Sunday, December 31, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sold access to himself.

Trump is expected to attend tonight's New Year's party at Mar-a-Lago, the private club and de facto winter seat of the executive branch under his administration. Because ticket-buyers can count on Trump's attendance, tickets to the party now cost $600 for the club's 500 members and $750 for guests--a price hike of 14% and 30% respectively over what then-president-elect Trump charged for proximity to himself. 

The steep price tag--steep by most Americans' standards, anyway--is unlikely to deter many Mar-a-Lago members, who now pay $200,000 for their memberships and $15,000 in annual dues. If 4/5ths of the membership attend with a guest, Trump--who directly profits from all Mar-a-Lago revenues--will gross $540,000 on the night's tickets alone. (The actual number of tickets available is unclear, but the event will be bigger than last year's, which sold out.)

Trump's self-appointed "outside ethics advisor," Bobby Burchfield, declared the arrangement free of any ethical concerns. Burchfield is employed by the Trump Organization, which--in spite of the best efforts of actual, independent ethics officers--remains under the direct control of its principal owner, Donald Trump.

Unfortunately for mere rank-and-file millionaire members, however, their tickets may not buy them a private word with Trump this year. A separate VIP section is being built, although who will be permitted inside it or how much admission costs has not been revealed.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents should not sell access to themselves.
  • There are more important things for the President of the United States of America to do than drum up sales for his private business concerns.

The weekly review, which normally appears on Sundays, will take place tomorrow.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He (probably) set a personal record for leisure.

UPDATE, 12/31: Trump is apparently golfing today as well, extending the streak described below to six. The box truck was apparently a temporary Trump-shielding measure, and the gap that allowed the public to observe the fact that Trump was golfing has now been plugged by hastily planted trees.

UPDATE #2, 1/1: In a rare publicly acknowledged golf outing, Trump was off to the links again this morning, for an all-but-certain streak of seven consecutive days. 

Trump very likely golfed today, which means he almost certainly golfed five days in a row, which may be a record for Trump's golf-happy presidency. If not, it either ties a record set November 22-26, or comes in second to the nine-day stretch Trump spent entirely in residence at his Bedminster, NJ course August 5-13. (Rain on August 7 likely spoiled that run.)

The uncertainty comes from the fact that the White House rarely confirms that any given Trump visit to a golf club is in fact a golf outing. Sometimes Trump aides even physically obstruct reporters who are trying to keep track. For example, CNN tried to get a photograph of Trump's Wednesday outing--having done so several times already during Trump's lengthy vacation at Mar-a-Lago--only to find that a mysterious white truck was being moved around the course to block lines of sight from public sidewalks. (It was later revealed to be owned by the local police department, though who ordered it there and how much it cost taxpayers to have it there remains unclear.)

On Christmas Day, right before the five-day streak began, Trump warned Americans that the next day it would be time to go "back to work in order to Make America Great Again!" Trump has had nothing recognizably related to his duties as president on his public schedule for at least a week, and traveled away from Trump-branded properties only once in that period.

Counts vary slightly, but today makes approximately the 72nd time that Trump has gone golfing since his term began, and the 115th day out of 344 in which he has spent time at a Trump-branded property.

Who cares?

  • Hypocrisy is still bad, even when it's not really news anymore.
  • A president who brags about going "back to work" after a holiday should probably do so within a week or so of making that brag.
  • Concealing something from public view doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Friday, December 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about his approval ratings.

Trump's daily Fox & Friends binge brought him what, by his polling standards, was good news: a poll showing that his approval rating was at "approximately" President Obama's level at the same point in his presidency. He immediately shared the news on Twitter.

It's true that 45%, which is the actual number reported for Trump by a recent Rasmussen daily tracking poll, is "approximately" the 46% it recorded for Obama in December 2009. (For some reason, Trump gave Obama's number as 47%.) 

However, there is no sense in which Trump's poll numbers are "approximately" the same as Obama's at this point in his presidency--and Obama was not particularly popular at the time, with an anemic 51% approval rating in the benchmark Gallup tracking poll.

Trump is at 37%.

The Gallup number is also almost identical to the running average of polls calculated by

In fairness to Trump, for all his cherry-picking of relatively favorable polls, there is a kind of accidental honesty at work in his musings about his popularity (or lack thereof). He is certainly the only president to ever deliberately call attention to polls showing that a majority of Americans disapprove of his job performance.

Why does this matter?

  • Declaring yourself popular rarely works as a tactic to increase your popularity after middle school.
  • It's bad if a president is more concerned with popularity than with the actual performance of his duties.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He changed his story on the subject of "collusion."

In excerpts of an interview he did with the New York Times today, Trump used the word "collusion" 23 times. In 22 of them, he denied having colluded with the Russians in their interference in the election that made him president--or accused Democrats of having been the real colluders.

On the 23rd time, however, Trump said this: "There is no collusion, and even if there was, it’s not a crime." 

Since Trump knows best of all what the Mueller investigation will find, it is safe to assume that this is the official pivot to a new political "framing" of Trump's activities--one in which his defense is less "I didn't do those things" and more "it's not wrong that I did them."

Trump is correct that "collusion" is not a crime (except in anti-trust law). A more legally precise word for what Trump and his closest advisors are suspected of in their eager, secret dealings with Russia during the campaign is criminal conspiracy. Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, the Trump campaign's manager and deputy manager, have already been charged with conspiracy against the United States, among other crimes.

Conspiracy is a crime all by itself, but so are the crimes that might be committed in furtherance of a conspiracy: obstruction of justice (including in the performance of official duties with corrupt intent), perjury, lying on official documents, various computer-related offenses, accepting illegal campaign contributions, and being an accessory to any of the above. 

