Friday, November 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He went on the defensive after admitting he'd lied to voters about his Russia ties.

Reeling after a terrible news day in which he was forced to admit he lied to Republican primary voters about his ongoing business ties to Russia, Trump tried to mitigate the damage on Twitter. Addressing his now-unveiled 2016 plans to build Trump Tower Moscow, Trump characterized it this way:

Oh, I get it! I am a very good developer, happily living my life, when I see our Country going in the wrong direction (to put it mildly). Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool, talked about it on the campaign trail... ....Lightly looked at doing a building somewhere in Russia. Put up zero money, zero guarantees and didn’t do the project. Witch Hunt!

Some of this is at least technically true. It was not illegal for Trump to seek out business in Putin's Russia, or even to repeatedly lie about whether he was doing that while running for president. (It probably would have been illegal if his proposed $50 million bribe of Vladimir Putin had happened—U.S. citizens aren't allowed to pay or even offer bribes to foreign governments—but prosecution seems unlikely on that point.)

And Trump's claim that he put up "zero money" is also true, at least as far as we know at the moment. The financing for what would have been a billion-dollar project was slated to come not from Trump (who was effectively blackballed from legitimate banks anyway), but from a Russian state-owned institution, VTB Bank.

VTB Bank was (and remains) under sanction by the United States, which would have put Trump's investment on legally shaky ground. But that didn't dissuade Trump from signing a letter of intent just two weeks after Putin's government guaranteed Trump's financing. Trump signed the letter the same day that he participated in the third Republican primary debate.

Whether pursuing the project for a full year after starting his presidential run, lining up financing from a U.S.-sanctioned bank, involving his adult children and a Trump Organization vice-president, and obtaining permission from Putin himself counts as "lightly looking" is a matter of opinion.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong for a presidential candidate to lie to voters about who is or isn't influencing them.
  • It's incredibly stupid and dangerous for a presidential candidate to give a hostile foreign country leverage over him—even if it might be good for the candidate's private business.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted he'd lied to the American people about his business interests in Russia.

This morning, Michael Cohen, Trump's fixer and longtime Trump Organization executive, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. Cohen admitted that he'd lied to protect Trump politically, by (falsely) saying that Trump wasn't seeking to do business in Russia during the campaign.

Since entering politics, Trump has insisted over and over again that he had no business interests in Russia.

Reacting to the Cohen plea, Trump was forced to admit this afternoon that he'd been pursuing a massive construction project in Moscow well into 2016, and that, notwithstanding his years of denials, that "everybody knew about it."

Specifically, as BuzzFeed News reported today, Trump was dealing directly with Dmitry Peskov, a Putin lieutenant. Trump wanted to give Putin a $50 million penthouse in the proposed Moscow Trump Tower, in the hopes of making the money back from other Russian oligarchs.

Voters knew none of this. Almost all of the 2016 Republican primaries had taken place by the time work finally stopped on the project. That fact raises national security concerns. By engaging in secret deals with Russian interests, and deliberately concealing them from voters, Trump gave the Putin regime leverage over him.

This may to some extent explain Trump's astonishing deference to Putin, even after he became president. And that in turn would explain Putin's willingness to go extraordinary lengths to make sure that Trump became president.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's bad if a presidential candidate hands a hostile foreign power the tools to blackmail him with.
  • It's wrong to lie to voters about things that would make them not vote for you if they knew the truth.
  • The part where Trump tried to give Vladimir Putin a $50 million gift.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised to expose government secrets, if Democrats tried to investigate him.

Today, Trump told the New York Post that he would declassify law enforcement secrets if and only if Democrats in Congress tried to investigate whether he conspired with Russia's sabotage of the 2016 election:
If they go down the presidential harassment track, if they want go and harass the president and the administration, I think that would be the best thing that would happen to me. I’m a counter-puncher and I will hit them so hard they’d never been hit like that. ...I think that would help my campaign. If they want to play tough, I will do it. They will see how devastating those pages are.
The documents Trump has identified as somehow supposedly "devastating" to Democrats include FISA warrants, which federal law enforcement uses to surveil foreign intelligence targets. They are almost always highly classified, because they contain information about how the United States government conducts its counterespionage operations.

Trump has flirted with this idea before, and in September he ordered carefully selected portions of the FISA warrant against his foreign policy advisor Carter Page released. (Page was almost certainly a Russian dupe, if not actively collaborating in their efforts to infiltrate the Trump campaign.)

Trump has never specified why the supposed documents would be so "devastating," or—even if they were—how that would exonerate him.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents shouldn't hold their own government hostage.
  • The security of the United States is more important than Donald Trump's criminal defense.
  • "Other people also did bad things" is not a legitimate criminal defense.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He squirmed away from questions about whether he was planning to "help" Paul Manafort.

