Saturday, June 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went from one extreme on Russian election interference to the other.

Trump has (understandably) been growing increasingly obsessed with the investigations into whether he or his campaign assisted Russia in its attempts to get him elected. But until yesterday, Trump had adamantly refused to acknowledge it had happened at all. Instead, he repeatedly called it a hoax by Democrats angry at having lost the election, and compared the U.S. intelligence community to Nazis when he believed they had leaked the Steele dossier. Trump also pressured top intelligence officials to publicly absolve him and his campaign of any collusion. (They refused.)

Trump was in full denialist mode on the matter as late as Thursday afternoon. Today, via Twitter, he offered yet another, very different take: Russia did seek to interfere in the election, and because the Obama administration was aware of it and failed to stop it, they should be investigated--and not him.

All of this is apparently in response to a Friday Washington Post article in which Obama administration sources pointed out that because of candidate Trump's unprecedented insistence that the election was "rigged," they were unable to publicly confront Russia for fear of creating more of the chaos and mistrust that was the Russians' goal in the first place.

Why would any normal person have a problem with this?

  • It's a little late now for Trump to start acting bothered by Russia's sabotage of American democracy.
  • It's bad if, confronted with a threat to American democracy itself, a president's first impulse is to deny it happened, and his second impulse is to loudly assign blame.

Friday, June 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed the Senate version of his Obamacare repeal bill would not affect anyone currently on Medicaid, which is false.

At today's untelevised briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump was "committed to making sure that no one who currently is in the Medicaid program is affected in any way, which is reflected in the Senate bill, and he's pleased with that."

Trump is "committed" to keeping Medicaid unchanged in more ways than one: as a candidate, he claimed he was the only Republican who would "save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security without cuts," and contrasted his supposed hands-off approach with Hillary Clinton, who he said would "knock the hell out of" Medicaid and other entitlement programs--and that Clinton's promises to the contrary were lies.

The Senate bill drastically reduces funding for Medicaid, and would absolutely affect current enrollees, not least by kicking many of them out of the program by 2023 and forcing states to drop even more for lack of funding. 

So what?

  • When candidate Trump told voters he wasn't going to cut Medicaid, they may have thought that meant he wasn't going to cut Medicaid.
  • Presidents are entitled to whatever policy views they like, but they're not entitled to lie about them.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What did Trump do today?

He finally--sort of--admitted that his May 12 threat of "tapes" of James Comey's conversation with him was a lie.

In two tweets this morning, Trump claimed that he had made no recordings of his meetings with the former FBI director, whom he fired in order to stall the Russia investigation. The somewhat lawyerly phrasing of the tweets leaves open the possibility that someone other than Trump might have pressed a record button and kept custody of the results. The admission, made under the threat of Congressional subpoena, ends (for now) six weeks of Trump taunting the press over whether and when he'd explain himself.

The most charitable explanation for the bizarre situation was offered by Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich. As Gingrich explained it, Trump's tape threat was simply a failed bluff, and that he genuinely believed he could rattle Comey into making less specific and damning statements. It was later reported that Comey had decided immediately after leaving his first meeting with Trump to make meticulous notes of each encounter, for fear that Trump would lie about the substance of their meetings. 

Effectively endorsing the "bluff" theory, Trump later gave his efforts a positive spin, calling them "not very stupid."

Why should this bother anyone?

  • It's bad if a president can't be trusted to answer simple questions of obvious public import in less than six weeks without threat of subpoena. 
  • Given how much of an embarrassment and legal threat has arisen from this, if it was a bluff, "not very stupid" is probably too charitable.
  • It probably wasn't a bluff.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he "just doesn't want a poor person in his cabinet" because rich people have the kind of "thinking" he wants.

At another of his 2020 campaign rallies, Trump said, "I love all people -- rich or poor -- but in those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person." He added, "Somebody said, 'Why'd you appoint rich person to be in charge of the economy.' "I said, 'Because that's the kind of thinking we want.'" He was referring specifically to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whose family fortune was made in diamonds over a century ago and who was groomed for a job with his father's firm, Goldman Sachs.

Trump is the heir to a real estate fortune and often claims to be a billionaire (which is indeed more likely to be true now that he is president) and his discomfort with people who aren't wealthy was known long before today. While there's no accurate way of assessing the wealth of his cabinet (or of Trump himself) based on information that Trump has been willing to release to the public, the minimum net worth disclosed suggests that at least seven are or are nearly billionaires. Trump also takes advice from billionaires like Carl Icahn (worth about $17B), which appears to be an excellent way for Icahn to make sure that he stays wealthy.

