Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Odd Couple

Just when you thought it couldn't get any stranger, Kanye returns to twitter heaping praise on his "dragon energy" brother, which set the blogosphere afire.  Trump responded in kind, leading their followers to ponder the meaning of this odd bromance.  Is this a calculated move or has Kanye not fully recovered from the "exhaustion" he suffered on his 2016 world tour?  What exactly does Trump have to gain by embracing Kanye?

This comes shortly on the heels of Roseanne's triumphant return to television, in which she declared her loyalty to Trump, garnering huge overnight Nielsen ratings.  He called to congratulate the low brow comic, seeming to consider her opening night ratings a vindication of his own popularity.  Her numbers have since dipped substantially but still enjoys high ratings.

One of the things the conservative movement has going for it is a large audience anxious for programming that suits its views.  They are always complaining that Hollywood is stacked against them, but along come Roseanne and Kanye to tap into their angst. 

Not sure what's in it for Kanye as the demographics definitely don't favor him.  Trumpkins are mostly white, middle aged to elderly, who prefer to line dance to country western music, not the hip hop scene he is part of, but maybe Kanye is thinking of switching genres, putting him more in touch with Middle America.

As Chance the Rapper says, "Black people don't have to be Democrats," but how this fits with Kanye's 2024 presidential ambitions is another big question mark?  Maybe he sees himself a a younger version of the Hermanator, who captured Republicans' imagination back in 2012.  They both hail from Atlanta, but Kanye appears to consider himself a Chicagoan based on his brief stint at the American Academy of Art and Chicago State University before dropping out to pursue his musical career.   His debut album was entitled The College Dropout.

Not sure why Kanye felt the need to dump on Obama, but Chance defended his pal Kanye just the same.  Chance, a true Chicago native, has since tried to distance himself from both Kanye and Trump, as his base let him know what they thought of this whole sordid mess.

What can Obama do specifically for Chicago, or any president for that matter?  It's not like Trump has done anything for Chicago his 15 months in office.  This is something Kanye should take up with Rahm Emmanuel, who has been the mayor of the city for eight years.  However, now that Obama is building his presidential library in Chicago, he will take a more active role in the city.

This latest series of tweets, which appear to be nothing more than a promotion for his new single, has put his wife Kim in a tough spot as well.  She has been busy doing damage control, helping to keep the good name of the Kardashians from falling into the Trump camp.  It was bad enough when her "aunt" lined herself up with Trump in 2016, only to deeply regret "her" decision.

One never knows how much of this is self-promotion and how much is genuine feelings.  The lyrics to the song are as banal as you would imagine.  In fact, Chance just repeated one of the lines by T.I. who engages in a "conversation" with Kanye about Blacks being stereotyped as Democrats, despite "not making it off the plantation."  After all, it was the Democrats who put them in this spot to begin with, which Republicans like to point out so much these days, re-imagining themselves as the Party of Lincoln.  Such nuances as Southern Democrats abandoning their party in the 1960s with the advent of the Civil Rights Act don't get mentioned in this "conversation."

However, Trumpkins haven't been so quick to accept Kanye.  If not for his skin color then certainly for his relationship with the Kardashians, which conservatives widely regard as the worst influence on teenage girls today.

Kanye's problem has always been that he takes himself too seriously.  This was a guy ready to renounce his citizenship at one point over all the perceived racism in this country, but then seemed to find a new light in Trump in 2015.  How exactly Trump made things better is anyone's guess, but Kanye clearly had an ax to grind with Obama, who he didn't feel lived up to expectations.

I never could understand this infatuation for Kanye myself but those in the biz say he is the real thing, even David Chappelle, who introduced him to a broader audience way back in 2003.  I must have missed that episode.  Chappelle has defended Kanye in the past, but Dave also defended Bill Cosby, albeit in his own amusing way.  So, it is hard to know where he really stands on Kanye.

It reminds me a little of Chappelle's hilarious racial draft day from 2004.  Only now we have Republicans and Democrats drafting controversial figures.

Whatever the case, it shifts the focus away from Trump's scandals once again, leaving the news media to ponder over this odd bromance.  You almost wonder if there is someone orchestrating these events back stage.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden

This past week His Trumpness hosted both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.  It was clear who his favorite is, presenting his first state dinner in the White House for the French President, which seemed largely designed to spotlight Melania in her glittering sleeveless silver dress.  Remember all the flack Michelle got for her bare arms?  Unfortunately, Merkel is left with sloppy seconds.

While Macron was warm and generous in his kisses, he made it very clear in his speech before Congress that he in no way supports Trump's scorched earth policy.  In fact he called Trump's environmental record "insane," albeit with a wink.  So how do these two get along?

I suppose Macron knows how to butter Trump up in private, lavishing praise on him, which is what he wants to hear most.  Merkel is not so good at this.  I suppose it is her East German upbringing or maybe her background in physics.  She treats Trump as one would an anomaly in science, like  a flannel moth caterpillar.

She made a game effort last year to educate Trump on matters of trade and the environment but to no avail.  For his part, Macron hasn't succeeded in turning Trump either. Even John Oliver has joined the effort to properly inform Trump on international agreements with his now famous "catheter cowboy."  However,  the President still says ixnay on the Paris Trade Agreement, and doesn't look like he is going to ratify the Iran Nuclear Deal in May, despite Pompeo's assurances, ending a precarious agreement that has stalled Iran's nuclear ambitions.

