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.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent Rudy Giuliani out to accuse Robert Mueller of being a federal prosecutor.

Trump himself did nothing more job-related today than getting off a plane, after his brief but apparently very taxing trip to Argentina. Not only was his public schedule empty—even of golf—he also stayed off Twitter, except for a generic "Happy Hanukkah" tweet that was almost certainly written by a staffer.

But Trump's surrogate and "TV lawyer" Rudy Giuliani was dispatched to continue Trump's attack on Robert Mueller, in which Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator. Giuliani seemed to be trying to advance Trump's argument that Mueller was somehow abusing his authority by charging Trump associates with crimes when they lied to the FBI or, in Michael Cohen's case, Congress. 

Giuliani told a radio interviewer this morning that Mueller's team "obviously exerted a lot of pressure on him. Mr. Cohen unfortunately has a history of significant lies in the past."

Giuliani isn't wrong about Cohen's "history of significant lies": Cohen's role as Trump's "fixer" seems to have involved all manner of illegal and deceptive behavior, some of which he was already being prosecuted for. But as Giuliani—who made his name prosecuting organized crime using exactly the same techniques—presumably knows, it is not unethical for a prosecutor to bring charges when a known criminal lies under oath in an attempt to derail an investigation.

In getting his story straight with Trump's official line—that Cohen is lying if and only if he's implicating Trump in a crime—Giuliani is abandoning his initial version of events, which had Trump and Cohen largely agreeing about the timeline of events relating to Trump's attempt to build Trump Tower Moscow. 

So what?

  • As a wise woman once said, "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under criminal investigation, you're losing."
  • It's okay to prosecute people for lying to Congress, because it's illegal to lie to Congress.
  • People who are innocent of crimes don't generally have to change their stories about why they're innocent.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He stormed out in the middle of a photo opportunity with the President of Argentina.

Towards the end of his ultra-brief trip to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Trump appeared on stage for photographs with Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri. After smiling for the cameras and shaking Macri's hand, Trump abruptly turned and stalked offstage, ignoring Macri and a staffer who chased after him.

As the assembled press corps broke into surprised laughter, Trump can be heard saying "Get me out of here."

There are two possible explanations. One is that Trump simply got confused about his stage directions. If so, it's happening fairly often. Among other such "senior moments," Trump found himself similarly bewildered while traveling in Israel, Poland, and while trying to find the limousine that was parked directly in front of his exit from Air Force One.

The other is that he had another attack of the sudden camera-shyness that afflicted him a few days earlier, when he abruptly and without explanation left the White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Trump had apparently just received word of the Michael Cohen guilty plea that was announced the following morning, leading some to speculate that he was suffering from a panic attack.

Trump was scheduled to give a press conference right after the aborted photo op, but it was canceled—supposedly out of "respect" for the family of recently deceased President George H.W. Bush.

Who cares?

  • It's bad if a President isn't up to performing simple tasks, regardless of whether the reason is mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion.