Saturday, May 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

Kept from the golf course by rain in the Washington area, Trump once again turned to Twitter to try to sell his conspiracy theory that the FBI spied on his campaign for his political enemies. He wrote, "If the FBI or DOJ was infiltrating a campaign for the benefit of another campaign, that is a really big deal. Only the release or review of documents that the House Intelligence Committee (also, Senate Judiciary) is asking for can give the conclusive answers."

There are two problems with Trump's theory. First, as president, Trump can know--and presumably does know--all the details of the FBI's counter-intelligence work aimed at Russian infiltrators of his campaign. Moreover, Trump has learned--the hard way--that the FBI and DOJ operate independently of the political portion of the executive branch.

Second, the word "if." There is evidence that the FBI was working with an informant because of alarming reports that the Trump campaign was in danger of being compromised by Russia--even before most of its senior leadership took a meeting with Russian agents offering "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. The person in question appears to be a foreign policy expert who worked for three Republican presidential administrations.

Trump, who is the President of the United States of America, hasn't provided any evidence to support his version of events.

Why should I care about this?

  • Guilty or innocent, Trump is entitled to a defense--but innocent people don't usually attack the concept of the rule of law itself.
  • It's bad when a president attacks his own Justice Department for political purposes.

Friday, May 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to hint that an FBI's use of an informant to fight Russia's infiltration into his campaign meant he was being "spied" on.

Trump's morning tweet session included a curiously worded conspiracy theory. He claimed that there were "reports" that an FBI agent had been "implanted" in his campaign "for political purposes," which would be a huge scandal--"if true." Trump provided no evidence for this claim, nor did he say who was "reporting" this.

This outburst is similar to his claim last year that President Obama had wiretapped his phones. Trump, who as president could have instantaneously learned the truth of the matter, has never backed up that claim either. But his campaign manager Paul Manafort was indeed under surveillance for his suspicious contacts with Russia and Russian-backed foreign governments. Manafort now faces dozens of charges, including conspiracy against the United States, as a result.

In reality, the FBI did use an informant (not an agent) to investigate George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, Trump's oddly underqualified "foreign policy advisers" during the campaign. Papadopoulos has since pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI about his secret meetings with Russian government agents. (Trump himself immediately disowned Papadopoulos, calling him a "liar.") Page traveled to Russia during the campaign and discussed the possible rollback of sanctions against that country, something the campaign tried to conceal.

Trump has been mobilizing political allies to expose the identity of the informant who worked with the FBI. His own hand-picked FBI director, Christopher Wray, objected strongly in public testimony to Congress on Wednesday to this, saying, "The day that we can’t protect human sources is the day the American people start becoming less safe. Human sources in particular who put themselves at great risk to work with us and with our foreign partners have to be able to trust that we’re going to protect their identities and in many cases their lives and the lives of their families.”

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Counter-espionage is part of the FBI's job.
  • A president who isn't corrupted or compromised by Russia should have no problem with American law enforcement protecting democracy from attacks by Russia.
  • Criminals who are caught by the people investigating them don't really get to complain that they were being "spied on."

Thursday, May 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared himself the most successful president ever, at least through the first 17 months.

Even by Trump standards, today's "executive time" tweet was unusually braggy:

Of course, what counts as "successful" is in the eye of the beholder, and there's very little question that Trump truly believes he's the best president ever. (It's easier to list the things Trump doesn't claim to be the best in the world at than things he does.) But even Trump usually remembers to make a nod towards modesty by exempting (for example) Abraham Lincoln from his presidential self-congratulation.

But measured against the president Trump said he wanted to be on the campaign trail, his first 17 months have been an almost unbroken string of failures. He began backpedaling on his border wall promises almost as soon as he took office. He couldn't get an Obamacare repeal through a Congress full of Republicans who hate it. He has had any number of "infrastructure weeks" but hasn't even started writing a legislative proposal. He's had massive turnover in his staff, with some senior positions on their fourth or fifth version of the "best people" he promised to hire. His plan to quash the Russia investigation immediately backfired with the appointment of a special counsel. The stock markets are down for the year (in mid-May), and is now slightly underperforming the average annual growth rate of the entire Obama presidency. He did manage to impose a lobbying ban on executive branch employees--and then gave waivers to virtually everyone who asked for one. Even the promises that took the form of threats--for example, when he vowed to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton, or simply to put her in jail somehow--have gone unmet.

