Friday, March 31, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He changed his stance on what it means to seek immunity from criminal prosecution.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump's former national security advisor Michael Flynn was seeking immunity in exchange for his testimony in the ongoing Russia investigations. Flynn's lawyer said that he had "a story to tell" but required immunity in order to avoid malicious prosecution. Echoing this theme in a tweet this morning, Trump declared that Flynn "should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems."

This is something of a change of heart for Trump, who--like Flynn himself--previously took immunity deals as an indicator of wrongdoing. When the subject was his political opponents in 2016, Trump maintained that "[t]he reason they get immunity is because they did something wrong. If they didn’t do anything wrong, then no reason.”

Trump's previous stance is much more widely held than his revised opinion. Even staunch Trump supporters like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) were uneasy about Trump weighing in. Chaffetz called Flynn's actions "very mysterious." According to NBC News, the Senate Intelligence Committee today rejected Flynn's offer. Flynn may now be compelled to testify, but could invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the absence of a grant of immunity.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's difficult to believe that Trump fears unfair prosecution from Democrats, who control neither the Justice Department nor either house of Congress. 
  • It's bad if a president's opinions are determined only by what will help or hurt him.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reacted to a bombshell New York Times article on the Russia investigation with a tweet calling for changed libel laws.

Trump has never needed much provocation to attack "the failing New York Times"--although its soaring subscription rate is one of the few positive developments in the business world that Trump deserves some credit for. But the catalyst for his anger today was most likely the Times' article revealing that two White House staffers had met in secret with Rep. Devin Nunes, the chair of the House committee investigating the Trump campaign's ties to Russian election saboteurs.

The result of this meeting was that Nunes held a press conference to announce information that Trump subsequently declared himself "vindicated" by. In other words, it appears that Trump may have "laundered" information through the Nunes' committee in order to make it appear more credible.

Trump did not specify how he would change libel laws. Under current law, truth is an absolute defense to any libel claim, regardless of how damning the truth is. 

So what?

  • Until now, the importance of maintaining the dignity of the office has been enough to dissuade presidents from suing journalists for libel.
  • It's increasingly difficult to believe that unflattering reporting is really Donald Trump's biggest problem.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He officially hired his daughter Ivanka as his advisor, giving her top-secret clearance and allowing her to serve as Trump's "eyes and ears" within his own administration.

Ivanka Trump's hiring was presented by the Trump White House as putting an end to the ethics controversy surrounding her role in her father's administration. She will now be officially subject to federal ethics rules, at least to the extent her father is willing to enforce them against her. 

The position will give the 35-year-old access to the most sensitive government secrets. Shortly after the election, the prospect of her and her husband Jared Kushner (who was hired on Monday by his father-in-law to head a new White House office) getting security clearances caused a minor scandal. Donald Trump responded furiously, calling reports that he was seeking such a clearance for his children "a typically false news story." Kushner was granted top secret clearance shortly afterward, which Ivanka Trump will now apparently gain as well. Top secret refers to information that, if improperly released, "could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security."

Donald Trump has maintained that federal anti-nepotism laws do not apply to family members hired directly by the president. Both his daughter and son-in-law are reportedly adept at calming Trump, and have gained considerable influence over him, to the chagrin of other factions in Trump's White House.


  • Nepotism does not have to be strictly illegal to be a bad idea.
  • Presidents should not hand out security clearances merely because they find a family member's presence soothing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got two big political favors from a key congressional ally and transition team member—who also happens to be the chair of the committee investigating his campaign’s complicity with Russia’s interference in the election.

Today was supposed to be the day that former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before the House Intelligence Committee, chaired by Devin Nunes (R-CA). The hearing was canceled by Nunes after Yates requested that the White House clear her to testify—in essence, forcing the White House either to allow potentially incriminating testimony, or to take the politically damning step of asserting executive privilege. Nunes’ cancellation, which he has refused to explain, spared the Trump administration that choice. 

Nunes, who has rejected bipartisan calls to step down from the investigation, made an unscheduled trip to the White House last Wednesday to personally brief Trump (the target of his investigation) on the report of a secret source Nunes had supposedly been contacted by. After the meeting, Trump proclaimed himself “vindicated.” Today, Nunes said he would never reveal the identity of that source—even in confidence to other members of the committee. As a matter of protection against self-incrimination, that may be a wise move: Nunes' disclosure of information related to a classified FISA warrant seems to have violated the Espionage Act and the committee's own rules.

Yates’ brief tenure as Trump’s acting AG saw her presenting Trump with evidence of Michael Flynn’s deception regarding his ties to Russian agents, which eventually forced Trump to fire Flynn (but not before he fired Yates). Nunes was an early and active Trump campaigner, and a member of the Trump transition team.

How is this a problem?

  • The rule of law is more important than sparing a president political embarrassment.
  • A president with nothing to hide would not allow an investigation like this to be subverted.

Monday, March 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He appointed his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to head a new White House department on the same day that his administration admitted that Kushner had previously undisclosed contacts with Russian agents and would face Senate questioning.

