Thursday, April 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he didn't tell Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller—and that you're not allowed to ask Don McGahn if that's true.

Judging by today's tweets, Trump is determined to create a narrative where he "respectfully" allowed the Mueller investigation to proceed. (It's difficult to count the number of times Trump has insulted Mueller by saying that he is "conflicted," or "disgraced and discredited" or "just someone looking for trouble," and so forth.) 

More specifically, he tweeted today, "I never told then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller."

Here is what the Mueller report, based on McGahn's own testimony, says about Trump's repeated orders to McGahn to fire Mueller, or convince others to do so:

On Saturday, June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn and directed him to have the
Special Counsel removed
. McGahn was at home and the President was at Camp David. In interviews with this Office, McGahn recalled that the President called him at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel. 
On the first call, McGahn recalled that the President said something like, "You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod." McGahn said he told the President that he would see what he could do. McGahn was perturbed by the call and did not intend to act on the request. He and other advisors believed the asserted conflicts were "silly" and "not real," and they had previously communicated that view to the President. McGahn also had made clear to the President that the White House Counsel's Office should not be involved in any effort to press the issue of conflicts. McGahn was concerned about having any role in asking the Acting Attorney General to fire the Special Counsel because he had grown up in the Reagan era and wanted to be more like Judge Robert Bork and not "Saturday Night Massacre Bork." McGahn considered the President's request to be an inflection point and he wanted to hit the brakes.  
When the President called McGahn a second time to follow up on the order to call the Department of Justice, McGahn recalled that the President was more direct, saying something like, "Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can't be the Special Counsel." McGahn recalled the President telling him "Mueller has to go" and "Call me back when you do it." McGahn understood the President to be saying that the Special Counsel had to be removed by Rosenstein. To end the conversation with the President, McGahn left the President with the impression that McGahn would call Rosenstein. McGahn recalled that he had already said no to the President's request and he was worn down, so he just wanted to get off the phone.  
McGahn recalled feeling trapped because he did not plan to follow the President's directive but did not know what he would say the next time the President called. McGahn decided he had to resign. He called his personal lawyer and then called his chief of staff, Annie Donaldson, to inform her of his decision. He then drove to the office to pack his belongings and submit his resignation letter. Donaldson recalled that McGahn told her the President had called and demanded he contact the Department of Justice and that the President wanted him to do something that McGahn did not want to do. McGahn told Donaldson that the President had called at least twice and in one of the calls asked "have you done it?"

In other words, Trump is saying one thing about what he said to McGahn, and the Mueller report based on McGahn's own testimony is saying another.

Trump continues to insist that Congress should not be allowed to ask McGahn which version is true.

So what?

  • Past a certain point, lying becomes less about fooling people and more about insulting their intelligence.
  • It's wrong (and a crime) to obstruct justice.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared himself above the law.

Wrapping a bow around his many, many, many recent refusals to comply with Congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony from his staff, Trump declared today that he was "fighting all the subpoenas" because Democrats in Congress "aren't, like, impartial."

In reality, Congress has oversight authority over the executive branch.

Also today, Trump said in a tweet that if he were impeached, he would appeal to the Supreme Court. As most Americans learn in middle school civics classes, it doesn't work that way

All of this appears to be part of a strategy to run out the clock on any actual investigation in the courts, in the hopes of delaying things long enough for Trump to be re-elected. Presidents are immune from prosecution while in office under current DOJ policy, but Trump is likely to be indicted immediately after leaving office. This means that—except to the extent that Trump cares about the rule of law or patriotism—there is very little disincentive for him to ignore the law in the meantime.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents should care about the rule of law, because in a democracy they're subject to it.
  • It's bad if the president doesn't know how American government works.
  • It's very bad if the president knows, but doesn't care, how American government works.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He talked to the CEO of Twitter about his conspiracy theories about Twitter.

Trump met today with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter. There are any number of reasons a president might want to talk with a tech company executive, but what Trump most wanted to talk about was his incorrect belief that Twitter was secretly and maliciously deleting followers from his famous account.

In reality, Twitter and other social media companies routinely purge spam or fraudulent accounts, some of which follow Trump's account (as well as slightly less famous ones) simply as part of their camouflage. According to a study done last October, more than 60% of Trump's 59.9 million followers are fake. (Other famous people also have high rates of fake followers: about 40% of former president Barack Obama's 106 million followers are fake.)

