Sunday, March 5, 2017

Jammed Sessions: Time to Give Our President Some Very Good Advice.

From La La Land to Moonlight, from closed intelligence briefing sessions to openly unintelligent Jeffrey Sessions, it was a week in which the Trump administration was leaking so badly that it may have already hit the iceberg --  and not even know it. Steve bites the bullet and gives Donald Trump the advice he’s not getting from his ignorant toadies. It’s called history.

There is one guy in the United States who has to be absolutely ecstatic that Donald Trump is President of the United States.

His name is Brian Cullinan, and he is the guy who was tweeting photos of Emma Stone when he was supposed to be double- and triple-checking to make sure that he didn’t screw up when handing the envelope containing the global reputation of Price Waterhouse to Warren Beatty. Geez, did we really need a second example of the dangers of late night out-of-control tweeting? 

You see, back when America was normal, Cullinan would have endured months of nonstop television and tabloid humiliation over what was indisputably the dumbest move in Hollywood since Mars Needs Moms.

But Cullinan lives in the age of Trump, when Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame must be compressed to fit within the brief slivers of media oxygen not voraciously devoured by the President. The biggest screw-up in the history of television awards shows? Brian Cullinan is soooooo last Sunday.

Cullinan’s trauma was also mitigated by the fast action of PWC’s U.S. Chairman, who did not waste a news cycle gathering opinions from highly-paid consultants, did not send out a smokescreen hypothesizing alternative explanations, and did not waste a breath talking about what reliable employee Brian Cullinan is. He just owned it. There was a full admission of responsibility on the wires before the morning news shows kicked in. He knew enough to realize that appearing to hide from responsibility makes you look weak and cowardly.

So by Tuesday, we were back in alt reality, with Donald Trump shoving Oscar back to the newsroom B blocks after making a splash in his nationally televised address to Congress. To hear the news coverage on Wednesday, you’d have thought he was Cicero and Demosthenes rolled into one. According to most news services, Trump’s speech was a big win. The Bloviater-in-Chief appeared measured and thoughtful, lofty and principled, and even called for government to rise above bipartisan squabbles and unify to make America, well, you know… 

It is perhaps the definitive comment on President Chaos that when he is able to modulate his tone for a full hour and discipline himself to simply read from a teleprompter, the media is suddenly convinced of a conversion rivaling Saul’s on the road to Damascus. Fox gushed that we may have finally witnessed the long-awaited “pivot,” as in, when Donald Trump pivots from behaving like a twelve-year-old with ADHD denied his Ritalin and suddenly projects the majesty and aura of Presidential gravitas. Poor Fox failed to savor the irony that the reason the “pivot” is perceived as “long-awaited” is because it was predicted after Trump was nominated, after Trump was elected, and after Trump was sworn in. “Waiting for the Pivot” may as well be the long awaited Samuel Beckett sequel, which, coincidentally, also features two hopeless and desperate characters, one named Vladimir.

Indeed, Trump’s Prelude in Quaalude tonality was actually the only news about Tuesday’s speech on Tuesday. If you read the text, it was standard issue on the substance – or lack thereof. 

The sound byte of the evening was Trump’s emotional tribute to the Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who was killed in the first military mission ordered under Trump’s watch. It was hard to take this spectacle in and not be reminded of Trump’s brutal disrespect for Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of the Muslim U.S. soldier Humayun Khan, who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq.  But perhaps even more significant was the interview Trump had given earlier in the day, in which he sloughed off responsibility for Ryan’s death on to his generals, which gives us a sense of where the buck actually stops in this White House. It was a sharp contrast to John F. Kennedy’s unalloyed acceptance of responsibility for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion just months after his inauguration. Kennedy owned it:

“There's an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan...I've said as much as I feel can be usefully said by me in regard to the events of the past few days. Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility, because I'm the responsible officer of the government.”

The "responsible officer of government." Trump authorized the raid that cost the Navy SEAL his life while supping in the White House, suggesting his customary lack of appetite for details, and a thoroughly cavalier attitude toward the grave act of sending soldiers in to harm’s way. And when time came to take responsibility for that decision, he disowned it.