In fairness, Trump does clearly have a better 17-month track record than at least two presidents: James Garfield and William Henry Harrison, who both died before they reached that milestone.

Why does this matter?

  • Nobody expects politicians to be humble, but presidents who are actually successful don't have to tell people that they are.
  • People who voted for Trump based on his promises may have expected him to keep more than a few of them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called immigrants "animals."

During a publicly live-streamed meeting with California officials on the subject of sanctuary cities, Trump lashed out again at the "dumbest" laws that require the United States to take refugees and asylum-seekers seriously. He then boasted about his administration's response: "We're taking people out of the country, you wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals."

Why is this something I should care about?

  • Racism is as racism does.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He filed financial disclosure forms about his hush-money payments to porn stars--probably.

The Office of Government Ethics announced today that Trump had filed his annual financial disclosure report. Normally this is a routine bureaucratic filing, but Trump--who hasn't exactly been shy about his intention to make money off the presidency--has inadvertently made it important this year, because of his sexual and financial connection with the porn actress Stormy Daniels.

Where Daniels is concerned, Trump's story is difficult to keep straight, but in at least one version, he reimbursed his attorney/fixer Michael Cohen for the $130,000 hush-money payment that Cohen's LLC paid up front to Daniels. This means that Trump owed Cohen more than $10,000, which in turn means that the debt would have to be reported on the disclosure forms. (Trump's disclosure for the year 2016 did not mention the Daniels money.)

Whether it will actually appear on the forms, which are usually released promptly to the public, is unclear. It's possible Trump will simply lie. It's also possible that there is no debt to report because the truth is something other than what Trump, Cohen, or Rudy Giuliani have told the public so far. 

Finally, it may be that the Trump employees filling out the reports simply weren't told about the shadier aspects of Trump's accounting. Trump deliberately kept his business with Cohen secret from the rest of his inner circle, which is precisely why Trump and so many close to him are alarmed at what Cohen might tell investigators.

So what?

  • Presidents are subject to the law, even when it's not convenient for them.
  • It's bad if presidents only tell the truth when they're forced to.
  • It's even worse if they can't be forced to under any circumstances.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called his own staff "traitors and cowards."

Trump had a friendly warning this afternoon for White House staff:

It's not entirely clear what set Trump off today, although there are a few likely suspects. The White House is still trying to contain the damage by a staff member's cruel joke at a private staff meeting about Sen. John McCain's failing health. Although arguably less offensive than the things Trump himself has publicly said about McCain, staffer Kelly Sadler's comment only came to light because someone in the room repeated it to the press.

Alternatively, Trump may be upset by the fact that 22 of his aides, friends, confidants, and lawyers dished on him anonymously in a recent Washington Post article on the Mueller investigation. It revealed, among other things, that Trump rants up to "twenty times a day" about the FBI raid on his lawyer/fixer, Michael Cohen. This is by no means a record for anonymous Trump administration sources, though: a New Yorker piece that reported on Trump's joking about his vice-president's homophobia had over sixty sources.

Another likely suspect is an Axios post that featured Trump staffers leaking about their leaking habits, in which they admitted to using leaks to carryout policy debates and personal vendettas in the press, and to leaking in order to force a wayward Trump back to reality. They also admitted to certain "dirty tricks," like copying one another's verbal mannerisms in leaks to avoid suspicion.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are responsible for the people they bring into positions of public trust.
  • Some voters may have believed candidate Trump when he said he'd hire "the best people" to work with him in the White House.
  • It's not a good situation when a president's own staff admits they don't trust him.
  • Just because something is bad news does not mean it is fake news.
  • Loyalty to the good of the country (and not the president personally) isn't what makes someone a traitor.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised to create "jobs in China" by inexplicably reversing course on sanctions against a Chinese telecom company.

