Friday, August 31, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got angry at a news organization for not helping him sabotage trade talks with Canada.

Speaking with Bloomberg news yesterday, Trump told their staff, off the record, that he was deliberately sabotaging trade talks with Canada. Specifically, he said that he intended to offer Canada nothing at all at the bargaining table, but that to say so publicly would be too "insulting." He painted a picture of Canadian representatives as desperate: "They came knocking on our doors last night [saying] 'Let’s make a deal, please.'"

"Off the record" means that Bloomberg agreed to exclude the remarks from their reporting. Bloomberg honored that agreement, but another person in the room--or possibly even Trump himself--subsequently told the Toronto Star about his remarks. The Star was not bound by the agreement between Trump and Bloomberg, and printed Trump's comments today.

Not surprisingly, the Canadian government took Trump's claims that he was not bargaining in good faith at face value, and talks immediately broke down.

Trump then went to Twitter to falsely accuse Bloomberg of having "BLATANTLY VIOLATED" their agreement with its "dishonest reporting."

But Bloomberg didn't print anything about Trump's comments, and the Star report wasn't "dishonest," as the White House was forced to admit today. (Trump had no choice but to confirm the accuracy of the Star's account, because Bloomberg reporters were witness to the original remarks, and going "off the record" would not protect him if he chose to lie about what he told Bloomberg.)

As the Star noted in its reporting, the fact that Trump tried to keep his mocking of the Trudeau government's position a secret suggests that he at least dimly understands how weak his own is, as he seeks to head off the worst of the damage caused by his own decision to start a trade war with virtually all of America's major trading partners. 

Why does this matter?

  • A president who can't keep from insulting allies and trading partners when he most needs them is too incompetent to hold office.
  • It's wrong to blame other people for your actions.
  • Presidents who don't fear the truth don't attack the free press.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called an unedited interview of himself from 15 months ago fake news.

This morning, Trump declared that Lester Holt of NBC News had been "caught fudging my tape on Russia." He was referring to the May 2017 interview he did with Holt in which he effectively incriminated himself by admitting that he'd fired FBI director James Comey because Comey insisted on investigating Russia's attack on the 2016 election on Trump's behalf. 

NBC has had the entire, unedited video posted at all times since its release. 

Often, when Trump makes these kinds of accusations, he is referring to something he saw on television. But Trump appears to have come up with the idea that his interview with Holt was somehow doctored all by himself. If so, there are two potential explanations. 

One is that Trump, who now seems to accept that he is likely to be impeached, and possibly face criminal charges after he leaves office, is trying to create as much confusion as possible about the basic facts--or even whether facts exist at all. This is a tactic he's used more and more often as the Mueller investigation closes in. He boiled it down to its essence last month when he told an audience not to believe anything they read about him in the "fake news" because "what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening."

The other explanation is that Trump has truly come to believe in the 15 months since the interview that it was somehow altered as part of a plot against him.

Why should I care about this?

  • Reality doesn't change just because the president needs it to for criminal defense reasons.
  • If this isn't a lie, it's evidence that Trump is mentally incompetent.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do?

He said sources that criticized him were made up.

Trump's latest attempt to de-legitimize the free press took the form of calling anonymous sources--the backbone of all political reporting--"made up."

It's often difficult to tell when Trump is lying or simply talking about things he doesn't understand. Given how much his own aides are known to keep secret from him, Trump may truly not know how willing his own staff is to speak out against him. (When Trump accused the New Yorker of lying when it reported that he had mocked Vice-President Pence at a White House meeting, their response cited more than sixty sources directly contradicting Trump.)

But Trump himself (supposedly) relied on an "extremely credible" but anonymous source when he "investigated" the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not born in the United States. 

He's also been a pseudonymous source, pretending to be "John Barron," his (fake) publicist on the phone with reporters.

And Trump is the anonymous source in many political stories. To some extent this is routine: presidents and other White House staff members talk with reporters "on background" every day. But as many reporters disclosed today, Trump actively seeks out chances to be his own anonymous source.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents who aren't afraid of the truth don't try to make you believe that all journalists are liars.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promoted a conspiracy theory, threatened to take action on it, and fundraised off it all in the same morning.

Trump was up well before dawn to post angry tweets claiming that Google search results are "RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD." He wondered if this was "illegal?" and promised that it "will be addressed."

The first tweet was posted at 5:34 A.M., Washington time, although they were deleted and reposted later in the morning. Trump may have been kept awake by a segment he'd seen Monday night on Fox Business, which mentioned a "study" that even its author called "not scientific."

In reality, Google does not weight its news results by political leaning--unless Trump meant things like Holocaust denial when he complained about the "Fair Media" being "shut out."

Later in the same morning, Trump's economic advisor Larry Kudlow threatened to slap regulations on Google and other social media sites. (Trump has also recently drawn attention to debunked conspiracy theories claiming that Twitter is hiding the posts of conservatives--by complaining on Twitter.)

By midday, Trump was referencing his threats in fundraising e-mails.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if the president makes baseless attacks on private companies.
  • It's worse if he just does it to shake loose campaign contributions.
  • Trump may actually believe there is no bad news to report on in his administration.

