Tuesday, October 31, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He demanded through a surrogate that the media stop talking about race.

In today's briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about an interview in which White House chief of staff John Kelly said that the Civil War could have been avoided through "compromise," and in which he praised the "honorable" character of Robert E. Lee. (Lee was a slaveowner who is known to have personally abused those he held in bondage.)

Asked to acknowledge the fact that many found Kelly's comments racially offensive, Sanders responded that the claim was "outrageous and absurd" and blamed the media for depicting the Trump White House as a "racially charged" place.

What counts as "racially charged" is a matter of opinion, but just since taking office, Trump--who describes himself as "the least racist person"--has personally done the following:

So what?

  • Presidents don't actually get to dictate how they're covered by the news media.
  • Saying that nobody was offended by praise for a slaveowner's character doesn't make it true.

Monday, October 30, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tweeted this, with respect to the news of at least three indictments in the Mueller probe:

Whether Paul Manafort (whose very existence in the Trump campaign he chaired for five months the White House is now basically denying) has anything to say about that will depend on the nature of any plea bargains he made with federal prosecutors. But the other indictment unsealed today, for Trump's "foreign policy advisor" George Papadopoulos, is pretty straightforward on the subject of the mutual courtship between the Trump campaign and the Putin regime.

Papadopoulos, who coordinated with an unnamed "supervisor" in the Trump campaign, has already pleaded guilty.

There is a technical sense in which Trump's tweet is accurate, however. "Collusion" is not really the correct legal term for what Trump and his associates are suspected of. The appropriate term for a plan to violate the laws of the United States, or give aid and comfort to its enemies, is "conspiracy."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president who cannot admit that an attack on American democracy has taken place is a president who is refusing to defend American democracy against the next one.
  • Reality doesn't change just because a frustrated president shouts something on Twitter.
  • It's bad if it's even possible for an admitted criminal to "flip" on the President of the United States.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, DO SOMETHING edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

SOMETHING. Or did he?

He filed his taxes? Monday of this week was the day that Trump's routine extension for filing his 2016 taxes expired. Presumably he met this deadline. As Trump has resolutely refused to release any information whatsoever about his taxes, breaking with a precedent stretching back to Watergate, there is no way to know.

He remembered the name of the soldiers whose families he was consoling? The scandal around Trump's botched condolence calls for the soldiers who were killed in Niger on October 6th is now reorienting around the question of why they were put at risk in the first place (see below). But Trump seemed eager to rehash the question of whether Sgt. La David Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson, was a liar for saying that Trump was insensitive and didn't seem to know who he was talking about in the hastily-arranged phone call.

This Wednesday, Trump declared to reporters that he was telling the truth (and Myeshia Johnson was not) because he has "one of the all time great memories." And just in case his all-time great memory failed him, Trump also said that the soldier's full name was spelled out on a chart for him.

Trump has claimed to have a great memory before, although he promptly forgot ever having made that claim when it came up in a deposition related to his fraudulent Trump University business.

He took responsibility for authorizing the Niger mission that came under attack? Sgt. Johnson was killed during the same mission that claimed the lives of SSgt. Bryan Black, SSgt. Dustin Wright, and SSgt. Jeremiah Johnson. They were in Niger as part of a counterterrorism force training and assisting the Nigerien military, and had gone on many such combat patrols in the past. But circumstances had recently changed: a crucial element in the overall anti-ISIS forces in the region, the military of neighboring Chad, had been abruptly withdrawn. Some suspect that this was done in retaliation for Trump's seemingly inexplicable decision to add Chad to his travel bans.

Asked on Wednesday if he had authorized the mission, Trump passed the buck to the people he tends to refer to as "my generals." (This is not the first time that Trump has sought to avoid responsibility for orders that cost American lives.) It is not uncommon for the fine-grained details to be left to the discretion of professional military commanders. It is unusual for a president to abdicate all strategic oversight of a theater in which American military personnel are in harm's way.

He was elected with the help of Cambridge Analytica? This week, CNN reported that Cambridge Analytica--the data-mining political consultancy credited with engineering Trump's narrow electoral victory--had been caught asking Wikileaks for the e-mails he believed had been stolen from Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server. (There is no evidence Clinton's private server was ever hacked, and no e-mails from it have ever been released. Wikileaks did publish e-mails stolen by Russian intelligence agencies from the Democratic National Committee, which prompted Trump to declare "I love Wikileaks!")

In other words, yet another element of the Trump campaign was revealed to be interested in what Russian spies could do for them.

Immediately, Trump surrogates began erasing Cambridge Analytica from its previously vaunted place in the Trump mythology. This is a fairly common practice in the Trump world: as figures close to him are implicated in Russia's interference in American elections, they are retroactively expunged from the story of Trump's rise to power. Paul Manafort, who sat at the very top of the Trump campaign org chart for months and is a known target of the Mueller investigation, was reimagined as having played "a very limited role." En route to pushing Steve Bannon out of the White House, Trump himself deleted months of his closest advisor's influence from history when he asserted that Bannon "was not involved in my campaign until very late." Michael Flynn, who became the first person forced out of the Trump administration when he was caught lying about his contacts with Russian agents, was reinvented as an Obama administration holdover, notwithstanding the fact that President Obama fired Flynn in 2013. 

Both Bannon and Flynn were on the payroll of Cambridge Analytica, although Flynn concealed his involvement until recently.

