Friday 28 July 2017

The Trump White House: not a fandango! Fake news!

Let's get one thing clear: President Trump's newly appointed director of communications is called Anthony Scaramucci. He is not called Scaramouche, who figures in the Queen anthem Bohemian Rhapsody.

It follows, therefore, that any reference to 'doing the fandango' ('Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?') is clearly FAKE NEWS from the LYING PRESS! Scaramucci is not Scaramouche.

He is, on the other hand, His Master's Voice to a T. He is even better at 'locker-room talk' than the man he now serves. If you have a strong stomach, no objection to obscenity or gross sexual imagery, click here to read how he talks about his senior White House colleagues.

With a reporter. On the record. And then remind yourself: this is the director of communications for the President of the United States of America.

Like his boss, Mr Scaramucci (known as 'The Mooch') is a devoted user of Twitter. And he thinks that deleting from Twitter all the rude things he used to say about Donald Trump falls into the category 'full transparency'.

What he actually said (on Twitter, naturally) was: 'Full transparency: I'm deleting old tweets. Past views evolved & shouldn't be a distraction.' Translation: 'I am being fully transparent by concealing the truth about what I used to think.'

George Orwell, thou shouldst be alive today. Remember 1984? In Newspeak, the word 'blackwhite' meant to believe that black is white, to know that black is white, and to forget that one had ever believed the contrary.

So, in the spirit of Newspeak, you know, and I know, that Anthony Scaramucci is a Trump loyalist, has always been a Trump loyalist and we have never in our lives believed anything different.

We have never believed that in 2008 he donated to Barack Obama's election campaign. (OK, the donation is on record, but so what? FAKE NEWS!)

We never heard him describe Trump as a 'hack politician' and an 'inherited money dude from Queens County'. (OK, the TV clip is still available online, but hey, FAKE NEWS!)

And we never even saw, let alone remembered, his quickly deleted tweet in which he appeared to accuse his colleague, the White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, of a felony by leaking his (Scaramucci's) finances when in fact they were publicly available to anyone who knew where to look. MORE FAKE NEWS!

Unlike the unlamented Sean Spicer, Trump's former spokesman who has tumbled back into the black hole from which he should never have emerged, Scaramucci can be suave and silver-tongued. He also looks a bit like a younger version of Paulie Gualtieri from The Sopranos.

Perhaps you take the view that all this is simply an embarrassing sideshow. I'd be tempted to agree. Much more worrying than Mr Scaramucci is how the President will react to the humiliation just heaped upon him by his fellow-Republicans in the US Senate, three of whom refused to back his last-ditch attempt to roll back Obamacare and torpedoed one of his most dearly-beloved policy objectives.

Take a bow Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and John McCain of Arizona. Millions of Americans who would otherwise have lost their health insurance salute you.

Those of us who do not live in the US can also spend the rest of the summer worrying about Mr Trump's continuing forays into foreign crises about which he appears to know nothing and understand less. Reports from Washington this week, for example, suggest he's hoping to provoke Iran into what he will seek to portray as a reneging on its obligations under the painstakingly-negotiated nuclear deal (in fact, it will be Washington doing the reneging, but hey, FAKE NEWS!).

And don't even mention the way he embarrassed himself and his entire administration, in the presence of the Lebanese prime minister, no less, by claiming that the Lebanese government is in the frontline of fighting ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hizbollah. (What do you mean, Hizbollah is in fact part of the Lebanese government coalition? FAKE NEWS!)

Do I sound as if I'm laughing? If so, I apologise. It is the terrified laughter you hear when a prisoner is blindfolded and led out of his cell with his hands tied behind his back. 'Hey. Are we going for a walk? Great!'

Friday 21 July 2017

Sailing up Brexit creek to disaster

I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but I'm almost beginning to feel sorry for the UK's chief Brexit negotiator David Davis.

There he was in Brussels (if but briefly), face to face with his steely-eyed EU counterpart Michel Barnier, and all he could hear in his head were the voices of his Cabinet colleagues.

'Be tough.' (International trade secretary Liam Fox). 'Be flexible.' (Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond) 'Tell 'em to go whistle.' (Foreign secretary Boris Johnson) 'Make sure we get a soft landing.' (Home secretary Amber Rudd)

And that's just what they're saying in public. God only knows what they're saying in private.

Imagine you're a car salesman and a couple come in to buy a new car. They want a good deal, of course, so they try to negotiate. Partner A: 'We want a deal that's fair to both sides.' Partner B: 'No, we don't. We're perfectly prepared to walk away with no deal at all if we don't get what we want.'

They squabble. They bicker. They call each other names. I don't know about you, but if I were that salesman, I'd leave them to it and find something else to do. Which is exactly what the EU will be tempted to until and unless Mrs May's bunch of squabblers get their act together.

This is what happens when prime ministers lose their authority, because the four senior ministers I cited above all think they have a real chance of taking over when Mrs M finally throws in the towel.

So, of course, does David Davis, who is in effect running the Brexit negotiations -- which he says make landing on the moon look simple -- while simultaneously trying to position himself for a successful leadership bid.

