Wednesday, March 28, 2018

John Bolton: The fire starter this time

WE MUST, as a nation, be more unpredictable ... and we have to be unpredictable starting now,” President* Donald Trump said on March 22 from Washington, uttering the breathtakingly foolish words that may be the defining language of the Trump Doctrine, right before introducing the Cardinal Richelieu who will advise him on how best to achieve the angry inscrutability that Trump demands.

Trump named John Robert Bolton, the ardent überhawk who helped engineer the disaster of the Iraq war, to become his third national security adviser in 14 months. Bolton replaces Army lieutenant Gen. H.R. McMaster, thought to be a relative moderate in the Trump inner circle — and thus, subject to banishment from House Trump.

The New York Times reported March 22 that “General McMaster struggled for months to impose order not only on a fractious national security team but on a president who resisted the sort of discipline customary in the military. Although General McMaster has been a maverick voice at times during a long military career, the Washington foreign policy establishment had hoped he would keep the president from making rash decisions.”

So much for that. The oversize child scratching up the Resolute Desk has moved on to bigger things. With Bolton by his side in the West Wing (he starts on April 9), he’s about to break all the furniture in the White House at once.

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It’s difficult to think of a more automatically divisive, ideologically narrow figure to sit at the literal right hand of an American president* than John Bolton, whose appointment is a major pivot point in American national security.

As recess-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, Bolton helped establish the pretext for the Iraq war, and create a corrosive global mythology of America as Warrior Nation. Bolton worked with Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and the Bush II neocon cabal in helping popularize the domestic and foreign notions of the United States as a superpower victimized — a perception widely, eagerly amplified in the zeitgeist in the fearful days and months after 9/11. Over the years, Bolton became a longtime contributor to the Fox News political-media ecosystem.

He’s been a man on a mission for some time. The New York Times reported March 23 that in 2014, his political action committee, the John Bolton Super PAC, hired Cambridge Analytica, shelling out about $1.2 million over two years for “survey research” and “behavioral microtargeting with psychographic messaging.” The Bolton PAC allegedly knew that Cambridge Analytica, lately accused of misusing personal data from perhaps as many as 50 million Facebook users, was using Facebook data to do its work.

Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica co-founder who blew the whistle on his former company’s actions, said Bolton’s PAC was “obsessed with how America was becoming limp-wristed and spineless,” saying it wanted “research and messaging for national security issues [which] really meant making people more militaristic in their worldview.”

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BOLTON’S PENDING arrival might accelerate debate about the next shoe to fall. There’s already handicapping under way that points to John Kelly, the beleaguered White House chief of staff, being shown the door next. Ron Klain, a former aide to President Obama, made that case on March 23, on MSNBC:

Kelly, Klain said, “is a military man who understands the huge cost, the human cost, of war and [is] not a war hawk. I think seeing John Bolton come into the White House with his proposals for a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, for war with Iran – he even wrote recently about the idea of a war with Cuba – this is a person who is going to get this country into a military conflict. And I don’t think that’s what John Kelly wants.”

It’s not. The Times reported March 22 that “Mr. Kelly ... prevailed in easing out General McMaster but failed to prevent Mr. Trump from hiring Mr. Bolton, whom they said Mr. Kelly fears will behave like a cabinet official rather than a staff member.”

To the extent that Kelly doesn’t want a fulminating ideologue like Bolton in the White House (“we’re all full up here, thanks”) but Donald Trump does ... well, that puts Kelly and Trump even more at loggerheads. And we all know how one-on-ones with the boss always work out, sooner or later.

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Kelly, once thought to be the principal adult persona in the White House (if only by a little) actually shares common cause and frontline experience with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a pragmatic ex-military man still held in very high regard by U.S. military leaders.

Mattis has what Republicans would no doubt call a nasty streak of moderation. He’s pushed back on Trump overtures more than once, both before his tenure as SecDef and since. As a veteran who knows the sting of combat firsthand, Mattis is likely to oppose Bolton on some of his more hawkish intentions.

Politico reported on March 23: “He opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord, decertify the Iran deal, slap tariffs on steel and aluminum, and move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He opposes the president’s proposed ban on transgender service members ...”

And The New York Times reported Saturday that “Mattis, the retired general who has ... warned that military confrontation with North Korea would result in ‘the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,’ told colleagues on Friday that he did not know if he could work with Mr. Bolton.”

Which likely pits Mattis and Trump against each other.

And we know how that always works out, sooner or later.