By any standard, the Chinese company ZTE was a problem for the United States. It had been caught violating sanctions against Iran, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, and Sudan. The U.S. intelligence community also suspected it of cooperating with the Chinese government, which would create a weakness to espionage or cyberattack. In February, the directors of the FBI and CIA--both Trump appointees--urged Congress to forbid ZTE to sell its phones in the United States. Few Americans on either side of the political spectrum shed any tears when, just last week, it announced it would effectively shut down.

Then, this afternoon, Trump announced that he had personally ordered the Commerce Department "to give [the] massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast."

Coming from Trump, who ran as an economic populist and who said that China was "raping our country" economically, a pledge to create Chinese jobs is bizarre. (Perhaps belatedly realizing how this look, his next tweet urged his followers to "be cool.") 

The White House--which may once again have been caught off-guard by a sudden Trump impulse--had very little in the way of explanation that didn't directly contradict what Trump had said. A statement from a spokesperson said that "President Trump expects [Commerce] Secretary [Wilbur] Ross to exercise his independent judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations, to resolve the regulatory action involving ZTE based on its facts." But Trump's tweet said nothing about "independent judgment," only that he had ordered the Commerce Department to "get it done."

Regardless of the political or economic fallout, the bigger problem is Trump's decision to intervene directly in a law enforcement matter. One former White House official put it to the Washington Post,
Now we’ve opened up every law enforcement action that the United States takes, where other countries will think, "Aha, I can impose this economic pain or this tariff or this market access restriction, and I can use this as a chit to trade off against more favorable treatment with the law enforcement case."
Also today, Trump's national security advisor John Bolton said that U.S. may well sanction companies in allied countries who do business (legally) with Iran.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's insane to reward a potential hostile foreign agent for breaking the rules, while punishing allies for acting within the law.
  • Whether or not you agree with a given policy move that a president makes, it should at least be possible to figure out why he made it.
  • A serious threat to the cybersecurity of the United States is a poor choice for leniency.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went out of his way to praise North Korea for something objectively bad.

This afternoon, Trump took to Twitter to praise the "very smart" and "gracious" Kim Jong-un regime for its promise to "dismantle" its nuclear test site. North Korea's announcement included splashy details about how foreign journalists would be invited in to monitor its destruction.

It has been widely reported for months that North Korea's final, conclusive test effectively destroyed the mountain that housed the test site. It is an absolute certainty that Trump was made aware of this; it's not clear if he remembered when he made this tweet that there was really no test site left to "dismantle."

Trump is increasingly relying on good news out of his overtures to North Korea--or, at least, something that looks like good news in the short term. This, in turn, has given North Korea a great deal of leverage over Trump personally. This makes it difficult to tell if Trump is simply propagandizing on North Korea's behalf, or whether it is simply a question of North Korea taking advantage of his incredible and universally known weakness to flattery.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Praise for brutal, nuclear-armed authoritarian regimes should be saved for when they actually do something good.
  • The security of the United States of America is more important than a PR victory for its president.
  • It's bad if the president believes obviously false North Korean propaganda--or even just pretends to.

Friday, May 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said, via a spokesperson, that letting Michael Cohen sell access to him was "the definition of draining the swamp."

Many of the companies that hired Trump's sometime-lawyer, sometime-fixer Michael Cohen for his "insight" into Trump have apologized in the last few days. AT&T's CEO called it "a big mistake." Novartis's CEO echoed the sentiment: "We made a mistake in entering into this engagement."

(The exception is the American front company for Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, Columbus Nova, which has refused to comment except to say that the company is "solely owned and controlled by Americans." This is true in a literal sense--its CEO, Vekselberg's cousin, has dual U.S./Russian citizenship--but its main purpose is as a conduit for the Putin-linked billionaire Vekselberg to do business in the United States.)

At today's press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about those public apologies, and how it reflected on Trump's promise to "drain the swamp" of moneyed interests buying influence. This exchange followed:
MS. SANDERS: I think that this further proves that the President is not going to be influenced by special interests. This is actually the definition of draining the swamp, something the President talked about repeatedly during the campaign. And for anything beyond that, I would direct you to the President’s outside counsel.

