Thursday, November 30, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denied trying to get Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee to end their investigation into his Russia connections.

The New York Times reported tonight that this summer, Trump contacted the Republican senators on the committee investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 elections--and hence Trump himself. The sources for the story were the Republican lawmakers themselves and their aides. 

Sen. Richard Burr (R-MO) said that Trump had asked him "something along the lines of, ‘I hope you can conclude this as quickly as possible.’” Burr blamed Trump's inexperience for what, on its face, is a highly improper and likely illegal attempt by a president to obstruct Congress. Other senators, some of whom were unwilling to go on the record, were more openly alarmed.

But the Times article casts doubt on the likelihood that Trump's lobbying was done out of ignorance of the law. The language is almost identical to Trump's demand of former FBI Director James Comey when he asked for the investigation into Michael Flynn be shut down. And just as he did with Comey, Trump was careful to make his demands without his senior staff present. (Consciousness of guilt is one element of an obstruction of justice charge, and can be demonstrated if the person accused of it tried to avoid having witnesses to the obstructive act.)

Today, a Trump spokesperson said that "the White House has been cooperative with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s inquiry and the President at no point has attempted to apply undue influence on committee members." It was not clear whether Trump was claiming that the Republican senators cited were lying about the entire matter, or simply about what they reported him saying.

Why is this a problem?

  • At some point, "I have no idea of what I should or shouldn't be doing" stops being a valid excuse for inappropriate or criminal acts committed by the President of the United States.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He infuriated two allied governments, gave a boost to the movement behind the assassination of a British member of Parliament, and gave an al-Qaeda recruitment video unprecedented viewership--all in the same retweet.

The events of the day began between 6:30 and 6:50 A.M., when Trump's morning Twitter rant included three retweets of videos posted by one of the leaders of "Britain First," an ultra-nationalist movement at the fringes of British politics. Another of their followers murdered British MP Jo Cox last year over her stance on immigration policies. The videos depicted supposed atrocities committed by Muslims.

One video, titled "Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!", was immediately revealed to be a lie. The perpetrator was neither a Muslim nor a migrant to the Netherlands; he was a native-born Dutch citizen who was arrested and prosecuted as a minor. (The government of the Netherlands put out a statement pointedly reminding Trump, personally, that "facts do matter.")

Another was labeled "Islamist mob pushes a teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!" The action took place during what amounted to a civil war in Egypt between the military and supporters of the ousted Morsi government. The perpetrators were arrested and convicted for the killing.

The third was described as "Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!" This is accurate. It is also recruiting propaganda made by an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which is now receiving worldwide attention thanks to Trump's amplification of it.

Trump almost certainly had no idea what he was retweeting, or what the consequences would be, or who Britain First is. As with all propaganda, its only purpose is to deceive by telling people fictional versions of what they want to hear, and Trump--who still claims to have witnessed firsthand nonexistent celebrations in the streets by New Jersey Muslims on September 11th, and may actually believe it at this point--is an astonishingly easy target for such things.

Confronted by reporters about the lies Trump had unknowingly retweeted, Sarah Huckabee Sanders would only say that the video of one non-Muslim Dutch native assaulting another brought attention to "threats" by Muslim migrants that are "real no matter how you look at it." 

What's the problem here?

  • A president who is so careless that he accidentally directs worldwide attention to al-Qaeda propaganda is unfit for office.
  • A president who first promotes the group behind the murder of an allied country's legislator, and then angrily pushes back when that country's government complains, is a disgrace.
  • It's increasingly difficult to believe that Trump has any control over his impulses.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot how to negotiate.

This morning, in advance of a negotiation session with congressional Democrats over a funding bill, Trump tweeted his opinion that nothing would come of it. He also accused Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) of being pro-crime, pro-illegal immigration, and pro-tax.

Noting the pointlessness of "negotiation" under those circumstances, Schumer and Pelosi withdrew from the meeting. Trump will need Democrats in the House to vote for a spending measure to avoid a government shutdown. 

Of all the things Trump regards himself as the best at, he holds the skill he imagines himself having as a negotiator in the highest regard. 

So what?

  • Getting nothing of what you wanted means you did not negotiate well.
  • A president who cannot restrain himself from outbursts even when they immediately work against him is not fit for the job.
  • It's bad if a president can't understand that government shutdowns are a big deal

Monday, November 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He stopped restitution payments made to victims of financial crimes.

Last week, Trump tried to appoint his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, as the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). This may not have been legal: the agency already has an acting director, Leandra English, who was put into the line of succession by former director Richard Cordray when he retired. English filed a suit in federal court yesterday to resolve the dispute.

Mulvaney shares Trump's open hostility to the agency, which is responsible for enforcing consumer protection laws in the financial industry. (Much of Trump's resentment of the agency comes from the fact that it was created by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a frequent Trump critic who has proved especially adept at provoking him.) 

On arriving at the Bureau, Mulvaney's first act was to stop payments from the Civil Penalty Fund (CPF). The CPF uses money already collected from fines and penalties from law-breaking institutions to compensate the victims of those crimes. People currently receiving compensation through the CPF include victims of fraudulent student loan counseling, mortgage financing scams, and predatory debt-relief programs. Neither Mulvaney nor the Trump administration offered any rationale for stopping the restitution payments.

English's request for a temporary restraining order barring Mulvaney's appointment may well be granted in the coming days, but Trump is likely to get what he wants from the resulting confusion anyway. Because the CFPB's legal authority rests on a properly appointed acting director, the agency is not expected to be able to enforce financial laws while the dispute lasts.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if presidents deliberately sow chaos in their own government.
  • The victims of crimes should not be denied restitution just to make a political point.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Thankfulness. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders instituted a rule: before reporters could ask her a question, they had to say what they were thankful for. For the most part, the press corps played along, although ABC correspondent Cecilia Vega's pointed response, "the First Amendment," got a few appreciative hoots.