Kushner, like his father-in-law, is the heir to a real-estate fortune who brings no government experience to his new job, except what he learned about diplomacy through trial and error during the transition. His new job will be to head the White House Office of American Innovation, the creation of which Trump announced today. 

Kushner said yesterday that "the government should be run like a great American company," a view that is controversial at best. Even so, the 36-year-old Kushner has more experience buying businesses than running them. He bought the New York Observer, but has been an absentee owner except to force it to endorse Trump. In 2007, he bought the building at 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion--the single biggest price ever paid for real estate in the United States. Since Trump's election, that high price forced him to seek "angel investors" in the form of a Chinese consortium who have provided his family with $400 million in "unusually favorable" financing.

The Chinese investment is not the only questionable foreign contact that Kushner has had. The White House admitted today that Kushner would be questioned by Senate investigators over contacts with Russian officials--including some under sanction by the U.S. government--that he had previously kept secret.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • If a job is important enough for the government to do, it should be done by the most qualified person, not the most qualified relative of the president.
  • If business experience is relevant for a government job, presidents should give that job to someone with business experience.
  • It's bad if a president's relative and employee is under suspicion for two different kinds of illicit foreign contacts.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Trumpcare edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

In the dying days of Trumpcare, he held a meeting with Tea Party leaders to discuss whether mammograms and maternity care should be counted as "essential" for purposes of coverage. Dozens of members of Congress and the Trump administration were present; none were women.

He cycled through a series of scapegoats for the failure of Trumpcare: first Democrats, then Paul Ryan and moderate Republicans, and finally this morning the arch-conservative "Freedom caucus," the last of whom he jeered on Twitter for their supposed support of Planned Parenthood by their refusal to vote for his bill. Trump's accusations are not incorrect; all three groups, mindful of the polls, helped defeat Trumpcare.

By contrast, Trump's staffers portrayed him as having "left it all on the field" in support of his domestic policy centerpiece during the unusually brief 17-day window of work on the bill. As the bill hemorrhaged votes on Thursday, Trump's first self-imposed deadline for its passage in the House, Trump was pretending to drive a truck.

In a moment of uncharacteristic modesty, Trump declined to take credit for the one tangible result of Trumpcare: a surge in stock prices when it was pulled from the floor on Thursday.

What's so bad about these things?

  • Women may feel that women's health care policy debates should in some way involve women.
  • Presidents who assign blame for legislative failures rather than accept responsibility look weak.
  • To "leave it all on the field" means to make an extraordinary effort.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reaffirmed that his backup plan on health care is to damage the ACA until his plan is politically viable by comparison.

The ACA (sometimes referred to as Obamacare) remains the law of the land in the wake of Friday's legislative implosion of Trump's replacement plan. Nevertheless, like any program, it also requires administrative action by the executive branch. By refusing to do day-to-day technical work, or failing to promote the exchanges during registration periods, or not enforcing the tax mandate, Trump could indeed cause the program to "implode" through neglect.

Trump has already ordered the Health and Human Services Department to do everything legally possible to put the brakes on the program. In February, Trump said that Republicans should "let it be a disaster, because we can blame that on the Dems that are in our room, and we can blame that on the Democrats and President Obama.” This would have been a moot point if his replacement plan had passed the Republican-led House, but now has taken on added weight.

Today, in his first tweet on the subject since his plan failed, Trump predicted that "ObamaCare will explode and we will all get together and piece together a great healthcare plan for THE PEOPLE."

What's so bad about this?

  • At this point, Trump's argument is that people will like his plan better after they suffer hardships he could have prevented.
  • A president who doesn't want to do some of his job probably shouldn't be doing any of it.
  • Americans' health care is more important than the president's political fortunes.

Friday, March 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He yet again took credit for jobs created and announced during the Obama administration.

As Trumpcare imploded in the House, Trump himself held a celebratory photo op with the CEO of Charter Communications, a major cable provider. Pointing to the company's promise to create 20,000 new jobs, Trump said the jobs were the result of his administration "embracing a new economic model--the American model." He added, "We’re going to massively eliminate job-killing regulations. That has started already, big league."

However, the company first announced these plans, complete with the 20,000 new jobs, in June 2015, while Obama was president and Trump was just getting into the presidential race. Trump has previously taken credit for jobs created and announced during the Obama administration in photo ops with executives from Lockheed Martin, Intel, Ford (at least twice), Sprint, and Carrier.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave the House an ultimatum: pass Trumpcare exactly as-is right now, or pass nothing ever.

Today was the deadline set by Speaker Paul Ryan to vote on the AHCA, but both moderate and conservative Republicans have expressed serious reservations or outright opposition to the bill (and Democrats oppose it unanimously). As it became increasingly clear that the bill would not pass today--in spite of Trump's confident assurances that it would--he told House Republicans that if they failed to pass the latest version, he would allow the ACA to stand and allow them to suffer the political fallout.

