Thursday, January 31, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He accused TV cameras of being fake news.

On Tuesday, at a House intelligence committee hearing, Trump's lies or misunderstandings about subjects ranging from Iran to North Korea to ISIS were contradicted by his own appointees to intelligence services, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel.

On Wednesday, Trump found out about this, and blew up on Twitter, saying that the U.S. intelligence community was "wrong" and needed to "go back to school."

This morning, Trump was asked if he still had confidence in Haspel and Coats. He responded, "No. I disagree with certain things that they said. I think I'm right. Time will prove me right, probably."

This afternoon, after meeting with them behind closed doors, Trump changed his story, saying that Coats and Haspel had said that "they were totally misquoted and they were totally — it was taken out of context."

The hearings were televised live.

So what?

  • Presidents who actually sit through intelligence briefings are less likely to be contradicted about intelligence matters by the people who provide him with intelligence.
  • You can't misquote someone by broadcasting their words live.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed to know more about intelligence than the intelligence services who brief him.

At a House intelligence committee hearing yesterday, Trump's own appointed intelligence chiefs publicly contradicted a number of Trump's own talking points. Among other things, CIA Director Gina Haspel confirmed that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation deal that Trump pulled the U.S. from last year, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified that ISIS is still a significant threat in Syria and elsewhere. Coats also rejected any hope that North Korea was sincere in its promises to denuclearize.

By contrast, Trump routinely praises North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and ignores evidence that it is expanding its weapons program. (He once declared that he had personally, permanently ended the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, although just today he said that there was only a "decent chance" that this was true.) Trump has already declared victory over ISIS in Syria, and his opinions about the Iran deal seem to be based almost entirely in fiction.

Today, Trump declared the entire U.S. intelligence community to be "naive" and said that they should "go back to school."

It's hardly the first time Trump has attacked the people who give him all of the information he has about the world—including much he never hears, because of his habit of skipping his intelligence briefings. Furious to learn how much they had uncovered of Russia's attempts to sabotage the 2016 election on his behalf, Trump compared American intelligence operatives to Nazis. Later, he openly sided with Vladimir Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies.

Why should I care about this?

  • Undermining faith in America's government is the job of its enemies, not its president.
  • It's bad if it's this hard to tell the truth without infuriating the president.
  • Literally everything Trump does or could know about the world comes from the very agencies he's attacking, not counting anything he may learn during occasional secret meetings with foreign intelligence agents.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made an empty threat at the latest former employee to write a tell-all book about his administration.

Trump aide Cliff Sims' book Team of Vipers is out this week. Like other books written by Trump's former insiders, including Omarosa Manigault Newman and Chris Christie, it paints a picture of a dysfunctional White House populated by incompetents, self-promoters, and backstabbers, competing to manipulate Trump for their own ends. 

Trump responded with a curious threat over Twitter.

There are a few things to note here.

Trump has indeed forced White House employees—who are public officials, not Trump's personal workforce—to sign nondisclosure agreements. But they are almost certainly unenforceable: in part because the First Amendment protects speech critical of government, but also because they would conflict with existing laws designed to make government transparent. (Trump hasn't even had much luck enforcing NDAs outside of government: both campaign workers and his mistresses have gotten around them.)

Incidentally, by suggesting that the NDA would apply here, Trump seems to be admitting that the "made up stories and fiction" are actually true. 

As for Trump's relationship with the "low level gofer" that he "hardly knew," Sims spent much of the day promoting the book by gleefully providing evidence to the contrary.

It's not uncommon for Trump to suddenly develop amnesia about people who turn on him, something that happens fairly frequently.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents are subject to the laws and the Constitution.
  • It's bad if lots and lots of people leave the White House with stories to tell about how badly it's run.

Monday, January 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pandered to evangelical voters.

As usual, Trump spent several hours on Twitter this morning. In one tweet, he said that some states were "introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible." He added, "Starting to make a turn back? Great!"

In a way, this is centuries-old news. While public schools in the United States cannot promote one religion over others, they have always been allowed to use the Bible and other religious texts in their curriculum—or sing sacred music, or stage religiously-themed plays, or discuss the history or philosophy of religion, or otherwise discuss the fact that religions exist and are part of the world that Americans live in. 

By mentioning it, Trump seems to be trying to renew his support among evangelical Christians, who have advocated for using the Bible in literature classes. A recent poll saw his support among evangelical voters dropping sharply. He is now less popular with that electorally powerful group than he is with Republicans as a whole—although his numbers are down there, too. 

In fact, his internal support is now so low that the Republican National Committee—which, as president, he effectively controls—took the unprecedented step of endorsing him for the Republican primary elections in 2020, in an attempt to fend off an embarrassing (and possibly successful) challenge to his nomination. The RNC has never before needed to protect a sitting president that way.

Trump, who is theoretically a Presbyterian, could probably benefit from a "Bible literacy" class himself. In a rare appearance at a church on the campaign trail, he confused a communion paten for the offering plate and tried to put money on it, and he once told an evangelical audience that he had never asked God for forgiveness. And when he met two Presbyterian ministers, who confused him by gently reminding him that they were not evangelicals, he had to be reassured that Presbyterians were a kind of Christian.

Who cares?

