Monday, July 31, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?


--and then this:

Scaramucci's tenure, which began ten days ago, has resulted in the resignation of the press secretary, a press aide, the chief of staff, and the Secretary of Homeland Security who moved into the chief of staff role--and who promptly engineered Scaramucci's removal.


  • By any imaginable standard, the White House is in chaos.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Staffing Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He had some issues with underlings, or people he regards as underlings.

The FBI. Trump appeared to forget who it is that has the power to fire the acting FBI director, tweeting on Wednesday his confusion as to why his beleaguered attorney general failed to fire the acting director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. This amounted to a two-fer in Trump's quest to fire people without actually firing them, a subject he seems to find more difficult as an actual executive than in fictional TV role.

For the record, Jefferson Sessions did not fire Andrew McCabe because, under the present circumstances, only the president can do that.

The Justice Department. As part of an ongoing--and suddenly urgent--campaign to draw attention away from the Russia conspiracy investigation, Trump has renewed his calls for the Justice Department to open an investigation into unspecified crimes he claims to believe his political opponent Hillary Clinton committed.

As Republicans and Democrats alike pointed out, both law and custom in the United States (or any other working democracy) prevent the president from simply using the Justice Department as his own personal investigative arm or enforcement squad. While it's most likely that Trump is simply trying to distract from the investigations that he himself is the subject of, he has shown confusion in the past about whether Sessions and other DOJ lawyers represent him personally. (They do not.)

The Senate. Today, still smarting from the defeat of his attempt to repeal the ACA, Trump once again ordered the Senate to end the filibuster. As in the past, he insisted on a 51-vote threshold after losing a vote with fewer than 51 votes. Trump's campaign against the Senate--and, indeed, mostly against Republican senators--has yet to yield much cooperation from the chamber, which tends to take seriously the fact that it is part of a separate and co-equal branch of government.

The general insubordination of the Senate was exemplified in its bipartisan consensus that Trump is mentally unstable, captured Tuesday on a live microphone.

The Mooch. One person who is unquestionably Trump's to boss around is his new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. While Scaramucci's actions this week alone virtually defy summary--and this blog takes no position on autofellatio--his arrival does seem to signify the start of a uniquely Trumpian purge of insufficiently loyal pro-Trump Republicans from the White House. The departures of Sean Spicer last week and Reince Priebus this Friday were in reaction to Scaramucci's hiring, but there were also more involuntary departures as a result.

For example, in Scaramucci's first and apparently unsuccessful attempt to learn what "off the record" means, he told Politico that he was about to fire press aide Michael Short--then condemned the "leak" of that information when Politico duly reported it. When confronted with the fact that he himself was the "leaker"--all the more ironic since he intended to fire Short as a suspected leaker--he said, "Let’s say I’m firing Michael Short today. The fact that you guys know about it before he does really upsets me as a human being and as a Roman Catholic." Short, apparently tiring of waiting for the ax to fall, resigned later in the day.

For all the headlines he generated, though, Scaramucci seems to have pleased the only person whose opinion matters. Trump, who is increasingly obsessed with "loyalty" as the Mueller investigation proceeds, will find it difficult to doubt the loyalty of a man who skipped the birth of his own child in order to hear Trump speak to the Boy Scouts this week. Scaramucci and his wife are divorcing because of his obsession with infiltrating the Trump administration.

UPDATE, 7/31: WTDT acknowledges the inaccuracy of the prediction that Scaramucci would hold Trump's favor, given that he was removed from his position within a day of this post.

The upside. Trump, for his part, put a positive spin on his administration's reputation for backbiting, infighting, and palace intrigue, calling it "fighting over who loves me the most."

Why are these bad things?

  • A president who is too afraid or politically weak to fire unsatisfactory employees is a president who cannot do his own job.
  • Demanding purges of political opponents is what authoritarians do.
  • A president who continually fails to understand that Congress does not work for him will continually fail to get his legislative agenda passed.
  • It's bad if even members of a president's own party think he's unstable.
  • Incompetent staff reflect on the competence of the President who hires them.
  • Believing that everyone loves you is a form of egocentrism, and it's not a sign of good mental health.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He escalated his threat to "implode" Obamacare himself, if he can't force Congress to do it.

Trump, who on Thursday moved from begging John McCain to vote for the so-called "skinny repeal" bill to declaring that his plan all along had been to "let Obamacare implode," today tweeted that he would end "BAILOUTS for Insurance Companies" unless Congress somehow revived an ACA repeal plan for him.

There are no "bailouts" for insurance companies in the Affordable Care Act. There are, however, cost-sharing subsidies paid by the federal government to participating insurers to underwrite low-income or high-risk enrollees. Trump is threatening to withhold these legally required payments. Without them, insurance companies will be forced to abandon the individual insurance market or substantially raise premiums for all those covered. But insurance companies (by definition) must price in projected costs, and so the uncertainty and chaos caused by Trump's continued threats have already raised premiums and decreased competition.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that if Trump carried out his threat, premiums would rise about 19%, though the amount would be higher in states that did not participate in Medicare expansion. (On the whole, this would mean that states that voted for Trump would be disproportionately hurt.) Failing to make the payments would also increase the federal government's costs overall.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's bad if a president deliberately sabotages a law he is sworn to faithfully execute for political points.
  • Presidents should not hold Americans' health and finances hostage.
  • Voters who heard candidate Trump say that he would lower their premiums and save taxpayer dollars may have thought he meant to do that, rather than exactly the opposite.

Friday, July 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told an audience of police officers to be "rough" with people they arrest.

