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12 December 2017 20:30 (South Africa)
World

US: Marine General to the rescue of a floundering, foundering, faltering White House

  • 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: Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly announces new aviation security measures for overseas airports during a speech on global aviation security at the Center for a New American Security’s Annual National Security Conference in Washington, DC, USA, 28 June 2017. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

In spite of his increasingly desperate desires to write about early hominins, art, theatre and the Chinese challenge in the South China Sea and elsewhere, J. BROOKS SPECTOR is shackled to paying attention to the (as Joe Biden would have said) shenanigans in the Trump White House.

As if things could not become much more freakish in the Trump-universe than they already were, yet another zombie, “dead man walking” senior staffer, Reince Priebus, the president’s chief of staff, was unceremoniously dumped for John F Kelly, who, up until the weekend, had been the secretary of homeland security. This, of course, has been in addition to the incineration of Sean Spicer as presidential press spokesman and the bizarre addition of Anthony Scaramucci as head of the White House’s communications team.

Kelly is a retired Marine four-star general and – taking Kelly and Scaramucci’s appointments together – they reinforce the Trump addiction to what one wag has called, “bucks and braid”. Scaramucci, in addition to having a serious – perhaps terminal – case of Tourette’s Syndrome-esque trash talking, an ill-informed sense of braggadocio, a total unfamiliarity with the media rules of the road in Washington, and an amply demonstrated backstabbing personality combined with the glibness of John Travolta’s Tony of Saturday Night Fever, represents the “bucks” half of this duo, what with the money he collected through a hedge fund. Such characteristics make it extremely easy to see the attractions the “Mooch”, as he likes to be called, offered to a Trumpian personality. Of course, he cooled his heels in a barely visible slot over at the Export Import Bank for a while, but here he is now, at 100 decibels.

In the part of Matt Taibbi’s recent article in Rolling Stone that we can quote (this being a fairly family-friendly website and all) the other day,

I already miss Anthony Scaramucci. Of course, he hasn’t officially been fired yet (checks Twitter), or committed suicide by jumping into boiling steak fat at his Gotti-esque Hunt and Fish Club restaurant in Manhattan (checks Twitter again). But it sure seems like he’s not long for this earth. Even by Trumpian standards, has any federal official had a more disastrous rollout?

The big headline this morning is that the new White House Communications Director got upset and decided to call Ryan Lizza at the New Yorker and go full-on Glengarry Glen Ross without asking for background or off-the-record privileges. In the call, Scaramucci hounded Lizza to give up his sources, threatened to fire the entire White House communications staff, and gave what Saddam Hussein would have described as the mother of all quotes in an effort to bash fellow backstabbing Trump insider Steve Bannon…. [Go read the article here.]

In the space of a week, Trump’s new press expert demonstrated that he a) didn’t know how to hold off-the-record conversations; b) didn’t understand that cameras and microphones keep rolling even when the red light is off and, c) doesn’t bother to check the other public statements made by administration officials before he makes statements of his own. An alien crashed on Earth and given a two-minute tutorial on dealing with reporters would have done a better job….

On the other hand, it sort of worked! The least successful Trump administration officials to date have been the ones who have labored in public to act like real presidential aides. Scaramucci on the other hand is like Trump himself: ridiculous, ham-brained, unapologetic, disdainful of Washington pieties, and bursting with reasonless confidence.

Scaramucci has been hovering around the Trump administration for a while, but until now didn’t have a prominent role. The reason for that is hilarious: he was considered too ridiculous and uncouth for public service by the other swamp-monster members of the Trump administration.

His hire horrified even hardened mutants like Bannon (‘Over my dead body will you get this job!’ Bannon is reported to have yelped, when he heard the Scaramucci news). Spicer, who for months had effortlessly gulped down Trump administration lies like a vulture guzzling battery acid, resigned in protest at Scaramucci’s arrival (an ‘unusual choice of hills to die on’ was the New Yorker’s comment).”

Meanwhile, Kelly, the retired four-star general, is seen as someone who in just the past six months has put the Department of Homeland Security on the straight and narrow with Trump-style border control and the vigorous hunting down of illegal immigrants. It must be a very rare Marine flag officer who can’t manage people and bend an institution to his indomitable will, what with the flags of office, the beautifully tailored and pressed uniforms, and the ability to outstare anybody else. As a result, the inevitable allure of moving Kelly from Homeland Security to tame the White House snake pit (as one resident serpent told a reporter anonymously) would seem to have made the case for itself.

The Trumpian love of the pomp and ceremony, the gold braid, the bands and flags, and jet flyover portion of the military seems like a kind of drug or teenager envy. But, parenthetically, we should recall that Trump is, after all, a man who ducked the military during the Vietnam War because of a bone spur in his foot (although he has subsequently been unable to remember which foot had the problem). This was never to slow him down on the sports field, however, as he played baseball for his military high school and, apparently, in intermural games as a university student as well.

