Saturday, August 31, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He monitored the Hurricane Dorian situation as closely as it is possible to from a golf course.

Trump was supposed to be in Poland today, but with Hurricane Dorian threatening to pummel the key swing state of Florida, he canceled the trip on Thursday. Supposedly, he decided to stay in the United States so that he could "ensure that all resources of the federal government are focused on the arriving storm."

But in reality, as he does almost every weekend, Trump spent the day at his luxury golf resort. Also per his usual practice, he tried to hide that fact from the press.

In fairness to Trump, there's virtually nothing for him to do before a natural disaster, other than making sure that emergency services are fully funded and that FEMA has a working leadership—although that doesn't explain his canceled trip to Poland. There's also relatively little non-political work for a president to do after a hurricane strikes, as Trump himself found when he decided to "help" Puerto Rico with a visit after the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Trump did find time before golfing to tweet encouraging messages to places like "our great South Carolina," which is now in the projected path of the hurricane. Today's tweets had a slightly different tone than the ones he aimed at Puerto Rico several days ago, as the very same hurricane threatened it:

Why does this matter?

  • It's the president's job to help all Americans recover from natural disasters, not just the ones who live in places that are politically important to him.
  • One way for a president to "ensure that all the resources of the federal government" are directed properly is to go to work.

Friday, August 30, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tweeted out a photo that gave away information about American intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Yesterday, Iran attempted to launch a rocket capable of carrying small satellites into space. There was an accident, easily visible from low-resolution commercial satellites, and news of the failure spread quickly.

Today, apparently wanting to gloat, Trump tweeted out sarcastic "best wishes" to Iran about the accident. But he also attached an incredibly detailed, ultra-high-resolution image of the accident. As intelligence experts immediately noted, by releasing the photo on Twitter, Trump has given foreign adversaries (including Iran) information about American spy satellites or drone capabilities they wouldn't otherwise have. 

For obvious reasons, these kinds of images are never, ever released publicly.

It's not clear whether the intelligence community knew that Trump would release the image. While it's common for the government to prepare and publish low-resolution images, this image appears to be a photograph of a piece of paper. This would suggest that Trump simply took a picture with his phone of a document meant to be kept secret.

Technically, this wouldn't be against the law, since presidents can declassify anything they want—although it almost certainly would have been a serious crime if anyone other than Trump had done it. 

Instead, it joins a number of other times Trump has accidentally or carelessly revealed American military secrets. In May of 2017, Trump gave visiting Russian officials extremely sensitive information shared by Israel, which would have allowed Russian intelligence agents to learn the identity and methods of Israel's agents. He then compounded the mistake by accidentally confirming to the public that it was Israel's secrets he'd given away. The previous month, he revealed the location of American submarines in the vicinity of North Korea to the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. 

Also today, Trump tweeted four times about former FBI director James Comey, insinuating that Comey had leaked classified information. In fact, a recent Inspector General's report explicitly explicitly cleared Comey of those allegations.

Who cares?

  • Presidents who can't be trusted with military secrets aren't fit for office.
  • Accusing other people of bad things you've done is called projection, and it's not a sign of good mental health.
  • America's military secrets are more important than Donald Trump's need to gloat.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He promised farmers still yet another bailout to undo the damage of his other policies.

Recently, Trump issued a rule allowing oil refineries to ignore laws requiring them to add ethanol to their gasoline. This will save some expense in the energy sector, but it is a potential disaster for farmers growing ethanol-producing crops, who are already reeling from the effects of Trump's trade war.

Trump has been worried about his collapsing political support among farmers, and today he teased some kind of make-up program, although he gave no details. In a tweet, he promised that "The Farmers are going to be so happy when they see what we are doing for Ethanol, not even including the E-15, year around, which is already done. It will be a giant package, get ready!"

In other words, if it happens at all, Trump is talking about yet another taxpayer-financed farm bailout. 

Trump has already dipped into the Treasury for two rounds of government crop purchases, using a program originally created to keep farms afloat during the Great Depression. With trade talks with China going nowhere, he recently promised a third round for the election year 2020.

The cost of the farm bailouts is greater than the total amount of tariffs collected, although the amounts aren't nearly enough to make farmers whole for the business that Trump's trade war has cost them. But there are other reasons why the bailouts are extremely unpopular with farmers. The bailout money has gone mostly to large agribusinesses, including foreign-owned companies. When it has trickled down to family farms, it's been late

Why should I care about this?

  • Farmers aren't as stupid as Trump seems to think they are.
  • Bad policies have consequences.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He tried to play off a pardon scheme as a "joke."

