Let’s assume that sarin really was used in Khan Shaykhun (Idlib Province) on April 8. America’s government says so; the U.K.’s government says so; Turkey says so; even Russia holds that something involving “chemical weapons” occurred.
The question is, Who was responsible? President Donald J. Trump, offering no evidence, insists it was the Syrian government, with the probable foreknowledge of Russia. However, the Russian Defense Ministry has a different explanation. “The Syrian air force delivered an airstrike on several militant facilities in the Idlib Governorate, where munitions filled with poisonous substances were being made.”
The BBC reported more fully on this: “The Syrian air force…struck Khan Sheikhoun between 11:30am and 12:30pm local time”… and the target was “a large terrorist ammunition depot…there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions…terrorists had been transporting chemical munitions from this largest arsenal to the territory of Iraq.”
According to this view, the chemicals were owned by militant forces—not the Syrian government. A powerful air strike by Syrian government forces would thus have dispersed the chemicals into the air; it would then drift down and kill people. (Some scientists point out that some of the gas would have been destroyed in such an attack, but there’s no proof that all of it would).
You’d never know from the U.S. media that there are serious challenges to Trump’s “Assad did it” claim, which they’ve swallowed whole hog. Nor would you be likely to know that Russia is insisting on an independent investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an independent body which is the world’s leading NGO on chemical warfare; the U.S., which is a member, has just in essence opposed this. Yesterday, Russia submitted its formal proposal to OPCW, calling for “a fair investigation into this incident.” According to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, he proposed this to American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during their meeting in Moscow, “but he [Tillerson] was not ready for this.”
Why not? Why would Trump’s Secretary of state object to a formal investigation by a respected international body? Even Bashir Assad “supports the idea of [an] impartial investigation” into the attack. (It’s worth noting that, the last time this happened, in 2016, “the OPCW corroborate[d] the Syrian government’s assertions that the faction responsible for the chemical attack, as well as 11 other instances of chemical weapons use, was the Syrian opposition.”)
Some analysts have concluded that it would have been insane for Assad to use sarin on his people, for two reasons: The country no longer possesses such weapons (both Russia and Assad insist they’re long gone), and “the Syrian government is winning the war and has no possible motive for giving the ‘international community’ an excuse to come to the aid of the ‘rebels.’”
Assad is reported to believe that “the US has taken advantage of this incident” for its own purposes. “[America] fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack.” Even some people in this country—Ron Paul, for example—have said there’s “zero chance” Assad was responsible for the attack.
Clearly, any reasonable person must conclude there’s enough ambiguity surrounding the incident to make a rush to judgment inadvisable.
President Obama was faced with a similar problem back in 2013, when the Syrian town of Ghouta was hit by a sarin-like agent. At that time, Obama refused to retaliate against Assad, warning against “the perils of intervention.” Obama’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, a Republican, wondered, “Shouldn’t we finish up the two wars we [already] have [Afghanistan and Iraq] before we look for another?”
This was the same time Trump famously advised Obama to “stay the hell out of Syria.”
Well, that was then; this is now. In 2013 Trump was thinking about running for President. Today, he is the President, and he’s in a world of trouble, with RussiaGate looming and the public’s confidence in him eroding. Now, he has resorted to the oldest trick in the book: war. It rallies the public into patriotic furor, sends the media off on fruitless side tracks, and silences his critics. But with this President’s track record for lies, why should anyone believe him now? He lies about everything, big and small. He may well be lying now, to save his skin. Look, I know I’ve quoted Russian and Syrian sources in this reporting, and most of us are prone to believe that anything they say is a lie. But ask yourself, in your heart of hearts: Do you believe everything Trump says just because he says it?
Trump is getting a taste for this sort of violent intervention. Yesterday’s massive bombing in Afghanistan suggests as much; so does the “armada” he sent to North Korea. This is exactly the sort of thing Democrats warned about prior to the election: Give this guy unlimited power, including the nuclear codes, and he could easily go insane.
