How the Navy could be torpedoing Trump’s chances in 2020

When it comes time to defend his red wall along the Great Lakes, President Trump is going to come face to face with the consequences of his Pentagon leadership’s failure to implement his oft-promised 355-ship Navy (up from 290 today).

Pennsylvania workers make many of the essentials that go into ships, including shafts manufactured in Erie and cooling systems in York. Every time the Navy awards a contract for a new ship, the president or vice president should be at one of these facilities talking about the jobs the contracts will provide. But the Navy hasn’t been issuing those contracts, so the president can’t make those announcements.

The Navy could have gone big — still could still go big — in Philadelphia. To extend the life of the existing fleet, a person familiar with the planning tells me, the Navy must perform roughly 100 more ship dockings in the next decade than current dock space can accommodate. Philly Shipyard has the capability to build floating dry docks to make up for this shortfall. Why isn’t Trump announcing a plan to expand the Navy’s dry-dock infrastructure while standing in Philly Shipyard?

Wisconsin benefits from Navy shipbuilding in two ways. First, there is the shipyard in Marinette that creates jobs in both Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Fincantieri Marine Group is a bidder on the new 20-ship Navy FFG(X) guided-missile frigate program, but politics cannot take precedence over ship design, so the contract is not guaranteed to land lakeside in Wisconsin. The least Trump could do, though, is insist that the Navy pick up the pace of its dreadfully slow design competition.

The Fincantieri Marinette Marine is already under contract to build four Multi-Mission Surface Combatant ships for Saudi Arabia. More work would be sent Wisconsin’s way if the Trump administration could persuade the Saudis to increase their order or bring other countries, such as Israel, on board.

Incredibly, Michigan ranks near the bottom of all the states when defense spending is calculated as a percentage of a state’s GDP — 47th out of 50 in fiscal year 2017 for what was once the arsenal of democracy. Per-resident defense spending in Michigan that year was a paltry $386, compared with $1,554 in Oklahoma.

When the Air Force decided in 2017 not to base F-35A fighter aircraft at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan, it missed an easy way to achieve some equity in the distribution of defense-industry dollars in the states. Trump could direct the Pentagon to reverse that decision.

The Navy’s plans for a new “large unmanned surface vessel” calls for a ship which could be built at a Great Lakes facility; near Detroit makes sense, if only out of fairness to a state that has been largely ignored in the Trump military rebuild. Given the likely long-term need for many of these ships in the future, a new facility could be planted and grown along with the program. It pains this Buckeye to say so, but somewhere along the Michigan coast next door to Ohio would be equitable.

A focus on Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin need not be limited to the Defense Department. Recently, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) pushed successfully for the planned relocation of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, Colo., in a brilliant move to bring bureaucrats closer to the citizens they regulate and whom they are supposed to serve. Sending large parts of the Environmental Protection Agency to Flint, Mich., or nearby locations would drive home the same message.

Trump has the chance to drain the swamp while making government agencies much more attuned to the people in flyover country. But he must act soon.

Yet, it is really the Navy’s utter failure to deliver even a bare-bones plan to realize the president’s promise of a 355-ship Navy that ought to rankle the commander in chief. A new chief of naval operations will arrive soon. The president ought to have waiting on his desk copies of the speeches in which he promised, and then promised again, a 355-ship Navy, along with the slogan famously used by Winston Churchill scrawled with the black Sharpie that Trump likes to use: “Action this day!”

Former defense secretary Jim Mattis rejoins General Dynamics board

Mattis served on the board from 2013 to 2017 before joining the Trump administration.

Former defense secretary Jim Mattis has been elected to the board of General Dynamics, the company announced after a vote on Wednesday, allowing him to reclaim a powerful position at the top of America’s defense industry.

The announcement comes at a time when General Dynamics ― one of the last military-industrial conglomerates remaining from the industry’s Reagan-era heyday ― is trying to remake itself for the information age. Last year, the company sealed a deal to buy CSRA, a massive Beltway IT contractor, for almost $10 billion. It is the fourth-largest corporate recipient of U.S. government contract dollars.

