Sunday, June 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave Kim Jong-un another propaganda victory.

In a "surprise" move (that had been carefully planned in advance), Trump met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, and stepped briefly into North Korean territory. 

In doing so, Trump became the first sitting president to set foot on North Korean soil. Previously, only former presidents had visited North Korea—and then only to help secure the release of Americans held hostage there.

Trump long ago declared the North Korean problem solved, which means that Kim Jong-un has had enormous leverage over Trump's domestic political fortunes. This has allowed North Korea to evade sanctions, supercharge its missile development programs, and stockpile nuclear weapons where inspection teams couldn't find them—all with no hint of reprisal from Trump. 

The significance of today's meeting is that it gives the Kim regime yet another propaganda coup. Images of Kim Jong-un standing as a peer next to the president of the United States were plastered all over North Korean state-controlled media. (Link may be very slow.)

Being acknowledged as an equal by Trump is invaluable to Kim, whose authority is absolute, but whose grip on power is not entirely secure—which is one reason he has murdered entire families of suspected traitors, and committed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens to political internment camps. 

Likewise, Trump also seems to think that images like this will help him maintain his own power.

Why should I care about this?

  • The nuclear security of the United States is more important than a propaganda win for Donald Trump.
  • It's a real problem if a murderous, paranoid dictator and the President of the United States have the same approach.
  • Kim Jong-un doesn't have the United States' best interests at heart, and anyone who doesn't understand that is incompetent to be president.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He cozied up to an authoritarian who ordered the murder of journalists for the second straight day.

Appearing at the G20 meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump proclaimed that it was an "honor" to be in the presence of "a friend of mine." Trump added, "I want to just thank you on behalf of a lot of people, and I want to congratulate you."

Mohammed ordered the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year, according to U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies. Khashoggi had been a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family, and in particular Mohammed, the designated heir.

Pressed on this point, Trump instead recited Mohammed's own version of events, which blames 11 Saudi citizens who are currently on trial in Saudi Arabia. In this version, Mohammed's direct military subordinates planned and carried out a "rogue operation" involving a number of Saudi government resources, but all without the knowledge of Mohammed himself. The trial is not open to the public.

Trump has defended Mohammed and the rest of the Saudi royal family over and over. He insisted that because Saudi Arabia had promised to buy $110 billion worth of military hardware, the United States was powerless to act. He also insisted that Mohammed was innocent until proven guilty, as though a Saudi crown prince would have to be tried and convicted in an American courtroom before anyone could reach any conclusions about what had actually happened.

Trump has deep financial ties to Saudi Arabia, which once rescued him from the humiliation of declaring personal bankruptcy by buying a yacht he was looking to unload. Prince Mohammed has also cultivated relationships with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. He was caught bragging on an intercepted call that he had Kushner "in his pocket." Kushner, like Trump a real estate heir with no experience outside of that business, has sought $100M in funding from Saudi-backed sources to keep his own private businesses afloat.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Presidents of the United States should not be financially beholden to undemocratic regimes that murder journalists.
  • A president who can't act in defense of American values, or the people under the protection of its laws, isn't fit for office.
  • The principles of the United States are not supposed to be up for sale to anyone who promises to buy enough weapons (or rent enough hotel rooms).

Friday, June 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He joked with Vladimir Putin about interfering in the 2020 election.

Trump appeared today with Russian president Vladimir Putin, one of the few foreign leaders he has not publicly insulted recently. A reporter asked if Trump would tell Putin not to interfere in the 2020 election.

Trump grinned and wagged a finger at Putin, saying, "Don't meddle in the election, President." Putin paused for the translation, then laughed along with Trump.

Putin's government used espionage, cyber-attacks, and disinformation campaigns to influence the 2016 election on Trump's behalf, with the Trump campaign's knowledge. Literally every law enforcement and intelligence agency in the executive branch that has investigated Russia's attack has reached that conclusion, and criminal charges have been brought against Russians as a result.

