Wednesday, October 31, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked Paul Ryan on the subject of birthright citizenship.

Trump desperately needs Republicans to somehow retain control of the House for his own political and legal safety. To that end, he claimed yesterday that he was going to use an executive order to change the provisions of the Constitution that guarantee citizenship to all people born in the United States.

One of the many people to point this out was outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), prompting Trump to lash out on Twitter today: "Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the Majority rather than giving his opinions on Birthright Citizenship, something he knows nothing about!"

It's unlikely that Trump actually believes his own position, coming as it does less than a week before Election Day. But it's not quite right to say that Trump himself "knows nothing" about birthright citizenship, because he makes money off of it. His Florida properties are hot tickets for an industry catering to ultra-wealthy Russian "birth tourists," who stay at them while taking advantage of American hospitals—and the American citizenship granted to their children.

Why should I care about this?

  • The Constitution says what the president can do, not the other way around.
  • It's bad to make up policy on the spot as a last-ditch campaign tactic--even fake policies that will never be enacted.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He crashed funerals.

Trump spent three hours in Pittsburgh today, supposedly to visit police officers wounded while responding to the murder of eleven worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue. But he did so against the wishes of those most directly affected.

The mayor of Pittsburgh, a rabbi at Tree of Life, victims' families, and other members of the city's Jewish community alternately asked, begged, and demanded that Trump stay away. 

Trump had also reached out to the mayor and other prominent Pennsylvania politicians to join him at a "rally" in the city. All refused. According to reporter Howard Fineman, Trump also tried to entice Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer into appearing with him by (falsely) claiming to each that the other had already agreed.

In fact, no elected politician of either party—including the state's Republican senator, Pat Toomey—was willing to join Trump in Pittsburgh.

The attempt to show sympathy for the victims is an about-face for Trump, who had to be cajoled into condemning anti-Semitic violence by his daughter and son-in-law, who are Jewish. Trump's first reaction to the murders was to blame the synagogue for not having armed guards present. (Four police officers, all armed, were also shot.)

It's not the first time that Trump, who struggles to even feign empathy, has been barred from other people's mourning. The families of former First Lady Barbara Bush and Sen. John McCain, both of whom died in the past year, warned Trump that he would not be welcome at their funerals.

Why does this matter?

  • Intruding on grief for political gain is just about as sleazy as politics gets.
  • Past a certain point, jumping into the spotlight is pathological.

Monday, October 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called a black politician a "thief" on the same day he was sued for fraud.

Trump tweeted today that Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, was a "thief."

Gillum has not been accused of theft, by anyone, ever.

Trump himself, however, has--particularly if fraud, dishonesty, or other forms of swindling are included. Those cases range from his legendary refusal to pay his bills, to the nearly half a billion dollars he and his family are now believed to have stolen from the government in the form of tax fraud.

Just today, Trump was sued under anti-racketeering laws for his part in a pyramid scam. He reportedly made millions of dollars endorsing ACN, a multi-level marketing scheme that has drawn the attention of regulators in at least three countries, including the United States. The scheme gained its victims' trust through Trump's promises to have investigated the company, although he later denied having known anything about it.

That pattern of behavior is almost identical to his involvement in the "Trump University" scam, where students were defrauded into thinking that Trump was involved in any way with the instructors or curriculum of what turned out to be worthless "classes." Trump ended up paying $25 million in fines and restitution in that case.

So what?

  • It's bad for the country to have its president who can be sued under the RICO Act.
  • People who live in stolen houses shouldn't throw stones.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at a Jewish political opponent who had been targeted by his supporter's pipe bomb attack.

Tom Steyer is a billionaire financier who has been bankrolling an impeachment campaign against Trump. He is Jewish and was one of fourteen Trump opponents who received pipe bombs in the mail from a Trump supporter.

Steyer appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" today to discuss the terrorist bomb campaign and yesterday's mass murder at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Within minutes, Trump--who says he doesn't watch CNN--had lashed out on Twitter. 

(In a sign that Steyer is genuinely getting under Trump's skin, Trump suggested that Steyer was "running out of money." Trump, who routinely lied about his net worth so that he could be put higher on lists of wealthy people, often suggests people he doesn't like are somehow poor. As for Steyer's supposed poverty, with a net worth of $1.6B, he could afford to fund his anti-Trump efforts at the current rate of $10M per year through the 2178 midterm elections.)

Trump seems to be responding to the Pittsburgh murders in much the same way that he did the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally that ended with the murder of an anti-Nazi protestor: by blaming the victims, then quietly reading aloud prepared statements condemning the violence, and then immediately and enthusiastically contradicting them.

So what?

  • It shouldn't be this easy to bait the President of the United States into an emotional outburst.
  • Presidents do need at least some empathy and self-awareness to do their job.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blamed the victims of a mass murder in a synagogue for not being armed.

This morning, a 46-year-old man named Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire on worshipers attending a private service. Eleven people are dead, and at least six more were injured, including four police officers.

Just before the killings, Bowers identified his reason for targeting Tree of Life: its support for HIAS National Refugee Shabbat, a Jewish non-profit organization devoted to helping refugees.

Bowers wrote, "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered."