Monday, August 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to respect protocol by keeping the American flag at half-staff until John McCain is buried.

Trump appears to be deliberately provoking outrage with his behavior in the wake of Sen. John McCain's death. Shortly after midnight--the shortest possible time allowed by Defense Department regulations, in the event that a sitting senator dies--the White House flag was raised from half-staff. But in practice, American flags are always ordered to be flown at half-staff until the burial.

After an Oval Office call with the president of Mexico, Trump also crossed his arms and pointedly refused to answer reporters' questions about McCain.
Meanwhile, veterans' organizations were enraged by the flag snub and by Trump's general unwillingness to recognize McCain.

Eventually, Trump relented and allowed the White House flag to be lowered again.

Why should I care about this?

  • Past a certain point, pettiness becomes pathological.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to explain away inviting an anti-government 9/11 conspiracy theorist into the Oval Office for a private meeting and photo op.

Trump himself has spent the day cloistered away at his luxury golf resort in Virginia, pointedly avoiding any further comment on the death of Sen. John McCain. But he sent out his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to try to nip another scandal in the bud.

Trump recently invited Michael William Lebron--also known as "Lionel Media"--into the Oval Office for a photo opportunity. Lebron is a conspiracy fraudster who claims that the September 11th attacks were perpetrated by the U.S. government, which he also claims is putting tracking chips under Americans' skins.  

Lebron is also a major proponent of the "QAnon" hoax, which, in the words of reporter Jonathan Swan, "posits that Trump and Robert Mueller have secretly teamed up to take on a global cabal of pedophiles. (Hillary is on the same side as the pedophiles)."

Today, Sanders issued what amounts to the White House's only explanation: "A large group came through the White House for a brief tour and a photo." But as people familiar with White House operations pointed out, even in the notoriously security-lax Trump administration, nobody is invited into the Oval Office on a whim, or without senior staff approving it. Lebron's picture and meeting with Trump, however ill-advised, was certainly arranged by people who knew exactly who he was.

Why does this matter?

  • The President of the United States should know better than to let his office be used to promote anti-government frauds.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He let John McCain die before saying something respectful about him.

Shortly after news broke that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had died at the age of 81, there was a generic message of condolence to McCain's family posted to Trump's twitter account, although probably not by Trump.

The 114-character post did not say anything about McCain himself. UPDATE, 8/26: Trump's tweet came after he personally vetoed his aides' plan to issue a more traditional formal statement that actually praised McCain.

Until today, most other Trump tweets referencing McCain had been to mock him, mostly out of anger over McCain's refusal to vote for Trump's healthcare repeal legislation. In Trump's telling, Democrats were laughing at McCain behind his back for that vote, and that McCain had been "sold a bill of goods" and had "let his [friends] down," or "let Arizona down." (Trump's miscalculation that he could force McCain to vote a certain way on the deeply unpopular ACA repeal bill is evident in the few positive tweets just before the vote: he praised the "brave - American hero!" for returning from the hospital to vote when he thought McCain would vote his way.) 

On other issues, Trump's twitter feed has McCain as "sadly weak" on immigration, and "very foul-mouthed" for his refusal to stand by Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood video in which Trump bragged about grabbing women "by the pussy." Trump also said McCain was a "RINO Senator who voters can't stand." (McCain was, in reality, incredibly popular with Arizona voters. He never lost an election, and never won by less than 13%.)

Trump also castigated McCain for meeting with Syrian rebels, apparently having forgotten which side of the civil war in Syria that the United States is on. (It wasn't the last time Trump got confused about that.)

Perhaps the cruelest (and most telling) attacks Trump made on McCain had to do with the senator's support for veterans. The former prisoner of war's legislative support for veterans and servicemembers was so well known that his colleagues named the latest defense authorization bill after him--a fact Trump pointedly refused to mention during a half-hour long speech about it. But on Twitter, Trump said that McCain used veterans "as talking points and photo ops," that he stole from "disabled vets" to give "illegal Aliens benefits," and that he "hasn't done anything for the Vets." 

Trump, who claimed to have bone spurs that exempted him from the Vietnam draft, famously complained that people called McCain a hero for surviving five years of torture as a POW: "I like people who weren't captured." He then bragged on Twitter that he thought it was helping him in the polls.

Who cares?

  • Pretending to respect a political enemy only when he is safely dead is its own kind of insult to those who are in mourning.

Friday, August 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted defeat on North Korea.

Trump used Twitter this afternoon to announce that he was canceling Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's next round of planned talks with North Korea because "we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." 

Trump's met with Kim Jong-un personally in June, giving North Korea military and diplomatic victories in exchange for little more than a promise to "work towards" denuclearization. It also allowed Trump to declare that he'd personally ended the North Korean nuclear threat, and that Americans could "sleep well" for the first time. 

Immediately afterwards, North Korea began reneging, as experts had predicted they would. Pompeo's follow-up meeting was a diplomatic disaster, and American military intelligence officials immediately found evidence that Kim intended to hide his nuclear arsenal while pretending to disarm. North Korea also openly resumed work on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could strike the United States. 

