Time passes slowly, but change is hitting us at the speed of light. We are only two weeks into the new government, and our world has changed already. We are no longer doing the same things we use to do. Trump’s administration is fast and erratic, providing so much information that it’s hard to follow. It takes time to read and absorb everything, to remember it and connect the dots. But when you do, the story points to a cunning conductor.
Just a week ago, when I wrote my last post, this government was still hiding its actions behind what then appeared to be more a symbolic ritual than real executive orders. Aside from ripping up the TPP agreement, a frenzy of other compiled presidential orders will have to go through long time evaluations and bureaucratic procedures. Only at the end of this process will we know for sure what their impact will be. But for the time being, most of those first executive orders look like paper tigers.
Then, last Friday, President Trump crossed the river and visited the Pentagon. He went there to put James Mattis forward as his secretary of defense. On occasion, Mr. Trump also signed two new executive orders. The first was on “a significant rebuilding of the armed services of the United States, developing a plan for new planes, new ships, new resources, and new tools for our men and women in uniform,” the president said.
Then he signed a second executive order, freezing visas and putting a temporary ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries. It was a powerful message and a very cunning ploy. “We do not want these people here,” the commander-in-chief said in signing the order, surrounded by generals and other emblems of military strength. The message that the president sent was loud and clear: we will stop you — by force, if necessary.
Indeed, just a few hours later, the first passengers from the blacklisted countries began to land at American airports, where they were detained. They were clueless. Why was this happening? They were already in the air when President Trump signed the ban and put it into immediate effect. When the news came out about what was going on at U.S. airports, the country lit on fire. Thousands of people gathered in front of the airports and streets, especially in cities like Seattle, which welcomes scores of immigrants. Big corporations like Google were alarmed — many of their experts were initially from the banned countries or were traveling there for business. It was a mess. Some people became angry, some scared. Local officials stood up against the federal government. America was obviously no longer the same country. It happened overnight.
The next morning, President Trump defended his executive order, saying, “This is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion — this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” Politico reported, adding that Trump and his aides struggled to stay on message as protests spread and global outrage grew over the executive order.
It was an ordeal. The government stopped pretending and came out in the open. But denying the evidence while pressing harder, we knew that more was coming. The bulldozing has started.
Within hours, people went berserk over the humiliation of the passengers coming from the seven Muslim-majority countries. Meanwhile, Trump’s office placed another strike: Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, obtained a seat at the table of the National Security Council (NSC). The road is now entirely open, and news is coming out of the White House day by day, hour by hour — in an endless stream. Even as I write this, it is hard to keep away from all the news that is pouring in every minute. According to the Washington Post:
Trump blasted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a refugee agreement and boasted about the magnitude of his electoral college win, according to senior U.S. officials briefed on the Saturday exchange. Then, 25 minutes into what was expected to be an hour-long call, Trump abruptly ended it.
At one point, Trump informed Turnbull that he had spoken with four other world leaders that day — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that “this was the worst call by far.”
Trump’s behavior suggests that he is capable of subjecting world leaders, including close allies, to a version of the vitriol he frequently employs against political adversaries and news organizations in speeches and on Twitter.
And Mike Allen writes in an Axios AM newsletter that:
CNN’s Jake Tapper and colleagues report the Australia conversation was “a day after a call with Mexico’s President, where a transcript showed Trump complaining about Mexico’s ‘handling’ of ‘tough hombres.'”
National security adviser Mike Flynn, in a visit to the White House briefing room yesterday, warns of reprisals after Iran missile test: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.”
Reading between the lines: WSJ calls that “a more confrontational approach to Tehran” that marks “a pivot away from the Obama administration’s policy of diplomatic engagement.”
Just a few hours later — perhaps after President Trump realized the chaos that he is pushing this world into — he tried to be reassuring at the National Prayer Breakfast:
“The world is in trouble, but we’re gonna straighten it out, okay? That’s what I do — I fix things,” Trump said Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast. “We’re gonna straighten it out. Believe me. When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it.”
But we are worried, aren’t we? Aside from this incredibly exciting series of events coming out of the White House, the first worry is that it is almost impossible to do anything else but to watch this suspense movie. One almost has to admire the amount of energy demonstrated so far and wonder if this balloon might blow away one day. You can feel your stress growing just observing the show from afar. There is an excess of adrenalin on all sides.
But even more concerning are the signs of the possible consequences of the decisions taken during Trump’s first week in the White House. Cory Doctorow collected them in his blog, and if you have time, you can go through them and go beyond Trump’s superficial appearances and ponder whether some of the changes that the president and his advisers are introducing are perhaps irreversible.