Trump's entire political career has been defined by his attacks on refugee populations. Most recently, with the midterm elections looming, he's engaged in daily fear-mongering over a group of migrants fleeing gang warfare and political oppression in Central America. That group, many of whom have been granted asylum in Mexico, and which is traveling on foot, is currently about 1800 miles from the U.S. border.

Asked about the shooting en route to his sixteenth campaign rally in the last month, Trump refused to talk about the killer's motives, and he ignored a question about his own effectiveness in reducing gun crime. But he did identify the reason he believed the murders had happened:
[Gun laws] had little to do with it. If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect. But if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, ahhh, maybe it could have been a very much different situation. They didn't. And he was able to do things that unfortunately he shouldn't have been able to do.
Trump did not express condolences for the victims at any point, but he did share that he felt sorry for himself at having to hear the news:
It's a very difficult thing. For me to stand as president and watch any of this go... You know, before I ran for office then i would watch instances like this with churches, and other things, I'd say "What a shame. What a shame." But it's even tougher when you're the President of the United States and you have to watch this kind of a thing happen.
This is not the first time that Trump has identified himself as the real victim of an anti-Semitic crime.

So what?

  • The victims of terrorist murders are not to blame for terrorist murders.
  • People who promote violent and radical ideologies are to blame for the actions of violent and radicalized terrorists.

Friday, October 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got a very, very early start on the day to blame the media for bombs mailed to the media.

It's quite common for Trump to be rage-tweeting bright and early in the morning, but the elderly president normally puts down the phone and heads to bed well before midnight. At 3:14 EDT this morning, however, Trump was wide awake and furiously blaming CNN for the widely held opinion that he was partially responsible for the bombs mailed to more than a dozen people and news organizations he's attacked.

The rest of the world didn't learn until midday that the FBI had by Thursday night identified the apparent culprit in the bombings, fanatical Trump supporter and rally attendee Cesar Sayoc. Since Sayoc's bombing campaign amounts to a major domestic terror threat, Trump would have been immediately informed--which puts his middle-of-the-night doubling down on blaming CNN for the bomb mailed to it in a different light.

Later in the day, a presumably tired Trump was still sticking to the plan. Asked if he should "tone down" his attacks on the free press, he said that if anything he might increase them.

Why should I care about this?

  • The people who provide radicalized terrorists with their ideas are partly to blame when they put those ideas into action.
  • No matter how earnestly he believes it, Trump is not the victim here.
  • Only authoritarians view a free press as an obstacle to be overcome.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about using an insecure phone from an insecure phone.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Trump was still--nearly two years into his presidency--using insecure cell phones, and that foreign governments like China and Russia were taking advantage of that fact to eavesdrop on him and psychologically manipulate him

In response, Trump tweeted that he "rarely use[s] a cellphone..."

In reality, it's long been known that Trump has given people his personal (and inherently insecure) cell phone number, the better to frustrate his own staff's attempts to control access to him. This is how, for example, he got pranked by comedian "Stuttering John" Melendez in July, who successfully pretended to be a U.S. senator--a hoax that never could have worked if Trump took calls through secure channels.

In the NYT article, some White House officials expressed hope that because Trump rarely listens to or remembers specific details of the sensitive information he's given, he couldn't be revealing them to the hostile foreign powers listening in on his calls. Unfortunately, as little as Trump may know about the day-to-day details of his job, he nevertheless appears to be giving foreign spies very valuable information in the process of venting to Fox News hosts and other confidants.

Trump routinely calls for Hillary Clinton to be jailed because as Secretary of State she used a private e-mail server that could have been hacked, but was not.

Why does this matter?

  • Past a certain point, a lie can be so obvious that it's more of an insult than an attempt to deceive.
  • A president's personal cell phone preference is actually less important than keeping America's military and diplomatic secrets safe from hostile foreign powers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blamed the news media and Democrats for pipe bombs sent to the news media and Democrats.

On Monday, a pipe bomb was delivered to the home of the financier and political activist George Soros. Today, similar bombs were sent through the mail to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), former CIA director John Brennan at the CNN office in New York, and former Attorney General Eric Holder. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) was also targeted.

Trump considers all of those targeted by the pipe bomb attacks to be political enemies, and he's singled each of them out for abuse in recent months. He's accused most of them of unspecified crimes or disloyalty, and coyly hinted that Clinton should be assassinated if she won the presidential election.

The White House released a printed statement condemning political violence today. But at yet another campaign rally tonight, Trump once again said that Democratic "mobs" and the news media were the ones responsible for the hostile tone in politics. He pointedly refused to take any responsibility for his own rhetoric.

Since beginning his campaign, Trump has expressed public support for a white nationalist mob that culminated in the murder of a counter-protestor, told rallygoers he would pay their legal fees if they "knocked the hell out of" protestors, retweeted memes showing him physically beating up the media, and repeatedly called the press the "enemy of the people." More recently, he has praised a Republican member of Congress who assaulted a reporter, and ran political interference for a foreign dictatorship that murdered a journalist.

Trump has literally never accepted responsibility for anything in his presidency: not legislative failures, not economic setbacks, not the deaths of American military forces under his command. But in blaming the intended victims of a terrorist attack, he was only a step behind some of his own top political surrogates, who claimed today that Democrats and the news media had attacked themselves to discredit Trump.

