Monday, May 29, 2017

Amerika First

Donald Trump vowed to put "America First," promising that "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer." Steve reflects on the myriad of ways Donald Trump betrayed these pledges in one week alone.

Ever wonder what Donald Trump means by “America First?” This week we found out.

It turns out that “America First” is one of those phrases whose meaning is derived wholly from context, invoked opportunistically when convenient, and revealed with his taxation and healthcare plans -- and then the stunning revelations about Jared Kushner --  to be a disgraceful deceit… malevolent, disingenuous, and perhaps treasonous. 

Our loyal allies in NATO learned that “America First” is a great sound-byte to send back across the Atlantic to the Fox News faithful, as Donald Trump glossed over the profound strategic and moral basis for the NATO Alliance and got straight to the part about dividing the check. “America First” in this context meant photo-ops of Donald Trump, the tough guy allegedly looking after the American tax payer, demanding that all those deadbeat European countries fork over their cash. There was the irony of Trump leading a ceremony about September 11, which was the only time that NATO’s Article 5 – the “one-for-all, all-for-one” mutual defense clause -- had ever been actually invoked because a NATO nation had been attacked. The country NATO nations raced to defend? That would be the United States of America.  Sound-byte bites back.

But, hey, do you want to hear a real first for America? How about having the leader of the Catholic Church chastise the United States of America for being backward about science? When the Pope suggested that Trump read his encyclical on climate change, he was not falling back on that old Ex Cathedra Papal Infallibility justification, he was invoking a rich catechism of extremely secular climate data. For the Pope to find it necessary to bring the President of the United States up to date on science is like Leonard Bernstein feeling a need to show Elvis Presley how to grind his pelvis.

In Saudi Arabia, we learned that Donald Trump will hate-talk the Muslim faith with incendiary intent while addressing frenzied stadium mobs in Red State Nation, but shrink his demeanor and shrivel his message when he actually finds himself under the laser-beam scrutiny of powerful global Muslim leaders in Riyadh.  Put another way, Trump will say one thing in America first, and then say the exact opposite when in the Middle East. The speech was generally well received, but reviewers seemed to reach this conclusion largely because Trump had finally demonstrated an ability to mentally compartmentalize the world’s one billion Muslims as distinct and separate from the deranged murderous jihadists who inhumanly target eight-year-old girls attending an Ariana Grande concert. Spare us the Fox anchors’ breathlessly reporting the arrival a new “statesmanlike” Trump every time the President manages to read a prepared speech from a teleprompter.  When will they finally figure out that he only reads verbatim from a canned speech when he is scared stiff, knows he is in way over his head, and can’t afford the risk of an extemporaneous off-the-cuff screw-up? 

Still and all, the trappings, pageantry, and gleaming wheels-up video of high-level global diplomacy could make even Barney Rubble look like Harrison Ford in Air Force One. Limited to highly scripted photo-ops and mandatory good behavior, the Trump team probably felt he had a pretty good week in all the countries he set foot where he was not President.

However, earlier in the week, far, far from the Wailing Wall, we heard the loud, anguished cry from the Congressional Budget Office lowering the boom on the new Trump healthcare bill, which the House passed enthusiastically without waiting for the inconvenient matter of whether it made economic sense.  You may recall that it was the CBO’s report way back in, uh, five weeks ago, that dealt the body-blow to the original euthanized Trump healthcare proposal. Apparently the white mice in mazes in Psych 101 B.F. Skinner experiments learn faster than House Republicans, who somehow thought that a few tweaks to forge an unholy compromise would enable this homely caterpillar of legislation to emerge transcendent as a luminous healthcare butterfly beloved by all. But all of the elements that caused the bill to cover fewer ailments, cover fewer people, and cost more than ObamaCare were pre-existing conditions from the original DOA Republican legislation. To simplify the C.B.O.’s verdict on the new healthcare bill: it is every bit as stupid as the first one. 

But the real issue in the C.B.O. report is the degree to which it solidifies that sense Donald Trump’s idea of “America First” is actually that some Americans are more first than others. Swept into office on a wave of anti-establishment populism stoked by Trump’s often brazenly inaccurate assertions, Trump promised that a vast segment of "forgotten Americans" would be forgotten no longer.  He promised that their healthcare could be higher quality and less expensive. It took Trump a mere four months to not simply forget, but to wage open warfare on the vulnerable people who naively bought into his fantasy.  

The C.B.O. report concludes that Trump’s health plan will reduce the number of insured Americans by 23,000,000, and it will make healthcare vastly more expensive for low-income elderly people.  And the money saved by stripping away affordable healthcare from Trump’s “forgotten Americans” will go largely into the pockets of wealthy individuals, whose taxes had been raised to fund Obamacare, and will now be reduced accordingly. America First? More accurately, "Rich America First."

