Saturday, March 31, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He doubled down on a lie about two American companies he doesn't like.

Returning to his rant against, Trump tweeted that "it is reported that the U.S. Post Office will lose $1.50 on average for each package it delivers for Amazon."

It may be reported, but it isn't true. It is actually against the law for the USPS to charge less for deliveries than they cost to make. The law in question was intended to prevent the USPS from undercutting private shipping companies, but it also means that Amazon's bulk rates are profitable for the Post Office. (The USPS has lost money every year since 2006, but because the same law requires it to pre-fund its pensions for 75 years.)

All this was mentioned in the news coverage after Trump's first Amazon eruption. It's not clear whether Trump knew this and said what he did anyway, was told but forgot, or whether his staff simply didn't bother to tell him

Trump's attacks on Amazon are driven by the fact that he doesn't like news coverage of him by the Washington Post, which is owned by the same person who owns Amazon.

Why should I care about this?

  • Attacking or rewarding businesses based on their politics is what authoritarians do.
  • A president who can't be bothered to learn basic facts about his own government isn't any better than a president who can't learn basic facts in the first place.

Friday, March 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He proposed making visitors to the United States turn over their social media information.

Trump's State Department today published a request for comment in the Federal Register on a rule that would force legal visitors seeking visas to enter the United States to turn over their social media accounts. After the 60-day comment period ends, the proposed rule could take effect at any time.

The rule does not say exactly which social media sites would be tracked, but according to a New York Times investigation, it includes Facebook, Flickr, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Myspace, Pinterest, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine and YouTube. Visa applicants who failed to disclose every such account would be committing a federal crime.

Travel restrictions imposed by one country are usually matched by the target countries.

The rule would also require visitors from China to disclose their identities on the sites that form the backbone of social media in China. The Chinese government is building a "social credit system" in which its citizens' activities, online and off, are tracked to establish a "trustworthiness" score. 

Trump's election was due in part to data mined from 50,000,000 Americans' Facebook accounts by Cambridge Analytica, a foreign data analysis firm founded by Trump's one-time campaign manager and White House senior advisor Steve Bannon. 

Why should I care about this?

  • Building databases of people's online habits and identities is what authoritarians do.
  • Policies that discourage legal visitors to the United States are bad for the United States.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accused a political enemy of following tax laws and sending mail.

A day after a news report said he was "obsessed" with Amazon, Trump tweeted out an angry but factually incorrect rant about the online retail giant.

(For the record, Amazon deliveries are a profit-maker for the USPS, whose job actually is to deliver things.)

Probably, Trump meant that Amazon is not collecting sales tax in every location it ships to. This is true, but not every state requires companies to do so. Amazon is collecting (and paying) the taxes legally required of it.

On the campaign trail, Trump claimed that finding ways to avoid taxes meant that he was "smart." Indeed, tax avoidance is the one area in which Trump's bankruptcy-prone business career was actually successful. Thanks to a loophole, Trump was able to write off over $915 million dollars of other people's losses on his own personal tax return in 1995. This saved him from paying almost a billion dollars in taxes over a period of 18 years. (Little else is known because Trump has steadfastly refused to allow the public to examine his returns.)

Amazon is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post, a paper whose coverage of his administration frequently upsets Trump.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who only cares about things that upset him cannot do his job.
  • Attacking the free press is what authoritarians do.
  • Even by Trump standards, not knowing that the United States Postal Service delivers packages in exchange for money is pretty bad.
  • Accusing others of things you have done yourself is the definition of hypocrisy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again fired a cabinet secretary in a tweet, and replaced him with some guy.

Trump announced the firing of Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin in a pair of tweets this afternoon. This is also how he fired former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, although in this case it appears Shulkin may at least have been given some advance notice before the Twitter-based pink slip.

Shulkin's firing was not entirely surprising or unjustifiable--he's one of a number of senior Trump administration officials who have been caught paying for lavish personal luxuries or wasteful extravagances with taxpayer funds. 

Trump chose Adm. Ronny Jackson to replace Shulkin. Jackson is the White House physician who conducted Trump's recent physical examination and--almost certainly more important, from the perspective of the television-obsessed Trump--looked good during his hour-long press conference afterward. (Jackson was, unavoidably, bound by doctor-patient confidentiality not to reveal anything Trump didn't want him to, which at times left him talking for minutes on end about Trump's "good genes.") Shulkin's performance helped mediate the damage that Trump had done with his bizarre declaration on Twitter that he was a "very stable genius."

The only other candidate Trump is known to have considered, Pete Hegseth, is also a TV fixture--much like other recent appointees John Bolton and Larry Kudlow.

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs is responsible for one of the largest bureaucracies in the government, with about 375,000 employees. Jackson has no administrative experience.

Why does this matter?

  • Government jobs should be given to people who have some relevant qualifications or experience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got confused about how the federal budget works.

Today, Trump retweeted his own tweet from Sunday, in which he declared that his infamous border wall should now be built by the United States military, which he said was now "rich." This came as other administration officials anonymously confirmed that Trump was indeed seriously considering funding border wall construction through the military.