It's nice to know that world leaders are still trying to reach out to Trump, but this is a man with much more important matters on his mind, like what to do about Stormy Daniels, and how the Democrats are blocking all his appointments.

The Paris Climate Agreement no longer registers in his mind.  He has left it up to Scott Pruitt to gut the EPA, who now finds himself under a probe into the cushy apartment deal he got in DC last year.  There have also been inquiries into his environmental policies, especially those regarding his rather tenuous grasp of science, but for the most part Pruitt is being grilled on his lack of ethics.

This pretty much sums up the entire White House.  Perhaps the last honest man standing is General Mattis, who finds himself in a Mexican standoff with John Bolton over recent hirings.  It's clear Trump wants a much more aggressive foreign policy than the one he had before and Mattis is in the unenviable spot of having to work between hardliners Bolton and Pompeo, who was recently confirmed by the Senate as the new Secretary of State.

Trump seems to think that all his bluster brought North Korea to the negotiating table, but if he tears up the Iran Nuclear Deal, what assurances does he give the "honorable" leader of North Korea that he won't tear up that deal too, if it doesn't suit him.  The US is playing a very small role in the summit taking place on the Korean peninsula.

As you might recall, he chastised Rex Tillerson for "wasting his time" on North Korea back in October, anxious I guess to see who had the bigger trigger finger.  He diverted an ambassador from Australia to South Korea only two days ago, so that he would have an official on hand for the negotiations, showing just how unprepared the White House was for this summit.

I really don't know what kind of conversation Macron and Merkel can have with Trump, since he seems so uninterested in global issues other than how they relate directly to him.  You have to give them an A for effort.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Closely Watched Elections

Close only counts in hand grenades and horse shoes, but in a district that is more than 70 per cent white, largely retired "snowbirds," ergo mostly Republican, to only win by five points is pretty much a loss.  All though, this was a seat formerly held by Gabrielle Giffords before she was gunned down in 2011.

The RNC had to pour in lots of money and outside support to carry Debbie Lesko to victory.  Conversely, the DNC offered little more than logistical support to Hiral Tipirneni, and she nearly pulled off an upset that would have dwarfed that of Conor Lamb.

So, why did the Democratic National Committee offer so little support for Tipirneni?  Is it because she doesn't have a wikipedia page yet?  Or, they didn't want to get burned like did in the Georgia special election, when they poured in a huge amount of resources only to see Jeff Ossoff lose by a similar margin?  Or, they weren't too happy Tipirneni wasn't supporting Nancy Pelosi?  Whatever the case, the DNC missed a golden opportunity, as with a little more national media attention Tipirneni just might have pulled off the upset, as she had miraculously managed to garner 47.5 per cent of the vote in a district that in no way favored her candidacy.

Of course, Trump will claim he is now 6 for 6 in House special elections, dismissing Pennsylvania as an anomaly, but the reality is that the Republicans will have to fight for every seat in the House.  This means the $250 million they have set aside for the midterms will have to be spread pretty thinly.  Meanwhile, the DNC can take solace from the fact that they don't need to invest heavily in many of these elections, as there is enough of a groundswell to replace the GOP-led House that all a Democratic candidate has to do is create a little distance from the establishment and remind voters that there is a Mad Man in the White House that needs to be reined in.

The only strategy the RNC appears to have in the midterms is to make Nancy Pelosi the Hillary Clinton of this election cycle.  Like Lamb, Tipirneni refused to support Pelosi, although she wasn't quite so adamant about it.  Not that it will really matter because the GOP has a far more serious problem in defending Trump.

He hasn't exactly distinguished himself these past 15 months, and with a slowing economy, it doesn't look like the GOP will have much to run on in 2018.  I think most Americans have gotten past all the overblown rhetoric of 2016 and want some normalcy to return to the political process.  Right now, the Democrats better represent that normalcy than do the Republicans.

Debbie Lesko was often strident, and at times looked crazed in her appeals to hold off the "blue wave" sweeping the country.  Hiral Tipirneni represented a much more calm, reassuring face, and now that more people know her, she can run against Lesko again this Fall, as all this election did was fill a void left from Trent Franks early departure.  Maybe this time around the DNC will make more of an effort to back her candidacy.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Up Jumped Spring!

Sunny Spring weather has me re-examining what direction to take with this forum, as I'm tired of all the gloom Donald Trump brings.  I can try to make light of it, as I often do, but that only marginally relieves the depressing feeling one gets from all things Trump.

For the most part, Europeans have shrugged off Trump.  I was in Sweden last week for a conference on acoustical materials, and the Donald hardly registered a blip in talk over the dinner table.  That seems to be the general mood over here, treating Trump as America's problem, as long as he doesn't go to war.  Talk of tariffs have come and gone.  It's not like there is any great demand for Harleys or even Levi's jeans these days.  Sweden's Husqvarna is the hot new bike, and it seems women are mostly into leggings these days.