Q: Explain one way this is the definition of draining the swamp. I mean, this is companies paying for information (inaudible). 
MS. SANDERS: I think it’s pretty clear that the Department of Justice opposed the [AT& T/Time Warner] merger, and so certainly the President has not been influenced by any — or his administration influenced by any outside special interests.
Essentially, Trump is claiming (via Sanders) that because at least one of the companies seeking to buy influence with him failed to get one thing they might have wanted, it wasn't wrong to allow Cohen to sell access to him.

Sanders didn't comment on whether influence-peddling would be wrong if, for example, Trump's policies favored the pharmaceutical industry, or he showed extreme reluctance to impose legally mandated sanctions on Russians like Vekselberg.

Why should I care about this?

  • The president's time, attention, and goodwill should not be for sale.
  • Corruption is bad even if the corrupters don't get everything they want.
  • A president who actually had a problem with billionaires and corporations buying and selling government would probably have said something by now.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He welcomed home North Korean hostages as only he could.

Early this morning, Trump met the plane carrying three Americans recently freed from captivity in North Korea. (Two of the three were detained on Trump's watch, although this didn't stop Trump from saying that the Obama administration had somehow failed to bring them home.) 

North Korea routinely takes hostages from the United States and its allies, in order to have bargaining chips during diplomatic negotiations. For that reason, it had been the policy of the United States--until now--not to reward North Korea with praise or diplomatic recognition on top of whatever it was able to extort in exchange for the release of its prisoners.

This morning, Trump lavishly thanked the regime that imprisoned the three Americans: "We want to thank Kim Jong Un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people." As though to drive home the point that North Korea was indeed about to be rewarded in the upcoming talks, Trump added, "We very much appreciate that he allowed them to go before the meeting. He was nice in letting them go before the meeting …That was a big thing, very important to me."

At least one of the three had been serving a sentence of hard labor; all three are now undergoing intensive medical and psychological evaluation, and were kept away from the press. The same "excellent" treatment killed American student Otto Warmbier last year.

Why does this matter?

  • There's a difference between diplomacy and capitulation.
  • It's bad to reward bad behavior.
  • A president who can go from threatening nuclear war to praising the "honorable" and "excellent" Kim regime is either insane or dangerously na├»ve.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to comment on why major international businesses and at least one Russian oligarchs were paying his "fixer" to do nothing.

Yesterday, Stormy Daniels' lawyer released documents showing millions of dollars flowing into the same shell company that Trump's attorney Michael Cohen used to pay hush money to cover up Daniels' sexual affair with Trump. "Essential Consultants," which was created in October of 2016 in order to make that payout anonymously, almost immediately started taking in millions of dollars in billings. The clients for Cohen's "services" were companies ranging from AT&T, the drug company Novartis, a scandal-plagued Korean aerospace company looking for federal defense contracts, and the US front company for the Putin-linked Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

The most charitable interpretation is that this was a case of "pay for play," and that Trump was permitting Cohen to effectively sell Trump's attention and good favor on the open market. This is not, strictly speaking, illegal--although before the Trump administration it was rarely openly admitted. (Trump, of course, was opposed to the practice as a candidate when he thought he could pin it on Hillary Clinton.) 

The more damning possibility is that Cohen was funneling some of that money to Trump himself, or Trump's businesses, which would be bribery. 