Why are these things important?

  • Presidents do not get to hide behind the military for the consequences of the tasks they give the military.
  • It's bad if getting the last word in an argument with a grieving military widow is any kind of a priority for a president.
  • A president who ignores attacks on the United States is aiding and abetting attacks on the United States.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He dispatched his press secretary to accuse Hillary Clinton of the things he and his campaign are being investigated for.

Yesterday, the federal grand jury in the Mueller investigation returned its first indictments. While the targets are not yet known, at least one target--Trump's campaign chair, Paul Manafort--had already been told by Mueller that he could expect to face charges.

Today, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took to Twitter to claim that Hillary Clinton, and not Trump, had "colluded" with the Russian government. To substantiate this claim, she pointed to the fact that law firms employed by the DNC had helped to fund the research that became part of the Steele dossier. This is a report compiled by a former British intelligence agency that claims that the Putin regime has been actively cultivating Trump as a (possibly unwitting) means to the end of sowing chaos in American politics.

Because the Trump team's public relations strategy relies on painting the report as partisan anti-Republican lies, Sanders did not mention that the report was originally commissioned by the ultra-conservative Washington Free Beacon, which abandoned its efforts to derail the Trump campaign once he clinched the GOP nomination. 

No part of the Steele dossier has been discredited, and many of its most serious allegations regarding secret contacts between Trump's inner circle and agents of the Russian government have been independently confirmed. It is a matter of absolute certainty among American law enforcement and intelligence agencies that Russia deliberately acted to undermine faith in American democracy and sow chaos in its government by helping elect Donald Trump.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's bad if a hostile foreign power has successfully carried out an attack on the American democratic process itself.
  • Someone who doesn't want people looking into his past probably shouldn't run for president.
  • Eventually Donald Trump will have to stop blaming people who aren't president for the problems of his presidency.

Friday, October 27, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He falsely claimed that it is "commonly agreed" that he and his campaign did not collude with Russia.

Trump's tweet seems to be part of a new strategy to accuse Hillary Clinton and other Democrats of the crimes that he is being investigated for. None of the five ongoing federal investigations nor the various state-level probes have concluded or indicated anything that would exonerate Trump or his campaign. 

There is absolute certainty among intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies that the Putin regime in Russia actively interfered in the 2016 election for the purpose of helping Donald Trump get elected. What remains to be seen, and what those investigations are aimed at discovering, is which Trump campaign or family members took what specific actions in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy. The list of potential targets includes Trump's campaign chair Paul Manafort, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, his son Donald Trump Jr., his foreign policy advisor Carter Page, his former national security advisor Michael Flynn and his son, campaign official Michael Flynn Jr., and of course Trump himself.

Trump frequently attributes his own beliefs (or simply things he would like people to believe) to what "many people are saying" or "a lot of people think." 

UPDATE: CNN is reporting tonight that the federal grand jury convened by independent counsel Robert Mueller has returned a bill of indictment. (The indictments are under seal and the identity of the target is not known.) It is possible Trump was told in advance about the indictments: by law, Mueller would have been required to inform Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein before asking a grand jury to approve charges.

Why does this matter?

  • Things are not true just because a president desperately wants people to believe them.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He brought back "just say no" to the opioid crisis, but no money.

Addiction to opioids--addictive, morphine-like painkiller drugs--is indeed a national health crisis. 142 Americans are killed daily by overdoses in an epidemic fueled by widespread overprescription and markets flooded by drug companies.

The epidemic has hit Trump-friendly demographics especially hard, so it was not particularly surprising when on August 10, Trump announced--after an urgent request by an expert commission--that he was officially declaring a "national emergency." Such a declaration would be administered through FEMA and would allow for increased spending on treatment, prevention, and changes to federal policy.

But no actual declaration was ever made, and months went by with no action from Trump. Then last week, Trump made two surprising announcements. First, he was forced to withdraw his drug czar nominee, Tom Merino, when it came to light that he had sponsored legislation opposed to letting the government fight the epidemic. Second, Trump announced that he would finally be taking action this week on an opioid plan--one that, as far as his staff knew, didn't yet exist.

Trump's announcement today is not the national emergency declaration he'd promised, but a "public health emergency." The important difference between the two is that a public health emergency declaration makes no money available. By way of comparison, Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would allocate $45 billion for the fight.

So what?

  • Policy made in haste is usually bad policy.
  • Policy made in order to make it look like an administration is working on an issue is almost always bad policy.
  • The opioid crisis is serious enough to deserve a president's sustained attention.
  • What a president is and is not willing to spend money on is a pretty good indication of his priorities.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He mentioned for at least the third time in less than a day that Republican senators gave him a "standing ovation" at a lunch meeting.

Trump's two morning tweets on the subject of the clapping GOP senators did for him came a day after two retiring Republican members, Sens. Corker (R-TN) and Flake (R-AZ) attacked him with the sort of anger normally associated with Trump himself. No other details of the applause at a Trump-GOP strategy lunch on tax policy have emerged, other than what Trump himself has reported. 

It is customary to stand when the President enters a room, but it is actually fairly likely that Trump is telling the truth about the applause. Trump is notoriously susceptible to flattery, even from people he loathes, and is prone to demanding it when it is not spontaneously offered. His former chief of staff Reince Priebus pioneered the tactic of providing Trump with twice-daily "briefings" on positive news coverage--or, where that is lacking, simply good photographs of him.