  • Presidents don't have to be constitutional lawyers, but a basic working knowledge of the First Amendment is helpful.
  • Past a certain point, pandering just becomes insulting to the people who actually believe in something.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave a gift of several hundred million dollars to one of the Russians who helped attack the election on his behalf.

Oleg Deripaska is a Russian billionaire with close political ties to the Putin regime. (Under Putin, a small group of ultra-wealthy business owners, usually called "oligarchs," are allowed to gain wealth and operate outside the law in exchange for loyalty to Putin.) In August of 2017, Congress passed a law imposing steep sanctions on many of those oligarchs. The vote was nearly unanimous (419-3 in the House, and 98-2 in the Senate), but it became law over Trump's furious objections

Deripaska was specifically targeted because of his connection to money laundering rings and organized crime, and because the U.S. government believes he ordered the murder of a rival.

But Deripaska was also the former employer of Trump's campaign chair, Paul Manafort. Manafort gave Deripaska the Trump campaign's highly sensitive voter-targeting data, which would have enabled Russia to target American voters with disinformation much more effectively. Manafort (who is now in prison for trying to cover up his Russia ties) was deeply in debt to Deripaska, and wanted to trade information about the Trump campaign to "get whole" with him. 

In short, Deripaska was a major part of the network of cooperation between Trump and the Putin regime's attack on the election during the 2016 campaign.

In December, just after sanctions against Deripaska's companies went into effect, Trump proposed lifting them. The justification for doing so, sworn to by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, was that Deripaska was divesting himself from his companies, and that keeping the sanction would punish now-innocent businesses. The Senate voted 57-42 to keep the sanctions anyway, but a 60-vote majority was required to override Trump's action.

In fact, as many suspected at the time of the vote and has now been made clear, Deripaska is actually taking advantage of the sanctions to legally escape from several hundred million dollars in debt, while selling his share to other Putin-controlled oligarchs not currently under sanction. 

In simplest terms, one of the key Russian figures in the attack on the 2016 election is not only not being punished for his actions, he is actually profiting from the attempt to impose punishment, with Trump's help.

The lifting of those sanctions took effect today.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's difficult to think of anything Trump could be doing to reward Russia for interfering in the election that he's not doing.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He cheered the loss of 1,000 American jobs.

Trump has had a terrible week, but he tried to put a brave face on it this morning by celebrating what he regards as good news: the fact that several media companies announced layoffs affecting about 1,000 Americans working in journalism.

Trump, who frequently calls the free press "the enemy of the people," claimed that the jobs were lost because of "bad journalism." In reality, the industry has been contracting for decades because of the challenges in finding a revenue model for the online age. 

It's more common for Trump to take credit for creating jobs he had nothing to do with, something he's done over and over and over and over and over and over again. But this isn't the first time he's gloated over the loss of jobs. Just last week, Trump approvingly retweeted an anonymous editorial written by a "senior Trump Administration official" that called the government employees going without pay lazy, useless, and disloyal.

Why does this matter?

  • Attacking journalists is what authoritarians do.
  • It's wrong for a president to gloat over lost American jobs.
  • There are reasons for a president to be this afraid of the press, but none of them are good.

Friday, January 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said that Roger Stone had nothing to do with him.

Trump's longtime friend and 2016 campaign advisor Roger Stone was arrested today on charges that he lied to Congress about what he knew about the Russian campaign to get Trump elected. He also faces charges of witness tampering for threatening another person whose testimony contradicted his own.

Trump insisted, via his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that Stone's arrest for trying to throw the Mueller probe off the scent of how Russia helped Trump get elected had nothing to do with Trump personally. Specifically, Sanders said that Stone's arrest for what appears to be the cover-up of the crimes committed by Russia and others to help Trump get elected had "nothing to do with the president, and certainly nothing to do with the White House." She added, "This is something that has to do solely with that individual, not something that affects us in this building."

It's true that Stone's indictment does not directly accuse Trump of being a co-conspirator in a crime—unlike, for example, Michael Cohen's sentencing memo. But it does say that Stone's involvement with Wikileaks (the organization that published e-mails stolen by Russian hackers from the DNC intended to embarrass Hillary Clinton) was on the orders of someone at the very top of the campaign:
After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by [WikiLeaks], a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign. STONE thereafter told the Trump Campaign about potential future releases of damaging material by [WikiLeaks].
The "senior Trump Campaign official" is almost certainly Steve Bannon. If it wasn't Trump himself who ordered Bannon to work with Stone to make sure that the Trump Campaign was in the loop about further Russian attacks on the election, it's not clear who was.

Trump insists he is innocent of any wrongdoing with respect to the election, and so he has denied any responsibility for all of the other Trump Campaign officials who have been indicted or convicted for crimes related to their secret dealings with Russian agents trying to subvert the election. These are: Paul Manafort (campaign chair), Rick Gates (deputy campaign chair), Michael Flynn (senior advisor and Trump's first National Security Advisor), and George Papadopoulos (foreign policy advisor).

Essentially, Trump's argument now seems to be that even if virtually everybody in his campaign was actively working with Russia—sharing secret voter-targeting data, enthusiastically taking meetings about "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, changing the GOP platform to a softer stance on Russia's occupation of Crimea, and so forth—no proof has emerged that Trump himself actively participated.

Why should I care about this?

