Abbreviated Pundit Round-up: The truth about Trumpism, Mattis’ departure, and a shutdown in space


Robert Reich on the disaster of Trump’s “personal policy.”
The Guardian

Trump has described the payments his bag man, Michael Cohen, made to two women during the 2016 campaign so they wouldn’t discuss their alleged affairs with him, as “a simple private transaction”. …

After two years of Trump we may have overlooked the essence of his insanity: his brain sees only private interests transacting. It doesn’t comprehend the public interest.

Private transactions can’t be wrong or immoral because, by definition, they require that every party to them be satisfied. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a deal.

Just pausing for a moment to point out that it’s been clear for a long time, that Trump has no concept of a deal as anything except a transient agreement between two individuals, one that can be broken at any moment … by Trump. As long as any deal is good for Trump, it’s good. As soon as it’s not, it’s not a deal.

So when lobbyists representing the Saudi government paid for an estimated 500 nights at Trump’s Washington DC hotel within a month of his election, and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, rented so many rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan that its revenues rose in 2018 after years of decline, Trump saw it as half of a private transaction.

The other half: Trump would continually go to bat for Saudi Arabia and the crown prince, even after the Senate passed a resolution blaming him for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

To be fair, that’s not the whole deal. There was also the part about how bin Salman would squeeze Qatar until the Qatari government forked over money to bail out Jared Kushner, and how Kushner would deliver an enemies list to bin Salman so he could sort out his rivals and squeeze other Saudi royals for cash, and … well. This really is a big deal. For Trump, and bin Salman, and Kushner. They can’t let little people, like Khashoggi or the American public, get in the way.

Syria, Russia and ISIS

Dana Milbank on how we lost the Cold War.
Washington Post

Perhaps the timing of George H.W. Bush’s death last month was merciful. This way he didn’t have to see America lose the Cold War.

Bush presided over the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. But the triumph he and others earned with American blood and treasure over 71 years, defeating the Soviet Union and keeping its successor in check, has been squandered by President Trump in just two.

Trump’s unraveling of the post-war order accelerated this week when he announced a willy-nilly pullout from Syria, leaving in the lurch scores of allies who participated in the campaign against the Islamic State, throwing our Kurdish partners to the wolves, isolating Israel, and giving Russia and Iran free rein in the Middle East. Then word emerged that Trump is ordering another hasty withdrawal, from Afghanistan. Trump’s defense secretary, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, resigned in protest of the president’s estrangement of allies and emboldening of Russia and China.

MIlbank goes on to invoke “The Man in the High Castle” in explaining the results of Trump’s actions. Think of this as the digital media version of Godwin’s law—if someone brings up The Man in the High Castle … things are bad.

James Cain has personal insight on what it really means to run away from events in Syria.
Washington Post

Two weeks ago we awoke to the aroma of strong Arabic coffee, which moments later was served to us by a masked, fatigue-clad freedom fighter with an aged AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

We were in the village of Ain Issa, a Syrian hamlet of a few thousand Kurds, Arabs and Christians 15 miles from the front where Russian and Syrian government troops are facing off against forces from the U.S.-led coalition. The AK-47 was there not to threaten but to guard us. We were there to discuss American private-sector investment in northeast Syria, the Kurd-dominated region east of the Euphrates where the U.S.-led coalition has partnered with local forces to push out the Islamic State. Two years ago, a map of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” would have shown most of this area under their control.

Our small group was likely the last private-sector delegation to visit officials in this region before President Trump’s decision on Wednesday to summarily withdraw American troops.

And if that’s not jaw-achingly awful enough, try this.

It was in these lands that Islamic State terrorist Najim Laachraoui received his training before he embarked on a circuitous route to Brussels, where, on the morning of March 22, 2016, he took part in one of two attacks that killed 32 people, including my son-in-law Alexander Pinczowski and Alex’s dear sister Sascha.

No one liked the idea of US involvement in Syria. No one. But Trump’s walking off the field is an enormous threat to stability in the Middle East — and the Middle East under Trump is as far from stable as it has been in a generation. His actions regarding Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already led to the blockade against Qatar and fueled the ever-growing atrocity in Yemen. His withdrawal from the Iran agreement has made the possibility of further nuclear proliferation in the region far more likely, as well as making the idea of making any long term agreement with the United States laughable. His actions on Israel / Palestine have put desperate people in an even more desperate position.

A decade ago, people seriously worried over the idea that events in the Middle East could unravel into nothing less than World War III. They should worry again.

Ryan Zinke’s resignation

Jonathan Jarvis on the damage Zinke leaves behind.
The Guardian

When President Trump’s new secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke rode a horse across the National Mall to the steps of his new office, there was cautious optimism … As the 18th director of the National Park Service (NPS), where I oversaw over 400 national parks and the equestrian patrol of the National Mall who accompanied the new secretary, I chalked it up to a publicity stunt.

