Monday, December 31, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked the minority party in the Senate for failing to confirm ambassadors he hasn’t nominated.

Trump, forced by the optics of the government shutdown he demanded and then regretted to stay in Washington, has been spending most of his days on Twitter recently, and today was no exception. Several of his fifteen tweets (so far) concerned the Senate’s failure to promptly confirm his nominees for ambassadorships. Specifically, Trump blamed Democratic senator and minority leader Chuck Schumer, by name, for “not approving... otherwise approved Ambassadors.”

Trump seems to be trying to say that Schumer is using the threat of a filibuster to stall votes on his nominees. This is not true: since 2013, the Senate operates on majority rule where confirmations are concerned. 

In other words, Democrats have not blocked any Trump appointees to ambassadorships because they lack the power to do so. It’s not clear if Trump knows this and was deliberately lying, or if he has made it nearly two years into his term in office without learning how Senate confirmations work.

A bigger problem with vacant ambassadorships is that Trump has simply not bothered to fill them. The entire Jamal Khashoggi fiasco, which saw the Trump administration running interference for the faction within the Saudi government that murdered a Washington Post journalist, took place without an ambassador in place. Trump finally made a nomination in November, six weeks after the murder and subsequent fallout.

Likewise, Trump’s alternating attacks on and embrace of the murderous Kim regime in North Korea happened with no high-level U.S. diplomat in South Korea. Trump only nominated the current officeholder in late May of 2018, meaning that his appointment did not take effect until June 30, after Trump had yielded to North Korean overtures for an equal-status summit meeting with Kim Jong-un.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents should know how the Senate works.
  • It's wrong to blame others for your own mistakes.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He patted himself on the back for temporarily paying the Coast Guard.

The United States Coast Guard is operated through the Department of Homeland Security, which is affected by Trump's refusal to sign a budget appropriations bill that does not contain $5 billion for a border "wall." That meant that its 42,000 personnel were among the 800,000 going unpaid during the shutdown.

Today, Trump congratulated himself on Twitter for the "great work" his administration had done to "save Coast Guard pay." He also said it was "no thanks to the Democrats who left town."

There are a few problems here. Coast Guard personnel will receive their December 31st paychecks as scheduled, through a legal reinterpretation of the department's authority to issue paychecks during the 2018 calendar year. This trick will not work twice, though: the next paycheck due on January 15th will not be paid if the shutdown continues.

The pay also comes at a cost: the Coast Guard will begin to restrict its operations to search and rescue. Other missions, ranging from drug interdiction to maritime law enforcement, will be suspended in the absence of funding. Ironically, another primary mission of the Coast Guard is border patrol, which will also lapse as a result of the restrictions forced by the shutdown.

"Democrats" in Congress have indeed left town, along with Republicans: House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) adjourned their respective houses before Christmas. Trump himself has not been involved in the negotiations with Congress, and believes he can use it to distract from the Democrats' takeover in the House when the new session convenes on January 3rd. 

Why does this matter?

  • Successfully meeting one payroll deadline for some employees is nothing to brag about.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about the deaths of migrant children.

Trump, who has been vocally upset at the prospect of being confined by political reality to the White House for the holidays, has been passing the time on Twitter. Today, in an attempt to shift blame for the deaths of two young children in Border Patrol custody to "Democrats," he tweeted this about the death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, who died of dehydration:

In reality, Nery Gilberto Caal Cuz said no such thing, and immediately contradicted a Border Patrol statement claiming he did. What he did say was that he and his daughter were refused water after being taken into custody.

Until Trump's recent changes to policy that specifically targeted families legally seeking asylum and forced them into detention in what amount to adult jails, no child had died in CBP custody for at least ten years.

However, Trump is correct that Border Patrol employees working hard without "credit": unless and until he signs a spending bill to restore funding to the Department of Homeland Security, they are working without pay.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who deliberately pursues policies that cause children to die unnecessarily is incompetent.
  • A president who refuses to change those policies after children have died because it would hurt him politically is a monster.
  • Anyone for whom spending time in the White House is a hardship is probably too fragile to be president.

Friday, December 28, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to shut down legal commerce and travel across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Today was the seventh day that a quarter of the federal government (including the part that actually protects the border) was shut down because of Trump's insistence that $5 billion in taxes paid by Americans be appropriated for the border wall he swore Mexico would pay for. 

Trump, who pre-emptively took credit for the shutdown on live TV before realizing that it was a political albatross, has been desperately seeking a way to swing public opinion to his side. Mostly this has taken the form of outright fearmongering, but it's also included threats made directly against Americans. Today he added a bizarre new one: that if Congress continued to refuse to appropriate taxpayer money for a wall, he would close the border itself.

Looking only at the economic effect, it's hard to overstate how disastrous this would be. Mexico is the United States' third largest trading partner, and the two countries do about $1.7 billion dollars in trade every day. Any interruption in legal trade would paralyze American industries ranging from automaking to agriculture. As Trump himself has claimed (more or less accurately), there are about a million legal crossings per day, most of them having to do with trade or business. 

Also—for whatever it is worth in the Trump administration—he has no legal authority whatsoever to do any such thing.

It seems unlikely that Trump will even try to make good on this threat (which he has made before). Ending legal border crossings would have no effect on the illegal crossings Trump says he is trying to stop. This means that the only purpose to closing the border would be to hurt American businesses enough that Congress capitulated.

Why should I care about this?

