Archive for the ‘Stephens’ Category

Stephens, Kristof, and Collins

May 18, 2017

In “‘The Flight 93 Election’ Crashes Again” Mr. Stephens says to a certain kind of conservative, last fall’s was “the Flight 93 election.” Perhaps it was, but not as they intended.  Mr. Kristof says these are “Dangerous Times for Trump and the Nation” and he has a question:  What if an unstable president reaches for the nuclear button?  Thanks, Nick, I just crawled out from under the bed…  Ms. Collins ponders “Trump’s Version of Keeping Us Safe,” and we pause while the president feels sorry for himself.  Here’s Mr. Stephens:

In case you’ve had the pleasure of forgetting, “The Flight 93 Election” was the title of a portentous essay, published last September under a Roman pseudonym in The Claremont Review of Books, that declared the stakes for the United States in 2016 thus: “Charge the cockpit or you die.”

In the lurid imagination of the author — it turned out to be Michael Anton, who now holds a senior job in the White House — the American republic was Flight 93, a plane deliberately set on a course for destruction by liberals and their accomplices in the Republican establishment and the globalist “Davoisie.” As for Donald Trump, Anton implied that he was the political equivalent of Todd Beamer, the heroic passenger who cried “Let’s Roll” in a desperate bid for salvation.

“You may die anyway,” Anton warned. “You — or the leader of your party — may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: If you don’t try, death is certain.”

And here we are, not four months into the collapsing Trump presidency, living Anton’s dreams.

In recent days, the radio host Michael Savage has acknowledged “the administration is in trouble.” John Podhoretz in the New York Post and later The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page each compared Trump to Jimmy Carter — the most damning of all conservative indictments.

Then there’s Ann Coulter. In an interview with The Daily Caller, the author of “In Trump We Trust” said of the presidency that “it has been such a disaster so far,” and that it was possible that “the Trump-haters were right.” She even dropped the f-bomb — “fascist” — to describe Trump’s hiring of his relatives to senior White House posts.

“If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America,” Lyndon Johnson is reputed to have said (perhaps it’s apocryphal) after the CBS anchorman said in 1968 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable.

Just so for Trump: If he’s lost Coulter, he’s lost angry America. That’s not his entire base, but — let’s face it — it’s a critical fraction of it.

Now the hope of the president’s dismayed supporters is that this moment of near-political bankruptcy will lead to a reinvention and a turnaround. Perhaps Trump can delegate his executive authorities in the same way as he used to license his name, pretending to be president just as he once pretended to be a real-estate tycoon.

That would suit Trump’s sole talent for playing a successful character on TV. But the reality of the presidency is that it tends to reflect and magnify the inner truth of the officeholder. The job requires — and exposes — that most conservative of concepts: character. And if we’ve learned anything about Trump, it’s that his character isn’t just bad. It’s irrepressible.

Hence the past 10 days of our national life. Firing Jim Comey. Threatening Comey. Lying about the reasons for firing Comey. Admitting to the reasons for firing Comey. Blabbing secrets to Sergey Lavrov. Denying that secrets were blabbed. Then blabbing about blabbing to Lavrov.

No staff shake-up would have prevented any of this from happening. It would have descended on a hapless White House staff like a superheated pyroclastic flow from a presidential Pinatubo. And it will continue to descend, week after grim week, until Trump leaves or is forced from office.

That is the Trump reality. A man with a deformed personality and a defective intellect runs a dysfunctional administration — a fact finally visible even to its most ardent admirers. Who could have seen that one coming? Who knew that character might be destiny?

To reread “The Flight 93 Election” today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large. In a word, it’s become unhinged.

To imply, as Anton did, that Barack Obama, for all his shortcomings, was Ziad Jarrah, Flight 93’s lead hijacker, is vile. To suppose that we’d all be dead if Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, had been elected is hallucinatory. To argue that the United States, for all its problems, was the equivalent of a doomed aircraft is absurd. To suggest that Donald Trump, a man who has sacrificed nothing in his life for anyone or anything, is the worthy moral heir to the Flight 93 passengers is a travesty.

