Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Loser Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He went up against Mexico, the City of San Francisco and Santa Clara County, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a government watchdog group, the health care lobby, the Republican leadership in the House, and his own wife--and lost.

Mexico. On Tuesday, the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States in a dispute with Mexico over tuna fishing practices, permitting Mexico to implement $163 million in sanctions. The dispute predates Trump's administration, but the ruling came during the same week in which he provoked a trade dispute with Canada over timber and milk. With his eyes on the ticking 100-day clock he sometimes claims not to care about, Trump also threatened to abruptly withdraw the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, a move that even generally anti-NAFTA Republicans like Sen. John McCain said would be "a disgrace and a disaster." 

San Francisco and Santa Clara County. Trump lost the first battle in his attempt to deny Congressionally-appropriated federal funds to so-called "sanctuary cities" on Tuesday when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against his executive orders on the matter. The ruling found the Trump administration's interpretation of its own order "not legally plausible" and that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claims.

Trump reacted in his usual fashion, blaming the court system in general and the judge in question in particular. Trump's administration has openly questioned why courts should have any power over him in the first place, but this week he suggested that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was the real problem. In an angry series of tweets, Trump pointed out that 80% of the Ninth Circuit's decisions are overturned by the Supreme Court, and accused the plaintiffs of "judge shopping"--that is, filing in a venue where they thought they would get a favorable result.

In his anger over the decision, though, Trump left out a few details. First, the decision was not made by any appeals court, but by a federal judge in the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction. Second, all federal appeals courts have a high proportion of their decisions overturned by the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court only takes cases it is likely to overturn. Finally, it's not clear why the city of San Francisco would file a motion in a federal district other than the one that includes California. If they had filed it in Nashville (6th Circuit, 87% overturn rate) or Atlanta (11th Circuit, 85% overturn rate), Trump might have had a point about venue shopping.

Later in the week, Trump fantasized out loud about "breaking up" the Ninth Circuit.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse. In an apparent violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from campaigning while acting in their official capacity, Trump's EPA director accepted an invitation to fundraise for the Oklahoma Republican Party. The advertisement for the event conveyed the impression that donors would be given "access to a federal employee discussing official actions already taken, and to be taken in the future," in the words of Whitehouse's request to the Office of Special Counsel for an investigation. The EPA immediately called the appearance an "error" and Pruitt withdrew.

Common Cause. For several weeks, the State Department had been promoting Mar-a-Lago, the private Florida club owned by Trump,  on various websites. The club doubled its membership fees when Trump was elected, and has enjoyed a steady stream of publicity from Trump's frequent visits there (which occasionally feature exciting interactive dinner theater).

Trump has always maintained that conflict of interest laws do not apply to him, which was part of his justification for refusing to sell assets like Mar-a-Lago and placing proceeds in a blind trust. The State Department is subject to laws about abuse of office for private gain, however, and took down the pages in the face of an ethics complaint from the government watchdog group Common Cause.

AMA, AHA, and AARP. One of the many reasons for the defeat of the AHCA (or "Trumpcare") in March was the scathing reviews the bill got from health care professional groups like the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association, and the Association of American Retired Persons.

The AMA remains strongly opposed to the latest version of the bill. However, the AHA and AARP revised their stances, saying the new bill was worse. Once again presented with a sudden deadline by the White House, Congressional Republicans once again refused to hold a vote.

Melania Trump (pending). The Trump administration made oral arguments before the Supreme Court this week, claiming that it had the power to order deportations for any noncitizen whose otherwise valid immigration paperwork contained trivial errors or misstatements. As the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts noted, Trump's position as stated means that even naturalized citizens could be deported and stripped of citizenship for failing to disclose that they had ever broken the speed limit in the United States--even if they weren't caught.

Melania Trump is a naturalized citizen of the United States. It is not known whether she has ever broken any traffic laws, but Slate pointed out that--like most noncitizens in the modeling industry--she has worked illegally in the United States.

The White House has not yet indicated whether Melania Trump's status as First Lady will be enough to save her from losing her citizenship and being deported to Slovenia.

Why should I care about these things?

  • Presidents who want to save American jobs generally try to avoid trade wars.
  • Claiming that there are no restraints on executive power and punishing officials who disagree is what authoritarians do.
  • Presidents are responsible for the ethical behavior of the people they appoint.
  • The State Department has more pressing problems than shilling for a private club.
  • Immigration policies that would literally result in the president's own wife being stripped of citizenship and deported are maybe just a touch too harsh or stupid.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained on Twitter that the "Mainstream (FAKE) media refuses to state our long list of achievements, including 28 legislative signings, strong borders & great optimism!"

It is, to put it mildly, not remotely true that the media has not covered Trump's bill signings, or his far more numerous executive orders. Two of the 28 signings renamed VA clinics. Three more were to appoint or reappoint members to the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents. One was a waiver that allowed Trump to appoint his own choice for Secretary of Defense. Twelve of the remaining 22 were legislative rollbacks of Obama-era regulations, like the one that had kept government contracts from going to companies that stole wages.

As for Trump's own legislative promises for his first 100 days, however, none have resulted in legislation and most have not even been started.

Trump's claim about "great optimism" is another matter. Trump may have been referring to his own feelings, in which case the statement is probably true. Only about a third of Americans (34.7%) agree that the country is on the right track, though.

Who cares?

  • The media cannot cover accomplishments that haven't happened.

Friday, April 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to comment on revelations that his former campaign chair is literally selling meetings with him.