Unfortunately for Trump's plan, federal spending does not work that way. As with every other appropriation for every other part of the government, the Defense Department budget is made up of funds targeted for specific purposes: salaries for military personnel, the purchase of equipment and weapons, development of new technologies, and so forth. Presidents cannot simply ignore or rewrite budgets.

Of course, even if Trump could spend money on whatever he wanted, it would still be American taxpayer dollars at issue--not Mexico, as Trump promised hundreds of times on the campaign trail. Asked about this today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders would only say that Trump "still has plans to look at" exploring ways to send Mexico a bill at some unspecified point in the future. (Behind the scenes, Trump has been reduced to begging Mexican leaders not to publicly contradict him when he talks about Mexico paying.)

Who cares?

  • A president who don't know that he's not allowed to spend taxpayer money however he wants is incompetent.
  • A president who knows this but doesn't care is an authoritarian (and incompetent).
  • Voters who heard candidate Trump promise them over and over again that Mexico would pay for the wall may have believed that he meant for Mexico to pay for the wall.

Monday, March 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about the stock market being down 480 points over three days.

US and international stock markets were up sharply today, with the Dow Jones rising 669 points. True to form, Trump used his Twitter bullhorn to call attention to it, as he frequently did before the stock market entered its recent correction in mid-February.

What Trump neglected to mention is that the 669-point rise came amid news that the United States would enter into trade talks with China--possibly averting the trade war that Trump seemed determined to intentionally start last week. (Even now, Trump appears to genuinely believe that a trade war can be good for the country that instigates one.)

The markets were down 1,149 points Thursday and Friday after Trump signed a memo enabling tariffs on Chinese goods, prompting an instantaneous response from China. Trump has not publicly acknowledged this or any other market downturn since taking office.

In other words, the Dow lost about 4% of its value in two days amid news that Trump was trying to provoke a trade war, and rebounded about 2% when it was revealed that US and Chinese officials were working to prevent him from doing so.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who cannot or will not learn basic economic concepts cannot do his job.
  • You don't get to take credit for partially fixing a problem you created.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


An earlier version of this post said that Trump had a "small army of lawyers... charged with defending him in the Russia investigation." In fact, while Trump does have a great many personal and business lawyers to represent him in the dozens of pending lawsuits against him as a private citizen, he appears to be down to only one lawyer, Jay Sekulow, representing him in the Russia matter.

Sekulow is not a criminal defense lawyer and had been acting chiefly as a spokesperson for Trump's actual criminal defense team.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He angrily insisted that he could get any defense lawyer he wanted for the Russia probe.

In a pair of tweets sent early this morning from Mar-a-Lago, Trump had his increasingly complicated legal situation on his mind:
Many lawyers and top law firms want to represent me in the Russia case...don’t believe the Fake News narrative that it is hard to find a lawyer who wants to take this on. Fame & fortune will NEVER be turned down by a lawyer, though some are conflicted. Problem is that a new lawyer or law firm will take months to get up to speed (if for no other reason than they can bill more), which is unfair to our great country - and I am very happy with my existing team.
To put it mildly, there is a lot going on here--but the heart of it is that Trump seems to be reacting to the fact that news outlets reported on his inability to hire the husband and wife legal team of Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing to help defend him in the Russia investigation. Officially, the two declined the invitation because of conflicts of interest with other clients.

In fact, this is entirely plausible, although Trump--who had only known DiGenova from his appearances on Fox News--was reportedly underwhelmed by their first in-person meeting.

What's less clear is why Trump sought to call attention to his ever-more-precarious legal position with respect to the Mueller investigation. He has already lost four of his most visible legal representatives. His consigliere Michael Cohen is personally implicated in matters that Mueller is investigation. Another longtime personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, was forced to resign after he made bizarre threats to an internet commenter. Marc Corallo abruptly resigned in July, apparently over concerns that Trump was actively committing obstruction of justice in his involvement in the cover-up of Donald Trump Jr.'s Russia meeting. And last week, John Dowd, Trump's lead lawyer, resigned as Trump seemed increasingly unwilling or unable to heed his advice.

Broadly speaking, though, Trump is correct: while he may not be able to get the lawyers he most needs (like impeachment expert Emmet Flood, or former Solicitor General Ted Olson), or keep them once he has them, there are more than a million lawyers in the US, and no shortage of those willing to take a call from the White House. Whether they can successfully collect on the bills they submit to Trump, though, is a different matter.

So what?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He addressed the subject of gun violence.

It was an uncharacteristically quiet day for Trump: he went to his golf course as usual for a Saturday, but the entire day passed with only one tweet: an offer of "thoughts and prayers" for the victims of gun violence.

The victims in question were in southern France, where a man armed with a handgun killed three people in an apparent terrorist attack at a supermarket. The French government, to whom Trump addressed his tweet, is currently investigating how the attacker obtained his weapon.