So what?

  • It's bad if the President of the United States is encouraging terrorism, and worse if he gets his wish.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accidentally told the truth about his tariffs.

In what appears to have been meant as a defense of his trade policies, Trump tweeted today that "Billions of dollars are, and will be, coming into United States coffers because of Tariffs."

This is correct. What Trump didn't mention--and may not even understand--is that those "billions of dollars" are being paid by American consumers.

A tariff is a tax on an imported good. Overseas manufacturers pay those taxes up front, and then recoup those costs by raising prices. 

One of two things then happens. If the tariff "works," it makes the imported product too expensive compared to domestic versions, and American consumers pay a higher price than they normally would (but no taxes are collected). If the higher prices fail to dissuade American consumers, they pay an even higher price, and some of it becomes tax revenue.

Meanwhile, retaliatory tariffs cause the exact same process in reverse. Trump is essentially--but accurately--bragging that he has raised taxes worldwide.

Those retaliatory tariffs have badly hurt American farmers, who exported soybeans and pork (among other products) to China. This forced Trump to use a now-obscure Depression-era program to spend tends of billions of dollars in order to prop up those markets. Among the beneficiaries of this corporate welfare are Chinese companies operating in the United States. In other words, Trump is using taxes paid by American consumers to protect Chinese companies from the consequences of his tariffs against China.

What is the problem here?

  • It should be possible to hear the truth about a president's tax policies without it being an accident.
  • A president who doesn't know or can't remember what a tariff isn't competent to hold office.

Monday, October 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made up imaginary riots.

Before leaving for still yet another campaign rally today, Trump had this exchange with reporters:
Q: You said Californians were rioting over the sanctuary cities. Where?

TRUMP: You shouldn't have -- take a look. They want to get out of sanctuary cities. Many places in California want to get out of sanctuary cities.

Q: But that's not rioting, sir, right?
Q: Where are the riots, sir? 
TRUMP: Yes, it is rioting in some cases. 
There have been no riots over sanctuary city policies, in California or anywhere else.

No American city has any control over immigration policy, and no American city can or does prevent the federal government from deporting or detaining non-citizens for immigration violations. A "sanctuary city" is one that doesn't use its own law enforcement resources to detain people on behalf of the federal government for suspected immigration violations.

By some counts, Trump has told about 5,000 distinct lies in his public statements to date. But with the midterms looming and Trump having all but abandoned the White House for the campaign trail, his lies are taking on a sort of fantastic quality even by his standards. At his Texas rally tonight, Trump claimed that the (United States) Democratic Party had somehow organized a caravan of Honduran migrants (they didn't), that he'd appointed a higher percentage of federal judges than any president since Washington (not even close), that he had eliminated the estate tax (it's still on the books), and that he is "one of the most popular presidents in this country" (he's 11th out of 13 at this point in his presidency since polling began).

Why should I care about this?

  • Even if the president isn't personally capable of controlling the impulse to lie, it still hurts the country to have him do it this much.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got so far out on a limb trying to bribe voters with tax cuts that even Steven Mnuchin couldn't bail him out.

Yesterday, en route to still yet another campaign rally, Trump told reporters that he was "looking at putting in a very major tax cut for middle-income people." Bizarrely, he followed up that vague hint with an impossible deadline: "And if we do that it’ll be sometime just prior, I would say, to November."

As Trump (hopefully) knows, changing tax laws would involve passing a bill through Congress. Congress is not in session and will not be again until November 13. Since tax policy affects every American, and is the way that the government funds itself, even minor technical changes normally take months of planning.

Pressed for comment today, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin--who presumably would have been in the loop on any actual plan--had no explanation for what Trump may have meant.

It's not unheard of for politicians to try to tempt voters with the prospect of lower taxes, but Trump may want to be careful about doubling down on this particular bribe. While the 2017 tax cut package was his one and only significant legislative achievement, it has not been popular. While it has resulted in enormous windfalls for corporations and real estate tycoons, most Americans--and hence most voters--have seen no real change in their tax bills, and the ballooning budget deficit it is causing hasn't helped either.

Why should I care about this?

  • Tax policy can't (and shouldn't) be made up on the spot.
  • Past a certain point, campaign promises can be so obviously fake that it becomes insulting.
  • It's bad if we genuinely can't tell whether a president knows how a bill becomes a law.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called Saudi Arabia's absurd explanation for the death of Jamal Khashoggi "a good first step."

Since Khashoggi's disappearance on October 2, Trump has been desperate to avoid saying or doing anything about the apparent murder of the Washington Post columnist. He has feigned ignorance of the matter when U.S. intelligence agencies had already been informed of it, claimed that (fictional) arms deals with the Saudi government mean he is helpless to act, and unsubtly tried to inject the fact that Khashoggi was not an American citizen into the coverage. (Khashoggi was a permanent resident, and entitled to the full protection of U.S. law, just like Trump's in-laws were until recently.)

Asked about the Saudi government's latest story en route to yet another campaign rally, Trump said that "it was a big first step. It was a good first step."