Yesterday, convicted felon and Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort was accused by the special counsel's office of lying to the FBI in violation of their plea agreement. 

Since Manafort needs prosecutors' help to avoid spending the rest of his life in jail, many observers quickly concluded that Manafort's plan was to lie during his "cooperation" in order to help Trump, who would then reward him with a pardon. This would almost certainly be criminal obstruction of justice, for which Trump himself could be prosecuted after leaving office. 

Trump gave an interview to the Washington Post today, and was asked about Manafort. He refused to say on the record whether he intended to "help" Manafort.
Q: Last night, Mr. President, the special counsel’s team charged Paul Manafort with saying, they accused him at least of saying more lies, and ended his plea deal. People around you have told me you’re upset about the way he’s been treated. Are you planning to do anything to help him? 
TRUMP: Let me go off the record because I don’t want to get in the middle of the whole thing. 
[Trump speaks off the record.] 
Q: Is there any version of that you're willing to give us on the record in answer to that question? 
TRUMP: I’d rather not. At some point, I’ll talk on the record about it. But I’d rather not. 
[Trump speaks off the record.]
This evening, the New York Times reported that Manafort was indeed secretly feeding information about the Mueller probe back to Trump's defense lawyers during Manafort's supposed "cooperation."

Why does this matter?

  • A president who wasn't planning to obstruct justice by making a bargain with a criminal co-conspirator could probably just say so.

Monday, November 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He proposed that the United States create (another) state-run media apparatus.

This afternoon, Trump shared an idea he had:

There already is an official government agency that broadcasts news overseas: the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which produces (among other things) Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the Middle East Broadcast Networks.

But the USAGM is outside of Trump's immediate influence (though he is making an effort to change that), and is designed to be nonpartisan. Its productions are also intended to be informative and reflect the United States in a positive light, which is very different from the commercial cable news programs that Trump is known to watch obsessively.

Trump routinely refers to media outlets he can't control as "enemies of the people," a phrase that has historical resonance in countries that have state-run media with the kind of more celebratory approach to their regimes that Trump seems to have in mind.

It's not clear whether Trump knew these U.S. government overseas news agencies existed when he suggested that the U.S. government create an overseas news agency, or whether he simply wanted one he could control.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Creating state-run media to celebrate the leader is what authoritarians do.
  • Part of the job of being president is knowing what the government does.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tear-gassed infants and small children.

U.S. Border Patrol agents have been massed to meet a group of asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. Today, they fired tear gas across the border into Mexico at several hundred of that group who were attempting to walk across the border adjacent to an official checkpoint.

Those affected included children.

The "caravan" has assembled in Tijuana, in full view of officials on both sides, to claim refugee status. It is not guaranteed, and they may be deported if their claims are rejected.

Under U.S. law, it is legal to cross the border at any point to present an asylum claim. Last week, a federal judge blocked an attempt by Trump to circumvent this law.

Why is this bad?

  • Because it involves the tear-gassing of infants and children.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He "worked hard" on the golf course for the fourth consecutive day.

Trump spent his fourth straight day at one of his many private golf courses today, although as usual, the White House refused to acknowledge it. 

There is nothing unusual about Trump golfing: he rarely spends more than a few consecutive nights at the White House, preferring abbreviated work weeks that take him to his private resorts. He's golfed about twice a week since taking office. For the most part, commentators have even tired of pointing out his criticism of President Obama's comparatively mild golf habit, and his campaign promise that he'd be "too busy working" as president to hit the links.

Before leaving for his private Florida resort on Tuesday, Trump said he'd be working hard over the holiday: 'We have a lot of work we're going to be doing in Florida." Here is a complete list of Trump's work-related activities since returning from a tour of the California wildfires last Saturday:

Sunday, Nov. 18: none

Monday, Nov. 19: appearance at the delivery of the White House Christmas tree, and a lunch with Vice-President Pence

Tuesday, Nov. 20: the traditional "pardoning of the turkey" ceremony

Wednesday, Nov. 21: none

Thursday, Nov. 22: a conference call with U.S. servicemembers abroad and a visit to a local Coast Guard station

Friday, Nov. 23: none

Saturday, Nov. 24: none

Trump has no work-related activities scheduled for tomorrow and, weather permitting, is expected to play golf.

Why does this matter?

  • The presidency is a full-time job.

Friday, November 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to bury his own administration's findings on climate change.

The National Climate Assessment is a report issued every four years by a group of federal agencies. The 2018 edition begins with these words: "Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities."

This is not a surprising finding, but it is politically inconvenient for Trump, who pretends publicly not to believe the overwhelming scientific consensus on how human activity is altering the climate. (Privately, it's a different story.)