Such diplomatic condolences are common, but Trump's concern for the victims of gun violence called into question the victims and survivors he pointedly refused to address on Saturday. As Trump golfed in Florida, an estimated 800,000 protesters flooded into Washington D.C. to advocate for gun law reform--possibly the biggest single-day protest ever for the city. Some 800 other protests took place elsewhere in the country. 

Trump's own motorcade, shuttling him between his golf course and his luxury resort, chose to take an alternate route so as to be out of sight of the Palm Beach-area protests.

So what?

  • A president who only cares about gun violence when it can be connected to religious terrorism doesn't care about gun violence.

Friday, March 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He may have gotten tricked into more sanctions against Russia.

Trump signed an omnibus spending bill today, after a brief mid-morning veto-threat tantrum apparently inspired by Fox & Friends. (This was a particularly sharp mood swing even by Trump standards: as of yesterday, Trump was enthusiastically promoting the bill.)

Alarmed Republicans and staffers eventually dragged Trump back to the signing desk, but he grumbled that he would never again sign such a bill. He pointedly complained to reporters that "nobody read it."

It's true that most members of Congress (and Trump himself) didn't read most parts of the bill, but then there are never any mysteries or secrets about what is in such bills by the time they come to the floor. But it now appears that Congress actually did sneak something past Trump (who also didn't read the bill): still more sanctions against Russia for their attacks against the United States and allied democracies, and increased funding for investigations into the Putin regime. 

The sanctions language was added into the bill anonymously, and was not widely discussed or publicly debated. While White House staffers were surely aware of them, there is no evidence that Trump knew he was authorizing penalties against Russia.

Forcing Trump to actually defend the United States is one of the few things that almost everyone in Congress can agree on. In July, Congress passed sanctions against Russia by a combined vote of 517-5, although Trump refused to implement them.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's very bad if the president has to be tricked into doing his job.
  • It's also very bad if the president can be tricked this way.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He successfully provoked the trade war he wanted.

This morning, Trump signed an official memo that cleared the way for up to $60 billion worth of tariffs on China. This means that the total price of Chinese goods sold in the United States would rise by that much.

Within hours, China responded with a list of 128 American products sold in China on which it was prepared to issue retaliatory tariffs. The price that Chinese consumers paid for these goods would rise, and American producers would sell fewer of them.

By definition, this is a trade war. Trump apparently truly believes that it is possible to "win" a trade war, perhaps because he also believes that a trade deficit means a country is somehow "losing" money. Not every economic advisor opposes tariffs on China, but nobody who understands what a trade war is thinks it is possible to "win" one.

Another thing Trump believes is that the stock markets are an indicator of his job performance. US stock markets crashed today on news of the tariffs, with the Dow Jones down 724 points (-2.9%). 

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who cannot or will not learn the most basic possible facts about the economy is incapable of doing his job.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got angry and confused about border issues.

Trump's evening Twitter rant today focused on immigration. In two consecutive tweets, he lashed out at "Dems," saying that Congressional Democrats had "refused to take care of DACA" but bragged that he'd gotten $1.6 billion in funding for border wall construction.

(Officially, Trump still maintains that he will somehow, someday make Mexico pay for the wall. In reality, he has been reduced to begging Mexican leaders not to publicly contradict him on that point. They have not obliged.)

Trump, who single-handedly canceled the executive order authorizing DACA, has often tried to portray himself as the savior of Dreamers and Democrats as their enemies. (Roughly 9 in 10 Americans want legal protections for children brought by undocumented parents to the United States.)

But earlier this year, Trump rejected a $25 billion offer for wall funding from Senate Democrats, and later also slammed the door on a bipartisan deal that would have gotten him the same amount in American taxpayer money for the wall. The money would have been in exchange for Trump signing a law offering protection for DACA recipients. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president who can't close a deal that would give him everything he says he wants is a pretty terrible dealmaker.
  • It's wrong to blame other people for your own failures.
  • The most likely reason that Trump is refusing to take "yes" for an answer is that he doesn't really care about either his border wall or DACA recipients.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He congratulated Vladimir Putin for winning a sham election.

Vladimir Putin formally retained his grip on power this week, winning an election in which he essentially hand-picked the opponents allowed to run against him. (Even then, ballot box-stuffing occurred in plain sight.) 

What happened afterwards, during a phone call between Trump and Putin, followed a now-familiar pattern.

  1. Trump seeks Putin's approval. Trump ignored the urgent pleas of his national security team to not congratulate Putin. (This instruction was written for down him in block letters: DO NOT CONGRATULATE.)
  2. Trump refuses to criticize Putin. Trump's national security advisers also begged him to confront Putin directly over Russia's assassination attempts using banned chemical weapons on British soil. Trump refused to do so. (Needless to say, Trump also neglected to mention that Putin himself interfered in the election that brought Trump to power.)
  3. The Putin regime breaks the news of US-Russian contacts. As has happened several times before, the news of a high-level contact like this was first announced by the Kremlin. (Because Trump is widely suspected of being under Russian influence, and because so many of his campaign and administration officials have been caught lying about those meetings, the Trump White House tries not to draw attention to his meetings with Russian officials.)
  4. Trump's handlers insist that this is normal. After the Putin regime outed their conversation, Trump enthused to reporters about the "very good call" he'd had, and repeatedly hinted that there would be another in-person meeting between the two in the "not-too-distant future."
  5. Republicans and Democrats alike react with horror. The response from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was fairly typical: "An American president does not lead the free world by congratulating dictators on winning sham elections. By doing so with Vladimir Putin, President Trump insulted every Russian citizen who was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election to determine their country's future, including the countless Russian patriots who have risked so much to protest and resist Putin's regime."