Corey Lewandowski was Trump's first campaign manager, and has since founded Washington East West Political Strategies, which appears to be an unregistered lobby shop. According to an article published today in Politico, the firm is advertising its abilities to arrange "meetings with well-established figures" including Trump and vice-president Mike Pence. Lewandowski is a frequent visitor to the West Wing and does indeed have direct access to Trump. This was confirmed for Politico by three senior administration officials, and by the fact that Lewandowski has already brokered one meeting--Trump's December meeting with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Lewandowski was ousted from his campaign role in favor of Paul Manafort, who (like Trump's disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn) was recently forced to retroactively register as a foreign agent. In Manafort's case, it was because of evidence proving that he was being secretly paid by pro-Russia politicians in the Ukraine while part of the campaign. Lewandowski has not yet registered as a foreign lobbyist, although trying to sell meeting slots with the President of the United States to European clients is, by definition, working as the agent of a foreign principal.

The White House declined to comment today.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Presidents should not allow their time or influence to be sold.
  • It's a bad sign when three of a president's own senior staff members cannot explain why an ex-campaign employee has such unfettered access.
  • When shocking allegations about a president are not true, the White House will usually not hesitate for a moment to go on the record with a denial.
  • At this point it is probably more reasonable to ask who in the Trump campaign wasn't acting as an undisclosed foreign agent.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to guarantee that his tax plan--hyped for years now as lowering taxes on the middle class--would lower taxes on the middle class.

Pressed for details today on whether Trump's sketch of a tax plan would mean middle-income families would see lower taxes, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would only say that "The details of taxes are very complicated." Given a specific scenario--a family of four earning $60,000--Mnuchin refused even to promise that their taxes would not go up.

For the wealthiest Americans, however, the picture is much clearer. The one-page document outlining Trump's agenda has few specifics, but there is no doubt whatsoever that it will massively reduce taxes for corporations and very wealthy individuals--in particular businesses structured the way the Trump Organization is. Assuming he pays any taxes at all at the moment, Donald Trump's personal taxes would absolutely go down under the Trump tax plan.

Trump promised during the campaign that he wanted his own taxes to go up and that he would "massively cut taxes for the middle class, the forgotten people."

So what?

  • Some middle-class voters may have believed Trump when he said he wanted to lower their taxes and raise his own, rather than the opposite.
  • It's bad to break campaign promises.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He summoned the entire Senate to the White House for a secret briefing on public information.

Trump invited senators to hear administration officials present supposedly secure information about North Korea in the White House auditorium--an insecure room that had to be temporarily hardened against surveillance. Senators routinely receive classified briefings at the Capitol, which has a number of Secure Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF) designed to hold large numbers of people. (Trump himself has not always felt quite so strongly about the need to use SCIFs when dealing with North Korea.) 

But Republican and Democratic members of the Senate agreed: the briefing was routine and contained "nothing you couldn't read in the newspaper," according to Sen. Jeff Merkeley (D-OR). Asked if the trip was worthwhile, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) replied, "I'm not sure." Some senators expressed concern that, if anything, the briefing demonstrated an alarming lack of direction on North Korea. 

Many commentators assumed that the briefing was being done at the White House for publicity purposes--a high-profile chance for Trump to convey seriousness, or at least camouflage the fact that he is essentially continuing the Obama administration's policy. As expected, Trump himself did make a cameo appearance, doing what one senator called "his ridiculous adjective bit" to "eye-rolling" from those in attendance.

Why should anyone care?

  • It's a bad idea for a president to try to engineer drama on matters of national security.
  • A president who has not been able to get any of his legislative agenda through a Congress his own party controls probably shouldn't annoy senators.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He leaked details about his forthcoming tax plan, which is custom-tailored to lower Donald Trump's tax obligations.

The general contours of Trump's plan have been known since the election: he is seeking to slash the corporate income tax by more than half, lower the rate paid by the wealthiest Americans, eliminate the estate tax for the very wealthiest Americans, and abolish the alternative minimum tax (AMT)--without which the billionaire would have paid only 4.7% of his $153,000,000 income in federal taxes in 2005. (The median American household pays about a 20% rate in federal taxes.)

All of these changes would benefit Trump, but perhaps none more than the detail that was leaked today: that he plans to lower the rates on "pass-through" entities from 39.6% (before deductions) to 15%. Most of Trump's businesses are structured this way, meaning his own tax bill would be greatly reduced. This would, however, be extremely expensive in budget terms: the break for pass-through businesses alone would cost the government an estimated $1.5 trillion over ten years. (To put that in terms Trump might understand, this is enough money to build his "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall" 60 times over.)

Because he refused to put his assets in a blind trust, Trump retains full ownership and legal control of his businesses and can calculate exactly how many millions of dollars per year this will save him.

So what?

  • Tax policy probably shouldn't be built around what will save the president the most money.
  • Situations like this are exactly why presidents before Trump put their assets in blind trusts.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He managed to find something simultaneously true and false.

Trump tweeted today for the second consecutive day about his approval ratings, declaring that "fake news polls" were unfair to him and miscalled the general election. But he also said the "fake polls" contained "very positive" results for him.

Trump cited the latest ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/WSJ polls, both released this weekend. Both gave Trump the lowest approval rating for any president at this point since polling began in the Roosevelt Administration. The one example he cited yesterday was ambiguous: a slight majority (53%) of the ABC/WaPo respondents called him a "strong leader," but since only 40% approved of his performance, this means at least 13% of the country feels he's leading the country in the wrong direction.

