Monday, February 20, 2017

Trump's First Month

"I don't think there's ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we've done," declared President Donald Trump in his news conference last week. It is hard to dispute that statement given the unprecedented confusion that has plagued the Trump administration during its first month.  

So far, the Trump transition has been ineptly problematic.  The incompetent rolling out of Trump's travel ban, which appeared to target Muslims, caused enormous chaos at the nation's airports.  The intensified rounding up of immigrants illegally in the U.S. has been heartless and perplexing.  The shaky efforts to "repeal and immediately replace" the Affordable Care Act have mobilized thousands of Obamacare supporters to protest at town halls throughout the country.

Perhaps no president has generated as many widespread global protests against his administration in so little time.   Thousands of protesters took to the streets across America Monday for "Not My President's Day" rallies against Trump's policies.  The opposition covered a wide range of issues, including immigration, women's reproductive rights and climate change.  History was made on the day following Trump's inauguration when an estimated 2.6 million people protested Trump in 673 marches in all 50 states and 32 different countries.

Protests overseas against the president  have attracted huge crowds.  President Trump's intention to visit England has activated large protests.  More than 1.85 million people have signed a petition entitled "Prevent Donald Trump from making a State Visit to the United Kingdom."  The petition claimed that the president's vulgar comments about women would "cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen."  As the British Parliament debated whether to withdraw an invitation to the president extended by their prime minister during her recent visit, thousands of protesters rallied outside. 

Trump caused confusion and hard feelings in Sweden when at a Florida rally he called attention to "what is happening last night in Sweden."  The reference was at best oblique, but Trump later tweeted it was the result of a Fox News report linking that country's increase in crime to its acceptance of asylum seekers.  The Swedish embassy responded on Twitter, "We look forward to informing the US administration about Swedish immigration and integration policies."

Trump's praise of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his frequent criticism of NATO, both running counter to long-standing U.S. policy, have unsettled European allies.  There have been persistent reports that the Trump administration will ease sanctions on Russia relating to its illegal annexation of Crimea and military actions in Ukraine.  This weekend, Vice President Mike Pence attempted to reassure allies.  Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Pence said, "Know this: The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground which as you know President Trump believes can be found." 

During a January appearance at CIA headquarters, Trump suggested that the U.S. should have seized the oil during its 2003 invasion of Iraq. "We should have kept the oil," he said, "But okay.  Maybe we'll have another chance."   This played right into the propaganda claims of Mideast opponent's who have always charged that the U.S. only wants the oil.  On his way to Iraq, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters, "We're not going to seize anybody's oil."   He added, "All of us in America have generally paid for our gas and oil all along and I am sure we will continue to do so in the future." 

Trump has tried to divert attention away from his rocky presidency by blaming the press--a stunt he utilized regularly during his campaign.  Last week Trump tweeted, "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!"   Defense Secretary Mattis disagreed with his boss, saying, "The press, as far as I'm concerned, are a constituency that we deal with, and I don't have any issues with the press myself."   Vice President Pence said he supports a free and independent press while in Brussels.  He added, "But you can anticipate that the president and all of us will continue to call out the media when they play fast and loose with the facts."  Calling out the media is one thing, but declaring it to be the enemy is outrageous.  In Thomas Jefferson's words, "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press."

In his news conference last week, Trump said, "This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine." But Trump lives in an alternate reality filled with alternative facts.  His popularity ratings are at an historic low for an incoming president since such polls have been taken.  

If this were a television show, the title would be, "The Apprentice goes to Washington."   

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trump: The Art of the Deal?

The resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn is just the beginning.  Flynn resigned following a Washington Post report that he privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with its ambassador to the United States in the weeks prior to President Donald Trump taking office.  The sanctions had been imposed by the Obama administration because Russia had meddled with the 2016 election.  Flynn had reportedly urged that Russia not overreact to the sanctions indicating they would be revisited at a later time.  

Flynn has been one of Trump's closest advisers for more than a year.  It is hard to believe that Trump had no knowledge of Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador.  Democrats are asking for answers.  "We in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing the risks," Representatives John Conyers Jr. and Elijah E. Cummings said in a joint statement.  "We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to out national security." 

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the Trump White House last month that she believed Flynn had mislead administration officials about the content of his conversation with the Russian ambassador and was vulnerable to blackmail.  Yates was subsequently fired when she announced she would not enforce Trump's travel ban.  Flynn continued his role atop Trump's national security team, and told Vice President Mike Pence that he did not discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador.  Pence subsequently defended Flynn in a series of appearances on public affairs programs.   

In his resignation letter Monday Flynn wrote, "Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.  I have sincerely apologized to the President and Vice President, and they have accepted my apology."

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed Flynn's firing at his press briefing Tuesday.  "This is not an illegal issue, but a trust issue," he said.   Spicer explained that the president had been immediately informed of the situation, and that Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador was subjected to a legal review and "there was no issue with that."  He added, "It came down to a matter of trust...misleading the vice president and others...once that occurred it was over."  The president asked for Flynn's resignation.  Spicer also noted that the president had been "tough on Russia...and had called for Russia to deescalate the violence in Ukraine and to return Crimea."   

