Monday, April 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to apologize for basing his policies on the "great hatred" that Americans supposedly have against Muslims.

Trump held a joint press appearance today with Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria (who diplomatically omitted comment on Trump calling his country a "shithole"). A reporter asked Trump about the pending Supreme Court case on his Muslim-targeted travel ban. Lawyers for the opposing side are arguing (among other things) that the ban was illegal because of Trump's explicitly discriminatory reasons for enacting it. But, those lawyers conceded, if Trump were to publicly disavow those views, the ban might be more legally sound. 

Trump has rarely if ever apologized for anything. The closest he came was when he gritted his teeth through a video message that included the word "apologize" after the Access Hollywood tape came out, although he later floated the idea that the whole thing was a hoax

Trump responded to the reporter's question by saying that there was "no reason to apologize."

There would be a lot to apologize for, even counting only those Islamophobic remarks directly related to a policy position. In December 2015, candidate Trump put out a statement saying that "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." 

In March of 2016, he said, "I think Islam hates us," and that its followers "have this hatred of the United States and of people that are not Muslim." He said it was difficult to separate out Muslim terrorists from law-abiding Muslims "because you don't know who's who."

While signing the first of his travel bans as President, a week after his inauguration, he recited the title of the order ("Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States") and remarked, "We all know what that means.” He then added that he was "establishing a new vetting measure to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America."

President Buhari, a Muslim, did not comment on this response either.

So what?

  • Discrimination based on religion is bad and unlawful.
  • Essentially, what Trump is saying is that anti-Muslim statements are more important to him than the policy he says is essential to preventing terrorism.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave Kim Jong-un even more control over his own political destiny.

Trump's tweet this evening about North Korea's peace overtures was less giddy than last Friday's, in which he simply declared "KOREAN WAR TO END!" But by endorsing North Korean propaganda on the subject of its nuclear tests, it essentially committed Trump to a course in which his own personal credibility is tied to Kim Jong-un's satisfaction with any peace negotiations.

For example, tonight's tweet once again referenced the promised closing of a nuclear test site. The site in question is already doubly useless to the Kim regime: it has already served its purpose of verifying that North Korea can produce a reliable hydrogen bomb, and it was probably destroyed in the process

It also referenced a "Failing New York Times" article with a headline that might have sounded vaguely positive for Trump--"Kim Prepared to Cede Nuclear Weapons if U.S. Pledges Not to Invade." But the body of the article pointed out that North Korea has used nuclear peace overtures to wring concessions out of its enemies several times already.

The NYT article also made clear that Kim has no obvious motivation for ever giving up his nuclear bargaining chip--a point widely agreed upon by North Korea experts. But because Trump has now put essentially all of his political capital in Kim's hands, both conservative commentators and the same New York Times he approvingly tweeted about are concerned that Trump's need for a political win will give Kim leverage he never would have had otherwise.

It's unclear whether Trump knows these things and is knowingly putting himself in this position, or whether he simply doesn't understand that Kim--or "Little Rocket Man" as Trump called him not long ago--isn't as trustworthy as North Korean propaganda makes him sound.

Why is this a problem?

  • Even the tiniest hint that a president's personal motives can be separated from those of the country he represents is horrible.
  • It's stupid to give a nuclear-armed enemy nation control over the narrative.
  • It's beyond incompetent to commit so enthusiastically to a particular outcome in international diplomacy in advance.
  • It shouldn't be this easy to manipulate a child, much less the President of the United States.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked a senator for talking about the allegations that forced one of his failed nominees to withdraw.

Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson is Trump's official physician and, until this past week, his pick to lead the gigantic Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson, who has no administrative experience and whose main qualification seemed to be his willingness to ramble on about Trump's health, had an uncertain future in the Senate even before allegations arose about his conduct. These allegations, made by 23 of Jackson's employees and military colleagues, included reports that he was frequently drunk on duty, that he handed out prescription stimulants and sedatives to staff without doing medical exams, and that he created a toxic work environment in the White House Medical Office.

Jackson withdrew Thursday, shortly after Montana Sen. John Tester, a Democrat, made public the nature of the allegations provided to the Senate committee responsible for reviewing the nomination.

Trump, who never offered any explanation for Jackson's nomination other than that he was a familiar face and wore a uniform, reacted badly to the loss of yet another unvetted nominee. Over the course of three tweets today, Trump claimed that Tester himself was making up the allegations, that it was "slander" to reveal what other military officers had said about Jackson, and that Tester's "dishonest and sick" claims were as bad as "phony Russian collusion."

Later, at a 2020 campaign rally, Trump claimed he had secret information on Tester, which, if he revealed it, would mean that Tester "would never be elected again."

Tester's role in making the charges known has been publicly supported by Republicans, including Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA).

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to blame other people for your mistakes.
  • Deciding who will run the VA is too important a decision to make on a whim.
  • Nobody really thinks Donald Trump is holding on to any secret information about a political opponent.

Friday, April 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He falsely claimed to have saved taxpayers $999,850,000.

