Saturday, September 30, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at Puerto Ricans who criticized his handling of Hurricane Maria relief.

Trump, who does not tolerate criticism from women under the best of circumstances, began the day by complaining that the "nasty" mayor of San Juan was only calling attention to the leisurely pace of relief efforts because "Democrats" had told her to. He then said that Puerto Ricans "want everything to be done for them."

Even by Trump's standards, today's 25-tweet tirade was remarkable. In addition to his attack on Puerto Ricans' self-reliance, he complained that he wasn't given enough credit for the incumbent Alabama senator Luther Strange losing by only ten points after Trump's endorsement. He blamed "#fakenews" for coverage of Puerto Rico's problems in six different tweets, and fawned over Puerto Rican officials whose criticism of him had not been quite as public as Cruz's. He also found time to revisit the controversy that so absorbed his attention last week (because of which, some noted, Hurricane Maria seemed a low priority for the White House), demanding that all NFL players stand for the national anthem during tomorrow's games.

Trump sent his tweets from the New Jersey vacation home and golf resort where he also spent last weekend.

Why does this matter?

  • What American citizens suffering after a natural disaster "want done for them" by the federal government is the federal government's job.
  • A president who cannot handle criticism--even if he thinks it's unjustified--is not mentally stable enough for the job.
  • Things are not "fake news" just because they might make a president look bad.

Friday, September 29, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accepted the resignation of Tom Price, his Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Price resigned over revelations that, since May, he had used chartered private and government jets costing more than $1 million. In most or all cases, commercial flights were available at a fraction of the cost, though on the roughly $500,000 worth involving military flights, the Trump administration explicitly approved them. The situation was made worse by the fact that Price used these flights to conduct personal business, including a trip on a government-funded jet to his vacation home in Georgia.

Price's resignation was made public shortly after Trump boarded a government-funded jet to travel to his vacation home in New Jersey.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are responsible for the ethical choices of their appointees.
  • Voters who were excited by candidate Trump's promise to "drain the swamp" may have assumed he would begin with his own cabinet.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He insisted, against all evidence, that there really were 50 votes in the Senate for the latest version of Trumpcare.

Appearing this morning on Fox & Friends, Trump refused to admit that the Graham-Cassidy health care bill had failed to get the necessary 50 votes to pass the Senate. Instead, to the obvious confusion of the hosts, he claimed that "Health care didn't go down. We have the votes." 

Trump does not have the votes, and there will be no vote. By way of explaining that, Trump repeated his (incorrect) assertion from yesterday that the only reason the bill wouldn't pass was that an unnamed GOP senator was in the hospital. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) is receiving medical treatment, but is not hospital-bound, and had already forlornly posted "I'm not hospitalized" to Twitter before Trump once again declared that Cochran was, indeed, in the hospital.

There are 52 Republicans in the Senate. Three (Rand Paul, John McCain, and Susan Collins) have declared themselves unwilling to vote for the bill, and at least one more (Lisa Murkowski) had not taken a position but had already voted against the previous Trumpcare bill. Another two (Ted Cruz and Mike Lee) had refused to take a position when majority leader Mitch McConnell pulled the bill.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents cannot make a number less than 50 equal to 50 simply by insisting that it is.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted to keeping the Jones Act (which bars foreign ships from bringing aid to Puerto Rico) in force because shipping companies told him to.

UPDATE, 9/28: After confirming late Wednesday evening that the Jones Act would not be waived, Trump reversed course sometime during the night. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced at 8:02 A.M. Thursday that the waiver had been granted. There was no explanation for Trump's repeated refusals to do so on Wednesday, or his comments about shipping industry demands.  

The Jones Act is a 1920 law that requires that all domestic shipping (including between the mainland and Puerto Rico) be done on ships built and registered in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats have called for an emergency waiver of the law, which would allow foreign-flagged vessels to deliver relief supplies. It would also lower the cost of those supplies for consumers. Asked about this today, Trump replied, "We're thinking about that but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted."

It was an odd comment for several reasons. Even business-friendly presidents rarely admit to simply doing as they're told by industry groups--especially when to do so would conflict with the well-being of 3.5 million American citizens. Besides, Trump seems to be more or less aware that sending aid to an island is more complicated than it would be over land. In the course of his self-congratulatory press conference yesterday, he repeatedly stressed (in case anyone was unaware) that Puerto Rico was an island, and that trucks could not be driven directly to it.

Trump waived the Jones Act immediately to aid in recovery efforts in Texas after Hurricane Harvey, and Florida after Hurricane Irma.

So what?

  • The safety and welfare of millions of Americans is more important than the short-term profit margins of a few shipping companies.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave lengthy remarks about the situation in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, almost all of which consisted of compliments he said people were paying him for how well he was handling it.

At a joint press availability with the President of Spain, Trump made the following claims:

And a massive effort is underway, and we have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else. They know how hard we're working and what a good job we're doing.

... As Governor Rosselló just told me this morning, the entire federal workforce is doing great work in Puerto Rico, and I appreciated his saying it. And he's saying it to anybody that will listen. Our team has been incredible after having gone through Texas and then Florida, with other stops along the way. And he further went on and he said, 'And through the Trump administration's leadership, the relationship between FEMA and my team is very, very strong.'

...I wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL. ...I’ve heard that before about was I preoccupied. Not at all. Not at all. I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work. So I will also say that -- again, I read you part of his quote -- but the Governor of Puerto Rico is so thankful for the great job that we're doing. We did a great job in Texas, a great job in Florida, a great job in Louisiana. We hit little pieces of Georgia and Alabama. And frankly, we're doing -- and it’s the most difficult job because it’s on the island. It’s on an island in the middle of the ocean. It’s out in the ocean.