Asked repeatedly about the matter at today's press briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders--mindful of the dangers of speaking too specifically about Trump's murky relationship with the man who pays his hush money--essentially refused to rule out either possibility.
Q Let me ask you this question, Sarah. The confidential financial records of Michael Cohen’s company, Essential Consultants, were made public, prompting the Treasury Department’s Office the Inspector General to launch an investigation as to how that happened. 
But among the records were payments from AT&T to a person very close to the President at a time when AT&T was looking for government approval of a proposed merger with Time Warner. There were also payments of over $1 million from Novartis Pharmaceuticals at a time that the President was talking about doing something to bring down the cost of pharmaceuticals. 
Is the President concerned about any aspect of what we’ve learned in the last 24 hours? 
MS. SANDERS: As you know, due to the complications of the different components of this investigation, I would refer you to the President’s outside special — or outside counsel to address those concerns. 
Q But is the President concerned that major corporations were giving money to somebody very close to him at a time when they had business before the federal government? 
MS. SANDERS: I haven’t heard the President express any specific concerns about that.
Q Sarah, do you believe that Michael Cohen was ever in any way qualified to provide insights into this administration? 
MS. SANDERS: I’m not going to get into somebody else’s qualifications. That’s something that an independent company that hires an individual would have to make that determination, not me. 
Q But let me ask you this — because what we know is Michael Cohen received millions of dollars, apparently peddling the insights that he said he could provide into this administration to America’s largest corporations. Is the President in any way embarrassed or ashamed of that? Because it seems to be the definition of swampy behavior — 
MS. SANDERS: I think that would be up to those individuals who make the decision to hire someone, just the same way that the companies that you work for make the decision to determine whether or not they think that you’re qualified to serve in a position. That’s the decision of an independent company and has nothing to do with the White House.
Q Thanks, Sarah. I’m happy to take the answer from the private counsel also, but I have made efforts and haven’t been able to. So I’ll pose it publicly, and if you can address it, I’d appreciate it. 
Do you know whether Mr. Cohen ever approached the White House as a representative of any of those companies, whether the President was aware of the payments, or whether he was aware that Mr. Cohen was marketing himself that way? 
MS. SANDERS: I’m not aware. And again, I would refer you to the outside counsel.
Q Thank you, Sarah. The President promised to drain the swamp. So does he feel it’s appropriate that Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, was selling access to him? 
MS. SANDERS: Again, I’m not going to weigh in on this. That’s a determination that individual companies have to make, and I haven’t spoken with the President. 
Q But, Sarah, based on what you know — you’re the Press Secretary, and you’re standing there at the podium. Based on what you know and what’s been revealed over the past 24 hours, does the President think it’s appropriate that his personal attorney was selling access to him, given that he promised to drain the swamp? 
MS. SANDERS: Again, I am purposefully — as has our team — we are not engaging in matters and this process at all. And I would refer you to the outside counsel for anything that has anything to do with Michael Cohen or others.

Anticipating questions like this may be why Trump threatened this morning to revoke press access to the White House altogether.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • The president's schedule and good will should not be for sale.
  • If this isn't corruption, nothing is.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave the closest thing to an explanation yet to his hatred for the Iran nuclear deal.

As was widely expected, Trump declared today that the United States would be abrogating the treaty it signed along with France, Germany, Russia, China, the UK, and Iran. Since the other signatory countries have pledged to uphold the treaty, it's not clear what the outcome will be: Iranian hardliners could benefit from Trump's decision, and the country could pull out itself, leaving it with a freer hand to develop nuclear weapons. Alternatively, it could remain within the treaty framework, which would put the United States in the position of imposing economic sanctions on close allies

Part of the mystery is that Trump seems unwilling or unable to say why he objected to the treaty, other than that it was a "bad deal." (Trump, who hired a ghostwriter to create his book The Art of the Deal, regards himself as the ultimate dealmaker, evidence be damned.) There are serious arguments to be made either for or against the treaty, but Trump himself has never really articulated any specific problems with it, other than his belief that somehow it wouldn't work.

His actions over the past few days have given hints as to the real motivation, though: hatred of the Obama administration. This morning, just before the announcement, he tweet-ranted at former Secretary of State John Kerry, accusing him of "hurting" the United States. A few days earlier, free-associating during his NRA speech, Trump taunted Kerry for having broken his leg while in office.

It's likely that Kerry was on Trump's mind because he (via staff) apparently ordered a private espionage firm to dig up dirt on the members of the Obama administration who were part of the original negotiations. "The idea was that people acting for Trump would discredit those who were pivotal in selling the deal, making it easier to pull out of it," a source told the Observer, which broke the story

The Trump White House has refused to comment on the story, or on whether it has bought private spies to dig into other members of the Obama administration.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if a president is making major policy decisions for no reason, or for no reason he can say out loud.
  • It's un-American to attack people who served their country in good faith.