On Thanksgiving Day, Bloomberg reporter Margaret Talev attempted to ask Trump what he was thankful for. According to the press pool report, Talev "was then reprimanded by a member of the communications staff."

Self-promotion. Trump spent part of Thanksgiving Day with members of the Coast Guard, and he used that occasion, as well as a satellite broadcast to other military units worldwide, to salute what he saw as the source of the military's accomplishments: himself. Much of his speeches focused on how much better a job he regards himself doing than President Obama. Among his comments:

"We know how to win, but we have to let you win. You weren't winning before. They were letting you play even. We want to let you win.

"It's nice that you're working for something that's really starting to work."

"We're very very proud of you. Everybody in this country is watching and they are seeing positive reports for a change. Instead of the neutral and negative reports."

"They say we've made more progress against ISIS than they did in years of the previous administration, and that's because I'm letting you do your job."
As usual, Trump did not specify who "they" were. The main difference between Obama's and Trump's administration of the armed forces has been that Trump has essentially opted out of the actual job of the president, which is to act as the commander-in-chief. Instead, he has turned day-to-day control over operations to the Department of Defense, which allows him to shift blame to military commanders when things go wrong.

401(k)s. Trump packed a whole lot of confusion and deception into one sentence in particular of his Coast Guard address when he told his audience of servicemembers: "Your whole, long life, the stock market is higher than it's ever been. And that means your 401(k), all of the things that you have, whether it's -- even if you're in the military, you have a country that's really starting to turn."

One report says that Trump was pointing at a small child--perhaps one about nine years old, in which case his point about the stock market having been "higher than it's ever been" for the child's entire life is accurate but not the compliment to himself he probably meant. Since bottoming out in 2008, the major American indices have all been steadily higher. More broadly speaking, the same thing is true for the stock market since before the Great Depression.

Trump's apparent belief that Coasties are motivated by their "401(k)s" is also telling. Members of the military don't have them, but they do have access to a similar tax-advantaged defined-contribution program known as a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). Unlike most other federal or private-sector employees, most members of the military do not get their contributions matched, and contributions are capped at 5% of salary.

A typical chief petty officer (E-7) in the Coast Guard who made the maximum contribution last year to his or her TSP, and invested it in a low-cost S&P 500 index fund, would be putting about $2,000 into the stock market and would have realized about $182 in gains since Trump's inauguration. This is slightly more than the $158 that would have been earned to date in a typical year--the average S&P 500 return is about 9.6%--and much less than the $605 that would have been returned between the day Barack Obama took office and Nov. 26, 2009.

As a rule, military servicemembers do not cite the fact that the TSP allows them to defer taxes on 5% their income as a reason for undertaking military service.

Net worth.  Trump's personal wealth has always been difficult to estimate, if only because he has openly admitted in the past to making up numbers based on his "feelings." (In his words, “My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.") But according to an analysis published this week in Crain's New York Business, the sales figures reported by the Trump Organization (the main source of Trump's income) in the past were "flagrantly untrue" and over-reported its income by a factor of ten or more.

The difference is that this year, some details of Trump Organization finances are public because Trump holds public office, making its valuation less a matter of "feelings" and more a matter of actual money.

Ironically, while an S&P index fund won't make a big difference to the financial security of the typical Coast Guard member, Trump himself would apparently be much wealthier today if he had simply poured his enormous inheritance into one and played golf, rather than trying and frequently failing to make money himself. $40 million, which is a plausible estimate for how much money Trump had received from his father by 1974, would have yielded roughly $4 billion today.

Why are these bad things?

  • A president should not be so afraid of the press that he sends his staff out to chastise them for asking questions about thankfulness on Thanksgiving.
  • Even if a president thinks he, and not the military he commands, is responsible for military successes, saying so right in front of them is a pretty dickish thing to do.
  • A president who thinks 401(k)s are what military personnel care about--or can even get through their military jobs--is dangerously out of touch.
  • Past a certain point, lying in order to make yourself seem more accomplished becomes pathological.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

What did Trump do today?

He continued to provide evidence that will be used against his own Department of Justice in an antitrust lawsuit.

Shortly after an unacknowledged golf outing (his fourth in four days), Trump tweeted this:
Under normal circumstances, CNN's response would probably be all that really needed to be said on the matter.
But Trump's invariably negative tweets about CNN (at least 29 since taking office, not counting various controversial retweets) have taken on another dimension recently. His administration is trying to block a proposed merger between Time Warner (the parent company of CNN) and AT&T. While there are plausible reasons for the government to object to the deal, Trump has gone out of his way to make clear to his Department of Justice how he feels. Whether by coincidence or because of pressure from Trump, the DOJ is now demanding that Time Warner sell the network in order to receive approval for the rest of the merger.

It is not lawful for a president to try to influence specific DOJ decisions, particularly not in an attempt to punish a media outlet he sees as a political threat. Accordingly, Time Warner and AT&T are now in a stronger legal position with respect to the Trump administration than they would be if Trump had been able to control his outbursts.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president's ability to do his job is hindered by his inability to control his temper.

Friday, November 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He felt compelled to make sure everyone knew the reason he's not going to be Time's "Person of the Year" is not that he's a loser.

Trump made an odd claim on Twitter this afternoon: that Time Magazine had contacted him to reassure him that he was likely to be named Person of the Year again, but that this would be contingent on doing an interview. "I said probably is no good and took a pass," Trump claimed.

