Friday, May 31, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He insulted the Duchess of Sussex right before he visits the UK.

In an interview with the British tabloid The Sun published today, Trump was told that called Meghan Markle—the biracial American-born actress married to Prince Harry—had opposed his election in 2016.

Trump replied, "I didn't know that she was nasty."

Apparently realizing too late what he'd said, Trump then backtracked, saying that he was sure Markle would do a good job as a member of the royal family.

Markle makes at least the third woman in the last few years that Trump has dubbed "nasty" for opposing him politically. The others are Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), who is running for president, and his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton

Of course, Trump's temper and hunger for the spotlight have led him to publicly insult almost everyone and everything at one point or another. (The New York Times has counted 598 targets just going by his Twitter feed, as of last Friday.) But Trump's insults are usually much more intense and frequently obscene when he feels provoked by a woman. 

The slur on Markle means that Trump has gone after Prince Harry's wife and mother. Weeks after her death, Trump bragged in a radio interview that he "could have nailed" Princess Diana, but also said that she was "crazy." (In reality, according to a friend of Diana's, she was worried by Trump's stalker-like behavior towards her.)

UPDATE, 6/1: An official Trump campaign Twitter account called this "fake news," saying that the media was "falsely claiming President Trump called Meghan Markle 'nasty.'" The tweet included audio of Trump clearly saying exactly that.

Who cares?

  • Inability to bear any kind of criticism, no matter what the circumstances, is not a sign of good mental health.
  • This is a pretty low diplomatic bar for Trump to be unable to clear.
  • It's wrong to lie, and it's wrong and stupid to lie about whether you said something there's audio tape of you saying.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He took every possible position on whether Russia got him elected in the space of 20 minutes.

As usual, Trump spent most of the workday on Twitter, and one tweet in particular generated a lot of attention. In it, Trump said:

Russia, Russia, Russia! That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax...And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected. It was a crime that didn’t exist...

It was immediately noticed that Trump was, for the first time, admitting what literally every other intelligence and federal law enforcement agency that has investigated it already knew: that Russia helped him get elected.

Less than an hour later, Trump completely contradicted himself.

Q: Do you believe that Russia helped you get elected? 
TRUMP: No, Russia did not help me get elected. 
Q: That’s what [your tweet] said. 
TRUMP: You know who got me elected? You know who got me elected? I got me elected. Russia didn’t help me at all. Russia, if anything, I think, helped the other side.

In reality, the Putin regime actively sabotaged the 2016 presidential election in order to get Trump elected, or at least to delegitimize Clinton, the expected winner. It hacked into the Democratic National Committee's e-mail servers and released selected messages aimed at demoralizing potential Hillary Clinton voters. It conducted widespread attacks on state election systems, and compromised election computers in at least two counties in Florida. It hired buildings full of professional online trolls aimed at spreading propaganda and disinformation online. It successfully cultivated relationships with Trump's family members and campaign manager in order to offer them "dirt" on Clinton. And it responded on the very same day of Trump's request on live TV that it conduct cyberattacks against Clinton.

There is unanimous agreement among experts that Russia's attempts to interfere in elections are ongoing, so it matters that Trump is more or less unable to admit that the attacks happened in the first place.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who can't or won't even try to protect American elections from foreign interference is unfit for office.
  • It's bad if the president is compromised by a hostile foreign power because he needs its help to stay in power.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He denied knowing about his staff's attempts to keep him from throwing a tantrum in Japan—which means it worked.

Today, Trump tweeted this:

The USS John S. McCain is a destroyer, currently undergoing repairs in its home port of Yokosuka Naval Base near Japan. It was originally named for the late Senator McCain's father and grandfather, who were both senior naval officials. Last year, shortly before Sen. McCain's death, it was rededicated to include him as a namesake as well.

Trump hated McCain and has continued to become enraged by him even after his death. According to the Wall Street Journal, the White House Military Office issued orders to the Navy to move the ship or conceal its name from Trump's sight, who visited the base to appear on a different ship.

There were discussions within the U.S. military over the past week about how to handle the warship, another U.S. official said. The ship is being repaired after a 2017 collision, and any ship undergoing such repair or maintenance would be difficult to move, officials said. A tarp was hung over the ship’s name ahead of the president’s trip, according to photos reviewed by the Journal, and sailors were directed to remove any coverings from the ship that bore its name. After the tarp was taken down, a barge was moved closer to the ship, obscuring its name. Navy officials acknowledge the barge was moved but said it was not moved to obscure the name of the ship. Sailors on the ship, who typically wear caps bearing its name, were given the day off during Mr. Trump’s visit, people familiar with the matter said.

This does not mean that Trump is lying about being out of the loop, though. His staff routinely goes to extraordinary lengths to manage his emotional state. Among other things, his subordinates have:

Who cares?

  • Someone this emotionally fragile isn't up to the job of being president.
  • It's bad if the president's staff feels the need to emotionally manipulate him just to get him through the day.
  • It's very bad if the president's staff can emotionally manipulate him.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tweeted about Joe Biden—which is also what he's been doing all through our holiday hiatus.

Trump traveled to Japan over the Memorial Day weekend, although the way he ended up spending it looked more like his usual White House "executive time." In particular, he was once again fixated on former Vice-President Joe Biden, whom Trump reportedly fears more than any other potential Democratic nominee. Both on Twitter, and in front of a grim-faced Prime Minister Abe, Trump gloated over a North Korean propaganda piece that insulted Biden's intelligence.