  • Hostage-taking is the act of a terrorist, not a president.
  • Even a president's empty threats can do damage to the country if they're sufficiently stupid.
  • A president who can't muster up the courage to take a political loss is too cowardly to run the country in the first place.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said Democrats should give him his border wall funding because the federal employees it's hurting are mostly Democrats.

Today was the 6th day that about a quarter of the federal government, including the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, was either shut down or relying on federal employees working without pay. Trump has painted himself into a corner politically over the issue of funding for his oft-promised, never-built border wall, and shows no signs of being willing to come out of it. 

Today, he offered a new (if empty) threat to Congressional Democrats who can block wall funding in the Senate and are about to take over control of the House of Representatives: give him what he wants, because the workers the shutdown is hurting are mostly Democrats themselves.

There are a few problems with this. First, federal employees on the whole are not unusually likely to be Democrats. 

Second, by admitting that the shutdown is hurting federal employees, Trump is admitting that he was lying when he said on Christmas Day that "many" such employees supported the move. It may seem obvious to most Americans that missing paychecks could cause problems for families, but as an heir to a massive family fortune, Trump sometimes misses these points. (Earlier today, the federal government's personnel agency issued letters to affected employees that they could use to beg creditors for leniency during the shutdown.)

And finally, Trump is all but saying that he is willing to punish federal workers in order to get what he wants because he thinks they vote against him anyway.

Who cares?

  • Attacking the supporters of your political enemies is what authoritarians do.
  • A president who can't or won't understand that most Americans actually need their paychecks is incompetent.
  • Presidents are supposed to want what is best for all Americans, not just the ones he thinks like him.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He held about a quarter of the government hostage.

Asked today how long he would be willing to keep nine federal departments out of work or unpaid, Trump responded, "Whatever it takes."

That means that while Trump is waiting for funding for the fence of "artistically designed steel slats" that he repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for, the actual Bureau of Customs and Border Protection will reduce its operations—and the agents remaining on the job will be working without pay.

Other federal law enforcement agencies that will be scaling back operations and forcing employees to work without pay include the Secret Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Marshalls Service.

It also includes the United States Coast Guard—ironically giving those servicemembers a temporary 100% pay cut on the same day that Trump lied to military personnel, saying that he'd given them a 10% pay raise. (In reality, it was 2.6%.) 

The shutdown will also force furloughs or unpaid work from employees of a number of other agencies with responsibility for public safety, including the Forest Service's firefighting units, the federal prison system, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Weather Service. 

Trump claimed yesterday that "many" of the 420,000 federal employees now working without pay and the 380,000 who are being furloughed altogether supported his plan to cancel their salaries while he waits for Congress to give him what he wants. This is not true of either federal workers or Americans as a whole.

Trump currently lacks the votes in the Senate to pass a spending bill that would appropriate American taxpayer dollars for border wall construction. After January 3, he will also lack the votes in the House of Representatives.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents should understand, and care about, the fact that many working American families cannot afford to miss paychecks.
  • Lies about campaign promises are still lies.
  • A better "dealmaker" would not be in this position.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He wished the nation a merry Christmas as only he can.

So what?

  • Trump is entitled to be ashamed of the United States if he wants to be, but the president isn't.

Monday, December 24, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found a scapegoat for the bear market that the stock markets have entered recently.

Trump hasn't said much about the stock market lately, because he took credit on the way up for its 10-year bull run, and lately it's been doing very poorly. But with major indices officially entering bear market status this month (down 20% or more from their high water mark), he may have felt he couldn't avoid the subject any longer. That led to this tweet this morning:

It would be generous to call this nonsense, but it is worth considering each part of this in turn.

The golf analogy. Trump knows about as much about golf as it is possible to know without being a pro himself, and in fact has spent much of his time since being elected on the course schmoozing with professional golfers. It is reasonable to assume that he has something specific in mind with his analogy to a golfer with a poor short game.

Unfortunately, this is where it stops making sense.

Putting all the blame on someone who isn't him. The clear advantage to Trump of blaming the Fed for market downturns is that the Fed isn't Trump—although he has appointed its chair and 80% of its governing board. Under normal circumstances, it's not really fair to give presidents much credit for stock market gains or losses, since even presidents who are actively trying to move the economy in a particular direction don't usually see the effects of their actions for years.

That said, there are exceptions. Trump's pro-trade-war stance impacts so many businesses (and so few of them positively) that it is probably the greatest single drag on the economy at the moment. And the specific cause of today's 2-3% downturns was comments by Trump's handpicked Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who tried to reassure investors today that banks had enough cash on hand to stay in business. (It's an ominous signal that Mnuchin was worried enough about another financial sector collapse to check in the first place.)

"Necessary trade wars." This is a contradiction in terms. Trade policy is necessary; trade wars—where trading partners get locked in mutual punishment and trade volume overall decreases—are not. More or less by definition, there are no "winners" in a trade war except the countries that aren't part of them. And consumers—who pay the taxes that are the only weapons in a trade war—are the losers.

Trump may or may not have figured this out, but obviously feels politically cornered by his previous cheerleading on the subject.

"Strong dollars." Trump famously cannot remember from day to day whether he wants a strong dollar or a weak one, or even who to call to help him figure it out.

"Democrat Shutdowns over borders." Setting aside the fact that Trump was claiming credit in advance for the current shutdown last week (before he realized, once again, that shutdowns are not popular with voters), the current shutdown is the least of the markets' or the country's economic worries. Shutdowns are inefficient and paradoxically expensive, but they have absolutely nothing to do with Federal Reserve monetary policy.

