Category 5 Hurricane or Trump Meltdown?

July 12, 2017–This past weekend witnessed the escalating controversy–naturally about the Russian Caper–following on the New York Times’s revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. had taken a meeting with a Russian surrogate purporting to have scandalous information, straight from Russian legal sources, that might help defeat Hillary Clinton. By the overnight from yesterday to today the situation at the White House was being described as akin to a Category 5 hurricane (one with winds in excess of 157 mph, which can be expected to destroy most frame houses [total roof and wall failure]), with White House staff tiptoeing around each other. Ms Sarah, the mouthpiece, is as clueless as ever. The sudden emergence of Kellyanne Conway from her undisclosed location is proof positive 1600 Pennsylvania is in all-hands-on-deck emergency mode. But the president himself is nowhere to be seen.

The Times’s description of how it came about that Donald Jr. released the actual email thread that featured him gloating over the prospects of oppo research from the Russians, and then setting up this meeting–to which he added Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, plus his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, is very instructive. First wind of the meeting, which took place in June 2016, weeks before the Republican Party convention that nominated Trump as its standardbearer, came while the president was airborne, returning from the disastrous European trip where he emerged isolated from his Group of 20 allies and bested by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Evidently the initial press release attributed to Donald Jr. was actually compiled by Trump advisers aboard Air Force One and approved by the president. Over the next several days a succession of admissions from Donald Trump Jr all failed to quiet the firestorm, leading him finally to release the emails themselves–just before the moment the Times stood to publish them, and manipulating the newspaper, asking it for time for Trump to contrive a response, while Donald Jr. in reality moved to put out the emails himself.

President Trump’s defense of his son oddly lacks in conviction. You will recall that, during Watergate, Richard Nixon tried to still the beasts by jettisoning a series of his closest associates. That’s been discussed in this space, along with Donald Trump Sr.’s very suggestive statement a while back that if “satellites” were found to have participated in a Russian Caper, he remained innocent. We may be entering the satellite-phase now.

I want to focus some elements that need greater attention. The first is, where did this revelation come from? We’ve spoken before about “Russian cards” and how Mr. Putin had tricks he could take. This could have been where some of the information came from. Putin has an incentive to keep American politics on the boil and this controversy was sure to do it. A variant on that is to bring in the British intermediary, Rob Goldstone, with his Russian oligarch clients–an individual who could have served as intermediary much as he is reported to have done in setting up these actual meetings. Goldstone’s messages were the most incendiary elements of this picture–that dirt was aimed at Ms. Clinton, that it flowed from Russian legal sources, and that it formed part of a Russian campaign to support a Trump candidacy.

On the Trump campaign side, it’s difficult to believe that either the president’s son or his son-in-law would be one’s to rock the boat like this. That leaves Paul Manafort, whom the Trump campaign dismissed at full stride, did not reward with any government position, and treated very differently from Michael Flynn, which must have rankled.

Beyond that are the people who may have been told by these people.

One other point. Some time back I laid out an outline chronology for the Russian Caper. This latest piece fits into it nicely. Ambassador Kislyak met Trump officials (Manafort and Kushner, at a minimum, not sure of Donald Jr.) alongside an event at the Mayflower Hotel. Six weeks later the newly-reported meeting takes place. My guess is it had the function of confirming some promise, or clarifying a plan. Manafort, Kushner, and Trump Jr. are all involved, were all copied on the email chain, and the timing of the meeting was changed twice but they all still made sure to be there. Candidate Trump himself, shortly after this meeting, made an obscure remark to the effect that revelations about Hillary Clinton would be coming up soon. That might be a reference to his own opposition research but it could also refer to the Trump Jr. event. In any case the Trumpists went ahead to fiddle with the Republican Party platform in a way to indicate they favored weakening or removing sanctions on Russia, which I continue to believe was the overt act that told Putin his American understudy was on board with a collusion.

Odd, isn’t it, how pieces in this puzzle continue to fall into place.