Why does this matter?

  • A president who won't confront threats to the United States and its allies is no better than one who can't.

Friday, March 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed, through a surrogate, that it's Chuck Schumer's fault he hasn't nominated people to fill his administration's many vacancies.

Even by Trump administration standards, this week was a brutal one for the ever-dwindling White House Staff. In the space of one 24-hour period, Trump fired his Secretary of State via Twitter, fired the #4 State Department official for confirming that Trump had fired his Secretary of State via Twitter, and lost his "body man" to a DHS investigation of his apparent gambling problem. (The last of those has what passes for a happy ending: John McEntee was forcibly removed from the White House by the Secret Service, but was immediately hired by Trump's 2020 campaign.)

As multiply-sourced stories spread about the perpetually low morale within the White House, Trump once again went into damage-control mode. By Thursday night, press secretary Sarah Sanders felt obliged to send out a late-night tweet insisting that national security adviser H.R. McMaster was not yet in imminent danger of being fired.

Today, Trump deployed his legislative affairs director, Marc Short, to the day's press briefing to pin the blame for the Trump White House's staffing woes on Senate Democrats. Short's argument was that because Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is insisting on holding procedural votes more often than had been the case during President Obama's first term, it was not Trump's fault that so few of his administration's positions were filled.

The actual reason that so few of Trump's nominees have gotten through Senate confirmation is because, more than any recent president, he has failed to nominate them. Fourteen months into his administration, more than a third of key Senate-confirmable positions are without nominees. Out of the 1,242 positions that require Senate action, Trump has made nominations for 557, of them (not counting 82 nominees rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate). 

At other, more candid moments, Trump has explicitly said that his refusal to fill executive branch positions is deliberate, calling much of the work of government "totally unnecessary."

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's wrong to blame other people for your failures.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed (today) that he was lying yesterday when he said yesterday he'd lied to the Canadian prime minister.

Yesterday, during a fundraising speech in Missouri, Trump regaled his audience with a story in which--by his own account--he insisted to Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau that the US had a trade deficit with Canada, when in fact he had no idea if that was true. In Trump's telling, after Trudeau said that the United States was not at a trading deficit with Canada, he responded: "‘Wrong, Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. … I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’ You know why? Because we’re so stupid."

Having apparently forgotten last night that people might be recording his words, Trump spent this morning trying to walk back the story. He insisted he hadn't been guessing, and that in any event he'd guessed correctly. He tweeted, "Justin Trudeau of Canada, a very good guy, doesn’t like saying that Canada has a Surplus vs. the U.S.(negotiating), but they do...they almost all do...and that’s how I know!"

In fact, according to the office of the United States Trade Representative, the US had a net trade surplus of $12.5 billion with Canada in 2016.

Incidentally, it's possible that Trump was simply making the whole thing up--lying even about the part where he lied. While Trump and Trudeau have talked several times, the Canadian government isn't sure what meeting Trump is talking about with this story.

So what?

  • Presidents shouldn't lie to the leaders of allied countries.
  • Presidents who do lie to allied leaders and then brag about it in public are doing something incredibly stupid.
  • A president who can't or won't acknowledge facts when they're inconvenient can't do the job.
  • A president who thinks that a country with a trade deficit is somehow "losing" money is economically illiterate.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He appointed a TV commentator to be his new chief economic advisor.

The Trump administration today announced that Gary Cohn, who resigned from the post over Trump's insistence on steel and aluminum tariffs, would be replaced by Larry Kudlow.

Kudlow is known mostly (if not only) for his long career on financial television, which the famously TV-obsessed Trump is known to follow. His career as a pundit has left Kudlow with a record as a famously bad guesser when it comes to the economy. The beginning of this National Review article from December 2007 is fairly representative:
There is no recession. Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S economy continues moving ahead "quarter after quarter, year after year," defying dire forecasts and delivering positive growth. In fact, we are about to enter the seventh consecutive year of the Bush boom.
The "pessimistas" were reacting to the already-ongoing implosion of the financial sector. By mid-2008, the United States was mired in what came to be known as the Great Recession.

The formal title of the office that Kudlow is stepping into is "Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council." Kudlow has no formal background in economics.

Who cares?

  • Government appointees in charge of the economy should know something about the economy.
  • It's bad if the president thinks someone is an expert just because they're on TV.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He not only fired his Secretary of State, he fired another high-ranking State Department official for announcing that he'd fired the Secretary of State.

