What if I told you there is a 37-year-old person of color running for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2020 who believes in health care for all, free public tuition, a $15 minimum wage, supports the Green New Deal, stands by our veterans, promotes intersectionality, advocates for upholding the rights of vulnerable subsets of the population, champions large-scale economic, political, and social reform, and holds rallies attended by thousands of enthusiastic young people across the country? You’d sign up for that candidate in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?
OK. Now assume the same things about this candidate—only change that instead this individual is a 77-year-old white guy. Are you suddenly less enthused?
In a nutshell, I’ve just described Bernie Sanders’s platform and one of the common criticisms I’ve observed anecdotally in my interactions with various Democratic and left-leaning activist groups. Never mind that Bernie believes in criminal justice reform, demanding the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share in taxes, empowering Native American tribal nations, expanding Social Security, fair trade and workers’ rights, getting big money of out politics, gun safety, immigration reform, investing in rural America, LGBTQ equality, racial justice, reinvesting in public education and teachers, standing up for the people of Puerto Rico, and Wall Street reform. At the end of the day, he’s just another old white male.
I get it. The U.S. presidency has been a bastion of white male privilege for, well, ever, with Barack Obama being the notable exception to the rule, and after him going right back to Donald J. Trump, who is pretty much the poster boy for this concept. For what it’s worth, I also happen to think the women of the 2020 presidential race haven’t gotten a fair shake thus far next to other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren. Hell, Kirsten Gillibrand is getting killed in the polls, and beyond what you may believe about the authenticity of her leftward shift since she became a member of the Senate, that her being among the first in her party to call on Al Franken to resign may be a major factor in her low polling numbers seems more than a little plausible. So much for the #MeToo era. Female Democratic Party supporters, try to maintain some semblance of decorum as you throw one of your own under the bus and back over her just to run her over again. Sheesh.
But, yes, it strikes me as counterproductive that so many voters desperate to throw Trump out of office are evidently more concerned about the identity of the person running and whether he or she “can stand up to Trump”—a judgment predicated on hypotheticals, preconceived notions of leadership, and other subjective factors which may lack real credence—than the actual platform on which that candidate is running and what it might mean for the country. Admittedly, it may be a bit early for policy specifics roughly a year-and-a-half from November 2020, though going back to Bernie, he’s got a whole page of positions on key issues on his campaign website, so maybe not. An arguably more productive exercise would be to take these various candidates’ stances, divorce them from the individuals delivering them, and assess them in a blind “taste test,” so to speak. In theory, it shouldn’t matter who’s making the case as long as he or she is making the right case.
Such is why I bristle at the idea Bernie is too old or white or socialist or “not a real Democrat”—whatever that means. If Cory Booker or Kamala Harris or Pete Buttigieg were pitching the same platform, would we be having the same sort of discussion, looking for other ways to discredit them along demographic lines? Or would we be instead extolling their virtues as a black man, a woman of color, or a highly-educated gay man and veteran?
Though I believe there are other reasons why he’s not an ideal candidate for the Dems—and more than just that some would identify him as the creepy handsy uncle of the Democratic field—I fear 76-year-old Joe Biden, now officially running for president, may suffer from the same treatment. So he’s old and white. Does this mean he can’t do the job? After all, should he prove incapable at a point after getting elected, there’s a whole line of succession after him. Ladies and gents, there are safeguards in place.
This is the double-edged sword of identity politics. On one hand, it allows you to embrace a diverse field of candidates as it relates to ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics. On the other hand, it can cause you to miss the forest for the trees, getting you caught up in notions of “electability” and whether someone looks or sounds presidential rather than whether they possess the ideals and the vision for the job. This is before we even get to Pres. Trump, who sure doesn’t act or sound presidential but enough people voted for him so he got the position anyhow. If any member of the Democratic Party field isn’t presidential next to him, they’re actively trying not to be.
Of course, this may be much ado about nothing. Biden and Sanders are among the front runners in current polls, so being old white dudes sure doesn’t seem to have hurt them so far. Still, opinions change and polls have been known to be wrong, and once we get deeper into primary season, what amount to trifles now may loom larger if we’re still tearing down candidates irrespective of what they have to offer voters in terms of stated policy specifics or lack thereof. Unless we’re not serious about beating Trump no matter what. We are serious about that, aren’t we?
To paraphrase poet Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Identity politics, for their appeal to diversity, can be elaborated to absurd extremes that work against voters’ best interests. On a similar note, the current climate of concern about Russian hacking and influencing efforts with respect to our elections speaks to a very real concern for Americans across the political spectrum.
When not carrying water for Pres. Donald Trump re the state of immigration policy in this country, recently deposed Department of Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen evidently was concerned enough about Russian meddling to want to bring the issue up with the president, only to be warned against such a move by Mick Mulvaney as Chief of Staff. This is another one of those occurrences that is galling because it goes against what many of us believe is morally correct but, based on what we know and suspect of Trump as his sphere of influence intersects with Russian interests, it is not the least bit surprising.
This preoccupation with meddling, too, however, can be taken a bit too far. Amid the hypersensitivity about Russia compounded by Trump’s upset win in the 2016 election and the findings of the Mueller report coming out in dribs and drabs, though we are more than a year away from the general election, criticism of one Democratic Party candidate on the part of another’s supporters runs those detractors the risk of accusations of engaging in activity that “will help Trump get re-elected” or, worse yet, betrays their identity as Russian agents or bots.
Going back to criticisms of Joe Biden’s candidacy, to refer to him simply as “Creepy” Uncle Joe absent of additional context or insight only seems to invite the defensive, reflexive anti-Russia “J’accuse!” that is characteristic of Democratic loyalists in this zeitgeist. More constructive criticisms, meanwhile, would seem to be found in revisiting Biden’s past actions and legislative hallmarks. Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine, speaks to marks on Biden’s CV in musing that he is “losing his glow.”
Adding to #MeToo-era deliberations on the appropriateness of Biden’s interactions with certain women, Jones highlights other events which do not paint the former U.S. senator in the best light. As has been observed by numerous critics, for one, Biden played a critical role in questioning Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, doing so in a way that “devastated and shamed” a “credible, intelligent woman” and set women back who would’ve otherwise come forward with sexual harassment claims in hostile work environments. To make matters worse, he hasn’t apologized directly to Ms. Hill about his involvement as chair of the Senate committee presiding over the hearing.
There’s also the problem of Biden’s legacy as a principal author of drug crime laws which have helped fuel America’s ongoing mass incarceration problem as they have been elaborated and modified over the years. These laws disproportionately target people of color, with mandatory minimum sentencing and sentencing disparities giving rise to a prison population explosion that feeds an ever-hungry for-profit prison industry. And Jones doesn’t even address the issue raised by Elizabeth Warren and others that Biden has a rather cozy relationship with the health insurance and banking industries as a former legislator from Delaware. If a kickoff fundraiser bankrolled by telecom and health insurance corporate execs is any indication, Biden’s identity as a working-class hero and champion of the “every-man” is more problematic than perhaps many realize.
These are legitimate criticisms of Biden as a seeker of the highest political office in the nation. But are Biden’s steadfast backers and other Democratic Party supporters desperate to unseat Trump willing to listen? Giving little thought to qualms about Biden’s prior questionable actions, those apologists with whom I’ve interacted online have defended his character, his legacy of public service, and his willingness to stand up to Trump, in doing so casting aspersions on my personhood separate from being a Russian operative and lamenting how some people only want to a tear a “good man” down.
To the extent that some naysayers only wish to denigrate candidates as part of some never-ending purity test without offering an alternative or advancing a point of meaningful debate, I agree with such an assessment. Not everyone is a bot or stooge for Vladimir Putin, however. That some people would seek to squelch discussion along these lines says something profound about just how toxic political discourse can become when facts give way to feelings, distrust becomes an all-too-valuable currency, and arguments are “won” or “lost” based on who yells the loudest or who has the most followers on social media.
When we get this far, no amount of rational deliberation will make a difference, and in fact, those armed with logic can fall into the trap of wasting their time and effort on a lost cause. As the Republican Party under Trump has demonstrated time and again, such a pitfall may well be intentional—though the line between cold calculation and overall incompetence may indeed be blurry.
Focusing on the identity of the politician making appeals on policy matters or that of his or her objectors may provide us with some measure of satisfaction. But personality and individual attributes, charming or otherwise, are not substitutes for a well-developed party platform. If the goal is truly to beat Donald Trump next November, maybe we should worry less about who is leading the charge and pay more attention to appealing to what voters want the most.
While watching Super Bowl LII—and watching the Philadelphia Eagles win their first championship and defeat the New England Patriots’ evil empire (I may be a Giants fan, but the Pats are second only to the Dallas Cowboys on my hate list)—I saw a commercial that spoke to me. No, not the thirty seconds of black screen that befuddled a nation. No, not the myriad Tide commercials that made you think they weren’t Tide commercials until they were, and almost made you forget about people eating Tide detergent pods. Almost. Not the NFL commercial that saw Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. dancing like they’ve never danced before. And certainly not the Dodge commercial that leveraged the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to sell RAM Trucks. It was a commercial for CURE Auto Insurance, an auto insurance provider in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. No, not the one where its mascot, an anthropomorphized blue dot, calls Tom Brady and the Patriots dirty cheaters (essentially). The one where that blue dot says that GEICO and their gecko and Progressive Insurance and Flo, the most impossibly adorable insurance sales agent, well, both suck. It was shocking for its brazenness as well as for its use of mild language—CURE could just as well suck, and you or I wouldn’t know it unless we used their product and lived to tell the awful tale.
What stuck with me, though, is that these sentiments—”they both suck”—could well be applied to other contexts. Namely politics. The objections of CURE Auto Insurance to the likes of bigger names in GEICO and Progressive Insurance are not unlike that of independent/third-party objections to the dominance of the Democratic and Republican Parties in today’s political discourse. As with political affiliations outside the Democrat-GOP binary, it is not as if they don’t have skin in the game, so to speak; CURE wants you to believe that their smaller size will allow them to be more attentive to your needs as a consumer in order to bring you in as a customer, as those outside the Democrat-GOP binary would have you believe the two major parties have largely stopped listening to the wants and needs of their constituents and thus deserve your vote because they have your best interests in mind. In both senses, then, the aggrieved third party is selling something.
To the extent GEICO or Progressive is derelict in its customer service duties I cannot say or wouldn’t begin to speculate; according to J.D. Power’s 2017 survey, Amica Mutual reigns supreme in overall auto claims satisfaction with 5 of 5 stars (J.D. Power trophies?), while GEICO manages a 4/5 rating, and Progressive, a so-so 3/5. In the world of voter satisfaction, meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party get high marks from the American public. In a January 2018 poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, while the Dems and GOP beat out Congress as a whole (8%) in terms of those who expressed “great confidence” in the institution, the 10% garnered by Republicans and the 13% managed by the Democrats fail to inspire in their own right. Moreover, if the fallout from the #ReleaseTheMemo drama has any impact on these figures, it’s only likely to depress them (and me in the process).