The NCA is produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which reports to the Executive Office of the President—which is to say, Trump had the final say on the timing of the 2018 report. It came out today, tucked between a national holiday and the weekend, and after two consecutive days of tweets in which Trump pretended to think that cold weather meant climate change wasn't happening.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to lie.
  • Ignoring problems doesn't make them go away.
  • There are more important problems with climate change than what it does to Donald Trump's poll numbers.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He literally phoned in a message to U.S. troops, and used it to attack judges he doesn't like.

Trump, who dodged service in Vietnam, has come under criticism for his failure to visit American troops in war zones. (Trump, whose physical bravery is not exactly legendary, reportedly fears assassination if he travels to Afghanistan, but another excuse attributed to him—that he doesn't care because he didn't personally start that war—is also plausible.) 

Thanksgiving is a traditional time for such a visit—all of his four most recent predecessors made time to share turkey with troops abroad—but Trump decided a conference call from his Mar-a-Lago resort would suffice.

He used the opportunity to smear the federal judiciary, which has ruled any number of his policies unconstitutional, saying: 

We get a lot of bad court decisions from the Ninth Circuit, which has become a big thorn in our side. We always lose, and then you lose again and again, and then you hopefully win at the Supreme Court, which we have done. But it's a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services, when they tell you how to protect your border. It's a disgrace.

Trump incorrectly believes that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked his attempt to circumvent U.S. law regarding asylum seekers. In fact, it was a district court judge.

Trump's rambling discussion with selected servicemembers also covered his preference for steam catapults on aircraft carriers, rather than electromagnetic ones (which an officer gently corrected him about), the improving "brand" of the Coast Guard, and how good his own undergraduate education was.

He also found time to say what he was most thankful for: that he himself had made a tremendous difference in this country."

Members of the military are forbidden by law from overt political activism, and presidents—until Trump—have usually been content not to publicly drag them into political squabbles.

It doesn't seem to be helping: Trump's approval rating among members of the United States military has been plummeting since he took office. In addition to those deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of troops are "deployed" away from home within the United States today, in what is generally regarded by military experts as an election stunt.

So what?

  • The United States military is not a political prop.
  • Judicial decisions are not "bad" just because they go against the President.
  • Governments that don't have to worry about court decisions are called dictatorships.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got confused about what side of oil prices Saudi Arabia was on.

Trump continued to do damage control today over his full-throated defense of the Saudi government. Most of it centered on the relatively low oil prices of the moment, which prompted Trump to say, "Thank you to Saudi Arabia" in a tweet this morning.

Besides promoting the idea that America's loyalty can be bought with cheap gasoline, there are a few problems with giving Saudi Arabia "thanks" for low prices.

First, the Saudi royal family—whose government is funded almost entirely by oil revenues—desperately wants and has steadfastly pursued higher oil prices through reduced supply. It allowed a blip of higher production recently to guard against disturbances to the market from embargoes against Iran, but was already throttling back production to maximize its own revenues when Trump continued his public relations campaign on behalf of the Saudi royal family.

Also, prices have fallen because of decreased demand. Here Trump can, in a way, take some credit: oil markets are slumping because of fears that his trade war will hurt manufacturing worldwide. Idle factories do not consume energy.

Finally, the fuel that goes into Americans' cars comes much more from domestic sources (the U.S. produced 76% of the oil it uses in 2015) and from Canada (which contributes 40% of the imported oil consumed by the U.S.) than from Saudi Arabia. 

Trump, who has steadfastly refused to put his business interests in a blind trust, is personally financially beholden to the Saudis.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents don't have to be the economic geniuses that Donald Trump thinks he is, but they do have to understand how supply and demand work.
  • It's bad if we can't tell how much of foreign policy is being driven by a president's personal financial interests.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took sides with Saudi Arabia against the CIA and the American journalist their government had murdered.

Trump issued a statement today on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident who was murdered in Istanbul last month. Its tone and formatting were slightly bizarre—it used eight exclamation points and began with a Trump campaign slogan—and suggested that it had been dictated by Trump and then rushed into publication and before aides could intervene

Trump's main purpose seems to be exonerating the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the statement, Trump said that "we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi," and suggested that it was impossible to know if bin Salman had known about the plot.

But in reality, all of the relevant facts—including an audio recording of Khashoggi's torture and murder that Trump has publicly said he refuses to listen to—are already known. The CIA has informed Trump in no uncertain terms that Khashoggi's murder was ordered by bin Salman

Trump did not explain, in the statement or afterwards, why he thought he knew better than the CIA. But it would not be the first time that he has chosen to take the word of a dictator over his own intelligence agencies' findings. 

The statement insisted that the United States had, essentially, no choice but to let Saudi Arabia off the hook, because of the economic ties between the two countries. (Trump once again cited a figure, $110 billion in arms sales, and implied that he had negotiated some kind of deal. In reality, the "deal" was finalized by President Obama and is merely a non-binding expression of Saudi Arabia's intent to eventually buy weapons.)