...And the Governor said we are doing a great job. In fact, he thanked me specifically for FEMA and all of the first responders in Puerto Rico. And we're also mentioning with that the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was devastated. So we are totally focused on that.

...We have had tremendous reviews from government officials. And this morning, the governor made incredible statements about how well we're doing.

...The governor has been so incredible in his statements about the job we're doing. We're doing a great job.

...So everybody has said it's amazing the job that we've done in Puerto Rico. We're very proud of it.

...So I think we've done a really good job.

...We are going to do far more than anybody else would ever be able to do. And it's being recognized as such.

Strangely, Trump also singled out the mayor of the capital city of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, for her "kind words on FEMA etc.We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way." Cruz did indeed praise FEMA workers on the ground--but in the context of condemning Trump's previous statements about Puerto Rico, in which he essentially blamed the commonwealth for the damage that Hurricane Maria inflicted on it.

In an emotional interview on CNN, Cruz tore into Trump for making Puerto Rico's relative poverty an issue during the relief effort. "You don't put debt above people. You put people above debt." Asked if relief supplies were coming fast enough, Cruz said, "No. No. And I'm sorry if that's not politically correct... But the chain of command needs to work a little faster for the people."

Why does this matter?

  • How lavishly desperate local officials are praising him should not be the only thing a president cares about during a disaster relief effort.

Monday, September 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He ignored his own government when it told him he'd been tricked by Iran.

On Saturday, Trump took to Twitter to sound the alarm about an Iranian ballistic missile test. Iranian state TV had reported the launch, and it was picked up by American TV news, which is presumably where Trump heard about it. Today, US officials confirmed that no such test took place, and that the Iranian news report was a fake, replaying footage of an unsuccessful attempt from January.

As of this post, Trump has neither deleted nor otherwise retracted his tweet from Saturday, on Twitter or in any other medium. 

Two of the constants in Trump's life are a belief that he is a skilled negotiator, and a hatred for former President Obama. As such, the talks carried out in cooperation with five other nations during the Obama administration, which led to the current Iranian nuclear deal, have become an obsession for him. This in turn may explain why he is reluctant to correct himself. But it is also possible that he was never informed about his mistake, or that he was and has already forgotten.

So what?

  • Presidents shouldn't fearmonger, and if they do they should do it about things that actually happened.
  • It's bad if a president uncritically believes the propaganda of hostile nations.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, International Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He turned his attention to international affairs.

North Korea. It was already known that Trump's reference to "Rocket Man" this week from the podium of the United Nations was a deliberate, scripted choice. But the Los Angeles Times reports that Trump's senior aides and what remains of his diplomatic staff urged him to delete that and other insulting references from his speech, out of concern that this would force Kim Jong Un into still more escalation of his missile and warhead tests. And while backchannel talks have been conducted between the US and North Korea all along, in spite of the rhetoric on the part of both leaders, Trump's staff feared his speech would shut them down altogether.

It did.

Russia. The independent counsel's investigation of Trump's connection to Russia's sabotage of the 2016 election moved much closer to its targets this week. There has been a steady stream of news reports about White House staff retaining lawyers--even Trump's lawyers have lawyers. Part of the story is the prohibitive costs this can impose on people making a government salary. Since Trump's identity is built around the fact (or fiction) of his enormous wealth, it might be tempting to conclude that his personal legal bills are the least of his problems.

But Trump's administration is determined to lighten the financial burden on Trump (and, perhaps, witnesses or co-conspirators within the White House). Trump's re-election campaign is footing the bill for Donald Trump, Jr. Last week, Trump's newly tame ethics office floated the idea of allowing anonymous donations to legal defense funds. This trial balloon was shot down fairly quickly when it was pointed out that this would allow, for example, Russian oligarchs to contribute anonymously to the defense of people with whom they were engaged in a criminal conspiracy.

But Trump seems to have found a way around that problem: there is no law forbidding Russian oligarchs or those with ties to them from openly contributing to the legal defense of those who may have engaged in a criminal conspiracy with the Putin regime.

They are.

Slovenia. During a visit to Florida to be photographed with Hurricane Irma first responders, Trump expressed regrets on behalf of his wife, Melania, who he said "really wanted to be here."

She was.

Nambia. In remarks to a group of African leaders at this week's meeting of the UN General Assembly, Trump read a speech in which he praised the health care system of "Nambia." There is no such country. At first, it was unclear whether Trump meant Namibia, Zambia, or Gambia--all African countries which actually exist--or if he was imagining a new country. (The White House later clarified that he meant Namibia.)

Trump's praise for Namibia's health care is interesting because 85% of Namibians receive their health care via a government single-payer system--something he calls a "curse" when it is proposed for the United States.

The government of Nambia did not respond to Trump's remarks as it does not exist.

Why do these things matter?

  • Diplomacy and nuclear policy should be driven by something other than a president's temper.
  • A president taking large amounts of money for his own personal use is pretty much the definition of "appearance of impropriety."
  • It's not uncommon for elderly people to have brief moments of confusion, but it's significant when the elderly person is the President of the United States.
  • Slips of the tongue don't really matter, but a president not knowing from moment to moment where he stands on the major domestic policy issue of his presidency is a problem.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He publicly uninvited the NBA champions from a White House visit.

This morning's Trump Twitter tirade included this message for Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors:

But as LeBron James--whose Cleveland Cavaliers were defeated by the Warriors in this summer's NBA finals--pointed out, Curry had moved past "hesitation" months ago.

This is at least the third time in two weeks that Trump has picked a fight with an African-American figure in the sports world. Last night, referring to "that son of a bitch" Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who have knelt during the national anthem as a protest against police violence, Trump called for them to be fired. And he had ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, who called him a white supremacist, denounced from the White House podium last week.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents cannot force people to be "honored" by their presence.
  • One way to avoid being labeled a white supremacist is to be able to tolerate criticism from non-whites.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called the idea of Russian interference in the 2016 election a "hoax" at almost exactly the same time that the State Department was saying that "nobody takes issue with [the reality of Russian interference] whatsoever."