So, let’s talk about the Nunes memo, as it has been called. Its namesake, Devin Nunes, and other people who supported its release, insist it is not a political hit job. But come the f**k on—it totally is. Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about what the four-page memorandum actually says:
The crux of the fault-finding within the Nunes memo revolves around how the FBI and Department of Justice came to warranting, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a probable cause order and authorizing electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser and a person of interest in the special prosecutorial investigation helmed by Robert Mueller for his possible role as an intermediary between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials, potentially including pro-Trump interference on Russia’s part in the 2016 election. The memo’s contention is that it was not properly disclosed that the so-called Steele dossier, information compiled by former British intelligence officer and FBI source Christopher Steele and which formed a significant part of the basis for the initial FISA application and its three subsequent renewals, was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to the tune of some $160,000, nor was it disclosed that law firm Perkins Coie and research firm Fusion GPS had facilitated this arrangement.
Also of apparent issue is Steele’s correspondence with the news media. According to the memo, the FISA application for Page’s surveillance heavily cited a September 2016 article by Michael Isikoff for Yahoo! News, which doesn’t corroborate the Steele dossier because it doesn’t have to—Steele spoke with Yahoo! and other outlets directly—and later spoke to Mother Jones for an October 2016 article by David Corn and revealed his identity. The bone of contention is that an FBI source shouldn’t be revealing his or her identity and compromising his or her usefulness as a source, and at the very least, that Steele should’ve made his media contacts evident for the purposes of the FISA application.
More on Christopher Steele: according to the Nunes memo and citing a documented account by Bruce Ohr, former Associate Deputy Attorney General of the DOJ, Steele’s involvement was about more than just the money. That dirty, dirty Clinton money. It was about his “desperation” and “passion” for Donald Trump not becoming President that he did his part regarding the dossier.
So, why is all this an issue? According to the memo, it’s because, as of January 2017 and per former FBI director James Comey’s own words, the Steele dossier was characterized as “salacious and unverified.” Also, did I, Devin Nunes, mention Steele was biased against Trump? Did you get that? Christopher Steele—Donald Trump—MASSIVE BIAS. Just wanted to make sure that was in there.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Nunes memo additionally mentions, while stating there is no evidence of cooperation between Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and someone who has already pled guilty to lying to the FBI, that an FBI counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016 by looking at Papadopoulos, not Page. Of course, the memo also goes on to indicate that FBI agent Pete Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page were not only knockin’ boots, but had indicated their severe BIAS! against Donald Trump, and furthermore, that in their texts, orchestrated leaks to the news media and discussed an “insurance” policy against Trump winning the election with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. McCabe announced his resignation from this post on January 29.
In the wake of the memo’s release, many independent observers commented on just how remarkably, well, unremarkable its contents are. In terms of bombshell revelations, Nunes’ memo is about as earth-shattering as was the Benghazi investigation and Hillary Clinton’s involvement; in other words, much ado about nothing. Additionally, scrutiny of the memo raises its own set of questions about the motivations behind its release. Let’s do our own dive into the arguments raised within its text:
The Clinton campaign paid for the research that compiled by Christopher Steele. And? So? At worst, this would seem like an issue with the process of securing a warrant for surveillance of Carter Page, but this says nothing of the veracity of Steele’s claims. It’s my understanding that opposition research is a standard part of politics in today’s day and age. At any rate, if the intention was to prevent Trump from winning, it didn’t serve that purpose, so what’s the big deal at this point? The Republican candidate won. Get over it.
Steele’s interaction with the media and his disclosure of his identity as an FBI source, if anything, seems like an internal matter for the Bureau to handle, not for Devin Nunes to publicly criticize. Again, this would seem to be an issue of process, and highlighting Steele’s failure to disclose this aspect only serves as a blatant attempt by Nunes and others to undermine the FBI’s credibility.
Devin, bruh—a lot of people don’t like Donald Trump at this point. Trump’s approval rating may have gone up recently, perhaps thanks in part to his State of the Union speech of which a majority of Americans approve, but it’s still a minority of Americans who give him a thumbs-up at this point. These allusions to anti-Trump bias just look like a cheap way to gin up his supporters for his—and possibly your own—political benefit.
The memo highlights Comey’s indication that the contents of the dossier were “salacious and unverified.” Not only have some aspects of the Steele dossier since been confirmed (or disconfirmed), however, but other elements are simply still unverified, not demonstrably debunked. The mainstream media may distance itself from its contents, but that may have as much to do with lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers” as much as anything, not to mention Buzzfeed’s apparently reckless release of the associated information.
Last but not least, the notion that an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in American affairs began not with Carter Page, but instead George Papadopoulos, would seem to somewhat undermine the central theme of this memo: that surveillance of Page under FISA was based on faulty intelligence from an unreliable source. If Papadopoulos’ involvement with Russia was sufficient to spark an in-depth look, this works against the notion that Trump’s detractors or even Mueller and his associates have nothing besides the Steele dossier on which to go. Besides, once more, the memo doesn’t suggest the intel on Papadopoulos is false, but merely drags Pete Strzok and his “mistress”—yes, the Nunes memo actually refers to Lisa Page as such—as if to suggest that their affair makes them less than credible. This morality-based character assassination has no bearing on the validity of the case against either Page or Papadopoulos. Talk about salacious.
Donald Trump and his supporters see this as proof that the investigation into his possible ties to Russia, including orchestrating interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, is nothing but a witch hunt. Fake news. Then again, Trump especially would say this. For many discerning onlookers not already blinded by loyalty to Pres. Drumpf, though, the public release of the Nunes memo—which was only made possible because the White House opted to declassify its contents, mind you—is intended primarily to erode confidence in the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation so that it will seem like a natural consequence that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is fired, his successor is named, and that individual can get rid of Robert Mueller. Because Trump and his associates are innocent. And all around him, people are heavily BIASED against him. SO MUCH BIAS. PUTTING THINGS IN ALL CAPS MAKES THEM MORE BELIEVABLE.
Both the Democrats and the bulk of the U.S. intelligence community were highly critical of the use of classified information in this way. Adam Schiff, Democratic member of the House of Representatives for the state of California and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee—or “Little” Adam Schiff, in Trumpist parlance—CC’d on the release of the original memo, for one, asserts that the information included in the memo is cherry-picked in a manner designed to create a narrative that makes the President look like a target of a conspiracy. Not to mention its contents, it should be stressed, do not exonerate Pres. Trump, but merely cast aspersions on the reliability of the FBI, DOJ, and relevant sources.
Even if the revelations within are fairly tepid, meanwhile, the implications of the executive branch and members of the legislative branch of the federal government going after the American intelligence community are such that we of the rank-and-file persuasion should be concerned regardless of our political affiliation. As even some Republicans, including high-profile party members like John McCain, would insist, this interparty and interoffice conflict does Vladimir Putin and Co.’s work for them in sending public confidence in our political institutions downward yet further. This is not to say that FBI agents and DOJ personnel shouldn’t be held accountable for any misdeeds on their part, or should be afforded too little oversight owing to the broad notion that information related to investigations may be “sensitive.” By the same token, when Trump can take wild swings on Twitter at officials under his purview—including heads of agencies installed on his watch—and the media and its consumers can report and digest this all without batting an eye, one may get the sense we’re on shaky footing as a nation indeed.
President Trump’s tiff with Adam Schiff—the Schiff Tiff, if you will—and the resistance Nancy Pelosi showed in a marathon speech on the House floor in an effort to bring attention to the fate of Dreamers after the Senate reached an agreement on the terms of a budget proposal without any assurances that the immigration issue will be taken up in the near future, make for appealing political theater. The hullabaloo about the Nunes memo, meanwhile, paired with the recent vote to reauthorize FISA Section 702, makes leaders on both sides of the political aisle hard to support. On the Republican side of things, I was already predisposed to think less of Paul Ryan, but his defense of the release of the memo as standard operating procedure for Congress is disingenuous and cowardly when numerous GOP House members are either publicly criticizing Devin Nunes or abandoning ship by refusing to run for re-election in the midterms. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Pelosi and Schiff’s public censure of Donald Trump and his Republican brethren rings hollow when they’re voting alongside their GOP counterparts to extend the surveillance powers of a President they deem to be untrustworthy. For their part, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer should be held accountable for this vote as well, the latter in particular. If 34 senators could say “Nay”—including seven Republicans—he could’ve joined his fellow New York legislator Kirsten Gillibrand in doing so.
In the era of President Donald Trump (still jarring to read or hear, by the way), every piece of news—good or bad—runs the risk of being exaggerated or sensationalized, especially when and where there are issues to sell and clicks to generate. Of course, there is also the risk of underselling the danger Trump presents to America, to democracy, and to the world at large, among those who either fail to comprehend this threat, or fail to be able to confront it in all the terror it induces. As it must be stated and restated, Trump and his presidency are not normal. His war against the media is not normal. His personal gain from use of his properties because of his refusal to divest is not normal. His nationalist rhetoric and the hate and violence he encourages is not normal. Pres. Trump, in obscuring, obstructing, and distracting from his ties to Russia, is potentially at the heart of a scandal yet worse than Watergate. He’s a fraud, and details like fake covers of Time magazine with his image on them hanging in his golf clubs would be laughable and piteous if this man weren’t such a prick and President of the United freaking States. Donald Trump can and should be resisted for these reasons and more.
As specifically regards attributing good news to Trump, caution should be taken before ascribing any boon to him or any other POTUS, for that matter. In the weeks after Trump’s election, the stock market was on the rise, prompting chatter about a “Trump bump.” That bump extended even to his first 100 days, with Trump enjoying the biggest increase in stock prices since George W. Bush. The seeming justification for this was the perception or prediction that Trump’s policies would generally favor business, hence reason for optimism on Wall Street. Since then—and not merely to kill one’s buzz—the Trump bump, as measured by the “yield curve” plotting the difference between 10-year and 2-year Treasury bond yields, has flattened out, and if analysts like Steve Denning are accurate in their assessment of what’s going on economically in the U.S., this kind of rise in stocks and shareholder value does nothing for jobs and stands to depress the real economy. Not to mention that “much of the markets’ movements arises from circumstances beyond any president’s control.” As #45 would have us believe, he inherited a real mess from Barack Obama, and the initial upward surge we saw was nothing short of miraculous, but the truth is Trump stepped into a better situation than either of his predecessors. Dubya was dealing with the dot-com bubble burst when he began his tenure. Obama was dealing with the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 to 2009 to whenever one presumes it actually ended. Ol’ Cheeto Voldemort has had to deal with—what?—BuzzFeed and CNN being mean to him?