Have a nice weekend.
How are we to interpret recent events in Syria? The official White House version is simple:
- President Donald Trump used to be opposed to American intervention in that civil war.
- But then Bashir Assad dropped sarin gas bombs on his own people.
- And the President was so upset by the images of dead and suffering little children that he changed his mind; hence the missiles.
In order to process this version of the story we need to be very clear whom we are dealing with: namely, Donald J. Trump, whose relationship to “truth” is shaky. I don’t think even his biggest supporters would challenge the assertion that Trump has repeatedly stated untruths over the years—untruths calculated to help him and hurt his enemies. The best his surrogates can do is grin and say, “Well, that’s Trump—but you have to focus on what he does, not what he says.”
I would argue that so vast has been Trump’s trove of untruths—more commonly called “lies”—that we really need to back up and question each of the three assertions of the White House version. I accept (a), that Trump long was opposed to intervention in Syria, or, frankly, anywhere else: isolationism was part of his “America First” shtick. But when we get to (b) and (c), the official Trump version suffers from serious deficiencies.
Part (b) assumes several so-far unproven assertions. First, that sarin gas was dropped. Have we seen any evidence of this? It’s been widely reported, but we don’t know for sure, and won’t know, until a reputable outside agency (probably the U.N.) establishes the facts. Even if it turns out that sarin was used, how do we know it was Assad who ordered it? He says he didn’t. Putin says he didn’t. Granted, there’s not much reason to believe anything Assad or Putin says, but there’s also not much reason to believe anything Trump says. So we really need an objective investigation.
Why would Putin call for a U.N. investigation into the incident, if in fact his ally, Assad, dropped the bombs, purportedly with Putin’s approval (at least, that’s what the White House asserts)? What would this incident have gained for Assad? What would it have gained for Putin? For Assad, if he really did drop the sarin, it was incredibly stupid. Militarily, it achieved nothing, and further taints his international reputation, and could lead to an indictment for war crimes before an International Court of Justice. For Putin, this also tarnishes his reputation, since Russia was supposed to be a guarantor of the no-chemicals policy in Syria. So it doesn’t make any sense for either of them—Assad or Putin—to have done something so self-damaging.
Or does it? Remember this is all occurring against the backdrop of something even bigger: RussiaGate. Everything goes back to the central questions: What was Trump’s relationship (financial, political, personal) to Putin and other high Russian officials? What were the relationships of Trump’s friends and business associates? Did Trump or his friends know of, or collude with, the successful Russian attempt to undermine our election? So serious are the implications for Trump that we have to at least accept the possibility that he will do anything in his power—and he’s now the most powerful person in the world–to keep the combined Congressional and FBI investigations from bearing fruit.
This is why “wag the dog” theories have proliferated this week, including from me. Now ask yourself—in the light of all this—if the following is at least a possibility. Trump needs to change the subject, and fast, away from RussiaGate and some of the other embarrassing incidents that have caused his poll numbers to plummet to record lows. His main thing is to distance himself from Putin and Russia—to show Americans that all his bromance with Putin was just silly talk, and we shouldn’t worry about it. Trump has to have some sort of contact with Putin (I would assume that the President of the United States and the President of Russia can talk on a secure hotline anytime they want.) Trump tells Putin he’s in a bind: Trump’s ties with Russia are being revealed, and are likely to turn into a major crisis for him and his regime, as well as for the Russians. So both Trump and Putin need something, anything, to deflect attention away from the probes, and swing public opinion around. Putin has an idea: Let’s invent something to disagree about. What if some sarin can be arranged to be dropped on a Syrian village? Trump is intrigued; his always scheming mind immediately sees the possibilities. He can kill two or three birds with one stone: change the subject. Be seen as a compassionate man, the enforcer of world peace. And be seen as no friend of Putin (as Eric Trump so clumsily reminded us the other day.)
Trump can even, if he wants to, use this “pivot” as an excuse to dump his more radical advisors—paging Steve Bannon–who are no longer of use to him, and seem to be in increasing disfavor, even among Republicans.
