Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He dragged the deceased son of his own chief of staff and the family of another slain US soldier into the spotlight of his "condolences" scandal.

Yesterday's performance saw Trump, who had ignored the deaths of four soldiers in Niger for almost two weeks, insisting that he was actually overperforming in his duties to offer solace to the families. He said that never-before-hinted-at letters were about to go out "today or tomorrow," then claimed that Obama and most other presidents never called the families of fallen servicemembers--and then immediately blamed that lie on what his military staff had told him.

This morning, retreating all the way back to the claim that every other president had not called every single family member, Trump threw his chief of staff John Kelly into the narrative. Kelly's son, Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, was killed by a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010. He told Fox News's Brian Kilmeade, "I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died. As far as other representatives, I don’t know. You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"

Trump does not appear to have warned Gen. Kelly that he would be using his deceased son as a political talking point. President Obama hosted Lt. Kelly's family, including John Kelly, at a White House event for relatives of those killed in action. Neither Kelly nor President Obama have chosen to make a public statement about any of Trump's comments.

Trump's own relationship with Gold Star families and other military veterans is much more fraught, and may have gotten worse today when he made his long-delayed call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson. According to a member of Congress present for the call, Trump instructed Johnson's widow that her husband "knew what he signed up for."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The honored dead of the United States military are not political props.
  • Condolences from a president who has to be shamed into offering them do not mean much.
  • Donald Trump is the last person on earth who should be telling Gold Star families about their loved ones' sense of duty.

Monday, October 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed that the phone call he intends to eventually make to the families of soldiers killed in Niger was the sort of thing President Obama never did.

Twelve days ago, four U.S. servicemembers were killed in Niger, where they were taking part in counterterrorism operations. Since then, Trump has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter: none of the 104 tweets he's made since October 5th have dealt with the matter. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has mentioned it in public only once, in response to a direct question about it. 

Today, asked directly about his lack of acknowledgement, Trump said that he'd written letters to the families of the soldiers--letters he intended to mail later "either today or tomorrow." He also said he intended to "at some point, in the, the period of time, call the families and the parents." He then continued:
The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls, i like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it... so generally I would say that I like to call. I'm going to be calling them, I want a little time to pass, I'm going to be calling them.
Challenged by a reporter about the claim that President Obama had not made condolence calls to the families of slain servicemembers, Trump immediately recanted and suggested that "his generals" had misled him on that point. He also pointed out the great difficulty involved in both writing and calling someone.
I don't know if he did! No, no, I, I was told that he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't, they write letters. I do... a combination of both, uh, sometimes, it's a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both, President Obama, uh, I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't? I don't know, that's what I was told. All I can do, all I can do is ask my generals. Other, other presidents did not call, they'd write letters, and some presidents didn't do anything. But I like, I like the combination, when I can, I like the combination of a call and also a letter.
Representatives from the last three presidential administrations (so far) immediately called Trump's statement a lie, using more or less emphatic language in the process.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president makes up lies so casually and for so little purpose.
  • Any president who finds it "very difficult" to console the families of troops who have died under his command should find easier work.
  • A president boasting about his superior condolence technique is disgusting on its face, but that having been said, condolences are usually given to grieving families before twelve or more days have passed.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Confused Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He got confused, over and over again.

He called "fake news" on news that didn't even exist. In a two-tweet message Tuesday evening, Trump declared: "The Fake News is at it again, this time trying to hurt one of the finest people I know, General John Kelly, by saying he will soon be fired. This story is totally made up by the dishonest media.The Chief is doing a FANTASTIC job for me and, more importantly, for the USA!"

No one seems to know what "fake news" report Trump was talking about. In the three-day range prior to Trump's pre-emptive denial, there were many news items about firings that mention Kelly--as there usually are, because Trump administration tenures are often extremely short and Kelly is the chief of staff--but none suggesting Kelly himself would be fired.

There were stories about Kelly possibly quitting, especially if Trump fired Rex Tillerson for the "moron" controversy, but given the difficulty of managing Trump on a day-to-day basis, there has never really been a day in Kelly's tenure that his resignation seemed all that farfetched.

