Monthly Archives: May 2018

All the President’s Men: Mike Pence

The Trump Administration is so dreadful they’ve made the George W. Bush Administration seem almost acceptable in comparison.  Dubya surrounded himself with qualified staff.  As awful as Bush Vice President Dick Cheney was, he had notable Washington experience: he’d served as White House Chief of Staff and as Secretary of Defense.  In contrast, Mike Pence went from conservative talk-show host to Ineffective congressman (and governor) to Trump’s Vice President.

Nonetheless, the primary criticism of Pence isn’t that he doesn’t possess the cojones to perform the job of President, if need be.  The Vice President — who has touted his “Christian credentials” — is castigated because he could act as a moral check on Trump.  Instead, Pence has chosen to be Trump’s primary cheerleader.  His fawning buddy.  His toady.

When Trump selected Pence as his running mate, none of us expected them to be equal partners in a Trump Administration; it was unrealistic to expect Pence to compliment Trump’s imbecility with thoughtful insight.  Most observers recognized Pence for what he was intended to be: an empty suit with impeccable conservative Christian credentials who had the blessing of Republican oligarchs such as the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer.  (In July 2016, Trump was leaning towards choosing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as his running mate; Trump Campaign Manager Kellyanne Conway persuaded Trump to choose Pence — for the stated reasons plus the fact that Pence would be better as the liaison to congressional Republicans.  By the way: Conway got her position because of the influence of Robert Mercer.)

Now, Pence has a limited portfolio within the Trump Administration: he placates big donors, such as the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer, and also reassures the religious right.  (In July 2016, the 538 website noted that Pence was the most conservative Republican VP candidate in forty years (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/mike-pence-would-be-a-really-conservative-and-mostly-unknown-vp-pick/ ).)  When there’s a Trump imbroglio, Pence declares fealty to Trump and the religious right is assuaged — this first happened with the October 2016 release of the notorious Trump “Access Hollywood” tape and has continued to the present day with Pence’s support for Trump in the Stormy Daniels scandal.  (Uncharacteristically, on May 21st, Pence spoke out on North Korea, threatening it with “the Libya model.”  In response, a high-ranking North Korean official called Pence, “a political dummy,” characterizing his remarks as “ignorant and stupid.”)

Nonetheless, because of Pence’s high-visibility Christianity, many political observers believed he would provide a moral framework for Trump; they expected that when Donald Trump became president he would soften his behavior and that Pence would play an important role in this process.  That is, they expected Trump would begin to act presidential.  This hasn’t happened and part of blame must fall on the shoulders of Mike Pence.

In his May 9th Washington Post oped (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-is-no-longer-the-worst-person-in-government/2018/05/09/10e59eba-52f1-11e8-a551-5b648abe29ef_story.html? ), conservative columnist George Will criticized the Vice President: “The oleaginous Mike Pence, with his talent for toadyism and appetite for obsequiousness… is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.”  George Will noted that Pence frequently claims he is “deeply humbled” to be able to serve in the Trump Administration.

George Will castigated the President: “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic.”  But Will savds his most ferocious commentary for the Vice-President: “Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying.”

Why has Mike Pence become Trump’s toady?

There are two possible explanations; neither of which is flattering to Pence.  The first is that the Vice President has realized that the only way to work closely with Trump is to continually flatter him; that Trump is so insecure that he only will tolerate close relations with those who proffer their unwavering love.  This suggests that Pence — realizing that Trump threatens the United States — has decide to dampen his personality and pander to Trump, believing that only this behavior will mollify him.

The second explanation is that Pence actually lacks a moral core; he is a hollow man (“Shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion”, T.S. Eliot)  The Vice President is not able to stand up to Trump because Pence is a weak person; he’s playing a part in a political play and only reads the lines that he’s been given — he’s been instructed to be Trump’s toady and that’s what he is doing.

Since Trump became President there have been calls for his impeachment.  Many observers have warned that if Trump was removed from office, we’d get Pence as President and he would be worse.

What we know about Pence suggests that if he were to become President he would be different from Trump.  Nowhere near as crazy.  (No demented early morning tweets.)  Pence would be a more conventional Republican President; an actor, content to read the lines written for him by Republican oligarchs.  Instead of being Trump’s toady, Pence would grovel at the feet of the powerful men who control the Republican Party.

Trump or Pence.  Not an appealing choice.