Trump seemed less interested in the actual North Korean news of the weekend: its testing of short-range missiles capable of hitting Japan. He said he wasn't "personally bothered" by the threat to Japan.

Today, in a tweet, Trump tried to redirect attention to the North Korean insult to Biden again. It's not clear that it's a good move politically, though. Republicans in Congress who are normally staunch allies dragged Trump over it, and even a Fox News panel called it "shameful."

The same state media outlet that insulted Biden also famously called Trump a "dotard" and a "frightened dog."

Why should I care about this?

  • It shouldn't be this easy for a hostile nuclear-armed dictator to emotionally manipulate the President of the United States.
  • It's bad if the president pays more attention to North Korean propaganda than his own intelligence briefings.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

WTDT will return on Tuesday, May 28.

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced a second round of a "one-time" bailout for farmers hurt by his trade war.

Farmers have suffered some of the worst effects of Trump's trade war with China, which is now in its second year. Last year, he tried to offset some of the damage by providing a partial bailout for some farmers using an obscure Depression-era program called the Commodity Credit Corporation. At the time, his administration insisted that it was "a temporary, one-time response" to retaliatory tariffs.

Even this attempt at damage control worked poorly. Farmers found the payments stingy. They were held up in January when Trump shut down the government for over a month in a failed attempt to get border wall funding. And a huge chunk of the total funding—$62 million—went to convicted Brazilian criminals unaffected by the tariffs.

Today, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a second round of the "one-time" bailouts. Echoing Trump's basic confusion about how tariffs work, Perdue insisted that China—and not American taxpayers—would really be paying for the $16 billion bailout.

Trump himself said the same thing later in the day: "Just so you understand, these tariffs are paid for largely by China. A lot of people like to say by us."

But in reality, American consumers pay when the United States imposes tariffs on foreign goods through increased prices, meaning that taxpayers will be paying for both the cost of the bailout and the amount of the tariffs.

It's now been almost 15 months since Trump declared that "trade wars are good, and easy to win."

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who doesn't know or can't remember what a tariff isn't competent to hold office.
  • It's bad if the catastrophe that requires a massive government bailout of a critical sector of the economy was an easily avoided mistake made by the president.
  • The more important a government program is, the more important it is to administer it competently.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He planned and successfully executed a tantrum.

Trump was scheduled to meet with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer today to talk about infrastructure plans. That is not what happened. Instead, reporters were summoned to the Rose Garden, where Trump vented his anger that Pelosi had said that he was engaged in a cover-up. 

The "impromptu" Rose Garden press availability, which happened as Pelosi and Schumer departed the White House after what turned out to be a three-minute meeting, was clearly planned in advance. Trump read from extensive notes he had written in his trademark marker pen, and spoke from a podium with a printed placard bearing factoids about the Mueller investigation.

(The pre-arranged snit did have the effect of getting Trump out of an awkward meeting, though: Trump's own infrastructure plan was already dead on arrival, thanks to criticism from Republicans: even his own chief of staff wouldn't publicly support it.)

But setting theatrics of the walkout aside, there was a very serious threat in Trump's outburst. He explicitly said that all normal legislative work between the White House and Congress would stop as long as Congress was investigating him. 

So I’ve said from the beginning, right from the beginning, that you probably can’t go down two tracks. You can go down the investigation track, and you can go down the investment track or the track of “Let’s get things done for the American people.”

...So I just wanted to let you know that I walked into the room and I told Senator Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, “I want to do infrastructure. I want to do it more than you want to do it. I’d be really good at that. That’s what I do. But you know what? You can’t do it under these circumstances. So get these phony investigations over with.”

Later, he tweeted, "You can’t investigate and legislate simultaneously - it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t go down two tracks at the same time." Democratic aides confirmed that Trump said as much to Pelosi and Schumer, too.

As many news outlets immediately pointed out, presidents can do both things at the same time, if they want to. Neither President Nixon nor President Clinton refused to cooperate with Congress while their impeachments were under consideration. In fact, some of Nixon's signature legislative accomplishments happened under the specter of impeachment by a Democratic-controlled Congress.

So what?

  • Presidents don't get to pick and choose which of parts of their jobs they feel like doing.
  • Under the circumstances, a fake and prearranged presidential temper tantrum is not really any better than a genuine and spontaneous presidential temper tantrum.
  • The president is not above the law.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called attention to Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district, though he may regret it.

Pennsylvania held a special election for the House of Representatives today. As expected, Republican candidate Fred Keller won handily in the state's reddest district—although not by quite as much as the 70% Trump crowed about on Twitter in an attempt to take credit for the victory. 

For Trump to mention the district at all may have been a political miscalculation, though. The seat was vacant because its former member, Tom Marino, resigned in January. Marino's political fortunes were damaged after Trump nominated him to become Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position better known as the nation's "drug czar." In that position, Marino would have been leading the White House's efforts to combat the opioid crisis.

But as investigative reporting quickly revealed, Marino had authored legislation that crippled the DEA's attempts to investigate the pharmaceutical companies responsible for massive overprescription. Marino pocketed almost $100,000 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies for his efforts on the bill. Trump, who appeared to have nominated Marino on the basis of being an early supporter, was forced to withdraw the nomination. 

Trump held a rally in the district last night—theoretically for Keller, but really for himself. Both Marino and Keller were far more popular with their voters than Trump himself is, though. He would lose Pennsylvania to Joe Biden by double digits, according to a poll taken last week by Quinnipiac University. (Most other Democrats also led Trump in that poll.) 