Trump is personally financially beholden to the Saudis.

Why does this matter?

  • The principles of the United States are not supposed to be up for sale to anyone who promises to buy enough weapons (or rent enough hotel rooms).
  • A president who is too compromised to act in defense of the United States is too weak to hold office.
  • It's bad if the president just ignores what experts tell him whenever he doesn't like the news.

Monday, November 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to take credit for the capture of Osama bin Laden.

Yesterday, in an interview with Fox News, Trump was asked about comments by retired Adm. William McRaven, who had criticized Trump's attacks on the free press. Predictably, Trump attacked McRaven, blaming him for not "finding Osama bin Laden sooner."

McRaven commanded the Navy SEAL team that, in 2011, killed the al-Qaeda terrorist leader.

Apparently caught off-guard by the public reaction to his questioning of McRaven's military competency, Trump doubled down today. He insisted that bin Laden should have been captured because Trump had mentioned bin Laden in a 2000 book, tweeting, "Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center."

In that book, The America We Deserve, Trump (or his ghostwriter) mentions bin Laden exactly once:
One day we’re all assured that Iraq is under control, the UN inspectors have done their work, everything’s fine, not to worry. The next day the bombing begins. One day we’re told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin-Laden is public enemy number one, and U.S. jetfighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it’s on to a new enemy and new crisis.
This isn't the first time Trump has demanded praise for "predicting" bin Laden. But bin Laden was already infamous in the United States, and already being pursued by the military long before Trump "pointed him out." 

Trump has tried to write himself into the bin Laden story in other ways, too: he lied about sending relief workers to the World Trade Center, and he lied about personally helping with the rescue efforts.

Why should I care about this?

  • There is a difference between having read a newspaper article about a terrorist and helping to capture him.
  • It's bad if the commander-in-chief of the United States military is contemptuous of the people who serve in it.
  • Presidents who can't bear to hear any criticism aren't emotionally fit for the job.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got confused and angry about his legal situation, again.

Trump, whose temper seems to have gotten even worse than usual post-midterms, with the prospect of more Russia indictments and real investigation of his finances and Russia ties looming, lashed out on Twitter today. His target was Rep. Adam Schiff—or, as Trump called him, "Adam Schitt."

It's hardly the worst thing Trump has said, and Schiff himself seemed to take it more or less in stride.
Trump is easily confused on legal matters, but whether or not he knows it, he is wrong and Schiff—who will chair the House Intelligence Committee starting in January—is right.

Under the Constitution, principal officers of the government (which means the heads of departments who report directly to the President) must have been confirmed by the Senate. Whitaker, who is apparently under investigation for fraud by the FBI he now oversees, was not serving in a Senate-confirmed role at the time he was elevated over several qualified Trump appointees in the DOJ. It's still possible that the courts will rule this doesn't apply to the acting attorney general, but precedent isn't on Trump's side.

Special counsels are never confirmed by the Senate, but for the record, Mueller has been confirmed twice in a different role, as director of the FBI. Given the number of times Trump has claimed otherwise, it's not clear whether he genuinely doesn't know this, or is simply pretending not to.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who can't control his emotional outbursts isn't fit for the job.
  • Neither is a president who can't or won't hold on to basic factual knowledge related to that job.
  • A president should probably have at least some dignity, for the sake of the office.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

Trump traveled to fire-ravaged parts of California today, and continued his theme of blaming the victims. Returning to his incorrect assertion that California's land management—but not really drought—caused fires, Trump insisted that they could have been avoided if California followed the fire prevention strategy of… Finland.

Specifically, Trump insisted that the President of Finland had told him that that country didn't have "any problem" with forest fires, because it "raked" the forest floors. (UPDATE, 11/18: Finnish president Sauli Niinisto cannot recall making any such remark.)

It is difficult to explain how wrong this is, but a Twitter user raised in Finland identified the main problems.

But in addition to being wrong about Finland's forest fires (which do happen, though not always as often as the Finnish government would like), Trump has been persistently confused about why California's (urban) fires have been so bad. Management of public forests is not to blame: most of the land affected is privately owned. And most of the public lands involved are federally owned—and so under Trump's jurisdiction, not California's. 

71 people are dead, and more than 1,000 people are unaccounted for in the fires. Trump has not rescinded his threat to cut back even further on fire prevention funds.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents don't have to be experts in every subject, but they do have to listen to people who actually know what they're talking about.
  • It's wrong to blame other people for your own negligence.

Friday, November 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He actually came pretty close to a true statement about refugees.

