Mendocino County Today: Monday, May 15, 2017
by AVA News Service, May 15, 2017
by Malcolm Macdonald
On Sunday, May 7th, our Anderson Valley Advertiser's online edition feature “Mendocino County Today” contained a relatively brief notice alluding to a Fort Bragg City Council Closed Session item concerning the city's “significant exposure” to anticipated litigation. A link was provided to the City of Fort Bragg's website along with this bit of supposition, “No official word yet on what it all means, but the City of Fort Bragg may be cracking down on the Hospitality Center and/or Hospitality House for violation of HC's use permit. And/or the Hospitality Center may be preparing to sue Fort Bragg for cracking down on them.”
Operating on my own hunch that the latter guesswork was the one potentially linked to the closed session item I ventured to the podium during the public comment section of the regular City Council meeting on Monday evening, May 8th to frame a question about the possibility of the powers-that-be at Fort Bragg's Hospitality House and/or Hospitality Center threatening the city government with litigation. City councils almost never respond to public comments about closed session items, but they are allowed to refute public comments that are obviously erroneous. After reenforcing that idea, I put it to the council in a straightforward statement, 'the Board of Directors of Hospitality Center/House is considering legal action against the City of Fort Bragg.'
There was no comment from Mayor Lindy Peters, the rest of the council, nor City Manager, Linda Ruffing. The interpretation: No comment, meant no refutation of the statement I offered; meaning, Yes, Hospitality House/Center is threatening the City of Fort Bragg with legal action.
The reason for the potential litigation stems from what occurred at the March 22nd Public Safety Committee meeting at Fort Bragg's Town Hall. The major takeaway from that event was City Manager Ruffing stating that Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center would have to file for an amendment to their 2003 use permit regarding the twice daily food program at Hospitality House on McPherson [sic] Street. The 2003 use permit contained the following statement: “The City is not authorizing an increase in the intensity of use at the site…” In the 13 years since the 2003 permit was granted the number of bed nights at Hospitality House has risen from about 6,000 per year to slightly over 7,000 annually, while the number of meals served has nearly doubled from approximately 12,000 per year in 2003 to over 23,000 in 2016.
Hospitality House and Hospitality Center have frequently touted the numbers of “clients” they serve as a public relations means as well as a reason for grant monies, but they have taken little responsibility for problems caused by those “clients,” including frequent disruptions to surrounding businesses. The President of Hospitality Center's governing board, Lynelle Johnson, pretty much takes a high and mighty position, something akin to: We (Hospitality) are feeding the poor and homeless and (some would say) “allegedly” helping the mentally ill, so the surrounding businesses be damned. Johnson has her supporters, a goodly number of coast residents who are blind to the on-the-street realities of the downtown locales of Hospitality House and Center. Some of these supporters are not hesitant to point fingers and cast aspersions at anyone who dares speak out about the problems created by Hospitality House or Center. On the Mendocino Coast it is harder to find a sharper-tongued or meaner-spirited soul than a holier-than-thou supporter of Hospitality Center or House.
Confusing the issue is Fort Bragg City Manager Ruffing who, at times, has seemingly gone out of her way to shield Hospitality House and Hospitality Center from criticism, going so far as to withhold dozens of emails from a downtown business owner from City Council members for approximately three weeks.
The newer members of Fort Bragg's City Council (four of them have served less than two and a half years) appear to want a different approach when it comes to Hospitality. Emblematic of the new council was the removal of an item from the March 13th Consent Calendar by Councilman Bernie Norvell. That item would have approved a bid to roof the historic Guest House for an amount $57,000 over estimate ($237,000 compared to the $180,000 original estimate). After much discussion about prior bids, the source of the estimate, roofing materials, and hand wringing that turning down the bid might lead to a much longer wait to get a needed repair accomplished, former Mayor Dave Turner motioned and current Mayor Lindy Peters seconded approval of the $237,000 roofing bid. However, Norvell, Vice-Mayor Will Lee (both elected in 2016) and Councilman Mike Cimolino (elected in November, 2014) voted no.
At the May 8th City Council meeting the Guest House roofing project returned to the agenda. This time with a bid of $178,500 (from a Salt Lake City based construction company), $1,420 less than the original estimate. In other words the three “No” votes by Norvell, Lee, and Cimolino in March saved the city nearly $60,000.
In fairness to Turner, he ackowledged his March stance as an error and reversed his vote on May 8th, as did Peters. It should be stated that as far as matters concerning Hospitality House and Hospitality Center go, Mayor Peters and Councilman Norvell have been at the front of the line when it comes to raising serious questions.
SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE Jeanine Nadel has issued another call for grand jurors. Perhaps the largest disincentive for performing this thankless task — doubly thankless in Mendocino County — is the Superior Court itself. Year after year the GJ conscientiously goes about its investigative job only to have this or that department of local government ignore their work, and ignore it in the most cursorily insulting fashion. It might revive the GJ process if the judges themselves didn't tolerate pro forma responses from targeted departments of government. And how about an occasional subpoena to compel answers to legitimate GJ questions?
THAT TERRIBLE head-on collision Friday night a little before ten on 128 near the Greenwood Ridge Winery, was caused when a car driven by Martiniano Escalona, 46, of Boonville, unaccountably swerved into the oncoming lane and struck the small, Nissan pick-up driven by Craig Gelber, 51, of Willits. Gelber was seriously injured and airlifted to Santa Rosa for treatment. Escalona emerged from the wreckages with minor cuts and bruises. The CHP report concluded, "The cause of this collision is still under investigation, but it is believed alcohol is a contributing factor in this collision."
LITTLE DOG SAYS, “Beautiful day out Sunday. I sat in the sun and thought about my mom. These guys? Inside all afternoon watching the Warrior game. One of them says to me, ‘You can do all our mom-thinking for us, too, Little Dog’."
THE SUCKER PUNCH CASE
The sucker punch story is amazing. This killer has a record of this type of behavior… And he does it again, but this time he kills someone. And the DA, the probation department and the judge come up with a 6 year sentence…which could be less I suspect when it’s all said and done…Seems like we need some new justice folk around here…If I was the dead mans folks, I’d be terrible pissed off…
BRUCE McEWEN REPLIES:
As Justin Petersen pointed out, Kenny Fisher’s family would not have thought the maximum of seven years was enough – the DA charged what could be proved by the evidence — Murder One would never have worked with a guy like Mr. Bradley on the stand (hell, he nearly blew it in the assault trial) — and the judges have to go by the law books, not whatever they want to impose. But I agree, it does seem like we need some new justice.
When Reynolds attacked that old man five years ago I was hitchhiking through Willits and Laytonville, and that could just as easily have been me. But Reynolds is not the only one in Mendo’s North Sector and SoHum I had to watch out for — there’s plenty of other tattooed, musclebound and overgrown Ninja Turtles out there who’d relish catching some harmless old man with no family or friends to retaliate, so they could use him for a punching bag.
It’s a sick world, Laz, and I’ve seen some of the worst cases right there in your beloved Willits. The Willits Mafia boys, who went to prison for attacking a party of Willits homeless people at Bushay Campground and shot two, killing one (the old guy who took a bullet for his young friend), Marvin Johnson and Simon Thornton, just had their sentences reduced and will be coming home soon.
And I’m sure these two will come looking for yours truly,
SHELTER SHOWERS MAY BE OFFERED TO HOMELESS IN UKIAH
by Justine Frederiksen
The homeless shelter operating on South State Street closed last month, but local agencies are hoping to make the portable showers used at the facility available to the public this summer.
“Some suggested it would be really, really great to have the showers remain available,” said Maya Stuart of the Health and Human Services Agency, updating other members of the Homeless Services Action Group during their May meeting on plans to keep free showers available to people without other options for bathing themselves.
“If it’s really hot and you want to hang out in the library where it’s cool, you can’t do that if you smell,” said Stuart.
“Bathing is also really helpful in preventing many diseases, as Dr. Marvin Trotter pointed out,” added Kael Loftus, who manages the Ukiah Valley Medical Center’s Street Medicine program and also supervised operations at the homeless shelter for many weeks.
Stuart said the HHSA would be covering the costs associated with operating the showers, which she said Plowshares had agreed to host in its parking lot after a very frank discussion was had about how the activities would be orchestrated.
“The staff there rightly had concerns about the issues that can come up when you have naked people in a parking lot,” Stuart said, and Loftus said one suggestion was to not have women and men using the showers together, but rather on alternating days.
“We definitely encourage people to bring up their concerns,” he said. “Any problem can be solved with the right approach.”
Stuart said that the showers would not be available on the weekends because no Plowshares staff members work then, and having the showers used in the mornings would hamper Meals on Wheels deliveries.
Therefore, the plan so far is to have the showers available Monday through Friday from noon until 5 p.m.
Though the portable shower unit has six stalls that include two with washing machines, Stuart said her agency did not intend to offer laundry services.
However, Susan Wynd Novotny, the executive director of Manzanita Services where the meeting was held, said washing clothes comes with washing people.
“You will have to deal with laundry, there is no way around it,” said Novotny, explaining that when clients use the shower in the Manzanita Services’ Wellness Center, “they strip and drop their clothes and never want to see them again.”
Novotny offered to prepare a list of protocols that her facility adopted for washing clothes, adding that she definitely saw the benefits of offering showers to those with no other options for bathing.
