J. BROOKS SPECTOR has suddenly realised that we’ve all been trying to come to terms with the Trump presidency incorrectly. Completely. It is not about policy, leadership or any of those silly old-think ideas. Nope – not at all. Instead, it’s totally about creating a new hit television series, now that he has had to give up The Apprentice. And Trump has three of them running out of the Oval Office right now. Wow.
You have to give that man credit. Many producers have had long-running hits, but usually they can only manage one series at a time, such is the pressure and strain of such efforts.
About the only competition Donald Trump has had in launching multiple successes has been Dick Wolf, the man who famously has had several different versions of that perennial television series, Law and Order, running simultaneously across first-run commercial television, in syndication, and on premium cable and satellite broadcasts. It may well be that besides I Love Lucy, aliens will be getting their deepest knowledge of life on Earth from Dick Wolf’s creations, light years away in front of their interstellar home television receivers. But now, maybe, they will have Donald Trump as well.
Donald Trump, the former reality show television producer/emcee, tabloid pages’ perennial star, and frequent attendee in bankruptcy courts, of course, now has multiple TV hits on the go. This time around, television showman and huckster that he is, Trump has three potboilers taking place concurrently from within the White House.
The first of these is the sudden announcement that he had accepted the offer to meet face-to-face with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, some time between now and May. Just imagine it, “Little Rocket Man” together in the same room with “The Dotard” – the very names they have been flinging at each other during months of threats and counterthreats of nuclear attacks, of fire and fury, of total annihilation. Actually this sounds suspiciously like an earlier WWF production, the one with Trump’s appearance with the head of that highly intellectual drama broadcast and their phoney face-off in – and outside of – the ring.
While Trump has taken enormous pride in this sudden public announcement, the real heroes in this unfolding drama seem to be some female Korean ice hockey players and a few courageous South Korean officials. The South Koreans had been eager to market their Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang as the “peace games”, and to fulfil that ideal, they invited the North Koreans to participate in the games as well. Somewhat to their astonishment, they ended up with a bi-national female ice hockey team, some North Korean skaters, and a slew of those massed cheerleaders and placard sign demonstrators – and the seemingly demure sister of Kim Jong-un as well, who quickly became a hot item in the news.
As things evolved, the North Koreans invited South Korean officials to Pyongyang for talks about talks between the two nations, but by the time they returned to Seoul the South Korean emissaries were bearing an invitation from the “Young Leader” to meet with Donald Trump.
The South Korean national security adviser to President Moon Jae-in, Chung Eui-yong (who had been in the trip to Pyongyang), then flew to Washington to discuss the matter with US officials. In his briefing for senior folks in the White House, Trump was not part of that initial meeting.
But, having heard about its taking place in the White House office spaces, Trump apparently rushed in to say that he would – ah ha, oh yes he would – accept, even before his staff had had a chance to weigh the consequences or staff out the question. (Remember that up until that moment, the planning had all been about the nature and consequences of some sort of military response to North Korean missile and nuclear weapons testing.)
And then the president announced his acceptance, without bothering to inform his secretaries of state and defence, as well as any other White House aides. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on a five-nation Africa trip and sources say that in working through the catch-up to this announcement, he had been up several nights in a row during this trip in order to attempt to get on board an already-departing train.
For the people who must deal with this announcement, the first order of business is to determine where the two leaders will actually do the deed. At least at the present, the two most likely locations are Geneva, Switzerland or the Panmunjom Peace Village right at the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Korean states. Geneva has a long history as the site for negotiations between wary states, while the Peace Village is the place where the long negotiations that led to the ceasefire on the Korean Peninsula took place nearly 70 years ago. At least for now, it’s a coin toss.
But even as the reverberations of the unexpected announcement were still ricocheting around the world, White House officials were trying to dial it back just a bit, hinting at the need for North Korea to accept some preconditions to the meeting such as an agreement that a goal for the summit would be to work out the denuclearisation of North Korea.
So far, at least, Kim’s government has been mum on all this, giving rise to the feeling that they are in the saddle over these events and that they are riding the Trump administration, despite the US vpresident’s continual boasting that he alone can fix such things and that he is a master negotiator and that from the sheer force of will he will bend steel with his bare hands. Still, let’s give him a little credit for – perhaps – helping create the climate for this possible face-to-face moment, as the ever-increasing sanctions against the North may be having some impact.
There are, of course, other concerns. The usual way to approach such a leaders’ summit – especially between two sides that agree on little besides the fact of the sun rising in the east – is for lower-level meetings first in order to lay the groundwork for a later leaders’ meeting. Doing it the way that is happening now is much riskier. This way means there may be no other result – and no other person to pin it all on – than either an extraordinary agreement or a very public, very embarrassing egg-on-the-face moment, if things go pear shaped.
Further, with a lead time of only a month or so to prepare, the Trump administration will need to run to catch up to events. Key personnel are not available. The ambassador to South Korea’s seat is vacant; the assistant secretary of state for East Asia position is unfilled, and the government’s top North Korea expert just announced retirement plans.
Who, then, is going to oversee the actual hard work of setting out a full negotiating strategy, analyses of likely scenarios, and the creating of contingencies for dealing with the negotiating, if other events or actions by North Korea suddenly alter the landscape?