In his tweets, Trump blamed China's lack of cooperation, which he said was "because of our much tougher Trading stance"--that is to say, his trade war. But if that's true, and China is trying to punish Trump for the taxes he's imposed on hundreds of billions of dollars' worth imported Chinese goods, then Trump is really saying that his failure in North Korea was caused by his failure to get the "easy" win he'd predicted in the trade war.

Trump neglected to mention that China is not alone in relaxing its enforcement of North Korean sanctions: the Putin regime in Russia has, too.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents don't get to make excuses about why their policies didn't work.
  • Any policy that relies on other nations to act against their own interests to help the United States is a stupid policy.
  • This is why it's not a good idea to declare victory before you have accomplished anything.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened violence and economic destruction if he were impeached.

Calls for Trump's impeachment have been getting louder, including from prominent conservatives, after he was accused under oath by his former "fixer" of participating in a criminal conspiracy to violate election laws. These are in addition to the many secret contacts--87 that have been revealed so far--that Trump campaign officials, including members of his own family, had with Russian operatives during that country's attack on the election that put Trump in power.

Today, his lawyer and spokesman Rudy Giuliani said that "the American people would revolt" if Trump were impeached. It's not the first time that Trump or someone on his payroll has suggested violence against political opponents: Trump himself told "the Second Amendment people" that only they could stop Hillary Clinton if he lost the election to her.

Trump also said, in a Fox News interview taped yesterday and released today, that the stock market would crash if he were impeached. Specifically, he said that "everybody would be very poor" if the markets were deprived of his "thinking."

So what?

  • Threatening the safety and well-being of their country if they are removed from power is what authoritarians do.
  • Innocent people don't usually have to warn people about how bad things will get if anyone challenges them.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He walked back several years of lies in order to tell a new one.

Yesterday, Trump's longtime fixer Michael Cohen testified under oath that he had made hush money payments to two of Trump's sexual partners "in coordination with and at the direction of" Trump himself. Since these payments amounted to illegal campaign contributions, Cohen was saying under penalty of perjury that Trump was his criminal co-conspirator.

Today, on a damage-control interview with Fox News, Trump insisted that what Cohen had pleaded guilty to and will now serve jail time for was not actually a crime because the money didn't "come out of the campaign." 

No one has ever said that it did. The crimes happened when Cohen paid out huge amounts of money to influence the campaign, which is the same as making a donation hundreds of thousands of dollars above the legal limit, and then had Trump's business repay him through fake invoices to hide the transaction from mandatory campaign expenditure reports.

But in order to make that case, Trump had to admit that he knew about and authorized the payments, at least "later on." As the Washington Post points out, that contradicts dozens of instances in which Trump or his spokespeople have said he knew nothing and that Cohen acted on his own.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad when the President of the United States breaks the law in order to tell a lie so that he could get elected.
  • In a democracy, no one is above the law.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He became an unindicted co-conspirator.

Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort, one of the many links between the Trump campaign and the Putin regime, was convicted on eight felony counts of tax fraud and bank fraud. But that wasn't the worst news for Trump out of the courts today. At almost exactly the same time, his "fixer" and former attorney Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight felonies of his own: tax fraud, making false statements to a bank, and--most significantly for Trump--violation of campaign finance laws.

Specifically, Cohen broke the law by paying hush money to women Trump had had sexual affairs with in order to keep their stories out of the news during the closing months of the election season.

Cohen also admitted that he was then repaid by Trump's private business after he filed fake invoices for legal service, on the orders of Trump Organization executives.

Cohen testified that he did this at Trump's direction. This would make Trump a member of a criminal conspiracy, although an unindicted one, which is the legal status President Nixon was in when he was forced from office.

The charges were not brought by the special counsel, but by regular Justice Department prosecutors. Cohen's plea arrangement reportedly does not involve him assisting the Mueller probe.

En route to a campaign rally in West Virginia, Trump told reporters about his sympathies for Paul Manafort, whose crimes were brought to light by the Russia probe but don't directly implicate Trump in a crime. But he walked away without answering when reporters asked about Cohen.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if federal prosecutors believe that the president has committed felonies.
  • It's possible that some people who voted for Trump might not have done so if they'd known he'd had at least two extramarital affairs, paid the women involved for their silence, and knowingly broke federal laws in the process of keeping that secret.

Monday, August 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had some thoughts about mental health.

Trump spent almost all of his "working vacation" at his luxury golf resort trying to discredit the Mueller probe and its potential witnesses. Today, on his first day back, he extended a 13-day streak of furious tweets attacking key figures in the investigation into the Russia cyberattack that helped elect him. Today's targets included Justice Department employee Bruce Ohr, "Mueller's angry Dems" and former CIA director John Brennan.

Trump has more or less abandoned any attempt to appear innocent of collusion with Russia, and seems focused on discrediting his prosecutors and their witnesses in future legal or impeachment proceedings. (For example, by referring to them as "Disgraced and discredited Bob Mueller and his whole group of Angry Democrat Thugs.") But today's bank-shot attack on a former CIA officer who defended Trump critic John Brennan was especially telling.

