Tuesday, July 31, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He bragged about his political courage on an issued he'd already backed down from.

This afternoon, Trump repeated his recent threat to shut down the government ahead of the fall midterms if his (as yet unspecified) demands weren't met on immigration by "Democrats" (who control neither house of Congress). 

In particular, Trump claimed he didn't care about the "political ramifications" of a shutdown. But by the time he posted that tweet, he had already told his staff he would wait at least until after the midterm elections. 

Of course, it's impossible to know until Election Day has come and gone whether Trump was lying to his staff, or to the country, about whether he cares about the "political ramifications." Even by his standards, Trump has been all over the map on the subject of shutdowns. He said that "our country needs a good shutdown" last May, and called for another one this February. Last December he publicly accused Democrats of wanting one while privately telling his advisors he thought it would help his poll numbers. But when he finally got one, on the anniversary of his inauguration, he was furious because it forced him to cancel a campaign fundraiser so that he could pretend to work on a weekend.

Why should this bother me?

  • It's wrong to lie.
  • It's insulting for a politician to lie about whether he is concerned about politics.
  • Shutting down the government is expensive and disruptive to the economy and is a stupid starting point for negotiations.

Monday, July 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

His administration took two extremely different approaches to Iran, whether he knows it or not.

During a joint press conference with the Prime Minister of Italy, Trump was asked whether he would be willing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He replied, "I’m ready to meet any time they want to." When the reporter asked if there would be any preconditions for such a meeting, Trump responded:
No preconditions. No. If they want to meet, I’ll meet. Anytime they want. Anytime they want. It’s good for the country, good for them, good for us, and good for the world. No preconditions. If they want to meet, I’ll meet.
Within hours, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was appearing on CNBC to insist that there would be a great many preconditions, none of which Iran's current leadership is likely to meet given the current state of affairs between the two countries.

It's not clear whether Trump had instructed Pompeo to try to erase Trump's answer, or whether Pompeo was trying to do damage control without asking permission—a Trump-handling tactic the State Department has used effectively recently.

Trump's answer to the reporter's question included a lengthy complaint about how the media had covered his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump said that that meeting was "so positive—I had a great meeting, in my opinion. Of course, the fake news didn’t cover it that way." In fact, the meeting went so well in Trump's opinion that he declared in a tweet shortly afterwards he had single-handedly ended the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

The Washington Post reported today on U.S. intelligence agencies' reports that North Korea has accelerated its work on an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the United States.

What's the problem here?

  • Diplomacy is a lot harder and a lot more important than Trump seems to think it is.
  • A good dealmaker would understand that giving away something for nothing is not a great negotiating tactic.
  • Even if it is their job, it's bad when a president's staff has to save him from himself.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got fake-mad at the free press, and then he got really mad at the free press.

Several weeks ago, New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger met with Trump in the White House for an off-the-record discussion. This morning, Trump revealed the existence of that conversation when he tweeted about it, saying that the two had "[s]pent much time talking about the vast amounts of Fake News being put out by the media & how that Fake News has morphed into phrase, 'Enemy of the People.'"

Speaking to the press off the record works both ways, so Sulzberger responded with a brief statement. He said that he had agreed to talk to Trump so that he could "raise concerns about the president’s deeply troubling anti-press rhetoric," which he found "not just divisive but increasingly dangerous." Sulzberger pointed out that Trump's language was being mimicked by dictators, and that Trump's hostility to the free American press is being used in authoritarian regimes to justify killing journalists.

Trump, whose public schedule was once again empty except for shuttling between the White House and his New Jersey golf club, responded to Sulzberger's statement with an enraged four-tweet blast. He said that "insane" journalists were putting people's lives at risk, not the other way around--though he didn't say how. He called the free American press "very unpatriotic" and said that he "would not allow" the country to be "sold out" by the newspaper press. 

Why is this bad?

  • A president who is given criticism in private and hears only agreement is probably not mentally healthy enough for the job.
  • A president who is given criticism in public and reacts with rage is definitely not mentally healthy enough for the job.
  • The truth is not whatever is most convenient for Donald Trump.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lowered expectations on how much his farm bailout would actually bail out farmers.

Today was an eerily quiet day for Trump. Not only were there no items on his public schedule (rare for non-vacationing presidents but common for Trump), he was almost entirely absent from Twitter. He kept to his strict summer golf schedule, spending the weekend at his New Jersey golf course as usual, but otherwise cloistered himself away.

But he dispatched his Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, to walk back some of the expectations he raised this week with his announcement of a $12 billion dollar bailout for farmers hurt by his trade war.

In an interview with Reuters this morning, Perdue was eager to make the point that farmers who managed to qualify for the bailout would receive their first payments by September, before the midterm elections. But he also admitted that farmers would still lose money, saying, “Obviously this is not going to make farmers whole." 

Perdue also acknowledged that the program was temporary, and would not be extended past the current year even if Trump persists in trying to "win" a trade war into next year's growing season.

On the campaign trail, Trump has insisted that farmers and industry hurt by other countries' response to his tariffs just need to "be a little patient," and to trust that all is well even if the evidence says otherwise.

Trump is expected to remain at his New Jersey golf course for the rest of the weekend, and then return for a 12-day (official) vacation in the middle of next week

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't expect Americans to "be patient" while their businesses go bankrupt because of avoidable mistakes.
  • A president who can't or won't learn the basics of economics, can't or won't do his job.

Friday, July 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was happy to receive a summons to Moscow by Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin rejected Trump's surprise offer of a second summit meeting in Washington, D.C. Trump tried to save face by blaming the Mueller investigation into Russia's espionage attacks on the 2016 election.