  • This is incredibly damning even if Trump somehow didn't notice the massive criminal conspiracy between almost every senior official in his campaign and the hostile foreign power he begged on live TV to attack the election he won.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained his billionaire Commerce Secretary's comments on people going hungry during the shutdown.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is a former coal executive who owned a mine where 12 people died in an explosion, after Ross ignored systemic problems, roof collapses, and safety violations. Ross, who has a net worth of more than $3 billion, is also the wealthiest member of a Cabinet well stocked with nine- and ten-figure bank accounts.

This morning, Ross had this exchange with a CNBC reporter about the 800,000 federal employees going unpaid for a second straight month because of Trump's refusal to sign a budget bill.

ROSS: But, put it in perspective. You're talking about 800,000 workers, and while I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases—800,000 workers, if they never got their pay... you're talking about a third of a percent of on our GDP. So it's not like it's a gigantic number overall.

CNBC: Mr. Secretary, there are reports that there are some federal workers who are going to homeless shelters to get food
ROSS: Well, I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why. Because as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake, say borrowing from a bank or a credit union, are in effect federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out, there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.

The reaction from people who understand why bridge loans aren't really an option for people who can't afford to miss a month's salary was severe enough to force Trump, who also claims to be a billionaire, to try to explain Ross's comments.

Q: Mr. President, Wilbur Ross said he didn't understand why federal workers would need help getting food. Can you understand— 
TRUMP: No, I haven't heard the statement, but I do understand that perhaps he should have said it differently. Uh, local people know— who they are, where they go for groceries and everything else, and I think what Wilbur was probably trying to say is that, uh, they will work along—I know banks are working along, if you have mortgages, the mortgagees, the folks collecting, uh, the interest and all of those things, they work along. And that's what happens in time like this. They know the people, they've been dealing with them for years, and they work along. The grocery store, and I think that's probably what Wilbur Ross meant. And I haven't seen his statement, but he's done a great job, I'll tell you that.
Grocery stores in the United States do not extend credit.

That said, people who cannot afford food can eventually become eligible for aid programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is funded by a federal grant.

SNAP funds will be exhausted by the shutdown in February.

So what?

  • Presidents are responsible for the actions of people they appoint to their Cabinet.
  • A president who thinks that workers can buy everything they need on store credit for "months or years" is dangerously incompetent. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took every conceivable position on something he has no control over.

Trump has been sniping at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over when and whether he could deliver a State of the Union address. Pelosi's permission was necessary because Trump preferred to give the speech in the relatively large and elegant House chamber, the scheduling of which Pelosi controls as Speaker. The two had originally settled on a date of January 29th, but Pelosi rescinded her permission as the shutdown wore on with no sign of ending. She noted as she did so that Trump could give a report in writing, or make the speech from the White House or any other venue if he liked. 

Several days ago, Trump insisted in a tweet that Pelosi would be obliged to host him because "a contract is a contract." (While Trump does have some expertise with contracts, that's not how co-equal branches of government work.)

At the start of today, Trump's position was that he would be "moving forward" with plans to deliver the speech in the House chamber regardless. But his staff was openly looking for an alternative venue, like the smaller Senate chamber.

By mid-day, Trump had issued a letter to Pelosi saying that he was "honoring [Pelosi's] invitation," although no formal invitation had been issued, and the necessary joint resolution had not been passed by Congress.

Pelosi immediately responded that no such invitation would be forthcoming while the shutdown persisted. This prompted Trump to seek out television cameras to complain that "The State of the Union has been canceled by Nancy Pelosi because she doesn’t want to hear the truth." Visibly angry, he said, "We'll do something in the alternative."

Finally, after 11 p.m., Trump once again took to Twitter to admit defeat, acknowledging Pelosi's authority over the House. He agree to her terms, postponing the address until after the shutdown ended. He also contradicted his earlier statement, insisting that he wasn't looking for alternative venues.

Why does this matter?

  • There are more important things than optics for the president to be worried about at the moment.
  • This seems to have been pretty much all Trump thought about today.
  • As insignificant as something like this is in the grand scheme of things, it's still the sort of thing that a president ought to be able to handle.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained why he's afraid of the press.

The White House press briefing had been a near-daily affair since the Eisenhower administration. Reporters asked questions openly and on the record of White House press secretaries, or, occasionally, the president. Even President Nixon, who famously hated the reporters who populated his "enemies list," continued to allow the media to put questions to his press office. (He even renovated the room in which briefings were held.)

Briefings became much rarer when Trump took office, and he has not allowed Sarah Huckabee Sanders to hold a press briefing since December 18th, 2018. Today, he explained why.

So what?

  • Presidents don't get to demand favorable coverage.
  • There are reasons that a presidential administration would want to hide from public scrutiny, but none of them are good.

Monday, January 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took credit (again) for an economic indicator he didn't have much to do with.

As evidence that he is "winning" the trade war he started with China last year, Trump cited new GDP numbers from China. Their growth rate slowed in 2018 to 6.6%. (By comparison, the U.S. rate was 3.4%, and the world average was 3.7%.)

Trump said that the slowing of China's economy was "due to U.S. trade tensions and new policies." That's not completely ridiculous—China, like the United States, is feeling the effect of increased taxes on its imports, because there are never any "winners" in trade wars. But China's economy has been steadily contracting for many years now, as it completes its transition to a modern industrialized nation. 