However, Trump's claim that polls miscalled the general election was itself fake news. The final margin in the popular vote was Clinton 48.2%, Trump 46.1%, a difference of 2.1%. The final average of polls had Clinton winning the popular vote by 3.3%, meaning that the actual result was well within the margin of error and on the side of the correct candidate.

And?

  • Whether something is true or false, real or "FAKE," is a little more complicated than whether or not a president wants to hear it.
  • It cannot be a good sign if a president is still this obsessed with an election five months after the fact.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Mood Swing Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He felt strongly about a lot of different things.

This week Trump was angry with...
Amanda Knox. Back in 2011, Trump tweeted his support for the young American woman then incarcerated in Italy for a murder she was ultimately exonerated for. But Knox supported Hillary Clinton in the election, and retweeted a call for Trump to release his tax returns. This was enough to make Trump "very upset," according to his advisor George Lombardi.

Tax Day protestors. If the intention of last Saturday's Tax Day protestors was to anger Trump, they seem to have succeeded. The following day, he took that anger out on Twitter, saying the protests had been "small" (about 125,000 marchers in some 200 locations) but also of having been "paid for." Accusing crowds of being on secret payrolls is a favorite tactic of Trump's. Ironically, he has the unusual distinction of being one of the only politicians in recent memory to have actually been caught hiring actors: the cheering crowd at his official campaign announcement was earning $50 apiece for their enthusiasm.

An unnamed former Marine. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the 30-year-old Intelligence Director of the National Security Council, began his tenure as a protege of Michael Flynn, who was forced into an almost instantaneous retirement as Trump's National Security Advisor because he lied about his ties to members of the Russian government. Cohen-Watnick was himself about to be fired by Flynn's replacement, H.R. McMaster, but survived with Trump's personal intervention. And last month, he surfaced again as one of the figures in the sham "briefing" that Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) gave Trump after having secretly received supposedly exculpatory evidence from Cohen-Watnick the night before. The resulting scandal cost Nunes his oversight of the Trump-Russia investigation. 

Now Cohen-Watnick is reported to have been involved in yet another firing--this time of the former U.S. Marine officer who served as the liaison between the CIA and the NSC. According to the Guardian, both career intelligence agents and White House staff were appalled at the way in which Cohen-Watnick dismissed the officer, in a way that "seemed designed to humiliate" him, and which one Trump administration official called "fucked up."

But this week Trump was pleased with...
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan claimed victory in a national referendum this week that gave him sweeping new powers and the opportunity to keep them through 2029. The official margin of victory was small--smaller in percentage terms than the mythical "three to five million votes" Trump claims were fraudulently cast for Hillary Clinton--and external monitors have refused to certify its legitimacy. Trump, however, called Erdoğan within hours of the official announcement to congratulate him, effectively committing the United States to that position.

Erdoğan has said in the past that he believes he has leverage over Trump because of the substantial value of Trump's business interests in Turkey.

Marine Le Pen. Trump's extraordinary haste to shore up Erdoğan's position was unusual in part because American presidents almost never weigh in on foreign elections until they are well and truly done, for obvious diplomatic reasons. But Trump could not resist weighing in on the first round of France's presidential elections, endorsing far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in every way possible without actually using the word "endorse." In particular, he attempted to make political hay out of terrorism on Le Pen's behalf by talking up a recent shooting of policemen in Paris and saying it would help her because she is the "strongest."

Le Pen represents the National Front party, and inherited leadership of it from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Holocaust denier and outspoken antisemite. Openly fascist until recently, the younger Le Pen has tried to rehabilitate its image--substituting open attacks on Jews for coded attacks on Muslims--and to reframe it as a purely nationalistic, anti-immigrant party, though not entirely successfully.

His own poll numbers. Trump apparently found some comfort in the latest ABC News/Washington Post polls, triumphantly tweeting about them this morning. Exactly why isn't entirely clear, as the numbers are the worst for any president at this point in his term since 1945.

Why should I care about these things?

  • It really should not be possible for a president to become "very upset" by the loss of a single vote, even if it belonged to someone he Tweeted support for six years ago.
  • Reflexively blaming others for things you do yourself is called projection, and it is not a sign of good mental health.
  • Presidents are accountable for the behavior of their staff.
  • It's not a good sign if the world leaders that an American president expresses the highest regard for are dictators.
  • It's bad to try to intervene in a foreign country's election, even if it's the United States doing it in the open.
  • Being unable to believe that others don't like you is called egotism, and it is not a sign of good mental health.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He congratulated a servicemember receiving the Purple Heart.

SFC Alvaro Barrientos was wounded in Afghanistan on March 17, and his right leg was amputated below the knee. He was recuperating at Walter Reed when Trump, on a tour of the facility, presented him with the Purple Heart, saying "Congratulations... tremendous, tremendous!" Trump's remarks lasted 12 seconds, after which he posed for photographs. Trump had pre-publicized the visit on Twitter, drawing a contrast with President Obama, whose presentations at Walter Reed were private ceremonies without press coverage.

Reaction to Trump's handling of what is normally a routine gesture of respect and appreciation has not been kind

This isn't the first time that Trump has spoken carelessly about the Purple Heart. When a supporter gave Trump a copy of his Purple Heart during the campaign, Trump immediately told a rally crowd that he'd "always wanted one" but that getting it as a gift was "easier." Trump, an athletic youth who was allegedly scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies, suffered from heel spurs that kept him safe from the Vietnam draft. (He has since recovered, although his baseball skills have declined somewhat.)

What's the problem with this?

  • This is too simple a job for a president to screw up.
  • Not everything a president does is an appropriate vehicle for publicity.
  • You make jokes about things you don't really take seriously.

