The dumbest thing about the Goldstone email to Trump Jr.

The Thinker by Rodin

(Note: first published here on DailyKos. Minor edits were made.)

So Donald J. Trump Jr. released the email that publicist Rob Goldstone sent him last year yesterday, along with his reply. Any lawyers among my readers were probably thinking, “What a stupid thing to do!” Trump Jr. probably figured that someone else would release it shortly so maybe there was some benefit of being the first to do so. It sure took everyone by surprise, including possibly his newly hired lawyer. Anyhow, it sure looks dumb. I was dumbstruck by the deed and Trump Sr. is reportedly furious.

Keystone Kops
Keystone Kops

I’m not a lawyer. I’m in Information Technology. And to me the stupidest thing of all was that Rob Goldstone used email to reach Trump Jr. Email! What the hell was he thinking? He compounded his error by giving the email the title (and I swear I’m not making this up):

Russia – Clinton – private and confidential

If you know much about email, you know that a lot of the world’s email goes across the Internet unencrypted, at least between certain points in the network between mail servers. The major email providers have upped the ante, fortunately. GMail encrypts end to end, but if some part of the email was sent through an unencrypted network it lets you know (at least in the web version) with a little unlocked “padlock” icon.

Using email was an amazingly stupid thing to do. I doubt Goldstone was being directed by the Russians to contact the Trump campaign on such a sensitive matter this way, but who knows? In any event if you are going to send a sensitive email you don’t fill the subject line with such lurid keywords.

The Internet leaves traces, and email in particular leaves traces. Emails usually collect in the outgoing email servers, and in places in between emails are often archived. One of those places might have been a NSA computer room. If the NSA were sniffing for information like this, well, they hardly had to do much work. Trump Jr.’s email address was there, it came from a known friend of the Trumps, and it came with a subject line that would automatically flag it. Perhaps the email was already known to the FBI as it got flagged by the NSA but was classified because of the sources and methods involved.

Trump Jr.’s response was classic too. Anyone with half a brain would have raised a red flag, probably reported it internally and to the FBI as well, not replied to it. Obviously there’s a lot of tone deafness in the Trump campaign, administration and family and a feeling they are somehow exempt from the rules.

I don’t do subterfuge, but if given a task like this instead of sending an email I’d be picking up the phone. I might allude to some information Trump Jr. would find very interesting, but it had to be shared in person and, oh, bring Jared and Paul. I’d suggest meeting for lunch in a quiet cubby at a local Ruth’s Chris.

In any event, it gives the whole incident a Keystone Kops surreal feel. It’s beyond amateur. It’s embarrassing. Even Putin gets slimed here. Is this the best he and his FSB can do? I expected they were way less inept than they apparently are.

Trump’s collapsing house of cards

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s quite ironic that one of Netflix’s best series House of Cards is playing out in real life in the White House. Donald Trump of course is no Frank Underwood. He has zero political experience and since getting into office has not acquired any either. Watching him bumble his way through the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany last week was painful. Emblematic of the outcome were the logistics leading up to the meeting. This doesn’t bode well I thought when I learned that Trump and his staff waited too long to book accommodations in Hamburg. Trump ended up at a German government guest residency. Trump’s staff apparently holed up with the U.S. Consulate General. Maybe they brought sleeping bags and camped out on the floor. Trump either couldn’t be bothered to absorb his briefings or more likely got them and promptly forgot the key points. He winged his way through the whole meeting looking weirder and more ostracized as it progressed.

Given his incurious and bumbling nature, I should not be too surprised that these traits seem to apply to his family and advisers as well. The Trump Empire, such as it is, seems to be all about show, but is little on substance. His hotels and resorts are sometimes profitable, but more often leave investors in the lurch. Just last week Trump’s shuttered Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City began a liquidation sale. The Trump façade is going. The new owners will try to turn it into something more mainstream and likely more profitable, and attaching the Trump brand to the property is like a millstone around the neck, so it had to go. Hard Rock International bought the property for a bargain basement $50M. Bear in mind its construction cost about $930M.