Trump, who has seen the Mueller investigation draw much closer to him in recent days, once again took to Twitter this morning to complain about "the Russia hoax." Specifically, he disparaged the idea that Russians bought pro-Trump Facebook ads and paid for them in rubles. (This actually, provably happened: the ads promoted fake news stories about Trump and Clinton, and even organized rallies and flash mobs that turned out real Trump supporters.)

Later this morning on CNN, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, "It’s clear Russia meddled in the campaign and election." Pressed over Trump's repeated denials of that fact, Nauert simply maintained that Trump "had been clear" about Russia's criminal actions on behalf of the Trump campaign.

Taken as a whole, Nauert's statements were half correct. It's true that the State Department, and every US intelligence agency and law enforcement agency that has investigated the matter, has concluded that Russia absolutely did attempt to influence the election. (Also today, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed that at least 21 states' election systems were targeted by Russian hackers in 2016.)

But Trump, who as a candidate publicly asked for Russian cyber-help, has never acknowledged this himself. The strongest language he's used on the subject is to say that Russia might be one of many countries trying to tamper in US elections, but that "nobody really knows." Instead, he has attacked the agencies investigating it, and proposed a joint US-Russia "Cyber Security Unit." This unit would, apparently, somehow ensure that the election-related crimes Trump refuses to acknowledge Russia committed aren't committed in the future.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents do not have veto power over reality.
  • A president who cannot acknowledge a fact cannot effectively deal with the consequences of that fact.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to defuse the burgeoning charter-jet scandal in his administration by promoting the fact that his education secretary owns her own jet.

The office of Betsy DeVos, whose inherited fortune is likely to be in the billions, released a statement to the Associated Press declaring that she uses her own private jet for work-related travel, and also picks up all other travel costs at "no cost to taxpayers." 

That declaration seems to have been a deliberate response to a flurry of embarrassing travel-related stories coming out of the Trump White House lately. HHS secretary Tom Price, who came into his position under a different sort of ethical cloud, appears to have chartered at least 24 flights in the last few months, at a cost of about $300,000, ignoring vastly cheaper commercial flights operating at the same time. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt also appear to have abused their travel budgets for personal gain. Mnuchin appears to have used government jets to facilitate a family eclipse viewing. Pruitt--who is exploring the possibility of running for governor in his home state of Oklahoma--is under investigation by his own department for his frequent trips there in government aircraft.

Trump himself took a government plane (Air Force One) to his summer retreat, where he's expected to spend the weekend--except for a separate campaign trip to Alabama. Of course, Trump's travel isn't subject to the same rules as other government employees, but it does have costs, both for the Secret Service and local governments in the many cities Trump calls home. 

So what?

  • Presidents are responsible for the actions and ethical choices of their staff.
  • One employee not abusing her authority does not excuse several others who are.
  • Whether a cabinet employee is qualified for her job is more important than whether she is willing to spend a tiny fraction of her wealth on hotel rooms.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denied he'd apologized to the president of Turkey.

During President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit in May, members of his security detail waded into a peaceful anti-Erdogan protest and started throwing punches. Erdogan himself was present and appeared to direct events. D.C. police intervened, prompting Erdogan to demand an apology. But none was forthcoming: the State Department condemned the security detail's actions, and indictments in D.C. courts followed.

But yesterday, Erdogan said that Trump had indeed apologized in a call last week, saying that Trump had promised to follow up on the issue during an upcoming visit. Today, the White House disputed that, saying that there was no apology. Issues like this are usually matters of diplomatic nuance and semantics, but given Trump's history with Erdogan and other authoritarians, it's hard to know who to believe. Trump often seems genuinely in awe of those who have seized power: he recently praised North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for maintaining his grip on the regime he inherited from his father, and has offered similar praise for Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Bashar al-Assad, and Muammar Qaddafi, among others. When Erdogan won a highly disputed referendum that granted him sweeping new powers in April, Trump rushed to call with his personal congratulations almost the instant Erdogan's government declared the result.

The strongest evidence that Trump is telling the truth may be that he has virtually never really apologized for anything.

Why would anyone be bothered by this?

  • It shouldn't be this difficult to take the word of the President of the United States over that of a foreign autocrat.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went to the United Nations to talk about the "total" destruction of a nation of 25 million people.

Trump's first full address to the UN General Assembly today included this passage:
The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. "Rocket Man" is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.
Trump later tweeted out the first part of that passage. The speech was read directly from a teleprompter, including the "rocket man" text.

Diplomacy is not Trump's strong suit, but he's not the first world leader to use the United Nations' microphone that way. In 1960, Nikita Kruschchev (then Premier of the Soviet Union) stormed the podium to lash out at a pro-US speaker, calling him "a jerk, a stooge, and a lackey" and a "toady of imperialism" (but not a "rocket man") before reportedly banging his shoe in frustration on the podium. In 2006, Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, said that he could still smell the sulfur at the podium from "the devil's" speech the day before (meaning President George W. Bush), and called on the assembled nations to rise up against the United States and the "imperialist" threat it posed to the world.

Trump's speech also condemned Venezuela and Iran. He did not mention Russia except to briefly thank the Putin regime for a vote on North Korean sanctions.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if you can't tell at a glance whether a speech was given by the President of the United States or Hugo Chavez.

Monday, September 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent a surrogate out to attack the Emmys in great detail, and also mention that he had "barely noticed" them.