Why should I care about this?

  • It's pretty sad if a sitting president of the United States, under investigation for conspiring with a hostile foreign power to attack democracy itself, is playing legal word games.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about how much legislation he was getting passed.

Speaking to a small group of first responders today, Trump said, “You know, one of the things that people don’t understand — we have signed more legislation than anybody. We broke the record of Harry Truman.”

In fact, Trump has signed the fewest pieces of legislation to this point in his term of any president at least since Eisenhower--all the more surprising since he has a largely compliant Republican majority in Congress. In his first hundred days, Trump signed many bills--but most were routine technical updates to existing laws, uncontroversial issues related to flag displays, or purely ceremonial matters like the renaming of federal buildings. Only the recent tax bill qualifies as major legislation, and given how it polled, reminding voters of that may not be a great idea.

Trump's remarks were made following his second consecutive morning spent playing golf and the third in four days.

Who cares?

  • It's bad when presidents lie.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He offered Kwanzaa greetings.

Of course, in and of itself, there is nothing wrong with a president issuing a (very) brief statement acknowledging the start of the week-long celebration of African heritage. Every president since at least Bill Clinton has done so. 

But Trump was against Kwanzaa before he was against it. He falsely accused then-president Obama in 2011 of acknowledging Kwanzaa but not Christmas. 

More recently, he's reinvented himself as the savior of Christmas by turning "merry Christmas" into a political code phrase. But this, too, is a flip-flop. As a landlord in the early 1980s, seeking to force out elderly tenants in rent-controlled apartments so that he could build more expensive units, Trump forbade residents from putting up a Christmas tree or Christmas decorations.

Why does this matter?

  • Christmas is not about serving a president's political agenda--and neither is Kwanzaa or any other holiday.

Monday, December 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot the rest of the country doesn't work on the Trump schedule.

This afternoon, Trump tweeted his Christmas greetings, then reminded the nation that "tomorrow it’s back to work in order to Make America Great Again!"

Many Americans will indeed be going back to work tomorrow--assuming they had today off--but Trump is in the middle of a 10-day stay at Mar-a-Lago, his vacation resort and the de facto Winter White House. His public schedule is blank, meaning that his communications staff has abandoned even the pretense of a work day.

Even Trump cannot fully escape all the responsibilities of the presidency while away from the (official) White House, but he usually tries his best, and this extended vacation is no different: as usual, he's been spending it golfing

So what?

  • It's fine for a president to vacation, but he doesn't have to taunt Americans who actually do have to go to work.
  • It's not great if it doesn't even occur to the president of the United States that some people really do work on holidays.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Denial edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He issued--and existed in a state of--denial.

Russia warnings. It was reported this week that the Trump campaign (as well as the Clinton campaign) received a briefing warning them of the possibility that Russian intelligence agents would try to target them. The existence of the briefing is not really a surprise, but it does call into sharper relief the fact that the Trump campaign did not go directly to the FBI when approached by Russian contacts with the promise of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. (Instead, they enthusiastically sent three of Trump's most senior confidants to a meeting, then attempted to conceal that it had taken place.)

Trump, who had previously categorically denied that there were ever any contacts between his campaign and Russia--an extravagantly false claim--denied this week that the briefing meant anything.

2017 elections. Still fuming over Roy Moore's loss in the Alabama Senate race, Trump took to Twitter on Monday to remind anyone still listening that the Republican party was not collapsing. "Remember, Republicans are 5-0 in Congressional Races this year. The media refuses to mention this," he wrote, referring to special elections. In fact, Republicans are 5-2 after Doug Jones' victory in Alabama and Jimmy Gomez' victory in the race for the seat vacated by Xavier Becerra (D-CA),

Setting that aside, however, the picture painted by those victories is fairly grim for the GOP under Trump. By a wide margin, the Democratic candidates in those safe Republican seats outperformed Hillary Clinton's vote share in their districts--and Clinton herself beat Trump in the popular vote.

The picture in state legislative special elections is even more dramatic. Democrats gained 11 seats over the course of 98 elections in 2017 to date. (A typical year sees about 70 special elections in state legislatures, and no year since 2011 has seen a partisan shift of more than three seats.)

2018 elections. These were some of the points made by Republican leaders in a "come to Jesus" meeting held Wednesday in the wake of the tax bill passing. (The timing of the meeting may have been intentional--Trump's aides have long since learned to take advantage of his mood swings by presenting bad news when he is in a good frame of mind.)

Trump's response to warnings of a "bloodbath" in 2018 has been to ask aides whether he is "getting enough credit for his accomplishments." (Presumably the answer he was looking for was "no.")

Petitioning the government for redress of grievances (suspended). On Tuesday, Trump shuttered the popular "We The People" online citizen petition page created by the Obama Administration and housed on the White House's website.

Under President Obama's rules, all petitions that reached a 100,000 signature threshold were supposed to received an official response by the White House within 30 days. Trump has not responded to any of the 17 such petitions that satisfied that requirement since he took office--probably because many of them were critical of him. Some of the qualifying petitions had called on Trump to release his tax returns, comply with ethics rules, or resign.

The Trump White House claims that closing the site will save $1.3 million, although it was not clear where this number came from. (The site itself would not cost that much to host if it received a hundred times the traffic it did.)

Haitians and Nigerians. Some of Trump's denials were more straightforward. Back in June, according to two sources within his own administration, Trump livened up a meeting on immigration with some observations about the kinds of people he believes are coming to the United States. Haitians, Trump said, "all have AIDS," and Nigerians would "never go back to their huts" once they'd seen the United States.

