After a year of boasting that soaring stock markets proved his presidential greatness — as in this November brag: “The reason our stock market is so successful is because of me!” — President Donald Trump began this week presiding over the largest stock market free-fall in U.S. history.
Worse yet, on Monday he was facing TV cameras in Cincinnati where he was supposed to celebrate his economic triumphs. And he knew the whole world would be watching him doing the unpresidential chore of cleaning up after the bulls. But Trump had his own plan.
Of course, he celebrated the economic glories of his first presidential year - and never mentioned the stock market that had been his weekly obsession. Then came his inspired media diversion trick. Trump loaded up his virtual shovel and flung a politically preposterous load in an entirely different direction. He accused Senate and House Democrats of “treason” because during his State of the Union Address, they failed to stand and cheer every time he mentioned what he called good news for America.
“Somebody said ‘treasonous,’” Trump said off-script. “I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Shall we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”
Being the only U.S. president ever to have goofed around in a pro-wrestling ring, Trump played the role as if he were pounding the mat in feigned pain. His real goal, of course, was to divert media attention - and do it in a way that would appeal to his political base. (Trump’s White House of course later claimed it was just another Trump joke.)
As a diversion, it seemed to have worked. But not so fast.
We know Trump has mainly seemed obsessed by the FBI’s and now Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether Trump’s campaign was involved in Russia’s alleged efforts to sabotage, through cyber-theft and cyber-subterfuge, America’s 2016 democratic election process.
All last year, Trump was his own worst enemy in this - dismissive of intelligence agencies’ findings, accepting of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials, firing FBI Director James Comey. And mainly appearing obsessed with all that in his tweet blizzards. So how did he happen to think up that “treason” bit?
Here you'll want to consider two mind-bogglingly inconsistent events that occurred just days before Trump went to Cincinnati. They had nothing to do with economic policy - but everything to do with whether we are really determined to safeguard America’s democracy, or go easy on our Kremlin adversary.
On the morning of Jan. 29, journalists from BBC interviewed Trump’s Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo. The CIA director, who personally briefs Trump daily and is the president’s favorite among his intel-elites, said he still views Russia as America’s adversary. “I haven’t seen a significant decrease in their activity,” Pompeo said.
Asked if he expects Russia to again seek to inject itself into the 2018 midterm elections, Pompeo told BBC: “I have every expectation that they will continue to try.”
But just a few hours later, on the other side of the Potomac River, the State Department made an announcement that sounded as if Trump’s policy-makers weren’t in the Trump intel-loop.
The State Department announced it was not imposing the sanctions against Russia that Congress enacted by an overwhelming bipartisan vote, and Trump had signed into law, in mid-2017. A State Department official told reporters there was no need for the law’s sanctions to be implemented now “because the legislation is, in fact, serving as a deterrent.”
Perhaps the Trump administration thinks that what we have here is a non-deterring deterrent. Predictably, leading Democrats attacked Trump for failing to implement the law’s sanctions.
But Republican leaders I always respected in past decades would have promptly led the fight to protect our homeland and democracy from new cyber-attacks - first and foremost. Apparently, today’s GOP leaders seem to have come down with that laryngitis that’s going around.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.