Trump alone continues to insist that no such attack on the democratic process occurred, and has repeatedly publicly defended Putin. Trump also recently said that he would take foreign help in getting re-elected, if it were offered. (It is illegal to do this.)

Later in the same appearance, as the American press was leaving the room, Trump called after them, "Get rid of them, fake news." He added to Putin, "You don't have the problem in Russia. We have it, you don't have it." Putin chuckled and replied, "Yes, yes, we have it, the same."

Trump is actually correct here on both counts. "Fake news," or knowingly false disinformation presented as neutral reporting, does exist in the United States. It was one of the main tactics used against Americans by Putin's regime.

But Putin has almost no problem with Trump's version of "fake news," meaning actual reporting that is critical of him. There is virtually no press freedom in Russia, where almost all of the media is state-controlled, either directly or through threat of violence. About two hundred journalists have been murdered or died under suspicious circumstances during Putin's time in power. 

Why should I care about this?

  • There's nothing funny about attacks on Americans' democratic rights.
  • It's bad if a hostile foreign power has influence over the President of the United States.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He met with the leaders of three different allied countries that he had just attacked.

Trump is at the G20 meetings in Japan. He met today with the leaders of three countries with close military and economic ties to the United States: Japan, India, and Germany. Another thing that these countries have in common is that Trump has publicly questioned those relationships in the last few days.

Japan. In an interview with Fox Business, Trump sneered at the military relationship between the United States and Japan, saying, "If Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III. We will go in and protect them with our lives and with our treasure. But if we're attacked, Japan doesn't have to help us. They can watch it on a Sony television."

Japan has no military of its own, other than a limited self-defense force, because that was a condition of the end of U.S. occupation after World War II. The United States has a military presence in Asia to counter China's influence and contain North Korea only because the defense treaty with Japan allows for American troops, naval and air power to be stationed in Japan.

India. Trump lashed out at India on Twitter on the flight to Osaka, complaining about Indian tariffs on American goods sold there. Trump said that "very high Tariffs" were "unacceptable" and "must be withdrawn."

India did indeed raise tariffs on U.S. goods recently, in response to tariffs Trump slapped on Indian steel and aluminum. In other words, Trump is complaining that India is fighting back in the trade war he started.

Germany. In the same interview where he threatened Japan, Trump also criticized NATO allies including Germany, saying, “We pay for close to 100 percent of NATO. People don’t know that. We pay for close to that because Germany doesn’t pay what they’re supposed to pay."

Trump has told some version of this lie 99 times, according to a count by the Washington Post, although it's not clear if he actually understands that it's not true. NATO is not a protection racket. The United States pays 22% of its relatively small overhead. No member country owes money to the United States or NATO itself.

Trump meets tomorrow with Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has not criticized Putin recently, or ever.

Why is this bad?

  • Nothing that hurts America's military or economic security is a good thing.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said that migrant families were dying now because of things Democrats would do if they were in power.

Trump was asked today about a recent news photo of a man and a young girl drowned in the Rio Grande. (Scroll down on this post to see the image, which is graphic.) Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria were traveling from El Salvador to seek asylum in the United States. 

Trump responded by blaming Democrats, saying that deaths like this happen because “[Democrats] want to have open borders, and open borders mean crime, and open borders mean people drowning in the rivers." (In reality, no one from either party has called for "open borders.")

There are two specific government actions that are relevant, though. Earlier this year, Trump cancelled economic aid to El Salvador, the country Ramírez and his wife and daughter were fleeing, and two other Central American countries. This aid had been used to help prevent the nightmarish conditions in those countries from getting worse and creating more refugees.

Trump has also pressured border agents to slow-walk asylum claims made at ports of entry. This has created backlogs and forced migrant families to stay in dangerous conditions on the other side of the border—or to attempt to enter the United States at other points. The day before their deaths, Ramírez and his daughter had tried to cross over a bridge that led to the checkpoint in Brownsville, Texas, but were turned away. By law, asylum claims do not need to be made at official ports of entry.