The latest version of the official Saudi account has the 59-year-old Khashoggi entering the consulate in Istanbul, starting a fistfight with fifteen men, and dying. It does not explain why those men traveled to the consulate, why Khashoggi was recorded being tortured and dismembered, or what happened to his body. The Saudis are "investigating" under the supervision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman--who almost certainly ordered Khashoggi's murder in the first place.

It's not clear whether Trump genuinely believes this absurd version of events, or if he simply feels he cannot afford--because of financial or political debts--to contradict it.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who can't (or won't) condemn outright murder can't do his job.

Friday, October 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He missed the point about ongoing Russian attacks on democracy.

The Justice Department revealed today that it had indicted yet another Russian agent for using social media bots to spread disinformation in advance of the 2018 elections. A reporter broached the subject with Trump, who interrupted with a pre-emptive denial that he was a co-conspirator.

Had nothing to do with my campaign. You know, all of the hackers, and all of the — everybody that you see, nothing to do with my campaign. If the hackers — a lot of them probably like Hillary Clinton better than me. Now they do, now they do. You know, they go after some hacker in Russia they say oh, that had nothing to do with my campaign.

When the reporter asked if Trump had any "warning" for Russia over its continued attempts to undermine American democracy, Trump retorted, "I’ve already said it."

In reality, Trump has gone out of his way to protect the Putin regime. He has suggested that the massive espionage and propaganda campaign he benefited from was the work of China, "somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds," or—inexplicably—the Democratic Party itself. He publicly sided with Putin against his own intelligence services. He even endorsed Putin's offer to let Russian agents "assist" the U.S. with its cyber defense, which led a Republican senator to say, "It's not the dumbest idea I've ever heard, but it's pretty close."

Recently, Trump has taken to sarcastically asking why he would enlist Russia's help to win an election. Earlier this week he told the Associated Press, "To think that I would be even thinking about using Russia to help me win Idaho, we're using Russia to help me win the great state of Iowa or anywhere else is the most preposterous, embarrassing thing."

During the campaign, Trump explicitly asked for Russia's help on live television. Their cyberattacks on the DNC started later that day.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Defending the country and the Constitution is the single most important job that the president has.
  • A president who wasn't guilty or frightened because he owed his presidency to a hostile foreign power's attack on democracy probably wouldn't react so defensively every time the subject came up.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do?

He threatened to give illegal orders to the military.

Riffing on Twitter about immigration this morning, Trump said that if Mexico could not stop a caravan of Central American migrants, he would "call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!"

There are a few problems with this plan--most of them having to do with the fact that the U.S. military obeys U.S. laws. One of them, the Posse Comitatus Act, prohibits using the military as a police force. 

That's why Trump was forced to rely on voluntary donations of National Guard troops from various states for his last attempt at militarizing the border. That didn't go well: National Guard troops sent to the border ended up doing jobs like shoveling manure, and many of the states who sent Guard troops pulled them back when Trump's family separation policy was revealed.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad for a president to say he'll give the military unlawful orders.
  • This—

    —is not a threat that requires the attention of the world's most powerful military.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained that the AP wrote down what he said.

Trump gave a long interview to the Associated Press yesterday, which was fact-checked in detail by other media outlets (including the AP itself, twice) today. 

Trump enjoys attention from the media he claims to hate, and has been especially anxious to get it recently since Fox News stopped carrying his rallies live. But he's often upset by what he sees. Among his 19 tweets today (through 9:30 p.m.) was a complaint that the AP had somehow misled readers with a headline. It seems likely that Trump is referring to this headline:

AP: So my question is, if Republicans were to lose control of the House on November 6th — or a couple of days later depending on how long it takes to count the votes — do you believe you bear some responsibility for that? 
Trump: No, I think I'm helping people.
Trump went on to talk about the primary elections he'd intervened in, and claimed that "many people" had told him that they would never vote in any election where he wasn't on the ballot.

So what?

  • In a democracy, leaders don't get to dictate their own press coverage.
  • It's bad if a president won't or can't acknowledge (or remember) his own words from a day ago.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got into a public pissing match with the adult film actress he cheated on his wife with.

Trump had no public events on his schedule today, which left him free to spend most of the day on Twitter. He made 20 tweets by 10:00 P.M. EDT. One of them was a riff on the news that one of Stormy Daniels' lawsuits against him had been dismissed.

Daniels, whom Trump voluntarily paid $130,000 to not discuss their sexual encounter, responded in kind:

The "letter" Trump is referring to is a statement Daniels made when her non-disclosure agreement with Trump was still in force. She first told In Touch magazine about her affair with Trump in 2011, long before his political career began. (Trump's "fixer" Michael Cohen has since pleaded guilty to campaign finance law violations in association with that hush money payment, which was made days before the 2016 election.)

Trump's threat of a countersuit is probably not giving Daniels much anxiety. Not only would he have to testify under oath in any civil suit, he almost never follows through on his threats to bring libel suits, and has never prevailed on the rare occasions he's actually gone to court.

Why should I care about this?

  • Traditionally, most presidents have been able to get through the day without publicly calling their porn star ex-mistresses names.
  • A president who had a reasonable, non-incriminating explanation for a mysterious six-figure payment to a porn star would have given it by now.

