Archive for June, 2017

Whoomp

Monday, June 19th, 2017

 

The next big test of the Trump presidency is sneaking up on him. As I predicted, the domestic challenges that this administration has been dealing with will pale in comparison to international events where there is the very real possibility of escalation.

Trump’s generals told him and Congress that we are losing the war in Afghanistan. Trump agreed to send 4000 more troops into the area. What is Trump’s strategy? It appears that it is to do whatever the Pentagon asks him to do. These are the same generals that he criticized during his campaign about their strategies in the Middle East.

In past administrations, the State Department served as a balance to the Pentagon regarding policy and strategy. Trump and Tillerson have abandoned that role in their vision of a much smaller State Department. Those civilian State Department foreign policy experts no longer exist.

Gen. Mattis told the Senate that “Reconciliation” was the goal in Afghanistan. He was unable to articulate a strategy to accomplish that goal. The only apparent strategy is a response to what the Mattis described as a “Taliban surge”.

Trump is also expanding the war in Syria. The first step was firing missiles in retaliation for Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Yesterday, US forces shot down a Syrian jet that was bombing US-backed fighters near Tabqah. The US military said that they notified the Russians that they were planning to target this airplane using a communications system that was setup during the Obama administration. Russia denied receiving the message. Russia claimed they were going to shut that system down after Trump’s missile attack. They now say they are no longer going to accept these messages in the future. Instead Russia warned that US aircraft will be treated as targets going forward.

Trump has promised closer ties with Russia in a coordinated effort to fight ISIS.

That hasn’t happened.

Instead we have the same escalation in Syria that experts warned of when Trump talked about a military solution to the Syrian conflict.

That leaves us with a couple of questions.

  1. How will Trump respond when the additional troops sent to Afghanistan don’t have the desired effect and his efforts are criticized?
  2. How will Trump respond when Syria or Russia shoots down one of our aircraft in Syria?

The honest answer is that we don’t know.

That is just another problem with this administration. If the strategy of having no strategy actually works, we can all be grateful. If, on the other hand, it puts our military in a situation where they can’t win and introduces the threat of escalation into a much bigger conflict – is the risk worth the reward?

The Trump administration now owns both the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria. They seem to have abandoned the Obama strategies of winding down the Afghanistan war and containing ISIS.  They replaced those strategies with short-term Pentagon-lead tactics. History tells us that tactics are particularly ineffective in resolving asymmetrical conflicts. Ultimately strategy and diplomacy are required because as Admiral James Stavridis famously said, “You can’t kill your way to success in a counter insurgency effort.”

The only remaining question is when will Trump supporters hold Trump and his administration accountable for the failure to have a coherent foreign policy?

The Credibility Gap

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

During the Vietnam War, there was a lot of public skepticism regarding statements that came from the LBJ administration.  Ultimately that led to Nixon’s election because he promised that he had a secret plan to end the war.  He lied too and instead expanded the war.  There were a lot of leaks including the Pentagon Papers.  Those internal defense department documents confirmed that both the Johnson and Nixon administrations had lied, not only to the public but also to Congress.  Daniel Ellsberg leaked those papers.  Nixon hired G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt to break into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to plant bugs to acquire information that the Nixon administration used to discredit Ellsberg.  That same group went on to commit the Watergate burglaries.

The reason for this digression is that when Nixon eventually resigned, 24% of Republicans still supported him.

We are faced with a similar situation today.

Trump supporters are distrustful of any media that disagrees with them.  They are distrustful of any politicians that disagree with them.   In an April poll, 81% of self-described Republicans thought Trump was honest and trustworthy.  Only 38% of American’s share that view.  For those who attribute that 38% to some political bias, only 34% of those who self-describe as independents felt that Trump was honest and trustworthy.

Both of these things can’t be true.  Either he is honest and trustworthy or he isn’t.

It may be possible that Republicans have a different definition of honesty, but the accepted definition is that an honest person tells the truth.  By ALL objective measures, Trump lies on a regular basis.  Here’s a current running list of the 623 lies that he has told since his inauguration.  You may be able to dispute some of these, but it is difficult to suggest that they are all the result of media or political bias.

Republicans may believe that ALL politicians lie and Trump in particular is just a BS’er.  His lies are part of his method of negotiation.  But ultimately, they trust his motives and as a result excuse his tactics.  But that in itself is dishonest.  You can’t tell lies and be called honest.

But let’s give partisans a little bit of a break. They like Trump’s politics and suggest that all politicians lie because the media or the opposition won’t let them tell the truth, or else distort their statements to turn them into lies when in fact they were completely innocent.  But this a President who began his administration disputing the undeniable facts about the size of his inauguration crowd.  No, this President is different.

That brings us to the second topic of trustworthiness.  That is someone who does what he says he is going to do.  Someone who keeps their promises.

Trump fails this measure too.  He promised to release his tax returns.  He promised to put Hillary Clinton in jail.  He promised to pass a healthcare bill that would provide cheaper coverage to more people at a lower cost than Obamacare.  He promised to wipe out ISIS.  He even promised that he would never tell a lie.  I could go on, but I think the point is clear.  He doesn’t keep his promises either.  Worse, he doesn’t even acknowledge that he has failed to keep a promise.  Yet somehow Republicans feel he is still trustworthy.