To date President Trump has been reluctant to publicly criticize Russia and President Vladimir Putin.  There have been reports that U.S. intelligence agencies have recently been withholding information from Oval Office briefings, "amid fears the Kremlin has ears inside the White House situation room."

For his part, President Trump Tweeted Tuesday morning, "The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?  Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N. Korea etc?"   In his briefing, Spicer amplified the president's concern, stating, "The president is clearly upset about this and views it as a threat to national security."   We will never know what would have happened with Flynn had the issue not been leaked to the press.  

Republican Senator John McCain said Tuesday, "I think there is significant dysfunction in the national security apparatus of the Trump administration."  Republican Senator Roy Blunt on Tuesday called for an exhaustive investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump administration.  "The Senate Intelligence Committee...should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of the process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned," he said.   Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for an "independent and transparent investigation," noting that the White House counsel cannot lead an investigation, nor can Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is a political appointee.   In a statement, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "The American people deserve to know the full extent of Russia's financial, personal and political grip on President Trump and what it means for our national security."   

In late 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence completed a report detailing Russian interference in November's election.   The report concluded, "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered and influence campaign aimed at the US presidential election.  Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Hillary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency."   President-elect Trump rejected the report saying Democrats were over reacting to their loss.  On December 29, President Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats expelled from the U.S. and broadened existing Russian sanctions.  Rather than the usual tit-for-tat response, President Putin inexplicably said he would not immediately react to the U.S. actions.  President-elect Trump praised Putin's response.  

Flynn's resignation is just the latest chapter in this evolving story. Would Flynn discuss easing Russian sanctions without the president's advance knowledge?  Was Flynn directed to have the discussion?   Is Flynn just the scapegoat for an inappropriate Trump initiative to return a favor to Putin?   Is this what Trump would call "The Art of the Deal"?

Sunday, February 5, 2017

President Trump's Chaotic Start

After two weeks in office it has become clear that President Donald Trump is not going to change his impulsive and narcissistic ways. As a result, political leaders from both parties in Washington, as well as American allies around the world, are unsettled with the abnormal and unpredictable behavior coming from the president and they are beginning to speak out.

Powerful Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admonished the president in an interview on CNN Sunday for his Twitter attack on the federal judge who temporarily stopped Trump's travel ban.  "It is best not to single out judges," McConnell said. "We all get disappointed from time to time.  I think it is best to avoid criticizing them individually."  The Kentucky Republican said he would not consider legislation to institute the travel ban, adding, "I think proper vetting is important, but there is a fine line here between proper vetting and interfering with the kind of travel or suggesting a religious test."

McConnell also contradicted Trump's allegation that there was massive voter fraud in last November's election, a charge the president has repeated even though he was elected.  "There is no evidence it occurred in such a significant number that would have changed the presidential election," McConnell said.  "And I don't think we ought to spend any federal money investigating that."  

McConnell also responded to comments Trump made in an interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly in which Trump said he respected Russian President Vladimir Putin.  O'Reilly followed up, noting, "Putin is a killer."  Trump replied, "There are a lot of killers.  We have a lot of killers.  Well, you think our country is so innocent?"  McConnell told CNN, "(Putin's) a former KGB agent, a thug, not elected in a way most people consider to be a credible election."  Republican Senator Marco Rubio also responded to Trump, Tweeting, "When has a Democratic political activist been poisoned by the GOP, or vice versa?  We are not the same as Putin." 

Trump's comments about Putin seem particularly jarring when compared to his treatment of American allies.  Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto found himself sparring with Trump over the border wall that the president promised to build and have Mexico pay for.  The result was the cancellation of a face-to-face White House meeting and a long phone conversation in which both leaders agreed to stop quarreling over the subject.  Trumps border wall tirades have rallied the Mexican people behind their unpopular president.  

Australia has been a fervent and loyal American ally for decades. In an interview over the weekend with 60 Minutes Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described his phone conversation with Trump as "the worst call ever."  Turnbull had informed the president of a deal brokered with President Barack Obama to take 1250 refugees, largely Iranians and Iraqis, that Australia had been criticized for holding off shore.  "It's a deal obviously that President Trump has said he wouldn't have entered into, but he is committed to honor it."   Following the call Trump Tweeted, "Do you believe it?  The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia.  Why?  I will study this dumb deal."  Of course they are not "illegal" and it wasn't "thousands."  A senior administration official later explained that Trump was concerned that the deal was going to hurt him politically.  

Trump's erratic behavior has even left many people in senior positions within the administration confused.   As a result, they are selectively leaking stories to the press.  Trump gets a lot of his information from television, so some leakers may be trying to get their views across to the president.  

There has never been a presidential transition like this in American history.  Amidst the flurry of executive orders, cabinet deliberations and early morning Tweets since Trump took office there is a sense of chaos and a palpable mood of uncertainty about what will come next.   On Sunday afternoon Trump renewed his attack on the judge who blocked the travel ban.  "Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such in such peril" he said on Twitter.  "If something happens blame him and the court system.  People pouring in. Bad!" 

Is this all the way you will make America great again Mr. President?  Really?