Because he calls himself a "populist," Trump is often thought of as having his base of support among the working poor. In fact, Hillary Clinton won a clear majority of votes below the US median income of $56,000, and Trump won the votes of wealthier Americans.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president who thinks that inheriting wealth gives someone the right "thinking" insults the vast majority of Americans born poorer than Steven Mnuchin.
  • Mainstream Christians who voted for Trump may be surprised to learn that he believes in the Gospel of Prosperity.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blamed President Obama for failing to do something he's failing to do.

Today, Trump waded into the news about the death of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old University of Virginia student who was imprisoned by North Korea for 18 months and returned this week comatose and near death. Trump called the situation a "total disgrace" and added, "frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the results would have been a lot different. He should have been brought home a long time ago." He also said that Warmbier "should have been brought home that same day" that he was detained.

A spokesperson for President Obama released a statement defending his administration's efforts to secure Warmbier's release, noting the 10 other American prisoners released during Obama's watch. There is another problem with Trump's not-too-subtle swipe at Obama, however. Two of the three American citizens currently imprisoned by North Korea were detained since Trump took office.

Neither Trump nor any other administration official has offered any explanation as to why American citizens Tony Kim or Kim Hak-Song, detained during a bizarre period in which Trump alternately threatened, praised, and scolded the North Korean regime, were not "brought home that same day."

Why should I be bothered by this?

  • A president whose first impulse is to blame someone else is a president who cannot do the job.
  • It's bad if a president sees every bad event as an opportunity to settle a personal score.

Monday, June 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had this exchange with Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela.

TRUMP: The Panama Canal is doing quite well. I think we did a good job building it, right — a very good job. 
VARELA: Yeah, a hundred years ago.


Who cares?

  • A president who cannot get more than eleven seconds into a public appearance with a nation's leader without free-associating is not doing the job he was elected to do.
  • Nobody will ever assume a president is just playing dumb.
  • Thirty seconds of preparation, if Trump were able to do it, would have avoided this.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Coal. Trump kicked off the week by trumpeting the news that a new coal mine would be opening in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, both in a tweet and in his remarks at his unusual Cabinet meeting. The mine is expected to host 70 jobs, or 0.04% of the number of new jobs needed to be created each month in order to keep up with the growing population.

Plans to open the mine began during the Obama administration.

Twitter blocking. Trump recently began blocking accounts on Twitter, often for no apparent reason than the users in question got under his skin. One prominent blocked account belongs to VoteVets, a political organization representing military veterans and their families. It's not clear exactly what VoteVets did to prompt the block; recent tweets of theirs dealt with Trump's belated and extremely brief acknowledgement of continuing American casualties in Afghanistan, his continued inability to get judicial approval for his travel ban on Muslim countries, and a retweet about Russian cyber attacks aimed directly at US servicemembers.

Appointments. Trump has broken all records for his slowness to nominate the people who actually make the executive branch run: as of today, he had attempted to fill fewer than 17% of the positions requiring Senate approval. (By another count, he's bothered to put forth names for about 10% of the roughly 1,100 "top-tier" jobs in the executive branch.) Trump spent much of this week grousing that Congressional Democrats--who cannot use the filibuster to stop nominees in the Senate--were somehow responsible for his failure to make nominations.

But he did manage to signal at least one appointment this week: Cindy McCain is reportedly going to be appointed to an ill-defined State Department job. She is the wife of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a sometime critic of Trump, and would be one of many influential political family members to find a home in the Trump administration. A partial list of others would include Elaine Chao (the Secretary of Transportation and wife of Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell), Callista Gingrich (recently named Ambassador to the Vatican, and wife of Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich), Sarah Huckabee Sanders (daughter of former Arkansas governor and Trump convert Mike Huckabee), Ivanka Trump (his own daughter and holder of a similarly open-ended job description), and Jared Kushner (Ivanka's husband, whose White House portfolio is, at least in theory, about half the government.)

Qatar. After claiming responsibility last week for the diplomatic embargo and de facto blockade of Qatar by other Middle East nations, Trump signed a $12 billion arms deal with Qatar that would, according to the Department of Defense, "give Qatar a state-of-the-art capability" in joint military operations with the United States.

Trump sometimes appeared unaware last week that Qatar is a major part of the United States' strategic presence in the region, home to a substantial number of American planes and 11,000 troops. He did, however, accuse the country of being a "very high-level" sponsor of terrorism.

Civil rights investigation. Trump and his administration became the target of an investigation internal to the executive branch this week, as the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted to conduct a two-year probe of Trump's proposed cutbacks to enforcement of civil rights violations, and the effect that his immigration enforcement activities could have on Americans' safety. It wrote that "communities of color, LGBT people, older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups" would be "exposed to greater risk of discrimination" by Trump's actions.