Today, Putin reversed field, inviting Trump to visit Moscow instead--and Trump responded immediately and positively. In a statement, the White House said that Putin only needed to extend a formal invitation.

Trump's first meeting in Helsinki was widely regarded as a disaster for the United States: he appeared submissive to and intimidated by Putin, and could not help taking sides with Putin against his own government on the subject of Russia's attack on the United States. 

Trump's signal that he is willing to go to Moscow comes amid revelations that Russia has successfully hacked into the U.S. electrical grid and voting systems. The Putin regime has also conducted phishing attacks on Democratic candidates of the same type that helped Trump get elected

It also comes on the same day that the White House held a meeting of the National Security Council on the subject of the Russian threat to the midterms. The topic for discussion was supposedly the "strategy" Trump had put in place to combat such interference when he took office, but had never announced before today. Current administration officials immediately admitted to reporters that no such strategy actually exists.

What is the problem with this?

  • A president who could refuse this demand from the authoritarian leader of a hostile foreign power probably would.
  • Where threats to the basic freedoms of Americans are concerned, pretending to do something is even worse than doing nothing.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He imagined he was being persecuted by Twitter.

No one can deny Trump puts in the time necessary to be a Twitter expert: he's tweeted more than 7,500 times since being inaugurated, often in hours-long blocks during the work day. But he got fooled by a bit of actual fake news where Twitter was concerned today. Trump accused Twitter (in a tweet, naturally) of "shadow banning" Republicans, which he called "discriminatory and illegal." He also threatened a government investigation.

Shadow banning is when a social media platform hides a user's posts from others, without informing the user. It's a way of keeping spam, troll, or otherwise harmful posts from disrupting other users' experience. It's a controversial practice, but on a private messaging service, it's not illegal or anything that the government would have grounds to investigate.

Trump probably got the idea from a Vice article that erroneously applied the term to the way that some accounts don't immediately appear in the auto-completed Twitter search boxes when the first few letters of their names were typed. Those accounts do appear when the search is actually entered, and all their public posts remain visible. 

Twitter does rank its search results in one particular way that might have hurt Trump-connected Republicans, though. Twitter factors in how often an account is flagged for abuse. It also factors in whether "accounts are connected to those that violate our rules, and how they interact with each other." The vast network of bot accounts used to disseminate Russian propaganda into Americans' Twitter feeds are often reported for abuse.

In other words, Twitter accounts that retweet or respond to a lot of Russian propaganda (or other abusive accounts) are likely to appear lower on Twitter search results for the first few letters of their names. This is true regardless of the politics of the user.

The good news for Trump is that his name does autocomplete in the Twitter search box, in spite of the fact that Russian propaganda bots retweeted his tweets 470,000 times in the months leading up to the 2016 election.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents should probably make some effort to find out the truth before attacking an American company to 53 million followers (some of whom are actual people).
  • It's not Twitter's fault that Russian trolls working to support Trump's candidacy and erode American's confidence in their government are good at their jobs.
  • This would be a waste of a president's time and energy even if it had been true.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretended to cancel his next Putin meeting.

This afternoon, Trump sent John Bolton out to walk back his earlier invitation to Vladimir Putin to visit this fall. "The President believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year," Bolton told reporters.

As Trump's own intelligence chief pointed out recently, the Putin regime is conducting ongoing attacks on the U.S. cyber-infrastructure, including infiltrations of the electrical power grid and, of course, disinformation campaigns and voting system hacking for the upcoming midterm elections.

Republicans in particular were horrified by the damage a Putin visit might do to their chances in those elections, and may have prevailed on Trump to change his mind. Terrible polling numbers in the wake of Trump's performance last week may have helped, too.

But Trump's "postponement" came a day after the Putin regime publicly rejected Trump's offer, leaving today's statement as little more than a face-saving measure.

It's still unclear why Trump announced the second summit so soon after the first, and without checking with Russia first, unless it was to undercut in real time an interview that his Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats. Trump was reportedly enraged by what he saw as Coats having fun at his expense during a live-TV interview with Andrea Mitchell.

So what?

  • It's not Robert Mueller's fault that authoritarian regimes engaged in ongoing attacks on the United States are politically unpopular.
  • Even a normal state visit usually wouldn't be announced without checking with the other country first.
  • When Trump embarrasses himself, he also hurts the dignity and prestige of the United States.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He begged his supporters to ignore the consequences of his trade war.

Trump began the day with tweets insisting that "tariffs are the greatest!" and that the countries that he had threatened with them were "all coming to Washington to negotiate." 

But in reality, they're not "negotiating" at all. Except for Taiwan, every single one of the United States' fifteen largest trading partners have retaliated with tariff threats of their own, and many have lodged complaints with the WTO that will likely lead to further penalties against American exporters. Some of these measures have already gone into effect, to disastrous effect for the targeted American industries.

This is why Trump also unveiled today a taxpayer bailout of some of the farmers whose finances have collapsed because of the effect of the retaliation on the price of soybeans, pork, and other commodities

This means that U.S. taxpayers will now foot the bill for $12 billion worth of food previously paid for by foreign consumers. Trump's authority to move this money around comes from a Depression-era program called the Commodity Credit Corporation, best known to older Americans as the agency that supplied "government cheese" to food banks. It does not require congressional approval, which is just as well, since Trump's own party doesn't support his trade war or today's bailout.

Trump desperately needs to hold on to his support in farm states, and some of that desperation was on display when he was talking about the bailout in Missouri this afternoon:

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Declaring victory is not the same thing as solving a problem.
  • The economy of the United States is too important to be left to a president who can't or won't learn how trade works.