Perhaps because he "won" it last year, Trump seems to think that this is an unambiguously positive honor. In fact the "award" has frequently gone to dictators like Stalin and Hitler, or to inanimate objects, or even abstract concepts. Trump is a perennial favorite in his own mind and has lashed out before when the "honor" was denied him. He's even gone so far as to post fake Time covers at his golf clubs, lavishing praise on the "television smash" he hosted during his days as reality-TV host.

There are a few possible interpretations of this, none of them especially flattering to Trump. The first is that he is lying outright. The most likely reason for that would be that Trump felt the need to "explain away" why a man with as many superlative qualities as he believes himself to have lost to anyone--ever.

A second possibility, also part of the known Trump psychological profile, is that he had some kind of conversation with a Time reporter about the Person of the Year and simply chose to interpret anything that was said as an assurance that he would "win." In the motivational-speaker phase of his career, Trump was an advocate of what he would call "truthful hyperbole" (and what most people would simply call lying) and rarely misses a chance to practice it on himself.

Lastly, it may simply be that Trump is worried that he would be named Person of the Year, and is trying to preemptively avoid a situation where he'd have to do an interview with Time. Last year's writeup was respectful of the forces that put Trump in office, but was hardly flattering to Trump himself. It labeled him a demagogue, called attention to his raft of ethics problems, and highlighted his extraordinary popularity among neo-Nazis. It summed up his "win" this way: 

For reminding America that demagoguery feeds on despair and that truth is only as powerful as the trust in those who speak it, for empowering a hidden electorate by mainstreaming its furies and live-streaming its fears, and for framing tomorrow’s political culture by demolishing yesterday’s, Donald Trump is TIME’s 2016 Person of the Year.
So far, Time has only commented to say that Trump was "incorrect" about how the process worked.

Why is this a problem?

  • The President of the United States has more important things to worry about than this.
  • It's bad if the president is afraid of the press.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He Twitter-replied to a serious charge of racism, not with a denial, but with #MAGA.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post--a newspaper Trump calls "fake news"--tweeted yesterday about Trump's penchant for picking fights with black athletes and celebrities.

At 6:31 A.M., Trump replied directly to Sargent's tweet: "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!"

There are a few possible explanations, any or all of which might be true. It may be that Trump, who tends to consume an awful lot of the media he says he hates, accidentally replied to Sargent because of a change to Twitter's UI. Judging from his even-earlier-than-normal, even-angrier-than-normal tweets of late, Trump's confused response may indicate that he is still suffering from jet lag or other forms of sleeplessness. And, of course, it is possible that Trump knew exactly what he was saying and intended his suggestion--that his #MAGA slogan defeats any possible criticism--to be taken at face value.

Why does this matter?

  • None of the explanations here are especially encouraging.
  • Reciting campaign slogans is not governing.
  • People who voted for Trump for non-racist reasons may not appreciate Trump's apparent belief that his own supporters are generally racist.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He specifically announced he was not having a "low-key day" immediately before going golfing.

Trump is at his favorite winter vacation home for the duration of his six-day Thanksgiving break. The press who accompany him were notified at 7:56 A.M. that he would be having a "low-key day," other than a few phone calls and briefings.

Ten minutes later, at 8:06 A.M., the White House press liaison demanded that the pool reporter clarify that the press would be having a "low-key day," but that Trump himself "will NOT have a low-key day and has a full schedule of meetings and phone calls."

By 9:26 A.M., Trump had arrived at the Trump International Golf Club, his 77th such visit as president. The prediction that the press would have a light day was accurate, though: per standard Trump policy, they were kept away from the club itself (sequestered in a nearby public library) so that they could not report that they saw him golfing. Trump departed the club five hours later at 2:25 P.M., just about the right amount of time for a leisurely 18 holes and a light lunch.

Trump can also fairly say his day was not low-key: he was wide awake by 5:30 A.M., for a morning Twitter rant even earlier and angrier than usual. In this case it was to renew his fight with various African-American sports figures, approvingly retweet something about "Hillary's corrupt ass," and remind his followers of his opinion that he alone, and not the State Dept. or other members of his administration, had secured the release of UCLA students caught shoplifting in China: "IT WAS ME." 

So what?

  • It's bad if the president tells obvious lies.
  • The news media's job is to report on what the president does, not how he'd like to be perceived.
  • It's probably not a good sign if the president wakes up earlier and angrier and less able to control himself the longer he's in office.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He settled on a strategy for endorsing accused child molester and Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Trump, who flirted with an endorsement of Moore in the GOP primary even as he was officially backing the incumbent, has been facing a dilemma over what to do about revelations that at least nine women have accused Moore of inappropriate sexual contact with them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers as young as 14.

On the one hand, Trump cannot really speak too freely about matters of sexual harassment or coercion, since even more women have accused him of inappropriate sexual contact than Moore. But on the other hand, Trump cannot afford to lose a vote in the Senate: even with a 52-vote Republican majority, he has so far failed to get any of his legislative priorities accomplished.

Speaking on the White House lawn today before departing for his winter vacation home, Trump took questions about Moore for the first time in the two weeks since the scandal broke, and said this:
Q: Is Roy Moore, a child molester, better than a Democrat? He's an accused --

TRUMP: Well, he denies it. Look, he denies it. I mean, if you look at what is really going on, and you look at all the things that have happened over the last 48 hours, he totally denies it. He says it didn’t happen. And, you know, you have to listen to him also... Let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it. That's all I can say. He denies it. And, by the way, he totally denies it.

Q: Do you believe Roy Moore's denials? Do you believe him?