At 8:44 A.M., Trump announced via Twitter that Rex Tillerson had been fired. While Trump and Tillerson had been on shaky terms almost since the beginning--Tillerson reportedly called Trump a "fucking moron" in an unguarded moment--the catalyst for the firing seems to have been Tillerson's statement blaming Russia for a nerve gas attack against an ex-Russian dissident on British soil. That statement, though far milder than Britain's condemnation, sharply contrasted with the Trump White House's usual policy of absolute deference to the Putin regime.

Outside of the realm of reality TV, Trump is notoriously shy about actual confrontation, and there was immediate speculation that Tillerson was learning about his firing at the same time as the rest of the world. 

By ten o'clock, Steve Goldstein, the fourth-ranking official at the State Department, had confirmed that Tillerson was out and that he had been unaware of Trump's decision when it was announced.

By noon, Goldstein himself had been fired. White House officials confirmed that Trump had fired Goldstein explicitly for providing details about the circumstances of Tillerson's firing.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Presidents should be more concerned about attacks on allies than they are about punishing diplomats for acknowledging them.
  • A president who is too afraid to tell people directly that they are fired is not likely to suddenly become courageous in defending the country against actual threats.
  • It's wrong to punish government employees for speaking truthfully about matters of public interest.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave the Putin regime a much-needed propaganda victory.

Both the United States and British governments issued statements today on the nerve gas attack carried out in Salisbury, England against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal. The elder Skripal is a former Russian intelligence officer who spied for Britain and later moved to the UK as part of a spy exchange. The agent used was developed by the Russian military and left both Skripals and a policeman who helped them in critical condition.

Speaking for an irate Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack was typical of "Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations" and that "Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations." She said that "This was not just a crime against the Skripals, it was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk." 

By contrast, the Trump administration went out of its way to avoid specifically accusing the Putin regime of having carried out the murder. At today's press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders expressed sympathy for the victims of the nerve gas attack but ignored a question about whether the United States agreed with Britain's assessment that Russia was behind it. Repeated follow-up attempts to get her to address the question of Russia's culpability were no more successful.
Q: So you’re not saying that Russia was behind this act?

SANDERS: Right now, we are standing with our UK ally. I think they’re still working through even some of the details of that. And we’re going to continue to work with the UK, and we certainly stand with them throughout this process.

Q: Theresa May said it was either Russia using it themselves or that it had given its chemical weapons to a third party to murder a British citizen, the latter being highly unlikely, given the nature of this weapon. So —

MS. SANDERS: Like I just said, Zeke, we stand with our ally.
Russian media immediately seized on the Trump administration's refusal to blame Russia for the attack as evidence of its innocence. 

Later in the day, after the Trump Administration's failure to support the British government became a diplomatic problem in and of itself, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a different statement in which he promised "a response," although no details about the nature of that response were given. (UPDATE, 3/13: it now seems likely that making such a direct statement against the Putin regime is part of why Trump so abruptly fired Tillerson this morning.)

To date, Trump has refused to impose legally mandated sanctions on Russia for its attack on the integrity the 2016 elections.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who cannot bring himself to speak out against an attack on a close military ally is unfit for office.
  • A president who can't bring himself to ever speak out against a particular hostile foreign power is either compromised or fatally weak.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about his popularity again.

On Twitter this morning, Trump said, "Rasmussen and others have my approval ratings at around 50%, which is higher than Obama, and yet the political pundits love saying my approval ratings are 'somewhat low.'" 

There are three testable claims here.

Are Trump's approval ratings "around 50%"? 

No, they are not. The most recent numbers are:
    • Rasmussen: 44% (54% disapproval)
    • SurveyMonkey: 42% (56% disapproval)
    • Marist University: 42% (50% disapproval)
    • Ipsos/Reuters: 41% (54% disapproval)
    • The Economist/YouGov: 40% (50% disapproval)
    • Monmouth University: 39% (54% disapproval)
    • Gallup: 39% (55% disapproval)
    • Quinnipiac: 38% (56% disapproval) 

Are Trump's approval ratings higher than President Obama's?

No, they are not. In fact, Trump's average approval rating of 40.7%, 414 days into his administration, is lower than every single other president's since routine polling began in the Truman adminstration. 
    • President Obama: 49.1% (8.4% higher than Trump)
    • President George H.W. Bush: 77.7% (37% higher than Trump)
    • President Clinton: 52.0% (11.3% higher than Trump)
    • President George W. Bush: 71.9% (31.2% higher than Trump)
    • President Reagan: 46.9% (5.2% higher than Trump)
    • President Carter: 49.6% (8.9% higher than Trump)
    • President Ford: 43.6% (2.9% higher than Trump)
    • President Nixon: 56.1% (15.4% higher than Trump)
    • President Johnson: 69.0% (28.3% higher than Trump)
    • President Kennedy: 78.1% (37.4% higher than Trump)
    • President Eisenhower: 66.9% (26.2% higher than Trump)
    • President Truman: 50.0% (9.3% higher than Trump)

Are political pundits saying that his approval ratings are "somewhat low?"

Possibly--Trump didn't say who, if anyone, he was quoting. But if they are, they're being very kind.

