A good thing about the Trump presidency

In the movie JFK, Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, the real-life lawyer who brought the only criminal case to trial in the assassination of our 35th president (and namesake of the movie).  While the movie’s faults are legion (not the least of which is the credibility it lent to some of the more absurd conspiracy theories about the assassination), there’s an interesting — and valid — point made when Costner gives his closing argument in the trial: the moment you have two or more people involved in something, that is by definition a conspiracy.  

When you look around in today’s media-saturated world, conspiracy theories abound.  By the expansive definition of “conspiracy” used in the movie, conspiracies absolutely do exist.  I’m not trying to make an argument that the official version of any event is necessarily the whole truth, and I readily concede that there are times when skepticism of the official version (or at least portions of the official version) of events is absolutely warranted.  

Modern conspiracy theories generally involve arguing that some group of powerful, wealthy, connected people with a vested interest in covering up the “truth” put out an official story that we shouldn’t believe.   The motivations of the conspirators — depending upon the event — range from maintaining the status quo or upending some rule they don’t like.  The conspiracy theorists argue that mass shootings, for example, are really just false flags planted to get people motivated enough to allow the government to take away guns from law abiding citizens while the anti-vaccination movement maintains that they’re being silenced because too many people (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, doctors and nurses) make too much money off of the vaccines to look at the supposedly harmful side effects truthfully.  

I’ll grant you that the proponents of the conspiracy theories about mass shootings and vaccinations are quite harmful.  There are no shortage of stories from either survivors or grieving families of the deceased who have found themselves being harassed and threatened by people who believe that their trauma is just an act.   The health risks of vaccines are minimal compared to the overall health benefits of those same vaccines.  (And I’m saying that knowing that I can’t rule out the possibility that my father might be alive today had he not gotten a particular vaccine about 2.5 years before he died.  But that’s the stuff of another entry.  

I’ll even concede that some conspiracy theories can be tempting.  When George W Bush ascended to the presidency in 2001, he definitely wanted to help rehabilitate his father’s legacy as presidency and taking out Saddam Hussein was definitely a part of that agenda.  The September 11 attacks provided more than enough popular support for that goal.   (And, when you consider that there were nineteen hijackers, that definitely meets the definition of “conspiracy” from the Oliver Stone movie.)  That doesn’t mean Bush (or any other member of the US government at any level) was in on it.  

One fatal flaw of modern conspiracy theories, is the size and scope of the hypothesized conspiracy itself.   As more people are “in the know” about the truth, the harder it becomes to conceal it.   There is, for example, an entire industry dedicated to revealing rumors about the next big product releases from Apple despite the company’s best efforts to keep their product plans quiet.  And Apple’s stock price is at least partially dependent upon those rumors.  

Which brings me to the train wreck that is the White House under Donald Trump.  I think there are fewer leaks in the lean-tos built by the contestants on the TV show Survivor than there are in this administration.   And Trump isn’t exactly wrong for not appreciating the fact that the press is getting information not necessarily intended for public consumption.  There’s even a recent story in The Onion that’s poking fun at the leaks.  

The issues Trump is facing in maintaining an efficient, smoothly working operation are identical to any issues that a sufficiently wide-ranging conspiracy would have to deal with.   Keeping people silent, especially when they don’t have some massive motivation to be quiet, is quite difficult if not impossible.   

I’m not seeing much coming out of the White House that I can honestly say is a good thing.  But the more I think about it, maybe the leaks should help us put to rest the notion that these conspiracy theories are anything other than an occasionally amusing distraction

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I have even less respect for Trump now

On January 29, 2017, a mere nine days into the nascent administration of Donald Trump, a US Special Operations force carried out a raid on the village of Yakla in the nation of Yemen.

While all of the details of this raid will be the stuff of investigations that, if they’ve even begun, certainly haven’t been completed. But here’s what we do know:

The initial groundwork for the raid was started during the Obama administration but Obama himself never greenlighted the mission. Donald Trump did that.

One US Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid, as were some number of civilians. The number of civilians killed, depending on which reports you might read, ranges from the low teens to as many as 25.

Very little, if any, intelligence was gained from the mission.

To his credit, Donald Trump was present when Owens’s body was returned to the states and to offer condolences to his family.

Now let me make it clear that any number of factors can lead to the success or failure of any given mission, most of which are outside of the control of anyone who’s not on the ground in the middle of the mission. I’ve seen some articles from the fringe political left refer to Trump as a “murderer” because of the results of this raid. If I’m being at my most polite, this characterization is grossly inaccurate.

But there’s plenty of fallout from this raid that should fall squarely on Trump’s shoulders. First and foremost is the fact that he tried to shift the blame for the raid first to Ex-President Obama and then to the generals who oversaw it. I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, but you authorized the raid and therefore it’s up to you to accept the consequences, good or bad. By trying to deflect the blame, Trump has turned this mission into more of a news item than it needed to be.

The President of the United States is often called upon to make extremely difficult decisions. This particular decision involved him serving as Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces but not all decisions need to involve that particular responsibility. Some decisions prove, in hindsight to be good decisions while others prove to be, um, not so good. (And, as I’ve written before, it’s not always immediately obvious whether it was a good decision.).

I would argue that, with regard to this particular decision, Trump was lucky in that he received near-immediate feedback that caution would have been the more advisable path. Someone with good leadership skills would have taken this miscue as cause for introspection, reflection, and a changing of tactics for the next time a similar decision might be warranted.

Last night (February 28, 2017), President Trump gave an address before a joint session of congress. It had its high moments and low moments, to be sure, but the lowest moment of the night was when he called out Carryn Owens, the widow of the slain SEAL from that mission. It was arguably two minutes of the most uncomfortable television I’ve ever watched.

I don’t blame anyone who gave her a standing ovation, but she clearly was still grieving over her loss, and rightly so. What I saw was someone whose wounds from a traumatic event were still fresh, praying for strength, crying. I don’t know what was going through her head and whether or not she appreciated this gesture, but when Trump doubled down and claimed the raid to be a success despite the casualties, it was clear that he learned nothing from this basic lesson in on-the-job training for the presidency.

If I were Mrs. Owens or any other member of Ryan Owens’s family, I’d be furious at being used as a prop in his speech, his totally misguided attempts to defend the indefensible. And I do question if we’d even know about this raid had Owens not died.

I don’t know if this raid would have come out differently if Trump had waited longer before authorizing it. I don’t know if I’d be writing this blog post if either Owens, or the Yemeni civilians, or both, had survived. It’s a lot harder to get a learning experience from having made a successful decision.

But Trump had a golden opportunity to demonstrate himself as being up to the nuances and complexities of the presidency — something I previously doubted. After all, when was the last time a new president’s decisions were tested this soon after he took the oath of office? (By comparison, September 11 happened nearly eight months into George W Bush’s presidency and the standoff with David Koresh’s Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, started a little over a month into Bill Clinton’s presidency and ended a month and a half later. Trump wasn’t even president for two whole weeks when Yakla happened.)

I may have previously doubted Trump’s fitness to be president. I don’t doubt it any more. I’m convinced that he’s unfit to be president.