Nevertheless, this vast military experience also allowed him to denigrate Senator John McCain’s agonies as a tortured POW in Hanoi the Vietnam War, saying that he, Trump, didn’t consider McCain a hero because he had been captured and, further, he was a loser, during his 2008 presidential defeat. McCain must have recalled these slights and savoured the moment when he dramatically voted down the repeal and replace” measure of the Affordable Care Act, putting an arrow through the heart of one of the Trump campaign pledges. Just like Oscar Wilde said, revenge is a dish best consumed cold. McCain did say his vote was for the benefit of the nation; but, still….

The larger problem for Kelly, of course, is that Trump has set up his White House’s staffing such that there is a whole set of competing circles of influence and authority. There is the – apparently now-waning – circle of establishment Republicans that used to be clustered around the now vanished Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer. Then there is the ultra-nationalist/alt-right/alternative-facts bunch that includes Kellyanne Conway, Steve Miller and Steve Bannon. There is the New York City moneyed Republicans, focused on economic advisor Gary Cohn (and now oddly augmented by Scaramucci). But there is also the family circle – Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka and access to the Trumpian ear. Presumably, too, there is also a realist circle around the national security adviser, focused on HR McMaster, also a retired general and someone who reportedly has forged good relations with Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, along with the new White House chief of staff, by virtue of their respective military backgrounds and Kelly’s brief stint at homeland security.

However, in the White House, as structured so far, virtually all of the top folks in the various competing groups seem to have what is called “walk-in access” to the president’s Oval Office, without being controlled, scheduled, or co-ordinated by a chief of staff. And there were virtually no restrictions on their behaviour and demeanour in the public space – or in their speaking to the media. And, so far at least, the impression is one of a White House that is totally out of control, in the hands of a warring collection of wild-eyed zanies given to deeply awkward segues to personal attacks with their would-be colleagues.

Kelly takes up his new assignment on Monday as a 21st century version of Hercules to clean up a new Augean Stables, and he should – but probably won’t be able to – enforce two simple rules, right from the get-go. First, he should insist he controls the president’s appointment book and schedule, whoever is allowed into presidential meetings, and who has automatic entrance rights into the Oval Office. The second thing he should command is that presidential tweet stream. If he is a really brave soldier, he will march into the president’s office bearing a hammer and smash the living daylights out of every electronic device Trump uses to send out his Twitter stream – even if it means invading the upstairs private quarters and finding all the hidden electronic devices. He’s a retired Marine, right? They have taken the high ground since “the Halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli”, right?

Watch/hear The Marines Hymn:

The real problem for the White House, so far at least, is that Donald Trump has chosen to be his own chief of staff. That’s the way he ran his business interests for decades; that’s how he ran his presidential campaign, and that is obviously how he decided he could run the presidency as well.

He’d issue diktats from on high, his forelock tugging servants would salute and then carry out these pronouncements by whipping and beating on the career civil service until they obeyed. Thereafter, he’d reinforce the messages via those nefarious tweets or in his post-campaign, campaign speeches, recycling all the best hits from the campaign to gin up support from a faithful cohort still seriously addicted to that Trumpian Kool-Aid. But, so far, none of this has really worked out as planned.

The Senate – or at least three of its Republican members, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain – came to its senses, found a bit of courage, and then refused to adopt the newest version of repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act. This came in a dramatic vote – thereby putting paid to a seven-year Republican campaign to achieve this very goal. The president’s responses to this defeat were predictable. He demanded the Senate come back and try again, threatening to cut the federal subsidy for congressional medical insurance, and threatening the odd senator or two with dire, still unspecified, recriminations if they didn’t do his bidding. And he, Trump, would, in the meantime, figure out ways to hobble various elements of the Affordable Care Act measures that have now been in place these past seven years. Meanwhile, the Republican leadership in the Senate, contemplating their defeat, has shrugged its collective shoulders, sighed, and admitted it was time to move on to all the other tasks it must tackle, not least its promised – but at least as contentious as “repeal and replace” – tax reform goal.

Trump, meanwhile, has given no indication of dialling back on the more divisive rhetoric, tweets and decisions. For example, he went after constitutional protections of people accused of crimes, telling a gathering of police they must be much less attuned to the rights of those arrested. Specifically when police arrest suspects and they perform that usual motion of putting a hand on the top of the malefactor’s head to keep it from being hurt while being put in the back of police vehicles, per Trump, they “should not be too nice” about it. And there was his cheerleading for more arrests on putatively illegal immigrants.

While he got the cheap thrill of cheers from the police, Trump’s comments were almost instantly decried by dozens of police chiefs across the nation, especially given national agonies over cases of police brutality or fatal shootings of suspects (or even of a pyjama-clad Australian woman reporting a possible sexual assault behind her home). Now, bear in mind US military service is entirely voluntary and so there may be no more than a few thousand transgender individuals on active duty and so, if the president’s tweet stream is to be believed, each of them is about to be drummed out of uniform in disgrace. His argument, such as it was, was that transgender individuals compromise service capability and unit cohesion, especially given the need for a military that can win, and their medical circumstances represent expensive diversions from real medical needs.

