Fair and Unbalanced

Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

Donald Trump has just pushed some very fine people, as he would put it, over the edge. Some very fine people now know that the president of the United States is not just your random unfit demagogue who somehow ended up in the White House.

He’s the unfit demagogue who has chosen to publicly align himself, before God and country and all those TV cameras, with white supremacists.

Some very fine people who were certain that nothing Trump could say could shock them anymore watched in dismay as Trump, who built an empire on his brand, has unaccountably branded himself as friend to Nazis and the KKK — the two most thoroughly despised brands in American history.

I wrote the other day that we shouldn’t talk about Trump and his nod to both-siderism as having crossed a line, because he had crossed them all before and to no effect — either on him, on his congressional enablers, or on his base.

But that was before Tuesday. It’s one thing to call immigrants rapists or to mock a disabled reporter or to give winking support to the alt-right. It’s another to publicly say that those in Charlottesville who were bravely standing up to the neo-Nazis and the KKK were no better than — yes, you know  — the Nazis and the KKK themselves. He said there were “very fine people” on both sides, even if only one side — yes, the Nazis — had permits. He said the press had treated those marching alongside the Nazis “very unfairly” and that he alone was ready to point out that the anti-Nazi “alt-left” was also “very, very violent.”

“You had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest and very legally protest,” Trump said of the Nazis. Trump obviously hasn’t seen the VICE report from the ground in Charlottesville and the shocking video of Trump’s so-called peaceful march. He should watch it. Everyone should watch it.

And maybe it’s just me, and I guess all the others in the fake-news press, but if you’re marching with those holding the tiki torches and chanting anti-Semitic slogans, that may disqualify you from the whole very-fine-person construct.

So, Trump did cross a line, which is quickly turning into an abyss. David Duke tweeted his thanks for Trump’s honesty. Meanwhile, Trump’s two main CEO councils have now been disbanded. Imagine, the nation’s CEOs standing in as the national conscience.

And when they write the books about the rise and fall of Donald Trump — and the “fall” is now as inevitable as it is likely to be tragic — the question they’ll have to answer is how far Trump dragged America down as he went.

There are other questions, of course. How long can the American people stand the turmoil of a Trump presidency before they put enough pressure on Republican lawmakers to finally disassociate themselves from Trump? You don’t need a graph to spot the trend line here. One Trump crisis bleeds — in this case, in the death of Heather Heyer, literally and tragically bleeds — into the next and then the next and then the next. As a friend noted to me the other day, no president other than Trump could have threatened fire and fury nuclear war on a Tuesday and have it forgotten by the weekend.

But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe the question is how long Trump can stand it. We saw at the Tuesday presser a man entirely guided by impulse. He was mad at the media for criticizing his Saturday both-siderism — now seen as Trump’s halcyon days — mad at his handlers for forcing him to give the hostage-like “racism is evil” statement, mad enough that he took questions from the press so that he’d have the chance to show how mad (and not just angry mad) he was.

If he felt the need to reach out, as some have suggested he was doing, to those with sympathy not for Nazis but for the concept that white America is getting a bad deal, you can see how desperate he is. He tried again to make the moral-equivalency case, this time that removing Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues would mean that statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson inevitably follow.

It’s an absurd argument. Washington and Jefferson, though both slaveholders, helped birth the nation and the very ideals that make America, at its best, great. Lee and Jackson were the generals who bore arms against the United States in defense of slavery and whose statues were erected, in the main, as a political statement in favor of Jim Crow and Southern apartheid. There is no more equivalency here than there was between the Charlottesville protesters and the Nazis.

I don’t know what comes next for Trumpworld, only that the political tensions aren’t going away and neither is the question of what comes next. The cumulative effect is clear. Trump may have his unshakeable base, something like a third of the electorate, but the ground keeps shifting, on them, on Trump, on the rest of us.

