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Posts published in “McKee”

Our fly on the wall


While the news cycle is fully absorbed with the competing Congressional train-wrecks of healthcare reform and conspiratorial wiretapping, and the Old Fool is doing his best to distract us with outrageous tweets and not-so subtle insults towards European leaders, that faceless amateur he picked to head State is out up-ending over 60 years of policy in the far east. In other times, our hair would be on fire; but now, nobody’s paying attention.

Every other Secretary of State in recent memory, when away from home on a mission to show the flag, has traveled about with much hoopla and a full regalia of hangers-on – including a sizable gaggle from the Washington press corps to keep an eye on things. Not so the newest minted Secretary of State.

Rex Tillerson, who has yet to hold a press conference or even answer a rope-line inquiry, and who has never released a single word of his personal thinking on any subject not connected to big oil, is essentially traveling alone. He has his trimmed down personal staff, but not the cadre of experts from within the department on each of the countries he expects to visit and each of the subjects he intends to address. And there is but one single individual from the press included in the entourage, a journalist with the “Independent Journal Review,” a little-known Internet website of conservative news and opinion. She is not a pool reporter, and is under no obligation to share her stuff, or even to report objectively.

The Secretary’s destination is Beijing, with stop-overs in Japan and South Korea. His trip to South Korea is occurring in the midst of the annual joint military exercise being conducted by U.S. and South Korean forces to, essentially, rehearse the invasion of North Korea – an actual pre-planned operation against North Korea in the event of sufficient provocation, which the military runs every few years as its annual exercise. These goings-on have been with the strident protests from North Korea, accompanied this year by the obvious counter-demonstration from its burgeoning inventory of medium range ballistic missiles.

All this is occurring at a time when the civilian government is in the process of reforming itself upon the ouster of its impeached president, Park Guen-hye. In a somewhat unexpected act of independence from the conservative core of powerbrokers, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach Park, and the National Court, made up entirely of Park appointees, followed with an also somewhat unexpected ruling, unanimously upholding the legislative action.

One wonders if this was truly the time and place for the U.S. to throw gasoline into the fray? Nonetheless, into this potentially chaotic political turmoil stepped the undaunted Secretary Tillerson last week to proclaim the United States’ intention to toughen up on its policy towards North Korea, to take a more aggressive efforts to eliminate that country’s nuclear weapons capability, and to declare in rather generic terms, that the old ways were no more. This meant, the Secretary warned, that the U.S. was definitely putting pre-emptive military action back “on the table.” He even suggested that we might provide nuclear weaponry to South Korea. Just in the re-telling of these events, one has the surreal impression that he might be winging it all, as one might do for an after dinner speech at Toastmasters.

The United States has recognized for years that China was essential link to a stable North Korea. Chinese trade and foreign aid keep its economy afloat, making any economic sanctions that do not involve China ineffective. And every time we have tried to raise the specter of military action, China responds to take North Korea’s back. China has been steadfastly unwilling to force Pyongyang’s hand on the international stage. Unilateral action by the United States against North Korea in the past, without multi-national participation and cooperation from China, has proved to be fruitless.

However, with North Korea’s developing nuclear capability and its aggressive posturing towards South Korea – which China views as an increasing security risk and destabilizing to the economy generally – there are indications that China may no longer be willing to support North Korea with the same stoic resolve as before.

The huge question is whether it is better to try to muscle China into changing its position with North Korea, to muscle North Korea directly in the expectation that China will come around, or slow down and work the diplomatic channels, ratcheting up sanctions and covert actions, to allow the gradual processes through China to continue until the North Korean regime eventually topples from internal pressure within.

The latter, patient resolve, was the way of the Obama administration, but the Old Fool is determined to shake the box. So, he put Tillerson out there to scare the bejesus out of everyone who is paying attention. Tillerson released his verbal firebombs in Seoul Friday, then departed for Bejing where he will be this week. We need a passel full of skeptical, by-line hungry, street-wise news hounds like Mike Isikoff or Andrea Mitchell, or even a tested newbie like Kayce Hunt, to unpack this stuff, poke around some, and tell us exactly where China is going.

Instead, our fly on the wall is an unknown, untested and probably ideologically tainted writer for the IJR.


Unintended consequences


Every so often some group or another decides that the only way to bring about the result they are promoting is to convene an independent convention of the states to amend the Constitution.

Although it may sound perfectly reasonable, and although the subject matter being promoted may seem to be stalled from achieving the desired Constitutional action any other way, the process of getting there through a convention of the states is a terrible idea with potentially terrible consequences for a variety of complicated and technical, but very sound legal and historical reasons.

This fever is afoot again in Idaho, this year in the form of a Senate Concurrent Resolution now pending in the Idaho State Senate. SCR 108 is application to Congress to add Idaho’s name to a list of states that are requesting a constitutional convention. When this list reaches three-fourths of the states, or 35 in number, Article V of the United States Constitution mandates that Congress convene a convention.

The resolution was just reported out of the Senate State Affairs committee on a closely divided 5-4 vote. It will be on the floor of the Senate next for more debate and a full vote. Some 28 states have already adopted similar resolutions, with Wyoming and Arizona expected to do so shortly. This would make Idaho the 31st state to jump aboard, and is giving the current effort somewhat the look of a bandwagon – or a steamroller.