The threat itself is not surprising, because Trump administration officials have already told reporters that Trump's personal revocation of Brennan's security clearance was a publicity stunt timed to distract from Omarosa Manigault-Newman's tell-all book, Unhinged

But Trump, who once bragged about passing a dementia pre-screening test, is hypersensitive on the subject of his own mental health and generally avoids the subject even in his angriest tweets. The fact that Trump's apparent mental decline is a major theme of Unhinged may have put him on the offensive.

So what?

  • National security is more important than a president's poll numbers.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He did his best mobster impression.

Trump and his lawyers were caught off guard yesterday by the revelation that Don McGahn, the White House Counsel, has been cooperating with the Mueller investigation to a much greater degree than they had previously thought. McGahn is not Trump's lawyer, but represents the presidency, and had become concerned that Trump was setting him up to take the blame for the various acts of obstruction Trump has committed in an attempt to evade investigation by Mueller. As the New York Times reported:
In at least three voluntary interviews with investigators that totaled 30 hours over the past nine months, Mr. McGahn described the president’s fury toward the Russia investigation and the ways in which he urged Mr. McGahn to respond to it. He provided the investigators examining whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice a clear view of the president’s most intimate moments with his lawyer. 
Among them were Mr. Trump’s comments and actions during the firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and Mr. Trump’s obsession with putting a loyalist in charge of the inquiry, including his repeated urging of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to claim oversight of it. Mr. McGahn was also centrally involved in Mr. Trump’s attempts to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, which investigators might not have discovered without him.
Trump has spent the lion's share of his presidency systematically trying to destroy the credibility of potential witnesses against him in the Russia probe--or at least to threaten or bribe them into silence. That reached a new high in terms of theatrics with a tweet he sent today:

John Dean, who was White House Counsel for President Nixon, was convicted of obstruction of justice for his role in the Watergate cover-up. Fearing (like McGahn) that he would be set up by Nixon to take the blame, he cooperated with the Senate Watergate investigation, and ultimately provided evidence that led to criminal convictions of his co-conspirators and forced Nixon, who was among them, from office. In that sense, Trump is correct that Dean was a "RAT" in the way the word gets used in mobster movies--he really did cooperate with law enforcement to help convict other criminals.

Trump, who is the head of the branch of government that includes all federal law enforcement agencies, didn't explain why he had a problem with people who cooperate with investigations into  federal crimes.

What's the matter with this?

  • People who are innocent of crimes don't get angry about "rats."

Saturday, August 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went to bat for Alex Jones.

On the seventeenth day of his latest vacation, Trump got up early to rant on Twitter about "social media" for its supposed discrimination against "Republican/Conservative voices." He didn't name names, but Trump was almost certainly referring to Twitter's recent seven-day suspension of Alex Jones. 

Jones is a radio and internet broadcaster who has said that the mass murder of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook was a hoax carried out by "crisis actors." He has raised funds on behalf of the Branch Davidians, and tells his listeners that black Americans (and Democrats) want to carry out "white genocide." He also claims to believe that the September 11th attacks were carried out by the United States, and that Hillary Clinton was running a child slavery ring in the basement of a D.C. area pizza parlor. (When threatened with lawsuits, Jones' "beliefs" tend to change very quickly.)

Trump's support for Jones, which runs in the family and the Trump administration in general, is at odds with his usual views on freedom of speech. It's more Trump's style to call for a "reform" of libel laws, apparently in the belief that this would make journalists less likely to say things that hurt his feelings. (Trump has threatened libel suits at least 45 times, and actually sued five times, though he has never won any such suit.) 

And Trump's insistence today that "Censorship is a very dangerous thing & absolutely impossible to police" is at odds with his recent attempt to force a publisher to cancel the sale of a book about him that he gave interviews for himself. 

All that having been said, there is another reason that Trump might want private, for-profit social media platforms to have to let anyone say anything on them. Actual "fake news," as in deliberately false propaganda, was spread as part of the Russian cyberattack on the 2016 election in an attempt to swing the election to Trump. Twitter in particular has been cracking down on those accounts.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president who thinks people who use their freedom of speech to oppose him "shouldn't be in the country" probably shouldn't go to bat for a man who makes up lies about murdered children to sell ads.
  • Free speech is not the same thing as speech that Donald Trump likes hearing.
  • It's wrong for a president to pressure private companies to do things that will hurt them just so he can score political points.

Friday, August 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blamed the Washington, D.C. city government for not letting him have a $92 million parade.

Trump has for some time been obsessed with the idea of a Washington, D.C. parade featuring tanks and missiles. He tried to have one thrown together on short notice for his inauguration, but military officials said no. (Most Americans associate the kind of parade Trump has in mind with authoritarian regimes like North Korea or the Soviet Union.) The idea took root in his mind again after he witnessed a Bastille Day parade in France--so much so that he was still bringing it up in unrelated discussions months later.

First-pass guesses at the cost of holding such a parade on Veterans' Day of this year came in at $10-12 million, apparently raising Trump's hopes that he could force it to happen in spite of the fact that actual veterans were overwhelmingly against the idea. But more thorough estimates came in at $92 million. 

Trump immediately canceled the parade plans, blaming the local Washington, D.C. government for the rise in costs, and accusing the city of trying to gouge the federal government. (The city government of Washington, a majority-black city, is overwhelmingly Democratic, making it a convenient political scapegoat for Trump.)