The Trump White House response: no, he didn't say that.

Why do these things matter?

  • Presidents shouldn't conspire with foreign agents after being warned by the FBI not to conspire with foreign agents.
  • A president's political problems aren't the most important things, but that doesn't mean that pretending they don't exist will make them go away.
  • It's bad if a president is unwilling to hear criticism, or even suggestions, from citizens.
  • Even if there isn't documentary proof one way or the other, it shouldn't be so plausible that a sitting president would say insanely offensive and racist things.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He continued his attacks on the FBI, specifically the part of it investigating his ties to Russia.

Trump took to Twitter to attack Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI. He accused McCabe of corruption, on the theory that political donations made by the DNC to McCabe's wife's unsuccessful political campaign influenced him during an investigation of Hillary Clinton that he supervised after the campaign was over. The angry messages coincided with a Fox News broadcast about McCabe.

McCabe is expected to retire in March, hounded out by Trump's politicization of the federal police force's investigation into him. On that point, Trump also leveled a particular charge at McCabe that most Americans will find curious: that he was only staying in his job in order to maximize his pension benefits.

Pensions and other retirement benefits are tied to length of service precisely so that experienced employees will stay on the job for a certain period of time. Among Americans who can't rely on inheritances to support them in old age, it is not uncommon--or inappropriate--to retire after fulfilling a term of service.

McCabe served briefly as acting director of the FBI after Trump fired James Comey for his refusal to end the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. McCabe infuriated Trump when he told a congressional committee that FBI's probe of the matter was "highly significant" and spoke about the high regard that law enforcement officials had for Comey.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president doesn't understand how pensions work.
  • It's not normal for presidents to be this hostile to the rule of law.
  • A president who reacts to what he sees on TV is a president that can be too easily manipulated.

Friday, December 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He signed a tax bill just in time to have its basic assumptions contradicted by his own government.

Trump--openly worried that the spotlight was already fading on the first significant piece of legislature passed during his presidency--abruptly decided to sign his tax bill today at a hastily arranged Oval Office ceremony. In remarks made during the event, Trump insisted that the bill was "becoming very popular." In fact, in a CNN poll taken just before its passage, voters disapproved of the bill by a margin of 35-59%. This makes Trump's tax bill, which massively reduces taxes on the wealthy but includes at least token cuts for low- and middle-income filers, less popular than several tax hikes.

Several hours after the signing ceremony, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) announced in its final report that the bill would not come anywhere near to stimulating the economy enough to make up for the $1.5 trillion hole it will put in the federal budget. Quite a few independent analyses had already concluded this, but the JCT is a Republican-led congressional committee charged with analyzing the financial impact of tax legislation for the government.

The Trump administration's official position was that the tax cuts would pay for themselves, although it announced this claim in a one-page document based on extremely optimistic assumptions that one economist called "a joke."

Why should I care about this?

  • Good legislation doesn't need to be lied about.
  • Whether a president gets "credit" from media he claims to hate should be less important to him than whether he's actually doing his job.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened 192 countries.

The United Nations voted 192-9 today to condemn Trump's decision to proceed with building a US embassy in Jerusalem. Prior to the vote, the United States' ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, explicitly threatened to defund foreign aid to countries that voted for the resolution, and suggested that the UN itself was beholden to the US for its relatively large share of membership dues.

Haley's words echoed Trump's from yesterday, when he told reporters: "They take hundreds of millions of dollars and even billions of dollars, and then they vote against us. Well, we're watching those votes. Let them vote against us. We'll save a lot. We don't care." The language about the United States being owed deference by the UN because of dues payments also echoes Trump's persistent confusion over how NATO operates. (He believes it is, in effect, a protection racket run by the US.)

Until Trump, US foreign aid had never come with these kinds of explicit strings attached--precisely because the "support" of a country that is being coerced tends not to be worth much. Instead, its purpose is to encourage stability and the growth of robust economies in potential US trading partners and strategic allies. It also includes money to halt the spread of infectious diseases like the Zika virus that might otherwise threaten the US directly.

Under normal circumstances, cutting off aid to countries like Egypt over a symbolic vote would be a completely empty threat, because the aid is only offered in the United States' best interests in the first place. It's not clear how serious Trump is, or whether he understands the implications of what he's saying.

The seven countries joining the United States and Israel were Guatemala, South Sudan, Togo, and four tiny Pacific island nations. None of the seven have any special relationship with either Israel or the Palestinian Authority, and none have any influence on the embassy matter. All seven are severely impoverished and receive foreign aid from the United States.

Why is this bad?

  • The entire world cannot be bought off for a fraction of one percent of the US budget.
  • Presidents who try to bully the world only hurt the United States--especially when they fail so badly at it.
  • If virtually the entire world--including all of the United States' most important military and diplomatic allies--thinks something is a bad idea, maybe the president should listen.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took credit for an increase in the number of Americans without health insurance.

At a White House ceremony today marking the passage of a tax bill, Trump praised himself for his political strategy of not calling attention to one of the bill's provisions: effectively ending the individual mandate part of the Affordable Care Act. Acknowledging that Obamacare, as it is sometimes known, had been too popular to safely repeal directly, Trump congratulated himself on his self-restraint for not calling the public's attention to the tax bill's impact:
We didn't want to bring it up. I told people specifically "be quiet with the fake news media because I don't want them talking too much about it." Because I didn't know how people would [react].
Whether the tax bill "effectively repeals" Obamacare, as Trump claimed, is a matter of perspective. All of the ACA's popular provisions will remain in force: insurers will be forbidden from turning people away because of pre-existing conditions, the state and federal exchanges will continue to operate, and Medicaid expansion will remain in the states that have adopted it. The cost to the federal government will not go down--in fact, because of rising premiums as a result of declining enrollment, it will cost the government more even as it reduces the government's revenue.

