Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He notified the press that anyone asking the White House questions about the Russia investigation would be referred to his personal lawyer.

Asked at today's press briefing about former FBI Director James Comey's upcoming testimony, Sean Spicer said that "going forward, all questions on these matters will be referred to outside counsel Marc Kasowitz." While Spicer did not elaborate on the reason for the change, it is solid legal advice: volunteering information can only aid the Russia investigations and increase the exposure to criminal charges or impeachment faced by Trump and his associates.

Kasowitz was hired last week as the president's newest private lawyer and, unlike his predecessor Michael Cohen, is not personally under investigation in connection with Trump's many mysterious ties to the Putin regime. 

Trump himself may not have gotten the memo: he started off the day in typical fashion, tweeting out a summary of the cable news program he'd just watched about former advisor Carter Page and his testimony before the House committee investigating Trump.

How is this a bad thing?

  • It's hard to take a lot of comfort in the excellent legal advice a president is receiving to help him stave off indictments.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called on the Senate to change its rules to pass his healthcare and tax reform plan.

Trump tweeted this morning that "The U.S. Senate should switch to 51 votes, immediately, and get Healthcare and TAX CUTS approved, fast and easy." Setting aside the fact that the Senate does not take orders from the president--or that this GOP-controlled Senate is openly hostile to Trump's legislative ideas--the tax reform and health care plans he has proposed would be adopted by the Senate under budget reconciliation rules. 

Budget reconciliation rules already require only a simple majority.

Who cares?

  • The president should probably know something about how the Senate works.

Monday, May 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave a Memorial Day speech.

Trump tends to give two kinds of speeches: either emotional and improvisational rally-type speeches (where he is apt to find himself reminiscing about his electoral college win, regardless of the matter at hand), or careful recitations of a teleprompter script in a flat affect. His address at Arlington National Cemetery was of the second type, and the script was fairly typical of what presidents normally say at this occasion.

In the speech, Trump praised Gold Star families, the patriotism of those who enlist, the generals who lead the military, the heroism of those who die in defense of America, a Purple Heart recipient, and those who serve returning veterans.

Prior to the speech, Trump attacked a Gold Star family, avoided the Vietnam draft, claimed he knew more than the generals, said he didn't think POWs were heroes because they got caught, joked about how much easier it was to be gifted a Purple Heart than earn one, and reneged on promises to donate to veterans' charities.

So what?

  • It's bad if a president can't read a speech honoring fallen soldiers without there being legitimate reason to question whether he believes any of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Press credentialing. He gave press credentials to Infowars.com, allowing its DC reporter Jerome Corsi to tweet a photo bragging about it. Corsi had good reason to boast: it's not often that the White House gives credentials to websites that claim the Sandy Hook massacre of 26 children and teachers was a government hoax. The credentialing comes shortly after the sites founder, Alex Jones (whose radio program Trump appeared on as a candidate) claimed in custody filings that his endorsement of such stories is merely "performance art" and should not be taken literally or seriously.

Budget math. The budget Trump unveiled this week features what former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers branded a $2 trillion (as in two thousand billion) accounting error. In defending it, Trump's budget director Mick Mulvaney effectively promised that hypothetical tax cuts would allow for 4.5% growth over the next ten years, something even the few remaining supply-side economists think is extremely unlikely under the best possible circumstances. More mainstream economic analysis estimates the revenue cost of Trump's proposed cuts at $5.5 trillion over ten years.

Leaky war rooms. In a public relations response to the metastasizing Russia scandal, Trump authorized the creation of a "war room" to relieve some of the political pressure it is creating. Its personnel will reportedly include Jared Kushner--the recent revelation that he asked the Russian ambassador to help him conceal the Trump campaign's communications from the U.S. military and intelligence services notwithstanding--and Corey Lewandowski, whom Kushner helped oust from the campaign in June of 2016. The purpose of the "war room" is to generate favorable press, but no sooner had it been planned than one of its own members anonymously grumbled to the press that Trump's own undisciplined and chaotic approach to work was its biggest problem: "“It’s a seemingly impossible task,” one senior administration official involved with the process noted. “A disproportionate amount of our time has been spent reacting to ill-advised tweets.”

Ill-advised tweets. As though to prove the point, Trump celebrated his return to the United States with tweets that claimed anonymous sources who said bad things about him were made up by journalists.

What's so bad about these things?

  • A president who endorses "performance art" about murdered children but cannot bear to acknowledge that his own staff lacks faith in him isn't capable of leading anything, much less a country.
  • Two trillion dollars is not an acceptable margin of error.
  • Things are not lies merely because a president doesn't want to hear them.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

What did Trump do today?

He largely ducked the first wave of press questions about the Jared Kushner bombshell that dropped yesterday.

Kushner is Trump's son-in-law, a major player in the Trump campaign, and arguably the most powerful White House staffer since Henry Kissinger served as President Nixon's Secretary of State, national security advisor, and de facto chief of staff simultaneously. The Washington Post reported yesterday that during the transition, Kushner sought the Russian ambassador's help to use Russia's secure communications facilities to establish a diplomatic backchannel between the Trump administration and the Putin regime.

Diplomatic backchannels are common; even nations at war with one another will often have private avenues for discussion. But Kushner's proposal--which shocked even the Russians--would have had Trump dealing directly with the Putin regime in ways that were invisible and unaccountable to the United States. Russia, of course, would be able to record, analyze, and selectively leak anything said. Normally taciturn intelligence and defense experts were aghast: former CIA and NSA chief Michael Hayden rhetorically asked "what manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt, would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or appropriate idea.”