It seems that Trump has accomplished his goal of isolating the US from the rest of the world.  Macron is one of the few European leaders that still seems keen to engage with Trump, hoping to open him up to a broader global view, while the others have pretty much decided to ride out the remainder of his term with the hope Americans will come to their senses in 2020.

Europe has its own problems with growing nationalism, especially in Eastern Europe.  Jean-Claude Juncker simply refers to Hungary's strongman, Viktor Orban, as the Dictator.  Things have gotten a little dicey in Poland and the Czech Republic as well.  Even here in Lithuania we are having to deal with a Parliament headed by the Farmers and Green Party that seems to want the country to return its agrarian roots, claiming they are "harvesting change."  Yet, all these countries seem to be leaning in the favor of Russia these days rather than the EU, which is very odd given their history.

Norwegian producers tried to imagine what it would be like if their country was occupied by Russia, but the show is much more subtle than its title implies.  There are worries Russia is infiltrating the political process with its dark money and clandestine web activities, but most countries feel relatively confident they can withstand the cyber threats of Russian operatives.  After all, France and the Netherlands both survived right wing putsches last year.  Germany suffered a little more damage but not enough to turn over the Parliament, as has been the case in Poland and Lithuania.

I suppose this has a lot to do with most Europeans, particularly Western Europeans, feeling relative security with their social safety net.  Eastern Europeans have much weaker social services, so they are easier targets for nationalists and EU skeptics.  Trump tried to stir the pot last year and again this year with his tweets, but they pretty much went for naught, making him look more a fool than anything else.

Europe has become resigned to the fact Britain is leaving the Union and no longer seems so deeply troubled buy it as they were last year.  There is no more talk of Scottish secession, as it to seems to have accepted Brexit as fait accompli.  Of course that means I will have to soon start paying customs on the products I buy through, which means I will probably have to start looking at France and Germany as my amazon outlets. 

It will be interesting to see what kind of reception Trump gets in Britain.  He continues to try to stir the pot when it comes to bitter feelings over the terms Theresa May is trying negotiate over Brexit, like sharing far-right websites, which earned him a rebuke from May and even Nigel Farage, who has been a big critic of May throughout the process.  Playing Mr. Brexit no longer carried much weight over here.  There was no wave of exits as previously imagined.  The EU has stood firm.

Maybe I should be less concerned with Trump myself?  It no longer seems that he is that relevant on a world stage.  The Paris Climate Agreement still exists.  The TPP still exists.  Britain will maintain a close relationship with the EU, not wanting to lose its largest trading partner.  Life goes on with or without Trump.  Hopefully, in less than three years time he will be out of office and we can restore a sense of normalcy in American politics again.  In the meantime, I will enjoy this great spring weather!

Monday, April 16, 2018

To hear James Comey, he seems like a dispassionate observer, reporting what he was privy to during his short time with Donald J. Trump.  There is little reason to doubt what he says, which makes his comments all the more damning, even if he feels the President should not be impeached.  However, there is something lurking beneath his calm demeanor that makes you wonder what ax he has to grind here.  After all, this is the same guy who almost single-handedly undermined Hillary Clinton's campaign by re-opening his investigation into her e-mails in October, 2016, diverting all the media attention away from Trump's infamous Access Hollywood and Miss Universe scandals.

It's pretty hard to buy Comey's argument that he was so confident Hillary would win the November election that re-opening the investigation would have little impact.  The e-mails had been dogging her throughout the campaign, and most people thought this issue had been laid to rest in July when he announced that he found no wrongdoing, albeit chastising her for her carelessness.  So why reopen the case to just as quickly close it again 10 days out from the election?

Trump supporters are seizing on this in their attempt to portray Comey as a politically-motivated hack who is now determined to bring their President down the same way he did Hillary.  Oh the irony in the situation.  The man who was a hero in their eyes back in 2016 is now a "slimeball."   Conversely, the man Hillary supporters vilified back in November is now a hero for speaking out against Trump.

Maybe it is as Comey says, he was just doing his job.  He felt there was enough evidence in the Weiner tapes to justify reopening his investigation into Hillary's e-mails, since presumably his texts with his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, overlapped.   Ms. Abedin worked for Hillary in the State Department and some of her e-mails were on the same server Hillary used.  Still, couldn't it have waited until after the election?

His book is due out tomorrow and already 200,000 copies have been sold.  The guy couldn't have set himself up any better for a runaway bestseller that is sure to top the NY Times and Amazon charts.  It does question his credibility, as there appears to be a very strong ulterior motive here -- money.  No telling how much he got for an advance, but royalties should be sky high.

I suppose it is a book that had to be written given all the controversy he generated, but it is coming at a time which threatens the Republican chances in November, as he not only calls Donald Trump's character into question, but the political party he represents.  Some would call this a hit job.

Anyone who thinks the FBI is beyond reproach hasn't a very good grasp of history, which makes the title of his book, "A Higher Loyalty," almost laughable.  We are not that far removed from the days of J. Edgar Hoover, who entrenched himself in the bureau for decades thanks to all the files he kept on politicians.  This is what leads many to suspect a "deep state" still exists in the FBI and that Comey and McCabe were a part of it.

