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19 August 2017 15:11 (South Africa)
World

US: The Unlikeable Mr Trump's less than great week

  • 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: First lady Melania Trump (R) introduces US President Donald J. Trump (L) before his speech during a 'Make America Great Again' rally at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, USA, 25 July 2017. EPA/DAVID MAXWELL

Sadly, J. BROOKS SPECTOR must turn his attention yet again to the roiling turmoil in Washington in an effort to gain some measure of Donald Trump’s mettle in adversity. Less than pretty.

Like almost everyone who moves homes after years of accumulating things, the Trump family has been sorting, storing, stowing and tossing out old possessions as Melania and Baron join the president in the White House, after all that time in their vast penthouse atop Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan while Baron finished his school year in New York City. Yes, the White House has lots of storage space in the private residential quarters on the top floor of the historic building and the General Services Agency has much more around the city, but, to be honest, sometimes there just becomes a time to keep stuff – and a time to throw things away.

As a result, Melania – or perhaps one of her housekeepers – appears to have accidentally pitched out a tattered old box of papers left over from her husband’s childhood. The box eventually found its way to a recycling facility out on Staten Island, where one of the employees there looked through the contents before feeding them into that big clanking machine that grinds paper up for further treatment to turn it into mulch. And one document – well, maybe a few more, we shall see – was rescued, however. The finder handed it over to a relative who had contacts in the media and it eventually it found its way to Daily Maverick. It appears to have been an admonishing note from one of Donald J. Trump’s primary school teachers, addressed to his parents. The relevant portion reads:

Dear Mr and Mrs Trump:

We have noticed that your son has begun having increasing trouble staying focused on complex tasks (such as coloring in the lines or assembling the blocks by size or shape), and managing his time properly with his work.

He also seems to be increasingly unable to control his emotions, demonstrating a quickness to become angry with his fellow students and to lash out violently at those around him, whenever things are not going his way with his assigned tasks. We have also noted a growing tendency to blame others for his mistakes, and a reluctance to take responsibility for errors or misjudgements.

We would like to recommend an appointment with a child psychologist or perhaps a psychiatrist specialising in childhood issues (we have a file of individuals we can recommend if you would like to consult this information) to help him in gaining confidence in coping with the necessary adjustments to this new stage in his life.

Depending on the judgment of the health professionals, it may also be appropriate for him to be treated with one of the usual prescriptions that have had considerable success in recent years with such mood swings and related issues. These include Ritalin, Valium, or Xanax. These have largely been very helpful with other children, although physicians can make a more comprehensive evaluation and recommendation for the specifics of your son’s circumstances.

We believe it is important to deal with such behaviours appropriately and at an early stage, before they lead to more difficult situations that may include actual physical aggression directed against other students, or other actions against himself that would be regrettable.

Please keep us informed of your actions in this regard, and we will be happy to schedule a conference in a month or two to review young Donald’s progress in adjusting to the social, educational and personal challenges of his new environment.

Sadly, it does not appear that Mr and Mrs Fred Trump took up this invitation to get help for young Donald at a critical time in his life, although we do know that his parents eventually decided to send him to a military high school to “make a man of him”.  But, as the poet wrote, “the child is the father of the man”, and the temperaments and habits of a lifetime are almost impossible to change in a seventy-one-year-old man. And, as a result, Donald Trump continues to make an extraordinary hash of his presidency so far.

This past week or so in Washington has been nothing short of amazing – and mind-boggling. Even in Trump’s alternative universe. Just for starters, he has been going on an extended rip of bullying, humiliating tirades against his attorney general, Jeff Sessions. Sessions, was, until the new clown show rode into Washington, a long-time senator from Alabama, extremely conservative, dogged by rumours of the taint of racial prejudice in years gone by. But, most importantly, he was the first senator, and indeed the first major political figure, to sign on as a Trump supporter.