Monday, October 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He helped an authoritarian regime excuse the murder of an American journalist, intentionally or otherwise.

Trump has been visibly reluctant to respond to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist working in the United States. This morning, Trump quoted the official Saudi line:
I just spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia, who denies any knowledge of what took place with regard to, as he said, his Saudi Arabian citizen. I’ve asked — and he firmly denied that... The King told me that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working hand-in-hand, very closely, on getting to the bottom of what happened. So we’ll see what happens. But Mike Pompeo — excuse me — Mike Pompeo is leaving literally within an hour or so. He’s heading to Saudi Arabia. 
We are going to leave nothing uncovered. With that being said, the King firmly denied any knowledge of it. He didn’t really know. Maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows? We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.
Hours later, CNN reported that the Saudi government was preparing to acknowledge that Khashoggi had died in their custody, but planned to blame the murder on agents working "without clearance and transparency."

Or, in other words, that the men who apparently tortured and executed Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate with the full cooperation of its staff were "rogue killers."

NBC later confirmed that reporting. Notably, the Saudi government has not pushed back on these reports, even though Trump's endorsement of King Salman's denial was less than a day old.

There are two ways of explaining the fact that Trump signed on to a foreign government's lie, only to have it immediately abandoned. One is that Trump simply assumes that foreign leaders—especially those of the authoritarian stripe he personally admires—are always telling him the truth. This fits a pattern in his presidency where he has also vouched for the trustworthiness of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

The other possibility is that Trump is simply has too much political and financial capital invested in Saudi Arabia and feels forced to defend its government regardless of what it has done.

What is the problem with this?

  • It shouldn't be this easy to manipulate (or fool) a president.
  • In a democracy, leaders are supposed protect journalists from dictators, rather than the other way around.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He repeated almost every lie or false belief he has about North Korea in one interview.

Trump appeared tonight on the CBS news program 60 Minutes in a pre-taped interview with Lesley Stahl. When the conversation turned to North Korea, Trump said almost nothing that was factually true.

Here was the heart of that exchange:
TRUMP:...And he doesn't wanna go to war, and we don't wanna go to war, and he understands denuclearization and he's agreed to it. And you see that, he's agreed to it. No missiles.
STAHL: Do you trust him?
TRUMP: Sure. I know. It's-- it's very true. But the fact is, I do trust [Kim Jong-un]. But we'll see what happens.
STAHL: But is it true that they haven't gotten rid of a single weapon, and they may actually be building more missiles-
TRUMP: They want to--
STAHL: With nuclear--
TRUMP: And I will tell you that they're closing up sites.
STAHL: But--
TRUMP: Setting it up.
STAHL: Is what I said true, that they haven't? Gotten--
TRUMP: Well, nobody really knows. I mean, people are saying that. I've actually said that.
STAHL: What? That they're still building missiles, more missiles?
TRUMP: We don't really know, Lesley. We really don't know. 
In spite of what he claimed tonight, Trump does know (or, at least, has been told) that the Kim regime has rapidly accelerated its missile program since their summit in June, building on its recent successful test of a missile that can probably reach the U.S. mainland.

In essence, Trump is claiming that the fact that North Korea hasn't tested a nuclear weapon since last September means that they are cooperating. But once a nuclear design has proved out in testing, it can be mass-produced and there is no need for further testing. (The same is true of missiles.)

For example, the United States has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1992--but it is still a nuclear power.

The other central lie here was that Kim had "understands denuclearization and [has] agreed to it." In reality, North Korea defines "denuclearization" very differently than the United States, and has "agreed" to nothing binding in any way. None of the concessions that Trump has made to North Korea have in any way led to a lessening of its nuclear attack capability.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents should not lie to the American public about a nuclear threat.
  • It's a bad idea to publicly declare your "trust" (much less your "love") for a nuclear-armed dictator who has constantly lied to you.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got the effects of his family separation policy wrong.

This morning, Trump defended his policy of separating children from their parents when they end up in the custody of immigration officials--including refugees and asylum-seekers.

Trump's logic was that the prospect of losing their children was a good form of deterrence for adult border-crossers: "If they feel there will be separation, they don’t come."

In reality, as his own government's statistics show, the family separation policy--which spurred bipartisan alarm as to its cruelty and incredibly shoddy administration--had no effect whatsoever. Trump's use of family separation began in October 2017 and continued in force through June 2018. 5,129 more people traveling in family groups were apprehended crossing the border in that period than in the same 9-month period for the previous year.

Families willing to risk the border crossing rarely feel they have a choice, whether they qualify for asylum or not, are fleeing horrific gang violence, collapsed economies, and political persecution

It's not clear whether Trump knows this and was lying, or has not been told about the ineffectiveness of child separation as a deterrent.

Why should I care about this?

  • Policies that ignore facts are usually bad policies.
  • Deliberately inflicting harm on children to achieve political goals is evil.

Friday, October 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He did a little gaslighting on the subject of a murdered journalist.

Trump spent much of yesterday and today under fire for shrugging off the disappearance of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi. Asked about it en route to his thirty-fourth campaign rally since taking office, Trump said that "nobody knows" what happened to Khashoggi.

