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The US government according to Trump: From scary to downright terrifying

“Designated Survivor” is the ABC/Netflix television series about a catastrophe that engulfs the US Government when most of its leadership is killed simultaneously, save for the designated survivor, the one cabinet official who does not attend a presidential address to Congress just in case the unthinkable should occur. In real life, the current Trump administration has been harvesting nearly as many senior staff and cabinet casualties as the TV drama. But this has been in a real world where there are real problems to deal with – or at least there would be if there was a real president instead of a reality show host. J. BROOKS SPECTOR continues to shake his head and stare at the continuing train wreck.

In a world where Donald Trump still looms large, but entirely unpredictably, there is at least one certain thing left on the planet: by the time all the votes have been cast and counted in Russia’s most recent election, and the winner declared after Sunday’s poll, Vladimir Putin will be the president of Russia, again, and again, and yet again.

At this point, Putin seems to be vying for the trophy in the longevity in office sweepstakes with China’s Xi Jinping (now no longer restricted by term limits), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (president since before most Ugandans were born), and, perhaps, whoever replaces the current Cuban president, Raul Castro, or North Korea’s president, Kim Jong-un, assuming those family traditions hold true.

Yes, Angela Merkel used to be in the running in the competition for global-champion-perpetual-leader, but after this most recent election, and the hard slog to form a stable government this time, she seems to be looking distinctly worn down by all the German political Sturm und Drang these days.

While those leaders (minus the German chancellor) are examples of real leadership consistency and continuity – whether you love, like, dislike, or abhor their respective policies – the same is most definitely not the case for our Donald, and this after only a year and a bit in office.

Consistency is not his middle name, unless it is his adoration of his bromance guy, Vladimir Putin, who just got re-elected for another six year term. With the Donald, one simply cannot tell – from one minute to the next – which way we are going both policy- and personnel-wise, especially since he is now fully on record (if you hadn’t guessed it already) as saying he just loves chaos.

Imagine that. Who would ever have thought that was the case, based on the available evidence, so far, of the great shambles that has been the appointments and retention processes of the Trump administration? Instead, on and on that man goes; still trying to figure out who belongs in his government (or doesn’t), almost a year and a half since his election. At this rate, he will stay well in advance of any other president in terms of operating a tumultuous merry-go-round of ever-changing White House staffers and cabinet officers.

Now in line to become the new secretary of state is the man who is currently director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo. He was an army officer who had been first in his class at West Point, a middling successful businessman thereafter, and then a reliably conservative congressman from Kansas for several terms. Most notably, he was a flagbearer for that Republican unicorn hunting expedition that had tried to pin “blame” for the deaths of an ambassador and several others in Benghazi, Libya, directly on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite the evidence – and common sense – to the contrary.

As The Economist describes Pompeo’s career, in a column worth quoting at some length,

Eight years ago Mike Pompeo was a 47-year-old greenhorn congressional candidate in Wichita, Kansas, with a modest business career and unremarkable limited government views. He was best known for being the biggest recipient of campaign donations from Wichita’s largest private-sector employer, Koch Industries. No one, save possibly that company’s conservative mega-donor owners, marked him out for greatness….”

How he became the president’s pick is largely a function of how few reliably Republican figures with Washington and foreign policy experience Trump knew when he was poised to come to power. Because he was despised by so many of them (recall the two letters signed by dozens of such people who said they would never work with him), he largely turned to soldiers, businessmen friends and a few politicians to fill his senior positions. As The Economist went on to explain,

Mr Trump was allegedly sold the moment Mr Pompeo, a well-built man like the president, came barrelling into his office….

Having suffered the defeat of many clever plans, experienced officers moderate their youthful swagger with caution, inscrutability even. James Mattis, the defence secretary, is more a cerebral student of history than the ‘Mad Dog’ Mr Trump thought he had hired. Mr Pompeo’s bullishness, by contrast, is amplified by a politician’s ideological certainty and eagerness to score partisan points. Though accomplished for a House member, he was most notable for his nakedly partisan and, as it turned out, baseless effort to pin the blame for a terrorist attack six years ago in Benghazi, in Libya, on Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state. That was even more delightful to Mr Trump, who allegedly passed over another Republican congressman, Mike Rogers, for the CIA job because he had acknowledged that Mrs Clinton was not to blame.