In any event, the Trumps operate mostly on instinct and not much on common sense. They seem to believe they are exempt from most rules and if not it’s just a matter of money to put their problems behind them. With a White House in chaos it’s not surprising that someone dropped the ball on hotel rooms at the G-20. Trump naturally blames it on the Obama Administration, as if it’s the job of previous administrations to handle logistics of current administrations. So it certainly didn’t surprise me that Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in June 2016 met with a woman with Russian connections and was lured to a meeting by a promise of dirty laundry on the Clinton campaign. Junior’s disappointment seemed to be that the Russian did not deliver the goods. However, the expectation that she would was enough to bring Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort and his brother-in-law Jared Kushner to the meeting too. Like his father, Junior made the problem worse by admitting that’s why he agreed to meet. That looks like an unprofitable mistake, as Junior has since lawyered up.

When the New York Times article came out, I thought there goes the first domino. Finally there is evidence that ties a Trump to the Russian government, albeit somewhat indirectly. Bear in mind that for anyone with any political experience, even the suggestion of a meeting like this would have sent campaign officials running the other way, and probably calling the FBI to report the incident. Colluding with a foreign government to influence an election is a crime. Junior has pretty much admitted it, which means it’s just a matter of time before an indictment against him is issued. Junior’s only real hope is that his father remains president long enough so he can pardon him, which is the likely outcome. Trump will likely be issuing lots of pardons before he is removed from office. Meanwhile, Junior will be financing his attorney’s new yacht.

Usually when a domino falls it doesn’t take long for the next one to fall. This one came just a day later with another New York Times story, this one claiming that Junior knew in an email before the meeting that the Russian government was trying to influence the Trump campaign. The story behind both these stories though is the more interesting news: the information came from people in the White House. Multiple people inside the White House are now so alarmed by what they know that they are actively working to remove their boss. We’ll likely learn the names of these Deep Throats in time. Apparently job security is not a concern, or it’s less a concern than acting on what they feel is their patriotic duty.

That these first two dominoes fell is not a surprise. That more will fall won’t be a surprise either. Something will implicate Trump directly, likely sooner rather than later. During the campaign Trump said he hoped the Russians would provide Clinton’s missing emails, a curiously timed thing as it happened shortly after this meeting at Trump Tower. He campaigned on a friendlier relationship with Russia and seemed unconcerned that they had taken over Crimea and Russian paramilitary forces had captures much of eastern Ukraine.

Trump is clearly no Frank Underwood. He doesn’t know how to be devious. The fictional Underwood built his house of cards on something of a firm foundation: with safety checks and sycophants stupid enough to take the fall for him. It appears that Trump and the Trump campaign simply weren’t smart enough to worry about these exposures. Which means their house of cards is flimsy indeed. No surprise then that not quite six months into his administration it is collapsing under its own weight.

Here’s one edifice that deserves demolition, and the sooner the better. The irony is that Trump is likely to end up impaling himself. This would be a fitting end to the most brazenly crooked administration in history. Expect more and bigger dominoes to keep falling and to fall more quickly.

This isn’t going to end well

The Thinker by Rodin

Trump is back from Europe. First up on his agenda: rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs, or what amounts to the same thing. From press reports Trump will be doing some staff reorganization and probably creating a “war room” with the mission of managing the White House message on this Russian thing.

It’s not hard to guess that Trump will have a hard time finding staff to fill his war room. In fact, staff may be forced to work there, which will give them additional incentive to resign. Some people will go willingly. Trump’s lawyer will happily bill $500/hour on this fruitless mission. If he’s doing his job he won’t so much be managing the message as trying to keep Trump from getting investigated and indicted for crimes like obstructing justice.