For the purpose of the analysis presented here, it does not matter that the subject of the proposed amendment, being a balanced budget amendment forbidding deficit spending on the national level, would absolutely lead to economic disasters of titanic proportions resulting in both domestic and world-wide catastrophes of enormous and immediate significance. More will come on this subject later. The point here is that the very idea of a separate constitutional convention all by itself, no matter what the subject or purpose, is wrong-headed, risky, and totally unnecessary.

If there truly was a compelling need for a constitutional amendment, there is no need to call for a separate convention of the states to start the process. We have a perfectly adequate assembly of delegates from every state that is in essentially continuous session year round in Washington D.C., being, of course, the United States Congress, which already has full authority under Article V of the Constitution to start the process of amendment at any time. Thirty-three amendments have been proposed by Congress and sent to the states for their consideration, and twenty-seven have been ratified and incorporated into the Constitution. The point here is that there is a perfectly acceptable procedure for starting a constitutional amendment in the Congress; we know how to do it, we know how to keep it under control, and we know that the procedure works.

There is already pending before Congress a proposal to amend the Constitution in exactly the manner asked for in the Idaho resolution. Similar balanced budget proposals have been submitted in almost every session of Congress since at least the 1930’s; none have ever passed. Only a few have ever seen the floor for a vote as most disappear into the bowels of the germane committees, never to be heard from again. But the fact that Congress has been unable or unwilling to pass a proposed amendment on this subject is not an argument for going around Congress. If anything, it is an argument that the subject is deeper that it appears on the surface, and requires more careful analysis before we go leaping off a cliff. There is no acceptable argument for going around the established procedure and attempting a process that is completely untested and presents so many risks.

What is missing from any general discussion of amending the Constitution by convention is any explanation of exactly how the process might come about. The Constitution provides no guidance. There is no provision in the Constitution or elsewhere on how many delegates are to be included, how they are to be allocated among the states, how they are to be selected from within the states, or how they or their states are to vote. Additional questions on such issues as whether methods can differ from state to state, whether the process should be partisan or non-partisan, the cost of it all, and the source of funding, are all unanswered. Given the realities of today’s Congress, these questions alone are enough to predict that the only result of congressional action will be a Gordian knot. Many, if not most knowledgeable observers predict outright chaos if Congress even attempts to convene a convention.

The proponents argue that under their proposal, the convention call will be for the limited purpose of taking up the subject amendment only, thinking that this removes the chance of chaotic expansion. They are wrong. There is no provision in Article V of the Constitution for limiting the process of amendment by convention, nor does the Constitution elsewhere grant Congress the power to impose such limits. Without some limitation defining the enumerated power being expressed within the Constitution, most scholars agree that Congress would have no power to engraft such a limitation on its own.

Recall that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was originally begun in Annapolis for the limited purpose of amending the existing Articles of Confederation to insert some measures to improve foreign trade. Then, once the convention was convened, it promptly moved itself to Philadelphia, adopted new rules, and disappeared into closed session. It emerged September of 1787 with a brand new Constitution that completely overhauled the federal government.

It is the consensus of respected historians, legal experts and Constitutional scholars who have examined this issue that any convention convened under Article V could not be limited as to scope or subject matter. Once assembled, and once organized, the new convention could write its own rules, declare its own scope of inquiry, and go wherever it pleased – just as the Constitutional Convention did in 1787.

While it may be unlikely that any convention of states would lead us completely off the rails, it is entirely likely that all sorts of additional issues of the day would come up as different interest groups suddenly insisted upon their urgently needed matter being attended to by the convention. Term limits, gun rights, abortion, the establishment clause, judicial independence, prisoners’ rights, gay marriage and LGBT issues come immediately to mind, as well as the panoply of prisoner’s rights, privacy surrounding the cybernet, and personal freedoms in the shadow of terrorism. There are undoubtedly others. The ACLU’s hair is on fire.

Whether the delegates might voluntarily follow any limitations imposed by Congress and confine themselves exclusively to the subject matter of the call, or ignore the limits and wander off on their own, is a question that simply cannot be answered in advance. The mere possibility of an untethered convention, no matter how carefully constructed and no matter how well intentioned, rummaging through 230 years of Constitutional history and adding to or modifying selected items here and there at their whim, whose work would then be presented for approval by the states in total, with no opportunity for further editing or revision of any of the individual elements, horrifies most. In the past, the mere risk of this happening has been sufficient to bury the idea of a constitutional convention for good.

Given the ability of Congress to act itself in starting a Constitutional amendment if the issue was truly of vital national interest, coupled with the risks and uncertainties of getting an independent convention organized, the probabilities of endless political wrangling over partisan issues, and the huge expense of it all, and adding the uncertainties of what a rogue convention might come up with, it should be clear to all that the decision should be a “no” vote on SCR 108.

Better not bet the farm on it, though.

Full of sound and fury


Almost completely overshadowed by the immigration fiasco, Trump released an executive order last week that so far has drawn very little comment. It is an order to the Secretary of Defense which Trump claims will launch the “great rebuilding of the armed forces” that he promised in one of his bumper-sticker policy statements during the campaign.

It does no such thing. The order is, in fact, an utter waste of time that will accomplish nothing.