Friday, April 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reversed his position on the entire concept of a "first hundred days."

In an early morning tweet, Trump called the 100-day benchmark a "ridiculous standard" and claimed that the media would find fault with his performance "no matter how much I accomplish." 

However they may feel about its validity, Trump and his staff are reportedly obsessed with how they will measure up to that benchmark. Even conservative commentators have noticed that Trump's senior staff are leaking stories about their frustration with the internal "rebranding" effort in advance of April 29 that consumes much of their time. (Part of this effort is the hastily-announced unveiling next week, right on the eve of the hundredth day, of Trump's latest tax plan.)

Unfortunately for Trump--who could certainly make the case that a standard set by President Roosevelt in 1933 is less relevant today--he repeatedly and enthusiastically made 100-day promises of his own on both sides of the election. His entire legislative agenda for that period (page 2) has either failed or never been introduced. Even those promised 100-day actions Trump could take unilaterally as president have largely been ignored (formally calling for a constitutional amendment on Congressional term limits), totally reversed (labeling China a currency manipulator), legally thwarted (blanket immigration bans), or "accomplished" via press release with no additional work (announcing his intention to renegotiate NAFTA). 

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if a president doesn't really try to live up to the promises he makes.
  • Presidents may not like the media, but they don't get to simply blame all their problems on it.
  • If the benchmark is so unimportant, Trump should probably devote fewer White House resources to making the case that he's met it. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He let a self-imposed deadline for developing a cybersecurity plan go by without finishing it--or starting it.

Today is the 90th day of the Trump administration. Shortly before taking office, and already anxious to distance himself from the kind of state-to-state cyberattacks he'd publicly requested that Russia do to Hillary Clinton, Trump announced that he would convene a panel of experts to report, within 90 days, on how to "aggressively combat and stop cyberattacks." He repeated the 90-day pledge on Twitter a week later.

As Politico reported today, Trump has not only not received a "plan," he has apparently not even assigned anyone to write it. The White House claims that it is a joint responsibility of the National Security Council and the Office of American Innovation, but a spokesperson for the NSC had never heard of it, and the Office of American Innovation--part of son-in-law Jared Kushner's portfolio of White House jobs--didn't even exist until about four weeks ago.

Why should I care?

  • Presidents shouldn't make promises they have no intention of keeping.
  • Alternatively, presidents shouldn't make promises they're incapable of remembering.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He revealed the names of the million-dollar donors to his inaugural committee--but not where the millions of dollars left over are going.

In a break with tradition, Trump refused to immediately disclose the identities of the corporations and lobbyists who gave more than $106.7 million in support of his inauguration festivities. Instead, he shielded them until the very end of the 90-day window, sending the FEC documents yesterday that were released to the public today.

Donations like these are always laden with the implication that they are attempts to buy influence, although Trump's explicit promise to million-dollar donors of "exclusive access" to him at a candlelight dinner, and other paid-for meetings with senior officials, dramatically increased donations. In 2009, President Obama raised the previous record total of $53 million, but with $50,000 per-donor limits.

Unlike the 2009 inauguration, however, Trump's inauguration was a relatively thrifty and limited affair, which the campaign scaled back as the date drew near. The money left over, which should be in the millions, now disappears entirely from the view of regulators. Trump has said he'll give the money to charity--a kind of promise he has frequently made and seldom kept in the past--but nothing prevents him from secretly (or openly) giving the money to allied political organizations

Why should I care about this?

  • The more untraceable political money a president attracts, the more likely it is that the corporations and lobbyists giving it think they're buying influence.
  • Hiding who has given you money until the last possible minute is something you do when you want to hide who has given you money until the last possible minute.
  • Pulitzer Prizes have been won covering just how unlikely it is that Donald Trump will fulfill a pledge to pass other people's money along to charity.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He signed an executive order that would make it harder for businesses to hire foreign workers--though not the kinds of foreign workers the Trump Organization gets visas for.

The order itself changed no actual rules, but suggested that Trump was open to revising the process under which H-1B visas are awarded. These are currently awarded on a lottery system and often result in relatively low-skilled, low-wage jobs being made available to non-citizens. Trump characterized the order as a "powerful signal," though Democrats wanted more direct and quicker action, and business interests were generally unsupportive.

The order does not affect H-2B visas, which Trump's businesses--including the Mar-A-Lago club where he spends most weekends--have made frequent use of. During the campaign, Trump incorrectly claimed that as many as 42% of Americans were out of work, but--by virtue of making the H-2B applications--was also affirming that Americans would not work for the wages he was willing to pay. (This is separate from the undocumented workers that Trump's businesses have illegally hired.)

Trump also ordered a review of government "Buy American" procurement rules. Most of the goods produced by Trump's businesses are made in foreign countries, but as the federal government has not yet demonstrated a great need for Trump-branded neckties, vodka, or chandeliers, the order is not likely to affect them.

So?

  • Presidents who live in glass skyscrapers (built by illegally hired foreign workers) shouldn't throw stones.
  • It's bad if even what a president chooses not to do creates conflicts of interest.

Monday, April 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to walk back a tweet in which he basically said he was bribing China to handle North Korea for him.

On Sunday, Trump tweeted, "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?" This was apparently an attempt to explain his sudden change of heart regarding the country--and whether or not it was devaluing its currency--after his meeting with President Xi Jinping. Officially labeling a country a currency manipulator, which candidate Trump swore he would do on his first day in office, has legal consequences.

