Blog No. 125. Trump: Tax Returns, Russia and Moving On

The last blog, No. 124, discussed Donald Trump’s curious and troubling relationship with Vladimir Putin and Russia. I noted that a reporter had asked Trump if he would release his tax returns to prove his claim of having no financial connections with Russia, and that Trump had declined on the now familiar ground that his returns were being audited. I also expressed frustration that no one ever asked Trump to explain why an on-going audit was any reason not to disclose the returns. Three esteemed subscribers to took a different view and I thought their comments merited further discussion.

The first  comment asked me to explain my “persistence on the need for Trump to release his tax returns” and argued that the issue of whether Trump had paid his fair share had been adequately addressed during the campaign. The comment went on suggest that we should “stop trying to bring down a man who admittedly has many flaws and shortcomings, but has the balls to shake up the Washington establishment that has accomplished almost nothing positive in decades, and let our place in the world diminish to the point that all the rogue regimes are able to advance their evil causes with no opposition.” A second comment endorsed the first: “I share your thoughts and stand four square behind your wish to move on,” and added that “Rather than attack repeating tired, old, rumors, innuendoes (sic) and smarmy carpings, let us all ask of ourselves to pull together as proud citizens.” A third comment agreed with the first two, claiming that a move to impeach is evident and agreeing that it would be “expedient” to move on. The second commenter added a final thought that a period of 100 days of grace was the norm for newly elected presidents.

So far as tax returns are concerned, I would agree that the question of whether Trump paid his fair share of taxes should no longer be a matter of great interest. On the other hand, I think it should have been clear from the text of Blog 124 that my current concern with Trump’s tax returns is quite different: specifically, the light that they would shed on any financial ties that Trump has to Russia. They would also be important in assessing other conflicts arising out of Trump’s global holdings that are untouched by his plan of faux-disengagement from them. Trump claimed that only the media care about his tax returns, but that is just another product of his fact-free world. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Monday found that three-quarters of those polled believed that the returns should be disclosed and 41% “care a lot.”

The relevance of the tax returns to possible financial ties to Russia is obvious. As Senator Ron Wyden  [ R/D?] recently pointed out that, without the tax returns:

[Americans] will also be unable to tell whether Mr. Trump is telling the truth when he claims to have no connections to Russia, contradicting public evidence and statements by his own son. His stated excuse about being under audit doesn’t pass the smell test. Previous presidents and nominees have released their returns under the same circumstances.

The question of Trump’s possible financial ties to Russia is closely related to the issue of Russian interference with the election. Despite the efforts of Trump and his supporters to brush it aside, that issue cannot be dismissed as “tired, old, rumors, innuendoes (sic) and smarmy carpings.” The Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Republican Senator Richard Burr, has announced plans for a broad, bi-partisan inquiry:

In the course of its regular work, the Committee conducts oversight of the Intelligence Community’s collection and analysis related to Russia; however, the October 7, 2016, joint statement on election security from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), combined with the declassified Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections” raise profound concerns.

The Committee promised that their investigation would include:

  • A review of the intelligence that informed the Intelligence Community Assessment “Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections;”
  • Counterintelligence concerns related to Russia and the 2016 U.S. election, including any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns; (Emphasis added)
  • Russian cyber activity and other “active measures” directed against the U.S., both as it regards the 2016 election and more broadly.

A Select Committee, or a 9/11 type of Commission would have been preferable, but the Burr Committee will at least be a start. The function of the Committee will not be to determine whether Trump is a “legitimate” President. There is no possible way of measuring any effect of Russian interference and, in any case, our system does not provide for do-overs or motions for reconsideration. In that connection, the comments of Congressman John Lewis were understandable but ill-advised and inappropriate. Nevertheless, examination of Russian activity, and of Trump’s Russian ties may well bear on the moral authority of the Trump administration and will, at a minimum, provide a lens through which to examine his policy toward Russia and Putin.

The latest evidence of the peculiarities of Trump’s foreign policy instincts was provided by an interview with the London Times in which he criticized Angela Merkel, NATO and the European Union—but not Russia or Putin. Indeed, his most startling comment was that he would trust Angela Merkel and Putin equally. Nicholas Burns, former Ambassador to NATO, provided comments on the Trump interview to the PBS NewsHour that I believe were quite cogent:

INTERVIEWER Donald Trump says that NATO is obsolete because it doesn’t take on terror, unfair to the United States. What’s your take?

NICHOLAS BURNS, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: He’s completely wrong about that.

I was ambassador to NATO for President George W. Bush actually on 9/11. And on 9/11, when we were attacked from al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the NATO allies came to us in Brussels. They said they wanted to invoke Article V of the NATO treaty, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.

They came to our defense big time. They all went into Afghanistan. They bled, died and were wounded for us in Afghanistan. They’re all still fighting in Afghanistan. We fought the terrorism of al-Qaida and the terrorism of the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan.

So, Trump is — Donald Trump is exactly wrong. And I can tell you, having been in London today, people here are just flabbergasted by this interview in The Times in  London.

To basically — to denigrate NATO as obsolete, to root openly for the weakening of the European Union, to castigate Angela Merkel, our strongest friend in Europe, we have not seen an American president be so openly critical of our allies in 70 years. And yet he doesn’t criticize our adversary Vladimir Putin.

It is mystifying. People here are uncertain about American leadership. It’s a very poor and unwise way to start his term in office.

