Monday, June 12, 2017


By Dominique Paul Noth

Mattis uses Churchill as comfort blanket
A stone-faced military man of the sort America used to make statues to, James Mattis, secretary of defense, is tasked with settling fears among allies that the US is not as wacky and self-centered as Trump sounds. 

To that end Mattis reassured Asian (and other) powers by resurrecting a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill -- once they had “exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

His jest at a Singapore meeting of defense ministers was a backhanded way of admitting that Trump is only partway through exhausting alternatives.  It also underscored how much the citizenry is leaning on Trump’s foreign power team to put him on the right track.

The worry now is, who is infecting whom? 

H.R. McMasters replaced Mike Flynn on the national security council, dripping with credentials as a thinking military man, straight shooter, expert on counter-terrorism and  independent voice.

Where has the real McMasters gone?
So ask his admirers
Yet one of his first uses by Trump was subservient TV shill to explain the president’s behavior in the Oval Office, then the Middle East and with European allies. That --  and subsequent statements defending the “America first” terminology and the impending cold-shoulder to foreign concerns  --  caused longtime admirers to plead for the once admired McMasters to return to sanity

Another military man, Gen. John Kelly, put in charge of Homeland Security, has a history of valuing diplomacy in administration. He assured leaders of sanctuary cities that he will do “nothing Draconian” and even frankly admitted he needed to learn what a sanctuary city is. (Most, he will discover to Trump’s dismay, are well within the law.)

Despite a testy exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) pressing him on policy specifics, he repeated the assurance that he would work with local communities on how to “balance” their concerns. 

Kelly promises nothing Draconian for sanctuary cities but
sets ICE agents loose on roundups.
He has said other reasonable-sounding if tough things about undocumented residents. Yet, at the same time, the ICE agents under his control have been turned loose, rounding up not just immigrants with serious criminal records but “dreamers” (those brought to the country as small children), parents married to a US citizen and others whose only violation has been getting into the country without papers. 

Kelly is proving more obedient than internally outspoken about Trump’s orders,   mildly correcting Trump’s tweet about the urgent need for a “travel ban.”  No, “it’s just a  travel pause.” That hardly settles the legal issues and may even exacerbate the differences between what Trump says and what his people explain

The non-military member of this foreign relations quartet ran his own foreign policy staff, sometimes contrary to US policy,  as leader and negotiator for Exxon oil.  Rex Tillerson has gravitas and world contacts in his repertoire but as secretary of state is proving  aloof and incommunicative,  hardly the sort of energetic engager represented by John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and even Republican  Condoleezza Rice. He acts as if he’s putting a reluctant year into  public service to placate Trump’s need for an important rump in the seat.

Tillerson heads a state department shut out of much decision-making. He has also found his reputation thwarted by Trump statements that depart from Rex’s influence and stealth pace.  

Tillerson doesn't seem quite seated at State.
Nowhere was this clearer recently than with tiny oil rich Qatar, home to 10,000 US troops and two important bases.  Saudi Arabia, which played Trump like a tired old fiddle on his recent visit, clearly felt emboldened (and what a coincidence that only after Trump’s orb-clutching  visit did Sunni terrorists openly attack Iran’s major cities). 

The Saudis have undying enmity for Iran and want to control Qatar’s freestyle methods (funding the controversial but respected Al Jazeera TV network and making nicer with Iran) by attacking the same thing the Saudis have done in the past – refusing to cut off money to terrorist groups.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia lead the world hit parade in violating human and worker rights (not to mention women’s rights) and while  Qatar is making progress too slowly in fighting ISIS, so it could be argued are the Saudis. In some ways, Qatar may even have been smarter than the Saudis and Trump in realizing moderation has gained strength in Iran and now is the time to seize the opportunity. Or is that what the Saudis really fear?

Tillerson and Mattis have both signaled a stronger desire than Trump for quiet resolution of  differences between Qatar and its neighbors. Both were surprised and unhappy with Trump’s tone encouraging the current blockade of Qatar by surrounding Arab states, despite the intense intermarriages and social connections among all  the groups. 

Meanwhile, the Saudi war against Yemen, also heavily about local issues, remains unabated and somewhat encouraged by that enormous arms deal with the US. Where the state department could once use its prestige to engage in the Yemen crisis, Trump’s policy of non-engagement is getting little blowback from the appointees he assured us were not yes men.

Thus should end America’s new delusion about the Trump era – yes, he tweets outrageous things but at least, citizens tell themselves,  there are a handful of good servants around him on foreign affairs that will keep the country out of the deepest ditches. 

Now all the public can hope for are delaying actions from once honored figures who may belatedly correct Trump’s behavior but are unlikely to frontally challenge it. 

Qatar is one example – since Trump now backs negotiations that his harsh rhetoric make difficult. NATO was another example, cutting direct support for Article 5 from his speech without telling the advisers,  then affirming  support in a backhanded way during a press conference  with Romanian president Klaus Iohannis (who also demonstrated how to quietly reprimand Trump on his immigration attitudes).

The delusion of “good servants” still lingers on the foreign policy side but has been pretty well dashed on the domestic side, which is more important for most Americans. 

Half that side of the cabinet contains Trumpites who every day sound more like the boss -- slick motor-mouth spouters of statistics that make no sense but roll off the tongue (health secretary Tom Price, budget-land’s Mick Mulvaney and pompous Scott Pruitt at EPA). Or they are largely Republican names and big donors clearly out of their intellectual depth – Betsy DeVos at education, Ben Carson at housing and Rick Perry at energy.  (Even writing the last three names feels like science fiction.)

Photoshop wags on the Internet are having
field day with Trump's signing ceremonies
The majority of American voters who supported someone else for president -- and still can’t believe the nation could follow someone like Obama with someone like Trump -- have also been enjoying the false comfort of Trump ineptitude.

Flourishing every executive signing as if displaying the menu at Mar-a-Lago, Trump has caused robust Internet laughter with declarations of intent treated as actual bills, faux laws and other excuses to gather a handful of favorites around him for picture-taking. But the public’s comfort has come from how little of these events have resulted in actual laws.  America has been enjoying a five month reprieve from economic and social disaster.

But now things look different and Republicans  are getting busy – even hastily busy as the sheriffs close in on the Trump campaign. The GOP Congress can only justify standing this close to Trump if its agenda is finally being served. 

Sen. Mitch McConnell doesn’t give a fig about the nation’s health care but wants to prove just who is the real deal maker in D.C. A health bill would open the door to gutting Dodd-Frank and improving the tax atmosphere for the very rich. The Senate is more difficult than the House.

So McConnell, who has succeeded before against bad odds, is maneuvering to bring a health bill to 50 votes plus the vice president as tie-breaker.  If he has to give up Planned Parenthood or pre-existing conditions or punch up state rights and health savings accounts, he will in a New York minute. 

It’s taken awhile, but now the actual deportation of  needed immigrant workers is growing. Regulations against dumping chemical waste and manure are disappearing.  DeVos is seriously trying to use federal incentives to turn us into a nation of religious voucher schools. 

This means the need for citizen protest is hardly diminishing. It is even expanding to combat the White House bully pulpit and dark money.  States and businesses are being forced to set out on their own for environment advances and climate change.  Clean energy has also become a local initiative and any hopes of a national clean water movement are gone. Even the infrastructure everyone wants has started for Trump by trying to privatize the nation’s airports,  though it’s  airlines causing traveler grief.

Trump’s bungling may last forever, but Republicans are desperate to take advantage of White House control now.  Because they know the scales can’t be so badly tipped for much longer.

About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at