Who cares?

  • America's financial security is more important than any president's political standing.
  • A president who can't take responsibility for a problem can't fix it.
  • Presidents are responsible for the actions of the people they appoint to high office.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threw another tantrum over the fallout from his Syria pullout.

Three days ago, Defense Secretary James Mattis abruptly resigned in protest over Trump's decision to suddenly and unilaterally withdraw American forces from Syria. Mattis's letter of resignation was blunt and uncomplimentary, using diplomatic language but accusing Trump of weakening the United States through abuse of its allies and naïveté about Russia and China and other hostile or authoritarian nations. It was universally understood as a warning siren.

Trump appears to have needed a few days for cable news to tell him that Mattis was not going quietly, and that the letter was not a polite formality. (On the day of the resignation, apparently not having read or understood the letter, Trump cheerfully tweeted that Mattis was "retiring with distinction" after having made "tremendous progress.") 

By Saturday, though, Trump was furious, and today, he struck back, essentially firing Mattis two months in advance of the planned resignation date of February 28.

Mattis wrote in his letter that he had chosen that date so that the Defense Department would not be at a disadvantage in regularly scheduled meetings with Congress and NATO allies. But Trump, whose need for absolute personal loyalty above all else is well established, was irate that Mattis was receiving praise for the gesture and (in typical fashion) sent an intermediary to inform Mattis that he was being fired rather than permitted to resign.

The Washington Post summarized Trump's choice to replace Mattis on an acting basis this way: "Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has no military experience, no previous government experience and little experience with foreign policy."

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents need a lot more emotional self-control than this.
  • Appointees to the Cabinet should be chosen after due consideration of the qualified candidates, not chosen in haste and anger.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got very, very angry at the staff resigning in protest over his Syria capitulation.

Trump was already supposed to be in Mar-a-Lago for a 16-day retreat, but the third government shutdown of the year meant that optics required him to stay in Washington. He claimed to be spending it working, posing for photos of fake bill signings with blank paper and capped pens. But since he is not taking part in any discussions around his refusal to sign a spending bill without support for his "wall," he was left to his own devices for much of the day.

The inevitable result was a Twitter tirade, aimed mostly at the two senior military and diplomatic figures who have resigned in protest over his sudden decision to abandon U.S. allies in Syria: Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.

Trump specifically claimed not to know who McGurk was, and called him a "grandstander." It's not impossible that Trump genuinely doesn't know who his top diplomatic envoy is to a huge international coalition—or that he has forgotten. But there's another reason Trump might have wanted to pretend not to know McGurk: to conceal the fact that an abrupt withdrawal from Syria greatly benefits Turkey.

Turkey fears an independent Kurdish region on its border with northern Syria, and has repeatedly demanded that McGurk be fired for his "pro-Kurdish" stance. (Syrian Kurds are the United States' main allies in the anti-ISIS effort in Syria.) Turkey has all but declared that with the U.S. out of the region, it will launch an attack on the Syrian Kurds. This abandonment of American allies is what prompted both Mattis's and McGurk's resignations.

Previously, Trump had largely ignored Turkey's hostility towards the YPG, but the U.S.-Turkey relationship has changed. The Trump administration is not only abandoning its Kurdish allies to Turkish attack, but has recently been receptive to the Turkish government's demands that the United States surrender a political enemy of the current president who currently lives in Pennsylvania.

Turkey now has increased influence over Trump because he will not—or cannot—cut political ties with the de facto power in Saudi Arabia's government, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. When bin Salman ordered a clumsy assassination on Turkish soil of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi regime, the Turkish government gained diplomatic leverage from its ability to expose bin Salman's responsibility. Trump, who has personal and family financial ties to the Saudi elite, was forced to sue for peace on the Saudi government's behalf.

In short, by attacking McGurk on his way out the door, Trump is likely trying to draw attention away from the question of whether he is entirely in control of his own Syria policy.

Why does this matter?

  • Senior military and diplomatic staff don't quit their jobs for no reason.
  • A president who isn't fully free of foreign influence where American national security is concerned is not fit for office.

Friday, December 21, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to put his words in Ronald Reagan's mouth.

As of midnight tonight, Trump will have partially shut down the government because he refuses (for the moment) to accept any spending bill that doesn't include the funding he wants for his oft-promised, never-delivered wall. (Or rather, the fence made of "artistically designed steel slats" Trump has retreated to.)

In a last minute attempt to sway Congress today, Trump compared himself favorably to another Republican president:

This is a kind of double slander on President Reagan. It's true that Reagan "was unable" to build a wall or fence, but the reason is that Reagan never tried. In fact, Reagan explicitly renounced the nativism and outright appeals to fear that Trump has employed, and rejected the building of walls (literal or otherwise). As a number of news outlets noted in fact-checking Trump's claim, Reagan campaigned in the 1980 Republican primary on a platform of expanding immigration, saying:

Rather than making them, or talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems and make it possible for them to come here legally, with a work permit, and then while they are working and earning here, they pay taxes here.

Reagan also signed a bill in 1986 granting retroactive amnesty to anyone who had illegally entered the country before 1982. This had the effect (as was known to Reagan at the time) of allowing almost 3 million affected immigrants a legal path to citizenship.

It's not clear whether Trump knew how President Reagan felt about border walls, and was lying, or whether he simply assumed that all Republicans at all times felt the same way he claims to.

Who cares?