Fake credentials. Less than a week after the most recent fake-credential scandal among Trump's paltry appointee list, another one arose on Wednesday with Trump's selection of Lynne Patton to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development's office in New York. As the New York Post reports, the job involves overseeing the disbursement of billions of dollars in federal funds.

Patton claims, falsely, to have a law degree from Quinnipiac University, and to have attended Yale University. In fact, she did not complete her law degree, and never attended Yale. She did, however, plan Eric Trump's wedding.

What's the problem with these things?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.
  • Presidents who try to block out criticism may be doing so because they cannot handle criticism.
  • Government jobs should be given to the people most qualified to do them, not to people who happen to be married or related to other political figures.
  • It's bad if a president doesn't know whether he wants to sanction or arm a country.
  • Given that the main function of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is to serve as a watchdog on the subject, it's not a good sign if they've decided that a president is a major threat to civil rights five months into the first term.
  • Government jobs should be given to people with actual credentials, not event planners who lie about having law degrees.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He spent the day at Camp David, the first time since taking office that he's vacationed at a non-Trump branded property.

Trump, whose schedule was completely blank this Saturday, retired to rural Maryland's Camp David, ostensibly to celebrate Father's Day. The urbanite Trump is on record as saying that the resort's charms wear off in "about half an hour," and had not visited it prior to today since taking office. Instead, Trump prefers to take himself--and the financially irreplaceable attention he attracts--to properties he owns. He has spent almost a third of his presidency--42 of the first 149 days in his term--at a Trump-branded resort. 

Meanwhile, Trump's aversion to sleeping in beds he doesn't own is having miraculous effects on his bottom line. The financial disclosure forms he filed this week show extraordinary gains in the sectors of his business empire most affected by his campaign and the attention drawn by his presidential visits. Trump Tower and his jet rental company did brisk business with his donor-funded presidential campaign, Mar-a-Lago doubled its fees just in time for Trump to conduct business in its dining rooms, and his branded golf clubs are profiting from his own frequent use of them while in office.

Trump, who has adamantly refused to put his wealth into a blind trust, retains full financial control over his businesses and is regularly updated on them. This week, the attorneys general of Maryland and Washington, D.C., and about 200 congressional Democrats filed separate lawsuits against Trump for using the presidency as a means of personally enriching himself at the expense of the country and other businesses.

Why is this a problem?

  • A billionaire president's personal finances are actually less important than the job of being president.
  • A president who won't take the first step to try to avoid corruption is signaling that he is corruptible.

Friday, June 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced changes to US policy on Cuba that will help his personal hotel businesses at the expense of competitors.

The actual changes Trump proposes to make to the Obama-era diplomatic and economic re-engagement with Cuba were mostly undetermined at the time of his announcement on Friday, pending as-yet unwritten regulations. Given the uncertainty about what exactly--if anything--Trump means to change, the high-profile announcement was interpreted by some in the media as a publicity stunt meant to shore up Trump's standing with the influential Cuban-American community in the swing state of Florida.

But at least one detail was clear: Trump's new policy directly targets the hotel companies that have taken advantage of President Obama's policies and invested in Cuba, by making it illegal for Americans to stay at those properties. In effect, Trump's policy would hurt competitors to his own hotel empire by punishing them for beating him to the market. The Trump Organization, run by Trump's sons and political surrogates, Eric and Donald Jr., directly profits Trump himself, who retains full legal control over it and is kept fully aware of its dealings. Trump pledged to avoid doing further "new deals" in foreign countries while president, although he has not kept this promise

Trump's interest in the Cuban market is not a hypothetical. His speech today was highly critical of the Castro regime and the ethics of doing business with it, but in 1998, Trump conducted business in Cuba in violation of American law.

Why is this bad?

  • American foreign policy shouldn't be conducted solely based on how it financially or politically benefits the president.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He argued that because he believed other people were bad, there could be no investigation of him.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that independent counsel Robert Mueller had opened an investigation into Trump for obstruction of justice. It came as no surprise that Trump, who is not known for an even temper on his best days, was unable to restrain himself. He lashed out at "very bad and conflicted people" on Twitter today, after declaring through his personal lawyer last night that, once again, the real crime was the "illegal" leak of information unflattering to him. (In reality, it is not illegal to share non-classified information with reporters.) 

His staff and personal lawyers pointedly refused to say who specifically he meant was "very bad and conflicted," but presumably the target was Mueller himself. Mueller, a lifelong Republican, was director of the FBI for twelve years. He was appointed by Rod Rosenstein, a Republican who Trump himself made deputy Attorney General. Mueller remains popular with both Democrats and Republicans, with notable and recent exceptions.