Kellyanne Conway, whose public profile has been greatly reduced in recent months, appeared today on Trump's favorite morning show, Fox & Friends, to diss in highly specific terms the previous night's Trump-heavy broadcast of the Emmy awards. The broadcast featured a surprise appearance by former press secretary Sean Spicer (who gamely tried to make a joke out of his Trump-mandated first-day rant about nonexistent "record" crowds at the inauguration), and an Emmy for Alec Baldwin's impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live. But Conway went out of her way to mention that Trump had "barely noticed" the show.

This is a little hard to believe, for a number of reasons. For one thing, Trump is a known hate-watcher of television about himself: aides report that he is prone to screaming at his set during cable news binges, and Baldwin's impression in particular seems to have a hold on Trump's attention. He often responds in real time on Twitter to things he sees on TV, as he did during his public feud with the hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe, even as he denied watching in the first place. In fact, Trump's willingness to watch anything that bearing his name has been exploited by political opponents and lobbyists who have run ads directly addressing him during the shows he's likely to watch.

Also, this isn't the beginning of Trump's grudge against the Emmys. Though The Apprentice was nominated eight times, neither Trump nor the show ever won, which has prompted several tantrums over the years about the "terrible," "horrendous," "no credibility" awards. This is what prompted Baldwin to shake his award at the camera last night and say, "at long last, Mr. President, here is your Emmy.”

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents who "barely notice" something don't send out trusted surrogates to bash it the very next morning.
  • It shouldn't be this easy for a TV awards show to get under a president's skin.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, grudge edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He revisited some cherished old grudges, and started some new ones.

"Pharma bro." Martin Shkreli, the universally loathed pharmaceutical executive facing sentencing for securities fraud, had his bail revoked this week for tweets in which he encouraged people to grab hair from Hillary Clinton's head. In a last-ditch attempt to keep their client out of jail, his lawyers cited none other than Trump, arguing that his use of "political hyperbole" during and after the campaign had blurred the line between a legitimate threat and free speech. Among other things, Trump suggested that "second amendment people" were the only thing that could prevent Clinton from appointing federal judges who'd restrict gun rights if she were elected. (As with Shkreli's tweet, that incident prompted the attention of the Secret Service.)

Trump may or may not be aware of his influence on Shkreli, but it's not all they have in common. This morning, as part of a tweet-storm bizarre even by Trump standards, he retweeted an animation of him hitting a golf ball and knocking Hillary Clinton over.

Trump is a lot more sensitive to jokes about violence towards politicians when he's the target.

Clinton Clinton Clinton. The golf tweet wasn't Trump's only indulgence this week of his ongoing obsession with Clinton, who recently released a book about the campaign in which she acknowledges the ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign's involvement with the Russian government's attempt to get him elected. Trump, who is easily upset by Clinton under the best of circumstances, fired off angry tweets and sent his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, out to attack Clinton.

Again with the hands thing. Trump traveled to Florida to pose for photos amidst relief efforts for Hurricane Irma. During a few minutes of handing out sandwiches, he mugged for the cameras by visibly struggling to put on plastic gloves, declaring, "They're too small."

He did the same my-hands-are-too-big schtick earlier in the month during his do-over visit to Harvey relief efforts.

Trump has been on a short fuse over the size of his hands since Spy magazine editor Graydon Carter called him a "short-fingered vulgarian" more than a quarter of a century ago. This apparently got even deeper than usual under Trump's skin, who over the years sent photographs of his hands to Carter in an attempt to disprove the joke, and then (apropos of nothing) escalated it into a discussion of the size of his penis during a presidential debate.

Congress. Normally Congress does not bother passing joint resolutions "rejecting White nationalists, White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups, and urging the President and the President's Cabinet to use all available resources to address the threats posed by those groups." But it did so on Tuesday, unanimously in both houses, as a reaction to Trump's equivocation about whether those groups also contained some "very fine people," or whether the terrorist murder of a counter-protestor was part of violence "on many sides."

On Thursday, Trump signed the resolution--and then immediately sought out reporters to declare that "you have some pretty bad dudes on the other [non-Klan, non-neo-Nazi] side also" and singled out anti-fascist groups as evidence that he was right all along. He did not mention white nationalists, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, or other hate groups in his remarks.

The remarks prompted the Senate's only black Republican, Tim Scott (R-SC) to tell reporters that it was "unrealistic" to expect Trump to find his way to an unequivocal condemnation of neo-Nazis and Klansmen in so short a period of time.

ESPN. On a related note, Trump devoted a fair amount of his time this week--to say nothing of other White House employees'--to a new vendetta against the sports network ESPN and its anchor Jemele Hill.

On Monday, Hill tweeted that "Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/ other white supremacists." She later acknowledged that the tweet was inappropriate as it suggested she was speaking for ESPN, and apologized to the network, but stood by her words.

Trump responded by mocking the network's supposedly low ratings in a tweet (a favorite insult, given his obsession with TV), and by once again sending out Sarah Huckabee Sanders three days in a row to call for Hill's firing. (Sanders, who may have committed a crime in following Trump's orders, had a busy week: she was also the designated attack-surrogate for Trump's renewed campaign against Jim Comey.)

Hill is not alone in her opinion, but for whatever reason Trump was apparently far more upset by being called a racist by her than he was when similar accusations were made by the New York Times'Nicholas Kristof, Jesse Berney of Rolling Stone, the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, and dozens of other white men.

Why are these bad things?

  • A president who can be this easily upset is a president who can just as easily be manipulated.
  • It should not be possible to upset a president by talking about an election that he won, or by condemning neo-Nazis and the Klan.
  • "Pharma Bro" isn't a good role model for the President of the United States.
  • A president who doesn't want to be called a white supremacist could always take an unequivocal line against white supremacists.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took both sides of the Paris Accord withdrawal question simultaneously.