Biographer David Maraniss suggested this in a tweet: “The living former presidents – Bushes, Carter, Clinton & Obama- should make a joint statement calling on the racist Trump to resign.” They won’t do it, of course. Not yet anyway. But it’s a simple proposition and an even simpler test. If you’re having trouble condemning Nazis, you’re probably not fit to hold the office.

But here’s a sure prediction: It won’t be the last test that Trump fails. And it won’t be the last one that tests a nation along with him.

Photo of Mt. Rushmore by Christian Collins via Flickr: Creative Commons

The temptation is to say that a line was crossed on Saturday in America. But I can’t bring myself to do it.

Maybe the most depressing thing about the death and chaos in Charlottesville is just that. A group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites, Confederate and Nazi flag wavers and others in the alt-right movement converged on a small college town — my own college town, as it happens —  and left one counter-protester dead, two assisting policemen killed in a helicopter crash, many wounded and a nation badly shaken.

And the reassuring words from the president of the United States were that violence and bigotry are bad, but that “many sides” are to be blamed. And, he added, what we need to do is study how this could happen, as if the lessons of violent racism in this country still needed to be learned.

As Joe Biden tweeted, in this five-word lesson: “There is only one side.”

The temptation is to say that in refusing to condemn the torch-lit, Klan-rally-without-the-hoods bigotry playing out in Charlottesville, in refusing to say that, for God’s sake, his grandchildren are Jewish and that he rejects anyone who spews this kind of hatred toward his grandchildren, Donald Trump revealed something about himself. But, of course, that’s not true. All Donald Trump revealed was that he was exactly who we thought him to be, the person who can spit out the most vile things about, say, Megyn Kelly, but who couldn’t bring himself to criticize David Duke. Anyone who can’t see that simply, and willfully, refuses to see that.

We knew about his historical ignorance. We knew about his historic lack of empathy. We knew about his unwillingness and/or inability, as Michael Gerson pointed out, to do the most essential job of the president — to “express something of the nation’s soul” in such times. What Trump expressed instead was his pathological need to remind everyone that, despite whatever else was happening,  he deserves credit for doing a great job as president. Unemployment’s down, the market is up, a Nazi used ISIS tactics by plowing a car into a crowd, and we’re going to study how this happened.

This is stunning and yet not surprising, which is what we’ve said time and again about Trump. His refusal to condemn the bigots was basically an admission he believes that much of his base is sympathetic to what Cory Gardner insisted that Trump call “domestic terrorism.”

Yes, Cory Gardner. It was Gardner who tempted me. I’ve cited Gardner many times for being all too typical of those Republicans who have enabled Trump, who have sat by silently as Trump defiles his office, who had, in fact, just buckled under by voting for the ill-prepared, ill-conceived repeal-and-maybe-replace bills that would have robbed millions of their health care coverage in a failed attempt to provide Trump with a legislative victory.

But a line must have been crossed for Gardner, who tweeted a reply to Trump’s first vague tweet on Charlottesville, which was not even as strong as his many-sides statement that came much later.

“Mr. President — we must call evil by its name,” Gardner tweeted. “These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism.”

For Gardner, this was a bold step. A parade of Republicans — Hatch, Grassley, McCain, Rubio, Cruz and many others, including even Jeff Sessions — followed. And Gardner double-downed by going on CNN’s State of the Union with Jake Tapper Sunday morning to say that Trump needed to “step up,” noting that “This is not the time for vagaries. This isn’t a time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines.”

Noting that Ivanka Trump had just called out white nationalists, Gardner said her father must follow. “This is a time to lay blame, to lay blame on bigotry, to lay blame on white supremacists, on white nationalism and on hatred,” Gardner said. “And that needs to be said. Call this white supremacism, this white nationalism, evil, and let the country hear it. Let the world hear it.”

Gardner added: “And if he doesn’t do that, then we can continue to answer the question of why.”

The problem for Gardner, and for the rest of us, is that it’s too late for Trump to lay blame on Nazis. There is no reasonable explanation for his failure to have already done so. This was the dog whistle of all dog whistles.