  • Recent history doesn't change just because the current president needs it to.
  • Thinking that everyone agrees with you is not a sign of good mental health.
  • Trump's entitled to his own political strategy, but lying about Ronald Reagan may not be the best way to appeal to his conservative base.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot why he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria.

Less than a day after Trump announced via tweet that he was suddenly withdrawing 2,000 U.S. troops from the conflict in Syria, he seemed to forget why he had made the order. His tweet on the subject is confusing, even in context, because no single part of it is true.

This is a lie. Russia has celebrated Trump's decision, in everything from its English-language Twitter account to a personal endorsement from Vladimir Putin. Iran's government has not made a formal statement, but individual Iranian strategists cheered the reduction of American influence in a region where Iran sees itself as the controlling power—a view shared by analysts elsewhere. 

The only Syrians unhappy about Trump's decisions are the ones who had been the United States' allies and protectees.

This is false, although Trump (who is famously attuned to Russian interests, and has gotten confused about which side the United States is on in Syria before) may actually believe it. 

To be clear: Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria were never fighting the Islamic State with the United States. The United States is on the other side of the conflict. 

This is just silly. The United States has had the "most powerful military in the world" since at least the end of World War II.

22 hours earlier, Trump seemed to think—incorrectly—that ISIS had been defeated in Syria.

Not coincidentally, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned today.

Why does this matter?

  • This is not the sort of issue that the President of the United States can afford to be confused or compromised about.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime in Syria a major geopolitical victory.

This morning, Trump announced via tweet a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops involved in the ongoing Syrian conflict. His justification: that the United States had "defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there."

Whether it's wise to withdraw the roughly 2,000 American servicemembers stationed in Syria is debatable—but the side of that debate that Trump has suddenly put himself on has had very few takers before now. Trump's own Defense and State Departments argued strenuously against it, with one military official going so far as to suggest that Trump might simply be trying to offer a distraction from his criminal and political struggles at home.

But Trump's supposed reason—the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria—is fictional. The territory that ISIS directly controls is reduced lately (because it has been taken over by the Assad regime, which the United States also opposes) but the faction itself is still present and dangerous.

By declaring ISIS defeated before it actually is, Trump is, in effect, quoting Iranian propaganda. It's not clear whether he knows or understands this.

The simplest measure of the geopolitical implications of Trump's declaration today is the reaction it provoked in others. Russia, which is allied with the genocidal Assad regime, was ecstatic; Republicans and Democrats alike were horrified, and the Pentagon was caught so badly off-guard by the sudden shift that it was unable to offer any explanation

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents should make major geopolitical decisions based on the advice of military and diplomatic experts, not political expediency.
  • It's bad if a president suddenly does something that his whole government opposes but which helps the hostile foreign power that helped get him elected.
  • There are no simple solutions to problems like Syria.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He stopped pretending to run a charity.

Trump and his three eldest children are being sued by the State of New York for their illegal use of the Trump Foundation, a nonprofit organization, for personal and political gain. As part of that suit, Trump agreed today to shut down the foundation and let a judge decide how to distribute its assets among legitimate charities.

Trump's history with "charities" is rich enough that it's been the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism. Some of the anecdotes are humorous, like when Trump used Trump Foundation funds to pay his youngest son's $7 Boy Scouts registration fee. Others are less funny, like his habit of making splashy public pledges for popular causes, and then simply moving on without paying.

The state's case against Trump describes a "shocking pattern of illegality" in which the charity's money—virtually none of which was donated by Trump family members—was spent at Trump Organization businesses, or on vanity items like portraits of Trump himself, or on illegal promotion of Trump's presidential campaign. The suit alleges that the Foundation was little more than a slush fund for Trump's personal ambitions, so shoddily run that the man listed on its charter as its Treasurer didn't even know he had the job.

The suit also notes that, because so much of the Trump Foundation's real purpose was to funnel money back into Trump-owned businesses, it became a convenient vehicle for bribery once Trump's political career took off. On the campaign trail, Trump routinely accused Hillary Clinton's foundation of doing exactly this.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to accuse others of crimes you yourself are in the process of committing.
  • The President of the United States should be above running a fake charity scam.
  • More money would have gone to legitimate charities if the Trump Foundation had never existed.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forgot that he's not President of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve is widely expected to raise interest rates at its meeting this Wednesday. If so, it will be the fourth time it has done so this year. Raising rates has a series of related effects on the economy, but there are two that are typically the most important: it keeps inflation from rising too quickly, and it makes it possible to recover more quickly from future economic downturns. 

Trump, who needs better economic news than he's getting as a matter of political survival, erupted on Twitter at the news. It's not the first time Trump has insisted that the uncertain economic picture of the moment is really the Fed's fault—and not, say, the effects of the trade war he launched this year against most of the United States' major trade partners

Trump is entitled to his opinion, although his understanding of macroeconomics is famously limited. He once called his now-disgraced National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, in the middle of the night to ask whether a strong or weak dollar was preferable. (As with interest rates, it depends on the situation.) Flynn suggested Trump call an actual economist.

But whatever Trump might wish for, the Fed is supposed to be independent from political demands, which are often in conflict with what is best for the economy. The only direct influence Trump is supposed to have over the country's central banking system is by appointing its chair and board of governors, which in turn makes the decision about raising or lowering rates. 

Trump has appointed four of the five currently serving members of the board of governors whose decisions have so upset him.

Why does this matter?