Trump, who published (but did not write) the book The Art of the Deal and many other books touting his skill as a negotiator, hasn't had much luck negotiating with his own party this week. During a meeting Tuesday, Trump told Republicans that if they voted against his bill, they would pay a political price and that he personally would "come after" individual members in the 2018 elections. After that meeting, the "nay" votes from within the GOP caucus went up.

One potential flaw in Trump's take-it-or-leave-it stance is that a majority of Americans, according to recent polling, would be perfectly happy to see the ACA (also known as Obamacare) kept intact--and an even larger majority oppose Trump's replacement plan.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president whose "negotiating" skills aren't enough to get his own party's votes is either a very bad negotiator or trying to pass a terrible bill.
  • It's hard to know what to make of a president who is willing to give up on his top domestic policy priority the first time he encounters resistance of any sort.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He received a private briefing on the investigation into his campaign's collusion with Russia from the chair of the congressional committee leading the investigation.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chair of the House Intelligence Committee, made an unexpected trip to the White House today in order to personally brief Trump on evidence that Nunes said showed that Trump campaign officials' conversations had been "incidentally collected" on legal wiretaps for unrelated criminal investigations. Trump, who has been casting about for any evidence to support his claim that President Obama ordered him surveilled, immediately declared himself "vindicated."

However, there are two problems with Trump's framing of events. First, the fact that Trump campaign officials were talking with the subjects of unrelated foreign surveillance warrants--foreigners under investigation or suspicion by federal law enforcement--doesn't exonerate anyone, and doesn't implicate the Obama Justice Department in any wrong doing. Indeed, when there is a valid FISA wiretap warrant, listening in on such conversations is exactly what the FBI is supposed to do.

Second, Nunes--a Trump transition team member who has vigorously denied the need for an independent investigator into the Trump-Russia connection--was presenting Trump with information that he withheld with other members of the Intelligence Committee, including Democrats. In essence, Trump received an update into the progress of an ongoing investigation into himself and his administration from the political ally in charge of it.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Trump campaign officials being caught by wiretaps on different suspicious persons doesn't "vindicate" or in any way support Trump's claim that he was being wiretapped.
  • It is completely contrary to the rule of law for presidents to  know more about the status of oversight investigations into their administrations than members of the oversight committee conducting them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed the national chair of his presidential campaign "played a very limited role" in his presidential campaign.

Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chair for five months during 2016, once again came under scrutiny this week for his ties to Viktor Yanukovych, the corrupt former president of Ukraine who was deposed as a Russian puppet in 2014. Manafort joined the campaign in March, and took over as the campaign chair in May. He held this position until August, when similar revelations about $12.7M in secret payments from Yanukovych forced him to leave the campaign. Manafort is currently wanted for questioning in Ukraine.

Today, however, press secretary Sean Spicer made the astonishing claim that Manafort--who, among other duties running the campaign, was instrumental in Trump's selection of Mike Pence as a running mate--"played a very limited role." 

Manafort was not the only figure being disappeared from Trump campaign history today. Spicer also characterized Michael Flynn (forced to resign as Trump's national security advisor over Russia ties) as a "volunteer," and Kellyanne Conway told reporters that Trump "doesn't know" two other senior campaign advisors, Carter Page and J.D. Gordon. Both are under scrutiny for their own ties to Russia--Gordon for engineering a pro-Russia plank in the GOP platform that was the Trump campaign's only contribution to the process, and Page for mid-campaign trips he took to Russia.

So what?

  • Even by Trump's standards, claiming that his campaign chair had "a very limited role" in his campaign is an absurd and insulting lie.
  • A president who wasn't worried that his campaign might have colluded with a hostile foreign country to get him elected wouldn't be so desperately distancing himself from so many of its senior staff.

Monday, March 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He live-tweeted the Russia investigation hearings, only to have those tweets fact-checked by the FBI Director in real time while the hearing itself was still underway.

At 11:42 a.m., Trump made this tweet:
Later in the hearing, Rep. Jim Hines (D-CT) read the tweet aloud and asked FBI Director James Comey if it was accurate. Comey acknowledged that the FBI had not investigated how much Russia's interference affected the outcome, and therefore had not told Congress or anyone else that Russia had no influence.

So what?

  • Things do not become true just because a president very badly wants them to be true for political reasons.
  • Saying something that is demonstrably false in the hope that it will drown out the truth is the definition of fake news.
  • Asking people to ignore evidence in favor of politically favorable lies is what authoritarians do.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Leisure. In what is becoming standard practice, Trump spent his Saturday playing golf while his staff attempted to conceal the extent of it from public view. Trump spent four and a half hours at his golf course, which aides characterized as "hitting a few balls." It was the tenth time Trump has played golf in eight weeks as president. 

Campaigning. On Wednesday, Trump held the second campaign rally of the 2020 presidential campaign in Nashville. (Trump has been a declared candidate for re-election since the day he took office.) His staff has made no secret of the fact that he prefers campaigning to governing, not least because official campaign events allow him to appear before enthusiastic crowds, rather than deal with his approval rating among Americans in general. However, not everything went smoothly for Trump 2020: in its weekly e-mail newsletter, the White House included a link to a Washington Post article headlined “Trump's budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why.” Unfortunately, the satirical article by Alexandra Petri was not exactly an endorsement.