It is the mark of every millenarian fanatic to assume that the world stands on the verge of a precipice, and that only radical or violent action can save it. That’s the premise of Anton’s essay. It’s also the kind of thinking that has inspired extremists from time immemorial, including the people who grabbed the planes on 9/11.

Maybe 2016 was the Flight 93 election, or something like it. Maybe the pilots are dead. Maybe the passengers failed to storm the cockpit. Maybe the hijackers reached their target by landing on the White House after all.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The Trump presidency may now be disintegrating, tumbling toward entropy.

By firing James Comey as F.B.I. director, President Trump set in motion the appointment Wednesday evening of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Mueller is a Trump nightmare: a pro who ran the F.B.I. for 12 years and is broadly respected by both parties in Washington for his competence and integrity. If Trump thought he was removing a thorn by firing Comey, he now faces a grove of thistles.

One crucial lesson here: Pressure matters. It was public opinion that stalled the Republican effort to repeal Obamacare, and it is public opinion in part that will ensure the integrity of this investigation.

While the Justice Department didn’t precisely cave to polls, it truly does matter that a majority of Americans want this cloud over our presidency investigated and removed; legal decisions unfold in a political context. Keep up that pressure, for the coming months may be particularly dangerous.

We don’t, of course, know what Mueller will find, and Trump has reiterated his denial of collusion with the Kremlin. Some Democrats seem to assume an investigation will prove a secret deal between Trump and Vladimir Putin, but many smart people I speak to wonder if it will end up more gray. They foresee evidence of collusion by Trump’s aides, and of financial pathways linking Moscow to Trump and his campaign, but perhaps no proof of a quid pro quo involving Trump himself.

The aides most at risk may be Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn, and NBC is reporting that multiple subpoenas have been issued for records involving them.

In addition, The Washington Post reported Wednesday on a remarkable recording in which House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared last June that he believed that Putin finances Trump. Talking with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders, McCarthy said, “I think Putin pays” Trump. When people laughed, McCarthy quickly added, “Swear to God!”

Ryan swore those present to secrecy. “No leaks,” Ryan said. “This is how we know we’re a real family here.”

When The Post asked Ryan and McCarthy about the statements, their offices flatly denied them. Informed that The Post had a recording, they backtracked and suggested it was a joke.

If it’s not humor, this is extraordinary: The Republican House leadership suggested that Putin was keeping Trump on his payroll and that this must be kept secret — even as they thundered about Hillary Clinton’s emails!

(An aside: Thank God for the battle unfolding between The Washington Post and The New York Times. This is the best kind of newspaper war, keeping America straight. I’ve been very critical of media coverage of the presidential campaign, but the rigorous coverage of Trump since he took office has made me proud to be a journalist. And thanks to all those citizens who have subscribed to news outlets in recent months, recognizing that subscriptions are the price for a democracy.)

Yet there are dangers ahead. One is that America will be incapacitated and paralyzed by Mueller’s investigation and the suspicions — this partly explains the stock market’s big fall on Wednesday — and foreign powers may take advantage of this to undertake their own mischief. I would worry about Russia in both Ukraine and the Baltic countries, and we must make clear that we will work with allies to respond in kind.

Another danger is the risk of an erratic, embattled, paranoid leader at home who feels that he may be going down the tubes anyway. In domestic policy, presidents are constrained by Congress and the courts about what damage they can cause, but in foreign policy a president has a largely free hand — and the ability to launch nuclear strikes that would pretty much destroy the world.

In 1974, as Richard Nixon’s presidency was collapsing, he was drinking heavily and aides worried that he was becoming unstable. Fearing what might go wrong, Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, secretly instructed the military not to carry out any White House order to use nuclear weapons unless confirmed by him or Henry Kissinger.

This was unconstitutional. And wise.

Schlesinger also prepared secret plans to deploy troops in Washington in the event of problems with the presidential succession.

