Tag Archives: tillerson

How I view American politics (and the Trump administration) today

The ‘religious freedom’ executive order was a cheap photo opportunity, a publicity stunt; it doesn’t (yet) rewrite the Internal Revenue Code and constitutionally, it cannot.

The American Health Care Act passed the House of Representatives, narrowly, by a 217 to 213 margin today, too, but it certainly will not survive the Senate in its current form, which was denounced by every group from the American Medical Association to the AARP. That’s quite clear from Orrin Hatch, let alone moderate Republicans like Susan Collins.

Repeal of much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the financial services reform, is making its way through the House — and may also pass the House, but unless the Senate eliminates the legislative filibuster, Republicans will be hard-pressed to find 60 votes in the Senate, where Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose chief policy legacy is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will surely stand for hours to filibuster her way to national political stardom.

Meanwhile, Trump (though he had a temper tantrum about a shutdown) and the GOP caved on a budget that looks very much like something Hillary Clinton would have approved.

Good luck to Trump in solving Puerto Rico’s impending bankruptcy and a pending referendum on statehood in two months.

Nikki Haley, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster (the latter replacing an erratic national security advisor fired in disgrace just 20 days into the administration)  are ignoring the lunacy of Trump’s unthinking blather, contradicting him in plain sight and driving a sane foreign policy not dissimilar to Obama-era policy: pro-NATO, cautious of Russia, ambitious to look to the Pacific, reluctant to get bogged down in the Middle East. (Yeah, yeah, Israeli-Palestinian peace is so easy, Don). As Haley and Mattis, in particular, travel the world putting out Trump’s fires, allies (and rivals) are learning not to take seriously the words of the sitting American president. It takes something to kick an Australian prime minister twice in four months. For months — years! — NATO was obsolete; then, all of a sudden, ‘NATO is no longer obsolete.’ At this point, I almost expect Trump to try to renegotiate NAFTA by extending it to South American and Asia and calling it the ‘Trump Pacific Partnership.’

If you could forget (for one millisecond) just how much is at stake for the lives and livelihoods and safety of so many Americans (to say nothing of South Koreans, Japanese, Europeans and so on), it would be endearing, even touching, to watch a president learn what the job entails in real time. It’s a ‘teachable moment,’ as one former certain president liked to say. For Trump’s hard-core nationalist supporters, the first 100 days must have felt like a Schoolhouse Rock. Policy — from Chinese relations to US health care reform — is indeed harder than you thought.

I don’t doubt the challenges ahead for those of us who oppose Trump. Immigrants are terrified, and there are reasons for women, people of color, LGBT Americans and the poorest among us to be especially anxious. I will not minimize the ugliness and the divisiveness that Trump has single-handedly brought into American political discourse.

But today was (mostly) smoke, not fire, and it seems like House Republicans put themselves on record supporting a deeply divisive bill that will never become law — without so much as a CBO score. They may pay dearly in 2018. That’s still a long ways off.

For now, Obamacare is still intact (though, yeah, it has some flaws that need fixed). So is the Johnson Amendment. So is the EPA. So is the Export-Import Bank. So is USAID. So is State. So is the FBI (which continues to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian intelligence). So are all our institutions, even if they have no political appointees.

The not-quite-a-Muslim ban was halted twice by federal courts, and so many eyes are on Trump that he’s deported fewer immigrants (so far) than Obama. Not a single brick of border wall is built (it’s an idiotic idea anyway for anyone who understands modern air travel), and Mexico is certainly not going to pay. Though Trump may outrage Mexicans enough that they elect a leftist populist of their own in 2018.

Meanwhile, sensible tax reform (including lower corporate rates and some form of repatriation), Trump’s oft-promised infrastructure spending and Ivanka Trump’s promise of universal maternity leave — all of which would have been top priorities in a Clinton administration, working with House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, now seem farther than ever from being enacted.

Governing is tough work, and the Trump administration has no clue how to do it.

Reince Preibus, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn — they are all competing for Trump’s ear, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office. But they share in common this: none of them had a day’s experience in government before January 20. Rex Tillerson, whose sole experience is with one company — Exxon-Mobile — still doesn’t even have a deputy secretary of state, let alone anyone else to guide him.

Every day, the novelty of Trump’s blather on Twitter wears off, as do the outlandish remarks showing just how little respect he has for American history and the American presidency (‘no one asks why the Civil War was fought,’ come on). As on The Apprentice, he’s doing a great job pretending like he’s in charge, running things. Hell, I don’t care how much he golfs. I don’t care how many times he throws fake Rose Garden parties for fake legislative accomplishments, spews fake facts about the world and his administration, all while whining about fake news. There’s one statistic from which Trump can never hide: 28.1 million watched the Season 1 finale of The Apprentice. By the last season, that shrank to just 4.5 million, as the schtick wore off and viewers grew bored.