Family. He once again absolved his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, from conflict-of-interest rules. Kushner's family real estate business stands to gain $400M from a suspiciously generous $4B investment from a Chinese company. Notwithstanding his lack of government experience, Kushner is one of Trump's closest advisors, and has been directly involved in Trump's adventures in Chinese diplomacy. A Trump spokesperson said that Kushner could simply recuse himself from matters he felt would present a conflict.

Handling of classified material. At least twice this week, he revealed classified information during media appearances--presumably by accident. In his Wednesday interview with Tucker Carlson, Trump said that the release of CIA information by Wikileaks came about because the agency was hacked. Trump was attempting to put the blame for the release on the Obama administration, but in doing so gave away information about the nature of the leak that would have been highly classified. Two days later, in an ill-fated attempt at a joke, Trump suggested that the Obama administration had surveilled German chancellor Angela Merkel--which, if true, amounts to a confirmation of details about American espionage capabilities that previous administrations had worked hard to keep secret.

Trumpcare. Finally, in a chaotic week for his health care plans, he made a surprisingly candid admission: that his proposed plan would disproportionately hurt the older and more rural demographics that voted for him.

Why should anyone care about these things?

  • Presidents are entitled to their leisure time, but not to insist that others pretend it isn't happening.
  • It's bad if a president is more interested in campaigning than governing.
  • Simply declaring that foreign powers are not buying influence at the White House doesn't make it true.
  • A president who reveals classified information--intentionally, or through carelessness--in order to score political points is derelict in his duty.
  • Trump voters may have taken Trump both literally and seriously when he said he would make their health insurance better as opposed to worse.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went through a full mood swing cycle on Germany in the space of eight minutes.

Trump once again took to Twitter to castigate "FAKE NEWS," in this case meaning coverage of his meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel. During Merkel's visit, Trump refused to shake her hand for the cameras, incorrectly claimed that Germany has a trade arrangement with the United States (and was immediately fact-checked by Merkel), tried unsuccessfully to enlist her in his wiretapping conspiracy theory with a diplomatically unwise joke, and grimaced through her statement of support for refugees at their joint press conference.

Nevertheless, in a pair of tweets this morning, Trump first asserted that their meeting had been "GREAT," before immediately complaining that "Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!"

In fact, Germany owes neither the United States nor NATO, as experts were quick to point out, and American membership in NATO is done in its own self-interest, not as an act of charity towards other member states. Since the campaign, Trump has made a number of statements suggesting that he either misunderstands what NATO is, or disapproves of its mission, and is arguably the most anti-NATO politician outside of the country it was founded to oppose.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Things are not fake news simply because a president doesn't want people talking about them.
  • It is not good to alienate the leaders of major military and economic partners.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was forced to apologize to the British government for implicating them in his Obama wiretap conspiracy theory. SEE UPDATE BELOW.

On Thursday, press secretary Sean Spicer repeated an unsourced claim by a Fox News contributor that President Obama had enlisted the GCHQ, Britain's equivalent of the NSA, to conduct the supposed wiretaps that Trump suddenly became convinced existed on March 4th. In a nearly unprecedented move, the GCHQ publicly and angrily denied the "ridiculous" allegation, and were joined by Britain's ambassador to the US and its national security advisor. This intervention prompted a hasty--and for Trump, all but unprecedented--statement of apology by the White House.

The congressional investigation that Trump demanded after refusing to say why he believed Obama had surveilled him has found no evidence to support Trump's claim, leading even Republicans to suggest that Trump may not be done apologizing yet.

UPDATE, 3:51 p.m. EDT: The Trump White House is now disputing that its public or private statements to the British government should be construed as an apology. Contradicting both an earlier White House characterization and British government officials, Sean Spicer denied that any "apology" had been made, saying "I don't think we regret anything." Spicer's remarks follow Trump's own defiant insistence at a joint press conference with German leader Angela Merkel that Spicer was simply "quot[ing] a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television," before adding, "I didn’t make an opinion on it. You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.” Until Trump's statement, the White House's emphasis had been on soothing outraged British officials and had not objected to the word "apology."

So what?

  • It is bad if a president's desire for public revenge on his predecessor endangers our security arrangements with our closest ally.
  • Presidents' actions have consequences, and presidents who act on fake news rather than evidence take actions with bad consequences.
  • UPDATE: It's bad if a president, having made a mistake, gets in the way of his staff's efforts to fix it.
Thanks to Twitter follower @jcchurch for the tip on the update.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He offered an interesting justification for his proposal to end the Meals on Wheels program.

Meals on Wheels is a volunteer-driven service that delivers food to elderly and infirm Americans. It is funded largely through the Community Development Block Grant, which Trump proposes to zero out. It receives federal funding in large part because meal delivery (which also serves as an informal wellness check) is much, much cheaper for the government than institutional care.