“It makes a huge difference in their outlook,” she said of someone who may be feeling hopeless about their situation before taking a shower, then coming out “a different person” who is more open to problem-solving.
When Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley asked Stuart when the showers might be available, Stuart said they hoped to offer them starting June 1.
Riley said since the unit would need to hook up to the city’s electricity and sewer utilities, she needed plans submitted as soon as possible. Riley said her understanding was that the showers would be available to the public until a homeless shelter opens up again in the winter.
Also at the meeting, the shelter staff and volunteers discussed how the latest shelter location and operation plan had worked out, and most seemed to feel that changes such as having people check in at Plowshares rather than the shelter was an improvement.
One man said that another needed improvement, however, was to have “protocols in place for disputes,” explaining that there were instances when shelter staff had to physically intervene in order to defend themselves or others, and he felt a policy needed to be implemented outlining exactly how shelter volunteers and staff should respond in such situations.
Members of the Homeless Services Action Group said they have not yet determined if and where a shelter will be opened this coming winter.
FORT BRAGG NOTES
by Rex Gressett
It started out as a grouch, a gesture of mild derision directed at an apparently uninterested city council looking the other way as big ugly box store barreled down on a sleepy city.
Monday night I again chucked my resolution not to speak during public comments, not because of some surprise indignation. No. This time I knew what I was saying. There was just such a big damn hole in the council discussion.
The Hare Creek big box was coming. Most folks don’t want it, the council that approves it is doomed. Among all the community groups that oppose it, there is no one who has any idea how to stop it. My complaint was that at the Fort Bragg City Council there had been not a word spoken about it.
The rolling green meadow lands loved by the people of the city are going to be plowed up, the hill hacked off, the trees cut down and we are to have yet another big box retailer shoveling our community cash into armored cars and driving away with it, and sucking up the very last of our available water as they go.
The Coastal Commission — the agency which is supposed to be California's Coast protector of last resort — is engaged in ritualistic dithering, signifying nothing.
The public is permitted to make comments while everyone in Fort Bragg city government knows and has known, that unless something changes the big box nightmare is a forgone conclusion.
What, I asked, was the City Council doing? Very few issues that might come before the council would affect the future of Fort Bragg like the Hare Creek big box project. In the face of impending disaster the council was completely disengaged. I wanted to know why.
At a convenient moment Councilman Will Lee told me that the council had been told by the city manager not to remark on Hare Creek. The City Council had been carefully instructed that any comment whatsoever on this proposed disaster would disqualify that councilman from voting on it. If anybody so much as squeaks they would have to recuse themselves from the vote.
That cleared it up, No discussion of Hare Creek because of a gag order.
When I first inquired on this matter at City Hall, the assembled staff could not at once find the specific law which mandated the gag. But City Development Director Marie Jones the very next day gave me the lowdown docs. And the truth as it turns out is as ambiguous and complicated as anything Tammany Hall could cook up.
Not to be tedious but the relevant statutes are:
1. Cal. Gov't Code §§ 25121 (county ordinance adoption procedures), 36932 and following (city ordinance adoption procedures).
2. See Cal. Gov't Code § 54950 and following. See also "The ABCs of Open Government Laws" published by the Institute for Local Government and available at www.ca-ilg.org/abc.
3. Cal. Gov't Code § 1094.5. See also NashaL.L.C. v. City of Los Angeles, 125 Cal. App. 4th 470, 482, 22 Cal.Rptr. 3d 772, 780 (2d Dist. 2004).
But the applications of the law are so variously applied in thousands of communities that it has become a jobs program for lawyers.
Boiled down it's a gag order, and how did we get to a place where the elected people of a small town council can't discuss a project that will so fundamentally affect their town?
According to the case law and the California statutes the gist is that if a councilman has any opinion at all they are required in certain circumstances (such as hearings) to pretend that they don’t. This is more useful than it appears because by this pretense they propose that you accept that they will be objective. Judicious.
The gag order was deliberately exaggerated in the city manager's description to the council. City Hall knows very well that the council is new on the job and bluffable so they bluffed them to get us a big box.
We are constantly told what a good job city hall is doing — you have to admit it was an effective bluff, made effective by a major omission. A bluff well calculated to keep a project coming that the City Manager and the Development Director have always been institutionally biased toward.
The council can, if it has the stones, make their way legally to full discussion. If they want to lead they can.
Because the council is somewhat new and perhaps a little naive the no-discussion mandate on Hare Creek amounts to a free ride for the developer.
There was not enough water for our population last year. Salty water was coming out of our taps. Even in non-drought years we have finite sources of water.