Monday, May 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He shared his thoughts on the judiciary.

Trump has apparently embraced the verdict of his latest legal defense team, which now features impeachment specialist Emmet Flood, to go fully on the attack politically against the Mueller probe. The latest salvo was his tweet this morning:
(In fact, everyone "in charge" of the probe is a Republican--even Trump, who is both its target and ultimately the person with the power to end it. So is Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, and every single member of the DOJ staff who might replace Rosenstein if and when Trump fires him--because Trump has appointed all these people himself. Of course, Mueller himself is also a Republican, appointed to lead the FBI by President George W. Bush. Trump's objection seems to be that any career prosecutors who had registered as Democrats were allowed on Mueller's staff.)

The tweet appears to be a reference to some pointed questions that prosecutors in the Paul Manafort trial got about jurisdictional issues last week--though so far the judge in that case hasn't ruled against Mueller's prosecutors. Otherwise, there hasn't been much good news for Trump in the courts where the Russia investigation is concerned: the "Witch Hunt" has indicted 13 Russians for their work to sabotage the election, and secured guilty pleas from five Trump associates.

While Trump is no stranger to the court system, having been sued constantly by stiffed workers, defrauded students, and ex-wives among literally thousands of others, it's unusual to hear him speak well of the judiciary. Since taking office, he's called the judicial branch a "joke" and a "laughingstock," has ranted to aides that his Supreme Court pick isn't always ruling the way Trump wanted him to, referred to a federal judge who ruled against him a "so-called judge"--and then said that any future terrorism would be that judge's fault, threatened to just end an entire federal judicial district he didn't like, and complained that judges (and not himself) get to determine criminal sentences.

So what?

  • Judges aren't good or bad depending on whether a president likes their rulings.
  • It's extremely bad if a president literally can't imagine anyone putting the rule of law over party affiliation.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to get out ahead of the next wave of hush-money stories.

Rudy Giuliani had a rough first week as Trump's new lead lawyer and explainer-in-chief, accidentally implicating his client in crimes and making him out to be a liar. But assuming Giuliani now has his "facts straight" (as Trump himself put it, during the subsequent damage control efforts), he made more scandal news this morning. 

Asked on ABC's This Week if Trump's "fixer" Michael Cohen had paid hush money to other women, Giuliani said he had no specific knowledge of such payments, adding, "But I would think if it was necessary, yes."

Unlike his blunders earlier in the week, Giuliani's hint that more sex-scandal shoes might drop was almost certainly intentional and done with Trump's blessing. In both politics and criminal defense, it is often advantageous to be the first to call attention to bad news.

At least two women, porn actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, are already known to have signed non-disclosure agreements to keep them silent about sexual affairs with Trump during his most recent marriage. (Both have also taken legal action to have those agreements invalidated.) Trump is notorious for using the legal system to keep scandals under wraps, and even forced government employees to sign legally invalid NDAs in an effort to stop internal criticism of his chaotic White House from leaking out.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's bad if we can't even estimate how many people a sitting president is paying to keep silent about things that would embarrass him.
  • It is dangerous for the country if the president can be blackmailed.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made an incomprehensible threat.

Appearing today in Cleveland, Trump had this to say: "We may have to close up our country to get this straight, because we either have a country or we don't."

The general subject of that portion of Trump's rambling, unscripted remarks was immigration, but what Trump meant was difficult to say, and news reports reached two different yet equally absurd interpretations.

Some believed that Trump was threatening to completely close the United States' borders. Of course, Trump has no legal authority to do anything of the sort, but the economic and diplomatic consequences of even trying would be almost unimaginable. Even the threat of much smaller-scale restrictions brings serious economic effects. 

Others interpreted it as a threat to shutdown the federal government unless Congress provides the umpteen billion dollars needed for his border wall. This, at least, has plenty of precedent--Trump has spoken fondly of government shutdowns in the past, although he's less fond of taking responsibility for them when they actually happen. 