In the midst of a joint press appearance with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Trump cut off a reporter's question to tell a confusing story about a funding proposal for a new embassy in Israel, which in his telling would cost a billion dollars. (The United States needs a new embassy because Trump authorized its relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. America's allies warned against this move because of its potential to disrupt the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations.)

Trump--again, in his own telling--was halfway through his signature when he decided (on his own) to call the U.S. ambassador to Israel. The ambassador told him that an embassy could be built for $150,000 instead. As a result, he said, "instead of in 10 years from now, we can open it up in three months" and at 0.015% of the cost.

The only problem with Trump's story is that it saves no money or time whatsoever. It simply designates an existing consular facility as a temporary embassy while a site can be located and a sufficiently secure embassy built. In fact, this seems to have been the plan all along, since the extraordinary security challenges of building a secure embassy in a city that is a prime target for terrorism or military attacks will take years to overcome.

If Trump ever plans to build a real (and safe) embassy, as he promised he would during the campaign and as president, the billion-dollar costs will still have to be paid.

Why does this matter?

  • It's not clear why Trump thinks this story makes him look good.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said things at 7:30 A.M. that federal prosecutors were using against his "fixer" by 9:30.

Trump called into his favorite TV show, Fox & Friends, this morning. Over the course of a 31-minute interview that left his allies alarmed and the show's hosts visibly struggling to cut him off, he made sure to emphasize that Michael Cohen did only a "tiny, tiny fraction" of Trump's legal work. In particular, he said that Cohen "represents me like with this crazy stormy Daniels deal, he represented me."

(Earlier this month, Trump flatly denied knowing anything about the hush money Cohen paid on his behalf to the porn actress Trump apparently had an affair with early in his third marriage.)

Cohen is under investigation for bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors seized files from his home and office. Cohen had been attempting to argue that, since he is a lawyer, he should be able to decide which of his files are excluded from the investigation. Trump's declaration that Cohen is not really his lawyer helped DOJ lawyers argue in a motion filed just hours later that he should not be allowed to do so.
Later in the day, the judge in the case effectively ruled against Cohen, meaning that prosecutors will be able to review the seized files almost immediately. In effect, Trump himself may have fatally compromised Cohen's ability to shield Trump from investigation.

Trump seemed to be trying to distance himself politically from Cohen, whose legal troubles have caused him even more anxiety than the Mueller probe, according to his aides. But Trump may have bought himself some trouble in the process. Cohen has already invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the Stormy Daniels case, and both his friends and Trump's have speculated that he might be willing to testify against Trump

What's the problem here?

  • People who tell the truth don't change their story.
  • As a rule it's not a bad thing if a person suspected of crimes undermines his own defense, but it's very bad if the person in that situation is the President of the United States.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained about the press staying "silent" on an issue they covered obsessively.

Trump spent some of the morning's Twitter time congratulating Debbie Lesko on her win in the special election to replace Arizona Rep. Trent Franks. Lesko won by a margin of 5% over the Democratic challenger, in a district that elected Franks to nine consecutive terms, mostly by landslide margins. Trump himself carried the district by 21% in the 2016 election.

In the tweet, Trump called Lesko's 5% margin a "big win" and complained that the "press is so silent."

In fact, the race was the biggest domestic political news of the day, covered by every national news organization. What Trump appears to mean by his reference to "silence" is the number of people who are interpreting the narrow victory in a deep-red district as good news.

Most of the special elections for Congress have happened in strongly Republican districts, and Trump's historically low popularity has made those races an average of 17 points closer than they otherwise would be.

Trump's analysis of the election as a "big win" is inaccurate, but it may not be his fault: his aides routinely shield him from seeing bad or unflattering news, and it is possible he simply hasn't been told about the erosion of Republican support.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents don't get to demand that the media cover things just the way they want.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He showed French President Emmanuel Macron his vision of America: one with no opposition or media.

Trump invited no members of the press to his administration's first state dinner, and no congressional Democrats. (The governor of Louisiana, a Democrat, is the only member of the party invited at all.) Normally, state visits--and in particular the festive state dinners--are among the most open and nonpartisan events that a White House can hold. 

It's not clear whether Trump was motivated by a desire for secrecy or simply to snub his political enemies, but congressional Republicans were among those criticizing Trump for the decision.

Macron himself attended the last state dinner held in honor of a French delegation, as deputy chief of staff to then-President Fran├žois Hollande. At that dinner, the Obama administration invited many Republicans and members of the media, including:

  • Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, then House Majority Leader
  • Kentucky Rep. Harold Rogers
  • California Rep. Ed Royce
  • Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan
  • Tennessee Gov. William Haslam
  • Jill Abramson of the New York Times
  • Steve Clemons of The Atlantic
  • Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News
  • Laura G Haim, of Canal Plus and I-Tele French TV
  • Steve Holland of Reuters
  • Corine Lesnes of Le Monde
  • Jeff Zucker of CNN
The United States has hosted hundreds of state visits since the tradition was established in 1876. This may be the first state dinner ever to exclude opposition lawmakers and the free press.

Why does this matter?

  • In a democracy, the free press has access to major events of state.
  • Normally, presidents at least pretend that politics stops at the water's edge.