China has some influence over North Korea, but until now, the United States has absolutely refused to allow China to extract a price for that influence, since a (relatively) stable Pyongyang is in China's interests as well. Both Republican and Democratic presidents have held that if China is allowed to effectively sell security on the Korean peninsula, it will signal other countries that they can also demand concessions for allying with the United States.

Sean Spicer today denied that Trump's tweet constituted a quid pro quo arrangement, saying that China has not devalued its currency since Trump took office. This is correct; China has in fact been propping up the yuan for several years--including during last year's campaign when Trump was accusing them of the opposite, and blasting the Obama administration for not taking action against them. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • American national security should not be outsourced to the Chinese government.
  • Offering to pay someone to do something they've always done for free is not the sign of a brilliant negotiator.
  • The Chinese government has Twitter.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Screeching U-Turn Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He very abruptly changed his mind about a great many things.

Whether or not he knows Steve Bannon very well. Much was made this week of the falling star of Steve Bannon, the former editor of a white nationalist web magazine who is currently Trump's chief political advisor. Trump appears to have settled on Bannon as the scapegoat for his low approval ratings. On Tuesday Trump began the process of erasing Bannon from his personal history, telling the New York Post: "I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve."

In fact, Trump had known Bannon "for many years" before Bannon finally joined the campaign, as his own press release announcing the event made clear. Incidentally, that same press release features praise for Bannon from Paul Manafort, who is currently undergoing his own erasure from the Trump mythology.

Whether NATO is worth having. Trump's position during the campaign and transition was that NATO was "obsolete." In remarks on Wednesday that almost sounded like he was admitting an error, Trump acknowledged that previous belief before adding, "It's no longer obsolete." The following day, Sean Spicer was dispatched to clarify Trump's remarks: NATO was no longer obsolete because the 28-nation military alliance had "evolved" in some unspecified way during Trump's first 12 weeks as president.

Whether China is a currency manipulator or in control of North Korea. As noted on this site, Wednesday was also the day that Trump publicly abandoned his years-long stance that China was artificially deflating its currency to the detriment of the US, and recanted his pledge to punish them for it. The issue is complicated--all countries "manipulate" their currency to some extent, and China's recent manipulation has been to strengthen the yuan, which helps American manufacturers--but Trump's new stance is roughly in line with the expert consensus on the matter.

However, the timing of Trump's change of heart is suspicious. It appears to have coincided with the visit of China's president Xi Jinping, whom Trump credits with explaining "in ten minutes" not only the basic facts of the North Korean situation, but also--to Trump's great surprise--that China did not have absolute control over North Korea and should not be expected to unilaterally handle any problems arising from it. Given the sudden swing towards a generally pro-China stance from a man who frequently used the word "rape" to describe US-China relations, it seems fairly likely that Xi also "explained" the basics of currency valuation.

The tutorial Trump received from Xi highlights a recurring theme in the Trump presidency: that his policies are largely dictated by whoever talks to him last. It seems Trump's own staff agrees: by all accounts, it is nearly impossible to assemble meetings of his senior staff for fear that someone will use the opportunity to talk with Trump alone.

Whether Wikileaks is a good thing. During the campaign, when Wikileaks was one of the avenues for Russian-sourced anti-Clinton propaganda, Trump shouted "I love Wikileaks!" at campaign rallies, and tweeted that its "incredible" work was being misrepresented by the "rigged system." He wasn't the only one: then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, in since-deleted tweets, crowed that Wikileaks' publication of e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee proved that "the fix was in from President Obama." (The DNC e-mails show a preference for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, but no evidence of illegal activity, unless you interpret them as secret code for a pedophilia ring run out of a pizza restaurant's basement.)

On Thursday, Pompeo--now speaking for the Trump administration as its CIA Director--called Wikileaks a "hostile intelligence service" in the thrall of "antidemocratic countries." He then explicitly admitted that Wikileaks--with the overt support of himself and then-candidate Trump--had acted as an agent of the Russian intelligence service's campaign to disrupt the 2016 election.

Whether relations with Russia are good or bad. Pompeo's remarks were part of a much larger campaign this week by the Trump administration to give the impression that Trump has not been corrupted or compromised by Russia--and to distract from the growing consensus that at least some members of his campaign, if not Trump himself, were actively colluding with Russia during its attack on the election. Trump personally declared that US-Russia relations were "at an all-time low," although he stopped short of recanting any of his previous declarations of praise for Vladimir Putin, saying only that the Assad regime was an unworthy ally for Russia.

Trump's son Eric--who sometimes asserts that, as the day-to-day manager of his father's businesses, he does not discuss government matters with his father--touted the Syria missile strike as proof that Donald Trump was not taking orders directly from Russia. (Instead, Eric suggested that his sister Ivanka, barely a week into her official but unspecified role in the White House, was the real authority behind the spray of Tomahawk missiles that briefly disrupted one of the Assad regime's airbases.) But US-Russia military coordination in Syria continues unaffected, and the day after Trump's "all-time low" remarks he changed his tack again, tweeting that "things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia. At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!"

Trump did not elaborate on when he felt the right time for people to come to their senses would be.

Various other things. Trump's position changed suddenly on a number of other issues, too. They include: whether there should be a ban on lobbying after working for the White House (previously yes; now no), whose job it is to replace the Affordable Care Act (previously himself; now Democrats), and how he feels about the Export-Import Bank of the United States (previously opposed to it, and then more recently in favor of it, and then still more recently appointing as its head someone who called for its abolition).

So?