Trump had previously claimed that asylum claims are a "big fat con job," and that potential asylum-seekers needed to be treated badly (including having their children taken away from them) in U.S. custody as a deterrent. 

Speaking to reporters today, Trump did not try to explain why Ramírez would have risked his and his family's lives for a "con job."

Why should I care about this?

  • A president who can't or won't take responsibility in any way for any bad outcome isn't capable of doing the job.
  • Preventing deaths of children and refugees is more important than scoring political points.

The image of Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria after being discovered drowned in the Rio Grande is below. It is graphic.

The bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, were found in the Rio Grande on Monday.
Julia Le Duc (AP)

Martínez and his daughter in a photograph taken last year, provided by family members. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found a reason to get genuinely upset with Iran.

Last Friday, Trump scrambled to come up with a heroic explanation for why he'd launched and then canceled a retaliatory strike against Iran. While Trump's story changed several times over the course of the news cycle, the core of it was that Trump felt that killing perhaps 150 Iranians was out of proportion for shooting down an unmanned piece of military hardware. It was a rare dovish moment for Trump, who went so far as to suggest that the whole thing had been a simple "mistake" on the part of low-level Iranian officers.

Four days later, Trump's new official position is that if Iran hurts "anything American," human or machine, it will result in "overwhelming force" leading to "obliteration."

The reason for this radical shift appears to be that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani insulted him. Rouhani said that Trump's impositions of new sanctions was "idiotic and outrageous." Rouhani also said that Trump was showing signs of mental illness.

Trump's tweet-rant complaining about the "ignorant and insulting" statement and threatening "obliteration" appeared almost immediately after Rouhani's remarks appeared in the news.

Why does this matter?

  • It's dangerous for America's national security if the president can be this easily baited.
  • Military decisions should be made based on what is best for the country, not how well the president can control his temper.

Monday, June 24, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said Congress wasn't allowed to ask questions about a member of his administration accused of committing crimes on his behalf.

Trump's senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, has repeatedly and flagrantly violated the Hatch Act, according to the government official in charge of investigating such matters. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from using government resources to conduct political campaigns.

Kerner is a Trump appointee. The United States Office of Special Counsel is a permanent agency of the government charged with enforcing the Hatch Act and various other laws. It is not related to the special counsel that investigated the Russian efforts to help Trump get elected.

Trump rejected Kerner's recommendation that Conway be fired, saying that she was "loyal" to him.

Today, the Trump administration told the House Oversight Committee that it would block Conway from appearing to testify about those alleged crimes. (Conway could invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, but Trump may be concerned that she would be asked questions about other things she'd seen or done.) Conway joins a very, very long list of witnesses to Trump's behavior in office that Trump has forbidden from speaking to Congress.

Why should I care about this?

  • Presidents are not above the law.
  • Congress has a duty to exercise oversight over the executive branch.
  • Upholding the rule of law is more important than rewarding personal "loyalty."

Sunday, June 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to blame his family separation policy on President Obama.

In an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd released today, Trump falsely attributed his administration's "zero tolerance" practice of separating asylum-seeking children from their parents to Obama. He then immediately suggested that ending the practice, which he did after facing almost universal outrage, was a mistake.

TRUMP: And this has been happening long before I got there. What we've done is we've created, we’ve, we’ve ended separation. You know, under President Obama you had separation. I was the one that ended it. Now I said one thing, when I ended it I said, "Here's what's going to happen. More families are going to come up." And that's what's happened.

This is a lie. In reality, the Obama and previous administrations only separated children from their parents when officials suspected abuse. Even thought Trump officially rescinded the policy last July, and a federal court order banning its reinstatement, hundreds of children have been taken from their parents in the last year all the same.

Trump has threatened several times since to officially reinstate family separation for legal asylum-seekers, in spite of court orders forbidding him from doing so, arguing that if people are treated cruelly enough when the arrive in the United States to make an asylum claim, it will keep them from coming in the first place. 