Savor that, at least, tonight, on a day of such venom, hubris and pain.

When Barack Obama was president, I wrote often about his flaws on foreign policy, and I certainly would have done the same with Hillary Clinton — or Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

If and when the Trump administration scores a major foreign policy or diplomatic victory, I’ll be the first to applaud.

But I’ll never relent. Trumpismo and its empty know-nothing populism is a fraud, and it has been since June 2015 — most of all to the voters who elected Trump to the most important elective office in the world’s largest economic and military power.

For those of us — conservatives, liberals, libertarians — who have always been #NeverTrump, keep up the fight, each in our own ways, for a government that works to maximize economic and cultural opportunity for all. And let’s take a moment, on such a dreary day for the American republic, to love one another and continue seeking ways to bring Americans back together, with a government in 2018 and 2020 that we can respect again.

Full investigation now the only way to clear Trump White House on Russia quid pro quo

The now-famous mural of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius.

With national security advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation and new reporting from The New York Times that Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials, it is time to ask the fundamental question about this administration’s underlying weakness over Russia:

Was there a quid pro quo between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to help Trump win?

No one wants to believe this, of course, and it is an important moment to give Trump as many benefits of the doubt as possible. It is probably true that Trump would have defeated Hillary Clinton without any Russian cyber-shenanigans (though of course Richard Nixon would have easily defeated George McGovern in 1972 without ordering a break-in at the Watergate Hotel). It is also true that the leaks coming from the intelligence community could represent a serious threat to civil liberties, though it is not clear to me whether this information is coming directly from the intelligence community or secondhand from any number of potential investigations. There are many ‘known unknowns’ here, and there are potentially even more ‘unknown unknowns.’

But here is what we think that we know, as of February 15: Continue reading Full investigation now the only way to clear Trump White House on Russia quid pro quo

Flynn resignation offers Trump administration a crucial restart

Michael Flynn has resigned as national security advisor. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

On the 25th day of the Trump administration, its national security adviser, retired general Michael Flynn, was forced to resign.

The final blow came from reports that the Trump administration learned last month that the US Department of Justice warned that Flynn could be susceptible to blackmail from the Kremlin. The resignation also followed reports that Flynn misled US vice president Mike Pence and others about the extent of his discussions during the presidential transition with Russian counterparts regarding the lifting of the Obama administration’s sanctions on Moscow.

Some quick thoughts.

Continue reading Flynn resignation offers Trump administration a crucial restart

How Trump could become a national-level version of Jesse Ventura

Before Trump waged his insurgent candidacy, professional wrestler Jesse Ventura won election as governor of Minnesota. (Reuters)

How about this for a black swan?

Americans haven’t elected a take-no-prisoners executive bound to drag the country into a hard-right populist dystopia.

Instead, they’ve elected a third-party-style insurgent (albeit from within the Republican Party) who will struggle to make allies in either congressional party and fizzle out after four years of smoke, but not a lot of noise — or economic or policy accomplishments.

It already happened — in Minnesota. In 1998, voters weary of grey establishmentarians, elected instead the flamboyant Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler. Christening himself as Jesse ‘the Mind’ Ventura, he narrowly clipped Republican Norm Coleman (then St. Paul mayor) and Democrat Skip Humphrey (the son of the former vice president). But Ventura, in his one lonely term as governor, transformed a $4 billion budget surplus into a $4.5 billion deficit and otherwise spent most of his time fighting with the media and with members of the state legislature.

Ventura, who ran and governed on the quirky Reform Party ticket founded in 1996 by Ross Perot, lent his support in 2000 to Trump’s nascent bid for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. Trump eventually lost to the anti-trade, anti-immigrant conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

Far from a lapse to 1930s-style authoritarianism, perhaps the Trump administration will be far more like a national version of the Ventura experiment. Trump has already squandered nearly a quarter of his first 100 days on distractions and controversy. 

Continue reading How Trump could become a national-level version of Jesse Ventura

The case for optimism in Tillerson’s State Department

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, will win confirmation today as the next US secretary of state.

He stumbled and mumbled in a Texas drawl through hours of cringe-worthy hearings before the US Senate’s foreign relations committee.

He refused to label Russian president Vladimir Putin a ‘war criminal,’ and he dissembled about human rights abuses when asked about the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte or about Saudi Arabia. Moreover, at times, Tillerson seemed to distance himself from Trump when he failed to commit to pull out of Iran’s nuclear deal, and Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who lost the Republican nomination to Trump last year, lectured Tillerson on human rights in Russia, Syria and around the world.