As a reward, once his candidate was elected, Sessions was given the important post of attorney general, the country’s chief law enforcement official. But, things quickly came unstuck for him. Word got out that he, along with much of the rest of the Trump crew, had had various heretofore-unreported meetings with Russian Embassy officials in the transition period before the actual inauguration.

Once the parade of others in the new administration began admitting to this, and as the president fired FBI Director James Comey over the bureau’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election, Attorney General Sessions recused himself from either appointing or managing relationships with the new independent counsel, Robert Mueller. With that decision, the president’s ire seemed to know no bounds, and he began a systematic bullying and belittling campaign against Sessions in his speeches and tweets, speaking of a weak, “beleaguered” attorney general who had demonstrated appalling judgement in recusing himself from the Mueller appointment. (Never mind that virtually everyone else believes that was Sessions’ only possible course.)

Observers in Washington – open mouthed with astonishment of this version of an adult-sized child’s tantrum – say they have never, ever seen public behaviour like this from a president; a man now seemingly determined to drive Sessions into leaving his Department of Justice office out of despair or embarrassment. That would, theoretically, open the way for Trump to lean on the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to fire Mueller – or, if Rosenstein failed to do so, to fire him too as well as everybody else down the line of authority until someone at the Justice Department would finally have the stomach do away with Mueller and thereby quell the Russia investigation. At a terminal cost to his or her reputation, of course.

There is also speculation that now that Mueller’s people are reportedly investigating Trump family members and the president’s own finances, the president has gone ballistic and is behaving like a kind of cornered wild creature – almost regardless of consequences. If that theory is correct, the key to Trump’s agenda is making Sessions fall on his own sword, rather than be fired, since that would make the Senate confirmation hearing for any plausible replacement a nearly impossible ordeal for the new nominee.

Oh, but there has been still more fun in the nation’s capital. Even as the full list of participants in the Donald Trump Junior-arranged meeting with a gaggle of Russian lawyers and press agents, ostensibly over Junior’s desire to find dirt on Hillary Clinton back in June 2016, were identified, special-assistant-to-the-president-and-chief-son-in-law-Jared Kushner ended up speaking with congressional investigators over the mess – but only after he had released a very carefully constructed eleven-page statement about how he hadn’t had a clue about the ostensible or real purpose of that meeting – effectively throwing Junior under the metaphorical bus as the wannabe macher or fool-in-chief for setting all this messiness in motion. Clever fellow, that son-in-law is. He’s obviously learned from the master in the White House how to displace any blame onto others.

Meanwhile, the president eventually appointed a new head of communications for the White House, hedge fund head (and sometimes Fox News business commentator) Anthony Scaramucci, or as his friends (and presumably enemies) call him, “the Mooch.” The Mooch made an appearance, just after his appointment, before the White House press corps and demonstrated his undying dew-eyed admiration for Donald Trump with repeated utterances of “I love this guy!” Then he went into a session with his staff and told them he would fire every last one of them if the leaking from the White House didn’t stop. All of this, in turn, led Sean Spicer – at this point a quintessential “sad sack” with his head permanently twisted to look over his shoulder for would-be assassins – to resign just before he was fired. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his deputy, then took his place. Heretofore, she has been notable for taking questions from reporters and never actually coming back with clarifications of the president’s meaning and intentions with his public statements or tweets.

But there has been still more. The Republican congressional leaders, not content with the realisation that they can not actually corral sufficient votes to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act after all, despite seven years of huffing and puffing about it, pulled out all the stops and finally eked out a 51-50 procedural vote in favour of beginning discussion of this idea in the Senate. But they only got there with the astonishing arrival of Senator John McCain, almost literally off the operating table from what turned out to be brain cancer, rather than a blood clot. McCain arrived to vote in favour of beginning debate, giving the measure a tie vote, and with the vice president casting the tie-breaking vote.

