Writings and observations


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!”

Share on Facebook



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!

Share on Facebook



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.

Share on Facebook



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.

Share on Facebook



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.

Share on Facebook



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.

Share on Facebook



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?

Share on Facebook



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.

Share on Facebook



And you thought once the race was over, things would return to normal? Hah!

Now we have to worry about which Trump are we going to get – the reasonable fellow who met with the President and gave the gracious acceptance speech after taking Secretary Clinton’s concession? Or the T.V. mogul leering at his women, polishing his brand and promising a Christmas list of changes to everything? Or the misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist ranting about Muslim terrorists and Mexican rapists?

The next few weeks will produce some huge signals on what we can expect from a Trump administration – being the individuals that Trump announces for his key cabinet and staff positions. Not the names of the wannabees that keep spewing forth from the hangers-on in the bleachers, but the real list of real McCoys from the Horse’s Mouth himself.

Who he selects and who he leaves out in these appointments will tell mountains about how Trump’s administration will perform substantively. Will he go for ability and skill – as he promised – or merely loyalty? What will be the mix between Washington insiders and those from outside the beltway? Will everyone be a hard right conservatives, or will there be room here for a moderate voice? Will the opposition be acknowledged at all, or totally left out? Where, if at all, will women fit in, and who will they be? Consider, for example, one key appointment: Secretary of State.

Heading up Department of State is a huge job. Foreign policy is not a strong suit with Trump. He has no experience in this area, and his policy declarations to date have been bumper-sticker slogans with no substance. He has wandered all over the place in trying to come up with a consistent set of goals for the Middle East. He has managed to bring into question our commitment to NATO, our role in the defense of the Pacific Rim, the future of the Balkan states, and nuclear proliferation. The rest of the world is up in arms over Trump’s election in light these pronouncements along the way.

One thing Trump needs to do immediately is send a strong message to the rest of the world to calm the fears of foreign leaders that while some changes may be in the offing, drastic change in the relationship with our allies is not contemplated. One way to do that is to name a Secretary of State of international prominence; one that would send a calming message to all.

A truly bold move on Trump’s part to send such a message to the world and also to declare his intention to reunite the country and attempt to bring an end to the crippling divisiveness that has developed, would be to reach across the aisle and appoint a Democrat to this key cabinet post – asking Secretary Kerry to stay on, for example, or drafting Joe Biden for the job. If asked, and if either would accept, this would be a monumental step in demonstrating Trump’s true intent at being a President for everyone and to reconcile and reunite the country.

There is a strong tradition for the appointment of at least one key cabinet post from the opposition party. Every president back through FDR has selected at least one cabinet secretary or other high appointed official from the opposite party. Appointing a moderate Democrat to head State and help guide foreign policy does not denigrate the right wing’s true interest in domestic policy, commerce and taxation, and would be a huge relief to the rest of the world.

If Trump is not persuaded to go that far with this position, the Republican candidates most often mentioned for the job of Secretary of State are John Bolton, Newt Gingrich and Senator Robert Corker. Bolton is a hard right, hawkish ideologue. He could not garner the votes to get confirmed as Bush’s ambassador to the U.N., and has been on the sidelines ever since. Newt Gingrich is an enigma. More to the center than Bolton, Gingrich has been said to be of the “Reagan-John Paul II-Thatcher” strain of aggressive diplomacy developed during the 1980’s. He has been out of anything connected with foreign policy for 30 years. Senator Bob Corker is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and is clearly the most current of the three on worldwide problems. Although a conservative Republican, he is the most moderate of the three in his foreign policy, often voicing a more cautious and non-interventionist note than his more hawkish colleagues.

Barring the dramatic step of selecting a Democrat, the selection of Senator Corker would signal an intent to aim at moderation in foreign affairs. It would assuage most of the country and most foreign leaders that reason and common sense will continue to guide U.S. policy.

Selection of John Bolton would signal a toleration for brinksmanship and military intervention everywhere. It would mean a resurrection of American Exceptionalism, a tolerance for nuclear proliferation, and the return of the Ugly American. It would scare the bejesus out of half the country, the rest of the world, and me.

Picking Newt Gingrich as Secretary of State would leave it a mystery for now, until Gingrich’s policies firm up more, and it is clarified whether, on foreign policy, he tends towards the hard right or would tolerate the more moderate center. The delay would not serve to calm the fears of the foreign leaders. Also of Newt is the fact that since he has lived off the dregs of politics for more than 30 years, his appointment would not be viewed as consistent with Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.”

Most of the picks will be conservative Republicans; that is to be expected. There will be some token exceptions, but these will be flagged and well labeled. All of Trump’s appointments should be examined for answers beyond the mere name of the individual involved. It will all come down to one question: does the individual possesses the flexibility to adjust to meet the needs of the entire country, or will all answers only address the demands of the far right?