Monday, July 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to revoke the security clearance of people who want his Russia connections investigated.

At today's press briefing, a reporter from a generally Trump-friendly publication asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders this question:
Thank you, Sarah. Senator Rand Paul today made a strong attempt to vitiate the credibility of former CIA Director John Brennan, saying that he’s — and I quote — “monetizing his security clearance” and that it should be removed from him. He even called on the President to do this. Will the President consider Senator Paul’s suggestion and call for the removal of former Director Brennan’s security clearance?
Sanders apparently expected the question, because her answer was read directly from a prepared script at her lectern.
Not only is the President looking to take away Brennan’s security clearance, he’s also looking into the clearances of [former FBI director James] Comey, [former Director of National Intelligence Lt. Gen. James] Clapper, [former CIA director Gen. Michael] Hayden, [former National Security Advisor Susan] Rice, and [former FBI deputy director Andrew] McCabe. The President is exploring the mechanisms to remove security clearance because they’ve politicized and, in some cases, monetized their public service and security clearances. 
Making baseless accusations of improper contact with Russia or being influenced by Russia against the President is extremely inappropriate. And the fact that people with security clearances are making these baseless charges provides inappropriate legitimacy to accusations with zero evidence.
None of the people Trump is threatening has made any classified information public. All of them have criticized Trump's flirtation with Russia (like a majority of Americans) and his attack on the efforts to bring Russia and its co-conspirators to justice (like a majority of Americans).

Not all of the people Trump is attacking here even have a security clearance at the moment, but there is a reason that retired national security professionals often keep them: they are frequently called on to advise their successors based on secret information they already know. Removing their clearance would effectively make it impossible for these former officials to help the current intelligence community. It also often forms the basis of their post-government work, since a security clearance is an incredibly common work credential. Almost five million Americans have one.

There's also yet another criminal aspect to Trump's attempt to punish these particular people: several of the people threatened today are likely to be witnesses in any trial involving Trump or Trump's handlers on the Russia matter.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Government employees who get security clearances swear an oath to defend the Constitution, not the president's political needs.
  • Using the powers of the government to punish your political opposition is what authoritarians do.
  • Refusing to give political enemies a security clearance is the definition of politicizing national security.
  • Security credentials are meant to be used in the private sector, but Trump complaining about people monetizing their government work is incredibly hypocritical.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He completely walked back his partial walk-back of his siding with Putin on the 2016 election attack.

To judge from Twitter, today has been emotionally fraught for Trump, in spite of having spent all day (and all weekend) at his New Jersey golf course. His outbursts included an all-caps rant about Iran, an attack on the concept of search warrants, and an attempt to rebrand his "advisor" Carter Page as a spy for anyone other than Russia

It is sometimes hard to tell what parts of Trump's Twitter outbursts are deliberate lies and what parts are simply falsehoods he's convinced himself are true. But one in particular is notable either way. Trump is ending the week where he started it on the question of Russia's disinformation campaign and cyberattack on the United States election that put Trump in power: it was a "all a big hoax" perpetrated by President Obama.

In reality, the Obama administration did warn Trump as early as July 19 that Russia was attempting to infiltrate his campaign. But by then, the Trump campaign had already established contacts with Russian agents and begun actively courting them right back.

By way of reminder, last Monday, Trump explicitly took Vladimir Putin's denials of Russia's involvement over the unanimous findings of the entire U.S. intelligence community. After a day of bipartisan outrage, a visibly reluctant Trump attempted a walk-back on Tuesday, but could not resist giving Russia an out. On Wednesday he immediately reverted to the pro-Putin stance, saying that Russia was no longer attacking U.S. elections--again contradicting the entire intelligence community's findings. White House staff later insisted he had been misinterpreted.

On Thursday, Trump invited Putin to visit the United States this fall, to the visible shock of his own Director of National Intelligence, who--like the U.S. military--has still not been told what Trump and Putin discussed in their first summit.

What does it matter?

  • At this point it doesn't really matter whether Trump is unable or unwilling to accept reality where Russia is concerned.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretended to be surprised that his "fixer" might have done something unethical.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on a tape recording made by Trump's longtime "fixer" Michael Cohen, in which Cohen and Trump discuss paying hush money related to Trump's affair with Playboy model Karen McDougal.

Today, Trump weighed in on Twitter: "Inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning) - almost unheard of. Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client - totally unheard of & perhaps illegal."

Trump is wrong about the law: it was not illegal for Cohen to record Trump in New York (or 37 other states), where the law allows people to make recordings of conversations they are a part of. Trump is also lying when he says it is "inconceivable" that the FBI would conduct a raid like the one at Cohen's office. In reality, law enforcement acts to protect evidence it thinks a suspected criminal will destroy regardless of the time of day, or who the target's business partners might be.

As an ethical matter, it is debatable whether an attorney should make such recordings--but then, whether Trump is willing to admit that Cohen was ever his lawyer changes frequently according to what is politically convenient. (As recently as May, Rudy Giuliani couldn't even say for sure whether Cohen was still doing legal work for Trump.)

Trump's tweets leave out one important piece of the context, though: it is very likely that Trump himself leaked this particular tape. Cohen's team was apparently caught by surprise, and had no public response until the end of the day. But Trump's favorite "TV lawyer" Rudy Giuliani was ready to do media appearances declaring that the tape somehow exonerated Trump, and Trump's legal team had waived their attorney-client privilege with respect to this particular tape. 