First, the order directs General Mattis to conduct a 30 day review of the readiness of the armed forces to combat ISIS. The Secretary does not need an order, nor does he need 30 days, to come up with any readiness report on the capability of the military to combat ISIS. As anybody with even a modicum of familiarity with military operations would know, such a report is already prepared in excruciating detail by every unit in every command every single day, with a comprehensive consolidation placed on the Secretary’s desk, and probably included in the President’s daily briefing – if he know what to look for. Asking the Secretary to prepare a report on this subject is merely asking the Secretary to read and summarize the reports that are already under everyone’s nose. It is an indication that Trump does not know any better, and worse, does not have anybody on his staff that he can turn to before putting his foot in his mouth.

Second, the order directs the Secretary of Defense to come up with a plan to rebuild the military in 60 days. In fact, there is a precondition that has to happen first before any plan can be prepared – whether in 60 days or 600 days. The President has to tell General Mattis how much money he can spend.

The blunt facts are that the combined troop levels of all forces of the U.S. military have been reduced from a high of 556,000 in fiscal 2011 to 490,000 in fiscal 2015. The figure is heading toward 450,000 or perhaps even 420,000 by 2019. The reductions are all due almost entirely to the sequester of funds mandated by the Budget Control Act passed at the insistence of the Republican Congress in 2011.

A thorough study that examined the military from the end of WWII was completed in 2010. A Defense Strategic Guidance was based on that study, released in 2012. Under the DSG, the first mission of the military was defeating terrorism through counter terrorism and irregular warfare. The second mission was to deter and defeat aggression by any potential adversary in conventional warfare. It is hugely important that this second mission statement no longer demanded maintaining two or more large scale operations under conventional warfare as necessary to the mission of U.S. forces. The land wars of Korea and WWII, and what the United States had accomplished in WWII in defeating both Germany and Japan were no longer as relevant under the expectations of modern warfare. The change in mission was a crossroads for Obama. His hand after that date was guided by the differences in mission and differences in expectations expressed in that release.

What Obama has been trending towards was to live within the means dictated by the Budget Control Act. This would entail the acceptance of a reduction in standing forces, a reduced ability to sustain large scale combat operations for any length of time, and increased reliance upon allies and coalition operations. The “leading from behind” pejorative arose from Obama’s recognition that the U.S. could not always expect to go into hotspots first and heaviest; sometimes it was more prudent to take a supporting role and allow an ally to lead the way. Further, that the time may have come for the United States to pick its battles, and not respond automatically with military force anywhere in the world anytime an international event was touched off, without assurances of allied support going in.

This means that before the Secretary of Defense should be expected to come up with any plan on alternatives to improve readiness in the military, someone has to answer this questions: (a) must the Secretary work within the budget constraints demanded by the BCA, or (b) may the Secretary expect more funds for defense, and therefore a change in the basic approach? One ought not to need a separate study to choose option (a) or (b) as presented here.

Finally, the executive order directs the Secretary of Defense to work with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to revise the funding requests. But this directive is the wrong way around. Asking the military to come up with what it wants before the President has established limitations on what it can spend is like expecting some parents to rely upon their five year old’s letter to Santa Claus to set their budget for Christmas. This is just plain not the way it is supposed to happen.

Even with the budget reductions to date we still spend more than the next eight countries of the world combined on our military and its operations. We spent close to $600 billion on defense in 2015, while China spent around 1/3 and Russia 1/10 of that amount. By all measures, we still have the strongest military force ever assembled. If Trump wants a larger military than the existing budget will allow, he must be the one to declare it so. He has yet to tip his hand on what he intends in this area, but until he does, his directions to the Secretary of Defense are pointless.

The upshot here is that this executive order as written is pure malarky. A piece of paper to assuage Trump’s base that he is acting on a campaign promise, and has good intentions, but that, in fact, is otherwise worthless. It is, in the word of the Bard, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!”

Eyes tight shut


The 9th Circuit opinion was a complete rout.

Trump lost on every single point raised. Further, it was a unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel, leaving no room to maneuver.

The application for an emergency order was denied outright, leaving the lower court’s full temporary restraining order in place, which stopped completely all aspects of Trump’s executive order on immigration practices.

The cognoscenti are having a field day trying to predict what Trump will do next. Most predict that he will not take the obvious and logical step of pulling the executive order back and starting over. Everyone who has touched this thing concedes that if carefully drafted, an order could be entered which would achieve the national security objectives within Constitutional mandates.

Instead, the overwhelming consensus is that Trump, with eyes tight shut and refusing to listen to anyone other than those who agree with him, will continue to defend the sloppy, poorly drafted hodge-podge existing order to the bitter end. And so it goes.

The one person who gained the most out of all this is the right Honorable James L. Robart, that usually unsung trencher from the district court bench who will now and forever proudly carry the Presidential sobriquet of the “So Called Judge,” and upon whom the appellate court rewarded with that rare and most revered of instruments – a copper plated, gold starred, four cornered affirmance suitable for framing that kicked everybody’s ass in sight except his.

Well done, Judge James!

The great wall


Events around Trump can unfold and refold so fast, one cannot keep up. As I was writing and editing this piece, the total circumstance changed three times, not counting the extra little twists and turns, making it impossible to chronicle Trumps actions as they are happening.