Hare Creek matters in many ways. The council should be all about it. The water element was the crucial factor in the decision to delay the project till now. The City Council recently made a vapid gesture to the Public Works Director Tom Vargas to address desalination. Why not now propose comprehensive community legislation defining Water Security?
The council needs to make more than a gesture to water. The city badly needs to rationalize an irrational water system. It has to happen anyway, it should happen now. No one will mention Hare Creek. Just water.
HOUSING IS A PUZZLE
Once again the Ukiah Valley is considering the possibility of a Lovers Lane housing development.
So far we’ve heard from opponents:
- It’s not needed. There are plenty of homes for sale in our area.
- It’s the wrong kind of housing. It’s the same old tract housing. We need a mix of apartments, condos, and attractive alternative living spaces for young people as well as the well-heeled.
- The developers are lying about their profit margin. We don’t believe their claims that this is the only option.
- Losing vineyard quality ag land is devastating. We can’t afford to lose any more ag land.
- There are plenty of other places to build housing that have already been approved locally for that purpose.
The developers and others who support this new housing say:
- This project only pencils out if we let the developers do it the way they plan to. Other currently approved housing sites are either too expensive to buy or too regulated to make work.
- The ag land in question isn’t that great and there’s plenty more adjacent to this property that will be preserved forever if this project goes through.
- Building this housing will open up more of the current housing stock for sale and allow people to move up in housing category leaving older homes ready for sale to people starting out.
- This county will never be able to grow and attract new business and jobs if we don’t build more housing now.
- Existing businesses already have trouble attracting quality hires because there’s no place for people coming to work here to live.
So, how do we move forward? We’d like to hear what our readers think about the need for housing in our area. Is it real? Is it critical? Are we going to stagnate as a community if we don’t address our housing needs now? If this housing is built, does that mean we can’t build other types of housing too?
We have not seen or heard all the details that will come forward as this project proceeds through the permit process and we have not made a decision to support or oppose it, but we do reject the notion that all developers just want to build ugly, trashy, cheap homes and get out with bags of dough.
We also believe that we can encourage different kinds of housing elsewhere by working with developers to get what we want. Let us give one example. We are told that developers have looked around in the city of Ukiah at spots where infill apartment housing could be constructed. One of the sites is behind the Rite Aid drug store. We’ve been told that the requirements for parking would not leave enough room on the site to build enough apartments to make the project pencil out. So here’s our idea: Why not forgo the parking altogether? The city could give out neighborhood parking stickers (and open up the parking lot next to the old post office for this) so that downtown apartment dwellers could park anywhere in the downtown area in the five-hour zones for free. Then the apartments get built, more people are biking and walking downtown, we all win. This could work in a number of small infills spaces in the city.
If we want housing that meets our needs and only our needs, then we need to be willing to figure out a way to make it work for developers. We need to change the way think about housing and neighborhoods and what’s always been done. We see very nice housing being built for seniors and low income families. That works because the taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of construction. No one can afford to build it otherwise. Let’s start thinking of ways to make building all the kinds of housing we want pencil out. It can’t all come out of the developers’ pockets. Some has to come out of ours too.
(KC Meadows, Editor, the Ukiah Daily Journal. Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal.)
NORM CLOW SENDS ALONG PHOTOS OF ANDERSON VALLEY back in the day...
I’ve been scanning some more high school yearbooks for on-line availability. I thought you might like to see these for viewers to ponder.
Here is the first football team the school ever fielded, fall of 1935:
(Click to enlarge)
This is an aerial view of the valley, 1934:
(Click to enlarge)
This is a neat little map of the area from the old high school to Boonville, drawn by Jimmy Babcock, 1934. It’s obviously a little compressed for space consideration, “Not to scale” as they say, but some landmarks are easily identifiable:
(Click to enlarge)
Just for the heck of it, here’s the same view today, un-condensed:
(Click to enlarge)
Hope all is well back in the motherland.
CATCH OF THE DAY, May 14, 2017
Alvarez-Lopez, Bailey, Chavez
JOEL ALVAREZ-LOPEZ, Ukiah. Controlle substance.
SKYLER BAILEY, Willits. Shoplifting, probation revocation. (Frequent flyer.)
LUIS CHAVEZ, Covelo. Assault with firearm, DUI, ex-felon with firearm, concealed weapon in vehicle, false ID.
Escalona-Gonzalez, Fenty, Fuentes
MARTINIANO ESCALONA-GONZALEZ, Philo/Ukiah. DUI causing injury,
KEVIN FENTY, Huntington Beach/Hopland. DUI-drugs causing great bodily injury, more than an ounce of pot, driving without a license.
LLUAN FUENTES, Ukiah. Community supervision violation.
Geurts, Gravel, Hanover
CHRISTOPHER GEURTS, Willits. Probation revocation.