That may explain why, at yesterday's rally, he begged the crowd to remember that the Pennsylvania-born Biden "left you for another state, and didn't take care of you." Biden was eleven years old when his family moved to neighboring state Delaware.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to take credit for things you had nothing to do with.
  • Jobs affecting the health and safety of Americans should go to qualified people, not political supporters with lobbying ties to the industry they'd be regulating.

Monday, May 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He basically admitted that he thought judges obeyed the president who appointed them.

This morning, U.S. District judge Amit Mehta, who was appointed by President Obama, issued a strongly worded but totally expected ruling denying Trump's attempt to block one of his accounting firms from responding to a Congressional subpoena. Trump, who for one reason or another is desperate to avoid any scrutiny of his finances, had been forced to claim that Congress had essentially no oversight role where the presidency was concerned. Mehta cited Congressional investigations into presidents from James Buchanan to Barack Obama in a 41-page decision, and concluded:

It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct—past or present—even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry. ...This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history.

Trump responded by suggesting that the "crazy" legal opinion of "obviously, an Obama-appointed judge" didn't matter. This is part of Trump's traditional view of government, that he is personally owed "loyalty" from people he's given appointments or government jobs to—and where legal matters are concerned, personal protection.

Also today, Trump issued a last-minute order demanding that his former White House counsel Don McGahn not testify before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow. (McGahn has been the target of Trump's outrage for several weeks now, after the Mueller report portrayed him as defying Trump in order to save Trump from committing prosecutable acts of obstruction.)

Trump, who continues to insist that he has been "totally transparent," is also currently fighting subpoenas to release his tax returns to Congress, suing Deutsche Bank (to whom he owes at least $130 million) to prevent them from cooperating with an investigation into his finances, declaring the entire Mueller report to be subject to executive privilege, and insisting that he will appeal any attempt at impeachment to the Supreme Court. (It doesn't work that way, although Trump may honestly believe that he can force justices he appointed to rule in his favor if he can somehow get it there.)

Why is this a problem?

  • The president is not above the law.
  • In American democracy under the Constitution, the presidency is subject to oversight by Congress and rulings by the judiciary.
  • People with nothing to hide don't spend this much time and effort trying to hide things.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at an insufficiently loyal Republican.

Yesterday, Rep. Justin Amash became the first Republican currently serving in Congress to endorse Trump's impeachment. Amash is a member of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus, which overlaps with the "Tea Party" movement in the Republican Party. In a long Twitter thread, Amash laid out his reasons:

Here are my principal conclusions:
  1. Attorney General Barr has deliberately misrepresented Mueller’s report. 
  2. President Trump has engaged in impeachable conduct. 
  3. Partisanship has eroded our system of checks and balances. 
  4. Few members of Congress have read the report.
I offer these conclusions only after having read Mueller’s redacted report carefully and completely, having read or watched pertinent statements and testimony, and having discussed this matter with my staff, who thoroughly reviewed materials and provided me with further analysis.  
In comparing Barr’s principal conclusions, congressional testimony, and other statements to Mueller’s report, it is clear that Barr intended to mislead the public about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s analysis and findings. Barr’s misrepresentations are significant but often subtle, frequently taking the form of sleight-of-hand qualifications or logical fallacies, which he hopes people will not notice.  
Under our Constitution, the president “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” While “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is not defined, the context implies conduct that violates the public trust. Contrary to Barr’s portrayal, Mueller’s report reveals that President Trump engaged in specific actions and a pattern of behavior that meet the threshold for impeachment. In fact, Mueller’s report identifies multiple examples of conduct satisfying all the elements of obstruction of justice, and undoubtedly any person who is not the president of the United States would be indicted based on such evidence.
Impeachment, which is a special form of indictment, does not even require probable cause that a crime (e.g., obstruction of justice) has been committed; it simply requires a finding that an official has engaged in careless, abusive, corrupt, or otherwise dishonorable conduct. While impeachment should be undertaken only in extraordinary circumstances, the risk we face in an environment of extreme partisanship is not that Congress will employ it as a remedy too often but rather that Congress will employ it so rarely that it cannot deter misconduct.  
Our system of checks and balances relies on each branch’s jealously guarding its powers and upholding its duties under our Constitution. When loyalty to a political party or to an individual trumps loyalty to the Constitution, the Rule of Law—the foundation of liberty—crumbles. We’ve witnessed members of Congress from both parties shift their views 180 degrees—on the importance of character, on the principles of obstruction of justice—depending on whether they’re discussing Bill Clinton or Donald Trump. Few members of Congress even read Mueller’s report; their minds were made up based on partisan affiliation—and it showed, with representatives and senators from both parties issuing definitive statements on the 448-page report’s conclusions within just hours of its release.  
America’s institutions depend on officials to uphold both the rules and spirit of our constitutional system even when to do so is personally inconvenient or yields a politically unfavorable outcome. Our Constitution is brilliant and awesome; it deserves a government to match it.

Predictably, Trump lashed out at Amash today, although he was briefer: he called Amash a "loser" and insisted once again that the Mueller report proved he had committed "NO COLLUSION" and "NO OBSTRUCTION." (The Mueller report says no such thing.)

