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14 December 2017 10:18 (South Africa)
World

US: Sleepless in Trumpland

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump gestures after disembarking Marine One walking on the South Lawn towards the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 05 March 2017. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

J. BROOKS SPECTOR inventories the Trump administration’s current challenges, especially the self-imposed ones.

By the time people get around to writing the history of the Trump administration’s initial months, they will probably have an extraordinary roster of issues to choose from in order to illustrate the dangers of allowing political neophytes (like Trump and many of his gang) to gain hold on the machinery of power. And this is also the case when it is political newbies who are wielding axes to grind or pushing an ideology to impose on the nation. It also becomes a particularly thorny problem when the newcomers’ political sensibilities have been barely formed at all.

But, worst of all, perhaps, may be the situation when the government has been captured in a fusion of powerful ideologues as advisers, such as Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, together with an outsider like Trump who has claimed power in the name of the people. And that third alternative, of course, so far, pretty well sums up the Trump administration.

Right now, the Trump administration is entangled in a whole slew of challenges, many of which are almost entirely of its own making – or in which it may have been the willing idiot for others’ shenanigans. The problem is that on the horizon there are yet other issues that may become far worse. Put the future questions off to the side for a minute and let us inventory those messy bits of business that are on the president’s plate already.

First, of course, is the ongoing saga of the Trump administration’s quixotic relationship with Russia and its ruler. By now it has become clear that an array of individuals in his administration (or, in the case of Michael Flynn, already out of it) had been party to ongoing, serious conversations with the Russian ambassador and other officials, even before Trump won the November election, and then in the period before his inauguration, all without much thought to the consequences. While the interlocutors have declined to detail what they talked about, it is clear that these words were more than seasonal greetings, and more likely, they were about changes in US policy towards Russia, post-inauguration, even as Barack Obama was still president.

While the full contents of these discussions have not become public, the disavowals about these conversations, followed by partial, grudging admissions from the participants after those meetings were reported on in the media, have now become intertwined with increasingly shrill charges by the Trump administration that the nation’s intelligence services are deliberately leaking classified materials in order to undermine the new president – just like Nazi Germany, in the president’s astonishing judgment. Some on the far right have even been muttering darkly that all this represents some kind of “deep state” coup attempt by people aligned to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and who have been determined to destroy the new president’s administration.

This past weekend, the president also managed to make things even messier (and less believable), claiming that former President Obama had personally ordered wiretaps on the phones in Trump’s offices and residence in New York City – naturally without a scrap of evidence or corroboration for this charge. The media has been kind to Trump, in a way, in not calling this latest Twitter rant either “farcical” or “hallucinogenic”, although this latest explosion has given reporters and analysts chances to explain to the public how a wiretap is ordered by a judge, by only following presentation of evidence by a prosecutor and a law enforcement agency, but simply not ordered by the chief executive, no matter how many action thrillers one watches at the cinema or on television. More detailed explanations have added that some wiretaps are ordered following disturbing information that points to criminal intent gleaned from prior intercepts such as in the ongoing, routine monitoring of a foreign diplomatic mission.

Trying to make sense of it all, Max Boot wrote for Foreign Policy the other day:

At 6.35am on Saturday, March 4, the President of the United States tweeted from his weekend getaway, Mar-a-Lago: ‘Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!’ A few minutes later: ‘Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!’ Followed by: ‘How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!’ (‘Tapp’? ‘Hearby’? Doesn’t Trump’s phone have a spell-checker?)

Having supposedly uncovered a scandal comparable to Watergate, what did the president do next? He took a respite from Twitter for more than an hour, until 8.19am, when he sent out an insult against the actor who replaced him on The Celebrity Apprentice: ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t voluntarily leaving the Apprentice, he was fired by his bad (pathetic) ratings, not by me. Sad end to great show.’ (So much for Trump’s premature claim to Congress on Tuesday night that the “time for trivial fights is behind us”.) And then he headed out for a nice round of golf.