But when Zinke had a new flag raised over the Interior Building, signaling to all there was a new sheriff in town, I knew we were in for some rough waters. Now that Zinke’s flag has been unfurled for the last time over the Department of the Interior, many of us who care deeply about our national parks and public lands have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Honestly, it didn’t take looking at Zinke’s horse or his flag to know there was an issue. It only took looking at his record, or any one of his many, many statements attacking the whole idea of public lands.

The secretary of the interior has a complicated and important job. He or she oversees all of the national parks, the national wildlife refuges, and the public lands of the Bureau of Land Management, plus the scientific work of US Geological Survey, and leasing and regulation of coal mining and oil and gas development in the oceans off the coast of the United States. He or she carries a trust responsibility to Native Americans and is the water master of the Colorado river. The secretary is the keeper of the nation’s history as the steward of the Statue of Liberty, homes of past presidents, civil war battlefields and our most powerful civil rights sites, such as the church of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

With all that on his plate, it’s amazing Zinke found time for the graft and corruption that’s only beginning to become visible. Don’t expect Zinke to go quietly into that good night. It’s going to get to rage, rage against the coming of a whole lot of investigations, both in Congress and in the courts.

Mattis’s Resgination

David Ignatius on The straw that broken Jim Mattis’ back.
Washington Post

During the past year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has sometimes seemed to be running the Pentagon with clenched teeth. He kept quiet when President Trump made decisions that Mattis thought were wrong; he sat steely-eyed in White House meetings, refusing to indulge in the idolatry toward Trump of other Cabinet members. He argued for the policies he thought were right and kept his mouth shut when he lost.

But on Thursday night, something snapped, and the unflappable Mattis did something that’s rare and precious in Washington: He resigned on principle. He didn’t make the ritual obeisance of thanking the president for giving him the job, but said instead: “I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.”

There’s not one word of Mattis’ resignation letter that can be read as praise or gratitude to Trump — and a whole lot of words that add up to “I think you’re not just a fool, but a dangerous fool.”

Mattis disagreed with Trump about so many issues, it’s astonishing that he lasted this long. He thought it was a mistake to quit the Iran nuclear agreement; he disagreed about creating a space force as a new military branch; he feared Trump didn’t understand the dangers of nuclear confrontation with North Korea and other adversaries; he disagreed with haranguing allies and trading partners; he disliked sending regular military troops to police the border.

David Von Drehle on the real ‘Mad Dog.’
Washington Post

In palmier days, the president liked to refer to his secretary of defense by the nickname “Mad Dog,” because that spoke to his boyish view of what a soldier ought to be — for that matter, what a man ought to be. Aggressive. Instinctive. Untamed. Dangerous.

But retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis has another nickname that goes more deeply to his character and more fully explains why he is one of the most admired military men of his generation. He is “the Warrior Monk.” To understand what that means is to understand why his break with President Trump and departure from the Cabinet was inevitable, and yet deeply wounding to the limping and hounded commander in chief. 

There’s no doubt that Mattis is thoughtful, well-read, and widely respected. But the fact that he agreed to take the role with Trump in the first place, and sat quietly though so many disaster—no matter how “steely-eyed” he may have been while not telling Trump to stick it—is the best indicator that his judgement is very far from perfect.

Jim Hoagland on why this particular issue, was the last issue.
Washington Post

This much we know: Mattis never expected, intended or accepted that he would be driven to resign from the Trump administration. He told friends as much when they teased that he must keep a letter of resignation tucked inside his jacket pocket at all times. Unspoken but hanging in the air at such moments was the Mattisonian thought: The bastards will have to fire me.

He abased himself — not something he would have endured willingly — by staying on in a Cabinet of crooks, dolts and sycophants who form the biggest swamp in Washington in my 50-plus professional years here.

But … why? It’s one thing to allow yourself to be demeaned if in the process you’re still having an impact on policy. Only Mattis was not. Trump ignored him, just as he ignored every other reasonable voice on ever other topic. This past week—in which Trump kicked Republicans in the Senate squarely in the throat, in order to make Anne Coulter just a little less sneery—is a perfect example of the system in which Mattis operated. 

I never caught him bending his own strict code of conduct toward the troops — until last month.

That was when he went along with Trump’s decision to send American troops to the Mexican border to counter an alleged invasion by a caravan of desperate would-be immigrants. I don’t need insider accounts to know that Mattis choked on using troops as part of Trump’s base political ploy. But at least the troops sent to Texas were not exposed to danger.

That’s one helluva lot of “bending.” If Mattis wasn’t accomplishing anything in his position, and he wasn’t, then staying was a matter of “holding onto his honor.” It was a matter of “providing cover to Trump’s actions.” Which is exactly what Mattis did on the border.


Karen Tamulty takes on the hopeless task of correcting Trump.

When you are a conservative losing an argument, say it was what Ronald Reagan would have done.

President Trump was the latest Republican to try that familiar gambit, with a tweet Thursday morning that claimed his border wall would be the culmination of what Reagan tried and failed to achieve … 

Chalk up another lie. In fact, Reagan thought a barrier on the border was a terrible idea. He was asked about illegal immigration during an April 1980 Republican primary debate with George H.W. Bush. This was a debate in Texas, no less, where voters were more sensitive than most to border issues. The answer, he argued, was more migration, not less.