SARAH GRAVEL, Willits. Misdemeanor hit&run.
THOMAS HANOVER JR., Ukiah. Battery, probation revocation.
Herriot, Lock, Mora
JAMES HERRIOT JR., Albion. Escape, probation revocation.
DAVID LOCK JR., Fort Bragg. Drunk in public.
PABLO MORA, Ukiah. Camping in Ukiah, probation revocation. (Frequent flyer.)
Morehead, Richardson, Sanders
TYLAR MOREHEAD, Fort Bragg. Probation revocation.
MATT RICHARDSON, Ukiah. DUI-alcohol & drugs.
THOMAS SANDERS, Ukiah. Drunk in public. (Frequent flyer).
Shillings, Soria, Stanton
DAYNIECE SHILLINGS, Ukiah. Domestic battery, vandalism.
SHARON SORIA, Fort Bragg. Drunk in public.
KELLY STANTON, Ukiah. Battery on peace officer, probation revocation.
Valadez, Vansant, Whipple
ROBERT VALADEZ, Ukiah. Drunk in public.
WALTER VANSANT, Ukiah. Domestic battery, probation revocation.
KENNETH WHIPPLE, Covelo. Arson.
HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, MELANIA
Maryanne Ellen wrote on MCN Listserve:
On Mother’s Day, it is especially important to honor mothers who go above and beyond in their devotion to their children. As a full-time mom to her son Barron, Melania Trump, First Lady of the United States, appears to fit the bill. While most women of wealth and privilege hire nannies to cover childcare while they focus on business or social pursuits, Melania prefers to prioritize motherhood and even takes Barron to school each morning herself. Join me in wishing the First Lady a Happy Mother's Day and let her know how much the Mendocino Coast loves our First Mother!
ON LINE COMMENT OF THE DAY
Just to pick one as an example, I find it perfectly acceptable that Bruce Jenner calls himself a woman or identifies as a woman. I would offer that he has the right to his feelings.
However, by the same set of standards, I have the right to reject his opinions in favor of my own and to consider him to be not a woman but a horribly disfigured man.
So, good on personal identity everywhere – to each her own ~ as long as some twit doesn’t come along and attempt to coerce me into abdicating my goofy position in favor of someone else’s goofy position. I might want to be a tree tomorrow.
On Monday, May 15, 2017, at 1 pm, Pacific Time, John Sakowicz and Sid Cooperrider interview Marjorie Cohn, professor emerita at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law. We'll talk about new U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice, Neil Gorsuch. For more about Marjorie Cohn, see: http://marjoriecohn.com/
Listen at KMEC Radio, 1051 FM in Ukiah. We also stream live from the web at www.kmecradio.org
Our show is proudly brought to you by the members of the Mendocino Environmental Center, and Frey Vineyards, Orr Hot Springs, Dr. Richard Phillips, among other underwriters.
THE WAR IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Months of palace intrigue have pitted the D.C. establishment against Steve Bannon – and made Trump more dangerous than ever
by Matt Taibbi
Decades from now, if the planet is even inhabited by then, we will look back at one 72-hour period as the most crucial in the history of America's last president, Donald John Trump. Between the days of April 5th and 7th, 2017, the Washington political establishment tried to reform our madman president and instead only made him infinitely more dangerous, pushing us closer to doomsday than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.
Welcome to the Trump era, the flushing-toilet-bowl stage of America's history, where every move any of us makes is part of a great swirling synergy sucking us with ever-greater alacrity down the hole of failure and destruction. Good news, bad news, it all heads in the same direction soon enough, after a spin or two around the bowl.
Wednesday, April 5th, began with what seemed like the greatest of news. Former Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, the Trump whisperer who had publicly pledged to destroy government from within, was on the outs for, among other things, calling the president's son-in-law a naughty word. A deluge of gleeful media leaks from the leakiest White House of all time exulted: The witch was dead, Bannon was sidelined, and an "axis of adults" had finally taken over as the key voices behind the president. We were saved!
A few spins of the bowl later, even the sidelining of Bannon turned into bad news. Bannon may currently be America's most infamous racial reactionary, but in the panoply of racist archetypes, he isn't easy to characterize. He's not a gun-toting, moonshine-swilling backwoods Klansman, which is at least a lifestyle one can sort of be born into. His background instead is as an effete suburbanite who went to Virginia Tech, Harvard and the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, made a small fortune in banking and entertainment (he worked for Goldman Sachs and, according to legend, owns a piece of Seinfeld), and only later made promoting ethno-nationalism as an intellectual choice his life mission. If you're sending a child away to college, Bannon is pretty much the worst-case scenario of what might come back – someone who will spend a lifetime inspired by literature to get more in touch with his inner troglodyte.