Along these lines, the recent announcement of a move by NATO members to increase defense spending by some $12 billion has less to do with Donald Trump than he or his supporters might otherwise lead you to believe. In a piece for Foreign Policy, Robbie Gramer suggests it is another autocratic strongman at the heart of this 4.3% uptick: Vladimir Putin. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, this increase, part of an ongoing upward trend, is specifically designed not only to confront terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, but to handle Russian aggression. According to sources cited in Gramer’s piece, the 2014 invasion of Crimea, in particular, was a catalyst for a pledge for NATO members to raise their level of spending to at least 2% of GDP spending by 2024 if not there already, with a number of governments putting plans into motion before November’s upset presidential victory. (It should not surprise you to know that the United States has already long since eclipsed that threshold.) Per Mr. Stoltenberg, these monies will be used for new military equipment and exercises better designed to address emergency situations and other unexpected events (like, um, invasions), as well as to fund pensions and salaries for troops.
In enumerating the justifications for this more robust commitment to defense spending, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg actually acknowledged President Trump’s focus. No, seriously. He is quoted thusly: “I welcome the strong focus of President Trump on defense spending and burden sharing, because it is important that we deliver. European allies should invest more in defense not only to please the United States, but they should invest more in defense because it is in their own interests.” OK, give the devil his due—even if to be merely diplomatic about the whole situation—but how much credit do we give a man for being right for the wrong reasons? Let’s assume Donald Trump has progressed, shall we say, in his thinking about NATO. It’s not a high bar to clear, mind you, but it would be an upward trajectory. As Robbie Gramer outlines, Trump not only characterized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization once upon a time as “obsolete,” but criticized its various members for essentially owing back dues and for intimating that the U.S. might not come to the rescue if they didn’t pony up. Ivo Daalder, former American ambassador to NATO, took to Trump’s favorite medium to drop some knowledge on him. Among his salient points:
The United States decides how much it wants to spend for NATO’s benefit. That is, no one forced America to spend the way it has.
The other member nations don’t pay the U.S. for its services. It’s not a transaction.
All NATO signatories have pledged to spend 2% or more of their GDP on defense spending. Besides the U.S.A., four already do (Estonia, Greece, Poland, and the United Kingdom), and the others are on their way.
America does commit a fair amount of financial resources to the purpose of NATO, but this is because it is in the country’s best interest to make sure Europe is safe. Much in the same way European leaders see increasing defense spending as vital for their own sense of security—and not merely to appease the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In short, sharing is caring, and for Trump to envision the rest of NATO as taking advantage of the United States’ hospitality is for him to seriously mischaracterize the whole situation. It should be noted, however, that Pres. Trump has since backtracked on his wholesale condemnation of NATO and has committed to endorsing Article 5, the NATO mutual defense clause. The administration has also earmarked nearly $5 billion in its 2018 defense budget for activities amenable to NATO’s cause and Europe’s protection.
Still, while the above elements are promising signs, let’s not lose sight of the 800-pound Russian dancing bear in this equation. On the subject(s) of Russia, Vladimir Putin, hacking, and trying to influence our presidential elections, Donald Trump, as he and other Republicans are wont to due when deflecting, has pointed to Barack Obama’s culpability in these matters. To be fair, the sanctions and other remedial actions approved by the Obama administration in response to evidence of Russian hacking have been criticized by any number of experts as fairly tepid. Nevertheless, as seems to be the pattern with Trump, his lashing out at anyone who is not a staunch loyalist is almost certainly a case of the pot proverbially calling the kettle black. At a recent hearing in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Nicholas Burns, a former State Department official and your company’s computer guy, testified with respect to Russian meddling in America’s elections. At one point, James Risch, Republican senator from Idaho, pressed Burns ever-so-partisanly on his statement that the “Obama administration should have reacted more quickly and vigorously” to Russian hacking, as it was aware that such attempts to undermine American institutions were going on.
Burns, however, maintained that part of the problem in Obama’s dilatory response was resistance from top congressional Republicans, notably the toad-faced Mitch McConnell, in going further on action against Russia despite the administration informing them of the hacking. Furthermore, he offered, while Obama and Co. could have done more, at least he did something to address the Russian threat. Pres. Trump has downplayed the seriousness of Russia’s involvement in our affairs, with he and some of his spokespeople even going so far as to call it all a “hoax,” but while buffoons like Tom Cotton may paint Trump as a superior Commander-in-Chief to Obama because of action in Afghanistan and Syria and for calling for steep (and overstated) domestic defense spending increases, Nicholas Burns is right to be concerned that not only will Trump refuse to act against his BFF Putin, but will even roll back those sanctions approved by Barack Obama, tepid as they were.
What’s striking about this exchange between Risch and Burns is that this is an example of a conflict that is being fought along the lines of the political divide, when matters of national security and defense should be above such posturing. If Cotton, Risch and their Republican colleagues in Congress were really concerned about protecting our homeland and holding people accountable, they would go after Donald Trump just as hard as they rail against Obama. You know, provide some checks and/or balances. After all, if this were Hillary Clinton in the White House instead of Trump, these kinds of hearings would be incessant and aimed directly at her actions. Just look at how the marathon hearing on Benghazi played out, a public event which was as much spectacle as it was legitimate inquiry into what happened to our diplomatic mission in Libya. And Hillary wasn’t even in office at that time! While we’re at it, let’s relitigate other questionable uses of our defense capabilities. Like, for instance, that time we got involved in a war in Iraq based on intelligence that proved faulty. That was a real humdinger.
Indeed, pretty much everything points to the assertion that we as Americans should be concerned about Russia’s attempts to weaken the United States of America, such that a unified defense on the domestic front (Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike) as well as a cooperative approach on the international front (i.e. NATO) is advisable. It is therefore highly disconcerting that, in advance of an upcoming planned meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, the former doesn’t have a set agenda. Because, as Yochi Dreazen, deputy managing editor of Vox’s foreign affairs wing, and others have illuminated, the latter definitely does. Among the things Putin seeks for himself and Russia are 1) that prized roll-back of sanctions for the invasion and annexation of Crimea, which prompted NATO’s rush to increase defense spending in the first place; 2) allowing him to operate more freely in Syria (nothing about a freer Putin sounds good, but maybe that’s just me); 3) the U.S. distancing itself from NATO (ol’ Vladdy is, as it turns out, not a huge fan); and 4) kindly look past trying to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. Presumably, then Putin would shrug his shoulders as if to say, “Come on—you know you want to.”
Almost objectively, one should expect, irrespective of political leanings, the answer to the above requests should be: 1) No; 2) No; 3) No; and 4) F**k no—why? But this is 2017, this is Donald Trump, this is Vladimir Putin, and honestly, do you have any great confidence that Trump will do what is in the United States’ and Europe’s best interests? Whether because Trump has admiration for Putin as a leader who rules with an iron fist and who uses his stature to neutralize the opposition—permanently, even—or because there is some illicit connection between Trump and Russia which compels him to kowtow to Moscow’s whim, or both, there is every reason to worry that the end result of this heart-to-heart will favor Russia at our expense. Despite his contention that he is the consummate deal-maker, if Donald Trump’s ability to “negotiate” a credible replacement of ObamaCare through Congress given majorities in both the House and Senate is any indication, then he’s, um, not all he’s cracked up to be. Now put him up against the likes of Vladimir Putin, a man Dreazen refers to as a “master tactician,” and one’s imagination may wander down some dark paths if one lets it. Or it could be a Putin-Trump love-fest. Anything could happen, which both inspires a small amount of optimism Trump might stumble upon the right course of action, and well-justified terror.
There’s another dread-provoking level to the drama inherent in U.S.-Russia relations, though, in addition to what Trump and his administration won’t do, and what Putin wants. As Yochi Dreazen explains, it’s how Vladimir Putin and others who think like him view the United States—and it’s not merely as a patsy, either. Citing intel by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, there apparently is a laundry list of “offenses” for which Russia suspects the U-S-of-A, including but not limited to the Arab Spring; the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, currently in exile in Russia and wanted for high treason; revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Ukraine; and wars in Iraq, Kosovo, and Libya. Oh, and Putin thinks we are actively plotting to kick him out, too. In other words, Vladimir Putin sees the United States as an enemy. This is the man that Donald Trump has consistently exempted from criticism. This is the kind of threat that Trump has largely downplayed and over which he has resisted the credibility of the very intelligence agencies designed to furnish him with viable information. This is more than a passing concern, but it’s doubtful that our President fully grasps the very concept.
Returning to the beginning discussion of bad news vs. good news, the ultimate bad news is Donald Trump is still President of the United States, as it has been every week since he’s been elected. With respect to our relationship with our allies, both in Europe and elsewhere, Trump apparently likes to test the bounds of our diplomatic relations by very publicly calling out our allies, particularly when he feels that the United States is being taken advantage of. Which is pretty much all the time. Gotta keep producing those sound bites and playing to the base, eh? Trump’s most recent victim, if you will, is South Korea and newly-elected president Moon Jae-in, chosen to fill the void left by the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Given his rhetoric on North Korea, there was some degree of expectation that Kim Jong-un and his nation’s ever-present threat would be more of a centerpiece of this meeting. Instead, very little was said by #45 in terms of specifics on a strategy for how to deal with North Korea, and the South Korean president was made to be lectured about its trade policies. With reporters entering the room just as Trump was essentially dressing down his South Korean counterpart. Yeah. Moon Jae-in agreed insofar as being open to revisit KORUS, the five-year-old treaty between the two nations, but what this means for the fate of the treaty and the reception of these events in Seoul is unclear. I know if I were on the South Korean side of things, I would certainly be hesitant to want to deal with President Trump—or even invite him to my country. And you could forget about buying any crappy Trump Home products.
The good news is that Congress may actually be willing to push back against Donald Trump on certain aspects of foreign policy, particularly regarding Russia. Maybe. The Senate just approved by an overwhelming margin a bill which would prevent Trump from rolling back sanctions on Russia. This still has to clear the House without getting watered down significantly, mind you, but that this measure had so much Republican support in the Senate may be telling of what GOP lawmakers think of the President’s temperament. Even more surprising was a vote of the House Appropriations Committee to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force that has allowed the United States to essentially continuously fight wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, with the thinking that this now-15-year-old provision is too broad and should be debated/updated to reflect the current situation with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Of course, when not being criticized for being all but symbolic gestures, some of the actions taken in departure from Trump’s proposals would actually increase the defense budget. That doesn’t exactly enthrall me as a progressive. Still, that there is thinking outside Trump’s proposals and outside blind party loyalty gives one the minutest sense of hope.
Outside of Trump. Invoking this piece’s title, that seems to be the optimal perspective to take, especially when it comes to the global economy and defense spending. Don’t assign Donald Trump more blame than he deserves for factors largely outside his control, but certainly don’t give him more credit when our European allies are bolstering their defense spending—not when they already have made plans to do so and when the shadow of Vladimir Putin looms largest of all. And for the sake of our country’s national security, pray that whole G20 meeting goes well. Fingers crossed.