Aside from Flake and Corker, the meeting included senators who have recently called Trump out for draft-dodging, accused him of failing to stand up to Nazis, said he was leading the country into "darkness," claimed that he was damaging the Republican Party, commiserated with Democratic senators about his precarious mental state, critiqued his war on the free press, declared his presidency unsalvageable, called his treatment of women distasteful, asked him to "please just stop" degrading the dignity of his office, accused him of being part of "the swamp," criticized his obsession with the NFL, said he was more interested in campaigning than governing, and threatened him with a year-long vacancy if he tried to fire attorney general Jefferson Sessions, among other things.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who so clearly craves approval is one who can be easily manipulated.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He repeated an already disproven lie about Sen. Bob Corker's (R-TN) position on the Iran nuclear agreement.

Trump began the day agitated even by the usual grumpy standards of his morning Twitter rants, lashing out in a five-tweet tirade that Sen. Corker "helped President O give us the bad Iran Deal." 

In reality, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker did more than almost anyone else in the Senate to frustrate approval of the original deal, forcing the Obama administration to include provisions for congressional oversight of the process. Corker did vote for the revised version--and so did almost every other member of Congress. It passed 98-1 in the Senate and 400-25 in the House

(Trump's objection to the six-nation agreement seems to be mostly about his belief that he is a master negotiator, and that it happened on President Obama's watch.)

Repeatedly asked to explain Trump's comments, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that it was Corker alone who had "rolled out the red carpet" for the agreement and not the other 497 members of Congress who voted for it. 

Why does this matter?

  • False statements do not become true just because a president keeps saying them.

Monday, October 23, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He unintentionally delayed, and possibly reduced, the sentencing of convicted Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl.

Sgt. Bergdahl, a former captive of the Taliban, pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy last week. He was expected to be sentenced today, but comments made in the meantime by Trump have thrown a wrench into the proceedings. During the campaign, Trump used Bergdahl to attack President Obama for having approved a prisoner exchange to recover him--though at the time the nature of Bergdahl's disappearance and capture were unclear. Trump called him a "dirty rotten traitor," using the word "traitor" on at least 45 separate occasions, and suggested that he should be executed by firing squad or dropped from a plane. 

A military judge previously rejected Bergdahl's claims that those comments made by candidate Trump constituted "undue command interference." But after Bergdahl's plea, Trump was again asked for his opinion. He replied that he couldn't comment on an ongoing case--"but I think people have heard my comments in the past."

Today, Col. Jeffrey Nance--the same judge who denied Bergdahl's original motions regarding Trump's campaign statements--halted proceedings to consider the question of whether President Trump's reference to his prior determination of guilt and calls for execution counted as an unlawful exercise of influence on what are supposed to be independent trials. Col. Nance has great latitude in sentencing, and was sharply critical of the negative impact that Trump's comments could have on the public's faith in the military justice system. He told prosecutors that this could be a factor in his sentencing.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who cannot control himself from blurting out threats, even when they work against his own interests, is too undisciplined to lead the United States military.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sunday Week in Review

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

Fact-checking. Last Sunday, the New Yorker reported about an incident where Trump joked about his vice-president's faith. The aggressively unchurched Trump likes to poke fun at Pence's religiosity--"to let Pence know who's boss," in the words of one source. On the subject of gay rights, the article quoted Trump as saying that Pence wanted to "hang them all."

Not surprisingly, Trump denied it all. But in doing so he may have set a personal best for calling people liars. In a statement issued after Trump's denial, the New Yorker said:
In the course of fact-checking this piece, we talked to more than sixty people to confirm the reporting contained therein, including senior White House officials, a senior member of the Vice-President’s office, the RGA [Republican Governors' Associaton], Rep. Elijah Cummings, and multiple people who were in the room when President Trump joked that Vice-President Pence "wants to hang" gay people. We stand by the story.
The White House did not issue a clarification on whether all sixty-plus people in the room were lying or simply mistaken.

Obamacare. In explaining his refusal to continue making the CSR payments required under the Affordable Care Act, Trump said this on Monday: "Obamacare is finished. It’s dead. It’s gone. You shouldn’t even mention it. It’s gone. There is no such thing as Obamacare anymore."

In fact, the ACA (also known as Obamacare) remains law, and Trump remains obliged to administer it in keeping with his presidential oath to "faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States" and his constitutional obligation to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." But oaths and obligations aside, Trump has continued to try to sabotage enrollment, which will necessarily raise premiums for those who remain insured.

In related news, it was announced this week that the uninsured rate rose for the first time since the ACA took effect.

Niger. Trump spent much of the week trying to make the issue of his silence on the Niger attacks about Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). It was Wilson who publicized the details of Trump's belated phone call to Army widow Myesha Johnson, in which he seemed unsure of the identity of her husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, and took it upon himself to explain military duty to her.

Thursday, while defending Trump during this week's bizarre condolence scandal, chief of staff and former Marine general John Kelly made a number of false statements. In particular he pronounced himself "stunned" when, in 2015, he saw Rep. Wilson had made self-aggrandizing claims at the dedication of a new FBI building in Miami about her role in getting funding for it.

