News Sips 3/17: Budget Blues, Germans in DC, Tillerson Threatens Kim, and Does Anyone Outside of DC Care About the Wiretap?
Here are the four things you need to know before your Guinness gets warm, the St. Patrick’s Day edition:
The President’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, was unphased by the hand-wringing from the left over the President’s proposed budget blueprint on discretionary spending. Before we dive into what was going on, let’s remember that there’s almost no chance that the budget blueprint outlined by Mulvaney will ever come to pass in a real sense. Rather, it’s more a statement of principles than a budget. The plan will go to Capitol Hill where the lobbyists, special interests, and politicians will completely change whatever the President has asked for and the end-product probably won’t be very recognizable. This happens regardless of who is in the White House. Congress has the “power of the purse,” and cuts are just never politically popular.
What the President’s budget is can better be described as a statement of principles. The President is doing what he promised to do on the campaign trail: reinvest in the military, cut programs, and save money. It’s important to note that the budget blueprint only relates to discretionary spending and not mandatory spending. What this means is that the 70% of the budget that’s made up of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are not included in the outline. Mulvaney, who was a fiscal hawk when he was a member of Congress, noted the unfortunate reality that the size of the debt would be likely to grow given the whole budget. However, in doing what they could about discretionary spending, increases in defense are offset by corresponding cuts elsewhere.
A few of the important points from the blueprint came in cuts to the State Department and the EPA. Mulvaney described these cuts as being, first, because of “mission creep” and agencies getting into things that they don’t have a legal justification from Congress to get into. Added to this is the fact that the Administration isn’t going to be spending money on climate change and associated programs. Further, Mulvaney and Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted that the President, as a CEO, doesn’t plan to greenlight spending “just because that’s the way it’s been.” If programs can’t show real results, they aren’t going to be getting federal money.
This results-based approach was bolstered by the principle that the President understands that he is actually spending the money of taxpayers on these programs (including aid to foreign governments). Mulvaney said he and the President couldn’t defend, and wouldn’t, giving money to the left-leaning Corporation for Public Broadcasting to a coal miner.
Of course, as we noted yesterday, the left went ballistic over cuts to arts, humanities, and a perceived cut to “Meals on Wheels” (this is false. States get to apportion block grants however they choose. If a state wants to spend on Meals on Wheels, nothing is preventing them from doing so). The fact is that the President’s budget blueprint calls for a reduction in the size and scope of the Federal bureaucracy. While it won’t get traction on Capitol Hill, it does show that the President will be managing his Departments and Agencies like a CEO who cares about the budget rather than a politician who just wants more votes.
Germans in DC
After a snow storm earlier this week delayed her visit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit with President Trump at the White House. The meeting comes as the worldwide populist movement was dealt a setback in the Netherlands where the “establishment” was able to hold on to power (though the populists, for lack of a better term, gained seats in Parliament). Trump has been a harsh critic of Merkel, who then-candidate Trump described as destroying Germany. Merkel, who has been in power for twelve years, has been similarly critical of the populist movement that Mr. Trump seems to represent on a global scale.
The “liberal world order” seemed to come undone for Merkel in the past year as she saw most of her compatriots, like President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron, Prime Minister Renzi, and others either lose power or retire from public life. With the backdrop of increased refugee migration from the Middle East and North Africa and coordinated radical Islamic terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Germany, the Chancellor has faced withering criticism over her policy to open Germany up to (what critics call uncontrolled) migration. The nationalists see this as an abandonment of sovereignty and, given an apparent unwillingness of immigrants to assimilate, an attack on German culture. The same messaging has risen in Britain, France, the United States, and numerous other countries.
Though the meeting will likely be heated, and will be a big test of Mr. Trump’s diplomatic skill, don’t expect the Chancellor to come out hard against Mr. Trump in Trump’s own house. Rather, Merkel needs to make sure that the United States will continue to trade with Germany and the EU (and will continue to spend billions on the defense of Europe). Merkel has a lot more to lose than Trump does in these talks. If Merkel decides to take a hard-line and publicly scold the President, you can expect to see massive shifts in American policy away from Germany (a country that exports about twice as much to the United States as they import from the United States) and, more broadly, from the European Union. Certainly, Merkel sees herself as the last bastion of the crumbling liberal world order (liberal, used here in the globalist sense). It remains to be seen whether she can hold her peace, get agreements on common goals, and get out with her reputation intact.