For the past few months, Trump has rapidly cycled between abusing Cohen in the press and speaking warmly of him--which is not much of a change from their previous relationship. Given that Cohen is now very likely to cooperate with federal authorities, Trump seems to have decided that a pre-emptive attack on his former "fixer" is his best option.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't attack their own government for executing lawful search warrants.
  • There are probably more important things for a president to be doing than trying to attack the credibility of a future witness against him.
  • Trump's sexual affairs are his own business, but a president who needs to pay off multiple women to keep quiet about them is vulnerable to blackmail.

Friday, July 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to mess with the Federal Reserve.

Yesterday, Trump broke a presidential taboo by demanding that the Federal Reserve not raise interest rates. Presidents usually try not to interfere with the Fed, for two reasons: they can't actually make the Fed do anything, and trying to usually backfires, either on the president or the economy

Comments like those tend to spook markets, which are supported in part by the fact that the United States' central bank is (normally) insulated from politics. Accordingly, the White House rushed out an unsigned statement Thursday night, insisting that Trump had not said what he said. It read in part, "Of course the President respects the independence of the Fed. As he said he considers the Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell a very good man and that he is not interfering with Fed policy decisions."

Whether or not Trump was told that his staff had walked back his statements, he repeated them in force again this morning. This pattern--saying something, being forced to retract it, and then immediately saying it again--is a common Trump behavior pattern that has been especially intense this week

Complicating matters is that Trump's usual economic illiteracy is on display. The reason the Fed is raising interest rates is not to "penalize" the American economy, but so that it will have a tool at the ready during the next economic slowdown. (The Fed can't lower interest rates below zero, so it raises them during times of growth to have room to work with.) 

Normally, Congress could help ease the next downturn by lowering taxes, providing a short-term economic stimulus to revive a fading economy. But Trump's 2017 tax cuts, which will add almost $1 trillion dollars to the deficit this year alone--pouring lots of cash into the economy when it least needs it--have made any further cuts functionally impossible. 

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents can't do much to directly grow the economy, but they can easily damage it if they're careless or stupid.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot to tell his administration a few things about Russia.

While much of the week's attention has been focused on Trump's servile performance at his joint press conference with Vladimir Putin, less is known about what happened in the two-hour meeting immediately before. This is because Trump refused to allow any other Americans (besides translators) in the room with Putin. 

Trump hasn't shared any of the details of the meeting with the public or his senior staff, although the Russian government has been gleefully announcing that it is already implementing "agreements in the sphere of international security," including "cooperation in Syria." (Although Trump sometimes forgets, the United States and Syria are on opposite sides of the civil war in Syria.) 

Trump has not contradicted these announcements, but this morning, the commander of U.S. forces in the Syrian theater said he had received no instructions about cooperating with Russia. One possibility is that Trump actually did reach some kind of agreement with Putin but neglected to tell his own Defense Department--like he did at the Singapore meeting with Kim Jong-un. The other is that Putin is lying about what happened in the meeting, but Trump is unwilling or unable to push back against those lies.

Later in the day, Trump announced that he would be meeting with Putin in Washington this October. At the time of the announcement, Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, was being interviewed by NBC's Andrea Mitchell. This is how Coats, whose version of the 2016 Russian attack Trump publicly rejected in favor of Putin's, learned about the summit:

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The only reason for a president not to tell his own government about major developments is if he's trying to hide something.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He revealed that he was actually considering Putin's request to interrogate a former U.S. ambassador and other Americans.

Michael McFaul was the U.S. Ambassador to Russia for two years during the Obama administration. At the time of McFaul's appointment, Putin was furious at the United States over the passage of the Magnitsky Act, which placed crippling sanctions on the semi-criminal billionaires who, in essence, hold Putin's money for him. (When stolen money is counted, Putin is often regarded as the richest man in the world--but actually using the stolen money relies on the sanctions being lifted.) Putin made the newly appointed McFaul the face of his retaliation against the United States.

At the disastrous Helsinki summit on Monday, Putin offered to let the Mueller investigation observe the interrogation of 12 indicted Russian military officials--but only if Trump would permit Bill Browder (the person behind the Magnitsky Act) and various U.S. citizens to be interrogated in turn. Trump responded by blurting out his support, saying "I think that's an incredible offer." But it was generally hoped that Trump's handlers would explain to him the problems with that idea, and that Putin was basically mocking the indictments by setting completely impossible conditions.

Today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders revealed that Trump was actually taking Putin's demands seriously:
REPORTER: Thank you, Sarah. Russian authorities yesterday named several Americans who they want to question, who they claim were involved in Bill Browder’s “crimes,” in their terms, including a former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. Does President Trump support that idea? Is he open to having U.S. officials questioned by Russia? 
SANDERS: The President is going to meet with his team, and we’ll let you know when we have an announcement on that.
The State Department, in its own press briefing less than an hour later, called the Russian demand "absolutely absurd." That was not the end of the undiplomatic language from the parts of the U.S. government that actually work with foreign countries. One currently serving diplomat gave this reaction to the Daily Beast:
It’s beyond disgraceful. It’s fundamentally ignorant with regard to how we conduct diplomacy or what that means. It really puts in jeopardy the professional independence of diplomats anywhere in the world, if the consequence of their actions is going to be potentially being turned over to a foreign government.

...The president has first and foremost his interests at the top of his mind, as opposed to the government’s. That’s very clear over the past week and a half, between shitting on our NATO allies and kissing Putin’s ass. He cares more about himself than the nation and any of us who serve it. Either he’s compromised by Putin or he’s a pussy, in which case he should grab himself.  

Why is this a bad thing?