In reality, according to a Pentagon official, $50 million of the costs came directly from the Department of Defense, and the other $42 million would have covered direct costs (mostly for security) to the federal, city, and nearby state and local governments. 

Why does this matter?

  • Inability to handle disappointment is not a sign of good mental health.
  • Tantrums are not presidential.
  • It's wrong to lie.
  • Parade planning isn't a good use of a president's time or emotional resources.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He didn't let knowing nothing about currency markets stop him from tweeting about them.

It was an emotionally turbulent day on Twitter for the vacationing Trump, who was triggered by mass editorial protests in the nation's newspapers and the growing scandal around his threats to revoke security clearances from people who criticize him. But the first tweet at least had a positive tone, in which Trump backed up his bragging about how he thinks the economy is doing by pointing out that "Money is pouring into our cherished DOLLAR like rarely before."

This is correct: the dollar has indeed risen in value against many other currencies in recent months, due in large part to the economic instability created by Trump's seemingly random tariffs and the retaliation they provoke. But there are three problems with Trump saying so.

The first, of course, is that there's a reason presidents don't talk about active markets: the chaotic effects that their words can have. Trump has sent the value of the dollar careening before with loose talk.

The second is that to the extent Trump has expressed opinions on the dollar before, he's taken the opposite stance, favoring a weak dollar. To be clear, it's doubtful that Trump really understands what either means: he once called his now-disgraced national security advisor Michael Flynn in the middle of the night to ask whether a weak or strong dollar was "the good one." (Flynn is not an economist.) 

The third is that, as far as Trump's obsession with trade deficits are concerned, a strong dollar is a bad thing. It raises prices for any American-made goods not already burdened by retaliatory tariffs, and gives a price advantage on U.S. shelves to foreign-made goods. 

So what?

  • Presidents don't need to be economists, but they do have to know the very most basic concepts about how economies work in order to do their jobs.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said there were no political motives behind revoking the security clearances of his political enemies.

Today, Trump announced that he was revoking the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan. He also said he was "reviewing" the clearances for nine others: former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI director James Comey, former CIA director Michael Hayden, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, former FBI counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok, former FBI counsel Lisa Page, and former deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr.

None of those targeted by Trump are accused of leaking or mishandling classified information.

Trump's statement explained that his motives weren't political, but that Brennan and others were too "partisan" to continue to hold their clearances. (The reason that former government employees keep their clearances is so that they can continue to assist the government as needed.) 

At a press briefing this afternoon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked repeatedly why Trump was only targeting his political enemies. 

Q: Sarah, first, I’ve got a question I wanted to ask you. But first, just to follow up on that, it seems like everybody that you mentioned has been a political critic of the President. Is he going after his political opponents with this? 
In reality, every single person on that list has criticized Trump, using only non-classified information to do so, and every single person on that list has been personally attacked by Trump in turn. Many of them participated in the investigation into Russia's attempts to assist Trump by sabotaging the 2016 election.

More than four million Americans have security clearances, which are common job credentials for government-related work.

Why is this a problem?

  • 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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He refused to guarantee that there wasn't a recording of him using the n-word.

Trump's hostile views towards African-Americans over the years have been exhaustively documented. He's even helped spawn a resurgence of white supremacist movements in the United States, fueled by his refusal to condemn racial hatred--or, when pushed, to say that there are good and bad people on "both sides" of racism. 

Former reality TV star and director of communications for the White House Office of Public Liaison Omarosa Manigault-Newman has said she has heard Trump using a racial slur on tape, and released a recording of her own in which other Trump administration officials discuss such an incident. Last night, in what appeared to have been his best effort to get ahead of the story, Trump claimed that he'd been offered assurance by the executive producer of The Apprentice that no footage existed in which he said the word. (As many people pointed out, saying a TV show has no recording of him using the word is a little less definitive than saying he doesn't use the word.)

At her briefing today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders had this exchange with NBC News reporter Kristen Welker:
Q Sarah, have you asked the President if he’s ever used the N-word? 
MS. SANDERS: The President addressed that question directly via Twitter. I would refer you back to him. I can certainly say I’ve never heard him use that term or anything similar. 
Q But have you — have you asked him directly, Sarah? 
MS. SANDERS: The President — I didn’t have to, because he addressed it to the American people all at one time. 
Q You haven’t asked him? Why haven’t you asked him directly? 
MS. SANDERS: Again, the President answered that question directly on Twitter earlier today. 
Q Can you stand at the podium and guarantee the American people will never hear Donald Trump utter the N-word on a recording in any context? 
MS. SANDERS: I can’t guarantee anything.
Trump, who rose to political prominence by pretending to believe that President Obama was born in Africa, and who called for the so-called "Central Park Five" to be sent back to prison after they had been cleared by DNA evidence of the rape they were accused of, and whose first appearance in the public eye was as the defendant in a housing discrimination case, and who enthusiastically called out a lone black attendee at a rally as "my African-American over here," and who called a few majority-black nations "shithole countries," and who said that Haitian immigrants "all have AIDS" and that Nigerian immigrants "won't want to go back to their huts," and who makes a point of calling his black critics stupid, and who seems to think that all African-Americans know one another, and who has had no senior African-American advisors as president except for the one he called a "dog" and a "wacky lowlife" today, and who is enthusiastically praised by white supremacy groups that were militantly anti-government before Trump took office, says that Omarosa is lying.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • The press secretary for the president of the United States should be able to guarantee that the president didn't use vile racial slurs on camera.
  • It's bad if Donald Trump used the n-word, but it's much, much worse that nobody would really be surprised by it.