Overwhelmed today by questions about the Kushner affair, Trump's current national security advisor H.R. McMaster would only say that backchannel communications are common (though, of course, using a foreign country's own espionage channels is not). Sean Spicer would only add, "we have nothing."

So what?

  • This is the second time in two weeks that the otherwise respected McMaster has been forced to use lawyerly evasions to cover for an emerging Trump security scandal.
  • Presidents are responsible for the actions of their subordinates.
  • As a rule, people who try to shield their actions from the United States government are not looking to act in the United States' best interests.

Friday, May 26, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He partially walked back remarks calling Germans "bad, very bad," but not the untrue example he gave of the badness of Germany.

In a meeting with European Union officials yesterday, Trump said that "the Germans are bad, very bad." The larger context of the remarks had to do with trade surpluses, so economic advisor Gary Cohn was dispatched to reassure allies that Trump "said they're very bad on trade but he doesn't have a problem with Germany."

However, Trump followed up the "very bad" remark by saying, "See the millions of cars they are selling in the U.S.? Terrible. We will stop this.”

Trump apparently didn't know he can't "stop" anything with Germany specifically, as EU member nations negotiate trade treaties as a bloc. But more to the point, most German cars sold in the United States are made in the United States--and US-made German cars are a significant portion of cars exported from the United States. Reducing those numbers would hurt American consumers by decreasing free market competition, and American workers in the predominantly Southern states where German factories are located.

Why should anyone care?

  • It's bad if a president can't express a view on something as important as international trade without being both insulting and factually wrong.
  • As a rule, presidents should not adopt trade positions that would both raise prices for American consumers and threaten American manufacturing jobs.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He issued a directive to the Department of Justice to find and prosecute anyone responsible for leaking details of the Manchester bombing.

British authorities were angered that details about the investigation into the Manchester bombing that had been shared with the United States found their way into American media reports before the UK was ready to make them public. Trump's statement said he would order the DOJ to review the matter, saying that "these leaks have been going on for a long time and my administration will get to the bottom of this."

"Leaks" can mean many things, and every administration "leaks" by design to some extent. Almost any news story involving the White House (even in normal presidencies) will be based in part on non-secret information being unofficially revealed or confirmed by government employees speaking on background. However, Trump is correct that his administration is far leakier than most. In many cases, the leaks that have hurt Trump the most have come from the warring factions he has assembled within his own administration.

Nevertheless, the most profligate leaker in the Trump administration is Trump himself. In the past few weeks, Trump gave highly specific details of an anti-ISIS Israeli intelligence operation to the Russian government, then compounded the error by publicly confirming that Israel was the source. He also reportedly revealed information about American nuclear submarines patrolling near North Korea in a recent conversation with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines--who promptly leaked the transcript.

And?

  • Presidents who cannot be trusted with their allies' sensitive information will stop getting it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He urged Congress to increase the debt ceiling immediately--or rather, his economic advisors did.

Both Mick Mulvaney, Trump's budget director, and his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congressional committees that it was urgent to raise the debt ceiling before a government default occurred in October or November. Both cited lower-than-expected tax receipts as a reason for the added urgency.

Trump's subordinates are correct that a default on US government debt--which is regarded as among the safest investments in the world--would be catastrophic for the US and world economy. Raising it has no effect on the amount of money Congress can spend; it would only permit borrowing to cover appropriations that Trump has already signed into law. However, it was not clear whether Mulvaney and Mnuchin were speaking for Trump himself, given his previous statements on the subject:


Why does this matter?


  •  It's bad if a president only wants to do sensible things when it's politically convenient.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained that his promise not to cut Social Security and Medicaid did not mean he wouldn't cut Social Security and Medicaid.

Trump released another budget plan today, consistent in its overall extreme austerity (except for defense spending) with the previous attempt that went ignored by Congress. In his inaugural campaign speech in 2015, Trump promised to "save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts." But his current proposal would slash the Social Security Disability Insurance program by 28%. About 10,000,000 Americans currently receive disability assistance through the program. Asked to explain this discrepancy, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney claimed that the Social Security Disability Insurance program was not really a part of Social Security.

It really is.

Candidate Trump also promised not to cut Medicaid, but his budget today calls for $600 billion in cuts to the program (on top of an estimated $839 billion in cuts built into his health care bill). Roughly one-quarter of Americans are enrolled in Medicaid and would be affected by those cuts. Mulvaney explained that Trump's promise not to cut Medicaid had been "overridden" by his promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

So what?

  • Voters who heard Trump promise not to cut Social Security and Medicaid may have believed that he was not planning to cut Social Security and Medicaid.
  • Breaking a promise you didn't intend to keep isn't excused by making a conflicting promise you can't keep.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared himself innocent of something nobody had accused him of doing.

Appearing with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu today, Trump abruptly signaled for quiet during a photo session and said the following to reporters: "Just so you understand, I never mentioned the word or the name 'Israel.' Never mentioned it during that conversation. They were all saying I did. So you had another story wrong. Never mentioned the word 'Israel.'" 