We don’t know how Trump will respond in the coming months, and let’s all hope for smooth sailing. But as with Schlesinger’s steps, it’s wise to be prepared.

There have been calls for Trump aides to resign rather than ruin their reputations, but I hope the grown-ups — H. R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, Dina Powell, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson — grit their teeth and stick it out. The White House has never needed more adult supervision.

The cabinet has the constitutional power to remove a president by majority vote under the 25th Amendment (if the president protests, this must be confirmed by two-thirds of each chamber of Congress). Such a vote is unlikely, but in the event of a crisis like the one Schlesinger envisioned, it would be essential.

I hope that cabinet members are keeping one another’s cellphone numbers handy in case an emergency meeting becomes necessary for our nation.

If we’re to rely on the ship of fools that is the current cabinet we are well and truly screwed.  And now here’s Ms. Collins:

Wow, Donald Trump can’t even give a commencement speech to the military without making it all about him.

“Now I want to take this opportunity to give you some advice. Over the course of your life, you will find that things are not always fair. You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve,” the president warned as he was addressing the Coast Guard Academy graduating class Wednesday.

How many of you think Trump was envisioning an unjustly embattled seaman?

“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media,” he went on. “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”

We will pause now to recall that Abraham Lincoln was accused of everything from drunkenness to treason to being a “fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism” before being assassinated. You’d think Trump would remember that, since he seems to regard himself as an expert on Lincoln. (“Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” he informed a fund-raising dinner recently.)

But no, nobody has been persecuted as much as Donald Trump, despite all he’s done for us.

The president also took time out from extolling the Coast Guard’s service to run through the “tremendous amount” his administration has already accomplished. “We’ve saved the Second Amendment,” he bragged. This was presumably his successful fight to make sure that people who are so mentally disturbed they can’t handle their own Social Security benefits still are guaranteed the right to purchase lethal weapons.

But the topic of the day at the Coast Guard Academy was protecting America. And since nobody — particularly Trump — can talk about anything except Trump, let’s look at what the president has done recently to assure our security.

Right now we have no head of the F.B.I. Most of the U.S. attorney offices — the nerve center of America’s war on terrorism and corruption — are without leaders. In March Trump demanded the Obama-era federal prosecutors leave immediately, and he has not nominated a single replacement.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, says she was assured by White House officials that “the transition would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity.”

“Clearly, this is not the case,” Feinstein understated.

Meanwhile National Security Adviser Mike Flynn turned out to be a mess on many fronts, and was fired for lying. His successor, H. R. McMaster, came into the job with a stellar military background and then quickly became an embarrassment. He’s just another spokesman trying to cover up the president’s messes with carefully worded statements, only to be contradicted by a Trumpian tweet.

Americans keep asking themselves why there isn’t anyone in the administration trying to guide the president away from his endless verbal errors, but as Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported in The Times, McMaster has indeed tried. The president, in gratitude, refers to him as “a pain.”

Anyway, Trump misses getting national security advice from Mike Flynn. Who was secretly taking large payments for representing the interests of Turkey while he was a part of Trump’s campaign, and also had a very questionable and profitable relationship with Russia.

“He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Trump told now-departed F.B.I. director James Comey. Have you ever seen a greater judge of character? People, do not take a job in the Trump administration, even if he offers you secretary of vacations. The very fact that he likes you will make everybody else distrust you.

Also on the top of the Trump food chain when it comes to protecting our security: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a right-wing former senator whose greatest achievement so far has been to return the federal criminal justice system to a brain-dead policy of imposing long mandatory sentences on people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes.

Since Sessions recused himself from any investigations relating to Russia and the Trump campaign — a topic that currently covers virtually everything — a lot of the burden was falling on his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who has been on the job for three weeks. Rosenstein, the ultimate example of that Trump employment rule, was quickly telling people he didn’t really care about his personal reputation.

On the plus side, Rosenstein has appointed a special counsel to look into … the stuff. That’s Robert Mueller, a very serious choice, who was in fact the last F.B.I. director not to be fired by Donald Trump.