The other “must see tv” moment of the speech was when Trump lectured the Congress that now it was time to end all this partisan bickering and work together. Perhaps Trump was backstage with Miss Universe aspirants the day that Mitch McConnell stated his goal as a leader of Congress was to make Barack Obama a one-term President. Funny how that “we have a responsibility to work together to serve the people” thing looks so different when the eschewing is on the other foot.

The media bought it all. Gone was their memory of Trump announcing The New York Times was an “enemy of the people,” the botched de facto Muslim immigration ban, the President’s accusation that all negative stories are “fake news,” his tirades against leaks from government officials, his insults to foreign leaders, his policy flip-flops on China, Israel, and NATO, and his daily 5:00 a.m. vowel movements on Twitter. All magically forgotten: most media outlets were calling this one a big win for the President. Fox also cited a poll that said that 70% of the people who heard the speech felt “more optimistic.” That sounds pretty darn good, but it is probably the same answer a starving man might give if you fed him a Tostito. By design, the question seeks only a relative comparison, and therefore may only be measuring just how badly Trump was regarded before.

Chalk it up to the “the soft bigotry of low Presidential expectations.” Trump reads from a teleprompter for an hour, manages to avoid heinously insulting a valued ally, a significant segment of the population, an important news organization, or a respected member of the opposition party, and all of a sudden people feel that he’s finally going to behave like the President of the United States. People think that he has changed. Let me take out my stop watch to see how long it takes for all those people to be proven wrong.

Of course, Brian Cullinen was probably sweating that the Low-T performance by Trump might turn the bright glare of the media back on his deleted tweet of Emma Stone and re-ignite the question of whether Warren Beatty chickened out by pawning the faulty envelope over to Faye Dunaway. 

No worries, Brian. This White House makes so many shit-storms that they should start naming them in alphabetical order, alternating gender.  “And now for today’s White House storm report: Tropical Shit-storm Alexei is still stuck in an ongoing low pressure pattern directly over the West Wing, while Tornado Betsy has been downgraded to a threat to public education, and the heaviest rains from Typhoon Conway appeared to have passed through the Capital region…” 

But in six short weeks, this White House has already named enough storms to reach the letter “J,” as in Hurricane Jeff. By Wednesday night, Trump’s speech was a vague and hazy memory with the sudden arrival of a storm-of-the-century blowing Hurricane Sandy-grade gusts that were visible from a Russian weather satellite.

Jeff Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, lied under oath in his confirmation hearings, claiming that he had had no contact with anyone in the Russian government during the election campaign. In fact, Sessions had had not one but two meetings with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Hey, what’s the big deal? We’ve got a Director of the Environmental Protection Agency who does not want to protect the environment, a Secretary of Education who does not know anything about public education, and a Secretary of Energy who occasionally can’t remember the name of the Department he runs. I could make a strong argument that for consistency’s sake alone, Trump’s Attorney General should have no respect for the law.

The call to jam Sessions began minutes after The Washington Post broke the story Wednesday evening. Democrats called on Sessions to resign, and a line-up of big-name Republicans called on him to recuse himself from the looming investigation of contact between Trump’s campaign organization and the Russian government. Trump, lacking the manufactured gravitas of the teleprompter, returned to prior form, saying that there was no need for Sessions to recuse himself. I can practically hear Trump defiantly protesting: “It’s all fake news… Jeff Sessions has not been recused of anything!!”

So let’s examine this: 

  • Trump aide Flynn lies to the FBI -- technically not under oath -- about a meeting with the Russian Ambassador, and is summarily fired.
  • Trump aide Sessions lies under oath to the United States Congress about multiple meetings with the Russian Ambassador, and Trump feels that there is no problem whatsoever.
Obviously, the difference here is that Flynn also lied to VP Mike Pence, meaning that rank insubordination is clearly the only punishable offense in this White House. 

Once Sessions had been outed, Trump staffers seemed cured of their collective amnesia, and there were enough sudden recollections of cozy Russian encounters to make the Republican convention in Cleveland sound like one big Kislyak flash-mob.