Bannon is said to have spent much of his adult life reading books that contain some combination of the following elements: violent collapses of Western civilization, invading hordes of dirty foreigners, elitist plots, murder and revolution. Jean Raspail's The Camp of the Saints, a book so dumb it makes The Turner Diaries seem like Huck Finn, is a favorite; the novel is a grimy fantasy about Europe overrun by brown immigrants who have les bras décharnés de Gandhi ("bare, fleshless Gandhi arms") and whose children are "all wormy inside." He is also said to be a fan of Italian fascist Julius Evola, and of The Fourth Turning, a book that insists America goes to hell once every four generations. He has also said he likes Trump's books, a seeming impossibility for a college graduate – about the only Trump-Hitler comparison one can safely make without trampling on Godwin's law is that it is impossible to say which of the two demagogues is the worse writer.
Bannon drifted into politics after his career as a Goldman Sachs banker led him to Hollywood. He began producing movies with political content, including the historically awful Sarah Palin hagiography The Undefeated. This experience seems to have put him on the shortlist of figures to take over the leadership of the right-wing provocateur site Breitbart.com, after its Buttafuocoid windbag founder Andrew Breitbart died of heart failure. Bannon was in the process of turning Breitbart into a model of modern race-baiting efficiency when he was pegged by then-candidate Trump to help run his foundering campaign. Nothing underscored the limitless awfulness of Trump's judgment better than a decision to make this nakedly abhorrent thinker his key adviser.
In the late Nineties, Bannon was a Hollywood banker who'd be in the room for important deals, but was never himself the most important person in the meeting. A reporter who knew Bannon in the early aughts recalls that even then he was sort of a misfit. Away from his job, he'd regale the reporter with his blistering observations about various film-industry titans, people like Disney chief Mike Ovitz and former Warner Music head Edgar Bronfman Jr., painting them as caricatures of dissolute nobles destined to piss away fortunes.
"He was a great talker," the reporter recalls. "He would go on and on about these people." And he liked talking to the press, the reporter noted, hinting at a flaw that would later prove seriously problematic. This reporter never caught a whiff of the future culture-first ideologue who would become the pope of the alt-right movement. Bannon was then just an eccentric pseudo who didn't quite fit into the world he had chosen for himself, a theme that followed him throughout his life.
History is filled with whisperers behind the throne: Machiavelli, Richelieu, even Thomas Cromwell, to whom Bannon once compared himself. Most of these were smart enough to stay in the background. Bannon went the opposite route. He burnished his Rasputinite legend at every turn, making himself the subject of a Time cover ("The Great Manipulator") and pumping up his brand by dressing like a Banana Republic version of Charles Bukowski. The bloated and tieless Bannon's permanent 10-o'clock-shadow look, which any man knows takes more time and narcissistic grooming to maintain than a clean face, stood out in a Trump inner circle made up of men in square suits and power ties.
Bannon embraced the role of the evil Svengali in a way no one in recent American history had, at least not since Joe McCarthy's henchman Roy Cohn – coincidentally, one of Trump's first mentors. "Darkness is good," Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter, with Cohn-ian verve, in the weeks after Trump's electoral win. "Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That's power."
His signature moment came at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in late February. The elephantine Bannon waddled onstage with chief of staff Reince Priebus (a classic donor-stroking, risk-averse Beltway weenie who represented everything Bannon's alt-right movement hated about the Republican Party) and announced a revolutionary agenda to the world. The Trump administration, he said, would seek nothing less than the "deconstruction of the administrative state." This revolution would face its toughest opposition in a "globalist" and "corporatist" (read: Jewish) media that disavowed Trump's "economic nationalist agenda."
Trump seemed to embrace Bannon's revolution, appointing to his Cabinet a string of dunces and anti-government zealots like Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt who fit the "deconstruction" plan. Bannon looked triumphant. The fact that The New York Times had dubbed him "President Bannon" no longer seemed like a joke.
Priebus, representing the Republican establishment, made a halfhearted effort at that CPAC event to look like he didn't despise Bannon with the heat of a thousand suns. "We share an office suite together," Priebus insisted. "We're basically together from 6:30 in the morning until about 11:00 at night."
I was in the crowd that day and could feel the discomfort onstage from 50 yards off. When Bannon reached over to affectionately touch Priebus on the knee, the latter recoiled like a schoolgirl sitting next to a subway flasher. The moment was an instant YouTube sensation and captured the untenable inner dynamic of the Trump White House, which had already become the locus of a mountain of Kremlinological speculation by Beltway experts.
Who was really running things in the new administration? How long could the Republican old guard and the alt-right revolution coexist under one roof? And how long would a notorious attention hog like Trump put up with the media calling someone else the president?
"You can't really call it Kremlinology," says a renowned Sovietologist, "because with this White House, there are so many leaks, every one knows what's going on."
