Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to comment on today's revelation that he'd asked yet another person in charge of the Russian election interference probe for loyalty.

CNN reported this afternoon that, during a White House meeting last month, Trump asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he was "on my team." This comment came after Trump pressed Rosenstein for information about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Russian attack on the election and whether Trump or his campaign were complicit with it. (Rosenstein did not provide any such information, according to CNN--unsurprisingly, since Trump is effectively a target of that investigation.)

Rosenstein is the only person in the Department of Justice with the authority to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, or to refuse to allow him to pursue certain aspects of that investigation. Since that December meeting, Rosenstein has emerged as a frequent target of Trump's anger.

Trump's persistent belief that DOJ officials should be "on his team"--as opposed to committed to the rule of law--is to some extent why there is a Mueller probe in the first place. James Comey's refusal to grant Trump his personal loyalty as FBI director is what got him fired, which led to the appointment of the special counsel by Rosenstein, since Attorney General Jefferson Sessions had already recused himself from Russia-related matters. Trump has repeatedly lashed out at Sessions for that failure to "protect" Trump personally from investigation. He also asked the acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who he voted for in the 2016 election, while weighing whether or not to keep McCabe on in that position.

In what likely amounts to a tacit confirmation, the White House refused comment today.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Justice Department employees swear an oath to the Constitution, not a personal pledge of fealty to Donald Trump.
  • A president's need for reassurance is not more important than the rule of law.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He added insult to the injury of his refusal to obey the Russian sanctions law.

Last July, in response to overwhelming evidence that the Putin regime had interfered in the 2016 election on Trump's behalf, the Congress voted 517-5 for punitive economic sanctions against Russia and individuals with close financial ties to Putin. Last night, hours before the final deadline for those sanctions to go into effect, Trump officially refused to enforce them on the grounds that the mere threat of sanctions had improved Russia's behavior. 

Trump did not make public any evidence to support this claim, but earlier that same day his own CIA chief declared that he had "every expectation" that Russia would try to disrupt the 2018 elections. The White House did, however, release a required list of Russian "oligarchs" for potential future sanctions.

Today, the Treasury Department confirmed that this list had been taken directly from a 2017 Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Russians--including several figures who are political opponents of the Putin regime. The deliberate creation of a list that can't actually be used angered American legislators of both parties--but Moscow seems to be taking it in good humor.

Why is this a problem?

  • The only explanations for this that don't involve outright corruption of the presidency by Russia are the ones that have Trump as psychotically unable to accept any constraints on his power.
  • Trump's refusal to admit that Russia interfered on his behalf to weaken the United States is either evidence of his guilt, or evidence of his unfitness for office.
  • A president who will not conscientiously enforce the laws of the United States violates his oath of office.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Brief medical hiatus

WTDT has been hit by the flu and is taking a brief hiatus. We expect to resume coverage of one thing Trump does every day, on the day, on Tuesday.

Friday, January 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called reports that he'd ordered the firing of Robert Mueller "fake news."

Trump's two-word dismissal of last night's bombshell New York Times story was probably inevitable: there may not be a negative news report in his presidency that he hasn't called a media lie. But in this case, it probably merits a little more attention.

Within hours of the NYT report, which was based on four sources, it had been independently verified by NBC News (citing "a source with firsthand knowledge close to the White House"), the Washington Post ("two people familiar with the episode"), and Politico ("a person familiar with the episode"). Even the one media outlet that Trump says isn't fake news--Fox News--confirmed it, citing "a source close to the White House." 

Even assuming that all of those independent verifications came back to the same four sources, then if Trump is to be believed, one of two things must be true. One is that every major news outlet in America, including its most conservative and pro-Trump network, is deliberately lying about the existence of such people. The other is that there are at least four people inside Trump's inner circle who are part of a conspiracy to maliciously lie about him.

Trump personally has a whopper of a motive (if not a particularly positive one) to cast doubt on the report: an attempt to fire Mueller without cause would be in and of itself obstruction of justice. Trump's lawyers and White House spokespersons, who would have no such motive, have remained conspicuously silent on the matter.

Why does this matter?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He expressed his "respect" for Robert Mueller, who--it was revealed today--he had ordered fired almost immediately after Mueller's appointment.

The New York Times reported this evening that, according to four sources in the White House, Trump had demanded that White House counsel Don McGahn fire Mueller in June. Since the special counsel cannot legally be fired except for cause, Trump suggested that a dispute over fees that Mueller had once been charged by a Trump golf course provided a sufficient conflict of interest. The story was immediately independently confirmed by several other news agencies.

Trump backed down when McGahn threatened to resign in protest. If Trump had insisted, then it is virtually certain that at least two other Department of Justice officials--Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente--would have resigned as well rather than carry out the order. (With Attorney General Jefferson Sessions recused from the Russia probe, Rosenstein and then Boente would be responsible for carrying out Trump's order.) This would have invited parallels to President Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" at a time when the full magnitude of the Russia matter was just coming to light.

The NYT reports that Mueller--who has interviewed any number of White House staff who would have known about the attempted firing--has been aware of the situation for some time. One highly likely source for the story McGahn himself, who may be in an impossible situation as both the chief lawyer for the office of the presidency and simultaneously a witness to yet another potential attempt at obstruction of justice by the president himself. By leaking the news of the June firing, McGahn--or others in the White House who fear that Trump will eventually compound his own legal problems by firing Mueller--could potentially make that scenario politically impossible.