In two tweets today, Trump abruptly returned to a subject he'd gone predictably silent on in the wake of the midterms: the so-called "caravan" of Central American refugees currently in Mexico. He wrote: 
Isn’t it ironic that large Caravans of people are marching to our border wanting U.S.A. asylum because they are fearful of being in their country - yet they are proudly waving.... ....their country’s flag. Can this be possible? Yes, because it is all a BIG CON, and the American taxpayer is paying for it!
While it may hurt Trump's feelings to think so, it is possible to love one's country while fearing or despising its government of the moment. 

But political persecution is only one of the reasons that the migrants themselves cite. Most spoke of their fears that their children would be killed by rampant gang violence in what are essentially failed states, or that they or their families would be unable to find food or other essentials of life if they stayed.

But Trump is correct that the American taxpayer is "paying" as a result of this specific migrant caravan. Specifically, in the form of a much-derided military deployment, which expected to cost somewhere between $50 and $220 million. By law—though not one Trump is fully aware of, apparently—the military cannot be a domestic police force. As a result, the roughly 8,000 troops deployed away from home over Thanksgiving and for an unknown time afterwards have been largely used for menial tasks, when they have been given any work to do at all.

So what?

  • Flags don't tell you anything specific about the loyalties of the person wrapped up in them.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He chose a bad moment to claim victory on how America's veterans are treated by his administration.

The three hours of work on Trump's public schedule today amounted to a "do-over" on celebrating veterans, which he pointedly neglected to do earlier this week. In tweets on the subject, he said:
Since my inauguration, we have removed more than 3,600 government employees who were not giving our Vets the care they deserve....It is our sacred duty to support America’s Service Members every single day they wear the uniform – and every day after when they return home as Veterans.
NBC News reported this week that hundreds of thousands of veterans had gone without the GI Bill benefits they were owed for months. As of today, there was no solution in sight.

It's not clear if any of the "3,600 government employees" Trump says he "removed" would have been useful in honoring his administration's legal responsibility to veterans, but today's ceremonies were a reminder of why the problem might have arisen. His acting VA secretary—acting, because Trump's nomination of his own personal physician to lead the enormous agency failed—complained to an audience of Marines that he was hamstrung in his ability to make changes by the temporary nature of his appointment.

Why does this matter?

  • There is a difference between saying you've done something, and doing something.
  • Presidents are responsible for the incompetence of their appointees.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to destroy Americans' faith in democracy.

Trump's latest attack on trust in the sanctity of America's elections took the form of an interview with the Daily Caller in which he claimed that Republicans lost elections because "people get in line that have absolutely no right to vote, and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in and vote again."

As with his "forged ballots" claim from earlier in the week, Trump presented no evidence—because where voter fraud is concerned, there is none. This has been established by countless studies over and over and over again in recent years. 

The nonpartisan United States Election Project found 35 credible accusations of voter impersonation out of more than 834,000,000 votes cast between 2000 and 2014. The Washington Post found four more reported cases of voter fraud in 2016—three of them committed by Trump voters.

In other words, Trump is saying that because one out of every 24 million voters may be trying to vote more than once, elections should be disregarded—now that he knows the outcome.

In this case, there is very little doubt that Trump is lying, and not simply confused about how voting works. But it would be understandable if Trump were confused, because while he was a private citizen, he didn't bother doing it very often. He cast an invalid ballot last year, and that wasn't even the first time he'd flubbed as a voter. In 2004, he somehow managed to break voting rules on camera, when he filled out a provisional ballot in his limousine, away from a polling place, while filming an Access Hollywood segment. (Trump says he turned it back in, but no such ballot would have been counted.)  

So what?

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He changed his story on skipping Veterans' Day observances.

Trump refused (or was unable) to attend a memorial service this past Saturday at the American cemetery in Belleau Wood, near Paris. This proved especially embarrassing as other world leaders were willing and able to attend, a fact which appears to have been slowly registering with Trump as he caught up with the news after returning to the United States.

Today, he belatedly explained himself in a tweet—and contradicted all previous White House spin on the matter. 

Initially, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had claimed that, with poor weather supposedly grounding Trump's helicopter, he had decided not to travel in his armored limousine because it would cause traffic delays for Parisians. In a tweet today, Trump claimed shifted the blame to the Secret Service, claiming that they had forbidden him from making the trip.

The distinction is an important one, because the president has the final say in such matters. More than that, Trump has bragged in the past about (supposedly) about overruling his pilots and forcing them to land in bad weather to attend a campaign rally.

In the same tweet, Trump complained that nobody was talking about how he spoke the following day at a different cemetery "in pouring rain." It's true that Trump made an appearance on Sunday at a cemetery more convenient to his Paris lodging, but it was not pouring—or visibly raining at all—as he spoke.

The tweet did not explain why, safely back in the United States and on a day on which no rain fell in Washington, he refused to attend Monday's Veterans Day observances at Arlington National Cemetery—or make any other public observance of the holiday honoring America's veterans. 