Citing Trump's own aides, the Washington Post reported yesterday that Trump is so desperate to make some kind of progress on his long-promised border wall that he told staff he would pardon them if they had to break laws to get it done. Specifically, he ordered staff to simply seize property from private landowners without going through the legal process of eminent domain. (Trump knows only too well how uncertain that process is: he once tried and failed to get Atlantic City to use its power to seize an elderly widow's house so that he could build a casino parking lot.)

No one doubts Trump's anxiety over the wall. He's privately admitted he doesn't think it will actually do anything to stop border crossings, but he believes it's popular with likely Trump voters. (It's much less popular closer to the actual border, where landowners would be affected by it.)

Having failed in his first two and a half years to build even a single mile of new wall, or to get Mexico to pay a dime for it, Trump is now insisting that the whole project be done by the election. In the real world, experts think that even the most modest plans would take ten years to build, and that's before Trump's personal esthetic touches are added.

Trump didn't deny having dangled pardons to induce people to break the law. Instead, he explained it this way today: he was just joking.

This isn't the first time Trump has pretended he was "joking" after getting caught saying something he regretted. Last week, after looking to the heavens and calling himself "the chosen one"—on the same day he retweeted someone who called him "the King of Israel"—Trump backtracked by insisting that it was a joke. (Specifically, he said that reporters knew it was a joke because he was smiling when he said it. He wasn't.)

Trump was also "joking" when he begged Russia on live TV to hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails. In that case, he didn't reveal the "joke" until almost three years later. Russian agents apparently didn't get the joke—they began attacking Democratic Party servers that very same day.

Trump also likes to "joke" about calling his political enemies traitors or un-American, something that has led to a surge in violent crime committed in his name. He's "joked" that President Obama was behind the Islamic State, and that Democrats who failed to clap for him at a speech were treasonous.

Why does this matter?

  • Conservatives who voted for Trump might not like how willing he is to break the law to seize private property.
  • There is a difference between a lie and a joke.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He complained about Puerto Rico hurricane relief and cut FEMA's funding.

Trump's schedule was empty today as he recuperated from three days in France, but had plenty of energy for Twitter. He used it to comment on Tropical Storm Dorian, which is headed for Puerto Rico and could threaten the Florida coast:

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in August 2017. As months passed without the restoration of even basic utilities like electricity and clean water, Trump began bashing the American citizens who live there as "politically motivated ingrates" and complaining about the cost of rebuilding. The $92 billon figure is a lie, although one Trump has told so many times he may actually believe it now. As this site noted in May:

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's tweet came on the same day that he was caught diverting funds from FEMA, which handles disaster relief, to detention centers on the U.S.-Mexico border. 

So what?

  • Disaster relief is one of the basic functions of a government, not an extravagance or a favor it does for its citizens.
  • Budget decisions reflect priorities.

Monday, August 26, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He turned the presidency into an ad for one of his hotels.

Trump left the G7 meeting in France today in more or less the same foul mood as he entered it. If he attends next year, though, he won't have to leave the country to do it: the United States is scheduled to host. Trump already has a suggestion: a hotel where he'd make money from it. Specifically, Trump suggested his luxury golf resort Trump National Doral, which is located on the outskirts of Miami (conveniently close to a Walgreen's and a Pepsi distribution center). 

It's hard to know how serious Trump is with this proposal. In remarks today, he suggested that his staff had reviewed every other possible conference facility in the country, and somehow independently picked Doral, which has never hosted any similar event. (Ever the salesman, Trump did point out the location's ample parking.) 

And it's not as though Trump has shown an unwillingness to profit directly from government business in the past. His campaign buys space in Trump Tower that it doesn't use at a premium price, and the Secret Service has been forced to follow suit. Foreign governments, like that of Saudi Arabia, have openly said that they buy hotel rooms from him as a way to buy influence.

But even if another site is chosen, Trump has at least succeeded in getting Trump National Doral in the news. It could use the press: it's half-empty and losing money, surviving on what amounts to charity from conservative groups. Many potential customers are turned off by the Trump brand, and recent reports of a bedbug infestation haven't helped matters.

Who cares?

  • The presidency isn't a slush fund.
  • It shouldn't be possible to buy influence with a president, much less this easy.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got completely spun around on what his trade policy is.

Trump is attending the annual G7 meeting in France this weekend. Today, in the space of a few hours, he managed to take about every position possible on his self-inflicted trade war. In the process, he provoked the United States' closest allies and trading partners to publicly warn him that he was losing touch with reality on the subject.