TRUMP: Well, he denies. I mean, Roy Moore denies it. And, by the way, he gives a total denial.
Trump promised last year to sue every woman who has ever accused him of sexual misconduct for libel, and maintains that they are all liars, so there is a certain consistency in him accepting Moore's blanket denials at face value.

But it may just be that Trump is prone to believing people who insist often enough that they are innocent of terrible crimes. Trump himself has said that he believes Vladimir Putin (and not the "leakers" and "liars" of the US intelligence community) on the question of whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election precisely because Putin has so often denied it.

Why is this bad?

  • A president should have enough moral authority to be able to condemn child molestation without worrying about how it will look.
  • A president who believes anything that is politically convenient is a president who can be manipulated.

Monday, November 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to sell his tax plan with a false claim about US tax rates.

Time is running out on the Congressional calendar for Trump to pass a tax bill, which would be his first and only substantial legislation of his administration. Speaking to reporters before a Cabinet meeting today, he repeated the claim that the United States is "one of the highest taxed nations in the world."

There is no sense in which this is even remotely true. The usual way to compare taxes between nations is by looking at the ratio between GDP (the total value of things produced in a country) and tax collected. The United States is well below the world average--

--and has the one of the lowest GDP-to-tax ratios among the wealthy, democratic OECD nations:

This is hardly the most blatant deception on Trump's part with respect to the bill: for example, he recently claimed that he would see his own tax bill go up under the plan. (In fact, as even his own Treasury Secretary admits, virtually all of the tax savings will go to the wealthiest filers.)

In the one year in which Trump himself is known to have paid federal taxes, most of his bill came from the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which is designed to make it more difficult for ultra-wealthy filers to take advantages of loopholes in the tax code. Trump's plan eliminates the AMT altogether.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't try to mislead the public about basic facts.
  • Tax policy should be based on the needs of the country and all its citizens, rather than what will help the president.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Thoughts and prayers. On Tuesday (November 14th), Trump--traveling in Asia at the time--tweeted his condolences to the victims of a mass shooting.

The Sutherland Springs shooting, which killed 26 people in a Texas church, took place on November 5th. Trump was presumably trying to repurpose his Twitter-condolences from that mass shooting to the one that took place last Tuesday at a California elementary school, in which five people died.

Paying for lawyers. The Trump administration has been an enormous boon for the legal industry, with most or all of his campaign and senior White House staff obliged to hire counsel because of the ongoing Russia inquiries. Until recently, Trump--who claims to be a billionaire, although this is surprisingly difficult to verify--had been taking money from the Republican National Committee and campaign donations to pay his personal lawyers. But this week, Trump announced that he would begin paying for his own lawyers. (The RNC and the campaign will still be paying for his son Donald Jr.'s attorneys.)

But it wasn't all bad news for Trump: USAToday reported this week that taxpayers are footing the bill for lawyers for Trump's private businesses. Because Trump refuses to follow ethics rules (or, as it seems, the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution) by divesting from his businesses, he and his companies are being sued. Since Trump (as president) is taking the stance that he can do business with himself (as a business owner), the government is obliged to defend that position--and hence, Trump's private businesses--at taxpayer expense.

Mood management. Politico reported Saturday that Trump is shown flattering polls that focus specifically on Trump's political base and their relatively high support for his decisions. This seems to be a new twist on the infamous "propaganda document" of positive headlines and flattering photographs of himself that Trump famously received during the Reince Priebus era.

For all his complaining about "fake news suppression polls," Trump reportedly follows his numbers quite closely, and has been known to get upset over his lack of popularity. While the internal polls focused on people who are already inclined to support him may be psychologically soothing for Trump, the article quotes senior White House officials as saying that such polls are "delusional" and "just not accurate."

Impeachment. Also, articles of impeachment against Trump were filed in the House of Representatives this week. They are not expected to be politically viable until, at least, the Mueller investigation is further along. The White House press office has been responding, but it's not known whether Trump--who does not take bad news well--has been told.

Why are these bad things?

  • Offering condolences for the wrong mass shooting is on the wrong side of a line of competency a president should never cross.
  • It's bad if a president cares more about his private businesses' bottom line than in avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
  • It's really bad if the only opinions a president cares about are the ones held by people shoring him up politically.
  • A president should not be so easily manipulated.
  • It's bad if there are plausible grounds for articles of impeachment less than a year into a president's term.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got subtweeted by the general in charge of his nuclear arsenal.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten is commander of the US Strategic Command, the branch of the nation's military apparatus that would be most directly involved in any use of nuclear weapons. Speaking at a conference in Canada today, he said he and other military leaders would not obey any "illegal" nuclear strike order Trump might issue: "We’re not stupid people."

Hyten's remarks come amid widespread and bipartisan fears that Trump is mentally unstable, and might start a nuclear war out of pique, or as a means of distracting attention from the ever-growing threat to his presidency posed by the various Russia investigations. The Senate is currently holding hearings on a bill to restrict the ability of the president to unilaterally order a nuclear attack, and members from both parties have made no secret of the fact that it is Trump specifically that they are concerned about.

Deference to civilian authority is bone-deep in United States military culture, so it is extremely rare for American military officers to raise the prospect of disobeying a president, even in a hypothetical situation where they would be legally justified in doing so. The Pentagon had no immediate comment on Hyten's remarks.

Who cares?

  • It's bad if someone who repeatedly make others worry about his mental health has access to nuclear weapons.
  • It's not normal for questions about whether a president would start a nuclear war to distract from a criminal investigation to be so routine.

Friday, November 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced a policy, immediately reversed it, claimed it needed more study, and then complained that it had been studied for years.