Monday, April 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told Mexico how to beat him in trade negotiations.

As is often the case, Trump spent the first part of the working day tweeting, and made this observation: "Mexico, whose laws on immigration are very tough, must stop people from going through Mexico and into the U.S. We may make this a condition of the new NAFTA Agreement."

In fact, Mexico already takes exceptional measures to guard its southern border in order to limit the number of people passing through to the United States. Mexico's "Programa Frontera Sur" was implemented under pressure from the Obama administration, and has intercepted hundreds of thousands of migrants bound for the United States. In fact, the program is generally regarded as far too effective: the military and police officials involved have been accused of human rights abuses.

Some Mexican leaders have suggested abandoning Frontera Sur in order to force Trump to the bargaining table on NAFTA. Trump's tweet is essentially admitting that this strategy would be effective, and that the United States would make concessions in order to keep what it already has.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • American immigration policy cannot and should not be outsourced to Mexico.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared that the Kim regime in North Korea has "agreed to denuclearization."


  • A president who accepts North Korean propaganda at face value is a fool.
  • A president who presents North Korean propaganda as fact in order to prop himself up politically is a liar.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lost it over a New York Times story.

Last night, the New York Times ran an article about Michael Cohen, whose implication in any number of crimes--some of them related to his attempts to cover up Trump's alleged affair with a particular porn actress--may lead him to strike a deal with federal prosecutors to testify against Trump.

Even by Trump's standards, the resulting tweet-rant this morning was emotional:

The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will “flip.” They use.... ....non-existent “sources” and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if.... means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!
The "drunk/drugged up loser" is probably Sam Nunberg, a Republican political strategist with ties to Trump and members of his campaign. Nunberg is best known for a wild series of interviews he gave last month in which he declared that he would rather go to jail than cooperate with a subpoena issued by the special counsel investigating Russia's attempts to get Trump elected. (He changed his tune the next day, and ultimately provided the Mueller investigation with documents and six hours of testimony.)

But the main named source for the NYT story is Roger Stone, Jr., a person who exists and is one of Trump's oldest friends. He is himself a major link in the chain between Russian hackers and Trump. Stone, who was in the news earlier this week for calling the late Barbara Bush a "nasty drunk" who is "descending into hell now," gave on-the-record quotes for the piece. Among other things, he said that "Donald goes out of his way to treat him [Cohen] like garbage."

Why does this matter?

  • Complaints about "non-existent sources" don't really work when the sources exist and are named.
  • It's probably too late for Donald Trump to start pretending he's a nice guy.

Friday, April 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He swallowed some North Korean bait.

The Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea today announced that it had completed tests on its current models of long-range missiles and nuclear devices. The timing was a bit of diplomatic gamesmanship: there is a planned summit meeting with South Korea that begins in three days, and so the "announcement" was about tests that had already ended more than half a year ago

Trump, who last month was essentially tricked into committing to a summit with Kim, immediately seized on this as good news. He declared in a tweet that the "shut down [of] a nuclear test site" was "progress." He did not mention the reason for the closure of the site or the end of the tests. Trump also did not mention (and may not have known) that the underground site that was being closed may have been in danger of collapsing in on itself anyway, following North Korea's successful test of its first hydrogen bomb last September.

In the same statement, Kim strongly suggested that North Korea would keep its nuclear arsenal as leverage and a deterrent.

So what?

  • The successful completion of a hostile country's nuclear weapons tests is nothing for the President of the United States to celebrate.
  • Ignoring nuclear threats does not make them go away.
  • The safety of the United States and its allies is more important than a president's political fortunes.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He vouched for the Comey memos.

From the start of his working relationship with then-President-elect Trump, then-FBI Director James Comey took notes on his meetings with Trump. Congressional Republicans requested these memos, which were delivered today. They were almost immediately leaked to the press.

Trump's reaction was predictable, but also obviously a lie. He immediately tweeted that the memos "show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION."

Even assuming the FBI had already uncovered evidence that Trump was conspiring with the Russian attempts to throw the election to him, there would have been no reason for Comey to record that in the memos--which were descriptions of his own conversations with Trump. And much of what Trump did that smells like obstruction of justice started with his firing of Comey--which happened after the memos were written.

In effect, Trump is declaring that because he did not explicitly confess to crimes against the United States, Comey's memos exonerate him.