Trump also reiterated his belief that "crooked H" had done inappropriate things in the past, and that the fact that she had not been investigated (by his own Justice Department, presumably) meant that he should not be investigated. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the election, 219 days ago.

Why is this bad?

  • The president is not above the law, even if the president believes that someone else somewhere did something wrong and got away with it.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States is under investigation for obstruction of justice.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He saw the Senate vote 97-2 in favor of new sanctions against Russia, but hasn't yet said where he stands on the issue.

Lawmakers agreed yesterday on a package of toughened sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its interference in the 2016 election. Today, in a rare moment of bipartisanship, that bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate. 

Notably, the new sanctions could not easily be undone by Trump, unlike those currently in force. That detail is significant because Trump made undoing those sanctions a high priority during his first weeks in office. Only rising political pressure from alarmed State Department officials--and the growing public suspicion that Trump's campaign had actively colluded with Russia about both the election and the repeal of sanctions--stopped that from happening. 

Trump has refused to allow the State Department to commit to a position on the subject.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's bad if the Senate, nearly to the last member, doesn't trust the president on matters of major international significance.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He trashed the House's version of his own health care plan as "mean."

The Associated Press reports today that Trump is calling the AHCA "mean" and "a son of a bitch" in conversations with Republican senators, in an apparent attempt to get them to pass a version with less drastic cuts to benefits. 

Trump's change of heart may be driven by the astonishing unpopularity of the current version of Trumpcare. A Quinnipiac University poll from late May--taken before the revised CBO score showing it would cost 23,000,000 Americans their insurance--had only 20% of Americans supporting it.

Trump is entitled to his opinion--or opinions--on health care policy, but the AHCA was crafted along the lines that his administration demanded. More to the point, Trump has also lavishly praised the House version, even going so far as to hold a conspicuously premature Rose Garden victory celebration when it passed. At the time, Trump called it "very, very, incredibly well crafted," among other superlatives.

So what?

  • Policy driven by what makes the president look good at any given moment is usually bad policy.

Monday, June 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He continued to blame Democrats for the slow confirmation of nominees who do not yet exist.

At his first full Cabinet meeting today, Trump returned to the theme he elaborated last week--that "obstructionist" Democrats were preventing him from getting key positions filled. As we noted yesterday, Senate Democrats cannot meaningfully delay any confirmation proceedings because, except for Supreme Court nominations, the filibuster can no longer be used on those votes.

The problem remains that Trump has hardly even tried to staff his administration. By one count, he had nominated only 111 people to fill about 1,100 positions requiring Senate approval. The Senate cannot confirm or even begin to act on nominations that Trump has neglected to make.

Trump is notoriously difficult to work for, and the emotional strain of his troubled presidency has not made him any easier to handle. But further complicating his ability to hire essential executive branch staff is the fact that there is now significant doubt about the long-term viability of his presidency. Also, the fact that the Trump administration is already under active investigation by an independent counsel means that some new hires would potentially be putting themselves in a situation where they would need to retain expensive private lawyers--although for his own reasons, Trump is discouraging his employees from following his and his family's example and lawyering up.

Why should a normal person care about this?

  • As simple as it is, at this point, it's impossible to rule out that Trump genuinely doesn't understand what the problem is.
  • It's a very bad sign if nobody wants to work for the White House.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Phantom obstructionists. Trump began the week by blaming "Dems" for "taking forever" to approve his nominees, calling them "nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS!" There are a few problems with this logic, though. First of all, Senate Democrats are the minority party, and confirmation votes are not subject to a filibuster. 

But more to the point, Trump has only made 83 nominations out of 558 positions requiring Senate confirmation. By comparison, President Obama had made 222 nominations by this point in his presidency. The Senate cannot confirm people Trump has failed to nominate.

Last-minute NATO snub. At a joint press appearance with the president of Romania, the first time Trump has faced reporters since he met with NATO leaders in Brussels in May, Trump conceded that he still endorses Article V, the cornerstone provision of the NATO charter that states that an attack on any one member is considered an attack on all. (Article V has only been invoked once in NATO's history, on the United States' behalf after the September 11th attacks.) 

Under normal circumstances, it would be an absurd and unnecessary question to ask an American president, but Trump's mood about NATO has ranged from outright hostility to ambivalence, and he appears obsessed with the false idea that other member nations are failing to pay the United States some sort of dues or protection fees. His affirmation of Article V came as a relief to member nations, but he had been expected to say so at the Brussels summit, and pointedly refused to do so. It was reported this week that at the last minute, Trump removed any Article V endorsement from his speech without telling his own diplomatic and military staff, who had insisted that it be included.