However, Comey is portraying himself as a boy scout, much in the same way McCabe is doing, in an effort to salvage their tarnished legacies.  I don't think either one of them can really be trusted, which in the end may let Trump off the hook.  I doubt Robert Mueller is very happy about this book, being the methodical man that he is.

Patience in Mueller's ongoing investigation has worn thin, which is why this book is being so well received.  The public is clamoring for juicy details and Comey obliges.  He gives us a peek into Trump's sordid world, not much unlike Michael Wolff did with Fire and Fury.   This book won't be so quickly forgotten, as Comey packs a bigger punch, and Trump obviously feels the sting as he tries to punch his way off the ropes.

Who's to say what will come of all this, but it seems what will ultimately bring Trump down is Stormy Daniels, as Mueller pours over the Cohen tapes.  Apparently, they are very damaging, if Trump is so anxious to review them before Mueller does.   Comey is more of a sideshow, which will probably help more than hurt Trump at this point.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Trump Slump

You might recall Trump loved to gloat about the rapidly rising stock market, even before he took office. The Dow rose roughly 2,000 points just during his transition period from Nov. 8, 2016 through Jan. 20, 2017, and continued to rise precipitously throughout his first year in office, peaking at 26,616 on Jan. 16, 2018.  Since then, the Dow has slumped more than 2000 points and sits at 24,360.   Some might call this a "correction," but it seems that Trump's policies are beginning to take their toll on the economy and he can no longer ride the wave that was a carry over from his predecessor's term of office.

The stock market has always been a fickle thing.  Obama experienced similar down cycles, like one between Nov. 6, 2015 and  Feb. 12, 2016, where the Dow fell roughly 1900 points before beginning its upward growth once more.  It regained all that it had lost by June, and was rising at a steady clip prior to the 2016 general election, not that it did Hillary Clinton any good.

By November, pundits were calling the rising stock market the "Trump Bump," and the Donald was loving every minute of it.  When the stock market breached 20,000 euphoria set in, with the same pundits who had been berating Obama's economic record, now calling it a Boom!  Hats were made to commemorate the event in a variety of colors but red was the favorite, befitting Trump's signature red MAGA cap.  The Donald took full credit for the rising economy.

Of course, there were those who chose to rain on his parade, pointing out that all the elements were in place long before he took office for this boom to occur.  Hillary could have just as easily been enjoying this rapidly growing economy as much as Trump, but alas she had to watch it from the sidelines.  For his part, Obama took some well deserved R&R, jaunting around with Richard Branson in the Caribbean.  Everyone seemed content to let Trump enjoy the fruits of a strong economy that was none of his doing.

Economists knew that what goes up will come back down eventually, and here we are in April watching an economy start to shrink, as early expectations of a stratospheric 5.4% growth rate for the first quarter of 2018 slipped to 1.8% by March, and now it seems we will be lucky to break even.  No official figures have yet been released.  Remember this is a guy who promised a 4% rise in GDP per annum, which has yet to be reached for even one quarter.  His best quarter was between July and September of 2017, when the GDP rose 3.2 per cent.

The tax cuts and deregulation of the economy designed to see the Dow soar in 2018 failed to materialize.  It seems a lot of investors grew squeamish, fearing another 2008 in the making and decided to hedge against these wild expectations.  As a result, Trump has become uncharacteristically quiet about the economy.  You don't hear him crowing about the Dow these days.

It's not just the unfavorable trends in the economy but his on-going battle with Jeff Bezos, his ill-advised decision to impose tariffs, and numerous other tweets that point to a White House that has little idea what is going on in the economy right now.  Republicans in Congress similarly appear to be at a loss for words to explain what is happening, with no less than the House Speaker himself announcing his retirement rather than face the ugly prospect of a tough re-election bid in November.  Republican legislators are leaving it to Trump to bear the brunt of this sagging economy on his own.

Needless to say, His Trumpness is none too happy about all these rats abandoning ship.  The Donald is not the kind of guy to accept responsibility for anything less than a great success.  He may have signed onto the GOP tax cut bill, which was jammed through Congress.  They all knew full well it would only bloat the national deficit with few benefits for the Middle Class, but he will blame Congressional leaders for its shortcomings.  That's the price you pay to satisfy your big money donors like the Mercers and the Kochs.

As Henry Ford said a long time ago, if you want a strong economy you have to have a strong Middle Class that can afford to buy your products.   Everything the Republicans have done these past 15 months has gone against the grain of this cardinal rule, and most recently passed a bogus balanced budget amendment in the House that would strip Social Security of its $2.9 trillion surplus to help offset soaring federal budget deficits projected over the next three years.  This heinous bill is not likely to pass the Senate so easily.

Republicans have long considered themselves savvy businessmen, lamenting how much more effective government would be if it were only run like a business rather than some kind of charity work.  This attitude is what opened the door to Trump, who claimed to be the greatest businessman in the world, despite his many dubious real estate deals and numerous bankruptcies.  Just the same, a large cross section of America bought this notion, and now like those Trump University students are filing a class action lawsuit in the form of recalling their Republican state legislators and US representatives.

