Monthly Archives: April 2018

Where’s the Strategy?

Many Trump supporters voted for Donald because they believed he was a successful businessman — rather than a reality TV star. These Trump adherents thought he would bring business acumen to the White House. Trump backers believed Donald had a strategic vision to “make America great again.” Turns out they were mistaken.

There are several attributes of a successful businessman.  One of these is Vision: the ability to see the big picture and to propose a plan to focus the business and achieve its long-term goals.  A successful President also needs vision.

Trump holds up an image, “make America great again,” but doesn’t have a coherent vision of what it will take to accomplish this (noble) objective.  Trump doesn’t have a reasoned domestic or a foreign policy.  There is no strategy; instead Trump presents a random set of assertions — “China is taking all our jobs!” — or tactics — “build the wall!”

The absence of strategy has dire consequences for America’s domestic and foreign policy.  So far, Trump has presented four domestic policy initiatives.  He promised to “repeal and replace Obamacare,” but in reality, he supported repealing Obamacare and designing a replacement later.

Trump promised to create good-paying jobs by a combination of tax cuts and trade policy.  He passed the tax cuts but there’s no evidence they have generated better paying jobs.  So far his tough talk on trade has not produced results.

Trump also promised to create good-paying jobs by a far-reaching $1.5 Trillion plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure.  It hasn’t gotten off the ground.  Fifteen months of the Trump presidency have established that Trump doesn’t have a job-creation or economic strategy beyond helping the rich get richer.

Finally, Trump promised to “protect” America — and coincidentally create jobs — by building a multi-billion dollar wall along the southern border.  Once again, nothing has come of this.

So far, Trump’s domestic policy failures haven’t hurt the country.  Trump inherited a strong economy and it seems to be growing in spite of him.  Foreign policy is a different matter; Trump’s lack of vision endangers us.

Trump doesn’t have a big picture vision of America operating in a world where there are several strong nations and our relationship to them changes depending upon context.  Consider China.  We’re in a “trade war” with China.  Nonetheless we need their help dealing with North Korea.  We have a multifaceted relationship with China.

Because he doesn’t have a realistic vision of world politics, when forced to make a foreign-policy decision, Trump relies upon his instincts.  And his instincts are isolationist.  His slogan, “America first,” means, “America alone.”

We can see this in his handling of global climate change and the Paris climate agreement.  Trump wants the US to withdraw from this treaty in November 2020, “unless we can re-enter on terms the are more favorable for our country.”  (Trump has assigned a delegation to renegotiate terms but so far there has been no progress.)  If the US withdraws, we will be alone in opposition to this deal.

Trump’s position on most foreign-policy issues goes through these two stage: first he wants to withdraw and then he backpedals to, “We’ll withdraw unless we can renegotiate on more favorable terms.”  That’s his position on NAFTA.  And his position on Syria.

To say the least, Syria represents a complicated and dangerous situation.  The United States has military personnel in Syria as part of a coalition to eradicate ISIS.  On March 29th, Trump announced that the US would be withdrawing from Syria “very soon.”  Next came Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Douma; then the US and it British and French allies responded by bombing Syria.  While emotionally gratifying, the bombing wasn’t a strategy; as a result, Americans still do not understand what the US plans to do in Syria and the Middle East, in general.

Russia stands in contrast to most foreign countries because Trump doesn’t want to cut off relations with the former Soviet Union; instead he wants the two nations to get closer.  He muses that “getting along with Russia is a good thing” and “I think I could have a very good relationship with President Putin.”  Most foreign-policy experts believe that Russia is the number one threat to the United States and predict that the former Soviet Union will attempt to meddle in the US mid-term elections.  Nonetheless, Trump remains sanguine.  But he doesn’t have a US-Russia strategy beyond his “cutting a deal” with Vladimir Putin.  Trump’s ego has shoved aside his isolationism.

That’s what’s happening in North Korea.  Trump is getting ready for personal negotiations with Kim Jong-Un the North Korean leader whom he once derided as “little rocket man.”  It’s not clear what Trump’s strategy is but it is clear that he sees this as an opportunity to cut a historic deal.

In addition to vision, one of the characteristics of a successful businessman is collaboration — the ability to work effectively with a team.  Trump doesn’t possess this attribute.  He is negotiating the troubled waters of foreign policy on his own guided only by his erratic instincts.

Donald Trump endangers the United States.  And the world.