  • The stability of the U.S. and world economy is more important than Donald Trump's political needs.
  • Assuming you know more about a subject than anyone, all evidence to the contrary, is not a sign of good mental health (although it can be politically useful).

Sunday, December 16, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He used mob language to describe the criminal conspiracy he's suspected of being part of.

Trump has spent almost all day so far on Twitter, including one tweet attacking the FBI for executing a search warrant.

Trump is using the word "rat" the way that criminals do, to describe a member of a gang or conspiracy who informs on others. And while it's unheard of for a president to talk like a mob boss in public, Trump isn't wrong: Cohen has openly accused Trump of ordering him to commit felonies in his efforts to keep the American public from finding out about his extramarital affairs with porn stars.

But it is not "unthinkable & unheard of" for the FBI to execute a search warrant on a suspected criminal, even if that criminal is a lawyer. This kind of "breaking into" the offices and homes of criminal suspects happens every day at every level of law enforcement in the United States.

The turn to mob language is part of a new strategy. Trump has been edging closer and closer to admitting that he committed the crimes he's suspected of, while downplaying their seriousness, or his personal responsibility. For example, his surrogates have taken to chiding the special counsel for convicting Trump's associates of "process crimes" (like lying to the FBI or Congress).

Trump's lead lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has taken a prominent role in this process. Last week, he insisted that Trump's attempts to illegally pay hush money to his mistresses were "not a big crime," in that “nobody got killed, nobody got robbed." This morning, Giuliani said that collusion with Russia is "not a crime" but that regardless any such collusion "was over with before the election."
"Collusion" is not a crime, but conspiring with a foreign power to influence an election is, whether it is "over with" by Election Day or not.

So what?

  • It's bad if the President of the United States is talking and acting like a mob boss.
  • In a democracy, the president is not above the law.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He forced out one of the "best people."

Today, Trump announced the resignation of Ryan Zinke, his Secretary of the Interior. Zinke had accumulated at least 17 investigations into his misuse of taxpayer funds, violations of the Hatch Act, and other forms of official misconduct. Among other things, Zinke was known or thought to have
  • created a conflict of interest by engaging in private business with Halliburton, an energy company under his jurisdiction
  • violated department travel rules by having his wife's unofficial travel paid for, and then used further department resources to try to find ways to skirt those rules
  • censored a National Parks Service report that mentioned climate change after testifying before Congress that he would not do such a thing
Zinke, who was hand-picked for the job over more likely candidates by Trump's son Donald Trump Jr., was forced out before he could face real Congressional scrutiny from the incoming Democratic majority on the House Committee on Natural Resources. Trump reportedly wanted Zinke out sooner, but he insisted on staying in office long enough to host his office's Christmas party. 

Trump has repeatedly bragged that he can and does get only "the best people" to serve in his administration.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are responsible for the corrupt, illegal, or unethical acts of their appointees.
  • Someone who only cares about bad things when they're likely to be discovered doesn't care about bad things at all.

Friday, December 14, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied through a surrogate about his connections to his own inaugural committee.

Yesterday, news broke that federal prosecutors are investigating the vast amounts of money funneled through Trump's inaugural committee. The huge amounts of money that the committee took in—more than twice any previous committee's budget, for a comparatively cheap inauguration—has long been the subject of scrutiny in the press. It now appears likely that the committee, as well as a pro-Trump super PAC run, accepted illegal contributions from foreign governments

In an apparent attempt to insulate Trump from what increasingly looks like influence-peddling if not outright bribery, spokesman Hogan Gidley insisted this morning that Trump had nothing to do with his own inauguration, telling reporters:
[T]he president of the United States has one job at the inauguration. It's to show up, to thank everyone for the service to get him elected, and then also dance with the first lady. He did all of those things. This charge [of financial impropriety] has nothing to do with the president of the United States and it has nothing to do with this administration.
That appears to be a lie. Whether or not Trump's time or influence was bought and sold through the committee, Trump's hotel rooms were—at a substantial profit to Trump. 

A ProPublica/WNYC report released today shows that Ivanka Trump, acting on behalf of the Trump Organization that her father refused to sever his financial links to, sought to charge the committee vastly inflated rates. At least one committee member became alarmed, and begged the Trump Organization to remember that there would eventually be an audit of the charges.

In other words, Ivanka Trump was trying to convert money that was legally restricted to valid inauguration events into profits for her father's business by forcing her father's inauguration committee to pay well above market rates. This would not only be flagrantly unethical, but since the inaugural committee is a non-profit organization, it would be a serious violation of tax laws, something the Trump family knows a lot about.

Why does this matter?

  • It should not be possible to bribe the President of the United States.
  • It's wrong to funnel money for a non-profit organization to your for-profit business.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got even further out on the border wall shutdown limb.

Trump spent a third consecutive day on tilt over an embarrassing meeting with Democratic leaders about his oft-promised, never-built border wall with Mexico. Today's effort to save face took the form of another tweet, in which Trump swore that his re-negotiated version of NAFTA means that "MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL!"

There are a few problems with this.

First, Trump's so-called USMCA is virtually identical to NAFTA.

Second, it hasn't yet gone into effect.

Third, it's a free trade agreement, meaning that it does not generate tariffs on Mexican goods (although those would be paid by American consumers anyway). 

Fourth, if Trump's idea is that it will be good for American business and thereby increase tax revenues, those would still be paid by American companies, not Mexican ones.