At the rate we’re going in this country, I tend to worry that, by the time we’ve thrown the last shovel of dirt on the events of the 2016 election, we’ll be in 2020, ready to elect a new president. I mean, I hope. Right now, it seems like the challenger to Donald Trump is an amorphous blob of old white people, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. In essence, it’s one blob against another, and for whatever reason, a good deal of Republican voters support the blob with the bad hair, oversized ties, and predilection for golfing on the taxpayer’s dime. Not helping this trend is the more recent public reemergence of one of the election’s most prominent figures, fresh off a period of mourning filled with sorrowful hikes near her home in Chappaqua: none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton herself. Clinton, at a conference sponsored by Recode, the tech news website founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, spoke in an interview about why she lost the election.
As Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus tells it, though, she did so by “not merely relitigating the 2016 election but relitigating it like the relentless trial lawyer she once was.” This is to say that Hillary accepted responsibility for her part in her electoral loss—except that she didn’t really accept responsibility for her part in her loss. Instead, she blamed a myriad number of factors in her downfall, which may have contributed to her defeat, but only up to a certain point, and all told, the list seems more of a tiresome exercise in excuse-making than anything. Among the justifications thrown around by Hillary Clinton and enumerated by Marcus for her column: the failings of the Democratic National Committee; James Comey; the media, for overhyping her anticipated victory and for making a mountain out of her E-mail server molehill; the Russians; and sexism within the electorate and elsewhere, for making such a big stink about her Goldman Sachs speeches “when men got paid for the speeches they made” and for not believing a woman could be President of the United States. She also acknowledged the private E-mail server was a “mistake,” but, you know, one other people made too—cough, Colin Powell, cough—and for not being a perfect candidate—though no one’s perfect, right? Right?
In recounting these various reasons rattled off by Hillary Clinton, Ruth Marcus allows the Democratic Party nominee her “critique”—more so along the lines of Russian interference and Comey’s fateful letter than the complicated and hard-to-prove matter of misogyny—as well as her “venting,” especially after winning the popular vote. Marcus even concedes HRC her Trump-bashing, as Trump’s abnormality is of the sort about which no one should be silent, much less someone of her stature. Still, ultimately, Marcus is critical of the subject of her piece, as the very title of her column—”Hillary Clinton, smash your rearview mirror”—would signify. Citing the poor appetite other recent Democratic Party general election losers Al Gore and John Kerry had for retrospective analyses, Marcus has this commentary to offer:
But enough, already, with the seemingly never-ending, ever-expanding postmortem. Sure, Clinton was responding to questions, but if anyone knows how to duck a line of inquiry, it’s her. Meanwhile, the excuses — really, bringing up the DNC? — make her look smaller. Clinton is always at her best when she perseveres, not when she lashes out. It’s essential to understand what went wrong in 2016 and to call out the bad actors. Clinton is just the wrong messenger.
What Democrats crave most is not wallowing in theories about the defeat; it’s a template for resisting Trump now, and a vision for 2018 and 2020. Clinton’s obsessive summoning of 2016 gives Trump an excuse to change the subject from his missteps. “Crooked Hillary Clinton now blames everybody but herself,” he tweeted after the Recode interview.
And Clinton’s behavior doesn’t help would-be glass ceiling-crackers. Publicly calling out misogyny is probably not the best strategy for combating it, or for encouraging other women to run for office.
Hillary is not the only Democrat to engage in this kind of looking back in hindsight. To a certain extent, party leadership should reflect on where it went wrong in 2016 and where it continues to lose ground heading into 2018 and 2020. That said, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it, and Clinton’s way smacks of pettiness, however legitimate her finger-pointing may be. More importantly, the relentless retrospection is, by its nature, not a path forward for Democratic hopefuls in the next two to four years. By this token, Clinton’s evidently limitless blame game only reinforces the notion that her presidential aspirations were a vanity project, and that a fair deal of her support was incidental, a means to an end to further her political legacy. And going back to the idea of blaming the Democratic National Committee, as her detractors in and around the Democratic Party would be apt to point out, she has the DNC and the machinations of Debbie Wasserman Schultz to thank for making her eventual nomination for POTUS seem like a predestined coronation. Yea, verily, that DWS and her cronies had it in for the Bernie Sanders campaign was one of the worst-kept secrets in American politics next to Ted Cruz strangling a man in the 90s just to watch him die. Come on—you just know that man has seriously contemplated murder at least once in his life. They don’t invoke the name of the Zodiac Killer for nothing with him—just saying.
As a product of a string of losses up and down ballots over the past decade or so, Democrats have gotten into the habit of making excuses for coming up short in race after race, as well as trying to claim moral victories for candidates doing reasonably well in individual contests held in red states—even though the criticism may be well-founded that party leadership is not doing enough to support these candidates, especially when they adopt more progressive platforms (see also James Thompson, Rob Quist). Besides merely failing to truly own up to one’s shortcomings, though, the specter of Hillary Clinton is one that is arguably not only counterproductive for a party in disarray, but detrimental to American politics at large. We already know the kinds of diatribes that those on Donald Trump’s corner of the political right are wont to throw Hillary’s way. Crooked Hillary. Lock her up. Of course, the irony is not lost on the rest of us in consideration of Trump’s manifold ethical, legal, and moral conflicts. This notwithstanding, Clinton’s critics on the left (“Shillary,” anyone?), regardless if—and I’m primarily talking about the average voter here, but hey, who knows—they truly comprehend what they are talking about, commonly refer to HRC as a “neoliberal.” This is not a term of endearment.
Someone who does know what he is talking about, meanwhile, is Noam Chomsky, who continues to be highly regarded in intellectual circles for his views, political and otherwise. In a fairly wide-ranging interview with Christopher Lydon for The Nation, Chomsky makes a central point about the pitfalls of neoliberalism and what we as a nation need to do to truly reclaim our ideal of “democracy,” and in the context of historical threats to our bodily well-being in nuclear war and catastrophic climate change, he outlines the neoliberal tradition as its own threat, in that its persistent influence may only hasten the onset of the other two. Chomsky explains:
So there’s the two existential threats that we’ve created—which might in the case of nuclear war maybe wipe us out; in the case of environmental catastrophe, create a severe impact—and then some.
A third thing happened. Beginning around the ’70s, human intelligence dedicated itself to eliminating, or at least weakening, the main barrier against these threats. It’s called neoliberalism. There was a transition at that time from the period of what some people call “regimented capitalism,” the ’50s and ’60s, the great growth period, egalitarian growth, a lot of advances in social justice and so on[…]. That changed in the ’70s with the onset of the neoliberal era that we’ve been living in since. And if you ask yourself what this era is, its crucial principle is undermining mechanisms of social solidarity and mutual support and popular engagement in determining policy.
It’s not called that. What it’s called is “freedom,” but “freedom” means a subordination to the decisions of concentrated, unaccountable, private power. That’s what it means. The institutions of governance—or other kinds of association that could allow people to participate in decision making—those are systematically weakened. Margaret Thatcher said it rather nicely in her aphorism about “there is no society, only individuals.” She was actually, unconsciously no doubt, paraphrasing Marx, who in his condemnation of the repression in France said, “The repression is turning society into a sack of potatoes, just individuals, an amorphous mass can’t act together.” That was a condemnation. For Thatcher, it’s an ideal—and that’s neoliberalism. We destroy or at least undermine the governing mechanisms by which people at least in principle can participate to the extent that society’s democratic. So weaken them, undermine unions, other forms of association, leave a sack of potatoes and meanwhile transfer decisions to unaccountable private power all in the rhetoric of freedom.
Hmm, make it so average people can’t participate in political decision-making, weaken unions or otherwise fail to safeguard attempts to undermine them, and transfer power to unaccountable, private entities. Yep, this sounds like today’s standard operating procedure in Washington—and before we go pointing our fingers at the “they” across the aisle, understand this is not merely a Republican problem, though the GOP does tend to be the biggest offender herein. Indeed, Democrats have worshiped at the temple of neoliberalism themselves—cordoning off the press and public alike at big-ticket private fundraisers, failing to stand with the working class when Republicans actively work to diminish forms of organized labor, serving special interests and other moneyed influences—and Hillary Clinton was and perhaps still is the example par excellence of the out-of-touch elitist Democrat who tries unconvincingly to appeal to the masses as one of their own. Come to think of it, by the time she had the nomination sewn up, Clinton wasn’t really trying that hard to appear down-to-earth. Or likable. Or trustworthy. She was making speeches about economic inequality while wearing a Giorgio Armani jacket. She was never going to let you know what she said in those Goldman Sachs speeches—#DealWithIt. She knew you probably didn’t believe a damn word about what she said about her E-mail server or Benghazi or the Clinton Foundation, but shit, she had come this far denying any involvement in anything underhanded, so she might as well stick to the script and try to ride out the storm, throwing darts at Donald Trump and calling his supporters “deplorables” and such. Hey, give the devil in Prada her due—it almost worked.
Almost. Instead, an American electorate, much of it deeply resentful about being looked down upon by liberal elites and ready to blame those unlike them, those who they can’t—or won’t—understand, voted Donald Trump into the White House largely based on anger, distrust, and fear. Noam Chomsky recognizes this state of politics today characterized by the rise of nationalism in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere, seeing the prevailing trend not only as predictable, but justified. After all, these voters are raging “against socioeconomic policies which have harmed the majority of the population for a generation and have consciously and in principle undermined democratic participation.” As Chomsky concludes, “Why shouldn’t there be anger?” In Europe, as Chomsky outlines, democracy is undermined in a very “direct” way. with the likes of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, the EU’s executive wing, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calling the shots, handing down decisions with minimal input from the bourgeoisie. The implication herein is that, in the United States, stifling democracy is done more indirectly, but no less insidiously. Among the factors cited in the rise of neoliberalism since its beginnings at the end of the 70s is the massive growth of financial institutions to encompass a larger and larger percentage of the world of corporate profits, all the while becoming disconnected from the “real economy.” Not to mention the likes of Goldman Sachs is well represented in the Trump administration, despite the boast #45 would “drain the swamp” from the jump.
Noam Chomsky goes into even more depth concerning which specific doctrines are to be considered forerunners of the modern neoliberal tradition and, for that matter, the neoconservative movement. I’ll let you seek that out and fill in the gaps as you see fit. The main idea is yet quite apparent, though. From both sides of the political equation, the bargaining and decision-making power of the American public has been nullified—and this is by design. On the conservative side, the rhetoric has been one of vilifying the “godless” left and taking back the country from these “rampaging” sorts. Apparently, it takes a cadre of crusaders to nullify the dangerous advances of a national liberal agenda. We must protect our bathrooms and our businesses from all this LGBT nonsense! On the liberal side, meanwhile, there is an active suppression of the more authentic grassroots forces on this end of the spectrum, and this clash of ideals would appear to be exemplified in the current battle for the soul of the Democratic Party between its more traditionalist wing and its upstart progressive faction.