  • Disappearing problematic allies from one's own history is what authoritarians do.
  • It's bad if a president is routinely surprised by fairly basic facts about the world.
  • It's worse if "ten minutes" with the leader of a foreign power is enough to convince a president that he now understands things.
  • A president who simply does what others tell him to do at the right moment is not fit to do the job.
  • It's bad if presidents even give the faintest impression that they ordered military action to divert attention away from political problems.
  • Indirectly acknowledging a massive national security crisis is the first step in fixing it, not the last.
  • Refusing to enforce the showcase "drain the swamp" policy suggests a president doesn't really care about draining the swamp.
  • Policy changes tend to work better when a president can articulate why they are happening.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got the IRS sued over its refusal to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about his recent tax filings.

The lawsuit was brought today by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-profit advocacy group. It seeks to force the IRS to comply with its FOIA request for Trump's personal tax returns from 2010 to the present. The group had submitted a request shortly after Trump's inauguration, and appealed its rejection last month. 

Information about individuals' taxes is legally protected, including from FOIA requests, under almost all circumstances. However, EPIC's request points out that there are statutory exceptions to that rule, including one that permits the IRS to disclose returns in order to correct misstatements of fact, or when doing so would help preserve the integrity of the tax system. Trump has made many public statements concerning his taxes that are either flatly untrue (such as his claim that he does "ZERO" business with Russian entities) or that would undermine public confidence in the IRS if they were true (such as his claim that he has been unfairly audited because he is a "strong Christian").

Trump has repeatedly (and incorrectly) claimed that Americans don't really care about his tax returns, notwithstanding nationwide protests on that very subject today. His motorcade detoured on its way back from one of his Florida golf clubs to avoid driving past some of them lining the streets of his normal route.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president's opposition does not cease to exist just because he doesn't agree with them.
  • A desperate need for secrecy about personal financial matters is usually a pretty bad omen in a president.

Friday, April 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He officially confirmed that the White House will no longer make its visitor logs public.

The change, which was announced today, is a break with the Obama administration's policy of releasing the names of visitors to the White House grounds after three months. Under Trump's rules, visitors will not be disclosed until at least five years after Trump himself leaves office. Not surprisingly, Trump had previously been a staunch advocate for presidential transparency and accused the Obama White House of "hiding something" in its visitor records.

Secret meetings have been a recurring theme for Trump. Much of the ongoing investigations into the Russian government's election interference deals with secret meetings that Trump campaign staff took with Russian officials. More recently, the pro-Trump chair of one of those investigations, Rep. Devin Nunes, made a secret visit to the White House complex the night before his more public "briefing" with Trump. When the initial visit--in which the Trump administration itself gave Nunes the information he needed to "brief" Trump--came to light, Nunes defended himself by saying, "If I really wanted to I could've snuck onto the [White House] grounds, and nobody would've seen me." 

The staffer who confirmed the new policy claimed that releasing the names constitutes a "grave national security risk." No explanation was given.

Who cares?

  • "It's a national security issue" cannot be a president's excuse for everything.
  • Trump permitting himself and his staff unlimited secret meetings with undisclosed persons is a little hard to square with "draining the swamp."

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lost yet another lawsuit having to do with unethical or illegal business practices.

Trump contracted with a company known as The Paint Spot to provide paint for renovation of Trump National Doral Miami, one of his golf resorts. Trump then stopped paying his bills while still owing $32,535.87 because, in the words of one of the resort's managers, "a decent amount of money of the contract" had been paid. The Paint Spot responded by placing a lien on the business itself, and prevailed in a lawsuit. Trump then appealed, claiming that the lien had technical errors. An appeals court today upheld the ruling against Trump. 

At no point did Trump claim that the paint supplied was inadequate or improperly priced; merely that the resort "had already paid too much." Donald Trump is notorious for paying part of a bill and then daring a supplier to sue.

The original verdict against Trump assessed an additional $250,414.04 in fees and attorneys' costs. The appeals court will likely also order Trump to pay The Paint Spot's lawyers' fees for the appeal. In other words, Trump, who claims to be a billionaire, is likely to pay more than ten times as much than he would if he had paid the actual, undisputed cost of the paint in the first place.

Why should anyone care?

  • A billionaire who deliberately cheats small businesses out of thousands of dollars just because he can is either pathological or more desperate for money than he lets on.
  • It's bad if a president can't understand that trying to avoid problems can make them much worse.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made some interesting proclamations about the economy.

He declared the dollar "too strong"--a debatable point, but on a subject presidents are usually careful not to address publicly, because of the chaotic impact of their words. Although he claimed that the strong dollar was the result of confidence in his presidency, currency markets today immediately devalued the dollar.
 
Trump has been confused about how currency markets work in the past. In February, he called his since-fired national security advisor Michael Flynn (who is not an economist) at three in the morning to ask whether a strong or a weak dollar "is the good one." (Neither is inherently good or bad; a strong dollar benefits US consumers while a weak one benefits US exporters. But the reasons why the dollar buys more or less of other currencies are extremely important for a president to understand.)

In a related development, Trump completely reversed his position on China's currency manipulation. During the campaign, Trump had said that China was "raping" the United States by keeping its currency, the yuan, artificially cheap. Officially declaring China a currency manipulator--which he promised to do as a candidate--would have had legal ramifications for trade. But China's president, Xi Jinping, seems to have convinced him otherwise during their meeting this week.

Why would a normal person care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't unnecessarily cause chaos in the financial markets.
  • Voters who approved of Trump's campaign stance on China trade may have thought he believed it himself--or knew what it meant.
  • A president who sees a personal compliment in every financial statistic--even ones he thinks are bad--is deluding himself.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He saw his press secretary inadvertently draw attention to the gap between his rhetoric on Syria and what he is capable of doing about Syria.