“Jim is a thoughtful, deliberate and principled leader with a proven track record of selfless service to our nation,” chief executive Phebe Novakovic said in a statement. “We are honored to have him on our board.”

Mattis’s compensation and benefits package is to be detailed in a later financial disclosure form.

Mattis is the latest influential military official to join a major defense contractor, part of the “revolving door” between business and government that has long concerned government ethics experts.

A report released late last year by the Project on Government Oversight found that defense contractors had hired at least 50 high-level government officials since Trump became president, among more than 600 such instances in the past decade.

Mattis began his first stint on the board of General Dynamics in 2013 after more than 40 years with the U.S. Marine Corps. From 2010 to 2013, he led U.S. Central Command, which spearheads the military’s operations in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

He never married, and is often described as a “warrior monk” for his bookish devotion to military strategy and history. He adopted the call sign “chaos,” which stands for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Solution,” he told an audience at the National Harbor in 2017.

Mattis led the Defense Department during the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Trump frequently expressed admiration for him in public, referring to him as one of “my generals,” and calling him by his other nickname, “Mad Dog” Mattis.

Behind the scenes, Mattis often seemed to check the president’s instincts. According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s 2018 book “Fear: Trump in the White House” Mattis once told an associate that “we’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured,” after Trump had told the defense secretary by phone to kill Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

As defense secretary, he led numerous initiatives designed to make the Defense Department more efficient and business-friendly, an approach that was helpful to defense contractors such as his former employer.

When Mattis became defense secretary in early 2017, he resigned from numerous positions in the private sector — including one at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank — and a handful of charities. When he stepped down from General Dynamics’s board, he promised to divest all stock associated with his seat. He also forfeited stock holdings and options that had not yet vested at the time he rejoined the government, which must have added up to several hundreds of thousands of dollars, based on financial disclosure forms.

Mattis also promised not to participate personally or substantially in any matter concerning the now-disgraced Silicon Valley blood testing start-up Theranos, in which he was an investor. According to his ethics pledge at the time, Mattis was not required to divest of his Theranos stock. The company began plans to dissolve in September.

Board members at General Dynamics are given lucrative stock holdings and options, and are often closely involved in major business decisions. Board member responsibilities at General Dynamics include “reviewing, approving and monitoring the company’s business strategies, annual operating plan and significant corporate actions,” according to the company’s corporate governance guidelines. Board members also have responsibility for “advising and counseling management” and ensuring that appropriate ethics policies are in place with respect to the company’s relationship with customers.

Currently, six of General Dynamics’s 12 board members are former high-ranking government officials.

  • Rudy deLeon served as deputy secretary of defense from 2000 to 2001;
  • retired Navy Adm. Cecil Haney led the U.S. Strategic Command from 2013 to 2016;
  • retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles led the Air Force Material Command from 2000 to 2003;
  • retired British Army Gen. Peter Wall was chief of the general staff for the British Army from 2010 to 2014; and
  • chairman and chief executive Novakovic has worked for the CIA, the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

General Dynamics is not the only company packing its board with former military and government officials. Former deputy undersecretary of defense Bob Work joined Raytheon’s board in 2017, and Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, joined Boeing’s board this year.

Big tech companies have benefited from the revolving door as well; Amazon recently hired Victor Gavin, the former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, to assist with its cloud computing business. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Blowhard on the Brink

As shocking as it is to write this sentence, it must be said: Donald Trump did something right.

He finally noticed the abyss once he was right on top of it, calling off a retaliatory strike on Iran after belatedly learning, he said, that 150 people could die.

“I didn’t like it,” Trump told Chuck Todd. “I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

And thank God — and Allah — that he stumbled out just as he stumbled in.