This, broadly speaking, is why we have the Democratic National Committee essentially admitting it intentionally thwarted Bernie Sanders’ presidential aspirations, or Democratic leadership inserting Tom Perez into the mix for chair of the DNC, a largely ceremonial position, pointedly to proscribe Keith Ellison’s chances. As for Hillary Clinton, her dismissive comments of the recent past and the not-so-recent past are of the ilk that even the staunchest Democratic loyalists would be wont to cringe. Baskets of deplorables. Super predators to be “brought to heel.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership as the “gold standard” in trade deals. The now-infamous “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” comment. The knock on Hillary over the years is that her opinions on policy issues have changed markedly from moment to moment, and while she and her supporters would characterize this as an “evolution” of her viewpoints, others less inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt see it as a chameleonic tendency to pivot her position to suit her political needs. Criminal justice reform, gay marriage, Iraq, the Keystone XL pipeline, trade—on these issues and more, Clinton has not only changed her stated position, but for certain topics, has shifted appreciably in a short time. Perhaps at no time was this more glaring than during the 2016 primaries, when her critics saw her ideas “evolve” seemingly in response to concern about Bernie’s prolonged and fervent support from his base, thus marking a stark contrast between the two candidates. For better or worse, Bernie stuck to his guns. Contrasted with the shiftiness of Clinton and the babbling incoherence of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders easily emerged as the most authentic of the candidates running last year. Of course, authenticity goes only so far when you’re fighting an establishment candidate aided by superdelegates, not to mention your own relative obscurity and stances the naysayers deride as “unrealistic” and “socialist.” Universal health care? What, you want everyone to have access to quality health care? What an asshole!
Based on my admiration for Bernie and my 2,500-or-so words up to this point, it might appear that I think Hillary Clinton is a bad person. The truth is, I don’t, if for no other reason than I don’t really know what she believes. The HRC we know today strikes me as someone who is a product of this political system that has justifiably caused so much resentment and unrest among the constituencies of countries all over the world, one that values campaign donations and votes over ideas and real progress. Perhaps I am naïve to think in this way, and should consider Hillary a more-than-willing participant in the political games that pass for discourse and negotiation today. Then again, Clinton is not the only bad actor in this regard. Wait a minute—I sound like Hillary trying to defend herself about her use of a private E-mail server. Have I started thinking like Hillary Clinton? Get it off! GET IT OFF!
Regardless of what I may believe of her, though, the prevailing opinion of the Pantsuit Valkyrie still seems fairly negative, although it is probably helped by the shit-show that is President Trump’s tenure thus far. Hell, Trump’s first 100+ days have been so bad it almost has made liberals like myself pine for the days of George W. Bush. Almost. The creation of vaguely sympathetic figures in Hillary and Dubya and James Comey post-firing notwithstanding, and whether or not she has any political aspirations for 2020 or beyond, the retrospective blame game is not one that benefits the Democratic Party, nor does it reflect kindly on the person throwing stones in a proverbial glass house. Besides, speaking of glass and ceilings and all, while it certainly is neither mine nor any man’s place to tell Hillary Clinton what to do with her political career, if she feels she has anything left to prove, she might be advised to think better of it and consider all that she has achieved. She’s been a First Lady, a U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, was the first female nominee of a major U.S. political party, and won the 2016 popular vote. That’s, ahem, not too shabby. Plus, if endeavors like the Clinton Foundation really are as meritorious as members of her party and the media would make it seem, then she just as well could devote the bulk of her efforts to this cause. And then there’s the occasional six-figure speaking fee. Not that she needs the money, mind you, but I suppose she feels valued because of it.
So yes, in summary, Hillary Clinton was not the worst presidential candidate or perhaps even a bad candidate, but given the Democratic Party’s profound recent struggles, her personal baggage, and an electorate more angry about being marginalized by the nation’s “elites” than someone like me can profess to remember, she is not the kind of dynamic, grassroots-oriented leader the Dems should want. Accordingly, I have but one further piece of advice: please, Hillary, go back into hiding. It might be better for all of us if you do.
On Monday, January 9, the underdog Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide in a thrilling upset and game overall. Of course, if you were a fan of the pure spectacle and sport of the proceedings, including the notion Clemson overcame a 14-point deficit to score the winning touchdown with a second left on the game clock, you, in all likelihood, enjoyed the experience. (If you are an Alabama fan or had money riding on the game, um, you, in all likelihood, did not.) As noted, the Tigers were an underdog—by as much as six or six-and-a-half points prior to the game—which is not insignificant by football odds standards. The Crimson Tide, after all, were the consensus #1 team in the country, topping both the Associated Press and Coaches’ polls as well as the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision rankings. Undaunted, the Clemson Tigers proved victorious.
From my standpoint, I was glad to see Clemson win, even if it aligned with my brother’s amateur prognostications of the Tigers’ victory and thereby fed the notion of his self-professed expertise, for it, if only temporarily, put aside notions of an Alabama dynasty in college football. For better or for worse, though, what I’ll remember most from the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship was not an instance from the game itself, but a moment from the hoopla afterwards. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney—great name, by the by—during the post-game press conference referenced a comment made in November by Colin Cowherd, former ESPN personality and current Fox Sports radio and television host. Back then, Cowherd had this to say about Clemson’s relative talent level:
“Clemson’s a fraud. Clemson is going to get their ears boxed by whoever they play. They should have three losses, maybe four. I don’t buy into Clemson. They’re the New York Giants of college football. I don’t care what their record is. I don’t buy into them. And I had Clemson in the final four, so I should be rooting for them. I got no dog in the fight here. I think USC is the second-best team in the country and Vegas agrees.”
Strong words. After all, Colin could’ve merely said they were overrated or lucky or what-have-you, but calling someone a fraud seems a bit personal, as if to go for the jugular. This is perhaps why Swinney didn’t take the criticism lightly, and fired back thusly during the post-game presser:
At the end of the day, we left no doubt tonight. We wanted to play Alabama because now y’all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up. The guy that called us a fraud? Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Was the name Colin Cowherd? I don’t know him, never met him. Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we’re a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we’re a fraud. The only fraud is that guy, because he didn’t do his homework. I hope y’all print that.
As the kids would say, “Oh, snap!” In faith, I don’t think either of these men are “frauds.” Retrospectively speaking, I’m not sure whether or not Clemson benefited from a particularly weak schedule, but regardless, they proved their mettle and that they weren’t the, ahem, paper tiger Colin Cowherd made them out to be. Cowherd himself is a radio show host who is paid to give his opinions, and I begrudgingly acknowledge he was right about the Giants. To call someone a “fraud,” literally speaking, is to find him or her intentionally doing something wrong with a design to deceive. Barring any evidence of malfeasance on Clemson’s coaching staff’s part or some financial misappropriation perpetrated by Cowherd, neither is the dictionary definition of a fraud.
Why do I include this anecdote about Clemson, Colin Cowherd, Dabo Swinney, and the indiscriminate hurling around of the word “fraud”? Perhaps it is indicative of the current zeitgeist in which the public’s trust in institutions like news media and voting is being challenged, if not eroded, and allegations of electoral fraud and unsubstantiated reports are seemingly rampant. Leading up to the presidential election, President-Elect Trump was quick to suggest that if he didn’t win enough electoral votes, it was due to some sort of collusion or electoral fraud. Then, he won the electoral vote, but he lost the popular vote, and stuck with the whole fraud angle—despite any actual evidence of this. Accordingly, it made for an intriguing bit of theater when Trump challenged the integrity of CNN reporter Jim Acosta and his organization during his Wednesday press conference for all to see and hear.
First, let’s back up a bit and discuss the press conference at large, which, as you might imagine, was in it of itself quite the intriguing spectacle. Feel free to watch the video and read the New York Times transcript for yourself to get the full effect, but here are some “highlights,” if you want to call them that:
1. First, before we get to the aforementioned first, let’s discuss what already had Donald Trump, incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and other Trump Train riders all in a tizzy. CNN reported on Tuesday that U.S. government officials had made Trump aware of an intelligence report indicating that Russian agents had claimed to possess compromising information about him. BuzzFeed, meanwhile, published its own report claiming to offer the contents of the larger 35-page memo on which this alleged intelligence report was based, but the claims for this material were unverified, explaining why CNN worked the following day to distance itself from the BuzzFeed report. Which was a prudent thing to do, even though a lot of Americans deep down wanted it to be true. I mean, lurid tales of Donald Trump paying prostitutes to perform “golden showers”? No wonder #GoldenShowers was trending on Twitter! It was worth it for all the piss jokes!
2. Trump, after a lead-in from Spicer which more or less harangued CNN and BuzzFeed as partners in crime—even though the content of their reports were very different—and a short introduction by Mike Pence, which also lashed out at the media and its “bias,” began by further attacking the two media outlets and praising the rest of the providers/publications present, essentially for just not being either BuzzFeed or CNN. Then, he launched into his usual rambling, semi-coherent, self-congratulatory blather. Trump’s mish-mosh began with more praise, in this case, for Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors for saying they would be keeping jobs in the United States. This is the same Fiat Chrysler which later on in the week would be accused by the EPA as utilizing software to bypass emissions standards much in the way Volkswagen did, and which already is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for allegations of securities fraud based on inflated sales numbers, but that’s another story.
3. President-Elect Trump (still hurts to say) next spoke about the need to orchestrate deals to win back the pharmaceutical industry and the military aircraft industry. I believe the emphasis here is on saving American jobs. Well, I mean, it should be. After all, if you’re asking us to feel bad for the industries themselves, it would seem misplaced, as they don’t seem to be hurting with the kind of revenues they’ve generated in recent years.
4. Donald Trump then talked about—huge surprise!—the fact that he won the election. In doing so, he took potshots at the pollsters who incorrectly predicted he would lose. He also seemed to intimate that those states which helped him win would benefit in terms of jobs and security, once again conforming to his habit of playing favorites with those who brown-nose and curry his favor. Not that I would’ve encouraged New Jerseyans to kowtow to Trump for this reason, but it appears we are SOL for voting blue in 2016. Oh, well.
5. Following a reiteration of his pick-and-choose mentality—i.e. let’s “make America great again,” but only those portions of the country which don’t piss me off—Trump casually dropped the day’s appointment: David Shulkin as head secretary of the Veterans Administration. You know, a non-veteran. Makes total sense. Why is blood dripping from my nose? That’s right—this is Trump’s America now. Thinking too hard only encourages pain.
6. Then, we got to the meat of the press conference: the actual “press” portion. The floor was opened up to the gates of Hell, and President-Elect Trump revealed his true demonic form. Kidding! It was simply opened to questions from the reporters and writers in attendance. Here are some of the queries and responses realized in this segment:
When asked about the two-page summary of the allegations that Russia had dirt on him, as well as the theoretical consensus of the U.S. intelligence community that Vladimir Putin ordered the DNC hack and the attempted hack of the RNC, Trump first deferred and went on a diatribe about the unsubstantiated “crap” that people had reported. Once that was dispensed with, Trump then said he thinks it was Russia who hacked us—but come on!—who hasn’t tried to hack us? Oh, by the way, the Democratic National Committee, for allowing themselves to get hacked, were idiots. Not like the Republican National Committee. What an organization! Also, aren’t Hillary Clinton and John Podesta just awful? Next!