As expected, the Trump administration published a rule today allowing Americans to bring back body-part trophies from elephants hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia. This would normally be illegal, given African elephants' conservation status. 

Within hours, and after a torrent of bad press, Trump tweeted that he was suspending the rule: "Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts. Under study for years."

Trump probably didn't mean to admit that he'd approved a rule without knowing the facts, but in that case it's not clear what he will have to add to the "years" of study he claims have been done. (The Fish and Wildlife Service studies conservation issues, but until Trump appointed its new political leadership, its "years" of study had resulted in the ban, not the lifting of the ban.)

It's possible that Trump intends to ask an expert on the elephant trophies he knows personally for a briefing on the subject.

Why is this bad?

  • Presidents should make policy decisions after getting all the facts, not before.
  • It's one thing to respond to political pressure, but announcing a policy and revoking it hours later is not something that happens in a competent administration.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He condemned sexual harassment by people he doesn't like.

Sen. Al Franken was accused today by a radio broadcaster of making unwanted sexual contact with her during rehearsal on a 2006 USO tour. Leeann Tweeden also posted a photograph, apparently taken while she slept on a military plane, of Franken pantomiming groping her while grinning at the camera. Amid bipartisan calls for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into the matter, Franken released a statement apologizing to Tweeden, saying he was "ashamed" of his behavior and stressing the need to take victims of sexual misconduct seriously when they report it.

Trump, who had spent much of the day avoiding questions about his support for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and the nine women (at last count) who have accused him of predatory behavior toward them while he was an adult and they were teenagers, took to Twitter to taunt "Al Frankenstein."

Trump, of "grab 'em by the pussy" fame, has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by sixteen women. That figure does not include his first wife Ivana Trump, who used the word "rape" in a legal deposition to describe a violent sexual encounter with him, or the various pageant contestants (including some as young as 15 years old) who corroborated Trump's own admission that he would use his position as owner to barge in on their dressing rooms in the hope of seeing them naked.

Trump continues to maintain that every single woman who has ever accused him of grabbing them, harassing them, peeping on them, or sexually pressuring them, is a liar.

Why does this matter?

  • It's really bad if the President of the United States can't condemn sexual misconduct without calling attention to his own behavior.
  • Whether the victim of sexual assault or harassment matters does not depend on the politics of the perpetrator.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He demanded to be thanked for doing his job.

In his first hours back in the United States, Trump took to Twitter to ask: "Do you think the three UCLA Basketball Players will say thank you President Trump? They were headed for 10 years in jail!"

The reference is to three students who were arrested for shoplifting last week in Hangzhou during a series of NCAA basketball games played in China. Because of diplomatic efforts before Trump became aware of the situation, they were being detained in a sort of house arrest at a luxury hotel and had been expected to serve sentences of one or two weeks, rather than the ten years Trump claimed. Trump apparently did mention them to President Xi Jinping during their meeting, though it's not clear if he was aware of ongoing efforts by his own State Department, UCLA, and NBA player Lonzo Ball (the brother of one of the arrested students). 
The incident gave Trump another chance to praise the "terrific" Xi, but that was not the most uncomfortable aspect of his subsequent hint that he needed to be thanked. (The students in question had already done so, but repeated their statement of thanks after Trump's tweet.)

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents don't get to demand praise for doing their job.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He suggested that perhaps "some people" thought his actual approval rating was 20 points higher than it is.

Trump tweeted this early Tuesday morning at the close of his Asia trip: 
Rasmussen is, in fact, not especially highly regarded for its tracking poll. gives it a C-plus, behind outfits like Gallup (B-minus, which has Trump at 38%), Ipsos/Reuters (A-minus, 37%), and Quinnipiac (A-minus, 35%). The average of tracking polls has Trump at 38.1% approval, unprecedentedly low for a president this early in his first term.

By "the last time" Trump presumably means the election polls, which are meant to predict how people will vote rather than whether they approve of an incumbent president. Rasmussen's actual election day forecast was fairly accurate: it had Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by 2%, whereas the average prediction among all national pollsters had Clinton winning by 3%. She won by 2.1%. Of course, Trump also claims to believe that he won the popular vote if three to five million "illegal votes" he somehow knows were cast exclusively for Clinton are excluded.

Trump didn't specify who the "some people" were who thought his approval rating was above water, but it's possible to guess.

Why is this a problem?

  • Politicians fudge numbers sometimes, but a president who cherry-picks a poll number that still has more than half of Americans disapproving of his performance is in a bad place.
  • Numbers are not #fakenews just because they make a president look bad.
  • People who voted for Trump and then lost confidence in him might be surprised to learn they don't exist.

Monday, November 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got bullied by Rodrigo Duterte.

Trump's Asia tour took him to the Philippines today, where he renewed his warm relationship with President Rodrigo Duterte. Death squads and other forms of vigilante violence encouraged by Duterte have killed thousands of people, making him a pariah in most democratic countries, including the United States under President Obama. 

Prior to Trump's arrival, Duterte had pre-emptively demanded that Trump not raise the issue of his human rights abuses, saying that if Trump did dare to bring it up, he would say, "You want to ask a question, I’ll give you an answer. Lay off. That is not your business. That is my business." Trump seemed happy to oblige, but when reporters present at the first meeting between the two asked about it, Duterte responded by calling the reporters "spies" and ordering them out of the room. (Duterte has openly threatened journalists with assassination.) 

Trump, who has called the free press in the United States "the enemy of the American people," laughed out loud at Duterte's expulsion of the press. Trump later reminded Duterte that he was his friend, but that President Obama had not been. (This is correct: Obama refused to "lay off" and ignore the murders the Duterte regime committed, and relationships between the two were strained as a result.)