The Wall Street Journal reported that today, Trump administration officials at a global warming summit in Montreal announced that the United States would not pull out of the Paris Agreement. The WSJ article attributed that position to White House senior advisor Everett Eissenstat. Almost immediately, White House spokesperson Lindsey Walters made this statement: "There has been no change in the United States' position on the Paris agreement. As the President has made abundantly clear, the United States is withdrawing unless we can re-enter on terms that are more favorable to our country."

But Eissenstat and Walters both appear to be describing something that is, in fact, a very different position than the one Trump held a special Rose Garden ceremony to announce in June. In June, Trump announced the United States' withdrawal unless, possibly, the agreement could be re-negotiated on terms more favorable to the US. Since there are 194 other signatories, that was an obvious nonstarter. Now, however, according to a European delegate to the summit, "The US has stated that they will not renegotiate the Paris accord, but they will try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement." Such a "review" might involve little more than minor changes to self-imposed targets for emissions reductions, allowing the US to remain a signatory without any substantial change.

Neither Eissenstat's nor Walters's statements explain the reason for change. The only element that has changed much in the last three months is Trump's political fortunes, which were not helped by the withdrawal announcement. Given that Trump has tended to take whatever position on climate change is politically convenient (which has led to him taking almost every possible stance at one point or another), this may be yet another example of Trump being more interested in a splashy announcement than in the actual details (or direction) of his administration's policy.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents are entitled to change their minds, but it's bad if they can't or won't say why.
  • It's bad if a president doesn't realize there's more to governing than Rose Garden ceremonies.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pissed off the British government during their response to a terrorist attack--again.

A bomb went off on a London train at 8:20 A.M. local time. A few hours later, Trump enthusiastically folded it into his morning tweetstorm, saying that the perpetrators (still unknown) had already been "in the sights of Scotland Yard" which had not been "proactive" enough. (He also called for cutting off terrorists' internet access, which would only be possible if he already knew where they were.)

This prompted immediate rebukes from all levels of the British government, from the Metropolitan Police to Prime Minister Theresa May herself. London's mayor, Sadiq Khan--whom Trump personally attacked during the last terrorist attack on London--refused to engage at all.

It's not clear whether Trump was merely making up the detail about the bombers being known to British law enforcement, or if he was simply broadcasting an ally's classified information. There's ample precedent for both possibilities.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president repeatedly responds to attacks on allies with criticism rather than support.
  • It's bad if a president is making up or imagining details of important events.
  • It's bad if a president is releasing classified information entrusted to the US by its allies.
  • Presidents probably ought to understand the cyber a little better than this.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took at least seven different positions on an agreement he made with Democrats last night on the subject of a legislative replacement for DACA.

Last night, after a dinner meeting, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced that they had reached an agreement with Trump to enshrine DACA protections into law--without agreeing to fund the border wall that Trump promised at every rally during the campaign. "We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides," Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement.

What followed this morning takes some explaining.
  1. Within minutes, Sarah Huckabee Sanders downgraded the "agreement" to a "discussion" and explicitly denied that the border wall had been taken out of the picture.

    This morning at 6:11, Trump more or less confirmed Sanders' tweet, saying that there was no deal yet and that "massive border security" would have to be a part of any deal.
  2. Then at 6:20, Trump suggested that "The WALL" really meant any border construction, including routine maintenance and rebuilding.
  3. Then at 6:33, Trump called for something that sounds almost exactly like DACA: "Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!....." (Trump apparently meant this rhetorically, and was not intending to call attention to the fact that he had just ordered exactly that.)
  4. On the plane to Florida, Trump corrected a reporter who asked if he favored "amnesty." He replied, "The word is 'DACA.'" (Previously, Trump had called DACA an "illegal amnesty.")
  5. On landing, Trump stressed the absolute centrality of "the wall" to any negotiation: "Very important is the wall. We have to be sure the wall isn’t obstructed. Very important is the wall. We have to be sure the wall isn’t obstructed because without the wall I wouldn’t do anything."
  6. Then in the following sentence, he stressed that "the wall" was not relevant to this particular negotiation: "It doesn’t have to be here, but they can’t obstruct the wall if it’s in a budget or anything else.” (Trump does not control what goes into budget legislation.)
  7. Then he walked back his apparent offer of amnesty: "We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty."
To summarize, Trump made an agreement that was not a deal but a discussion. It hinged on the construction of "massive" new physical sections of wall, or the renovation of existing border fences, or on nothing to do whatsoever with walls. Trump is against DACA, which he regards as an illegal amnesty, but is for keeping DACA recipients around in a status exactly like DACA, which he regards as a synonym for amnesty, which he's opposed to. Instead, he wants a special work-permitted, non-citizen, non-deportable status, which is exactly what DACA was, which he ended last week.

So what?

  • A president who knows (or cares) what his position is on a subject doesn't get this visibly confused about it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent a surrogate out for the third consecutive day to declare James Comey a lawbreaker.

Today marked the third straight day on which press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was sent out to accuse former FBI Director James Comey of having committed crimes. The pattern of these accusations is instructive. On Monday, Sanders accused Comey of false "testimony"--she refused to say when--and suggested that the Department of Justice should "look into it." Yesterday, she said he'd leaked "privileged" information. (There is no "privilege" between the DOJ and the White House, and the material Comey made public was not classified.) 

Today, she tried a third tack: that Comey's notes on the Russia investigation--including the memos he dictated to document Trump's attempts to influence him--"followed the protocol of an FBI document" and therefore, by her interpretation of various laws, could not legally be released. Pressed for details, Sanders retreated, saying "I'm certainly not an attorney" and insisting that it was for the Justice Department to decide. (Those who are attorneys expressed serious doubts about the supposed criminality of Comey's actions based on Sanders's description.)

