When I wrote that I had decided to withdraw from the Republican Party, I explained that I did not wish to remain a member of a party headed by Donald Trump. Nothing that has happened since then has led me to regret or reconsider that decision. Indeed, it has been reinforced by the apparent inclination of Congressional Republicans to fall blissfully in line with the incoming administration. This may change when specific legislation and spending proposals are on the table, but so far Republicans in both the House and Senate have been performing in remarkably ovine fashion.
On top of that, the news of the weekend was Mitt Romney’s visit to Trump at the latter’s golf club in New Jersey. Romney, of course, had been one of Trump’s harshest critics, providing a scathing assessment that seemed on target at the time, and thereafter appeared to be confirmed many times over. Nevertheless, both were all smiles at Bedminster amid speculation that Romney might be offered and accept the position of Secretary of State. That is something I doubt will occur and, if it does, would have mixed feelings about. The addition of someone of Romney’s experience, stature and character to Trump’s cabinet would clearly be an asset not only to Trump but to the country. He is head and shoulders above others whose names have been mentioned for the position. On the other hand, could Romney work effectively for a man with whom he has expressed such stark differences, and how much authority would Trump allow him? Would his appointment merely create a transient aura of respectability with limited shelf life? We shall see.
Trump’s personal demeanor appears to have improved under the weight of his impending office, but there are troubling signs for the future. More important, his early appointments suggest that his administration will be as divisive as his campaign. And, with the possible exception of mass deportations, there is no indication that he will moderate any of the extreme positions taken during the campaign involving, for example, trade, massive tax cuts, climate change, and the nuclear agreement with Iran.
In his brief remarks after meeting with President Obama, Trump was calm and respectful. Similarly, in his interview with Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes, Trump was noticeably more measured in tone and content than the version most frequently on display in debates and campaign events. At the same time, his addiction to middle-of-the-night tweets responding to critics or others has clearly not been conquered. When the New York Times printed articles reporting on disarray in Trump’s transition team, he could not resist tweeting, at 4:12 in the morning:
The failing @nytimes story is so totally wrong on transition. It is going so smoothly. Also, I have spoken to many foreign leaders.
Attacking the media is frequently tempting for presidents, and sometimes justified, but rarely effective.
Next, in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning Trump used Twitter to rebuke the cast of Hamilton for the reception given Vice-President Pence when he attended the show the night before:
Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!
The “harassment” of Pence consisted of a brief statement read from the stage by one of the actors at the close of the show. Opinions will differ as to whether such a statement was appropriate, but it hardly seemed to merit the attention of a President-Elect.
Then in the dark hours of Sunday morning, Trump took on Saturday Night Live:
I watched parts of @nbcsnl Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show – nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?
Oh, dear. There has not been a president or major presidential candidate in many years who has not been skewered by SNL, but uniformly they have taken it in stride and generally even claimed to find it amusing. Why is Trump not up to that?
In his 60 Minutes interview, Trump defended tweeting as an effective means of modern communication, and so it may be when employed in a disciplined fashion. Trump, however, has shown little sign of such discipline, and spontaneous comments, in the middle of the night and un-reviewed by staff, are not only a distraction and waste of valuable time, but also, depending on the subject, could have the potential for serious consequences. (Speaking of distractions, I was pleased to see that Trump settled the Trump University lawsuit. The spectacle of a President attempting to fend off fraud charges might be entertaining but is not something the country needs.)
Trump has announced ffive appointments thus far: Reince Priebus, Chief of Staff, Steve Bannon, as Chief White House Strategist and Senior Counselor; Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General; Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser; and Congressman Michael Pompeo as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Many were relieved that Priebus, rather than Bannon, was named Chief of Staff, and he was clearly a better choice for that position, but it is questionable whether he can bring discipline (let alone a ray of moderation) to the ideologues who will surround him. The other four appointments are troublesome individually and collectively: each of the appointees comes with baggage, in some cases rather heavy, and together they clearly reflect a priority in rewarding loyalty and hard-line partisanship.
The appointment of Steve Bannon has generated the most controversy so far, principally based on his chairmanship of the unsavory media outlet, Breitbart News. The Wall Street Journal attempted to mount something of a defense of Bannon and attacked his critics for what it deemed to be unfounded charges of racism. Even so, it admitted that Bannon had called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right” and weakly acknowledged that the alt-right is a fringe movement that “sometimes trafficks in racism and anti-Semitism.” The Journal’s defense was to decry “guilt by association” and to claim that neither Breitbart nor the alt-right are that influential. I suppose it is guilt by association, but the association is pretty damn close and the measure of the influence of Breitbart and the alt-right is simply not the point. The bizarre and ugly nature of their views is.
Also in the Journal, Kimberley Strassel filed a sympathetic report of a lengthy interview with Bannon. In the interview, Bannon denied being a white supremacist or “ethno-nationalist” and claimed rather to be an “economic nationalist.” Ms. Strassel, however, did not appear to have inquired about the role of Breitbart News as a platform for the alt-right and the various and often odious constituencies of that movement. Nor did Ms. Strassel attempt to have Bannon explain the tenets of his “economic nationalism,” although the title suggests an embrace of protectionism, a posture that the Journal usually opposes with some vigor. I do not claim to know whether Bannon is personally a racist, white supremacist or anti-Semite, but if he is not he will have to do more than simply denying it to dissolve the association he created and from which he profited.If Bannon cannot effectively separate himself from Breitbart and the alt-right he risks tarnishing his president through guilt by association with him. It did not go unnoticed that at a conference of the leading alt-right organization, National Policy Institute, in Washington over the weekend, hundreds of the assembled white nationalists celebrated both the election of Trump and his appointment of Bannon.