At a breakfast meeting, a reporter asked Trump if he was having second thoughts about the latest round of tariffs on Chinese goods that he's asking American consumers to pay. This was the exchange:

Q Mr. President, any second thoughts on escalating the trade war with China? 
TRUMP: Yeah, sure. Why not? 
Q Second thoughts? Yes? 
TRUMP: Might as well. Might as well. 
Q You have second thoughts about escalating the war with China? 
TRUMP: I have second thoughts about everything.

Trump added that "Actually, we’re getting along very well with China right now. We’re talking. ...But we are talking to China very seriously." In fact, trade negotiations have completely halted.

Later in the day, Trump was overruled by his own staff. Larry Kudlow, Trump's economic advisor (and an anti-tariff zealot before joining the Trump administration) went on CNN to say that Trump actually meant to say exactly the opposite:

Well, look, if I can reinterpret that–I mean, he spoke to us, he didn’t exactly hear the question. Actually what he was intending to say is, he always has second thoughts and he actually had second thoughts about possibly a higher tariff response to China. So it was not to remove the tariff. He was thinking about a higher tariff response.

Kudlow didn't explain why higher tariffs would be needed if "we’re getting along very well with China right now."

Trump has forgotten or suddenly switched his position on defining issues any number of times, and in most of those cases has been quickly brought to heel by his staff or lobbyists. Since taking office, Trump has briefly endorsed Australian-style socialized universal health care, amnesty and citizenship for DACA recipients, and reinstating the assault weapons ban, only to be reminded by staff what his "real" position is.

Today's demonstration prompted the leaders of at least two major US allies to speak out publicly against Trump. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bluntly contradicted Trump's claim that a trade deal with Japan had been reached. Boris Johnson, the new British Prime Minister, tried a different tack, ever-so-gently telling Trump in a "sheeplike" fashion to knock it off.

Why is this a problem?

  • It's a very bad sign if the United States' closest allies are publicly expressing this level of concern about its president.
  • Past a certain point, the "he misheard you" or the "you misheard him" excuse doesn't work.
  • A president who can't remember, can't decide, or otherwise doesn't know what his position is on major issues isn't healthy enough to serve.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He insisted that he really, truly does have an "absolute right" to force American companies out of China.

Trump spent much of yesterday enduring mockery over his proclamation that he was "hereby order[ing]" American companies to divest from China. The bad press was magnified by the fact that his staff, caught off guard by the tweets, had no idea what he was talking about. By the time he was en route to France, Trump had finally found a justification for his "order" that American companies abandon hundred of billions of dollars of investment in China.

There is such a law. But it does not give Trump the "absolute right" he claimed yesterday to force American companies out of China, or even to start planning to do so. It really, reallyreally doesn't, as experts on law and trade were quick to point out. 

Even if he could, of course, it would be a disaster for American businesses, which have vastly more money invested in China than Chinese businesses do in the United States.

Trump frequently uses the phrase "absolute right" to describe things he's completely powerless in legal or practical terms to do, like fire Robert Mueller, or completely close the Mexico border to legal traffic, or give himself a pardon for federal crimes he's committed.

All that having been said, there are a few businesses Trump really does have an absolute right to pull out of China—or at least to ask his daughter and son-in-law to. No Trump family-owned businesses have announced any plans to follow Trump's "order."

Who cares?

  • It's bad if the president thinks he can do whatever he wants.
  • It's very bad if the president thinks he has the authority to do things that would be incredibly stupid even if legal.
  • People who voted for Trump thinking he would be pro-business may be upset to learn he's more like a communist when it suits him.

Friday, August 23, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He hereby ordered.

Overnight, China once again retaliated against Trump's latest rounds of tariffs, spooking American stock markets. But they were trending positive again just before 11:00 a.m. EDT. Investors were reassured by a much-anticipated speech by Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell in which he gave no indication that the Fed would be imposing the sharp interest rate cut that Trump has been increasingly agitated about.

Almost immediately, Trump took to ranting on Twitter. He declared still more tariffs—that is to say, taxes on American consumers—and then he said this:

For the record, Trump can't actually "hereby order" businesses in the United States to do any such thing. (Ironically, China's president Xi Jinping would have better luck with such an order—because China's hybrid-communist economy is still largely state-controlled.)

The internet wasn't kind, and Trump had to endure mockery for the rest of the trading day while investors came to terms with the bleak news that his trade war was only getting worse. His own attempt to turn it into a joke wasn't well received.