As Trump has slowly and painfully learned, he cannot simply order the Justice Department to start or stop a criminal investigation--at least not without potentially committing a crime himself. (Firing Comey, a DOJ employee, for refusing to stop investigating Michael Flynn is one example.) The blizzard of accusations from Sanders seems to be Trump's next best attempt to "suggest" a course of action to the DOJ without technically, explicitly ordering them to do anything. But it also served as a rebuttal to ex-advisor Steve Bannon, who this past Sunday declared the Comey firing Trump's biggest mistake to date.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president hiding behind a press flack hiding behind her own ignorance of the law isn't exactly demonstrating courage and leadership.
  • The independence of the federal judiciary is more important than solving any given president's criminal exposure.
  • If a president can be goaded into this kind of behavior just because an unrelated third party criticized him, he can be manipulated by anyone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He spent the morning watching the Today show and subtweeting an NBC reporter.

Trump had what, for him, was a relatively busy schedule today, but the morning was wide open for some leisurely hate-watching. Trump apparently tuned in to NBC's Today to catch Katy Tur promoting her new book. Tur was frequently singled out for abuse by Trump at his campaign rallies, in one case needing a Secret Service escort to return to her car after Trump pointed her out and encouraged supporters to boo her. Within minutes of her appearance, Trump was grousing on Twitter about people who write "#FAKENEWS" books about him yet "know nothing and have zero access."

The book also reveals that during a backstage encounter at a November 2015 taping of the MSNBC show Morning Joe, Trump grabbed Tur by the shoulders, and kissed her on the cheek. The incident was reminiscent of Trump's 2005 brag to Access Hollywood star Billy Bush: "You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women]. I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. When you're a star, they let you do it." 

Trump's "stardom" did indeed factor into it: Tur writes that her first reaction was panic that a camera had caught the kiss, because it could hurt her professionally if she became "part of the story" where Trump was concerned. On camera, Trump immediately bragged to the Morning Joe hosts that he'd just kissed Tur.

Why is this bad?

  • Strictly speaking, a woman who attends two years' of your campaign events, interviews you, and on whom you force a kiss without her consent doesn't have "zero access" and doesn't "know nothing" about you.
  •  It's bad to sneak up on women and force a kiss on them.
  • A president who is this focused on monitoring what people are saying about him is not focused on things that actually matter.

Monday, September 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tweeted a White House-produced video commemorating 9/11 that featured himself in almost every frame.

The video consists entirely of footage from today's White House commemoration ceremony. Over the sound of a bugle playing "Taps," the 44-second video displays:
  • a waving US flag (0:00-0:05)
  • Donald Trump being saluted by Marines in dress uniforms (0:06-0:09)
  • Donald Trump and Melania Trump standing in front of the White House (0:10-0:14)
  • Donald Trump helping a Marine place a wreath of flowers (0:15-0:19)
  • an unidentified woman holding a bouquet of flowers (0:20-0:23)
  • Donald Trump speaking at a podium with the presidential seal (0:24-0:29)
  • the words "never forget" against a black background (0:30-0:36)
  • Donald Trump looking up at the US flag (0:37-0:42)
  • a logo of the White House (0:43-0:44)
The only other September 11th-related tweet Trump made today, from either his personal or @POTUS account, was an image of himself and Melania Trump, next to a quotation of himself. Neither referenced the victims, first responders, memorials, or any readily identifiable American not named Trump.

Why is this bad?

  • When someone can't help but make everything about themselves, no matter how inappropriate the situation, it is called narcissism, and it is a serious mental illness.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, DACA edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He rescinded the DACA program, taking almost every possible position on the subject before doing so (and after).

On Tuesday, Trump formally ordered the beginning of the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era policy that allowed undocumented Americans brought into the country as children to get work permits and a limited degree of protection from deportation. That moment marked just one of a wide variety of positions he has taken on the subject, including several in this past week. What follows is a partial list of some of the confusion Trump suffered from on the issue recently.

He opposed it during the campaign... Trump's position on the subject during the campaign had the virtue of clarity: he was against it. His campaign kickoff speech addressed it directly: "I will immediately terminate President Obama's illegal executive order on immigration, immediately," he said in July of 2015, and never wavered from that position during the campaign.

...and declared "We're going to work something out" after being elected. His position immediately after being elected was equally unambiguous--in the other direction. "I want Dreamers for our children also," he told Time. "We’re going to work something out. On a humanitarian basis it’s a very tough situation. We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud. But that’s a very tough situation."

Obama's program was an "illegal amnesty..." Before taking office, Trump referred to the program as an "illegal amnesty." It isn't an amnesty, and most constitutional scholars believe it is a legal extension of the president's authority to set priorities for law enforcement--but the thrust of Trump's argument seems to have been that he should not be allowed to have that kind of discretion.

...which he may extend. Almost immediately after issuing his order, Trump tweeted that if no legislative solution arose in the next six months, he would "revisit" the matter. Since Trump is on record as saying that anything short of a law would be unconstitutional, it's not clear under what authority he would "revisit" anything. Repeated attempts by reporters to get clarification from the White House yielded little new information, but even as Trump signed the orders, members of his administration told the New York Times they were afraid he "might not fully grasp the details" of what he was doing.

He has "love" and "heart..." In damage-control mode after the announcement, Trump's language towards DREAMers abruptly warmed. "I have a great heart for the folks we're talking about, a great love for them... I have a love for these people and hopefully, now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly."

...for "rapists" and "drug dealers" and gang members. That stood in contrast to Trump's usual language on undocumented immigrants, who he usually paints as violent criminals. (In a nod to continuity, at the same time that Trump was expressing his "great heart" for DREAMers, he also added that "In some of the cases they're having DACA and they're gang members and they're drug dealers too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids. I would say mostly." In fact, membership in a criminal gang or a felony conviction would have ended DACA eligibility.)