The question that must be asked and answered is why shouldn’t we say that a line, finally, has been crossed and that it is no longer possible to be aligned with this president. Not only is Trump morally and intellectually unfit for the job, not only does he feed conspiracy theories, chase down innocent immigrants, play chicken with nuclear-armed nations, attempt to quash climate science, but he’s the president who would have us think he can make America great again with a wink and a nod to torches and many-sidesism.

The history is pretty clear. Gardner blasted Trump for the Access Hollywood tape but then joined his team. Lyin’ Ted allowed Trump to connect his father to, of all things, the Kennedy assassination and then joined his team. Lil Marco played handsies with Trump and then joined his team. Paul Ryan called Trump’s attack on the Indiana judge textbook racism, but then joined his team.

Now Trump has many-sided with Nazis. I keep wanting to say a line has been crossed and that this one is, at last, a line too far. But he has crossed so many lines during his Mexicans-are-rapists, heroes-aren’t-captured, disabled-reporters-are-mockable, so-what-if-Putin-kills-people, fire-Jim-Comey, threaten-job-of-special-prosecutor campaign and presidency.

And so, a man slams a car into a crowd in the name of white supremacy. A president condemns the violence in the name of law and order. A nation is shocked and saddened and angered. In other words, another day in Trumpworld. Another day when shock and sadness and anger aren’t enough. Another day when the real unanswered question is how not to give in to despair.


Photo of University of Virginia Rotunda by Rob for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

It’s time to move past all the locked-and-loaded psychoanalysis of the president and all the commentary on his immature bluster and all the annotated absurdities of his Thursday news conference/photo op and even past the dashed hopes of anyone foolish enough to believe John Kelly would be a positive influence, or any kind of influence, in the Oval Office.

All that’s well and good for another day, say when Donald Trump is contenting himself with bumping up against Mitch McConnell or Rosie O’Donnell.

But now that we’ve reached the triple-dog-dare moment in the North Korea crisis — and the question is who plays the role of Flick — we need to seriously ask ourselves what happens next. What if Kim Jong Un actually does fire missiles toward Guam? What would Trump do?

We shouldn’t be facing this question, of course. Trump set the stage with his rainy-vacation-day “fire and fury” ad lib that threatened something terrible, something the world has never seen, if North Korea continued to threaten the United States and its allies. The problem, of course, is that North Korea’s entire foreign policy is built on making bizarre yet unfulfilled threats while also making real nukes with real missiles to carry them.

And so, with Trump’s ill-considered red-line warning about threats, Kim Jong Un responded by threatening to bomb the waters around Guam. And before you knew it, Trump was saying that “fire and fury” wasn’t tough enough and then he was tweeting out photos of America might as if anyone doubted America’s might. I mean anyone other than Trump, who spent his entire presidential campaign saying that America’s military was in shambles, but who is now saying that he has personally put the nuclear program right.

So, that’s where we are. Kim is not threatening to hit Guam with missiles, remember. He’s threatening to consider launching four missiles that, if all went right (meaning, terribly wrong), would land somewhere near Guam. He wouldn’t dare hit Guam, at least not intentionally, because that would guarantee the conflagration would begin, meaning hundreds of thousands, if not millions, would likely die and the absurdity of the bully-boy smackdown would conclude with the end of Kim and the likely end of North Korea at a cost too terrible to imagine.

But what if Kim does, as threatened, fire the missiles that land 20 miles from Guam? That could happen. Kim could take brinkmanship all the way to the brink. Kim left himself a major out, saying his military would present a plan for him to consider. He could consider and reject it. He could consider and say he’s putting it on hold depending on America’s response. Or he could take the chance that Trump’s golf-club threats and early-morning tweets shouldn’t be taken seriously and see if America tries to shoot the missiles out of the sky.