In a speech in front of Long Island law enforcement officers, Trump said he approved of them being "rough" with the "animals" police encountered. He mocked the practice of guiding arrestees' heads as they were put into police cars, and told them not to "be too nice." He also told a story about an supposed (unnamed) Chicago police officer, a "rough cookie" who came to him wanting permission to "straighten out" the "bad ones" behind that city's crime.

The speech took place in Suffolk County on Long Island. That county's police department immediately pushed back on Twitter: "The SCPD has strict rules & procedures relating to the handling of prisoners. Violations of those rules are treated extremely seriously. ...As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners." The International Association of Chiefs of Police also put out a statement calling the treatment of individuals with "dignity and respect" a "bedrock principle" of policing.

This is the second day in a row that the hosts of a Trump speech have been forced to do damage control over his remarks. The Boy Scouts of America issued an apology yesterday for Trump's injection of partisan political attacks into what was supposed to be a celebration of scouting.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who sneers at the law cannot be trusted to enforce or obey the law.
  • If the Boy Scouts and police departments are subtweeting you, you've probably done something bad.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gloated about the "failing" New York Times calling Fox News "powerful," without realizing why they said that.

Last week, Fox & Friends claimed, with no apparent evidence, that the NYT had published a story in 2015 that allowed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to evade capture by the United States. Trump immediately repeated the accusation on Twitter, suggesting (as is frequently the case) that he was watching and uncritically reacting to what he had just heard on television. The NYT, which received Pentagon approval before publishing the story in question, subsequently demanded an apology from Fox News.

Trump, who frequently retweets Fox News programs (and was still seething from the political damage he did to himself in a recent NYT interview), waded back into the debate with a tweet after Fox News ran an ad in the NYT quoting the NYT itself calling Fox & Friends "the most powerful TV show in America." 

Trump apparently didn't realize he was calling attention to an article by NYT television critic James Poniewozik that compared him to a distracted toddler and Fox & Friends to the kind of children's show like Romper Room where the hosts speak directly to the children they know are watching. 

Why does this matter?

  • A president who uncritically accepts whatever he hears in friendly media is being manipulated by that media.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He banned transgendered people from serving in the military, via Twitter, without telling the Pentagon first.

Trump's three-tweet statement cited unspecified (and likely imaginary) "costs" and called transgendered servicemembers a "burden" and a "disruption." Approximately 15,000 members of the US military identify as transgendered. Trump's tweets did not make clear whether they could expect to be summarily discharged.

Trump referred to "my Generals and military experts" as the impetus behind the decision. However, the Department of Defense knew nothing about the decision until this morning, and a White House aide confirmed that this was a deliberate attempt to create a political wedge issue for Democrats.

July 26 was also the date of President Truman's Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military, notwithstanding fears that mixed-race units would undermine morale and readiness. Trump, who once compared his sexual conquests to the service in Vietnam he avoided, had been mostly quiet on the subject of gender and sexuality issues, though as a candidate he did promise to "fight for" LGBT Americans. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • United States servicemembers are not a burden.
  • United States servicemembers are not a disruption.
  • Nothing that puts tens of thousands of American servicemembers in immediate fear for their jobs and their safety is good policy.
  • The president is the commander-in-chief of the United States military, including its generals, and cannot deflect responsibility for military decisions onto subordinates.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked the integrity of Andrew McCabe, the acting director of the FBI, suggesting that he had been bribed by Hillary Clinton not to investigate her.

Trump tweeted this morning that part of the reason that Hillary Clinton was not under investigation for unspecified crimes was that "the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!" The money refers to support for Jill McCabe's campaign for the Virginia State Senate in 2015 provided by Democratic political organizations.

There are two factual problems with Trump's accusation that the acting head of the FBI is guilty of soliciting bribes. First, neither Hillary Clinton nor Andrew McCabe were involved in this routine campaign financing. The money came from the state Democratic party, and a PAC controlled by the Democratic governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe. As a federal employee, if Andrew McCabe had in any way "gotten" that money for his wife, he would have been committing a serious (and easily detected) federal crime. Second, the timeline for the supposed bribe makes no sense. Jill McCabe's campaign ended in November of 2015 with her loss. Andrew McCabe became deputy director of the FBI, and thus any connection to the FBI's examination of in February of 2016. He was not, ever, "in charge," since the director--James Comey--took personal control of the inquiry. 

It is not clear whether Trump knew any of this, but the fact that he seriously considered McCabe to take Comey's place as director of the FBI suggests that there might be other reasons for his sudden change of heart.

So what?

  • A president who had even the faintest suspicion that his acting FBI director was corrupt would fire him immediately.
  • It's very bad for presidents to groundlessly accuse members of his administration of felonies.
  • Accusing someone of doing something you've done yourself (and bragged about) is called projection, and it is not a sign of good mental health.

Monday, July 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave a rowdy, occasionally R-rated campaign rally speech--to the Boy Scout Jamboree.

Trump's speech at the annual Jamboree to 30,000 twelve- to eighteen-year-olds featured bragging about his electoral college victory, demonizing the media, rants about Obamacare, and complaints about how Hillary Clinton would be governing if she were president. The centerpiece of the speech was a story about suburban developer William Levitt and the adult activities he enjoyed on his yacht, which Trump coyly left to the Scouts' imagination.

Trump's own aides have routinely reported on the emotional strain that the actual work of the presidency puts on him. Campaign rallies, which Trump began doing almost immediately after taking office, appear to be therapeutic for him. As the forty-minute speech wore on, Trump seemed to forget that he was addressing children too young to have voted for him, gesturing at the audience while thanking "all of you" for their votes.