But how does this help Putin? It doesn’t, not in the short run. It hurts him. Both he and Trump are going to have to pretend to have broken their bromance; both of are going to have to ratchet up the rhetoric on each other, back to Cold War levels, at least for a while. But in the long run, this helps Putin, because it prevents the Trump-Russia ties from being exposed, and helps keep Trump, who may well be a Russian plant, in power. We have to assume, of course, that those Trump-Russia ties are so deep, so ugly, so devastating, that keeping them from the light of day is uppermost in both leaders’ minds. But that assumption is easy to make: Why else would Trump refuse to release his taxes? Why else would he be fighting so fiercely to keep the investigations from proceeding?
And Assad? Poor Bashir. Putin has left him twisting, twisting slowly in the wind. He’s getting worldwide condemnation for something he may not even have done. But these people—Assad, Putin, Trump—are grownups, used to playing the game. Putin tells his ally, Assad, “Bashir, you have to take one for the team. I need for you to do this.” Bashir: “But Vladimir, you’re asking me to take the blame for something really bad.” Putin: “True. But I’ll have your back. This will all blow over—and eventually, when it does, I’ll still be here, and so will Trump. And we will not forget you.”
Bashir: “So be it.”
Trump: “So be it.”
Putin: “So be it.”
It sounds like a movie, this little conspiracy theory of mine. Only it’s not Hollywood; it’s real life. And in his legerdemain of trying to convince us he’s really not a friend of Russia, Trump might just make a misstep that gets us into war.
April 11, 2024
I set these words down in my own hand from my prison cell here at the Federal Penitentiary in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where I have been incarcerated for the last three years. My quarters are spartan, but not unpleasant: I live alone in this 8’ x 10’ room, which contains a bunk bed, a T.V., a small shelf for my books, a writing table, a little refrigerator and, of course, a toilet.
My days pass well enough. Boredom is the chief enemy, but between the reading and yard exercising (three times a week), and watching T.V., I get by. They don’t let us see any news channels, so I’ve been watching a lot of the shopping channels, which at least are live, and star real people.
Let me explain why I’m here. I was sentenced to thirty years on March 27, 2021, for violating the Behavior Against Government (BAG) Act, which was passed by Congress two years before my arrest, only to be held up for Constitutional review until the Supreme Court declared it legal. The vote on that was 6-3; Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, with a concurrence by Associate Justice Ted Cruz, who had been nominated by President Trump only three months before and confirmed by the Senate, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
The BAG Act decrees that any behavior found objectionable to the United States government, its officers and/or appointees, is punishable by up to forty years in prison. The Justice Department is the sole determinant of what constitutes “objectionable” behavior. In my case, I was charged with “disseminating false, and/or insulting, and/or malicious information concerning the President of the United States.” How did I do this? Through my blog, of course, steveheimoff.com. Under the old laws, nothing I wrote could possibly have been interpreted as illegal; I took great care to stay on the right side of the law. But with the passage of the BAG Act, the government moved the goalposts, so that a statement (such as “Trump is a sexual predator”) which until then might have been harsh, but not libelous, now is considered a “threat to the stability of the nation.” So here I am.
And here I’m likely to remain. Now that the Congress has repealed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which held the President to two terms of office, there’s no doubt that President Trump will be re-elected this November–especially since the Democratic Party has all but been obliterated. A majority of national Democratic Party leaders—Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jerry Brown, Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren—also have been arrested for violating the BAG Act; in fact, Sanders’ cell is right down the row from me, and on occasion I see Biden in the courtyard. The poor guy has aged a lot. But who hasn’t?
I had no trial. The men who arrested me (and since they never identified themselves, I have no idea what agency they were from) explained that jury trials are too expensive and a waste of time when national security is at stake. They did show me some paperwork: a formal document of some kind, outlining the charges against me. It was signed by Jared Kushner—not personally, of course, but with a facsimile of his signature. I barely had time to see his title before one of the men grabbed it away: it said “Chief of Internal Security” or something like that.
