Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Emperor Trump Now Stands Partially Naked

A child exposing the nakedness of the emperor by speaking truth to power?

Not these days.

More than half of the United States — not just liberals and the left but also the mainstream media and some Republicans — has been shouting at Emperor Trump for months on end that he has no clothes. These declarations have fallen on deaf ears, for Donald Trump is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging his own flaws.

Also, there are still plenty of people telling Trump what he wants to hear. The president is surrounded by family members, advisors, and careerists who have refused to acknowledge the simple truth that the White House has been occupied for more than three years by a person that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once called King Moron (oops, I misquote: he actually said a “f**king moron”).

In the last week, however, this picture has begun to change. Three important clothiers of the president have said that maybe the commander-in-chief has been experiencing a wardrobe malfunction all along.

Twitter, Justin Trudeau, and James Mattis all took their turns in the spotlight recently to challenge the American president. Representing three important constituencies — social media, the Pentagon, and the international community — all three in their own way have chipped away at Trump’s power.

True, they have all provided important cover for the naked leader in the past. Also, their statements could have been clearer calls to arms. But now, all three can help precipitate the “run for the exit” moment that will spell Trump’s downfall.

We’ll have to wait until November to be sure, but the president might have effectively lost his reelection bid this month, well before Election Day.

Social Media

Donald Trump once wooed the mainstream media. He chatted up gossip columnists. He pretended over the phone that he was his own publicist, singing the praises of his boss. He so desperately wanted to be on the cover of Time that he created dummy versions of the magazine proclaiming that “Trump is hitting on all fronts” and hung them in at least five of his golf clubs. Throughout, he groused that the media was not sufficiently flattering.

Twitter provided Trump with the ideal solution to his chronic need for attention. He no longer had to rely on the media and instead could communicate directly to his followers. He could simultaneously disparage the mainstream media as “fake news” and dispense his own fake news by tweet.

In the first three years of his presidency, Trump fired off more than 11,000 tweets. Many of them were rambling attacks on his opponents (somehow Trump manages to be rambling in under 280 characters). But some of them were actual policy announcements or served some other tactical purpose.

Twitter wasn’t simply a tool of the presidency. It became the presidency.

According to this New York Times analysis of this incessant Twitterstorm:

Early on, top aides wanted to restrain the president’s Twitter habit, even considering asking the company to impose a 15-minute delay on Mr. Trump’s messages. But 11,390 presidential tweets later, many administration officials and lawmakers embrace his Twitter obsession, flocking to his social media chief with suggestions. Policy meetings are hijacked when Mr. Trump gets an idea for a tweet, drawing in cabinet members and others for wordsmithing. And as a president often at war with his own bureaucracy, he deploys Twitter to break through logjams, overrule, or humiliate recalcitrant advisers and pre-empt his staff.

Twitter has helped Trump. And Trump has helped poison Twitter.

Although the social media giant has had no problem deleting praise for the Islamic State, it hasn’t shown comparable due diligence toward white nationalism. According to an account of a discussion at a Twitter staff meeting, a technical employee explained that “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material. Banning politicians wouldn’t be accepted by society as a trade-off for flagging all of the white supremacist propaganda.”

With the compliance of social media platforms, Trump and his coterie of Republican extremists have helped to mainstream otherwise marginal content.

But that tide might be turning. At the end of May, Twitter took the unprecedented step of labeling two of Trump’s tweets, directing readers to accurate sources of information on mail-in balloting and announcing that Trump had violated its policies on glorifying violence. Then, last week, Twitter took down an account that retweeted all of Trump’s utterances, again for violating its policies.

Trump, predictably, went ballistic. He lashed out on Twitter (the man is impervious to irony). He retaliated with an executive order to lift some of the liability protections on social media companies.

It’s not as if Trump is going to abandon his principle mode of communication. This last weekend, after all, he broke his own Twitter record by sending out 200 Tweets in a 24-hour period, including 74 in one hour. By increasing the outflow of his firehose, Trump seems to be daring Twitter to keep up with its labels.