And today we’ve got a new crew of Coast Guard ensigns, ready to serve. If only we had a president half as useful.

Stephens and Collins

May 13, 2017

Well, the Times has a new op-ed dude, Bret Stephens.  In “How Trump May Save the Republic” he tries to convince us that we are protected, for the time being, by the president’s stupidity.  Ms. Collins says “Trump Is Terrible at Firing!” and adds watch out, Your Holiness, here comes Donald.  Here’s Mr. Stephens:

The question in the title of Timothy Egan’s latest column for The Times is “Who Will Save the Republic?” My answer is Donald Trump, of course.

I mean this in the Anna Sebastian sense — Madame Sebastian being the shrewd, sinister and very Teutonic mother played by Leopoldine Konstantin in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, “Notorious.”

Anna’s adult son, Alexander (Claude Rains), is part of a group of well-heeled Nazis living and scheming revenge in Brazil when he marries Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful young woman he deems trustworthy because her father was a convicted German spy.

Too late, Alexander realizes that Alicia is really an American agent, and that exposure of the fact will mean certain death for him at the hands of his fellow Nazis. When he confesses the problem to mother, she responds with the most reproachful reassurance in movie history:

“We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity — for a time.”

Just so with our 45th president. His views are often malevolent, and his conduct might ultimately prove criminal. But we, too, are protected, for a time, by the enormity of his stupidity.

So much was clear back in January, when Trump dropped his refugee ban on the public, like a dunce trying to squash a snail by dropping a brick on it, only to have it land on his own foot.

There were constitutional ways by which the administration might have made good on some of its obnoxious immigration promises. Trump managed to alight on the unconstitutional ones. His loud embrace as a political candidate of a comprehensive Muslim ban sealed its fate in court once he was president.

Tuesday’s dismissal of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director fits the pattern. I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that a man whose signature line in showbiz was “You’re fired” turns out to be spectacularly incompetent even in this respect.

The president’s letter dismissing Comey revealed more about the president’s legal anxieties than it did about the director’s job performance. It was announced before it was delivered. Its supposed rationale — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo on Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email case — could not withstand a cursory examination of Trump’s motives. It had the effect of rehabilitating Comey’s once-tarnished reputation, while tarnishing Rosenstein’s once-sound one.

What was meant to quash an investigation into the obscure tangle of Trump’s possible Russia connections is now certain to revive it. The Senate will be hard-pressed to confirm an F.B.I. director who is an obvious political lackey. And anyone who takes the job will feel honor bound to pursue the investigation with maximum legal and bureaucratic muscle.

This is how we save the Republic — one self-inflicted Trumpian political wound after another.

All the more so since Trump seems to be digging in. The president is now threatening to cancel all live White House press briefings while issuing ill-concealed threats against the former director. On Friday, he tweeted that “James Comey better hope there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Hang on: There could be tapes? Can someone please ask Bill Safire in heaven to drop in on Richard Nixon in purgatory so they can walk us through this one together?

In corporate life, the usual practice when firing someone is either to say nothing or to say something nice, on the theory that the unlucky person is likelier to respond in kind. Trump has now given his former director the opportunity and incentive to do the opposite. Congressional hearings, should they happen, will be fun.

What makes all this so much more astonishing is how unnecessary it is, at least from Trump’s point of view.

If the president has nothing to fear from a Russia investigation, then why not let it run its course toward exoneration or irrelevance? If he does have something to fear, then Comey — distrusted by Republicans and Democrats alike — would have been his ideal foil. Trump’s critics can now take heart that, no, we won’t soon be moving on from l’affaire russe.

On Friday, I asked an astute source with long experience in the intelligence community if he suspects a smoking gun.

“I would guess there is something on paper or derived through witness questioning that has given the bureau an opening, assuming that Trump’s actions are in response to growing concern about the Russian probe,” he replied, while adding the caveat, “Since we’re talking about Trump, a rampantly insecure ego, such an assumption isn’t mandatory.”