Last Monday, the Washington Post reported that Trump had revealed another country's highly sensitive intelligence findings to Russian envoys. This was initially denied by the White House before being defiantly confirmed by Trump himself the following day. Neither the Post article nor any other accused Trump of having revealed the specific country whose sources and methods he was accidentally exposing. Rather, as a follow-up article in the New York Times put it, he simply “provided enough details to effectively expose the source of the information and the manner in which it had been collected.” Trump may not even have known at the time where the information came from, although presumably he had been told that it was "code-word" secret when he bragged about it to the Russian foreign minister.

It was not clear whether today's statement was a deliberate deflection on Trump's part, or an attempt to clear the air with Netanyahu, or simply confusion about why his leaking of Israeli secrets to an ally of Iran and Syria had caused such outrage. Trump canceled an event in Riyadh the previous day, citing exhaustion.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's pretty unlikely that Netanyahu is as confused about what Trump did as Trump seemed to be.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Hypocrisy Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He did a lot of things he doesn't think other people should do.

Trump had a bad week, as even his closest allies were willing to admit. (It's difficult to interpret a senior campaign and administration official saying "I don't see how Trump isn't completely fucked" any other way.) But a great many of the things he did this week, for better or for worse, were things he's been critical of others for doing.

Syrian air attacks. Although it did not get the full media rollout that the White House gave Trump's previous Syrian air attack, he did authorize airstrikes against Syrian forces this week. While presidents' orders cannot be questioned by the military officers who must carry them out, Republicans and Democrats alike immediately pointed out that in the absence of an immediate threat to the United States, such an order was illegal because Trump had not sought Congress's approval.

President Obama debated launching airstrikes against the Assad regime in 2013, but decided against it when Congress made it clear it would not authorize them--a position Trump agreed with at the time.
Diplomatic protocols. Trump is accompanied by his wife and daughter on his current overseas trip. The first stop is in Saudi Arabia, where Melania and Ivanka disembarked from Air Force One with uncovered heads. It is quite common for women from Western countries to refuse to accommodate the Saudi norm of women keeping their heads covered, as a form of protest against the male-dominated nature of Saudi society. No First Lady at least as far back as Barbara Bush has worn a head covering, nor did other female Western leaders such as Theresa May or Angela Merkel on their recent visits.

Trump's opinion seems to have changed since Michelle Obama's visit two years ago.
Deference to foreign leaders. In a customary gesture of friendship, the Saudi government presented Trump with the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud Medal. In order for King Abdullah to place the medal around his neck, Trump was obliged to bend at the waist. In other words, he bowed. After the medal was placed, Trump then added a flourish akin to a curtsy.

Trump has not always taken such a permissive view of diplomatic body language.
"Radical Islamic terrorism." As part of his Saudi trip, Trump gave a speech today. Given Trump's open hostility to Islam and the Saudi government, both on the campaign trail and while in office, even an uncharacteristically soft-spoken speech might have seemed a little disingenuous.

Most of the early criticism of the speech came from Westerners who saw it as too conciliatory, or forgiving of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses and undemocratic form of government. But the harshest criticism of all came from Trump himself--or at least, previous versions of him. Until today, Trump had no patience for anyone who refused to use a specific three-word phrase--"radical Islamic terrorism"--which he seemed to think had an almost magical effect. The words were pointedly absent from today's speech.
(As of 11:50 p.m. Sunday, Riyadh time, Trump had not resigned.)

Taking money from the Saudi government for one's nonprofit project. Ivanka Trump, who is Donald Trump's daughter and an official member of his administration, received a $100 million donation from the Saudi government for her pet project, a "women's empowerment fund" administered by the World Bank that she announced a few years ago. The announcement was made shortly after Trump signed off on a major arms deal negotiated in part by Ivanka's husband Jared Kushner, which will provide the kingdom with $110 billion in weapons.

Although it is essentially just a concept at the moment, the younger Trump's project is attracting a great deal of largess from world leaders. She is barred by conflict of interest rules from soliciting donations, although it is probably not a coincidence that the Saudi government took it upon themselves to present her personally with the gift.

Trump's views of whether a woman is corrupted by accepting money from Saudi Arabia on behalf of a nonprofit seem to have changed since last June.


What's the problem with all these things?

  • People who voted for Trump may have thought he believed the things he was saying.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got a little help denying that he'd confessed to the Russians that he'd fired James Comey for investigating Russia--from Russia.

On Friday, the New York Times reported that the official White House readout of Trump's meeting with Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak had Trump describing Comey as a "nut job" and that firing him had eased the "great pressure" of the FBI's investigation in to Russia's interference in the election. Sean Spicer responded with a statement that essentially validated the Times story.

But if the Times story is accurate, it is yet another confirmation that in Trump's mind, the firing of Comey and his desire to see the Russia-Trump investigation end were linked. Intent is a crucial element in proving obstruction of justice. Because the readout is an official government document, it would be difficult to deny after the fact--but admitting to it so readily was hurting Trump politically, because it showed him speaking more candidly and freely with representatives of a hostile foreign power than with the American people. By this morning, the White House had retreated into a more defensive stance, saying only that they would "not confirm or deny the authenticity of allegedly leaked classified documents."

The Russian government, however, felt no such restriction. Today, Lavrov told the Russian news agency Interfax that their meeting with Trump "did not touch this issue at all." While this apparently contradicts the official US government memo on the subject, it is certainly what the Trump White House would have liked to have been able to say, had they known the NYT story was coming.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's not typical for a White House to have this much trouble keeping its story straight.
  • Presidents shouldn't tell representatives of a hostile foreign power details about their own internal affairs that they won't tell the American people.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He set off on his first trip abroad as President.