There is no evidence that Twitter censors accounts based on ideology—not even the foreign "bot" accounts that helped Trump get elected and are still actively propagandizing on Trump's behalf

In fact, Twitter is exploring a special rule inspired by Trump, who sometime posts material that would get deleted for inciting violence or hatred if it came from a normal user. The new policy would allow for such tweets to stay up, in order to preserve a public record, although with a note explaining how they violated Twitter's normal terms of service.

The meeting with Dorsey came right after Trump indulged in an epic Twitter bender even by his standards: 59 posts over the past two days, including one about the Twitter conspiracy theory.

Why should I care about this?

  • Past a certain point, attention-seeking can be pathological.
  • There were probably more important things than tweeting for the President of the United States to be doing over the past two days.

Monday, April 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said, and may actually believe, that his staff is not disobeying his orders.

One of the things in the Mueller report that Trump is known to be most upset by are the many examples of his hand-picked staff refusing to carry out his orders. Asked about this by reporters today, Trump snapped, “Nobody disobeys my orders.”

In reality, not only do Trump's appointees routinely refuse to obey his orders, it may be what has saved him from indictment or impeachment—so far. On at least eleven occasions cited in the Mueller report alone, senior Trump administration staff refused to help him obstruct the Mueller investigation into Russia's attempts to sabotage the 2016 election. At other times, cabinet secretaries from the Defense Department to the State Department to the Department of Homeland Security refused to obey illegal orders issued by Trump, losing their jobs in the process. 

But even before the publication of the Mueller report, Trump's inability to manage his own administration has been openly acknowledged. Last September, the New York Times published an anonymous editorial written by a serving senior Trump official detailing the group effort "working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations."

Of course, while it's clear Trump has never really figured out the extent to which he is manipulated by his own staff—in part because they hide unflattering coverage from him—he does seem to have figured out that he is not his own man in the Oval Office. He frequently lashes out in public at his own appointees, calling them (for example) "traitors and cowards."

So what?

  • It's bad if a president's staff can overrule him.
  • It's very bad if a president's staff feels the need to overrule him.
  • It's extremely bad if a president's staff must overrule him for his own good.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said there was nothing wrong with colluding with the Russians to get himself elected.

On his fourth day Twitter outbursts over the Mueller report, Trump deployed a surrogate to try to defuse its main indictment: that the Trump campaign knew about, approved of, and expected to benefit from Russian criminal interference in the 2016 election on Trump's behalf.

Accordingly, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani took to the Sunday morning news shows to claim that "there's nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians." (Trump, his son, his son-in-law, and his now-convicted campaign manager were all actively involved in attempts to get access to material stolen from the DNC by the Russian government, through a variety of schemes detailed in the Mueller report.)

At almost exactly the same time that Giuliani was defending the Trump campaign for having worked with the Russian government to influence the election, Trump was on Twitter claiming that he had not colluded with Russia. 

Pressed for clarification by both CNN's Jake Tapper and NBC's Chuck Todd about whether he really meant to say that hostile foreign powers were allowed to intervene in American elections, and American politicians were under no obligation to report that intervention, Giuliani agreed:

GIULIANI: Any candidate, any candidate in the whole world, in America, would take information, negative— 
TAPPER: From a foreign source? From a hostile foreign source? 
GIULIANI: Who says it's even illegal? Who says it's even illegal?

It is definitely illegal for campaigns to solicit and receive things of value—including information—from foreign countries.

Also, in reality, the Trump campaign's active solicitation of help from Russia is completely unprecedented. Until Trump, "any candidate in America" had gone to law enforcement under these circumstances. For example, when a stolen tape of George W. Bush's debate prep mysteriously showed up at Al Gore's campaign headquarters, the Gore campaign turned it over to the FBI, which then began a major criminal investigation. The perpetrator, an aide to one of Bush's media consultants, was sentenced to a year in prison.

Why is this a problem?

  • Actually, there is something wrong with asking for and getting a foreign power's help to sabotage an election.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found another Republican to take his Mueller report frustration out on.

Trump's increasing fury at how the Mueller report makes him look has been leaking out into the press—aided in large part by his furious outbursts on Twitter, which continued today. (Although he did also make sure to retweet a supporter claiming he'd "never seen [Trump] happier.")

