Trumpster Diving

  • This has to be part of anyone’s takeaway from that sham summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin: Something is compromising Trump’s behavior. Increasingly, it looks like it’s a lot more than “golden showers.”
  • Trump accepts the word of Putin that Russia didn’t meddle in our election. He dismisses the word of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats—and demeans the entire intelligence communitywho say they certainly did meddle. How does Coats not quit? Or is he concerned that next up will just be a Trump sycophant who will make matters even worse?
  • Bottom line: Trump is good for Russia, not America. In an international forum, he stands forcefully against American media’s “witch hunt,” but he stands down to Putin.
  • Donald Trump, as we know, is the “enemy of the press.” But he looks almost tolerant when juxtaposed to Vladimir Putin. That’s because the bar is subterranean low. Trump demonizes, stigmatizes, threatens and scapegoats. Putin does mob hits.
  • Speaking of the media, this just in from Donald Tusk, president of the European Council: “America and the EU are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news.”
  • Amid all the back and forth regarding the Russian state’s obvious meddling in the U.S. elections, one quote continues to resonate more than any other. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” It should still Make America Grate.
  • It says a lot about our virulent, divisive politics when Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti are cast as the “good guys.”
  • That Judiciary Committee exchange that featured FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok, the F-bombing Trump disparager, was beyond contentious. It was an in-your-face exercise in mutual contempt that most American observers, including “Saturday Night Live” staffers, would find deplorably embarrassing.

Saudi Societal Affront

Saudi Arabia wanted to improve its Wahhabi image and self-servingly encourage Western investment. So it is now permitting women to legally drive. But they still need male permission to travel and marry.

This isn’t about skewed Western perspective or cultural relativism or insensitivity to religious values. Saudi Arabia remains a demeaning society, just slightly less demeaning than it used to be. Too bad it’s an ally.

Talking: The Right Option

*Donald Trump has been criticized for, among other summit things, legitimizing Kim Jong-un as a world-stage co-equal with the president of the United States. The orchestrated, optics-seen-around-the-world handshake did it. It topped Kim’s ultimate bucket list. It’s a huge, regime-enhancing deal over there; it’s more high-profile grist for the partisan political mill over here.

But while it was hardly a Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev moment, it mattered mightily.

Ostensible, strategic quid pro quos are, as has been well noted, yet to manifest themselves. What the U.S. tangibly and verifiably got out of it remains to be seen. We know that.

But there is still this: What happened between Trump and Kim was well within the cardinal rule of statecraft that applies even to rogue dictators with warped priorities. You talk to the leader of the other side, no matter how dark.

Barack Obama voiced that reality during his presidential debates with John McCain. “You talk to your adversaries,” underscored the former president who even Republicans should miss more and more each perilous day. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them … is ridiculous. We were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying we’re going to wipe you off the planet.”

You talk to your adversaries–OK, enemies–because it’s part of any country’s enlightened self interest to do so. Lives are at stake. And if you’re America, it means you’re not too big to share a conference table–and global stage–with a nefarious lesser if the existential interest of imperiled lives is on the line. It is and they are.

This is not, to say the least, an endorsement of Donald Trump’s modus operandi, especially since his “Little Rocket Man” playground taunts and incineration threats helped, ironically, create the need for a summit in the first place. Especially since his understanding of Korea is likely derived from binge-watching “M*A*S*H.” But it is an acknowledgement that whatever the context, you need to talk. Whether it’s to Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, Ali Khamenei or Nicolas Maduro.

The Korean status quo–from war games and Cold War-remnant U.S. troops to an apocalyptic,  nuclear trip wire has to change someday. So let’s do something before “someday” is too late. Even if the two leaders are incongruous caricatures of real statesmen.

* It’s bad enough to flat out lie and scurrilously scapegoat Democrats for the administration’s aggressive “zero-tolerance” approach to illegal border crossings that has resulted in the inhumane separation of children from their parents, but it’s made worse with an unconscionable religious justification. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cherry picked a verse in the Book of Romans on obeying government law. “God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he sanctimoniously declared. “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law,” underscored deplorably disingenuous White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.

Apparently “What you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” isn’t applicable in the context of presidential fiat, kids-as-pawns politics and what appeals to the Trump base. Here’s hoping the American electorate will show its outrage–and conscience–with a backlash vote that shows “zero tolerance” for hypocritically cruel, political pandering.

* “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”–That was Trump’s deadpan riff on the relationship that Kim Jong-un has with his people. He was kidding. Of course he was kidding.

Wasn’t he?

* How do you go from being “America’s mayor” to Trump’s pimp, Rudy? From the point man for rallying a 9/11 city to being reviled by good people? From nonpareil to Nosferatu? Ghoul-iani, you sleep too well.

Trumpster Diving

* Trump and Kim arguably deserve each other. The rest of the world deserves better.

* Not that we didn’t know optics was a major part of Trump’s summit “preparation,” but Larry Kudlow underscored that fraught reality when he acknowledged that the president was using the Group of 7 summit for North Korean signal-sending. Apparently counterproductive signals sent to fellow “allies” was not an issue.

Kudlow, the director of the White House National Economic Council, said Trump was “not going to let a Canadian prime minister push him around on the eve of this ( NOKO summit).” That’s why Trump didn’t sign off on the joint communiqué that formally wraps up a summit. It would have made him look weak was the rationale.