He was forced to act by a pending lawsuit... Trump cited a pending lawsuit against the program as a reason why he was forced to rescind it. There was in fact such a lawsuit, although it lost one of its members to a change of heart on humanitarian grounds right before Trump's action. Nine states had agreed to challenge DACA.

...and was free to act in spite of a pending lawsuit. Within a few days of Trump's revised order, fifteen states and the District of Columbia had sued to force Trump to rescind it. The White House did not offer any comment on why avoiding one lawsuit was more urgent than avoiding the other, or at what point Trump became lawsuit-averse.

It is "unconstitutional" not to act. Trump delegated the announcement of the policy to Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, who called DACA an "unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch."

..and he will not act. The official talking points memo makes clear that "Individuals who will no longer have DACA will not proactively be referred to ICE and placed in removal proceedings unless they satisfy one of the Department’s enforcement priorities."

He has "no second thoughts..." The day after signing the order, Trump declared that he had "no second thoughts."

...and wanted a "way out." The day before signing the order, Trump was canvassing his aides asking for a "way out" of what he now perceived as a political dilemma.

Why are these things a problem?

  • It's bad if a president takes literally every conceivable position on a major policy issue in the same week he enacts it.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He praised himself through a somewhat unusual surrogate.

In an interview this morning, megachurch pastor and longtime Trump associate Paula White praised Trump's spirituality and called him "a man of repentance." Specifically, she said, "Our president 100 percent is a Christian who understands receiving faith by the grace of the Lord Jesus. He understands repentance, and I’ve seen him on many occasions in private and even in public.”

There is no way to know for sure what White, who recently said that "whether people like it or not, " Trump had been "raised up by God," has observed in private. But Trump himself is on the record as saying that he has never asked God for forgiveness, unless taking communion counts. (It does not, at least in the Presbyterian faith Trump is theoretically a member of.)

As for public expressions of repentance--to God or humanity--there is very little evidence that Trump has ever expressed contrition or asked forgiveness for anything, ever. The one debatable exception, in Trump's 71-year lifespan, came after the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he was recorded bragging, among other things, about grabbing women's genitals without their consent. His political career on the line, Trump growled out an apology, though not before denying that the tape reflected on him in any way. Otherwise, as Trump himself put it: "Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?"

So what?

  • Most Christians believe that only one person has ever been beyond the need for repentance, and that he had some fairly unambiguous views on the subject.
  • The state of Trump's soul is his own business, but an inability to acknowledge that one is capable of error is a symptom of very serious mental health issues.

Friday, September 8, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared three days of prayer and remembrance for the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

Trump's proclamation establishing September 8-10 as National Days of Prayer and Remembrance is in line with how presidents have typically commemorated the anniversary of 9/11, and its language is solemn and diplomatic. It describes the day of the attacks this way:

We pause to remember that tragic morning, when our homeland endured unprecedented attacks. As we watched smoke billow from the World Trade Center, we prayed for the safety of our fellow Americans, and we reached out to help, however we could.
In reality, though, this diverges from what Trump himself did on that day--and what he later claimed he did.

That day, Trump gave an interview with WWOR, a New Jersey TV station, in which he took time to mention that with the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, his building at 40 Wall Street was now the tallest building in New York. "40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest. And then, when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second-tallest. And now it’s the tallest." (It wasn't, although it was close.)

Fourteen years later, with his presidential campaign underway, Trump made a different sort of claim about September 11th, 2001: that he had seen "thousands" of Arab-Americans on TV, cheering the collapse of the towers. Trump had never mentioned this before, including in interviews he gave about 9/11 shortly after the day itself, and was unfazed by the fact that no such tape exists and nobody else remembers seeing it.

Why does this matter?

  • A candidate who lies about his fellow Americans' loyalty in the wake of tragedy for political gain makes him unfit as president to commemorate that tragedy.
  • Trump calling for days of "remembrance" when his own memory seems to follow what he thinks will get him votes is grotesque.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised DACA recipients he wouldn't take action against them until their statuses begin expiring six months from now.

The reassurance came at the behest of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who seemed bemused at how easy it was to get Trump to tweet this. Her surprise is understandable: a promise not to prioritize DACA recipients for deportation is, at bottom, all the program is. Trump's argument for rescinding DACA--to the extent he knows what it is--is that the president has no such authority to decide which undocumented immigrants to deport first. 

In effect, Trump is promising to continue to engage in what he says he believes is an unlawful and unconstitutional abuse of power for up to thirty more months. (Recipients whose status expires in the next six months can apply for a two year extension, under Trump's proposed extension of what he called President Obama's "illegal amnesty.") 

Of course, Trump's extension of DACA is very likely lawful, just as the program itself is: no significant legal challenge was even filed against it until Trump (who had campaigned against it, and was therefore unlikely to defend it) had been elected. Trump has not tried to reconcile his official stance on the subject with the fact that he will allow it to remain in force for at least the first 1,139 days of his administration.

What's the problem with this?

  • Whether or not something is lawful and constitutional does not depend on which president is doing it.
  • Policy driven this transparently by political considerations is rarely good policy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promoted a tax plan he hasn't written with a tweet that suggests it's probably just as well he's not writing it.

Trump traveled to North Dakota today to campaign for his tax plan--or what would be his tax plan if he hadn't abruptly punted responsibility for writing it to beleaguered congressional Republicans. In hyping the trip on Twitter this morning, Trump claimed that the United States was "the highest taxed nation in the world."

This is completely false. The US has is fourteenth overall in effective personal income tax rates, thirty-second in taxes as a share of GDP, and its effective corporate tax rate is slightly below average for the world's largest industrial economies. 