Compromising service capabilities and readiness and destruction of unit cohesion has been a hoary old chestnut in the mouths of those decrying any social change in the military for a very long time. It was first raised back in the 1940s when President Harry S Truman ordered that the military would no longer be segregated by race. It was raised when women were allowed into the service academies, as pilots, ship commanders, and in virtually every occupational category for line units. It was waved about as a problem with the introduction of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regulations for sexual preference, and then over the progressive elimination of other restrictions on gay personnel.

And now most recently, it has come forward via the twitching fingers of a smug, tweeting Trump, over the ghastly possibilities inherent in gender-reassigned personnel. Of course he didn’t bother to discuss this with military leaders or the Pentagon’s civilian leadership and, so far at least, the military has said it has no formal orders to do any such thing as chucking out any gender-reassigned personnel, or prohibit future enlistments. (At this point, most students of the subject argue that despite some well-known, well-publicised flaws and difficulties, the military is probably the most meritocratic of institutions in America, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual preference. And nobody accuses the military of being unable to win because its units reflect the nation’s diversity.)

Further, this is not withstanding that such problems don’t seem to exist in over a dozen other successful militaries around the world. Moreover, the cost for medical support for gender reassignment in the military has been reckoned to be – at most – less than half a percent of the military medical budget. This is much less than the cost of military bands, just by the way.

But there was still more difficult news for Trump’s administration and his plans. The Congress – House and Senate both – passed a bill by overwhelming majorities that confirmed, and locked in, further financial and economic sanctions on Russia (over Ukraine/Crimea incursions and for its meddling in the 2016 election); on North Korea (for its steady march towards a nuclear weaponised ICBM force; and on Iran (for its support for Hezbollah in Syria and elsewhere, just for starters). The measure would require the president to come back to Congress to seek agreement for the loosening of any of these sanctions regimens.

Now, no question that this represents a virtually unprecedented restriction of presidential authority in foreign affairs, but it is a visible sign of congressional mistrust of the president’s continuing insistence on somehow embracing Vladimir Putin, and his pooh-poohing the idea that the Russians meddled in the election. Given the veto-proof majorities by which this measure passed Congress, the White House has said the president will sign the measure into law. In response to this turn of the wheel, the Russians have now indicated they want American personnel in its embassy and consulates in Russia to drop back to a total of 455 staffers (equivalent to the number of Russian personnel in the US) and Russia has also given indications it will take over two diplomatic facilities, a dacha for off-duty rest and relaxation, and a diplomatic warehouse – tit for tat with the US closure of two Russian rest facilities in the US in late 2016.

These announcements can be read as retaliation for earlier US restrictions on Russian personnel in the US at the end of the Obama administration over the electoral meddling, but also an apparent recognition that despite Trump’s druthers, the thrill is gone, and the bromance is dead. Instead, the two nations are now officially certified frenemies, rather than glorious geostrategic partners marching hand-in-hand towards a beautiful sunset.

This must be yet another bitter pill for Trump – who had dreamt of something like an informal global condominium featuring the two nations, making deals, sorting things out and making the world safe for Trump hotels. But Trump’s own belligerent intransigence over all judgments about that electoral meddling, his public displays of affection” for Putin, and his dissing of longstanding allies in Europe has now apparently caught up with him.

Despite (or perhaps even because of) Trump’s now glaringly obvious intellectual, temperamental, experiential, and emotional flaws and deficiencies as a president, and in spite of several embarrassing, even humiliating, congressional defeats, he appears to be soldiering on with his usual bluster and bravado. But while he has tossed several staffers overboard and has added the supremely unsuited Anthony Scaramucci as his head of communications, he has at least admitted his White House needs at least one strong adult to try to bring some order out of the dangerous chaos. That would be John Kelly, as of Monday morning.

But it will quickly become obvious as to whether or not Kelly has the fortitude to instil real discipline in that nest of snakes, and that besides a nous for bureaucratic management skills, he will also be able to take control of policy discussions and decision-making at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There are real issues to confront in the world such as North Korea’s missile progress and Venezuela’s economic and political meltdown – just to name two of the most obvious in today’s news. But, if Kelly’s influence actually forces the president to begin doing his job, just maybe this presidency can be salvaged and avoid being ranked together with John Tyler and Andrew Johnson’s failed administrations. Or maybe even John Kelly, too, will be forced to admit that the Trumpster and his army of Morlocks are uncontrollable after all. Anybody wanna bet his replacement would then be Ivanka? DM

Photo: Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly announces new aviation security measures for overseas airports during a speech on global aviation security at the Center for a New American Security's Annual National Security Conference in Washington, DC, USA, 28 June 2017. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

  • 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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