Mr Pompeo’s blend of establishment smarts and aggressive partisanship explains his success in Mr Trump’s administration. The president has found its apolitical members, such as Rex Tillerson, the outgoing secretary of state, disappointingly unenthused by his ideas. (Of this group, only Mr Mattis has had sufficient heft to stave off the president’s hunger for validation.) By contrast, ideologues such as Mick Mulvaney and Tom Price, the budget director and former health secretary, have been willing servants of the president’s agenda, but too inflexible to be effective managers. Mr Pompeo grasped that his tasks were to please his department and the president, and he has succeeded at both.

“… On occasion he has defied the administration in defence of his department. He opposed shifting America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, on the basis that the resulting upheaval would endanger its officers and agents. Yet he has at the same time set out – more than any recent spy chief – to curry favour with the president and trumpet his policies. He gives the presidential intelligence briefing most days, and often remains at the White House to discuss whatever Mr Trump has on his mind. Foreign-policy experts suspect this chumminess is a ploy. ‘No one is loyal to Trump – he is too indecent a human being,’ speculated Eliot Cohen, a conservative pundit and no fan of Mr Trump, on Mr Pompeo’s feelings for his boss. Yet they underrate, as Mr Trump never has, the power of tribal allegiance to alter hearts and minds….

His world view is similarly prone to the sorts of distortion that extreme partisanship has fuelled, on the right especially. Unlike the more mercurial president, to be sure, Mr Pompeo seems in many ways a reliable foreign-policy realist: pessimistic about alliances and supportive of free trade, albeit with a hawkish enthusiasm for using military power. He has advocated a tougher line against Russian expansionism, in Ukraine and Syria, than Mr Trump has. He sounds as admiring of China’s strongman leader, Xi Jinping, as the president does. He appears deeply sceptical that North Korea’s rogue regime is open to negotiation. Yet he also holds some of the irrational views that made his party so vulnerable to Mr Trump’s confabulations and conspiracy theories.

His hostility to Iran’s theocratic regime is understandable, but laced with exaggeration. He has claimed, without evidence, that Iran is in cahoots with Islamic State and al-Qaeda. He is openly Islamophobic. He once questioned American Muslims’ loyalty and ‘commitment to peace’. He dismisses climate science as a fraud. His establishment nous notwithstanding, Mr Pompeo is not playing Mr Trump so much as finding common cause with him. He is where traditional realism meets America First.”

Then, to replace Pompeo at the CIA, Trump selected Pompeo’s deputy, Gina Haspel, a long-time career CIA employee. As soon as her name was announced, a great fuss arose over just how complicit she was in a hidden detention camp in Thailand for terror suspects brought to it via extreme rendition – and then their subsequent extreme interrogation. At first, the argument was that she had been the camp commander while this was happening, although the original breaker of that story, Pro Publica, later recanted, saying she had arrived after such interrogations had ended.

Still, expect some extremely dogged, relentless interrogation of her thoughts about all this at the hands of members of the Senate committee who will handle her appointment before the full Senate gets to weigh in. If the moist finger in the wind method of prediction is accurate, both she and Pompeo may have something of a tough go of it, even if Pompeo ultimately gains a thumbs-up as secretary of state. The result for Haspel, at least at present, remains somewhat less favourable, partially dependent on how she presents herself vis-à-vis the questions of torture more generally to the satisfaction of senators like Dianne Feinstein. The latter had been relentless in discussing the Senate’s report on just such things a few years ago.

If it is a straight party vote and everybody stays in the GOP column, well, okay, they both get to move forward, if only barely, but if one or two Republicans decline to go along with these appointments, both Pompeo and Haspel may struggle. (It is an election year, after all, and Trump’s coattails in mid-term elections now seem particularly threadbare after the GOP lost both the special Senate election in Alabama and a special House election in Pennsylvania). Defeats for either nominee could be hugely embarrassing for Donald Trump, yet again, as GOP members of Congress begin to weigh up some increasingly tough races in what many thought might have been shoo-ins a few months ago.

Meanwhile, the White House merry-go-round rumour mill on appointments continues to run at flank speed. By the end of last week, there were persistent rumours National Security Adviser HR McMaster was next to be consigned to the Trumpian “ashcan of history”, along with Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, and possibly Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well. Sessions remains in the doghouse over the Russia-Trump-collusion investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller III and Sessions’ recusal from decisions about closing it down. Shulkin is in trouble for some spending peccadilloes, while McMaster’s problems are growing as well.