It’s breathtaking that Washington’s conservative foreign policy mandarins would drag us back into Mideast quicksand when we haven’t even had a reckoning about the lies, greed, self-interest and naïveté that led U.S. officials to make so many tragic mistakes in the region.

We sweep in with oblivious swagger, with most Americans not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, assuming we’re going to swiftly kick butt in an asymmetrical cakewalk. And then we end up stalemated and playing into our enemies’ hands, with hundreds of thousands dead and $5.9 trillion bill for the post-9/11 wars — not to mention that Trumpworld has ended up deeper in the murderous House of Saud’s embrace.

The president blundered into the crisis by canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, tweet-taunting about the “end of Iran” and hiring the hirsute Iran warmonger John Bolton. And our president is such a mercurial blowhard, he could screw it all up again before this column even hits The Times home page.

I’ve been at this treacherous juncture before with presidents. Once the gears in Washington get going, once the military-industrial complex is “cocked & loaded,” once the hawks around you begin Iago-whispering that if you don’t go forward, you’ll be unmanned, it’s awfully hard to reverse course.

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld steamrollered W. into the forever war in Iraq by playing on his fears of being a wimp if he pulled back once the Pentagon had moved troops, carriers, covert agents and B-2 bombers into the Persian Gulf. The Saudis told W. that Saddam was not sitting on a cache of W.M.D.s, and was simply blustering like any Arab despot would, but W. dreaded being labeled a wimp, as his father had been in his first presidential campaign.

By Friday morning, Republicans were already painting Trump as a scaredy-cat and Iran as a feral cornered cat.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and Iraq war veteran, told MSNBC that the idea we could now negotiate with Iran “has the potential of inviting a look of weakness.”

Cheney came back to haunt us in the form of his dagger-tongued daughter Liz, the Wyoming House member, who said Trump’s inaction “could in fact be a very serious mistake.” She lobbed the nastiest insult she could think of, comparing Trump to Barack Obama.

Even “Fox & Friends,” which can always be counted on to fluff Trump’s ego, raised doubts. Brian Kilmeade warned: “North Korea’s watching. All our enemies are watching.”

But maybe something new could work with the impossible child-man in the White House: positive reinforcement.

That was very smart, Mr. President, not to tangle with the Persians, who have been engaged in geopolitics since 550 B.C., until you have a better sense of exactly what is going on here. Listen to your isolationist instincts and your base, not to batty Bolton. You don’t want to get mired in a war that could spill over to Saudi Arabia and Israel, sparking conflagrations from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond.

Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and you are a terrible negotiator with a good hand.

Trump told Todd that he thought the Iranians shot down a $130 million drone to get his attention because they wanted to talk. (Like when a little kid flicks a paper airplane at your head, but more expensive.) A rare case of Trump’s bloated ego working to our advantage.

It is not hard to imagine Bolton and Mike Pompeo conjuring a Tonkin specter, with a drone or U.S. plane buzzing Iranian airspace to provoke Iran to respond, so we can start a war. It’s also not hard to imagine the two uber-hawks doing this without Trump understanding what’s going on. And it’s certainly easy to think that Trump might not be leveling with us about how this went down.

At least, unlike W. — another underinformed president — Trump is not a captive of the neocons. He has outside advisers, after all: Fox News anchors.

It’s hard to believe that the man standing between us and another world war is Tucker Carlsonlate of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But we must count on Carlson, who, The Daily Beast reported, has been calling Trump directly to counteract Sean Hannity, who has been cheerleading on air for a strike, threatening Iran: “You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you.”

Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear: “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” He compared the warped intelligence Bush officials used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion with the “misplaced certainty” exhibited by Pompeo over iffy evidence that Iran attacked a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Carlson also cogently noted that Bolton is goading Trump because, for him, a war with Iran would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”

Donald “I always attack back … except 100x more” Trump has always been a faux tough guy. In this case, the faux caused a pause — and that was a good thing.

Killer Politicians

What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.

Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.

.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.

.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.

Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.

.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.

When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.

A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.

.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.