Even as unconfirmed rumors about the attempted firing have circulated for months, Trump has insisted he never gave the idea any thought. Trump's lawyers tonight declined to comment "out of respect for the Office of the Special Counsel and its process."

So what?

  • It's bad if the president obstructs justice.
  • It's bad if the president obstructs an investigation into whether he obstructed justice.
  • Presidents shouldn't lie about things like this.
  • One way to show "respect" for an ongoing criminal investigation is to not try to cut it off at the knees.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He confused crimes with criminal defense.

During an impromptu press conference before his trip to Switzerland, Trump once again complained about the Mueller investigation, saying that his actions since the FBI began investigating were being misinterpreted: "You fight back, oh, it’s obstruction."

It's certainly true that Trump is entitled to "fight back" against the perception that he has committed crimes, and to put up a vigorous legal defense if and when he is charged with a crime. As anyone suspected of a crime would be legally permitted to do, Trump has already "fought back" in a number of ways: he's hired lawyers, begged for money with which to pay lawyers, publicly protested his innocence, and negotiated with investigators about what he'd be willing to discuss in the absence of a subpoena. And above all, Trump is entitled to "fight back" by simply invoking his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. 

Obstruction of justice is what happens when someone "fights back" in illegal ways: for example, by tampering with or otherwise intimidating witnesses, helping to cover up crimes after the fact, or destroying evidence. Part of what makes a given action qualify as obstruction is whether the person doing it had "consciousness of guilt." This is important because many actions that would otherwise be perfectly legal, like a president firing the director of the FBI, can be illegal obstruction of justice if they're done to help criminals escape prosecution.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if the President of the United States has obstructed justice.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He put a price on the heads of DACA recipients.

Late this evening, Trump took to Twitter to demand what he could have had several days ago: American taxpayer funding for his much-discussed but never-quite-built border wall. Negotiating on behalf of Senate Democrats last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York had offered Trump a funding package that would include money for the wall in exchange for Trump's agreement to support a legislative solution for DACA recipients. 

In the end, with Trump holed up in the White House--unable to take his usual 3-day Florida weekend but apparently unwelcome in the negotiations--the shutdown was at least temporarily ended with a promise of a straight vote on DACA in the coming weeks but no border wall funding. It also restored six years of funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which Trump--but virtually nobody else--opposed as part of this bill. 

Schumer made clear in remarks to media today that taxpayer money for the wall was no longer on the table. But Trump seems unwilling or unable to accept the notion that Schumer could retract his end of a "deal" he never made with Trump, and lashed out in a tweet: "if there is no wall, there is no DACA!"

87% of Americans--as close to unanimity as it's possible to get in American politics--support legislative protection for Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as children and who have voluntarily participated in the DACA program. 

Why does this matter?

  • Being a great negotiator--or even just an okay one--means understanding that you can't just demand everything you want.
  • It's bad if a president ignores an overwhelming public consensus on a policy issue for leverage to get something a lot less popular.

Monday, January 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got in legal trouble over his apparent payment of hush money to a porn actress.

As this site discussed yesterday, porn actress Stormy Daniels told In Touch magazine in 2011 in explicit and unflattering detail about her 2006 sexual encounter with Trump, which took place shortly after his wife Melania had given birth to Trump's youngest son. The Wall Street Journal discovered last week that Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, had created a Delaware corporation to make a payment of $130,000 to Daniels just before the 2016 election. While Cohen has denied that any sexual affair took place between Trump and Daniels, neither he nor the White House has offered any explanation for the payment.

Today, the political watchdog group Common Cause filed a complaint against the Trump campaign for accepting, and failing to disclose, an illegal and unreported in-kind contribution from Cohen's corporation. If the money ultimately came from Trump himself, he nevertheless violated reporting laws by failing to disclose it.

While hush money paid to cover an extramarital affair might seem like an odd thing for the Federal Election Commission to be concerned with, the law is quite clear that anything of value given to a campaign must be disclosed, and so must the campaign's expenditures. Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was indicted in 2011 for his own sex scandal hush-money payments.

This is not the first time that the Trump campaign has run afoul of campaign finance reforms in unusual ways. By actively trying to get the "dirt" on Hillary Clinton that Russian agents dangled in front of him, Donald Trump Jr. likely broke the law against soliciting campaign contributions from foreign nationals.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a presidential candidate breaks the law in an effort to get elected.
  • A president who had a reasonable, non-incriminating explanation for a mysterious six-figure payment to a porn star would have given it by now.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sunday Week in Review, Best People Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He had some trouble with "the best people." 

His new drug czar. Taylor Weyeneth is Trump's deputy chief of staff for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The ONDCP is the agency principally responsible for coordinating the administration's response to the opioid crisis, meaning that Weyeneth has enormous responsibilities. Trump has previously been criticized for dumping that task on two fantastically underqualified appointees--Jared Kushner (his son-in-law) and Kellyanne Conway (his former pollster). 

Weyeneth is a 24-year-old who was recently fired from an entry-level job at a law firm because, as it was reported this week, he simply didn't show up for work. He does have some experience that might endear him to Trump, though--he was a volunteer for the Trump campaign and has helped to organize golf tournaments.

Drug overdoses kill more than 150 Americans every day.

His personal lawyer. Michael Cohen has served as Trump's lawyer since long before the campaign, and is entrusted with sensitive and personal tasks. One of them, the Wall Street Journal discovered this week, was to charter a limited liability corporation in Delaware for the sole purpose of making a $130,000 payment to the porn actress Stormy Daniels. Delaware is a popular choice for single-purpose corporations like this because its laws do not require disclosure of the names of the people involved, but Cohen did not fully take advantage of that privacy, allowing the WSJ to link him to the paperwork establishing "Essential Consulting LLC," as the vehicle was known.