If and when he reads them more carefully, Trump may come to regret admitting that the memos are truthful and reliable. They also contain references to:
  • compliments that Trump paid to Comey for his "honorable" behavior during the election
  • the "derog[atory]" information Russia potentially had on Trump related to prostitutes
  • Trump's unprompted comments about "strippers" he had met
  • Trump's suggestion that "other people" wanted and could be given Comey's job
  • Trump's request for Comey's "loyalty"
  • Trump's questioning of the loyalty of Andrew McCabe (Comey's immediate successor who Trump subsequently fired)
  • Trump bringing up "the golden showers thing" unprompted
  • Trump becoming outraged when learning that he had missed Vladimir Putin's call of congratulations after the inauguration
  • the "serious judgment issues" that Trump said Michael Flynn had
  • Trump's claim that Vladimir Putin had boasted of the great beauty of Russian prostitutes in a conversation with him
  • Trump's belief that reporters should be jailed for publishing material leaked from his administration
  • Trump's repeated requests for reassurance that the FBI was not investigating him
  • Trump's demand to know if Michael Flynn had been the subject of a wiretap
  • Reince Priebus's efforts on Trump's behalf to see if there were any crime that Hillary Clinton could be charged with
  • Trump's need to be reassured that he was handling Vladimir Putin correctly
  • the fact that Trump was careful to make sure there were no witnesses for his conversations with Comey about Flynn
  • Trump's inability to understand why the FBI shouldn't talk publicly about how it conducts investigations
  • Trump's request that Comey stop investigating Flynn altogether
  • Trump's anger that the FBI couldn't help him in the political arena
  • Trump's anxiousness that the FBI declare he was not under investigation
  • Trump telling Comey that he was doing a "very good job" shortly before firing him.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents are not above the law.
  • The only real explanation for Trump's reaction is that he didn't read the memos, or trusts that his supporters won't.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He belatedly tried to de-incriminate himself over the Comey firing.

Tweeting this morning from his Mar-a-Lago resort home, where he is spending the whole week, Trump said that "Slippery James Comey, the worst FBI Director in history, was not fired because of the phony Russia investigation."

Trump's letter firing Comey did indeed cite other reasons--specifically, that he had been unfair to Hillary Clinton. Trump himself has constantly threatened to put Clinton in jail for unspecified crimes.

But almost immediately afterwards, Trump told NBC's Lester Holt that he was going to fire Comey no matter what, because of the Russia investigation.
Regardless of recommendation I was going to fire Comey ...Knowing, there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.

And the reason they should have won it is the electoral college is almost impossible for a Republican to win. Very hard. Because you start off at such a disadvantage. So everybody was thinking, they should have won the election. This was an excuse for having lost an election.
In saying so, Trump was all but confessing to obstruction of justice: it is against the law for an officeholder to fire an investigator to protect himself. This was one of the reasons Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein then immediately appointed a special counsel to investigate the Russia matter directly.

Broadly speaking, the legal system tends to treat self-incriminating statements more seriously than it does self-exculpatory ones, on the grounds that a person carelessly admitting to a crime is more likely to be telling the truth than someone carefully denying it.

Why is this a problem?

  • You can't un-confess to a crime just by contradicting statements you made of your own free will.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got a little confused about how his tax bill works and how people feel about it.

Today is the filing deadline for 2017 income tax returns. This appears to have been what prompted Trump to tweet this:

The bill Trump signed last December 22 has no effect on the 2017 returns people are filing this year. But even assuming Trump knows this, he's mistaken if he thinks that "everyone is talking" in positive terms about it. According to a recent poll, only 27% of Americans now approve of it, even lower than the 30% approval rating the bill had when Trump signed it.

Because the bill tweaked the tax brackets and withholding calculations, many Americans did see their take-home pay increase somewhat--for example, $1.50 per week, in the case of a school secretary that Paul Ryan inadvertently brought to light in a much-mocked tweet. But the economic reality of the cuts--where most of the benefits will go to extremely wealthy households, businesses of the types Trump owns, and foreign entities--seems to have sunk in.

Trump himself has not paid his 2017 taxes yet--assuming he owes any--having requested an extension. He continues to refuse to release his own tax returns, despite having repeatedly promised to do so if elected.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents should know what the laws that they sign do.
  • Presidents cannot make things popular just by declaring them so.
  • It's bad to break promises.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He walked back sanctions against Russia--again.

Yesterday, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is in practice one of the United States' few remaining senior diplomats, announced on several political talk shows that the US would impose more economic sanctions on Russia as a result of its backing of the Syrian government. 

Today, Trump put those sanctions on hold indefinitely. He blamed Haley's "misstatement," but White House officials said privately that the idea of imposing more sanctions "upset" Trump, and that he was "not yet comfortable executing them."

Trump's entire presidency has been clouded by the fact that Russia actively intervened to secure his election, possibly with his or his handlers' cooperation. Recently, he has dialed back his open admiration for Vladimir Putin, and made an effort to at least talk tough where Russia is concerned. Mostly, this has taken the form of a few tweets acknowledging the fact that Russia has always been on the side of the Assad regime. He also reluctantly joined with the United States' allies in expelling Russian diplomatic staff over the Putin regime's attempted assassination of ex-Russian defectors. (He later privately raged to staffers that the number of expelled Russians came off as too aggressive.)

But sanctions, which can strike directly at Putin's personal financial infrastructure as well as hurt the shaky Russian economy, are a deadly serious matter for Russia--in ways that tweets are not.

Today's action marks at least the third time Trump has intervened on Putin's behalf where sanctions are concerned. In January he refused to enforce sanctions passed virtually unanimously by Congress to punish Russia for its interference in the 2016 election. During the transition period, as president-elect, Trump publicly sided with the "very smart" Putin against the Obama administration's first round of punitive sanctions for that attack.