Twitter hasn’t deplatformed Trump, as it has some other darlings of the alt-right. It let slide Trump’s latest Twitter outrage — promoting a conspiracy theory about a Buffalo protestor injured by the police — because the use of a question mark marked it as “speculative” (Really? Really??).

But with its labels, Twitter is finally saying that no one is above the law — the admittedly loose laws of the internet — not even the president of the United States.

Justin Trudeau

In the United States, we are still talking about the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a cop knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him.

In Canada, they’re talking about 21 seconds.

That’s the pause that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to answer a question on Trump’s threat to use the military against those protesting Floyd’s death. Trudeau could have used that time to criticize Trump directly. Instead, after his long pause, he chose to speak of the problems facing people of color in his own country. “There is systemic racism in Canada,” he said.

Trump has never hesitated to lambaste other heads of state. He called Trudeau “two-faced” as well as “very dishonest and weak.” He labeled comments by Emanuel Macron “very, very nasty.” He criticized comments of Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen as “nasty and inappropriate.” With comments about friends like these, you can imagine how Trump tongue-lashes his enemies.

For the most part, the international community has quietly tolerated Trump. They’ve delivered tersely worded rebuttals. They’ve made fun of him behind his back. But they haven’t directly or personally criticized him.

Given the power of the United States, it’s unlikely that the leader of an allied country will take the president to task. So, perhaps the best we can hope for is 21 seconds of silence, during which the rest of us can voice the thoughts we think are going through Justin Trudeau’s mind.

Maybe it’s because I worked for a Quaker organization for many years, but I think that sometimes silence can speak volumes.

James Mattis

Former Pentagon chief Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis was one of the more prominent “adults in the room” who were supposed to rein in Trump. He failed. He resigned in December 2018 after disagreeing with Trump’s push to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. When he resigned and later when he published his memoir the following year, Mattis kept his thoughts on Trump to himself.

Last week, Mattis broke his silence with a remarkable statement in The Atlantic criticizing the president’s threatened use of the military against protesters. He said, in part:

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.

In all my years as a protester, I have never witnessed someone of Mattis’s background and standing actually side with folks on the street. “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our values as people and our values as a nation,” he said.

It wasn’t just Mattis. Former chair of the joint chiefs of staff Mike Mullen wrote a similar condemnation of Trump as did former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan John Allen. It was the journalistic equivalent of D-Day, with the generals landing their forces on Omaha Beach in the hopes of dethroning their adversary several months hence.

Yes, yes, I know: Mattis, Mullen, and Allen are no leftists. You can’t even call them liberals or moderates. Andy Kroll is right to point out in Rolling Stone that these are “the same military leaders who endorsed and defended a policy of forever war that has led to tens of thousands of American deaths, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans and Syrians and Yemenis and Pakistanis, hundreds of thousands of injuries physical and mental suffered by U.S. service members, and many billions of taxpayer dollars poured into endless conflict.”

Kroll is both right and spectacularly off the mark. After all, Donald Trump similarly dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement of Joe Biden by linking him to America’s failed wars.

The fact that these old establishment figures have blood on their hands is precisely the point. Noam Chomsky denouncing Donald Trump is not news. Everyone expects the leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement to criticize the president. I’ve been slamming Trump from day one of his presidency (and many months before), but I doubt my preaching goes very far beyond the choir.

All the attacks on Trump from left and center are what journalists call “dog bites man.” It’s no surprise. But “Mad Dog bites man”? That’s a different story altogether.

The military has been the most trusted institution in U.S. society for decades. According to Gallup, it enjoyed a 73 percent approval rating in 2019 — compared to 38 percent for both the presidency and the Supreme Court, 36 percent for organized religion, and 11 percent for Congress.

People listen to the military. And by people, here I mean folks who voted for Donald Trump, continue to support the president, and are still thinking about voting for him in November.