The answer will be revealing

Share on Facebook



Starting with Harry Truman’s impossible win over Governor Thomas Dewey in 1948, Tuesday marks the 17th presidential campaign that I have personally watched – usually from the edge of my seat, sometimes with hair standing on end, but always mindful of every twist and turn, from beginning to end. Nine of these races went one way, and eight the other, meaning that overall, the end result has been as close to 50-50 as one can get with an odd total.

No matter which party, and no matter which candidate was involved, no matter the issues involved or the principles being argued or the programs being promised, in every one of these past goes, approximately half the country was convinced that the defeat of their candidate meant doom was inevitable for the end of the world as they knew it was nigh. And yet the country survives, just as it will undoubtedly survive this one.

I tried this logic on my sweet wife, and was told, promptly and in no uncertain terms, that this one was different. Perhaps it is so. This is the first time in my memory, for example, where we have elected a misogynistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist who declared himself such before taking office. Most have waited at least until after the oath was administered to stumble into the issues. But then, certainly no one is contending that this will be the first time we have ever had such in the White House? Right? Of course not.

What does make this is one different in my view is that this is the first time in memory, and perhaps even in recorded history, when so little has been known about the president-elect’s true abilities at governance. To my memory, the only other candidate with no direct experience at governance from elected office was Eisenhower – but he had accumulated a reasonably acceptable record as a substitute; he won WWII.

As far as Trump is concerned, we know him only to be a business man of uncertain and somewhat controversial talents. Trump has made it abundantly clear that he is not what anyone would call a skilled politician, and we have no idea how what skills he does possess will translate into the political science arena. We do know that he organized a primary presidential run with almost no money, mowed down the entire bench of traditional candidates offered by his party, ran his end game with very little ground support, and somehow kept the significance of most of what was happening away from the cognoscenti of traditional campaign methods.

What nobody was paying any attention to, and what was not being picked up by the media, the savvy commentariat, or the data mavens of conventional polling, was that a huge segment of the voting electorate was so enraged with the status quo, so unhappy with the beltway norm, so dissatisfied with what they perceived the politicians were delivering up to now, that they were collectively willing to sacrifice it all on a total unknown, despite all the political gaffs and missteps, despite the randy women’s issues, despite the lack of depth on any of his promises and bumper-sticker slogans of policy, despite the foreign relations blunders, and despite the suggestion of chumminess with the wrong foreign leaders, all simply upon the promise that he was not your typical politician and that he, and he alone, intended to shake the box.

We may believe he is singularly unqualified to serve, but right at 50% of the voting public disagree. Because of the arcane way we count, they are in the majority and they are willing to take this chance that shaking the box will work no matter what else might be involved. And who knows what will happen here. Giving the box a sound shake up by one from the outside has never been tried before. What can possibly go wrong besides a worldwide economic depression, the dismantling of history’s most responsive democracy and thermonuclear war?

Actually, the implementation of much of the policy changes Trump is talking about by executive fiat may be very difficult to bring about. The President’s power to act unilaterally, without the concurrence of Congress, or the concurrence of the deeply imbedded civil servants in most agencies, is considerably limited. Especially if some shakeup appears to be a drastic change or upheaval from the “normal” way of things are done, it is probably going to be much, much more difficult than Trump imagines.

Changing regulations by executive order can run into trouble if the President starts to monkey around. Everything is governed by the Administrative Procedures Act and nothing can happen summarily. The agencies critical to our national security, for example, the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI and Foggy Bottom, are all loaded with career civilians who are in designated positions that are insulated from political influence. These folks cannot be fired, have out-lasted numerous changes in the administration, and can cause significant problems in the implementation of any administrative orders that are not favored. Look at the problems being encountered at streamlining the Veteran’s Administration. Ingrained methods and programs are very tough issues to tackle, regardless of the best of intentions.

Insofar as obtaining Congressional approval, having simple majorities in both houses of the President’s party is not necessarily a pathway to everything Trump desires. The razor thin majority in the Senate is not enough to get anything done if the minority digs in its heels – as the Republicans recently proved to Obama. Even among the R’s, a fair number do not necessarily approve of him or his programs. Further, the members of Congress are separately elected, and are individually going to be watching out for their personal interests, more so over Trump’s. Outright repeal of many programs with desirable features will be troublesome; we are at least likely to see amendments attached to any repealers to keep the more desirable features and prevent serious a harm from resulting.

So, Secretary Clinton had it right in her talk. The best thing here is to take a deep breath. This fellow is our president, whether we like it or not, and he deserves a chance to get it right. Some of these things do need changing and there is the possibility that he will grow into the job and be effective at it. If he is terrible and horrible and awful at it, there are plenty of resources within the government to block his way, slow things down and make it difficult if not impossible for him to do any real harm. We bide our time until the mid-terms and then corral his power completely. Or wait it out until the next general.

And that may not be too bad; remember, he was a Democrat until just a few years ago.

Share on Facebook