Another Look at Trump Supporters

After reaching a low of 36 percent, Trump’s approval rating has gradually inched up to 40 percent (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/). On the Left Coast his (historic) low remains a source of amazement because we rarely hear anyone speak favorably of Trump. Nonetheless, after 15 months in office, and a series of epic blunders, Trump has held onto his base.  What explains this?

Until recently, my primary source for understanding Trump supporters was an excellent book by UC Berkeley Sociology professor Arlie Hochshild, “Strangers in Their Own Land.”  Hochschild conducted a five-year study of Louisiana Tea Party voters who eventually became Trump supporters.  Hochschild details their “deep story,” a narrative shared by her interviewees: “You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage.  You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male… Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.  Most in the back of the line are people of color… Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!  You’re following the rules.  They aren’t.  As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back… Who are they?  Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers — where will it end?”

There’s a blues song with the title, “I’ve been down so long that down looks like up to me.”  It seems to me that the voters Hochschild interviewed have been screwed over for so long that they’re profoundly disoriented.  Grasping for a lifeline, they latched onto Trump.

Recently, academics have studied this phenomenon.  In their paper, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election” (https://academic.oup.com/socrel/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/socrel/srx070/4825283? ) sociologists Andrew Whitehead,  Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry conclude that for many Trump supporters, “voting for Trump was… a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.”

Whitehead, Baker, and Perry used data from the latest Baylor Religion Study (https://www.baylor.edu/baylorreligionsurvey/doc.php/292546.pdf ) to unearth the core beliefs of white evangelical Christians — 80 percent of whom voted for Trump.  After controlling for factors such as party affiliation and religiosity, the sociologists identified six questions as measures of Christian Nationalism: The first is “the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.”  Christian Nationalists reject this because they believe that the United States has a special relationship with the Christian God; there’s a covenant for a Christian nation.

While Christian Nationalists reject separation of church and state, they respond positively to these five notions:

  • “The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation.”
  • “The federal government should advocate Christian values.”
  • “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.”
  • “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.”
  • “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.”

Christian Nationalists support Trump because they believe he supports these notions.  (In addition, the Whitehead, Baker, and Perry study found profound anti-Muslim attitudes among the Christian Nationalists; for example, agreement with the statement, “Muslims endanger the physical safety of people like me.”  Trump appears to harbor the same sentiments.)

That explains why Christian Nationalists have stuck with Trump through 15 tumultuous months in office.  In an interview with the Huffington Post ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/researchers-discover-common-thread-between-evangelicals-who-voted-for-trump_us_5abbd15ae4b04a59a313c5ea) one of the study researchers, Andrew Whitehead, noted that since his election Trump has given Christian Nationalists direct access to the White House and this has led them to forgive his conduct: “They believe God can use anyone, ‘even a thrice married, non-pious, self-proclaimed public playboy,’” to form a Christian nation]. “For Christian nationalists, the end goal is a society that favors Christianity in various aspects… How that project is achieved is of little consequence to them.”

While “Strangers in their own land” doesn’t directly address Christian Nationalism, many of Arlie Hochschild’s subjects participated in the evangelical Christianity that Whitehead, Baker, and Perry identify as the source of Christian Nationalism.  (And Hochschild’s subjects who don’t seem particularly religious appear to share the same worldview as their neighbors.)

Two of Hoschschild’s observations seem particularly relevant.  The first is that the Louisiana Trump supporters have no confidence in government to fix their problems.  The second is that they place their confidence in business.  Hochschild observed that her subjects “identify up with the 1 percent.”  They believe that big business, not big government will provide the solutions to their problems, whether they are meaningful employment, healthcare, or environmental pollution.  (This derives from the Calvinism that underlies white evangelical Christianity.)  They voted for Trump because they saw him as a successful businessman.

Vice President Mike Pence has an important role because he’s a Christian Nationalist (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/01/gods-plan-for-mike-pence/546569/ ).  Pence has been responsible for many of the initiatives that the Christian Nationalists held dear: the effort to flood the courts with conservative judges; the drive to restrict abortion rights and defund Planned Parenthood; the effort to provide Federal funding to church schools; the drive to restrict immigration; etcetera.

As long as Mike Pence stands by Donald Trump then Trump will have the support of the hard-core component of his base — Christian Nationalists.  And when Pence steps away, and Trump falls, Pence will become President.

What’s Wrong With Trump This Time?

During most of Easter Week, Donald Trump was uncharacteristically silent. Then, starting on Easter Sunday, Trump tweeted that he would end DACA, “stop” NAFTA, and move troops to the Southern Border. What spurred this crazy talk?