Most of Trump's rage has been aimed at Mueller directly, in the form of sneers that the lifelong Republican and former FBI Director was an "angry Democrat." (Trump himself seems to have lost track of how many "Democrats" he imagines investigated his ties to Russia.) But today he broadened his attacks to include insufficiently loyal Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

Yesterday, Romney tweeted this reaction to the Mueller report:


Trump's response was to taunt Romney over the outcome of the 2012 election. Trump has not made any public statement on the actual content of the report, which was released Thursday morning, since avoiding reporters en route to a long weekend at his Palm Beach luxury resort.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Problems don't go away just because you ignore them.
  • Angrily insisting you're happy when you're not is what toddlers do.
  • Loyalty is earned.

Friday, April 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared that the document that supposedly "TOTALLY VINDICATED" him was "bullshit."

Trump put on a brave face yesterday, insisting along with a phalanx of political allies that it was a "good day" for his presidency. This in spite of the fact that the politically damning Mueller report, released in redacted form yesterday, implicitly calls for Trump's criminal prosecution after he leaves office.

Today, however, as Trump took shelter in his Florida luxury resort for a long weekend, the mask dropped. He awoke early, railing on Twitter at the "Crazy Mueller Report," written (as he imagines) by "Angry Democrat Trump Haters" and declaring it "total bullshit."

The initial tweetstorm then took a nine-hour pause in mid-sentence while Trump played golf.

But after he finished the thought (accusing anyone who dared to investigate him of "Treason"), Trump—or his handlers, who the Mueller report make clear are frequently overruling him to save him from his own worst impulses—seemed to remember his original plan. Most of the rest of the day's many tweets and retweets were spent proclaiming that the "crazy" "bullshit" Mueller report actually "TOTALLY VINDICATED" him.

Who cares?

  • Presidents aren't above the law.
  • It's not treason to investigate—and prove—attacks on the United States by hostile foreign powers.
  • It's not treason to investigate the president.
  • A person who felt "TOTALLY VINDICATED" probably wouldn't be this angry or afraid.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He whistled past the graveyard of the Mueller Report.

A redacted version of the special counsel's report on the investigation into the links between Trump and the Russian attack on the 2016 election was released this morning.

In response, Trump declared that he was having a "good day" with the release of the report. 

Given what the report reveals in its unredacted portions, that's hard to take seriously. Trump's reaction to the news that a special counsel had been appointed—which is part of the report—is probably more indicative of his actual mood:


Shortly after insisting that the report was good news for him, Trump fled to his Florida luxury resort, avoiding media en route.

Why should I care about this, besides what is in the report itself?

  • "I'm fucked" isn't generally how people react to news that they will be investigated for things they didn't do.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was acknowledged in two different ways for how he's dealt with North Korea.

Today, Trump was named one of Time magazine's "Most Influential People" for 2019. The citation, written by his sometime ally Chris Christie, praised Trump's "history-making changes on the Korean Peninsula."

Trump has long been obsessed with Time. He has commissioned fake Time covers praising him for display in his luxury resorts. He has claimed to be the person most often put on the cover, which isn't even close to the truth. This past year, when it became clear he would not be named its "Person of the Year," he tweeted that he was "PROBABLY" going to be chosen again, but that he turned it down. (It doesn't work that way.)  

Also today, North Korea announced that it has tested a "new tactical guided weapon," likely a short-range missile for use with its nuclear stockpile. 

Because he had already declared victory on North Korea before even meeting with its dictator Kim Jong-un, Trump has had little choice but to ignore its suddenly accelerated missile development. Typically, as he did in a speech on Monday, he simply pretends that it isn't happening anymore.

And North Korea, that's moving along. You know, when I came in, we were -- there were missiles going all over the place. ...But I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un.
Trump's administration has not yet acknowledged the North Korean announcement.

So what?

  • Problems don't go away just because you can't or won't deal with them.
  • A president who can't or won't respond to provocations by nuclear-armed dictators isn't capable of doing the job.
  • People who desperately need praise and attention, and who react badly when they don't get it, may have serious mental health issues.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said that an immigrant war refugee turned Congresswoman didn't know how life worked.

Today, Trump was asked to comment on the doctored video he'd posted to Twitter that has led to death threats against Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). He responded by saying that he didn't regret anything he'd done, and added:

She is somebody that doesn’t really understand life, real life. What it’s all about.