Not only have the Republicans managed to bankrupt government once again, but they seem to have no idea how to get the economy moving again.  You hardly heard a peep from the GOP when Trump announced his tariffs, content to let him have his way, even though the tariffs were decried by many leading conservative economists.  Reason no longer prevails in the GOP.  They seem to be working on some primitive survival instinct, hoping to get as much as they can from government before retiring as Paul Ryan is doing.  This from a 48 year-old legislator who wanted to raise the retirement age to 70 and also slash social security and medicare benefits.

They are not just rats, but double rats, as Holly Golightly would say.  Yet, there are many in this country who still would not vote for a Democrat under any circumstances, determined to keep these rats in power for no other reason than ideological.  This helps explain why Trump still enjoys a daily presidential tracking poll of around 50% from Rasmussen despite what appears to be a White House in total chaos, and why Republicans continue to do well in generic polls.  It's enough to just make you want to fly off to Brazil.

The good thing is that these generic polls look a lot different when actual faces emerge.  I don't think it was quality time with the kids that led Ryan to this decision.  Wisconsin is very much turning blue again and there is nothing he or Scott Walker can do to stop it.  Young Paul Ryan saw the writing on the wall as many Republicans have done.  They will most likely lose control of Congress in November, and the way the special investigation has turned on Trump, it looks like his days are numbered as well.  Mike Pence may finally get his dream but will be forced to preside over a Democratic Congress in 2019, that's assuming he doesn't get dragged into the ever widening net of Mueller's investigation, as was the case with Spiro Agnew back in 1973.

As the Dow goes, so do Trump's fortunes.   I guess you call this the "Trump Slump."  He can only hope it rebounds to restore some confidence in his self-professed economic abilities.  But, as long he keeps pushing these tariffs and other punitive measures it isn't very likely.  His worst nightmare is that the Dow may very well hit 20,000 again, but this time from the wrong direction.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Rockets Red Glare

It seems there is nothing His Trumpness likes more than a surprise fireworks show at someone else's expense.  He lit up the Syrian sky once again in a feeble attempt to "show force" after a chemical attack in the Eastern Ghouta town of Duoma, which Russia says was staged to cast a bad light on the Assad regime.  This follows closely on the heels of the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England, which Russia also says was staged.

All could be.  There are dark forces at work that could very well want a monumental clash between the US and Russia, using England and Syria as staging grounds.  It took less than this to launch WWI but so far both parties have remained relatively restrained.  Secretary of Defense Mattis called it a one-time shot, not planning to follow up with anymore actions against Syria or its comrades in arms Russia and Iran.  For all we know this missile strike was staged to lend the appearance of a punitive strike for the alleged dirty deeds of Russia and Syria.  It remains to be seen how Russia will react, having vowed to do so.

None of it makes any sense, as this "civil war" has been going on for five years with massive destruction and casualties.  Why should a presumed chemical attack up the ante?  From all reports Syria with the help of Russia and Iran has brought the rebel forces under control.  These rebel forces are part universally loathed ISIS and "freedom fighters" backed by the US and Turkey.  For its part, Turkey worked out a deal with Russia after their little brouhaha back in 2015 when Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane that supposedly had strayed into Turkish air space.

The US also seems relatively content with the situation in Syria, with Trump even vowing to withdraw troops now that ISIS has been defeated.  Of course, we heard this before and Congresspersons were quick to remind His Trumpness of the dangers of "coitus interruptus," It was only days after his surprise pronouncement that this chemical weapon attack occurred, leading Rusophobe "Mackie" McCain to chastise Trump for emboldening Assad.

I'm almost inclined to believe Assad in this case.  What did he have to gain from this chemical attack?  What he wants most is for the US to pull its troops out of his country, not bring more forces down upon him.

So, either we are seeing a number of staged events in a renewed Cold War between Russia and the West, or a sinister third party provoking both countries with the hope of creating a very hot war.  Given that Russia would approach such a war asymmetrically, this makes them all the more dangerous.  They could open up this war on numerous fronts, as they already appear to have done, forcing the US and its Western allies to try to put out a wide array of "fires" rather than just one or two.

The US has proven very vulnerable in open conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Here they are now in Syria on the edge of Israel, which has already launched strikes of its own on its embattled neighbor, supposedly over the same chemical weapon attack.  Whereas the US is ostensibly looking to warn Russia, Israel appeared to be warning Iran.

Is Syria simply a proxy for foreign leaders looking to boost their own esteem back home?  This would help explain Erdogan's ongoing presence in Syria.  The five foreign leaders involved take pot shots at each other to boost their flagging popularity in their home countries, with Syrians forced to bear the brunt of this military posturing.  It seems Assad is OK with it as long as he remains in power.

Trump gets his little rocket show, carefully calibrated by Defense Sec. Mattis with all parties notified in advance, probably even the target agreed upon.   Not much harm done.  Russia may or may not launch a counter strike.  The Kremlin was vague as to what type of retaliation it would take, but we can expect more terrorist attacks in Europe in the coming months, possibly even the US.  For now, Iran, Israel and Turkey lurk in the background.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

No-Limit Washington Hold'Em

It's not just Russia but China appears to understand the demographics of American elections very well.  In response to Trump's tariffs, President Xi hit back with tariffs aimed directly at the heartland of the US that will hurt Trump voters the worst.  Pretty ballsy move and one that certainly got the Chief Trumpkin's attention as the Big D wants to add another $100 billion in tariffs, as if he is playing some kind of high stakes poker game with China.