Trump also added that when the media reports on his polls, "they know they are lying." It's not clear if Trump knows that he is.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to lie.
  • After about the sixth grade, declaring yourself popular doesn't really make you popular.
  • Presidents who have the support of the American public don't generally need to call attention to the fact.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went out of his way to praise a convicted criminal.

Yesterday, Trump issued his second pardon, to a Navy sailor who took pictures of classified military technology. Kristian Saucier took pictures of control panels and reactor controls of the submarine USS Alexandria while it was underway, including displays that showed its exact location at a given time. When the pictures were discovered and the FBI and NCIS began investigating, Saucier attempted to destroy the evidence. He was sentenced in federal court to one year in prison, an unusually light sentence for the charges he was convicted on.

Trump's interest in Saucier's case appears to be purely political. At his trial, and in his subsequent campaign for a pardon, Saucier compared his crimes to Hillary Clinton's (non-criminal) use of a private e-mail server while she was Secretary of State. In a tried-and-true strategy for influencing Trump, Saucier's advocates made sure his story was featured on Fox & Friends. However, the news of the pardon was somewhat overshadowed yesterday by the burgeoning stories about Trump's entanglements with porn stars and entrapment by North Korea

Today, Trump tried again to call attention to the pardon, offering his "congratulations" and saying that Saucier's other-than-honorable discharge from the Navy meant he'd "served proudly." Trump also implied that he had given Saucier his "freedom." (Saucier has already completed his sentence and has been free for six months.)

Trump's only previous pardon, of Joe Arpaio, was also aimed at scoring political points.

Why does this matter?

  • It's disgraceful for a president to use the power of the pardon to try to score political points.
  • Selectively doling out mercy to political allies is what authoritarians do.
  • It's bad if the president can be this easily manipulated.

Friday, March 9, 2018

What did Trump do today?

He signaled that flattery was more important to him than the steel and aluminum industries.

Last week, to bipartisan horror and the confusion of his own staff, Trump announced unilateral tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Even though blanket tariffs would hurt closely allied countries far more than the target Trump apparently intended to hit--China--Trump insisted that they would apply to all imports regardless of origin.

But this week, Trump began to hint that exemptions might be possible. Other countries aren't likely to bargain with the US for exemptions, because that would be giving the United States something for nothing--effectively turning international trade into a sort of protection racket. (Trump, who actually thinks that trade wars can be "won" by the countries participating in them, may be expecting exactly that.)

However, they can offer Trump personally something that he wants: attention and praise, especially from celebrities. Australia dispatched the professional golfer Greg Norman to lobby Trump for an exemption. It seems to have worked: Trump cheerfully promised to exempt Australia today, in exchange for nothing of substance beyond a "security agreement." (Australia could hardly be more of a military ally to the United States than it already is.)

Trump did not explain what made Australian steel and aluminum a threat to American jobs and national security before Greg Norman lobbied him, but not a threat afterwards.

Why does this matter?

  • Even a scaled back version of a policy based on complete ignorance of economics will be a bad policy.
  • It shouldn't be this easy to manipulate the President of the United States. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He handed North Korea a massive propaganda victory.

Trump agreed today to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, after teasing the revelation like a reality show twist by giving a cryptic statement to reporters about a "major announcement" earlier in the day. If the meeting actually happens, it would be the first time a sitting U.S. president met with a North Korean leader.

There is a reason for that, as experts were quick to point out. North Korea has made such a meeting a top priority since at least the Clinton administration. It would send a message--both for internal propaganda and diplomatic purposes--that the military might of North Korea had finally forced the United States to treat it as an equal.

In 2009, the regime of Kim Jong-Il insisted that the United States send former president Bill Clinton to "negotiate" for the release of two American journalists being held captive. Wary of giving North Korea even this miniature version of their long-sought "summit" with a U.S. President, the normally gregarious Clinton sat stony-faced through a series of photo shoots alongside Kim Jong-Il.

Trump's sudden decision to accept Kim Jong-Un's offer comes at a time when his own choice for the vacant South Korean ambassadorship torpedoed his own nomination by criticizing Trump, and the leading US negotiator with North Korea has just quit. 

Why should I care about this?

  • There is more to diplomacy than giving an enemy nation whatever it wants.
  • The nuclear security of the United States and its allies is more important than banner headlines.
  • A president who acts this impulsively on issues this big, without consulting allies or experts, is incompetent or worse.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took a victory lap for asking China to do almost nothing.

Trump took to Twitter this morning to breathlessly report on a new development in trade with China:

The United States' trade deficit with China in 2017 was $375 billion. This means that Trump is requesting that China voluntarily restrict its own exports to the United States by a little less than 0.3%, or just under one day's worth of trading per year. Distributed across the entire US economy--or even concentrated in a single sector--this would be a completely negligible change.

Since Trump appears to be the only source for this story, it's not clear what China's response is, why it would voluntarily give the United States any advantage, or what Trump is prepared to give up in exchange.

So what?