Nevertheless, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson easily won confirmation yesterday by the full Senate, and he will succeed John Kerry as the next US secretary of state, despite the earlier misgivings of Rubio and several other hawkish Republican senators.

Say what you want about Tillerson, he’s never — to my knowledge — joked about an impending US invasion with the sitting Mexican president into Mexico to get the ‘bad hombres’ or hung up on the Australian prime minister after a wholly unprofessional rant about winning the election and trying to welch out of a prior US agreement.

* * * * *

RELATED: Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State,
he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration

* * * * *

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Tillerson’s nomination was that US president Donald Trump ultimately selected Tillerson and not Lee Raymond, Tillerson’s predecessor as ExxonMobil CEO. As between the two, Raymond is far more ‘Trumpier.’  He routinely denied either that climate change is man-made or that climate change is, in fact, occurring. Raymond presided over the massive efforts after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to improve the company’s safety record, and he successfully merged his company with Mobil. But he routinely flouted SEC rules on counting oil reserves and he also presided over a human rights fiasco in Aceh, then a separatist province in Indonesia.

By all rights, Raymond was always the alpha male to Tillerson’s beta male. After taking over the reins of ExxonMobil in 2005, Tillerson promptly acknowledged that climate change is a real threat and, after the Democratic Party took control of both the US congress and the presidency in 2009, even advocated for a carbon tax (instead of the more complicated, if more popular cap-and-trade legislation).

There’s no doubt that Raymond is exactly the kind of personality that Trump respects, and Raymond — even, one suspects, at the age of 78 — would have gone into Foggy Bottom ready to disrupt. By contrast, Tillerson is a life-long Texan Boy Scout and quintessential company man who spent his entire four-decade career at Exxon. While there are real doubts about whether Tillerson will succeed, one of the biggest is whether he can shift, after so many years, to such a very different role and such a very different bureaucracy.

In a more ‘normal’ Republican administration, under Rubio or Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or John Kasich, Tillerson might be a refreshing choice at State. Instead, the Trump administration’s inexperience and Trump’s odd conciliatory relationship with Putin have only highlighted Tillerson’s own lack of diplomatic experience and Russia ties.  More than any other administration in recent memory, the Trump administration is full of government outsiders with scant experience inside the executive branch. That’s true for Trump, but it is also true for the chief of staff Reince Preibus, for chief strategist Stephen Bannon, for national security adviser Mike Flynn. So another worry is Tillerson he might simply fade alongside so many other forceful personalities, including Trump himself, Flynn, Bannon and others.

That’s not to say Tillerson isn’t bright or capable. It’s clear, above all from Steve Coll’s indispensable 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, just how knowledgeable and effective Tillerson was in negotiations around the world. At Exxon, Tillerson pursued a foreign policy designed to help his company’s interests and his shareholders, and that didn’t always line up with the interests of the US government’s foreign policy, most notably as his company chafed at economic sanctions in recent years against Russia. On at least two occasions, ExxonMobil got the better of Venezuela under Tillerson’s leadership, and Tillerson effectively sidelined the central Iraqi government in Baghdad to make a better deal with autonomous Kurdistan in the north. That’s above and beyond the more well-known ties between Tillerson and Putin over ExxonMobil’s Siberian oil deals, and navigating the longstanding relationships between his company and dictatorial oil-rich autocracies like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Chad. (Coll’s book really is required reading for those who want to understand foreign policy in the Trump era).

Tillerson, it’s clear, knows his way around the international landscape — probably far more intimately than Trump himself, who has already gaffed his way across the globe in less than two weeks in the Oval Office. Continue reading The case for optimism in Tillerson’s State Department

Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.
Continue reading Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is rumored to be Donald Trump’s pick to serve as Secretary of State.

In a ‘normal’ presidential administration, nominating the CEO of one of the world’s leading oil companies as the chief diplomatic officer of the United States would be a maverick, refreshing and, perhaps, inspiring choice.

After all, it takes some diplomatic skill to navigate the tangled shoals of doing business in some of the world’s leading oil producers, and foreign policy mandarins in Washington certainly have no monopoly on international affairs. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson has embraced the need for alternative energy sources, he has demonstrated that he understands the global challenges of climate change, and he has been a canny and creative executive. He’s obviously a very intelligent guy.

In Donald Trump’s administration, however, Tillerson would be a disastrous choice — for at least two reasons.

The first is the hulking brown bear in the room. Continue reading Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.