(There is also the issue of co-ordinating with South Korea and Japan and keeping China and other nations informed of plans and progress.)
There will now be late nights in Washington as outside experts – on North Korean economic circumstances or other topics – must be dragooned into helping prepare a negotiating strategy that is not yet even formulated.
It should be fascinating when Dennis Rodman is called to the White House to help prepare the psychological evaluation of Kim Jong-un, as Rodman is, after all, the only American to have spent actual face-to-face time with the man. This episode in this series will be a fascinating, albeit slightly bizarre, broadcast. Regardless of anything else, this new series: North Korea: Negotiating with ‘The Little Rocket Man’ is already guaranteed a long run and endless hours of prime time television.
Meanwhile, back in the Oval Office, the Trump administration was also busy taking the wraps off a second televised series: Protecting Steel Town. Drawing from a campaign promise built on a long-time Trumpian drumbeat that evil foreign nations and manufacturers have been nefariously consuming American jobs in heavy industry (rather than the results of the law of comparative advantage along with developments in AI and industrial automation), Trump kept up a kind of policy striptease. It was one veil at a time, until he finally announced the protective tariffs on steel and aluminium that would – finally – revive domestic production and magically restore lost jobs.
(The inconvenient facts include the reality that a majority of steel produced in the US now is manufactured via lightly staffed electric arc plants such as those operated by Nucor that recycle steel. Any new plants in the US goosed along by the imposition of tariffs would almost certainly also be highly automated electric arc plants, rather than the old style smoke-belching plants that typified Pittsburgh a century ago.
Moreover, US domestic demand for raw steel is actually in decline as other lighter materials take up an increasing share of the production of things like motor cars. Further, the majority of US steel imports now come from Mexico and Canada, rather than that perennial Trumpian bugbear of China.)
Anyway, after much toing and froing about which evil, wicked foreigners were about to get hit hardest, and how it all would come down upon their heads, including a Live from the White House, the president with some angry steelworkers – a true reality moment! segment, Trump announced the new tariffs. Somewhat surprisingly, they didn’t include Mexico and Canada – at least while those two nations were under the gun to renegotiate NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Association.
Western European nations, South Korea and Japan were all reportedly very underwhelmed and more than a bit irritated by all this. Some of them are apparently considering either going to the World Trade Organisation for arbitration, or setting up their own countervailing tariffs on such popular American imports as denim blue jeans, Harley Davidson hogs, and bourbon and other authentic American hard tack.
The whole messy business cost Donald Trump the very public resignation of his chief economic adviser, David Cohn, the same man who was barely talked out of resigning in protest after Trump had lauded the skin-head, white supremacist, anti-Semitic marchers in Charlottesville last year as “some very good people”. This time around, Cohn had had enough, and he threw in his losing hand, leaving the policy field to dyed-in-the-wool protectionists like Peter Navarro.
This show, too, is certain to run for at least a full season of charges, countercharges, recriminations, and staged reality moments in the White House, even as relations with close allies sour. It will almost certainly include an episode where steelmaking men ride their Harley Davidsons through the capital while wearing specially designed blue jeans and carrying pocket flasks of Jack Daniel’s. (And if that happens, this writer wants a share of the royalties for suggesting it first!)
But there was still more to come. This third series is still in development but, so far at least, it includes Stormy Daniels, a soft-core porn star who allegedly had trysts with the Donald during his wife’s pregnancy; Trump’s long-time lawyer Mark Cohen who apparently took out a home equity loan to pay Daniels $130,000 to not talk about this rather dangerous liaison, and various other bit players whose identities have not – yet – been revealed.
While infidelity is not in itself a crime, the problem is that the agreement to pay Daniels – and the actual financial transfer by the very loyal Mr Cohen – took place just as Trump was in the final moments of his presidential run. And emails about it were from a Trump Organisation business server.
According to various campaign finance law experts, such a payment could easily be construed as a campaign contribution, since it was intended to assist the candidate’s presidential ambitions by preventing some really raunchy publicity from coming out at the last moment. Moreover, if so, it would then have been an undisclosed contribution that went unreported to the Feds, as well as the fact that it far exceeded the amount legally allowed to be given by one individual to a candidate over the course of a campaign – and exceeded it by several orders of magnitude.
Given that this story has all the right elements: political power, sex, money, illicit backroom dealings, looming criminal charges, and a potentially very voluble porn star, this show has legs – among other things. The prediction here is that this one, too, will run and run and run. And there may even be a profitable spin-off series if Stormy Daniels has a good lawyer or two or three, and if some of those other women who have charged Trump over the years for unwanted sexual advances have the goods on him as well and are prepared to offer them.
Amazingly, audiences seem to be fascinated by all three series, and we can expect to be seeing much more than the pilots on television screens and on video streaming for a long time to come.
The most bizarre part of it all is that Donald Trump, having learned how to create a life lived via reality shows and in the pages of tabloid newspapers, has managed to transfer that knowledge and skill to his time in the White House.
The actual policies seem to matter very little. What does count is the ratings, regardless of what harm may come to the country. As they say in television land, stay tuned. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks before signing a presidential proclamation on steel and aluminium tariffs, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 08 March 2018. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS
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