Monday, August 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went out of his way to insult a terminally ill man.

Today, Trump signed a routine defense budget bill, formally titled by Congress the "John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019," as a gesture of respect to Sen. John McCain who is gravely ill with cancer. McCain was a Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

Trump refused to refer to the bill by its name, and did not mention McCain once during 29 minutes of remarks. Neither did Vice-President Mike Pence, or anyone else who spoke at the signing ceremony.

Trump loathes McCain, and has since before he became president. On the campaign trail, he famously mocked McCain's years of torture and captivity by saying "He's a war hero because he got captured? I like people who weren't captured." (The audience at the conservative Family Leadership Summit gasped and booed.) Trump later added, "He lost and he let us down. I don't like losers." 

Their relationship deteriorated further during Trump's term. McCain voted against Trump's attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, more on principled grounds than any fondness for "Obamacare," and has called Trump's flirtation with Vladimir Putin "disgraceful." Trump, for his part, has bitterly blamed McCain for the failure of his legislative agenda, and pointedly refused to discipline a White House staffer who made a joke about McCain dying.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents who can't set aside personal grudges in order to do their jobs can't do their jobs.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He encouraged a boycott of an American company because it opposed his trade war.

When he's been able to tear himself away from the golf course, Trump has spent most of his extended "working" vacation doing photo ops and fundraising, like his "Bikers for Trump" event yesterday. (That's a bit of poetic license--lots of bikers don't have such high opinions of him.) Yesterday's soirée may have encouraged a tweet today in which he attacked Harley-Davidson for moving some of its production overseas to avoid retaliation against Trump's tariffs.
Harley-Davidson is based in Wisconsin, in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's political backyard, and their products have been specifically targeted by retaliatory sanctions. In simplest terms, the company has a choice between producing motorcycles intended for foreign markets overseas, or not at all. (Bikes meant for the U.S. market will still be made domestically.) 

Trump uses the presidency as a way of rewarding or punishing Americans based on their personal loyalty to him, so this reaction isn't surprising. It wasn't that long ago that Harley-Davidson, whose executives made a pilgrimage to him at the start of his term, were getting praise from Trump rather than attacks.

Trump's boycott call originated with the so-called "Bikers for Trump," who share with him a general aversion to American-made products. The Trump t-shirts that some of the well-heeled "bikers" wore to Trump's luxury golf course yesterday were made in Haiti. The organizer, Chris Cox, explained it this way:

Why does this matter?

  • Making businesses choose political loyalty to the regime over their own best interests is what authoritarians do.
  • American clothing companies aren't "gouging" people by not trying to compete on price with companies that pay textile workers in the poorest country in the hemisphere about $5 a day, and the President of the United States should know that.
  • The responsibility for jobs lost to Trump's trade war lies with him, not the victims of it.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked one of his "best people."

Trump took exactly one question from the press today. A reporter asked for his reaction to Unhinged, the tell-all book former reality show co-star and White House appointee Omarosa Manigault-Newman (who usually goes by her first name). "Lowlife. She's a lowlife," Trump said.

To be fair, Trump isn't the only person who thinks so. Omarosa was unpopular with other White House staffers, none of whom were entirely sure what her job actually was. She took a personal feud with a reporter into the headlines, abused the perks of working at the White House, and secretly taped Trump, which--while not exactly unprecedented--isn't exactly recommended workplace behavior.

Trump famously bragged on the campaign trail about hiring "the best people." Those people include his turncoat "fixer" Michael Cohen, his campaign chairman Paul Manafort (currently on trial for charges related to his work for a pro-Russian puppet government) and his deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates (who pleaded guilty to similar charges), his EPA administrator Scott Pruitt (the subject of literally dozens of ethics investigations before he finally quit), and his frequent-flying Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price. 

It also includes Michael Flynn, whom he hired over the explicit warnings of the Obama administration, Attorney General Jefferson Sessions (attacked by Trump himself in a tweet just today), white nationalist publisher Steve Bannon, and Carter Page, the bizarrely unqualified "foreign policy advisor" who either knowingly or unknowingly helped kickstart the Russian campaign to conspire with Trump. (The last description applies equally well to George Papadopoulos, another of the administration's crop of convicted felons.)

Some of Trump's "best people" aren't household names, like his 24-year-old "drug czar" who had been fired from his only previous job for not showing up to work. Others were only famous briefly, like Anthony Scaramucci, who survived all of ten days as Trump's White House Communications Director. (Scaramucci was the fourth person to hold that job; it's not clear which of the five who have served under Trump was the "best.") Still others became famous against their will, like Matthew Petersen, Trump's nominee for a federal judgeship who was humiliated by a Republican-led Senate confirmation committee over his lack of basic legal knowledge.

Why should I care about this?