Trump and Daniels had a sexual encounter in 2006, shortly after the birth of Trump's youngest son to Melania Trump, she told In Touch magazine in 2011. The magazine apparently decided that publishing the interview, which included graphic and unflattering details about then-private citizen Trump, was not worth the trouble of having to defend against the inevitable threat of a libel suit.

If there is an explanation for a company being created by Donald Trump's lawyer to pay $130,000 to a porn actress that doesn't involve payment for her silence over his extramarital sex with her, neither Cohen nor Trump seems interested in giving it.

A number of other media outlets had been independently pursuing the Daniels story during the 2016 campaign, but were unable to get Daniels' cooperation because the rights to the story had been bought by the tabloid National Enquirer, which then refused to publish it. The Enquirer's publisher is a personal friend and political supporter of Trump's.

His Russia probe defense lawyer. Cohen was not the only Trump lawyer who stumbled on the job this week. In this week's episode of a CBS News podcast, Ty Cobb said that Trump would likely be interviewed by independent counsel Robert Mueller at some point. This is neither surprising nor especially damning, but what Cobb said next--that he was concerned Mueller would be laying a "perjury trap" for Trump--was.

A perjury trap is when a prosecutor asks a question in the belief that the subject will lie. Since it is illegal to lie under oath or to obstruct an investigation, the lie itself becomes a crime. It is impossible to "trap" someone who is telling the truth, or simply refusing to answer on Fifth Amendment grounds.

In other words, Cobb was saying that he was afraid Trump will not be able to stop himself from lying. He's hardly the only one who thinks so, but it's not clear what benefit saying so publicly will have for his client.

His chief of external affairs for the CNCS. Trump appointed Carl Higbie in 2017 to run public outreach for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Higbie had no experience in the role, but was a campaign surrogate and fundraiser.

He resigned this week after CNN found that he had said that black women "think breeding is a form of government employment," that black people had "lax morality," that he accepted being called a "racist" if that meant not liking Muslims, that Muslims were pedophiles, that military servicemembers suffering from PTSD had "weak minds," and various other statements along those lines.

Higbie also used the word "shithole" in 2013 in almost exactly the same context that Trump used it last week, although this was apparently not enough to save his job.

Why are these bad things?

  • A president who can't be bothered to appoint a competent drug policy team is basically saying he doesn't really care about the issue.
  • Some of the people who voted for Trump might have felt differently if they'd known about six-figure hush money checks to porn stars over extramarital sex.
  • It's not a good sign if a president's defense lawyer doesn't trust him not to commit perjury.
  • A president who can't screen out flagrant, open racists from his administration is either incompetent or not that bothered by flagrant racism.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He worked very hard to portray himself as working hard.

No free press were allowed near Trump today--but today the White House Communications Office put out still photographs of him "working" to resolve the shutdown crisis.

In one, Trump is wearing one of his campaign's baseball hats indoors while seated at an empty desk. In another, he is shown laughing with a number of his own staffers, though few of the people in the picture would have any responsibility for legislative or budget matters. And in a third, he is simply walking along the White House portico.

The pictures were reminiscent of other times Trump has used staged photos to "prove" his work ethic--for example, the time he claimed he was writing his inaugural speech at what turned out to be the Mar-a-Lago reception desk.

Meanwhile, Trump's counterpart in the shutdown negotiations, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), reported that the White House had not contacted him today. Democrats and Republicans in Congress did spend the day talking to one another, but--as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear earlier in the week--progress is difficult when even the president's own party doesn't know what he wants.

Some of how Trump spent his time today is clear, though: he recorded a message to be played to the $100,000-a-plate fundraiser in Florida he is missing. Trump is reportedly furious that the terrible optics of leaving to raise millions of dollars in political donations during a shutdown kept him from attending the event.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Doing the work of the presidency should be a higher priority than staging publicity photos.
  • A president who finds it this frustrating and inconvenient to have to work weekends should probably find an easier job.

Friday, January 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fretted about the disastrous consequences of a government shutdown--for his party plans.

Faced with the prospect of a government shutdown, Trump had already taken the unusual step of rescheduling his normal Friday flight to Florida to leave Saturday instead. But actually staying on the job the whole way through the weekend would conflict with a high priority for Trump--the one-year anniversary party and fundraiser he was supposed to be throwing for himself at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday night. 

The Daily Beast, citing two sources close to Trump, reported that Trump was increasingly upset about missing the event.

To be fair, Trump has good reason to be anxious about missing his own party. Tickets start at $100,000 for a pair. Two tickets to a "roundtable" discussion with Trump cost $250,000. That money will go to Trump's re-election campaign--minus what the Mar-a-Lago resort is charging, which will go directly to Trump himself.

Why should anyone have a problem with this?

  • Doing the actual work of the presidency is more important than a fundraising party.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He angrily rebutted his own chief of staff's comments about his position on the border wall.

Yesterday, John Kelly said in a televised interview that candidate Trump's position on the Mexico border wall was "uninformed" and that since taking office, Trump's position had "evolved."

Furious, Trump took to Twitter to deny any "evolution" of his wall, and told reporters that Kelly simply hadn't said any such thing--or at least that when Kelly said exactly that, it wasn't what he meant to say.