Source: International Monetary Fund

As a general rule, only very underdeveloped economies can grow at rates much higher than 6%. China's slowing growth is a reflection of the fact that its economy is now too big to grow exponentially.

Trump has a long history of taking credit for decades-long economic trends he inherited, and in some cases may even believe that he deserves it. 

Also today, Ivanka Trump's private company, which she continues to profit from while she holds a job in her father's administration, received five more lucrative trademarks from the Chinese government.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you didn't do.
  • Basic economic literacy is a requirement for the job of president.
  • Presidents aren't supposed to allow even the appearance that their families might be profiting from their actions, much less allow it to happen in reality.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He finally admitted to working with Russia on a Moscow hotel project all through the 2016 campaign.

Trump sent his "TV lawyer" Rudy Giuliani to NBC's Meet the Press to make a huge admission: that he had been trying to make a deal to build a luxury residential tower in Moscow as late as "October or November" of 2016.

This is significant for two reasons. First, it is difficult to count the number of times, before and after being elected, Trump has categorically denied having any business interest in Russia.

In turn, that means that Russia was aware the whole time that Trump was lying to voters and, potentially, to law enforcement, giving the Putin regime even more blackmail leverage over Trump. Voters would have had good reason to be worried if they'd known about the deal: it would have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Trump.

Giuliani's role in the army of defense lawyers working for Trump is to help him "get ahead of the story" by admitting things Trump has previously denied when it is clear the truth will come out regardless. In the past year, he's appeared on TV to blunt the impact of several serious revelations. He has helped Trump back down from countless "no collusion" tweets by saying that "collusion" doesn't refer to any specific criminal act, and he recently suggested that whatever "collusion" may have happened must have been done by campaign officials without Trump's knowledge. Last May, he admitted that Trump had paid hush money to Stormy Daniels via Michael Cohen to conceal their sexual affair. 

In the same interview, Giuliani admitted that Trump "might have" discussed with Cohen his testimony in front of Congress before Cohen gave it. Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal in order to avoid exposing Trump's lies on the subject.

Why does this matter?

  • Some people who voted for Trump might not have done so if they'd known he was lying about being in business with the Putin regime.
  • Eventually telling a version of the truth after you've been caught isn't the same thing as telling the truth the first time.
  • Honest public officials don't seek nine-figure bribes, or let it look like they're open to them.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He offered a "compromise."

On the 29th day of the government shutdown that has 800,000 federal workers going unpaid and consequences mounting, Trump held another televised address to make the case for his border wall. The centerpiece of it was an offer to temporarily protect refugees already lawfully residing in the United States, and people brought into the country as children. In other words, an extension of both the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs.

In today's attempt, Trump said that to renew these programs would be "straightforward, fair, reasonable, and common sense."

Trump canceled DACA in September of 2017, saying at the time that it "violat[ed] the core tenets that sustain our Republic," that it was "unlawful and unconstitutional," and that it had fomented an invasion of gang members and a "humanitarian crisis."

It was a discussion of the TPS designation for Haitians living in the U.S. after fleeing a series of natural disasters that led to Trump's famous "shithole countries" remark.

To be fair to Trump, his sudden willingness to see these programs as "reasonable" and legally valid is less of a change than it may seem. He has often been confused about his own stance on DACA, endorsing it even after he'd rescinded it

Instead, his immigration position at any given moment has been more about placating a small part of his voting base. His suddenly renewed enthusiasm for the border wall—for which he didn't even request funds in his budget proposal—is generally attributed to his fear of being criticized from the right by extremists like Ann Coulter.

Coulter, for her part, was no more impressed than Democrats with Trump's offer.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents who make their policy based on what they actually think is right and best for the country don't offer to bargain it away.

Friday, January 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He added a little Islamophobia to his border wall campaign.

Trump's rationale for refusing to sign spending bills without money for his oft-promised border wall changes from time to time. Sometimes he claims that the issue is a humanitarian crisis, and that a wall at the very end of their journey will deter people who have traveled thousands of miles on foot to escape political or criminal violence. 

But for the most part, Trump prefers to accuse refugees from violence and starvation of being criminals themselves. Today, he added an Islamophobic twist to that narrative, claiming that an unnamed "border rancher" had found "prayer rugs," presumably abandoned by the Muslim terrorist infiltrators who Trump wants people to believe are hiding among refugees. 

"Prayer rugs" at the U.S.-Mexico border are an urban legend: much talked about, never actually found. One supposed example turned out to be a soccer jersey. More recent stories of borderland "prayer rugs" may have been inspired by those left behind by radical Islamic terrorists who bombed a Kansas City department store—in the 2018 movie Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to use one kind of bigotry to justify another.
  • Just in case Trump actually believes this: the president should be able to tell the difference between reality and a movie.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to take revenge on Nancy Pelosi.

Minutes before members of Congress departed on a planned trip to NATO headquarters in Belgium and then Afghanistan, Trump canceled their military transport. In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Trump said the "excursion" was inappropriate during a government shutdown.

The tone of the letter made it clear that Trump was trying to retaliate against Pelosi for her suggestion that because of the security logistics involved, the televised State of the Union address should not happen in the House chamber during the shutdown. 

But regardless of its intent, the letter is revealing about what Trump does or doesn't know.