In the past few weeks, Trump has canceled school classes for detained children, barred them from receiving legal aid, and fought to keep the government from having to provide them with soap or toothpaste or mattresses to sleep on.

Why should I care about this?

  • Jailing children in dangerous conditions to score political points is monstrous.
  • It's not optional for the president to obey laws saying that asylum-seekers have rights and that prohibit cruelty to children.
  • It's wrong to blame other people for the bad things you are doing.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He once again decided not to do a thing only he was expecting him to do.

In recent weeks, Trump has threatened a massive deportation sweep of the nation's cities. He's claimed that "millions" of people will be deported as a result. The crackdown was supposed to have started tomorrow.

Today, Trump announced via Twitter that no such action would be taken after all while Congress works on other alternatives.

In reality, it is not physically possible for ICE or any government agency to transport "millions" of people out of the country on a time scale less than decades, any more than it would be possible to forcibly move the population of Los Angeles to New York. Even the very scaled-down real world version of Trump's supposed plan was not popular with the agency that would have to carry it out.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration argued in court that it was too much to ask of the government to provide detained children with toothpaste and soap.

Today's announcement fits a classic Trump pattern: manufacturing a crisis and then backing off at the last minute, usually while demanding credit for doing so. He did the same thing with his initial "zero-tolerance" family separation policy, where he tried to punish legal asylum seekers by forcing parents to give up custody of their children—until he started getting bad publicity over it. And earlier this year, Trump kept the government shut down for a record 35 days, costing billions of dollars and forcing the United States military to work without pay for the first time since the Revolutionary War. The shutdown ended with Trump getting essentially nothing he was demanding of Congress, but he declared victory anyway.

How is this a bad thing?

  • Competent leaders don't have to invent a crisis to make them look like competent leaders.

Friday, June 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He couldn't make up his mind what story to tell about not attacking Iran.

Last night, the media reported that Trump had ordered and then withdrawn an airstrike on Iran, in retaliation for its shooting down an American drone. In a somewhat surprising move, given the secrecy that usually surrounds military decision-making, Trump admitted to it in a tweet this morning. He explained it this way:

....On Monday [Iran] shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not........proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.

This cannot be true, unless Trump expects anyone to believe that the military failed to tell him about potential casualties until he asked with ten minutes to spare. (Or, for that matter, that it never occurred to him to ask until it was almost too late.)

Even his own staff was unwilling to let that insult to the Defense Department go unchallenged, telling reporters that Trump had in fact been briefed before he authorized the mission in the first place.

Having been called out by his own advisors, Trump then changed his story. In an interview with NBC's Chuck Todd, Trump said that he hadn't approved the strike at all, and that "no planes were in the air" at all when he had second thoughts.

It's still not clear which (if either) of Trump's versions are true, or even partially true. But Trump's own staff was willing to tell reporters why they thought Trump told the stories that he did:

Why should I care about this?

  • The United States military is not a political prop.
  • Presidents who are tough don't need to try to look tough.
  • It's bad if a president's own staff calls him a liar and an attention-seeker.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reminded everyone how much he knows about aircraft and military matters.

Iran reportedly shot down an American drone aircraft in international waters yesterday, which had the odd effect of forcing Trump to dial back his warlike rhetoric against the country. He told reporters that he assumed that the deliberate targeting and firing of missiles against the $220 million drone had been a "mistake" made by "somebody who was loose and stupid." Then, he added this clarification:

It was not — there was no man in it... We didn’t have a man or woman in the drone. We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you.

Being unmanned is more or less the definition of drones, which are also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Trump, who by his own admission knows "more about ISIS than the generals" and more about the economy than the Federal Reserve, has been reminding people at least since this January that he also knows "more about drones than everybody." He's been particularly eager to share his knowledge of aviation lately: when Boeing's 737-MAX passenger jets were grounded, he explained to them that "airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly" and that "computer scientists from MIT" should take a back seat. (In reality, jets have gotten safer and safer even as planes have gotten more complex.)

Trump has also spent a fair amount of his time recently picking out colors and paint styles for the next version of Air Force One.