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THIS IS THE DYNAMIC of the New Trump Order, a simple thing, if not downright simplistic: The Donald is tired of gettin’ pushed around. This is his playground, see? It’s all his, it all belongs to him, it’s all about him, see? He’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the White House and he’s tired of bein’ pushed around around the world. And he thinks he’s got just the right pit bull on steroids to deal with both problems at the same time. You can bet that Bolton, not on the clock until April 9, already has The Donald’s ear, singing his praises, validating his bellicose rhetoric ... one angry militarist provocateur in league with another.

This is the concern, if not the fear: That Bolton’s ascension as national security adviser is an implicit, pre-emptive rejection of the idea of moderation in geopolitical tone and tactics — really, a rejection of the value of international negotiation itself. That Bolton’s appointment emboldens conservative hawks in Congress to double down on bloating the Pentagon even more.

That Bolton’s appointment effectively tells the nation and the world that Trump is fed up with doing what he’s told — by which he means doing what the Constitution, generations of White House protocol and geopolitical reality tell him to do — and that now, with id fully unleashed through the conscious mind, he’s ready to raise hell, to run things His Way: like the autocratic CEO of a major (and majorly dysfunctional) corporation instead of the United States of America.

The only declaration of independence Donald Trump may care about now is the one he’s just created for himself.

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Something about this choice – its sheer, brazen, willful disregard for Trump’s own biography and the risk of lasting damage to the country – makes it look like an intentional feint, a manufactured distraction a la Wag the Dog. But in a context where distraction is an everyday thing, what the hell would he be distracting us from?

Is it Stormy Daniels? Robert Mueller? The Russia investigation? The parade of shaky staff hires in recent months? Is it the White House curio cabinet of knaves, mushwits, stooges and fools who’ve been there from the beginning? The skeptics and defectors among high-profile Republicans? The possibilities are endless.

Some think Trump’s gambit with Bolton was a way to pre-emptively assuage the far-right, who 18 hours later, on March 23, would be apoplectic over Trump’s signature of a $1.3 trillion spending bill that gave Democrats and progressives Christmas in March, with no new funding for the border wall or 1,000 new ICE agents (cherished Trump objectives), and fresh sanctions against Russia — among other things.

Giving the Pantone-red conservatives Bolton, as a kind of counterbalance to the impact of that left-leaning bill signed into law, might be seen by those conservatives as a fair exchange. Much of the world already wishes this devil’s bargain wasn’t going to happen.

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WILLIAM RIVERS Pitt, writing at Truthout, has got the Fear.

“Bolton's gruesome personal behavior with staff and others has become lore. He once got crossways with a federal contractor named Melody Townsel, and chased her through the halls of a Russian hotel while pelting her with shoes and other available missiles. Over the next several days, he stalked Townsel around the hotel, shouting threats and shoving threatening letters under her door. This is not a guy you want to give a staff to. ...

“The people who agree with him are still freaked out by him, because he is a ball of terrifying war hubris made flesh, yet somehow he keeps landing jobs within walking distance of the Oval Office. George W. Bush made him UN ambassador while Congress wasn't home. He was fantastic at alienating other nations, but wasn't really in a position to do the kind of serious damage he's capable of.”

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That may be about to change. From a historically traditional and fundamentally advantageous position, as a kind of Rasputin vulture riding the clavicle of the president, the national security adviser is more often than not, as Pitt observes in his piece, “the last person in the room.” That also presumes he or she would, logically, get the last word on whatever issues are top of mind in the Oval.

Pitt: “The job of the National Security Adviser is to judge and filter intelligence data for the president. In this incredibly powerful position, John Bolton will literally be creating reality for Trump according to his own twisted, violent vision of how US military might is best used. The man is a manufacturer of corpses, and has been so for a very long time.

“It has been firmly established by now that the most powerful person in the country is the last person Trump speaks to before making a decision. This phenomenon has been on vivid display as he staggers through debates on repealing the ACA, tax cuts, the budget, DACA and gun control. In every instance, Trump trumpeted nearly by rote the opinion of whoever had his ear five minutes before. There is more whiplash in Congress because of this than you'll find at a demolition derby. It is fact.”

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IT'D BE ONE thing if Bolton was an outlier, a crackpot Cassandra with no paper trail of experience and perspective. He is, in fact, a known quantity. “John Bolton is not some gray bureaucrat whose views are unknown to us,” said Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Moscow under President Barack Obama, and now a Stanford University professor, to The Times. “He’s very clear that there should be regime change in Iran and North Korea, and military force should be used to achieve those goals,” he said. “If you hire him, you’re making a clear signal that’s what you want.”

