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.

 

Watergate and its “Satellites”

June 8, 2017–Everyone here is abuzz with the testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Some pundits are saying the remarks move us further in the direction of something akin to the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974, when the presidency of Richard M. Nixon was brought down by initial criminal acts, followed with attempts to cover them up. There are some distinct differences between what happened in America in 1972 and in 2016, but here I want to focus on two kinds of similarity.

The first is the initial conspiracy. In both 1972 and 2016 the future president would be insulated from conduct of the conspiracy. In 1972 that was handled by the attorney general (interesting, huh?) with his campaign unit called CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President). The conspiracy was embodied in a political “intelligence” plan presented at a briefing by CREEP official G. Gordon Liddy. Aside from Nixon’s attendance at that briefing there is no direct evidence of the president’s participation in the first stage plotting. For 2016 the political organization of the conspiracy has yet to come into focus, but it involves the characters who have been discussed here. In some combination they include Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, and others. The apparent participation of candidate Donald J. Trump occurs at an April 2016 speech, where he is introduced to the Russian ambassador; and at the Republican party convention, where operatives collaborated to alter the party platform in a way that rewarded Russia, a move that required Mr. Trump’s approval.

The second element is the coverup. In both 1972 and, it now appears, 2016, presidents responded similarly to exposure of conspiratorial plotting. James Comey gave the word today for Donald Trump: in one of his conversations with the president, Mr. Trump (relieved the FBI director was telling him he was not, at that time, a subject of investigation) assured the FBI that he stood with them if they uncovered “satellites” among his campaign staff who had engaged in criminal activities. In other words, Trump stood ready to throw his minions under the bus. Richard Nixon, the same. Nixon first gave up his super-loyal chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, and counselor John D. Ehrlichman; later Mr. Mitchell; then other staff, until the harsh light of suspicion showed right in on him.

Watergate, it is always said, shows the coverup is worse than the crime. With Mr. Comey’s testimony the evidence mounts against Donald Trump. The coincidences in time between key points in the discovery of the Russian Caper and Trump’s actions (or the lack of them), the president’s efforts to get the FBI to shut down parts of its investigation (in Watergate Nixon attempted to get the CIA to shut down the FBI), the sacrifice of “satellites,” are all astonishing.

A few weeks ago a lot of people were swaggering around like lords of the manor. Today in Washington, it seems the worst possible thing is to be a “satellite.”

Trump Foreign Policy: The Shape of Things to Come

May 29, 2017–With President Donald J. Trump completing his first overseas tour the broad outlines of what will be his foreign and national security policies are beginning to come into focus. The good news is that, when confronted with the slapdash silliness of many things that he advocated as a political candidate, President Trump often relents and retreats to a more traditional and recognizable policy stance. The bad news is that, with distressing frequency, Mr. Trump hews to the slapdash and silly. Meanwhile, he is creating a policy machinery that promises to guarantee sloppy action.

Trump’s first trip ended in chaos as he denounced longstanding NATO allies, seemed to open up to their concerns on global warming, threaten economic war with Germany, while looking askance at our friends in France. Germany too. At a beer hall a couple of days after the bullish American had left, German chancellor Angela Merkel stood up to tell the crowd that the age of alliances is at an end. President Trump was warned going into this trip, he refused to relent, and the result has been predictable.

If that leaves your head spinning, there is more–in Israel where Trump had been promising friendship–and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (an open affront to Palestinians and Arab countries)–he suddenly reverted to a version of the old American approach of encouraging a two-state peace. In Saudi Arabia Trump went native, did the sword dance restricted to men, and looked on while Saudi royal family members made donations to Ivanka Trump’s foundation dwarfing anything for which candidate Trump lambasted the Clinton foundation in the last election.

In the Middle East Trump remained silent on human rights–a major issue in the region. Indeed, he participated in an odd séance with a lighted globe and the Saudi king and Egyptian military president, in both of whose nations human rights are threatened. Trump has recently chummed up to the Philippine president who is carrying out an active pogrom in his country. Combined with actions on the European portion of the trip, Mr. Trump cozies up to dictators while castigating democracies.

