Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Phoenix and pardons. In the wake of his initially sluggish, ultimately catastrophic response to the race-based terrorist violence in Charlottesville, Trump began publicizing his upcoming campaign rally in Phoenix. The mayor of that city has begged Trump to postpone it, citing the volatile atmosphere around Trump in the wake of Charlottesville and the likelihood of violence and disorder. 

Complicating matters is the possibility that Trump will use the event to announce a pardon for the convicted criminal Joe Arpaio, a darling of the neo-Nazi and white nationalist movements that Trump was so reluctant to offend last week. Arpaio, the former sheriff of the county Phoenix is in, was convicted of criminal contempt for his refusal to obey a federal judge's orders to halt illegal and discriminatory raids on populations Arpaio suspected of containing undocumented immigrants. While this is the first time charges have been brought against Arpaio, he is widely regarded (even by supporters) to have run a corrupt criminal enterprise from within the sheriff's department for decades. Arpaio reveled in the publicity generated by his "tough" acts like forcing county jail prisoners to wear pink underwear, but he has also used his police powers to attack and intimidate critics, reporters, other local politiciansopposing candidates for his office, and the judge presiding in his own trial.

Trump, who delights in stealing the spotlight as much as Arpaio, has been publicly musing about the possibility of a pardon.

The press conference that wasn't. On Monday, Trump was supposed to give a "big press conference," according to an announcement he made the week before. Instead, Trump read a brief statement directly from a teleprompter walking back some of his initial comments (or lack thereof) on the terrorist violence in Charlottesville. He then began to leave the room. Asked by the reporters present why they weren't having a press conference after all, Trump said "we just had one."

A press conference, by definition, includes taking questions from the press.

Tuesday. However, Trump's idea to have a press conference without the press may have had some merit. The following day, to the surprise and alarm of his staff, he did take questions from the press in the lobby of Trump Tower, walking back the previous day's walking back and defending the "very fine people" he imagined were marching in solidarity with neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

For all the attention that Trump's remarks attracted, he did not entirely overshadow the people standing behind him. John Kelly, Trump's new chief of staff, became something of a viral sensation for his miserable body language as Trump spoke. (When Kelly was appointed on July 31, it was amid optimism that he would exert some semblance of control over Trump's most destructive impulses.)

But three other Trump administration officials were also put in awkward positions by his equation of neo-Nazis and their fictional "alt-left" counterparts. The official reason for the lobby appearance was to introduce Trump's infrastructure plan, and he was joined for that purpose by his secretary of transportation Elaine Chao, his treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, and his chief economic advisor Gary Cohn. Chao was born in Taiwan, and Mnuchin and Cohn are Jewish. Pressed for comment, Chao and Mnuchin eventually offered tepid restatements of the White House press office's statement on Trump's remarks. Cohn has made no statement and was reportedly furious, but planned to remain in his job for fear that his departure would leave the Trump administration with no real economic policy experience at all.

Carl Icahn. Dozens of people symbolically employed by Trump for their advice resigned this week in frustration with Trump's inability to offend his white nationalist supporters, but at least one of his unpaid advisors resigned in the more traditional fashion: under a cloud of suspicion.

From the moment of his appointment, there has been suspicion that Carl Icahn, one of the few people whose advice Trump appears to actually value, would steer policy toward things that would benefit people like him--that is to say, billionaire investors. But Icahn's resignation appears to have been prompted by an article in the New Yorker spelling out his participation a much more direct form of conflict of interest. Icahn owns companies that trade in pollution credits, and appears to have used the news that he would be appointed to oversee regulations affecting those credits to drive down their price. This is significant because Icahn took the apparently unprecedented step of "shorting" those credits, meaning that he earned additional profits the lower their price went.

Manipulating the price of investments and trading on secret information are serious crimes, as is using an office of public trust for personal gain.

Why are these bad things?

  • Presidents who reluctantly read speeches denouncing white nationalists, and then speak positively about pardoning a hero to white nationalists, probably don't have much of a problem with white nationalism.
  • When presidents avoid taking questions, it's usually because they don't have good answers.
  • A president who would rather offend his staff than white supremacists is unfit for office.
  • Presidents are responsible for the ethical behavior of the people they appoint to positions of trust.