Why does this matter?

  • It's bad if the president talks as though he's an expert about things he doesn't know much about.
  • Drones that cost $220 million and are flown in what may become war zones are things a president actually should know something about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained that it might have been possible to investigate Russia's attempts to get him elected even before he got elected.

In a phone call with Fox News host Sean Hannity today, Trump announced he'd ordered the FBI itself to be investigated for its attempts to curtail Russia's interference in the 2016 election, saying, "We're trying to figure out whether they listened to my calls."

It's certainly possible. For example, if then-candidate Trump had a phone conversation with his foreign policy advisor Carter Page, who was the subject of a FISA warrant, then the call would have been monitored. Page, whom Russian intelligence officials regarded as an ideologically sympathetic "idiot," was recruited before he joined the Trump campaign.

In an attempt to get out ahead of the story last year, Trump released a selectively redacted version of the FISA warrant. It was the first time any such document had ever been released to the public, since they contain information about the United States' counter-intelligence strategies.

In the past, Trump has falsely claimed that the Obama administration "tapped [his] wires," a claim he was unable to produce any evidence for. He's also attacked President Obama for not doing enough to stop Russia from influencing the election on his behalf.

The interview with Hannity appears to be part of Trump's ongoing attempt to change the Trump-Russia narrative, after a disastrous interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos last week. In that interview, Trump claimed it was all right to take help from foreign governments in an election, and that he wouldn't inform the FBI if a foreign power offered him "information." (In reality, it is illegal.)

Why does this matter?

  • The president is not above the law.
  • It's a good thing, not a bad thing, if the United States government tries to protect Americans from foreign spying.
  • People who complain about a thing being done and not being done may just be complaining for its own sake.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.

Accusing your political enemies of being a dangerous and malignant force that needs to be destroyed or cut out before they destroy the nation is called eliminationism.

For context, Trump also accuses his political enemies of being mentally ill, conspiring with Russia, taking bribes from Saudi Arabia, performing poorly in the polls, sexually harassing and assaulting women, and trying to let foreign countries influence American elections.

So what?

  • Dehumanizing your political opponents is un-democratic, un-American, and dangerous.
  • Accusing other people of doing the bad things that you do is called projection, and it's not a sign of good mental health.

Monday, June 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said bad news was fake news.

Trump tweeted about polls twice today:

The "Fake Polls" he's talking about are the ones his own campaign leaked last week, apparently in an effort to get him to take seriously how far behind he is. (Trump, 73, is reportedly exhausted by the campaign events that once energized him.)

The leaked polls from March show him trailing Joe Biden by wide margins in almost every one of 17 swing states surveyed. Trump's campaign admitted the polls existed (but disputed their meaning) even as Trump himself was insisting there were no such polls. Then, this weekend, Trump fired the polling firm that gave him the bad news.

In other words, Trump is calling his own polling "fake," to the extent that he's admitting it exists.

Trump lashed out at Fox News, which is normally sort of a psychological safe space for him, because of a poll they released yesterday showing him losing to each of the top five Democratic candidates, by margins up to 10%. 

Trump's overall approval rating remains at about 40%. He hinted on Sunday that he thinks there will be a popular uprising to keep him in office longer than the Constitution allows.

Who cares?

  • Pretending bad news doesn't exist doesn't make it go away.
  • Neither does shooting the messenger.
  • It's wrong to lie to the American people, especially after you've been caught.
  • In a democracy, leaders don't fantasize about clinging to power no matter what.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He lashed out at the media because the US military and intelligence agencies don't trust him.

This morning, Trump tweeted this:

Do you believe that the Failing New York Times just did a story stating that the United States is substantially increasing Cyber Attacks on Russia. This is a virtual act of Treason by a once great paper so desperate for a story, any story, even if bad for our Country.........ALSO, NOT TRUE! Anything goes with our Corrupt News Media today. They will do, or say, whatever it takes, with not even the slightest thought of consequence! These are true cowards and without doubt, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!