Given what’s at stake, you can’t help but think about that doomsday clock created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. On Jan. 25, the group’s Science and Security Board advanced the clock’s hands by 30 seconds, to two minutes to midnight. That minute hand hasn’t come closer to striking midnight since 1953.

We may get closer still. John Bolton, the embodiment of the military hawk, Buck Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove rolled into one, has the absolute undiminished ear of the president* of the United States, and the world doesn’t have a second to lose. We’ve had a taste of his previous incarnations as a firebrand, a political figure with only aspirations of the incendiary. The rhetorical flamethrower we know as John Bolton may have never had a better time, or opportunity, to set the world on fire. Literally.

Image credits: John Kelly:  Cliff Owen/Associated Press. James Mattis: via @thehill. Cambridge Analytica logo: © 2018 Cambridge Analytica.  Trump: via @davidaxelrod.  Truthout logo: © 2018 Truthout. Doomsday clock graphic: © 2018 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

John Kelly in hell

TRUMP WHITE House Chief of Staff John Kelly is said to have a predilection for Irish whiskey, once the sun has crossed the yardarm and the day’s work is done. It’s a fair surmise that the last eight months at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have made that libation a regular event.

They may have rolled a keg of Tullamore Dew up to the service entrance at the White House last week. That was when Kelly was tweet-midwife to the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was cashiered by Trump in a tweet released early March 13, asTillerson returned from a trip to north Africa. According to different sources, the former Exxon Mobil CEO was on the can when he found out he'd been dumped, from Kelly, who  called him on the phone.

Who could blame Kelly for his style of unwinding? It’s been a wild and rocky eight months, choked with intrigue and double-dealing. And then, of course, he had to deal with the president*.

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Since last July, the former Marine Corps general and head of the Department of Homeland Security has moved — some will say “lurched,” and they’re not wrong — from one crisis to another at the mercy of a relentlessly mercurial boss, plagued by noisy bad hires, intrusive Trump family members, and internecine squabbling that hasn’t stopped from either day one of his tenure or day one of the administration itself.

It’s all led him to say, on March 1, at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the agency he once directed, to say that “[t]he last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”

Was it just a burst of dark Irish wit, or something more? No matter, Kelly’s arc in the most functionally deficient White House in modern times may have less to do with Irish wit than with English drama.

Never mind the man in the Oval Office: John Francis Kelly is the most fascinating fixture of House Trump today, and, not quite coincidentally, the one most susceptible to Shakespearean analogy: a headstrong, brutally plain-spoken but presumably well-intentioned public servant tragically manipulated by — hoist on the petards of — duty, hubris, and the unstable leader he is unswervingly committed to serve.

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WHEN KELLY took over on July 31 as chief of staff, in the wake of Reince Priebus’ untimely departure, sighs of relief spread all over Washington. Finally, the thinking went, the Trump White House would be subject to some adult supervision. Kelly, whose stellar Marine career was no doubt a big selling point in his selection to begin with, sure as hell looked the part: ramrod-straight, with a steely, no-nonsense gaze, an unfiltered vocabulary and a personal bearing straight outta Central Casting.

Early signs were promising. The day Kelly started the job, he fired showboat White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci after Scaramucci’s infamously profane interview with The New Yorker.

Kelly cut former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski from the herd, denying him “badge access” to the White House. At year’s end, he fired the deeply loathed director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, Omarosa Manigault Newman, whose prickly self-importance had been rubbing White House staff the wrong way for months. She was cashiered specifically for using the White House car service as a delivery service, forbidden by the federal government.

Since then, however, the former general has been a party to the circling of the drain that’s been underway at the Trump White House since he started. As Tillerson’s firing shows, Trump is answerable to no one on matters of personnel. Not even the man charged with marrying personnel, policy and public persona within the White House. John Kelly.

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TO THE PUBLIC at large, the job of White House chief of staff is a somewhat mysterious one. Part president whisperer, part administration megaphone, the job has requirements that seem to have a lot to do with deciding presidential access. The job title itself — “chief of staff” — suggests a kind of White House air traffic controller, the one with go-no go authority over who lands at Oval Office Airport and who doesn’t.

It’s also true that the chief of staff is often meant to act in unpleasant roles, a Son of a Bitch in Chief, kicking asses and taking names when the need arises (and it always does). In this, by any measure, John Kelly has done exceedingly well.