As I said before, there was a remarkable escalation of events and actions after the first week of new government. Among other things, there is a rather critical reaction coming out of China, announcing that with Trump in the White House, the war between the U.S. and China is “becoming practical reality” — something that I have not seen reported in the American media. But if we add the Iran’s firing of the missile to China’s harsh words, then I get the impression that these two U.S. adversaries are not afraid of the new administration. Rather the opposite — their actions seem to be aiming to create a provocation that would add to the frenzy and chaos already reigning in the White House. It makes me think: how long can Trump’s government stay in power before something seriously damaging and irrational happens? It is evident that the resistance to Trump is starting to form outside of America, while the domestic opposition is silent and in total disarray.
So far, to me, the conduct in the White House was crafty. It was — aside from the president’s reality show appearances — actually amazing. Just watch one of Sean Spicer’s press briefings — like the one in which he tried to justify the changes to the NSC. It was a long and funny performance, with Spicer lifting up typed, underlined copies of documents on the functioning of the NSC from 2001 and Trump’s era.
“The rules are the same, the text is identical,” Spicer said, explaining the details but never mentioning Bannon, who was the core of the problem. It was Bannon taking a major role in the NSC that created an uproar in the media and political circles — not the guiding principles of the advisory body. It was artful; it was beautiful. The complacent crowd of correspondents did not object to being led astray to a different pasture. More conscious journalists who recognized the show for what it was only complained of being lied to. They obviously haven’t got it yet — that this government is their adversary, that this is the Orwellian Ministry of Truth and not some office with which one can exchange information and favors. This is the fight, chaps. Don’t you realize that when Spicer doesn’t even blink at the question of why killing an 8-year-old American girl who was in the house with an alleged terrorist in Yemen was justified, that he is telling you — and the entire world — that they can do anything they want? That silence is an admission that they did it — and that they did it on purpose to scare you and the terrorists, the Iranians and the Chinese. This strategy is coming from a mind that is capable of militarily reasoning — somebody who read Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, but also more modern military propaganda minds from the previous century. It is Bannon — not Trump — and we all know it. You do not have to go to the White House to hear that. TV is better. Even a young man with no political experience knows it better than most journalists. “The journalists should stop going to the briefings,” my young friend told me yesterday when we discussed all the change. “Take away the audience to this new power, and we will see what happens,” the smart young friend said.
But here is what I would do: we need to take the enemy out. There are various ways you can do that. When, for instance, Spicer refuses to mention Bannon, applaud him for his mime-like performance with those papers. Laugh at him. Tell him, wow — what a nice copy/paste job. Do not behave. Make him nervous — show him that he can’t tame you. And when it comes to questions like the one on killing the 8-year-old girl and Spicer hints killing her was the U.S. safety — work on those complacent journalists. Make everyone ask the same question: “Why did you kill that girl?”
Remember one thing: you are “Il quarto potere” — the fourth estate. You have the majority in that room. It’s a war room, remember? Hit back! And when Trump replaces Spicer, hit harder. When you report from the front lines, your work is a mission. You did not choose this war — your president has declared it. So hit back with the first amendment.
It will be interesting to explore potential future outcomes of Trump’s adventure in the White House.
How did all this happen? How did this brand manager get elected and taken into the hands of more brilliant, but vicious strategic minds? I am inclined to say that the Trump dynasty will leave the White House before the end of the mandated four years. But Daniel Byman of Lawfare feels differently. He analyzes some of the more absurd aspects of the ban on refugees and citizens from the seven Muslim-majority countries and comes to the conclusion that it part of why Trump is here to stay:
In the fight against the Islamic State, the United States is cooperating with Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other Muslim countries as well as substrate groups composed of Muslims. The more the United States is viewed as hostile to these countries’ and groups’ local populations, the harder it is for these governments to openly cooperate with America even if it is in their own interest. Indeed, some of the countries chosen for the ban are U.S. allies. Iraqi forces, for all their flaws, are on the front lines against the Islamic State, and denigrating Iraqis as terrorists does no favors to U.S. military forces working with Iraqi partners or with forces from other Muslim countries fighting terrorism.
The horrible reality, however, is that a terrorist attack, especially one at home, is likely to “prove” that Trump is right. Terrorists’ successes are always a bit random, but at least some low-level attacks would be likely regardless of who was president. Trump, however, ran a campaign of fear and dishonesty about the terrorism threat and the attitudes of U.S. Muslims (for example, the false claim that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks). Polls show fears of terrorism were at near-record levels before the election despite the small number of attacks and deaths in the U.S. since 9/11, and this fear increased support for Trump’s candidacy.
Once an attack happens, Trump will probably tweet that he called for vigilance and strict measures only to be opposed by bleeding heart liberals, the failing New York Times, and Muslim-lovers naïve to the true danger. The fact that his policies made the attacks more likely will be lost in the uproar.
Not a new theory at all. It is an old technique that’s been kept quiet. America generates terrorism around the globe with its interference while pursuing its economic interests. Nothing new here. These interests are even more compelling now that power is concentrated in a small record number of people, and now that corporations are — more than ever — in collusion with those in political power. And this is the real issue. Trump can be replaced anytime. It’s the union of political power and corporate dominion that is hard to get rid of.