Rep. Omar was born in Somalia in 1981. When she was a child, her family fled the Somalia Civil War, a conflict that has killed perhaps half a million people and created more than a million refugees. Omar spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, after which her family applied for asylum status in the United States and moved to Minneapolis. (As a candidate in 2016, before Omar ran for office, Trump tried to win over Minnesota voters by claiming that they had "suffered" at the hands of the Somali refugees living in the state because, Trump had decided, they were joining ISIS.) Omar became a U.S. citizen in 2000 at the age of 17, graduated from the University of North Dakota, and then worked in state politics until she was elected to the Minnesota legislature in 2016 at age 35.

By comparison, Trump was born in New York City in 1946 to an immigrant mother. (His father was born in the United States, although Trump has gotten confused about that several times lately.) He suffered from behavioral problems that caused his father to send him to a private military boarding school. He attended Occidental College, and then Fordham College, and finally the University of Pennsylvania. (He has falsely claimed to be a top student at Penn, and has threatened those schools with legal action if his grades are ever released.) Immediately after receiving his degree, he was suddenly stricken with bone spurs that prevented him from entering the Vietnam draft, according to a podiatrist whose landlord was Trump's father. He spent the remainder of his 20s and early 30s as a part of his father's business empire, and taking part in a long-running tax fraud scheme that helped channel his father's money to him and his siblings tax-free over the course of decades.

Trump didn't say what about "real life" he thought could only be learned at private boarding schools or taking a job in a multi-millionaire father's business empire.

Earlier this month, shortly after Trump's fixation on Omar began, a man who identified himself as a Trump supporter was arrested for calling Omar's office and saying that she was "a fucking terrorist" and that he was "going to put a bullet in her fucking skull."

Who cares?

  • "Real life" happens even to people who aren't Donald Trump.
  • Trying to keep people in line with the threat of violence is what dictators do.
  • People born into solid gold houses shouldn't throw stones.

Monday, April 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He had some helpful suggestions.

Trump found room in today's "executive time" to offer his advice on two recent tragedies. He began the day by making suggestions for what the American aircraft manufacturer Boeing should be doing in the wake of two crashes of their 737 MAX airliners:



To Boeing's credit, it appears that the idea of fixing the design flaws in the affected models had already occurred to them. But Trump does have some airline industry experience: one of his many failed businesses was an airline that he "branded" with his own name.

Later in the day, he jumped at the opportunity presented by the burning of Notre Dame cathedral to advise French firefighters that it was important to fight fires quickly.




French civil defense authorities were forced to remind Trump in a rare English-language tweet that airdropping tons of water on a brittle stone structure in the middle of a densely populated urban area was not exactly best practices. (This is not the first time, or even the second, that Trump's firefighting wisdom has gotten a cool reception from actual firefighters.)

Trump's theory of firefighting does not extend to installing legally required sprinkler systems in his namesake apartment building in Manhattan.

There are two possible explanations for Trump's sudden interest in other people's jobs. One is that with the release of a redacted version of the Mueller report expected this week, Trump has been going out of his way to preemptively distract media attention from it. For example, the New York Times reported today that, according to people close to him, Trump's recent suggestion that he could "punish" so-called sanctuary cities by busing asylum-seekers to them was just an attempt to change the discussion away from the Mueller report. Trolling Boeing and the city of Paris may be part of that same strategy.

The other explanation is that Trump appears to genuinely believe that he is an expert with valuable advice to give on almost every subject, ranging from "the nuclear" to innovative cybersecurity practices to modern warfare.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to try to score political points off of other people's tragedies.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained about his own appointees, again.

Most of Trump's attention today was on golf—either his 182nd trip to the links since taking office on a promise not to play, or on Tiger Woods' victory at the Masters. But he found time for one job-related action: complaining about the Federal Reserve.




There's not much reason to think that Trump understands what the nation's central bank does. For that matter, there's no reason to think he understands whether what it's doing is different from what he supposedly wants it to do. The federal government now expects the economy to slow considerably in the coming years, something Trump cannot afford politically after taking credit for a post-recession recovery that began in 2009.

But thanks to unexpected vacancies, the current Fed board is almost entirely Trump's creation anyway. Trump has appointed all but one member of the Fed's Board of Governors, and is trying to fill two further vacancies—although he's having a lot of trouble finding qualified candidates who are willing to do as he asks.

What's the problem here?