It is a recipe for disaster. And the only hope of resolving it is that during their summer break, enough Conservative MPs will come to accept that they need to find themselves a new leader pronto.

Some of the older ones might even recall Sir Geoffrey Howe's speech when he resigned from Margaret Thatcher's government in 1990. He complained bitterly about her attitude towards the EU, which he said was like 'sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.'

In David Davis's case, it's not so much that his team captain has handed him a broken bat, but instead has provided him with a whole selection of bats, of varying shapes and sizes, none of which seem to be any good. What's more, she's forgotten to tell him what the rules of the game are.

No wonder M Barnier is complaining of a 'lack of clarity' in the UK's bargaining position. How can there possibly be clarity as long as the government is so deeply split and the prime minister has lost all authority?

I can't honestly think of a single way in which the UK's negotiating position could be worse. The country is divided, the government is divided, and the opposition is divided. Even if, against all the odds, David Davis is able to negotiate a deal before March 2019 (the two-year time limit from when the UK formally informed Brussels that it intends to leave), the chances of it winning the support of the Commons are vanishingly small.

So here's a thought. When a computer blows a gasket, you can often reset it to a date that takes it back to before the problem occurred. There ought to be a similar System Restore facility in Westminster, so that we could just turn back the clock to the day before the Brexit referendum and do it all again.

When the UK's former ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, resigned last January, complaining that  'serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall', I translated his parting remarks as meaning 'We're up the creek without a paddle.'

Six months later, we seem to be even further up the creek -- and still without a paddle. It'll soon be time to grab hold of the life jackets.

Friday 14 July 2017

Values? What values?

When Donald Trump addressed the people of Poland last week, just before he headed off to Germany for the G20 summit, he spoke in glowing terms of what he called Western civilisation.

'We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression,' he said. 'We value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.'

I wonder if the Chinese pro-democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo heard those words. We'll never know, because now Liu is dead, the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and died in 1938.

Western civilisation? The right to free speech? The dignity of every human life? Rarely have those words sounded as hollow as they do today, less than a week after China's president, Xi Jinping, was fêted by his G20 fellow-leaders.

(It's not entirely fair, incidentally, to single out President Trump for criticism. Liu's American lawyer Jared Genser wrote in the Washington Post two weeks ago that Barack Obama 'led the West in playing down concerns with China on human rights and was conspicuous by his unwillingness to help Liu, his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate.')

But let's not confine ourselves to the abysmal record of China. Also at the G20 summit, looking like the cat who got the cream as he wrapped Mr Trump round his little finger (if you'll excuse the mixed imagery), was President Vladimir Putin, a man whose political enemies have a remarkable habit of ending up dead.

Enemies like Boris Nemtsov, whom I met in Moscow in December 2013, as he campaigned to reveal the appalling corruption in which the Sochi Winter Olympics were mired. He was shot dead on a Moscow street just over a year later. Or like the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in 2006. Or the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody in 2009.

(We'll return to the Magnitsky case another day, as it's part of the increasingly surreal Donald Trump Jr emails saga. The Russian lawyer whom the young Trump met in the hope that she was about to hand over some dirt on Hillary Clinton was best known as a lobbyist against the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials suspected of involvement in Magnitsky's death.)

Standing right next to Mr Putin in the G20 family photo was President Erdoğan of Turkey, who just a year ago survived what may or may not have been an attempted coup against him and who then embarked on a crackdown in which an estimated 50,000 people have been arrested and another 150,000 have been either sacked or suspended from their jobs.

The inescapable conclusion? That Western civilisation defends the right to free speech except where it doesn't.

Certainly not in Egypt, for example, where a military coup that put an end to an inglorious -- but democratically-elected -- Muslim Brotherhood administration was greeted with a deafening sigh of relief from Western capitals.

And definitely not in Saudi Arabia, where a ruling royal family riddled with corruption has been fawned over shamelessly for decades in return for billions of dollars-worth of arms contracts. (Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the arrest of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who had the temerity to write in favour of such outlandish ideas as secularism and democracy.)

I wasn't born yesterday. I know that strategic and commercial considerations will always take precedence over such wishy-washy things as 'values'. What sticks in my throat is the cant, the absurd pretence that somehow the West stands for all that is best about the human condition.

Donald Trump, as it happens, pretends much less often than most of his fellow Western leaders. His speech in Warsaw was a rare exception, but not to be taken seriously, given that no one was fooled for one moment into believing that he had written it, that he meant it, or even that he understood it.

At least Trump is open in his admiration of despots: Putin, Xi, Erdoğan, Sisi of Egypt and even the truly appalling Duterte of the Philippines. I suspect he would love to be able to behave as they do: locking up his opponents, ruling by decree, and governing by fear.

To his credit, the US secretary of state Rex Tillerson did issue a statement paying tribute to Liu Xiaobo after his death on Thursday and calling for the release from house arrest of his wife, Liu Xia. It was the very least he could have done.

President Trump, tone deaf as ever, chose instead to praise President Xi Jinping as a 'very talented man, a good man, a terrific guy and a very special person'.  A few hours later, the White House had to issue a follow-up statement: the president had been 'deeply saddened' to learn of Liu's death and offered his condolences. So that's all right.