What is the problem with this?

  • It's bad if a president can't bring himself to take action against a hostile foreign power.
  • It's worse if there's no obvious reason why he can't, other than that he is somehow beholden to them.
  • When an administration makes threats that its president is then unwilling or unable to carry out, it weakens the United States.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said the FBI couldn't be trusted to investigate criminals who might have talked to him.

In an unusual Sunday court filing, Trump claimed through his newest batch of lawyers that only he--and not federal law enforcement officials--should be allowed to determine which of Michael Cohen's files were appropriate for the investigation into Cohen. Cohen is Trump's longtime "fixer" and business associate, and an attorney, who is under investigation by the FBI for bank fraud and possible campaign finance violations. 

If Cohen was properly acting as Trump's lawyer at any point, nothing in the files seized last week could ever be used against Trump--unless Cohen and Trump were using that relationship to actively commit crimes. Trump himself is not technically under investigation, although it is very likely that Cohen committed crimes with respect to his payment of hush money on Trump's behalf to the porn actress Stormy Daniels right before the election.

In today's brief, Trump is making the case that the federal government he heads, and whose senior Justice Department and FBI leadership he personally appointed in the past year, cannot be trusted to fairly or accurately apply the law. The FBI uses so-called "taint teams" as part of its normal business. What is different in this case, apparently, is that a member of Trump's inner circle is the target.

If Trump alone were allowed to determine what law enforcement could see of Cohen's files, then he would effectively gain a veto over whether crimes committed by Cohen (or Trump himself) could be investigated at all.

Why does this matter?

  • Nobody, including the president and his lawyer and/or co-conspirators, is above the law.
  • It's bad if a president attacks his own government and tries to undermine confidence in it.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared "mission accomplished" in Syria.

In May of 2003, then-President George W. Bush declared "mission accomplished" in the Iraq War at a gaudy celebration on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The war lasted another eight years and virtually all of the American casualties, including thousands of deaths, took place after Bush's announcement. Military and anti-war voices alike were withering in their criticism of Bush, who later admitted that it had been a mistake to celebrate the end of just the first and easiest phase of the conflict.

Today, Trump--apparently unaware of Bush's famous gaffe--declared "mission accomplished" in Syria after a "perfectly executed" round of missile and airstrikes on various targets.

However, it's not clear what "mission" Trump is referring to. Nobody (with the possible exception of Trump) believes that Syria's chemical weapons stores were or could be destroyed in a single airstrike. The weapons involved can easily be hidden almost anywhere, and can be deployed by helicopter. The Assad regime had ample warning of the strike (via Trump's own Twitter feed, but also because the US military informed Assad's Russian allies of the incoming attack). As a result, virtually no damage was done to Syria's military infrastructure--which was intentional

While Trump seemed to be committing to an ongoing campaign in his announcement of Friday's attack, he was once again contradicting his own defense officials, who referred to the strike as a "one-time shot." He was also contradicting his own decision last week to withdraw unilaterally from the conflict, which the Defense Department also vigorously opposed--in part because it would signal the Assad regime that it had a free hand to do what it liked.

Which of these options Trump favors at this moment--immediate and total withdrawal, or escalation--isn't clear.

Why is this a problem?

  • You cannot simultaneously escalate and withdraw from a war, and a competent commander-in-chief would know that.
  • 2003 wasn't that long ago.

Friday, April 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He issued another political pardon.

Trump pardoned Scooter Libby today. Libby had been the chief of staff to former Vice-President Dick Cheney, and was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in outing the cover of Valerie Plame, a spy for the United States. In an effort to protect the Bush-Cheney administration, Libby lied to the FBI and to the grand jury convened by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

All three of Trump's pardons have carried heavy political overtones. His first was for Joe Arpaio, an ardent Trump supporter who was convicted for crimes related to an investigation into his corruption and racial discrimination as an Arizona sheriff. His second was for a Navy sailor who took images of classified military technology and then tried to destroy the evidence. That sailor (falsely) claimed that Hillary Clinton had done the same thing, which seemed to be enough for Trump.

Appearing on Morning Joe today, Plame herself identified the political overtones to the third pardon, 11 years after Libby's conviction:
This is definitely not about me. It’s absolutely not about Scooter Libby. This is about Donald Trump and his future. What he’s putting out there is the idea that you can pardon people for serious crimes against national security. I think he has an audience of three, perhaps more. That would be Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner, and perhaps others.

The message being sent is you can commit perjury and I will pardon you if it protects me and I deem that you are loyal to me.
Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn are facing federal felony charges that stem from the Mueller investigation, including obstruction of justice and perjury. Jared Kushner is implicated in several of the Trump administration's secret contacts with Russia.

Trump's own advisor Kellyanne Conway confirmed Plame's interpretation, pointedly calling Libby "a victim of a special counsel gone amok."

Why should anyone care?

  • Presidents are supposed to uphold the rule of law, not undermine it.
  • Even the faintest hint that a president is willing to sabotage the pursuit of justice is incredibly dangerous.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot what his trade policy was in the middle of the trade war he started.

