Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Influencer-in-chief Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He influenced a lot of people.

The Kushners in China. The family of Jared Kushner, representing a business empire that he retains direct financial ties to, sold visas to wealthy Chinese investors using Trump's name. The EB-5 visa, though much abused, is a legal path to residency and citizenship for sufficiently wealthy foreigners. But showing a picture of Donald Trump labeled "key decision maker" and citing his relationship to the Kushner family through Jared is pure influence-peddling, which explains why American reporters were forcibly expelled from the meeting.

Sean Spicer in or among the bushes. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, caught unawares by the Comey bombshell, found it necessary to take refuge among a row of bushes outside the White House in order to avoid taking questions from reporters. (Eventually spotted by the media despite his concealment by the foliage, Spicer refused to emerge until cameras were turned off and lights were dimmed.) 

Spicer's initial avoidance of the media was not particularly Trumplike, but what followed from the bush incident was pure Trump: he demanded, and got, a correction out of the Washington Post that clarified that he was not hiding in bushes, but among bushes. Trump is known for demanding rewrites from reporters he feels are insufficiently flattering: for example, when he became angry at a Golf Digest reporter for saying he wasn't an especially good golfer.

This was one of only a few public appearances by Spicer this week, though he had a good reason (Naval Reserve duty) for being absent. Unfortunately for Spicer, given the communication department's inability to anticipate Trump's surprise firing of Comey--or his sudden reversal on the reason why it happened--having a good reason may not be enough to save his job. When asked by Fox News, Trump pointedly refused to commit himself to keeping Spicer at his post.

Rep. Tom MacArthur. Faced with an unfriendly town hall crowd the day after Comey's firing, Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) came up with a explanation for his inaction that's sure to earn the Trump seal of approval: he claimed that "We [Congress] don’t oversee the executive."

Congress does oversee the executive--or at least is supposed to--and has a committee in each house especially for that purpose. (In the House of Representatives, where MacArthur serves, it is called the Oversight Committee.) This is part of the system of checks and balances that is the foundation of American democracy. All presidents resist this oversight to some extent, but with the help of a Republican Party that cannot easily divorce itself from him, Trump has had unusual success: he has co-opted one committee chair to such an extent that he was forced to recuse himself, and forced the early resignation from Congress of another.

Dan Scavino. Trump's fondness for surreptitiously surveilling and recording people was a major focus this week, which saw secret presidential recordings suddenly become a hot topic for the first time since 1974. For example, the public was reminded that Trump had a special switchboard installed in his private rooms at Mar-a-Lago, which enabled him to eavesdrop on guests' conversations. This is part of a long-time pattern of Trump having his own meetings and phone conversations surveilled and recorded.

But the habit has also rubbed off on his underlings. Former Apprentice protege Omarosa Manigault (currently a communications aide in the White House) had already inadvertently revealed the extent of the White House recording apparatus in February, during a spat with a reporter. But on Tuesday morning, White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino tweeted a screenshot of the incoming election-night concession call from Hillary Clinton, and promised to post video of it later.

Scavino offered no particular justification for doing so, although Trump's notorious obsession with justifying his electoral-only win means that it was probably a good career move for Scavino. But even Scavino probably thought better of actually releasing the alleged video, given the renewed attention that Trump administration surveillance started getting later that day.

The Kushners in Canada. Not all of the lessons Jared Kushner is learning are necessarily bad, though. It was revealed this week that, faced with Trump's sudden decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from NAFTA (something that even NAFTA opponents believe would be disastrous), Kushner reached out to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and begged him to intervene. (This is according to White House sources.) Trudeau obliged with a soothing phone call, and with similar help from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Trump was persuaded to let NAFTA negotiations go forward. 

Given that White House aides routinely and deliberately screen the print media that Trump is given, it is not entirely clear that Trump knows even now about Kushner enlisting foreign leaders to help in an internal policy debate.

Why should these things matter to me?

  • It's a problem when relatives of the president and his advisors openly sell his influence.
  • It's a bigger problem when the people buying that influence have good reason to think it's legitimate.
  • It's bad when the White House tries to duck reporters during major news events, regardless of the preposition used to describe where they're caught hiding.
  • Presidents who are susceptible to flattery by staffers can be manipulated by staffers.
  • It's bad if a president's long-established surveillance habits lead members of his own party to say he suffers from paranoid delusions.
  • It's bad if White House staffers need the aid of foreign governments to get a president's attention.