks of conflicts of interest, special appeals by the well connected, and the doling out of capricious punishments whenever a company has angered the administration in some way. Instead, the president – and his administration’s – job is to work with the tools and institutions of government to set policies for a nation that nurture growth and investment and that encourage more job creation. The right way cannot be 3-in-the-morning blasts from an insomniac’s cellphone such that the president-to-be’s press secretary has to read policy initiatives from his first morning glance at his smartphone.

But third, of course, for sheer excitement, nothing can – not yet, at least – eclipse the drama of Donald Trump’s wrestling with claims that the Russians interfered mightily with the recent election via electronic hacking of Democratic Party headquarters servers.

Let’s get first things first. All nations carry out espionage. Most of the time, they deny it, but nobody should take that seriously. There are, of course, all those tried and true methods such as moles inside an antagonist’s government, or eyeballing the opposition’s military facilities and forces, and then putting a very close reading of open source materials together with the insights gleaned from all that less polite surveillance. That leads to – in the best cases – an ability to predict an opponent’s capabilities, and, hopefully, its intentions as well.

In the contemporary world, much of the information now comes from electronic sources, increasingly from the interception of communications and other data over networks. And wherever it is possible, electronically burrowing into the data within an antagonist’s electronic files. Everybody who can do it, does it. All’s fair, and all that.

The difference comes in when the information obtained is selectively released to the world in order to influence events and skew decisions by millions of electors. In an open political system such as the one in the US, in a tightly contested election such as the one that has just occurred, the selective dissemination of purloined information could tip the balance. (While no one is saying it did that, consider for a moment that the combined electoral weight of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania swung to Donald Trump on the basis of well less than a single percentage point.)

In brief, over the past several years, Vladimir Putin, as president of Russia, has been pushing hard to get back into the superpower game – intervening on behalf of Russia’s client state of Syria to keep Bashar al-Assad in power regardless of the civilian cost, occupying the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, fomenting and supporting a rebellion in the easternmost reaches of that state among Russian speakers, and regularly pushing back against those European nations (via planted news stories and reporting on state media such as RT, Russia Today) which have been increasingly desperate to gain reassurances from their Nato allies that their independence would be protected against a resurgent Russia.

This past year, the Russians apparently managed to hack into the Democratic National Committee servers, eager for the dirt on the candidate – Hillary Clinton – they assumed would win the 2016 US presidential nomination and then the election. This came from Putin’s obvious distaste for Clinton and his apparent belief that she had been behind the marches and demonstrations in Russia several years back against Putin’s own regime. If so, then turnabout was fair play, or something of that sort.

Soon enough, though, this approach came in sync with Donald Trump’s own frequently expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, as well as the possibility that he might actually win the election – thus heralding some kind of tacit alliance between the two nations as a result of the Putin-Trump bromance. Accordingly, if the US Office of National Intelligence’s just-released report is to be accepted in full, the Russian effort eventually metamorphosed from an effort to undermine and discredit Hillary Clinton as she was on her march towards victory, to a more active and energetic effort to support Donald Trump’s own candidacy, by arranging for the distribution of derogatory information about the Clinton candidacy that had been gleaned from the hacks and on to the Wikileaks organisation – and thus to the American voters.

This effort was reported on several occasions by the Obama administration with increasing anger. Then, in response to a furious reply from Donald Trump that those hacks, if they happened, could have been carried out by anybody – even a 400-pound guy sitting on the side of his bed in New Jersey overdosing on Hostess Twinkies – the president instructed the combined intelligence agencies to prepare a thorough review of all of the evidence and charges. Their report was given to the president and members of the Senate committee on intelligence and the president-elect, following the combined intel heads’ briefing of the president-elect, and after their public testimony in the Senate committee last week. The report was also released, in a significantly redacted version, to the public, with details about intelligence agencies’ sources and methods left out of that public version.

The report had concluded,

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

It went on to explain,

These activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”

The assessment confirmed the intelligence agencies’ confidence that the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, had used ostensibly private bodies, Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.com, to release victims’ data publicly, as well as the release of the DNC material to Wikileaks. The report went on to note that Russian hacks had attempted to penetrate multiple American state and local electoral offices, but that these hacks did not include mechanisms of vote tallying. The report added that Republican servers had been hacked but that none of that data had been released to others, cementing the narrative that it was directed against the Clinton campaign.

After he was briefed, the president-elect finally had to dial back his rhetoric somewhat from his earlier charges of incompetence or worse on the part of the country’s intel agencies, but he continued to insist this report had cleared the Russians of any actual impact on the election itself – thereby trying to wave away any sense that he was an unfairly elected president. The Russians, not surprisingly, took to RT and Twitter to ridicule and mock the report’s conclusions.

The challenge for the report’s proponents, of course, is that the precise chapter and verse of the classified version can’t be released to the public, and so it can still be attacked for being filled with surmise and conclusions, rather than an obvious “smoking gun” or two – at least until someone leaks some slightly sanitised juicy bits, of course. In fact, this may have already happened with media reports US intelligence had overheard Kremlin officials congratulating themselves over their success, toasting with their designer vodka, following Trump’s victory.

In spite of his party’s control of both branches of government, there is a potentially nasty problem for the president-elect on this front, even before he takes office, that may affect his efforts on other matters. While it has become standard for him to argue that building a better relationship with Russia is smart politics, and a great deal for America, it has also meant he is running into headwinds from some of the most senior members of the Republican senatorial caucus, men such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who have found backing a sudden embrace of Putin and the Russians as America’s BFF – best foreign friend – to be a very hard dose to swallow. Some of this may even spill over to Senate confirmation hearings for the Trump cabinet nominees, especially since this Trumpian man-crush goes so strongly against what has been Republican orthodoxy for many decades.

Now, combine this messy business of the Russian hacking with several other challenges facing the incoming president. There is now Trump’s sideways admission (and an awkward congressional recognition) that that promised great wall along the Mexican border will have to be paid for – at the very least, at first – by US taxpayer dollars, rather than Mexican pesos. There is also the realisation that repeal of Obamacare will run headlong into a national healthcare sector that has already made its accommodations to the Affordable Care Act. Further, the GOP has no real plan to replace it without sending millions of people off of their newly gained medical insurance plans. Finally, of course, besides these problems, a promised massive infrastructure plan to rebuild America and changes in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, will all speak to billions of dollars of expenses that Republican budget and deficit hawks in Congress will be deeply opposed to, if they are presented in any budget-busting form.

Donald Trump is not even yet president, and he is already beginning to get his first tastes of the realities of governing. It is more than just some clever, snarky tweets and rhetorical applause lines, or swanking around with his wife and family in their New York City penthouse or their Florida hotel resort. And it will only get more complicated for him when he takes up the cudgels for real to beat on China (or others) over trade agreements and he has to find allies within and without government to support his wilder claims about trade deceits.

It is all going to be so much more than one of those exciting nose-to-nose real estate deals with another Manhattan developer sharpie. And out there somewhere, too, remain embarrassing, unanswered questions about his private fortune, his taxes and liabilities, and the slow oozing out of fuller information on his many business deals around the world with some sharp, shifty folks. And who knows, maybe his replacement on Celebrity Apprentice – Arnold Schwarzenegger – will bomb, taking the sheen off yet one more of his pet projects. Trump is still listed as executive producer for that show, even though he has rather more important things to worry about these days. And we haven’t even had that inauguration yet! DM

Photo: Then US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (C) appears with his wife Melania (L) and daughter Ivanka Trump (R) in an NBC Town Hall on the Today Show in Rockefeller Plaza in New York, New York, USA, 21 April 2016. EPA/PETER FOLEY

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