In comments that have provoked immediate calls for his firing, Sean Spicer favorably compared Adolf Hitler to Bashar al-Assad, saying that even Hitler didn't "sink to using chemical weapons." When it was pointed out that Hitler had, of course, used gas weapons in concentration camps, Spicer maintained that the use of gas in "Holocaust centers"--by which he apparently meant concentration camps--was somehow better than their use in open warfare. 

That was the first of at least four revisions from Spicer and other White House officials, who continued throughout the day to try to walk them back. For example, the second revision referred to Assad's attacks on "innocent people," but that was changed to "population centers" in the third--in part because Donald Trump himself has long maintained that anti-Assad forces are far from innocent, and indeed constitute terrorist threats against the United States. "Remember, all these ‘freedom fighters’ in Syria want to fly planes into our buildings," Trump tweeted in 2013, a week after hundreds of Syrians died in a different Assad regime chemical weapon attack.

Statements diminishing Hitler's atrocities are not entirely unexpected or unprecedented from the Trump White House, but the real reason for this kind of extreme language seems to be that Trump has almost entirely boxed himself in. His tacit support for Assad's attacks on "population centers" with conventional weapons is no longer politically viable, but he cannot take more than token military actions against Syria without effectively entering the Syrian civil war on the side of people he regards as anti-American terrorists.

So what?

  • At this point, it's not entirely clear that Trump knows which side of the Syrian civil war he wants to be on.
  • Even presidents who weren't elected with the open support of neo-Nazis should be able to justify their actions without rehabilitating Hitler in the process.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He invited the British government to join him in saber-rattling over Syria, which pointedly declined.

Seeking international support and, perhaps, a way to save face as the intractable nature of the Syria situation dawns on his administration, Trump called British prime minister Theresa May today. She declined to endorse further US military action in advance. 

Allies of the United States, including Britain and Germany, had expressed guarded support for the first, carefully limited strike on a Syrian airbase that figured in last week's chemical weapon attacks. Since then, the Trump administration has tried to walk a very fine line between maintaining an aggressive posture and alienating its partners in the fight against the Islamic State, which include Russia and (indirectly) the Assad regime itself. 

Trump administration officials have been at pains to appear to disapprove of Assad, while (mostly) stopping carefully short of saying they want him deposed, which would embroil the United States even further in an incredibly complicated and bloody civil war, and which would almost certainly work to the benefit of the Islamic State. This is complicated by the fact that Trump was, as of a week ago, a staunch non-interventionist where Assad was concerned--which Assad seems to have taken as tacit permission to resume chemical weapon attacks. Today press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to suggest that the use of barrel bombs would provoke another US response, but Assad uses barrel bombs against civilians on a regular basis, and Spicer's statement was quickly walked back

What's so bad about this?

  • It's bad if the United States' closest military ally lacks faith in the president's judgment.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, friends and family edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Factions. He demanded an end to the "palace intrigue" stories fueled by leaks from the warring factions within his own administration. (This was immediately leaked, generating more palace intrigue stories.) 

However, most of the news on the subject was generated by Trump's own staffing changes. Three of the ever-shifting centers of power in the Trump White House are his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his chief of staff Reince Preibus, and his senior advisor Steve Bannon. The latter two were the subject of sustained rumors about their imminent firing or resignations, while Kushner drew attention for having been given (as a 36-year-old heir and political novice) a portfolio of jobs larger than would be typical for a seasoned vice-president. 

White House staffing changes are hardly unusual, but Trump's moves drew extra scrutiny because of the unusual degree of department-by-department chaos they suggest. Kushner, for example, has essentially taken over what is left of the State Department, with Rex Tillerson relegated to a supporting role. By contrast, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster appears to have finally gained momentum in his none-too-discreet attempts to purge his office of loyalists to Bannon and Trump's original NSA Michael Flynn. 

Family. Kushner was not the only Trump Administration family member to make the news this week, although his now-enormous list of titles and responsibilities once again called attention to his unchecked conflicts of interest and the lack of any reason for his appointment other than being married to Trump's daughter. Trump's son Eric weighed in this week on the subject with perhaps unintentional candor, admitting that he and his siblings "might be here because of nepotism" before arguing that "nepotism is a factor of life" and that the Trump children had eventually earned through good work the various opportunities their father had given them. 

Eric Trump also claimed that their father would not hesitate to fire any of his children if they did a poor job, although since Eric and his brother Donald Jr. are ostensibly in charge of Donald Sr.'s business holdings, they might seem to be insulated from that during Trump's time in office. But their trusteeship has been revealed recently to be even less blind than originally claimed. Trump suggested he would know nothing for the "eight years" he expected to be president, but Eric admitted that he briefs Trump Sr. on business matters quarterly. On Monday, ProPublica revealed a secret change to the legal documents governing the trust that allow Donald Trump to secretly withdraw profits from the Trump Organization directly into accounts that he personally controls. (The Trump White House initially denied this, but subsequently admitted it.) Because Trump refuses to acknowledge that there can ever be an actual conflict of interest where the president is concerned, his use of the trust that theoretically gives day-to-day control to his sons has always been voluntarily. This change, however, allows him to secretly undo it to any extent at any time.