Trump sneeringly suggested that Pelosi could take a commercial flight instead. In fact, as Speaker and second in the line of succession to the presidency, she cannot, because of security rules put in place after the September 11th attacks. By revealing the secret details of the trip before it was underway, Trump essentially made it impossible for any member of Congress to go.

Trump also scoffed at the very idea of visiting troops and military commanders in a war zone, during a shutdown, calling it a "public relations event." Trump visited troops and military commanders in Iraq during this same shutdown

Trump has been furious over the political beating he is taking during the shutdown, which is beginning to erode his support among the "base" voters he is trying to rally in the first place. But his anger, and his sabotage of Congress's travel, may also be due to his own inability to leave the White House because of the political optics. Trump has been forced to spend almost every night since late November away from his winter resort home at Mar-a-Lago, where he normally spends two or three nights a week.

Trump's wife Melania took a military transport to Mar-a-Lago today.

So what?

  • The president isn't supposed to actively prevent other branches of government from doing their jobs.
  • A president who was reportedly too afraid to travel to a war zone for the first two years of his term should probably have a better understanding of the security implications.
  • Even by Trump's standards, this is petty.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He robbed Peter to pay Paul.

Today, Trump issued an order summoning 2,500 furloughed Department of Agriculture employees back to work—although not back to a paycheck. 

Among other things, this will allow the department to process claims from farmers devastated by the market disruption caused by Trump's trade war. Last year, Trump revived a now-obscure government program dating back to the Great Depression as a temporary bailout to affected farms, but the shutdown had stopped those payments from going out.

The move has some political advantages for Trump: it eases some pressure on Republican members of Congress from rural districts, at the expense of federal workers. Trump seems to think—incorrectly—that federal workers are mostly Democratic voters and therefore fair game.

But it contradicts other Trump administration statements on the shutdown. Recalled workers now cannot earn money at other temporary jobs, as the Trump administration had suggested they do (along with offering to do chores to offset rent, or holding yard sales). And being forced back for unpaid work is certainly the end of the "vacation" that Trump's economic advisor has been insisting that furloughed workers have been on.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Generally speaking, it's bad policy to make one problem even worse so that you can put a band-aid on another problem.
  • It's not optional for a government to govern, and it can't really be done piecemeal.
  • It's bad to make people work without paying them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He became the first president in the history of the United States to bounce a military paycheck.

Last week, most of the 800,000 furloughed or unpaid federal workers affected by the current government shutdown missed their first paycheck. Because the Coast Guard is paid on a slightly different schedule, however, Trump was temporarily spared the embarrassment of having to become the first American president ever to force military servicemembers to go without pay.

Today, members of the Coast Guard missed their first paycheck

The cause of the shutdown is Trump's insistence that he will not sign an appropriations bill that doesn't contain money for a border wall. (His 2019 budget proposal did not include a request for any such money.) The Coast Guard is one of the country's primary immigration law enforcement agencies, but is not performing that mission during the shutdown due to lack of funds.

Trump, who inherited the equivalent of about $400 million dollars from his father, has mostly shrugged off the hardships caused by missed paychecks—in part because he seems to think federal workers are mostly Democrats. But he has recently bragged to a military audience about legislation he'd signed raising their salaries by 10%, claiming that it was the first raise they'd received in "ten years." (This was a double-barreled "pants on fire" lie. Military pay increased by a fairly typical 2.4% in 2018, and the armed forces haven't gone without a raise in any year since 1983.)

Prior to Trump's most recent shutdown, no American military force has been required to serve without the promise of pay since the Revolutionary War. 

Why does this matter?

  • The commander-in-chief of the United States' armed forces cannot be this callous or incompetent towards those under his command.
  • One way to increase border security would be to pay existing border security agencies to secure the border.

Monday, January 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He mocked asylum-seeking immigrants for showing up to their court hearings.

Trump said almost nothing about farming for the first half an hour of his speech to the American Farm Bureau today, focusing instead on the border wall. (Trump was forced this morning to clarify his evasive answer about his allegiances to Russia, and did not revisit it in the speech.) 

Trump's remarks followed the general pattern of characterizing Latino migrants as criminals and terrorists, but also included what for him is a new lie about the habits of people fleeing through Central America and Mexico to seek asylum in the United States:

So we release [migrants seeking asylum]. So they go into our country, and then you announce—these are the laws—and then you say, "Come back in three years for your trial." Tell me, what percentage of people come back? Would you say a hundred percent? No, you're a little off. How about two percent?

In reality, about 90% of asylum seekers are present for their court dates. (The remainder includes people who have died or left the country voluntarily in the meantime.) Trump continued:

And those people you almost don't want, 'cause they cannot be very smart. Two percent, two percent, two percent. Two percent come back! Those two percent are not going to make America great again. 

Trump may be confusing asylum applicants, who deliberately seek out the American legal system, with undocumented workers who are illegally employed by businesses like Trump's golf courses, Trump's modeling agencies, and Trump's real estate companies.

Who cares?

  • It's a pretty bad sign if a president who is under investigation himself thinks that obeying laws is stupid.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had an interesting theory about Latino voters.

Trump had no official business on his schedule today, and so was free to spend it on Twitter. He did not address the revelation that he has been keeping his own national security and intelligence staff in the dark about what he's discussed with Vladimir Putin, but he did talk about the shutdown that is keeping the Russia stories from dominating the headlines. 