He seemed to think he'd imposed a 100% tax on corporate valuation. On Wednesday, Trump said this:
The country — we took it over and owed over $20 trillion. As you know, the last eight years, they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed more than $10 trillion, right? And yet, we picked up $5.2 trillion just in the stock market. Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months, in terms of value.
In other words, Trump is saying that $5 trillion in market valuation increases somehow counts against the national debt--which, if true, would mean that he'd "paid off" half of the roughly $10 trillion added to the debt during the Obama administration.

There are, to put it mildly, a few problems with this.

For one thing, stock price increases aren't "real money." The paper value of a company based on its share price is not the liquidation value of the company; But even if it were, for that money to apply to the United States' debt, those paper gains would have to be taxed somehow--no such "valuation tax" exists at the moment--and the rate would have to be 100%. In reality, Trump is calling for corporations to pay massively lower tax rates.

It's also worth noting that the federal debt continues to increase under Trump; the $20 trillion mark was passed eight months after he took office.

He talked through a solemn military ceremony honoring soldiers. On Wednesday night, Trump was interviewed by Sean Hannity at an Air National Guard base in Pennsylvania. In the background of the interview, the military bugle call "Retreat" was sounded. Traditionally, the tune is played on bases at the lowering of the flag in the evening, and military protocol demands that servicemembers salute or otherwise pay respects during the call--just as they would during the playing of the national anthem. A similar courtesy is expected of civilians.

This was what Trump said to Hannity when it was sounded: "What a nice sound that is. Are they playing that for you or for me? They're playing that in honor of [Hannity's] ratings. He's beating everybody." Trump continued speaking and mugging for the audience as the call played.

Unlike "Taps," "Retreat" does not sound particularly somber. It is possible Trump simply had no idea why he shouldn't be talking over it, although the servicemembers and civilians who can be seen in the background standing and facing the flag might have given him a hint.

Trump has spent much of the last few weeks claiming that NFL players protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem were actually disrespecting the military.

He met the President of the Virgin Islands. Or so he claimed on Friday.

Trump is the President of the United States Virgin Islands.

He forgot to sign at a signing ceremony. This happened Thursday. It is not the first time this has happened, although Mike Pence has gotten better at grabbing him before he can leave the room.

Why are these things problems?

  • Even by Trump standards, complaining about inaccuracy in news reports that don't exist is thin-skinned.
  • Even by Trump standards, confusing stock market capitalization with the national debt is economically illiterate.
  • A president who treats silent protest as a dishonoring of the military should be willing to remain silent during actual military honors.
  • The President of the United States of America should know offhand what he is president of.
  • Minor lapses in concentration are a lot less troubling in a president when they are rare.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he was slashing CSR payments in support of low- and middle-income health insurance to lower stock prices, and then promptly got called a liar by a surrogate.

Trump seems to be attempting to position himself as the savior of health insurance consuming Americans by casting Obamacare as corporate welfare for insurance companies. He bragged today on Twitter that his cuts to CSR payments, the threat of which has already raised premiums, had hurt stock prices. (Trump usually sees higher stock prices as direct evidence that he has solved the United States' economic problems.) 

Indeed, health insurance company stocks were broadly lower on Friday--"plunging" all the way to their prices of September 29th. The reason that they didn't go lower was that insurance companies will not really be hurt by the premium increases forced by the cancellation of CSR payments: those will be passed along to policyholders. 

There are consequences to destabilizing the private health insurance industry: unless the United States adopts a single-payer system like most of the rest of the industrialized world, it must exist since hospital bills are usually much more than most Americans can afford in any given month. (Trump sometimes seems to think he is in favor of single-payer, but is usually quickly corrected.) 

That said, the real purpose behind Trump's CSR policy change is sabotage--according to his former campaign strategist and senior advisor Steve Bannon. Bannon addressed the "Values Voters Summit" today, commenting on the move: "Not gonna make the CSR payments, gonna blow that thing up, gonna blow those exchanges up, right?" Bannon's assessment is the first such admission from a Trump surrogate, but it has been the conventional wisdom among health care policy experts all along. 

Why does this matter?

  • There's basically no reason for a president to ever celebrate hurting any sector of the American economy.
  • There's even less reason to do so when what the president is hurting is not a sector of the economy but the economic stability of Americans themselves. 
  • It's wrong for a president to sabotage major elements of domestic policy just so that he can blame the situation on his predecessor.

Friday, October 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told some fibs with charts and numbers.