Not surprisingly, European leaders reacted to Trump’s remarks with surprise and defiance. Alarming one’s allies hardly seems to be a recipe for dealing with “rogue regimes” and their “evil causes.” Some comfort may be drawn from the fact that Trump’s nominees for Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have vastly more realistic views of NATO and Russia, but as noted in Blog 124, it remains to be seen whether they will be successful in educating and restraining their boss.

Still another bizarre chapter in this strange saga was added on Tuesday when Putin accused the Obama administration of undermining Trump and dismissed the material in the Trump dossier as “nonsense.” Interesting, to be sure, but if I were Trump’s  lawyer, I don’t think Putin would be high on my list of defense witnesses.

It is difficult to justify an argument to “move on,” and turn a blind eye to Trump’s failings, when he exhibits new ones almost daily. (The term “move on” was introduced to the political lexicon by those who sought to end criticism of Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct and perjury. I was not impressed by the argument then and am even less so now.) Nor is there merit to the suggestion that he should be allowed a 100 day grace period free of criticism. If Trump has failed to enjoy a political honeymoon, it is largely his own doing. Apart from his feckless meddling in foreign affairs, even before taking office, his appalling personal qualities have been endlessly displayed on Twitter.

Charles Krauthammer, writing in National Review on January 12, addressed the lack of a honeymoon. He noted the unwillingness of some on the left to accept the legitimacy of the Trump presidency, but went on to explain the rest of the story:

Second, Trump’s own instincts and inclinations, a thirst for attention that leads to hyperactivity. His need to dominate every news cycle feeds an almost compulsive tweet habit. It has placed him just about continuously at the center of the national conversation, and not always to his benefit. Trump simply can’t resist playground pushback. His tweets gave Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes screed priceless publicity. His mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger for bad “Apprentice” ratings — compared with “the ratings machine, DJT” — made Trump look small and Arnold (almost) sympathetic.

Trump simply can’t resist playground pushback. His tweets gave Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes screed priceless publicity. His mocking Arnold Schwarzenegger for bad “Apprentice” ratings — compared with “the ratings machine, DJT” — made Trump look small and Arnold (almost) sympathetic. Nor is this behavior likely to change after the inauguration. It’s part of Trump’s character. Nothing negative goes unanswered because, for Trump, an unanswered slight has the air of concession or surrender.

One comment followed Trump’s lead in attacking Meryl Streep but, unlike Trump, did not attempt to deny her charge that Trump had mocked a disabled reporter. Trump, from his roost in a parallel universe, denied that he had done any such thing. In that response, Trump again brought to mind, not for the first time, the Groucho Marx line of the man who is caught by his wife in bed with another woman: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” For any readers who somehow missed Trump’s mocking performance, a video is included in the January 10, New York Times story “Not ‘She Said, He Said.’ Mockery, Plain and Simple.”

The Streep imbroglio was quickly followed by the more significant debacle of Trump’s Twitter attack on Congressman John Lewis after Lewis had said in an interview that he did not consider Trump a legitimate president. As previously noted, I think that Lewis’s comment was wrong and inappropriate, but the only sensible course for Trump to follow would have been simply to ignore it or to make a brief and dignified reply. But neither is in the Trump DNA. Predictably, Trump responded with a personal (and characteristically inaccurate) attack on Lewis. His loutish assault on a Civil Rights icon, grotesquely coming on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at that, produced an equally predictable response of widespread anger from African-Americans and Democrats, and even prompted several Republicans  to issue  statements expressing their respect for Lewis. Trump scrambled to recover by inviting Martin Luther King III for a visit at Trump Tower, but few thought the visit would do much to repair the damage. All in all, it is hard to see Trump’s decision to engage in a feud with Lewis as anything less than colossally stupid.

Most media observers seem to agree with Krauthammer that Trump’s tweeting will continue unabated after the inauguration. If Trump is indeed determined to govern as Narcissist in Chief, more self-inflicted wounds will surely follow. And as he dabbles in foreign affairs, the wounds are apt to be more and more dangerous.

I concluded long before the election—and repeatedly wrote—that Trump was categorically unfit to be president and, when he was elected, I was driven to end my life-long affiliation with the Republican party (even as George Will had done some months before). Trump’s behavior since the election has only served to confirm that view and I expect to continue expressing it from time to time as called for by events. Apart from Trump’s personal qualities, I have seen no evidence that whatever he does to “shake up the establishment” his policies will produce constructive results either domestically or abroad. Indeed, I think that the policies he has most consistently promoted, such as massive deportations, raising tariffs and inviting trade wars with China and Mexico, and repudiating international agreements, would be quite destructive. I can think of no reason to wait 100 days to say so.

I do not harbor hopes that Trump will be impeached or resign; I think both are unlikely. Nor do I intend to oppose reflexively Trump’s every action and proposal (as many Republicans appeared to do with Obama.) He has, for example, said that he will release a proposal for healthcare that will provide “insurance for everybody.” No details have been provided and no one, including Congressional Republicans and Trump’s own nominee for Health and Human Services, seems to have any idea of how this will be done. Indeed, I have not even seen a report of just who is drafting this remarkable piece of legislative alchemy. I am, for a variety of reasons, deeply skeptical that the proposal will appear workable when it is unwrapped, but if it should turn out to be sound, I will readily join others in congratulating President Trump.