Trump told Republicans at a White House meeting today that he was considering rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multi-nation trade pact better known as TPP. This was confirmed by multiple Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS). 

Trump reportedly told his new economic advisor Larry Kudlow to "get it done." Withdrawing from the TPP was something Trump "got done" on his third day in office. At the time, he called abandoning the TPP "a great thing for the American worker, what we just did."

On the campaign trail, Trump compared the TPP to rape, saying, "The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another disaster done and pushed by special interests who want to rape our country, just a continuing rape of our country. That’s what it is, too. It’s a harsh word: It’s a rape of our country."

In tweets, Trump also called the Obama administration "incompetent" for taking part in it, said that Republicans too were "stupid" for supporting it, and that it was a "bad deal" because it was a "job killer."

There was no obvious explanation for Trump's sudden and radical change in policy, except that on matter ranging from health care to immigration, he often seems to forget what his stated policies are. He's also prone to taking the position urged by the last person to talk to him before a decision needs to be made, which may have been how Republicans from agriculture-heavy states threatened by Trump's trade war talked him into this.

The TPP went into effect without the United States under a slightly different name, and there is no reason to believe the United States will have any advantage in negotiating entry now--especially since Trump is still threatening punitive tariffs against many of its members.

So what?

  • It's bad if a president's positions on major policy issues change rapidly and unpredictably.
  • It's still bad if the president can be easily manipulated, even if results those manipulations are for the best.
  • This kind of thing doesn't happen to presidents who understand the issues they're making decisions about in the first place.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave away US military plans to enemy forces in Syria.

This was this morning's Trump tweet on Syria:

As many people immediately noted, Trump used to be against warning enemies of attacks--and for that matter, against attacking the Assad regime at all.

Incidentally, Trump is probably right that Russian forces would be unable to shoot down most US missiles, though not because they are "new" or "smart." Decades-old missile designs are more than enough to defeat the world's most advanced missile defense systems.

Russia also threatened to destroy the sources of missiles launched at Syria, which in this case would almost certainly be U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean. Trump has said nothing about this.

Recently, Trump seems to have reluctantly concluded that he must at least pretend to be willing to check Russian aggression against the United States and its allies, although in his other tweets today he lamented the recent "bad blood" and seemed very anxious to have the Putin regime blame it on the Mueller investigation. The "get tough" tone of this tweet is in sharp contrast to its function, which is to help Russia and Assad avoid the consequences of any attack. By all accounts, Trump still intends to leave "Gas Killing Animal" Assad in power following his sudden announcement of the United States' withdrawal from the conflict.

Trump has never been shy about communicating directly with Russia through the media, and this is not even the first time that he has given the Assad regime advance notice of his plans to attack out of deference to the Putin regime.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if a president has to be shamed into even talking tough against a nation hostile to the United States.
  • No actual enemy of the United States can be hurt in any way by tweets.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He all but declared himself guilty of some sort of crime.

Still emotional about yesterday's FBI raid on his lawyer, Michael Cohen, Trump tweeted this today:

Attorney-client privilege has never shielded anything that was done in furtherance of actual crimes. (For that matter, it also doesn't shield non-lawyers from testifying about things other non-lawyers told them, although that hasn't stopped Trump's son Eric from invoking it to avoid telling Congress about his father's contacts with Russia.) This is known as the "crime-fraud exception."

Even if Cohen's files contained Trump's detailed confessions to crimes, they could never, ever be used in any kind of legal proceeding against him. The attorney-client privilege is pierced only in cases where the communication itself is in furtherance of a crime, and even then prosecutors are required to take extraordinary measures to avoid learning information that remains privileged.

In other words, Trump's claim only makes sense if Trump knows he and Cohen actively conspired to commit or conceal crimes.

Who cares?

  • In a democracy, nobody is above the law.
  • The most powerful person on the planet probably shouldn't play the victim.

Monday, April 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He compared the criminal investigation into him with a criminal act.

Trump's longtime fixer Michael Cohen, who facilitated the mysterious pre-Election Day hush money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, had his hotel room and office searched by the FBI today. The raid was carried out under the auspices of the US Attorney for Southern New York, who is a Trump appointee

Cohen is thought to be under investigation for wire and bank fraud, and for campaign finance law violations, in conjunction with his actions in paying off Daniels. Although he is nominally Trump's attorney, nothing Cohen did in furtherance of a crime or conspiracy to commit crimes with Trump would be protected by attorney-client privilege, which may explain what happened next.

In a rambling and angry comment about it to reporters at the White House today, Trump said--among many other things--this: "So I just heard that they broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys." He also called attention to the fact that it happened "early in the morning," which he said was "a disgrace."

It did happen in the morning--but as for "breaking in," the FBI did no such thing

DOJ rules require extraordinary precautions when an attorney's office is searched, in order to avoid obtaining material that would violate attorney-client privilege for unrelated parties. But nothing requires the FBI to execute warrants only when it's convenient for the subjects of their criminal investigations, or politically beneficial for their clients or co-conspirators.