There are several theories about why Trump unleashed his immigration tweetstorm.  One theory is that it was because conservative Republicans have slammed him for signing the $1.3 trillion spending bill (March 23rd) without securing funds for his border wall.  Another was that for most of Easter Week, the White House staff had constrained him so that he wouldn’t tweet about Stormy Daniels or Karen McDougal; on Saturday and Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly, Trump vented his frustration on Twitter.  Another theory is that, on Sunday morning, Trump was watching Fox News and responded to one of their reports.  The Final theory is that Trump is coming apart because of pressure from his legal woes.  That’s the theory that seems most plausible.

Trump is facing legal action on three fronts: Interaction between his presidential campaign and Russia, lawsuits brought by aggrieved women, and lawsuits based on the “emoluments” clause of the Constitution.

Russia Probe:  On February 16th, the Justice Department unveiled the first of four pillars of the Mueller investigation into interference in the 2016 election: the indictment of 13 Russians for Internet-based meddling.

In the coming months we’re likely to see indictments clustered around the three additional pillars of the Mueller inquiry: hacking, collusion, and obstruction.  The hacking indictments should explain who hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The collusion pillar would explore the illicit cooperation between Russian operatives, involved in election interference and hacking, and the Trump campaign. On March 29th, the Mueller inquiry alleged that while Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were working for the Trump campaign, they had contact with a Russian intelligence operative.

Finally, the fourth pillar of the Mueller investigation should focus on obstruction of justice: has the Trump Administration blocked DOJ efforts to understand interference in the 2016 election?

Recently there’s been an unravelling of the Trump legal team responding to the Mueller inquiry.  The lead lawyer, John Dowd, resigned and has yet to be replaced.   Meanwhile, there’s intense speculation about whether Trump will agree to an interview with the inquiry (many observers believe that because of Trump’s penchant for mendacity he should not testify).

(By the way: in parallel with the Mueller inquiry is the Cockrum vs. Trump lawsuit; where three private individuals — Ray Cockrum, Scott Comer and Eric Schoenberg — are suing Donald Trump and Roger Stone for violating their privacy and civil rights by participating in the hack of the DNC emails.)

Trump’s Women: There are three lawsuits of note.  The first involves actress Stormy Daniels (real name Elizabeth Clifford) who alleges that, in 2006, she had an affair with Trump and subsequently was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about it.  On April 2nd, Trump’s legal team asked that this dispute be settled in (private) arbitration.  Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti, wants a (public) civil trial.  (There’s a separate allegation that the $130,000, paid in October 2016, violated campaign finance laws.)

The second lawsuit involves model Karen McDougal who alleges that she had an affair with Trump and, in 2016, was paid $150,000 by America Media Inc. (which publishes the National Enquirer) for the story.  McDougal claims that American Media actually paid her in order to kill the story.  (There’s a separate allegation, brought by Common Cause, that the $150,000 was an illegal campaign contribution.)

The third lawsuit involves Summer Zervos who alleges that Trump sexually harassed her in 2007.  She’s one of more than twenty women who came forward, during the 2016 political campaign, to charge Trump with harassment.  Before Trump took office he accused these women of lying; in response, Zervos filed a defamation suit.  It wended its way through the courts and, on March 20th, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that the suite could go forward  citing court precedent from the Bill Clinton-Paula Jones case: “a sitting president is not immune from being sued in federal court for unofficial acts.”  (Trump’s attorneys have appealed this ruling.)

The Trump attorneys handling these cases are not those representing him in the Mueller investigation.

Emoluments:  Article I of the Constitution says, “No Person holding any Office… shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”  (An emolument is a profit of any kind.)  Since Trump took office there have been lawsuits that alleged that Trump businesses illegally  accept payments from foreign governments.  (That is, Trump is using his position as President to benefit his businesses,)

Several of these lawsuits have been dismissed on technical grounds.  However on March 28th, a Federal Judge in Maryland let an emolument lawsuit go forward.  This action, brought by the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland, focuses on the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC:  “The District of Columbia and Maryland said their local residents who compete with Trump’s businesses, such as Trump International Hotel… , are harmed by decreased patronage, wages and tips…”

In this instance, Trump is represented by the Justice Department, not his private attorneys.

Summary: Trump’s legal woes aren’t going away soon.  Each of the three threads is likely to persist for the duration of 2018.  (The Washington Post indicates that the Mueller probe is likely to issue a preliminary report in mid-Summer but that doesn’t mean the probe will end then.)  Many observers believe that the Summer Zervos lawsuit is on the fastest track and may cause Trump to be deposed by summer.