In a mind numbing, head spinning whirl, President Trump started with an executive order to build the great wall that realistically wasn’t going anywhere. When Trump saw the situation was developing badly, he made it worse. When that didn’t work, he escalated it and made it much, much worse. When the situation was about to turn into a complete disaster, he tried to bluff his way out and blame it all on Mexico, and when he got called, he tried to out-bluff again. The President of Mexico then tipped over the table and stormed out.

At last, with Congress getting more and more restless, with the realities of international trade beginning to sink in, and with relations between the countries on the brink of disaster, Trump did a silent u-turn and stuffed everything back in the box. The situation is left in limbo, essentially where it started, with nothing positive to show for the hullabaloo that was created. There is an empty executive order to proceed with the wall, but no plans, no money and no means of implementing anything. There is a very angry President Nieto in Mexico, a Mexican press that is boiling over, and a population in Mexico growing more upset with the situation in the United States every day. There is a puzzled ally to our north wondering if Trump has something against Canada that is going to explode, and finally, there is a befuddled White House press with a yard full of inconsistent statements to unravel, and anyone who has been trying to keep up left with a fistful of torn-up and scratched out notes, as the administration’s version of events changed from moment to moment.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out on Meet the Press recently, and what Trump and his cabal of amateurs running the White House do not yet seem to understand, everything in today’s economy is global and everything global is networked. One cannot touch one aspect of anything without reactions and counter reactions spinning through the network to impact trade everywhere.

Mexico is our third largest trading partner. We do over half a trillion dollars in trade with Mexico every year, and, if we don’t screw it up, this could continue to burgeon. President Trump seems bound and determined to screw it up. Trump, who has promised to find jobs, increase trade and improve the economy, wants to build a 30 foot wall between us and our third largest trading partner, and perhaps impose as much as a 20% tariff on all imports.

The current flap all started with an executive order that mentioned beginning construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Trump’s campaign mantra. But there is no money, no source of funding mentioned in the order, and no mechanism for obtaining funds. Congressional leadership indicated that tax revenues would not be available. Without a means to implement construction, the executive order was meaningless – other than perhaps for its value as a token to Trump’s base that he was thinking about the promises he made.

When the White House press made this point to Trump, he hauled out his bumper sticker from the campaign and insisted that Mexico would be expected to pay for the wall. Now, it is one thing for this kind of statement to be made by a candidate for election. The American press, and certainly the world in general, does not place much weight on campaign rhetoric. It is quite another thing, however, when the statement is made by the sitting President of the United States.

Mexico’s President Pena Nieto firmly declared that Mexico had no intention of paying for the wall. Trump rejected this demurrer, and repeated that it would so be paid for by Mexico, eventually, one way or another. In response to this arrogant stance, Nieto suggested that if this was Trump’s position, the state visit should be postponed. Trump promptly replied that until Mexico displayed a more respectful attitude towards the United States’ position, the meet should not happen. The Mexican president declared the next morning that the meeting was off. Trump replied with a harrumph that it was a mutual decision.

The developing situation ended for the day with Sean Spicer’s explanation that funding for the Mexican border wall would come from a 20% import tax – a tariff – that, notwithstanding the clear prohibitions of NAFTA, Trump proposed to impose upon Mexican imports. This set off a blizzard of protest from every quarter. The tariff, of course, would not be a tax on Mexico but on the American consumer. A tariff as stiff as 20% would materially impact trade – all of it, not just the imports, and if U.S. – Mexico trade was impacted, the effects would reach around the world. Everything is networked, remember – one cannot affect one segment without the reactions being felt everywhere. Every competent economist that has looked at this has reported that an untargeted general tariff of this size against imports of this magnitude could well precipitate a global recession.

As the press reported it, President Trump insulted the sovereignty of Mexico on several levels, proposed an intent to breach the trade relations that have existed between the two countries for almost 25 years, and then suggested that Mexico was being disrespectful. Both English and Spanish fail to provide words to describe this developing situation; in Yiddish, however, characterizing brash and insulting behavior has been elevated to a fine art: one then might say the arrogant chutzpah of the new U.S. President trying to cast the blame for any of this upon the Mexican President is jaw-dropping.

Trump’s reaction to this whirling piece of meshuggeneh has been to turn about and walk away. He has not withdrawn or undone anything. There was a telephone call between the two presidents that more or less patched things up personally, but no definitive agreements were reached. We are now advised by Spicer that the 20% tariff was never an actual proposal, but just an idea – it might be 5% or 10%, or not at all – as Trump was just sounding out possibilities. The Congressional reaction towards providing funds to build the wall is unchanged, and Trump has made no further formal request in this area. The executive order is still outstanding, and the meeting with the President of Mexico has not been rescheduled.

These events are still unfolding. Whether the damage to our relations with Mexico can be repaired would seem to be up to Trump. Right now, only egos are involved; no real damage to either country has occurred. But if Trump stays true to his reactions towards every potential crisis up to now, and cannot be counseled to pay attention to the comments of the likes of Thomas Friedman and realize that everything is interrelated, then one may well expect that things eventually will in fact get much, much worse.

Now you see it


Every good huckster is a master at distracting the attention of the suckers they are about to fleece away from any pesky details they do not want to talk about. The stage magician, for example, convinces you to watch his left hand as he flutters a meaningless handkerchief so you will not notice as his right hand palms the card, or pockets the coin, or slips the rabbit back into the hat.

