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US: Absolute chaos corrupts absolutely – Trumpty Dumpty style

J. BROOKS SPECTOR keeps shaking his head in astonishment at the goings-on in Washington, as Donald Trump continues to see chaos as his modus operandi as he makes his way through the thickets of foreign policy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out, Mike Pompeo is in, and Gina Haspel may be the new CIA director. But there has been so much more.

Well, actually, there have been several falls this past few days in the Trumpian universe. In some ways, Donald Trump’s universe is almost as inexplicable as the recently deceased Stephen Hawking’s was with its universe-eating black holes.

A great deal of what happens in Trump’s mind is as much a creation of the mind as Hawking’s was – save for the fact that the scientist’s thoughts encompassed and ranged over the birth and death of stars, galaxies and ultimately the entire cosmos, while Trump has been concerned, first and foremost, with acts of self aggrandisement and the gaining of tiny tactical advantages in achieving maximal loyalty from among an increasingly motley collection of the scheming courtiers, court jesters and fools he has surrounded himself with, ever since achieving the nation’s highest political office.

This past week, while then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the tail-end of his five-nation African trip, Trump apparently gave his chief diplomat a garbled message via an intermediary that was supposed to telegraph the gleeful announcement, “You’re fired!”

But, in the end, the message failed to be clear enough, at least until Trump issued a tweet announcing the fact with no equivocation in his words. Arguably, this is the first time any senior government figure has been fired via an insouciant tweet, announcing, at the same time, the firee’s replacement. So life seems to go in the television-land that masquerades as the Trump White House.

Tillerson had come to this administration after a lifetime career within Exxon-Mobil, the vast petroleum/natural gas giant corporation with assets and interests around the globe. An engineer by training, Tillerson had been recruited by Trump as a man who had the reputation of someone who negotiated effectively and profitably with the likes of hard-heads like Vladimir Putin, among others, and who was a businessman who was gung-ho in bringing business-like behaviour and ideas to one of the least ROI-style cabinet offices in the country.

Like all foreign ministries, the State Department deals with the kinds of things that simply don’t lend themselves to a straightforward cost/benefit, profit/loss analysis. Instead, it works with the often-muzzy details of inter-state relationships and the intangibles of international friendship. Its deliverables frequently comprise agreements between countries to agree to do things at some time in the future, and at a date to be determined later.

But the two men – Trump and Tillerson – never really gelled together as a cohesive and productive partnership, despite the fact that they were both from the world of business (broadly defined in the case of the president).

Tillerson gradually came to embrace fairly standard diplomatic positions on world issues. While he had his own criticisms of it, he began to support the P5+1 Iranian nuclear accord, despite it being anathema to the president. Tillerson kept trying to chip away at the president’s distain for, or absolute repugnance of, the diplomatic route in dealing with North Korea and its unusual hereditary communist leader, Kim Jong-un. That was until Donald Trump suddenly was swept up with enthusiasm for a one-on-one têteàtête over the two nations’ deep differences on North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions – with the very same man he had been denigrating as Little Rocketman for all these months, and with whom he had engaged in a mutual series of insulting, chest-thumping threats of nuclear attacks.

But perhaps that widely reported and never quite refuted and totally denied story that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” (with or without ripe, descriptive adjectives) to senior aides, after a particularly galling meeting with the president, never quite left the latter’s mind. And it festered and helped poison the atmosphere. And that, of course, was proof positive that Tillerson did not have the requisite brand of simpering, obsequious loyalty required of Trump subalterns – both privately and publicly. And that, in turn, gave their relationship a further, increasingly accelerated, downward trajectory.

It became increasingly clear to White House aides, the media, and world leaders that Tillerson’s days were numbered. Some day soon he would be back in Texas with the knife in his back. The final indignity seems to have been Tillerson’s relatively wholehearted embrace of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s claims that Russians were afoot in Britain, knocking off – or attempting to kill – former Soviet Union spies and contemporary Russian critics of Vladimir Putin. And Putin, of course, was the man who Donald Trump seems forever to trust and admire, even if the US president’s entire government intelligence apparatus is insistent on pointing the finger at Russia for carrying out a bold effort to meddle deeply in the 2016 American election.

This is not to say that Tillerson was the model of a modern secretary of state. He spent far too much time trying, personally, to rearrange the organisational chart of who reported to whom; who had what functions, and whose jobs were either redundant or a waste of time, money and energy. And he became a very good soldier in response to White House budget diktats that staffing and operational budgets should be cut by up to 30%. That meant that new hires were choked off. An increasingly despairing cohort of senior officials began making for the exits – or were pushed – as a result. Tillerson almost literally walled himself off from the bureaucracy he was supposed to run, putting in place a praetorian guard between the secretary and the rest. And he failed to exploit the vast wealth of knowledge and experience represented by the foreign service professionals and analysts on tap in the building and at embassies throughout the world.

But what probably annoyed the professional staff most of all was the apparent disinterest on the part of the secretary to get new senior staffers – political appointees – across a whole swathe of top offices into top jobs. Ultimately, Tillerson helped make the State Department increasingly irrelevant, even as the president continued to concentrate policy management as well as decision-making within a White House that was already notable for its tumult and near-chaos.