White House spokespersons--presumably also in the dark about what, if anything, Trump meant--have not yet responded to requests for comment.

What's the problem here?

  • It's bad if nobody can tell what a president is saying.
  • It's very bad if all the possible interpretations are either insane or stupid.

Friday, May 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again tried to pretend he barely knew Paul Manafort.

In his address to the NRA tonight, Trump seized on a report that the judge in the Paul Manafort criminal case was asking prosecutors questions about whether the special counsel had legal authority to prosecute these particular charges. Regardless of which branch of the Justice Department ends up carrying the prosecution forward, Manafort is facing hundreds of years in prison on dozens of counts including conspiracy against the United States, fraud, tax evasion, and lying about his status as the agent of a foreign government.  

(Manafort's business associate and Trump campaign colleague, Rick Gates, has already pleaded guilty to similar charges and is cooperating with the Russia probe.)

Trump's response was that Manafort was a "nice guy." But, perhaps remembering that Manafort stands a good chance of spending the rest of his life in prison, Trump immediately followed that remark by insisting that he barely knew Manafort, who had worked for Trump for "literally, like what, a couple months."

In reality, Manafort worked for the Trump campaign for five months, most of that as Trump's campaign manager. Trump has known Manafort, who owns a Trump Tower apartment, long before that: their relationship goes back almost 40 years. Manafort's companies worked for Trump during the 80s and 90s, but Manafort's main business--essentially, a political consultant to brutal dictators--took him to the Ukraine, where he served as an advisor to the Russian puppet government of Viktor Yanukovych. When that regime was overthrown in a popular uprising in 2014, Manafort attempted to return to U.S. politics, but didn't succeed until he offered to work for Trump's campaign for free. 

During the convention, while Manafort was in charge of the Trump campaign, it demanded that the Republican Party weaken its stance on Russia's annexation of part of the Ukraine.

So what?

  • People with nothing to hide don't bother lying about their relationships, even with accused criminals.
  • Trump may be the first person in history to even pretend that Paul Manafort is a "nice guy."
  • Presidents and presidential candidates are responsible for the people they put in positions of authority.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

UPDATE, 5/5: Giuliani's remarks on Thursday included the assertion that the hostages would be freed that day, which didn't come to pass. Part of the reason is that by raising expectations for the prisoners' release, Giuliani and Trump have given North Korea extra political leverage over Trump on the matter.

Pressed for comment, Giuliani admitted he didn't know anything about the state of negotiations beyond what he'd read in the newspapers: "I wasn’t made secretary of state, so I’m not conducting foreign policy,” he said.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent his personal lawyer out to do the State Department's job.

Following last night's catastrophic appearance on Hannity, Trump's new lead lawyer Rudy Giuliani spent the morning doing damage control on Fox & Friends. (From a legal perspective, it probably made things worse for Trump--Giuliani torpedoed his own claim that the Stormy Daniels hush money payment had nothing to do with the election by pointing out how damaging it would have been if news of Trump's affair with Daniels came out... just before the election.)

When the discussion turned to the prospect of Trump receiving a subpoena, one of Giuliani's arguments was that Trump was too busy with his presidential duties to comply:
The President of the United States is getting ready to negotiate one of our historic agreements since opening of China, and we got Kim Jong Un impressed enough to be releasing three prisoners today, and I have got to go there and Jay Sekulow and we have to go there and prepare him for this silly deposition.
Giuliani is not a government official and has no security clearance, so it's difficult to know how seriously to take this claim. So far, there has been no official announcement by the White House about any release of prisoners, although it is a very common tactic by North Korea, which seems to collect Western prisoners just so that it can use their release as diplomatic bargaining chips. But Trump himself teased the same thing yesterday, referring to the same number of prisoners:
Two of the three hostages were captured during the Trump administration, not "the past Administration." It's not entirely clear whether Trump was deliberately lying about this, or simply wasn't aware that two Americans were taken prisoner by North Korea on his watch.