The Turkish government has said publicly that it has audio of Khashoggi being tortured inside the compound by men speaking Arabic. Khashoggi was a dissident who had angered the influential Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Not everything about the situation is yet known to the average citizen, but Trump is the President of the United States, and he almost certainly knew exactly what had happened to Khashoggi before his disappearance was made public. This knowledge would have come from intelligence intercepts and information provided directly to him by the Turkish government before Khashoggi was publicly reported missing. In fact, it is very likely that Trump was informed about the danger to Khashoggi before he even entered the embassy.

Trump is entangled in a number of personal and financial ways with the Saudi ruling elite. Saudi Arabia was the first foreign country Trump visited as president, and he was still talking about his "love" for the country's ruling royal family at a different campaign rally last week--after Khashoggi had disappeared, and after Trump had presumably been notified.

Why does this matter?

  • Playing dumb isn't a great look for the President of the United States.
  • A president who can't act in defense of American values, or the people under the protection of its laws, isn't fit for office.
  • There is a reason that every president before Trump made sure they couldn't be bribed or blackmailed by business connections before they took office.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He put a price on the United States' tolerance for murder of journalists.

Trump was asked this morning about the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which appears to have been committed at the Saudi embassy in Turkey by agents of the Saudi government. 

Trump's answer was, in effect, that the murder of a journalist could not be allowed to threaten the purchase of weapons from American arms dealers. He referenced Saudi weapons purchases four times in his answer.

REPORTER: Will Jamal Khashoggi’s case affect the way you deal with MBS or other Saudi officials? 
TRUMP: We have to see what happens. A lot of work is being done on that, and we’re going to have to see what happens. I don’t like stopping, uh, massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on — I, I, I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like — jobs and others, for — this country. 
I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States, uh, because you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China, or someplace else. So I think there are other ways. If it turns out to be as bad as it might be, there are certainly other ways of handling the situation.
But I will tell you, upfront, right now, and I’ll say it in front of senators: they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. Uh — If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, “Well, thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia.” Or “Thank you very much, we’ll buy it from China.” That doesn’t help us — not when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on that work. 
But there are other things we can do. Let’s find out what the problem is first. Okay? 
REPORTER You mean sanctions in that case? You oppose sanctions against Saudi Arabia? 
TRUMP: I oppose — I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all-time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money. Because all they’re going to do is say, “That’s okay. We don’t have to buy it from Boeing. We don’t have to buy it from Lockheed. We don’t have to buy it from Raytheon and all these great companies. We’ll buy it from Russia. We’ll buy it from China.” 
So what good does that do us? There are other things we can do.

Even countries as powerful as the United States can't act with impunity on the world stage, but this may be the first time ever that a president has explicitly put a dollar figure on the United States government's willingness to tolerate state-sponsored murder of journalists.

Trump may feel he has to protect the "$110 billion" arms deal because he's already taken credit for it, even though it was begun under the Obama administration, and even though it doesn't really exist except in the form of unenforceable promises to consider buying weapons in the future. ($110 billion would be about 42% of Saudi Arabia's entire annual budget.)

But more to the point, Trump has already allowed himself to be compromised by the Saudi government. His faltering U.S. hotels have been propped up by Saudi government patronage, and the Saudi royal family bailed him out on several occasions during the 1990s. Trump himself admitted the conflict of interest on the campaign trail in 2015: “They [Saudis] buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

Trump has given over much of his Middle East policy to his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful figure thought to be behind the Khashoggi plot, has openly boasted of his ability to manipulate Kushner and hence the United States government.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who is too compromised to act in defense of the United States is too weak to hold office.
  • When the United States retreats from defending freedom of the press, authoritarians take advantage.
  • There is no dollar figure that can be put on American values.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told an awful lot of lies into a short op-ed.

Trump's name appeared over an op-ed about health care policy in USA Today this morning. Health care is an issue of major concern for voters in the coming election, and Trump is politically vulnerable on it. The piece took the form of an attack on proposals to expand Medicare to all Americans, which Trump falsely attributed to all Democrats.

The op-ed was not well received by fact-checkers, who found lies or deceptive phrasing in almost every sentence, including these:

  • A Democratic plan "would cost an astonishing $32.6 trillion during its first 10 years." That's a lot of money, and certainly the highest estimate Trump could find on the subject, but even so it is $2 trillion less than projections for the current system. 
  • "As a candidate, I promised that we would protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions." He certainly did make that promise, and then immediately broke it. In a nearly unprecedented move, Trump has ordered the federal government not to defend Obamacare in a lawsuit filed by Republican state officials seeking to overturn those protections for patients with pre-existing conditions.
  • “We are now seeing health insurance premiums coming down.” They're not--they're just rising more slowly than in 2017. Last year, insurers "priced in" Trump's attempts to sabotage the subsidies and individual mandate at the core of the U.S. health care system. 
  • "I am committed to resolutely defending Medicare and Social Security from the radical socialist plans of the Democrats." Whatever your opinion of socialism as a political philosophy, all single-payer health care programs (including Medicare) are socialized health care. Trump knows this, and from time to time (as recently as last May) has enthusiastically endorsed it, although he so often forgets what his "official" position is on health care that it's probably not fair to read too much into that.