As importantly, these generals are willing to take enemy fire — from Fox News, from crazy Internet trolls, from the president himself—so that other former Trump enablers might be more willing to stand up and speak their minds.

Immediately after Mattis waded into the debate, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) confessed her concerns about Trump and said that she hasn’t made up her mind about who to support in November. Francis Rooney, a Republican member of Congress from Florida, is now leaning toward Biden. A number of prominent Republicans won’t vote for Trump, but they also are reluctant to say so in public.

This doesn’t exactly constitute a surge. A solid core of the party remains firmly behind the president. The more telegenic version of Trump, Tom Cotton (R-AR), is enjoying a swell of support after The New York Times criticized its own handling of the senator’s incendiary and inaccurate piece, “Send in the Military.” So far, Mattis has not played the role of the journalist Edward R. Murrow taking down the demagogue Joe McCarthy.

But you have to believe that statements from Mattis and others are at least going to introduce an element of doubt into the minds of some true believers. Active duty soldiers and veterans who voted for Trump — he received 61 percent of the veteran vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 34 percent — might just heed the generals. And the latest polls suggest that both older Americans and white Americans are starting to abandon Trump.

I don’t expect Mitch McConnell or Tom Cotton to denounce Trump. Much of the Republican Party will loyally follow the president into his White House bunker. But thanks to the truth-telling of Mattis and others, everyone else will be laughing all the way to the polls at the emperor stripped bare by his enablers.

June 10, 2020, Foreign Policy In Focus

Articles Featured US Foreign Policy


To: John Brennan, Langley HQ
From: Operative 650, undisclosed location
Re: Memo XP1476

Greetings from the tropics! I apologize for not writing to you earlier. As you probably know, if you have my file in front of you, I wrote to your predecessors with various modest proposals:outsourcing targeted killings to the Chinese, turning our drone program into a reality TV show, and imposing an Empire Tax on our allies. Unfortunately, if I might be immodest for a moment, none of these proposals was picked up.

What was picked up, however, was my anonymous Twitter account. Until recently, I had a nice desk job in Sydney. I guess I got a little too comfortable, and that’s why I started sending out anonymous tweets as @spookwonk. Of course I never compromised any Agency information. I was mostly commenting on Australian politics, Nicole Kidman’s private life, and my latest blind dates. Somebody outed me—just like they outed Jofi Joseph in the National Security Council—and now I’m stationed at a listening post on an undisclosed Pacific island.

Anyway, enough about me. I’m writing to you with what I think is my best proposal yet. Actually, it’s a set of interlocking proposals. And I think I could save our intelligence agencies a whole lot of money, not to mention turning around the terrible public relations fiasco created by that ratfink Edward Snowden (yes, even out here on this undisclosed Pacific island, I received Order #56795 requiring us to use that adjective whenever referring to ES in private or public communications).

Bottom line: it’s just not economically efficient for the NSA to monitor every phone call, email, text message, Tweet, Facebook status update, OkCupid profile, Craig’s List posting, Yearbook scribble, and bathroom stall message all over the world (I bet even President Obama doesn’t know about this last operation). I’m having a hard time keeping up with the data stream passing through my little atoll, and we’re only responsible for 1/856th of the world’s surface. I can only imagine the kind of tension headaches generated over there at Fort Meade. This surveillance gives TMI a whole new meaning. (Oh, just in case you don’t know the slang, that means Too Much Information. It also stands for Three Mile Island, which is appropriate given the meltdown that ratfink Snowden has caused.)

Chief takeaway: We should be more selective, and more proactive, in our data collection. Bank robbers always say that they go where the money is. We should be going where the secrets are. And just forget about the rest.

Ah, but how do we know where the secrets are? Here are my four strategies:

Have you heard about PostSecret? When I was running my anonymous Twitter feed, I felt this urgent need after a while to tell someone my secret, someone other than my blind dates. I found PostSecret online. You just send an anonymous postcard with your secret to the fellow who runs the blog. He posts it or includes it in one of his really popular books.