Trump frequently seems to take actions solely because they can undo things President Obama did, or allow Trump to take credit for doing them. This was the case with the top-line news events of the day, the abandonment of the CSR payments that make health insurance affordable for lower and middle-class families (which fulfills Trump's prophecy that insurance prices will rise) or his intention to decertify Iran's compliance with the six-party nuclear agreement (which allows him to claim it was a "bad deal.")

But Trump's occasionally desperate attempts to outshine Obama or take credit for his accomplishments manifests itself in subtler ways, too--among them, his selective publicity around economic indicators. Today, he tweeted this chart showing an uptick in consumer confidence:

A more accurate look at the trend, going back to the start of the 2007-2008 recession, looks like this:

In fact, because President Obama took office at the bottom of that recession, most economic charts for this period show that same basic trend. This is the five-year trend in the S&P 500 stock market:

And this is the claim Trump recently retweeted regarding the last eleven months (including three during Obama's term).

Telling falsehoods with true numbers is not entirely unique to the Trump presidency, but the frequency of it--which includes lies of omission in what data is concealed, or different metrics depending on whether Trump is president--is in a class by itself.

So what?

  • It's bad if presidents try to mislead the American public.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He responded to criticism of his Puerto Rico hurricane response by threatening to end it altogether.

Saying that the island had problems "of its own making" before Hurricane Maria devastated it, Trump warned the 3.5 million American citizens on Puerto Rico that "FEMA, the Military & the First Responders" would not stay there forever. All disaster relief eventually ends, in the case of hurricanes months or even years after the event. But it's not clear if any President has ever before emphasized that fact so early or so pointedly. Most of the "first responders" in Puerto Rico are Puerto Ricans. Hardly any military resources were deployed to the island, and many of those only after their absence became politically embarrassing for the Trump administration. 

Trump has made no similar comments about the relief efforts for Harvey or Irma. The combined costs of those two hurricanes ($290 billion), which hit American citizens on the mainland rather than those living in Puerto Rico, is expected to be about ten times higher than those for Maria.

According to a White House source, Trump's comments this morning were a direct response to being criticized by the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz.

As of today, 83% of Puerto Ricans lack electricity, and 34% are without access to drinking water. Many Puerto Ricans, desperate for water, have resorted to drinking contaminated or polluted groundwater

Why is this a problem?

  • Presidents shouldn't try to pick and choose which American citizens are worthy of disaster relief.
  • Threatening 3.5 million Americans because one of them criticized you is not so much unpresidential as it is evil.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called press freedom "frankly disgusting."

Bristling at news reports that he wanted to massively increase the United States' stockpile of nuclear weapons--reports that were sourced to the military leaders who were shocked by his position--Trump tweeted early this morning that broadcasters should lose their licenses if they were as "partisan, distorted and fake." Later in the day he told reporters that "it's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it."

NBC, the target of Trump's anger this morning, cannot (legally) be yanked off the air, since broadcast licenses are given to individual local stations. More to the point, while there are reasons that a broadcast license can be challenged, airing news programs that the president does not like isn't one of them.

Even presidents who loathe the press typically avoid attacking the basic concept of an independent media, which helps explain the horrified reaction many conservatives and Republicans had to Trump's demands. The last president to make any similar threat was Richard Nixon, who instructed political allies to challenge the licenses of TV stations owned by the Washington Post. The Post, of course, was instrumental in breaking the Watergate story that forced President Nixon to resign the following year.

Trump and the Trump campaign are under investigation to determine whether they conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election, including with carefully targeted disinformation campaigns--or "fake news" as Trump would call it.

Why should I care about this?

  • It doesn't really help Trump's case here that he's already on record as wanting to greatly increase the nuclear arsenal of the United States.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He challenged Rex Tillerson to an IQ test face-off, and then sent a surrogate out to explain that he was just joking.

The story so far: last Wednesday, the news broke that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a "fucking moron" in a July meeting and had to be talked out of resigning by Vice-President Mike Pence. Predictably, Trump--who until then had been shielded from the news by aides--was enraged, and forced the normally reclusive Tillerson to make a rare public appearance in which he denied that there was tension between himself and Trump. (He did not, however, directly deny the "moron" remark, which was independently confirmed by other news outlets.) 

