Wherever The Arrow Landed

The upcoming (or going?) Korean peace summit is going to be a challenge for all concerned.

Trump has repeatedly said ‘all or nothing’ in terms of denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula. Does he really mean it?

Kim has been fudging about what he means regarding denuclearization. In fact, he is trumping Trump at the moment with his bobbing and weaving. Trump may be meeting his match in sowing confusion and uncertainty.

At one moment, Trump insists that if it does not work out, he will ‘respectfully’ walk away; the next moment he is bragging about prospects of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given these circumstances, there is widespread (and rightful) concern that Trump will be so blinded by delusions of greatness – and so desperate to deliver on his lofty expectations – that he’ll get suckered into signing a bad deal and claim it as a “huge” victory. What do we the people have to watch out for to be sure we are not sold a bill of shoddy goods?

I am reminded of a wisdom my friend and colleague Bob Strauss said in the late ‘70s. “The trick of success in politics is to know how to draw the target where the arrow HAS landed.”

If the meeting takes place, Trump will be sorely tempted to do just that, despite all his pronouncements about ‘all or nothing’.

Indeed, a complex step by step process, well-observed and well-regulated, is likely the best and surest way to get the 100% goal of clearing the peninsula of nuclear weapons.

What we do not want or need is any kind of distorted fudge.

Trump is constrained on one side by his current Iranian posture of disdaining such a process. And, Kim has the history of Gadhafi haunting him.

And the rest of us need to remember that wherever the arrow has landed is not a bulls-eye just because Trump claims that is so.

The Nobel Peace prize might just get Trump reelected. I think it’s an impossibly long shot – particularly in light of what many consider an ill-advised premature award to Obama in 2009. The Nobel Committee has likely learned that peace takes work, and work on the Korean Peninsula has only just begun.  If I’m wrong, and Trump gets the award legitimately, it just might turn out that his crazy behavior had some value after all.

I do not recommend betting on that outcome, although I accept the possibility.

In any event, we MUST be sure not to be sold a pig in a poke.

That would be the worst possible outcome of all this high stakes gambling.

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A New – New York State Attorney General

Say what you must about Eric Schneiderman’s abrupt departure. Despite his unacceptable behavior, he was an exceptional attorney general. One of the reasons his former post is independently elected is to support and ensure that his/her only boss is ‘the people.’ He was independent, vigorous and persistent – qualities our state needs badly today. Evidently, one of his key assistants is an exceptional woman who enjoys an excellent reputation and should be a leading candidate.

That said, there is another exceptional possibility: Preet Bharara was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York until Trump dumped him because he was too independent.

He is currently a CNN commentator/consultant and we all can see how and why he was so well regarded. He is crisply clear, focused and interesting. Those are crucial characteristics for an effective prosecutor.

At the moment, the famously corrupt NY State Legislature appears to be staying miles away from him as an interim appointment, from which he could quite easily get elected. It is not hard to imagine why they are avoiding him. They would prefer not to ever have to deal with him about their peccadillos.

That is why WE—all the readers of this blog who live in and/or care at all about New York State – should do whatever we can to encourage Bharara to run for the nomination.

It is a rare opportunity when a position opens with such a perfect candidate to take over that job.

That is exactly where we are today.

I do not know him personally, but I am reaching out to him to offer my help.

Talk to everyone relevant you know and give Mr. Bharara a push!

#MeToo Spreads – But Not To Trump

A new dimension of confusion is descending on us in the effect of #metoo on more and more prominent men in entertainment, business and government, while at the same time, Trump’s comparable behavior keeps being brushed off as business as usual.

The irony of that was magnified recently with the sudden resignation of Eric Schneiderman, the strong, talented and aggressive Attorney General of New York State, who was accused of misconduct by several women who had worked with him and who had consensual relationships with him that sadly ended up with abuses of them in the course of those relationships.

The fact that he resigned so quickly confirms his own recognition that he had behaved egregiously, despite the fact that his divorced wife had come to his defense saying that the charges against him were inconsistent  with the man she had known intimately for a very long time.

The #metoo charges led to the quick and decisive downfalls of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and many others. Prior to the 2016 election, no fewer than 16 women came forward with credible stories of harassment or assault by Trump.* Several involved the same power dynamics – preying on women over whom he had authority (e.g., Miss USA/Universe contestants), and many closely track Trump’s own assertions about his behavior on the infamous Access Hollywood tape (“I just start kissing them”, “grab ‘em by the p***y”).

How is this any less objectionable than the behavior of those other men mentioned above whom, so far, have paid a far steeper price?

If very rich, famous and powerful public and private citizens are taken down in short order for their mistakes and misdeeds, how is it that a sitting President can be immune to the consequences of similar –perhaps worse—behavior?

How can the House and Senate sit back and ignore this inequity and leave the question about the President as if it was none of their business?

Come on guys and gals – do your jobs!