Why does this matter?

  • Policies that need to be lied about probably aren't good policies.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reluctantly decided not to try to put his own daughter in his cabinet.

Trump address reporters this afternoon about the surprise resignation of U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. A reporter asked whether he was considering replacing her with one of his national security advisors, Dina Powell, in order to replace "one strong woman with another."

Well Dina's certainly a person I would consider, and she is under consideration. We have actually many names... There are other, I've heard a lot of names. I've heard Ivanka! I've heard, 'How good would Ivanka be!' The people that know, it's nothing to do with nepotism, but I want to tell you, the people that know, know that Ivanka would be dynamite. But, uh, I'd then be accused of nepotism, if you can believe it, right? Yes? ...I think Ivanka would be incredible, that doesn't mean I'd, I'd pick her, because--you'd be accused of nepotism! Even thought I'm not sure there's anyone more competent in the world.
Given the definition of the word--"favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship"--Trump is probably correct that he would be accused of nepotism if he appointed his daughter, a model turned fashion brand owner, to a cabinet-level diplomatic post. 

Ivanka Trump herself, who sometimes shows better political awareness than her father, quickly took herself out of the running--but remains in her current job, Senior Advisor to the President. (Her husband, Jared Kushner--like Donald Trump the heir to a real estate fortune--holds the same title.)

Trump's flirtation with gifting his daughter the a cabinet-level position comes a week after the release of a report showing that his own father essentially purchased all of his businesses for him, in illegal tax schemes that gave him a $413 million head start in the business world. (Trump still claims he received only a "small loan of a million dollars.") 

Why should I care about this?

  • Government jobs should be given to the people most qualified to do them, not to favored children of the president.

Monday, October 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed he'd been totally transparent about his taxes.

With Brett Kavanaugh fading somewhat from the headlines, Trump was asked again about last week's epic New York Times report on decades of Trump family tax evasion. The normally understated paper called it an "outright fraud" that amounted to more than half a billion dollars in tax-free gifts from Fred Trump to his children. Trump, who threatens libel at the drop of a hat, was notably muted in his response. (A summary of the major findings of the 14,000-word report is here.)

Today, asked about the story again, Trump insisted that his family's finances were "very well documented. Very well documented. Yeah, it’s been documented for many years very well — all public documents."

In reality, most of the roughly 100,000 documents that the NYT reporters relied on to write their report were not public, and appear to have been obtained from sources within the Trump camp. This secrecy makes sense from the standpoint of self-preservation, since the actions they describe point to a massive and multi-faceted attempt to illegally evade gift and estate taxes.

Trump is also the only president or presidential candidate since President Nixon to refuse to release his personal tax returns.

Why does this matter?

  • Past a certain point, a lie can be so obvious that it becomes an insult.
  • It shouldn't be possible to credibly accuse the person in charge of enforcing tax laws with taking part in a conspiracy to commit $550,000,000 worth of tax evasion.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tweeted about North Korea, for whatever that's worth.

Trump spent the day at the golf course, as is typical for him, but was otherwise uncharacteristically silent. His only public comment was a tweet in which he congratulated Mike Pompeo in nonspecific terms about a "good meeting with Chairman Kim today in Pyongyang" where there was "progress made." Trump also repeated his intention to meet with the North Korean dictator again soon.

But it's not clear from any independent reporting what, if anything, Trump was talking about--and given Trump's history on North Korea, it's equally unclear whether Trump would have needed there to be anything to talk about. 

North Korea has honed a strategy over decades of making peace overtures to gain concessions, and then immediately reneging on any promises made. The fact that the George W. Bush and Obama administrations were mostly focused on keeping North Korea isolated, rather than trying to "deal" with a totalitarian regime ruled by a tiny, hereditary elite is a reflection of previous administrations' experience.

Trump, however, staked an enormous amount of political credibility on his belief that he was uniquely qualified to make a "deal"--so much so that he literally declared his June summit meeting with Kim a success the morning before it happened. Since that meeting, North Korea has

Trump, in turn, has tweeted that "there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea." He also told a rally crowd last week that he and Kim "fell in love."

Why does this matter?

  • The nuclear security of the United States and its allies is much, much more important than any president's poll numbers.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He spent what should have been a day of celebration for him lying about crowd size.

A day after labeling anti-Kavanaugh protestors as "#troublemakers" and saying they were paid off, Trump was back at the theme on Twitter. In a tweet shortly after Kavanaugh was confirmed, he insisted that there were "about 200 people (& most are onlookers)" protesting in front of the Supreme Court.

In reality, "about 200" is a pretty good estimate of just the number of people arrested during anti-Kavanaugh protests. Even though the vote was a foregone conclusion, protestors were out in force at both the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol, as well as elsewhere around the country.

Crowd size has always been a fixation for Trump: he lashes out at staff when crowds at his own rallies are thin, and he famously spent his first full day in office furious about images showing his inauguration was poorly attended compared to President Obama's. 