  • It's extremely bad if a president--especially one who claims to be a billionaire--has no idea what a billion dollars is worth in the grand scheme of things.
  • It's not China's job to come up with "ideas" for how to help the United States gain an advantage over it, and a president who tries to let them is completely incompetent as a negotiator.
  • Asking someone to do something is not the same thing as accomplishing it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He whistled past the graveyard of empty offices in the White House.

A great deal of Trump's tweeting and public appearances today dealt with the chaos--or, as he preferred to call it, "energy"--in the West Wing. "I read where, oh, gee, maybe people don't want to work for Trump," he said early this afternoon, before adding that there would always be plenty of people who "want a piece of that West Wing."

A few hours later, the resignation of Trump's chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, was announced.

It's most likely that Trump's comments were made in reference to Cohn's departure, but there are at least a few other senior executive branch officials who jumped ship that he might have had in mind: Michael Flynn (National Security Adviser), Mike Dubke (Communications Director #1), Sean Spicer (White House Press Secretary and Communications Director #2), Reince Priebus (Chief of Staff), Anthony Scaramucci (Communications Director #3), Steve Bannon (Chief Strategist), Tom Price (Secretary of Health and Human Services), Omarosa Manigault Newman (Director of Communications, Office of Public Liaison), Sebastian Gorka (Deputy Assistant to the President), Rob Porter (Staff Secretary), Hope Hicks (Communications Director #4), Dina Powell (Deputy National Security Adviser), Michael Short (Senior Assistant Press Secretary), Walter Shaub (Director of the Office of Government Ethics), James Comey (FBI Director), Sally Yates (Acting Attorney General), Josh Raffel (Deputy Communications Director), Rick Dearborn (Deputy Chief of Staff), George Sifakis (Director, Office of Public Liaison), Ezra Cohen-Watnick (Senior Director for Intelligence Programs, National Security Council), Vivek Murthy (Surgeon General) Katie Walsh (Deputy Chief of Staff), Brenda Fitzgerald (Director of the Centers for Disease Control), Andrew McCabe (FBI Deputy Director), Rachel Brand (Associate Attorney General), K.T. McFarland (Deputy National Security Adviser), Keith Schiller (Director of Oval Office Operations), Robin Townley (Senior Director for Africa, National Security Council), Joseph Yun (Special Representative for North Korean Policy), Elaine Duke (Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security), Andy Hemming (White House Director of Rapid Response), and Richard Ledgett (Deputy Director of the National Security Agency) among others.

Why is this a problem?

  • Just because somebody, somewhere would be willing to work in the White House just to "get a piece of it" doesn't mean that everything is fine.

Monday, March 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He contradicted himself in a single tweet.

This morning, seemingly apropos of nothing, Trump tweeted this:

Setting aside the fact that investigations seldom start with "proof of wrongdoing," there's a slight problem here. Either the FBI and various intelligence agencies investigated the Trump campaign's connections to Russia, or the Obama administration "did NOTHING about Russian meddling." Both cannot be true.

Trump has steadfastly refused to implement legally mandated sanctions against Russia for its "meddling." It was also reported yesterday that Trump's State Department, which was allocated $120 million by Congress to combat further Russian election sabotage, has refused to spend any of it.

So what?

  • Accusing other people of failing to do what you are failing to do is hypocrisy.
  • Even if a president thinks his predecessor left him a problem, he still has to actually try to solve it.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sunday Week in Review, Constitutional Edition

What else did Donald Trump do this week?

He ran afoul of the Constitution.

Emoluments. Shortly before his inauguration, Trump tried to cut off ethics complaints about the conflict of interest between his presidency and his business interests, which he adamantly refused to divest from. At a news conference featuring stacks of fake financial documents, lawyers representing Trump promised that his business would make no profit from sales to foreign governments--for example, at Trump hotels. It was never explained how the Trump Organization would track sales to foreign governments.

Last Monday, the Trump Organization declared that it had somehow tabulated the profits generated from sales to foreign governments, and donated them to charity. 

The business refused to specify how much money that came to, how the numbers were arrived at, to whom the money was donated, or what Trump businesses they were generated by. Trump himself has a long history of making splashy public declarations of gifts, and then failing to follow through unless forced to. 

Accepting any amount of money from a foreign government for a President's private business, even if it is donated to charity, violates the portion of the Constitution aimed at preventing corruption in the executive branch.

Due process. Trump's actual position (if it exists) on major policy issues can swing wildly. Since taking office, he has occasionally, and probably accidentally, staked out radical positions on health care and immigration, only to be whipsawed back into line by horrified conservatives. 

The pattern repeated itself this Wednesday on the subject of gun laws. Speaking about laws that would allow police more authority to take guns away from those deemed mentally ill, Trump had this exchange with Vice-President Mike Pence:
PENCE: Allow due process so no one’s rights are trampled but the ability to go to court, obtain an order and then collect not only the firearms but any weapons in the possession—

TRUMP: Or, Mike, take the firearms first and then go to court, because that’s another system. Because a lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures, I like taking the guns early.
As the Rob Porter scandal demonstrated, Trump probably doesn't know what "due process" is. Nevertheless, it's not optional: no law or policy that permitted the arbitrary seizure of property by the government--including guns--would pass Constitutional muster.

