Sunday, April 9, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, friends and family edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Factions. He demanded an end to the "palace intrigue" stories fueled by leaks from the warring factions within his own administration. (This was immediately leaked, generating more palace intrigue stories.) 

However, most of the news on the subject was generated by Trump's own staffing changes. Three of the ever-shifting centers of power in the Trump White House are his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his chief of staff Reince Preibus, and his senior advisor Steve Bannon. The latter two were the subject of sustained rumors about their imminent firing or resignations, while Kushner drew attention for having been given (as a 36-year-old heir and political novice) a portfolio of jobs larger than would be typical for a seasoned vice-president. 

White House staffing changes are hardly unusual, but Trump's moves drew extra scrutiny because of the unusual degree of department-by-department chaos they suggest. Kushner, for example, has essentially taken over what is left of the State Department, with Rex Tillerson relegated to a supporting role. By contrast, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster appears to have finally gained momentum in his none-too-discreet attempts to purge his office of loyalists to Bannon and Trump's original NSA Michael Flynn. 

Family. Kushner was not the only Trump Administration family member to make the news this week, although his now-enormous list of titles and responsibilities once again called attention to his unchecked conflicts of interest and the lack of any reason for his appointment other than being married to Trump's daughter. Trump's son Eric weighed in this week on the subject with perhaps unintentional candor, admitting that he and his siblings "might be here because of nepotism" before arguing that "nepotism is a factor of life" and that the Trump children had eventually earned through good work the various opportunities their father had given them. 

Eric Trump also claimed that their father would not hesitate to fire any of his children if they did a poor job, although since Eric and his brother Donald Jr. are ostensibly in charge of Donald Sr.'s business holdings, they might seem to be insulated from that during Trump's time in office. But their trusteeship has been revealed recently to be even less blind than originally claimed. Trump suggested he would know nothing for the "eight years" he expected to be president, but Eric admitted that he briefs Trump Sr. on business matters quarterly. On Monday, ProPublica revealed a secret change to the legal documents governing the trust that allow Donald Trump to secretly withdraw profits from the Trump Organization directly into accounts that he personally controls. (The Trump White House initially denied this, but subsequently admitted it.) Because Trump refuses to acknowledge that there can ever be an actual conflict of interest where the president is concerned, his use of the trust that theoretically gives day-to-day control to his sons has always been voluntarily. This change, however, allows him to secretly undo it to any extent at any time.

Other Trump administration figures' family members made the news, too. Education secretary Betsy DeVos's brother is Erik Prince, best known as the founder of Blackwater, the private military organization responsible for the 2007 murder of seventeen Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square. Prince has stayed largely out of the public eye since then (and has changed the name of Blackwater twice) but has remained influential in GOP political circles. This week it was revealed that just before Trump's inauguration, Prince orchestrated a secret meeting with a representative of Vladimir Putin, in order to establish a diplomatic backchannel between Trump and Putin.

Friends. Trump went to bat for Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News pundit who yet again found himself in the spotlight because of sexual harassment lawsuits. Trump, who has been accused of sexual harassment himself more times than can be exhaustively documented, said that O'Reilly was a "good person" and added "I don’t think Bill did anything wrong" in any of the five most recent cases where O'Reilly settled out of court with his accusers. Trump has proclaimed April as National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. The official declaration that Trump signed calls for "supporting victims" and "prosecuting offenders to the full extent of the law," and emphasizes the importance of "changing social norms that accept or allow indifference to sexual violence."

Why should anyone care about these things?

  • A president who wants to end "palace intrigue" stories should try harder to avoid being manipulated by the factions within his own administration.
  • A 36-year-old who has never run a business he didn't purchase with his inheritance money is probably not the best choice to run several executive branch departments simultaneously.
  • Nepotism doesn't stop being wrong just because the beneficiary of it thinks he might be pretty good at the job he got unfairly.
  • A president with completely transparent and unfettered access to his vast business holdings does not in any sense have a blind trust.
  • Presidents who arrange for secret backchannel diplomatic connections to Russia may have secret backchannel diplomatic connections to Russia.
  • Donald Trump thinking someone is a good guy doesn't make that guy automatically innocent of any wrongdoing.