But the absence of the mandate, which creates a viable market for private health insurance, will certainly cause the number of uninsured Americans to rise--by about 13,000,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And since the people most likely to lose their coverage are the healthiest, that means that health insurance will definitely be more expensive for everyone else, according to insurance industry experts.

Trump, as a public employee who hired his own full-time personal physician rather than bother with insurance as a private citizen, is not likely to be affected by upwardly spiraling premiums.

So what?

  • It's wrong for a president to deliberately withhold information from the American people.
  • It's even worse if, having done so, he publicly brags about it after it's too late.
  • No amount of political gamesmanship is worth the health and economic stability of 13,000,000 Americans.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He observed the passage of a tax bill by repeating obviously false claims about its effect on his personal wealth.

Faced with a blizzard of questions about today's tax bill's obvious implications for Trump's wealth Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gamely repeated the official Trump line several times: "We expect that it likely will — certainly on the personal side — could cost the President a lot of money."

In reality, the bill will lower the rate paid by the wealthiest filers (like Trump), double the amount of money shielded from estate taxes (which Trump's estate will be subject to), massively lowers the tax on pass-through entities (which is what the Trump Organization is), and is chock full of breaks specifically aimed at the real estate industry (where Trump makes much of his money). All of these and any number of other provisions in the 560-page bill will lower, not raise, Trump's personal tax bill.

In fact, it is difficult to identify a single aspect of the bill that would in any way raise Trump's personal taxes--and Huckabee Sanders didn't try to. 

This isn't the first time Trump has told insultingly obvious lies about the way the tax bill will affect his personal fortunes, although Huckabee Sanders' version of them is performed with a straighter face than Trump himself usually manages. In a recent speech before a friendly crowd in Missouri, Trump struggled to deliver his lines without laughing, and he got a knowing chuckle from his audience when he claimed his "very wealthy friends" were "not so happy" about the plan. 

Unlike every president since Nixon, Trump continues to refuse to release any portion of his tax returns.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Good policy rarely needs to be lied about. 
  • Past a certain point, lies can get so big and so obvious that their only real purpose is to show contempt for the people they're told to.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blamed a train accident on underfunding of infrastructure he wants to cut funding from.

This morning, an Amtrak train derailed near Seattle, killing at least three people and sending dozens more to the hospital. Trump immediately seized on the incident as an opportunity to promote himself, tweeting his claim that the accident showed the need to support his infrastructure plan.

No such plan exists yet, at least not in any form the public has been allowed to see, but Trump has submitted a budget. In it, he proposed to cut $928 million from transit construction grants and $630 million from Amtrak's budget.

Why does this matter?

  • You are either for spending money on infrastructure or you aren't.
  • What you actually budget money for is a pretty good indication of where your priorities lie.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Voter suppression. It was revealed this week that all four Trumps who were registered to vote in the New York City mayoral election last month failed to do so legally.

Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner simply declined to vote--which may have been the wisest course of action, given the difficulty the rest of his family had in voting legally. His wife, Ivanka, attempted to vote, but mailed her absentee ballot on Election Day, which is too late. Melania Trump failed to sign the envelope, as is required, and had her vote rejected as well. And Donald Trump submitted his signed vote in a timely fashion, but with an error that, at least in theory, should have caused it to be rejected: he misstated his birthdate.

Trump claims that the only reason he lost the popular vote was that as many as five million people voted illegally (and exclusively) for Hillary Clinton. As a face-saving gesture, one of his first acts as president was to convene a commission to investigate "election integrity." Its vice-chair, Kansas politician Kris Kobach, rejected absentee ballots in Kansas from disabled persons physically unable to sign documents. That same commission includes being on the voter rolls in multiple jurisdictions under its definition of "voter fraud"--a situation that applies to almost any American who has moved in the last few years, including his daughter Tiffany, his Treasury Secretary, and Steve Bannon.

All-white advisors. Omarosa Manigault Newman, still best known for her villainous turn on the 2004 season of The Apprentice (and subsequently on Celebrity Apprentice), either quit or was fired from her White House job. Most of the media coverage focused on the drama around her exit: Manigault Newman was reportedly unpopular with other White House staff, and nobody (including her) was sure exactly what her job was.

But whether or not she was popular or useful, as the Director of Communications for the White House Public Liaison Office, she was the only African-American person who could even conceivably be called a senior advisor to Trump.

As a private citizen, Trump has been sued for refusing to rent his properties to African-Americans (twice), and again when he broke a contractual promise to the city of Gary, Indiana to hire citizens of that majority-black city. Trump was fined in 1992 for ordering black employees off the casino floor when he visited (a practice that dates back at least as far as the 1980s), and recently assumed that black reporter April Ryan was a personal friend of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and could set up a meeting with them.

Media meddling. Last month, Trump made headlines when he apparently leaned on his Justice Department to force the sale of CNN--the politically moderate news network he "hate-watches"--as a condition of approving a merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which owns it.

This week, he called Rupert Murdoch, the owner of 21st Century Fox, to be reassured that the sale of Fox properties to Disney did not include Fox News--the right-wing news network that makes up the bulk of his reported 4-8 hours of daily TV-watching. (Much to Trump's relief, Fox News will not be part of the sale.)

Trump's Justice Department has not raised any objections to the $52.4 billion media consolidation deal.

Why are these bad things?

  • In a functioning democracy, governments try to make it easier to vote, not harder.
  • The most likely reason that a president has no black advisors is that he does not value the opinions of black people.
  • It's bad if a president uses the powers of his office to reward friends and punish enemies.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained that the special counsel investigating him was succeeding in investigating him.