Listen, I’m not trying to alarmist here. I think the risk of war remains small. There’s no evidence that Kim, tyrant that he is, envisions suicide by nuclear holocaust. And even with Trump in office, I still have enough faith in history and in the understanding by everyone, including Trump, the cataclysm any attack on North Korea would risk, and especially in the fact that North Korea had learned in the hardest possible way what “fire and fury” meant during the Korean War.

Whatever the rules of combat say, there are many generals Trump would have to fight his way through before starting a such a war. When Defense Secretary James Mattis was asked Thursday to estimate the death toll from a nuclear war, he guided reporters back toward diplomacy and the recent unanimous United Nations vote on sanctions against North Korea.

“The American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results and I want to stay right there right now,” Mattis said. “The tragedy of war is well-enough known it doesn’t need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.”

A nuclear war may be unthinkable, but a nuclear North Korea is a reality. Diplomacy with North Korea has repeatedly failed, as Trump has noted, but, as most experts seem to be advising, containment has not failed. There is the option of accepting a nuclear North Korea and moving from there. Accepting that the Soviet Union was a nuclear power, and a far more dangerous one, is how we survived the Cold War.

I read an interesting piece by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how John Kennedy had, just prior to the showdown, read the “Guns of August,” Barbara Tuchman’s epic book on World War I in which she described a world stumbling into a war that no one wanted, a war that brought ruin to a continent and served as prologue to the even more disastrous world war to come. Kennedy said reading the book gave him real insight into the crisis he faced.

But as Gerson notes, Trump doesn’t read. He watches TV, becomes infected with cable-news rage and then tweets. It’s not the same thing.

Here’s what Kennedy said in explaining how he resisted the advice to risk war against the Soviet Union during the missile crisis, “Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”

And yet here is Trump pushing Kim Jong Un toward that very choice, one locked-and-loaded tweet, one ill-considered ad lib, one double-down threat, one triple-down ultimatum at a time.

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers en route to Guam from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas alongside two South Korea F-15s. Photo by U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Kamaile Chan, via Flickr: Creative Commons.

I’m not sure how it happened, why it happened or even exactly when it happened, but it seems that our own John Hickenlooper and his new pal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, are now apparently in charge of fixing the health care system in America.

Nobody appointed them to the job. I checked to be sure. And as far as I can tell, no one even asked them.

But they’ve been at it for months now. The theory, presumably, is that since Trumpcare, Ryancare and McConnellcare have all failed to either repeal or replace Obamacare, somebody has to step up before Donald Trump, out of frustration or malice or both, tries to blow the whole thing up.

And if you watch cable TV news, or the Sunday morning shows, Hickenlooper and Kasich are all over the place, promoting a plan that doesn’t yet exist, while promoting a return to bipartisanship, which also doesn’t exist, maybe, just maybe, also promoting themselves. Here’s a tell on the self-promotion part: Kasich, who has already run against Donald Trump once and might well challenge him in a 2020 primary, insisted to John Dickerson on CBS News’ Face the Nation that the last thing he and Hickenlooper want is any credit.

OK, it’s easy to be cynical. For Hickenlooper, this is not only a big play, if one involving almost no risk, but it’s also an extremely savvy one. And who knows, maybe it can even work.

I always laugh when I hear Hickenlooper mentioned as one of many potential candidates in a wide-open presidential field in 2020. You don’t need to be a political science major to know that Democrats have moved well to the left or that Hickenlooper, who has spent most of his political career avoiding party labels, is a committed centrist. If there was ever a right time for Hick on the national stage, this isn’t it.

And yet.

I don’t think Hickenlooper is running for president, except in the wildest of his dreams, although a run for president to take another shot at vice president could make some sense. Whatever, I’m pretty sure he’s running for something, which could mean Cory Gardner’s Senate seat, which is also up in 2020. Hick himself says he’s “not ruling it out,” which could mean anything. Or nothing.