It all seemed eerily reminiscent of the steady drip-drip-drip of revelations that kept Watergate on the front pages long before anyone asked to see a smoking gun. Back then, there were also the periodic bombshells that put huge dents in the ongoing credibility of Richard Nixon’s White House.

Now, only six weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency, there is already the disturbing sense that a wide array of seemingly disparate pieces are beginning to come together in a Watergate-grade narrative. Did Donald Trump refuse to release his taxes because they would show evidence of vast illegal financial dealings with Russia? Did all of his staff members meet with Russian officials in an attempt to exchange information about how to damage the Clinton campaign? Is Trump obscenely obsequious to Putin because he knows that Putin has the video and taped phone conversations that would prove Trump’s collusion? Does Trump advocate for policies that are helpful to Russia because he knows that if does not, Putin can leak those tapes and end Trump’s presidency? 

On MSNBC’s All in With Chris Hayes – the best journalism on tv today, in my view – Howard Fineman, Global Editorial Director of The Huffington Post – made this extremely insightful point, and it is something no one is talking about. While the U.S. investigations into Trump’s ties with Russia slowly gear up, and various governmental organizations attempt to uncover who knew what and when they knew it, there actually is one entity that knows exactly who talked to who, when they talked, and what was said: the Russian government. Right now it is a virtual certainty that Vladimir Putin knows more about the involvement of Trump’s staff in the hacking operation than Trump does.

For all we know, Putin has Trump by the balls as we speak. 

What we do know is that there is already way too much smoke for there to be no fire.

With all that I have said about Donald Trump in the past two years, you’ll find no quotes from me accusing him of being stupid. Which is why I cannot understand why he is being so foolish about this now.

In the end, there is only one history lesson: George Santayana’s grand observation that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

And the grand lesson of U.S. history is that high crimes and misdemeanors don’t actually get Presidents impeached; cover-ups do. 

Donald Trump’s biggest problem is that in surrounding himself with amateurs and toadies, there is not even a John Dean who despite his own flaws at least had the perspective to walk into Nixon's office and tell him that there was a cancer growing on his Presidency.

Right now, this minute, as we speak, Trump still has a chance to say, “Ok, enough is enough. Let’s get to the bottom of this. Right now. Investigate it fully. Go wherever it leads. If someone on my staff tried to collude with the Russians to fix the election, let’s find out and get it settled.” If he takes that tough stand, he will be perceived as a truth-seeker, a fearless champion, a true leader.

But here’s the real issue. Every day that Trump stonewalls on this issue is another day that he could later be perceived to have part of the cover-up. 

God strike me dead, friends, but I have to do it. I have to give Donald Trump some really excellent advice.

Mr. President, go look at Kennedy’s speech after the Bay of Pigs.  John F. Kennedy owned it. In the following weeks, his approval rating would shoot up to an astonishing 90%.

And, hey, Donald, if that’s too much work, then just go on Youtube and check out what happened last Sunday night, right there in La La Land. Watch the producer of La La Land, Jordan Horowitz, take control of the show and graciously tell the world that an error was made. Then go read about what happened in the Moonlight hours: learn about the Price Waterhouse CEO who took full responsibility before the morning sunrise. The CEO of Price Waterhouse owned it. 

What is it that we noted above about the CEO of Price Waterhouse? “He knew enough to realize that appearing to hide from responsibility makes you look weak and cowardly.” Mr. President, every time you assert that Russia is “a ruse,” or “fake news,” that is exactly how you look. And when you resort to absurd accusations that Barack Obama tapped your phone, you sound downright frightened of the truth.

Mr. Trump, this is no time to defend the gaggle of Brian Cullinans you’ve surrounded yourself with. It is time for you to jam Sessions right where you flung Flynn. It is time for you to take the lead. Time for you to insist that thorough investigations be mounted. 

Because if you don’t, it may simply be a matter of time before you are trying to explain an eighteen minute gap in a recording, and when that happens, you’ll be praying that the voice that was erased wasn’t yours.

Where there is smoke, there is fire. Where there are smoking guns, there is an impeachment trial. But if there was a cover-up, then the house has already burned down.

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