  • Hiring people for bad reasons usually gets people who are bad at their jobs.
  • Presidents are responsible for the people they entrust with the authority of the government.

Friday, August 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He thanked Kanye West for things he assumed Kanye West said about him.

For Trump, praise from one black man is the same thing as praise from all black men, which is why he frequently pivots from Kanye West's occasional gestures of support to insisting that he is popular with African-Americans.

Today, Trump thanked West again for his support, presumably in response to West's appearance on  The Jimmy Kimmel Show Thursday night, where Trump was a topic of discussion. But Trump apparently didn't actually go so far as to listen to what West was saying. West said that his public support of Trump was to prove a point, that nobody could tell him what to think. "It represented overcoming fear and doing what you felt, no matter what anyone said, and saying, ‘You can’t bully me.’ Liberals can’t bully me, news can’t bully me, the hip-hop community, they can’t bully me."

Kimmel responded by referencing West's famous call-out of President Bush after the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina:
In literal terms, there are families being torn apart at the border of this country. They are literally families being torn apart as a result of what this president is doing—and I think that we cannot forget that, whether we like his personality or not, his actions are really what matter. I mean you so famously and so powerfully said, ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people.’ It makes me wonder what makes you think that Donald Trump does (care about black people) or any people at all?
Kimmel paused for an answer, and West said nothing.

Who cares?

  • Treating all members of a group as though they were interchangeable is pretty much bedrock racism.
  • Assuming that all black people will follow the lead of one black celebrity is pretty insulting even aside from the racism.
  • Declaring yourself popular among a group where 80-90% of its members disapprove of you is delusional.
  • Not listening to your "one black friend" when he speaks is a good way to lose your one black friend. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found an immigration topic he didn't want to talk about.

Trump's current mother- and father-in-law, Victor and Amalija Knavs, became American citizens today

They were sponsored by their daughter, Melania Trump, whose own "chain" of citizenship links to her relationship with Trump. She worked illegally in the United States before her marriage, and would be at risk of deportation under her husband's current enforcement priorities. So would the Knavses, if Trump's "merit-based" system were implemented: they are not wealthy, have not won Olympic gold medals or Nobel Prizes, are not currently employed, and are elderly (just about Trump's age, in fact). All of those factors would work against them under Trump's plan.

Trump, who references exactly this sponsorship program in his frequent attacks on people who come to the United States legally, refused to comment. The White House issued an anonymous statement also refusing to comment, demanding that the Knavses' "privacy" be respected. (The Knavs themselves are the ones who brought the news of their citizenship to light, through their attorney.)

The silence is notable for a White House that just this week proposed barring legal immigrants from the path to citizenship if they had ever used a wide variety of public services in the United States during their permanent residency, including ACA health care tax credits. 

Trump himself is the product of what he calls "chain migration" on both sides of his own family. Both his mother and his father's father followed relatives to the United States who had already obtained U.S. citizenship. 

Why does this matter?

  • Even by Trump standards, this

    is pretty spectacular hypocrisy. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave himself a massive tax cut over and above the one he already signed into law.

Today, Trump's Treasury Department issued regulations defining how certain business structures known as "pass-through entities" will be affected by last year's tax bill. While unfamiliar to most Americans, pass-through entities were already a common tax shelter for a small subset of wealthy business owners. 

Now, the tax benefits will be much higher--but only to businesses that meet certain standards. Trump's regulations are written in a way that will greatly increase the portion of Trump's own businesses that will qualify for the lower rate. 

For example, the Trump Organization, which includes hundreds of pass-through entities, wouldn't qualify for much based on the plain text of the law. For example, businesses that sell the "reputation" of their owner don't get the break. Although he presents himself as a real estate tycoon and hotelier--industries where he went bankrupt six times--most of Trump's wealth now comes from licensing his name and image. Trump receives royalties on everything from hotels he doesn't own to vodka he doesn't drink

But the regulations define "reputation" very narrowly, and would allow Trump to pick and choose what parts of his business income qualified. More typical businesses, which earn their income in specific ways, would not have that option.

Trump adamantly refused to put his business interests in a blind trust when he took office, which would have prevented him from writing tax regulations that specifically benefited him.

What is the problem with this?

  • It's wrong to use your government office to make money for yourself.
  • Presidents who won't avoid conflicts of interest have already decided to put their own interests ahead of the country's.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about automotive jobs coming back to Michigan.

In an otherwise innocuous tweet congratulating the Republican gubernatorial primary winner in Michigan, Trump said that "lots of car and other companies" were "moving back" to the state.

Trump likes to take personal credit when companies hire workers, especially in high-profile cases like Michigan's famous automotive industry--even when, as is frequently the case, any growth is the result of plans made long before he took office. 

But in reality, auto companies have shed jobs in Michigan under Trump, reversing a long growth trend.

The picture is similar for automakers nationwide.

The latest confirmed data available is from May, so these statistics don't yet take into account any adjustments that U.S. factories may have made in preparation for the impact of Trump's tariffs. Automakers with factories in the U.S. are horrified by the prospect of what a trade war will do to sales of steel-intensive products like cars in an industry with low per-unit profit margins.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents shouldn't lie about the health of major economic sectors.
  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.