From Day One – from before Day One, in fact – there have been few secrets in the Trump presidency.
At first, it was outsiders who did the dirty work. Intelligence sources hostile to Trump seemingly leaked almost everything Trump and his associates did to news agencies. Some of these leaks turned into explosive news stories, like a Washington Post report about Gen. Michael Flynn talking out of school to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Others involved more mundane embarrassments, like a play-by-play summary of Trump's braggadocios phone call to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that made the newspapers.
"Officials" likewise told the Post that Trump had bragged about his inauguration-crowd size to Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. No matter where the new president went, or how private the setting, his bloopers kept ending up in the papers. It's shocking that video of Trump's first visit to a White House toilet didn't make it to America's Funniest Home Videos.
But by April, and despite Trump himself having essentially declared war on the media, calling reporters "the enemy of the people," Trump's closest advisers began to spend an increasingly large amount of time talking to the press anonymously.
On April 6th, in a piece by the Daily Beast, "senior officials" leaked a spate of sordid details about a growing feud between Bannon and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The headline read that Bannon had called Kushner a "cuck," right-wing slang derived from the lurid porn term describing a white guy who likes to watch his wife take it from black men.
"Cuckservative" in the modern right-wing lexicon is the more hardcore replacement for what used to be called "RINOs," or "Republicans in Name Only." According to the Beast, Bannon spent a lot of time using such goofball slang terms to complain about Kushner – saying Trump's son-in-law wanted to "shiv him and push him out the door," adding that Kushner was a "globalist" – and apparently considered him worse than a Democrat.
To the surprise of no one, the Beast story also reported that Trump himself was irritated by the media's depictions of Bannon as the real president. He was particularly upset by a Saturday Night Live skit showing Bannon as the Grim Reaper, manipulating Trump, played by Alec Baldwin – who in turn called Bannon "Mr. President."
"Did you see this crap?" Trump reportedly said.
All of these lurid details coincided with news that Bannon had been removed from the National Security Council, where, of course, a political strategist like Bannon should never have been in the first place (even Karl Rove never wormed his way into that kind of job). Not long after, a Bannon confidante – fellow alt-right journalist Mike Cernovich, perhaps the most loathsome American left who hasn't been hired by the Trump White House – promised to release a "mother lode" of stories that would "destroy marriages" if Bannon were fired.
"I know about the mistresses, the sugar babies, the drugs, the pill-popping, the orgies. I know everything," said Cernovich.
By any normal standards this was all madness: a president perhaps making staffing decisions because of a Saturday Night Live skit, a chief White House strategist calling the president's son-in-law a cuck, a Web journalist blackmailing senior White House officials in public. Worse, all of this took place with the whole country following along in real time with a flattening pulse rate, two years of lunatic politics having made the daily soap opera of our collapse as a global superpower seem normal, like no big deal.
No sooner had Bannon been sidelined than another set of signals came from the White House that Washington mostly applauded. Earlier that week, news had broken of a horrific chemical-weapons attack that left 86 people dead in the rebel-held Idlib province in Syria. And at first, Trump appeared determined to stick to his "I don't want to be the president of the world" campaign stance, which was part of an isolationist posture seemingly chalked up to Bannon's influence.
But that Thursday evening, with Bannon appearing disgraced, Trump suddenly reversed course and lobbed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria, killing seven and destroying at least six warplanes.
In an instant, the entire narrative of the Trump presidency was altered. Leading Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi took time out from calling Trump a Russian agent to praise the attacks. Even more bizarre, a smorgasbord of "liberal" press outlets now sang his praises. This was what happened on Day Two of Trump's 72-hour makeover: The until-then unrelentingly hostile Washington punditocracy suddenly began slobbering all over the missile-throwing version of Trump.
The New York Times said that by launching a military strike "just 77 days into his administration" (what difference did that make?), Trump might yet "change the perception of disarray" in his presidency. CNN, which on the very morning of the missile strikes had run a monster investigative report detailing Trump's alleged Russia ties, now breathlessly lauded His Orangeness.
Fareed Zakaria said, "I think Donald Trump became president of the United States."
Over on MSNBC, a tumescent Brian Williams raved as he watched video of Trump's missile attacks, twice calling them "beautiful." He even stole a line from Leonard Cohen, saying, "I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons."
Trump responded to the press love with the obedient habituation of Pavlov's dog. He'd spent his first few months in office trying (and failing, mostly) to fulfill campaign promises to his base: a "Muslim ban," a face-plant effort to overturn Obamacare, an order to start building his "big, beautiful, powerful wall." For his trouble, Trump earned nothing but Mendoza-line approval ratings and a string of vicious new caricatures on Saturday Night Live.