Of course, no government program is beyond scrutiny at budget time. But Trump's defense of killing Meals on Wheels, delivered via his budget director, veered into absurd territory. Calling it the "compassionate" thing to do for taxpayers, Mick Mulvaney said that Meals on Wheels "sounds great" but "doesn't work" before concluding, "I can't defend that anymore. We cannot defend that anymore. We're $20 trillion in debt." (It is not true that Meals on Wheels "doesn't work.")

If the federal debt of $19.9T was frozen at current levels, and the entire proposed $6.2B cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development were applied to it every year, the debt would be retired in the year 5227.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who has an ideological problem with charity or social welfare programs should say so directly, rather than resort to scare tactics.
  • Arguably, the health and wellness of American senior citizens today is more important than the budget deficit in the 53rd century.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called the story of his 2005 tax returns "FAKE NEWS" the morning after his own White House confirmed the authenticity of the documents.

The 2005 1040 form revealed last night by David Cay Johnston, who received it anonymously, should have been relatively good news for Trump: it shows him paying any federal income taxes in at least that one year, which had been in doubt. Indeed, Johnston suggested that the leaker may have been Trump himself, a theory that gained quick support across the political spectrum. The fact that the White House confirmed the numbers almost instantaneously after Rachel Maddow disclosed the year involved lent some credence to the idea.

Nevertheless, this morning Trump declared the whole thing "FAKE NEWS" and suggested that "nobody ever heard of" Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his investigative reporting on the tax code. But Trump himself certainly knew Johnston, who wrote a book about Trump just last year. In an interview later in the day, Trump called Johnston a "weird dude" and suggested that Johnston was a failure because he had not prevented Trump from becoming President.

Trump also suggested that Johnston was lying for some reason about receiving the documents anonymously, and that it was illegal for Johnston to reveal them. It is not.

Why should this bother me?

  • Facts, especially those agreed on by all sides, are not "FAKE NEWS" just because a president is unhappy with how they play in the media.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pivoted from attacking the CBO before it calculated the financial impact of Trumpcare to attacking the CBO after it had done so.

For the last week or so, Trump and his surrogates have been gearing up to reject the Congressional Budget Office's analysis of the Trumpcare bill (also known as the AHCA), because they knew it would project that millions of Americans would lose coverage if it replaced the ACA. Its report, released yesterday, forecasts that if the AHCA is passed, 24 million Americans will lose health insurance coverage in the next ten years, and 14 million by 2018.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney derided the nonpartisan agency today, comparing it to a bad weather forecast. (He made similar remarks yesterday after the report was out but before having read it; it is not clear if Mulvaney had had a chance to read it before this morning's comments.) Mulvaney is following Trump's lead, but Trump has been a surprisingly enthusiastic fan of the CBO when he thought its predictions cast doubt on President Obama's policies.

What Mulvaney did not mention is that his own office projects slightly higher coverage losses, with 26 million additional Americans uninsured over the same 10-year time frame.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Accepting the analysis of a neutral fact-finding organization if and only if it supports your views is either incompetence or hypocrisy.
  • Rejecting the analysis of a neutral fact-finding organization when your own analysis shows they weren't critical enough is hypocrisy plain and simple.
  • The difference between having health insurance and having "access" to health insurance is actually a pretty important one.

Monday, March 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He started the process of backing down from his "wiretapping" claims by saying that "wiretapping" doesn't mean wiretapping.

Asked about Trump's totally unsubstantiated claims from March 4th that Obama was "wiretapping" him during the campaign, press secretary Sean Spicer offered two new explanations. First, that because the word wiretapping appears in quotation marks in two of the tweets, Trump did not mean a literal wiretap, but rather "broadly, surveillance and other activities." Second, that such "surveillance and other activities" had been reported on "in the New York Times, in the BBC and other outlets."

No government surveillance of Trump, of any kind, has been reported on in those publications. Trump almost certainly developed his "wiretapping" theories from a discredited article on the fringe right-wing site, which theorized about literal wiretaps. The FBI was aware of and investigating Trump campaign members' ties to Russia (and continues to do so), but no evidence of wiretapping has yet been presented by anyone--including Trump, who as president is now in a position to know.

As the Washington Post noted, Trump--like many people--often uses quotation marks in "nonstandard" ways. Spicer did not volunteer why it had taken him nine days to offer the "quotation mark explanation." Incidentally, two of the four tweets directly accuse Obama of tapping Trump, no quotation marks added.

Why should I "care?"

  • No explanation is better than one that insults Americans' intelligence.
  • A president who crafts elaborate stories about how he was misinterpreted, rather than admit he was mistaken, is not emotionally stable enough for the job.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Staff Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

After more than fifty days in office, Trump's inaction on filling thousands of executive branch staff positions is starting to cause real problems. Most do not require Senate approval, meaning that only Trump's unwillingness to act--or to hire people who may have supported other Republican candidates--is getting in the way. However, it was reported this week that one Labor Dept. appointee, a Trump campaign volunteer, made the cut: Danny Tiso, who graduated from high school less than two years ago. 