Preserve, protect and defend. Trump's all-but-uncontrollable temper is well known; so is the fact that Vladimir Putin is the one person Trump has steadfastly refused to criticize, no matter what the provocation. Trump has adamantly refused to enforce sanctions against the Putin regime passed overwhelmingly by Congress, even after the special counsel investigating Russia's sabotage of the 2016 election indicted 13 Russians for their part in the attack. In fact, the New York Times reported today that Trump's State Department has not spent a single dollar of their $120 million dollar budget to fight further Russian attacks, and has no plans to.

That deference was put to the test this Thursday, when Putin unveiled a computer-generated video of a new line of nuclear missiles at the Russian equivalent of the State of the Union Address. The narration explained that the missiles could evade any and all American defenses, and climaxed with an image of multiple warheads showering down on... Florida.

Trump spends most Fridays through Sundays at his resort home of Mar-a-Lago, not counting longer vacations.

The aim of the Russian election sabotage was not simply to install one candidate or another, but also to demonstrate the weakness of a democracy that would allow itself to be so easily manipulated. The choice of Florida seemed calculated to humiliate Trump even further.

Trump has remained totally silent. The strongest statement his administration put out was from a  spokesperson at the State Department, who was permitted to say that it was "certainly unfortunate."

Trump's oath of office requires him to "preserve, protect, and defend" the Constitution--and by extension, the nation itself. Article II of the Constitution invests the president with full responsibility for the military and diplomatic defense of the United States.

Why do these things matter?

  • The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution cannot be waived by the president.
  • A president who can't figure out what "due process" means or why it matters to a free country is too dumb to do the job.
  • A president who for whatever reason can't or won't respond to ongoing provocation and attacks against the United States is unfit for office.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He praised China's President Xi Jinping for becoming "President for life" and suggested that he might do the same.

In remarks at a private fundraiser held at Mar-a-Lago today, Trump said of Xi, "He's now president for life. President for life. No, he's great! And look, he was able to do that. I think it's great! Maybe we'll have to give that a shot some day."

Xi is not actually president for life, although he did recently succeed in pushing through rule changes that will allow him to serve as president indefinitely. China's government is fundamentally undemocratic.

Of course, Trump's suggestion that the United States "give that a shot" is a pretty empty threat: Trump is historically unpopular to begin with, and is far more likely to be forced from office before the end of his first term than to serve past the end of a second one. 

It's safe to say that the White House will portray this remark as a joke, but the overall tone of the speech was dark. He once again chose to talk about Hillary Clinton and the "rigged system" he said she was a part of. (Clinton, who beat Trump in the popular vote by nearly three million votes but is not President, may see things differently.) In a comment that is hard not to read as projection, given the avalanche of stories about Trump's emotional state lately, he wondered aloud if Clinton was happy: "When she goes home at night, does she say, 'What a great life?' I don't think so."

Why should I care about this?

  • Becoming a dictator is not something a sitting president should talk about, even as a "joke."

Friday, March 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tweeted out his belief that there is such a thing as "winning" a trade war.

After his abrupt decision yesterday to overrule his economic advisors and proclaim steel and aluminum tariffs, Trump immediately faced accusations that he was risking a trade war. Today, rather than argue that no such trade war would result, Trump actually came out in favor of trade wars as a concept, proclaiming them "easy to win."

This is, to put it mildly, a dangerous and stupid idea. There is no way to "win" a trade war. Every participant in a trade war, by definition, trades less than they otherwise would. Even if Trump's hoped-for trade war somehow managed to reduce the overall US trade deficit with the rest of the world, it would do so at the cost of the overall US economy.

Most tariffs are technical in nature and don't lead to retaliation, but then most tariffs aren't improvised on live TV. Overtly protectionist tariffs, on the other hand, tend to lead to trade wars. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, one such package of tariffs, sparked retaliation from dozens of other countries. The resulting collapse of international trade didn't benefit the United States or any other nation, but it did make the Great Depression much worse

Why should I care about this?

  • The United States economy is too important for a president to be this ignorant about how it works.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got bored waiting for information on a policy decision, so he just made it without any.

Trump has a narrow but ironclad legal authority to set tariffs, provided he is willing to claim that he is doing so in the interests of "national security." Today, he did so--or, rather, he announced that in the coming week he would be announcing that at some point after that, he would be imposing tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum. He then went on to provide some but not all of the specific details about those yet-to-be-announced tariffs--in effect announcing them in his pre-announcement announcement.

Trump's firing the first shot in a potential trade war was a surprise move, and none were caught more off guard than his own economic and trade advisors, including the Cabinet-level officials he had tasked with coming up with the plan, and who were actively steering him towards other options. But after he "ran out of patience," Trump simply declared the top-line numbers and said that more information would come later.

The news also came as a surprise to financial markets, which promptly plunged on the news. It also blindsided Congressional Republicans, who believed they had talked Trump down from the tariff ledge, and who reacted with muted horror.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if the president makes impetuous decisions for no apparent reason.