Going forward, however, the Republicans will still have to begin advancing various versions or segments of their possible plans – even as more moderate Republicans are opposed to increasing the pool of uninsured people via cuts in Medicaid funding and concurrent tax breaks to wealthier citizens, while conservative senators are holding out for deeper changes and cuts in benefits. So far, at least, Democrats are staying unified in opposing the deconstruction and destruction plans aimed at the ACA.

The great irony in McCain’s arrival is that when Obamacare was being proposed and debated in 2010, it was Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy – a long time proponent of expanded medical care – who joined the deliberations and voting, even as he was dying of the very same disease McCain is now enduring. On the floor of the Senate, McCain chose to excoriate his colleagues for a lack of collegiality and the kind of hyper-partisanship that has become inimical to the effectiveness of the Senate in dealing with national issues.

Meanwhile, a few days, earlier, Trump had chosen to tell Republicans that they better straighten up and fly right and vote for repeal and replace, or Tom Price, his Secretary of Health and Human Services, would have to be fired as well. From Trump’s chair, collegiality and civility are apparently useless tools. Persuasion comes in the form of a discarded script from “The Apprentice”, it would seem.

The nation saw this side of Trump, yet again, at his speech at the quadrennial Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia. Instead of the usual kind of non-partisan speech one gives at such occasions, replete with encouraging bromides and homilies to good citizenship and decency, Trump chose, once again, to excoriate his predecessor and generally wander all over an abusive verbal landscape, apparently encouraging boos at the mention of Obama’s name, and earning the ire of many current and former scouts for his dreadful manners and traducing of Scout traditions. Sies.

But there has been yet more lurking in the swamp along the Potomac. While all these other things have been going on, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of a measure that would tighten economic and financial sanctions against North Korea, Iran, and Russia. And once the Senate passes it, an apparent no-brainer at this point, assuming the two houses of Congress can agree on the exact wording of the measure, the Trumpster is going to have a true Hobson’s choice on his hands.

As The Christian Science Monitor noted at the beginning of the week, “The Russia controversy – one of the most defining issues of Donald Trump’s young presidency – has been cast by the president and his supporters as a political “witch hunt,” even while Democrats are all over the news talk shows raising serious questions.

“But strip away the political and media noise, and what is left is a Congress where both Republicans and Democrats appear resolved to keep Russia in check – even if that means crossing the president. In fact, observers say this Congress is the most hard-line against Moscow in decades, mostly because Russia’s attempts to influence last year’s US elections are too close to home to ignore.

“ ‘When we feel like we’re threatened, and certainly our elections and our cybersecurity are threatened, we go shoulder-to-shoulder,’ Sen.  David Perdue (R) of Georgia, one of the president’s closest allies in the Senate, told the Monitor last week.”

If Trump vetoes this measure once it passes, he looks like he is right back in the palm of one Vladimir Putin, looks soft on Pyongyang, and like he is double-talking on Iran. If he signs it, however, he provokes the annoyance of European allies who fear additional sanctions on Russia will have a deleterious effect on their imports of Russian natural gas (crucial for heating and electricity generation in much of Europe). And it may provoke Iran’s movement away from the P5+1 nuclear agreement (that the Trump administration just grudgingly certified continues in force). And it may even encourage the North Koreans to advance their timetable of moving towards weaponisation of their ICBMs even faster, in a kind of go for broke effort to pummel the US.

Either way, Trump will face awkward questions about his policy consistency – especially as there is that growing uneasiness among congressional Republicans about the still-unfathomable emotional chumminess with Russia  Trump continues to display at nearly every opportunity. This was demonstrated to all and sundry with those multiple conversations with Putin in Hamburg (without an American note taker or any specialist advisors on hand), and by his continuing reluctance simply to admit the Russians really did try to subvert the 2016 election.

At this point, even keeping score over everything is becoming virtually impossible. And there are still three and a half years to go in this administration. DM

Photo: First lady Melania Trump (R) introduces US President Donald J. Trump (L) before his speech during a 'Make America Great Again' rally at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio, USA, 25 July 2017. EPA/DAVID MAXWELL

  • 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

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