But it may not be coincidence that Hick is working on health care while Gardner not only voted three times for increasingly unpopular versions of dismantling Obamacare, but embarrassed himself in the process by continually hinting he was undecided how he would vote. His decision, it turned out, had less to do with health care reform than with playing good soldier for McConnell and Trump. Asked about Gardner’s series of votes, Hickenlooper said, “That’s not the Cory Gardner I thought I knew.”

Actually, of course, it’s exactly the Cory Gardner we all know.

Hickenlooper’s decision, meanwhile, is to go back to his comfort zone — which is to talk about the need to work across the aisle. Talking about it, after all, is the easy part, and few things work better in politics than appealing to the please-stop-the-dysfunction vote. I mean, people always say they want the parties to work together, even if they keep electing people who don’t. That’s why Hick and Kasich are also talking about a job-training fix. I mean, what could be more bipartisan than that?

In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 71 percent of respondents wanted Republicans to work with Democrats on fixing health care. And, if you’re having any trouble with the math, 71 percent is a majority in any town. (It’s also about double Trump’s current approval ratings, if you’re into that kind of thing.)

So along come Democrat Hickenlooper and Republican Kasich as governors (meaning, yes, politicians, but not from Washington) promising to work together with other governors (also not from Washington) to save the day. They say they’re going to put their staffs to work to come up with a solution that they can then take to other governors and their staffs and, before you know it …

OK, that’s not the way landmark legislation, or any other kind, usually works. I wouldn’t expect the United States Congress to thank a bunch governors for doing what they’ve failed miserably at doing. Last I heard, Mitch McConnell was saying he found it “extremely irritating” that people were calling the do-nothing Congress a do-nothing Congress. And he blamed Trump for his “excessive expectations.”

Meanwhile, Lamar Alexander, currently a senator, has already said he will hold hearings on stabilizing the insurance markets on the Obamacare exchanges. That’s the main problem right now — a problem, in large part, because Trump keeps threatening to sabotage the exchanges by not “bailing out”  insurance companies. The bailout is actually “cost-sharing reduction” subsidies paid to insurance companies by the federal government that allow for lower cost of deductibles and copays for those making less than 250 percent above the poverty line. In other words, the so-called bailout is to ensure that people who have insurance can actually use it.

That’s the kind of thing Hickenlooper and Kasich might be able to explain to a TV audience. And even if they don’t put together a plan the Senate is likely to adopt, they could put on a show about how to improve health care without getting politics in the way. If that’s a longshot, there is this, which seems like a sure thing: If they make a good impression on TV, who do you think will be watching them on the shows?

Hickenlooper told the story the other day of walking through the receiving line at the White House, where governors were dining with Trump. Hickenlooper had been on cable TV that morning, and Trump, he said, “stopped and kind of made a funny face and said, ‘I saw you this morning. You were good — very good. I’ll have to keep my eye on you.’”

So, Hickenlooper has Trump’s attention. Kasich has long had Trump’s attention, if not necessarily in a good way. Now all they need is even more time on TV and a one-page beautiful health care plan to bring with them on the set.

Photo by Marianne Goodland

For all those insisting that Cory Gardner finally hold his first town hall meeting of the Trump era, I’ve got some partly-fake news for you.

He had one. Sort of. It was Friday afternoon in Durango.

He brought with him three friends — including the state’s top two Democrats — as cover. And though he faced a largely unfriendly audience — or at least that’s how it looked on the streaming video I watched — no one laid a glove on him. In other words, it was vintage Gardner.

He dodged questions he didn’t want to answer, which was pretty much all of them. And he insisted that this fake town hall — in a small venue, with very little public notice, with Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper and Scott Tipton there taking questions — was the real thing.

I don’t think anyone in the crowd bought it. As one questioner asked as the meeting was nearing a close, “When will you be back to do a real town hall?

The answer, if it came truthfully, would probably be never. Gardner, of course, didn’t say. But if Gardner showed anything Friday, it was that he has made a huge mistake ducking these crowds. Yeah, if you held a town hall anywhere near Denver, you’d get the TV cameras there showing angry constituents, and it might get some play on national cable TV news.