Trump channeled most of his anger into attacks on the "fake news" media that had told him about Tillerson's remarks in the first place. But he was still bothered enough during an interview with Forbes two days later to snipe at Tillerson's intelligence:
Forbes: There are reports out today over the last couple days about [Tillerson] calling you a moron privately. Has he talked, reached out to you about that? Do you believe that he said that? 
Trump: Well, we may have to, if he did that--which he says he didn't, by the way, he said he didn't. And they announced with the State Department that he didn't. I think it's fake news, but if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.
That interview was published today, prompting reporters to ask press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders the obvious question:
Q. How does the President expect his Secretary of State to be effective when he’s questioning his intelligence? 
MS. SANDERS: Again, he wasn’t questioning the Secretary of State’s intelligence. He made –- 
Q. Why does he think he has a higher IQ, effectively, than the Secretary of State? 
MS. SANDERS: He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime. But he simply made a joke.
That would be easier to believe if Trump were not famously obsessed with his own superior IQ (as he sees it), or if his handlers hadn't already used the joke excuse a few too many times already.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's bad if a president can be provoked into careless behavior when he's upset.
  • It's worse if that president is so easily upset in the first place.
  • A president whose "jokes" always need to be explained should probably try to stop "joking."

Monday, October 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He played golf for (probably) the third day in a row, which may have been his way of averting a nuclear war.

Most Americans went to work today, but it was a federal holiday, and Trump decided to spend it by extending his long weekend and playing golf at his private club. This is believed to be the third day in a row he's hit the links, although he broke with his usual practice by allowing his White House to acknowledge it

In and of itself, Trump golfing is no longer news: nothing more can be said about his hypocrisy or profiteering from it that hasn't been said a hundred times. But today's round is notable in that it may actually have been good for the country. After a weekend in which a sitting Republican senator called him a liar and said he was in "adult day care," and the story of his own Secretary of State calling him a "fucking moron" refused to go away, Trump is apparently in desperate need of a mental health day. The Washington Post, citing "numerous White House officials and outside advisers," reported today that Trump's ever-precarious mood is rapidly deteriorating.

This in turn may explain why Trump this morning ruled out "policy" approaches to North Korea, either unaware of or too angry to care about what sort of approach that leaves

Why does this matter?

  • It's not a good sign when the president abandoning his responsibilities is preferable to the president attending to them.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Master Showman edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He continued his reality-show approach to the presidency.

He dusted off his "billionaire from Central Casting" schtick. Facing criticism that he had wasted the critical weekend after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico by playing golf and whining about NFL players, Trump spent this past Sunday... attending a golf tournament

The President's Cup is an off-year clone of the Ryder Cup played for charity, with the sitting president of the United States acting as honorary chair. Trump left his long weekend at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to watch the end of the tournament in nearby Jersey City. But Puerto Rico wasn't entirely absent from his thoughts: he said he was "dedicating" the cup "to all of those people." (The prize money will go to the charities already designated, unrelated to Maria relief.) 

Earlier in the day, Trump had called his Puerto Rican critics "politically motivated ingrates."

He showed his producer skills. Trump's attacks on "ingrates" were attention-grabbing, but as Axios reported on Sunday, they were not ad-libbed. Rather, they were part of what appears to be the real focus of the White House's Puerto Rico response: damage control and spin. A memo leaked, written by Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert, which discussed "planned hits" on critics, and summarized the official Trump theory of the storm: "The storm caused these problems, not our response to it."

The "planned hits" were duly executed, most notably by Trump, but also by administration officials like FEMA Director Brock Long, who today called the specific complaints lodged by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as "political noise."

As Long's "planned hit" made news today, 45% of Puerto Ricans did not have access to clean drinking water, and 88% were without electricity. These matters have been the substance of Cruz's "political noise."

He (almost) controlled the narrative. Statistics like those were, for several days this week, available only through the Puerto Rican government's status.pr website. They had been on the much more highly-trafficked (and English-language) FEMA website, until they were deleted in favor of a rosier selection of statistics more in keeping with Trump's statement that he had "only heard thank-yous from the people of Puerto Rico."

The critical statistics were restored without comment after a few days of complaints.

He broke the fourth wall. In unscripted comments after his four-hour jaunt to Puerto Rico, Trump said that Puerto Rico's debt would have to be forgiven. "They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we're going to have to wipe that out. You're going to say goodbye to that."