  • The President of the United States absolutely has to have basic economic literacy.
  • Presidents are responsible for the actions of the people they appoint—even if they're confused about when they should be trying to duck that responsibility.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He retreated to the comfort of his "excellent" relationship with Kim Jong-un.

In a recent speech to his national assembly, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un said that he would be willing to hold yet another summit with Trump, but only "[i]f the U.S. adopts a correct posture and comes forward for the third DPRK-U.S. summit with a certain methodology that can be shared with us." 

Kim added that both countries would need to set aside their unilateral demands—but then immediately claimed that North Korea had already done so by pausing its nuclear testing program.

Loosely translated from the sometimes confusing language that North Korea tends to use in formal statements, Kim was saying that the United States would need to make even more concessions before it would consider giving Trump the political favor of another summit.

This puts Trump in an awkward position, because he has already endorsed Kim's "concession" by claiming it as his own personal triumph. In reality, North Korea is no longer testing nuclear weapons because it has proved it has a working design.

Trump—who may genuinely believe he has made a personal connection with a man who has ordered the murder of the families of perceived political enemies—apparently felt he had little choice but to agree with Kim. He responded by tweeting this morning about the "very good" or "excellent" state of their personal relationship, and gushed about the "extraordinary growth, economic success, and riches" that "Chairman Kim" was leading his country to. 

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if the dictator of a hostile nuclear power has political leverage over the president.

Friday, April 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denied doing something he's spent much of his presidency doing.

Trump's "executive time" on Twitter spanned most of the day today, and just before midnight, he said this:

Actually, it was a New York Times story, but at least Trump's summary of it was correct. Three people with knowledge of the conversation said that Trump told Kevin McAleenan (whom he was just about to appoint to one of the many vacant Homeland Security positions) that he would pardon any crimes McAleenan might have to commit in keeping asylum-seeking migrants from crossing the border.

Recently, Trump fired DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen for reminding him that most of his proposed border policies are illegal. He also told border patrol agents to ignore federal court rulings, and had to be overruled by those agents' supervisors after he left the room.

Trump has also publicly hinted that he'd offer pardons to several of the key witnesses in the Russia investigation. 

It is illegal to use the powers of a federal office to help someone commit a crime.

Why does this matter?

  • The president is not above the law.
  • It's wrong to tell other people to commit crimes, even if you can help them get away with it.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He claimed he'd never heard of Wikileaks.

Today, Ecuador expelled Julian Assange from its London embassy, where he has spent the last seven years as a refugee. He was immediately arrested by British police. The United States is among several countries seeking to prosecute Assange for crimes ranging from rape to computer espionage.

Wikileaks was one of the ways that the Putin regime in Russia used to distribute the e-mails it stole from the Democratic National Committee as part of its efforts to throw the election to Trump.

At a joint press conference with the President of South Korea today, Trump said, "I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing."

Trump has talked publicly about Wikileaks at least 164 times. More to the point, Trump's longtime friend and advisor Roger Stone acted as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Wikileaks, which Trump himself was aware of.


Who cares?

  • It's bad if the president has ties to international criminals.
  • Past a certain point, lying becomes pathological.
  • Demanding that people you want power over ignore obvious lies is a form of abuse.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reprised all of his previously told lies on the subject of his taxes, and then took action to prevent any scrutiny of his taxes.

Trump briefly took questions from reporters on the White House lawn today. Among his remarks on the subject of his taxes, Trump said this:

Q: Do you believe (inaudible) law requires you to give Congress your tax returns? 
TRUMP: No, there is no law.

But there is exactly that law.

TRUMP: There’s no law whatsoever.

Yes, there is, although according to a Treasury Department memo released tonight, Trump has ordered his administration to pretend otherwise for the time being.

TRUMP: Now, I will say this: I would love to [release] them.

It's pretty clear Trump very, very much does not want this. What's less clear is exactly what he's afraid of.

TRUMP: What I have done is approximately a 104-page summary — and, really, in great detail — of assets and values.

Trump is notorious for lying about his net worth, sometimes for strategic business purposes—which can be a crime—but especially as a matter of personal vanity.

TRUMP: [F]rankly, the people don’t care.

But polling clearly shows an overwhelming majority of Americans do want Trump's taxes made public.

As investigative reporting showed last year, Trump's inheritance of almost half a billion inflation-adjusted dollars came from illegal schemes to dodge gift and estate taxes. His sister, a federal judge, was recently forced into retirement as a result of the investigation of those charges.