Saudi deal "fake news." Another element of Trump's overseas trip came into clearer focus this week as well. Trump had barely left the country before he was declaring the trip a triumph, thanks to his supposed negotiation of a blockbuster arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the value of which was in the vicinity of $110 billion. 

However, a closer analysis of the "deal" reveals two key details Trump neglected to mention. Most significantly, it doesn't really exist. It involves the non-binding expression of intention to purchase military hardware in the future (much of which doesn't yet exist). There is reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia could afford it even if they really wanted it, as the Saudi economy has been battered by low oil prices. Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Reidel notes that Israel, which regards military superiority over other Middle East nations as an existential priority, has not asked for similar sales from the United States, which it surely would if the Saudi deal were actually happening.

Even more politically unmentionable for Trump, the promises and suggestions that make up the "deal" were made by President Obama's administration.

Satellites. Amidst all the drama of James Comey's testimony before the Senate intelligence committee, one detail was especially telling. Comey testified that Trump said "that if there were some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him."

Trump's basic response to the testimony has been that everything Comey said was a lie, except for the parts that might exonerate Trump personally, which are entirely true. But the reference to "satellites" who might have, for example, colluded with the Putin regime to interfere in American elections, is telling. If Trump were the beneficiary of what amounts to treason, he would almost certainly have been shielded from any details about the operation of it--both for his own safety and because criminal conspiracies are more likely to succeed the fewer people who know about them.

Nobody disputes that Trump was keenly interested in whether he was personally under investigation. And since it is the overwhelming bipartisan consensus of investigators that the Putin regime did everything in its power to illegally interfere on Trump's behalf--the surest outcome that involves Trump surviving with his presidency and freedom intact would be if the blame for any illegal collusion could be put on a small number of "satellite" conspirators.

Eric Trump's foundation. Trump abolished his own charitable foundation in December amid evidence that it was engaged in illegal self-dealing that personally profited the Trump family, and its own admission that it had broken tax laws. (Technically, it cannot be fully dissolved until the ongoing investigation into it is concluded.) But the Trump Foundation was back in the news this week, in revelations that it had been linked to Eric Trump's own legally troubled "charity."

Forbes reported that donors to the Eric Trump Foundation were told that their money would go to helping pediatric cancer patients, but that in fact, $500,000 of it was re-donated to other charities that were themselves linked to the Trump family--and that four of those charities paid Trump businesses a total exceeding $100,000 to host golf tournaments. According to Forbes' sources, Donald Trump himself personally directed his business to charge his son's foundation.

Eric Trump blamed the Forbes report on Democrats, who he called "not even human."

Why are all these bad things?

  • It's wrong to blame other people for work you were unable or unwilling to do.
  • Presidents who can't be bothered to notify their military and diplomatic staff of major policy changes aren't doing their job.
  • It's wrong to take credit for work you didn't do.
  • Presidents are responsible for the actions of their subordinates, or "satellites," particularly if those actions amount to a criminal conspiracy to benefit that president.
  • It's bad to misappropriate money meant for children with cancer.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He saw yet another of his nominees caught lying about their credentials.

Trump nominated Joseph Otting this past Tuesday to the post of Comptroller of the Currency, one of the federal government's most important bank regulators.  Otting is a friend of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and--like Trump's failed Labor Secretary nominee--has had more professional experience defending himself for regulatory violations in his industry than enforcing them. 

Otting claims to have graduated from the School of Credit and Financial Management at Dartmouth College. Today, a spokesman for Dartmouth pointed out that not only is Otting not a graduate, but that Dartmouth has no such school.

The White House gave no indication that Otting's nomination would be withdrawn. Otting now joins a long list of Trump appointees who have lied about or fraudulently obtained credentials, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (who plagiarized some of the answers she provided during the Senate confirmation process), failed National Security Council nominee Monica Crowley (who plagiarized large portions of her doctoral dissertation), national security analyst Sebastian Gorka (whose doctoral degree itself is bogus). There is also the interesting case of Trump supporter David Clarke, who is under investigation by the Naval Postgraduate School for plagiarism of his 2013 master's thesis--and who may even be lying about having been offered a job in the first place, although the White House has been oddly noncommittal on the subject.

Why is this bad?

  • It matters whether nominees to be powerful regulators of the financial system are caught lying about their qualifications.
  • Presidents who appoint cronies to these positions without doing basic vetting of their resumes are essentially saying the jobs don't matter.

Friday, June 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He contradicted the Pentagon and the State Department on the subject of Qatar.

