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Trump Unveils Afghanistan Strategy

To the extent that a speech could be hotly-anticipated when we only found out it was coming 24 hours ago, President Donald Trump gave his hotly-anticipated speech on Afghanistan on Monday night. As he is wont to do, he hailed his plan as a radical and brilliant new departure in strategy (though he did stop short of calling it record-breaking). Here are the five key points of the Trump administration plan:

  • More troops: There are currently 8,400 American soldiers stationed in Afghanistan; Trump is going to give the military the authority to send more. He refused to say how many more during his address, but it is widely understood that something like 4,000 more is the current plan.

  • Military calling the shots: The Obama administration restricted military maneuvering in Afghanistan in various ways; Trump will remove those restrictions. "Micromanagement from Washington, DC, does not win battles," said Trump.

  • Diplomacy: Efforts will be made to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

  • Pakistan: The neighboring country of Pakistan will be pressured to stop harboring terrorists. "We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting," declared the President. "But that will have to change, and that will change immediately."

  • Victory: Trump also said that he was giving his generals a clear picture of what "victory" will look like, announcing that, "From now on, victory will have a clear definition, attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge." It is not exactly "clear" how this definition is "clear"; after all, the U.S. had a very similar set of goals in Vietnam and yet nobody then knew what "victory" would actually look like. Trump also said that an important new direction in Afghanistan policy is that, "We want them to succeed, but we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in far-away lands or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over."

In any event, as an act of political showmanship, Trump's address was a mild success. Some of his base will see footage of him looking and sounding presidential, and that may take some of the attention away from the Charlottesville mess. The current state of affairs was made clear immediately after the President's speech, when Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) held a town hall with voters. The Speaker was pleased with what he heard about Afghanistan, and said as much to the crowd, characterizing it as a doctrine of "principled realism." If that's not some savant-level politician speak, we don't know what is. Even so, Ryan was compelled to answer the crowd's questions about Charlottesville, saying, "I do believe that he messed up."

Meanwhile, note the repeated use of the word "some" above. While some of the base will be happy with what they saw and heard on Monday, not all of them will. Keeping in mind that one of candidate Trump's key talking points was "America First," a plan that involves remaining in Afghanistan for an indefinite period is going to be a problem. Already, Breitbart has lashed out against the "flip-flop Afghanistan speech," as they call it. The story does not carry Steve Bannon's byline, but it sure does seem to have his fingerprints all over it. He'll be more than happy to tote his former boss's water on a lot of issues, but not on anything that Bannon regards as "globalist."

So, that's the political impact of the speech—on a scale of 1 to 10, let's call it a 4; not disastrous, but hardly an unqualified success. As an important statement on new strategic directions, on the other hand, the address is seriously wanting. There is relatively little here that was not already part of Barack Obama's approach to Afghanistan. Trump presented the part on nation-building as a critical new departure, but Obama had already come around to that position by 2016, when he announced that, "We're no longer in nation-building mode. A military cannot create a political culture or build a society." The diplomacy, the pressure on Pakistan, the desire to undermine terrorists, etc.—all of that was already part of the plan before Trump ever took office.

The only real changes, then, are the moderate troop surge and the greater authority given to America's military commanders. And these developments were entirely predictable, the only surprise is that it took 200 days to get here. The main military advisors that Trump has around him—NSA Herber McMaster, Sec. of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Chief of Staff John Kelly—all have very personal connections to Afghanistan, and all feel strongly about getting tougher over there. Given that Trump is a bit intimidated by high-ranking brass, and given that he has little interest in day-to-day micromanagement of, well, anything, of course he was going to give them what they wanted: More soldiers, and fewer restraints on those soldiers. All four men are pros, so we can be hopeful that the things they are pressing for are wise from a military standpoint. On the other hand, there is a reason that the Founding Parents set it up so that Congress and the President supervise the military. And, at least at the moment, not much supervision seems to be coming from either direction. So, we probably shouldn't start counting our chickens, or our reformed terrorists, quite yet. (Z)

Another Day, Another Advisory Committee Dead

The way things are going, it won't be long before Donald Trump doesn't have any more advisory committees left to ignore. However, unlike the three that bit the dust last week, the members of the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment were hanging on for dear life, knowing that they might be the last people left in the federal government who care about this particular issue. The Committee's mandate is to help the president, leaders of business, and the general public make sense of the report on global climate that the federal government is supposed to issue every four years. On Monday, however, the 15 members were told their services will no longer be required.