Unlike the previous two presidents, Trump was not a Boy Scout and doesn't even like going to Camp David, the presidential vacation resort with modern conveniences but a "rustic" theme. Given the nonpartisan nature of the scouting mission, reactions from Republican former Scouts have not been kind, to say nothing of the reaction of parents. In one of the few parts of the speech that actually dealt with the BSA, Trump mentioned that ten members of his cabinet were Scouts. One of them, attorney general Jefferson Sessions, was conspicuous by his absence.

Why does this matter?

  • Not knowing or caring that a situation isn't about you is called narcissism, and it's not a sign of good mental health.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Mixed Messages edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He had a little trouble staying on message.

Iranian nuclear certification. During and after the campaign, one of Trump's favorite subjects was the nuclear agreement struck between Iran and six other countries including the US. While a lot of what Trump had to say about the deal was false (whether or not he knew it), the message was clear: he promised to blow up the deal at the first opportunity, even in the face of opposition from Israel.

But! This week, on schedule, Trump duly certified that Iran was in compliance with the agreement, thereby committing the United States to continue with its end of the bargain for another six months.

Coal jobs. On the campaign trail, Trump promised to "bring back coal," a promise he has fulfilled in the sense that he has begun deleting environmental protection rules, and taking advice from mine owners on whether they should be responsible for worker safety. (His secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, who presided over the Sago Mine disaster, may have some opinions as well.) More recently, Trump crowed over the opening of a Pennsylvania mine which may add as many as 70 new jobs in the industry. (The mine's opening was planned long before Trump took office.)

But! While there are 800 new coal jobs nationwide during the Trump administration to date, he claimed that there were 45,000 new mining jobs, an exaggeration of 5,625%. (By comparison, President Obama saw 1,300 new coal jobs created during 2016.)

Conspiracy. Last Sunday, Trump arose bright and early to praise Michael Caputo, a Republican political strategist, "for saying so powerfully that there was no Russian collusion in our winning campaign."

But! Michael Caputo is himself a subject of the investigation into the Trump campaign's conspiracy with Russia to influence the election. Caputo, who was part of the Trump campaign as a communications advisor, also worked for the Russian state oil company Gazprom.

Generally speaking, a claim that there was no criminal conspiracy is more plausible if the person making it is not suspected of being a part of it.

Insurance. During the New York Times interview in which he trashed his own Attorney General for recusing himself from the Russia conspiracy investigation, Trump also shared his thoughts on health insurance. Asked about how he'd preserve the Obamacare mandate to cover people with pre-existing conditions, Trump said:
So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you’re 21 years old, you start working and you’re paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you’re 70, you get a nice plan. Here’s something where you walk up and say, “I want my insurance.” It’s a very tough deal, but it is something that we’re doing a good job of.
But! As most people without a personal physician on retainer know, even the healthiest 21-year-old cannot get health insurance for $1 per month. (Such a person not otherwise eligible for subsidies would pay about $250 per month at the lowest level of coverage allowed under the Affordable Care Act.)

The only remotely likely explanation that fits with what Trump said is that he was confusing health insurance with life insurance.

Jobs. Trump declared this "Made In America" week at the White House. The observance featured a display of products made in each state.

But! as many observed, Trump's businesses--which he still retains full legal control over--still make many products overseas. His daughter Ivanka's businesses do, too.

It didn't help that Trump's Mar-A-Lago club--of which he is the legal owner--chose this week to apply to Trump's own Labor Department for permission to hire 70 foreign workers, under a visa program that stipulates that no American is willing or able to do the job at the salary offered.

Trucks. There was one important bit of messaging consistency this week, though: three months after he was last photographed behind the wheel of a truck, Trump's enthusiasm for such photo-ops remains undiminished.

What's wrong with these things?

  • Voters who heard candidate Trump say that his "number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran" may have believed him.
  • It's bad if the president quotes job creation numbers 56 times higher than the actual numbers.
  • Presidents should not rely on the support of their suspected co-conspirators.
  • It's insanely bad if a president is unclear on the difference between health insurance and life insurance while promoting his health insurance bill.
  • Encouraging others to manufacture things in America while refusing to do so yourself is hypocrisy.
  • There's more to the presidency than fun photo-ops.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

Fresh off a New York Times interview in which he did enormous political damage to himself, he accused the New York Times of abetting terrorism.

In the midst of a tweetstorm unusual for its range and negativity even by Trump's standards, Trump claimed that "The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist,Al-Baghdadi," adding that the Times was putting its "sick agenda over National Security." Trump was referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the onetime leader of the Islamic State. Al-Baghdadi was apparently killed in June by a Russian airstrike, but there is some doubt among American officials that he is actually dead. 

But why exactly Trump thought the New York Times had anything to do with it was not immediately clear. The paper asked the White House to clarify; it has not done so. However, as is often the case, Trump appears to have been incorporating half-watched TV programs into his understanding of actual issues related to his job. Shortly before Trump's tweet, a retired reserve military officer and commentator told a Fox and Friends Saturday panel about allegations that the NYT released details in a 2015 story that al-Baghdadi could have used to avoid capture.

The NYT noted that it had received clearance from the Pentagon before publishing its story, and that no American official actually connected with the matter had ever complained. Trump, to whom the Pentagon reports, apparently did not know this or wasn't interested in finding out.

Why does this matter?

  • It should not be this easy to mislead or manipulate the President of the United States.

Friday, July 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He provoked the resignation of his press secretary, Sean Spicer.