Trump has been the beneficiary of many bankruptcies and debt write-offs as a private citizen, but it's unlikely he understood what he was saying. The bond markets did, however--and crashed. Bondholders were said to be "suicidal" at the prospect of a unilateral cancellation of the debt they hold.

Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, was sent out the following morning to reassure the markets that when Trump said "We're going to have to wipe that out. You're going to say goodbye to that," he meant exactly the opposite. "I wouldn't take him word for word," said Mulvaney, using the traditional formula employed by Trump surrogates who must completely contradict him.

He picked good location scouts. Trump's brief trip to Puerto Rico showed him an island that was inconvenienced but cheerful, with problems that could be solved by cheerfully tossed paper towels. The recipients of those towels were screened supporters, who had found the resources in the wake of Maria to make high quality signs proclaiming their support for Trump. His antics on the trip didn't do much to help him, but the optics were generally good--especially since he was talked out of throwing canned goods at his supporters.

The optics were good because Trump did not leave the richest, least affected portion of the island.

He trained his understudy. Not all of Trump's entertainer-in-chief work was done in Puerto Rico. Mike Pence, who had made a special trip (at taxpayer expense) from Nevada to Indiana to attend a Colts game, immediately walked out of the game when he beheld about two dozen athletes kneeling during the national anthem. The players involved, teammates of former SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have knelt in recent games.

Pence's gesture of counterprotest was universally understood to have been pre-staged. For one thing, the media had been alerted in advance that he'd be leaving early; for another, Pence made a point of tweeting his arrival at the game--complete with a folksier-looking photo from a different game years ago. Nevertheless, Pence gamely maintained the stance that he had merely been overcome with emotion at the sight of athletes expressing political opinions.

But Trump is a harsh acting critic, so it was not particularly surprising when he jumped into the spotlight to claim credit for the whole thing, tweeting that he had explicitly instructed Pence to do as he did.

Pence's two extra flights on Air Force Two likely cost taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars, not counting the cost to the federal and local governments for his security during the "performance."

Why are these bad things?

  • Hurricane victims don't care about remarks made at golf tournaments.
  • The political spin about hurricane relief is not more important than actually doing hurricane relief.
  • Making bad news harder to find does not make it go away.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States trashes a municipal bond market, even--especially--if he doesn't mean to.
  • Someone who can "hear only thank-yous," even as he is furious because he is hearing criticism, may still be telling the truth as he understands it--and that is not a sign of good mental health.
  • We already knew how Donald Trump felt about NFL players kneeling to protest social injustice.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he should have a legal right to flattery from late-night comedians.

Trump began his usual morning airing of grievances with this tweet at 8:00 A.M.

Four minutes later, in a classic Trumpian tell, "more and more people" were calling for the same thing.

Trump didn't say whether he thought, for example, Jimmy Kimmel should have been required to do monologues in favor of Trumpcare to balance out the ones where he spoke out against it.

Federal law does require that broadcast TV networks give equal opportunity for appearances for all qualifying candidates for a given federal office. For example, when then-candidate Trump appeared on Saturday Night Live (a show he claims to hate), NBC was obliged to offer other Republican challengers the option to appear on the network. But there is no rule requiring networks to say nice things about sitting presidents.

So what?

  • A president who can't handle criticism can't do the job of being president.
  • A president who can't handle criticism from people on TV could always just watch less TV.
  • If not approving of how Trump is doing his job makes you part of a conspiracy, then about 68% of the country is in on it.

Friday, October 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He delighted in the attention his cryptic "calm before the storm" comments caused.

Last night, Trump unexpectedly summoned reporters back to the White House to pose with military leaders and their spouses after a dinner. Glancing at the uniformed officers, Trump said to reporters, "You guys know what this represents? Maybe it's the calm before the storm." He ignored reporters' requests to elaborate on what the "storm" was, saying only, "We have the world's great military people in this room."

Today, Trump appeared to delight in the attention his suspenseful comments had attracted. Asked again by reporters to explain, Trump--whose only unqualified success in the business world came as a reality TV star--smiled, winked, and said, "You'll find out."

In the White House daily briefing, reporters were forced to ask press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether Trump was merely joking. "I think you can take the President protecting the American people always extremely serious," Sanders replied, clearly ill at ease with the volume of questions on the subject. Other questions followed. Was he feigning madness? Was this his idea of negotiation with whatever unnamed adversary he had in mind? Had he forgotten that adversaries would hear his comments too? Was he simply enjoying the chaos his comments caused among a press corps he's come to hate? 