There were warning signs that staffing would be a problem within the first week after the election, when Trump and his senior advisors were somehow surprised to learn that most White House staff were political appointees. (This revelation apparently prompted President Obama to devote more of his last months in office to preparing Trump for what the job involved.) As is typical, many Obama administration officials remained at their jobs until they could be replaced. But Trump, who is president of the United States, is now talking openly about shadowy "deep state" conspiracies against him. 

The confusion about who would or would not serve Trump's agenda manifested itself yesterday in the firing of US Attorney Preet Bharara. Trump's DOJ asked all 46 remaining Obama-appointed US Attorneys to resign on Friday. This is normal, but Trump it contradicted a personal invitation Trump had made during the transition to Bharara to stay on. As a result, Bharara declined to resign, causing Trump to fire him--but only after violating Justice Dept. protocol by attempting to contact Bharara directly to pressure him to resign voluntarily. (Because the DOJ is supposed to be politically independent, US Attorneys cannot normally take phone calls from the president--especially when the president's own personal dealings fall under that attorney's jurisdiction.)

Trump's refusal to hire people to do the actual work of government is having varied results. At the State Department, which has been particularly hard hit, surviving staff members tend to believe it is intentional and that Trump intends to conduct diplomacy mostly through military threats. This week, a spokesperson for the State Department was unaware that the Mexican Foreign Minister was taking meetings with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner at the White House--which is sort of like the Defense Department not being informed if Mexico had invaded Texas. 

However, Trump's subordinates are finding creative ways of working more efficiently with fewer people. For example, the person assigned to write this press release about ExxonMobil saved time by simply putting the White House seal atop one of the oil company's own advertisements.

Why are these bad things?

  • It is bad if a president who allows important jobs to go undone because the most qualified people supported his political opponents.
  • It is equally bad if supporting the president becomes the only qualification needed for a government job.
  • A president who honestly believes in a conspiracy against him from within the executive branch is either paranoid or incompetent.
  • Giving contradictory instructions to different subordinates is not a sign of a good leader.
  • The U.S. Department of State is too valuable to prevent from doing its job.
  • The presidency of the United States of America should not be used as a megaphone for oil company press releases.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He played golf for the ninth time since taking office seven weeks ago.

Presidents and golf have a long history, so Trump playing the game--even more than once a week--isn't really news in and of itself. But Trump spent so much of the Obama administration supposedly outraged by Obama's time on the links that it's difficult to keep track of how many times Trump fumed about it on Twitter or on the campaign trail. 

Trump's aides are aware of the bad optics, and have euphemistically referred to full rounds of golf as Trump "playing a few holes" or "hitting some balls." In one case they literally taped garbage bags over press room windows in order to prevent photographs from leaking out.

Why should I care about this?

  • Attacking others for things you are ashamed of about yourself is called projection, and it's not a sign of good mental health.

Friday, March 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted he'd been lying about supposedly "phony" Obama jobs numbers during the campaign.

Trump has been enthusiastically taking credit for February's fairly typical post-recovery job statistics, but had repeatedly accused President Obama of having somehow manipulated labor statistics during the campaign. At one point, he claimed that the "real" unemployment rate under Obama was 42%, about ten times higher than the actual number. 

Asked what the "real" unemployment rate was at the start of Trump's presidency, press secretary Sean Spicer had pointedly refused to answer. Today, however, Spicer told the press that Trump "had said to quote him very clearly: 'They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.'” Very uncharacteristically, Spicer laughed as he answered the question--and got laughter in return from the White House press corps, who presumably took it as a joke at Trump's expense. If that was how it was intended, it was less well received outside the room.

The monthly jobs report is produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is using the same methodology for Trump as for Obama.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Jobs are much, much too important a subject to Americans for a president to joke about.
  • It's very bad if a president can only believe what he thinks helps him politically.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted that he was unaware that Michael Flynn had been acting as an unregistered agent of the Turkish government. 

Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump's national security advisor for concealing his contacts with the Russian government, retroactively registered as a lobbyist for a foreign power on Tuesday for work he had done during the campaign season. Flynn was one of the Trump campaign's principal foreign policy advisors. Failure to register with the Justice Department is a felony, but is rarely prosecuted. 

Trump's press secretary confirmed today that Flynn's undeclared status meant that Trump was unaware of his relationship with the Erdogan regime in Turkey. 

Who cares?

  • It's bad if a president's most senior advisors are concealing their loyalties from him.
  • A president who demands "extreme vetting" of legal refugee immigrants should probably apply a similar standard to his senior staff. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He clarified through a spokesperson that "insurance is not really the end goal" of his proposed Affordable Care Act replacement.

Trump has promised that his Obamacare replacement would be "insurance for everybody." But this morning, Mick Mulvaney, director of Trump's Office of Management and Budget, told MSNBC that the ACA is
a great way to get insurance and a lousy way to actually be able to go to the doctor. So we’re choosing instead to look at what we think is more important to ordinary people: Can they afford to go to the doctor? And we are convinced it will be possible for more people to get better care at the doctor under this this plan than it was under Obamacare.
Trump has hired the services of a personal physician for much of his life, but for most Americans, health care without health insurance is a mathematical impossibility, and has made medical bills the leading cause of bankruptcy. Little if anything in Trump's proposed plan would bring down the dollar cost of medical care for those forced to pay for it without good insurance.