But, as Wilson herself pointed out, the FBI building in question had been funded before she even entered Congress, and her role was limited to helping get the building renamed for two FBI agents killed in the line of duty. Within hours, videotape had surfaced proving Wilson right: her remarks lavish praise on the Republican members of Congress who helped pass the necessary legislation. At no point does she make any of the statements Kelly claimed to have heard and been "stunned" by.

Asked the following day about whether Kelly would address his false claims, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders bristled: "If you want to go after General Kelly, that is up to you. If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate."

Predictably, the idea that military officers (retired or otherwise) are beyond question by civilians and the press did not go over well with Republicans, Democrats, other generals, the media, or almost anyone outside the Trump administration. Trump himself has a long history of criticizing generals and ran on the claim that he knew more than them about how to fight ISIS.

Why do these things matter?

  • Suggesting that the military is beyond question by mere civilians is un-American.
  • Laws do not cease to exist just because a president wishes they would.
  • A president who cannot or will not fulfill his oath of office should not be in office.
  • Presidents who don't want to be seen as hostile to religion shouldn't make fun of a person's faith in front of sixty witnesses.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He earmarked $430,000 of his own money to buy lawyers for White House staffers who might have to testify against him in the Russia probe.

White House officials speaking on background confirmed today that Trump will "aspirationally" set aside $430,000 for a legal defense fund covering certain White House and Trump campaign employees. Not everyone who is interviewed by investigators is necessarily suspected of conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election and install Trump, but in a criminal investigation of this magnitude, even wholly innocent potential witnesses are well advised to retain legal counsel--and that can be very expensive. Trump himself is relying largely on the Republican National Committee to pay for the army of lawyers he and his son Donald Jr. have retained. 

This is where Trump's money might help--but because the money would be coming from the man who is likely to be investigators' ultimate target, the ethical and legal ramifications of such a donation is murky at best. Trump claims he has been working with the Office of Government Ethics on creating the fund, but he has a history of ignoring that office when he doesn't feel like following its instructions. Former OGE director Walter Shaub, who resigned in protest over Trump's refusal to enforce or abide by ethics rules, called attention to the problem of an accused criminal paying for witnesses' lawyers

There is also Trump's long history of reneging on financial promises to consider. Trump promises money extravagantly, but rarely fulfills those promises, and then usually only under great duress.

Why should I care about this?

  • It shouldn't even be possible to wonder if a president is trying to tamper with potential witnesses against him.

Friday, October 20, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was apparently convinced that property crimes going up in Britain were the result of "radical Islamic terror."

At 6:30 A.M. this morning, Trump tweeted, "Just out report: 'United Kingdom crime rises 13% annually amid spread of Radical Islamic terror.' Not good, we must keep America safe!" This is almost precisely the same wording used by One America News Network moments earlier. OANN is a satellite-only channel known for promoting conspiracy theories and as a favorite choice for friendly questions by Trump's press secretaries.

Crime is indeed up in England and Wales (though not the UK as a whole), according to statistics published yesterday that reflect a 13% increase in all crimes reported to the police. About 4.5 million crimes were recorded in the past year. These include everything from fraud to burglary to domestic violence. Virtually none of those millions of crimes had anything to do with terrorism.

British officials were not pleased by Trump's comments, which were not the first time he's suggested that British citizens needed to be more afraid

Why is this a problem?

  • Trying to stoke fear and erode confidence in legitimate governments is the goal of terrorism.
  • A president who copies actual "fake news" rather than get his information from the best law enforcement and intelligence services in the world is either incompetent or too lazy for the job.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He finally found something he was willing to blame Russia for.

This morning, Trump posed this question on Twitter: "Workers of firm involved with the discredited and Fake Dossier take the 5th. Who paid for it, Russia, the FBI or the Dems (or all)?"

Trump is actually correct that the firm behind the "Steele Dossier" (named for the former British intelligence agent who wrote it) invoked their fifth amendment privileges against self-incrimination. To do so is not an admission of a crime. Trump himself has pleaded the fifth ninety-seven times, and not in circumstances where he was truly suspected of prosecutable criminal activity. 

However, as desperately as Trump might wish it were so, the dossier is not "discredited and Fake." Some parts of it remain unverified, like the salacious (but not especially criminal) claim that Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on a bed President Obama had once slept on. Many of the more substantial parts--the identity of suspected Russian spies in the US, the existence of previously hidden meetings between Trump associates and Russian agents, or the involvement of the Trump campaign in changing the Republican Party platform to tolerate Russia's occupation of Ukrainian territory--have been independently confirmed. No part has been discredited or disproved.

Nevertheless, Trump's claim of a Democratic Party/FBI/Russia conspiracy is interesting in one way: he has otherwise steadfastly refused to admit any possibility that Russia was in any way involved in the 2016 election. Trump is essentially the only person in the United States government who even claims to believe this.

Russia has continued to disrupt democratic elections in the meantime, and there is a broad bipartisan consensus in the intelligence and legislative communities that it intends to influence the 2018 elections as well.

Why is this bad?

  • A president who cannot acknowledge anything that makes him look bad cannot do his job.
  • Things are not true or false just because a president wants them to be.
  • It's bad if a president's response to a threats to democracy itself is to ignore them.
  • A president totally innocent of conspiring with a hostile foreign power would probably want more attention paid to the investigation, not less.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made the unfolding scandal over military families almost impossible to summarize on a day-by-day basis.