* “Fellow Republicans, this is not who we are. This cannot be our party.” That statement was from Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Too bad the few GOPsters, such as Flake, who speak out against Trump and his egomaniacal priorities are leaving public office. Real guts–and real “America First” values–are obviously not enough for the sycophantic, enabling cowards who maintain their compromised careers and don’t want to get “primaried” by Trump’s deplorable base.

* When it comes to illegal border crossings and the separation of children, it’s more than the usual political partisans who are weighing in against the Trump Administration. Exhibit A: the United Nations. “The use of immigration detention and family separation as a deterrent runs counter to human rights standards and principles,” pointedly noted–OK, scolded–Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. For the record, Nikki Haley was not pleased.

* “F*** Trump.” That was Robert DeNiro at the recent Tony Awards. Yes, it’s come to that. We get it. It’s almost too tempting to resist. It’s a high-profile, friendly forum. But it’s not helpful. No more than Michelle Wolf and Samantha Bee. It’s another unsettling, embarrassing reminder that we used to be better than this. This is what a devolving society looks like.

Cuban Transition

Years ago–in the 1990s–my wife and I were visiting with friends in Havana. In their modest apartment sanctuary of privacy and candor–amid lives that were being underlived–one of them acknowledged that the only thing that would truly be a game-changer for the island they loved would be the “biological solution.” That was the ironically respectful euphemism for the death of the Castro brothers. Only then could there be meaningful change.

I reflected on that experience during the recent transition in Cuba where Raúl Castro turned over the presidency to Miguel Díaz-Canel, 57. But the 86-year-old Castro will remain at the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, until 2021. That’s three more years of being the de facto authoritarian. Díaz-Canel and the rubber stamp National Assembly know that.

No one expects a dysfunctional economy that’s out-of-sync with economic reality and human initiative and features $30-a-month state salaries to now morph into a real marketplace.

After 2021, Castro would still be the revolutionary, iconic elephant in the room–until the “biological solution.” That’s what it will take to ultimately usher in an era that no longer prioritizes Cold War ideology and anti-capitalist swagger over a better 21st century life for its people.

Russian Retaliation

So in response to the West kicking out a bunch of Russian “diplomats,” Vlad Putin replies in tit-for-tat kind. As a result of East-West tensions, both sides have now expelled more than 150 of each other’s diplomats from two dozen countries.

So, what’s next? Well, how about a Kremlin response to the well-received comedy, “The Death of Stalin”? It brutally satirizes the in-fighting and paranoia-made-for-parody of  the 1954 Soviet regime change in the aftermath of Josef Stalin’s death. You just know Putin, who likely waxes nostalgic for a kick-ass, West-tantalizing leader, is not laughing at this disrespectful, authoritarian send-up.

Don’t discount a cinematic response. Can you imagine how America would look in a Russian-made, “Watergate” spoof? Or … No, let’s not go there. Besides, Putin likely has better cards to play on Trump.

Regardless of such scenarios, “The Death of Stalin” is worth catching. It’s funny shy of flat out farce. Most reigns of terror aren’t given to humor. It’s historic, geopolitical satire, and it’s (sight-gag executions) black comedy. It’s also very well scripted. Listen carefully to the dialogue asides.

Foreign Affairs

*As the U.S.-North Korea summit gets closer, we’ll be hearing more about–and from–China. It is no mere border neighbor.

But what’s making news right now out of Beijing is that President Xi Jinping will be president for life. Sounds like Mao Zedong in a business suit.

It’s a reminder that for all of its billionaires, casinos and economic-growth ploys, including steel dumping, China still remains a sovereign hybrid. More authoritarian than inscrutable.

If Xi were merely benefiting by the removal of term limits–and letting the people ultimately make the call–it would be much less newsworthy. Like a Mandarin FDR. But he’s not popularly elected. His president-for-life status was rubber-stamped by the country’s ceremonial parliament, the National People’s Congress. Sounds more Cuban than Chinese.

But something else, no less illustrative of what contemporary China is all about, is also making news out of Beijing. The hands weighing on social media just got a lot heavier. As in, the policing of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Among what is now officially forbidden are the dissident use of terms such as “re-election” and “proclaiming oneself an emperor.” Also banned: images of Winnie the Pooh, perceived to share some of the unflattering features of President-for-life Xi. It would be humorous–if authoritarian overreaction were ever funny.

But, yes, it’s still OK to reference “climate change.”

* This just in. Anti-discrimination reforms and overall societal freedoms just keep coming in Saudi Arabia. By June, the ban on women driving will be lifted. Already we’ve seen women allowed into stadiums to watch sports. In addition, musical concerts are back, and later this month movie theaters will return after being banned since the 1980s.

The motivation? Somewhat shy of doing the right thing for the right societal reason. In short, Wahhabism and second-class status of women can be marketing challenges for a country trying to attract foreign investment. Image matters. Economically, there’s also a serious need to have more women participating in the workforce.  Arguably, more pragmatic than progressive.

The Saudis have hardly done a 180 pivot. Guardianship laws still give men the final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, get a passport–or marry. Image only matters so much.

Olympic Spirit

Olympic ideals–excellence, friendship and respect–have seemed diminished in the era of network bidding, global commercialization and drug scandals. But here’s hoping that maybe, just maybe, the two-Koreas approach will yield something transcending sport and endorsements at this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both North and South Korean athletes will symbolically march under a “unification flag” in opening ceremonies next month.

Don’t look for many, or maybe any, of the 22 participating North Koreans to bring back medals for Kim Jong Un to gloat over. But do look for the world to exhale a bit as any sign of rapprochement, North Korea’s overall agenda notwithstanding, in a time of nuclear tension is more than welcome.