Almost since the beginning of Trump's term in office, there have been rumors of his dissatisfaction with Spicer. Trump, who takes nothing as seriously as he does television, was professionally critical of Spicer's untelegenic appearance in early briefings. The fact that Spicer was played by a woman--Melissa McCarthy--in Saturday Night Live parodies also bothered Trump, who hate-watches the show. However, in recent months, Trump and Spicer seemed to have reached a level of relative comfort with one another, to the point that Trump felt free to offer Spicer what for him was a high praise: that the press secretary got good ratings.

Spicer's resignation was in response to Trump's appointment of financier and family friend Anthony Scaramucci as the White House communications director, a move that Spicer furiously opposed. (Chief of Staff Reince Priebus reportedly shares Spicer's anger.) Spicer leaves after 182 days, less than a fifth of the typical tenure of a White House press secretary.

This is not the only high-profile defection from the Trump camp in recent days. Last night, Marc Cavallo, the spokesperson for Trump's sizable legal team, resigned in protest over Trump's decision to try to undermine the integrity of special counsel Robert Mueller. Another member of that team, Marc Kasowitz, is effectively ending his participation in Trump's defense after threatening a stranger who had been critical of Trump last week.

Why does this matter?

  • It is not a good sign when people whose job it is to speak for a president suddenly find they'd rather be doing something else.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he wouldn't fire Robert Mueller for investigating his financial dealings--yet.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New York Times yesterday, Trump agreed with a reporter's suggestion that if special counsel Robert Mueller began investigating Trump's personal financial connections to Russia, it would cross a "red line." Legally, Trump can instruct the relevant Justice Department official--at the moment, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein--to fire Mueller, although that would likely precipitate several rounds of "Saturday Night Massacre"-style resignations.

In that interview, Trump repeated his usual lawyerly denial, pointing out that he owns no buildings in Russia. (The actual concern is not that Trump owns Russian property, but that Russians own Trump debt. Prior to his presidential campaign, neither Trump nor other members of his family were shy about their Russian business connections.) Pressed on whether he would fire Mueller if he crossed that "red line," Trump demurred, saying, I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen."

This morning, Bloomberg News reported that Mueller's investigation has indeed expanded to include Trump's Russian business connections, and in particular those of his campaign chair Paul Manafort. Asked if Trump would now fire Mueller, spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated Trump's warning that Mueller should stay away from Trump's business affairs, and that Trump had every legal right to fire Mueller. She added that he "doesn’t intend to do so"--unless some "outrageous reason" presented itself. Sanders refused to speculate on the "hypotheticals" that would lead to such an action.

Why does this matter?

  • People in the path of criminal investigations--even presidents--do not get to dictate the direction they take.
  • Presidents must never threaten the rule of law by trying to impede investigations, no matter what.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced his third different health care policy strategy in three days.

This afternoon, at a "working lunch" with Republican senators, Trump took aim at the less than "loyal" GOP legislators who are blocking the latest version of Trumpcare, and demanded that they reverse course and bring it up for debate. 

As of 5:58 A.M. yesterday morning, Trump's plan was to "let Obamacare fail" in the expectation that Democrats and moderate Republicans would be forced to the bargaining table. (Trump has openly declared his intention to help that "failure" along in a number of ways.) That superseded his previous strategy, announced Monday at 8:17 P.M., of pursuing a repeal-only agenda.

Prior to that, in reverse chronological order, Trump
  • brought Republican senators to the White House (no lunch this time) to urge them to resume work on the previously failed version, but also said that if they didn't, "that's OK." (6/27/2017)
  • was opposed to the House version of his own plan as too "mean." (6/13/2017)
  • rescinded his campaign promise not to cut Medicare and Medicaid. (5/23/2017)
  • expressed admiration for Australia's socialized single-payer system. (5/5/2017)
  • celebrated the passage of a different House version in a Rose Garden ceremony. (5/4/2017)
  • told the House to pass the version of Trumpcare before them immediately or give up forever. (3/23/2017)
  • said that the purpose of his replacement plan was not to get people insurance. (3/8/2017)
  • promised "insurance for everybody" in his health care plan. (1/15/2017)
  • opposed Obamacare as an unconstitutional government overreach. (early 2010s and campaign)
  • argued for a single-payer (government-run) system. (through the 1990s and 2000s)

Why should I care about this?

  • A strategy that changes three times in three days is no strategy at all.
  • At this point, there is no reason to think that Trump has any beliefs about health care policy whatsoever.
  • Presidents who don't or can't understand that Congress doesn't work for the executive branch will probably not have much luck getting substantial legislation passed. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at the Senate.

Yesterday saw the third consecutive failure to replace the ACA with a Trump-branded tax cut and deregulation plan for health insurance--or the fourth, if you include a stillborn plan to repeal the ACA without replacing it in the hopes that a future Congress will feel compelled to act. 

Not surprisingly, Trump took to Twitter to vent, blaming Democrats for their obstruction--though, of course, as the minority party, Democrats had no power to stop or even influence a reconciliation bill in the Senate. Trump also reiterated his previous demand that the Senate adopt pure majority-vote rules, saying that "[t]he Senate must go to a 51 vote majority instead of current 60 votes." But the latest version of Trumpcare needed only 50 votes, and failed because it couldn't even get that.

But while a Republican president bashing Democrats might be expected, there was also an ominous tone in how he characterized the senators in his own party, saying that most of them (but obviously not all) had been "loyal." In fact, in remarks given today, Trump retreated into a fantasy where "disloyal" Republicans were his only opposition. Ignoring Democrats, he said, "the vote would have been, if you look at it, 48-4. That’s a pretty impressive vote by any standard.”