This had the impact on Wall St. everyone expected with the Dow tumbling nearly 600 points on Friday, as there was little Larry Kudlow could do to stop the bleeding, after first hearing of Trump's new tariffs the night  before.  Kudlow is now El Presidente's top economic advisor, but it doesn't seem he gets much attention in the White House, and therefore none on Wall St.

We now appear to be officially in the middle of a trade war with China.  Xi has a better poker face than Donald, so I have to think most economists are putting their money on the Chinese president to win what we will call  No-Limit Washington Hold'Em.  Trump might be advised to heed Kenny Rogers's famous anthem to The Gambler, before it is too late, otherwise he will find himself in the same spot as the jilted husband in Lucille.

No one wants to see a crying Trump, but that's pretty much what we have now -- hopelessly out of his realm, making decisions on twitter that immediately hurt him, and leaving his staff to try to pick up the pieces the same day.  The worst part about it is that he still thinks he is in charge when the only thing buoying him up is a relatively strong economy and his billionaire supporters who seem to be doing their damnedest to hold off a huge sell off on Wall St.

The only thing surprising about Friday's plunge was that it was so little.  In fact, at one point it looked like the Dow was heading back toward even, only to take a big blow at the end of the day.  This tells me there are interested parties, like the Mercers, determined to keep the stock market from tanking because of the money they have invested in Trump.  Given the horrible decisions Trump made on tariffs, the Dow should be back below 20,000, not still hovering around 24,000.  Note that the Chinese are well aware of this.

I'm no expert in such matters but we appear to be on the edge of another major crisis much like we were in 2008.  Rather than making moves to stabilize the economy, the Trump administration appears to be doing everything it can do to undermine the economy, much like Bush did in an effort to stave off a recession in the early 2000's.  Instead of a small dip in the economy, we will now have another deep crater that will take years to climb back out of.

Kudlow is the last person Trump should have brought on board to advise him on such matters, yet even he predicted a major calamity if Trump went through with his tariffs, whose only purpose appeared to be to prop of Saccone's flailing campaign in Pennsylvania.  Saccone lost and now many other Americans will lose in reprisals meant to hit America where it hurts most -- Trumpland.

No one wanted this, but Trump felt he had to do something to address the trade imbalance between the two countries, if for no other reason than to assure his base he was still the big bully they voted for.  But, Trump didn't think this through.  No surprise from a guy who brags about his penchant to shoot from the hip.

It is impossible to keep this guy on script, and he veered wildly off course Thursday aboard Air Force One, as his hair took on a life of its own.  He must have been fuming as his staff combed his mop back into place, venting to the press the short moment he gave them aboard the plane.

He hadn't had to face any retaliation yet from other countries for his ridiculous policies because to this point his foreign policy didn't really mean much.  It was obvious China would respond to his tariffs but the human hair piece didn't expect Xi to target Chinese tariffs specifically at his base, where he is most vulnerable right now.  So much for soy bean futures.

Trump is getting an ear full from the likes of Ann Coulter and other right-wing pundits, who are using their open mic to rail against him as Ann did at Columbia University.  Of course, he still has the unwavering support of Sean Hannity to offset whatever loss comes from Coulter, but you have to wonder how much more conservatives can take of this erratic president, who threatens to drag the entire Republican Party down with him.

Playing high stakes poker in a trade war with China isn't going to endear him with the conservative business orthodoxy either.  The Chamber of Commerce, which considers itself the voice of small business in America, came out sharply against the tariffs.  In the end, we pay for all this false bluster in higher prices, as the companies pass the extra costs onto the consumers, which Wilbur Ross should examine the next time he decides to talk to a Campbell's soup can.

It's the US economy you are gambling with, Stupid!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Baltics in the Age of Trump

Maybe the Baltic countries should join together to form a joint confederation.  I don't know what you would call it Litvonia or Esluvia or Latuvia, but they certainly don't get much attention on their own.  It's been nearly 30 years since Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the first of the Baltic nations to do so.  It got a lot of attention at the time, much moreso than Estonia or Latvia which seceded in turn, but since then Lithuania has found itself lagging behind in name recognition.  The few movie and television references than do pop up are usually its northern neighbors, like the time George wanted to convert to "Latvian Orthodox" on Seinfeld or Dinesh fell for a cute Estonian programmer on Silicon Valley.

Yet, some of the most famous sports and entertainment celebrities have been Lithuanian.  Johnny Unitas politely turned down an award by the Baltimore Greek community for sportsman of the year following his Super Bowl victory, noting that he was Lithuanian.   Robert Zemeckis, who gave us Forrest Gump and Back to the Future, is similarly proud of his Lithuanian roots.  Then there are all those Litvaks with Jewish ties to Lithuania, namely Bob Dylan, Michael Bloomberg and Jon Stewart.  Vilnius was once known as the "Jerusalem of the North."  Of course, Latvia and Estonia have their famous celebrities as well, but it is pretty hard to top Charles Bronson, another famous Litvak.

