Thursday, January 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

For the second time in three days, he got confused about his position on a major policy issue.

To understand Trump's befuddled tweets today on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), it may help to look at the situation chronologically.

Last night: the White House issued a statement in favor of reauthorizing section 702, a post-9/11 amendment to the FISA act of 1978. The statement opposed a Republican-authored amendment to the act that would limit intelligence agencies' ability to spy on American citizens.

6:47 AM: On Fox & Friends, a show Trump watches so closely that he has begun building his work schedule around it, pundit Andrew Napolitano implored Trump personally begged Trump not to support the FISA reauthorization. Looking straight at the camera, he said, “Mr. President, this is not the way to go. Spying is valid to find the foreign agents among us, but it's gotta be based on suspicion.” Napolitano also invoked Trump's own (debunked) belief that he himself had been spied on because of FISA warrants.

As he spoke, a graphic reading "HOUSE VOTES ON CONTROVERSIAL FISA ACT TODAY" appeared at the bottom of the screen.

7:33 AM: Trump tweeted that exact phrase as he tried to link FISA warrants to the report on his campaign's Russia connections written by a former British intelligence agent. (The two are unconnected. FISA warrants are issued by U.S. courts, not foreign security analysts hired by a conservative newspaper.)

Republicans, who largely support section 702's reauthorization, were horrified and immediately flooded the White House switchboards demanding that Trump reverse himself. The Washington Post reported that this included a personal 30-minute tutorial from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, while Congressional Republicans reacted with "disbelief and befuddlement" at Trump's failure to understand the difference between domestic and foreign surveillance.

9:14 AM: After nearly two hours had passed, Trump added a second tweet:

2:15 PM: Sarah Huckabee Sanders held a press conference in which she repeatedly denied that there was any contradiction between Trump's first and second tweets, or that anyone had complained, or that Fox & Friends had anything to do with it.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who cannot remember what his policies are is a president who is incapable of doing the job.
  • As both US and foreign intelligence agencies have noticed, it's very dangerous if a president simply adopts whatever view the television tells him to.
  • People who voted for Trump because of his support for Republican policies may have assumed he knew what they were.