Where does this come from?

From what I can see so far it is simple tribalism.  It doesn’t matter what Republican is in office, as long as there is an “R” next to their name, they are going to get the support of a large percentage of Republicans.  When the overall approval rating of Bush II fell into the 20’s in October, 2008 as the world-wide financial system began to collapse over 60% of Republicans still approved his job performance.

Another telling statistic that supports this view is what happened during the most recent primary season.

Just before Trump claimed victory, 46% of Republicans felt he was honest and trustworthy.  After the Republican convention, that number jumped to 69%.  Now it is at 81%.  Did Trump become a different person after the convention or after his surprising victory?  I don’t think so.

Here’s another example.  Only 22% of Republicans supported a missile strike on Syria during the Obama administration.  86% of Republicans supported Trump doing exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons earlier this year.

So that brings us to Comey.

Will his testimony, that has been widely regarded a damaging to Trump and his administration, affect his support among his base?

Early indications are no.

Comey called Trump a liar.  Trump called Comey a liar, suggested there might be tapes to prove his case, and offered to testify in Congress under oath.  What he didn’t do is explain why he cleared the room before his conversation with Comey.

We recently learned that he had similar conversations with Preet Bharara before firing him.

Comey connected the dots between the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, to Trump’s request that the FBI drop those investigations, to his firing, to Trump’s statements that the firing was because Comey did not do what Trump asked him to do.  Trump’s defenders claimed it was just the fumbling of an inexperienced politician.  No harm was intended.  Why would an inexperienced politician make sure that all his conversations with Comey were private?  If nothing else, the reaction of Jeff Sessions, the “experienced” politician in the bunch speaks volumes.  He did not act to protect Comey.  Instead he quickly moved to dismiss him even though it may result in his prosecution because of conflict of interest.

Here’s why all this matters.

Trump is digging a deep hole that he may not be able to get out of.  He has not been vindicated.  The investigations are continuing.  Comey laid out the obstruction of justice case for Mueller to follow.  Mueller just hired a bunch of very high power lawyers who likely would not have signed on if there wasn’t the prospect of building a case against very high ranking members of the Trump administration.

We are long way from the Democratic House majority and the smoking gun that could result in a bill of impeachment.  But fivethirtyeight.com gives Democrats a 10% point lead over Republicans if the house election were held today.

What we do have is a widening credibility gap between a president, his supporters, and the rest of the electorate.  Every week, Trump’s actions and statements confirm the majority view of his credibility.  Those statements and actions also require his supporters to sacrifice their credibility in defense of Trump and out of allegiance to the Republican tribe.

This is not a healthy or balanced situation.  Eventually Trump will be held accountable for his actions and those supporters that remain will also be held accountable for enabling those actions.

Or else this will become the new normal and our country will continue to fracture in to warring camps where tribalism finally breaks democracy.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Monday, June 5th, 2017

Why is Trump so unpopular?

His supporters claim that a biased media and the “sore loser” Democratic Party are to blame.  While Trump supporters may draw some comfort from those excuses, the real cause is much more obvious.

Trump has lost a third of his support since taking office based on his actions.

  1.  He passed a bill that broke his promise to replace the ACA with something which provides better coverage to more people for less money.  His bill covers 23M fewer people, raises costs for the sick and elderly, removes pre-existing conditions protections, gives a huge tax break to the wealthy, and saves no more money than the ACA.  73% of voters oppose it.
  2. His admitted Muslim travel ban was poorly implemented and struck down by the courts.  Most polls show that the public supports the courts and opposes the ban.
  3. 78% of Americans support an independent investigation of the claims of Russian involvement in the election and Trump’s potential obstruction of justice.
  4. 62% of voters want to stay in the Paris Accords.  Trump announced the US was leaving based on an economic argument that was widely criticized by the fact checkers.
  5.  A majority of Americans (53%) want Trump to release his tax returns.
  6. Finally a majority (54%) of Americans believe President Trump is abusing his powers.

Trump’s historically low approval ratings are his own fault.  Neither the media nor the Democrats forced him to take these actions.  Hopefully his current supporters will also eventually hold him accountable.

For those Trump supporters who aren’t there yet, allow me to share the thoughts of Ray Dalio.  He is a billionaire hedge-fund manager who has been a vocal Trump supporter until recently.

His concern is that he hasn’t seen the pivot that he was expecting from Trump.  That was a pivot from seeking confrontation to implementing policy.  Trump won.  He has an historically unique moment for the conservative movement – Congressional and Judicial majorities.

Instead Trump has spent his time in office seeking out conflict.  Instead of making the fundamental changes in the way that government operates that he promised, Trump continues to drive the world to the brink of disaster environmentally, militarily, and financially.

Here’s how Dalio is evaluating his choice.

It seems to me people who are trying to figure out whether or not to support him are faced with three big questions: 1) what exactly is the part he’s trying to optimize for (e.g., American manufacturing workers) and at the expense of whom, 2) am I more aligned with that part he is trying to protect (e.g., American manufacturing workers) or more aligned with those who will lose out (e.g., immigrants, those who will lose benefits from his budget changes), and 3) will his path of conflict rather than cooperation be effective or harmful?

The rest of us are looking forward to 2018 when we plan to use the ballot box to vote out those who supported his plans.