At an appearance with the president of Romania, Trump once again claimed that the recent diplomatic and trade sanctions leveled by some Persian Gulf nations against Qatar were the result of his own personal intervention. Trump claimed that he "decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people, the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding." He called the blockade of Qatar (which gets most of its food by truck through Saudi Arabia, the only country it borders) "hard but necessary."

An hour earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had said this:
"We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar. There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade. We are seeing shortages of food, families are being forcibly separated, and children pulled out of school. We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this Holy Month of Ramadan, but they can be addressed immediately. The blockade is also impairing U.S. and other international business activities in the region and has created a hardship on the people of Qatar and the people whose livelihoods depend on commerce with Qatar. The blockade is hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS."
The "great generals and military people" were also apparently unaware of what Trump believed they'd "decided" on. Referring to the fact that Qatari air bases host 11,000 American troops and serve as the launching point for most American operations in the Middle East, a Pentagon spokesperson said that "while current operations from Al Udeid Air Base have not been hindered or curtailed, the evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations.”

Why does this matter?

  • A president who cannot get on the same page with his military and his diplomatic corps about which side of a major international dispute the United States is on is incompetent.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forced himself to let his surrogates defend him against James Comey's damning testimony--which may have been a mistake.

Speculation has been rampant for several days about how Trump--prone to angry outbursts even in periods of relative calm--would react to Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee today. Trump himself added fuel to the fire on Monday and Tuesday with lengthy Twitter tirades that gave credence to recent stories about his dark and deteriorating mood

Marc Kasowitz, Trump's personal lawyer, seems to have at least temporarily succeeded where other aides have failed in convincing Trump that his presidency hinged on his ability to stay out of the fray and off Twitter--if only to prevent him from further incriminating himself on obstruction charges. Reportedly, Kasowitz accomplished this by promising Trump that he would take the same aggressive approach in Trump's stead. (His statement in response to Comey's testimony was indeed fiery, if only loosely based on facts.)

Unfortunately for Trump, not all of his surrogates were as adept. Paul Ryan offered a plausible but unflattering defense of Trump's actions: that Trump should be forgiven for his highly inappropriate and seemingly illegal attempts to interfere in the Flynn investigation because he simply didn't know any better. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who for all the bad blood between them amounts to one of Trump's allies in the Senate, gamely defended Trump in the hearing by suggesting that he was an "unconventional non-politician who, because he has not worked in government before, either doesn’t understand or, quite frankly, is not interested in convention."

Why should anyone care?

  • Presidents don't get to plead ignorance, even when they are in fact ignorant.
  • A president who is unprepared for the job, and unwilling or unable to learn, is unfit to keep it.
  • It's pretty sad when a president not publicly losing his temper gets counted as a win.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pronounced himself "completely and totally vindicated" by an advance copy of James Comey's opening statement for tomorrow's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Comey's statement does contain the surprising revelation that he did give Trump an indication that he was not personally a target of one specific counterintelligence investigation. (In Trump's letter firing Comey, he made a point of asserting that Comey had told him "on three separate occasions" that he was not under investigation.) 

But there is no way to read Comey's statement as "vindicating" Trump. It refers only to the FBI's counterintelligence probe into Russia's election interference, which was aimed at uncovering "sources and methods" rather than building criminal cases. It applies only to events before March 30--and a great deal has happened since then. And most damaging of all, the reason Comey gives for refusing Trump's request to publicly declare that he was not a target is that the FBI would then be obliged to correct such a statement when and if the situation changed. 

This is not the first time that Trump has declared himself "vindicated" by developments that do no such thing. Trump's statement did not address other points of interest in Comey's statement: that Trump sought to bargain with Comey for his personal loyalty, that Trump contacted him nine times in four months (compared to two contacts in four years under President Obama), or that Trump asked Comey outright to stop investigating Michael Flynn.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Presidents are entitled to defend themselves, politically and legally, but calling this a "vindication" insults the intelligence.
  • It's bad if a president does virtually any of the things described in Comey's statement.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took credit for the diplomatic shunning of Qatar by other Middle Eastern nations, even as US intelligence officials were concluding that a Russian disinformation campaign was the real trigger, and the US military was stressing its continued partnership with Qatar.

Yesterday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other middle eastern countries broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, a small oil-rich country on the Persian Gulf. Qatar has been controversial in regional politics for some time, and some of its wealthier citizens are believed to have collaborated with Iran in the funding of violent militia groups. This morning, Trump claimed that his recent visit to the region was the precipitating event, and even suggested that by doing so, he may have personally brought about "the beginning of the end of the horror of terrorism."