But fire a few missiles, Trump learned, and suddenly even your enemies love you. Encouraged, Trump began frantically chucking campaign promises overboard.
The man who once promised to label China a currency manipulator in the first 100 days of his presidency now said of the Chinese, "They're not currency manipulators." Candidate Trump courted end-the-Fed conspiracists by bashing Fed chief Janet Yellen ("Very political . . . she should be ashamed of herself"). New-and-improved Trump's take on Yellen? "I like her, I respect her," he said. Candidate Trump said NATO was "obsolete"; new Trump said NATO was "no longer obsolete." Old Trump said it would be better "if we actually got along" with Russia; new Trump humble-bragged that relations "may be at an all-time low."
All of these reversals had one thing in common. They ran in stark contrast to the nationalist, anti-globalist, Bannonite rhetoric Trump had sounded not only as a candidate, but in his much-ballyhooed joint address to Congress just a month before.
Trump in that speech described his own rise as a "rebellion" of voters who were upset that America had spent "trillions and trillions of dollars overseas" in military interventions while ignoring domestic problems. Those voters, he said, "were united by one very simple but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first."
Now the would-be isolationist was bombing Syria, bear-hugging a Fed chair and glad-handing the bespectacled Euro named Jens who runs NATO.
Between all the leaks and dysfunction, by late April the American government looked to the outside world like a mad-house with glass walls. Here in America, of course, the reaction was different. Officially now, we've been in this water too long to notice it boiling. Instead of fleeing to the hills in panic, the most common reaction to the latest Trump rebrand was to cheer.
A week after the Syria missile attack, the Trump administration dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat on a remote corner of Afghanistan. The 21,600-pound MOAB, which stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb in reality but is cheerfully known by bloodlusting Americans as the "Mother of All Bombs," reportedly killed at least 94 people, all of whom we somehow determined were either ISIS fighters or commanders.
Ironically, even before the Tomahawk and MOAB attacks, Trump had overseen a massively increased campaign of bombing. According to the British monitoring group Airwars, the U.S.-led coalition killed some 1,755 civilians in Syria and Iraq alone in March, a nearly ninefold increase over last March's total of 196.
But to the Beltway priesthood, even a mere massive increase in civilian deaths qualified as Trump accepting the "constraints" of Bannonite America-First-ism. To really win over the capital's beautiful people, and convince them of his capacity for responsible interventionism, the new president needed to get rid of the one tiny part of his entire barking-mad worldview that made a small bit of sense, i.e., his reluctance to start schoolyard brawls abroad.
By firing missiles at a Russian client state and dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in history, Trump won over both the Fox-watching bomb-porn crowd and the neo-liberal pros who run Washington. In Washington terms, he proved he was "serious."
The revelations of the past month show the Trump White House to be a kind of bizarro version of Real World or Amish in the City – a bunch of loutish out-of-towners granted undeserving residence in a classy downtown mansion wired in every corner for the world's amusement. Ditsy Kellyanne Conway rubs her feet on the furniture, blabbermouth Sean Spicer loses battles of wits to Rob Gronkowski in the press room, and grandpa Rex Tillerson spends every episode hiding from the press, maybe behind the new gold drapes (they really changed the color of the Oval Office drapes). The remaining zoo animals are split in a perfectly disgusting caricature of the modern American political divide. On one side rests Bannon, a fascistic creep who represents the tens of millions of "deplorables" who rallied to Trump because he validated their zombie-movie fantasies about armies of wormy Mexicans staggering up the isthmus ("tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border," as Trump put it).
Bannon hasn't been fired, and Trump's recent bleatings about rewriting trade deals are supposedly due to his continuing influence. But there are many reports that Bannon has lost influence to Kushner and former Goldman Sachs deputy Gary Cohn, a noted monster of the financial-crisis era who represents the opposite vile brand of American politics, a Wall Street kleptocracy that has spent decades robbing Main Street blind through bubble economics and sleazy asset-hoovering schemes like sub-prime-mortgage fraud.
If there's a better metaphor for the depressing nonchoice of modern Western democracy than the intramural struggle for influence between these two arch-fiends, it's hard to imagine. Bannon and Cohn, two bilious, overweight ex-Goldman bankers, now sit on either side of the throne, each whispering his respective villainous ideology into the president's ears.
It'll be backlash ethnic nationalism against sociopathic finance capitalism, foreigners-suck versus screw-the-poor, depending on Trump's mood. That's assuming the president hasn't been distracted by some insane civilization-imperiling military adventure recommended to him by "adults" like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Chief John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. Who's really running things in the Trump White House? The more we hear, the less we seem to know, but none of the choices seem to be good. 'Round and 'round the bowl we go; God knows when we will hit the bottom.