Trump also asked a question, probably meant to be rhetorical, that may have revealed more than he intended to: "Anyway, how do you Obstruct when there is no crime[?]" In reality, obstruction of justice is a crime in and of itself—because normally suspected criminals aren't in charge of whether or not their crimes are investigated. (Even in cases where the president isn't involved, obstruction is a crime all by itself because otherwise there would be no reason for criminals not to try to destroy evidence, intimidate witnesses, or lie to law enforcement.)

According to a recent poll, a slim majority of Americans support impeaching Trump.

Who cares?

  • Members of Congress swear oaths of allegiance to the Constitution, not the person who is president at the time.
  • No one president's political fortunes are more important than the rule of law.
  • It's wrong to lie.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He waded into the abortion debate, as best he could under the circumstances.

Today, a Trump administration spokesperson indicated that Trump did not fully support a recently passed abortion ban in Alabama, which makes no exception for fetuses conceived by rape or incest. Pressed for details, the White House today released a statement saying that

Unlike radical Democrats who have cheered legislation allowing a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth, President Trump is protecting our most innocent and vulnerable, defending the dignity of life, and called on Congress to prohibit late-term abortions.

This framing hearkens back to a completely false claim Trump made last month, in which he described late-term abortions (currently legal in the United States only when a mother's life is in jeopardy or the fetus is not viable) this way:

The baby is born. The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby, they wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.

In the rare case that a late-term abortion, which amounts to an induced delivery, results in a baby that is still living, parents are given the choice to allow for heroic measures to prolong its life. Under no circumstance is it legal to "execute" such a baby, nor has any politician of any party tried to make it so.

In fairness to Trump, though, he may be legitimately confused about Democrats' positions on abortions, because he does not seem to remember what his own is from moment to moment. In 1999 he described himself as "very pro-choice." He also co-sponsored a fund-raising dinner at his New York Plaza Hotel for the National Abortion Rights Action League, though he was frightened away from attending because of threats of violence against the event.

At some point in the 2010s, he started saying he was "pro-life," but what that means is fluid. Pressed for specifics, Trump generally improvises on the spot according to contextual clues. In a 2016 interview with Chris Matthews, then-candidate Trump said that women should go to jail for seeking abortions—a position far more extreme than even the Alabama law calls for.

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle? 
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment. 
MATTHEWS: For the woman. 
TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form. 
MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What? 
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know. 
MATTHEWS: Why not? 
TRUMP: I don’t know.

Aides quickly walked Trump back. A few days later, he said that "the [abortion] laws are set and we have to leave it that way," once again horrifying anti-abortion conservatives. (The Washington Post counted five separate Trump positions on abortion during the course of those three days.)

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents should know or care where they stand on major domestic policy issues.

Friday, May 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He pretended nobody ever warned him about Michael Flynn.

In court filings released yesterday, it was revealed that Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn—who has since pleaded guilty to crimes uncovered by the Mueller probe—had been pressured by Trump's representatives to refuse to cooperate. The sentencing memo says that 

[Flynn] informed the government of multiple instances, both before and after his guilty plea, where either he or his attorneys received communications from persons connected to the Administration or Congress that could’ve affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation

Specifically, the memo reveals that Trump's personal lawyer left Flynn's lawyer a voicemail imploring him to let Trump's defense team know if Mueller was targeting Trump—for "national security" reasons—and reminding him of Trump's "feelings toward Flynn." When Flynn's defense team refused to cooperate, Trump's lawyer followed up with a threat. More disclosures are expected as Flynn's sentencing proceeds.

Today, in an apparent effort to distance himself from the once-again metastasizing Flynn scandal, Trump took to Twitter to claim he'd never been warned about Flynn.

In reality, Trump was repeatedly warned, both before and after his term began. 

Then-President Obama explicitly and urgently warned Trump within days of the 2016 election to not hire Flynn, who at the time was a Trump campaign official. Obama had fired Flynn for insubordination and abuse of subordinates, which may have pushed Flynn into Trump's camp. 

In the week after the election, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent a letter warning Vice-President-elect Mike Pence that Flynn was vulnerable to conflict of interest charges due to his undisclosed lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government. (Some of Flynn's criminal convictions stemmed from his attempts to hide this illegal lobbying.)

Trump campaign surrogate Chris Christie also warned Trump against having anything to do with Flynn, although Christie himself was in the process of being purged from the transition by Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. (As a U.S. Attorney, Christie successfully prosecuted Kushner's father in 2005 for campaign finance fraud, tax evasion, and witness tampering, and Kushner has openly held a grudge ever since.)

Six days after Trump's inauguration, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates made an highly unusual trip to the White House to personally warn White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail because he'd lied about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Yates was fired four days later. Flynn continued to take part in the Trump administration's outreach to Russia, until Trump was forced to finally fire him eighteen days after Yates' warning when the story became public.

Why should I care about this?

  • Reality doesn't change just because a president's story does.
  • Lying about things that have been in the public record for years is insulting to the people being lied to.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He announced an immigration "plan" that would have excluded the many immigrants he is related to.

In a speech today, Trump unveiled an immigration plan put together by his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner. (Kushner, who failed the normal background check needed to get a White House security clearance, is the heir to a real estate fortune whose work experience is limited to jobs given him by companies bought with family money.)

It wasn't well received—particularly by Republicans.

White House policy proposals like this aren't usually intended to be adopted verbatim as laws, although the "plan" was remarkable even by those standards for what it leaves out. For example, it makes no mention of DACA, the overwhelmingly popular program that protects children brought to the United States illegally from arbitrary deportation. 