Why is this a problem?

  • The presidency is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
  • American diplomacy is too important to leave to a private lawyer with an agenda.
  • It's wrong to blame your predecessors for things that happened on your watch.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted via his lawyer that he had lied about the Stormy Daniels hush money payments--and may have been implicated in crimes in the process.

In an interview with Sean Hannity tonight, Trump's new lead lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that Trump had reimbursed his "fixer" Michael Cohen for the $130,000 in hush money that Cohen paid porn actress Stormy Daniels. He said that the money had been "funneled through a law firm... over a period of months" A stunned Hannity replied, "Oh, I didn't know--that he did."

Neither did anyone outside of Trump's inner circle--in part because less than a month ago, Trump flatly denied knowing anything whatsoever about Cohen's payment to Daniels. 

Giuliani insisted that because "no campaign money" was used, no laws were broken. In fact, this is far from clear. As the candidate, Trump was allowed to donate an unlimited amount of money to his own campaign, including "in-kind" contributions like hush money to women he had extramarital affairs with. But this money still has to be reported: the whole point of campaign disclosure laws is to keep campaigns from being influenced by secret, untraceable money. And Trump eventually reimbursing Cohen does not mean that Cohen's payment of the hush money--which was made just before the election--wasn't illegal in the first place.

In the same interview, Giuliani called the FBI agents who conducted the seizure of Cohen's records "stormtroopers." Giuliani, a former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, once supervised FBI agents from the same office that conducted the raid. "Stormtroopers" is a reference to the German Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary shock troops of the Nazi Party. Trump is unlikely to object: he once compared US intelligence agencies to Nazis for their work in uncovering Russia's sabotage of the election on his behalf.

Trump had authorized Giuliani to speak about the Cohen-Daniels payments, and was pleased with the performance--at least, according to Giuliani.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's not okay for the president to lie to the public just to avoid personal embarrassment.
  • Presidents who have secrets like this to keep can be manipulated.
  • It's bad if a presidential candidate is willing to bend or break the laws that keep American elections honest.
  • A president who will tolerate underlings who compare the FBI to Nazis is unfit to lead the executive branch.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blamed a leak on the Mueller investigation that definitely came from his own lawyers.

Last night, the New York Times released a summary of 49 questions that special counsel Robert Mueller's team wanted to ask Trump, in the increasingly unlikely event that Trump agreed to an interview. (Trump has publicly said he would consent to an interview; his lawyers are dead-set against it, fearing that Trump will perjure himself.) The NYT article clearly said that its source was a list put together by Trump's legal team, not the original questions provided by Mueller to Trump's lawyers.

Today, in a two-tweet comment that contained a number of other falsehoods, Trump said it was "disgraceful" that the questions had been leaked. There are three possible explanations.
  1. Trump is genuinely unaware that his own lawyers or staff leaked the questions. This is fairly likely. Trump's staff and lawyers routinely, and in some cases flagrantly, manipulate him through the information that they choose to withhold from him, or the comments they make in the press. For this to be true, Trump would have to have remained ignorant of the fact that the leak came from his own lawyers' notes--which is entirely possible.

    Considering the horror that Trump's lawyers have of putting him on the record, where even the tiniest attempt to shade the truth could lead to perjury charges, it is quite plausible that one of them leaked the questions in an attempt to save Trump from himself.

  2. Trump himself ordered the questions leaked. Trump may believe that if he can pin a "leak" on Mueller's office, he will gain sympathy from voters. In recent months, with the departure of the more qualified legal minds from Trump's team and their replacement with political operatives like Rudy Giuliani, Trump's strategy has turned more towards attacking Mueller and his "witch hunt" directly.

  3. Trump knows that his own side leaked the questions, but is opportunistically blaming the special counsel.  A hybrid of the other two possibilities. It's possible (but not certain) that someone on Trump's staff would have informed him that the leak came from within his own house, in which case he might have tried to make the best of the situation by falsely suggesting that Mueller's team had leaked it.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's wrong to blame people for things you should have known they didn't do.
  • It's bad if a president can be this easily manipulated.