Trump and Africa

For a while now I have been itching to write something non-speculative about what South Africa and the rest of the continent can expect from President Trump, but the truth is, two months into the new administration, there is no way of knowing for sure what, or who, this strange crowd has in store for us.

Personnel-wise, things are still up in the air. As of Tuesday night, 495 of the 553 key positions requiring Senate confirmation had yet to be nominated by the White Houses, let alone confirmed.

Peter Pham, director of the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, was supposed have the inside track for Assistant Secretary of State for Africa but has apparently stumbled. Now the mentioners are mentioning James Dunlap of the Scowcroft Group, the international advisory firm founded by Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to the President Gerald Ford and then the first George Bush. Scowcroft endorsed Hillary Clinton over Trump, but perhaps his sin — a mortal one for hopefuls thus far — will not be visited on his associates.

Dunlap would be an interesting choice. He knows southern Africa well, having lived in SA, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He has been involved in energy, mining and telecoms deals in Angola, DRC, Ethiopia and Tanzania. He did a spell in government as Special Advisor in State’s Africa Bureau, focused on energy.

Promoting his nomination, I’m told, is Walter Kansteiner, a founding member of the Scowcroft Group, who had the Assistant Secretary job for a couple of years in the second Bush administration. Currently, he’s based in London as ExxonMobil’s honcho for relations with Africans governments, so he has the ear of his former CEO, now Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

As for the ambassadorship to SA, Breitbart editor-at-large Joel Pollak, once favoured, is off the pace. Rumour has it Pretoria was unenthusiastic about granting agrement to this former Tony Leon speechwriter turned hard-right Trumpian imbongi.

The son-in-law of Business Day guest columnist Rhoda Kadalie, he probably didn’t deserve the savaging he was given by the Daily Maverick, but as a protege of Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right Rasputin, he would still have been an odd choice. Should White House spokesman Sean Spicer fall or trip on his sword, Pollak would be a contender for the Goebbels Memorial Podium.

Alternatives for SA are said to include Anthony Carroll, a regular at the Mining Indaba who hangs his hat at Manchester Trade, a Washington advice and advocacy shop deeply involved with shaping and advocating for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Carroll is highly regarded by Congressman Ed Royce, chairman of House International Relations Committee. Just as there were Good Germans, so these are both Good Republicans.

Also mentioned is investment banker Peter O’Malley, a dual US and Irish citizen who represented Credit Suisse in Johannesburg in the 90’s after serving as an election observer in 1994. His resume says he “help(ed) establish Black Economic Empowerment vehicles and investments”, “advised and structured $100 million in investments in SA” and that he “maintain(s) business and ministerial relationships”.

What’s going on over at the National Security Council remains a mystery. The top Africa slot was initially filled by a Marine intelligence officer, Robin Townly, a protege of Trump’s first NSC adviser, the whackjob Michael Flynn. The CIA reportedly vetoed Townly’s application for clearance to see “sensitive compartmentalised information”, the kind that includes the identities of sources. He had to go. Flynn was then forced to resign for being economical with the truth about his contacts the Russia’s ambassador. By all accounts, the agency was happy to see the backs of both.

On the trade front, Florie Liser, the Assistant US Trade Representative for Africa since 2003, has gone, taking her grace and immense institutional memory with her to the Corporate Council on Africa where she has replaced Steve Hayes as CEO. The job is more about organising meetings and raising money to survive, which Hayes was good at, than about contributing to the formulation of policy, where Liser would shine. If and by whom she is to be replaced must await Senate confirmation of Robert Lighthizer, the neanderthal protectionist Trump has named to put America First as US Trade Representative.

President Trump’s sole engagement with Africa, as far as can be told without straying in #FAKENEWS, has been telephone conversations with Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and our own Jacob Zuma. It’s hard to read much into the pabular official readouts beyond noting that Buhari got an invite to DC (or Mar-a-Lago) and Zuma didn’t. That would seem to signify that Trump, a dolt on so much else, has grasped that Nigeria is the bigger and more influential power and likely to remain so as long as Zuma is in office. And, of course, Nigeria has real skin in the fight against jihadism, plus the capacity to project power regionally, both important ticks in Trumpian boxes.