There are at least two problems with Trump taking credit for this development. The first is that the United States is heavily dependent on use of Qatari airfields for its operations throughout the Middle East. American diplomatic and military officials were quick to pour oil on the waters, with Defense Secretary James Mattis referencing Qatar's prominent role in anti-ISIS campaigns and adding that he was "positive there will be no implications coming out of this dramatic situation at all."

The other problem is that American intelligence officials now believe that the real cause of the diplomatic rift was a disinformation campaign undertaken by Russian government hackers--or "fake news," as Trump would put it--designed to destabilize the relationship between the US and its allies.

What's so bad about that?

  • Presidents should check with their military, diplomatic, and intelligence agencies before tweeting about matters that involve all three.
  • It's bad to take credit for things you didn't do, and it's bizarre for a president to take credit for things that don't seem to benefit the United States.
  • Presidents who are this easily manipulated by fake news are not capable of doing the job. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at his own Justice Department for following his orders.

It was a busy Twitter day for Trump, but he found time to offer the Justice Department the benefit of his legal acumen. In consecutive tweets, he wrote: "The Justice Dept. should have stayed with the original Travel Ban, not the watered down, politically correct version they submitted to S.C. The Justice Dept. should ask for an expedited hearing of the watered down Travel Ban before the Supreme Court - & seek much tougher version!"

By "watered down, politically correct version" Trump presumably means the March 6 executive order he signed, which superseded his January 27 order. The second order was a carefully reworded version of the first with minor changes meant to address flaws that federal courts had found in the first. Both orders were immediately suspended by courts, and the DOJ has already asked the Supreme Court to hear its appeal of the second order. But the DOJ can only "seek [a] much tougher version" from Trump himself.

In other words, Trump is upset that Attorney General Jefferson Sessions is asking the Supreme Court's to uphold an executive order that Trump himself signed precisely because it was more likely to survive judicial review. 

Why is this a problem?

  • It makes no sense whatsoever for a president to publicly criticize his own appointees for defending orders the president himself signed.
  • It's hard to interpret angry, defiant, and self-defeating outbursts like this as some kind of rational policy statement.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Terrorism hype. Trump began his speech on withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords by referencing "the terrorist attack in Manila," saying that "it is really very sad as to what's going on throughout the world with terror." There was no terrorist attack in Manila, although there was a casino robbery that ended with a tragically high body count due to a fire set by the robber. An American intelligence official described Trump's characterization of the attack as "freelancing."

This is not the first time Trump or members of his administration have offered their "thoughts and prayers" for nonexistent terror attacks. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway appeared to believe that there had been a "Bowling Green massacre," referencing it twice in interviews before being told that no such thing had ever happened. Trump himself made a specific reference to a nonexistent terror attack in Sweden in February, which he blamed on that country's welcoming stance towards immigrants. ("Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden.")

Terrorism victim-blaming. Trump's reaction to what he apparently believed was terrorism in the Philippines contained no hint of criticism for that country's ruling Duterte regime, although Duterte's draconian "security" measures have indeed provided fertile ground for anti-regime terrorist groups, sometimes claiming affiliation with the Islamic State. Duterte and Trump have an oddly cozy relationship, given the former's long list of human rights abuses. Trump has no such friendly feelings towards London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has called Trump's proposed ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries Islamaphobic.

The lingering bad feelings between the two on that subject are presumably why Trump took to Twitter this morning to use yesterday's London attack to bolster support for the travel ban, and to specifically criticize Khan's call for calm.

Climate change. After a day in which no fewer than five Trump administration officials refused to say whether Trump believed that humans caused climate change, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley broke ranks and said Saturday that he "believes the climate is changing and he believes pollutants are part of the equation." But even this mild endorsement of the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change was quickly walked back this morning by Trump's own EPA director Scott Pruitt. Pruitt, who was appointed as an open denier of human-caused climate change, carefully reasserted the deliberately opaque position the White House had put forward on Friday: that withdrawal from the Paris Accords was about economics rather than any specific belief about climate change, and that Trump's previous statements on the matter are sufficiently clear.

In fact, it's not at all clear whether Trump himself knows what, if anything, he believes on the subject of climate change or whether human activity has anything to do with it. In the last eight years alone, Trump has gone from demanding that President Obama take action on the subject, to declaring the entire thing a Chinese hoax disproved by each new snowstorm.

Phone security. It was reported this week that Trump is in the habit of giving out his personal cell phone number to world leaders and encouraging them to contact him on it. This violates diplomatic protocol, but more seriously, it is a grave security risk. One of Trump's main attacks against Hillary Clinton was her supposed carelessness with secret information in setting up a private e-mail server (although it was never shown to have been breached). Trump is also known to tweet from an older Android phone which is not only insecure, but can no longer receive security patches.

