Friday, March 16, 2018


Deep state: Vanuatu's underwater post office ("All you need is a deep breath and a waterproof postcard"), via Smithsonian.

The New York Times editorial page sighs with relief:

Finally, Trump Has Something Bad to Say About Russia

But that's not what it says in the fine print, I mean the editorial itself:

The West’s response to Russian aggression has usually been too little, too late, and devoid of the one voice that really matters — President Trump’s.
But at last, his administration is taking action, and Mr. Trump has spoken out, tentatively. On Thursday the Treasury Department announced it was imposing sanctions for the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. Officials have denounced the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain and Russia’s devastating bombing missions in Syria.
"Tentatively" is putting it mildly: in his St. Patrick's press availability yesterday with the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, later in the morning after the Treasury department issued its announcement, he answered one question:
Q    What are you going to do about — do you think Putin was behind this, Mr. President?
THE PRESIDENT:  It looks like it.  I spoke with the Prime Minister and we are in deep discussions.  A very sad situation.  It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it.  Something that should never, ever happen.  And we’re taking it very seriously, as, I think, are many others.
That's it; no acknowledgment of what "this" or "it" is, no indication whether he's talking about the Russian assassination attempt on the life of a former British spy in a Salisbury park or the terrifying sequence of Russian cyberattacks revealed yesterday by DHS on European and US electricity and water systems indicating that Russian forces can now cause power and water outages in other countries including ours from a computer workstation in Russia; no mention of the sanctions announced by Treasury, no prevision of what kind of action the US could be contemplating in conjunction with the allies. No tweets.

And hedged, just in case it was really that 400-pound guy on a bed, and hiding behind the "many others", as if he were directly addressing Vladimir Vladimirovich: "But Dad, all the guys are doing it!" (Roy thinks that's really for Trump's "base" of people who are pretty sure Hillary was the one who wanted Mr. Skripal dead, which I wish was satire, but it's already spreading.) As compared with Treasury's statement, signed by Mnuchin, which is pretty straightforward:
In addition to countering Russia’s malign cyber activity, Treasury continues to pressure Russia for its ongoing efforts to destabilize Ukraine, occupy Crimea, meddle in elections, as well as for its endemic corruption and human rights abuses. The recent use of a military-grade nerve agent in an attempt to murder two UK citizens further demonstrates the reckless and irresponsible conduct of its government. 
And of course keep in mind that the thing the Treasury Department has in fact done is to begin implementing the Countering America's Enemies Through Sanctions Act overwhelmingly passed by Congress in June-July 2017 and signed by Trump at the last possible moment, August 2, with a couple of signing statements indicating that he wasn't planning to obey it, as he has steadfastly not done in the seven months since.

There's been some talk recently, around the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to the effect that Trump is now learning how to exercise the office and accomplish stuff, as for instance from Monsignor Douthat:

From his exciting new steel tariffs to his promised summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, Trump has been acting lately like a man less inclined to listen to his handlers — and now those handlers have begun to disappear. The firing of Rex Tillerson, on the heels of Gary Cohn’s departure about a week ago, evokes the wildly chaotic atmosphere that characterized Trump’s first few months in office. But as my colleague Maggie Haberman tweeted, this time it seems less like something happening to Trump and more like chaos orchestrated from the Oval Office: “The narrative of Trump unglued is not totally wrong but misses the reason why — he was terrified of the job the first six months, and now feels like he has a command of it. So now he is basically saying, ‘I’ve got this, I can make the changes I want.’”
But the thing I think is that Trump's not the only one. The announcement of an as-yet unplanned meeting with Kim Jong-un, which I doubt will ever take place, shows Trump able to take initiatives to astonish everybody entirely on his own, but the tweet-firing of Tillerson shows how dependent he still is on others (all he did in his tweet is to greenlight a plan that has been ready for months, at least since it was leaked on December 1). And I think this implementation of sanctions, done so smoothly as to compel Trump to grumble his assent, has been done by freelancers (not Mnuchin himself, who's clearly incompetent in the DeVos-Carson-Perry sense), behind Trump's back, because Trump is too weak to stop them.

The same goes, incidentally, for the firing of John McEntee as Trump's personal assistant for some really extreme kind of misfeasance ("serious financial crimes" apparently involving online gambling from White House computers) and was instantly hired by the Trump 2020 campaign organization. It seems plain to me that he was fired against Trump's will (like so many of his tough guys, from Lewandowski and Flynn through Rob Porter), and the counter-hiring is Trump's feeble gesture of resistance.

The power is leaking all over the executive offices, Trump is getting weaker—the only thing he can really do now to make things happen is to fire people, which may be easier for him now he's learned to finish it up on Twitter, fire them and hire new ones, but it takes him months—and others are getting stronger, perhaps people whose names we don't even know. I was thinking of something like this a year or so ago when I was writing about the possibility of a "coup", though I was overthinking the role of Trump's "generals" and underthinking that of the gifted and hardworking civilian servants whose toil will help tide us over this crisis period. Ironically, a "deep state" of the kind Trump has been railing against is coming into some kind of existence, at least temporarily, because of his inability to go beyond pretending to be the manager of a TV competition.

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