There's nothing new in Trump using the language of dictators to call the free press traitors when they upset him, but the reason he was enraged this morning is important. The New York Times article that Trump was referring to dealt with the United States Cyber Command's penetration of Russian electrical systems. The probes are intended to send a warning to Russia that the United States is capable of retaliating in this way against further interference in American elections.

What has Trump so emotional about the NYT's coverage is the fact that it makes clear that his own Department of Defense and intelligence agencies have kept the details of these operations hidden from him. As the article put it:

Two administration officials said they believed Mr. Trump had not been briefed in any detail about the steps to place “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — inside the Russian grid. 
Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction — and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.

Trump was elected in 2016 with help from Russian cyberattacks and an internet-based disinformation campaign run by the now-indicted Russian operation known as the Internet Research Agency. He signaled last week that he would accept similar help in 2020 if it were offered.

How is this a bad thing?

  • A president who can't be trusted not to reveal military secrets to a hostile foreign power isn't fit for office.
  • In a democracy, the people get to decide for themselves who is an enemy.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He brought up the subject of flags, with which he has an interesting history.

This morning, Trump tweeted this:

This is an unusual approach for Trump to a free-speech question in that it actually respects Constitutional law. The Supreme Court has found that flag burning is protected political speech, but an amendment to the Constitution could change that. (Previously, Trump called for stripping citizenship from people who burned flags, which is a whole other kind of unconstitutional.)

But Trump's call for a flag amendment today appears to be in response to yet another controversy he stirred up yesterday, when the official White House Twitter account posted this image in celebration of Flag Day.

It shows Trump hugging the flag, next to advertising for conservative groups. It's one of many images showing Trump literally wrapping himself around the flag.

Technically, there's nothing in the U.S. Flag Code that prohibits fondling or caressing the flag. But there's a reason that virtually every other American politician has stopped short of getting literally wrapped up in the flag: it's a favorite move of authoritarians. For example, both the current Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and his notorious predecessor, Hugo Chavez, used their own embrace of national symbols to prop themselves up politically.

Image result for maduro trump flag 
Image result for hugo chavez kissing flag

Kissing and hugging the flag is also a standby for petty dictators like the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte.

Image result for duterte hugging flag -trump

Trump's latest wrapped-in-the-flag self-promotion was poorly received by conservatives,

veterans' groups,

and pretty much everyone else who noticed.

Why should I care about this?

  • The flag of the United States is the symbol of our country, not the personal trademark of Donald Trump.
  • It's not a good sign when presidents take their cues from dictators' style books.

Friday, June 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

More damage control.

Trump spent his 73rd birthday trying to manage the fallout from his admission that he would welcome foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 campaign. In that now-infamous interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Trump scoffed at law enforcement officials (including his own hand-picked FBI director) who said that any such interference was a crime that needed to be reported, saying sarcastically, "Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break! Life doesn't work that way."

That was the context for a tweet he wrote this afternoon:

Thank you Senator @MarshaBlackburn for fighting obstructionist Democrats led by Cryin' Chuck Schumer. Democrats continue to look for a do-over on the Mueller Report and will stop at nothing to distract the American people from the great accomplishments of this Administration!

Blackburn is one of a relatively small number of Republicans still defending Trump on the subject of foreign election interference. The bill she blocked was introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA). It would require American political campaigns to report attempts by foreign agents to offer "information or services." This is already illegal under existing law, but the specific language would make it easier to prosecute collusion between campaigns and illegal foreign collaborators.

Trump's previous attempts to get election help from Russia, public and secret, would not be prosecutable under this new law—unless he did it again.

Who cares?

  • The sanctity of American elections is more important than Donald Trump getting foreign help to stay president.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got very, very confused during his attempt to turn yesterday's call for foreign election help on Democrats.