The press, apparently still not done asking questions about the Russian hacks—you know, only because it’s a HUGE F**KING DEAL—then queried Donald Trump about whether he accepts the notion Putin orchestrated these hacks to help him win the election, and whether he would touch the sanctions President Obama authorized based on the findings of U.S. intelligence. On the first count, Trump said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Hey! So Putin likes me! Big whoop! Isn’t it good that he likes me? We can have slumber parties together, making popcorn, watching movies, and discussing how to dismantle ISIS.” On the second count, Trump, um, didn’t really answer, but basically symbolically whipped his junk out and asked, “Does this look like I wouldn’t be tougher on Putin than Hillary would?” (Side note: if Donald Trump actually did this, I think people would be interested to see, if only to verify: 1) whether his member is as orange as the rest of him would suggest, and 2) if visible, whether or not his pubic hair looks as ridiculous as the hair on top of his head does.)
Trump was asked again about those unsubstantiated BuzzFeed memos and whether or not he could be a target of blackmail by the Russians. His response? Bizarre, man. First, he insisted he is, like, the careful-est when he travels abroad and in the public purview. Second, he touted the Miss Universe contest in Moscow—you know, the competition which judges women on their physical features and only occasionally on their brains. Lastly, he said he was a bit of a germophobe, presumably making a funny about the whole “golden showers” bit. Golden showers, golden showers, golden showers. There—I think I’ve gotten it out of my system.
Here was, if not the most stupefying portion of the program, a close second. President-Elect Trump was asked if he thought the Russian hacking—boy, these reporters are persistent buggers, aren’t they?—was justified, how he planned to untangle his business entanglements, and whether he would do us the courtesy of releasing his tax returns to prove he had no conflict of interests. Here’s where it gets stupid: when Trump answered. According to Donald J. Trump:
He has no deals or debt with Russia, and “as a real estate developer, he has very little debt.” As if by mere virtue of working in real estate, the idea of debt is mutually exclusive. This is, in case you haven’t guessed, balderdash, hogwash, and pure poppycock. Trump had estimated his debt at $315 million (so little), but more conservative (read: more accurate) estimates place the figure closer to $1 billion. That’s a shit-ton of debt for someone who professes he’ll do wonders for the U.S. economy and help us reduce our own mounting obligations.
He has a no conflict of interest provision as President. Um, not a thing. Not even close to being a thing. Being President of the United States does not magically permit you to run the country and your business at the same time. In fact, it should compel you to divest yourself of all your business entanglements. There’s no way you could be more wrong in what you just said, Mr. Trump.
He can’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit. Also not a thing. The IRS themselves debunked this notion months ago, and so I wonder if his stubborn adherence to this explanation means he thinks we all believe it, or that he really doesn’t give two shits what we believe. Speaking of not giving two shits what we believe, Trump made the bold claim only reporters care about what’s on his tax returns (which, according to him, don’t tell you all that much anyway), and that we, the people, don’t. Hey, President-Elect Trump, thanks for personally not asking me what I care about, but as it turns out, I do care about what’s on your tax returns. A lot of us do. Release them.
Finally, he says he will be ceding control of his company to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric. No conflict of interest here. They certainly won’t be talking business with their pops, right? Not at all. These men are “professionals,” after all.
7. Donald Trump then turned over control of the press conference to Sheri Dillon, tax lawyer for the firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, to explain how his turning over of his business to his sons was OK. Because he sure as shit didn’t make the case. Dillon’s speech within the speech was pretty lengthy and detailed, and included a lot of tax and legal mumbo-jumbo, apparently about how what the Trump family is doing is totes kewl. Sec. 18 USC 202 doesn’t apply to POTUS, OK? Anyhoo, since Donald Trump is too legit to quit, first of all, he’s putting his ish in a trust. Believe that. Also, his sons and a guy named Allen Weisselberg are running the Trump Organization now, with no interference from the main man himself, y’heard? Also Part Two, we’ve got an ethics adviser on board. Ethics, son! Have some! Plus, Ivanka’s got nothing to do with this whole enterprise. That just happened! Still not satisfied? Peep these deets: only liquid assets in the trust, no new foreign deals, he will only received consolidated profit-and-loss statements, and we’re going to have a chief compliance counsel. He didn’t even have to do that last one, but he did—FOR ALL OF YOU. Dude’s like Jesus up in this piece. Now, before a lot of you bustas start mouthing off, I know what you’re thinking—what about a blind trust? First of all, what about your blind trust? Dude’s President, and he loves America. Loves it. Second of all, eff that blind trust business. I mean, Mr. Trump just can’t unknow his businesses, can he? That would just be some dumb shit right there. Speaking of dumb, what trustee would know better than his sons how to run his interests? No trustee—that’s who. Or some of you might be saying, “What about the Emoluments Clause?” What about the Emoluments Clause? What is an emolument anyway? Do you know? No, you don’t. No one does. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Last but not least, all foreign government payments to his new hotel are going straight to the United States Treasury. You’re welcome. I would drop the mic, but this press conference is still happening! Dillon out!
Sounds all good and fancy and convoluted, right? Too bad, according to Walter Shaub, director of the Office of Government Ethics, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Per Shaub’s remarks on Wednesday at the Brookings Institute:
We can’t risk creating the perception that government leaders would use their official positions for profit. That’s why I was glad in November when the President-elect tweeted that he wanted to, as he put it, “in no way have a conflict of interest” with his businesses. Unfortunately, his current plan cannot achieve that goal. It’s easy to see that the current plan does not achieve anything like the clean break Rex Tillerson is making from Exxon. Stepping back from running his business is meaningless from a conflict of interest perspective. The Presidency is a full-time job and he would’ve had to step back anyway. The idea of setting up a trust to hold his operating businesses adds nothing to the equation. This is not a blind trust—it’s not even close. I think Politico called this a “half-blind” trust, but it’s not even halfway blind. The only thing this has in common with a blind trust is the label, “trust.” His sons are still running the businesses, and, of course, he knows what he owns. His own attorney said today that he can’t “un-know” that he owns Trump Tower. The same is true of his other holdings. The idea of limiting direct communication about the business is wholly inadequate. That’s not how a blind trust works. There’s not supposed to be any information at all.
Here too, his attorney said something important today. She said he’ll know about a deal if he reads it in the paper or sees in on TV. That wouldn’t happen with a blind trust. In addition, the notion that there won’t be new deals doesn’t solve the problem of all the existing deals and businesses. The enormous stack of documents on the stage when he spoke shows just how many deals and businesses there are. I was especially troubled by the statement that the incoming administration is going to demand that OGE approve a diversified portfolio of assets. No one has ever talked to us about that idea, and there’s no legal mechanism to do that. Instead, Congress set up OGE’s blind trust program under the Ethics in Government Act. Under that law anyone who wants a blind trust has to work with OGE from the start, but OGE has been left out of this process. We would have told them that this arrangement fails to meet the statutory requirements.
The President-elect’s attorney justified the decision not to use a blind trust by saying that you can’t put operating businesses in a blind trust. She’s right about that. That’s why the decision to set up this strange new kind of trust is so perplexing. The attorney also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time. Unlike the President, they have to run the gauntlet of a rigorous Senate confirmation process where the legitimacy of their divestiture plans can be closely scrutinized. These individuals get through the nomination process by carefully ensuring that the valuation of their companies is done according to accepted industry standards. There’s nothing unusual about that. For these reasons, the plan does not comport with the tradition of our Presidents over the past 40 years. This isn’t the way the Presidency has worked since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978 in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Since then, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all either established blind trusts or limited their investments to non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds, which are exempt under the conflict of interest law.
Now, before anyone is too critical of the plan the President-elect announced, let’s all remember there’s still time to build on that plan and come up with something that will resolve his conflicts of interest. In developing the current plan, the President-elect did not have the benefit of OGE’s guidance. So, to be clear, OGE’s primary recommendation is that he divest his conflicting financial interests. Nothing short of divestiture will resolve these conflicts.
While it lacks of the panache of my urbanized version of Sheri Dillon’s defense of the Trump’s position, Shaub’s explanation makes up for it with being vastly more correct than the statement which preceded it. So much for all that ethics junk.
8. Back to the Q & A. Donald Trump was asked about having a Cabinet and administration full of conflicts of interest, including but not limited to his own. Trump then proceeded to take out a pistol slowly from his jacket coat, and fired several times, killing the correspondent dead on the spot. OK, so that didn’t happen, but you know he totally would if he thought he could get away with it. I could tell you what he actually said, but it started with Rex Tillerson and disintegrated into some gibberish about bad trade deals. Next!
9. Finally, a question about ObamaCare! You know, the thing the Republicans are trying to dismantle without anything to replace it. Mr. Trump was asked what the GOP would do in place of the “disaster” that is the Affordable Care Act. More gibberish. No substantive answer. There, I saved you the trouble.
10. The question was about whether Donald Trump planned to involve himself in all these individual deals with companies (e.g. Carrier) and when we would see the program on capital repatriation and corporate tax cuts. Simplified answer from Trump-speech: those companies who want to leave for Mexico are going to pay a hefty border tax. Unless, you know, they work out a highly-visible sweetheart deal with the U.S. government and I get to talk about how many jobs I save—even though those numbers probably don’t tell the whole story.
11. The next question was a three-part question with three very different parts, so bear with me. On (1) the status of the Mexican border wall, uh, still evidently happening. There appears to be some sort of reimbursement aspect now involved with it, though to be fair, he could’ve just made that up on the spot. On (2) the status of his Supreme Court pick, that’s evidently coming in the fortnight after Inauguration. And on (3)that bizarre Tweet about us living in Nazi Germany, more griping about the unsubstantiated BuzzFeed reports. Because that’s what happened in Nazi Germany. And, um, just the attempted extermination of the Jews. Other than that, though, exactly like it.
12. Trump was asked if President Obama went too far with his sanctions on Russia, and what he thought of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s plan to send him a bill for tougher sanctions. Succinctly, he said no, Obama didn’t go too far, and then proceeded to belittle Graham’s presidential aspirations. Classy, Mr. Trump. Classy.
14. President-Elect Trump was asked once again about all this “false news” business and what reforms he might suggest for the news industry, pray tell. This is literally what he said: “Well, I don’t recommend reforms. I recommend people that are—that have some moral compass.” Spoken by the pussy-grabber himself.
15. The rest of the press conference was devoted to more about Russia, hacking, and Russian hacking, so let’s breeze through this, shall we? Yes, Donald Trump trusts his intelligence community, but only the people he’s appointed and they’ve got a great hacking defense strategy coming—just you wait and see. Wait, does Trump believe Russia was behind the hacks? Probably, but maybe not. (Writer’s Note: Ugh.) What is his message to Vladimir Putin, if, indeed, he was behind the hacks? Mr. Putin, you will respect America. Same goes for you, China. Japan, Mexico, everyone else, you too. And Don and Eric, you better do a good job, or I’ll say, “You’re fired!” No, seriously, he said his catch phrase. At the end of a presidential press conference. Hmm, it appears that that bleeding coming from my nose has intensified. Could someone grab a box of tissues, please? I think my brain may be in the process of complete liquefaction. Remember me as I was prior to Donald Trump being sworn in, I beg of you.