Yes, because safely back in the White House again, Trump has resumed his Twitter habit and that means he is busy destroying the message of the day like he has in the past. It turns out that Trump is his worst enemy. Much of what we know about Trump’s dubious behavior came right out of his own mouth or placed into his Twitter feed on his own stubby fingers. He lacks the ability to stop making things worse for him. His lawyers are doubtlessly suggesting he just shut up and have staff do all his Twitter posting, as Obama did. Now there’s some real message control, but don’t expect this to be part of Trump’s war room strategy. Staff has already tried many times to get his hands off his smartphone, but he won’t let it go.

Speaking of letting go, the most important person to fire is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to who Trump has delegated the “actually trying to get stuff done” part of governing. And Jared’s been busy, such as meeting with the Russians last December to try to set up a “private channel” for communicating with the Kremlin. This may result in criminal charges but the good news for Russia is they don’t really need a back channel. Trump is happily doing their bidding. In Europe he was busy not affirming the United States’ traditional commitment to NATO, which is #1 on the Kremlin’s list of things they would most like to see happen. They have been trying to get rid of NATO since the start of the Cold War. That’s because it works. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put two and two together: the United States is no longer a reliable partner, so Europe has to go it alone. It will be a lot harder of course without U.S. resources and maybe impossible. What really upsets Trump is not NATO. What upset him is that Germany has a trade surplus with the United States. WTF?

As for Kushner, like Trump he has zero governmental experience as is true of much of Trump’s administration and boy does it show. Trying to create a back channel with Russia was so weird and bizarre even the Russian government blanched. Kushner has become Trump’s wrecking ball, convinced that this means he is somehow smarter than anyone else. Essentially you have an administration refusing to play by the rules and in fact adhere to the law much of the time. Ethics mean nothing to them.

In my previous life I was a civil servant. We got ethics training and every year ethics retraining. I was a dutiful civil servant but some of it seemed very weird. For example, I needed my boss’s approval to do adjunct teaching. And while I worked at the U.S. Geological Survey, to prevent a conflict of interest I was required by law not to own any energy stocks and certain energy-related mutual funds, even though I was not a geologist and could offer no insight into where hidden deposits of oil and minerals might be. Once a month we had to deal with the credit card Nazis who poured through use of our government credit cards dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s. As a supervisor I had to sign off on my employees’ expenses and make sure every damn line item was charged to the appropriate account and was a legitimate government expense. My failure to do so was not only a bad idea; it could put me in prison.

None of this seems to bother the White House. Send guests to stay at Trump hotels? Sure, who cares about this Emolument Clause thing? To protect Trump, the Secret Service has already spent $35,000 renting golf carts at his Mar-a-lago resort. They are paying whatever his managers decide to charge them. The signal this sends the rest of the government is appalling: graft is okay now. The reason the civil service was set up was to get rid of the cronyism, and yet Trump appoints his family to senior positions despite lack of qualifications. He does this without a care in the world about how unethical this is and how bad of an example this sets to the rest of the civil service. He’s definitely running the government like a business, as if it’s his business, so why not use the government to enrich himself? Some other businessman would do the same thing, he figures.

Then there is the more dicey issue of Trump’s mental health. It’s already been noted that he’s become a simpleton. In interviews ten or twenty years ago he used complex words and sentences and had a long vocabulary. This seems beyond him now. His sentences don’t quite qualify as sentences and amount to a run-on stream of consciousness. He’s losing his marbles. So it’s not weird in the least that he tweeted yesterday that he wants to spend a lot more on health care when his own presidential budget proposes to drastically cut healthcare spending, mostly for the poor. He has obviously not read his own budget because he can’t read anything in depth. He hasn’t absorbed even the few bullet points staff gave him on his budget. This is not the usual political cognitive dissonance. This is something worse: he’s too bored, incurious and uninterested and obviously largely unable to deal with the nuance and complexity of running the government. So we get budgets that look like it came from the House Tea Party caucus.

This is dysfunction on a massive scale. It’s incredibly dangerous to our country and the longer Trump stays in power, the worse it is likely to get. He is emboldening our enemies if not actively collaborating with them. This is not a train teetering on the rails. His government is entirely off the rails and the engineer and his staff are all clearly drunk in the locomotive.