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The coming Trump regency

Washington opened its twitter feeds Saturday to find @realDonaldTrump on an early morning, evidence-free tear about his predecessor, Barack Obama, having done a Nixon and ordered a tap on his phones “just before the victory.”

This reinforced a growing sense across party lines that Trump should really not be president. The Republican party he crashed to get the job knew that all along, of course, but couldn’t bring itself to defy its mesmerised rank and file and deny him the nomination. Came the general election and most voters knew it too, even some who voted for him. But what’s done is done, and the nation and the world will have to put up with the character until January 2021. The constitution says so.

No need, though, to slit our wrists quite yet. The prospect may not be as terrifying as the alarums of the past few weeks portend. You have to remember that since failing in the casino and airline businesses and as a professional sports team owner, Trump has been more a simulated tycoon than the real thing. Now he is going to be a simulated president.

After his string of bankruptcies, Trump pretty much exited property development game as normally understood, aside from investing in a few golf courses. Instead he devoted himself to pumping up the value of his name — playing the highly playable media, having ghostwriters churn out books for him and, above all, starring in The Apprentice — in order to license it for display on other people’s projects (not a few of which tanked nonetheless).

In much the same way he is licensing his brand to the nation to put on its highest office. The fee may not net him as many millions as the Vito Corleone of Ajerbaijan paid to put TRUMP on luxury flats with Caspian views in Baku. But he has been able to double the initiation fee for membership of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach to $200 000 and, among other perks, does have Air Force One at his round-the-clock disposal. Besides, whatever happens, his spot in history, if not on Mount Rushmore, is secure.

Other than that, I predict he will be little more than a flamboyant figurehead. Sure, he will carry on playing the part of President Trump, tweeting away furiously, declaring himself to be the greatest president there ever was (save perhaps Abraham Lincoln to whom he does occasionally defer), all the while taking credit for anything positive that happens, the weather even, and blaming others, especially foreigners, for everything else. But in reality, the management will be in different hands.

Whose? Not, I think, those of the odd bods he has taken into the White House with him.

These include the rumpled Steve Bannon, former Goldman Sachs-er and publisher of Breitbart, the Pravda of the alt-right, who has variously compared himself with Lenin and Henry the Eighth’s Thomas Cromwell, and who sees himself as the chief ideologist of the Trump revolution to “deconstruct the administrative state”.

Then there’s Sebastian Gorka PhD (he insists on using the handle), a beetle-browed Brit of Hungarian stock who has described himself as one of Trump’s “alpha males” and is convinced that to defeat ISIS, we must begin with the correct incantation: “radical Islamic terrorism”. When not yelling at journalists, he threatens to sue national security experts who have genuine experience and know whereof they speak. He likes to pack a Glock which got him into a spot of bother last year when it showed up on an X-ray machine as he tried to board a plane at Reagan National Airport.

In the group also belongs Peter Navarro, an economist in charge of Trump’s newly minted National Trade Council, perhaps the only one who could do real damage if allowed out of the asylum. Navarro has written books warning that China is the new evil empire out to eat America’s lunch. Like a number of Trump’s courtiers, he does not enjoy unqualified respect in his field. Peers note that he has published little serious research in support of his crude mercantilism. Nevertheless, he feels qualified to tell his boss, and the Financial Times, that the US must repatriate its manufacturers’ global value chains. Were that to happen, SA could kiss much of is catalytic converter business goodbye.

But, as I say, I think this pack of eccentrics will sooner or later be sidelined as we move into what might be called the Trump Regency. The Donald may not be quite as mad as George III, but grown ups will move to take charge nonetheless. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and senior economic adviser Gary Cohn, with help for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the permanent civil service, will quietly make sure that, beneath the Trumpian bluster, we will get a pretty standard Republican administration. They might even find a way to get the US back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.