Donald Trump’s now famous claim during his recent marathon press conference that his administration is a working like a “well-oiled machine” has provoked much ridicule.
In reality, as with so much else Donald Trump says, there is more truth to this comment than Trump’s critics allow.
The Trump administration’s problems over the first 30 days of its existence have been due less to the President’s working habits and more to the deliberate sabotage of his administration by his opponents.
Thus we have had the extraordinary delay in the Senate confirming the President’s cabinet picks, the all-too-obvious failure by the Justice Department under Sally Yates to provide proper guidance or even to defend his ‘travel ban’ Executive Order, and the political assassination of General Flynn, the President’s National Security Adviser, for having a totally innocuous telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador.
All of this has been happening alongside relentless negative briefing against the President by our old friends the ‘anonymous officials’ of the US intelligence community (most of them seem in fact to belong to the CIA).
All this has in turn fed a media campaign against the President the like of which I have never seen – and which seems wholly disproportionate to anything he has so far done – which has in turn triggered a reciprocal campaign against the media by the President and his supporters.
The result is an atmosphere of rage, hysteria and panic, which is being blamed – wrongly in my opinion – on a supposedly dysfunctional White House.
Some of the sabotage is unquestionably the product of the anger and bafflement of the Democratic Party and its supporters that its anointed candidate – Hillary Clinton – lost the election to someone they mistakenly take for a clown.
However looming over everything is the collective horror of the US elite – not just the Democratic Party elite but also much of the Republican Party elite and of the foreign policy and defence establishment, the intelligence community and the news media – at the new President’s openly expressed desire for a rapprochement with Russia.
This is the thread which links together all the elements of the campaign against Donald Trump. All the most serious allegations made against him concern Russia. Moreover this has been true ever since he became a serious candidate for the Presidency roughly a year ago.
The story is in fact one of repeated attempts to bully and blackmail first Trump the candidate and now Trump the President into repudiating his policy of detente with Russia, and then bafflement and alarm – now bordering on panic – when he not only refuses to do so, but goes on to win even more support from his electoral base.
This bafflement is completely understandable. Russia has been so comprehensively demonised by the US elite and the US media for so long that many of its members have undoubtedly come to believe what they say and write about it. It is therefore scarcely believable to them, as well as being genuinely horrifying, that it turns out that there are tens of millions of Americans who do not think about Russia in the paranoid way that they do, and that it is even possible for someone to win the Presidency who takes the opposite view.
In the case of Donald Trump what must make it even more bewildering is that there is no discernible political benefit for him in his taking the line of wanting detente with Russia that he is taking. On the contrary it has brought him nothing but trouble.
This by the way was in my opinion even true of the fall out from the DNC and Podesta leaks affair.
Since the election a myth has grown up that it was the allegedly Russian inspired leaks of the Clinton and Podesta emails that brought about Hillary Clinton’s defeat. No polling evidence has ever been produced to prove this, almost certainly because none exists. For the record my impression during the election was that the revelations from the DNC and Podesta leaks barely damaged Hillary Clinton at all. That is not surprising since the media largely ignored their contents, focusing on the unproven claims of their Russian origin instead.
In my opinion whatever damage the leaks may have done to Hillary Clinton was far offset by the damage claims of a Russian connection did to Donald Trump, especially after the US intelligence community weighed in to support those claims a few weeks before the election. Though again I have seen no polling evidence, my opinion for what it’s worth is that the DNC and Podesta leaks affair in the end on balance did less electoral damage to Hillary Clinton than it did to Donald Trump.
In the light of this, it is completely understandable that the entirety of the US political elite – not just the US intelligence community – is baffled that Trump persists in advocating a policy of detente with Russia which is bringing him nothing but trouble. Moreover to add to the perplexity, it is clear that he is fully aware of the trouble it is causing him, since he himself pointed it out during his press conference
If we could get along with Russia, that’s a positive thing. We have a very talented man, Rex Tillerson, who’s going to be meeting with them shortly and I told him. I said “I know politically it’s probably not good for me.” The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles off shore right out of the water. Everyone in this country’s going to say “oh, it’s so great.” That’s not great. That’s not great. I would love to be able to get along with Russia. Now, you’ve had a lot of presidents that haven’t taken that tack. Look where we are now. Look where we are now. So, if I can — now, I love to negotiate things, I do it really well, and all that stuff.
(bold italics added)
What for the US elite must make the President’s advocacy of his policy of detente with Russia even more perplexing is that no-one can say where he got the idea for it from.
Anyone who regularly reads US writing on international affairs questions knows that there is a current of thought in the US which has become increasingly worried by the hegemonic policy the neoliberal/neocon dominated foreign policy establishment has foisted on the US, and which is becoming worried at the damage this policy is doing to the US’s economic and social fabric. Many of those who think in this way are also becoming concerned that the drift of the policy is increasing the risk of it all ending in a shooting war with Russia.
It has always seemed to me that the people who hold these views are a marginal and even despised group within the US elite. There is no evidence Trump is close to any of them, or even knows about them, and he does not seem to have taken his ideas from them. Importantly, he has not asked any one of them to serve in his administration.