  • Senators owe loyalty to nothing but the Constitution.
  • Treating disagreements as betrayals is not a sign of great emotional adjustment.
  • It's a pretty bad sign if a president's need for validation is so strong that it leads him to brag out loud about imaginary victories.
  • While presidents don't need much in the way of math skills, they should be able to count to fifty.

Monday, July 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent get-well wishes to a Republican senator he hates, and it showed.

The latest version of Trumpcare is stalled in the Senate while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) recovers from surgery to remove a two-inch blood clot from his head. Since two Republicans have already signaled that they will not vote for the bill, every remaining GOP senator, including McCain, is needed to even begin debate on it. (UPDATE, 8:42 PM EDT: Since Trump's remarks, at least two additional senators have announced they will vote no on the motion to proceed, rendering the McCain calculation moot.)

Today at the White House, Trump sarcastically wished McCain good health, calling him "a crusty voice in Washington," adding, "plus we need his vote."

While Trump throwing shade at an octogenarian recovering from major surgery may seem harsh, it's actually one of the nicer things Trump has ever said to McCain, a frequent critic. When McCain pointed out that Trump was courting conspiracy theorists and white supremacists, draft-evader Trump attacked McCain for his seven-year stint as a POW in North Vietnam, saying, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured.” And when McCain pointed out that Trump was responsible for the death of a Navy SEAL during a botched raid in Yemen, Trump furiously tweeted back accusing McCain of emboldening the enemy and saying that he had "been losing so long he doesn't know how to win anymore."

Why is this a problem?

  • There is something to be said for a president who can stop himself from being a dick when the situation warrants.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Legal edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He dealt with some legal issues.

Hacking lawsuit. Donald Trump Jr.'s initial flirtations with the Russian criminal conspiracy took up most of the news cycle this week, but Donald Trump Sr. was the only one to be sued over it. The Trump campaign and Trump confidant Roger Stone were named as defendants in an invasion of privacy lawsuit by Protect Democracy on behalf of three individuals who suffered damages when personal information in the stolen DNC e-mails was published on Wikileaks.

The suit alleges that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to steal those e-mails. The danger for Trump is not so much the monetary damages that might result (the suit does not name a dollar figure) but the fact that the discovery process would permit them to take depositions from witnesses and obtain otherwise secret documents--which would include e-mails of the sort Donald Trump Jr. released this week.

Legal fees. It was revealed this week that the Trump campaign had made a payment of $50,000 to Alan Futerfas, who came to wider attention this week because he is Donald Trump Jr.'s personal attorney. The payment was made on June 27, long before the point at which Trump Sr. claims he was told about the Trump Jr./Kushner/Manafort efforts to collude with Russia. Nor is it likely that Futerfas was hired for routine legal work and then assigned to Trump Jr.: he is a criminal defense lawyer with no experience in campaign law.

The Trump campaign has incurred $4.5 million in legal fees so far, much of it in recent months. Trump Sr., who claims (and now almost certainly will be) to be a billionaire, has been hounding the Republican National Committee to pay for his many lawyers currently engaged in defending him over the Russia conspiracy. It's not immediately clear why the RNC should: it is legally distinct from the Trump campaign, and there is little speculation that it was a material part of the Trump team's now-acknowledged efforts to get illegally obtained information from Russia.

Meanwhile, it is Trump's donors who are effectively footing the bill for the legal services of Futerfas, Marc Kasowitz, Michael Cohen, Jay Sekulow, the recently-hired Ty Cobb, and dozens of their associates. (Although Kasowitz, at least, may not be on the team much longer.)

Impeachment. Last but not least, official articles of impeachment were filed against Trump in the House of Representatives this week. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) filed H. Res. 438 on Wednesday over Trump's attempts to obstruct the investigation into the Russia conspiracy. Rep. Al Green (D-TX), who supports the article, said that more articles were coming.

While the White House called the article "utterly and completely ridiculous," the betting markets are now offering better than even odds that Trump will be impeached.

Why are these bad things?

  • When politicians seek power by any means, innocent people can get hurt.
  • Generally speaking, innocent people don't hire lawyers to defend them against crimes they supposedly don't yet know were committed.
  • The behavior of a president's subordinates reflects on the person who gave them responsibilities.
  • It's extremely bad if there are legitimate and obvious reasons to consider removing a president from office.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took a break from his normal routine of playing golf on the weekends to watch golf on the weekends.

Trump went to his Bedminster, NJ club yesterday and again today during the US Women's Open, which is being hosted there this year. Trump did not appear on the course and reportedly watched on TV. He was greeted by protestors, who were kept a safe three miles away from him.

Trump has his reputation for litigiousness to thank for whatever professional golf he may have glimpsed this weekend. USA Today reports that after Trump announced his run for president--and especially in the wake of his "grab 'em by the pussy" remarks--the USGA and LPGA considered moving the tournament, so as not to conflict with their efforts to get young women more interested in the sport. The threat of legal action from Trump ended that discussion.

On a positive note, even though Trump is the owner of the site where the 168 athletes competing got dressed, there were no reports that he used that fact as an excuse to enter the locker room, as he admits he did during beauty pageants.

So what?

  • Doing what you criticized other people for doing is the definition of hypocrisy. 
  • Most presidents don't have to threaten sporting events with lawsuits to keep them from disassociating themselves from the president.

Friday, July 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declined comment on revelations that there was a previously undisclosed sixth person in the meeting last year where his son, his son-in-law, and his campaign manager tried to work with the Putin regime to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

This proved wise, since that number of people at that meeting quickly grew to eight.