Praise and warmth for dictators has become the hallmark of Trump's Asia trip: in addition to his deference to Duterte, Trump has sided with Vladimir Putin over the "political hacks" and "liars" of the US intelligence community, enthusiastically congratulated Xi Jinping on his "victory" in maintaining his place atop the undemocratic hierarchy of the Chinese government, and even (sporadically) held out hope that he might someday be "friends" with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. (At the moment, Trump and Kim are more like frenemies: Trump called Kim "short and fat" during this trip, but in the past has admired the way that the "smart cookie" Kim has ruthlessly suppressed challenges to his rule.)

Why should this bother me?

  • It's bad if presidents prefer the company of dictators and strongmen to democratically elected governments.
  • The President of the United States shouldn't be so easily pushed around.
  • Demonizing the free press is what authoritarians do--and this is an example of that.
  • A president who can't confront evil is either a coward or has priorities that make him unfit for office.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Bad news on Obamacare (in that there is good news). Trump suffered major setbacks this week in one of his main policy objectives: sabotaging the Affordable Care Act. Year-on-year enrollment numbers were up sharply in the first sign-up period on Trump's watch. Nobody predicted this--certainly not Trump, who has transitioned from declaring the law "dead" to chastising people for even bringing it up in his presence. Trump made an honest effort to bring about the ACA's "death spiral" all by himself--he'd cut the enrollment period in half and slashed public service ads by 90%--but to no avail, so far.

Adding insult to injury (for Trump, at least), the citizens of Maine voted by a 59-to-41 margin to participate in the Medicaid expansion program, a central part of the ACA. The success appears to have prompted other states to put Obamacare expansion on the ballot. Trump may take some consolation in the fact that Gov. Paul LePage (R), one of his staunchest supporters in the nations governor's mansions, has vowed to obstruct implementation of the referendum.

Golf course advertising. Trump has spent about a third of the days of his term in office so far visiting a Trump-branded property, most recently at a hotel in Hawaii en route to his Asia trip. He owns no hotels in South Korea (though his name is on some condominiums) and so couldn't cross-promote his business ventures there.

Instead, he did the next best thing--using his address before the South Korea National Assembly to plug his Bedminster, New Jersey golf course.

Praise for Xi. Trump's flip-flops on China are so frequent and cover so much territory that it's almost impossible to keep track of them. This week, the man who once accused China of economic "rape" of the United States was magnanimous about their trade policy, saying he didn't blame the country for doing its best for its citizens. (China has, for the most part, simply ignored Trump's ever-changing feelings about it, focusing instead on exploiting the chaos caused by the United States' sudden shift in trade policy under Trump.)

But his personal admiration for authoritarians has led to a chummy relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping--or, in any event, Trump seems to have warm feelings for Xi. In advance of his visit to China, Trump congratulated Xi on his "great political victory."

That's a reference to Xi's recent re-election as General Secretary of the Communist Party, a more accurate description of his political power than the term "president" (a ceremonial post that Xi also holds). China has one-party rule and no direct elections of any senior government officials. Trump's praise for Xi's "great political victory" was really praise for Xi's skill in controlling a fundamentally undemocratic form of government.

What's the problem with these things?

  • Presidents shouldn't openly try to sabotage the laws they're sworn to uphold.
  • A president who uses an address to a major ally's legislature to plug his side businesses has the wrong priorities.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States is constantly praising authoritarians and antidemocratic forms of government.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he believed Vladimir Putin didn't interfere in the 2016 election, because Putin has repeatedly said so.

Trump had a purportedly unscheduled meeting with Putin at a conference in Vietnam today. Afterwards, Trump railed against the "political hacks" and "liars" of America's intelligence agencies. Trump said Putin had repeatedly insisted that Russia did not interfere in the election: "He said he didn't meddle. He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times. Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,' and I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it."

Trump's declaration that he believes the leader of a hostile foreign power over his own government's finding was not well received.The "political hack" that Trump himself appointed to the head of the CIA, former Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS), flatly contradicted Trump and said that the agency's position that Russia meddled in the election has not changed.

Trump later took to Twitter to explain that if people believed that Putin hadn't interfered in the election to help Trump, then Russia would help "solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, [and] terrorism." (Russia is allied with the Assad regime in Syria, is violating sanctions against North Korea's government, and is occupying one part of Ukraine while fighting a covert war in another.)

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if the President of the United States takes the word of a hostile foreign power over his own government.
  • A president who has to make a choice between his own political interests and defending the United States against foreign interference cannot govern and should resign.

Friday, November 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He left China without taking questions from the press while there, because China told him not to.

Trump left China today for Vietnam, capping three days in which he did not take questions from the media, either American or foreign. This was, the White House confirmed, because China insisted that he not do so. 

The demand is routine; complying with it is not. American presidents have generally refused to go along with plans that involve shunning the press. China heavily censors the news media (and media in general) and American presidents' typical insistence on speaking to reporters has been a way of exerting pressure on the Chinese government. 

Trump's acceptance of China's media blackout allowed him to escape questions about new developments in the Mueller and congressional investigations, the child sex scandal engulfing Senate candidate Roy Moore, and reports that his former national security advisor Michael Flynn may have been involved, while in office, in a plot to kidnap a Turkish citizen living in the United States on behalf of the Turkish government for a $15 million ransom.