Its centerpiece is a so-called "merit-based" system for evaluating immigration applications, and a limitation on the number of family members that can be included as part of an application. As many people noted, it's unlikely that either of the immigrants Trump has married would have passed a "merit" test based on their job prospects and financial support at the time they came to the United States—unless someone pulled strings. And both Trump's mother and paternal grandfather—and his current wife's elderly parents—benefited from what Trump now calls "chain migration," using connections to family members who had previously emigrated to establish themselves.

Trump's personal priorities where immigration are concerned have also made news recently. More undocumented workers, known to be ineligible to work in the United States when they were hired, came forward to reveal wage theft by Trump businesses. A number of Trump businesses are being investigated for their use and abuse of illegal labor. And as a Washington Post article revealed today, employees are telling reporters about his obsessive "micromanaging" of designs for his border fence.

The bollards, or “slats,” as he prefers to call them, should be painted “flat black,” a dark hue that would absorb heat in the summer, making the metal too hot for climbers to scale, Trump has recently told White House aides, Homeland Security officials and military engineers. 
And the tips of the bollards should be pointed, not round, the president insists, describing in graphic terms the potential injuries that border crossers might receive.

So what?

  • Policy affecting immigration, national security, and security for American workers should be crafted by people who know something about those things.
  • It's wrong to apply one standard to yourself and your family, and another to everyone else.
  • Obsessive fixation on violent images isn't a sign of good mental health.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He finally, once and for all, declared himself beyond any oversight or investigation.

Today, in a twelve-page letter to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone laid out Trump's philosophy on Congressional oversight of the presidency: there isn't any.

In practice, this is a delaying tactic to keep materials that the House has subpoenaed under wraps for as long as possible. The right of Congress to conduct oversight, by subpoenaing evidence and hearing testimony from White House staff, has been settled law since 1880 at the latest

But in principle, at least, Trump is simply saying that Congress can't act as a check and balance against the presidency when he doesn't want it to. By this standard, Congress would not have been able to investigate Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the response to Hurricane Katrina, waste and fraud in wartime contracting, the infiltration of civil rights groups by the FBI, what the intelligence community knew or should have known about the September 11th attacks, how federal law enforcement deals with domestic terrorists, or really any other matter involving the presidency in any way. It also would have been powerless to conduct the investigations that led to the impeachment of Presidents Johnson or Clinton, or any executive branch official.

In addition to saying that Congress cannot subpoena executive branch records, Trump has also declared that as president, he cannot obstruct justice, cannot corruptly exercise their powers, cannot be indicted, cannot be forced to release his tax returns to Congress, can stop any investigation into crimes he feels himself to be "falsely accused" of, and cannot be impeached (as long as he feels he's "doing a great job"). 

He's also insisted that he has the authority to pardon himself for the crimes he says he cannot be investigated, indicted, or impeached for.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are not kings or dictators.
  • The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land, even when it's politically inconvenient for the president.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he hadn't told his attorney general to do the thing he told his attorney general to do.

En route to a fundraiser today, Trump was asked about Attorney General William Barr's decision to appoint a federal prosecutor to look into the origins of the Russia probe:

Q Mr. President, did you ask the Attorney General to launch a probe into the Russia investigation? 
TRUMP: No, I didn’t ask him to do that. 
Q Did you know he was going to do it? 
TRUMP: I didn’t know it. I didn’t know it. But I think it’s a great thing that he did it. I saw it last night. And they want to look at how that whole hoax got started. It was a hoax. And even Mueller... had 18 people that didn’t like Donald Trump. They were Hillary Clinton fans. They contributed, many of them, to Hillary Clinton. They came out. It was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of this country. 
And you know what? I am so proud of our Attorney General, that he is looking into it. I think it’s great. I did not know about it. No.

The idea that Trump didn't tell Barr to do this is, to put it mildly, a lie.

Trump has publicly called for someone—though admittedly without naming Barr personally—to "INVESTIGATE THE INVESTIGATORS" repeatedly over the last few months. He's also called the investigation "illegal," "treason," a "hoax," and accused unspecified "Democrats" of having committed the real (but still unspecified) "crime" of colluding with Russia.

Trump, who once plaintively asked White House advisors, "Where's my Roy Cohn?" appears to have found him in Barr. (Cohn, who for a time was Trump's lawyer until Trump fired him amid revelations that Cohn had AIDS, was the pitbull lawyer made famous by his work on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's red-scare campaign. He was later disbarred for "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.") But in getting Barr to launch this counter-investigation this way, Trump is repeating a trick he perfected during the campaign: avoiding immediate responsibility for illegal or unethical actions by doing them in plain sight.

Trump has yet to take any action about the central finding of the Mueller report, which was that "[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion," or the FBI's urgent warning that the Putin regime intends to do so again in 2020.

Why does this matter?

  • No matter how genuinely Trump believes it, the Department of Justice is not his private police force.
  • Only dictators try to criminalize accountability.

Monday, May 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got his talking points mixed on Don McGahn and the Mueller report.

Trump held a joint press conference today with Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a meeting that was controversial in its own right because of Orbán's notorious anti-semitism and ultra-nationalism. At the press conference, this exchange took place:

Q: Should Don McGahn be held in contempt of Congress? 
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I don’t know anything about what’s going on. I can tell you that there has never been anybody so transparent as the Trump administration. And it was no collusion and no obstruction. And we’re wasting a lot of time with that stuff. But the Mueller report came out; it was a very good report for us.