* For those who may be interested ABC News has a tally of Trump’s accusers here: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/list-trumps-accusers-allegations-sexual-misconduct/story?id=51956410

Russia Blackmailing A President of the US

It seems like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel, but it’s also a question more than one national security professional has asked: how could Russia go about actually blackmailing an American president?

At first blush—and this is a blushing matter—it sounds like creating uncertainty and chaos may be the best possible use of any leverage Putin might have.

Trump would have liked to pursue warmer relations with Russia. That idea by itself is not bereft of benefit. Obama attempted such a “reset” with Russia at the beginning of his presidency. However, Obama’s experiment proved that it is naïve to attempt a warming of relations with a devious, ambitious autocrat like Vladimir Putin.

However (hard as it is), we should give Trump credit for something that, in a perfect world, might have been possible and even desirable.

But, is that the whole story?

Assuming all the salacious information in the now-infamous dossier is true, the most powerful and significant use of that truth might be to create the kind of uncertainty and ambiguity that has surrounded Trump’s behavior in the last year.

If Russia were to expose the relevant films etc., that revelation would be quite a bombshell. However, it would put an end to further speculation as well, and remove any further possible Russian leverage over the president.

How and why Trump thought he could handle that in the long run is a mystery. But that would simply be one more Trump mystery.

As Trump has said, he could shoot a person dead on 5th Avenue and still be elected—which he managed only due to our archaic election system that privileges rural white voters. So, it is at least possible that revealing his Moscow romps might not bring down his presidency. Since the alleged behavior certainly falls short of murdering someone in the middle of Manhattan, Trump may have gambled that he could weather the storm such a release would create.

Yet the whole country has been mesmerized by his Moscow trip and Putin has been able to exert a shadow threat while remaining clever enough to maintain his leverage by refraining from revealing the story.

I think most of us (on the left and right) are ready to put the dossier aside and get back on track without its continuing uncertainty. Whether Trump favors Russia because they have leverage over him, because he feels he owes them for his election, or because he personally likes Putin is secondary to the fact that his policy towards Russia undermines American security and our interests abroad.

It is time to deal with the facts of Trump’s behavior, not speculation over his motives.

Three Factors In Good Investing

Books galore, articles, ads, etc. (good and bad) have and are being written about how to invest. Depending on your point of view and interest in the subject, there are a lot of ideas out there floating around that can be leading or misleading and produce misery or joy.

What there is not a lot of, are good ideas about how to go about using those ideas in a safe and productive way. The result generally is that many investors end up with random results and well over half the time do not even come close to most of the ‘averages.’

Yes, there are lots of good general wisdoms to bear in mind as you invest: look before you leap; follow due diligence; do not be overpowered by the ‘clarity’ of charts; never trust tips from unknown sources; and avoid any arbitrary rules that ‘always’ work.

There is, however, one useful method for going about how to decide when and how to buy something.

It is pretty simple to explain, but very complicated and difficult to put into practice. It cannot give you any kind of guaranteed result. But it can help you to think through the maze of often conflicting information you have to deal with to make investment decisions intelligently.

There are basically only three factors in all investment decisions:

1- The facts (whatever facts are?);

2- What you make of the facts (that means you alone); and

3- What ‘the other guy’ will make of those same facts.

How are the three different and why is that relevant?

Whatever the facts may be, they will look different to most observers. Remember the game telephone – that’s just human wiring. Each step along the way a different message is received, so your perspective will be one way – say ‘buy’. The next guy says to himself ‘hold.’  And the one after him says ‘sell.’ They may see different facts, they may have different priorities. That matters because even if you are right in your conclusion, if the other guy says sell you are unlikely to profit.

So the game of analyzing the facts has to include how others read the same story.

Despite today’s fascination with fake facts, there really are bed rock facts that can be quite easily and reliably accessed in today’s connected world. You can find for most public companies information about their managements, products, sales, balance sheets and what the history has been. Collectively those are ‘the facts.’ There are often a lot of irrelevant and misleading pieces. It will never be as clear as a completed jigsaw puzzle!

What you make of those facts is up to you. Is the management being straight with you? Are the products fulfilling a market need? Will the volume grow – at what rate? Are the operating margins appropriate by industry standards? What is the competition planning?

What THE OTHER GUYS make of those same facts in a similar way, is also quite easily accessed on the internet. There are dozens of publications full of their thoughts. You should assess their views carefully.

When a single person focuses on summarizing all three of these facets for any given investment, she/he naturally will tend to converge into a mushy bit of ‘on the one hand and on the other hand.’ And, that is often when a good investment process goes off the rails, moving from ‘truth’ to ‘fudge.’

I have been encouraging people to assign these three elements to three appropriate and different people and then lock them into a room together and not let them out until they reach a rational conclusion, one they are all reasonably happy with and can explain coherently and convincingly to civilians. Indeed, different people are as capable of creating mush as one person alone. But I believe it is worth the try?

