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.