Trump's answer suggests that he might have gotten his index cards mixed up. As of this past week, Trump's official position was that he was very much up to speed on the doings of his former White House Counsel. In simplest terms, Trump has been furious with McGahn ever since he allowed McGahn to be interviewed by Robert Mueller, and McGahn betrayed his trust by... answering Mueller's questions. McGahn's client was the presidency rather than Trump personally, although it's not clear that Trump has ever understood the difference, and so his testimony about Trump's ham-handed attempts to obstruct or end the Mueller probe—many of them foiled by McGahn himself—became centerpieces of the Mueller report.

Trump has even begun attacking McGahn on Twitter, declaring over the weekend that he was "never a big fan" of the man he personally chose to be White House counsel. The reason for that outburst seems to have been reporting that McGahn refused repeated requests to say publicly that Trump had not tried to obstruct justice.

As for the Mueller report, which yesterday he called every name in the book, Trump may have already forgotten that he's tried to retroactively assert executive privilege over the entire thing, including the unredacted parts already in public view, in an attempt to keep Congress from seeing the redacted portions in closed session or the underlying evidence.

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents should be able to keep their stories straight from day to day.
  • There's no reason to keep a "very good report" secret from the elected representatives of the American people.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again said that it was "treasonous" for the United States to defend itself against Russian intelligence operations.

It's nothing new for Trump to declare any action that he doesn't like—which in many cases amounts to actions Vladimir Putin doesn't like—to be "treason." Lately, he's been amping up that kind of talk, although it's not clear whether it's because he's losing control of his own emotions, or hoping he can get his supporters to lose control of theirs.

It may be, as some Democrats suspect, that Trump is hoping to force Democrats to impeach him in the House—even if it means committing more and more obviously impeachable acts in plain sight—in the hopes that this will generate some sympathy for him, as President Clinton's impeachment did for him.

It's also possible that Trump is simply acting out of fear and mental instability.

Whatever the strategy or pathology behind them, today's Twitter rants took aim at Republicans and Democrats alike who Trump believes (or wants others to believe) are part of a "Treasonous hoax," and a "scam," and a "criminal conspiracy" and a "Witch Hunt," which he called a "sad joke" that was "pathetically untrue" and "sick and unlawful" perpetrated by "socialists" and "crazy looney toon[s]," and the entire leadership of the FBI and most of the heads of the intelligence agencies, and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC).

At various times Trump has declared treasonous or illegal almost every attempt to investigate or prevent Russia's attack on Americans' right to pick their own leaders without interference. (In reality, it's actually not treason to investigate crimes or to try to stop foreign attacks.) He's refused to hold Russia to any kind of account, and has actively hindered his own government's attempts to prevent Russia from redoubling its efforts in 2020, while signaling that he once again welcomes the help

So what?

  • Presidents aren't above the law, and only dictators (or people who want to be dictators) react this way to anyone saying otherwise.
  • Presidents who won't or can't defend the integrity of American elections are unfit for office.
  • At this point, even if Trump is just pretending to be this deranged for political purposes, it's almost as bad.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He set yet another personal best for rage-tweeting.

Last Wednesday, Trump set what appeared to be a single-day record number of tweets, with an hourlong binge of 58 retweets at the core of it. Today, he beat that mark with 62 retweets in the space of 45 minutes.

Then, Trump's rage was directed at Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination. Biden may be the candidate Trump most fears, according to his friends—and the fact that Rudy Giuliani tried to strong-arm the government of Ukraine into digging up dirt on Biden's family.

Today's binge was on a wider variety of subjects, but the single most prominent theme was his son, Donald Trump Jr, who has been subpoenaed by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence committee. Trump Jr. appears to have lied to that committee, which is a crime, and is widely expected to respond by asserting his Fifth Amendment privileges against self-incrimination. (In the past, Trump Sr. has said that people who take the fifth are guilty, in spite of the fact that he's done it himself almost a hundred times.) 

Trump Jr., whose testimony happened behind closed doors, reportedly told senators that he didn't tell his father about the infamous Trump Tower meeting where Russian agents dangled "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in front of him. He also reportedly said that he was unaware of any other foreign countries seeking to illegally influence the election on Trump Sr.'s behalf, and that he was only "peripherally aware" of ongoing plans during the campaign to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. In reality, Trump Jr. took secret meetings during the campaign with representatives from three Middle Eastern governments, and was repeatedly briefed on the Moscow negotiations.

Who cares?

  • Even by Trump standards, this is a lot of self-medication.
  • Neither presidents nor their families are above the law.

Friday, May 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got even more confused than usual about what tariffs do.

With the latest round of trade talks with China imploding, Trump spent much of his day on Twitter insisting (over eleven tweets throughout the day) that nothing was going wrong and that it was all according to plan.

In particular, he seemed to be trying to say that the tariffs had been good for farmers:

(N.B.: Trump is not the "all time favorite President," coming in 12th out of the last 13 presidents at this point in his term since modern polling began.)

It's a little hard to parse this, in part because Trump's understanding of what a tariff is in the first place is usually shaky at best. But he appears to be saying that the round of tariffs that went into effect today were aimed at forcing China to "help out."

This is exactly backwards, as today's plummeting agricultural prices demonstrated.

In reality, when Trump started the current trade war last spring, China responded by reducing farm imports from the United States. This caused the price of soybeans and other crops to fall through the floor, sparking a wave of farm bankruptcies.