Trump began the day by insisting that Rep. Frederica Wilson's (D-FL) account of his behavior with Myeshia Johnson (the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson) was "totally fabricated" and that he had "proof." Then Johnson's family confirmed Wilson's version, leaving Trump in the position of having called grieving family members liars.

He later told reporters that Rep. Wilson had recanted her story. She had not.

Then, asked about the "proof" he supposedly had that Wilson's story was inaccurate, he said he'd release it if Wilson repeated her claim. She did.

Meanwhile, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was admitting that there was no "proof" and that no recording of the call existed. (Threatening recordings that don't exist is a known Trump tic.)

As all this was unfolding, Washington Post reporters were fact-checking Trump's claim that he had called the family of every servicemember killed during his administration. He has not. But on one such call in June, to the economically distressed father of Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, Trump promised a personal gift of $25,000. It never came.

Pressed to explain the promised gift that never arrived, the White House released a furious statement declaring that the check had already been sent, and saying it was "disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognized as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the president, and using it to advance the media’s biased agenda." Further reporting revealed that the check was sent only after the story broke.

Trump has reneged on more promised charitable gifts than most people ever have the chance to make. Covering his false promises earned David Farenthold a Pulitzer last year. Both his charitable trust (funded almost entirely by other people's money) and his son's are under criminal investigation. Just today, NPR reported that one the golf clubs Trump owns (and whose net profits belong to him) seems to be following his example, promising $5 million in gifts in recent years but actually donating less than a fifth of that.


  • Past a certain point, lying stops being political and starts being pathological.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He dragged the deceased son of his own chief of staff and the family of another slain US soldier into the spotlight of his "condolences" scandal.

Yesterday's performance saw Trump, who had ignored the deaths of four soldiers in Niger for almost two weeks, insisting that he was actually overperforming in his duties to offer solace to the families. He said that never-before-hinted-at letters were about to go out "today or tomorrow," then claimed that Obama and most other presidents never called the families of fallen servicemembers--and then immediately blamed that lie on what his military staff had told him.

This morning, retreating all the way back to the claim that every other president had not called every single family member, Trump threw his chief of staff John Kelly into the narrative. Kelly's son, Lt. Robert Michael Kelly, was killed by a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010. He told Fox News's Brian Kilmeade, "I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died. As far as other representatives, I don’t know. You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?"

Trump does not appear to have warned Gen. Kelly that he would be using his deceased son as a political talking point. President Obama hosted Lt. Kelly's family, including John Kelly, at a White House event for relatives of those killed in action. Neither Kelly nor President Obama have chosen to make a public statement about any of Trump's comments.

Trump's own relationship with Gold Star families and other military veterans is much more fraught, and may have gotten worse today when he made his long-delayed call to the family of Sgt. La David Johnson. According to a member of Congress present for the call, Trump instructed Johnson's widow that her husband "knew what he signed up for."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The honored dead of the United States military are not political props.
  • Condolences from a president who has to be shamed into offering them do not mean much.
  • Donald Trump is the last person on earth who should be telling Gold Star families about their loved ones' sense of duty.

Monday, October 16, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed that the phone call he intends to eventually make to the families of soldiers killed in Niger was the sort of thing President Obama never did.

Twelve days ago, four U.S. servicemembers were killed in Niger, where they were taking part in counterterrorism operations. Since then, Trump has been uncharacteristically silent on the matter: none of the 104 tweets he's made since October 5th have dealt with the matter. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has mentioned it in public only once, in response to a direct question about it. 

Today, asked directly about his lack of acknowledgement, Trump said that he'd written letters to the families of the soldiers--letters he intended to mail later "either today or tomorrow." He also said he intended to "at some point, in the, the period of time, call the families and the parents." He then continued:
The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls, i like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I'm able to do it... so generally I would say that I like to call. I'm going to be calling them, I want a little time to pass, I'm going to be calling them.
Challenged by a reporter about the claim that President Obama had not made condolence calls to the families of slain servicemembers, Trump immediately recanted and suggested that "his generals" had misled him on that point. He also pointed out the great difficulty involved in both writing and calling someone.
I don't know if he did! No, no, I, I was told that he didn't often, and a lot of presidents don't, they write letters. I do... a combination of both, uh, sometimes, it's a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both, President Obama, uh, I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't? I don't know, that's what I was told. All I can do, all I can do is ask my generals. Other, other presidents did not call, they'd write letters, and some presidents didn't do anything. But I like, I like the combination, when I can, I like the combination of a call and also a letter.
Representatives from the last three presidential administrations (so far) immediately called Trump's statement a lie, using more or less emphatic language in the process.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if a president makes up lies so casually and for so little purpose.
  • Any president who finds it "very difficult" to console the families of troops who have died under his command should find easier work.
  • A president boasting about his superior condolence technique is disgusting on its face, but that having been said, condolences are usually given to grieving families before twelve or more days have passed.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Confused Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He got confused, over and over again.

He called "fake news" on news that didn't even exist. In a two-tweet message Tuesday evening, Trump declared: "The Fake News is at it again, this time trying to hurt one of the finest people I know, General John Kelly, by saying he will soon be fired. This story is totally made up by the dishonest media.The Chief is doing a FANTASTIC job for me and, more importantly, for the USA!"