Specifically, he said that "Many Hispanics will be coming over to the Republican side" because Democrats were not willing to trade border wall funding for protection for DACA recipients.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was an immigration policy created by President Obama. It allowed undocumented children brought to the United States to live and work without fear of deportation to countries they had little or no connection to, so long as they maintained a clean criminal record. It was credited with reducing crime and poverty and improving mental health among affected populations.

It's not the first time that Trump has linked a government shutdown to DACA. In December of 2017, he accused Democrats of using a looming shutdown as leverage to force a deal to protect DACA recipients. (In reality, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress at the time.) Now, he appears to be upset that Democrats are not willing use DACA as a bargaining chip.

What's wrong with this?

  • Generally speaking, people don't give a hostage taker credit for being willing to negotiate over what he'll get in return for the hostages he's taken.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He insisted that he has a plan.

On the day that Trump set a record for the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, he went to Twitter to insist that he did have a plan. 
I just watched a Fake reporter from the Amazon Washington Post say the White House is “chaotic, there does not seem to be a strategy for this Shutdown. There is no plan.” The Fakes always like talking Chaos, there is NONE. In fact, there’s almost nobody in the W.H. but me, and......I do have a plan on the Shutdown. But to understand that plan you would have to understand the fact that I won the election, and I promised safety and security for the American people. Part of that promise was a Wall at the Southern Border. Elections have consequences!

Trump didn't say whether his "plan" involved actually ending the shutdown, which he recently threatened to keep going for "months or even years."

In fact, Trump didn't say what his plan was at all, a move which has some historical precedent. Richard Nixon campaigned for president in 1968 by circulating rumors that he had a "secret plan" to end the war in Vietnam. (He didn't, and more than 21,000 Americans died in the war during his presidency.)

Many observers expect that Trump will declare a national emergency, claiming that this gives him the power to ignore appropriations bills and use disaster relief money for the border wall instead. This would be a face-saving gesture: the shutdown would end, Trump could declare victory, and when the courts overturned any attempt to bypass the spending bills he'd signed, he could try to gain political traction by attacking the courts. (Trump has already refused to accept any situation where he appeared to be giving anything up, telling his Democratic counterparts that he couldn't afford to "look foolish.")

However, there are other political reasons that Trump may need the shutdown to stay the top story of the day, making predictions about when or how he'll capitulate difficult.

Why does this matter?

  • People with plans to avoid bad things usually put them into action before setting a record for bad things happening.
  • It's wrong to value your personal pride over the safety and well-being of an entire country. 
  • Generally speaking, if Richard Nixon is the only historical precedent for what a president does, then what the president is doing is a bad idea.
  • The FBI having cause to investigate a sitting president as part of a counter-intelligence operation is arguably the worst thing that has ever happened to the presidency.

Friday, January 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He stiffed workers—again.

About a quarter of the federal government has been shut down for the past 20 days. The reason is that Trump refuses to sign any appropriations bill that doesn't include money for a $5.7 billion down payment on a border wall with Mexico. 

Today, as a result, 800,000 federal workers received pay stubs for $0.00—either because they had been laid off, or because they had been required to work without pay.

While this is the largest single number of workers that Trump has refused to pay at one time, it's actually a fairly common tactic for him. As a private citizen, Trump is a defendant in something like 1,500 lawsuits, literally hundreds of which deal with contractors or employees he refused to pay after they had done their work. 

Trump did not include any request for border wall money in the 2019 budget proposal he actually sent to Congress. The "emergency" nature of his border wall demand came at the very end of the appropriations process, after political commentators popular with some of his supporters started making fun of him.

Why is this bad?

  • It is wrong to force people to work without paying them.
  • A president who doesn't understand that missing a paycheck is a big deal for many Americans is too incompetent to serve.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again claimed not to know what his own campaign was doing with Russia.

On Tuesday, former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort's lawyers accidentally revealed shocking news: that Manafort had given secret, highly detailed Trump campaign data to oligarchs with ties to the Putin regime.

Modern campaigns are built on highly targeted data, and the kind of information campaign chair Manafort gave to Russian cut-outs was perfect for the pro-Trump campaign of fake news and social media influencing that the Putin regime carried out on Trump's behalf.

Today, for the first time, Trump was forced to address the issue, and simply denied that he'd known anything about it. Since saying anything else would be a confession to the most serious crimes a president has ever been accused of committing, this isn't very surprising. 

But Trump has issued a lot of denials that didn't hold up on this specific topic. Among other campaign- and Russia-related things, Trump once denied knowing about the hush-money payments to porn stars that was caught on tape making. He also denied that he was pursuing a building deal in Moscow even after he'd secured the Republican nomination in 2016, until legal documents proving it surfaced. He's also denied obtaining funding for his mysterious business enterprises from Russian sources, a denial that was pre-emptively rebutted by his own son, and refuted after the fact by his former lawyer

More broadly, Trump has issued any number of blanket denials about his campaign staff meeting with Russians in secret, which turned out to be false in the case of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Wilbur Ross, Jefferson Sessions, Michael Caputo, Rick Gates, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Donald Trump Jr., and Manafort (among dozens of others). 

The Manafort accusations are part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation in to the Russian attack. Recently, Trump declared he would not answer any further questions from Mueller. This is his right under the Fifth Amendment.