With Tillerson now history, the president went to Mike Pompeo, now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to succeed Tillerson. Pompeo is generally seen as a bright, incisive man, a military vet and former member of the House of Representatives from Kansas, where he was seen as a reliable conservative backbencher for his party. But Trump took the opportunity to say that he liked the cut of his jib and that they shared views on many things.

Given Pompeo’s previous Russia-doubting comments, one wonders if Trump actually made himself truly acquainted with Pompeo’s views. The story is that Pompeo frequently has been to give the president his daily intelligence briefing (the one that used to come in actual words to a president, but now appears to be largely given over to pie charts and pictures), and that to avoid picking a fight over Russia with Trump, Pompeo has reportedly dropped direct Russia references down into the footnotes, with the realisation that Trump just won’t notice them. While Pompeo gets those high marks for intellect, nobody is going to give him an award for his diplomatic skills and ability to get along with those whom he disagrees. That leaves open the possibility of public squabbles with the president or the country’s allies – or both.

To fill the now-vacant CIA position, Trump elected to nominate the current deputy director, Gina Haspel. She is a three-decade veteran of the agency and has had a reputation as an officer headed for the upper ranks for years – and now here she is. However, there is more than a bit of a back story to Haspel. It seems she was in charge of a secret prison in Thailand that had held captives brought to it under that extreme rendition programme – and that some of those captives had undergone interrogations (including waterboarding) that were later labelled as examples of torture by the Senate investigation into such things a couple of years ago.

Once that record is brought forward, Haspel’s confirmation hearings in the Senate may become acutely uncomfortable, if not profoundly devastating for the nominee and her nominator.

(One obvious line of questioning will be whether she disclosed this record to the president before she was publicly announced. Another will be to ask for her explanations of the legality of such interrogations. There are others.)

For the record, the CIA declined comment on Haspel’s nomination or her previous career activities.

While all this was going on, the president had to contemplate filling the position of head of the National Economic Council, and thus the chief economic adviser to the president, now that Gary Cohn had quit over the announcement of protective tariffs on steel and aluminium. Ultimately he went to Fox News television – his favourite source of news – to pick commentator Larry Kudlow for this post. Between Kudlow, Peter Navarro, and Robert Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative, Trump now has a thoroughly protectionist economic team, with little in the way of independent voices offering any kind of “hey, wait a minute” attitude to proposals now pushing their respective ways into the Oval Office.

But wait, the amazing moments were not yet over. In Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district that now straddles but largely does not include strongly Democratic Pittsburgh, in a special election to fill a now vacant seat that was empty because the incumbent Republican had to resign after pushing his now-pregnant weekend special to have an abortion (despite the congressman’s public embrace of right to life positions), the Democratic candidate, Connor Lamb, ran a near-flawless campaign and has – apparently – won the day.

We’ve written “apparently” because the paper-thin margin of victory might still change if still being counted absentee ballots go the other way – or if Lamb’s opponent, Rick Saccone, insists on calling for a recount. Lamb is a former Marine and a former prosecutor, and he ran as a very independent-minded Democrat who had adopted some positions that made him almost seem to be a moderate Republican.

This district has been so Republican that in two recent elections, the Democrats couldn’t even put up a candidate. Following this result, candidates are taking furious notes on how this happened. Importantly, Lamb apparently has won despite a veritable flood of money that went to Saccone’s campaign – around $10-million – to pay for increasingly annoying television commercials and robocalls. He even got a speech from the president, although, true to form, Trump spent most of the time endorsing himself and largely ignoring Saccone.

The lesson that is now being digested is that while Donald Trump is wildly entertaining on the stump, at least to his admirers, his Trumpist agenda does not easily transfer to lacklustre candidates – and may even work against them in the privacy of the voting booth. This, in turn, is injecting some fear into the hearts of Republicans that their control of the House of Representatives might even be in danger this November, as candidates in districts that went to Trump in 2016 may not do so in congressional races. The irony is that Pennsylvania’s congressional districts are about to be redrawn and this 18th district is set to include rather more of Pittsburgh than before, making it a more Democratic space than at present. While Lamb will take up his seat on the present district, he would probably have a better chance than before, going forward for the mid-term election this November.

And so, even as Democratic candidates have been successful against some admittedly lacklustre or bizarre Republican candidates in recent special elections such as this one, the Senate race in Alabama in a nail biter, and for the governorship in Virginia, and as the White House continues to be a kind of bureaucratic war zone, warnings are increasingly clear that other heads may roll as well.

In the rumours, prominent among them is National Security Adviser HR McMaster as the next to go. Such a move would deal a decisive blow to the quartet of senior figures – Tillerson, McMaster, John Kelly, the chief of staff, and retired general James Mattis, the secretary of defence – who had been reported as trying to keep the foreign policy ship in some sort of order. Not any more, however. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump with Houston Astros right fielder Josh Reddick during a ceremony to honour the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 12 March 2018. EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW

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