No one seems to know what "fake news" report Trump was talking about. In the three-day range prior to Trump's pre-emptive denial, there were many news items about firings that mention Kelly--as there usually are, because Trump administration tenures are often extremely short and Kelly is the chief of staff--but none suggesting Kelly himself would be fired.

There were stories about Kelly possibly quitting, especially if Trump fired Rex Tillerson for the "moron" controversy, but given the difficulty of managing Trump on a day-to-day basis, there has never really been a day in Kelly's tenure that his resignation seemed all that farfetched.

He seemed to think he'd imposed a 100% tax on corporate valuation. On Wednesday, Trump said this:
The country — we took it over and owed over $20 trillion. As you know, the last eight years, they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed more than $10 trillion, right? And yet, we picked up $5.2 trillion just in the stock market. Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months, in terms of value.
In other words, Trump is saying that $5 trillion in market valuation increases somehow counts against the national debt--which, if true, would mean that he'd "paid off" half of the roughly $10 trillion added to the debt during the Obama administration.

There are, to put it mildly, a few problems with this.

For one thing, stock price increases aren't "real money." The paper value of a company based on its share price is not the liquidation value of the company; But even if it were, for that money to apply to the United States' debt, those paper gains would have to be taxed somehow--no such "valuation tax" exists at the moment--and the rate would have to be 100%. In reality, Trump is calling for corporations to pay massively lower tax rates.

It's also worth noting that the federal debt continues to increase under Trump; the $20 trillion mark was passed eight months after he took office.

He talked through a solemn military ceremony honoring soldiers. On Wednesday night, Trump was interviewed by Sean Hannity at an Air National Guard base in Pennsylvania. In the background of the interview, the military bugle call "Retreat" was sounded. Traditionally, the tune is played on bases at the lowering of the flag in the evening, and military protocol demands that servicemembers salute or otherwise pay respects during the call--just as they would during the playing of the national anthem. A similar courtesy is expected of civilians.

This was what Trump said to Hannity when it was sounded: "What a nice sound that is. Are they playing that for you or for me? They're playing that in honor of [Hannity's] ratings. He's beating everybody." Trump continued speaking and mugging for the audience as the call played.

Unlike "Taps," "Retreat" does not sound particularly somber. It is possible Trump simply had no idea why he shouldn't be talking over it, although the servicemembers and civilians who can be seen in the background standing and facing the flag might have given him a hint.

Trump has spent much of the last few weeks claiming that NFL players protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem were actually disrespecting the military.

He met the President of the Virgin Islands. Or so he claimed on Friday.

Trump is the President of the United States Virgin Islands.

He forgot to sign at a signing ceremony. This happened Thursday. It is not the first time this has happened, although Mike Pence has gotten better at grabbing him before he can leave the room.

Why are these things problems?

  • Even by Trump standards, complaining about inaccuracy in news reports that don't exist is thin-skinned.
  • Even by Trump standards, confusing stock market capitalization with the national debt is economically illiterate.
  • A president who treats silent protest as a dishonoring of the military should be willing to remain silent during actual military honors.
  • The President of the United States of America should know offhand what he is president of.
  • Minor lapses in concentration are a lot less troubling in a president when they are rare.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he was slashing CSR payments in support of low- and middle-income health insurance to lower stock prices, and then promptly got called a liar by a surrogate.

Trump seems to be attempting to position himself as the savior of health insurance consuming Americans by casting Obamacare as corporate welfare for insurance companies. He bragged today on Twitter that his cuts to CSR payments, the threat of which has already raised premiums, had hurt stock prices. (Trump usually sees higher stock prices as direct evidence that he has solved the United States' economic problems.) 

Indeed, health insurance company stocks were broadly lower on Friday--"plunging" all the way to their prices of September 29th. The reason that they didn't go lower was that insurance companies will not really be hurt by the premium increases forced by the cancellation of CSR payments: those will be passed along to policyholders. 

There are consequences to destabilizing the private health insurance industry: unless the United States adopts a single-payer system like most of the rest of the industrialized world, it must exist since hospital bills are usually much more than most Americans can afford in any given month. (Trump sometimes seems to think he is in favor of single-payer, but is usually quickly corrected.) 

That said, the real purpose behind Trump's CSR policy change is sabotage--according to his former campaign strategist and senior advisor Steve Bannon. Bannon addressed the "Values Voters Summit" today, commenting on the move: "Not gonna make the CSR payments, gonna blow that thing up, gonna blow those exchanges up, right?" Bannon's assessment is the first such admission from a Trump surrogate, but it has been the conventional wisdom among health care policy experts all along. 

Why does this matter?

  • There's basically no reason for a president to ever celebrate hurting any sector of the American economy.
  • There's even less reason to do so when what the president is hurting is not a sector of the economy but the economic stability of Americans themselves. 
  • It's wrong for a president to sabotage major elements of domestic policy just so that he can blame the situation on his predecessor.

Friday, October 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told some fibs with charts and numbers.

Trump frequently seems to take actions solely because they can undo things President Obama did, or allow Trump to take credit for doing them. This was the case with the top-line news events of the day, the abandonment of the CSR payments that make health insurance affordable for lower and middle-class families (which fulfills Trump's prophecy that insurance prices will rise) or his intention to decertify Iran's compliance with the six-party nuclear agreement (which allows him to claim it was a "bad deal.")