I’d add another caveat: Incompetence may protect us — but as Madame Sebastian knew, only for a while. The blunders may often be self-defeating, but not always. Trump is our president. The enormity of his stupidity, inescapably, is also our own.

Speak for yourself, Bret.  It wasn’t the American people (2+ million fewer of whom voted for Mein Fubar) that hacked the election and obsessed over emails.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

Donald Trump is going to meet soon with the pope. How do you think that will go? Maybe when Trump emerges, he’ll announce that Francis promised him canonization. Then the Vatican will deny it. Then Sean Spicer will hold a press conference in which he will explain that the president was simply working off a memo written by the deputy secretary of state.

Then a reporter will point out that the State Department doesn’t have any deputy secretaries yet. Then we will hear another complaint about “gotcha journalism.”

Look, it wouldn’t be any weirder than what we’ve been through this week.

The president managed to fire F.B.I. chief James Comey in the most unseemly, strange and borderline ridiculous manner humanly possible. A third of Trump’s letter of dismissal was an expression of gratitude for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.” That sounded sort of fishy, since Comey did not have a reputation for running around town assuring people they were not currently suspected of any crimes.

On the night the message was delivered, Spicer starred in what we will call the White House Shrubbery Incident, briefing the press corps in the dark, near a cluster of bushes by the West Wing.

He was not hiding in the foliage! Stop passing around that story! Although he did make it clear he was prepared to bolt if anybody tried to get a picture. (“Just turn the lights off. Turn the lights off.”)

During the conference in deep shadows, Spicer informed the media that the decision to fire Comey was based entirely on a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein: “It was all him. … No one from the White House. That was a Department of Justice decision.”

We will now pause to identify Rod Rosenstein. He had been deputy attorney general for two weeks. Before that he was U.S. attorney in Maryland, a very well-regarded public servant. Let that be an important lesson, people. Whatever you do, do not take a job in the Trump administration. Before you’ve got your desk organized, you’ll be involved in a national scandal. Or in a bush.

“At the very minimum he was being used — they were using his reputation to try and wipe up their mess,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in a phone interview. Rosenstein has agreed to meet with the full Senate next week. Let’s hope he says something very useful and interesting. Otherwise he’ll be known for the rest of his life as The Memo Guy.

Since nothing ever happens in this White House that is not instantly followed by a contradicting story, by the end of the week the president was claiming it was all his idea to fire Comey. That version did seem way more believable than the idea that Trump was reacting to something he had read. The memo was only three pages long, but still.

Then he went Watergate. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump twittered.

“You would think they’d have learned a lesson,” mused Nixon aide John Dean. “But Trump doesn’t seem to have much of an institutional memory. If any.”

Hmm. In an NBC interview, in which Trump was eager to make it clear that he had fired Comey without considering any supporting documents, the president said his decision was all about “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” We will now take a moment to recall what previous chief executive had the peculiar habit of referring to himself in the third person. Hint: He liked to, um, record stuff.

The whole world, of course, wanted to know whether there was indeed some kind of taping system in the Oval Office. The White House had no comment on Trump’s comment.

“The president has nothing further to add on that,” said Spicer. Three times, in fact. Spicer also said that “the tweet speaks for itself.” As do they all.

What happens next? Should we be talking impeachment? (Remember the magic warning: Mike Pence.)

And by the way, who would you rather have as press secretary, Sean Spicer or his deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Spicer vanished for a while after that late-night press conference, but he was on Navy Reserve duty, not crouching under the hydrangeas. While he was gone we had Sanders, who previously starred as manager of her father Mike Huckabee’s 2016 presidential campaign. She contradicted herself about a billion times, but with a lot of spunk.

Or neither? Trump suggested that perhaps “the best thing to do would be to cancel all future ‘press briefings’ and hand out written responses for the sake of accuracy???”

Do you think the written responses would have lots of unnecessary punctuation, and quotation marks in strange places like Trump’s tweets do? Or would they just be transcriptions of those ‘tapes’?

And most important of all, do you think he’ll be wired when he meets with the pope?