Monday, August 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied for political purposes about a natural disaster his government is supposed to be responding to.

In the wake of yesterday's Russia revelations, Trump hid from the media today, with nothing on his schedule except for a private dinner with political donors. But he had a busy day on Twitter, including seemingly bizarre claims about the wildfires burning in California. In two separate tweets, five hours apart, Trump said that the fires were "magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized."

The reaction from Peter Gleick, a scientist specializing in water resource management in California, was fairly typical.

To the extent that this year's wildfires are more severe than usual, the culprit is climate change, which Trump claims not to believe in--except when it affects his golf courses.

But Trump has political reasons for inventing fake water shortages. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who actively sabotaged his own committee's investigation into the Russian attack when it threatened to implicate Trump, wants the federal government to let agribusinesses drain California rivers dry. This would have disastrous environmental effects, which Nunes believes are a (literal) communist plot.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to try to score political points off of dangerous and destructive natural disasters.
  • It matters whether the president, whose branch includes FEMA, is completely wrong about the facts related to an ongoing emergency.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threw Donald Jr. under the bus.

Last night, the Washington Post reported on Trump's private fears that his son, Donald Trump Jr., would be prosecuted for crimes committed during the infamous "Trump Tower" meeting with Russian agents in June of 2016.

This morning, Trump pushed back--and in the process, pushed his son into the line of fire. Trump said that the meeting was "to get information on an opponent," which he said was "totally legal and done all the time in politics." But he also made sure to add, "I did not know about it!"

In reality, it's totally illegal for a presidential campaign to take anything of value from a foreign government, including help disseminating stolen information. It's also illegal to conspire with foreign agents to impair lawful functions of the United States government, like elections. 

As the scandal about the meeting broke last year, Trump himself personally dictated his son's false statement in which Donald Jr. claimed that the meeting had been "about the adoption of Russian children." That was quickly shown to be a lie: Trump. Jr. had enthusiastically agreed to the meeting because the Russian agents involved had enticed him with the promise of "dirt" on Hillary Clinton.

By admitting that the statement he dictated for his son was a lie, Trump is bringing his story more into line with the known facts. But by insisting that he had no knowledge in advance, Trump is giving himself space to claim that he personally was not part of any conspiracy between the Putin regime, his son, his son-in-law, and his campaign chair to influence the election. 

Two days before the meeting about the "dirt" the Russians had promised Donald Jr., candidate Trump announced that he would be giving "a major speech on probably Monday of next week" about "all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons."

Why does this matter?

  • People who are innocent tend to tell the truth the first time.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lost his nerve (and his wife) in his fight with LeBron James.

Under pressure from the Mueller investigation, Trump has been moody lately even by his standards. Late last night, he erupted at basketball superstar LeBron James on Twitter, insulting James' intelligence and saying that he preferred Michael Jordan. 

Jordan responded this morning with a clear message of support for James--and was joined in that support by Melania Trump, who may lately have other reasons than sports to take the side of people who antagonize her husband. The usually reclusive first lady said through a spokesperson that she was open to visiting James' school.

While Twitter tantrums provoked by TV shows are nothing new for Trump, the timing of this one is interesting. The interview that set Trump off was about the charter school for at-risk children that James just opened in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a championship in 2016 and is highly regarded on and off the court throughout the basketball world, but will play for the Los Angeles Lakers in the coming season. Trump, who has made a specialty of trolling black athletes during his presidency, may have decided that James' departure from a state he desperately needs in Republican hands made him a safe target.

If so, that courage was short-lived. Trump spent this evening in suburban Columbus at a rally for a Republican candidate in a congressional special election. In spite of the fact that, true to rally form, most of his remarks were an airing of grievances rather than an actual endorsement of the candidate, Trump did not mention James.

Why does this matter?

  • Donald Trump, of all people, probably doesn't want to be drawing attention to his own history with philanthropy and schools.
  • A president who can't hear criticism without lashing out can't handle the job.

Friday, August 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He began an indefinite vacation. 

Today was Trump's first full day on his latest vacation at his New Jersey golf club and resort, where he will be spending an as-yet unspecified length of time. The only clue as to the actual number of days or weeks that Trump will be away from his typical work habits is a routine filing with the Federal Aviation Administration that limits air traffic around Bedminster. At the moment, those restrictions are in place through August 13. 

The White House is describing this as a "working vacation," although that is also how staffers described last August's 17-day excursion, only to have Trump insist that he was not on vacation. This year, virtually all of the interruptions to his golf course time for the foreseeable future take the form of political campaign rallies, which his staff sometimes schedules for him as a form of therapy

The only work-related task that Trump has set for himself in the next ten days is to "decide" whether he will agree to a voluntary interview with DOJ special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump has occasionally insisted that he wants such a meeting, but the near-unanimous verdict from the legal community is that he cannot afford the legal jeopardy that such a meeting would put him in. That includes Trump's own lawyers and friends, who have openly said that if Trump agreed to be interviewed with Mueller, he would probably perjure himself.

Assuming Trump stays at Bedminster through August 13, he will then have spent 32% of his presidency at one or another of his own luxury resorts.

So what?

  • If you need to take every third day off from your extremely important full-time job, you probably aren't fit to do it.