Why should I care about this?

  • Good leaders don't deal with controversy by publicly trying to pin blame on their subordinates.
  • Truthful explanations for why a president does (or fails to do) something don't change over time.
  • It's a huge problem that the most likely explanation for these absences is that Trump was too emotionally volatile in the wake of the midterms to appear in public.

Monday, November 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He invented a new election conspiracy theory.

Trump waded right back into the ever-tightening Florida Senate and gubernatorial races, declaring completely without evidence that "many ballots" in those races were "missing or forged." 

This isn't true, but it's worth elaborating on how untrue it is. 

Nobody, anywhere, has pointed to any situation where Florida vote counters (who operate under constant supervision by party representatives) supposedly created or destroyed votes. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is run by an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott (who is running for the Senate) says there is no evidence of any wrongdoing in the election. So does the state Secretary of State, who was also appointed by Gov. Scott. So did a Florida judge overseeing the count in Broward County, a Democratic stronghold that is the focus of election-related lawsuits. 

In short, Trump seems to have conjured the idea of "missing or forged" ballots himself, out of thin air—along with his claim that only ballots cast on Election Day should be counted. 

Needless to say, this would be against the law. The ballots Trump wants thrown out include those sent in by Floridians serving in the military. By state law, those must be accepted through November 16.

(In Arizona, where the Election Day ballots favor the apparent winner, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, Trump has a different but equally illegal theory remedy—that an entirely new election should be held.)

This isn't the first time that Trump has said that elections are legitimate only if his side wins. Shortly before the 2016 election, he told a crowd, "I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election," and then added, after a dramatic pause, "if I win." 

After losing the popular vote by a margin of almost 3 million votes, Trump immediately insisted that five million non-citizens had somehow voted, all without being caught, exclusively for Hillary Clinton, but not in the crucial swing states that gave Trump the electoral college victory.

Why should I care about this?

  • In a democracy, legally cast votes are counted regardless of who they will benefit.
  • Florida voters may have thought when they cast their ballots—for either party's candidates—that their president would abide by the will of the people.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had to be ordered by France to delay a "chance" meeting with Vladimir Putin.

There had been speculation for weeks that Trump would use the ceremonies in Paris this weekend to meet privately with Vladimir Putin, whose government illegally helped to get Trump elected with cyber-espionage and propaganda campaigns. The source for this speculation was the Putin regime itself, which frequently shares news about the U.S.-Russia relationship with the American public before Trump's own government does.

And while Trump did not have the stamina for a limousine ride yesterday to honor fallen American soldiers, he did apparently have time for Putin today. But the meeting was cancelled at the last minute when French president Emmanuel Macron raised objections.

Once again, the source for this news was the Russian government itself, which seems to delight in deciding for Trump how much Americans are allowed to know of his Russia contacts, and when they are allowed to learn it.

In addition to their Helsinki meeting this past June, when Trump met alone with Putin and then openly sided with him against the United States' intelligence services, the two had an "impromptu" meeting at last year's G20 summit. On that occasion, Trump chose to rely on Putin's translator, a breach of security and diplomatic protocols. This meeting, too, was disclosed to the world only because Russia announced it.

Why does this matter?

  • France shouldn't have to protect the United States from its own president's overconfidence.
  • An administration with nothing to hide in terms of its connections with a hostile foreign power like Russia wouldn't try to hide them.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got confused about European history, in a meeting to commemorate European history.

Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are the countries known as the Baltic states, or simply the Baltics. They are located on the Baltic Sea, south of Finland.

The leaders of those countries, now NATO members and military allies of the United States, were part of a diplomatic conference in Paris to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I. At a meeting with them, Trump accused them of being responsible for the horrific wars that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

The countries in the region of the former Yugoslavia are known as the Balkans. They are located about a thousand miles south of the Baltics, and had nothing to do with the Yugoslav wars.

As the French newspaper Le Monde reported, "It took [the Baltic leaders] a few moments to realize that the American president had confused 'Baltics' and 'Balkans,' as he was apparently poorly taught on the matter by his wife Melania, who is originally from the former Yugoslavia."

To be clear, this was not simply a slip of the tongue because of the similar words. Trump knew that he was addressing the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. But that seems to be all he knew.

One possible explanation—other than that Trump not knowing—is that jet lag and stress were taking their toll. Trump spent much of the plane ride to Paris writing increasingly angry tweets about election results he didn't like. That tweet-storm culminated with Trump attacking his host, French president Emmanuel Macron. (Macron is normally quite adept at soothing Trump.) Later in the day, Trump was scheduled to attend a ceremony at the American cemetery in Belleau, where more than a thousand American servicemembers are buried. He was unable to attend.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents don't have to know every fact, but they do have to know enough not to accuse allies of committing atrocities in wars they had nothing to do with.
  • Presidents who can't handle the mental or physical stresses of the job should resign.