Why should this bother me?

  • Unless a president wants to create a single-payer health care system (like Medicare or a Canadian-style national health service), health insurance is absolutely essential to the "end goal" of health care.
  • Voters may have thought that when candidate Trump promised "insurance for everybody," he meant insurance for everybody.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said that everyone in the White House is "getting along great."

Trump may have been referring to recent reports that he launched into an expletive-laden tirade over his staff's handling of the Sessions recusal, or various accounts that have White House staff in tears over their treatment, or allies publicly saying that Reince Priebus is "in over his head"--or worse, when quoted anonymously, or that there are several factions warring with each other for influence over him, or that his "team of rivals" approach has not worked as well in the White House as it did on The Apprentice, or that senior staff were fired for things they'd said during the campaign, or that he was forbidding his Cabinet secretaries from hiring as deputies people who'd ever criticized him, or that this was affecting his ability to even find candidates to work in the executive branch, or that he and his staff were mutually suspicious over the source of leaks, or that Trump staffers are talking openly to the media about how they manipulate him, or they believed they had more influence over him than Kellyanne Conway because to visit her office would require him to climb stairs, or that his son-in-law was using Trump to settle scores against Chris Christie within five days of the election, or that he was angry that Steve Bannon tricked him into putting Bannon on the National Security Council, or that he was angry that Reince Priebus tricked him into canceling an interview Priebus didn't think Trump was ready for, or that he was angry with both Priebus and Bannon and banished them from Air Force One as punishment, or that he was angry with Sean Spicer because a woman had portrayed him on Saturday Night Live (or because he didn't like Spicer's suit).

Trump's tweet did not specify exactly which of these accounts of strife inside his administration were "FAKE NEWS."


  • Everyone in the White House is not getting along great.

Monday, March 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He signed a revised version of his “urgent” Muslim immigration ban.

Trump’s original order, which banned the admission of vetted refugees and all persons from seven predominantly Muslim countries, was stayed in early February by a series of federal court decisions. At the time, Trump angrily declared that delaying implementation of his order, even for a week, would expose the United States to infiltration by terrorists—or, to use his exact word, “bad dudes.” He called on Americans to blame Judge James Robart (who ordered the first stay) specifically and the courts in general “if something happens.”

The revised order was ready last Tuesday, but its signing was delayed almost one week for political considerations: first to prevent it from interfering with positive reviews of Trump’s speech to Congress, and then to prevent it from being overwhelmed by the very bad press Trump generated over the weekend with his wiretap tweets. Unlike the previous ban, this order will not go into effect immediately, but ten days from now, most likely to avoid embarrassing stories of small children being declared "security risks" and war heroes put in detention that resulted when travelers with valid visas were caught by surprise.

The White House did not specifically address why a voluntary delay of sixteen days would not enable further infiltration by “bad dudes.”

Why should I care about this?

  • Policy written with short-term political gains in mind is likely to be terrible policy.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Yemen Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He tried, without much success, to get past the aftermath of the botched Yemen raid that claimed the life of an American servicemember, an 8-year-old girl who was an American citizen, and dozens of non-combatant Yemeni civilians. Tuesday night's speech before Congress was meant to be the emotional capstone, as members cheered the widow of the fallen American Navy SEAL. Trump basked in the lengthy standing ovation that Carryn Owens received on her husband's behalf, before proclaiming that Ryan Owens was "very happy" at having just "broken a record" for such applause.

But that one moment of good TV aside, the Yemen raid and Trump's handling of continued to dog him this week. Military intelligence officials confirmed that the raid had yielded no significant intelligence. Trump had begun emphasizing the supposed intelligence gains as soon as it became clear that the mission's real objective, capture of suspected al-Qaeda member Qassim al-Rimi, had failed. Al-Rimi escaped and proceeded to mock Trump in an audio recording released shortly afterward.   

Owens' grieving father, Bill Owens, also struck out at Trump personally. "Don't hide behind my son's death" was his message for Trump, he told reporters, noting that he'd refused to meet with Trump at the memorial service. Owens' family had requested a private ceremony; Trump tweeted about his attendance with his daughter Ivanka the same day. 

There will be at least three investigations into how and why the raid went wrong, but Trump, who ate his supper while the raid unfolded rather than follow it in the Situation Room, seems determined to make sure the buck stops somewhere else. He said that it was mostly "enemies" who didn't want the raid to go forward, but also made sure to emphasize that most of the planning had happened while President Obama was still in office. (Obama declined to order the raid; Trump decided otherwise once he took office.) 

Finally, in a jarring contrast to his praise for Owens the following day, Trump declared on Monday that American soldiers "don't fight to win." In remarks before the National Governor's Association, Trump said:
We have to win. We have to start winning wars again. I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say that we never lost a war. 'We never lost a war.' You remember. And now we never win a war. We never win. And we don't fight to win. We don’t fight to win.
Trump, a college athlete, received a deferment from the Vietnam draft after graduation because of bone spurs, and so could not help show the United States how to win that war. 