A better explanation for Trump’s unorthodox views on Russia is that – as has become increasingly clear since he became President – he is very close to the US uniformed military, and to the US oil industry, and that he has taken some of his ideas from them.
It is surely not a coincidence that Trump has gone against precedent by picking a soldier – General Mattis – for his Defence Secretary, and an oilman – Rex Tillerson – for his Secretary of State, and that despite the forced resignation of General Flynn and the refusal of Admiral Hayward to join his administration, it appears that he still wants a military officer to serve as his National Security Adviser.
Collectively the uniformed US military undoubtedly has a far better understanding of the immense dangers of a military confrontation with Russia than do the civilian neoliberal/neocon ideologues who up to now have been running US foreign policy. Many within the US military – including the families of US servicemen – must also be tired of having to fight the endless and fruitless wars the neoliberal/neocon foreign policy establishment has been forcing on them. The US military has its share of pathological anti-Russian neocons, such as the former NATO chief General Breedlove, but on balance it is probably better informed and more realistic about Russia than many in the civilian elite and in the media are.
As for the US oil industry, the notoriously unsentimental people who run the US oil industry probably see Russia less as a threat and more as a marvellous business opportunity. After all Russia is not only the world’s biggest energy producer, but is the country which (if one includes its shales) has the world’s biggest energy reserves.
If President Trump is not completely isolated in seeking detente with Russia, and if he has taken some of his ideas from people in the military and in the oil industry, the fact remains that his policy of seeking detente with Russia still appears to be very much his own, and that it remains heresy for most of the US elite.
For what it’s worth my guess is that Donald Trump thinks and acts the way he does about Russia not because he has borrowed ideas from the military or the oil industry but because he is not a politician. As a practical businessman rather than a politician it is obvious to him that it is in the US interest to get on with Russia – that after all is what he says all the time – and since he is not a politician schooled in the politician’s way of discretion he sees no reason not to say it. I would not be surprised if the benefits of the policy seem to him so obvious that he is as baffled by the fanatical opposition to it of his critics as they are by his advocacy of it.
It is not however surprising if the professional politicians who make up the US elite and the conspiratorially minded ideologues who populate the US intelligence community, the foreign policy think-tanks and the media, find it impossible to believe this, and have convinced themselves that the President is sticking to a policy which is damaging him so much politically and which appears to them so outrageous not because he genuinely believes in it and is unafraid to say so, but because he has some dark and ulterior reason for it.
This is what explains the rage and chaos in Washington, the sabotage of the President’s administration, and the talk of a dysfunctional White House.
The hysteria, the deliberate sabotage of the President’s policies, the frantic multiple investigations to find out what the “true” reason for the President’s policy towards Russia is; these are all the products of the President’s policy of wanting detente with Russia, and the US elite’s horror at the prospect, and its inability to believe that he means it sincerely.
This is why we have all the dark hints of the President and his associates having business links with Russia, of the President being blackmailed by Russia, of claims of secret contacts between the President’s campaign team and Russia, and of the President living in a world of ‘alternative facts’, which he has supposedly learnt from Russia, and which supposedly helped him win the election.
The multiple investigations launched into the President’s connections to Russia will come to nothing. Were there anything to find it would surely have been found by now. The fact that after a year of bitter electoral campaigning and of multiple investigations by the FBI, CIA, NSA, British intelligence, the US tax authorities, legions of private investigators, and the news media, nothing has been found – other than one obviously fake dossier – is a sure sign that nothing exists to be found.
That will not of course satisfy the President’s neoliberal/neocon critics. As the investigations repeatedly draw a blank, they will demand more and more investigations to find what doesn’t exist but what they are convinced is there. The risk they run is that over time the public will become bored with a never ending saga which is going nowhere, and they will lose its attention, but in the meantime their increasingly shrill demands for more and more investigations will add to the hysterical atmosphere.
In the meantime one senses that the US intelligence community – or to be more precise the CIA, which is the agency which is driving the campaign against the President – is becoming increasingly frustrated by the President’s refusal to be blackmailed into changing his policy, and by his repeated success in seeing off their challenges. This is leading some of them into more and more extreme actions, with the campaign to oust General Flynn tipping over into outright illegality.
Meanwhile the senior members of the President’s administration – Pence, Mattis, Haley and the rest – all of them, unlike the President, either professional politicians or experienced public servants – seem to be as baffled by the President’s policy as everyone else is, and seem uncertain what to do.
Donald Trump’s policy of seeking detente with Russia is for real. His press conference following the resignation of General Flynn puts that beyond doubt. Moreover the fact he is meeting so much resistance is a sure sign that this time – unlike in the time of Obama’s ‘reset’ – the change he wants in relations with Russia is for real. Given how difficult it is to shift gears in the runaway train that is what US foreign policy has become, the fact there are explosions in the engine room such as the resignation of General Flynn is no more that what in the circumstances one would expect, and is proof that the President is indeed trying to shift them. Whether he succeeds – or survives – in his attempt to do so is another matter.
In the meantime the hysteria and the chaos in Washington will continue until either the President prevails or backs down or is removed from office.