Friday, November 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He spread claims of election fraud in races that don't look good for Republicans, without evidence.

Vote-counting continues in close Senate races in Florida and Arizona. Both states have substantial numbers of absentee, vote-by-mail, military, and provisional ballots to count. The outcome in both cases is uncertain, because the number of still-uncounted ballots is much higher than the current margin between the candidates.

Last night, as the counting continued and Florida Republican candidate Rick Scott's lead narrowed to within the margin that will trigger a hand-recount, Trump simply declared that Scott had won.

This morning, he expanded on that tweet, conjuring up a conspiracy theory of sorts involving the words "voter fraud," "finding votes out of nowhere," and unspecified "crooked stuff." Trump also mentioned, without explaining why, "Fusion GPS"—the firm that hired Christopher Steele, who in turn authored the dossier laying out some of Trump's secret connections to the Putin regime in Russia.

Asked what evidence he had that any of this was true, Trump responded, "I don’t know, you tell me."

And then, Trump retired to his suite on Air Force One, where he spend the rest of his day tweeting out more evidence-free claims of "election theft," a total of nine times (as of 8:30 P.M. EDT).

It's not an exaggeration to say that Trump always finds a way to believe that election results he doesn't like are evidence of fraud. When almost everyone—including himself—expected him to lose the 2016 election, he made noises about a conspiracy against him. He insists to this day that as many as five million ballots were illegally cast, all for Hillary Clinton, as a way of explaining away the awkward fact that far more Americans voted for her than for him. And with the polls running against Republicans in the midterms, he suggested that China was influencing the election as revenge for his trade war. 

Why is this a bad thing?

  • In an actual democracy, leaders count all votes cast and abide by the results of elections.
  • "I don't know, you tell me" isn't a good enough justification for anything, much less what the President of the United States does.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced new anti-immigrant rules that are almost certainly illegal.

Today, Trump published rules that claim for the presidency the authority to bar asylum claims from virtually any immigrant. But since those rules conflict with existing law, they would almost certainly be struck down after the first court challenge.

Using executive orders to claim power he doesn't have is nothing new for Trump. He did the same thing almost immediately after taking office in an ill-fated attempt to ban legal travel to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries. He's also essentially ignored the emoluments clause to the Constitution by attempting—although not very successfully—to profit from foreign governments patronizing his real estate and hotel businesses.

Even his appointment yesterday of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general probably falls in this category. Whitaker had not been in the normal DOJ line of succession because he had not been confirmed by the Senate, something that is required of "principal officers" by the Constitution. (Trump himself used this line of attack months ago to declare Robert Mueller's appointment unconstitutional, but Mueller had been confirmed by the Senate, and the special counsel is not a principal officer.)

So what?

  • In a democracy, presidents don't do things they know are unlawful and dare the courts to stop them.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fired his Attorney General to derail the criminal investigation into himself and his campaign.

At some point today—either just before or shortly after he told reporters that he had no immediate plans to shake up his cabinet—Trump fired Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, and replaced him with Sessions' chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker. 

Normally, Whitaker would immediately recuse himself from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump and his campaign's work with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Whitaker is an outspoken critic of the investigation into Russia's sabotage of the election. He also owes his new job to Trump, the main target of that probe, who rearranged the normal DOJ chain of command to hand-pick Whitaker specifically. And he is a personal friend and political ally of Sam Clovis, the Trump campaign figure who is either a witness to or target of the investigation.

Justice Department regulations explicitly require Whitaker to recuse himself under those circumstances. This would leave the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein—another Trump appointee—in charge of the probe.

Whitaker has not recused himself. 

As a result, he will be in a position to make sure that Mueller's team of prosecutors is never authorized to actually bring charges against Trump-connected targets. Or he might simply eliminate Mueller's budget. Both of these are suggestions that Whitaker himself made prior to being made acting attorney general by Trump.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • If using your authority to escape investigation or prosecution isn't abuse of power, then nothing is.
  • Using your own governmental authority to shield yourself from prosecution is illegal under the federal obstruction of justice statute. 
  • No president is more important than the rule of law.
  • There's only one real historical precedent here, and it's not a good one.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared "tremendous success" in an election where his party lost between 30 and 40 seats in the House.

Trump's first public reaction to the news that the GOP had suffered a shellacking in the House was this tweet:

Of course, Trump is entitled to his opinion—but by all accounts, this isn't his actual opinion. Instead, he is furious, and blames outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan. (Congressional Republicans blame him right back.)