Over and over again, Sanders gave a response long practiced by Trump's defenders: don't put too much stock in anything he says.

Why would a normal person have a problem with this?

  • The presidency is not a reality show.
  • Military matters are nothing to joke about--or tip your hand about.
  • If you have to ask whether a president is rattling his saber just for the sake of the attention it gets him, something is terribly wrong.
  • A president who seems to enjoy the idea of military confrontation is unfit to be commander-in-chief.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called for the Senate Intelligence Committee to investigate "the Fake News Networks in OUR country to see why so much of our news is just made up-FAKE!"

Trump's 6:59 A.M. tweet came after two stories he is known to have been obsessed with recently: the still-unrefuted revelation that his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, called him a "fucking moron" in a meeting and had to be talked out of resigning, and the confirmation by that Senate committee of the unanimous consensus that Russia had intervened (with genuinely "fake news" among other things) in the 2016 election on his behalf.

The tweet made for a somewhat bizarre press briefing today: Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted to walk back the tweet, but without saying so in a way that would result in her explicitly contradicting Trump. Asked to confirm Trump's specific request--that he wanted the Intelligence Committee to investigate American reporters and media organizations--Sanders said, "I don't know that that's the case." According to NBC reporter Kristen Welker, during that same briefing, one reporter shouted, "By fake news, does he mean reports he doesn't like?" Sanders did not acknowledge the question.

Why is this a problem?

  • News isn't fake just because the president doesn't like it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He spent much of it directing the counter-spin to revelations that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him "a fucking moron" and threatened to resign.

Tillerson's outburst was reported by NBC News this morning, prompting an extraordinary response from several different echelons of the Trump administration. Trump posted periodically on Twitter throughout the morning, condemning the "fake news" in general and NBC specifically. He also said that Tillerson had "totally refuted" the NBC report.

But in reality, Tillerson's "refuting" was highly qualified. He dutifully appeared before reporters to bemoan the situation and to deny that his loyalty to Trump had wavered, but conspicuously passed on a chance to explicitly deny the "moron" remark. (Later, CBS and CNN both independently verified the "moron" comment, as well as the fact that Trump had already known about it.)

Trump chose Tillerson in part for his close ties to the Putin regime in Russia, but the relationship has been strained from the start. The State Department has been working on a skeleton staff and has been pushed aside from its basic function of implementing US foreign policy. Trump was furious with Tillerson (among others) for what he perceived as insufficient support in the wake of his "many fine people" remarks about Klansmen and neo-Nazis. Last weekend, Trump publicly undermined Tillerson's attempts at backchannel diplomacy with North Korea on Twitter, which former diplomats said would normally lead to Tillerson's resignation.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if members of a president's cabinet hold him in this kind of contempt.
  • It's even worse if you can understand why members of his cabinet might feel that way.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went to Puerto Rico and declared that it was already largely recovered thanks to his "A-plus" handling of the Maria recovery--but that if it wasn't, it was Puerto Ricans' own fault. 

Trump exaggerated the state of the recovery at every turn. Before leaving, he declared that "now the roads are cleared." They are not--but the absence of local trucks on the supposedly clear roads gave him an opportunity to once again scold Puerto Ricans as wanting "everything done for them," saying, “We need their truck drivers. Their drivers have to start driving trucks. We have to do that, so at a local level they have to give us more help.” On arrival, he said that the cost of the recovery had "thrown our budget a little out of whack." It came across as a pointed joke; Puerto Rican officials sitting alongside him didn't laugh.

In a telling moment, Trump happily compared the death toll of 16 favorably with that of Hurricane Katrina, a direct rebuttal to the charge that this was his Katrina. But that tally had not been updated in almost a week, because the ruined infrastructure has made it difficult to issue official death certificates. The actual number, based on bodies stacking up in morgues, is already known to be much, much higher

Later in the day, in full TV entertainer mode, Trump threw paper towels and flashlights at media and selected victims. (Reporters traveling with Trump noted the pro-Trump signs being waved by those admitted and called the event "well-staged.") Even in this moment, Trump stuck to the script that had Puerto Rico already fully recovered, declaring as he handed out flashlights, "You don't need 'em anymore!

Virtually all homes and private businesses on the island remain without electricity, a situation that is expected to last for months.