These countries want to be seen as independent nations, not the "Baltic states," which is what Trump repeatedly referred to them during his meeting and press conference with the three presidents yesterday.  The only times these countries came together under the same flag was when they were annexed by Russia in the late 18th century and again by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.  Not the kind of "shared" history one wants to recount.  I don't think Trump once referred to the countries or their leaders by name.

The latter is understandable as even former President Obama had a very hard time getting Lithuanian President Grybauskaite right, although he gave it a game effort.  However, Trump did press the Lithuanian President to praise him for his strong role in NATO, but Ms. Grybauskaite politely avoided his name, keeping the discussion on a national, not personal, level.

Trump of course sees everything through his personal view.  It is hard enough for him to stay on topic, as seen in the clip above, let alone address the needs of other nations, particularly small nations which he probably never heard about before this meeting.  It does appear someone on his staff made an effort to coach him a little, and gave him a well-prepared speech for his press conference.  He managed to stay on track until a reporter asked him about Mexican border security.  The derailment was what you would expect at the 27-minute mark.  A Lithuanian reporter tried to bring the subject back to the Baltics at the 31:30 mark, but Trump wasn't quite so animated, falling back on statements he made earlier.

Fact of the matter is that neither Trump nor anyone in his administration has any real interest in the Baltic nations, save maybe Defense Secretary Mattis.  He is probably the only one who sees these countries as being on the front line of defense against Russia, should the Kremlin make another incursion into Europe, something that weighs heavily on the minds of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians.  What the Baltic nations wanted from this administration was the assurance that the United States would have their backs if such a moment came.  However, praise for the "industrious nations" didn't translate into a strong commitment, but rather a murky reference to the Baltic nations continuing to meet the NATO target of 2 per cent of their GDP on defense, which all three nations now do.

It seems that Trump may have gotten a little coaching from Putin in their last phone call on this subject, as Russia has long considered NATO a direct threat to its national security and wants the US to roll back its joint military exercises with the Baltic nations which occur annually.  He no doubt avoided any discssion of Russia's "Zapad," which it conducts every year along the same borders, many times bigger than the US and NATO-led military exercises.

Estonia and Latvia feel more of a threat, both internal and external, than does Lithuania, largely because they have a much larger Russian-speaking community within their borders.  The fear ever since Crimea is that Russia will try to mobilize pro-Russian sentiment within the Baltics for these communities to break off and seek annexation with their "homeland."  It hasn't been successful since most Baltic Russians consider themselves citizens of the countries they live in, and do not feel discriminated against as apparently Russians did in the Ukraine.  Efforts in Narva, Daugavpils and Klaipeda failed miserably.  These Baltic cities all have large Russian-speaking communities.  Nevertheless, it is a constant threat, which all three Baltic presidents noted, particularly the Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who mentioned the Russian cyber attacks on her country in 2007, resulting in deep resentment toward Moscow ever since.

But, Trump seems more concerned with Germany meeting its two percent target on military spending than he does the very real threat Russia poses to NATO member countries.  For him, it is a "transactional" or "pay-to-play" relationship.  It's not like Germany has a small military or that it fails to meet its NATO obligations.  Being one of the world's largest economies, even if it only invested half of the two percent target number on defense spending that would still be significantly more than most other countries in the world.  As it is, Germany is the second largest contributor to NATO behind the United States.

The Baltics know they are not in the same bargaining position as Germany, the UK or even Poland.  They have to meet the target number despite the strain it places on their economies so as not to give the US an out should the time come when it truly does need its help to defend its borders.  Lithuania is in a particularly onerous location, as Russia's nuclear submarine fleet is stationed in Kaliningrad, which Lithuania shares a long border with.

None of this escaped previous presidents.  President George W. Bush even made a trip to Vilnius in 2002 to confirm the United States commitment to Lithuania, vowing no more Yaltas.  A bronze plaque of his famous quote is anchored to the wall of the old city hall, where he gave his speech on a cold November day.  Bush was largely responsible for speeding up the process of having the Baltic nations become part of NATO in 2004.  President Obama reaffirmed that commitment in a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, in September, 2014, marking the tenth anniversary.

It was nice of Trump to welcome the three presidents to the White House this week, but what the Baltic nations would like to see is a similar commitment like that of his predecessors.  I'm sure Latvia would be open to a visit by the US President, completing the trifecta, so to speak.  However, it is doubtful that will ever happen.

In the meantime, the Baltic nations content themselves with Trump surrogates like Gen. Jim Mattis, who was in Lithuania last year, overseeing the joint military exercises.  Actions speak louder than words, President Grybauskaite said on that occasion, and so far the US continues to honor its agreements with NATO and the Baltic nations, despite the continual griping by Trump on twitter.

Monday, April 2, 2018


Or how President Trump Learned to  Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Maybe we can take Trump's decision to abandon DACA as an April Fool's joke, or any one of his recent irrational decisions.  This is a guy who in the past month has gutted his cabinet and top advisers, proposing John Bolton of all people as his new National Security adviser, who seemed just as shocked to hear the news as we all were.

With Tillerson and McMaster now gone, the only voice of reason left in the Trump administration is General Jim Mattis, and you have to wonder how much longer he has in Trump's cabinet, given the President appears to have revived his Celebrity Apprentice in the White House, offering as a rag tag bunch of advisers who have no more idea what their cabinet post entails than does Trump.  We can call it Secretary Apprentice.