Oddly enough, the US tax code is one of the few aspects of his current job that Trump has some experience with. As a real estate developer (or, at least, as someone who counted as one for tax purposes) Trump has seen the byzantine and occasionally bizarrely unfair US tax code from the inside--and from the winning side. Leaked returns from 1995 show that he claimed $917,000,000 of other people's losses in an entirely legal maneuver that allowed him to deduct that same amount from his taxes over the course of 18 years. 

Why is this a problem?

  • It's bad if the president can't remember the basic facts about one of the most important parts of his job.
  • "It takes a thief to catch a thief" doesn't usually work in politics.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He formally nominated a head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration who has a great deal of experience with that agency's regulations... as a violator of them.

David G. Zatezelo's name was officially sent to the Senate today for confirmation as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, along with 45 other appointments. The MSHA, as its name suggests, is in charge of enforcing regulations related to worker safety in underground and surface mining in the United States. 

Zatezelo, the former CEO of coal company Rhino Resources, was recommended for the job by major Trump donor Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy. That company operated the Crandall Canyon mine, where in 2007 six miners and three rescue workers were killed in a mine collapse following a series of violations and failures to disclose mining plans to MSHA. (Murray himself participated in a cover-up related to those failures to disclose.)

Under Zatezelo's watch, Rhino subsidiaries engaged in surveillance of MSHA inspectors so that they would have enough warning to hide violations. Nevertheless, the agency found so many violations that it issued rare "pattern of violations" letters in two consecutive years. It also fined the company for the death of one of its workers during a collapse. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Breaking laws is still not good job experience for enforcing those laws.
  • "Regulatory capture" shouldn't be something a president deliberately tries to make happen.

WTDT will address the DACA issue in the coming Sunday Week In Review post. As a reminder, this site does not take sides on policy issues, only with how Trump handles them--or fails to.

In the meantime, if you have found this site valuable, please remember to share it with your friends on Facebook, or follow it on Twitter.

Monday, September 4, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fit what appears to be his entire Labor Day message into 115 characters.

Trump is the first president since Herbert Hoover (and possibly earlier) to fail to issue a Labor Day message, unless his tweet from this morning counts. In it, he claimed that "We are building our future with American hands, American labor, American iron, aluminum and steel."

Trump's own relationship with labor--American and otherwise--means his relative silence will probably be better received than any statement would, but even so the tweet steps on its own message. The reference to aluminum and steel is probably meant to remind people that Trump has made noises about imposing tariffs on imports of those materials. That plan, which Trump may not intend to ever put into effect, is notable for the breadth of opposition it has attracted from within the US political spectrum. Trump's proposed steel tariff would likely benefit the country's 140,000 steelworkers--and endanger the jobs of 6,500,000 workers in industries that use steel.

The tweet also featured a picture of Trump and his wife, Melania, who was wearing a $2,255 dress created by a Greek designer and made in Italy. Trump's own wardrobe is a bit less distinctive, but if his suit, shirt, or tie was from his his own signature line, it was made in China or Bangladesh.

Why does this matter?

  • Providing Americans with jobs is the sort of thing where a sitting president should lead by example
  • A president who claims to be worth $10,000,000,000 can probably afford to clothe himself and his family in American-made clothes one day of the year.
  • America's workers probably deserve a little more attention on Labor Day than a single tweet.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Staffing Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He had some staffing issues.

Trump spent a good deal of his recent Phoenix rally making grandiose assessments of the size of the assembled crowd. What the TV cameras didn't show, but what Trump could see, was that the convention hall he spoke to was largely empty and the crowd dwindling as he spoke

Presumably this is why Trump fired George Gigicos, the advance man responsible for the rally. As he did with James Comey, Trump had his former bodyguard Keith Schiller deliver the message rather than confront Gigicos directly. Days later, Schiller himself was on his way out, quitting in frustration because new rules laid down by chief of staff John Kelly prevented him from being able to walk into the Oval Office or call Trump directly.

(Trump, for his part, has resorted to using his personal phone to skirt Kelly's discipline.)

It seems likely that Gigicos will be promptly replaced, since campaign rallies are of paramount importance to Trump. Schiller probably won't be: he played no actual role in the operation of the White House, nor did he contribute to Trump's physical security once he came under Secret Service protection. He seems to have been on the government payroll mostly as a sort of security blanket for Trump, who has surrounded himself as much as possible with those who have promised absolute personal loyalty (and has fired those who haven't). 

Jobs that do have actual responsibilities (but in which Trump has no personal stake) have gone unfilled at an unprecedented rate under Trump. Facing criticism from within his own safe zone--Fox & Friends--Trump retorted that the jobs were unimportant and that he was saving the government money by not filling them. Among the jobs Trump considers too minor to fill are the deputy director of FEMA and a number of staff positions in that agency. 

Among the jobs Trump does apparently consider important, and which he filled this week, is the chief enforcement officer of the Department of Education's Student Aid Enforcement Unit. The new hire, Julian Schmoke Jr., will be in charge of policing fraud in for-profit higher education. His most recent job was with DeVry, a for-profit educational company that frequently committed fraud. This follows a pattern with Trump: he also nominated a Labor Secretary whose business was a serial violator of labor laws, and a nonscientist as the USDA's chief science officer. And--just in time for Labor Day--he nominated as head of the Mine Health and Safety Administration a coal executive whose company received two "pattern of violation" notices from that same agency for its serious and ongoing safety problems.

Why are these bad things?

  • A president is responsible for the quality of people he entrusts with the job of helping govern the United States.
  • Breaking a law is not good experience for enforcing a law.
  • A presidential candidate's popularity has more to do with how many people show up to a campaign rally than the guy who books the hall.
  • Lashing out at others for your own shortcomings isn't a good management style in or out of government.
  • Some jobs actually do require competence.