For the rest of the year, Trump will be under pressure from these lawsuits.  Expect Trump’s bizarre behavior to continue.

“Russian Roulette” Trump and Putin

Until Robert Mueller publishes the results of his investigation into Russian intrusion in the 2016 election, David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s new book, “Russian Roulette,” will be the preeminent source for information about what happened; what did Russia do and why did they do it.  There are four takeaways from this well-researched and disturbing book.

Russia has declared war on the United States:  During the October 22, 2012, presidential debate, Mitt Romney called Russia America’s “biggest geopolitical threat.”  At the time, many observers scoffed, but it turns out that Romney was right.  Corn and Isikoff’s book indicates that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has declared cyberwar on the United States and its allies; the 2016 political campaign was the most evident manifestation of the new Kremlin offensive.

Russia cannot compete against the United States economically or militarily.  Because the US has, historically, opposed many Russian political initiatives — such as the annexation of Ukraine — Putin has decided to retaliate by undermining our democracy: he seeks to destabilize our political system and sow discontent.  In 2016 Russian operatives interfered in the U.S. political process by meddling in the voting process, selectively leaking hacked information, and spreading disinformation via social media.  The Russians did this to cripple Hillary Clinton’s campaign and to aid Donald Trump.

Russian Roulette makes it clear that Putin hated Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and, therefore, deliberately set out to hurt the Obama Administration, the Clinton campaign, and Democrats in general.  (The Russians not only interfered in the presidential election but also in Senate and Congressional races.)

Trump idolizes Putin.  Tellingly, Trump shares Putins’s hatred for Obama.  What jumps out from Russian Roulette is that there’s abundant evidence of Russian cyberattacks and Trump has steadfastly denied this.

Donald Trump threatens our national security:  Corn and Isikoff’s book doesn’t contain a “smoking gun;” there is no new information that proves that Trump personally colluded with Russian operatives.  Nonetheless, Russian Roulette reports that before November 8, 2016, the Kremlin had been trying to “cultivate” Trump for at least a decade.

The Russian effort to enlist Trump is said to take two forms: one is to provide him with funding for his various projects; the other is to threaten him with blackmail with evidence of sexual misbehavior.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has no business interests in Russia.  However, Russian Roulette reports that during the campaign Trump’s representatives tried to arrange for a Trump tower to be constructed in Moscow.  In addition, there’s abundant evidence that Trump has done business with Russian oligarchs — on projects located outside Russia.  During the nineties, Trump was in deep financial trouble and there’s information that Russian money bailed him out.

Russian Roulette discusses the possibility that Trump was sexually “compromised” during his visit to Moscow for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant.  There’s plenty of innuendo but, so far, no proof.

At the conclusion of Russian Roulette we’re left wondering if Trump is a dupe or a doofus; is he denying that the Russians interfered in the election because he’s following Putin’s lead or because he’s too vacuous?  For whatever reason Trump is ignoring two existential threats to the United States: Russian cyber warfare and global climate change.

Even though the US intelligence community believes that the Russian interfered with the 2016 election, Trump discounts this.  He continues to lobby for “normalization” of our relationship with Russia.  (As this was being written, Trump fired Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Adviser McMaster; both had advocated a hard line with Russia.)

Trump’s associates met with Russians: Corn and Isikoff’s new book provides ample evidence that members of the Trump campaign — Carter Page, George Papadpoulos, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, among others — met with Russian operatives during the campaign.  It appears that the Trump campaign was aware that the Russians had hacked the DNC and John Podesta’s emails.  Nonetheless, there’s no evidence that the Trump campaign and the Russians planned joint operations; for example, that the Trump campaign asked the Russian operatives to disrupt voter turnout in Wisconsin.  (There’s nothing about the Trump campaign that’s comparable to the purported link between the Russians and the NRA:  the FBI is investigating allegations that Alexander Torshin, an official at the Central Bank of the Russia and life member of the NRA, funneled money through the gun lobby group to the Trump campaign.)

The Obama Administration was too soft with Russia:  Russian Roulette makes it clear that the Obama Administration was informed that the Russians were interfering with the 2016 election.  In hindsight it’s clear that the Obama Administration was way too soft with the Russians.  (At the last minute, when they wanted to go public with what they knew about the Russian interference with the election, the Obama Administration was thwarted by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.)

Summary: For the moment, David Corn and Michael Isikoff’s new book, “Russian Roulette,” is the preeminent source for information about how Russia interfered in the 2016 election.  Bottom line: we’re at war with Russia and Donald Trump isn’t doing anything about it.