But you’d also get to say that you’re not afraid to do a little small-d democracy and that you’ll answer some of the tough questions that any Republican would have to face right now.

The problem is, Gardner is afraid. And you can understand why.

He can’t defend his support of Trump. He can’t defend his role in attempting to repeal Obamacare. And he’s very unlikely to explain why he can’t talk honestly about what Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has called the Republicans’ Faustian bargain with Trump.

Flake said that Republican politicians, and he included himself in his blistering assessment, have spent the last months enabling a president they know to be unfit for the job. Columnist Michael Gerson, former Bush speechwriter and White House aide, called Flake’s stand the “single biggest act of political bravery in the Trump era.”

Imagine Gardner taking a similar stand. OK, you can’t. Now try to imagine him saying what Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she told Trump about her vote on Obamacare repeal: “I made a statement to the President with my colleagues and with his team there that ‘I’m not voting for the Republican Party. I’m voting for the people of Alaska.'”

OK, you can’t do that either. Instead, we have the devastating photo of Gardner walking alongside Mitch McConnell as they head to the Senate floor to vote for the “skinny repeal” bill. It’s a photo you may see again. And again. It’s a photo Democrats will use to remind voters that Gardner voted for three different iterations of Obamacare repeal — one that would have robbed 16 million people of their healthcare coverage, one that would have robbed 22 million people of their coverage and one that would have, and here’s your winner, robbed 32 million people of their coverage.

So when Gardner was asked to explain “why on Earth” — as one questioner put it — he had voted to repeal Obamacare, he began his usual spiel about all the problems with Obamacare without once mentioning why any of the bills he voted for, and presumably helped to write, would improve matters. He didn’t because he couldn’t. Not with a straight face, anyway.

The crowd booed, saying they’d heard all that before. And so Gardner said one more thing they’d heard before: “Seven years ago, when I ran for Congress, I said that I would vote to repeal and replace Obamacare, and I’m going to continue to live up to the promise that I made. The reason is: The Affordable Care Act isn’t working.”

More boos. It turns out that a lot has changed in seven years since Gardner was waving his insurance company letter around. Trump got to be president, the Mooch happened and, along the way, Obamacare became popular. Go figure.

But Gardner, after taking a little heat, found his way back to his seat among the politicians, who had come to the meeting from a tour of the Gold King Mine with EPA Director Scott Pruitt. The mine was presumably to be the topic of the day. But the fact that Gardner was there, or anywhere, to answer questions from the crowd, or any crowd, changed the topic dramatically.

If Gardner held his own, as he seemed to, that was never really going to be his problem. Donald Trump is his problem. The Republican agenda is his problem. Taking $770 billion from Medicaid recipients in order to fund a tax cut for the rich is his problem. Standing by as Trump takes another run at the culture wars — banning transgender troops, cutting legal immigration, breaking several Boy Scout pledges — those are his problems.

The fact that Trump is polling in the high 30s — and almost certainly lower than that in Colorado — is definitely Gardner’s problem.

The cracks in Trump’s support in Washington are now plainly visible. The Senate is remaining in continuous session during the August recess so that the president can’t use the recess to fire Jeff Sessions. There are a pair of bipartisan bills being proposed that would prohibit a president (like Trump) from firing a special counsel (like Bob Mueller) without review from a panel of federal judges. In an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, Congress passed sanctions against Russia — the margin was so big that even Gardner could safely join in — that were a direct rebuke to Trump.

The thing is, at some point, Gardner may well have to dump Trump. It won’t be like Flake. It wouldn’t be bravery that does it, of course. If or when it happens, it will be purely out of self-defense.

And, in any case, you wouldn’t need a town hall to give you the news. My guess is that it would be as obvious as the writing on the Mooch’s bathroom wall.

Photo via Sen. Cory Gardner Facebook