Why should I care about this?

  • People who "would love to" demonstrate their own innocence, usually do, unless they can't.
  • It's wrong to lie, even if it's just for purposes of vanity.
  • Presidents aren't above the law.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to blame his policies on President Obama, and then claim that he'd ended those policies he started, while trying to put them back into place.

At a joint press conference with Egyptian president Fattah al Sissi, Trump said this:

President Obama had child separation. Take a look. The press knows it. You know it. We all know it. I didn’t have — I’m the one that stopped it. President Obama had child separation. 
Now, I’ll tell you something: Once you don’t have it, that’s why you see many more people coming. They’re coming like it’s a picnic because “let’s go to Disneyland.” President Obama separated children. They had child separation. I was the one that changed it.

There are two claims here: first, that under President Obama, it was United States policy to separate children from their parents when families were apprehended after crossing the border, whether it was an illegal crossing or part of an asylum application.

It's not the first time Trump has told that lie, and it remains completely false.

In the real world, Trump fired the Secretary of Homeland Security this week as a result of a meeting during which she reminded him that court orders prohibited him from reinstating the family separation policy he instituted last year. (Trump also told border agents this week to ignore judicial orders, only to be quietly overruled by supervisors after he'd left the room.)

The second claim is that undocumented immigrants traveling to the U.S. border think it's like a "picnic" at "Disneyland."

Ueslei Marcelino (Reuters)
John Moore (Getty)


Marvin Recinos (AFP/Getty)
Orlando Estrada (AFP/Getty)

Pedro Pardo (AFP/Getty)
A migrant family, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America to the United States, run away from tear gas in front of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2018.
Kim Kyung Hoon (Reuters)

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol
Jared Moossy (Time)

Why should I care about this?

  • It's wrong to blame other people for things you did.
  • Ordering law enforcement to ignore the law is what authoritarians do.

Monday, April 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He declared himself a sponsor of terrorism.

Today, Trump designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite element within the Iranian military, as a terrorist organization.

In a statement released alongside the order, Trump warned Americans that "[i]f you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism."


As the New Yorker reported in 2017, Trump himself was "in business with the IRGC" through his construction of Trump Tower Baku, a luxury tower in Azerbaijan's capital. Contracts for the construction were awarded through the politically influential Mammadov family, which was widely known as a cut-out for the IRGC. In simplest terms, the Trump Organization allowed the Mammadovs to profit in order to ensure that they didn't influence the Azerbaijani government against the project.


Trump continued his involvement the project—thereby "bankrolling terrorism"—through 2016.

Why should I care about this?

  • Participating in corrupt business practices is always wrong (and in the United States, illegal).
  • Presidents shouldn't do things that are by their own definitions "bankrolling terrorism."

Sunday, April 7, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He doubled down on his attacks on the documents that supposedly show he did nothing wrong.

Trump claims not to know what is in the Mueller report, but his opinion of it has changed radically in the last week or so. He's stopped saying he'll be happy to have it released, and as his daily Twitter time today shows, he's returned to calling the Department of Justice prosecutors who wrote it names.

Also this morning, Trump dispatched his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to insist that Congress will "never" be allowed to see his or his businesses' tax returns. That's not up to him, but Trump has retained lawyers to try to prevent the House Ways and Means Committee from examining them, which it is legally permitted to do. 

Officially, at least, Trump's position is that both the Mueller report and his tax returns would do nothing but prove his innocence. 

In both cases, Trump has the authority to release these documents that supposedly exonerate him, but he has refused to do so. He has not offered any explanation as to why.

Why should I care about this?

  • Innocent people don't usually actively conceal evidence that would prove their innocence.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took every possible stance on immigration.

Several times this week, and again in an interview released today, Trump has tried out a new line: that asylum seekers are no longer welcome because the United States is "full."

Trump saying so doesn't change refugee law, although he's correct that asylum claims are up. By cutting aid aimed at reducing the number of people fleeing Central America, by promoting the still-mythical "wall," and by denouncing America's immigration laws, Trump himself is the reason that many asylum-seekers are choosing to risk the journey now.

But at the same time that he's insisting that America is "full," Trump is nearly doubling the number of H-2B visas available. These visas are supposed to be for short-term workers when there are no qualified American applicants, although employers—including Trump's businesses—often issue them illegally to hire foreign workers at lower wages than Americans living full-time in the country can afford. 