Ironically, he is one of the few American politicians in modern history to have actually paid people to cheer at his own rallies: much of the crowd at his official campaign announcement were paid actors earning $50 to be there, and waved "homemade" signs provided by event organizers. (Trump said yesterday that protestors couldn't be real because some had printed signs.)

But the more likely reason that Trump is pretending that protestors are paid, or few in number, is that Kavanaugh was deeply unpopular with voters for a Supreme Court nominee. 

So what?

  • In a democracy, leaders don't try to shame people for using their right to free speech.
  • It's wrong to lie.

Friday, October 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He repurposed an anti-Semitic smear campaign to attack sexual assault survivors.

Last week, Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher confronted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in a Senate elevator doorway and tearfully told him of their sexual assaults. The raw and emotional moment went viral, and temporarily derailed the confirmation process.

This morning, Trump accused the "very rude elevator screamers" protesting against his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of being "paid for by [George] Soros."

George Soros is a wealthy financier who has contributed to a number of pro-democracy organizations. This has made him the target of a number of false conspiracy theories, many of which attack him on the basis of the fact that he is Jewish.

Archila's employer, the Center for Popular Democracy, has accepted donations from Soros' Open Society Institute. She was not being "paid by Soros" when she begged Flake not to vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

Why should I care about this?

  • Political opposition is part of democracy, not a global conspiracy.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accused Democrats of taking his own position on health care.

At a campaign rally in Minnesota tonight, Trump said this:
Republicans want to protect Medicare for our great seniors who have earned it and they have paid for it. And we will always protect Americans with pre-existing conditions, we are going to take care of them... Some of the Democrats have been talking about ending pre-existing conditions. You know what I say? We get a little more money from China. It’ll be just fine. We’ll be just fine.
Last year, when health care--in the form of repealing the ACA, or Obamacare--was the main focus of Trump's domestic agenda, Trump was easily befuddled by the details, and occasionally forgot which side of the debate he was on.

But even by those standards, it is impossible to know what "Democrats" Trump thinks are on the side of ending the ACA's protection for health insurance customers with pre-existing conditions. That protection is a defining feature of Obamacare, which Trump wanted repealed at all costs.

In reality, the party that has shown opposition to the ACA's pre-existing conditions rule is Trump's own. Republican officials from 20 states have signed on to a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the ACA (including those protections) and Trump himself has refused to allow the federal government to defend the law in court.

Trump also did not explain what China had to do with U.S. health insurance.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who can't remember what his own position is on major policy issues is dangerously incompetent.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He blustered on the New York Times' bombshell story about his "outright fraud" on his family's taxes, but didn't refute any of it.

Yesterday, the New York Times published a 14,000-word investigative report on a complicated tax scheme in which Donald Trump, his siblings and other relatives, and his father spent decades falsifying records, hiding assets, and lying about the source of Donald's wealth. A summary is available here.

The piece relied on more than 100,000 documents and took more than a year to report. It is notable for its strong language: it says that Donald Trump (and others) lied and committed state and federal crimes, and that Trump was guilty of "outright fraud." It also explodes Trump's insistence that he only ever took "a small loan of a million dollars" from his father: in fact, the NYT demonstrates, Donald Trump was gifted about $413,000,000 (in 2018 dollars) from Fred Trump, most of it through illegal untaxed back-channels.

The charges are so sharply worded that even Trump, as a public figure, could easily prevail in a libel suit if any of them were shown to be false. Indeed, Trump threatens libel suits at the drop of a hat, although rarely follows through, and has never prevailed in court. 

But Trump completely avoided comment on the report yesterday, and today could not refute any specific fact in the piece. He did complain that the piece talked about the basic concept in finance of "time value of money," saying that he'd "never seen [that] done before." (Trump frequently brags about his undergraduate economics degree, where he should have learned about time value of money in his first year.) 

Even here, though, it's not clear why Trump is bringing it up here. Time value of money certainly could have been part of a piece about an elaborate tax fraud, but the NYT piece simply adjusted figures for inflation to arrive at its conclusion that the amount of money Fred Trump illegally funneled to Donald Trump was worth about $413 million in 2018 dollars.

Trump's refusal to address any of the specific charges in the report means that he is leaving unchallenged claims that he and his family committed massive tax fraud, lied to regulators about rent increases related to that fraud, and that Donald Trump specifically tried to get an even larger share of his dying father's estate with a last-minute adjustment to Fred Trump's will.

Why should I care about this?

  • The person in charge of signing tax laws and enforcing them should not be someone who cheats on his taxes.
  • Basic economic literacy is a requirement for the presidency (and a B.A. in economics).

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?


Earlier in the day, Trump said that it was a "very scary time for young men in America" because women could accuse them of sexual assault or rape.

Violent sexual crimes are among the most under-reported crimes, in large part because victims tend to be shamed or disbelieved.

In between his various attacks on Dr. Ford, Trump has called her account "very credible" and said that she was a "very fine woman."

Trump has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by at least 19 different women. He has admitted to "grabbing women by the pussy" because he knew his fame and influence would let him get away with it.

Why does this matter?

  • There is no political prize so important that it is worth scaring sexual assault victims from coming forward.
  • The most charitable interpretation of Trump calling Ford both "very credible" and viciously attacking her as a liar is that he is mentally unstable.