Trump will presumably sleep on Air Force One during the trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia tonight, which will be the first time he has slept away from a Trump-branded property other than the White House. A notorious homebody--late in the preparation for this trip, he angrily suggested it should have been half as long--Trump has escaped the White House in favor of Trump-branded properties as often as possible during his presidency. During the campaign, he routinely flew back to New York at the end of days spent elsewhere in the country just so that he could sleep in his own bed.

Making sure that Trump survives his first trip abroad--in countries with no Trump hotels--has become a major preoccupation both for his hosts and for his own staff. The national dish of Saudi Arabia is lamb and rice, but Trump will be given a special meal--his trademark well-done steak with ketchup. (No word on whether ice cream will be served.) His staff has built extra downtime into the schedule, and resorted to putting Trump's name prominently in each paragraph of the trip briefing in an effort to get him to read it.

More ominously, the other heads of state at the NATO summit next Thursday have been warned to tailor their approach to a president who is expected to be tired, frustrated, and with an even shorter attention span than usual. “It’s like they’re preparing to deal with a child," according to a source for a Foreign Policy piece on NATO's efforts to "Trump-proof" the meeting. Part of the Trump-pacification strategy involves praising his electoral college win, favorably comparing him to President Obama, and using pictures instead of text wherever possible.

So what?

  • A president whose own allies openly speak about treating him like a fussy child during visits is not one who is up to the task of representing the United States of America.
  • A president whose own staff treats him like a wayward schoolchild is one who is being manipulated by them.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He categorically denied that there was any collusion between his campaign and Russia--speaking for himself.

During a joint press conference with the visiting president of Colombia, Trump was asked directly about the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate collusion between his campaign and the Russian effort to subvert the 2016 election. He responded, "There is no collusion–certainly myself and my campaign–but I can always speak for myself and the Russians–zero.” (Video of the exchange makes clear the sense of Trump's slightly awkward phrasing.)

Trump, who immediately began process of lawyering up for the special counsel's investigation, was unusually subdued and terse. The careful distinction he made here between what he can personally testify to, as opposed to what may have happened that he can plausibly deny, may reflect a growing awareness of the sudden legal jeopardy he finds himself in. (Plausible deniability is a concept Trump has shown himself to be familiar with recently.)

In any event, this is probably a good time for Trump to start distancing himself from his campaign. The remarks came amid a blizzard of news about Michael Flynn, the central figure in the investigations so far. The New York Times reported that Flynn disclosed to the Trump transition team that he was under investigation for his secret lobbyist work on behalf of Turkey--which contradicts the White House story that Flynn misled them and in particular the transition's official head, Vice-President Mike Pence. The significance of that secret work for Turkey was revealed by a McClatchy report from yesterday, in which Flynn was revealed as the main advocate against an anti-ISIS operation that Turkey opposed. And Flynn was among the campaign officials cited in a report of at least 18 further meetings with Russian officials or agents last year (beyond those previously revealed).

Why does this matter?

  • At best, this kind of distancing suggests that Trump suspects the "witch hunt" might find some actual witches, whether or not he's one of them.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave a commencement address to the United States Coast Guard Academy.

Trump's speech to the graduates of the USCGA was a study in contrast with the speech he gave four days earlier at Liberty University's graduation ceremony. At Liberty, Trump read carefully from a prepared text, sticking with traditional commencement themes and mostly avoiding politics. His only sign of improvisation came in a lighthearted moment when he suggested that the school's football team might be overmatched against by its scheduled 2017 opponents. While not beyond comment, the Liberty address was characteristic of a weekend that now seems, as the Atlantic put it today, "eerily quiet."

By contrast, his speech today was markedly more political and at times openly self-pitying. Portions of the speech, full of boasts about his supposed accomplishments and the billionaire's unique brand of populism, could have been taken from his still-ongoing campaign rallies: "I got elected to serve the forgotten men and women and that’s what I'm doing... I've accomplished a tremendous amount in a very short time at president." Trump seemed to struggle to deliver the usual graduation platitudes in his prepared text, like "you will find things are not always fair," without ad-libbing to draw attention back to himself. He followed that line by declaring that "no politician in history, and I say with surety, has been treated worse, more unfairly” than Trump himself.

Trump's assessment of how unfairly he was treated came before the announcement that former FBI Director Robert Mueller had been appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government's interference in the election.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's one kind of problem if the President of the United States thinks he is a persecuted martyr.
  • It's another kind of problem if the President of the United States believes he is history's greatest and most unfairly persecuted martyr.
  • Not every crowd Trump sees is there to hear him campaign.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blew up his surrogates' cover stories for the second time in a week, just in time for a third round to begin.

This morning, after managing to refrain from personally commenting for about 15 hours, Trump took to Twitter to declare that he had in fact shared highly sensitive intelligence with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. This contradicted in tone and specifics the lawyerly denial offered up the night before by his national security advisor, H.R. McMaster. The pattern--a shocking media report, followed by a careful cover story laid down by surrogates, and in turn followed by Trump unexpectedly admitting to the substance of the report anyway--was reminiscent of last week's firing of James Comey, where Trump essentially made liars on Thursday of everyone who had protected him on Tuesday and Wednesday.

At about 5:00 p.m. Washington time today, the cycle seemed to repeat itself again, with the publication of yet another bombshell story--this time the New York Times reporting that James Comey, while still FBI Director, had circulated memos to his senior staff detailing Trump's attempts to get Comey to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn. 