Trump's admission yesterday that he would be willing to use foreign espionage or propaganda to win the 2020 election hasn't gone over well. It's been savaged by legal experts, Trump's fellow Republicans, and the country's chief election law official. In what appears to be an attempt to defend himself today, Trump wrote a series of tweets that, to be charitable, will require some interpretation:

When Senator @MarkWarnerVA spoke at length, and in great detail, about extremely negative information on me, with a talented entertainer purporting to be a Russian Operative, did he immediately call the FBI? NO, in fact he didn’t even tell the Senate Intelligence Committee of........which he is a member. When @RepAdamSchiff took calls from another person, also very successfully purporting to be a Russian Operative, did he call the FBI, or even think to call the FBI? NO! The fact is that the phony Witch Hunt is a giant scam where Democrats,.......and other really bad people, SPIED ON MY CAMPAIGN! They even had an “insurance policy” just in case Crooked Hillary Clinton and the Democrats lost their race for the Presidency! This is the biggest & worst political scandal in the history of the United States of America. Sad!

The "spying," of course, refers to legal warrants issued by courts for surveillance of Russian attempts to infiltrate the Trump campaign.

As for the rest of it, Trump is referring to two separate stories here, but he's confused which Democratic politician goes with which, and in both cases he has the facts exactly backwards.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) contacted a lobbyist while seeking to get in touch with Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier that first laid out the ways in which Trump and his campaign were entangled with Russian intelligence operatives. Contrary to Trump's claims, as Warner's Republican colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee admitted at the time, he did so with their full knowledge.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) was the one who was contacted by not one but two Russian comedians, in a prank call where they pretended to be Ukrainian government officials with compromising information on Trump. Trump's account of what happened next is a lie: as the callers' audio proves, Schiff referred them to the FBI, and then contacted the FBI himself.

Trump is not exactly known for his attention to detail, so it may be that he's genuinely confused rather than deliberately lying about these. He also may genuinely believe, as he said yesterday, that politicians "all do it." (They do not.)

Who cares?

  • Even if it's true, but especially if it's not, "other people are doing it" is not a reason to commit crimes against American democracy.
  • Past a certain point, it doesn't matter if a president is lying or disoriented.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made sure Russia would be listening.

In an Oval Office interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Trump said today that if a foreign government approached him with information to use against a Democratic challenger, he would take advantage of it. He also said, incorrectly, that nothing would require him to report foreign interference like this to the FBI.

Here is a transcript of the portion released tonight by ABC. Stephanopoulos was asking Trump about the trouble that his son, Donald Trump Jr., had gotten into over apparently untruthful testimony about the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents peddling disinformation about Hillary Clinton.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Should [Donald Trump Jr.] have gone to the FBI when he got that e-mail? 
TRUMP: OK, let's put yourself in a position. You're a congressman. Somebody comes up and says, "Hey, I have information on your opponent." Do you call the FBI? 
STEPHANOPOULOS: If it's coming from Russia, you do. 
TRUMP: I tell you what, I've seen a lot of things over my life, I don't think in my whole life I've ever called the FBI. In my whole life. You don't call the FBI! You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do. 
STEPHANOPOULOS: Al Gore got a stolen briefing book. He called the FBI.

Stephanopoulos is essentially correct here, although the Bush campaign strategy materials were sent to a Gore surrogate, Rep. Tom Downey, who was helping him prepare for the debates. Downey turned them over to the FBI immediately, without involving the Gore campaign.

TRUMP: Well, that's different, a stolen briefing book.

At this point, Trump seemed to move away from a hypothetical situation to a specific case where Russia offered him assistance, or where he asked for it from Russia.

TRUMP: This isn't a stolen—this is somebody that said, "We have information on your opponent." Oh, let me call the FBI. Give me a break! Life doesn't work that way.

The DNC e-mails that the Russian government released via Wikileaks were, in fact, stolen.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The FBI director says that's what should happen
TRUMP: The FBI director is wrong.

The FBI director is not wrong. It is a crime for a foreign entity to give anything of value to an American political campaign, and it is a crime for any campaign to "solicit, accept, or receive" anything of value from a foreign source. 