But Trump's occasionally desperate attempts to outshine Obama or take credit for his accomplishments manifests itself in subtler ways, too--among them, his selective publicity around economic indicators. Today, he tweeted this chart showing an uptick in consumer confidence:

A more accurate look at the trend, going back to the start of the 2007-2008 recession, looks like this:

In fact, because President Obama took office at the bottom of that recession, most economic charts for this period show that same basic trend. This is the five-year trend in the S&P 500 stock market:

And this is the claim Trump recently retweeted regarding the last eleven months (including three during Obama's term).

Telling falsehoods with true numbers is not entirely unique to the Trump presidency, but the frequency of it--which includes lies of omission in what data is concealed, or different metrics depending on whether Trump is president--is in a class by itself.

So what?

  • It's bad if presidents try to mislead the American public.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He responded to criticism of his Puerto Rico hurricane response by threatening to end it altogether.

Saying that the island had problems "of its own making" before Hurricane Maria devastated it, Trump warned the 3.5 million American citizens on Puerto Rico that "FEMA, the Military & the First Responders" would not stay there forever. All disaster relief eventually ends, in the case of hurricanes months or even years after the event. But it's not clear if any President has ever before emphasized that fact so early or so pointedly. Most of the "first responders" in Puerto Rico are Puerto Ricans. Hardly any military resources were deployed to the island, and many of those only after their absence became politically embarrassing for the Trump administration. 

Trump has made no similar comments about the relief efforts for Harvey or Irma. The combined costs of those two hurricanes ($290 billion), which hit American citizens on the mainland rather than those living in Puerto Rico, is expected to be about ten times higher than those for Maria.

According to a White House source, Trump's comments this morning were a direct response to being criticized by the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz.

As of today, 83% of Puerto Ricans lack electricity, and 34% are without access to drinking water. Many Puerto Ricans, desperate for water, have resorted to drinking contaminated or polluted groundwater

Why is this a problem?

  • Presidents shouldn't try to pick and choose which American citizens are worthy of disaster relief.
  • Threatening 3.5 million Americans because one of them criticized you is not so much unpresidential as it is evil.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called press freedom "frankly disgusting."

Bristling at news reports that he wanted to massively increase the United States' stockpile of nuclear weapons--reports that were sourced to the military leaders who were shocked by his position--Trump tweeted early this morning that broadcasters should lose their licenses if they were as "partisan, distorted and fake." Later in the day he told reporters that "it's frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it."

NBC, the target of Trump's anger this morning, cannot (legally) be yanked off the air, since broadcast licenses are given to individual local stations. More to the point, while there are reasons that a broadcast license can be challenged, airing news programs that the president does not like isn't one of them.

Even presidents who loathe the press typically avoid attacking the basic concept of an independent media, which helps explain the horrified reaction many conservatives and Republicans had to Trump's demands. The last president to make any similar threat was Richard Nixon, who instructed political allies to challenge the licenses of TV stations owned by the Washington Post. The Post, of course, was instrumental in breaking the Watergate story that forced President Nixon to resign the following year.

Trump and the Trump campaign are under investigation to determine whether they conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election, including with carefully targeted disinformation campaigns--or "fake news" as Trump would call it.

Why should I care about this?

  • It doesn't really help Trump's case here that he's already on record as wanting to greatly increase the nuclear arsenal of the United States.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He challenged Rex Tillerson to an IQ test face-off, and then sent a surrogate out to explain that he was just joking.

The story so far: last Wednesday, the news broke that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a "fucking moron" in a July meeting and had to be talked out of resigning by Vice-President Mike Pence. Predictably, Trump--who until then had been shielded from the news by aides--was enraged, and forced the normally reclusive Tillerson to make a rare public appearance in which he denied that there was tension between himself and Trump. (He did not, however, directly deny the "moron" remark, which was independently confirmed by other news outlets.) 

Trump channeled most of his anger into attacks on the "fake news" media that had told him about Tillerson's remarks in the first place. But he was still bothered enough during an interview with Forbes two days later to snipe at Tillerson's intelligence:
Forbes: There are reports out today over the last couple days about [Tillerson] calling you a moron privately. Has he talked, reached out to you about that? Do you believe that he said that? 
Trump: Well, we may have to, if he did that--which he says he didn't, by the way, he said he didn't. And they announced with the State Department that he didn't. I think it's fake news, but if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.
That interview was published today, prompting reporters to ask press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders the obvious question:
Q. How does the President expect his Secretary of State to be effective when he’s questioning his intelligence? 
MS. SANDERS: Again, he wasn’t questioning the Secretary of State’s intelligence. He made –- 
Q. Why does he think he has a higher IQ, effectively, than the Secretary of State? 
MS. SANDERS: He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it sometime. But he simply made a joke.
That would be easier to believe if Trump were not famously obsessed with his own superior IQ (as he sees it), or if his handlers hadn't already used the joke excuse a few too many times already.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's bad if a president can be provoked into careless behavior when he's upset.
  • It's worse if that president is so easily upset in the first place.
  • A president whose "jokes" always need to be explained should probably try to stop "joking."

Monday, October 9, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He played golf for (probably) the third day in a row, which may have been his way of averting a nuclear war.