China also has a problem with human rights, and it, too, has benefitted from a Trump flip flop. Denounced consistently is Iran, which has just re-elected a moderate president and exhibits signs of improvement. There the United States has conceded the Iranians are keeping their side of a bargain on nuclear developments, and is “rewarding” that with plans for new sanctions. The ISIS enemy is also consistently condemned though there most would agree.

Trump’s line on North Korea is aggressive, matching the irrationality of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. There is no reason to suppose this approach will lead anywhere good.

Then there is the Russian Caper. Fresh revelations about Trump officials and family members and Moscow’s manipulation of U.S. politics in the 2016 election emerged almost every day during the Trump trip, and a parade of his senior officials made their way home to deal with the fallout almost every day of the tour. The latest is that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actually met with the Russian ambassador last December to request that he set up a Russian backchannel to afford secret communications with Moscow. The move smacks of espionage, reinforcing the impression the Russian Caper is every bit as sinister as some suspect.

Coming to the rescue, now again, is “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017, here below), who called a press briefing (from which the Trump officials fled after half an hour, and which they refused to allow cameras) to calm the waters. While refusing to comment on “Backchannel Jared” directly, the new national security adviser sought to reassure Americans, saying, of the backchannel, “No, I would not be concerned about it.” Pressed to explain, McMaster went on, “We have backchannel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about backchannel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” Over the weekend Homeland Security secretary John Kelly joined McMaster in dereliction, not only repeating the total BS line that a backchannel controlled by a foreign power is completely innocuous, but asserting that what Kushner did was good for the country! (Whatever Backchannel Jared thought he was up to in this gambit it had nothing to do with the country.)

Here is the kernel of thought about the administration’s new national security machinery: backchannels from the White House to substitute for front channels through the Department of State. If you wondered how the Trumpists expected to get away with gutting the State Department, reducing it by a third in the next budget, here is the answer. The foreign policy will be run directly out of the White House, relying on backchannels. The diplomats’ role will be to explain–from the outside–the rationale for whatever Trump does. Woe to everyone who has yet to master the art of the flipflop.

Meanwhile, Hal McMaster confirms why I have given him the sobriquet “Appropriate Dereliction.” Dereliction is what McMaster has accused his forebears of–the military leaders in the Vietnam war, McMaster maintains, failed to stand up to their president when he was leading the country into the Big Muddy. Well, here we are, and for the second time McMaster has acted in public to excuse egregious behavior from the president’s inner circle. In speaking of backchannels McMaster was directly misleading–the ones he refers to are set up within the U.S. government and the communications usually transmitted by the CIA. What Backchannel Jared sought was a com link over Russian channels. That’s what you do when you need to consult on an ongoing operation and don’t want your own side to know about it. See what I mean about sinister?

West Wing Chaos

February 15, 2017–It used to be said of Frank Wisner, operations chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the high Cold War, that he would give the identical assignment to a half dozen different people and then sit back to see who brought him the first results. As a device for pushing the CIA toward producing outcomes, Wisner’s technique might have had something going for it, but as a management tool it was a vehicle that produced a state of constant chaos.

Donald Trump–would you believe it?–is up to something very similar. Political strategist Stephen Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus, “adviser” Jared Kushner, all seem to have the same instructions. The difference between the way CIA’s Wisner utilized this method, and the way it is in the West Wing today, is that in the Cold War the object of the action was foreign nations, while in Trump’s White House today the aim is simply to seize control over the reins of government.

The fall of Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser inaugurates the next phase in this inside struggle. A weak national security staff never found its footing, leaving one of the most important functional areas of U.S. government action up for grabs. Since President Trump himself has articulated nothing more than vague, subjective visions, the person who can turn the Trump’s longings into a concrete foreign policy stands to gain control of the process.