Government officials—like Trump is now—also have an affirmative duty to report violations of federal law. Trump's oath of office requires that he "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your campaign this time around. If foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on opponents, should they accept it or should they call the FBI? 
TRUMP: I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen! I don't—there's nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country, Norway, "We have information on your opponent." Oh? I think I'd want to hear it. 
STEPHANOPOULOS: You'd want that kind of interference in our elections? 
TRUMP: It's not an interference! They have an information. I think I'd take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I'd go maybe to the FBI, if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, "Oh, let's call the FBI." The FBI doesn't have enough agents to take care of it.

The FBI has 35,000 employees, including many specifically detailed to election security and preventing election fraud.

TRUMP: But you go and talk honestly to congressmen, they all do it, they always have. And that's the way it is.

Exactly one member of Congress in the last 230 years has been investigated for soliciting campaign assistance from a foreign source: Michael Grimm, a New York Republican who resigned in 2015 and served seven months in prison on related charges. Grimm had asked an Israeli citizen for help getting donations from his religious followers.

Trump did not elaborate on why he thought getting election help from foreign sources was so commonplace.

Why is this a bad thing?

  • Encouraging other countries to spy on Americans is a betrayal of the oath of office.
  • A candidate—especially an incumbent president—who makes himself beholden to foreign countries to get elected can be manipulated by them.
  • Even when it's true, "everybody does it" isn't how a president should defend committing crimes.
  • Someone who says "no collusion" as often as Trump probably shouldn't admit to being willing to collude with foreign spy agencies.
  • If you can't get elected without illegal foreign help, you probably shouldn't be in office.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sided with North Korea over the CIA.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Kim Jong-nam, the estranged brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, had been a CIA informant. Kim Jong-un had Kim Jong-nam, who had fled North Korea years before, assassinated with a chemical weapon in 2017.

Asked for comment today, Trump acknowledged that he'd seen the report, and then said this:

And I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong-un, and I think the relationship is very well. But I appreciated the letter. I saw the information about the CIA, with respect to his brother, or half-brother. And I would tell him that would not happen under my auspices, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t let that happen under my auspices. 
But I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong-un. I can’t show you the letter, obviously, but it was a very personal, very warm, very nice letter. I appreciate it.

It's not entirely clear that Trump knew before the WSJ article appeared that Kim Jong-nam had been a CIA source. Trump has been extremely careless in the past with classified information: he's threatened to expose intelligence operations to settle political scores, he's overruled his own staffers' refusal to grant security clearances to his adult children, and he's blurted out secrets in the presence of foreign leaders on more than one occasion. It's possible that the specific details of the United States' intelligence operations against North Korea have been kept out of Trump's briefings. (Trump routinely ignores those briefings, claiming to know more about intelligence operations than the people who conduct them.)

This is far from the first time that Trump has sided with hostile foreign governments over American intelligence officials. Ten days before taking office, Trump compared the intelligence community to Nazis for their efforts to protect the election from Russian interference. He stood shoulder to shoulder with Vladimir Putin in 2018 and said that he believed Putin's denials of having sabotaged the 2016 election, in spite of the unanimous verdict of US law enforcement and intelligence agencies to the contrary. He also publicly sided with the government of Saudi Arabia, which has influence over him, on the matter of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi after the CIA showed him proof of its involvement.

Trump followed up his pledge not to spy on a hostile nuclear-armed rogue state with more praise for Kim Jong-un:

And I’ll say it again: I think that North Korea has tremendous potential, and he’ll be there. I think that North Korea, under his leadership — but North Korea, because of what it represents — the people are great, the land is great, the location is incredible between Russia, China, and South Korea — I think North Korea has tremendous potential. And the one that feels that more than anybody is Kim Jong Un. He gets it. He totally gets it.

Trump knows better than most how useful an intelligence tool the family members of a world leader can be: his own adult children have been targeted by them.

Why should I care about this?

  • It should not be this easy to manipulate the President of the United States.
  • Defending the United States means gathering intelligence against nuclear-armed dictators, even ones Trump likes.