  • A president who actually believed the U.S. intelligence community's findings, or understood that Russia is a hostile nation, would have rejected this offer out of hand.
  • The president is supposed to protect the people who serve the United States, not hand them over to enemy nations as favors or bargaining chips.
  • Presidents who don't want to be seen as the illegitimate puppets of hostile dictators probably shouldn't do things like this.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to get a mulligan.

More than a full day after he publicly sided (more than once) with Vladimir Putin against the entire U.S. intelligence community's confirmation that Russia had tampered with the 2016 election, Trump tried to undo some of the damage by changing a single word of the 46-minute press conference. Specifically, that instead of what he did say—
With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me -- Dan Coats came to me and some others -- they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it would be.
—Trump actually meant to say
With that being said, all I can do is ask the question. My people came to me -- Dan Coats came to me and some others -- they said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it's not Russia. I will say this: I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be.
There wasn't much evidence that anyone's mind was changed, not least because Trump has been making exactly that defense of Putin since before the election. An angry Trump staffer—possibly one of the briefers who had tried unsuccessfully to overwhelm Trump with evidence of Russia's wrongdoing right before the summit—put it this way: "I think he was more truthful yesterday than today and is capitulating to an angry caucus."

There was also a lack of the usual Trump showmanship in the announcement. Trump had a script prepared, which he read in a subdued (or as he might say, "low energy") fashion with his arms folded. Trump had personally edited the script in black marker: he crossed out a reference to bringing "anyone involved in that meddling to justice," and added a reminder to himself to insist that there had been "NO COLUSION [sic]."

Probably the biggest tell, in a day that didn't really need them, was that Trump (ad-libbing away from the script his staff had given him) immediately fell back into language that let Putin off the hook. Trump read aloud, "I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place," but then, without pausing to draw breath, added, "Could be other people also. A lot of people out there."

This has been Trump's standard fall-back position when pressed on Russia's attack: that even if Russia attacked our democratic elections, it's not important because anyone--for example, "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds"—might have done it.

To go along with Trump's new version of events, the White House also released a document today titled "President Donald J. Trump is Protecting Our Elections and Standing Up to Russia’s Malign Activities." It incorrectly lists as a Trump administration action Congressionally-imposed sanctions on Russia that Trump fought at every turn against implementing.

In reality, Trump had been promising to end those sanctions since 2015 when, at an NRA convention speech, he unexpectedly took a question from a Russian audience member and in his answer said that there was no need for U.S. sanctions against the Putin regime for its occupation of Crimea. The person asking the question was Mariia Butina, who was indicted today on conspiracy charges. Butina used a fake gun-rights organization as a front to forge secret relationships with American politicians so that Russia could secretly influence them.

Why is this a problem?

  • Lies are bad, but lies this obvious are insulting.
  • Presidents don't really get to take credit for the normal functioning of the government, especially if they had to be forced to take part in it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Welcome new readers! WTDT updates once every day, usually in the late evening. (We learned the hard way not to post too early in the day.)

In the meantime, here's some more information about the site.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got called "disgusting," a Russian "asset," and a "traitor"--by Republicans.

The reaction from Democratic politicians to what happened in Helsinki today is easily imagined, so a small sample of the reaction from prominent conservatives and Republican politicians may be more instructive.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ): "I never thought I would see the day when our American President would stand on the stage with the Russian President and place blame on the United States for Russian aggression. This is shameful."

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ): In a lengthy statement, McCain called Trump's appearance at the press conference "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." McCain said that Trump's words were not a gaffe or mistake, but rather "the deliberate choices of a president who seems determined to realize his delusions of a warm relationship with Putin’s regime without any regard for the true nature of his rule."

In summary, McCain wrote, "No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant."

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY): "As a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I am deeply troubled by President Trump’s defense of Putin against the intelligence agencies of the U.S. & his suggestion of moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia. Russia poses a grave threat to our national security."

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE): Sasse said that Trump's claim that the United States was responsible for the Russian attack on the election was "bizarre and flat-out wrong." He added, "The United States is not to blame. America wants a good relationship with the Russian people but Vladimir Putin and his thugs are responsible for Soviet-style aggression. When the President plays these moral equivalence games, he gives Putin a propaganda win he desperately needs."

Former Gov. Christie Whitman (R-NJ): Whitman, who was the administrator of the EPA during the George W. Bush administration, tweeted: "Mr #President, you should be ashamed. To deny your own country and government in favor of a foriegn leader whose country has, for decades, tried to undermine the #UnitedStates is irrational and dangerous. Please step down, you are not fit to lead this great #nation. #TrumpPutin"

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC): "[This was a] missed opportunity by President Trump to firmly hold Russia accountable for 2016 meddling and deliver a strong warning regarding future elections. This answer by President Trump will be seen by Russia as a sign of weakness and create far more problems than it solves."

Michael Steele, former RNC Chair: In a tweet, Steele quoted Trump rejecting US intelligence officials in favor of Putin's version, and then added, "That's how a press conference sounds when an Asset stands next to his Handler."

Former senator and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (R-NE): Appearing on CNN, Hagel audibly hesitated to use the word "treasonous," but added, "This was not a golf outing. This was not a real estate transactional kind of arrangement. ...Engagement must be connected to a strategic interest, a strategic purpose. I don't know what that strategic purpose was. I am now convinced we didn't have one. ...It's a sad day for America."

Meghan McCain, conservative columnist: "I’m horrified - and have never been more proud of the fact that Putin hates my father so much he personally sanctioned him on Russia’s enemies list."

Gov. John Kasich (R-OH): Appearing on Hardball, Kasich said it was "unbelievable" and that today was "a sad day for the country."