After the election, members of Trump's transition team were given government email addresses ending in from the General Services Administration. Anticipating that the Mueller investigation would want to look at them, the Trump administration had filtered out the ones it considered too sensitive to allow Mueller to see. But instead of asking to see the edited collection that Trump was offering, the special counsel's office obtained all of them, totalling "tens of thousands," directly from the GSA. 

Trump's position, expressed today through his lawyer Kory Langhofer, is that these e-mails were obtained "unlawfully." But as legal experts noted, prosecutors obtain information from third parties (including government sources) all the time, particularly when they believe that the targets of their investigation would tamper with or conceal incriminating evidence if asked for it directly. 

One telling detail is that Langhofer directed his complaints to Congress, not to Mueller or his supervisor at the Department of Justice. Recently, Trump has settled on a strategy of trying to delegitimize the Mueller investigation (and federal law enforcement in general) with the public, so that Congressional Republicans will not feel politically obliged to act if and when Trump fires Mueller.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents who don't want to look like criminals should help investigators, not withhold evidence from them.
  • Exposing an assault on American democracy is more important than any president's political well being.

Friday, December 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He doubled down on an embarrassingly unqualified judicial nominee.

Yesterday, Trump's nominee for the federal district court in the District of Columbia, Matthew Petersen, had an exchange with the Senate Judiciary committee that quickly went viral. In it, Petersen--who has a law degree but has effectively never practiced law--was forced to admit his ignorance of basic legal terms and courtroom procedures.

Trump was apparently unable to let this embarrassment go unchallenged, and sent a spokesperson to defend Petersen. Hogan Gidley issued a statement arguing that Petersen was qualified because actual practicing lawyers worked for Petersen in his previous job. He added, "It is no surprise the President's opponents keep trying to distract from the record-setting success the President has had on judicial nominations."

The Trump "opponent" who humiliated Petersen was Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who votes overwhelmingly with Trump's positions and has rarely if ever directly criticized Trump.

Given Trump's refusal to back down, it's not clear whether Petersen will join the similarly unqualified Brett Talley (whose hobbies included investigating "paranormal activity" and writing anonymous internet comments that praised the Ku Klux Klan) and Jeff Mateer (who called transgender children "part of Satan's plan") on the list of recently rejected Trump court picks. 

Federal judgeships are lifetime appointments.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president who promised to appoint "the best people" should at least try to appoint qualified people.
  • It's bad if the president's first instinct when caught in a mistake is to deny that he's made a mistake.
  • Federal judges should know at least something about how law is practiced.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He spent more time listening to Vladimir Putin himself than to intelligence briefings about the threat Putin poses.

Trump called Putin today. Other than a generic reference to North Korea, the only detail provided in the White House readout of the call was that "President Trump thanked President Putin for acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference."

At a press conference in Moscow today, Putin did indeed praise the performance of the American stock markets under Trump — an oddly specific point of praise, but one that Putin was clever to emphasize. Stock markets don't say much about the strength of the economy or any given president's stewardship of it, but Trump seems enormously proud of the fact that the markets are up during his presidency. Putin also denied that Russia had interfered in the 2016 US election, a claim that Trump has taken at face value, and repeated in the American media as though it settled the matter. 

Also today, the Washington Post reported on the enormous sensitivity that Trump has on the subject of Russia. His intelligence briefers have found it almost impossible to address the subject without making Trump unproductively angry. As a result, his daily briefings are "structured to avoid upsetting him," which in turn means that executive agencies are rudderless on the subject.
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account.  

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president whose hurt feelings prevent him from addressing major national security issues is unfit for office.
  • Under no circumstances should a president take the word of a hostile foreign power over the intelligence and national security agencies of his own government.
  • A president who treats every flattering thing as a statement of fact is a president who can be easily manipulated.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared that Roy Moore's loss meant that he had been "right" all along.

In the aftermath of Doug Jones upset victory in Alabama last night, Trump--or someone with access to his Twitter account--wrote an uncharacteristically diplomatic tweet congratulating Jones on a "hard fought victory." Seven hours later, at a time of day generally associated with angry tweets from Trump, came a very different message. In it, Trump absolved himself of any responsibility for Moore's defeat:
In fact, Trump was electrified by the Moore candidacy and began working on Moore's behalf even before the primary was over. Trump endorsed Strange, but complained "mightily" before and after the primary that he would rather have backed Moore from the start and blamed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for manipulating him into throwing his weight behind Strange. Even then, his endorsement of Strange was bizarrely qualified: just days before the primary, at a rally for Strange, Trump said about his choice of candidates, "I might have made a mistake. I’ll be honest, I might have made a mistake." He then praised Moore and promised to campaign just as hard for him if he won.

During the general election campaign, Trump recorded robo-calls for Moore, endorsed him after a sex scandal involving his alleged sexual contacts with underage girls broke, held campaign rallies in Alabama media markets, and tweeted his encouragement to "VOTE ROY MOORE!" or similar sentiments five times. He also made sure that Moore once again began to receive money from the Republican National Committee, which had been withdrawn after the child sex allegations came to light.

Why should I care about this?

  • There's nothing inherently wrong with backing a losing candidate, but a president who sets as much store by loyalty as Trump does should probably demonstrate some.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at a female senator who called for his resignation, saying she'd "do anything" for his money.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who recently made waves within her own party for her repudiation of Bill Clinton's sexual conduct, has also called on congressional Republicans to investigate the many accusations of sexual assault or harassment leveled against Trump. This morning, Trump--who tolerates criticism from women even less well than from men--retaliated with a tweet that suggested Gillibrand was "disloyal" because he'd made contributions to her campaign funds in 2007 and 2010, adding that she "would do anything for them." 