Ben Carson was literally called on the carpet by Elizabeth Warren for his abysmal job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs.  It wasn't just his questionable purchase of a $31,000 dining room set, which he blamed on his wife, but the plain and simple fact he has no idea what he is doing, and has made HUD into a disaster over the last 14 months.   In his defense, he gave the same sleepy-eyed responses we would expect from someone totally out of his realm.  This so shortly after the debacle with Betsy DeVos.

These are not isolated cases.  Questions of incompetence, malfeasance and just plain ignorance dog Trump's cabinet members and inner circle of White House advisers.  Sec. of Interior Zinke has been questioned in regard to similar dubious purchases as Carson.  Wilbur Ross tried to explain away newly proposed steel tariffs as having minimal impact on our economy, using a can of Budweiser and Campbell's soup as analogies.  Rick Perry made the outlandish statement last month that moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy is "immoral," stating that it will place an undue burden on poor nations.

As bad as all these secretaries are, none can match the shear mean-spirited nature of John Bolton, a man most assumed would never see public office again, which is why he turned up on Fox.  The guy never had a prominent role in government.  His most high-profile position was as US Ambassador to the UN from 2005-06, during which he belched a number of bellicose statements in the General Assembly and was subsequently relieved of his duties by George W. Bush when he pressed the reset button on foreign policy.  But, here is Bolton being proposed to lead the NSC!

Unlike cabinet secretaries, Bolton doesn't need Senate confirmation, making it all the more scary.  He is probably the only person more "temperamentally unfit" to be in government than Donald Trump, yet has received kudos from Lindsey Graham, Orin Hatch, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, among other Republican senators.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Tillerson has been replaced with Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director who has no diplomatic experience whatever.  One could argue the same for Tillerson, but at least he brought a measure of temperance to an administration that seemed much too anxious to go to war with North Korea.  Pompeo appears to have no such restraint.

The idea of Pompeo and Bolton leading the State and National Security at such a pivotal point in our foreign affairs should send shudders down every Congressional spine, assuming our Senators have ones.  Nevertheless, Pompeo will most likely be approved, having been a former Congressman himself and praised for his leadership of the CIA.  It is as one Democratic Senator noted, Trump is lining up his "war cabinet."

So much for those efforts by South Korea, the International Olympic Committee, China and other interested parties to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula, as it seems the Trump administration has little interest in forging a nuclear weapons deal like the one Obama did with Iran.  It is highly doubtful this May meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump will take place, even as both the Chinese and South Korean presidents meet with Kim.  Whatever "deal" emerges will most likely not include the US, which will reserve the right for military action despite the dire consequences in the region.

This is what happens when you turn the White House into a reality show.  Our Republican-led Congress has either been oblivious to the movements taking place, or worse are part of what could be a total usurpation of the democratic process by allowing Trump the war powers to essentially create an autocratic state.

Given the Republican prospects of holding onto Congress in the midterms look very bleak, is war the only way to retain control of government?  This is the question we should be asking ourselves right now, as Republicans appear to be bracing for a major electoral defeat in November.  Their tax cuts made no impact.  Their attempt to make Nancy Pelosi into the Hillary Clinton of the midterms has failed.  Their attempt to at first ignore and now demonize the Parkland students has blown up in their face.  All the issues that so successfully came together in 2016 in what could be described as a "perfect political storm," in which they gained absolute control of Washington, have now come back to haunt them in 2018.  With this in mind, turning over the reins of power to the White House through a broad war powers act doesn't seem so far-fetched, otherwise Republicans stand to lose everything they gained in 2016.

So, is it buffoonery, or have we ignored this possibility because we consider it unthinkable in our society.  The idea of President Donald J. Trump was once considered unthinkable, even among Republicans.  Our Reality Show President has been a great diversion.  CNN literally counts the days, and no news segment is complete without some reference to the chaos in the Oval Office.  It has become a 24/7 obsession.  Yet, there seems something far more insidious at work here.

Democratic leaders need to reach out to their Republican colleagues that still are willing to listen to reason and stop this before it is too late.  Trump is not so much being controlled by Russia, as he is being effectively manipulated by rich conservative interests determined to impose their control on our society at both a national and international level.  They assume Trump is pliable, and given his recent actions it appears that he is.  But, there are rivals among these interests and they will battle for control over his administration.  Congress will become just some quaint idea at that point, reduced to a shadow of itself if the President is able to have full war powers.

After all this is how we ended up with a National Security Council in the aftermath of World War II, and subsequently strengthened during the Vietnam War and Iraq War, with even broader authority into "homeland security."  We have become a country too easily manipulated by existential threats, whether that be Stalin, Mao or Kim Jong Un.  Of course, North Korea may itself be a diversion, as the US military would probably feel much more comfortable going to war with Iran, knowing it has far less weapons of mass destruction than does Kim, and can therefore keep the blowback localized.

For Bolton and Pompeo and the conservative hawks in Congress, it doesn't matter.  Iran is as convenient a foil as North Korea.  Of course, they run the risk of alienating Russia and China either way, but as long as they are able to convince our global rivals this "war" is for domestic purposes, Putin and Xi might be convinced to look the other way.