For example, when Trump's Mar-a-Lago club wants to hire seasonal workers, it technically complies with the law by running a small ad in a local newspaper for two days, then applies for visas on the grounds that it cannot find Americans qualified to work as cooks, bartenders, waitstaff, and housekeepers. The result is that 143 such jobs at Mar-a-Lago and other Trump resorts in the last three years have gone to H-2B visa employees, who were paid as little as $10.33/hour, and one single American citizen was hired.

Trump also has a long history of illegally employing undocumented foreigners at his businesses, but those would not be affected by the availability of legal work permits.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents don't get to ignore or rewrite the law when it suits their political needs.
  • The overall welfare of the country should be a bigger factor in immigration policy than keeping wages down at the president's golf courses.

Friday, April 5, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about his taxes, again.

Trump had this exchange with reporters outside the White House today:

Q: Are you confident you’ll be able to keep the Democrats from getting your taxes? 
TRUMP: Oh, I don’t know. That’s up to whoever handles it. I don’t know. Hey, I’m under audit. But that’s up to whoever it is. I — from what I understand, the law is 100 percent on my side.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has instructed the IRS to provide that committee with Trump's personal tax returns for the past six years, as well as statements for certain of Trump's business entities. Neal has that authority under the Internal Revenue Code 6103(f), which states that

[u]pon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.

The word "shall" is important here: in this legal context, it means that the IRS does not have a choice.

Trump's reference to it being up to "whoever handles it" is interesting, because he's taken an extraordinary interest in getting people with specific kinds of connections to him appointed to those positions. The New York Times reported yesterday that Trump appointed a lawyer from the firm that handles his own businesses' taxes to the position of IRS general counsel—and that he told Senate Republicans to make it a top priority with Democrats likely to make these requests. Neal's request was sent to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, who Trump also appointed. Before being tapped for the position, Rettig wrote an article defending Trump's decision not to release his tax returns for public inspection while (allegedly) under audit. Rettig also owns apartments in Trump's buildings, something he attempted to conceal during his confirmation.

Trump is the only presidential candidate since President Nixon not to publicly release his tax returns. It's not clear what specifically Trump fears will be found in his tax returns, but he apparently is desperate to keep the issue tied up in court at least until after the 2020 election. A Trump administration official compared it to warfare: "This is a hill and people would be willing to die on it."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Important government positions should be given to the people best qualified to do them, not people who the president thinks will look after his personal interests.
  • The law is what the law is, not what the president wants it to be.
  • Innocent people don't usually go to this kind of extreme lengths to conceal evidence of their innocence.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He started backpedalling even faster on the Mueller report.

Two weeks ago, Trump was declaring that Robert Mueller had "acted honorably" by producing a report that was a "Complete and Total EXONERATION" of him. That was based on a four-page memo written by an attorney general, Robert Barr, who had declared before being nominated that Trump could not possibly be guilty of obstructing the Russia investigation—and who then promptly declared that he would not try to prosecute Trump for obstruction.

Trump—who may actually have believed that he had been exonerated, in spite of the memo quoting a passage from the report saying he had not been—even went so far as to suggest that he welcomed the public release of the report.

But evidence is mounting that the actual report is much more damning than Barr's memo makes it sound. According to articles sourced to the investigators themselves,Trump and his associates may have escaped prosecution because they were manipulated by Russian intelligence operatives rather than actively conspiring. (Generally speaking, criminal conspiracies require participants to know that they are helping to commit crimes.)

In other words, Trump and his senior aides, many of whom had no experience in politics or government, may not be guilty of conspiracy because they were more like what Vladimir Lenin called "useful idiots."

Accordingly, Trump is rapidly changing his tune. He has begun reviving his attacks on Mueller, and walking back his support for letting anyone—in Congress or in the public—see the report that supposedly "exonerates" him. 

In today's "executive time" Twitter session, Trump insisted that "[a]ccording to polling, few people seem to care about the Russian Collusion Hoax." In reality, seeing the report has broad bipartisan support. The House of Representatives voted 420-0 to recommend its release, and according to actual polls, an overwhelming 75% of Americans want to see the report released (including a majority of Republicans). 

Why does this matter?