Trump is a master at this. His tangle with the media in a pointless kerfuffle over the size of the inaugural crowd is a prime example, as is his insistence that there were over three million fraudulent votes in the last election to be investigated. These are both irrelevant discussions that have soaked up all the headline space above the fold, and all the time in the A blocks on cable television, for weeks now, and are both still running. Meanwhile, while we were all diverted by these meaningless bits of left handed fluff, his right hand has been into mischief.

For example, on Friday, which everyone know knows is “put out the trash day” for the White House press, and while all our attention was diverted elsewhere, Trump quietly swept out the top level career administrators of the State Department – every one of the deputy undersecretaries, assistant undersecretaries, bureau chiefs and directors who had anything to do with the top level administration of the department are gone. Usually, the transition team pays little attention to these career positions; they have plenty to do filling the 4,000 plus political appointments opening up without taking on the task of recruiting new hires for the administrative career positions.

Not so, for some reason, this time around. Even the mid-level political appointments are sometimes put off for a month or so, so there can be some continuity in the transition. All of those who were swept out indicated that they were willing and expected to stay on at least through the transition. Not to be, for some as yet unexplained reason.

Then on Saturday – Saturday, mind you, when even more of us were looking elsewhere and nobody was paying attention – Trump unceremoniously dumped the Chairman of Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence out of their permanent seats on the National Security Council, and replaced them with – wait for it – Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon.

The career officers at State were not “fired.” Trump can’t fire civil service career employees, but they were all advised that they were no longer needed in their present positions. This Trump can do; he can direct that anybody be reassigned to a different job, as long as it is within the same GS level, meaning the same pay, and approximately same level of stature. What he did here was shift them into jobs with not as much status or responsibility – demotions in fact, even though the money would have remained the same – but which prompted the entire list, seven in all, to either quit or retire. How the new Secretary will fare without this huge reservoir of institutional memory available to smooth out his early days remains to be seen. But as anybody who has ever worked for the government in any capacity can tell you, it would have been a lot easier if they had been kept around.

The National Security Council was organized in 1947 to advise Truman on matters Congress was convinced he knew nothing about – security and foreign policy. This body is not expected to be political. Traditional members are the Vice President and the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy plus high level representatives from the military and the intelligence community. The council has been organized in this fashion since its origination. High level military and intelligence advisers have always been included as full members.

The White House Chief of Staff was elevated from a sometime invitee to a full member of the NSC. In addition, in the place of the high level military and intelligence community advisors, Trump has delegated the White House Strategist to sit as a full member in their stead.

There are those who thought that Reince Priebus, who has never held an original thought, had reached his apex under Peter’s Principle in his prior position as the doormat and chief sycophant for the RNC. We did not expect him to survive the crushing responsibilities of the White House. That he is still around makes one suspect that his tasks may have been redefined.

Steve Bannon, on the other hand, is considered by most to be a true confidant of the President – but whether as Oz, Machiavelli or Rasputin yet remains to be seen. Some expected him to be as Karl Rove was to George Bush – a political connection to the far-right base, with the assignment to keep Trump well placed there for the election in 2020. One did not expect the Brietbart alumnus, who is sometimes reported to avoid mirrors and is rarely seen in daylight, to move toward a true seat of power. Or at least not this early.

We are still not sure what to make of any of this. On the one hand, because of the amateurish ways that Trump and his cabal have been blundering about so far, this new stuff may merely be more indicia of incompetence and a failure to think it through. On the other hand, the peculiar selection of State and the NSC for these unexplained sweeps, and the elevation of Bannon to a seat on the NSC, may portend a more complicated objective.

Close attention is invited.

Alternative facts


Donald J. Trump is now in his second full day as President of the United States, with his poll number already tanking, with the rest of the free world beginning to make excuses for his flubs and gaffs, with the European and Asian powers looking around for others in the fold to take over the world reins, and with most of us still wondering how the hell did we manage to get ourselves into this mess?

Trump continues to live up to our expectations. We thought his inaugural address would be horrible and it was – a narrow based, dystopian sermon of bumper-sticker extracts from his campaign, painting a bleak, dark picture of America and leaving little room for compromise. We thought that he would continue punching down with pointless twitter attacks against irrelevant criticism and he has – rude, school yard insults at a world renowned actress, at a senior member of Congress and icon of the American Civil Rights movement, and at a major cable news network, among others.

We suspected Trump would not abandon his disagreements with the news media and he did not. He accelerated the rhetoric by repeating the incendiary comments in a speech at the CIA, and later he directed a completely pointless and irrelevant bombast to the members of the White House press corps over the reporting about the size of inaugural crowd. Trump simply made up his own version of the crowd estimates, which his special adviser now represents are the “alternative facts.”

Alternative facts! Trump no longer has to worry about lying in politics for there is no longer any such thing – there are just alternative facts.

We suspected Trump would keep the rest of the world off balance and he has. His off-hand remarks about the future of NATO, the need to expand our nuclear arsenal, and the high cost of the trade deficit with China have managed to unsettle all of Europe, Russia and the Far East, leaving it to China’s Xi Jinping to provide calming and stabilizing remarks on future economic relations with the Pacific Ring, and to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to observe that no one, anywhere, in their right mind, has any interest in following the United States into a nuclear arms race.