In fact, Trump has taken any number of positions on the wall, depending on who he thinks is listening. On the campaign trail, Trump spoke vividly of an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall." But since the election, he has been describing something most people would call a fence, with gaps in it. In the absence of any Congressional desire to spend money on the project, even renovation of the existing fences Trump seemed to think were so inadequate has counted as "The WALL" for bragging purposes.

On the question of funding the wall, Trump's position has "evolved" even more. After the election, he began retreating immediately from his call-and-response claim that Mexico would pay for the wall. According to a leaked transcript of a secret phone call with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in January of 2017, Trump acknowledged the Mexican government's position that it would never pay for anything, and simply asked Peña Nieto not to embarrass him by saying so to the press. (Trump also called the wall "the least important thing" in that call.) In August, Trump threatened to shut down the government unless Congress appropriated American taxpayer money to pay for building some of it--a threat he repeated today.

Why does this matter?

  • There's nothing wrong with a president's positions changing, but there is something wrong with a president who gets angry because a staffer trying to help him pointed out that they had.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He confused a dementia test with an intelligence test.

During his physical exam last week, Trump reportedly made an unusual request: that he be given a standard screening test for pre-dementia. The Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test (MoCA) is a quick screen for memory and cognitive impairment that allows physicians to determine if a patient may be suffering from incipient dementia. 

Notably, while many details about what the physical examination would involve were revealed before it took place, Trump did not reveal that he had asked for the MoCA until after he'd passed it. 

The test does not measure intelligence, learning disabilities, or the cognitive effects of personality disorders. By design, any person not suffering from dementia or a severe intellectual disability will get a very high or perfect score--as Trump did. Trump's physician, Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, explained as much during his press conference on Tuesday.

But by today, Trump already seemed to have started conflating a "perfect" score on a dementia screening with a perfect score on an intelligence test. He told Reuters in all apparent seriousness that he would solve the North Korean crisis where Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama had not because it required a "president that scored the highest on tests."

It's not known if any of Trump's immediate predecessors had the MoCA or other dementia screenings done, but if so, none of them felt the need to remind people that they'd passed them.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if a president isn't intelligent enough to understand the difference between dementia and stupidity.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about his approval rating with African-Americans.

This morning, Trump claimed in a tweet that his approval rating with black Americans had doubled. In fact, it has dropped from 15% last January to 6% now in the benchmark Gallup tracking poll. No poll shows anything like an increase.

Trump frequently makes obviously false and disprovable claims, and it's no mystery why he chose to make this one today: he was still fighting off fallout from his racist remarks last week when news broke this morning that he'd also spoken dismissively of the Congressional Black Caucus at the same meeting. (Trump may not know exactly what the Congressional Black Caucus is: at a press conference last year he told reporter April Ryan, who is black, to set up a meeting with them, apparently on the assumption that she worked for them.)

More interesting is the false theory behind Trump's false claim--that the "increase" in support came from a falling unemployment rate for African-Americans under Trump. It's true that that normally volatile rate has decreased since Trump took office. What Trump is omitting--and may simply not know--is the context. As with most economic indicators, the trajectory is unchanged from the Obama administration's recovery after the 2007-2008 recession.

So what?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.

Monday, January 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

Not what he said you should be doing today.

In the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day proclamation he signed on Friday, Trump called on Americans to "observe this day with acts of civic work and community service in honor of Dr. King’s extraordinary life.”

Trump, who spent the long weekend at his Florida vacation home, observed the day with a round of golf in the morning and a plane ride back to Washington. He had no public activities.

Many Americans work on federal holidays, of course, and many have child care or other responsibilities that might prevent them from attending events today. But since the holiday was established in 1983, every president before Trump has spent the day engaged in service activities, or at least given a public speech.

Trump, whose first appearance on the public scene in the 1970s was as a defendant in a racial discrimination lawsuit, said last week that African countries were “shitholes.” On Sunday, he once again repeated his often-made claim that he is “the least racist person ever."

Why is this bad?

  • It’s bad to demand that other people do good works you can’t be bothered to do yourself.
  • Saying “I am the least racist person” inspires about as much confidence as saying “I am a very stable genius,” and for the same reasons.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Wall funding. Almost immediately after taking office, Trump began retreating from his campaign mantra that Mexico would pay for his proposed border wall. But this week, he took the retreat a step further: not only would the United States pay for the wall, but it would pay for it out of money set aside from existing border patrol activities that actually work.

Clinton obsession. On Wednesday, Trump surrogate Kellyanne Conway went on CNN to make this claim: "We don't care about her. Nobody here [at the White House] talks about Hillary Clinton."

While that is probably true of most White House staff, Trump himself remains visibly preoccupied with Clinton. Just this Monday, he departed from a scripted speech to riff about how grateful he imagined agribusiness executives were that she wasn't president. He brought her up during his Thursday interview with the Wall Street Journal, publicly brags about his electoral college victory over her about every five days, and has tweeted about her at least 83 times since taking office.

"Good relationship" with Kim Jong-un. In that same interview, apparently granted as part of a week-long effort to portray Trump as mentally engaged and in command of his own staff in the wake of doubts raised by Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury, Trump said this: "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. I have relationships with people, I think you people are surprised."

Trump has never spoken with Kim, and most of what has passed between them has been at the level of schoolyard insults. (Trump so enjoys using his most recent nickname for Kim, "little rocket man," that he seems unable to use the word "rocket" in any context without free-associating his way to North Korea.)

That said, there have been times when Trump has swerved to the other extreme, complimenting Kim for his ruthlessness in eliminating his political opposition and calling him a "smart cookie." This may have been what Trump was focusing on in his imaginary relationship with Kim.