It was left to Trump’s aides, the news media, and members of Congress to answer the ‘Huh??? What???’ questions. Had Trump actually gotten his hands on classified information that the FBI had wiretapped him during the Obama administration? There are only two ways this could have occurred: Either the FBI had presented a court with evidence that Trump was engaged in criminal activity or was an agent of a foreign power, or Obama had ordered an illegal wiretap. Either conclusion would be scandalous. But after a frantic weekend of fact-checking, no evidence whatsoever was presented by the White House to support Trump’s allegations, which were denied by everyone from Obama’s spokesman to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, and FBI Director James Comey.”

Then, in the past several days, Wikileaks released thousands of materials, apparently gained from CIA files in some way, describing the means by which signals can be intercepted around the world from individual electronic devices. This has just further confused things. So far at least, there has been no invoking of divine wrath upon the leakers by Donald Trump. (Some observers have recalled that as a candidate in 2016, he had praised Wikileaks for revealing all those e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, what with their embarrassing contents damaging to the Clinton candidacy. That initial Wiki moment had been the switch that led intelligence agencies to conclude that the Russians had been engaged in a major attack on the American electoral process, meddling deeply into partisan politics.)

Now the whole tangle is part of a discussion as to whether it is appropriate to have the Justice Department appoint a special or independent prosecutor to examine the propriety of Trump operatives’ communications with the Russians; the intrusion of the Russians into the electoral process through hacking, disinformation and fake news plants; and, now, most recently, Trump’s own charge that he had been the target of some nefarious plot to wiretap his phones and destroy his presidential legitimacy. Concurrently, as a result of all this, there is also rising pressure for one or another (or, perhaps, several overlapping) congressional investigations of this whole shambles as well, although there are no definitive plans for this – yet.

Oh, and by the way, the FBI director, James Comey, the same man who had so memorably announced two investigations into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and then rather belatedly provided off-handed exonerations, had called on Justice Department senior officials over the weekend (the FBI is subsidiary to Justice) to explain publicly that there was no there, there, with Trump’s allegations about wiretapping. Of course, one of the people who had played footsie with the Russians during the campaign is none other than Jeff Sessions, the man who is the new attorney-general. Following a growing uproar about Sessions’ own meandering public statements on his behaviour, he has had to recuse himself from any future investigations of all this, ceding this turf to his deputy attorney-general, once that individual is confirmed.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration tried again on its Muslim ban executive order, this time around, leaving out Iraqi citizens, and those from named countries who already held valid visas or permanent residence status in the US (a “green card”). However, it has still kept the ban on refugees from any nation. As the president’s first attempt at this was stymied by court actions after the chaotic introduction of those new rules, right at the beginning of the Trump administration, the president and his aides had clearly hoped for smoother sailing with the reboot version. But, immediately after its promulgation, the State of Hawaii announced it was planning to fight the new version in court anyway (probably followed by some of the other original complainants). Meanwhile, the Trump administration has still been unable to point to any real connection between the foreign nationals banned from entry by virtue of their origin point and any acts of terrorism on the domestic front. Stay tuned for much more on this one too.

Then, there has been that other presidential promise, “to repeal and replace” Obamacare, usually amid wild cheering and applause. In some of his statements, Trump has been keen to promise that the new GOP plans would cover everyone, be cheaper than Obamacare, remove regulatory mandates, and provide for everyone to be able use the doctor of their choice. Oh, and to ensure the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, the Good Witch of the North, and Casper the Friendly Ghost would all visit every afflicted person in the nation to soothe every persons’ respective hurts. The background to all this has been that Republicans ran, apparently successfully, on this repeal and replace promise, given the law’s presumed unpopularity, and Republican leaders apparently thought it would be a relative walk in the park. But, in the months past the election, Obamacare’s popularity has been rising, congressional town hall meetings during the legislature’s recess have become raucous with protesters opposed to eliminating the law, and, perhaps most important, Republicans in Congress have found themselves on various conflicting sides of the issue.