Since we can’t watch the news or see newspapers or have access to the Internet, I’m not very conversant with world affairs anymore. But there is a grapevine of sorts here in Allenwood; inmates hear things and gossip about them. From the grapevine I learn that opposition to the Trump regime in America has been all but obliterated. His picture adorns every courtroom, military post and schoolroom in the country; his face is on the twenty-dollar bill; and the Pledge of Allegiance, which is mandatory at all public events, has new phrasing: following “…and to the Republic for which it stands” is “and the President of our great country, Donald J. Trump…”.
I hear, also, that many of America’s traditional allies have broken with us: France, Germany, England (the U.K. split up in 2020), Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan. Trump did manage to get his Wall built along the U.S.-Mexico border (which cost us $50 billion; Mexico ended up not paying for it), and we are now building a similar wall along the Canadian border, after the “Dixon Notch Massacre,” in which a few dozen locals supposedly were beheaded by Islamic terrorists who had illegally crossed the border from Quebec. A friend of mine, a fellow inmate, told me that this “massacre” was announced to the public by Kellyanne Conway, the Secretary of Propaganda and Enlightenment. She provided no evidence, and when MSNBC aired a documentary alleging that the whole thing was made up, the Trump administration—using another new law, the Enabling Act Against Media Lies and Fake News—shut it down and imprisoned many of its reporters. In fact, Rachel Maddow supposedly is here in Allenwood, too, in the women’s division.
I have, as you might imagine, plenty of time to think. At first, I was filled with rage and resentment at my arrest. But time has begun to blur the edges of my anger. A lot of others were arrested, so I’m good company; besides, one can’t take these things personally. And, by all accounts, America now is more tranquil than it was just a few years ago. The partisanship that marked government is over. Of course, having but one political party nowadays (thanks to the Republican Party Empowerment Act, passed just last month) helps. And, with Jared clearly being groomed for the succession, our future looks to be in good hands; at least, he’s not a wacko evangelical! So I spend my days and nights watching Home Shopping Network and smiling. Perhaps you will soon join me!
Over the weekend we saw the outlines of the new “centrist push” by the Trump regime.
There was the firing of Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Chair, undoubtedly the result of a Trump order to Ryan designed to let us know that, No, Donald isn’t really as partisan as we all thought. Then we saw the firing of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, a reassurance, I suppose, that Bannon is now a little too psycho even for Trump. Finally, we saw the bombing of Syria, and while that couldn’t exactly be described as “centrist,” it does seem to have prompted some people to see him as more presidential (more on this in a minute).
At the same time, we see the rising up of Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, whom Bannon supposedly called a “cuck,” meaning a mainstream Republican—a more updated form of RINO.
Well, to some of us, RINOs are far preferable, and less dangerous, than tea party Republicans. So if we have to have Republicans, give me a good “cuck” anytime!
I’ve been saying since the Syria bombing that it was all wagging the dog, a transparent way for this beleaguered President to try to up his abysmal poll numbers. It’s a given that a President engaged in foreign battle will temporarily experience support. Even MSNBC, which has been Trump’s fiercest critic, was largely positive on the missile launches, while my newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined that Trump was getting praise both abroad and domestically, on a bipartisan basis. “Donald Trump became President” with the bombing, declared the pompous CNN opinionator, Fareed Zakaria.
Really? The most unqualified President in U.S. history, and all he has to do is kill a few Syrians and he’s suddenly a statesman?
I don’t think so.
Look, we know what’s going on. The man has no fundamental values, except greed and a lust for power. He pandered to the Republican right, in order to get elected, and for a while he thought he could continue to work with the tea party. Then came the collapse of Trumpcare, and the Freedom Caucus’s middle finger to him. Trump, desperate for a date, wiggled his tushie to Democrats, announcing he was available, but Dems weren’t buying—and why should they? So what’s a troubled President to do?
