Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sunday Week In Review, communications edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

In the absence of his most recent communications director, he struggled to communicate.

E-mails. This week saw the revelation that an online prankster successfully used low-tech methods to fool Trump appointees in the White House into believing that he was one of their colleagues. The prankster (who does not appear to have solicited sensitive information--this time) posed as Reince Priebus in order to bait then-comms director Anthony Scaramucci into a fight. More alarmingly, he also tricked Trump's homeland security advisor, Thomas Bossert, into chummily accepting an invitation to a "soirée" hosted by (fake) Jared Kushner.

One of the main themes of Trump's campaign was that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had maintained a private e-mail server which in theory could have been hacked. Trump repeatedly said that this potential insecurity meant that she could not be trusted with sensitive government secrets. He also bragged that he hires only "the best people."

Twitter. Most of Trump's 47 tweets between last Sunday and yesterday were par for the course, but one in particular caught the wrong sort of attention for the 71-year-old who regards himself as a master of social media. Trump was apparently touched by "Nicole" (@proTrump45) who thanked him yesterday for "working hard" for the American people--just as Trump himself was feeling a bit sensitive about whether 17 days in golf clothes counted as a vacation--and so he responded with his personal thanks.

What Trump didn't--and likely still doesn't--know is that "Nicole" is less a person than a drone in a Twitter-bot brigade with a stock photo and a link to a merch site. In the unlikely event that a staffer is brave enough to tell Trump he's chatting with a bot, though, he may find a website that went live this week useful. Hamilton 68 tracks known Russian bot-led disinformation campaigns in social media in real time. For example, the current top-trending hashtag among known Russian propaganda outlets is #MAGA.

Jokes. Trump's underappreciated sense of humor was fully on display this week. One of the jokes that Americans largely failed to get was his zinger suggesting that police "rough up" people during arrests. Wet-blanket police departments across the country misinterpreted the funnyman's remarks and issued pointed rebuttals.

White House comedy identifier Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed after the fact that his "police brutality" routine was simply an example of Trump's Andy Kaufmanesque wit.

Trump's comedy partner Ed Butowski got him in hot water this week too, after the latter's "joke" that Trump had personally directed Butowski to push a fake news story about the death of a DNC staffer resulted in a lawsuit. The gag came to light after Butowski met with Trump's joke-writer (and occasional acting communications director) Sean Spicer, then sent a text message to a Fox News contributor demanding that he publish an article falsely claiming that DNC employee Seth Rich had been collaborating with WikiLeaks, saying: "Not to add any more pressure but the president just read the article. He wants the article out immediately. It’s now all up to you.” Butowsky subsequently continued the comedy routine in a voice mail message, saying, “A couple of minutes ago I got a note that we have the full, uh, attention of the White House on this. And, tomorrow, let’s close this deal, whatever we've got to do. But you can feel free to say that the White House is onto this now.”

The joke--although it ruins comedy to have to explain it--is that if Seth Rich, who was murdered in a botched robbery, was secretly in cahoots with WikiLeaks, then it would bolster Trump's claim that neither he nor Russian accomplices were behind the Russian government's known efforts to influence the election on Trump's behalf. Rich's parents, perhaps not in a laughing frame of mind given their grief over the murder of their son, have begged Trump and his conservative media supporters to stop telling this joke.

Phone calls. Trump either lied about or imagined two phone calls this week. In the transcript to a Wall Street Journal interview that was released Tuesday, Trump said that his campaign-style appearance before the non-political Boy Scout Jamboree had prompted a call from the president of the Boy Scouts of America in which the latter said that "it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful."

The BSA's president, who as a former scout himself once pledged to keep himself mentally awake and morally straight, denied that any such phone call had taken place. The Scouts did, however, apologize for "the greatest speech that was ever made to them" immediately after it had taken place.