  • People who are innocent don't usually get caught lying over and over and over again about the crimes they're suspected of.
  • Conspiring with a hostile foreign power to disrupt an American presidential election is about as serious a crime as you can commit.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to punish the state of California for the effects of his own federal government's policies.

Trump announced on Twitter this morning that he would punish California for its recent devastating wildfires by denying it FEMA funds intended to help victims recover from those disasters. Specifically, he claimed that "Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen."

Trump has some truly bizarre ideas about what "proper forest management" involves, but the vast majority of the acreage burned in recent fires were on federal land, where California had no jurisdiction. The most devastating of them, the Camp Fire, started on and spread through a federally managed tract before destroying the town of Paradise.

In reality, Trump's problem with California's forest management strategy is about the politics of allowing private logging on public lands, not safety. 

There are a few problems with Trump's threat. For one thing, he may not even be able to legally carry it out. For another, the government shutdown he's promised to extend for "months or even years" means that FEMA is not releasing funds anyway. That includes money for the purely preventative brush-clearing and controlled burns which would normally be underway now.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to attack the victims of natural disasters in order to win a political fight.
  • Presidents don't need to be experts on forest fires, but they do need to be willing to listen to people who are when they're making policy on forest fires.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He did some campaign fund-raising.

Several hours before Trump gave a nationally televised prime-time Oval Office speech, his 2020 presidential campaign sent out a fundraising e-mail referencing the speech. He invited people to have their names put on "a list of EVERY AMERICAN PATRIOT who donates to the Official Secure the Border Fund," and said that the list would be delivered to him after the speech.

The "Official Secure the Border Fund" is a Trump campaign account. 

Previous prime-time presidential addresses have dealt with matters like the killing of Osama bin Laden, the September 11th attacks, other major military and diplomatic actions, national tragedies, and scandals affecting the president personally

No president prior to Trump is known to have tried to use a presidential address as a fundraising tool.

Why does this matter?

  • The point of governing is to govern, not to fund the next campaign.

Monday, January 7, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to pretend that a Democratic congressman supported his plan to use emergency powers to build his wall.

With public opinion against his oft-promised, ever-changing, never-built border wall, Trump needs all the allies he can get. But many of the people he claims agree with him on the wall aren't identified, like the "many" unpaid government workers Trump claims are secretly communicating their support. Others, like every living ex-president, have quickly refuted Trump's claims that they privately agree with him about border walls.

Trump tried again today in a tweet claiming that Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) agreed that he could use a state of emergency to force the building of a wall without a Congress appropriating money to pay for it. It's true that Rep. Smith said that Trump could declare a state of emergency. This is not exactly controversial: there has been at least one state of emergency in existence at the federal level at all times for the last four decades, and there may be dozens active at any given time.

But Smith's point was that Trump did not have the legal authority to use the powers granted to presidents under the National Emergencies Act to have the military build a border wall, and that he would lose a court challenge if he tried.
ABC NEWS: Let's get right to it, does President Trump have the ability, have the authority, to declare a national emergency, have the military build his wall? 
REP. SMITH: Well, unfortunately, the short answer is yes. There is a provision in law that says the president can declare an emergency. It's been done a number of times. But primarily it's been done to build facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. 
In this case, I think the president would be wide open to a court challenge saying, where is the emergency? You have to establish that in order to do this. But beyond that, this would be a terrible use of Department of Defense dollars. The president spends most of his time talking about how we're not spending enough on national security, now he wants to take $20 billion out of the defense budget to build a wall, which by the way is not going to improve our border security. The president seems unaware of this, but we have actually already built a wall across much of the border, and all border security experts that I talk to say, where a wall makes sense, it's already been built.

Why should I care about this?

  • States of emergency don't give presidents the power to reshape reality.
  • Presidents whose policies are legal and/or popular don't need to lie about people supporting them.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reversed his plan to abandon U.S. allies in the Syrian conflict (without admitting it).

Last month, Trump abruptly declared his intention to unilaterally withdraw U.S. troops from the Syrian conflict. The order came without warning, shocking American military leaders and forcing Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign in protest

The biggest winners from such a withdrawal would be Russia (which is allied to the genocidal Assad regime in Syria) and Turkey (which would be free to attack Syrian Kurds, the United States' ally on the ground in Syria). The move also alarmed Israel.

Given the enormous political blowback, Trump's handlers almost immediately began walking back the announcement (even as Trump walked it forward), insisting that the troop drawdown would take place over a much longer timeframe than originally planned. Today, Trump's national security advisor John Bolton took that process to its logical conclusion, saying that U.S. troops would be withdrawn only at an unspecified future time when certain conditions were met.

One of those "conditions," the actual defeat of Islamic State loyalists in Syria, is something Trump has already (falsely) declared victory on.

How is this a problem?

  • Undoing bad policy doesn't undo all the consequences of making it in the first places.
  • Anything that weakens allies' trust in the United States is a threat to national security.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lost the narrative on the "wall."

Trump tweeted nine times today about the border wall that is at the heart of his refusal to fund a quarter of the federal government. For much of his first two years in office, Trump basically abandoned his campaign promise to build a 1600-mile long physical barrier. But in recent weeks, he has suddenly decided (or decided to pretend) that it is so urgent that it takes precedence over literally anything else the government does—including paying 800,000 federal employees.