Most Americans went to work today, but it was a federal holiday, and Trump decided to spend it by extending his long weekend and playing golf at his private club. This is believed to be the third day in a row he's hit the links, although he broke with his usual practice by allowing his White House to acknowledge it

In and of itself, Trump golfing is no longer news: nothing more can be said about his hypocrisy or profiteering from it that hasn't been said a hundred times. But today's round is notable in that it may actually have been good for the country. After a weekend in which a sitting Republican senator called him a liar and said he was in "adult day care," and the story of his own Secretary of State calling him a "fucking moron" refused to go away, Trump is apparently in desperate need of a mental health day. The Washington Post, citing "numerous White House officials and outside advisers," reported today that Trump's ever-precarious mood is rapidly deteriorating.

This in turn may explain why Trump this morning ruled out "policy" approaches to North Korea, either unaware of or too angry to care about what sort of approach that leaves

Why does this matter?

  • It's not a good sign when the president abandoning his responsibilities is preferable to the president attending to them.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sunday Week in Review, Master Showman edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He continued his reality-show approach to the presidency.

He dusted off his "billionaire from Central Casting" schtick. Facing criticism that he had wasted the critical weekend after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico by playing golf and whining about NFL players, Trump spent this past Sunday... attending a golf tournament

The President's Cup is an off-year clone of the Ryder Cup played for charity, with the sitting president of the United States acting as honorary chair. Trump left his long weekend at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., to watch the end of the tournament in nearby Jersey City. But Puerto Rico wasn't entirely absent from his thoughts: he said he was "dedicating" the cup "to all of those people." (The prize money will go to the charities already designated, unrelated to Maria relief.) 

Earlier in the day, Trump had called his Puerto Rican critics "politically motivated ingrates."

He showed his producer skills. Trump's attacks on "ingrates" were attention-grabbing, but as Axios reported on Sunday, they were not ad-libbed. Rather, they were part of what appears to be the real focus of the White House's Puerto Rico response: damage control and spin. A memo leaked, written by Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert, which discussed "planned hits" on critics, and summarized the official Trump theory of the storm: "The storm caused these problems, not our response to it."

The "planned hits" were duly executed, most notably by Trump, but also by administration officials like FEMA Director Brock Long, who today called the specific complaints lodged by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz as "political noise."

As Long's "planned hit" made news today, 45% of Puerto Ricans did not have access to clean drinking water, and 88% were without electricity. These matters have been the substance of Cruz's "political noise."

He (almost) controlled the narrative. Statistics like those were, for several days this week, available only through the Puerto Rican government's status.pr website. They had been on the much more highly-trafficked (and English-language) FEMA website, until they were deleted in favor of a rosier selection of statistics more in keeping with Trump's statement that he had "only heard thank-yous from the people of Puerto Rico."

The critical statistics were restored without comment after a few days of complaints.

He broke the fourth wall. In unscripted comments after his four-hour jaunt to Puerto Rico, Trump said that Puerto Rico's debt would have to be forgiven. "They owe a lot of money to your friends on Wall Street and we're going to have to wipe that out. You're going to say goodbye to that."

Trump has been the beneficiary of many bankruptcies and debt write-offs as a private citizen, but it's unlikely he understood what he was saying. The bond markets did, however--and crashed. Bondholders were said to be "suicidal" at the prospect of a unilateral cancellation of the debt they hold.

Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, was sent out the following morning to reassure the markets that when Trump said "We're going to have to wipe that out. You're going to say goodbye to that," he meant exactly the opposite. "I wouldn't take him word for word," said Mulvaney, using the traditional formula employed by Trump surrogates who must completely contradict him.

He picked good location scouts. Trump's brief trip to Puerto Rico showed him an island that was inconvenienced but cheerful, with problems that could be solved by cheerfully tossed paper towels. The recipients of those towels were screened supporters, who had found the resources in the wake of Maria to make high quality signs proclaiming their support for Trump. His antics on the trip didn't do much to help him, but the optics were generally good--especially since he was talked out of throwing canned goods at his supporters.

The optics were good because Trump did not leave the richest, least affected portion of the island.

He trained his understudy. Not all of Trump's entertainer-in-chief work was done in Puerto Rico. Mike Pence, who had made a special trip (at taxpayer expense) from Nevada to Indiana to attend a Colts game, immediately walked out of the game when he beheld about two dozen athletes kneeling during the national anthem. The players involved, teammates of former SF quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have knelt in recent games.

Pence's gesture of counterprotest was universally understood to have been pre-staged. For one thing, the media had been alerted in advance that he'd be leaving early; for another, Pence made a point of tweeting his arrival at the game--complete with a folksier-looking photo from a different game years ago. Nevertheless, Pence gamely maintained the stance that he had merely been overcome with emotion at the sight of athletes expressing political opinions.

But Trump is a harsh acting critic, so it was not particularly surprising when he jumped into the spotlight to claim credit for the whole thing, tweeting that he had explicitly instructed Pence to do as he did.

Pence's two extra flights on Air Force Two likely cost taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars, not counting the cost to the federal and local governments for his security during the "performance."

Why are these bad things?

  • Hurricane victims don't care about remarks made at golf tournaments.
  • The political spin about hurricane relief is not more important than actually doing hurricane relief.
  • Making bad news harder to find does not make it go away.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States trashes a municipal bond market, even--especially--if he doesn't mean to.
  • Someone who can "hear only thank-yous," even as he is furious because he is hearing criticism, may still be telling the truth as he understands it--and that is not a sign of good mental health.
  • We already knew how Donald Trump felt about NFL players kneeling to protest social injustice.