The hostility of the Trump administration in general, and of Donald Trump in particular, to science is well known. And in case we needed a quick refresher, Trump decided on Monday to look directly at the solar eclipse with unshielded eyes, despite all the warnings not to do so. Because, after all, what do scientists know? In any event, we are due for another National Climate Assessment in 2018, which should theoretically be the seventh one in the 28 years since the program was first created under George H. W. Bush. However, due to various forms of political infighting, the report has actually been issued only three times; 2018 is to be the fourth. Given the administration's views on climate change, and given that they are already unhappy with the preliminary Climate Science Special Report that was issued this year, it would not be a surprise if the 2018 report never materializes. Actually, it's probably more correct to say that it would be a surprise if it does materialize, since canning the climate assessment committee largely only makes sense if the administration doesn't want them going on television next year and squawking about the cancellation of the report. (Z)

Trump Is Actively Campaigning for Reelection Already

Donald Trump is apparently so sure that he will still be in the Oval Office in 2020 that he is already campaigning for reelection. He registered as a 2020 candidate with the FEC back in January, but now he starting to do more than file papers. He is already planning an extensive fundraising tour for the fall. His oppo research team is starting to collect information about every potential Democratic rival, from B to Z (Booker, Cory to Zuckerberg, Mark). His pollster, John McLaughlin, is out querying the electorate and giving him advice. His upcoming travels include swing states like Arizona and Nevada. His digital operation will again be run by Brad Pascale, who has moved from San Antonio to Florida so he can get to meetings in D.C. faster.

The nerve center for Trump 2020 is not in the White House or even in Trump Tower, but at the RNC headquarters in D.C. The people there are already starting advertising campaigns in key states and is deploying staff to states that are expected to be battlegrounds, such as North Carolina.

Trump is probably aware that he is not the only Republican planning a run in 2020, so there is no time to lose. Vice President Mike Pence is working on his campaign, although he won't admit it. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has to get reelected in 2018 first, but the day after his reelection he can start on 2020. Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) is known to still harbor presidential ambitions.

Of course, there is the little matter of special counsel Robert Mueller, who could throw a monkey wrench in Trump's plans, either by indicting him or naming him as an unindicted co-conspirator in some crime. Not to mention that nobody's ever been re-elected with an approval rating below 45%, and The Donald is in the mid-to-low 30s. But Trump is apparently confident enough to start working on his reelection, despite this being extremely early by historical standards. (V)

McConnell Says that Congress Will Raise the Debt Ceiling

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said yesterday that Congress will raise the debt ceiling on schedule, thus avoiding a threatened government shutdown. That there is a law limiting the amount of debt makes no sense at all. It is an attempt to repeal mathematics. If Congress passes bills raising, say, $3 trillion a year and passes bills spending $3.5 trillion a year, the government has to borrow $500 billion to make up the shortfall. A law saying that the government can borrow only, say, $400 billion, means the government will default on its debts, which is probably unconstitutional. If Congress wants a smaller debt, it has to either raise taxes or cut spending or print more money or some combination of the three, all of them with significant downsides (the first two options would generate political blowback, the third massive inflation). Conservatives hope to use the debt ceiling bill to force Congress to adopt some of their policies, but McConnell has now declared that won't happen.

Fundamentally, McConnell is not interested in brinksmanship on the debt when he has bigger fish to fry. He wants to pass a tax cut, and a fight over the debt just takes attention away from the tax bill. Of course, McConnell isn't the only one who has a say in the matter. In the House, the Freedom Caucus also opposes raising the debt ceiling, making it the problem of Paul Ryan. Of course, Ryan could just bring a clean debt bill to the floor of the House and pass it with mostly Democratic votes. The Freedom Caucus would be furious, but would have no way of stopping that. (V)

Trump Wants Funding for a Border Wall

A big fight coming up in September is the funding of Donald Trump's wall with Mexico. The House could pass such a bill if it wants to, but the problem comes when it gets to the Senate. Unlike health care and tax reform, new funding for a wall can't use the budget reconciliation process, so it needs 60 votes in the Senate. To get that, eight Democrats need to vote for it. That is an impossible dream for Trump, since zero Democrats will vote for it. For that reason, Trump wants it attached to some other bill that must pass. One candidate is the bill to raise the debt limit, but Mitch McConnell has already ruled that out (see above). Another possibility is an omnibus bill to fund the government for the next year.

However, aside from the funding issue, not all Republicans are on board with the idea of a wall at all. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) doesn't want one and neither do several Republican members of the House whose district runs to the Mexican border. These include Will Hurd (TX), Martha McSally (AZ), and Steve Pearce (NM). When asked about the wall, Pearce said: "The construction of a physical wall on the southern border will never be the solution." That doesn't sound like a sure vote for funding a wall. (V)

Trump Campaign Officials Met with Russian Email Hacking Expert

Last summer, Trump campaign officials met with a Russian immigrant, Rinat Akhmetshin, who has close ties to Vladimir Putin. Akmetshin is an expert computer hacker with a specialty of obtaining his target's emails. He has worked for several Russian billionaire oligarchs in the past, illegally obtaining and leaking documents from rivals' computers. He has been sued in New York state for computer espionage. The case was mysteriously later dropped with no explanation.

