23 May

In Trump scandal schedule, there’s no keeping up

Like a lot of people being interviewed, Ron Wyden wants to know when the story will run. Sunday, he’s told.

“Sunday?” he cries in mock disbelief. “Anything could happen by then!”

In Donald Trump’s Washington, the news cycle has no brakes.

And indeed, just as Oregon’s senior senator was expressing his alarm at the president openly telling NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired FBI director James Comey because he wanted the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia to stop, another bombshell broke. A Comey memo of an earlier conversation with Trump described the president telling him – in the manner of a mob boss instructing a prosecutor who was on his payroll – that he hoped Comey would stop investigating the Russian ties of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who was a “good guy.”

Trump also suggested that Comey should put some reporters in jail.

The White House denied the story, but over the past week two stories originally denied by White House staffers – about the decision to fire Comey and about Trump’s passing classified information to the Russian foreign minister – were later confirmed.

Then deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein – perhaps feeling hung out by Trump’s originally suggesting that firing Comey was Rosenstein’s idea – named a special counsel to investigate Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

Is it Sunday yet?

“The appointment of an independent special counsel is a necessary first step to figure out what happened to our democracy,” commented Wyden. “… This announcement didn’t happen by accident. It happened because the free press and the American people demanded it.”

Wyden has had a particular interest in Trump and Russian in last year’s campaign.

“We know the president urged the Russians to hack his opponent,” he pointed out, referring to Trump’s publicly encouraging the Russians to dive into Hillary Clinton’s emails. “We know he urged the Russians to attack our democracy.

“The only question is whether that was also done in private.”

To answer these questions, Wyden wants to “follow the money” – looking into any Trump financial ties with Russians, any Russian investments or money laundering, and of course the great white whale of current investigative reporting, Trump’s tax returns. To encourage openness, he pointed out, “I put a hold on a major Treasury appointment.”

By the middle of last week, Democrats and increasingly Republicans from the Senate and House intelligence and judiciary committees were all eager to hear from Comey, seeking his account of his firing, copies of his memos on his conversations with Trump – reports were that there were more than one – and maybe some thoughts on the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the issue that started everything and got Flynn fired.“ My priority is to get Comey to testify in an open hearing,” declared Wyden, a senior member of the Senate intelligence committee. “I think it needs to be as fast as possible.”

Wyden’s office argued that the appointment of the special counsel didn’t prevent Comey from testifying before Congress, and several Republicans seemed to agree. Four congressional committees may still be interested in testimony likely to be televised.

For any other president, an erupting controversy about his firing of the FBI director, and reports that the president tried to pressure that director to kill an investigation of the president’s already fired national security advisor, would have by themselves comprised a full, rich week. Trump added an episode of giving the Russian foreign minister top secret information provided by Israel that was not to be shared – an act originally denied but later confirmed – just before departing on a presidential trip to the Middle East, accompanied by what Wyden calls “a loss of confidence by allies who definitely have questions.”

Until we hear from the special counsel, we won’t know exactly what kind of effort and financial commitment Russia made in the 2016 election. But considering the chaos immersing the White House and the widening strains between the United States and its allies, it seems a highly profitable investment.
Speaking as commander-in-chief to the graduating class of the Coast Guard Academy, Trump sent them off to battle smugglers by complaining, “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” At a news conference Thursday, Trump said that appointing a special counsel was “a witch hunt,” and cited Rosenstein’s memo proposing Comey’s firing – although Rosenstein told the Senate Thursday morning that when he wrote the memo, he already knew Trump would fire Comey.

Ron Wyden has been on the Senate intelligence committee since before 9/11, but these days, nothing looks familiar.

“This is different from everything I have seen about a president’s contract with the public,” he says. “The role of a president is to build political support for his policies, to build political trust.
“This president just seems to look at it so differently. He sees it as (being) the story of the day in an entertaining way.”

And the week isn’t even over.

Neither is the first year.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/21/17.

08 May

In Trump time, gaps spanned by arts and “Sweat”

This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama was announced last month in New York, after spending months on Broadway.

But two years ago, the winning play spent the summer in Ashland, Oregon. And you could say that the prize has more to do with Ashland than New York.

Then there’s all the time it spent in Pennsylvania.

In 2015, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented the world premiere of “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage. Taking place in a working-class bar in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, it depicts factory workers as they are detached from their jobs and, as a result, from each other. It portrays a deepening desperation that was later conveyed on a somewhat larger stage last November.

“Lynn was very prophetic, wasn’t she?” observed Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, last week. Her insights were sharpened by months spent in Reading, Pa., talking to people and picking up the anger that became a prominent character in both her play and American politics.

“Sweat” is part of a major project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle,” a projected package of 37 new plays commissioned by OSF from American playwrights, inspired by the 37 recognized plays of Shakespeare. The project began with a grant from the Collins Foundation; since then, others have come aboard, including the Andrew Mellon Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

So far, 32 plays have been commissioned, including eight more commissions given out last August. Ten plays have been already produced in Ashland, with a couple of others presented by partner theatre companies.

“Lynn was one of the first writers we reached out to,” recalled Rauch, and the project supported the time she spent in Pennsylvania. “Lynn winning the Pulitzer Prize is like a confirmation of all that effort.”

“American Revolutions” has already had multiple other confirmations. Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way,” about the beginnings of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, opened in Ashland in 2012, and another production, also directed by Rauch, went to Broadway and won Tony awards for best play and for Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Johnson. So far, “All The Way” has had 21 theatrical productions and a version on HBO. Its sequel, “The Great Society,” went from Ashland to Seattle.
“Roe,” about the plaintiff and the lead attorney in the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and what’s happened to them since, was produced in Ashland last year, and is now running in Washington, D.C. “Indecent,” an American Revolutions commission about the uproar caused in 1923 by a play about a lesbian affair, began at OSF’s partner Yale Repertory, and is now on Broadway. “Sweat” and “Indecent” are currently the only two plays running on Broadway written by living American women. Last week, “Sweat” was named a Tony nominee for the season’s best play.

Apparently, as Shakespeare figured out, there are insights and understandings to be found in history plays, maybe especially at a time when it’s hard to find answers anyplace else. The New Yorker described “Sweat” as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era,” a definition that by itself carries some complication.

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration sent Congress its proposed 2018 budget, zeroing out both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, a plan driven by a president whose viewing tastes seem largely limited to Fox News.

“The irony of that is not lost on me, and it’s very painful,” noted Rauch. “Endowment support has made an enormous difference.”

In the current budget passed by Congress last week – just in time to keep the government from shutting down, so who says Congress has no sense of drama? – the endowments not only survived, but got slight bumps, from $148 million to $150 million. Apparently, congressmen decided enough people were already angry at them without adding the arts.

“Activating both sides of the brain prepares people to be innovative and creative, both critical to growing our 21st Century economies and creating good jobs,” declared Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., co-chairs of a House caucus advocating a greater role for the arts, in response to the Trump budget. “The arts also help us to be empathetic, which makes our communities better.”

NEA grants go to every state, Bonamici noted last week, and are particularly significant in rural areas where support is otherwise limited – a value particularly striking in 2017.

“We live in such a polarized time, people are really trying to look to the past,” says Rauch about the American Revolutions project. “Empathy for our fellow citizens is at the heart of the matter.”

The great possibility of art, of drama, is that it can offer a look into other people’s lives.

Which, as we keep discovering, is better than being constantly surprised.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/7/17.