Soybean prices fell even further today on expectations that China would retaliate further.

It's worth considering Trump's other tweets on the subject today to understand how badly he has misunderstood the situation. He wrote:

Talks with China continue in a very congenial manner - there is absolutely no need to rush - as Tariffs are NOW being paid to the United States by China of 25% on 250 Billion Dollars worth of goods & products. These massive payments go directly to the Treasury of the U.S.... ....The process has begun to place additional Tariffs at 25% on the remaining 325 Billion Dollars. The U.S. only sells China approximately 100 Billion Dollars of goods & products, a very big imbalance. With the over 100 Billion Dollars in Tariffs that we take in, we will buy..... ....agricultural products from our Great Farmers, in larger amounts than China ever did, and ship it to poor & starving countries in the form of humanitarian assistance. In the meantime we will continue to negotiate with China in the hopes that they do not again try to redo deal!

That is not how tariffs work.

There are a lot of mistakes here, but one central one: tariffs on foreign goods are taxes paid by American consumers, not foreign governments.  The money coming into the "Treasury of the U.S." is ultimately coming from the pockets of Americans in the form of higher prices, passed on by Chinese exporters. That means any money to bail out farms crippled by the trade war—money that Trump has promised but not much delivered on so far—will also come from American taxpayers.

Why does this matter?

  • A president who can't or won't understand basic economic concepts is unfit for the job.
  • A trade policy that relies on other countries' willingness to "help out," instead of acting in their own best interests, is a dangerously stupid policy.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said he was "surprised" that his son was being called back to explain his testimony before the Republican-controlled Senate.

In news that broke yesterday, Donald Trump, Jr., was subpoenaed to testify once again before the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee. Trump Jr.'s previous testimony about the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents peddling "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, and the Trump family's attempts to build a luxury high-rise in Moscow during the 2016 campaign, is contradicted by other witnesses

And while it's not illegal to lie to the American public in a press release, as Trump Sr. did in crafting his family's response to the unfolding scandal, it is illegal to lie in testimony to Congress.

Asked about it today, Trump Sr. said this:

Q: Mr. President, as you saw, the Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed Don, Jr. That’s the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee. What do you make of that? 
TRUMP: Well, I was very surprised. I saw Richard Burr saying there was no collusion two or three weeks ago. He went outside and somebody asked him. “No, there’s no collusion. We found no collusion.” But I was very surprised to see my son. My son is a very good person, works very hard.

...He’s now testified for twenty hours or something. A massive amount of time. The Mueller report came out. That’s the bible. The Mueller report came out and they said he did nothing wrong. The only thing is it’s oppo-research.

There are a few lies here. First, Donald Jr. did not testify for "twenty hours" to Mueller's team, because he completely refused to cooperate at all.

The Mueller report—or at least the portions left unredacted by Trump's hand-picked attorney general—does not say that Trump Jr. "did nothing wrong." The closest it comes is to say that prosecuting Trump Jr. for his apparent violation of federal laws prohibiting foreign election tampering would be challenging, because Trump Jr. could plausibly claim he was too ignorant of those laws to form the requisite criminal intent.

Trump Jr.'s name appears 153 times in the visible portions of the report. Here is some of what it does say in the portions that Trump has allowed Congress and the public to see so far:

  • that Trump Jr. participated in the Trump Tower meeting with agents of the Russian government, which immediately precipitated more Russian cyberattacks on Trump Sr.'s political enemies:

  • that Trump Jr. helped publicize Russian propaganda created by the now-indicted Russian "Internet Research Agency" to help Trump Sr. win the election

  • that Trump Jr. had repeated secret interactions with Wikileaks, the site that the Russian government was using to disseminate propaganda and stolen information

  • that Trump Jr. tried to bargain for "dirt" on Clinton at the Trump Tower meeting in exchange for Russia's influence over policy after the election

  • that Trump Jr.'s actions regarding the Trump Tower meeting, on their face, violated federal laws against foreign election tampering

  • that Trump Sr. actively involved himself in a disinformation campaign about the Trump Tower meeting in an attempt to protect his son and himself from criminal exposure

  • that Trump Sr.'s attempts to deceive the public about what had happened at the Trump Tower meeting made even Trump Jr. uncomfortable

One part of Trump Sr.'s statement rings true, however: he very likely was genuinely surprised that Republican senators would allow any investigation into him, his campaign, or his family.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are not above the law, and neither are their family members.
  • It's wrong to lie, even if it's to protect an adult child suspected of criminal activity.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He explained that he meant to lose more than a billion dollars in the 80s and 90s.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on internal IRS documents corresponding to Trump's personal tax returns between 1985 and 1994. They showed that Trump had presided over a titanic, decade-long series of business failures that saw him reporting losses of over a billion dollars during that period. The NYT concluded that for most of those years, Trump—not even remotely close to the country's richest man—was the single biggest money-losing taxpayer in the entire country.

Today, Trump tried to explain away this embarrassing news by saying that he meant to do that.

Real estate developers in the 1980’s & 1990’s, more than 30 years ago, were entitled to massive write offs and depreciation which would, if one was actively building, show losses and tax losses in almost all cases. Much was non monetary. Sometimes considered “tax shelter,” ...... would get it by building, or even buying. You always wanted to show losses for tax purposes....almost all real estate developers did - and often re-negotiate with banks, it was sport. Additionally, the very old information put out is a highly inaccurate Fake News hit job!