Why should I care about this?
  • The lawful execution of a warrant issued by the DOJ and approved by a federal judge is part of the rule of law, not a "witch hunt."
  • It's not a good sign that this seven minute-long rant came when Trump had summoned the press to talk about Syria.
  • Just because something that happens is bad for Trump doesn't make it illegal or "a disgrace."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He discovered who the United States was fighting against in Syria.

In the wake of the Syrian government's apparent chemical weapon attack on civilians, Trump talked tough in his tweets about "animal Assad." He also identified Russia and Iran as backers of the Assad regime.

The tweets did not go further than acknowledging the basic reality of the war--that Russia has actively and openly supported Assad's government from the start--but simply acknowledging that Russia is not the United States' ally may be the closest Trump has ever come to criticizing the Putin regime.

Prior to the attack, Trump had been fighting with his own military leaders over his recently devised plans to quickly withdraw from the complex Syrian war. As Republicans and Democrats both quickly pointed out, Assad's willingness to use chemical weapons at this moment seems directly linked to Trump's plan to concede the field.

Long before announcing a timetable for withdrawal last week, candidate Trump criticized President Obama for announcing the conditions under which he would withdraw US troops from combat zones.

Why is this bad?

  • At some point, the actual current President of the United States of America needs to take responsibility for doing the job.
  • It isn't an act of toughness or bravery to acknowledge the basic facts of who is fighting on which side in a war.
  • Blaming other people for things you yourself are doing is hypocrisy, which is bad.
  • Presidents don't need to be military or diplomatic experts, but if they aren't, they need to be willing to listen to people who are before suddenly deciding on a course of action.
  • Twitter name-calling doesn't really accomplish much in a war where entire cities are being destroyed.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about the safety of Trump Tower after a man died in a fire in it.

Details are still emerging about the fire in Trump's signature building that today claimed the life of a 67-year-old man. (Six firefighters were also injured putting out the fire.) Trump wasted no time in bragging about his building prowess, tweeting that the fire was "very contained" because it happened in a "well built building."

Trump Tower was at least as safe as any other New York City skyscraper at the time of its completion in 1983. But its upper floors, including the one where the tenant died, lack sprinkler systems, because they weren't required in residential areas by the building code until later. Trump has apparently been able to avoid the requirement that they be retrofitted into Trump Tower after major renovations.

UPDATE: As the New York Daily News reported Sunday, Trump not only dodged the requirement to install sprinklers after renovations, he actively fought against a separate law that would have forced him to install them regardless.

Subsequent reporting showed that Trump Tower had no evacuation plan to guide residents, and that the front desk was unmanned as panicked residents called down to it.

Why does this matter?

  • There are better days to brag about what a safe building you've made than on the day a fire in it kills a man and injures six first responders.
  • Building codes exist precisely because builders might be tempted to cut corners on safety otherwise.

Friday, April 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at the WTO.

In a tweet this morning, Trump attacked the World Trade Organization, which is the international organization that governs trade among its member nations (including the United States), saying it was "unfair" to the United States.

The reason for the attack has to do with Trump's third consecutive escalation of his trade war with China. Yesterday, Trump reacted to China's threatened imposition of $50 billion in retaliatory tariffs by re-retaliating with $100 billion worth of his own. (Escalating punitive tariffs is the definition of a trade war, but Trump continues to insist the US is not in one.)

China responded not with another round of tariffs, but with a "request for consultation." This is the first step in a formal process that will ultimately allow China to request that the WTO sanction the United States for violating the rules of the trade treaty between member nations. Analysts say that China would have a strong case, since Trump's original steel and aluminum tariffs are not only globally unpopular but not a genuine matter of national security as he claimed.

If the WTO ruled against Trump, the United States would lose protection against other countries that wanted to impose punitive tariffs on it. 

Trump often tries to "work the ref" when he is afraid a legal judgment will go against him. He said that the judge in his Trump University fraud suit was biased because he was "a Mexican." He threatened to eliminate an entire federal court district when it issued rulings he didn't like during his Muslim ban fiasco, and claimed another federal judge was putting "thousands of lives at risk" when he ruled against Trump in a budget dispute.

Stock markets continued their months-long slide today on the news, erasing gains all the way back to last November.

So what?

  • Bad things happen when a president genuinely believes there will never be any consequences to his actions.
  • A president who can't or won't learn the first thing about international trade is too incompetent to be in charge of the United States economy.
  • It's bad if a president sees Americans losing billions of dollars in wealth and hundreds of thousands of jobs as "a little pain." 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made up a story about mass rapes.

Trump went to West Virginia today to promote his tax agenda, and made a show of throwing away his prepared remarks to speak off-the-cuff to the audience. One of the false claims he made had to do with the caravan of migrants making its way through Mexico. Recalling his first day on the campaign, where accused Mexico of sending "rapists" into the United States, he said. "Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened. Everybody said, oh, he was so tough. I used the word rape. Yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before."

Migrants who travel through Mexico to enter the United States face many dangers, including rape--which is why they sometimes travel in groups like this, for mutual defense. Many of them are migrating in order to escape the threat of rape or other forms of violence in their home countries.