On Monday, Trump claimed that the President of Mexico had called him recently to congratulate him on slowing the flow of migrants. Unfortunately for Trump, phone conversations between heads of state are the sort of thing that get remembered, and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto confirmed that no such phone call took place.

However, Trump and Peña Nieto did speak in January, shortly after Trump took office. The official White House transcript of that conversation was leaked this week. In it, Trump begs Peña Nieto not to publicly deny that Mexico would bear the cost of Trump's border wall, arguing that the wall was "the least important thing." Trump campaign rally attendees would be forgiven for thinking that the wall was actually the most important thing. Trump also called the state of New Hampshire a "drug-infested den," mistakenly identifying it as a state he had won in November. (He did not.)

The bad taste of begging Mexico for political cover on his wall promises may have contributed to Trump's short fuse in a conversation he had the following day with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The transcript for that call also became public this week. Frustrated with Turnbull's repeated attempts to explain why Australia was not, in fact, sending criminals to the United States in the guise of refugee resettlement, Trump snapped that "Putin was a pleasant call--this is ridiculous."

Speech. Trump's WSJ interview was, to put it charitably, difficult to interpret at times. Here are some excerpts.
WSJ: What are the main goals [of your tax reform plan]?
TRUMP: We have — nobody knows what the number is. I mean, it used to be, when we talked during the debate, $2.5 trillion, right, when the most elegant person — right? I call him Mr. Elegant. I mean, that was a great debate. We did such a great job. But at that time I was talking $2.5 trillion. I guess it’s $5 trillion now. Whatever it is, it’s a lot more.  
WSJ: You tweeted this morning about trade talks with Britain.
WSJ: Can you tell us more about what’s going on?
TRUMP: No, but I can say that we’re going to be very involved with the U.K. I mean, you don’t hear the word Britain anymore. It’s very interesting. It’s like, nope.... Is Scotland going to go for the vote, by the way? You don’t see it. It would be terrible. They just went through hell.
WSJ: Besides, the first minister’s already made it clear she –
TRUMP: What do you think? You don’t think so, right?
WSJ: I don’t.
TRUMP: One little thing, what would they do with the British Open if they ever got out? They’d no longer have the British Open. Scotland. Keep it in Scotland.
WSJ: We just had a –
TRUMP: By the way, are you a member there?
WSJ: But we can’t expect any more staff changes in the immediate – in the immediate future?
TRUMP: No, I don’t think so. [Reince Priebus was forced to resign two days later.]
WSJ: No?
TRUMP: But I’m very happy with Anthony [Scaramucci]. I think Anthony is going to do amazing. [Scaramucci was forced out by Priebus's replacement six days later.] 
WSJ: Would you consider pardons, Mr. President, given the investigation is –
TRUMP: You know what? I don’t even think of pardons. Here’s why, nobody did anything wrong. Look at Jared, everybody – we do appreciate the editorial – but everybody said Jared Kushner. Jared’s a very private person. He doesn’t get out. I mean, maybe it’s good or maybe it’s bad what I do, but at least people know how I feel. Jared’s this really nice, smart guy, who’d love to see peace in the Middle East and in Israel, OK?
The White House has not revealed the identity of "Mr. Elegant."

What are the problems with these things?

  • Presidents who live in houses with poor e-mail security practices shouldn't throw stones.
  • Trying to walk back embarrassing statements by saying they were jokes doesn't work for presidents any better than it does for anyone else.
  • However "modern day presidential" it might be, a president who publicly and unknowingly chats with a bot meant to sell t-shirts is too easily fooled.
  • It is truly awful to promote the slander of a murder victim for political purposes.
  • Presidents should not lie.
  • People who voted for Trump may have believed him when he said he actually cared about the proposed Mexico border wall.
  • As a rule, presidents should not unfavorably compare our closest allies with hostile nations.
  • A president who is exhausted and emotionally off-balance from making phone calls with allies cannot handle the job.
  • It's not a good sign when a president's allies in the media decide to conceal his actual words from public scrutiny for fear of how it will make him look.