Trump did not explain why he thought his $5,850 in donations to Gillibrand, a liberal Democrat, entitled him to her silence seven years later on the question of his alleged sexual assaults. 

Trump's tweet was almost universally understood as a crude sexual reference, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gamely pushed back, saying that only people whose minds were "in the gutter" could take it that way. 

Gillibrand, who did take it that way, learned about Trump's tweet after she was pulled out of a bipartisan congressional Bible study.

What's the problem here?

  • A president whose instinct is to call a women who upsets him a whore isn't morally fit for the office.
  • A president who can't control that instinct isn't emotionally stable enough for the office.
  • It's bad if a president who is monetizing his presidency every chance he gets thinks that politicians' "loyalty" is for sale.

Monday, December 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denied a "fake news" report that he watches hours of TV every day.

On Saturday, the New York Times ran a lengthy article sourced to sixty "advisers, associates, and members of Congress" detailing Trump's mood swings and media consumption, and the efforts of his staff to keep him on task. It included reports that he watches 4-8 hours of cable news per day, and that he uses it in an attempt to control his own moods--or fire them up. This is in line with exhaustive previous reporting of Trump's long-standing TV obsession.

That detail was relatively innocuous compared to the overall picture it painted of Trump as an overconfident yet needy and emotionally unstable man whose staff had mostly settled on a strategy of manipulating rather than educating him. Nevertheless, Trump focused on the TV-watching claim in his Twitter rebuttal

It would be easier to take Trump at his word over the NYT's sixty sources if Trump didn't so often react in real time on Twitter to things he'd just heard on cable news. One of his favorite targets for that, the morning show Fox and Friends, made a joke of it: they asked Trump to blink the Oval Office lights if he was watching, and then cut to a "live" shot of the White House lights flickering. Trump's habits are so widely known and so predictable that organizations and political groups looking to influence him have bought TV ads specifically targeted at him.

Why does this matter?

  • The presidency is a full-time job.

Sunday week in review

What else did Donald Trump do today?

FBI. Trump's criticism of the FBI forced his directorial appointee, Christopher Wray, into the probably unprecedented position of defending the nation's federal police force against its own president. Wray sent FBI staff an e-mail expressing his support on Monday, and again in his testimony before Congress on Thursday.

Trump said last week that the reputation of the FBI was in "tatters," as part of a public relations campaign to discredit whatever it or its former director, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, may find regarding Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election. 

Novel legal theories. Donald Trump Jr. spent much of Wednesday behind closed doors with the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russia's attempts to get his father elected. By the rules of the committee, what he talked about isn't clear, but members can discuss with the press what he refused to talk about. Trump Jr. was unwilling to discuss a conversation he had with his father during the apparent attempt to cover up his June 2016 meeting with Russian agents--the ones who had provoked an enthusiastic response from him when they promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.

Since the nature of that conversation is likely to incriminate at least Trump Jr., his refusal to answer is not surprising. But the nature of his refusal is: he claimed that talking with his father was subject to attorney-client privilege.

Neither man is a lawyer.

What is in a name. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has not been expected to run for re-election in 2018, but Trump made efforts this week to get the 83-year-old into the race. The reason is that if Hatch doesn't run, one likely candidate to replace him is former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The two do not like one another: in March of 2016, when it still seemed possible to avert a Trump nomination, Romney gave a heavily publicized speech in which he called Trump a "phony," a "fraud," and a "con man"--among other things.

It was also revealed this week that when Trump appointed Mitt Romney's niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, to chair the Republican National Committee, he did so on the condition that she stop using her middle name in public.

Regulations. At his Pensacola rally for Roy Moore, Trump praised himself for his skill at cutting regulations--something he usually presents as a good thing no matter what regulations are being undone--and embellished it with an interesting if absurd claim: that only President Lincoln had come anywhere close.

It's not clear what, if anything, Trump had in mind by this beyond wanting to compare himself favorably to Lincoln--something he does a lot. One of the "job killing regulations" put in place by President Obama that Trump axed this week was one requiring airlines to fully disclose baggage fees to customers before a ticket is purchased.

The White House did not comment on how many jobs would be saved by surprise baggage fees.

Business. Trump's business empire expanded into Indonesia this week. Trump's name will go up over a proposed "six-star" hotel, golf course, and luxury resort, according to a report made this week.

This violates a promise Trump made shortly before taking office that he would not enter into "new deals" with foreign business interests. Trump remains the direct beneficiary of any money his businesses make, which makes lucrative deals like this an easy way to buy influence. But in his defense, it will not be any easier for Indonesia to do so than the Dominican Republic, Dubai and China, or any of the new foreign customers of his existing businesses that he now says it is too much trouble to keep track of.

Why are these bad things?

  • A president who does not have faith in the integrity of his own government should leave it.
  • Things a president does or says in possible furtherance of a crime are not secret just because he (or his son) really needs them to be.
  • Making someone renounce their family name just to keep a job is a pretty shitty thing to do.
  • It's bad if a president doesn't keep his promises.
  • It shouldn't be this easy to make it look like the President of the United States can be bought.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He appeared at a civil rights museum opening, and in a robocall for a man who specifically cited the era of slavery as the United States' greatest time.

Trump spent 40 minutes this morning at the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, appearing only in private after outrage by some of the very people the museum honors. Citing Trump's embrace of white nationalist rhetoric, John Lewis and other veterans of the civil rights movement stayed away from the opening after Trump, at the last minute, accepted an invitation from Mississippi's Republican governor Phil Bryant to attend. Trump read carefully from a prepared statement, did not take questions, did not appear in public, and did not see any of the protestors who gathered to meet him.