This morning, the White House belatedly pushed back on the transcript of that interview, claiming that Trump had really said "I'd [I would] probably have a good relationship," which would make Trump merely ridiculously overconfident about the future rather than delusional about the present. Both the White House and the Wall Street Journal released audio. It is difficult to hear anything in either that supports Trump's claim.

Dianne Feinstein. On Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) released transcripts from the Senate Judiciary committee's interview with the founder of Fusion GPS, the firm that hired former British intelligence officer and Russia expert Christopher Steele to investigate the Trump campaign's ties to the Putin regime. Republicans on the committee had refused to release it, in spite of the fact that it was not classified and Fusion GPS has been openly calling for it to be made public.

Trump lashed out at Feinstein in response:
There are at least three lies in this, although as usual it is difficult to know when Trump is knowingly misleading or simply confused.
  1. Feinstein has never said that there was "no collusion"--or, more accurately, no evidence of a criminal conspiracy against the United States between the Russian goverment and the Trump or his campaign. This is not the first time Trump has tried to put that claim in the mouths of, as he put it, "virtually every Democrat."
  2. There is nothing illegal or "possibly illegal" about Feinstein's act.
  3. As such, Feinstein did not need "authorization" to do what she did, either from the committee as a whole or (as he may have meant) from Trump himself, the subject of the investigations.
Poll bragging. In what is becoming an odd, if inadvertently honest, habit with him, Trump once again boasted about a poll that contained almost nothing but bad reviews of his presidency. On Thursday, he tweeted (correctly) that 66% of Americans said the economy was "excellent" or "good" in a recent Quinnipiac poll.

What he neglected to mention (and may not have been told by his staff) was that a majority of Americans credit President Obama rather than him for that good economy. Other findings in the same poll include:
  • Americans believe that Trump is "not level-headed" by a 69-28% margin
  • Almost twice as many Americans think he is "not honest" (63-34%)
  • 65% of Americans think he does not "share their values," vs. 32% who do.
  • His overall approval rating was 36%, with 59% of Americans disapproving of his performance in office.

Why do these things matter?

  • Presidents who find themselves unable to keep their campaign promises shouldn't sabotage their own government's effectiveness just for appearances.
  • It's bad when a president is obsessed with his enemies to the point that he's still talking about them more than a year after the election.
  • Presidents who imagine relationships with hostile foreign powers that don't exist in reality aren't mentally fit for office.
  • Evidence that doesn't say what you want it to won't convince anyone.
  • Things are not illegal or "sneaky" just because they hurt a president politically.
  • Past a certain point, cherry-picking poll numbers is evidence of either dishonesty (63%) or a pathological need for affirmation (69%).

Saturday, January 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denounced Democrats on Twitter for taking "no action" on bills that he himself is against.

In two very similarly worded tweets sent this morning before he went golfing, Trump attacked Democrats for missing a "great opportunity" to get DACA protections reinstated as part of the immigration reform package that legislators are currently working on. 

Trump himself rescinded DACA by executive order, and Trump himself is opposed to the deal brokered this week by a bipartisan working group of senators.

Why is this a problem?

  • The kindest possible interpretation is that this is projection, which is not a sign of good mental health.

Friday, January 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He decided he didn't call Haiti or African nations "shitholes" after all.

Yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that, during an immigration meeting with legislators on Thursday, Trump had called 55 predominantly black nations "shitholes." He also lamented that more Norwegians weren't emigrating to the US, and asked, "Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out." The White House released only a single guarded statement in response that did not deny the Post's account of Trump's statements.

This morning, in a pair of tweets, Trump reversed course: he denied using "derogatory" language and said it was all "made up by Dems." The only elected Democrat in the room was Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who explicitly confirmed both the use of the particular word "shithole" and the "hate-filled, vile, and racist" sense in which he had used it. 

The six Republican congressmen present have gone out of their way to avoid endorsing Trump's version of what took place. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) would only say that they had "no recollection" of the specific word, but did not dispute the nature of Trump's remarks. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) apparently told his junior colleague Sen. Tim Scott that the report was accurate, but his public statement was only that he had "said his piece" to Trump in the room. Still others simply refused to comment

Assuming six Republican senators and any number of White House and Senate staffers are not simply lying to protect Dick Durbin, there are two possible explanations for the discrepancy. One is simply that Trump made the comments and then lied about them, perhaps feeling that his core supporters wouldn't really hold racist statements against him

The other possibility is that Trump made the comments yesterday before noon, left work at some point after the last item on his schedule (a 2:45 meeting), and had either forgotten making them or convinced himself he hadn't by this morning. 

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president is accused of making horrifyingly racist comments and even his supporters don't seem particularly surprised.
  • A president who can't control himself from blurting out racist comments, even when they're against his own interests, is unfit for office.
  • Presidents don't get to decide after the fact what did or didn't happen.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

For the second time in three days, he got confused about his position on a major policy issue.

To understand Trump's befuddled tweets today on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), it may help to look at the situation chronologically.

Last night: the White House issued a statement in favor of reauthorizing section 702, a post-9/11 amendment to the FISA act of 1978. The statement opposed a Republican-authored amendment to the act that would limit intelligence agencies' ability to spy on American citizens.

6:47 AM: On Fox & Friends, a show Trump watches so closely that he has begun building his work schedule around it, pundit Andrew Napolitano implored Trump personally begged Trump not to support the FISA reauthorization. Looking straight at the camera, he said, “Mr. President, this is not the way to go. Spying is valid to find the foreign agents among us, but it's gotta be based on suspicion.” Napolitano also invoked Trump's own (debunked) belief that he himself had been spied on because of FISA warrants.