Aside from a translator, the new additions to the roster include a former Soviet intelligence officer with ties to Russian spy agencies, and an as-yet-unnamed representative of a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin himself. Russia in its present form is a kleptocracy: Putin is believed to be one of the wealthiest men on the planet, with a net worth of $200 billion, but because he has no legitimate income of that size, for appearances' sake it is held for him by a network of friends and associates. The ostensible subject of the meeting (other than to demonstrate that the Trump campaign was willing to collude with Russia) was the Magnitsky Act, a series of sanctions that target some members of that network.

Trump maintains--with caveats--that neither his son-in-law, nor his son, nor his campaign manager, nor the three family friends who arranged it, nor anyone else ever informed him about the meeting, or the fact that the Russian government had directly told his campaign it wanted to help him. 

Why is this bad?

  • The most flattering explanation for Trump not offering any further explanation is that he doesn't believe his family and staff have told him the truth yet.
  • It's bad to conspire with hostile foreign countries to influence an election through illegal means.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He stressed the need for a see-through border wall with Mexico because an opaque wall would put Americans at risk of being hit by 60-pound bags of drugs.

The official White House transcript of Trump's conversation with reporters early this morning (Paris time) aboard Air Force One en route to France contains these remarks about his proposed border wall.
One of the things with the wall is you need transparency. You have to be able to see through it. In other words, if you can’t see through that wall -- so it could be a steel wall with openings, but you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall. And I’ll give you an example.
As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them -- they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As cray [sic] as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall. But we have some incredible designs.
Nothing even remotely like this has ever happened anywhere.

What's the matter with this?

  • This sounds "cray" because it is "cray."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He immediately responded to a TV report saying he watched a lot of TV by saying he hardly watches any TV at all.

This morning at 8:39, Trump tweeted out the claim that he had "very little time for watching T.V." Taken on its face, this is an absurd claim. Trump's obsession with television is notorious. He installed a 60-inch television in his Oval Office study last month. His own aides report that he yells back at it. Interest groups and politicians have staked out shows Trump is known to watch to target him specifically with ads or direct appeals. There is no surer way to bring down a tantrum than to make fun of him on television. And his Twitter feed is littered with sudden policy announcements that seem to have been dictated by things he just heard on TV.

As NBC News's Brad Jaffy noted, Trump's strangely specific denial that he watches TV came immediately after an MSNBC guest, Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker, said that Trump had been watching a lot of cable news coverage of the unfolding conspiracy scandal engulfing his son and son-in-law.


  • It's bad if a president is this thin-skinned or impulsive.
  • While Trump's TV habits are hardly the most problematic thing about his presidency, this is still an obvious lie, and it's bad when presidents lie.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave exactly one sentence of reaction to the revelation that his son Donald Jr. had knowingly taken a meeting with a Russian government agent seeking to influence the election.

Told that the New York Times was about to report on the e-mails that formed the basis of their recent reporting about his efforts to obtain campaign help from an agent of the Russian government, Donald Jr. tweeted them himself. They show that, contrary to over a year of unequivocal denials on Donald Jr.'s part, he deliberately sought out the Kremlin's assistance to help his father get elected. Also present at the meeting were Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, both of whom had already been caught concealing ties that lead back to Russia.

Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave Trump's only comment of the day: "My son is a high quality person and I applaud his transparency." Sanders referred all subsequent questions about the matter to Donald Jr.'s criminal defense lawyer.

However, Trump has more to fear than the damage to his son's reputation--or even Trump Jr.'s likely criminal exposure. Like his son, Trump has repeatedly sworn that he had no knowledge of any Russian effort to help his campaign, and that he never conspired with Russia to get elected. Those claims now hinge on the idea that neither Trump's own son, nor his son-in-law (Jared Kushner), nor his campaign manager (Paul Manafort), nor the Trump associate who arranged the meeting (Rob Goldstone), nor the Russian billionaire and friend of Trump who arranged things on the Russian side (Aras Agalarov) ever mentioned any of the details given in the e-mails to Trump.

Why is this bad?

  • If there were an innocent explanation, now would have been when a president who hadn't conspired with a hostile foreign power to get elected would have offered it.

Monday, July 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He saw his "Election Integrity Commission" get sued not once but twice, for a total of at least three pending lawsuits against it.

Trump created the commission to find evidence to support his completely unsubstantiated claims that three million or more people voted illegally, and that every single illegal vote was for Hillary Clinton. This would explain away Clinton's 2.9 million-vote lead in the popular vote, a subject that Trump is extremely sensitive about. (In theory, the commission's charge is simply to report on the American voting system. But in an indication of the extent to which its results are pre-determined, even Trump refers to it as the "voter fraud panel.") 

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit accusing the commission of violating federal open meeting laws. The ACLU suit also holds that the commission, which is populated mostly by Trump loyalists and vote-suppression activists, violates a law requiring that advisory committees be politically balanced and not designed to reach a particular conclusion. In a separate suit, also filed today, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law made similar claims.

The commission was sued last week by the Electronic Privacy Information Center on the grounds that its recent request to states for massive amounts of voter information violated a federal privacy law. Today, the commission put that request on hold pending a ruling from the judge on the restraining order the EPIC lawsuit seeks.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's bad if a president uses taxpayer money to create a commission to "advise" him of what he wants to hear.
  • Presidential commissions shouldn't try to hide their agendas, especially when the law requires them to be transparent about it.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Cyber-surrender. Trump took to Twitter today to defend himself after a G20 summit in which--even by the most aggressive of the White House's various statements on the matter--he agreed to let Russia off the hook for their espionage and disinformation campaigns that helped elect him. (Trump remains effectively the only person in American government still expressing doubt that Russia did this.) 