Let’s remember that Merkel is facing a tough challenge this Fall in the German Federal Elections. She has a lot to lose if this meeting goes poorly.
Tillerson Threatens North Korea
The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, on a visit to South Korea, has asserted that the United States’ policy of “strategic patience” with the regime of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea has come to an end. What this means, according to Tillerson, is that the United States will not meet with North Korean officials about the North’s nuclear weapons program and that the United States will leave open the option to take preemptive action against North Korea if they persist in developing arms capable to targeting US allies.
Secretary Tillerson’s comments in South Korea come during a larger trip to Asia and a day before he is set to visit China. China, which has supported North Korea in the past, has been advocating for a mutual scaling-back of rhetoric over the actions of North Korea. However, Pyongyang has been accelerating provocative actions since the Trump Administration took power in January and has repeatedly tested missiles that could hit Japan and South Korea. If the North Koreans continue on their current ballistic missile trajectory, there is a strong likelihood that they could develop a missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the American west coast. While the United States, South Korea, and Japan have deployed missile batteries that hope to be able to shoot down incoming attacks, it’s certainly a risk to hinge the existence of an American city on the batteries functioning as-designed. While North Korean ICBM capability would be nothing compared to the developed powers’ multiple reentry vehicles and nuclear payloads, the potential of any nuclear attack is totally unacceptable.
Secretary Tillerson’s comments give a hint as to the Trump Administration’s position with regard to North Korea. They are not going to wait around for the government in Pyongyang to collapse. This is a savvy calling-out of North Korea’s apparent strategy to wait-out the West until it is in a better-leveraged position with a capable nuclear arsenal.
It’s important to also note that Secretary Tillerson’s comments may be less about North Korea and more about sending a message to China that the United States is not shrinking from the world stage. Rather, to the consternation of Beijing, the United States is looking to expand its influence in Asia and would be willing to do whatever is necessary with regard to North Korea.
Does Anyone Outside of DC Care About the Wiretap?
Despite the fact that the President was meeting with one foreign leader yesterday and another today (oh, and that he released a budget blueprint and had two of his top cabinet officials conducting high-level meetings in Asia), the majority of the questions for Press Secretary Sean Spicer at yesterday’s press briefing centered around whether Donald Trump, as a candidate, was subject to a wiretap by the previous Administration. Senate and House leaders of both parties have said that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of a wiretap of Trump Tower in the days leading up to the election, but they could not rule out that some of Mr. Trump’s team’s calls may have been inadvertently picked up in routine surveillance of Russian and other foreign officials. The President has said that he knows that there is evidence of wiretapping, or at least some form of surveillance. The Press Secretary and the President both defend this position, not by citing classified materials, but rather news reports from multiple outlets about FISA warrants and investigations.
Here’s the reality: it’s very unlikely that anyone outside of the Acela Corridor cares about this story. The President and the Press are giving it more traction than it deserves, and the Press Secretary’s hostility over the issue only feeds the narrative for journalists who love (despite swearing to the contrary) being part of the story. Hence, the fact that CNN has run with the wiretapping “drama” despite other big news.
Frankly, if we had to bet, there’s a good chance that domestic surveillance of Trump’s team was conducted. This isn’t based on any evidence, but it would be a predictable outgrowth of the modern surveillance state. That’s not meant to sound as conspiratorial as it reads. It’s no secret that the capability and technological sophistication of surveillance methods have increased as a result of the need to stay ahead of America’s enemies and rivals around the world. Certainly, civil libertarians of all stripes see this, especially for the fact that it takes place in secret, to be a violation of individual rights. So, it’s not impossible, nor even unlikely, that calls and communications from the Trump team were picked up, or even investigated in the lead up to the election.
The bigger question, and the one that should be answered, is what was the intent of the collection. Sure, we can argue that the calls or communications shouldn’t have been intercepted. That’s a larger question about law enforcement and counterterrorism in the 21st century. However, what should be determined is why these commutations were collected. If they were, indeed, incidental to other spying, then it’s probably something not worth the political capital to go after. However, if it comes out that there were active investigations (a la Watergate) of political opponents by the previous Administration (even passively: we’re not investigating, we’ll just look for anything suspicious), then there is a much larger problem that needs to be talked about and investigated.
Of course, there are more things going on in the world, but these should be enough to get your day started.