Why should I care about all this?

  • A president who cannot totally and unambiguously take responsibility for the consequences of military actions he orders is not fit to command.
  • A president who views every aspect of military operations through the lens of politics is likely to get a lot of American soldiers killed.
  • Presidents who suffer from heel spurs should take care not to aggravate them with too much exercise.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He received an intelligence briefing, of a sort.

On what otherwise would probably have been a slow Saturday news day, Trump's pre-dawn tweets about a supposed wiretap on him ordered by President Obama have provoked a frenzy of coverage about what, if anything, Trump is talking about. No president can order such a wiretap without authorization from a court, and then only if a substantial likelihood exists that the target is engaged in criminal activity or is the agent of a foreign power

A spokesperson categorically denied that Obama had ordered any such surveillance, although it has been widely known for months that Trump associates had attracted FBI attention for their "irregular" and suspicious contact with Russian agents. Trump, who recently tried to get the FBI to assist him in political damage control related to the Russian investigation, may actually still believe--incorrectly--that the president directly controls the FBI, which would explain why he was confusing the ongoing federal investigation with something Obama did personally.

Of particular interest is what brought this matter to Trump's attention so early this morning. White House staff, caught off-guard by the tweets, conceded that the source was not likely to be from inside the government. Rather, Trump appears to have gotten the story from, the ultraconservative and white nationalist website formerly run by his senior advisor Steve Bannon. Neither Bannon nor Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus were on hand in Florida to forestall the tweets, having been unceremoniously removed from the Air Force One passenger manifest by a furious Trump the day before.


  • A president who gets his information about his own government from fringe conspiracy websites is either incompetent or paranoid.

Friday, March 3, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He subtly distanced himself from underlings caught up in the latest Russia news.

In the last 48 hours, five members of Trump's administration and campaign have admitted to meetings with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak that they had previously denied or kept secret. The timing of the meetings is damning: they suggest that Trump's senior aides (including his son-in-law and trusted advisor, Jared Kushner) were engaged in some kind of negotiations with the Putin regime, especially around the Republican convention in July.

That time period is significant because shortly afterwards Trump and Putin essentially traded favors: Trump used his influence as the nominee to insist that the GOP weaken its stance on the Russian occupation of the Ukraine, and Russia began to leak politically damaging e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee--precisely what Trump had asked Russia to do on live TV on July 27.

Trump's strategy on the Russia scandal has been to call it a conspiracy of "Nazi"-like elements within the American intelligence community, or a smear campaign by Democrats angry at the election result. Trump has yet to really acknowledge the unanimous consensus of US intelligence agencies that Russia actively sought to get him elected. But today, when asked what he knew about his staff's actions, a spokesperson pointedly refused to say more than that Trump "knew" that Trump himself had had no contact with Russia about the election. 

So what?

  • If a president's senior aides trade favors with a hostile foreign power to get him elected, it almost doesn't matter whether he formally knows about it or not.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced he had "total confidence" in Attorney General Jefferson Sessions.

Sessions recused himself today from the ongoing investigations into Trump's ties to the Russian government via his campaign and transition team, after it was revealed that he had lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee about whether he had met with Russian government officials during the campaign. Sessions was one of Trump's earliest and most ardent supporters, and was the chair of the Trump campaign's national security committee

In remarks shortly before Sessions announced his recusal, Trump claimed today that he was unaware of Sessions' meetings with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, but that he felt Sessions "probably" hadn't lied under oath.

Sessions may not take great comfort from Trump's endorsement. The last administration official Trump expressed "total confidence" in was Michael Flynn, hours before Flynn was forced to resign for lying to the FBI and the vice-president about his own contacts with Kislyak.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • An attorney general who is caught lying about an investigation he will now become a subject of is not worthy of anyone's "total confidence."

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He decided to put off signing a new executive order on immigration for publicity purposes.

When a series of federal court decisions stayed the implementation of Trump's wide-ranging ban on immigration from certain countries and refugees, he ominously predicted that even the slightest delay could allow terrorists to infiltrate the country. In fact, Trump's central argument was that the threat posed by refugees and other legal immigrants was so urgent a matter of national security that courts had no right to review it. 

Meanwhile, his administration has worked to produce a new, more narrowly targeted order more likely to pass constitutional muster. The new order was to have been signed today, but after his relatively restrained speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday generated a rare positive news cycle for Trump, his political advisers convinced him to wait until tomorrow at the earliest to sign it. 

A senior administration official openly admitted that this was a political calculation designed to allow the new order "to have its own 'moment'" and, by implication, to prevent any new controversy from overshadowing coverage of the Tuesday speech.

Who cares?

  • It's bad if a president deliberately chooses flattering press coverage over something he thinks is a matter of urgent national security.
  • It's just as bad if a president claims drastic emergency measures are necessary but does not actually believe it.