Nuclear Dilemmas: Between the Tragic and the Absurd

January 1, 2017–We are moving to a new presidency. Our new president promises a widescale construction program in new nuclear weapons, reversing the trend of reducing dependence on these dangerous instrumentalities that has been underway since Ronald Reagan’s time. In part Donald J. Trump seems to regard this as an answer to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s similar promises to build new nukes to counter the system of U.S. missile detection radars and defense mechanisms going into place in Eastern Europe. In part a nuclear buildup will form part of a larger, poorly conceived, Trump administration Pentagon budget that will simply increase spending in every category rather than imposing fiscal discipline on programs that have long run without it.

Our outpourings of grief for people lost in the past year have been heavily tilted toward musicians, actors and cultural personalities. Two of the names missing on those lists could have been vastly helpful in the period we are about to enter. They passed away within a week of each other in December 2016–not quite as close as Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds, but awfully evocative. One was Harvard economist Thomas C. Schelling, the other Sidney D. Drell, the theoretical physicist who trained at the University of Illinois. Schelling made seminal contributions to game theory, including the escalation dominance and hedging mechanisms that lie at the heart of nuclear strategy. With Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, Schelling can indeed be viewed as a father of this school–and in fact he was a plankholder in the creation of Harvard’s Kennedy School. Drell became a founder also–of the JASON Group of scientific experts who counseled the Pentagon on all manner of issues. Drell’s contributions to particle physics were considerable and he remained associated until his death with the Stanford Linear Accelerator. But for our purposes today it is Drell’s forthright advocacy–over decades–of nuclear arms reductions that is important. He sought earnestly for a world without nuclear weapons. Both provide insights to us today.

First, what is Trump talking about as a nuclear buildup? Only certain things are possible. The most obvious is expansion of the ballistic missile defenses currently being installed in Alaska and Eastern Europe. These are represented as oriented toward stopping potential North Korean or Iranian missile attacks. But these deployments are precisely the ones that have aggravated Putin–and accounted for a good measure of the decline in Russian-American relations that began during George W. Bush’s presidency and until now has not been reversed. As president, especially one who esteems Putin as he claims to do, Mr. Trump would be unlikely to focus his buildup here.

What other possibilities are there? As a matter of fact there are no new-generation U.S. ballistic missiles, bombers, or other weapons carriers under design or in production. Efforts for over a decade have actually centered on creating more powerful conventional explosives to de-nuclearize ICBMs and SLBMs. New nuclear weapons designs have been projected, and may have been modeled using the more sophisticated simulations that have become our substitute for actual weapons tests. These are the only nuclear force elements with anything like near-term prospects, though building next-generation warheads is often spoken of as a multi-decade initiative. If so, a buildup based on these elements is likely to incur Russian anger today, while not offering any practical result for a long interval past Donald Trump’s presidency. The engineering development of new nuclear weapons would increase demands for real, physical nuclear tests, and that, too, would spark Russian hostility. Sidney Drell would surely label that course absurd.

The last time the U.S. was embarked on nuclear deployments we were on the verge of producing new-generation guidance systems when arms reduction agreements and the end of the Cold War changed the dynamics of international relations. A resurrection of accuracy-enhancing programs (such as the Maneuverable re-entry vehicle, or MARV)would be a likely avenue for the new arms race. The destructive power of nuclear weapons depends on a combination of accuracy and yield–and of the two accuracy is the more probable near-term development. However, Mr. Putin, in threatening to counter U.S. missile defenses, has to be aware that maneuverable re-entry vehicles (though expensive) offer greater benefits than other types of penetration aids. Igniting an arms competition for MARVs is not in U.S. interest. Tom Schelling would mark it down as a stupid, tragic, strategy, in particular because it would trend toward unraveling many of the confidence-building measures of past decades (emptying the pre-stored target parameters of guidance systems; taking missiles off alert status, etc).

A nuclear arms buildup will not improve United States security. To speak of engaging in an arms race “until” other countries “understand” nuclear weapons, as Mr. Trump has done, is the height of folly.