All The President’s Men: John Bolton

The Trump Administration is so dreadful they’ve made the George W. Bush Administration seem almost acceptable in comparison. Dubya was also a dummy but at least he wasn’t a racist bully. And Dubya surrounded himself with folks that had some connection to mainstream American foreign policy: Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley. Trump’s first National Security Adviser was crazy Michael Flynn; now it’s equally crazy John Bolton.

Since 1981, Bolton has been a bristly far-right Republican insider.  He’s served Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.  In 2005 Dubya nominated Bolton as his Ambassador to the United Nations; because of his contentious nature, Bolton was never confirmed.

Bolton has long been characterized as having an abrasive manner — one foreign diplomat described him as “rude and undiplomatic.”  State Department colleagues accused him of “spinning” intelligence in order to support his views.

In the arena of U.S. foreign policy, Bolton is on the conservative fringe.  His career is littered with inflammatory statements: “There is no United Nations” and dismissing Palestinian claims to statehood as “a ploy.”  He opposes the European Union; in 2008, he urged Ireland not to join the EU and, in 2016 , urged England to leave.  Bolton stakes a position that’s similar to Trump’s “America First” stance; he is skeptical of international law and most international organizations.  Bolton describes himself as a “unilateralist.”

Before his appointment as National Security Adviser, Bolton split his time between legal work in Washington DC, commentary on Fox News, and consulting work for conservative organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Gatestone Institute.  In addition he ran the John Bolton PAC with major support from Republican oligarch Robert Mercer.

Trump’s foreign policy is “personal” rather than ideological; he seems intent on undoing every accomplishment of Barack Obama.  In contrast, Bolton is deeply ideological.

Iran:  Trump was against the Iran agreement — technically the “Joint Plan of Action” (JPA) signed November 24, 2013 —  because Obama was for it.  Bolton has been against the JPA since it was negotiated; calling it a “massive strategic blunder.”  He’s advocated Iranian “regime change” and is a long-time of the Iranian dissident group Mujahedeen Khalq (MEK).  (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/07/world/middleeast/john-bolton-regime-change-iran.html )

Trump wants to negotiate a new JPA that specifically limits Iranian missile testing, gives inspectors unfettered access to Iranian military bases, and extends the (old) JPA’s expiration date beyond 2030.  It’s unlikely that either Bolton or Trump can gain the support of the other signatories: China, England, European Union, France, Germany, Iran, and Russia.

North Korea:  Trump has seized on “denuclearization” of North Korea as his signature foreign-policy initiative.  Once again, his motivation is personal; he wants to succeed where Barack Obama failed.  He revels in the notion that the June 12th meeting with Kim Jong Un will provide a diplomatic breakthrough and ensure his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Bolton has a long record of antagonism towards North Korea; during his tenure in the George W. Bush Administration he advocated that it be added to the “Axis of Evil.”  In February, before he became National Security Adviser, Bolton wrote an editorial ( https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-legal-case-for-striking-north-korea-first-1519862374) building the case for a preemptive strike against North Korea.

In early May, it was reported that Trump had discussed removing all US troops from the Korean peninsula; it’s likely that ultra-conservatives, like John Bolton, talked him out of this.  On May 13th Bolton offered a very specific definition of what North Korean “denuclearization” meant: “getting rid of all the nuclear weapons… taking them to Oakridge, Tennessee… getting rid of the uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing capabilities.”  Bolton said the process should follow “the Libya model.”

North Korea immediately rejected Bolton’s comments: “This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.”  At this writing, North Korea is threatening to cancel the June 12th meeting.

Russia: To say the least, Trump’s attitude towards Russia has been inconsistent.  On the one hand he called Putin to congratulate him after he was “reelected” Russian president.  On the other hand, he’s claimed, “nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”

John Bolton is a Russia hawk.  He’s accused Putin of lying to Trump about interference in the 2016 election — Bolton is convinced Russia did interfere — and writes, “The notion that the Russians can help us with terrorism … is delusional.”

China:  To a lesser extent, Trump’s attitude toward China has also been inconsistent.  Bolton is a China hawk.  His associates say, “The new US national security adviser is willing to risk a military conflict with China to achieve President Donald Trump’s goals for America.”

Summary: On many issues, John Bolton bolsters Trump’s positions with a strident unilateralism.  However, Bolton appears to be mired in an old-school view of his office.  He’s eliminated the White House position of Cybersecurity chief.  He’s also disbanded the “global health security” team — the group charged with reacting to pandemics.  Bolton is far more dogmatic than Trump.

Bolton and Trump do not appear to be on the same page regarding negotiations with North Korea.  It doesn’t appear that Bolton will have a long tenure as Trump’s National Security Advisor.