As he spoke, a graphic reading "HOUSE VOTES ON CONTROVERSIAL FISA ACT TODAY" appeared at the bottom of the screen.

7:33 AM: Trump tweeted that exact phrase as he tried to link FISA warrants to the report on his campaign's Russia connections written by a former British intelligence agent. (The two are unconnected. FISA warrants are issued by U.S. courts, not foreign security analysts hired by a conservative newspaper.)

Republicans, who largely support section 702's reauthorization, were horrified and immediately flooded the White House switchboards demanding that Trump reverse himself. The Washington Post reported that this included a personal 30-minute tutorial from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, while Congressional Republicans reacted with "disbelief and befuddlement" at Trump's failure to understand the difference between domestic and foreign surveillance.

9:14 AM: After nearly two hours had passed, Trump added a second tweet:

2:15 PM: Sarah Huckabee Sanders held a press conference in which she repeatedly denied that there was any contradiction between Trump's first and second tweets, or that anyone had complained, or that Fox & Friends had anything to do with it.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who cannot remember what his policies are is a president who is incapable of doing the job.
  • As both US and foreign intelligence agencies have noticed, it's very dangerous if a president simply adopts whatever view the television tells him to.
  • People who voted for Trump because of his support for Republican policies may have assumed he knew what they were.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised to pass libel laws identical to current libel laws in the United States.

At a cabinet meeting today, Trump told reporters today that he intended to "take a very strong look" at revising libel laws, saying that the current laws on defamation were "a sham and a disgrace." (There is no federal libel law, although state laws are virtually uniform.) Given that Trump has sent lawyers after the publishers of Michael Wolff's recent book about him, and has threatened to sue at least one person quoted in it, it's not hard to guess where this sudden presidential interest in defamation law is coming from.

Under Trump's proposed new libel standard, "if somebody says something that’s totally false and knowingly false, that the person that has been abused, defamed, libeled, will have meaningful recourse.” With such a law in place, he claimed, no one would be able to "say things that are false, knowingly false, and be able to smile as money pours into your bank account."

This is exactly the standard set by existing defamation laws and Supreme Court decisions in the United States.

Even though criticism of public figures (like a president) is protected by the First Amendment, Trump himself would prevail in a libel or slander suit if he could demonstrate that someone had made abusive and knowingly false statements about him. He hasn't had much luck--or courage--in that respect, though.

Why should a normal person care about this?

  • A president who only cares about legislation when it directly affects him isn't doing his job.
  • It's bad if a president proposes laws without knowing what the current laws are.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He held a meeting on immigration and articulated a few policy positions--none of which were his.

On the surface, the bipartisan meeting Trump held with congressional leadership was almost startlingly normal by recent standards. With TV cameras rolling for almost an hour, Trump held a freewheeling discussion with Democrats and Republicans on DACA and immigration reform. Not all of the optics were as good: Trump rambled at the start and returned repeatedly to vivid imagery about "arms and legs" being lost in the NYC truck attack.

Responding to California Sen. Diane Feinstein's request for a "clean DACA bill"--that is to say, a standalone bill re-establishing protections for undocumented children brought across the US border--Trump responded, "Yeah, I would like to do it." Feinstein immediately asked Trump to confirm his agreement, and he did so--then said that "phase two," after DACA, would be "comprehensive immigration reform." 

None of this would be remarkable, except that enshrining DACA in law and passing comprehensive immigration reform are Democratic priorities, and almost exactly the opposite of any policy that Trump had articulated up to this point. (DACA only needs a legislative solution because Trump rescinded President Obama's executive order establishing it.) Visibly alarmed, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) interrupted and tried--with some success--to get Trump to instantly reverse his reversal. 

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with presidents changing their minds, or reaching across the aisle--but as conservative Republicans noted afterwards, it was not entirely clear that Trump knew what his position was supposed to be. 

Trump being uncertain about what his position on major policy issues is nothing new. Even during the most intense part of his failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, he often seemed confused about what he was trying to do, at times endorsing a European-style single payer system. 

Perhaps the only moment of clarity in the whole meeting came after it was over, when the White House press office produced an official transcript of the event that left out the portion of the discussion where Trump unambiguously agreed with Feinstein's proposal for a clean DACA bill, and Trump--presumably having been reminded of the "correct" position--tweeted out his demand that any DACA bill include American taxpayer funding for his proposed border wall. In that tweet, Trump insisted that he had been "very clear" about all this in the meeting.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if a president doesn't know what he is supposed to believe on major policy issues.
  • If the intent of this meeting really was to show that Trump is mentally alert and capable of acting presidential, it probably didn't work.
  • It's bad if presidents have to stage public demonstrations of their mental alertness and capability.

Monday, January 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave a speech that was self-worshipping even by Trump standards.

Appearing in Tennessee today before members of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Trump congratulated his audience on their good fortune that he had allowed them to vote for him.

That may sound like a misleading characterization, so here is the exact wording:

There's no way to know how happy the agribusiness executives and lobbyists in the room were about votes they may have cast for Trump, but his approval rating with Americans in general is still in the thirties.

At another point in the speech, Trump instructed his audience to upgrade their polite applause to a standing ovation ("Come on, get up!").

Who cares?