Why does this matter?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He weighed in on the sex crime scandal engulfing Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

The Washington Post today reported that four women, backed by more than thirty sources in all, have accused Roy Moore of initiating sexual contact with them when he was in his 30s and they were as young as 14. Trump initially--and reluctantly--backed incumbent Luther Strange in the GOP primary, but gave Moore his full-throated endorsement after he won the nomination.

Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway, who was the Trump campaign's point person for deflecting Trump's own sex scandals, said today that "hypothetically" the acts that Moore is accused of would be "disqualifying for anyone in public office."

Less hypothetically, the lengthy list of accusations against Trump for sexual harassment and assault includes several "grooming" behaviors targeted at underaged girls of the sort Moore is alleged to have done--and to which Trump has freely confessed. He has publicly admitted to watching Paris Hilton's sex tape, a family friend whose sexual attractiveness he said he noticed when she was 12 years old. On several different occasions, he's chatted up girls as young as 10 with the "joke" that he'd be dating them in ten years.

Trump has also admitted to using his ownership of beauty pageants as an excuse to barge in on contestants in changing rooms: "I'm allowed to go in because I'm the owner of the pageant. And therefore I'm inspecting it... Is everyone OK? You know, they're standing there with no clothes. And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that." Four contestants have confirmed that this included a pageant where the contestants were as young as 15.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who (correctly) says that sex crimes against children are "disqualifying" for office should resign if he's admitted to the same kinds of behaviors.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promoted his son's wife's brother to a chief of staff position at the Energy Department.

Kyle Yunaska, announced today as the new chief of staff for the Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis at the Department of Energy, had no experience in government or the energy industry before being given a job in the DoE in February. A 2007 graduate of East Carolina University, Yunasaka's alumni page lists the following skills: "Team Building, Strategy, Management, Entrepreneurship, Project Planning, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Office, PowerPoint, Budgets, Public Speaking, Strategic Planning, Business Strategy, Microsoft Word, Customer Service, Event Planning, Data Analysis, Social Media, Community Outreach, Research, Analysis, Customer Satisfaction, [and] Account Management."

Yunaska's new assignment is to the department that was previously responsible for coordinating climate change initiatives for the federal government. It is not clear what function it will have under Trump. Prior to his appointment shortly after his sister's father-in-law's election, he worked for Vail Resorts and was named one of Washington DC's "hottest bachelors" by Inside Edition.

Hundreds of other critical positions in the federal government, many of them more senior than Yunaska's new job, remain unfilled. In fact, the Department of Energy is the least-staffed of all executive departments, with no nominee having been made for 68% of its senior positions as of October 12. Some of those jobs are being done by acting officials, who will lose legal authority to perform those jobs on November 16.

So what?

  • Nepotism (giving jobs to relatives with no obvious qualifications) is bad.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He embraced GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie this morning and renounced him this evening.

Trump has been campaigning hard for Gillespie in recent weeks, and voiced a last-minute robocall this morning. He also mounted a spirited Twitter campaign, writing this morning:
Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He’s weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment... and has been horrible on Virginia economy. Vote @EdWGillespie today! @EdWGillespie will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of VA. MS-13 and crime will be gone. Vote today, ASAP!
And within minutes of Democrat Ralph Northam being named the projected winner, Trump wrote this: "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."

It's true that Gillespie avoided appearing with Trump, whose approval rating in Virginia (43%) is not much better than it is nationally (mid-30s). But on the issues that Trump has been most vocal about--Confederate statues and the supposed threat of violent immigrant gangs--the normally moderate Gillespie practically reinvented himself to fit the Trump mold.

Why does this matter?

  • There's no shame in backing a losing candidate, but there are shameful ways to react to a loss.
  • It's bad if a president can only accept or acknowledge responsibility for good news.

Monday, November 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared that the mass murder in Sutherland Springs, Texas, was "not a guns situation."

Regardless of how one feels about American firearms policy, the shooting, which left 26 people dead of bullet wounds and a further 27 injured, absolutely was in every conceivable sense a "guns situation." 

Trump's larger point appears to have been that, regardless of the weapon used, the attack was the act of a "deranged individual." "I think that mental health is your problem here," he added by way of explanation.

Shortly after taking office, Trump signed a law overturning an Obama-era regulation making it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns. Trump has also proposed $400 million in cuts to federal mental health programs.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The whole purpose of a budget is to reflect an administration's actual priorities.
  • You can either be for or against people with mental health issues having guns; not both.
  • A president should be able to address a tragedy without becoming completely incoherent.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, self-reflection edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He shared some of his thoughts on the subject of Donald Trump.

He's not mad. In the midst of the fallout from the double-barreled Mueller investigation news, which saw his campaign chair indicted for conspiracy against the United States, and his foreign policy advisor plead guilty to lying to the FBI about meeting with Russia on behalf of the campaign, Trump was calm.

We know this because he called the New York Times on Wednesday to announce that he was calm. “I’m actually not angry at anybody,” Trump said in the unsolicited interview.

That having been said, Trump may want to inform the dozens of sources from inside his own administration who have repeatedly described his reaction to the Mueller probe as "fuming," "seething" (a word used more than once), or "freaking out."

He's quite popular. In the same call, Trump reminded the NYT of his enduring popularity, saying, “I just got fantastic poll numbers." This came shortly after he hit record lows in both the benchmark Gallup and NBC/Wall Street Journal polls.

He's perfect. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked on Wednesday what Trump's flaws are. "Probably that he has to deal with you guys on a daily basis," she responded. Pressed for a serious answer after polite chuckles from the press corps, Sanders grew serious and said "I just gave you one" and moved on to the next question.

Sanders cannot be accused of putting words in Trump's mouth: he has never, to all appearances, ever identified anything he is deficient in. (The list of things he considers himself the best at is somewhat longer.) 