The consensus explanation for Trump's sudden renewal of interest in "the wall," as opposed to other forms of border security that actually work, is that he became frightened that a few fringe-right conservatives like Ann Coulter would turn on him. All presidents make political calculations, but for Trump there is a far greater danger in alienating his base than most presidents face. If a substantial number of Trump's strongest supporters abandon him, it could make him much more vulnerable to removal from office and post-presidency criminal prosecutions.

The latest tweetstorm came as reporting sourced to his own advisors and campaign strategists revealed that the whole idea of a "wall" was never supposed to be more than a mnemonic device. His handlers on the campaign trail felt that Trump, who even friends admit is undisciplined on his best days, needed an easy catchphrase to keep him focused. It was not intended by those handlers as an actual policy item. (Even conservative immigration hardliners don't generally think a physical, static wall will have any real effect on border crossings.)

The federal employees who actually do guard the border are being furloughed or forced to work without pay during the shutdown.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's bad if a president is so easily manipulated that his handlers can end up creating policy by accident.
  • Actual border security is more important than Trump's political or legal future.

Friday, January 4, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he thinks of the shutdown as a "strike."

Today was the fourteenth day of the government shutdown caused by Trump's refusal to sign any appropriations bill that did not include $5,000,000,000 for a wall on the Mexican border. During that time, some 800,000 federal employees have either been laid off, or working without being paid.

Trump has repeatedly insisted—with no evidence—that the very workers who are now going without paychecks are the ones who support him the most. This morning, in a meeting in which he repeatedly lost his temper and erupted in profanity, he said he prefers to think of the shutdown as a "strike."

It's not clear if Trump, who inherited nearly half a billion dollars, actually knows what a strike is.

At a press conference today, he suggested, in all apparent seriousness, that those unpaid workers would continue at their jobs for "months or years."

But CNN reported today that TSA workers—some of whom make less than $30,000 per year—are already calling in sick, in large numbers, to the jobs that they have been doing for two weeks without a paycheck. A union representative said that those employees are likely seeking other (paid) work.

How is this a problem?

  • A "strike" is something workers do to improve their pay and working conditions.
  • A president who can say with a straight face that employees will work for "months or years" for free is either a liar or too stupid to hold office.
  • Maybe someone who thinks the government doesn't need to exist for years at a time shouldn't be in charge of it.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to stay in the spotlight.

Trump made an appearance at a hastily scheduled White House press briefing today. Under previous administrations, the occasional presidential drop-in at the daily press briefing served as informal press conferences. But Trump had never appeared at one until today—in part because he has practically ended the practice of allowing reporters to publicly ask questions of his administration in the first place.

Trump was in the room for eight minutes, much of which was spent congratulating himself for being there in the first place, and left without taking questions. 

The actual purpose of the "briefing" appears to have been to force television cameras to cut away from the opening of the new session of Congress. With Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives, cable news coverage was heavy on how the majority would use their newly acquired subpoena power to investigate Trump's financial obligations, connections to the Putin regime, tax records, and other scandals

Trump's media strategy for the last month has been to divert attention from such things with his newly rediscovered passion for his "wall," something he indirectly admitted in a tweet on Tuesday:

It's not the first time Trump has given a "press conference" without actually answering press questions. 

Why does this matter?

  • The presidency is not actually a reality show and the president shouldn't treat it like one.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He trashed an outgoing Cabinet secretary at a Cabinet meeting.

There was a Cabinet meeting today, the first since the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis—although Trump has now decided to call that a firing. Mattis resigned in protest last month over Trump's sudden insistence on a pullout of American troops from Syria, which would amount to an abandonment of vulnerable American allies in the region.

Trump's opening ramble eventually turned to Mattis, about whom he said: "What's he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good. I'm not happy with what he's done in Afghanistan, and I shouldn't be happy."

What Mattis has "done for" Trump in Afghanistan is carry out the Trump administration's policy. But it's not entirely clear what that policy is—as Trump himself demonstrated in the meeting when he bizarrely praised the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of the same country. This is what Trump said about his long-term Afghanistan strategy:

We're gonna do something that's right. We are talking to the Taliban, we're talking to a lot of different people. But here's the thing... Russia is there. Russia used to be the Soviet Union. Afghanistan made it Russia, because they went bankrupt fighting in Afghanistan. Russia. So you take a look at other countries—Pakistan is there. They should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting. The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight and literally they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union, you know a lot of these places you're reading about now are no longer part of Russia because of Afghanistan.

In other words, Trump is saying that the United States—which funded, under President Reagan, the Mujahideen opposition to the occupying Soviet force—was on the wrong side of the Soviet-Afghan War. He also seems to be saying that the United States should not simply withdraw from Afghanistan, but that it should do so specifically in order to allow the Soviet Union and Pakistan to take control. (Trump himself suspended U.S. military aid to Pakistan because of its support for the Taliban.)

Put even more simply, Trump is siding with two adversarial countries—one of whom is an ally of the United States' enemy in Afghanistan—against the policy of every presidential administration, including his own, for the last 40 years.

Put as simply as possible, virtually none of what Trump claims to believe about Afghanistan is true.

So what?

  • It's bad when an American president takes sides with the Putin (or Brezhnev) regime against the United States' interests.
  • Only incompetent leaders blame their subordinates when their plans don't work.
  • It's useful for presidents to have some knowledge of history, including the parts they were middle-aged adults during.