Conservative columnist Ben Shapiro: "So that was a disgrace. With that said, the real question is how seriously Putin takes Trump's verbiage. My guess: not very. This is the chief benefit of a White House that often runs independent of the president."

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI): In a tweet, Amash became one of several Republican members of Congress to approach the question of whether Trump had been compromised by Russia: "A person can be in favor of improving relations with Russia, in favor of meeting with Putin, and still think something is not right here." In a follow-up response to a constituent's question, Amash added, "Our main concern should be the president’s bizarre behavior with respect to Putin. We’ll have to see what Mueller finds, if anything."

Abby Huntsman, Fox & Friends host: The conservative television personality is also the daughter of Jon Huntsman, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Russia. She wrote on Twitter, "No negotiation is worth throwing your own people and country under the bus."

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA, member of the House Judiciary Committee): "We've seen time and again that Russia will stop at nothing to interfere with and undermine our system of government. Just days ago, DOJ announced more Russian nationals have been charged w/ attempting to interfere with the 2016 election. This is not a country that can be trusted. U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed Russia’s actions, and the evidence is plentiful. Today’s summit in Helsinki was an opportunity to forcefully address this growing threat directly with President Putin. I am dismayed that we did not see that."

Tom Nichols, conservative author and government professor at the US Naval War College: Nichols' first reaction came in the form of a tweet: "Putin is completely in command of this situation. He’s basically told Trump to go piss up a rope about the GRU guys. ('You want investigations? Sure. I’ll look into it. Give me Bill Browder.') Trump, meanwhile, is babbling 'no collusion.'"

He later expanded his remarks in an editorial in USA Today
By the end of this circus, Trump was practically mewling, begging for Putin’s approval, saying that Putin’s denials were “extremely powerful and strong,” almost in a kind of strangely erotic tone of admiration
The very last thing the president of the United States did at a summit with the Russian president was to attack an FBI agent. His last words, just before "thank you," were "witch hunt" Putin could not have scripted it better.
Dan Coats, the current Director of National Intelligence: Coats, a Trump appointee and former Republican senator from Indiana, released a pointed statement that he did not clear with the White House political office in advance. Responding to Trump's open disregard for what he and other intelligence professionals had told Trump, he wrote, "The role of the Intelligence Community is to provide the best information and fact-based assessments possible for the President and policymakers. We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security."

Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE): "Unfortunately, the President’s statements undermine the power of the actions we’ve taken. His words must match these tough actions. The Mueller indictments make clear that Russia’s military and intelligence services sought to undermine the confidence of our elections by sowing discord in our partisan environment."

Rick Wilson, Republican political strategist: In an article for The Daily Beast titled "Trump and Putin: Two Bullshit Artists Enter Helsinki, One Comes Out Victorious," Wilson wrote:
By the end of the press conference, even Putin looked slightly embarrassed. He wanted Trump to go down in the third round like a bought-off boxer, but Trump kept laying it on thicker and thicker, swooning over the Russian leader, making winky-googly eyes, and repeating the worst tropes of Russia’s propaganda machine. Trump didn’t just roll over. He rolled over, stuck out his tongue, and begged Vladimir Putin to slap on a choke collar and rub his belly. An American president has never before abased himself like this before a foreign leader, and the horrified eyes of every American outside the Trump cult watched in horror. 
Even Putin couldn’t have expected the meeting to turn out like this, with the American president capitulating passionately, obviously—and yes, it’s time to use the word—treasonously.
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI): "There is no question that Russia interfered in our election and continues attempts to undermine democracy here and around the world. That is not just the finding of the American intelligence community but also the House Committee on Intelligence. The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia, which remains hostile to our most basic values and ideals. The United States must be focused on holding Russia accountable and putting an end to its vile attacks on democracy."

Conservative commentator Joe Walsh: "Look, I'm no big deal, but today is the final straw for me. I will never support Trump again. If that makes me a NeverTrumper, so be it. I am a tea party conservative, that will never change. But Trump was a traitor to this country today. That must not be accepted." Walsh later emphasized: "Trump was a traitor today. I cannot & will not support a traitor. No decent American should." 

Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN): "I felt like that everyone who’s dealt with Putin understands fully that the best way to deal with him is through strength, and I felt like the President’s comments made us look as a nation more like a pushover, and I was disappointed in that. When he had the opportunity to defend our intelligence agencies, who work for him, I was very disappointed and saddened with the equivalency he gave between them and what Putin was saying... Again, Putin only understands strength, and I did not think this was a good moment for our country.  There's no question that Putin interfered in the elections. ...They definitely interfered in our elections. That's not debatable, and again, I just don’t know what it is about the President that he continues to deny that that occurred. I get the feeling, and I’ve seen it first-hand actually, sometimes the President cares more about how a leader treats him personally than forcefully getting out there and pushing against things that we know have harmed our nation, and I thought that’s what we all experienced today."

Neil Cavuto (Fox News host) and Tom Dupree (former Deputy Attorney General under President George W. Bush):
DUPREE: I mean, it’s all well and good for the president to talk about the Strzok and server and Hillary Clinton and all of that. But this wasn’t the time and the place. This was the time and place for the president to look Putin squarely in the eye and said, ‘You will be punished for what you did in 2016, and don’t ever think about doing that again.’ 
CAVUTO: But he didn’t. And what’s what made it disgusting. That’s what made his performance disgusting. I’m sorry. It’s just the only way I feel. It’s not a right or left thing to me. It’s just wrong. U.S. president foreign soil talking to our biggest enemy or adversary or competitor, I don’t know how we define them these days, is essentially letting the guy get away with this. Not even offering a mild, a mild criticism. That sets us back a lot.
Brit Hume, Fox News host: "Trump, finally asked whom he believes on Russia interference, gives a vague and rambling non-answer, with renewed complaints about Hillary’s server. Says he trusts US intel but made clear he takes Putin’s denials seriously. Lame response, to say the least."