  • The presidency isn't a favor someone does for the American people.
  • From a purely political standpoint, asking your audience to please clap isn't the best look.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Love. On Tuesday, Trump predicted that Hispanic Americans would "fall in love" with him because Democrats were "doing nothing for DACA," the Obama-era policy that made children brought to the United States by noncitizen parents a low priority for immigration enforcement.

Trump is the one who ended DACA.

Lies. Trump's phenomenal unwillingness to tell the truth--or possibly his inability--is well established. But he also made news this week for a revelation that he had been lied to. According to a New York Times article published this week, Uttam Dhillon, a lawyer with the White House counsel's office, deliberately misled Trump about his legal authority to fire James Comey. Dhillon was (correctly) worried that such an action would be seen as obstruction of justice, exposing Trump to legal jeopardy and investigation. He falsely told Trump that he needed "cause" to fire Comey.

In fact, the director of the FBI can be fired by the president at any time and for any reason, or no reason. In the end, the deception didn't work: Trump simply ordered deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein to write a report Comey, and then used it (without Rosenstein's knowledge or agreement) as the "cause" he thought he needed. 

It is a very serious breach of legal ethics to mislead a client, and even more so when the client is the presidency itself. But keeping information from Trump in order to keep him from endangering himself is a long-established practice among his employees

Lawyers. Since taking office, Trump has lashed out furiously at attorney general Jefferson Sessions, the FBI, and career officers in the Justice Department. The root of his anger seems to be his belief, on taking office, that their job was to legally protect him rather than apply the law to him. When Sessions recused himself from supervision of the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election--meaning that he could not protect Trump from it--Trump reportedly asked "Where's my Roy Cohn?"

Cohn was a lawyer best known for his work as Sen. Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings, during which Cohn was accused of various illegal unethical and illegal activities, including evidence tampering. Later in life, Cohn went to work for Trump, who described him as "vicious to others in his protection of me."

Wikileaks. During the campaign, Trump famously shouted "I love Wikileaks!" in response to their release of e-mails stolen by Russia from servers run by the Democratic National Committee. This was one of several different points of connection between the Trump campaign, Russia, and the site.

The love affair was renewed today when Wikileaks tweeted a link to a full-text copy of Fire and Fury, the book that provoked Trump to demand that he be recognized as a "very stable genius." Releasing the text of a book Trump loathes may not seem like a friendly act, but as a means of driving down sales, Wikileaks' foray into piracy will help Trump much more than it will hurt him.

The tactic of politically motivated piracy was perfected by the Kim Jong-Un regime in North Korea, which used cyber-attacks against Sony Pictures in retaliation for its anti-Kim comedy The Interview, including releasing free copies of Sony movies online.

Irony. It is quite common for the White House to request screenings of current movies, but the Trump White House's request to see the movie The Post is a little odd. The movie, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, is the story of the Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katharine Graham and their decision to publish the internal government report known as the Pentagon Papers. President Nixon ordered a secret (and illegal) campaign to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the analyst who released them. Nixon sued the Post and the New York Times to prevent the publication of the report, but also carried on a public feud with reporters, who he regarded as his "enemy."

Trump has spent much of the last week promoting some sort of event, apparently a mock awards ceremony, in which he will talk about his issues with the "fake news media."

Why do these things matter?

  • Trump's 17% approval rating with Latino voters suggest that they have not yet started blaming other people for something he did.
  • It's bad if the president needs to be tricked out of committing serious crimes.
  • A president who thinks the attorney general is his personal criminal defense lawyer is incompetent.
  • A president who needs the attorney general to act as his personal criminal defense lawyer is a disgrace.
  • Roy Cohn and Julian Assange are poor role models for the President of the United States.
  • Things are not "fake news" just because a president doesn't like them being talked about.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

Saturdays are traditionally slow political news days--even for Trump, who has unfailingly provided this page with something that any reasonable American of any political persuasion should be worried about on every single day of his presidency to date. Today, as Trump convened with some (but, pointedly, not all) of his cabinet and senior staff at Camp David for a series of meetings about his legislative agenda, there were a number of developments that meet that threshold.

Some had to do with his honesty. At a press briefing, Trump repeated a favorite claim that he was "an excellent student" in college, which he split between Fordham and the undergraduate section of Penn's Wharton School. If so, it was the kind of excellence that left no trace in the grade book: Trump was given no academic honors, not even the lowest level of cum laude.

Some dealt with his temper. At the same briefing, Trump grew visibly upset as he railed for the third consecutive day about "sloppy Steve" (Bannon) and the book written by Michael Wolff, who--if Trump's various accounts are to be believed--somehow had unfettered access to the White House for three months, including conversations with Trump, but without Trump's knowledge or approval. (Wolff says he "absolutely" spoke to Trump for the book, and that he has recordings of his interviews with many of the staff quoted in the book.)

Some were about serious allegations of wrongdoing in his administration. Trump denied a recent New York Times story reporting that he had ordered the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to pressure attorney general Jefferson Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. The story also confirmed that Trump believed Sessions was something akin to a personal criminal defense lawyer, whose responsibility it was to keep his presidency free of investigation. But Trump did not explain why the story was wrong, only that it was "off."

But for all this, January 6, 2017, the 351st day of his term, will most likely be remembered as the day on which the sitting president of the United States of America felt it necessary and wise to assert, in public, that he was "a very stable genius."

So what?

It feels unnecessary to point this out, but for the record:

Friday, January 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made an false claim about the stock market that managed to also be irrelevant.

Trump tweeted this today:

There are, to put it mildly, a few fibs here.