But Kelly faced (and faces) the singular challenge of trying to manage the unmanageable, attempting to restore order and establish decorum and discipline in a White House whose prime occupant — loathe to any influence but his own — is more problem than solution.

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“It’s almost mission impossible here for a lot of different reasons,” said historian Chris Whipple to Politico. “His credibility was already really seriously damaged going all the way back to his appearance behind the podium in the WH briefing room. Now I think his credibility is really beyond repair and moreover, very few people will really believe he’s really speaking for the president.”

A slight rejoinder to Whipple’s assessment: With 14 months of presidential style in the public eye, and a presidential campaign before that, it’s safe to say no one ever really thought Kelly speaks for the president, any more than Priebus or Lewandowski did.

With Twitter as his megaphone of choice, Trump has weaponized White House public discourse like no president before him. His late-night/early-morning tweets have contributed to the polarization of the country, and point to Trump as a loose cannon who revels in that status, regardless of the consequences. Kelly is enduring some of those consequences himself.

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NOT THAT Kelly hasn’t put his foot in it himself from time to time. On Oct. 19, he wrongly asserted that Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson took the credit for federal funding required to build a new FBI field office in Miami in 2015. Despite a statement of reprimand released by 17 female members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Kelly doubled down, saying he would not apologize for his claims against Wilson.

“Not only was Kelly's claim false but his manner was rude, degrading, and racist,” wrote the activists at, which circulated a petition demanding Kelly apologize to the congresswoman.

That arose from another dispute with Wilson, one in which Kelly defended the tone and context of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed Oct. 7 with three other American soldiers in southwestern Niger, in an ambush by Islamist militants. Wilson, a Johnson family friend, listened in on the call, which upset Kelly to no end. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation — absolutely stuns me,” Kelly said, as reported by The New York Times.

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And Kelly played footsie with the media when asked about information that suggested Johnson survived the initial assault, but had died some time later. “I actually know a lot more than I’m letting on, but I’m not going to tell you,” he said on Oct. 19, indicating the ability to be as tone-deaf about White House optics as his boss.

In early February, Kelly drew the ire of advocates of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, among millions of other Americans, when he referred to some immigrants as “lazy" while visiting the Capitol.

“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and half times that number, to 1.8 million,” Kelly said, as reported in The Hill. “The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”

Nice. Stay classy, general.

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It gets uglier. An October piece by Jon Schwarz in The Intercept explores the ways that Kelly, seemingly the sane one in the loony rooms of House Trump, has his own fairly recent history of, and relationship with, the irrational and the xenophobic.

“Any examination of Kelly’s past public remarks makes clear he is not a sober professional, calculating that he must degrade himself in public so he can remain in place to rein in Trump’s worst instincts behind the scenes. Rather, Kelly honestly shares those instincts: He’s proudly ignorant, he’s a liar, and he’s a shameless bully and demagogue.”

He may be subject to situational blindness, too. Witness the Rob Porter incident. Porter, formerly the White House staff secretary, resigned Feb. 7 amid highly credible allegations of domestic abuse of his first ex-wife, allegations documented in a story in The Daily Mail that included a photograph of the ex-wife with a black eye. Responding to the allegations, Kelly initially accepted Porter’s denial about what happened, siding with Porter in a reflex that was as good-old-boy as they get. Porter, Kelly said, was a "man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional.”

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THEN HE GOT called on it. Politico reported: “Kelly was aware weeks before the Daily Mail story that Porter’s background check had turned up red flags — though not the full extent of the abuse — but Porter never rose to the top of his list of problems to deal with.”

Kelly seemed to masterfully pivot from the Porter mess on Feb. 16, when he issued a five-page memo to staff outlining a series of changes in the White House security clearance process, one that saw top-secret access revoked for some, even though at that time others in the House Trump food chain were exempt, including senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. According to The Washington Post, Kushner’s had more asks for classified intelligence than anyone else on the White House staff, except National Security Council staff.

“The American people deserve a White House staff that meets the highest standards and that has been carefully vetted -- especially those who work closely with the President or handle sensitive national security information," Kelly wrote. "We should -- and in the future, must -- do better.”

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On Feb. 27, Kelly pulled the trigger. He restored more of his credibility, specifically sidelining Kushner, Kelly’s West Wing bête noire from the start, by downgrading his White House interim security clearance, which, up to that point, made him privy to some of the nation’s most sensitive, most important intel.
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