Other Trump administration figures' family members made the news, too. Education secretary Betsy DeVos's brother is Erik Prince, best known as the founder of Blackwater, the private military organization responsible for the 2007 murder of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square. Prince has stayed largely out of the public eye since then (and has changed the name of Blackwater twice) but has remained influential in GOP political circles. This week it was revealed that just before Trump's inauguration, Prince orchestrated a secret meeting with a representative of Vladimir Putin, in order to establish a diplomatic backchannel between Trump and Putin.

Friends. Trump went to bat for Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News pundit who yet again found himself in the spotlight because of sexual harassment lawsuits. Trump, who has been accused of sexual harassment himself more times than can be exhaustively documented, said that O'Reilly was a "good person" and added "I don’t think Bill did anything wrong" in any of the five most recent cases where O'Reilly settled out of court with his accusers. Trump has proclaimed April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. The official declaration that Trump signed calls for "supporting victims" and "prosecuting offenders to the full extent of the law," and emphasizes the importance of "changing social norms that accept or allow indifference to sexual violence."

Why should anyone care about these things?


  • A president who wants to end "palace intrigue" stories should try harder to avoid being manipulated by the factions within his own administration.
  • A 36-year-old who has never run a business he didn't purchase with his inheritance money is probably not the best choice to run several executive branch departments simultaneously.
  • Nepotism doesn't stop being wrong just because the beneficiary of it thinks he might be pretty good at the job he got unfairly.
  • A president with completely transparent and unfettered access to his vast business holdings does not in any sense have a blind trust.
  • Presidents who arrange for secret backchannel diplomatic connections to Russia may have secret backchannel diplomatic connections to Russia.
  • Donald Trump thinking someone is a good guy doesn't make that guy automatically innocent of any wrongdoing.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He offered a tactical excuse for his strategic problem in Syria. 

Reacting to news that the Assad regime was using the Shayrat airbase less than a day after Trump ordered a missile strike, Trump took to Twitter to explain why the runways had been left intact: "The reason you don't generally hit runways is that they are easy and inexpensive to quickly fix (fill in and top)!"

Trump is correct that runways are relatively cheap to repair. However, the statement implies that the United States would not be able to continually prevent the Assad regime from repairing them, at Shayrat or any of the dozen other bases from which Assad might launch airstrikes. This is false.

The actual reason that that Trump left Assad with a functional airbase is that the incredibly  complicated geopolitics of the situation--in which the United States is a de facto ally of Russia and hence the Assad regime--did not permit him to meaningfully degrade the regime's capabilities. In fact, Trump was powerless even to mount a surprise attack. Keeping Russian soldiers safe meant warning Russia, which meant warning Assad.

So what?

  • It's bad if a military action ends up calling attention to the limits of what the US can do.

Friday, April 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?


He put a Syrian government airbase out of commission for almost 19 hours.

At about 3:40 a.m. today local time, Tomahawk missiles launched from a Navy destroyer in the Mediterranean hit the Shayrat airbase in part of Syria still under the Assad regime's control. The Trump administration was obliged to warn Russia in advance of the attack, because it is a military partner of the Assad regime. Russia in turn almost certainly warned the Syrian military, which took measures to move or protect the most valuable military resources it had at the base. The runways were undamaged.

About 19 hours later, Reuters reported that Syrian government planes had carried out airstrikes against rebels launched from the Shayrat base. In announcing the targeting of the same airbase from which Tuesday's chemical attacks had been launched, the Trump administration's explicitly stated goal had been to destroy "the things that make the airfield operate."

In what is turning out to be a recurring theme for his adventures in Syria, Trump had previously taken a different view of the wisdom of warning enemies of impending attacks.

What does it matter?

  • Military might doesn't matter much if the president wielding it doesn't have a strategy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got challenged in court by one of the few things on the planet he takes seriously: Twitter.

On the day of Trump's inauguration, he found time to ban the entire Interior Department from social media because the National Parks Service retweeted a photo showing lackluster crowds on the National Mall--an enormous sore spot with Trump, as it turned out.

Almost immediately, an "alternative" NPS Twitter account appeared, followed by dozens of other such unsanctioned accounts claiming to represent the employees or supporters of various government agencies. 

According to Reuters, Trump subsequently demanded that Twitter help "unmask" the people behind such accounts that were critical of Trump. Twitter refused on First Amendment grounds, and today revealed that it is suing the Trump administration to quash all such demands. 

Why should anyone care about this?

  • A president who cannot bear to let mockery or criticism go unpunished is not emotionally fit for the job.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He offered an interesting justification for why Steve Bannon has lost his National Security Council privileges.

Steve Bannon, a Trump campaign staffer and senior White House advisor whose last job was editing a white nationalist website, was appointed to membership on the NSC by executive order in February--an order Trump was tricked into signing by Bannon himself, who failed to explain to Trump the significance of the appointment. His appointment was met with disbelief by national security experts of both parties, since Bannon is a purely political figure with no background in national security or intelligence.

Today Bannon was removed from that position with the justification that he had only been put on to monitor Michael Flynn. Flynn served very briefly as Trump's national security advisor before resigning after it was revealed he had lied about the nature and extent of his contacts with Russian officials during the campaign. A number of senior campaign officials, and Trump himself, are under investigation by the FBI for possible collusion with Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

This explanation does not account for what Bannon was supposed to have been observing in Flynn, or how "monitoring" those meetings would have prevented Flynn from any further wrongdoing, or why Flynn was allowed to continue on as NSA if he were under this degree of suspicion, or why Bannon was not immediately removed from the NSC after Flynn resigned. Bannon will apparently retain his top security clearance.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are entitled to try to save face when they correct their own serious mistakes, but it's bad if their explanations only raise further questions.