Trump pardons sheriff; Samsung heir jailed; China’s trouble finding military recruits. By Hamish McDonald.

Rex Tillerson stepping back from Trump?

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Washington was waiting this week to see if United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had finally had enough of being personally undermined by Donald Trump as well as having the president trash the values behind America’s diplomatic tradition.

In an interview on Fox News on Sunday, Tillerson was pressed about Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that equated the white supremacists demonstrating under Nazi and Ku Klux Klan symbols against the removal of a Confederate general’s statue with the counter-protesters who suffered one dead and a score injured at their hands.

“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said.

Afterwards, CNN quoted an unidentified Tillerson staffer as saying: “The values start from the constitution. The president’s job is to uphold those values. Did he do the best job ever responding to Charlottesville? Nope. But that doesn’t mean America changes.” The staffer added, “That is why the president speaks for himself, because the constitution speaks for the country.”

Tillerson has been getting frozen out by Trump anyway. “Rex just doesn’t get it – he’s totally establishment in his thinking,” Trump said after a recent meeting on Afghanistan, according to a White House source quoted by the Axios website on Monday. Trump is vexed with Tillerson’s attitude to issues such as the Saudi-led embargo on Qatar and Venezuela’s civil strife.

A deadlock continues over senior appointments in the demoralised State Department. Partly this is Tillerson’s fault, as he seems to be applying the current corporate culture of cutting middle management and specialists and bringing in bean counters as efficiency consultants. But partly it is due to the White House, which seems to be blocking candidates for not being hardline conservatives. “The secretary sends over recommendations and they sit on the dock,” Tillerson’s spokesman R.  C. Hammond told Axios.

On Monday, Tillerson had a sit-down with Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence. Later Pence had a talk with the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, a political appointee, too, raising speculation she would take over as secretary of state.

Pardon, Sheriff?

If Tillerson does go, that would see off one of the supposed “adults” and non-fanatics in the Trump cabinet who might form a majority needed for a 25th-Amendment removal of Trump from office on grounds of incompetence.

But Trump is building up the case for an alternative pathway to his removal: impeachment. As Texans were barricading themselves against hurricane Harvey and other Americans were watching the impending disaster on television, Trump took the step that just might be the subversion of the constitution that gets some Republicans to act.

As The Washington Post reported last weekend, Trump had been asking Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to step in and get criminal charges dropped against a controversial former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio. In his near-quarter-century ruling Maricopa County, Arpaio was notorious for locking up Latinos on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. When a federal judge ordered him to stop his racial profiling, he kept going and ended up with a conviction for contempt.

The Department of Justice declined to take Trump’s suggestion, so late on Friday night last week Trump tweeted that he would pardon Arpaio if the conviction stuck after appeals. “He’s done a great job for the people of Arizona,” Trump said this week. “He’s very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration. He is loved in Arizona.”

Trump seems to like the kind of petty-tyrant sheriffs that are staple characters in American road movies. Last Sunday he tweeted praise for a new book by the sheriff of Milwaukee County, David Clarke, recently notorious for calling Black Lives Matter activists “terrorists” and in whose county jail “inmates have a tendency to die under suspicious circumstances”, according to The New York Times. Clarke is a “great guy”, Trump said.

Some congress members may still be waiting for Trump to dismiss Robert Mueller, the former FBI chief investigating the Trump election campaign’s links with Russia and, according to reports, turning up mounting evidence of the Trump Organisation’s reliance on black money from the former Soviet Union. But a pardon for a law officer defying a court order could be enough under the US constitution’s wide and vague definition of grounds for impeachment. Trump is trying to scare Republicans with his rent-a-crowd rallies, and lure them, again, with promises of big tax breaks.

Moon glow

Asian governments have been bringing capitalism to political heel in many different ways this week.

In Seoul, a court gave a five-year jail term to Lee Jae-yong, the vice-chairman of Samsung and heir of its founding family, for embezzlement and perjury over bribes paid to former president Park Geun-hye via a foundation run by her friend Choi Soon-sil. 

It’s a powerful blow for leftish new president Moon Jae-in against the clout of the chaebol conglomerates notorious for buying favourable decisions from government. Some think it may ultimately help Samsung by curbing the culture of deference that led to commercial disasters such as the self-immolating Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone. 

In Bangkok, a court had been preparing to deliver a verdict against deposed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, a stand-in for her billionaire exiled brother and predecessor Thaksin, for massive losses her government incurred in a scheme to support the rice price for farmers. She bolted, escaping via Cambodia and Singapore to join Thaksin in Dubai.

The military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was delighted, but denied helping her leave. She undoubtedly escaped a heavy jail term, as five former officials of her government got sentences of 24 to 42 years on the day she was due to appear.

In Jakarta, President Joko Widodo’s government got a big nationalist boost when the American mining company Freeport-McMoRan announced it would divest shares to bring local ownership up to 51 per cent of its huge gold and copper mine in Papua, and start refining its copper in Indonesia. In return, it gets a 20-year extension to its lease that otherwise expires in 2021.

Now comes the hard part. The government already has 9.36 per cent of the mine, but would be hard-pressed to find the cash for the rest at market value. Indonesian politicos had been arguing for a forced sale to state-owned companies, creating vast opportunities for graft and cronyism. Freeport will be arguing for some kind of public offering that allows its management control to continue. The people of Papua are bystanders.

The right stuffed

It’s getting harder for China’s military to find recruits with the right stuff, according to signals spotted by the website

Three years ago, the ultimate defenders of China’s communist system announced it was lowering physical standards to allow in shorter and tubbier men and women, those with tattoos and those with “less than ideal eyesight”. But it’s getting worse. Last month People’s Liberation Army Daily reported concerns that addiction to the mobile phone game Honor of Kings could distract soldiers in combat. “There is certainly a security risk that can’t be overlooked,” the newspaper said. “The game requires constant attention but a soldier’s job is full of uncertainty. Once a soldier is cut off from the game for an urgent mission, he could be absent-minded during the operation if his mind remains on the game.”

And according to a posting on the PLA Daily’s WeChat social media site, recruiting sergeants recently rejected nearly 57 per cent of applicants at one town, which was not named. One-fifth of these were too fat, others had damaged eyesight due to excessive smartphone use, or their liver and gallbladder function had been damaged by junk food, or – in the case of 8 per cent – they had “abnormal enlargement of small testicular veins” caused by too much masturbation.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2017 as "Sick of him, Rex".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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