Trump is currently threatening to shut down the United States government if he does not get United States tax money appropriated for the wall that he says Mexico is paying for.

How is this a problem?

  • If Trump is serious about this, he's astonishingly ignorant of basic economics.
  • If he's just saying this for political purposes, he thinks his supporters are astonishingly ignorant of basic economics.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He came up with an interesting new justification for his border wall.

Trump, who was presumably preoccupied with the sentencing of his "fixer" and campaign finance co-conspirator Michael Cohen, took a leisurely approach to his office duties today, even by his standards. But he still found time to tweet out a novel suggestion about why Congress should fund his border wall.

Trump was apparently referring to a shooting in Strasbourg last night in which a gunman opened fire on a crowd at that city's Christmas Market, killing two and injuring 12 others. The shooter, who escaped the scene, is thought to be Chérif Chekatt, a lifelong criminal.

Taking Trump's tweet at face value, he seems to believe that "terror" in France would have been averted if that country had more "border security." 

Trump appears to have been trying to have the last word with "Chuck [Schumer] and Nancy [Pelosi]" after a photo opportunity with them on the subject of his border wall went disastrously wrong for him yesterday.

Why does this matter?

  • It's really important that presidents sound coherent.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He either lied about the existence of his "wall," or something much worse happened.

Trump met today for what was supposed to be a private meeting and photo opportunity with incoming Speaker of the House designate Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). It quickly turned into a debacle for Trump, who addressed the press and immediately found himself boxed into a corner and vowing that he would be "proud to shut down the government" if he didn't get his way on funding for his border wall.
TRUMP: You know what I'll say? Yes. If we don't get what we want one way or the other, whether it's through you, through a military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government, absolutely. 
SCHUMER: Okay, fair enough. We disagree. We disagree. 
TRUMP: And I'll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don't want criminals and people that have lots of problems, and drugs pouring into our country. 
So I will take the mantle. I will be the to shut it down. I'm not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn't work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I'm going to shut it down for border security. 
SCHUMER: But we believe you shouldn't shut it down.
Trump, whose mood had visibly soured by this point, then had the press herded out.

But Trump has a long and bizarre history of demanding shutdowns, in spite of the extraordinary expense and inconvenience they cause Americans, so this is not exactly news. Of more immediate interest from his remarks today is Trump's apparent belief that the border wall he has been talking about since 2015 has actually been built:
One thing that I do have to say is tremendous amounts of wall have already been built, and a lot of wall when you include the renovation of existing fences and walls renovated a tremendous amount, and we’ve done a lot of work. In San Diego we’re building new walls right now. And we’ve — right next to San Diego, we’ve completed a major section of wall, and it’s really worked well. So a lot of wall has been built. We don’t talk about that, but we might as well start because it’s being built right now. Big sections of wall. And we will continue that. And one way or the other it’s going to get built.
In simplest terms, none of this is true.

All construction on border fencing undertaken since Trump took office has been a continuation of routine repair, most recently authorized under the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Not a single inch of Trump's imagined wall has been built. But Trump has repeated the lie so many times that this week it became one of a brand new class of lies tracked by the Washington Post: the "bottomless Pinocchio" for flagrant lies that Trump insists on repeating no matter how often they are debunked. (By the Post's count, Trump has claimed or imagined the existence of his wall 86 times as of today.)

At no point during Trump's threats to shut down the United States government over "the wall" did he acknowledge his long-since abandoned promise that Mexican taxpayers would pay for it.

Who cares?

  • Voters who heard Trump insist hundreds of times that he would make Mexico pay for the wall may have thought he was going to make Mexico pay for the wall.
  • It's extremely bad if a president genuinely doesn't know that his centerpiece domestic policy hasn't actually been implemented.
  • The functioning of the American government is more important than a president's political needs.

Monday, December 10, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about what is and isn't a crime.

Since Democrats won control of the House, Trump's tweets have become noticeably more defensive, often explicitly taking on the tone of a criminal defendant. That was on display in this morning's Twitter offering:

“Democrats can’t find a Smocking Gun tying the Trump campaign to Russia after James Comey’s testimony. No Smocking Gun...No Collusion.” @FoxNews That’s because there was NO COLLUSION. So now the Dems go to a simple private transaction, wrongly call it a campaign contribution,.......which it was not (but even if it was, it is only a CIVIL CASE, like Obama’s - but it was done correctly by a lawyer and there would not even be a fine. Lawyer’s liability if he made a mistake, not me). Cohen just trying to get his sentence reduced. WITCH HUNT!

While many commentators had fun with Trump's search for a "smocking" gun, the real issue here is Trump's legal analysis. Last week, in issuing a sentencing recommendation for Trump's "fixer" Michael Cohen, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York said that Cohen had "acted in coordination with and at the direction of" Trump. The list of crimes that Trump has been implicated in by his own Justice Department, strictly because of his attempts to hide his extramarital affairs with hush money, include:

  • making contributions in another person's name. Trump did this by "laundering" his hush money payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels through Cohen. (52 U.S. Code § 30122)
  • failure to report contributions. Trump is entitled to pay as much hush money to sex partners as he likes with his own money, but if he does that to influence the election, it is a self-contribution and must be reported, which he never did. (52 U.S. Code § 30104, (a)(6)(b)(i))
  • soliciting illegal contributions. According to federal prosecutors, Trump ordered Cohen to pay Daniels an amount in excess of the limit that Cohen could make as an individual contribution to Trump's campaign. (52 U.S. Code § 30116) It is illegal under any number of federal statues to induce someone to commit a criminal act.