Trump's actual reason for appearing in Mississippi is its proximity to Alabama. Trump is enthusiastically campaigning for GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore and held a rally just across the Florida border last night, but given the very real prospect that Moore may lose--almost unthinkable for a Republican in that state--he seems to be trying to hedge his political bets by not actually crossing the border. 

At some point after he left the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum this morning, Trump recorded a "robocall" on behalf of the Moore campaign, according to a White House spokesperson.

The two things are connected. Moore is chiefly known these days for the nine women who say he "dated" them and made sexual contact with them when he was a middle-aged man and they were as young as 14. But when he was asked by an African-American man in September when he last thought America was "great," Moore responded, “I think it was great at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery—they cared for one another.... Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who can't attend a civil rights museum opening without making a mockery of it the same day shouldn't go.
  • A president who can't attend a civil rights museum opening without making a mockery of it shouldn't be president.

Friday, December 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about terrible poll numbers.

In a tweet sent shortly after noon today, Trump added his signature all-caps "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN" rallying cry to the topline result of a Politico/Morning Consult poll: 45% approval.

This is accurate, and unlike some of the polls Trump has been known to tout, it actually exists outside of his imagination. This particular number clashes dramatically with other recent polls. During the same period (Dec. 1-3) that this poll was taken, Trump tied his lowest mark in the Gallup daily tracking poll (33% approval/62% disapproval). A Pew poll in the field between November 29 and December 4 found Trump's approval numbers at a record-low 32%, with 63% disapproving. The average of polls splits the difference today at 37/56.

But regardless of which end of the spectrum Trump is choosing from, the fact remains that the Politico/Morning Consult poll is terrible for him. Not only does it confirm the basic truth of Trump's situation--he has been astonishingly unpopular for his entire presidency, especially considering the almost decade-long economic improvement he has inherited--but the poll also paints a very unflattering picture of Trump's performance in many specific areas. Among the other details reported:

  • Twice as many Americans believe that Trump's tax plan will raise their taxes than lower it
  • Trump's endorsed choice for the open Senate seat in Alabama, Roy Moore, should be expelled immediately if elected, according to a 3-to-1 majority
  • Only 13% of Americans believe Trump always tells the truth
  • Just 37% of Americans call Trump "trustworthy," the same score he gets for "stable."
  • By contrast, 54% call him "sexist," 60% call him "reckless," and 51% say he is "thin-skinned"

Why does this matter?

  • It's embarrassing if a president is this desperate for validation.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accused John Lewis of not wanting to honor civil rights heroes like... John Lewis.

Trump decided over the weekend to attend the opening of a civil rights museum in Jackson, Mississippi. As a result, Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) and several other Democratic politicians announced they would not attend. Trump was unable to let the rebuke go unchallenged. Today, the White House released a statement: “We think it’s unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the president in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.”

John Lewis was chairman of SNCC, helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer project, was beaten at the Edmund Pettus bridge. In other words, he is one of the civil rights leaders whose sacrifices the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum depicts.

Trump's sudden decision to attend the opening is apparently part of his tactic of appearing near Alabama this week, to show a kind of implicit support for GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore, while still being able to say that he is not campaigning for the accused child molester.

This is not the first time that Trump, who describes himself as "the least racist person," has proven sensitive to criticism from Lewis. In January, when Lewis cast doubt on the legitimacy of Trump's victory, Trump lashed out with tweets in which he incorrectly assumed that Lewis's affluent suburban Atlanta district was "in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)."

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad for a president to use the memories of civil rights heroes for unrelated political gain.
  • The absurdity of criticizing John Lewis for not honoring John Lewis and others like him is pretty clear.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accused the Democrats of wanting to shut down the government on behalf of DACA recipients when he apparently wants to shut down it down on behalf of his poll numbers.

Asked today about the possibility of a government shutdown later this week, Trump responded, "It could happen. Democrats maybe will want to shut down this country because they want people flowing into our country."

It would be virtually impossible for Democrats alone to cause a government shutdown: they are the minority in both houses of Congress, and while in theory Senate Democrats could filibuster a spending bill in the Senate, their leadership has explicitly ruled this out. One reason that a shutdown might happen anyway is because House Republicans are deeply split over spending priorities and some are threatening to withhold their votes for temporary funding bills.

But the more likely reason that a shutdown is possible is that Trump has told his advisors that he believes a shutdown would help him rise in the polls.

Trump does appear to be learning some caution on the subject, though: in May, he openly called for the United States government to shut down, rather than trying to blame it on his political opponents.

So what?

  • It's bad if a president is actively trying to make Americans suffer so that he can gain political leverage.
  • Blaming your opponents for things you want to do is called projection, and it is not a sign of mental stability.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denied that his administration was considering organizing a private army of spies to fight his political enemies... then began walking back the denial.

This morning, The Intercept reported a seemingly preposterous story: that Trump was entertaining a pitch by Erik Prince to develop a "global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies... as a means of countering 'deep state' enemies." The network would be paid for by private donors. Prince is the CEO of the mercenary outfit formerly known as Blackwater, and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He is also the person who set up a secret backchannel between Trump and representatives of the Putin regime before Trump took office. And in a bizarre but poetic touch, the plans supposedly involved contributions from Oliver North, who certainly has experience operating outside the laws of the United States on the secret orders of a president.