There's a tiny grain of truth to this: in some cases, losses based on depreciation can be valuable for tax planning purposes. The problem for Trump is that only a small fraction of Trump's losses can be accounted for this way, as the NYT article points out:

Besides, it's not as though Trump's disastrous balance sheet during this period is hard to explain. These years saw the implosion of the laughably short-lived airline Trump Shuttle, the Trump Taj Mahal casino, the Trump Castle Hotel and Casino, the Trump Plaza Casino, and the Trump Plaza Hotel. And Trump's claim that this was a "sport" in real estate circles is contradicted by his own father's companies' performance during the same period. Fred Trump, who used different (and illegal) means to transfer much of his wealth tax-free to Donald Trump, showed a healthy profit on his real estate holdings during the same time.

Why does this matter?

  • It's not inherently wrong to be an incompetent businessman, but it is wrong to lie about it.
  • Failure doesn't mean much if you don't learn from it.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lied about Puerto Rico and what he's done for it.

The United States territory of Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in August 2017. Basic services like electricity and running water were knocked out for months. The result was that almost 3,000 Americans were killed in the storm and its aftermath. (Trump, to this day, still denies that the vast majority of those deaths even happened.)

Today, Trump retweeted himself on the subject, claiming that

Puerto Rico has been given more money by Congress for Hurricane Disaster Relief, 91 Billion Dollars, than any State in the history of the U.S. As an example, Florida got $12 Billion & Texas $39 Billion for their monster hurricanes. 

This is a lie.

The American citizens living in Puerto Rico were not "given" anything; money was appropriated by Congress in bills signed by Trump. But the $91 billion figure is pure fiction. In reality, only $11.2 billion has been spent, much less than the amounts allocated for Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Future allocations are subject to future appropriations bills—and to Trump's veto, which he's threatened to punish Puerto Ricans critical of his administration's response.

Trump also said that Puerto Ricans "should be very happy" with his disaster relief efforts. He probably does believe this, but in the real world, it's not clear why he thinks Puerto Ricans would.

So what?

  • It's wrong to lie.
  • American citizens are entitled to basic competence from their government regardless of where they live.

Monday, May 6, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He officially refused to let Congress examine his tax returns.

Last month, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Ed Neal (D-MA), formally instructed the IRS to release Trump's personal and business tax returns for that committee to examine. Neal was empowered to do this by a 1924 law which states that when certain committee chairs request tax returns, 

the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request, except that any return or return information which can be associated with, or otherwise identify, directly or indirectly, a particular taxpayer shall be furnished to such committee only when sitting in closed executive session unless such taxpayer otherwise consents in writing to such disclosure.

Today, Trump's Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to obey the law, saying that he had determined that Congress "lacks a legitimate legislative purpose" in asking for the returns. Mnuchin also said that he was "not authorized to disclose" Trump's tax information. (The law itself is the "authorization.")

Importantly, the Ways and Means Committee doesn't need Trump to approve of its "legislative purpose."

The more interesting question may be why Trump has, unlike every president and major-party candidate since President Nixon, is so afraid of even a closed-door examination of his private finances.

It's sometimes suggested that Trump is simply embarrassed by the fact that he's not as wealthy as he pretends to be. Psychologically, that's plausible: Trump was once caught on tape impersonating his own (imaginary) press agent as part of a scheme to fake his way on to the Fortune 400 list.

Another theory is that Trump's tax returns would make clear how deeply in (monetary) debt he is to foreign banks, in particular Russian ones. It's not illegal for a president to owe money—but hiding that fact while pursuing radically pro-Russian policies would cripple Trump politically.

But it's most likely that Trump is simply afraid of crimes coming to light. Unlike most ultra-wealthy heirs, who use legal means to reduce their tax bills, Trump's father gave him the equivalent of $400 million while conspiring with other family members to illegally evade gift and inheritance taxes. His business tax returns could also shed light on the extent to which he was complicit in money laundering for Russian oligarchs and organized crime figures. Trump is also vulnerable to charges that he defrauded banks or investors by lying about the value of his assets, and his tax returns would shed light on that, too.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are not above the law.
  • People suspected of crimes don't get to decide whether or not they're investigated.
  • It's bad if the best possible explanation for a president's behavior is "he's ashamed of not really being a billionaire."

Sunday, May 5, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He fought desperately to keep the man who he says gave him a "total and complete EXONERATION" from speaking to Congress about it.

Since the moment special counsel Robert Mueller's report was delivered to his hand-picked attorney general, Trump has insisted that it exonerates him. (That said he also started attacking the report when he realized what was actually in it.)

In reality, the report does everything it can NOT to exonerate Trump—only to say what Mueller thought couldn't or wouldn't be successfully prosecuted. The Mueller report says:

[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. (Vol. II, p. 2)

It later elaborates, with respect to the firing of FBI Director James Comey, that

[t]he evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns. (Vol. II, p. 76)

Amid news that Mueller is expected to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in a few weeks, where he will be asked to elaborate on those and other statements that make clear the extent of Trump's involvement with the Russian government and his clumsy attempts to cover it up, Trump finally snapped today and demanded that Mueller keep quiet.

In other words, Trump seems to be arguing that Democrats must not be allowed to let Robert Mueller "exonerate" him again. 

An overwhelming majority of Americans believe Trump committed crimes before the election, and half believe he has committed further crimes in office. 

Who cares?

  • "Exonerated" people don't usually mind publicity about how innocent they've been proven to be.
  • Presidents are not above the law.