Wag the dog! Kill Syrians (whom his voters don’t like anyway) and get credit from the likes of Fareed Zakaria for being “presidential.”
Let’s call this what it is: a transparently cynical move, bordering on evil. Trump decides there will be a “new Trump” and he expects the country to believe it. Well, there was a “new Nixon” too—in fact, several of them.
Nixon changed his stripes every time it was politically convenient. It didn’t do him much good; he got impeached and quit in disgrace. I don’t think this Syria nonsense will do Trump any good either, although he might get a short-term bounce. The guy is a fraud. His most ardent followers, white men, are deserting him. He’s conceded he’s not going to do anything more in Syria, beyond this ineffective pinprick. Then what? Where does he wag the dog next? Because, my friends, be assured, this guy won’t go down without a fight. Devoid of moral boundaries, he will thrust us into a war, a bad one, and risk the lives of American soldiers in order to save his disintegrating presidency.
A good part of the interpretation of this Trump regime has been that sooner or later he will face a huge international crisis, and no matter what he does, millions of Americans won’t believe him, because of his notorious record of lying.
In a way you can’t blame Trump for being confused about Syria. America has been confused about Syria. On one hand, Assad is fighting our enemy, ISIS. On the other hand, Assad is a brutal dictator. Obama faced this dilemma, and basically took a middle way that perhaps satisfied no one, but at least didn’t get us into further trouble. Now it’s Trump’s turn. He can’t bully or bluff his way through this one. So what’s he supposed to do?
“Wag the dog.” It’s shortened form of “the tail wagging the dog,” an old metaphor which the dictionary defines as “used to describe a situation in which an important or powerful person, organization, etc., is being controlled by someone or something that is much less important or powerful.” But its modern, political meaning, “wag the dog,” derives from a 1997 movie of that name, in which (to quote Wikipedia) “a Washington, D.C. spin doctor who, mere days before a presidential election, distracts the electorate from a sex scandal by hiring a Hollywood film producer to construct a fake war with Albania.”
“Wag the dog” since has come to suggest a situation in which a politician, usually a U.S. President, does something in order to deflect attention from something else potentially embarrassing or politically damaging. Trump himself accused then-President Obama of it in 2012, when Trump tweeted “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in a tailspin—watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.” In true Trumpian fashion, Trump now has done the very thing he accused Obama of doing: now that Trump’s poll numbers are in a tailspin, he has sent missiles into Syria. He is desperate to change the conversation away from his many failures (polls, healthcare, RussiaGate, twitter storms, Trump University settlements). And you know what? He has succeeded, at least temporarily.
It had to work. Anytime a sitting President bombs another country, it’s huge news, and will crowd out all other news. When that country is Syria, it’s even huger. And when that country’s biggest ally is Russia, well, the news just doesn’t get any bigger. Russia, for its part, currently is insisting that, if there was a chemical attack in the first place, it was launched, not by the Syrian government, but by rebels.
It an instance like this, we, the public, may not know whom to believe, but one thing is certain: in a crisis, Americans on both sides of the spectrum tend to rally around the President.
Trump’s poll numbers the other day were a miserable 35%–historically low. He clearly is reckoning that they will bounce back after the missiles, aided by today’s confirmation of Gorsuch to SCOTUS. He may be right—in the short run. But two things mitigate against a Trump rebound in the polls: one is RussiaGate, which may have been shoved into the background for a few days by the news, but isn’t going away, and only seems bound to get worse for Trump; and also, the American public now has had 2-1/2 months to watch this President’s antics, and has grown weary of them. That poll I cited above found that his key base has “begun to migrate away” from him: Republicans, independents and (amazingly) “white men.” Considering that white men have been the mainstay of his support, that has got to be extraordinarily troubling from Trump’s point of view.
Some grownup sat down with the President and explained to him just how serious things are for him. Perhaps it was Reince Priebus, maybe Kellyanne. Maybe Ivanka was there. “You’ve got to do something, Mister President,” they told him. “It can’t go on like this.”
Trump did do something. He wagged the dog.