Individual elements of the story made a kind of sense. Trump literally compared the US intelligence community to Nazis during his presidential transition, and the relationship hasn't gotten much better since. And during his days as a private citizen, Trump's fondness for hiring platoons of private investigators (and dabbling in amateur surveillance himself) was well established. But at bottom, the story as reported would have a public official being given a private army to deploy against his own government, something that would be cartoonish even by the standards of the Trump administration.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration categorically rejected it: "“The White House does not and would not support such a proposal,” said a spokesperson for the National Security Council.

But today, during a press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders dialed back the rejection to what amounts to a "no comment:"
MS. SANDERS: I'm not aware of any plans for something of that definition or anything similar to that at this time.

Q The President would be opposed to that?

MS. SANDERS: I haven’t had that conversation with him.
And shortly after that, a Trump administration official admitted on background that the plan existed and had been discussed.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who doesn't have faith in his own government cannot fulfill the duties of his office.
  • It's bad if anyone, much less a president, tries to subvert the government of the United States.
  • Surrounding yourself with a personal guard loyal only to you is what authoritarians do.

Monday, December 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He channeled Richard Nixon on presidential criminal law.

In a Saturday tweet, Trump appeared to confess that he had obstructed justice when he admitted that he knew at the time of his firing that Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI. That makes his subsequent efforts to shut down the investigation into Flynn--which culminated in the firing of the FBI director, James Comey--obstruction on its face.

Today, Trump's personal defense lawyer John Dowd offered a new sort of defense: not that Trump didn't or wouldn't seek to pervert the course of justice by firing Comey over his pursuit of legitimate crimes, but that as president, nothing Trump does can ever legally count as obstruction of justice. Dowd told that a "president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution's Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case."

This is not an entirely new theory: President Nixon made the same argument, although only after he'd left office and accepted a pardon for crimes he'd committed while in office.
FROST: Would you say that there are certain situations... where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation, and do something illegal?

NIXON: Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.
Trump's legal theory didn't impress most lawyers asked for comment today, but since Trump probably can't be criminally indicted until after he leaves or is removed from office, it may be a moot point. That said, obstruction of justice was a charge against President Clinton during his impeachment trial and an article voted out of committee against President Nixon, who resigned rather than be impeached.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president perverts the course of justice, whether or not he can be prosecuted for it.
  • Declaring yourself above the rule of law is what authoritarians do. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Racial slurs. On Monday, Trump once again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as "Pocahontas." Trump has made the racial taunt--in reference to Warren's family history suggesting Cherokee and Delaware heritage--many times before, but this time it came as a sort of free-association during a ceremony honoring the Navajo "Code Talkers" of the second World War.

Native American groups were not amused, particularly because this latest use of the Powhatan woman's name as a slur distracted from what was supposed to be a celebration of Native American war heroes. 

Trump had a history of racial attacks on Native Americans long before Sen. Warren got under his skin. In 1993, he suggested that he had more "Indian blood" than the leaders of tribes who operated casinos in competition with him. He also said that the tribal organizations were fronts for organized crime, a claim he later worked into TV attack ads aimed at halting the construction of a new Mohawk casino that would compete with his.

Revisionist history. One of the defining moments of Trump's political career was the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. The release prompted an "apology" notable for its anger and defensiveness, but it did at least acknowledge that the tape was real: "I said it. It was wrong and I apologize." The statement was remarkable at the time because it was arguably the only time Trump had ever been known to publicly admit any sort of wrongdoing, much less give a grudging apology.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Trump has been telling people that he now believes the footage was somehow falsified. (It was not.)

As is often the case, it is hard to know whether Trump is deliberately lying, or has genuinely convinced himself to remember things differently. The Times piece cites Trump's own advisors, who admit that he "privately harbor[s] a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact," and that his changing view of the tape may be one of them. His advisors are not the only ones wondering lately about the extent to which Trump is fully engaged with reality.

On the other hand, Trump has been accused by at least sixteen individual women of sexual assault or harassment, not counting pageant contestants (some of them underage) who reported that he deliberately barged in on their dressing rooms while they were changing.

Diplomatic crisis. On Wednesday, Trump retweeted Islamophobic videos by an ultra-nationalist fringe group implicated in the murder of a British member of Parliament. When the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May expressed her disappointment, he immediately raged back at her on Twitter, telling her in so many words to mind her own business.

In short order, Trump was repeatedly denounced from the floor of Parliament. Language used in the House of Commons is often blunt by American political standards, but for a Member to say that a sitting American president was "either a racist, incompetent, or unthinking—or all three" is unprecedented in the last two centuries. By Friday, there were other consequences. The British government canceled a "working visit" where Trump was to ceremonially open an American embassy in London that had been scheduled for next month.

The "working visit" itself had been a compromise to avoid the massive protests that were expected if he were given the honor of a full state visit. (While a state visit was still on the table, Trump had been eagerly looking forward to it, specifically requesting a ceremonial carriage ride with the Queen.)

Meritocracy. In October, Trump declared a "public health emergency" on opioids--an act which freed up $57,000 to combat an epidemic of addiction which killed about 30,000 Americans in 2015. This is distinct from a declaration of a national emergency, which would have allowed the government to tap into the $13 billion FEMA budget.

On Wednesday, Trump appointed a "czar" to oversee the administration's efforts to combat the opioid epidemic: his former pollster and TV surrogate Kellyanne Conway.

What is so bad about these things?

  • A president who can't control the impulse to make racial slurs at a ceremony honoring war heroes of that race is not mentally fit for office.
  • Telling big lies in the hopes that people will believe you rather than their own ears is what authoritarians do.
  • It's a problem if an American president is so toxic in our closest ally that he's blacklisted from even informal visiting.
  • It's bad to appoint unqualified political operatives to manage a medical crisis.