So, we should run a similar site in Arabic, Pashto, and Farsi, at least to start. People will startsending us their secrets! I realize that this might be difficult to believe. But it’s amazing how much people want to get off their chests. They’ll confess anything: crimes, infidelities, major upcoming terrorist attacks. Just imagine all the al-Qaeda operatives out there who are burning to talk about their everyday life, and they simply have no outlet. I doubt they go out on blind dates.

Yes, I know: postcards are so 20th century. Most of our adversaries are very technologically sophisticated, with up-to-date knowledge of the latest hacking techniques and the like.

That’s where my second proposal comes in. Have you heard about Shadow? It’s a new app that you use to record your dreams. You wake up in the middle of the night, reach over for your smart phone, and record your dream. Your text is then immediately fed into a global database. It’s basically the NSA of the dreamworld.

So, we should design a similar app. Let’s just call it Shhh! It’s a place where you can store all of your deepest, darkest secrets. And we promise that it’s the most secure place to store this vital information, and we would never, ever tap into the recesses of your smart phone to extract that information. Would people trust an app? Of course! Our smart phones have become extensions of our bodies. They would never betray us.

I know, I know. Some hardened terrorists would never reach for a postcard or a smartphone. We can’t rely on them to always come to us. We also have to go to them. And that’s where the third idea comes in.

I was inspired by a recent incident that took place on Amtrak. Apparently, your predecessor Michael Hayden was sitting on the Amtrak train the other day talking on his cell phone and giving a background interview with a reporter. Sitting behind him was a curious citizen with a Twitter account who eavesdropped on the conversation and reported the tastiest bits via tweets.

The basic principle here is: put someone in a comfortable chair with a cell phone and nothing else to do and they’ll just start talking. Even the former head of the NSA will do this! He wasn’t threatened with waterboarding. No one took his family hostage. It was just a magical combination of comfort, boredom, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance.

I propose setting up a test run from Mogadishu to Kismayo. This train should have really comfortable seats, powerful air-conditioning, and a wide selection of fruit juices. Cell phone towers should be placed at intervals along the route to ensure excellent coverage. And we place our Somali-speaking operatives in each of the cars of the train. All they have to do is wait and listen.

Yes, I anticipate your last objection. Angela Merkel is not going to send a postcard or download our Shhh! app. And even though German trains are far more comfortable than Amtrak, the prime minister is not likely to get on board and start blabbing. How will my proposals net us the information we want from the leaders of our powerful allies?

Hang tight—this is my best proposal yet. Well, it was my best proposal until the Russians somehow got a jump on me. At the last G20 meeting, those wily Russians gave out cute little memory drives to all the participants. Stick the USB drive into your computer and—bingo!—the Russians can see all of Angela Merkel’s vacation photos.

I realize it’s not the Cold War any longer, but we can still one-up the Russkies. You’ve heard ofGoogle Glass, right? It’s the new portable computer that turns your eyeglasses into a window to the World Wide Web. You had to enter a competition—on Twitter, naturally—to win a prototype. This is the hottest new gadget ever.

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now—we give Google Glass as gifts to our most important buddies: David Cameron, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel. We apologize for tapping their phones and compiling fat blackmail folders based on the information we assembled. We tell them that we hope that this gift will go at least part of the way toward repairing the breach in our friendship.

Trust me, as soon as they try the new Google Glass, they’ll be hooked. And then we’ll have everything that they see, hear, touch, taste. The NSA is a modern-day Stasi? Please! Those guys were pikers, technologically speaking.

So, what do you think? Are these brilliant suggestions, or what? I look forward to hearing from you as soon as possible. I’m getting tired of coconuts, banana leaves, and fish. I’d be happy to come to Langley and help out on any or all of these proposals. Or I could collaborate with the technogeeks in our Rome office.

I’ll wait to hear from you. But if I don’t get some kind of response this time, I might feel a compulsion to share my ideas. No blind dates on this atoll. But I still have one of my Twitter accounts….

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 30, 2013