Meanwhile the bloodletting across government will continue and deepen. I made the point in this space at least as early as the election itself that Trump would purge the U.S. intelligence agencies because they knew stuff damaging to him that flowed from events during the political campaign. The fall of General Flynn shows that point to have been precisely correct. One place the attrition will take aim quickly will be CIA at Langley, and its other companion agencies. So much for Trump’s day-after-the-inauguration appearance at Langley, where he promised the spooks so much backing they’d get sick of it.

While all this is going on, have you noticed a “United States foreign policy”? Right. Neither have I. The infighting is creating a policy vacuum. That might not be such a bad thing, since so many of Mr. Trump’s inchoate visions are so dark, but the point is that instead of taking grasp of the reins of government, the president is the helpless driver of a runaway stagecoach, its reins slapping along the ground. Senator John McCain is right to say the White House is “dysfunctional” on national security.

Principals and Principles: Trump’s National Security

January 31, 2017–Second fiddle to the immense current controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s immigration action has been his initiative on national security. Here the firestorm concerned a Trump directive that added political operative Stephen K. Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). At the same time the president demoted the incoming Director of National Intelligence and the general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to merely occasional attendance on that same committee. Susan Rice, the national security adviser who served former president Barack Obama, labeled this action “stone cold crazy.”

Attracting the most attention is Stephen Bannon’s apparent promotion. As “chief strategist” he was supposed to be providing Mr. Trump with suitable advice. Now the Trump directive, called a “National Security Presidential Memorandum” (NSPM) not only “invites” Bannon to attend all NSC meetings, it makes him a member of the NSC Principals Committee, and Bannon’s deputy an invitee to sessions of the NSC Deputies Committee. In all this gnashing of teeth no one seems to have noticed that President Trump has also elevated his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in the same way.

Common wisdom is that Mr. Bannon is becoming the unelected president, exercising all the power, without the title or, indeed, the people’s opportunity to vote on him. I actually think it is too soon to draw that conclusion. What can fairly be said is that President Trump seems to be about increasing the political content of NSC discussions. This is not new–and the media discussions so far have been extremely shallow. Yes, David Axelrod sat in on some NSC discussions, yes Karl Rove was kept out of some similar deliberations during George W. Bush’s time. But it is absurd to think that presidents have historically kept politics out of national security. Under Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of including political considerations in NSC staff work. Henry Kissinger, his predecessor, can be heard on the Nixon White House tapes talking politics quite often. President Carter also listened to chief of staff Hamilton Jordan on national security matters, making him a major player in Washington’s decisions on whether to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment, which became a catalyst for the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan used his top politicos on security missions repeatedly. One of them, James Baker III, actually became secretary of state when Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, ascended to the presidency. And Bush’s son, “W,” used political aides as well. Andy Card delivered White House messages to the CIA, played a role in the “Niger uranium” affair that convinced CIA boss George Tenet to retire, and he served as utility infielder for the president. It’s the job.

On the other hand the pundits have captured the deeper importance of NSPM-2, the formal identity of Trump’s reorganization directive. It does bring politics more to the fore at the NSC. The presence of both Bannon and Priebus on the Principals committee is a first-order indicator that Trump’s Council will become one battleground where the White House pecking order will be fought over. But the elephant in the closet is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is really the topmost adviser of all. An alternative explanation for the NSC imbroglio is it puts the big shot advisers in a ring to duke it out while Kushner consolidates his own power.

Stone cold crazy? Yes, at the level of mere national security. This will cost the nation in the quality of our foreign policy and the coherence of Pentagon efforts. But the judgment also depends on the president’s real aims. If they are political, this harebrained scheme may not be stupid at all. It puts big aspirants to power in a place where they can be tied to the ridiculous judgments that flow from this NSC–and then they can be pushed out of the Trump administration. That brings us to the question of principle: there is none here. It is an outrage to the American people to use national security and foreign policy as mousetraps to catch power players.