Once again, the White House is denying the general thrust of the story, although this time, they are doing so "on background," meaning that the statement is not to be attributed to any one administration official--and so any forthcoming reversal by Trump will not erode whatever credibility his individual surrogates have left. As of 10:00 p.m., Trump had not yet tweeted or otherwise publicly commented on the matter of the Comey memo.

So what?

  • It matters if presidents lack credibility.
  • Endangering Israeli intelligence sources by giving their findings to an ally of Iran and Syria is the sort of thing that can't be glossed over in a few tweets.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to deny that he had accidentally leaked extremely sensitive intelligence during his meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.

The Washington Post is reporting today that Trump disclosed--presumably accidentally--highly classified details of an allied nation's intelligence reports on Islamic State terrorist threats during his meeting with the Russian envoys last week. The Russian entourage included aides to Amb. Kislyak and Foreign Minister Lavrov, along with Russian--but not American--press. In the aftermath of the disclosure, the Post reports, American intelligence officials struggled to contain the damage done. 

Government agencies, once again caught off guard by a Trump bombshell, largely refused comment. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster issued a carefully worded statement, saying that "at no time were intelligence sources or methods discussed and the President did not disclose any military operations that weren't already publicly known." However, this is denying something that the Post story doesn't claim Trump did. Rather, it says that Trump provided so many specific details about the nature of the information learned--including, critically, the location where the intelligence was gathered--that Russia would likely be able to identify the sources and methods.

This would be one instance in which Trump's usual assertion that the rules don't apply to the president may actually be true. Presidents can unilaterally declassify almost anything, so Trump probably didn't technically break any laws with his "off-script" remarks. But because the information was supplied by a foreign ally--meaning that Trump's disclosure will compromise that ally's intelligence-gathering operations--there will likely be repercussions on the international stage. 

What's so bad about this?

  • A president who can't or won't keep from blurting out classified information in the presence of adversarial foreign leaders is not fit for the job.
  • If the United States cannot be trusted with its allies' secrets, American national security will be compromised.
  • Trump is the person who, quoting James Comey, tweeted this:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Influencer-in-chief Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He influenced a lot of people.

The Kushners in China. The family of Jared Kushner, representing a business empire that he retains direct financial ties to, sold visas to wealthy Chinese investors using Trump's name. The EB-5 visa, though much abused, is a legal path to residency and citizenship for sufficiently wealthy foreigners. But showing a picture of Donald Trump labeled "key decision maker" and citing his relationship to the Kushner family through Jared is pure influence-peddling, which explains why American reporters were forcibly expelled from the meeting.

Sean Spicer in or among the bushes. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, caught unawares by the Comey bombshell, found it necessary to take refuge among a row of bushes outside the White House in order to avoid taking questions from reporters. (Eventually spotted by the media despite his concealment by the foliage, Spicer refused to emerge until cameras were turned off and lights were dimmed.) 

Spicer's initial avoidance of the media was not particularly Trumplike, but what followed from the bush incident was pure Trump: he demanded, and got, a correction out of the Washington Post that clarified that he was not hiding in bushes, but among bushes. Trump is known for demanding rewrites from reporters he feels are insufficiently flattering: for example, when he became angry at a Golf Digest reporter for saying he wasn't an especially good golfer.

This was one of only a few public appearances by Spicer this week, though he had a good reason (Naval Reserve duty) for being absent. Unfortunately for Spicer, given the communication department's inability to anticipate Trump's surprise firing of Comey--or his sudden reversal on the reason why it happened--having a good reason may not be enough to save his job. When asked by Fox News, Trump pointedly refused to commit himself to keeping Spicer at his post.

Rep. Tom MacArthur. Faced with an unfriendly town hall crowd the day after Comey's firing, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) came up with a explanation for his inaction that's sure to earn the Trump seal of approval: he claimed that "We [Congress] don’t oversee the executive."

Congress does oversee the executive--or at least is supposed to--and has a committee in each house especially for that purpose. (In the House of Representatives, where MacArthur serves, it is called the Oversight Committee.) This is part of the system of checks and balances that is the foundation of American democracy. All presidents resist this oversight to some extent, but with the help of a Republican Party that cannot easily divorce itself from him, Trump has had unusual success: he has co-opted one committee chair to such an extent that he was forced to recuse himself, and forced the early resignation from Congress of another.

Dan Scavino. Trump's fondness for surreptitiously surveilling and recording people was a major focus this week, which saw secret presidential recordings suddenly become a hot topic for the first time since 1974. For example, the public was reminded that Trump had a special switchboard installed in his private rooms at Mar-a-Lago, which enabled him to eavesdrop on guests' conversations. This is part of a long-time pattern of Trump having his own meetings and phone conversations surveilled and recorded.

But the habit has also rubbed off on his underlings. Former Apprentice protege Omarosa Manigault (currently a communications aide in the White House) had already inadvertently revealed the extent of the White House recording apparatus in February, during a spat with a reporter. But on Tuesday morning, White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino tweeted a screenshot of the incoming election-night concession call from Hillary Clinton, and promised to post video of it later.

Scavino offered no particular justification for doing so, although Trump's notorious obsession with justifying his electoral-only win means that it was probably a good career move for Scavino. But even Scavino probably thought better of actually releasing the alleged video, given the renewed attention that Trump administration surveillance started getting later that day.