Heraldry. Trump's Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia hosted the Senior PGA championship, drawing attention to the Trump "coat of arms" that serves as a logo for his golf courses. The design that Trump has adopted as his family's crest is copied from that of the British family that built Mar-a-Lago, except with the Latin word integritas ("integrity") replaced with "Trump."

Why should I care about these things?

  • It's bad if a president doesn't wait for all (or even some) of the facts before making public statements.
  • It's very bad if a president sees a terrorist attack against an ally as a chance to insult a political enemy and promote his own domestic agenda.
  • Presidents who won't tell you their what their basic views are on major issues probably have a good reason for not telling you.
  • Presidents shouldn't break diplomatic and security protocol for no benefit whatsoever.
  • It's not technically illegal (in the United States, at least) to copy another family's coat of arms, but replacing the word "integrity" with your own name is a bit on the nose.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went to his golf course and mulled over whether or not to try to muzzle James Comey.

Trump, who visits Trump-branded properties every chance he gets, spent the day at the Trump National Golf Course in northern Virginia. It's not yet clear whether he played golf, as his staff--knowing that Trump resents being called a hypocrite on the subject of golf--usually goes to extraordinary lengths to conceal that for as long as possible. Today's pool reporter was consigned to a room with a view of indoor tennis courts, not the links. 

What is known is that Trump reportedly spent some time today considering whether to try to invoke executive privilege in an attempt to prevent former FBI Director James Comey from testifying before the Senate committee investigating the Trump-Russia affair. Comey is scheduled to testify this coming Thursday, and is likely to speak about Trump's attempts to have his then-national security advisor Michael Flynn shielded from an FBI investigation.

Executive privilege has only rarely been invoked. Trump's legal basis for doing so has been greatly weakened by his own public statements regarding Comey and other elements of the investigation, and it is not clear that he could prevent Comey from testifying in any event, since Comey is no longer an executive branch employee. Nevertheless, since Comey's testimony could ultimately form the backbone of criminal obstruction or impeachment charges, Trump may conclude that trying to muzzle him is necessary as the same kind of desperation tactic that firing him was in the first place.

Why does this matter?

  • As a rule, presidents invoke executive privilege to protect their employees, not protect themselves from former employees.

Friday, June 2, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to allow his staff to say what he thought about climate change.

Trump talked about many things in his Rose Garden speech yesterday announcing that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords--but oddly, the subject of the climate itself wasn't among them. Nor did Trump mention the word "science" once. The omission was noticeable because in the past, Trump had no qualms about stating his opinion about the science of anthropogenic climate change: that it was "bullshit" and a fraud made up by China to hurt American manufacturing. On Twitter alone, Trump made 115 references to climate change science, all of them opposed to it.

But for all that, Trump has also taken the opposing view. In a debate with Hillary Clinton, who brought up the "Chinese hoax" tweet, he denied (falsely) ever having said it. His speech yesterday implicitly acknowledged that human activity is making the planet warmer, when he (inaccurately) said that the Paris Accords would only reduce temperatures by 0.2 °C if fully implemented. And perhaps most tellingly, he has sought permission to build a sea wall at one of his golf courses in Ireland, explicitly saying that it is necessary to protect the property from the effects of climate change.

Administration officials were asked repeatedly today whether Trump believes in climate change or not. At least five senior White House staffers flatly refused to commit Trump to a position, with one saying that whether Trump believes that climate change is happening was not "on topic" for a discussion about the Paris Climate Change Accords.

Why should anyone care?

  • There's secrecy, and then there's a president saying, in effect, "my views on major policy issues are none of the American people's business."
  • It's bad if there's no clear way to know which of the contradictory statements a president makes on a subject are "bullshit."

Thursday, June 1, 2017


What did Donald Trump do today?

He got a little confused about Pittsburgh.

In announcing today that he was withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accords, Trump justified the move by saying that he "was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris."

It's not clear if New Yorker Trump has ever been to Pittsburgh, give or take a few campaign rallies, but the stereotype of Pittsburgh as a gritty coal-and-steel town has been out of date for at least 40 years. The major industries in the city now are software, biotechnology, education, and health care. The city's legendary coal smog--which was sometimes spectacularly fatal--is now completely unknown, and the Alleghenies are dotted with wind turbines.

As for Trump's claim to representation, Hillary Clinton soundly defeated Trump in Allegheny County, winning 56.4% to 40.0%, and got about 78% of the vote in the city itself. Reaction to Trump's mention of the city in a speech that glorified coal was not met kindly by Pittsburghers

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't claim support they don't have, whether in one city or the whole nation.