Trump had no actual information about rapes committed against the members of this caravan. Reporters traveling with it, however, report that no rapes have been reported.

Trump himself has been accused of rape by his ex-wife Ivana Trump in a 1989 deposition, and of attempted rape by Jill Harth, who sued him in 1997.

So what?

  • Lying about rape for political gain is pretty awful.
  • Accused rapists who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He shrugged off the consequences of his trade war with China.

As expected, China retaliated against Trump's imposition of tariffs with $50 billion worth of its own, targeting American soybean farmers and automobile workers, among others. 

Trump responded with this tweet:

(Trump apparently continues to believe that money the US spends on foreign goods is somehow lost to the United States forever.)

Later in the day, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders picked up the theme, saying that Trump wasn't concerned about "a little bit of short-term pain" as a result of China's inevitable retaliation.

The chief economist at Moody's Analytics, Mark Zandi, estimated that this round of tariffs alone will cost the United States about 190,000 jobs, and about 6% of the total gains in GDP from last year. Even though the tariffs have not gone into effect, they are already costing American farmers money as futures prices for targeted crops plummeted.

What's the problem here?

  • A president who can't be bothered by the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs is unfit to serve.
  • It's bad if the president can't understand the most basic facts about international trade.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got confused about which side of the civil war in Syria he was on.

Appearing at a joint press conference with leaders of Baltic nations, Trump declared his eagerness to withdraw the US military from Syria, saying, "I want to get back, I want to rebuild our nation. It's time. We were very successful against ISIS, we'll be successful against anybody militarily, but sometimes it's time to come back home."

This came as news to US military commanders, one of whom had only minutes earlier declared, "We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission. Our mission is not over. And we are going to complete that mission." Trump has recently alarmed American military leaders with his lack of focus on their campaigns, to the point that some were willing to speak to the press about their concerns--a breach of military decorum almost unheard of before Trump became commander-in-chief.

Trump's plan to pull out of Syria has been welcome news for Russia, which supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This makes it the de facto opponent of the United States, although the two nations have tried to avoid coming into direct conflict with one another in Syria. Nevertheless, a US withdrawal at this stage would essentially give the Putin regime a permanent foothold in the Middle East.

On the subject of Russia, Trump also said this today: "Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have. Everyone agrees when they think about it."

Why is this a problem?

  • Presidents who cannot get on the same page with their own military commanders about military strategy are unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.
  • It is astonishingly bad if military leaders feel they have to go through the press to get the attention of the president.

Monday, April 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

For the second time in as many weeks, he called up a a dictator to congratulate him for winning a sham election.

On March 20, Trump called Vladimir Putin to congratulate him for "winning" an election where genuine opposition candidates were banned, and ballot boxes were stuffed in public view. (The illegitimacy of the election is part of why the notes Trump's staff prepared for the call instructed him, in all capital letters, "DO NOT CONGRATULATE.") We know this because the Russian government broke the news of Trump's friendly gesture, as it often delights in doing

The pattern repeated itself today as Trump called Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi with congratulations for his victory in elections held last week. Al-Sisi, who first came to power in a 2013 military coup, received 97% of the vote after all genuine opposition candidates had been arrested or intimidated into withdrawing.

This isn't the first time that Trump, who frequently expresses admiration for dictators' ability to seize and hold power, has spoken warmly about al-Sisi. Last April, at a White House meeting between the two, Trump said this:
I will tell you, President al-Sisi has been somebody that's been very close to me from the first time I met him. I met during the campaign, and at that point there were two of us, and we both met. And hopefully you like me a lot more. But it was very long. It was supposed to be just a quick brief meeting, and we were with each other for a long period of time. We agreed on so many things. I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi. He's done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.
Since seizing power, Al-Sisi has ordered the torture, kidnapping, and execution of political opponents and their families, including children.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if a president won't at least pretend that he thinks democracy is worth defending.
  • Some of Trump's evangelical supporters might have thought he wouldn't go out of his way to praise a man who turns a blind eye to the murder and forced conversion of Egypt's Christian minority.
  • The leader of the free world shouldn't be so easily impressed by dictatorships.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot about, or lied about, Mexico's own border control efforts.

The overall theme of Easter Sunday's tweetstorm was immigration. One of the claims Trump made was that "Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S."

In reality, Mexico's Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program) prevents many would-be undocumented Central and South American immigrants to the United States from reaching their destinations. The program, adopted by Mexico under pressure from the Obama administration, is controversial: critics say that Mexican border officials violate the human rights of migrants they catch, and that the tactics make migrants vulnerable to exploitation by gangs operating in the area.

Nevertheless, it has prevented hundreds of thousands of people from traveling through Mexico to work in the United States--which is why Mexico has used the continuation of the program as leverage against Trump.

As with most false things Trump tweets out when away from the supervision of his staff, it's not clear whether he knew about Frontera Sur and lied, or was told and forgot, or never asked in the first place.

So what?

  • A president who can't learn the truth about important policy issues is no better than a president who simply won't tell the truth about important policy issues.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States has somehow given Mexico the upper hand in negotiations over border security.