Trump's private fury is understandable, if misdirected. Democrats with subpoena power—particularly on the House Intelligence Committee, which until now has been chaired by a close Trump ally—pose a substantial legal and political threat to Trump.

Why is this a problem?

  • With any other president, it wouldn't be. But in this case, it's hard to rule out the possibility that Trump, for all his initial anger, now genuinely believes what he is saying.

Monday, November 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he "didn't care" if a Democratic Congress subpoenaed his tax returns.

Trump's murky financial past, and the potential for corruption or criminality that goes with it, has been an issue since he first entered politics. Every presidential nominee since President Nixon has released his or her tax returns for public scrutiny, except for Trump. 

Recently, a New York Times report based on the Trump family business tax returns (also kept secret) shows that he almost certainly benefited from, and participated in, hundreds of millions of dollars in tax fraud over most of his adult life.

Asked today about the near-certainty that a Democratic House or Senate would subpoena his tax returns, Trump said, "I don't care. They can do whatever they want, and I can do whatever I want."

Under the rule of law, Trump cannot do "whatever" he wants when faced with a lawful subpoena, either as President or as a private citizen.

As for "I don't care," Trump still hasn't released his tax returns, in spite of occasionally promising that he would.

What is the problem with this?

  • "I can do whatever I want" is pretty much the opposite of how the presidency works under the United States Constitution.
  • At this point, it's hard to come up with an explanation for Trump's hiding of his tax returns that doesn't involve crimes.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He imagined a poll showing that he wasn't deeply unpopular with African-Americans.

This morning, Trump claimed that a "New Fox Poll" showed he had "40% Approval Rating by African Americans."

In reality, recent polls put Trump's approval rating among African-Americans at about 17%. His overall approval rating ranks 11th out of the last 12 presidents for this point in his term.

Why should I care about this?

  • Even when it's obvious, it's still wrong for presidents to lie.
  • A president who wanted to actually improve his approval rating among African-Americans could not call black Americans thieves, or assume that Kanye West speaks for them all, or call them stupid in private, or call them stupid in public, or assume that they had "nothing to lose" after eight years of an African-American president.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about the economy.

Speaking in Montana today, at his 17th daily trip away from the White House to a campaign rally in the last month, Trump said this

It [the economy] heading down when I took over. They like to say, “Well, Obama helped.” He didn’t help. We were going down.

But in reality, the economy under President Obama was not "heading down," by the usual measures like unemployment...

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

...or the stock market...
Dow Jones Industrial Average

...or the overall economic growth rate.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Presidents can't really directly affect the overall economy much (except to harm it), but realistically the best Trump can claim is that he has kept the Obama recovery going.

That said, Trump can claim that he has improved the personal economic outlook of some Americans more than President Obama did...
Image result for trump tax changes income bracket

...but that's probably not a conversation Trump wants to have three days before an election.

Who cares?

  • It's a problem if the president has to lie in order to make himself look competent.
  • It's also a problem if the president doesn't know whether he's lying or not when he tries to make himself look competent.

Friday, November 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said that questioning him is what is "creating violence."

An ABC News reporter asked Trump to comment on a poll showing that 49% of Americans think his rhetoric is encouraging violence.

Trump responded, "No, no, you know what? You’re creating violence, by your questions."

Trump didn't specify which violence he thought that reporters asking questions of him had caused, but it's clear what violence was on his mind. Yesterday, Trump bitterly complained that acts of domestic terrorism—a mass murder of Jews targeted because of their synagogue's support for aiding refugees that Trump has demonized, and a campaign of pipe bombs mailed by an Trump rally-goer to Trump's favorite targets—were hurting Republicans' chances in the House.

So what?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised to break any laws necessary to keep people from seeking asylum in the United States.

Trump has spent most of the last few weeks saying anything and everything he can to stir up panic over immigration, apparently in the belief that it may help him pull victory from the jaws of defeat in the midterm elections. 

Today, he said people fleeing sexual abuse, political persecution, and horrifying gang violence were "not legitimate asylum seekers." To that end, he said he would only consider asylum applications from those who presented themselves at a port of entry—which have recently started turning refugees away.

Trump, who is the son and grandson and son-in-law of "chain migration" immigrants, and whose most recent wife is an immigrant who worked illegally in the United States, almost certainly doesn't intend to put most of his proposed immigration policies into place. He didn't even make it to the second month of his term before he completely abandoned his plans to somehow force Mexico to pay for his border wall. For that matter, he seems to have lost interest in ever actually building the wall.

But it doesn't matter whether Trump is lying or serious about this idea. Restricting asylum claims like this is illegal under the current law, and Trump doesn't have the power to change that by himself.

Why is this a problem?

  • In a democracy, presidents don't get to ignore laws that aren't convenient.
  • Voters who actually want stricter immigration enforcement deserve a president who actually gives some thought to immigration policy.