“Rather than … talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally, with a work permit, and then while they are working and earning here, they pay taxes here?” Reagan asked. “And when they want to go back, they can go back, and they can cross. And open the border both ways, by understanding their problems — this is the safety valve right now they have with that unemployment.”

Yeah, but … that was real Reagan. No Republican has cared about real Reagan since … roughly two minutes after Reagan was elected. Since 1990, Marble Saint Ronnie hasn’t been within a thousand miles of real Reagan. If Donald Trump is intent on remaking Reagan in his own image to justify every policy he wants, he can borrow Newt Gingrich’s notes on how it’s done.

Republican Tax Plan

Catherine Rampell on the overflowing revenues from the GOP tax plan.
Washington Post

The White House says things are working as planned. The numbers mostly suggest otherwise.

Consider the budgetary impact. Republicans said the bill would pay for itself, contra every independent forecaster. Congress’s official scorekeepers, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office, initially pegged the 10-year cost at $1.5 trillion; later they raised that to about $1.9 trillion.

The actual numbers thus far don’t look so hot. Despite some initial bogus claims from the administration that the deficit was “coming down rapidly,” it’s on track to rise from $666 billion in 2017 to $970 billion this year, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. That puts it at about 4.6 percent of gross domestic product, virtually unprecedented in such strong economic conditions.

Which sets the government up for not so much a shut-down as a collapse, should the economy stumble. And the economy is looking increasingly wobbly.

It’s almost as if the Republicans set this thing up so that the government would be deliberately deprived of revenue and corporate bosses and their top investors would get one last goose of “rake it in” before the whole system would be forced to a tragic moment of “gee, we would like to keep paying your mom her Social Security, but … say, don’t you have a spare cot she can sleep on?”

 Usually, when the economy is doing well — and we’re not in a major war — tax revenue is strong, spending on programs such as food stamps and unemployment falls, and the budget gap narrows. In fact, the last time the unemployment rate hovered around 4 percent, we had a surplus.

Unless someone guts the revenue, raises the military spending, pops the champagne cork and calls it a “win.”

How Marina Butina shows that Barack Obama is right, and Samuel Alito is wrong

Ronald Klain provides you’re “read the whole thing” for this week.
Washington Post

Even if you don’t recall the date, you probably recall the incident: During Obama’s first official State of the Union address, he criticized a Supreme Court ruling, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., sitting in the chamber, visibly challenged the president, shaking his head in disagreement and mouthing “not true” in response. It was considered a major “controversy” at the time (in a much gentler era). …

Many remember the moment, but few remember what Obama said that caused such a ruckus. Obama’s comments were about the then-recent decision in Citizens United, in which the court de-fanged an already rickety campaign finance regulation system. Obama said:

“Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limits in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”

Check out the videotape: Alito’s “not true” was spoken specifically in response to Obama’s claim about the risk of foreign influence in U.S. elections.

Klain suggests that Alito owes President Obama a big apology. And he does. But don’t expect to hear that one any time soon.

A call for new sources

Ever since I decided to kick the whole New York Times editorial page off the list, the Sunday APR has been made up, 90 percent of the time, of just three sources—Washington Post, Miami Herald, and The Guardian. And when Leonard Pitts and Carl Hiaasen are both on vacation, the whole column treads dangerously close to becoming “Sumner reads the Washington Post” … and I don’t think any of us want that. So, as we roll toward the new year, I’m asking for your recommendation on additional sources.

I prefer pundits who are involved in traditional media—primarily newspapers. That’s certainly not because I don’t think there’s profound punditry going on in new media. In fact, I’d argue that the best pundits around have names like Joan, and Jen, and Laura, and Gabe, and Kelly, and Kerry, and David, and Hunter, and Rebecca, and Walter and that they can all be found Really Easily. I favor newspaper types because, rightly or wrongly, it’s kind of how I read my writ on Sunday mornings: Making a gloss on what’s going on out there in the world of people who don’t think first of Daily Kos, or Salon, or even The Huffington Post when they think of news. I think first of what’s showing up on my mother’s doorstep, in smudgy ink on off-white paper, somewhere between the Target ad and the crossword puzzle.

But I want to do this job better. And I want to bring you the best writing and best thinking I can find. So I want your help:

  • Point out regular columnists whose work you admire. And an example that you believe shows why they’re worth reading would be appreciated.
  • Being associated with a newspaper or news service is a bonus, but I’m not going to rule anyone out. If there’s someone writing for a tiny local weekly that you think gives great insights, I’d love to see it. If there’s someone laboring in obscurity on the last surviving MySpace page, but pounding out brilliance in the dark, aim me at them. 
  • Just give me people who are regularly — regularly, meaning weekly or darn near it — turning out something you think deserves attention, and I promise I will go look.

Thanks. Have a Merry Christmas, travel safe, and I’ll see you one more time before we finally put this year to bed.

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