So what?

  • It's bad if a president can't bring himself to take disaster relief seriously.
  • It's very bad if a president blames disaster victims for their problems.
  • If the only purpose of a trip to a disaster area is for a president to regain his political momentum, it probably shouldn't happen.

Monday, October 2, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He met with--and gave political cover to--the leader of Thailand's ruling military junta.

Prayuth Chan-ocha came to power in a 2014 military coup that was sharply condemned by the United States and other democracies. He has ruthlessly stamped out dissent, surveilling Thai citizens' political activities through state-sponsored malware, and forcing them to take part in mandatory demonstrations of loyalty to his regime. The Obama administration scaled back U.S. engagement with the regime, citing human rights abuses, and was itself widely criticized when it permitted Prayuth to travel to California for a summit meeting of southeast Asian nations.

Trump's White House invitation lends legitimacy to the Prayuth regime, much as his warm words for and cordial phone call did for the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte. In fact, a visit to the Trump White House is becoming standard practice for the world's autocrats. Trump has always been open about his admiration for dictators and their "strength," and has publicly praised the leaders of autocratic regimes from Russia to North Korea.

Of course, Trump may genuinely have found a kindred spirit in Prayuth, whom one observer of Thai politics called "a solipsistic leader who sees conspiracy in any criticism and is comfortable making assertions that do not comport with facts."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's bad if the President of the United States feels more comfortable with dictators than with allies.
  • There's a difference between realpolitik and simply not caring if the United States is legitimizing dictators.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He chased away his DEA head. By most definitions, the resignation of Tom Price as HHS secretary on Friday was the 19th departure (voluntary or otherwise) from a senior or cabinet-level position in the 8-month-old Trump administration. But he also lost the acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg, who resigned Tuesday.

Rosenberg's departure was particularly noteworthy because he made no secret of the fact that he considered Trump a threat to lawful and honorable policing. 

He forgot that #fakenews usually requires electricity these days. Trump's 25-tweet rant yesterday included an admonition "to the people of Puerto Rico: do not believe the #fakenews!"

95% of the island's electrical power grid is down, and only 10.7% of its cell towers are working. Given the nature of the modern news media, this means that many Puerto Ricans would find it difficult or impossible to read either his tweet or "fake news."

Most of the "fake news" has focused on the fact that the hurricane was indeed devastating all over the island, and that not everyone is fully satisfied with the federal response.

He called hurricane victims "politically motivated ingrates," which doesn't really require much elaboration. 

He got some help from old friends in his campaign against NFL protests. Much of Trump's previous long weekend at Bedminster (and some of this one, too) was devoted to the fight he picked over gestures of protest by athletes during the National Anthem. Polls say that the public saw Trump's stirring of the controversy as politically motivated and opportunistic, but not all of his supporters abandoned him: a network of suspected Russian-operated Twitter accounts sprang into action to help him inflame the issue.

Russian propaganda and influence campaigns, including the ones that helped Trump get elected, tend to be aimed at undermining confidence in democracy itself, or hurting Americans' opinions of their country, rather than taking a specific stance.

He self-fulfilled a prophecy. At his September 22 rally on behalf of Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), Trump said this:
I will be honest, I might have made a mistake. The story--here is the story. If Luther doesn't win, they will not say we could do 25 points in a short time, they will say, "Donald Trump, the President of the United States, was unable to hold his candidate. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump. This is a total embarrassment." I mean, these are bad people. ...Luther will definitely win.
Trump subsequently griped that he had been manipulated into backing Strange--an aide described him as "embarrassed and pissed"--and claimed that he would have preferred to back Moore. Since then, Trump's complaints have shifted back to his original prediction--that the "fake news" is simply reporting who won (Moore, by 10 points) rather than covering what he believes was a huge Trump-specific boost to Strange's campaign.

As is usually the case with primary contests, Alabama voters said immediately before the election that Trump's endorsement had little impact on their vote.

Why are these bad things?

  • Federal law enforcement officers should be able to have faith that the president will allow them to do their jobs honorably.
  • Hurricane relief is a higher priority for hurricane victims than political spin.
  • A president who finds a way to make himself the biggest victim of a natural disaster is either mentally unfit for or morally unworthy of the presidency.
  • It doesn't really matter if a president is knowingly or accidentally helping a hostile foreign power's propaganda campaign against the United States.