(Apart from issues of racism. Bannon claims to be to be a driving force behind Trump’s forthcoming proposal for a trillion dollar infrastructure spending program. That proposal is questionable in several respects, but will be discussed another time.)
Senator Sessions was the first, and for a rather lengthy period, the only Senator to endorse Donald Trump. That history does a great deal to explain his nomination as Attorney General, but many of us do not find that credential to be particularly compelling. The nomination of Sessions, like that of Bannon, is marred by allegations of racism, in this case going back to testimony that led to rejection of his nomination as a federal judge by a Republican controlled Senate in 1986. Unlike Bannon, Senator Sessions will have to undergo a Senate confirmation hearing and the allegations will no doubt be thoroughly aired.
At this point, I would not join those who claim that the allegations were an unwarranted “smear,” but it may be that even if isolated comments allegedly made more than thirty years ago are taken as true, they should not be disqualifying. Sessions has been the object of strident charges from the left: The New York Times called his nomination an “Insult to Justice,’ but Democracy for America was even more colorful: “The handful of people who might be even less equipped than Jeff Sessions to dispense justice on behalf of the American people typically spend their weekends wearing pointy hats and burning crosses.” Such overheated rhetoric may gain Sessions more support than it costs him, but he will no doubt merit and receive close examination as to how he intends to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department. Other questions abound, including Sessions’s opposition to bi-partisan legislation for criminal justice reform, but he is reported to be well-liked on both sides of the aisle and, barring new information, he is very likely to be confirmed.
As Attorney General, Sessions may wield a disturbing influence beyond his administration of the Department of Justice. In the Senate, he was best known for his unyielding opposition to immigration reform, and he will no doubt carry those views into the councils of the Trump administration. For example, in the 60 Minutes interview, the President-Elect appeared to take a more moderate position than he had previously, suggesting that he would concentrate on deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records before deciding how to deal with the remainder. Thus the specter of attempted mass deportations may have been postponed, diminished or, possibly, averted entirely. Sessions, however, might well be found to raise a voice against such backsliding.
General Flynn, as National Security Adviser, will not have to undergo a confirmation hearing, but if he were, it might be interesting. Flynn was apparently a talented intelligence officer who provided distinguished service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ran into difficulty when serving as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. The precise reasons for his dismissal from that position are disputed, but were apparently based on policy differences or perceived lack of leadership ability or some combination of the two. After leaving the military to lead a private consulting firm, Flynn compiled a controversial record that included a trip to Russia paid for by state-run media RT and was seated at dinner next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That trip has attracted particular attention in light of Trump’s own apparent and, to many, disturbing admiration of Putin.
Flynn also, like Trump, became a Twitter devotee with problematic results. Flynn was not only critical of President Obama’s refusal to refer to radical Islam, but at times appeared to be challenging all of the Muslim world:
Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL: please forward this to others: the truth fears no questions 26 February 2016
In next 24 hours, I dare Arab & Persian world “leaders” to step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology sick and must B healed. 14 July 2016.
Flynn also got into troublesome areas with tweeting of fake news stories and by exchanges with figures of the alt-right, all as documented by CNN.
Finally, Flynn came most prominently to public attention with a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention in which he led the crowd in a chant of “Lock her up” directed at Hillary Clinton. It is not unusual for a National Security Adviser to have been associated with the political party of the president who appointed him or her, but I cannot recall any instance of such an appointee having a record of rabid partisanship comparable to Flynn’s.
Apart from partisanship, Flynn has demonstrated clearly that he is a man of strongly, indeed passionately, held views. That is his right, but it is a worrisome attribute in a National Security Adviser. Even the Wall Street Journal, which has struggled mightily to find good things to write about the developing Trump administration, raised the point succinctly:
One question is whether Mr. Flynn has a strategic vision of his own about America’s role in the world. The tension is that as the gatekeeper of information and options, he has to make sure the President sees all the arguments and a full set of options. Can he fairly marshall the arguments from all comers?
My answer to that question is that I doubt it very much.
The fourth, and least objectionable, of Trump’s appointments is Michael Pompeo to be Director of the CIA. Congressman Pompeo is an Army veteran and graduate of Harvard Law School, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee. His appointment has drawn favorable comment from Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff and Michael Hayden, former Director of both the CIA and NSA. Still, although his qualifications are impressive, some of Pompeo’s views are troubling. In addition, his record of strongly held opinions also raises questions as to the advice he may provide to President Trump. For example:
- Pompeo has been a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear agreement and advocated “rolling it back.” Would that influence an assessment of whether Iran has breached the agreement? (Most will recall the advice of CIA Director George Tenet to President Bush that finding WMD in Iraq would be a “slam dunk.”)
- Pompeo has reportedly been a strong critic of the CIA support of rebels in Syria. Will he strengthen Trump’s apparent inclination to abandon opposition to Assad and make common cause with Russia in Syria?
- Pompeo has supported, as has Trump, waterboarding and other methods other methods of “enhanced interrogation” currently barred by legislation passed under the leadership of Senator John McCain. Will Pompeo lead the charge to repeal that legislation?
Those and other issues will doubtless be explored in Pompeo’s confirmation hearing. I expect that he will merit confirmation, but admit to some uneasiness at the prospect.