Trump's claim that such acts would be civil infractions—the equivalent of parking tickets—is wrong. Federal criminal penalties for all such acts exist (52 U.S. Code § 30109) and are routinely sought by prosecutors, when it can be shown that the candidates committing them did so knowingly and willfully.

Why is this bad?

  • It's wrong to break the law in order to deceive voters.
  • Presidents are not above the law.
  • This is arguably the least serious indictable felony Trump is thought to have committed in an attempt to get elected.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was publicly rejected by his first choice for chief of staff.

Trump announced yesterday that his long-suffering chief of staff, John Kelly, would finally be leaving his post at the end of the year. Trump immediately offered Nick Ayers, currently serving in a similar role for Vice-President Mike Pence, to become his third chief of staff in less than two years.

Ayers's status as the heir apparent was confirmed by the Associated Press yesterday, in reporting based on "nearly a dozen" sources that the White House was satisfied to let stand unchallenged. "Give Nick a call," Trump reportedly said.

Today, Ayers—who, at 36, was being offered the most powerful job in the executive branch after the presidency—publicly took himself out of the running and announced his plans to leave the administration entirely. 

Resistance from Trump's immediate family, who often dictate (or become) his staffing choices, may have worked against Ayers, but Trump has had difficulty finding qualified people willing to sign on with his administration right from the start. This trend seems to be getting worse as his administration begins to face existential threats from real Congressional oversight and the Russia investigation.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who doesn't have the confidence of people qualified to serve the country shouldn't be in charge of it.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He attacked France for trying to implement one of his own policies.

This morning, Trump complained on Twitter that there was not enough news coverage of the demonstrations in Paris against a newly imposed fuel tax. Trump falsely attributed this to the Paris Agreement on fighting climate change, which he forced the United States out of last year.

In reality, the demonstrations and riots were about a gas tax not related to the Paris Agreement (which is named for the city where it was signed). It's not clear if Trump simply forgot what the treaty was about, or got confused because of the similarity of names, or if this was a deliberate lie.

Trump himself supports increasing the gas tax in the United States.

Incidentally, there have been no reports of French protestors chanting "we want Trump" in the country where his approval rating is at 10%. Trump, who is known to scour the internet in search of praise of himself, has apparently fallen for a hoax that reused video of a far-right protest in Britain last year.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • It's bad if the president doesn't know what's in the treaties he's breaking.
  • It's also bad if the president can't remember what his own policies are.
  • Hypocrisy, which is attacking others for things you do yourself, is bad.

Friday, December 7, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about what his ex-fixer's sentencing recommendation said about him.

Today was a busy day in the federal courts, with three separate sentencing recommendations being filed by federal prosecutors investigating the Trump-Russia affair. Two of them dealt with Trump's "fixer" Michael Cohen, and one with Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort.

In what looks like an attempt to get out ahead of the bad news—or just engage in a little emotional self-care—Trump went on the Twitter offensive, spending most of the morning constructing a rambling series of attacks on the Mueller probe. But minutes after the reports were released, Trump tweeted this:

In reality, the federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (unrelated to the Mueller investigation) argued for a stern sentence for Cohen in part because he committed crimes "in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1."

Trump is "Individual-1."

While the other two sentencing documents released today—the special counsel's reports on Cohen and Manafort—did not so directly accuse Trump of conspiring to commit crimes, they are damning of Trump all the same. They reveal that Manafort lied to conceal his meetings with Konstantin Kilimnik, a known Russian intelligence agent who was involved in the hacking of the DNC. (The e-mails stolen in that hack were used in a Russian propaganda attack against Hillary Clinton, which the Trump campaign seized on and amplified.)

The sentencing report for Cohen also shows that Russian agents reached out to Trump as early as 2015, offering "political synergy." This is one of a number of previously secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian agents during the campaign.

It's not clear if Trump genuinely believes the Mueller investigation is "clearing" him, or is simply hoping that someone else will.

Why is this bad?

  • Because the federal government just accused a sitting president of having committed felonies in order to get elected.
  • Asking citizens to accept an obvious lie rather than what is right in front of them is what authoritarians do.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained that his connection to the Russian attack on his election was hurting his popularity.

Trump ended yesterday's national day of mourning for the late President Bush with a triumphant tweet celebrating his "50% approval rating," according to a Rasmussen poll. Today, he pivoted back to attacking the federal investigation into his connection with the Russian attack on the 2016 election, complaining that if not for the Mueller probe, his "approval rating would be at 75%."

Trump almost exclusively cites Rasmussen polls when he wants to claim he is popular (or at least not deeply unpopular), and for good reason: they are much, much friendlier to Republicans than other polling outfits.

For example, Rasmussen's final pre-Election Day poll predicted that Republicans would win the total popular vote by a margin of 1%. In the election itself, Democrats won by 8.6%.

According to every other national polling outfit, Trump's approval rating is much lower. The widely respected weighted poll average has him at 42.1% approval (52.3% disapproval), which makes him the single most unpopular president at this point in his term since scientific polling began under the Truman administration.

