Los Angeles, 20 February, 2017
This update on Week 4’s news from Trump’s America is late because I got distracted yelling “WOT?” increasingly loudly, until the point I scared the neighbor’s cat Elliot, then turned to whisky and binge-watching The West Wing. And that, my friends, does not lead to the mind required to tackle last week’s events.
Imagine there are a gang of clowns who go to the woods to try moonshine. The moonshine proves stronger than expected and in their merriment the clowns decide the time is right to let off the fireworks they brought. This leads to a carnival of whizzing, flaring madness crashing all about the forest and not a few third-degree burns. One dies. As spot-fires blaze, the clowns happen on their colleague, Chimpers the chimpanzee, whom they charitably get boozed and include in their festivities. Being out of fireworks, the drunkest clown hands the AK-47 he brought “in case of ghosts” to old Chimpers. As the last trails of fireworks bash around the trees, and the flames rise higher, the clowns scatter while Chimpers blasts an extended clip of ammunition up down left and right, and then lolls back on his heels to grin at the chaos.
That, reader, is an approximation of last week in Washington.
Let’s start with Monday and the timely demise of National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Back in December, when then-President Obama was (understandably) miffed at Russia hacking the 2016 presidential election, he censured the hostile state by booting out diplomats, closing Russian compounds, and imposing sanctions. The political world waited, as they say, for the other “bashmak” to drop.
But aside from snarky Twitter-shade from Russian embassies, President Putin’s response was to smirk and say, the Democrats lost so let’s not rub it in. That being an uncharacteristically sportsmanlike response from a dictator, US intelligence agencies got suspicious and put their minds to it. This revealed a story familiar to all who’ve suffered through a sub-par Cold War thriller: on the day President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia, General Flynn spoke with the Russian Ambassador and discussed simply lifting the sanctions when Trump came to office. But when Flynn’s talks were revealed by the press on 12 January, Flynn denied any discussion of sanctions. That denial was publicly repeated by senior White House staff and the Vice President of the United States. Except – it was bunkum. When the Washington Post interviewed Flynn on 8 February for a deeply sourced article that showed Flynn had spoken to the Russian Ambassador about sanctions, Flynn again denied it. But on publication the next day, Flynn’s spokesman amended his response to be: “he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” Which is fair enough: we all know what it’s like when you’re covertly negotiating with a hostile foreign power to subvert the foreign policy of sitting president – things get away from you.
On 13 February, Flynn resigned, stating that he “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.” Again, a familiar problem and one we can all sympathize with. It also gives us a helpful phrase:
ANGRY COP: Do you know how fast you were going?
ANGRY COP: The radar says 173.
ME: I may have “inadvertently briefed you with incomplete information”.
But it gets weirder. The Washington Post reports that as early as 26 January, the
“acting attorney general informed the Trump White House…that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”
Flynn wasn’t fired then, because what’s a bit of “potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail” between friends? But when Flynn’s lie was revealed by the press: less ok. Cue, shitcannery. After Flynn finished being the shortest serving National Security Advisor in the position’s history, you might expect President Trump to stick to the “yes he had to go, bad man talked to Russia then lied about it and so forth”. Yet later in the week the president described Flynn as a “wonderful man” who was treated “very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the ‘fake media’ in many cases”. Then Mr. Trump doubled-down on being ok with Flynn’s improper Russian sanctions talks: “I would’ve directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it.” Of course, notwithstanding his potential breach of the Logan Act, Mr. Flynn won’t see any jail time – apparently lockin them up is for Democrats and uppity women.
The rest of Monday and Tuesday were comparatively calm – just things that would have consumed another presidency in weeks of scandal. The Office of Government Ethics recommended that presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for plugging First Daughter Ivanka Trump’s merchandise on air. And Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the visiting Canadian Prime Minister “Joe” Trudeau. Which led me to wonder whether phone conversations between Trudeau and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull (or “President Trumble”) now start like this:
AUSTRALIA: Whaddayaknow Joe Trudeau?
Wednesday was less good for the president. Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary, Andy Puzder (a CEO fast food joints, those traditional bastions of workers’ rights) withdrew from consideration after allegations of domestic abuse surfaced – thanks to a video handed to Senators by…Oprah. And when Oprah’s coming for you, you’re #fucked. It got worse with a New York Times article alleging that “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence”. Twitter responded in the immortal words of Scooby-Doo: RUH-ROH!
Alongside this, President Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who at some point will no doubt become “Boney Nachoyahoo”). Mr. Trump’s response to the surgically complex Israeli-Palestinian peace process was to
“jettison…two decades of diplomatic orthodoxy…by declaring that the United States would no longer insist on the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Or, to use the more precise diplomatic term “ah, fuck it…” “I’m looking at two-state and one-state,” President Trump said, “I like the one that both parties like. I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.” Which is, perhaps, the first time the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been discussed in the terms of a co-worker choosing a burger joint for lunch: “I’m looking at Fat Burger and Shake Shack. I like the one that everyone likes. I can live with either.”
Meanwhile, Republican Senator John McCain took a buzz-saw to President Trump’s entire worldview at the Munich Security Conference. But before doing that, he criticized the administration’s “dysfunction” and pondered “Who’s making the decisions in the White House?” – a comfort, surely, to the military personnel who go to war on those commands. Ashton Kutcher testified at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – an event that, being 2017, surprised no-one. Alongside this, ICE agents aggressively deported soccer-moms.
It may stretch credulity, but things got stranger on Thursday, when President Trump hosted an off-the-cuff presidential press conference described by CNN anchor Jake Tapper as “wild” and “unhinged”. In a pugnacious display that lit up Twitter with “IS THIS REAL LIFE?”, Mr. Trump: told a Jewish reporter asking about rising anti-Semitism to sit down then called him a liar; described the omnishambles of Week 1’s travel ban as being “very smooth”; described the White House as “running like a fine-tuned machine”; and alleged that “Drugs are becoming cheap as candybars”, leading some to wonder which genius Trump buys candybars from (“Suuure, Mr Trump, Junior Mints are real expensive these days. $87 dollars a pack… You’ll take two? Great choice”). Mr Trump also pondered the short-term political benefits of shooting a Russian spy ship “right out of the water”, having earlier contemplated the long-term geopolitical consequences of a US-Russian war: the “nuclear holocaust would be like no other”. #MAGA!
It didn’t get better. When questioned by African-American reporter April Ryan about whether he intended to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus, Mr. Trump asked “who?” and then said:
“Do you want to set up the meeting? Do you want to set up the meeting?…Are they friends of yours? Set up the meeting.”
Mr. Trump then gave America a physics lesson:
“You know what uranium is, right? This thing called nuclear weapons, and other things. Like, lots of things are done with uranium, including some bad things.”
The president was also bluntly contradicted by NBC’s Peter Alexander when Mr. Trump alleged he “had the biggest electoral margin since Ronald Reagan – 304, 306 electoral votes”. Mr. Alexander noted that President Obama received 365 and 333 and, when Mr. Trump clarified that he was “talking about Republicans”, Alexander pointed out that George H.W. Bush got 426. Mr. Alexander asked the president:
“Why should Americans trust you when you accuse the information they receive of being fake when you’re providing information that is not accurate?”
The end of the week was pretty tame. Just the President of the United States describing the “FAKE NEWS media” as “the enemy of the American People!”, and holding a 9,000 person rally in Florida, during which he referred to a non-existent Swedish massacre, leading the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to ask “what has he been smoking?” The president later defended his comment as being something he got from Tucker Carlson on Fox News – as if repeating the unfiltered statements of a shouty puppet in a bow-tie wasn’t troubling.
See you next week, if we’re still alive!