We expect it to get much, much worse, and it probably will. Congress is poised to begin acting on Monday to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, despite the groundswell of opposition and to begin confirming the cabinet appointees, despite significant problems revealed during the Senate hearings. Trump plans to start undoing the plethora of executive orders that, in many instances, figuratively keep the trains on time, and the Department of Justice intends to rethink its involvement in pending civil rights litigation. What else could possibly go wrong?

The one bright spot to come out of this whole mess is one we did not expect. We did not expect the huge, domestic firestorm of passionate, motivated, articulate, and thoroughly pissed-off women to charge onto the scene throughout the nation on Saturday. From an amazing start-up loosely knit out of social media interactions, the movement developed into a monumental demonstration throughout the entire United States, and extending around the world. Accurate numbers are not yet available, but early estimates are of huge demonstrations in every major city, and many, many outpourings in smaller locales. The events in Washington D.C., which have been estimated at three times the size of the crowd following the inauguration, underscored the issues of concern to women everywhere.

The demonstrations of the day were heralded as the kickoff for what many hope will be a sustained campaign of protest and involvement to bring home the women’s concerns to the President and Congress. If they succeed, they have the ability, the means, the motivation and the interests to keep enormous pressure on all of government. Moreover, the midterms are only two years off; if any of this is does start to work, look to see many, many new names in the mix as the plots start to thicken.

They do need to get rid of the silly hats.

Go find a clipboard


Enough. It has been over two months since that awful Tuesday in November, and that’s enough.

The time has come for the liberals, the progressives, the middle-of-the-roaders, the independents, the never-Trump faction, the anybody-but-Trump crowd, the Hillary believers, the Bernie supporters, and all their fellow travelers and hangers-on who have been wringing their hands in disbelief and wallowing in their grief, to put away their mourning clothes, take down the black crepe and the shrouds from their mirrors, throw out the lilies and funeral wreaths, and settle down to business.

Stop the incessant search to find and place blame. Quit being mad at history and the arcane Constitutional rules we have lived with for over 225 years. Give up feeling sorry for everybody and everything, as though the country did not do this to itself. The continuous re-examinations of trivial details, the incessant searching about for someone or something to blame, the collection and passing around of sarcastic memes and petty examples of Trump’s atrocious behavior, all may be cathartic, and certainly we must learn from past mistakes, but there comes a time when much of it is no longer productive.

When we have become stuck in the ruts, when we are not opening up anything new but just working the ruts deeper, when the eyes begin to glaze on those pretending to listen, or worse, when they roll – its time to reassess. The first law of holes says when you realize you are in one, stop digging. Take the time to take a hard look at reality, place the circumstances into perspective, accept the inevitable, and then shift gears and get to work on new or different steps that might help.

None of this means that anyone should accept without question or comment anything that Trump or the Republican Congress plans to propose. To the contrary, everything that has come out of the Trump crowd, and all propositions from the leadership of the new Congress, clearly indicate difficult times ahead in both foreign and domestic policy.

There is much to be done as the new Republican era unfolds. There is still a significant Democratic presence in the Senate, and history has long established that when one party controls everything, discipline within that party becomes much more difficult. It is not certain that the Republicans will be able to run roughshod over everything sacred to the progressive interests. History teaches that cracks will appear in the majority party structure, and factions will begin to erupt. This means that the more controversial changes will arrive more slowly than expected, and might even become derailed.

One early hint that the Republicans may not always speak with one voice was the sudden u-turn by the House on its very first day over what was intended to be a new rule on ethics enforcement. The hard-right cabal of the Republican caucus thought it could ram-rod through a measure that had some uneven support within the party. They were caught short by reversals within the party, no doubt helped by a one-line tweet from Trump. The combination effectively knee-capped the effort, and the rule change was taken off calendar before the Speaker gaveled the new Congress to order.

Of more significance are the grumblings that are beginning to surface from a number of Republicans – and from Trump – dissatisfied with the plan to repeal Obamacare without having the promised replacement ready to go. While it is premature to hold out much hope, signs are beginning to appear that any transition away from essential parts of Obamacare is not going to happen for years – if ever.

Informed, relevant, consistent and loud comment against future protestations of President Trump and his Congress from opposition interests can be a valuable contribution to help ensure that Trumps’ stuff will not necessarily happen easily, or some of it even at all. Where something does happen over a solid drumbeat of contrary opinion, it might take considerably more time and require considerably more political capital, both on the part of Trump and the members of Congress to bring it off, and the final enactments may bear very little resemblance to the original grandiose promises made by Trump during the campaign. One cannot expect miracles or any complete turn-arounds, but the actual arrival of what some consider the worst of these promised actions may not be anywhere near as bad as it might appear from the inception, if the opposition is carefully organized.

If those opposed to these Republican measures will keep their wits about them, impose some degree of selectivity in their reactions, take much better aim for arguments and counter measures being suggested, and impose upon themselves much tighter organization for the effort required, much will be gained in the immediate effects on Congress. But continuing to replay the November catastrophe, and beating everybody up over the gory remains is not the way to advance constructive and protective criticism against the onslaught of new Republican programs down the road.