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA): "President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected—-immediately."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME): "The Russians were relentless in their efforts to meddle in the 2016 elections, and their efforts are ongoing. The President’s statements today in Helsinki demonstrate his continued refusal to accept the unanimous conclusions of U.S. intelligence leaders and the bipartisan findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This position is untenable and at odds with the forceful response this moment demands. Given that we are in an election year, the need to act now to prevent malicious attempts to influence our democracy is urgent."

Douglas Schoen, Fox News analyst: In a piece headlined "Putin Eats Trump's Lunch in Helsinki," Schoen wrote,
When asked if he would hold Russia accountable for any of its past actions, Trump deflected and deferred. President Trump’s unwillingness to stand up to Russia on this issue only serves to weaken the Western alliance and encourage further Russian incursions into the territory of sovereign nations now that Putin knows Trump will give him a pass. 
...For a sitting U.S. president to say publicly that he believes a foreign leader over his own intelligence team is shocking and admonishable. At a time when our democracy faces grave threats, it is deeply troubling that the president would side with the very country who attacked us
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC): Gowdy's response focused on the fact that Trump apparently believes any acknowledgement of Russian crimes will hurt the legitimacy of his election: "I am confident former CIA Director and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, DNI Dan Coats, Ambassador Nikki Haley, FBI Director Chris Wray, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others will be able to communicate to the President it is possible to conclude Russia interfered with our election in 2016 without delegitimizing his electoral success."

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY): "Russia has a track record of meddling in elections - not only ours in 2016, but around the world. I support the Mueller investigation in getting to the apolitical truth."

John McLaughlin, former acting CIA Director under George W. Bush: Appearing on MSNBC, McLaughlin said, "America has been attacked and the President sides with the enemy. It's about that simple."

His own administration and senior staff, immediately before the meeting: The Washington Post reported tonight that Trump's own briefers and advisors tried to turn Trump away from a pro-Putin stance by inundating him in evidence of Russia's crimes.
Administration officials had hoped that maybe, just maybe, Monday’s summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladmir Putin would end differently — without a freewheeling 46-minute news conference in which Trump attacked his own FBI on foreign soil and warmly praised archrival Russia. 
Ahead of the meeting, staffers provided Trump with some 100 pages of briefing materials aimed at laying out a tough posture toward Putin, but the president ignored most of it, according one person familiar with the discussions, who requested anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Trump’s remarks were “very much counter to the plan,” the person said. 
“Everyone around Trump” was urging him to take a firm stance with Putin, according to a second person familiar with the preparations. In advance of Monday’s meeting, the second person said, advisers covered everything from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its meddling in the U.S. elections, but Trump “made a game-time decision” to handle the summit his way.
On the other hand, Russian government officials were ecstatic with the day's events.


  • A president who needs dozens or hundreds of his own party's members to remind him who is an enemy of the United States probably can't do the job of protecting and defending the United States.
  • It doesn't really matter whether a president is compromised by a hostile foreign power or just acts exactly like it.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again referred to the free press as "the enemy of the people."

Trump has referred to reporters that way before, and before Trump, the phrase was popular with the leaders of Nazi Germany ("Feind des Volkes"), China under Mao, and both Lenin and Stalin in the Soviet Union. 

But today's outburst may have been put in his mind by the surviving staff of the Annapolis Capital Gazette. That paper was attacked by a man with a shotgun who was angry at their reporting on his criminal past. Five people were murdered in the attack. (Trump at first refused to order flags lowered to half-staff, only to grudgingly reverse the decision later.) Three days after the attack, the Gazette pointedly referenced Trump's many attacks on the free press in an editorial:
Here’s what else we won’t forget: Death threats and emails from people we don’t know celebrating our loss, or the people who called for one of our reporters to get fired because she got angry and cursed on national television after witnessing her friends getting shot. 
We won’t forget being called an enemy of the people. 
No, we won’t forget that. Because exposing evil, shining light on wrongs and fighting injustice is what we do. 
We are journalists. 
Yes, we bring values and beliefs to our work. We believe in truth. We believe in speaking for those who don’t have the power to speak for themselves. We believe in questioning authority. 
We believe in reporting the news.
Trump meets with Vladimir Putin tomorrow. There is effectively no free press in Russia, thanks to Putin's control of state media and the frequency with which journalists critical of him are murdered. Last week Trump said that Putin was not an enemy, but a "competitor."

Why does this matter?

  • In a democracy, the people get to decide for themselves who is an enemy.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to put a good spin on the most recent round of Mueller indictments.

Yesterday, the Justice Department announced indictments of 12 Russian military officers for crimes committed during that country's pro-Trump interference in the 2016 election. In his first remarks on the subject since that announcement, Trump tried to shift the blame to then-President Obama. While careful to call the events reference in the detailed indictment "stories," Trump asked in a tweet, "Why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the FBI in September, before the Election?"

This is not a totally unreasonable question--in fact, in the aftermath of the Russian-aided Trump victory, Obama administration officials publicly second-guessed their handling of the situation.  

But Trump's attempt to blame President Obama take on a different look in light of the most damning detail in the indictment: that the Putin regime's efforts to hack the DNC began almost instantaneously after he went on live television and asked Russia, specifically and by name, to "find" Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

Trump has a one-on-one meeting Vladimir Putin this Monday. He has said he'll "ask" Putin again about Russia's actions, but made a joke of how unlikely Putin was to confess. 

