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.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Sunday Monday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Christmas. He spent Christmas at his Mar-a-Lago residence.

In and of itself, there's no problem with this. Trump is entitled to spend holidays--or any days--at any of his six known private residences if he likes. (Roughly every third day of his presidency has been spent at a property he owns.)

But Trump had previously expressed the opinion that it was unforgivable for a president to spend the holidays away from Washington D.C., out of consideration for his Secret Service detail.

Chain migration. In one of the less coherent portions of his impromptu interview with the New York Times last Thursday, Trump appeared to be trying to speak on the subject of so-called "chain migration." The term refers to the fact that people who successfully go through the lengthy process of obtaining U.S. citizenship often sponsor other family members. Trump said:
We have to get rid of chainlike immigration, we have to get rid of the chain. The chain is the last guy that killed. … [crosstalk] … The last guy that killed the eight people. … [Inaudible.] … So badly wounded people. … Twenty-two people came in through chain migration. Chain migration and the lottery system. They have a lottery in these countries. They take the worst people in the country, they put ‘em into the lottery, then they have a handful of bad, worse ones, and they put them out. ‘Oh, these are the people the United States. …” … We’re gonna get rid of the lottery, and by the way, the Democrats agree with me on that. On chain migration, they pretty much agree with me.
Setting aside the question of whether Democrats agree with him on immigration policy (they emphatically do not), there's one problem with Trump's stance on chain migration: he wouldn't be an American without it. Both Trump's mother and paternal grandfather followed their siblings to the United States. His wife Melania, a Slovenian-born naturalized American citizen, has brought both her parents to live in the United States as well.

The NYT interview. Trump's free-form interview with the NYT's Michael S. Schmidt was alarming for a number of reasons, some of which the Times itself addressed the following day. Other reports characterized it as a "rambling" portrait of a "mind in denial," or "scary" in its depiction of a president who is "not well" or "delusional." Still others simply toted up the false, incoherent, or otherwise disturbing statements Trump made: CNN found 47, for example.

But perhaps no one was quite so horrified by the interview as the handlers who only found out about it while it was already in progress. Trump, relaxing in the dining room of his golf club after a round, simply granted Schmidt's request on the spot. One of Trump's own staff called the resulting interview "embarrassing," in spite of communication director Hope Hicks's belated attempts to cut it short.

Off the record, Trump's staff has been very candid about the problems that the less formal environment of Mar-a-Lago presents for their ability to, for lack of a better way of putting it, keep Trump under control.

For his own part, Trump was reportedly thrilled that the interview was a big TV news story the day after it broke.

Global climate change. On Thursday, during colder-than-average temperatures in much of the country, Trump took to Twitter to make a joke about "good old global warming," which he has called a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

There are two ways of approaching this. One is to "debate" Trump on the merits of whether cold weather anywhere means the overwhelming scientific consensus of human-driven climate change is some kind of conspiracy. For example, by showing that the globe as a whole was a full degree Fahrenheit warmer than average that day--a significant amount, but a fairly typical result lately.

But it's probably more relevant to point out that Trump himself almost certainly doesn't actually believe that climate change is a hoax. He's certainly crafted the image of a climate denier on Twitter in recent years for political purposes, but the White House is extremely cagey about his stance, consistently refusing to answer direct questions on the subject. That's because Trump gives a different answer every time he's asked, and has basically taken every stance in recent years.

Golf. After a morning spent on the links, the streak of consecutive days Trump has spent golfing after he declared on Christmas Day that it was time to go "back to work" is at seven.

Why are these bad things?

  • Criticizing someone for doing something and then doing it yourself is hypocrisy, and it's not a good trait.
  • There might be a long American history of each generation of immigrants wanting to slam the door on the next, but that doesn't make it right.
  • It's a very bad sign if a president's staff doesn't trust him to have lunch without adult supervision.
  • It's even worse if they're right to worry.
  • Presidents need to actually know what they believe on major policy issues.