The Kushners in Canada. Not all of the lessons Jared Kushner is learning are necessarily bad, though. It was revealed this week that, faced with Trump's sudden decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from NAFTA (something that even NAFTA opponents believe would be disastrous), Kushner reached out to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and begged him to intervene. (This is according to White House sources.) Trudeau obliged with a soothing phone call, and with similar help from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump was persuaded to let NAFTA negotiations go forward. 

Given that White House aides routinely and deliberately screen the print media that Trump is given, it is not entirely clear that Trump knows even now about Kushner enlisting foreign leaders to help in an internal policy debate.

Why should these things matter to me?

  • It's a problem when relatives of the president and his advisors openly sell his influence.
  • It's a bigger problem when the people buying that influence have good reason to think it's legitimate.
  • It's bad when the White House tries to duck reporters during major news events, regardless of the preposition used to describe where they're caught hiding.
  • Presidents who are susceptible to flattery by staffers can be manipulated by staffers.
  • It's bad if a president's long-established surveillance habits lead members of his own party to say he suffers from paranoid delusions.
  • It's bad if White House staffers need the aid of foreign governments to get a president's attention.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He advised the graduates of Liberty University that “nothing is easier—or more pathetic—than being a critic, because they’re people that can’t get the job done.”

Since taking office 114 days ago, and counting only things he has said on his private Twitter account, Donald Trump has criticized protestors, celebrities, CNN, the city of Chicago, Chelsea Manning, Mexico, the New York Times, the Washington Post, "Europe, and, indeed, the world," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (jointly), Delta Airlines, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Democrats (collectively), Nancy Pelosi, the Obama administration (collectively), UC-Berkeley, Iran, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the media, the United States (collectively), "this so-called judge" (James Robart), "any negative polls," the "horrible, dangerous and wrong decision" to suspend his Muslim ban, Nordstrom's, the time it took to reach a decision upholding the suspension of his Muslim ban, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chris Cuomo's interviewing skills, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (individually), the upholding of the suspension of his Muslim ban, the legal system as a whole, Mark Cuban, leakers, Hillary Clinton, the NSA and the FBI (jointly), the US intelligence community (collectively), the Affordable Care Act, "liberal activists," the FBI (specifically), Barack Obama, "a reporter, who nobody ever heard of" (Trump biography author David Cay Johnston), North Korea, China, Germany, NBC, ABC, the Freedom Caucus, Bill Clinton, John Podesta, Reps. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Jim Jordan (R-OH), and Raul Labrador (R-ID) (jointly), "Sleepy Eyes" Chuck Todd, Susan Rice (via retweet, then later directly), people asking to see his tax returns, the "super Liberal Democrat in the Georgia Congressiol [sic] race" (Jon Ossoff), Canada, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (by name, but he actually meant a non-appellate judge whose ruling would go to the Ninth Circuit), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (for real this time), whichever president let the Civil War happen, Senate rules, then-FBI Director James Comey, Rexnord Corp., Sally Yates, and his own communications department--most of them more than once.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Actually, it's good advice.

Friday, May 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

As Ben Mathis-Lilley put it, "it appears that Trump may have just falsely accused himself of wiretapping himself."

Trump started the morning with this tweet: "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" This was in response to reports that Trump had summoned then-FBI Director Comey to a White House dinner the day after being briefed about Michael Flynn's security vulnerability, and--according to friends of Comey--repeatedly demanded that Comey pledge his personal loyalty to Trump. (Comey refused.)

Only Donald Trump knows for sure if he secretly recorded conversations with Comey--a practice that presidents since Nixon have shied away from, for obvious reasons. If such recordings existed, they would create several legal headaches for Trump. They would be covered by the Presidential Records Act, meaning they would be subject to subpoena and that it would be illegal for Trump to destroy them. And since Trump himself has connected Comey's firing to his desire to see the Russia investigation end--which is obstruction of justice on its face--those recordings likely would be requested in any investigation. And that, in turn, would potentially make Trump's not-too-veiled Twitter threat from this morning witness intimidation.

The tweet provoked instantaneous demands that Trump release any such recordings. By midday, Sean Spicer and Trump himself had become much more tight-lipped on the existence of recordings. In an interview with Fox News' Jeanine Pirro this afternoon, Trump started walking back his version of the "dinner" story, claiming that it would have been appropriate for him to demand a loyalty pledge from Comey, but that he had not done so. Federal employees do take an oath--to the Constitution, not the president.

Why should I care about this?

  • It is under no circumstances whatsoever appropriate for a president to demand a pledge of personal loyalty from the director of the FBI.
  • As things stand, the best possible explanation of this situation for Trump is that he lost his temper and lashed out with an angry lie.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He offered an explanation for his firing of FBI Director James Comey that completely contradicted the White House's previous explanation.

The original rationale given in Trump's letter to Comey, and the one solemnly repeated by advisors, press secretaries, and Vice-President Pence, was that Attorney General Jefferson Sessions and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein had concluded that Comey's handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server in July 2016 merited his firing now. Trump, according to this version of events, merely "accepted their recommendation." As press secretary Sean Spicer put it, "It was all him [Rosenstein]."