  • Innocent people who have been falsely accused generally don't try to keep anyone from ever seeing the evidence that "totally exonerates" them.
  • It's a matter of opinion whether a president being corrupted by a hostile foreign power or merely bamboozled by one is worse, but both are very bad.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He told a Norwegian official about what he apparently thinks is the quaint American custom of asylum laws.

During a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump was asked a question about his empty threats to close the US-Mexico border. (Trump began by walking back his bluff, claiming that Mexico had suddenly managed to halt all traffic across its southern border.)

Eventually, his response came around to the fact that many of the people crossing the US border are not seeking to work illegally, as was more common in the past, but are openly seeking asylum. Turning to Stoltenberg, Trump said:

Every time — and you won’t even believe this, Mr. Secretary General — you catch somebody that’s coming illegally into your country, and they bring them to a court. But we can’t bring them to a court because you could never have that many judges. So they take their name, they take their information, and they release them. Now, we don’t release too many. We keep them. It’s called “catch and keep.” But you don’t have facilities for that. But you have to bring them through a court system. If they touch your land — one foot on your land: “Welcome to being Perry Mason. You now have a big trial.”

Stoltenberg, the former Prime Minister of Norway, probably could "even believe" Trump's description of the "worst, dumbest immigration system in the world," since Norway has the same system. Like virtually every other democracy including the United States, Norway has a robust process in place for applying for asylum. But under the law (of both countries), asylum seekers crossing the border and presenting themselves to law enforcement are not entering the country illegally.

Trump then turned to a favorite lie of his, saying that of asylum applicants given a hearing in court, "nobody comes back. I guess 1 percent — 1 to 2 percent, on average, come back. And nobody can understand why they come back."

In reality, about 90% of asylum seekers are present for their court date. The remainder includes applicants who have died or left the country voluntarily in the meantime.

Why should anyone care about this?

  • Presidents should know something about the laws it's their job to enforce.
  • It's wrong to lie for political purposes, especially about people who can't fight back.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He campaigned on a secret health care plan you're not allowed to know about.

Trump surprised many people—and horrified Congressional Republicans—when his first reaction to being "exonerated" by the Barr memo was to dive back into the health care debate. Last Tuesday, Trump ordered the Justice Department to stop defending any part of the Affordable Care Act in court. 

There are other parties defending the law, and challenges to its overall constitutionality are not widely expected to succeed. But in essence, Trump has now officially endorsed the immediate "repeal" of all of the law sometimes known as "Obamacare." This includes overwhelmingly popular provisions, like rules that prevent health insurance companies for dropping people with pre-existing conditions, or that allow adult children to stay on their parents' plans until age 26. 

After a week of none-too-gentle lobbying from his own party, Trump seems to have realized his political miscalculation. Today, he tried a new tactic: arguing that once the ACA is defeated in the courts, he will unveil his plan for a replacement—but only after the 2020 election. He told reporters today:

I want to put it after the election, because we don't have the House. So, even though the health care is good, really good, it's much better than -- when the plan comes out, which will be showing you at the appropriate time, it's much better than Obamacare. So, when the plan comes out, you will see it.

That statement followed a series of tweets last night in which Trump confirmed that he did, indeed, mean that the plan would only be revealed "right after the Election"—and only if he were re-elected along with a Republican majority in both houses.

Neither his tweets nor his comments today explained what was supposed to happen in the period between any potential judicial repeal of the ACA and the passage of his secret plan.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents have a Constitutional obligation to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed" whether or not it's good for them politically.
  • Even if Trump really does have a plan now, his own track record suggests that he'll forget what it is before too long.

Monday, April 1, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He patted himself on the back for funding for autism research he's trying to cut to zero.

Tomorrow is World Autism Awareness Day. As presidents frequently do for such occasions, Trump issued an official proclamation today. It included this passage (with emphasis added):

As a Nation, we must continue to support Americans with ASD. My Administration has worked to fund cutting-edge research, optimize health systems, and enhance available resources and treatments that will benefit people with ASD. Ongoing Federal research efforts to understand the health and development of children with ASD have recently expanded to include adolescents and young adults, thereby advancing our knowledge of ASD beyond childhood.

In reality, as the Washington Post reported last week, Trump's proposed 2020 budget seeks to "zero out funding for Department of Health and Human Services programs relating to autism, including a developmental disabilities surveillance and research program, autism education, early detection and intervention, and the interagency autism coordinating committee."

Why is this a bad thing?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you're not doing.