It's not exactly honest that Trump is taking credit for gains in the stock market that happened while President Obama was still in office--but then all claims by presidents to have influenced the stock market are more or less meaningless. Still, Trump is correct that the DJIA went up 1,000 points (actually 1,134) between November 29 and January 4.

But it's neither a speed record nor all that uncommon. In fact, in the same period of time (24 trading days), there have been 30 days in the Trump administration alone when the closing price was 1,000+ points higher than 24 trading days earlier. By comparison, it also happened 77 times during the Obama administration. Likewise, the 4.7% increase over that period was matched 307 times while President Obama was in office.

The comparisons with Obama are relevant because of Trump's tweet the night before, in which he sarcastically wondered how the media would be raving if "O" had had as good a year in the stock market. In fact, the stock market did even better during Obama's first year in office.

There's one other serious problem with Trump's claim: while a fair number of Americans have a token amount invested in the stock market, the trillions of dollars that Trump is claiming in "paper gains" is going almost exclusively to the wealthiest Americans or corporations, and wealth inequality tends to inhibit job growth rather than promote it.

Why should I care about this?

  • Numbers don't change or cease to exist just because a president wants them to.
  • A president who wants to brag about how he's better than his predecessor should pick topics where he is in fact better, rather than less good.
  • A president who doesn't know the difference between stock market prosperity and prosperity that touches the vast majority of Americans is a president who doesn't know the first thing about economics.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to halt publication of a book that paints him in an unflattering light.

Today, Trump's lawyers sent an 11-page cease and desist letter to Henry Holt & Company, the publisher's of Michael Wolff’s forthcoming book, Fire and Fury. The book paints a picture of a mentally failing Trump surrounded by staff who never expected him to win, and who are horrified by how unfit he is for the job. "My indelible impression," Wolff wrote in one excerpt, "of talking to [Trump's staff] and observing them through much of the first year of his presidency, is that they all — 100 percent — came to believe he was incapable of functioning in his job."

Trump's threat of a lawsuit is completely empty. For one thing, the standard for prevailing in a libel suit is much higher for public figures like elected officials, because of the protections the First Amendment offers to Americans who criticize their government. Even worse for Trump, as he learned when he sued author Tim O'Brien over a different book, the people sued are entitled to a defense, and that defense often turns up or publicizes far more damaging information.

Trump has threatened — but failed — to sue for defamation at least 40 times. In five suits that were actually filed, Trump lost or withdrew from four of them, and the fifth was a small part of a much larger and unrelated lawsuit against the broadcaster Univision's decision not to air Trump's Miss America pageant. That case was settled.

In response to the threat, the publisher moved up the release date to tomorrow.

Why does this matter?

  • Freedom of speech is more important than a president's feelings.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to throw Steve Bannon down the memory hole.

Michael Wolff, author of a forthcoming book on the Trump administration, revealed today that Bannon--Trump's former chief strategist--had called the 2016 meeting between Russian agents and Trump campaign officials "treasonous" and "unpatriotic." The meeting in question, which took place in Trump Tower and which was attended by Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner, was the result of Donald Trump Jr.'s enthusiastic acceptance of the Russian contacts' offer of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. (Trump Sr. later participated in an attempted cover-up of the meeting's true purpose.)

Predictably enraged, Trump responded with a furious four-paragraph statement attacking Bannon's character, political skills, work ethic, loyalty, honesty, and sanity. It retroactively recharacterized Bannon's August departure as a firing (at the time, Trump lavished thanks on the departing Bannon), and claimed that he had "lost his mind." Aggressive even by Trump's usual scorched-earth standards, it contained at least one outright lie: the assertion that "Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency."

In fact, Bannon loomed so large in the campaign and especially in the first months of the Trump administration that at times he threatened to outshine Trump himself. He became the chief executive of the Trump campaign in August 2016, and (with help from two of his former companies, Russia-linked data-mining company Cambridge Analytica and Breitbart News) presided over Trump's unlikely resurrection. Trump made him "chief strategist and senior advisor" immediately after the election. Unusually for a civilian aide, Bannon was permitted to attend meetings of the National Security Council--a degree of security clearance functionally equal to Trump's. And while the two did not always get along, Trump tolerated Bannon because much of Trump's political base comes from the so-called "alt-right" that Bannon (as head of Breitbart News) has enormous influence over.

Why should I care about this?

  • Nobody likes being associated with treason, but there's something to be said for a president who is at least theoretically capable of controlling his temper.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about preventing airliner crashes.

Trump began what is likely (though not yet certain) to be his first golf-free day since Christmas with a tweet in which he announced that because he was "very strict," there had been zero commercial air travel fatalities in 2017. He also claimed that this was a record.

There has not been a commercial airliner death in the United States since February 12, 2009. The last commercial plane crash of any kind occurred in Hawaii in 2013 and resulted in no deaths.

The Trump administration has done effectively nothing with commercial air safety other than to inherit a working system and not succeed in dismantling it. His administration did sign on to a proposal to privatize the air traffic control system, but it's not clear if Trump was actually made aware of this plan, and in any event it went nowhere in Congress.

Trump's successful deregulatory attack on mine safety provides a useful point of comparison. After an (actual) record-safe year for coal miners in 2016, with 8 work-related accidental deaths, that number nearly doubled in Trump's first year to 15. The increased deaths happened in spite of declining coal production on Trump's watch so far.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you had nothing to do with.
  • Bragging about this means that either Trump is stupid, or he thinks his audience is.
  • Deregulation is neither good nor bad in and of itself, but deregulation that kills workers and reduces production is always bad.