Some have been hardcore on the notion of ridding the nation of this so-called legislative failure (never mind that 20-million more people have medical insurance than before), and these representatives have been deriding the newly described Republican replacement legislation, now released in a 120-page document, as Obamacare-lite or Obamacare 2.0. They are upset that it would preserve many of the features of the original law, such as allowing parents to keep children on their plans until the children reach the age of 26, and prohibiting barriers for insurance due to prior conditions, even as it comes without the mandatory joining of a plan or payment of a fine.

Others have been upset with the proposal’s inclusion of a tax credit for offsetting the costs of insurance, arguing that such a measure would be tantamount to yet another hated and budget-busting welfare entitlement. Still others have noted that no one really has any idea what the new plan will cost. The Congressional Budget Office has not yet scored it in cost terms as is usual for a new bill – and the more expensive provisions of it are only scheduled to kick in after the 2020 election in a kind of bait-and-switch legislative swindle.

Adding to the confusion, the procedures in the Senate are such that passage of a revised law for this would require 60 votes, meaning the Republicans would have to draw in perhaps as many as 10 Democrats to pass it. Given the rancour, such support may be unlikely, given the current confusion. Democrats would probably be under significant pressure from their leadership to refuse to support this measure, especially since it would largely be dependent on tax credits to offset costs for joining. This would be despite the fact that the poor and lower middle class – the people who really need the help - may well already have little or no income tax liability to get a credit for, based on their income levels and the fact that the costs for such plans would fall heaviest on people into their 60s, where incomes tend to be lower than people in their peak earnings years.

At this point, despite President Trump’s endorsement of the Republican outline of the replacement, congressional Republicans are quietly grousing that he hasn’t really put enough skin in the game to show his commitment – and the hard slog -- for the actual achievement of his campaign promise, something that has been the rallying cry that has been Republican gospel since 2010. In fact, one Republican congressman memorably told reporters that, given all these problems, now he knows “what the bumper tastes like once the dog catches the car”. Memorably, too, Donald Trump had tweeted, just before the announcement of the Republican plan, that no one knew how complex the healthcare system really was. Un-hunh. Right.

Despite Donald Trump’s continued assertions that his administration is functioning like a superb, well-oiled machine, the reality seems to be that it splutters along, spewing clouds of obfuscating smoke and nasty, surprising noises. And in truth, beyond all the issues described above, American allies (and potential antagonists) continue to contend with duelling statements from the president and his subordinates over such things as America’s commitment to Nato.

Making things so much more difficult is the fact that virtually no individuals have been named and nominated (let alone confirmed) for all the subsidiary positions across the entire federal government – no deputy secretaries, no undersecretaries, no assistant secretaries, virtually no agency administrators, and none but three ambassadors. This has made it even harder to develop and articulate coherent policies. Add into this the confusions of budget planning – raising the proposed defence budget by 10% while stripping the State Department and many other agencies of the large gouts of funds to cover that increase; or adding to Homeland Security’s funds for the “great, great wall” but bizarrely cutting the Coast Guard and related elements – and one has a recipe for further confusion.

But the world is not taking a vacation while Donald Trump finally figures out what he is doing. It is increasingly easy to contemplate the possibilities of a real crisis developing (instead of a manufactured one) from the actions of Kim Jong-un in North Korea with his nuclear and missile tests, to take one example. Moreover, things are also edging closer to some serious tension with China as well, now that the US has sent THAAD anti-missile defence systems to South Korea; as China insists the THAAD’s radars represent a threat to China. And this doesn’t even begin to include the omnipresent, omnidirectional dangers in the Middle East, or in the South China Sea or on Nato’s eastern fringes. Given the chaos emanating from his own efforts, how the Trump administration will respond to a real crisis will probably continue to keep far too many people, in far too many places, awake nights. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump gestures after disembarking Marine One walking on the South Lawn towards the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 05 March 2017. EPA/ERIK S. LESSER

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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