But having agreed not to "re-litigate" the crimes that Russia committed to help him become president, Trump is now apparently doubling down on the trustworthiness of the Putin regime where cybersecurity is concerned. He announced that he and Putin had "discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded" against.

To reiterate, Trump now says he agreed on behalf of the United States to enter into a joint cybersecurity arrangement with the country that American intelligence officials know engaged in election-related cyberattacks against the US, in order to prevent future cyberattacks on elections.

In related news, the Washington Post reported yesterday that in June, Russia began attacking the computer networks of US energy companies, including nuclear power plants

North Korea blame-shifting. Shortly after inviting China to dictate the international response to North Korea's missile test--which China immediately took advantage of--Trump was offering excuses. He complained on Twitter: "Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!"  

There are a few problems with this. One is the fact that Trump's apparent faith in China's ability to unilaterally solve the North Korea problem lasted less than a day, which suggests he still doesn't really understand even the basics of the situation. Another is that China cannot simply make North Korea behave as Trump would like. Still another is that China and the United States have very different interests. China values North Korea as a buffer state between it and the US-aligned south, and as a "container" for refugees that might otherwise spill into China. 

Finally, while Trump is roughly correct on the numbers--China did 37.4% more business with North Korea in the first quarter of 2017--those numbers have been out since April. And China did work with "us" and other UN member states by radically changing the type of trade it conducts with North Korea, in accordance with new UN sanctions. 

Sexual harassment "hyperbole." Trump is being sued for defamation by Summer Zervos, who says he sexually assaulted her. In response, Trump said that she and the many other women who have accused him of sexual assault or harassment were telling "totally phoney stories, 100% made up by women," among many other statements impugning her honesty.

On Friday, Trump offered a novel defense: that he could not be sued for defamation for things he said during a political campaign. Instead, Trump's legal team claims, anything said to discredit Zervos while Trump ran for office was mere "non-actionable rhetoric and hyperbole that is protected by the First Amendment." 

In effect, Trump is claiming that nobody would have been fooled into thinking that his claims about Zervos were true--and therefore there is no damage to her reputation--because he was obviously only saying them in an attempt to get votes.

Trump is no stranger to the concept of hyperbole and lies. In his book Art of the Deal, he recommended lying as a sales tactic, though he preferred the term "truthful hyperbole." (The name itself is an example: what Trump is telling his readers to do has nothing to do with truthfulness.)

How are these bad things?

  • Even if the FBI, CIA, NSA, and DNI had not all reached with absolute certainty the conclusion that Russia committed crimes against the United States to influence the election on Trump's behalf, there's still no reason whatsoever to trust Russia when it says it has not launched cyberattacks.
  • Forming an alliance with the country that attacked yours in order to help them not attack you again is an incredibly stupid plan.
  • If Trump has begun believing in "impenetrable Cyber Security units" as a magical defense against "negative things," it means his grasp on information security is actually getting worse.
  • Presidents need to be smart enough to understand that other nations will pursue their own interests, and will not work against them just because they're asked nicely in tweets.
  • It's bad if a president isn't aware of relevant facts about major policy issues until months later.
  • Some people who voted for him may have thought Trump was telling them the truth on the campaign trail, rather than engaging in "non-actionable rhetoric and hyperbole."

Saturday, July 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He left the G20 summit after refusing to give the traditional press conference.

World leaders at the Group of Twenty meetings have almost always held individual end-of-summit press conferences. Trump, whose inability to find consensus with the rest of the world's leading industrialized economies has led to semi-serious talk of the "G19," refused to do so

Trump's absence let other nations define the work of the conference to their own advantage, further marginalizing the United States. French president Emmanuel Macron all but taunted Trump over his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Accords, a major sticking point in the Hamburg talks as well. Theresa May, the British prime minister, spoke of her "dismay" over Trump's decisions. And Vladimir Putin used his press conference to speak for Trump, saying that Trump was "satisfied" by Putin's assurances that Russia did not intervene in the 2016 on Trump's behalf.

Trump has not held a press conference since February 16, 142 days ago. 

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who cannot or will not defend his policies in public is not a strong leader.
  • Presidents of the United States of America should not let the leaders of hostile foreign powers speak for them.
  • A president who manages to drive a wedge between the United States and the rest of the world's wealthy and powerful nations is hurting the United States.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He "pressed" Putin on Russia's pro-Trump sabotage of the 2016 election, right after expressing doubt that Russia had done any such thing, and before agreeing not to "relitigate" the matter.

Trump is essentially the only person left in the US government expressing any doubt that Russia committed espionage on his behalf. The US intelligence community has been adamant on the matter since before the election, and Republican congressional leaders have endorsed their findings. But as the American public has also increasingly accepted the intelligence community's findings--and even more believe that Trump is attempting to derail investigation into the matter--he was under pressure to at least give the appearance of engaging with the issue.

Those conflicting impulses have led to deeply confused messaging. Yesterday, asked by a Polish journalist about who was behind the election interference, Trump gave a meandering answer in which he whipsawed between implicating Russia and raising doubts:
I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries, could have been a lot of people interfered. I said it very, I said it very simply, I think it could well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries, and I won't be specific, but I think a lot of people interfere, I think it's been happening for a long time, it's been happening for many many years. ...I think it was Russia but I think it was probably other people and or countries. I see nothing wrong with that statement. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.
Then this morning, Trump claimed via that "everyone" at the G20 summit was talking about how Democrats themselves were to blame for being hacked. As for how it went when Trump supposedly broached the matter with Putin himself, Russian and US accounts differed. Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that Trump "accepts" that Russia did nothing to interfere. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson didn't exactly disagree, but merely claimed that Trump had "pressed" the issue with Putin and that both had agreed not to waste time "re-litigating" the matter.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Almost nothing is as important to "litigate" than the right of Americans to democratically elect their government.
  • A president who cannot acknowledge reality because it might undermine his legitimacy cannot do his job in the first place.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He outlasted the head of the Office of Government Ethics.