Today, Trump told NBC's Lester Holt that he had been considering firing Comey from the moment he was elected, and had sent Sessions in search of an excuse to do so. While this explanation has the benefit of being far more believable, it too may have been motivated by forces beyond Trump's control: according to a White House source, Deputy AG Rosenstein was furious that his report on Comey was used for this purpose. Rosenstein reportedly threatened to resign in protest (although he has publicly said he is staying on), and made an unannounced trip to Capitol Hill today to meet with the leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

As Trump's explanation evolves, so too does the consensus view for the real explanation behind Comey's firing. The immediate suspicion was that the rapidly progressing Russia investigation had forced Trump's hand. But Comey testified last week that he was "nauseous" at the thought that his actions might have influenced the presidential election. Trump, who is notoriously sensitive to any hint that his election was anything less than a personal triumph, was reportedly "white hot" with rage over Comey's choice of words.

And?

  • "Go get me reasons to support the decision I've already made" is not something you want to hear from a president.
  • A president acting out of "white hot" rage is only slightly better than a president trying to subvert an investigation about him.
  • It's bad if virtually no one takes the president's first explanation for anything at face value.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had a meeting at the White House with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister to which only Russian press was admitted.

Coming as it did less than a day after firing FBI Director James Comey, with the attendant suspicion that it was related to the Bureau's investigation of Russia's interference in the election, the optics of Trump's unusual meeting with Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak were already astonishingly bad. But it got worse.

The literal "optics" of the meeting--the photographs published after the meeting concluded--were provided exclusively by the Russian state news agency TASS. [UPDATE: Per CNN's Jim Acosta, the White House is now claiming it was "tricked" into allowing the Russian photographer.] American photographers and media were barred. But American cameras did capture the pre-meeting appearance with Lavrov and his State Department counterpart Rex Tillerson, where Lavrov made jokes about Comey's firing. The Russia meeting was the only event on Trump's public schedule today.

American cameras also managed to record the visit of Henry Kissinger, President Nixon's confidant and Secretary of State. Kissinger is a controversial figure under normal circumstances, but his appearance on the day after an event that is being compared to Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre added a surreal touch. Kissinger, who is in favor of allowing Russia to keep the Ukrainian territory it annexed in 2014, stood by Trump's side as Trump publicly addressed Comey's firing for the first time.

So what?

  • It's bad if a president shows more deference to a foreign country's official media bureau than to the independent American press.
  • A president who does not wish to be compared to Nixon or accused of being a Russian puppet should probably avoid taking meetings with Nixon's chief enabler on the subject of giving Russia what it wants.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What Trump Did Today makes a general editorial practice of limiting ourselves to highlighting one thing Trump does in any given day. (We'd be happy to report on zero things, but so far there's never been a reason to skip a day.) We have that limit as a sanity-preserving measure, both for our readers and ourselves.

Sometimes we're overtaken by events--like today. 

What else did Donald Trump do today?

He fired the Director of the FBI, after having told his staff to go find an excuse to fire the Director of the FBI.

Comey was leading the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into the Russia's election interference and its possible collusion with members of the Trump campaign. In his letter to Comey, Trump said he was acting on the recommendation of Attorney General Jefferson Sessions and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. But Rosenstein and Sessions were acting on Trump's orders in generating these recommendations, according to senior White House officials cited by the New York Times.  

Both letters were dated today. Rosenstein's letter cited mistakes Comey had made last year in his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server--ironically, mistakes that benefited Trump and were praised by him. Rosenstein was confirmed in his present position two weeks ago today. Sessions had supposedly recused himself from matters relating to the Russia investigation, although if he were actually recused, he presumably would not be involved in the firing of the leader of that investigation.

In his letter to Comey, Trump made a point of claiming that Comey had already personally exonerated him three times, a scenario that Comey's colleagues described as "farcical." As a matter of law and protocol, Comey could never have made such a statement himself publicly, and indeed refused to answer a direct question about whether Trump was a target of his investigation during a Congressional hearing in March.

Why would a normal person care about this?

  • It is simply impossible to believe that Donald Trump is firing the chief law enforcement officer investigating his campaign's collusion with Russia because the FBI Director was unfair to Hillary Clinton.
  • It is indeed bizarre for a president to use the person he is firing to declare himself innocent of the matter that person was investigating.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained that he delayed firing his Russia-compromised intelligence chief because it was Democrats telling him to do it.

Former acting attorney general Sally Yates' testimony yesterday confirmed that the Trump administration knew about Flynn's vulnerability to Russian blackmail for 18 of the 24 days Flynn served before press reports forced Trump's hand. Yates also revealed that Flynn was vulnerable not merely because he had told lies that Russia was aware of, but also because of the "underlying behavior" that those lies were meant to conceal. (The nature of that underlying behavior is classified, so Yates would have needed Trump's permission to say what it was.)

Until today, Trump claimed that Flynn was a "wonderful man" whose only error was that he had misled Vice-President Mike Pence. That explanation has gone through several revisions as new information has arisen. In the latest version, Sean Spicer today claimed that Trump would have been foolish to listen to a "political opponent" who wanted Flynn (perhaps Trump's closest political ally) fired. In other words, Spicer argued, because Yates was allegedly a "strong supporter of Clinton," it would have been "irrational" at the time to take seriously any evidence she presented that Flynn was a massive security risk.

Spicer has also recently claimed that the Obama administration (which fired Flynn in 2013) had allowed him to retain his security clearance, and therefore had effectively vouched for Flynn--making the whole matter President Obama's fault. But security clearances require an official government job to use, and Obama personally warned Trump not to hire Flynn.

So what?