Later in this same eventful week, Trump doubled down on his “some Americans are more first than others” philosophy with a non-starter proposal for overhauling our taxation. Again, the primary beneficiaries of Trump’s tax plan are phenomenally wealthy individuals, who particularly scored with the proposed elimination of the estate tax. This hocus-pocus plan is scotch-taped together through the assumption of sustained 3% GNP growth, a number that Trump’s spokespersons assure us used to be normative. Perhaps this is just one more example of Trump wanting to make America great again by returning to the 1950s. The problem is that banking on a GDP growth rate considerably higher than the actual rate in the past decade is like justifying your new Lamborghini by explaining to your spouse that the payments will easily be covered by the vastly-above-average raise you are certain you will receive every year for the next decade. Not many couples would bet the college fund on such foolishness, but that is the core premise of the Trump tax plan.

Not lost in all this: The Trump tax plan was delivered at roughly the same time Trump was shaking down our European allies for NATO money, claiming he was “looking out for American tax payers.”  If only he were actually looking out for American tax payers on the actual subject of paying American taxes.

What is startling is that despite all of the above, Monday through Thursday was putting Trump on track for what was being tallied as a damn good week for a damn weak Presidency. The absence of Greenland-sized gaffes, new Russian scandals, and spewing molten Twitter lava allowed Trump to make it through Hump Day with only a reproachful hand slap from Melania to slow his mojo.

And then Thursday happened. Thursday, that is, followed by Friday.

On Thursday came the saucy revelation that Jared Kushner is officially “under scrutiny” by the FBI in connection with its investigation of the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russian intelligence. Reporters and talking heads went to standard liberal lengths to parse the meaning of “under scrutiny,” bending over backwards to convey that phrase this did not imply that the President’s son-in-law and apparent closest advisor was being investigated for wrongdoing. The FBI, it seems, has its own little color-coded chart, and being “under scrutiny” lies in some gray area south of merely being a “person of interest” but not currently “under investigation.” Jared may have been soothing Ivanka’s no-doubt jangled nerves about the ambiguities of FBI terminology when all of a sudden Friday happened.

On Friday, the Washington Post broke the story that in December, the son-in-law of the President of the United States had an undisclosed meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in which the topic of establishing a secret “back-channel” method of communication between the Trump transition team and the Russian government was discussed.

Jaws now black and blue from crashing on tables with each succeeding Trump gaffe, embarrassment, and apparent obstruction of justice once again descended in mass, with disdain and distaste now supplanted by open-mouthed disbelief.  What in God’s name did Kushner want to talk about with the Russian government that he so desperately needed to conceal from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies?  Did Kushner really propose using private Russian communications channels specifically to hide the content of his communication with Russia from the United States government? What possible charitable interpretation could the Trump team paste on a plan to conceal covert communication with a hostile sovereign nation?

A tasty side dish to Kushner’s inexplicable gambit was the fact that Michael Flynn was in the meeting. This, of course, suddenly provides blinding clarity as to why Donald Trump was begging everybody in official Washington to drop the investigation into Flynn. Trump knew that if Flynn felt cornered, he could cop a plea in exchange for Kushner’s head.

Kushner, of course, is direct connection to the Oval Office. If we find a "smoking gun," it's a good bet that Jared Kushner will be the one smoking it. It’s possible for Trump to play games about whether he knew what was going on while Manafort and Flynn were supposedly free-lancing with Russian intelligence. But for Donald Trump to assert that he had absolutely no knowledge of Kushner’s proposed private back-channel places Trump in a highly precarious position. If that is interpreted by Ivanka and Jared as hanging Jared out to dry, what follows is a Trump nuclear family nuclear meltdown. Trump's return to broadcast television will not be with The Apprentice, but with an horrendous re-make of Family Feud.

As a final note, there is the Ken Starr Rule of Special Prosecutor Privilege, which holds that once there are grounds to investigate Kushner, the FBI is not going to limit their investigation to dealings with Russia. They are going to take that Swiss Army knife with the fancy can opener and filet Kushner’s financial innards going back to his frat house. Nothing will be off limits. Anything Kushner has ever done gets thrown into the plea bargain broth. Ten years at that minimum security facility in Englewood ought to be plenty of time to read up on why they put those nepotism rules in place.

Call it Amerika First, the final and most insidious perversion of Donald Trump’s promise.  In this case, the promise to place America First is intentionally undermined by secret conversations intended to keep America in the dark about private negotiations with a rival who has demonstrated their intent to sabotage our democracy.   America first?  Not exactly.  The Trump team wants to give information to the Russians first, and keep it from Americans as long as possible. Right now the Trump White House looks like floating pond scum obscuring the view, making sure Amerika is the last to know.

Last week we wrote that the endgame on the investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russian government might be faster than we think, and we pointed to the flood of leaks out of the White House and the intelligence agencies as one critical reason.

The story on Kushner is the latest – and perhaps most spectacular – example of the whistle-blowers, outraged career government servants, and red, white, and blue patriots inside our government who are actually doing for real what Trump so cynically postures and pretends.

They are putting America first.

How can Donald Trump promise to put America First when he doesn’t even know what America is, where it begins, or, for that matter, how it could end?

The rest of us now know for sure. 

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