That having been said, there is some truth to Trump's claim. The Mueller investigation is investigating, among other things:

  • the extent of Russia's efforts to elect Trump and otherwise illegally disrupt the election;
  • which Russian individuals committed crimes as a result of that attack;
  • whether Trump's National Security Advisor Michael Flynn lied to federal investigators about his ties to Russia;
  • whether Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey was an attempt to obstruct justice by protecting Flynn;
  • whether other Trump campaign officials and political allies (including Carter Page, Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, George Papadopoulous, Paul Manafort, Jefferson Sessions, and Rick Gates) lied to Congress or federal authorities about their Russian contacts;
  • whether Donald Trump knew about a meeting in which Trump's son and son-in-law sought to obtain blackmail material against Hillary Clinton from an agent of the Russian government;
  • whether the Russian government exerted financial influence over Trump;
  • how many campaign finance violations occurred as a result of the Trump campaign's solicitation of blackmail material;
  • whether the Russian government had compromising information about Trump;
  • whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian "fake news" disinformation campaigns on social media;
  • what additional previously unknown connections existed between the Trump campaign and agents of the Russian government, and
  • which, if any, of Trump's attempts to influence witnesses or hinder Mueller's investigation itself are criminal acts or warrant an impeachment recommendation.

Trump is correct that he would almost certainly be more popular if these things had not happened—or if there were no one investigating them.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president's popularity less important than the integrity of American democracy.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got served.

Trump's businesses, which he has absolutely refused to put into a blind trust while in office, were served with subpoenas today. They require the Trump Organization, and also a number of government agencies, to turn over documents related to a suit brought by the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland. The plaintiffs are suing over Trump's apparent and ongoing violation of the emoluments clause, which prohibits him from accepting favors—in this case, patronage of his D.C. hotel—from domestic or foreign agents.

Coincidentally, the Washington Post today reported on a massive scheme undertaken by the government of Saudi Arabia to buy hundreds of hotel rooms at Washington's Trump International Hotel. The Saudi government engineered a fake lobbying scheme using American military veterans  to run up more than $270,000 in room and alcohol bills just after Trump took office. (The veterans involved were unaware of why they had been asked to do "lobbying" work in luxury hotels until a Congressional staffer asked them, "Are you the veterans that are getting bribed?")

Trump—whose financial ties to Saudi Arabia's ruling elite go back decades—has been a staunch defender of the kingdom's repressive government, even to the point of running interference for them against his own intelligence community. Trump lied publicly when he said that the CIA had not concluded one way or another that Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the death of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The fake lobbying scheme was one of several extremely expensive room-buying binges that the Saudis undertook for no apparent reason at Trump hotels. Other foreign governments have also taken notice of the political advantages to patronizing Trump's businesses—or to helping him build them.

Why should I care about this?

  • The presidency isn't supposed to be for sale.
  • A president who can't be bothered to avoid the appearance of corruption isn't much better than a president who is simply corrupt.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He admitted the "deal" with China on ending the trade war didn't exist.

Trump continues to insist—and, given his grasp of economics, may even believe—that the United States can "win" a trade war with China. Yesterday, he bragged that his "highly successful meeting" at the G20 summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping was the basis of "an incredible deal," one that would be "one of the largest deals ever made."

In reality, all that was actually agreed to in the brief Xi-Trump meeting was for the United States and China to delay the latest rounds of threatened tariffs for 90 days.

This morning, Trump, who is now backed into a political corner by his own trade policy, began the process of lowering expectations in a four-tweet sequence [emphasis added]: 
The negotiations with China have already started. Unless extended, they will end 90 days from the date of our wonderful and very warm dinner with President Xi in Argentina. Bob Lighthizer will be working closely with Steve Mnuchin, Larry Kudlow, Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro...........on seeing whether or not a REAL deal with China is actually possible. If it is, we will get it done. China is supposed to start buying Agricultural product and more immediately. President Xi and I want this deal to happen, and it probably will. But if not remember,..........I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so. It will always be the best way to max out our economic power. We are right now taking in $billions in Tariffs.* MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN.....But if a fair deal is able to be made with China, one that does all of the many things we know must be finally done, I will happily sign. Let the negotiations begin. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
All three major American stock indices dropped 3% or more on the news. 

* Trump appears to genuinely believe that tariffs are paid by foreign companies directly into the treasury of the United States. In reality, they are taxes paid by American importers, who then pass the costs onto American consumers in the form of higher prices.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's really, really important that the President of the United States either know something about economics or be willing to listen to those who do.
  • The economic health of the United States is more important than Donald Trump's need to save face.

Monday, December 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

Witness tampering.

Trump spent most of the morning on Twitter. He called for one potential witness against him, former "fixer" and Trump Organization vice-president Michael Cohen, to "serve a full and complete sentence." Then he lavished praise on another potential witness, Roger Stone, for having the "guts" not to cooperate with the Russia investigation.

As both Republican and Democratic lawyers immediately pointed out, this is textbook witness tampering, which is a federal crime

Specifically, it is a crime to use intimidation to cause a witness to refrain from offering testimony—for example, by publicly saying as the head of the executive branch that federal prosecutors under your employ should seek a "full and complete" sentence for defendants who would testify against you.

It is also a crime to "corruptly persuade" the testimony of a witness—especially in the context of a broader campaign to influence potential witnesses by hinting at leniency or pardons. Trump has pointedly refused to publicly rule out pardoning co-conspirators who could testify against him.

Trump also made the odd claim that Cohen was being prosecuted for crimes "unrelated to Trump." They are not.

Why should I care about this?

  • Innocent people don't generally try to threaten or sweet-talk witnesses.
  • Presidents are not above the law.
  • A president who doesn't want special counsels using anti-Mafia tactics against him shouldn't behave like a Mafia boss.