While traditional opposition is in the form of media commentary and direct communication with members of Congress, the internet is now playing a much more central role. Trump is demonstrating the power to be found in Twitter accounts. By liking, sharing and republishing items on Facebook, Twitter and the like, waves of demonstrated interest can be created that present a powerful picture of opinion-formation among us all.

In the longer run, the mid-terms are less than two years off, and the next presidential is less than four. The entire political climate can begin to change with the mid-terms, and certainly with the next presidential in 2020. Any change is going to demand planning and preparation, and the time to start is now.

The Republicans presently in Congress are already beginning to campaign for the mid-terms. If the Democratic machinery is not started right now to raise money, recruit candidates, and shape the process for the future, the party will find itself hopelessly behind the Republicans in those districts where the Democrats might have a chance of becoming competitive.

The same can be said for the Presidential race in 2020. There is not an obvious Democratic front runner yet. There is no machinery to assist in the selection and vetting of acceptable candidates. There is not even a credible list of potential wanna-bes. (This is not to say that there are not any number of lists floating around; everybody inside the beltway has a list, all one has to do is ask – but this is the same as no list at all.) If the Democrats wait until the spring of 2019 to begin their serious efforts for candidate selection, they will be almost three years’ behind the Republicans’ campaign to keep the White House for themselves. The battle lines are already forming for the contests in 2018, and the main event in 2020 will be here anon.

If the Democrats do not get themselves organized in a timely manner, and do not begin pulling together on some of these critical issues, the arrogant pretender may well be held in place for a full eight years. As President Obama told us all in his going-home address from Chicago:

Don’t whine, don’t cry and don’t blame – go find a clipboard and get busy.

Back to the future?


In an astonishing turnabout on the world stage, it appears to be Vladimir Putin and the Ministry of Commerce in China who are advancing the cause of reason and common sense into the chaos of Trumps’ meanderings. Consider:

In a startling series of tweets and off-hand comments, Trump topped almost ten months of confusing and contradictory statements about his approach to nuclear weapons on Thursday by releasing a tweet which declared an intent to “greatly strengthen and expand [U.S.] nuclear capability, until such time as the world comes to its senses….” In the firestorm of comment that followed, Trump’s staff and hangers-on tried to circle quickly to explain that he didn’t really intend to restart the cold war. What he really meant, they suggested, was the continuation of the program to modernize the existing nuclear launching systems.

Under the START treaty, both the United States and Russia are on track toward reducing their total number of missile launchers and deployed warheads, but are engaged in modernizing the existing nuclear weapons systems – some of which are more than 50 years’ old. Sean Spicer, recently named as Trumps’ press secretary, suggested that this was what Trump was talking about, rather than any total increase in nuclear capability.

But Trump stepped back in and promptly doubled down on his original tweet, declaring that that starting a nuclear build-up was exactly what he meant. On Friday’s
“Morning Joe,” Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough quoted an off-air telephone conversation with Trump where he said he was fine with the country taking part in an arms race if it puts the U.S. in a stronger position against foreign adversaries. Rachel Maddow tried her best on her show to pin Kellyann Conway down, but received nothing but double talk. Although expressed in bumper-sticker tweets, the Trumps’ declaration has the entire world on edge.

Vladimir Putin, speaking at his annual marathon news conference, promptly released word that Russia had no interest in getting into an arms race with the United States. According to the New York Times, Putin said that Russia would continue to modernize its nuclear weapons, but would not seek new arms or develop new nuclear warheads. Any new Russian nuclear weapons would stay within the limits of existing treaties. Although Moscow and Washington have taken to rattling sabers more than in the past, the architecture of previous nuclear arms treaties has so far has seemed to have held.

Concerning China, Trump has named an economist with strong, controversial views on trade with China, to be an advisor to a newly formed trade council. Peter Navarro, an economist on the faculty of the University of California at Irvine, is the author of a number of books including the gloomy “Death by China: How America Lost its Manufacturing Base,” which appears to blame the loss of all manufacturing jobs in the rust belt and elsewhere on unfair trade practices and currency manipulation by China. The T.V. documentary proclaims in broadly stated and oft repeated generalities that nothing but woes and evil are in store for us unless we mend our ways in trade with China.

Navarro’s views are not widely shared among economists, most of whom opine that the shifting of labor intensive manufacturing resources away from the United States is caused by many factors, including expanding markets, dramatically improved shipping capabilities, automation and high technology, labor costs, and consumer demand. The concept that the singular problem of job loss in a given industry can be fashioned into a two way street between the United States and China, and thereby brought under control with a simple traffic device or toll both is a simplistic, naïve approach to a vastly more complicated set of interrelated circumstances.

Navarro’s book and the video ignore completely the actual statistics and overall burgeoning wealth of the United States. While there are certainly problems to address, and it is essential that trade with China be maintained with a wary eye, the gloomy, dystopian picture painted by Navarro is difficult to translate into reality. Worse, the clear indication from Navarro is that a trade war is inevitable, and needs to come sooner rather than later if American manufacturing is to survive.

The reaction from China has been immediate. Shen Danyang, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce, said. "Regardless of what changes happen in the U.S. government - president, commerce secretary, trade representative - common interests (between the United States and China) are greater than differences." Reuters quotes a Chinese editorial: "The new administration should bear in mind that with economic and trade ties between the world's two largest economies now the closest they have ever been, any move to damage the win-win relationship will only result in a loss for both sides."