Walter Shaub, director of the once-obscure executive branch office responsible for ensuring ethics compliance in the White House, resigned today, six months ahead of schedule. He posted his brief resignation letter to Twitter, where he once memorably made a desperate effort to communicate with Trump in Trump's own language about the absolute impossibility of serving both the United States and a multi-billion dollar business empire at the same time.

Shaub had no legal power whatsoever over Trump, and very little over the rest of the executive branch without Trump's assistance. Nevertheless, he succeeded in calling public attention to the most obvious of Trump administration overreaches, such as the practice of issuing secret, blanket, and retroactive waivers to officials who ran afoul of ethical rules. He also called for the disciplining of Kellyanne Conway when she endorsed an Ivanka Trump product line in her official capacity. The Trump administration's response was typical of its regard for Shaub and his office: "The Office of Government Ethics needn't be concerned with how the White House implements its own conflicts of interest policy, over which it has zero authority."

Shaub leaves to join the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan government watchdog group that promotes transparency in elections. He made no secret of his frustration with the lawlessness of the Trump administration, saying that "the current situation has made it clear that the ethics program needs to be stronger than it is."

So what?

  • An ethics officer resigning in protest over unethical behavior more or less speaks for itself.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed that gas prices were "the lowest in the U.S. in over ten years!"

They are not. Gas prices have been lower several times in the last ten years--including most of 2016.

That said, Trump's humblebrag on gas prices is revealing about his understanding of how the market works. As a petroleum derivative, gas prices tend to be higher during periods of economic growth, when there is more demand for oil. What's more, presidents have virtually no direct control over gas prices: even tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve would only nudge prices down on a short-term basis. International production quotas and refinery capacity are what really determine gas prices.

That, and the federal gasoline tax, which Trump wants to raise.

How is this a problem?

  • There is really no excuse for a president getting a basic economic fact like this wrong.
  • It's bad if a president--especially one who thinks of himself as a businessman--doesn't understand how critical markets work.
  • A president's tax policy goals generally shouldn't contradict his inflation policy goals.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He invited China to dictate US policy towards North Korea--and China obliged.

Trump's only public response to news that North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile came, naturally, via Twitter--the same place he once promised that such a missile launch "won't happen." He suggested that China would "put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all." He also tweeted a mild rebuke to Kim Jong-un ("Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?"), although given Trump's known fondness for authoritarians, it doesn't seem his recently expressed admiration for Kim has dimmed very much.

Like the United States and other interested nations, China cannot really "put a heavy move" on North Korea without risking a major conflict--or possibly even a nuclear war. But China was quick to take advantage of the leadership role Trump was conceding, and in a joint statement with Russia promptly called for the United States and its ally South Korea to cease conducting naval maneuvers in the region. The statement implicitly blamed the United States' military presence in the region for provoking North Korea.

Both Russia and China compete with the United States for naval superiority in the Sea of Japan and the waters off China's coast. 

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if the President of the United States asks non-aligned or hostile nations to dictate how nuclear threats are handled.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to say whether he knew the creator of his CNN wrestling video had also called for the genocide of "Islamic pieces of shit."

The video in question first appeared on /r/The_Donald, a section of the aggregator site Reddit for fans and emulators of Trump's trollish style. The author, "HanAssholeSolo," expressed his delight that Trump had approved of his "shitpost."

However, in a sudden flourish of political correctness, HanAssholeSolo also moved quickly to scrub the worst of his post history. Posts fantasizing about the death of George Soros, accusing Muslims of pedophilia, and general "minorities do all crime" racism remain; posts calling for exterminating all Muslims, using racial slurs for Asians and African-Americans, and calling for Trump to use nuclear weapons on Mecca were deleted. He also removed a reference to the "pussy hats" proudly worn by anti-Trump protestors--not offensive in and of itself, but known to be a sore subject with Trump.

Today, CNN asked the White House for comment on a list of questions about how the video came to Trump's attention, and whether he knew or cared about its origin. The White House refused to respond, except to falsely claim that the video was not taken from Reddit.

UPDATE, 7/4: HanAssholeSolo has now deleted his entire account after posting this message on Reddit apologizing for his previous posts: 
"I would also like to apologize for the posts made that were racist, bigoted, and anti-semitic. I am in no way this kind of person, I love and accept people of all walks of life and have done so for my entire life. I am not the person that the media portrays me to be in real life, I was trolling and posting things to get a reaction from the subs on reddit and never meant any of the hateful things I said in those posts. I would never support any kind of violence or actions against others simply for what they believe in, their religion, or the lifestyle they choose to have. Nor would I carry out any violence against anyone based upon that or support anyone who did."
HanAssholeSolo also criticized Trump--or possibly Trump's handlers--saying, "I think they should have used their better judgment, since the President tweets things off the cuff, it's a kneejerk reaction. I don't feel that they should have posted something like that given the controversy going on between them and the media." Trump himself has still refused to acknowledge the source.

Who cares?

  • It doesn't really make any difference whether a president can't denounce an internet troll he accidentally made famous, or doesn't want to.
  • Ignoring a problem doesn't make it go away.
  • Refusing to admit to a mistake is a form of cowardice.