Akhmetshin was also involved with Viktor Ivanov, who was deputy head of the FSB, the Russian spy service until last year. Although there is no public evidence that Akmetshin had anything to do with the Russian hacking of the DNC or John Podesta's emails, he is certainly someone who had the ability to do it, contacts close to the top in Russia, and a keen interest in working for anyone who would pay him well. Since 2009 he has been a U.S. citizen, so it is possible that Robert Mueller may have a few things to ask him under oath one day. (V)

Secret Service Has Run Out of Money Protecting the Trump Family

The Secret Service's mission includes protecting the president and his family, as well as investigating certain financial crimes. Unfortunately for it, the President and his children travel so much that 1,000 agents have already reached the limit of what the government can pay them for salary and overtime. The service is proposing to Congress to raise the amount they can pay agents from $160,000 to $187,000, but even if Congress agrees, about 130 agents would not be compensated for work they have already performed. A consequence of making agents work but not paying them has been serious attrition within the Service. When Barack Obama was president, Donald Trump constantly complained about him taking so many vacations and how much it cost the taxpayers. If Trump were to spend nearly every weekend in the White House, as Obama did, then the Secret Service would not have the problem it has now. (V)

FCC Greasing the Skids for Sinclair

Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is a less famous but more partisan version of Fox Broadcasting, has plans to buy Tribune Media. There is just one problem, however: a merger of the two companies would give them access to 72% of America's homes, and FCC regulations cap that number for over-the-air broadcasters at 39%. Never to fear, says Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, a Donald Trump appointee. As an attorney, he's good at finding loopholes, and now he's found a big one. When the caps were introduced back in the 1970s, a station that utilized lower-strength UHF signals (channels above 13) counted only 50% as much as one that utilized higher-strength VHF signals (channels 2-13). Pai is going to reinstate that rule for Sinclair, despite the fact that signal strength is no longer as issue in a world where all signals are delivered digitally (and, more often than not, via cable rather than over the air).

This overtly partisan attempt to allow a staunchly conservative broadcaster to ignore the rules would be a cause for concern under any circumstances. However, given the recent termination of Steve Bannon, it takes on additional ominous overtones. There has been much scuttlebutt that Sinclair and Breitbart are going to partner to create an alt-right version of Fox News. In other words, the ostensibly non-partisan FCC might just have taken a giant step towards facilitating the broadcast of pro-Trump propaganda into the majority of the nation's homes. Perhaps we could ask Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide who is now Sinclair's chief lobbyist, if we are on to something here. It is theoretically possible, of course, that the Dept. of Justice could step in here and kill the merger on anti-monopolistic grounds. However, it is probably best not to hold one's breath while waiting for AG Jeff Sessions to do that. (Z)

Putin Names a Strong Critic of the U.S. as Ambassador

When Vladimir Putin decided to meddle in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump, he probably didn't expect Trump to win, but when The Donald unexpectedly did win, Putin surely expected tensions between Russia and the U.S. would ease. They haven't. In fact, they have deteriorated substantially. Congress passed tougher sanctions on Russia. So, Putin has ordered 455 U.S. embassy personnel to leave Russia. Then, the U.S. slashed visa services in Russia. So, Putin has decided to replace his ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak, with a tough critic of the U.S., Anatoly Antonov.

The 62-year-old Antonov is a veteran diplomat and an expert on Syria and Ukraine, two areas where the U.S. and Russia have clashed. In 2014, he was the one who officially denied that Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, despite massive evidence that they did. He is consider a "hawk" on military and foreign policy matters.

Putin's decision to replace the genial Kislyak with a tough guy suggests that he has given up being nice to Trump in the hopes of getting some goodies in return. In effect, the good cop is being retired and replaced with the bad cop. U.S.-Russian relations are likely to get worse over time—and this is before Robert Mueller releases his report on Russian interference in the election, at which time they could really nosedive (V).

Kushner May Be in Trouble

No, not for that. Well, maybe for that, too, but the current trouble has nothing to do with Russia. It actually has to do with Maryland. The Kushner family owns 17 apartment complexes in and around Baltimore, and may well have engaged in some bad behavior. That includes using bullying tactics against tenants that are at very least unethical, and may be illegal. It also includes allowing slum-like conditions in the buildings.

Now, with an assist from ongoing-source-of-headaches-for-the-administration ProPublica, the six Democrats who represent Maryland in Congress—two senators, and four representatives—have sent a letter to Kushner's company demanding answers. It is unclear whether the company will comply without a court telling them to do so, but this is not likely to go away anytime soon, since ProPublica has money to burn, and both of Maryland's senators—Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin—aspire to bigger and better things in the future. We're still a long ways away from Kushner doing jail time, or suffering any other sanction. On the other hand, just the optics of "President's son-in-law a slumlord" are very bad, indeed. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Aug21 Trump to Speak Monday on Afghanistan
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