You may have noticed a number was missing from the ordered list comprising my extensive breakdown of Trump’s Wednesday press conference. Hey, it’s called triskaidekaphobia, and I’m sensitive about it! Seriously, though, I’ve had enough of bullshit explanations from the man himself, so let’s get to it. At a point in the press conference, Donald Trump, in his usual delicate style, referred to BuzzFeed as a “failing pile of garbage,” and went on to say that CNN “went out of their way to build it up,” as if to suggest that CNN piled on to the pile of garbage that BuzzFeed had created. In reality, though, CNN’s report preceded BuzzFeed’s, and was appreciably different, with the latter’s being of a salacious and irresponsible manner, prompting a rebuke from Chuck Todd of MSNBC for willingly publishing “fake news.”
Naturally, when impugned by name, you may wish to defend yourself, or at least have a chance to speak, which is what CNN’s Jim Acosta tried to do, asking, “Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question, Mr. President-elect?” Simple, respectful, no? This was Trump’s response: “Your organization is terrible.” He then proceeded to move onto another questioner, and when Acosta pressed him for a chance to defend his organization, Trump fired back by telling him “don’t be rude” and eventually admonishing him by saying “you are fake news.” And he refused to grant Jim Acosta a question. Just like that. Acosta’s question would actually be asked and answered in the waning minutes of the press conference, but the damage was already done, and furthermore, according to Acosta’s account, he was approached by Sean Spicer and told that if he were to “do that again,” he was going to be thrown out of the press conference. So much for freedom of the press.
Predictably, self-appointed enemies of the left and the “liberal media” loved this result, with numerous conservative “news” sites cheering Donald Trump’s “beatdown” of Jim Acosta. Spicer himself insisted Acosta was behaving inappropriately and rudely, and both he and Newt Gingrich called on him to apologize to Trump. Not the other way around. What’s most striking to me and numerous others, I’m sure, though, is how pretty much everyone else in the press just sat or stood by and let Trump efface Acosta from the press conference, metaphorically stepping over his carcass to get a place at the dinner table. Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America has an even starker comparison for it: “Trump Just Shot Jim Acosta in the Middle of Fifth Avenue and the Press Didn’t Blink.” Referencing a boast from the campaign trail of Trump’s that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and he wouldn’t lose voters, Gertz pointed out a trend of Donald Trump lashing out at criticism of him and his campaign, banning members of the press and whole news organizations, and the rest of the press corps not doing shit about it:
This is a pattern. Members of the press have repeatedly refused to stand together as Trump has lashed out at their colleagues. Trump banned The Des Moines Register from covering his campaign after it printed a critical editorial. There was no collective response from the press. So he banned more outlets when he didn’t like their coverage. His campaign threw a New York Times reporter out of an event. No response from the press. He confined the reporters to press pens where he could mock them by name to the glee of his supporters, putting them in physical danger. And into the pens they went, day after day. His campaign manager allegedly manhandled a reporter. CNN hired the campaign manager! Trump treats reporters like conquered foes who he can manhandle at will. If they can’t figure out a way to stand up together and for one another, he will pick them off one by one and grind the free press into the dirt.
Even if people in the news community came to Jim Acosta’s and CNN’s defense after the fact, that they were content to remain silent during Trump’s finger-wagging illustrates the point: the news media generally isn’t willing to stand up for one of its own when that isolated target gets attacked. Case in point FOX News, which, prior to the rise of Trump, Breitbart, the alt-right, and fake news sites which specifically target audiences on social media feeds, more or less had the market covered on fake and misleading coverage. On one hand, correspondent Shepard Smith came to CNN’s defense with journalistic principles in mind, saying as much Wednesday following the press conference:
CNN’s exclusive reporting on the Russian matter was separate and different from the document dump executed by an online news property. Though we at FOX News cannot confirm CNN’s report, it is our observation that its correspondents followed journalistic standards, and that neither they nor any other journalist should be subjected to belittling and delegitimizing by the president-elect of the United States.
FOX News, whose personalities—notably Megyn Kelly while still in the network’s employ—are no stranger to Donald Trump’s wrath, and so it at least makes sense that someone like Shepard Smith would support CNN and Jim Acosta in this way. On the other hand, Neil Cavuto, fellow FOX News talking head, couldn’t help but put a smirk on his face and stick it to the network’s cable news rival a day later. On Your World with Neil Cavuto—at least, I think it was Your World with Neil Cavuto; I don’t really give a shit about any of the programs he hosts—the program’s namesake had this to say about Trump’s rough handling of CNN in this instance:
How does it feel to be dismissed, or worse, ignored? How does it feel when your feelings are hurt, when your reporters are singled out, and you’re treated unfairly and unkindly, even rudely?
Later on in the segment, Cavuto closed with this mean-spirited jab at CNN:
Isn’t it obnoxious and unfair how some celebrate your plight? Kind of feels like the way you celebrated ours, doesn’t it? They say payback’s a bitch. If only you would take a moment to rewind the tape and see the shoe was on the other foot. Or am I confusing it with the one now kicking you in the ass?
My, my, Neil, aren’t you the tough guy? In Neil Cavuto’s defense, President Obama’s relationship with the press corps was far from sterling, as numerous outlets criticized the lack of transparency with which his administration dealt with the press as a subset of his administration’s larger failings in this regard. Moreover, Cavuto is mostly right that other members of the mainstream media didn’t come to FOX News’ defense when Obama singled them out, though interestingly enough, Jake Tapper of, ahem, CNN, has. Still, two wrongs don’t make a right, and if Cavuto is expecting an apology because FOX News has become popular by pandering to liberal-bashers and Obama-haters and because Donald Trump won the election, he’s got a long wait on his hands. Besides, today it’s CNN, but what’s to prevent FOX News from being next on Trump’s hit list or on it at some point in the future? Will Neil Cavuto be quite so smug then? What if CNN comes (again) to his network’s defense?
For any number of reasons, Donald Trump’s press conference in advance of his inauguration is frightening stuff. His persistent refusal to blame Russia for anything, his failure to provide substantive answers to anything related to policy decisions, his and his administration’s questionable ethical standards and conflicts—you name it. But Trump’s refusal to field a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta with the justification that his organization is “terrible” and “fake news” should concern all Americans and members of the press, and not just those on the left. Barack Obama wasn’t exactly a saint, but Trump has displayed signs of being a tyrannical leader well before formally being sworn in. In an age in which fake news is threatening our knowledge of the facts, and political leaders are trying to make us believe truth is not as relevant as opinion and how much we feel something should be true, the failure to hear real news is even worse than the fake article.
We get it—Barack Obama is a lame-duck president. In less than a month, Donald J. Trump is set to take the reins of the presidency. On a related note, animals may spontaneously begin to howl to themselves, instinctively aware something is amiss. Human animals, too, some of whom already have shed some tears, may yet have more crying to do, or at least some hand-wringing and head-shaking. Then again, some people may be just as ready to protest and raise hell. If nothing else, this should help communicate to the incoming President that roughly half of the country hates his guts. To what this extent this might faze him, if at all, I’m not sure, but if it at all causes to Trump to put that imbecilic sourpuss look on his face and want to Tweet up a storm out of vexation, I’d deem it worth the effort.
For once, though, it is not the President-Elect who is ruffling feathers, but the lame duck himself. Evidently not about to leave the White House without some parting shots, Obama and his administration have flexed their diplomatic muscle in the waning hours of his presidency with respect to two particular (and particularly contentious) situations. The first is that of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the likes of which I don’t really have to tell you are contentious. In this specific iteration of the seemingly endless conflict, Israel has drawn criticism for its establishment of settlements on the West Bank. Greg Myre, international editor for NPR, and Larry Kaplow, NPR’s Middle East editor, together have put together a fairly good primer on the situation and why the settlement situation is such a big deal, addressing seven key points worth considering in understanding the forces behind the discord.
1. Settlements are growing rapidly.
A key distinction made by Myre and Kaplow is that these “settlements,” while the term evokes something more rudimentary, are often large subdivisions or sizable cities. Since peace talks began in 1993 between the Israelis and Palestinians, the number of Israelis living in these settlements has quadrupled, and has continued to expand during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister. Even the more moderate and liberal within Israel have pushed for more settlements. Indeed, most of the censure regarding the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank has come from the international community, and not from within Israel’s ranks. In fact, to argue against this trend of increase would seem to be tantamount to political poison for someone like Netanyahu or anyone else of stature within Israel.
2. Settlements complicate efforts for a two-state solution.
I’ll say they do. With settlements all over the West Bank, and the Israeli military on hand to patrol these areas, the prospect of a Palestinian state, already somewhat dim, is made all but impossible. Never say never, yes, but um, don’t hold your breath either.
3. There is a distinction to be made between East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
According to Israel, East Jerusalem, which is part of the West Bank, is the nation’s “eternal and indivisible capital.” Funny story—no one else recognizes this, including the United States, which is why, at least until Donald Trump has his way, the country maintains a diplomatic presence in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. As for Palestinians, meanwhile, they consider East Jerusalem the site of their own future capital given statehood, and together with the West Bank, deem it all occupied land. Evidently, land rights, as beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder.
4. What does Israel say about settlements?
Um, that it’s complicated? On one hand, supporters of settlements cite the rich tradition of Jewish history, the good old Bible, and things such as the need for “strategic depth.” On the other hand, while Israel claims to have annexed East Jerusalem, it makes no such claim of sovereign control over the West Bank, despite the wishes of many of those who have settled there. It therefore remains but “disputed” territory currently being occupied. In other words, the West Bank is not quite “no man’s land” with hundreds of thousands residing within its bounds, but it’s no country’s territory all the same.
5. How about the Palestinians?
Yeah—how about the Palestinians? This section is short on Kaplow’s and Myre’s part, and this would seem appropriate given the simplicity of their argument. Here is their explanation, in its totality:
From some Palestinian cities, there are clear views of Israeli settlements — and new construction — on nearby hillsides. And in most settlement neighborhoods, there are wide areas of empty hillside closed to Palestinians, which Israel says are necessary buffers for security.
Palestinians see them as visual proof that their sought-after independent state is being taken from them. Palestinian leaders have opposed peace talks in recent years while, as they see it, Israel is building on land that is part of those talks.
From this standpoint, I feel those who don’t have a specific vested interest in this conflict would probably tend to agree this makes a lot of sense. How could I feel welcome as a Palestinian when Israeli settlements are continuously expanding and whole swaths of land are closed to me seemingly on principle? Though this may hew close to Israel’s actual intent, for the Palestinians, this doesn’t make a two-state solution seem wholly viable when everything around you tells you you’re not wanted.