Why should I care about this?

  • "My co-conspirator should have been caught sooner" is not really a defense, even if it's true.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called a recording of him "fake news."

Yesterday, Donald Trump gave an interview with the British tabloid The Sun. Today, at a joint press appearance with British Prime Minister Theresa May, the following things happened:

  • Trump said that he hadn't criticized May during the interview.

    I didn’t criticize the Prime Minister.

    But in reality, that is exactly what he did. He said that he'd told May how to handle the Brexit situation—

    I actually told Theresa May how to do [Brexit], but she didn't agree. She didn't listen to me.

    and that her government was in danger of falling because of her failure to follow his advice.

    It's too bad what's going on.

  • Trump said that the Sun interview left out nice things he'd said about May, specifically that it

    didn’t put in what I said about the Prime Minister.  And I said tremendous things

    But the Sun actually did quote him saying nice things about May:

    I think she is a nice person. I get along with her very nicely.

    For good measure, Trump endorsed May's rival, Boris Johnson, who just resigned from her Cabinet.

    I am just saying I think he would be a great Prime Minister. I think he’s got what it takes.

  • Trump said that the Sun interview—literally, his own words—was "fake news."

    It’s called fake news.

  • Trump said that there were recordings that would prove his "fake news" charge—

    Fortunately, we tend to record stories now, so we have it for your enjoyment, if you’d like it.  But we record when we deal with reporters... You know, we solve a lot of problems with the good old recording instrument.
    —but the Sun posted lengthy audio clips from the start, presumably made with some sort of good old recording instrument.

    In spite of Trump's invitation, the White House has refused to release any such recording.

So what's the problem here?

  • Accurate quotes backed up with clear audio of someone saying those words are not "fake news," no matter how badly a president wants you to think they are.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He exaggerated the growth in the United States' GDP on his watch by a factor of about 43.

Trump gave an interview with the British tabloid The Sun today. It's already attracting attention for the fact that he used it to open try to destabilize the coalition government led by Prime Minister Theresa May, among other incendiary comments. 

But it also contained a lie about the American economy that was remarkable even by Trump standards: that the United States' GDP--that is, the total value of goods and services produced in the country--had "doubled and tripled" since he took office. (That statement is at 3:30 in the first audio clip at this link.)

Doubling GDP would mean a 100% growth rate. Last year, the U.S. economy grew by about 2.3%. The annualized rate was 2.2% in the first quarter of 2018. 

It's possible Trump simply became confused about what GDP meant or what economic growth was. (In fact, given his problems with basic economic concepts, it's possible he never knew.) But because interviews are unscripted, Trump also has a habit of straying into bizarre, impossible, or even self-incriminating territory during them--which is why his aides try to prevent them as much as possible. 

So what?

  • A president who isn't in control of himself, or in touch with reality, can't do the job.
  • Past a certain point, it doesn't really matter whether someone is lying or incompetent.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He projected his Russia scandal onto Germany.

The headline from Trump's meeting in Brussels with other NATO leaders today was his attack on Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel. He said that because of a planned natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, Germany was "a captive of Russia" and "totally controlled by Russia."

The remarks didn't go over well in the room--even Trump's own chief of staff, John Kelly, looked visibly upset at the remark--and American politicians from both parties immediately chastised Trump. Merkel, who grew up in Soviet-dominated East Germany, later reminded Trump of her own life experience under the government that Vladimir Putin was part of.

But the real audience, at least in Trump's mind, appears to have been Trump's political base at home. Trump will leave Belgium tomorrow, and, after a golf vacation in Scotland, will travel to Finland for a meeting with Putin that he has wanted for a long time. Trump is a vociferous defender of Putin--even to the point of openly criticizing the United States while in office--and has consistently refused to admit that Putin's regime actively tried to influence the 2016 election to put him in power.

Weakening the United States' relationships with its allies, and in particular the NATO alliance, is a top priority for Putin.

What's so bad about this?

  • Past a certain point it doesn't matter whether a president is doing the bidding of a hostile nation knowingly or by accident.
  • The United States' continued security and standing in the world is more important than a president's poll numbers.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an attempt to defend them.

In the midst of a brief press availability this morning, Trump was asked about his administration's failure to comply with a judge's order to reunite separated migrant children with their families. He quickly moved away from the subject of the question to talk about ICE, saying "These people go into harm’s way. There is nobody under greater danger than the people from ICE. What they do to MS-13, and everything else. So we ought to support ICE, not do what the Democrats are doing."

In reality, there are few if any federal law enforcement agencies whose officers are in less danger than ICE agents. Since the agency's founding in 2003, two of its agents have been killed in line-of-duty attacks, and one of those was killed after he attempted to murder another federal law enforcement officer in a workplace dispute. The other, Special Agent Jaime Jorge Zapata, was shot while on a diplomatic assignment in Mexico.

ICE's low-risk environment is not surprising, as their actual work has nothing to do with "liberating" American cities from gang violence, something Trump claims to have personally "watched". Rather, ICE focuses mostly on investigation, and--especially under Trump--has served as the "deportation force" that conducts raids on American workplaces that have illegally hired undocumented immigrants. 

Trump generally treats ICE more as a political talking point than an actual law enforcement agency, and frequently confuses it with Customs and Border Protection, a totally different agency. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents should be able to keep track of which executive branch agencies do what.
  • It's wrong for a president to lie to the public about what happens on his watch.
  • Ignoring abuses in a law enforcement agency makes it harder for honest police to do their work.