Our fervent hope, once the reality of Trumps’ election settled in, was that in the area of foreign policy at least, his bumper-sticker statements and late night tweets would subside during the transition; that Trump would take advantage of this time to assemble some individuals with knowledge and experience, particularly in the area of foreign policy, to guide him in these critical time. This prediction has gone the way of every single other prediction we have made so far.

Instead, Trump continues to confound and astound as he crashes and stumbles towards his formal inauguration, ignoring history and tradition and with no apparent concern for the immediate and potential consequences of his actions.

Who in their wildest dreams would imagine that we would look to Russia for solace?

Redefining conflicts


Well, he did say he was going outside the beltway and he did promise to shake the box.

If current predictions from the normally astute New York Times pan out, the next real shake of the box will come with the selection of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. Tillerson is the current chairman and CEO of Exxon-Mobil, the largest petroleum producer in the world. He graduated from the University of Texas with a single degree in civil engineering, immediately joined Exxon as a junior engineer, and remained in that company ever since. He rose through the ranks of the company he now heads without ever seeking experience of any kind outside his own company.

We have no idea, and no way of figuring out, how Tillerson’s experience will translate to public service, or exactly what to expect from this appointment. We do know that in Tillerson’s immediate background is a history of extensive personal and business connections with Russia, as he was attempting to maneuver Exxon Mobil into a joint venture with Rosneft, the Russian national petroleum company, to explore the Arctic and develop the billion-barrel oil finds in Siberia. He traveled frequently to Russia in pursuit of business, occasionally even vacationing with Putin, and was personally was awarded the Russian “Order of Friendship” medal in 2013.

The joint venture effort was a pen-stroke away when it was blocked by the sudden imposition of international sanctions resulting from the civil unrest and Russian intervention in Ukraine. The pieces and parts of the venture are still poised, needing only some favorable developments on the diplomatic front to permit them to finally fall into place.

All this brings to mind the appointment of business icon Charles E. Wilson, the former CEO of General Motors who served as Secretary of Defense under Eisenhower in the 1950’s. GM was a major defense contractor during the war years, and still a healthy supplier of military armament for the Korean conflict. When asked in his confirmation hearings how he would decide if matters came up that were adverse to the interests of his former company, Wilson is said to have responded, “What is good for General Motors is good for the country.” Could foreign policy in the United States become tied to a similar mantra? “What is good for Exxon-Mobil is good for the United States?” Watch and learn.

In a move to eliminate the appearance of conflict of interest, Engine Charlie was required to sell all of his GM stock in 1952, then valued then at over $2.5 million which was an enormous sum, as a condition of his being confirmed by the Senate. Compare this to Dick Cheney, who, when he was elected vice president, was required to divest himself of all Haliburton stock, but permitted to hang on to over 433,000 shares in unexercised stock options together with a deferred compensation arrangement that paid him $200,000 per annum in benefits while he was in office. His stock options were said to have increased by more than 3000%, as the United States provided billions of dollar per year to Haliburton under direct, no-bid contracts in Iraq. Although a tiny faction in the media constantly brought these issues up, the main stream never picked up on any of it, and the story never grew legs.

What of the new guy? Tillerson’s net worth is estimated at $150 million, with much of it probably in Exxon-Mobil stock and options received as part of his $27 to $40 million annual compensation package, which varies as the barrel price of oil fluctuates. He doesn’t have to reveal the full value of any option shares that are not yet exercised, which could be a staggering amount. Will Tillerson be required to divest himself of his personal holdings? Given the obvious and immediate expectation of international developments with Russia, would placing the stock and options in a blind trust suffice? What about options: same rule as Cheney? No problem as long as he does not exercise them? Whoop-de-do.

Or will Tillerson be entitled to follow the lead of the President-elect and do nothing? Trump’s business empire is so diverse and so grounded in operations tied to the Trump name that a blind trust would be meaningless. The circumstance of blatant obsequiousness is already apparent as political entities, foreign governments, lobbyists, and others of like ilk, scramble to host extravagant galas and reserve rooms and suites in Washington’s Trump International. One suspects the same phenomena is beginning to occur world-wide in all the Trump-branded properties.

The cognoscenti have almost uniformly opined that the only acceptable means of eliminating conflicts of interest would be a complete divestiture, but Trump has shown no interest going down this route. He has clearly indicated that he has no intention of divesting himself of any of his business interests. All he has indicated that he plans to do is to turn active management of his companies over to his children. Trump and his family are showing no interest in exploring any other alternative.

Although the media and the political left are beside themselves with the specter of escalating conflicts of interest, the potential problems are being met with nothing but proverbial yawns from the inner circle, from Trump’s base, and increasingly from his fellow Republicans. Are we entering a new age, where actively monetizing the opportunities derived from public office are going to be acceptable? Will the new Secretary of State be able to move to reshape the business climate for Exxon Mobil with Russia and the billion barrel reserves discovered in Siberia, knowing of his Exxon-Mobil stock and options safely interred in his bank box, as he watches the value of his holdings react daily to his decisions on the international stage?

How about Puzder’s stock in his fast food operation, or the lady wrestler and the WWE, or Mnuchin and the CIT bank. Or anybody else from Trump’s roster of billionaires. Same deal? Anybody foresee any problems here?

Watch and learn, watch and learn.