6. Has Israel ever dismantled settlements?
Yeah, but, like, once—ever. According to the NPR article, back in 2005, some 8,000 Israeli settlers were forcibly removed from the Gaza Strip on the premise that these settlements were too hard to defend. And when I say, “forcibly removed,” I mean dragging, kicking and screaming. As the authors sum this up succinctly: “The episode demonstrated that Israel could remove settlers, but it also showed how much friction it creates inside Israel.” I’ll say it does.
7. What are the proposed solutions?
Here’s where the discussion gets down to brass tacks—how Israelis and Palestinians move forward. At least from the United States’ perspective, the key proposition is an exchange of land rights. The largest Israeli settlements, which are close to the border with Israel as an established state, would formally become part of Israel. The Israeli settlements deep within the West Bank more removed from Israel, meanwhile, would be ceded for the purpose of a Palestinian state. As Myre and Kaplow indicate, however, and as should be no great surprise, this is complicated, outside of the immediate logistics 0f such a swap. Palestinian leadership is unlikely to accept any deal that does not involve removal of settlements, and yet to suggest the removal of settlements within Israel is politically disadvantageous given the current climate. As with any story, there are two sides to such a two-state solution, and as far as Israel and Palestine are concerned, a spirit of reconciliation does not seem to be felt or sought in abundance.
This already fractious situation was made more disagreeable by a recent resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council that calls for an end to the building of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Egypt originally proposed the resolution, though they were forced to delay a vote on the resolution based on pressure from Israel, but what really got Israel’s proverbial goat was the United States’ decision not to vote and not to veto the resolution. As far as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel were concerned, they thought they, President Obama and the U.S. were cool. In a move construed as better late than never, however, Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking for the administration at large, condemned Israel’s continuously expanding settlements as undermining the viability of a two-state solution and thereby standing in the way of peace. Acting in this way, Kerry, again speaking on behalf of Barack Obama, his administration and his legacy, argued that Israel is positioning itself on a path toward isolation from the international community and perpetual warfare with the Palestinians.
Certainly, Netanyahu and Company disagreed with this speech and the accompanying no-vote on the Security Council resolution, calling Secretary Kerry’s address a “disappointment.” There was also disapproval on the domestic front, though, including censure from the likes of prominent lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, including John McCain and Chuck Schumer. But two other interested parties had their own reactions to this apparent reversal of stances, one that moved the U.S.’s position away from their evident unwillingness to challenge Israel on the proliferation of settlements within the West Bank. Within the Arab world, which has a dog in this fight given its solidarity with the Palestinians, the response was generally favorable, although not without a fair bit of indifference among those individuals who feel this about-face is too little, too late. In line with the more apathetic attitudes of some, Arab critics of the speech are quick to point out that change in favor of a two-state solution seems unlikely in light of the ascension of a second relevant interested party.
That would be—you guessed it—Donald Trump. Trump, who has, ahem, not been shy about expressing his opinions with respect to international politics and U.S. foreign policy, condemned the no-vote by the Obama administration, taking to—you guessed it again—Twitter to voice his displeasure, offering the following:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S.—but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong, Israel—January 20th is fast approaching!
Ugh. The very notion that is man is going to be our President is enough to make one’s head hurt and eye twitch. I was unaware Israel was continually so disrespected by the United States, but that’s our Donald—trumping up any perceived slight against him or the people he favors from Molehill status up to Mountain proportions. The Iran nuclear deal, which in reality is a separate issue, is invoked here by Trump as a means of ginning up his base and gaining support for his positions among those distrustful of Iran’s intentions, if for no other reason than Iran is a Muslim-led nation. As for the discussion of Israeli settlement expansion on its merits alone, President-Elect Trump seems content to simply kowtow to the wishes of Netanyahu’s Israel and a majority of its constituents. Adopting a position that has been characterized by some as more Zionist than that of the Zionists, he appears set to discard any ideas of a two-state solution. For one, his choice of American ambassador to Israel, one David Friedman, has not only has dismissed the idea of such a policy but has actively funded some of the settlements John Kerry criticized. In addition, Donald Trump has announced his intention to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the much-disputed city of Jerusalem. So, for all intents and purposes, Trump and his cronies have made it clear that they could give a f**k about a Palestinian state and Arabs as a whole. But you probably already guessed that, too.
The exact nature of Donald Trump’s appeal to the Orthodox neo-Zionist crowd is admittedly somewhat perplexing. As Bernard Avishai, author, visiting professor of government at Dartmouth University, and adjunct professor at Hebrew University wrote about in a December 31, 2016 piece for The New York Times, Trump may feel he is indebted to this group who has voted Republican where the majority of American Jews has not, and will thus advance the extremist Zionist cause, but potentially at the expense of the already-waning confidence the latter group has in him and in U.S. foreign policy in general. Furthermore, the purported move of the United States embassy to Jerusalem—assuming it would actually come to pass, and many imagine the move of dubious likelihood—would threaten stability in Jordan, an important American ally in the Middle East but one with significant Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. Trump wouldn’t risk the destabilization of a crucial friend in the region just to satisfy Israel’s monomaniacal pursuits, would he? Even if the answer is “I don’t know,” this much is vaguely frightening.
With the latest involving Russia and allegations of hacking, meanwhile, the likes of which is believed to have been designed to interfere with the election and get Donald Trump into the White House, as well as intended to undermine public confidence in the electoral process, Trump’s motivations seem more transparently self-serving. Shortly before 2016 ended, President Barack Obama ejected 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the United States, imposed sanctions on Russia’s two leading intelligence organizations, and penalizing four top officers of the GRU, a Russian military intelligence agency. The State Department also acted to close two estates that were suspected of housing Russian intelligence activities, and levied sanctions on three companies/organizations believed to have been involved in the hacking. Not bad for a lame duck, eh?
These actions come backed by our own intelligence, from organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which purport to have identified malware and other indicators of Russian cyber-attacks. Reservations about the FBI’s credibility in the wake of the Clinton E-mail investigation debacle notwithstanding, there would appear to be every reason to believe that these attacks were coordinated, and while the published findings (i.e. those which won’t remain classified) came short of suggesting any senior Russian officials of the two sanctioned intelligence agencies tried to influence the election, or that these attempts had any material impact on the election’s outcome, as Obama himself insisted, this kind of espionage and meddling in our affairs should concern any reasonable American.
Except now we’re about to address Donald Trump and people talking smack about his man-crush, Vladimir Putin. Already, unless you are a rabid Trump supporter, you might be predisposed to thinking the man, a pathological liar with the temperament and attention span of a young child, is the antithesis of reasonable. Throw in the effective throwing of shade at Putin, an individual for whom President-Elect Trump has expressed his admiration on numerous occasions in the past, and every semblance of reason would seem to go out the window. Trump, while reportedly agreeing to hear U.S. intelligence experts out, reacted to the news of sanctions by insisting that everyone has to “move on” from this whole hacking thing. Moreover, at the news Putin would, heeding the recommendations of his advisers, refrain from retaliating by jettisoning American diplomats from Russia, Trump tweeted, “I always knew he was very smart!” Um, Mr. Trump, you do realize it looks very bad when you’re heaping praise on the leader of a country that just has been publicly reproached for deliberately working against U.S. interests, right? When even your own party is praising Barack Obama for taking action against Russia—albeit in the same breath criticizing this move, as Arab critics of his administration’s condemnation of Israel’s settlements did, deriding this stand as too little, too late—you may want to reassess your position.
As with Donald Trump’s extremist position on Israel which breaks with decades of U.S. policy, not to mention would make the United States an outlier within the international community for its complicity with the Greater Israel ideal, his laudatory sentiments geared toward Vladimir Putin in the face of Russian hacking revelations that put him at odds with fellow Republicans is frustrating, yet not all that surprising. Critics of Trump and his love affair with the Putin regime have largely been left to their own devices regarding suppositions of why a seeming “bromance” exists. Some might suggest Trump, in his naïveté, thinks he can be the best of buddies with Putin, and to some extent, that may be true. Otherwise, his deflecting from allegations of hacking and interference with the election may be seen as defensiveness about his win, as if even the mere allusion to his victory by illegitimate means is an insult to his manhood. Even though, you know, he’s been the foremost accuser of electoral fraud and rigging of the results since the election happened—and, in fact, he was casually throwing out these kinds of charges before the whole shebang started.
As has been inferred from analysis of his business dealings, however, these explanations are merely red herrings for the true reason Donald Trump is all but writing down Vladimir Putin’s name and drawing hearts around it: that he has a vested financial interest in a pro-Russian agenda. Economist Robert Reich—of whom, if you’ve read this blog over the past few months, you’ve heard mention numerous times—penned an op-ed about a week or so again regarding a “dark cloud of illegitimacy” which stands to hang over a Trump presidency, one related to his financial ties to Russia as well as those of his associates. As Reich notes, Trump has close business ties to Russian oligarchs who have financed projects of his and likely have loaned him billions of dollars, and his son, Donald Trump, Jr., remarked at a real estate conference in 2008 that he saw “a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump’s one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort also has consulting ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who was propped up by Russia, and two of Trump’s appointees, foreign policy advisor, Michael Flynn, and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, have been honored guests at Russian public ceremonies with Vladimir Putin in attendance.
Reich sums up the larger meaning behind these connections and Donald Trump’s refusal to give credence to evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election nicely:
None of these points taken separately undermines the legitimacy of the Trump presidency. But taken together, they suggest a troubling pattern — of Trump deceitfulness about the election, of Mr. Putin’s role in helping Mr. Trump get elected, and the possible motives of both men for colluding in the election. The dark cloud of illegitimacy continues to grow darker.
Of course, we would be better assured that Donald Trump has no ulterior motive in cozying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians if, say, he would disclose these ties, agree to fully divest himself of his business dealings, and put his holdings in a blind trust. Like the prospect of him agreeing to hold regular press conferences whereby he might be subject to questions by unbiased members of the media, or even that of him apologizing to Rosie O’Donnell for calling her a fat pig, though, this all doesn’t seem bloody likely. And this cuts to the heart of the issue with Trump—you know, besides him being a hateful, know-nothing man-baby. If Trump really had nothing to hide, then he would’ve released his tax returns without all the nonsense about his being audited preventing that, and would be more forthright with the American people and with the press. But he’s not, and so you are left to doubt whether he became President for any reason other than to boost his ego and his personal wealth. I mean, sure, there is the alternative theory that he’s actually a Russian agent (Keith Olbermann advances this idea, if only in partial jest). More likely, however, is the simple idea he is looking to capitalize for his own sake. “Make America Great Again”? More like, “Make Me More Money.”
Barack Obama may be the lame duck president, yes. But incoming president Donald Trump, in his stubborn support of Israel’s one-state monomania at the likely expense of stability in and around the West Bank, as well as his borderline treasonous fidelity to Vladimir Putin and Russia even in the face of disturbing reports of repeated Russian intrusions in American affairs, seems like quite the turkey. Here’s hoping against reason we all don’t wind up with egg on our face because of it.