“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”
With everything that’s happened in the days since, it already seems like President Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, February 28th was a lifetime ago. While his use of the widow of Navy Seal Ryan Owens, obviously in the early throes of grief as a prop was despicable, past presidents have done similar things and, at least in the early going, the President was given an enthusiastic thumbs up for hiding behind a dead soldier and claiming that the ill-advised operation he ordered in Yemen that also resulted in at least 30 civilian deaths was a success.
Less noted was the outright cynicism on display when the President pointed to the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants specifically invited for the occasion. This was the background he provided to announce his VOICE (Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement) initiative to track immigrant wrongdoing, an Orwellian attempt to stoke fear of the ‘other’, even if first generation Americans commit crimes at a lesser rate than the native born.
The speech overall was pure boilerplate, a series of platitudes about “Making America Great Again” and, where it offered policy, it was hardly populist. In terms of his much-heralded plans for widespread infrastructure spending, Trump made it clear he plans a public/private program. It’s hard to believe, judging by his cabinet picks, that the latter won’t take precedence.
Still, he did manage to show uncharacteristic civility so that the scripted performance was scored high by most critics. The substance of the speech was deemed less important than appearing ‘presidential’ in the eyes of the cable news talking heads, even self-proclaimed progressives.
Unfortunately for Trump, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to bask in the glow of his many standing ovations and the initial reactions of the pundit class. There was another narrative that was already in motion, and, within hours, his Attorney General was in the crosshairs of the ongoing Russia kerfuffle.
By the end of the week, AG Jeff Sessions, apparently against the wishes of his boss, had recused himself from any investigation into the Kremlin’s role in determining the outcome of the election.
Changing the narrative in 140 characters or less
Seemingly angered by this turn of events, Trump, as is his won’t, took to Twitter early the following Saturday morning to say that his predecessor Barack Obama had Trump Tower’s “wires tapped” and that the former president was either a “bad” or “sick” person.
In terms of the President’s claims about being spied on, while there has been no verification of a FISA court request at this point, if we’ve learned anything from Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, including the latest Wikileaks, it’s that intelligence agencies would hardly need to resort to these Nixonian tactics when they could access everything from the then candidate’s wireless communications to the microphone in his smart TV without oversight.
The ‘wiretap’ story seems to have originated with British reporter Louise Mensch and rightwing talk radio personality Mark Levin, whose allegations were made for entirely different reasons (the former is a strong critic of Russian President Putin, the latter is just a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh). The unsourced allegations were then picked up by two of Trump’s favorite news outlets, the incendiary Breitbart web-site, and the even more ridiculous Infowars.com.
Still, as Andrew O’Hehir of Salon reported shortly after the President’s Twitter meltdown, there could be a grain of truth in Trump’s allegations (emphasis in the original), “So various readings of the facts behind this weekend’s tumultuous events are possible, including that indeed there was some form of surveillance operation directed against Trump but Obama did not order it and that perhaps the target was not Trump’s campaign but his business.”
Further, as Matt Taibbi put it recently in Rolling Stone, “Hypothesize for a moment that the “scandal” here is real, but in a limited sense. Trump’s surrogates have not colluded with Russians, but have had “contacts,” and recognize their political liability, and lie about them. Investigators then leak the true details of these contacts, leaving the wild speculations to the media and the Internet.”
As Taibbi makes clear, this could lead to a further loss of credibility for the corporate media and some Democrats if these allegations remain unproven, weakening the mainstream opposition to Trump and his Republican allies in Congress.
Regardless of the specifics, it’s hard to deny that it would have been prudent for the highest levels of American law enforcement to look into the President’s companies’ entanglements, if only to cover their own backsides. One example of a possible red flag that may have been cited to initiate an investigation was the President’s interest in a since canceled project in Azerbaijan, where he was partnered with the son of government minister, Ziya Mammadov, himself accused of laundering money for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
While Trump’s harshly worded missives targeting his predecessor may have pleased the knuckle dragging portion of his base, by personalizing his allegations in the way he did, the Tweeter in Chief only made more enemies for himself.
His biggest mistake may have been alienating the FBI, one of the few major federal agencies nominally in his corner It sometimes seems like the new President doesn’t realize that his job requires more than an understanding of PR and marketing.
The so-called Deep State is not monolithic, in most Western countries it’s a series of competing interests and factions and playing them against each other is one of the keys to a successful presidency. Forcing them into each others’ arms in opposition to the White House is thus counter-productive in the extreme.
On top of this, the new President hasn’t even announced candidates, let alone filled many vital deputy and undersecretary positions in the bureaucracy, blaming Democrats in Congress rather than what appears to be laziness for the delay.
Diplomat or spy?
The troubles faced by AG Sessions and former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn are the result of contacts with the Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, not the hypothetical ‘Russian intelligence officials’ offhandedly referred to by mainstream news sources far and wide, including the nominally left-leaning UK Independent.
Kislyak isn’t some shadowy spymaster but a familiar figure in Washington, D.C. known for hosting lavish dinner parties and meeting with politicians from both major parties. He’s also an expert on arms control and a former Ambassador to NATO who has served his country as a diplomat since the Gorbachev era.
The absurdity of this ongoing media hunt for connections between the President and Russia reached a crescendo when it was pointed out as if it were proof of collusion that Trump may have shaken hands with the Russian Ambassador while campaigning.
As a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry told CNN, “I’ll reveal a top secret -diplomats do work, and their job is to establish contacts with people.”
It’s also pretty much taken for granted that every embassy, even those of close allies, are engaged in some intelligence gathering. This is the price paid for diplomacy and I don’t think I stand alone in arguing that.communication between nations, whether they are friends or rivals, is almost always more important than any information these actors are gleaning from these activities.
This isn’t to say that such pursuits can’t cause serious blowback as the U.S. State Department learned after its Benghazi Compound, now believed by many to have been a CIA front, was attacked on September 11th, 2012 and Ambassador Chris Stevens and several contractors tasked with protecting him were murdered by insurgents.
Rather than digging in his heels as we might expect, it appears that the President is quietly capitulating to Washington’s new cold warriors. There have been several signs that the Administration is walking back the idea of a thaw with Russia. These include the language used by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in referring to the country and the choice of Richard Grenell, a fierce Russia hawk, as Ambassador to NATO.
The obvious elephant in the room is that the media and Democrats running wild with the mostly unprovable allegations about Russian interference in the country’s politics are missing or purposefully ignoring, to paraphrase Trump’s main ideologue Steve Bannon, the ongoing “deconstruction of the administrative state” to the benefit of the same old corporate interests that back politicians on both sides the aisle.
Although a conflict, especially with Iran (or, less likely, North Korea), is always a possibility, the current Administration, along with Republicans and many Democrats, are at their most dangerous within the borders of the United States itself at present. The policies being promoted through executive orders and pending legislation are putting the economic well-being, health and safety of U.S. citizens (as well as vital actors like bumblebees who lack a voice to speak for themselves) at risk.
He may style himself a populist but its becoming ever more clear that President Trump will be even more destructive to social and environmental norms than the 1% could have imagined in their wildest dreams. To stop him, those who oppose his administration need to concentrate on the policies instead of breathlessly chasing after Russian shadows in the dark.