  • A president who ignores threats to national security because he doesn't like the person who told him is incompetent at best.
  • National security is much, much, much more important than a president's party loyalty.



Monday, May 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

On a day of unusual Twitter activity even by his standards, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee what questions to ask during its investigation of... him.

Faced with what he surely knew would be damning testimony from Sally Yates, his former acting attorney general, Trump demanded via Twitter that the Senate panel ask Yates "under oath" whether she was the person who talked to reporters about then-national security advisor Mike Flynn's vulnerability to blackmail by Russia. (Sen. John Kennedy, R-LA, obliged Trump by asking that question; both she and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed that they had not.)

The tweet, which appeared a few hours before Yates was scheduled to testify, was immediately labeled "witness intimidation," but there's no reason to think it influenced her testimony--not least because Trump has blustered about the supposed crimes of his political enemies so often that it is almost normal. But his obsession with leaks in this context makes a kind of sense: as Yates' testimony today made clear, Trump was astonishingly resistant to firing Flynn even after Yates and others warned him that Flynn was a national security risk. If the Washington Post had not learned from someone (almost certainly a member of his own notoriously leaky administration) about Flynn's situation, it seems unlikely he would have been fired at all.

After testimony concluded, Trump declared that her testimony had been "old news" and the entire Russia matter a "hoax."

Who'd care about this?

  • Whether or not anyone takes a president seriously when he tries to intimidate a sworn witness, it's not something a president should be doing in the first place.
  • As a rule, the targets of congressional investigations--even presidents--don't get to dictate whether or how the investigations proceed.
  • Presidents are responsible for the actions of the people they hire--especially if they're repeatedly warned not to hire those people.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, War Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He shared a number of his thoughts on war.

The American Civil War. Trump began the week with an interesting historical thesis: that Andrew Jackson, the Tennessee slaveholder who died sixteen years before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, could have negotiated a settlement that would have avoided the Civil War. (This was Trump's answer to his own question, "Why was there the Civil War," which he apparently regards as an open one.)

Historians were, to put it mildly, not impressed--not least because Trump seemed unaware that Jackson was long dead when the war started, but also because Jackson was an arch-unionist who threatened South Carolina proto-secessionists during the Nullification Crisis with summary execution. 

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump, who has settled on Jackson as a sort of historical mirror image, appears to be projecting onto Jackson his opinion of his own deal-making skills. As an example, Trump declared this week that the conflict between Israel and Palestine, the central issue of Middle Eastern politics since the state of Israel was established in the wake of the Second World War, was "frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought over the years."

Trump followed up this pronouncement on the simplicity of peace in the Middle East by ducking a reporter's question about whether the United States would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem--one of hundreds of seemingly minor yet extremely contentious problems that have made people other than Trump suspect that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was difficult.

Trump routinely announces that, because of his exceptional knowledge on a given subject, he alone can fix the world's problems--sometimes using precisely those words. But he has also recently taken to declarations that certain topics (e.g., health careNATO, or North Korea policy) are far more complicated than anyone--meaning Trump himself--had ever realized before that moment.

The Syrian Civil War. The 59 Tomahawk missiles that Trump fired to temporarily disrupt one of Syria's airbases were "after-dinner entertainment," intended in part to impress visiting Chinese president Xi Jinping, according to a speech given by Trump's commerce secretary Wilbur Ross this week. Ross added that "it didn’t cost the president anything to have that entertainment." Perhaps not, but the missiles cost the United States about $80 million.

The missile "show," which did indeed neatly coincide with President Xi's dessert, was arguably the second-best dinner theater offered by Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club this season.


Why would a normal person care about these things?

  • Belief that you alone (or historical figures you identify with) can solve complicated problems is called pathological grandiosity, and it is not a sign of good mental health--or good judgment.
  • Military action is not dinner theater, and probably not a great diplomatic tool either.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He played his 20th (or 21st) round of golf during his 33rd visit to a Trump-branded property since taking office.

Trump is taking a long weekend at the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, NJ. The club is expected to replace Mar-a-Lago as his new weekend destination with the closing of the social season in Palm Beach. (The traditional summer retreat for the President is Camp David in central Maryland, but Trump doesn't care for it.) Trump directly profits from attention he draws to these properties, which he has refused to place in a blind trust. As The Independent reports, as of Sunday, Trump will have spent exactly one-third of the days of his presidency at a Trump-branded property.

Trump's sensitivity over his golfing, given how vehemently he objected to President Obama hitting the links, is already an old story--in part because of how often Trump golfs. It's already unclear how many rounds of golf Trump has played since taking office, because his staffers have gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal him from reporters' view when he takes "meetings" at golf courses. On one occasion, garbage bags were taped over windows in the Mar-a-Lago press room to hide its view of the tees. On others, spokespeople have made vague references to "hitting a few balls" or "playing a few holes" of what turn out to be complete rounds. (One way or another, though, confirmation usually follows after the fact.)

Trump tweeted yesterday that he is saving taxpayers money by visiting Bedminster rather than his Trump Tower residence. This is true, although much less than he would if he were willing to spend a weekend at the White House. Shortly after sending that tweet, he signed a temporary budget bill allocating $61m in emergency compensation for local law enforcement in places he visits. 

Who cares?

  • A president who spends his weekends living at golf resorts probably shouldn't bother trying to engineer doubt about whether he's golfing.
  • It's bad if a president's work schedule is determined by what will be good for his businesses.