McMaster has staked out positions against withdrawing from the P5+1 nuclear accord with Iran, as well as his public agreement that the Russians have been engaged in sophisticated hacking and related interventions into American elections and other efforts. Not surprisingly, these have put him on Trump’s bad side. Moreover, he is also reportedly under Trump’s skin for long-winded briefings that have included curious things like evidence, analysis, nuance, caveats, digressions, and the lessons of history, rather than whatever will fit into a tweet or reaffirm the Trumpian view of the world.

McMaster had earlier come to public attention with a book on major policy failures on the part of officials that had led to the larger disaster of the US’ participation in the Vietnam War. And so, it has been natural for McMaster to aim for better than that history with the current administration, as it confronts North Korea, Iran other Middle East problems, Afghanistan, and the like. However, his “lessons of history” style of briefing the president has apparently not gotten very much applause within the Oval Office.

On Friday, as the discussion swirled around who was next for the tumbrils and the guillotine with McMaster at the forefront, none other than the name of John Bolton was being punted as the next national security adviser. John Bolton of all people. Amazing. John Bolton is a charter member of the “neo-conservative-strong-national-defence-Russia-is-a-really-bad-dude-along-with-members-of-that-‘Axis-of-Evil’” crew.

In his career, he has held a number of positions, such as the country’s leading nuclear weapons negotiator for Republican presidents, and by the time of George W Bush’s administration, Bolton’s abrasive manner and blunt castigation of the country’s opponents (even more than his positions) meant he could not win Senate confirmation as the country’s ambassador to the UN. He eventually served as a recess appointment, pending the nomination of a permanent candidate that the Senate could vote on, once they returned in session.

During the Obama administration, Bolton then hung his hat at reliably conservative think tanks and similar convivial institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute, where he could take routine pot shots in the media, and before live gatherings of the faithful.

Now, if Bolton really did become McMaster’s successor, it would mean there had been yet one more casualty among the president’s most senior advisors on international affairs and security issues – just as a summit with the North Korean leader was on the go. But, it would also, paradoxically, strengthen the “be strong against Russia” contingent in the top ranks of government, even as the president himself continues to be noticeably reluctant to castigate Russia for its electoral meddling, for its efforts to eliminate ex-Russian spies living in the UK, and for its dissembling over its actions in Syria, among other issues. If Bolton, Pompeo, and, say, James Mattis, the secretary of defence, formed up a solid line on Russia, how would the president respond to this? Or, would they all simply begin to bend to the president’s views, in order to keep their collective foot in the door of the Oval Office?

While all this was happening, of course, the president has continued his war on the FBI, most recently pushing for Attorney General Sessions to summarily fire the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, for his role in the agency’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private server email imbroglio. This has now become thoroughly interwoven with his anger over the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s interactions with the Russians during the election campaign in 2016. In the end, McCabe was treated to a particularly small-minded, mean-spirited, vicious personnel decision masquerading as a public flogging, given that he had already put in his papers to retire at 50 and that the firing took place 26 hours before that would come into effect.

In his Sunday tweet storm, as the Washington Post reported,

For the second straight day, President Trump was unrestrained in his commentary about Robert S. Mueller III’s expanding investigation, which is probing not only Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible links to his campaign, but also whether the president has sought to obstruct justice. Trump tweeted, ‘Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added … does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!’ Trump’s assertion is incorrect. Mueller is a long-time Republican.

Trump also attacked fired FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who said he had memos of his interactions with the president. Trump tweeted that those notes were ‘Fake Memos.’ In another tweet, Trump accused former FBI director James B. Comey of lying in testimony to Congress as he was questioned by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).” The tweet storm had also said, as it often does, “The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC, and improperly used in FISA COURT for surveillance of my campaign. WITCH HUNT!”

Of course, given this is Donald Trump we are speaking of, he is – or at least his lawyers are – also fighting in public with Stormy Daniels, the now-famous porn star, over her conversations about the nondisclosure agreement she had signed (but that Trump had not) about their alleged affair – and about that affair. Now the president’s lawyers are threatening to sue her for $20-million worth of damages for 20 comments – a cool million a pop.

One is left with the obvious question. Why is there all this fuss from the president’s attorneys, if there was no affair in the first place, especially given that there was a nondisclosure agreement, as Trump would have it, of an affair that hadn’t taken place in the first place.

And now, here it is, Monday morning and we have a whole week’s worth of churn to look forward to, more heads to roll, more curious appointments to be made, more bizarre legal movements to track, and even, occasionally, perhaps, some actual governing to watch. Nah. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Atlantic Aviation in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, USA, 10 March 2018. EPA-EFE/David Maxwell

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