He matters.  Asked by a Fox News interviewer on Thursday whether his failure to address the critical shortage of State Department personnel was hurting his agenda, Trump had this reassuring response: "Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I'm the only one that matters."

Why do these things matter?

  • Whether they are presidents or adolescent children, people who are not upset rarely if ever call people up to declare that they are not upset.
  • A president at 33% approval is in no sense of the word popular.
  • While nobody doubts the sincerity of Trump's belief that only he matters, the belief itself is not a good sign.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made a special trip to a Trump-branded property in Hawaii.

Trump passed through Honolulu last night, a common rest and refueling point for presidents en route to Asia. He stayed at the Ritz (a hotel he does not own), but pulled his motorcade over en route to the airport to make a previously unannounced visit to the Trump International Hotel Waikiki. The visit lasted ten minutes, but it did provide White House press secretary Sarah Sanders (a public employee) with an opportunity to promote the "tremendously successful" hotel on the record.

Trump, who has flatly refused to obey ethics directives about personally profiting from his office, has found an excuse to shine the presidential spotlight on his hotel and resort properties with a personal visit on 96 of his 288 days in office to date, or exactly once every third day. 

Who cares?

  • Trying to profit from a public trust is the essence of corruption.
  • A president whose priorities involve promoting his businesses every third day is a president whose priorities are wrong.

Friday, November 3, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He ranted that he wasn't allowed to personally direct federal prosecutions or dictate criminal sentences.

Responding this afternoon to the relatively lenient sentencing of Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted from his post in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban, Trump tweeted that "[t]he decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military." Bergdahl received a reduction in rank, a fine, and a dishonorable discharge, but was not sentenced to jail time.

Col. Jeffrey Nance, the military judge who imposed the sentence, said last week that Trump's apparent efforts to influence the verdict would be a mitigating factor. In other words, Bergdahl appears to have escaped prison time precisely because Trump, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, tried to weigh in on an independent judicial proceeding. 

Trump seems unable or unwilling to accept that he cannot use the federal judicial system to directly attack his chosen political targets. He declared himself "very frustrated" by that limitation on a radio interview last night. This morning, he decided to ignore it altogether, once again publicly demanding that the Justice Department and FBI turn their sights on a list of Democratic politicians. He also once again mused about the possibility of firing his own attorney general, Jefferson Sessions, a move which would allow him in turn to engineer the firing of the prosecutor he is most worried about--special counsel Robert Mueller.

Why does this matter?

  • Using the trappings of law to punish political opponents is what authoritarians do.
  • A president who is "very frustrated" that he can't use the courts as political weapons isn't fit to be president.
  • It's bad if the president cannot control his outbursts even when it works against his own interests.
  • In the United States, judges, not presidents, determine criminal punishments.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave Sayfullo Saipov, the man accused of the recent NYC terror attack, his best chance at avoiding a conviction leading to the death penalty.

Trump, who has already thrown a wrench into one criminal prosecution in the last few weeks, today made his own prosecutors' jobs much more difficult with this tweet about Saipov:
This was the second time in as many days that Trump publicly demanded the death penalty for Saipov.

Based on the overwhelming evidence against Saipov, a conviction for murder or terrorism charges in state or federal court would normally be all but guaranteed--and while the federal death penalty is rarely employed, Saipov might be a prime candidate. (One of the last people to be executed by the federal government was Timothy McVeigh, who also used a rental truck to commit terrorist murder.)

But Trump's statements amount to a gift to Saipov's defense team, who will now be able to argue that Trump--speaking as president and in a forum that reaches tens of millions of potential jurors--has tainted the jury pool. This will likely hinder prosecutors' efforts to seat the jurors they'd most like, especially if they had intended to seek the death penalty.

In one respect, though, Trump's comments are a sort of improvement from his previous statements on the death penalty, in that Saipov is certainly responsible for the attack. Trump also called for the execution of the so-called Central Park Five, black and Latino men who were wrongly convicted in 1990 of a violent rape. They were later exonerated by DNA evidence and the confession of the actual rapist, and were paid $41 million by the city in a settlement that was influenced in part by Trump's campaign against them. Trump still claims to believe that they are guilty.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who cannot control himself well enough to avoid sabotaging the work of the Justice Department is incompetent to hold office.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called the federal judicial system a "joke."

Speaking from the White House about yesterday's terror attack in New York, Trump called the American justice system a "joke" and a "laughingstock" and suggested that the deliberative following of due process is the reason that terror attacks occur.
That was a horrible event, and we have to stop it, and we have to stop it cold. We also have to come up with punishment that’s far quicker and far greater than the punishment these animals are getting right now. They’ll go through court for years. And at the end, they’ll be — who knows what happens. We need quick justice and we need strong justice — much quicker and much stronger than we have right now. Because what we have right now is a joke and it’s a laughingstock. And no wonder so much of this stuff takes place. 
Later, Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied that Trump had said any of this.
Q Why did the President call the U.S. justice system a joke and a laughingstock during his comments in the Cabinet?

MS. SANDERS: That's not what he said.
But, of course, it was what he said. Pressed for clarification, Sanders insisted that Trump was talking about the judicial "process" rather than the judicial system.
MS. SANDERS: He said that process. He said the process has people calling us a joke and calling us a laughingstock.
Sanders did not explain the distinction between the "system" and the "process," or how the judicial system was inviting further terrorist attacks, or who other than Trump is afraid people are laughing at it, or what parts of due process Trump wanted to do away with.

Why should I care about this?

  • Until today, Trump seemed more concerned that the federal justice system was working too quickly and too effectively.