This is not an altogether novel idea but it might be a better way of investing than simply giving up and ‘buying the market’ through various indexes. After all, it is movement in the value of individual companies that drives indexes to gain or lose value.

Financial markets have been accelerating into clumps of ‘like’ companies which relieve investors from having to value individual companies. The basic problem with that is that the market process really is about financing individual companies not groups of companies. If the most popular way to own shares directly in XYZ company is to own an index that includes XYZ, who is going to establish the value of XYZ and all the other companies and, just as important, how?

The move away from investing directly in separate companies into indexes may be a still invisible arrow aimed at the heart of capitalism. We should all be careful and wary.

And, we should never give up on valuing separate companies!

Sticks And Carrots

The domestic response to the extremes of the Trump presidency (and of the man himself) has been to try to use sticks to beat him into submission. Many of our foreign counterparts have taken a carrot approach, feting Trump with elaborate, ego-feeding ceremony that, by all accounts, seems to make him more receptive to their positions.

We seem to be getting nearer the point when the sticks may have their intended effect, most likely wielded by lawyers. It may, therefore, be time to think about a few carrots to dangle in front of our president to smooth things along and, perhaps, avoid the grave, divisive and uncertain confrontations a sticks-only approach will ultimately entail.

What are possible carrots that could honorably and properly be used to hasten our return to the real world of sensible governance?

If Trump is willing to resign quietly and slip into well-deserved obscurity:

  1. Pardon him (and his immediate family, including Jared) for all crimes arising from the 2016 campaign or his time in office.
  2. Accept that his Russian related collusion might have been ambiguous.
  3. Allow him the usual emoluments of an ex-President in good standing so he doesn’t have to risk becoming impoverished.
  4. Accept his hidden tax returns as filed unless there was actually fraud.

Trump might get any, or all, of those considerations without going quickly or quietly. However, reassuring him that he could have them all without a struggle might just make it easier to ease him out.

None of this will be easy; certainly none of it will feel particularly good. But it’s important to remember that our system of government is less than 250 years old, and has only twice faced constitutional crises. That both were favorably resolved (one peaceably: Nixon, one at great human cost: the Civil War) offers no guarantees for the present case. The Republicans who pushed Nixon out the door are an extinct breed, and the contemporary political environment is far different from what it was in the 1970’s.

Regardless of whether it’s possible, it could be very healthy to start this conversation in public. It offers a common ground between the extremes of “deep state” paranoiacs and “impeach now” radicals that might just show a path forward.

A Dollar Is A Dollar – Whenever Wherever

Nice try, Rudy! Your idea looks slick despite the fact that it simply holds no water.

After the New York U.S. Attorney obtained Cohen’s books and records, it became obvious to all concerned that Trump had lied again about his involvement with Stormy. Giuliani wisely advised Trump to try to get out ahead of Mueller and admit that Trump had paid her off—and less wisely, proceeded to spill the beans on a few little tricks Trump used to cover his tracks.

Giuliani’s idea is based on the absence of limits to contributions by a candidate himself. Trump could have paid the $130,000 by himself and not violated any campaign finance limits—as there are none. Though the Trump campaign would have been legally required to report it, which is no doubt why they played their stupid game, fearing that could have revealed the problem.

Giuliani also believes that there is a difference between a political contribution dollar and a general contribution dollar and that money that doesn’t flow through the campaign (having been “funneled” elsewhere) somehow doesn’t count.

Since the payment of $130,000 by Cohen was clearly made on Trump’s behalf, as indicated in the written agreement ‘buying’ her silence, then all involved were likely violating campaign finance laws prohibiting such a transaction as an improper campaign contribution.

There simply is no difference between kinds of dollars. The distinction Giuliani is trying to peddle does not exist. A dollar is a dollar – the money itself has no meaning except for the value. The meaning—if there is any—is in the surrounding facts and story.

What is missing in his message is – not surprisingly—the facts! Those are too well known to bother to repeat here. They tell a clear story. Trump had a ‘romp’ with Daniels. Shortly before the election, she let it be known she intended to go public with that information. Trump ‘bought’ her silence, at least briefly. Then the problem shifted from the political arena (the campaign) to the legal issues which are now quite clear and painful for Trump.

Giuliani would like the world to stumble on his ‘niceties’ about the legal issues to quell the growing threat, and keep the basic surrounding story from gelling into something more dangerous than a long-ago dalliance with a porn star. While the legal risks are real, Trump must also worry that the Republican leadership in Congress will recognize the short – and long-term political fallout hidden payoffs could spark, and decide they simply can’t stomach it.

That, after all, is what finally brought Nixon down.

A dollar is a dollar [whenever, wherever]. 130,000 of them secretly funneled through a shell corporation and a sort-of lawyer to buy someone’s silence isn’t something that is common for “people of wealth.”

It is common for people with something to hide.