Just before leaving on an overnight trip to France (who he also threatened with tariffs today), Trump once again insisted that China's retaliation somehow actually meant that they were desperate to come to the bargaining table. 

Why does this matter?

  • Presidents who are visibly losing their ability to control their impulses are bad for the economy.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got basic economic facts about as wrong as it's possible to get them.

Relative to the last few days, at least, Trump had a quiet day in public: he stayed out of sight except to give an award to basketball legend Bob Cousy—and he followed the teleprompter for that.

On Twitter, though, it was a different story. Aides have admitted to reporters that Trump is privately worried about the political implications of the looming recession. He's even taken some steps to try to undo some of the economic damage caused by his trade war. But a Twitter rant he posted today on the subject ranged from the incorrect to the incoherent, which isn't likely to increase confidence in the U.S. economy. 

Trump wrote:

Germany sells 30 year bonds offering negative yields. Germany competes with the USA. Our Federal Reserve does not allow us to do what we must do.

The part about the negative yields is true, as far as it goes. Yesterday, Germany offered 30-year bonds paying zero interest at just slightly above face value. This works out to a yield of -0.11%. (The U.S. 30-year bond has a yield of +0.04%. From a practical standpoint, both bonds are paying nothing.)

But Trump seems to think that Germany (and the U.S.) is the one setting the price of their bonds. In the real world, the market does that. If a bond's yield is too low, buyers will stay away. That's what happened yesterday: the Bundesbank, Germany's equivalent of the Federal Reserve, was forced to buy most of that offering when few investors were interested.

Trump continued:

They put us at a disadvantage against our competition. Strong Dollar, No Inflation! They move like quicksand. Fight or go home!

The dollar is relatively strong against other currencies. (There is, in fact, some inflation—which is a good thing, which Trump seems unable to understand.) But the United States can't do very much to weaken the dollar, which is for all practical purposes the reserve currency for the entire world. And if it could, it would face reprisals from countries that can, like China. That is exactly what happened a few weeks ago, when China allowed its artificially strong currency to depreciate against the dollar, sending American financial markets into a mini-crash.

The Economy is doing really well.

Trump himself does not believe this.

The Federal Reserve can easily make it Record Setting! The question is being asked, why are we paying much more in interest than Germany and certain other countries?

Trump is saying that he wants the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates. It's not surprising that he does: every time interest rates go down, he personally saves millions of dollars in servicing on the enormous personal debt he carries. (That's not counting the billions of dollars his businesses owe.) For people who don't owe hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign banks, however, the real use of a rate cut is to interrupt the downward spiral of a recession—and it's only effective if it's saved until it's necessary.

In other words, if Trump's stewardship of the economy continues on the same path, he's likely to get his wish, because the economy really will be collapsing.

Why should I care about this?

  • It's really bad if the President of the United States is completely wrong about basic facts related to the economy.
  • The economic health of the United States is more important than saving Donald Trump a few million dollars in debt payments.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He called himself "the chosen one," which was one of the more modest things he said today.

Yesterday, Trump said that the roughly 79% of Jewish Americans who voted for Democrats in 2018 were "disloyal." Today, he tweet-quoted a conspiracy theorist who called him the "King of Israel."

Specifically, Trump approvingly cited Wayne Allyn Root. Root is, to put it mildly, a fringe figure. (His rant that Robert Mueller was motivated by jealousy over the size of Trump's penis is fairly typical.) What Trump wanted people talking about today was this Root quote:

President Trump is the greatest President for Jews and for Israel in the history of the world, not just America, he is the best President for Israel in the history of the world...and the Jewish people in Israel love him like he’s the King of Israel. They love him like he is the second coming of God... But American Jews don’t know him or like him. They don’t even know what they’re doing or saying anymore. It makes no sense!

Later in the day, speaking to reporters on the White House lawn, Trump called himself "the chosen one." Normally, transcripts of Trump's press availabilities are posted almost immediately to the White House website, but this one has been delayed without explanation. (A transcript can be viewed here.) During that brief appearance, Trump also said:

  • that calling American Jews "disloyal," echoing the Nazi regime's accusations against German Jews, was "only anti-Semitic in your head"
  • that he would be president for "six years — or maybe ten or fourteen."
  • that an epidemic of veteran suicides would be cured by a new drug
  • that the Prime Minister of Denmark was a "rude" and "nasty" woman who "used a terrible word" ["absurd"] when refusing to discuss the sale of Greenland
  • that it was okay for Russia to rejoin the G8 because its invasion of Crimea—which is what got it expelled—had happened during President Obama's term
  • that "the fake news, of which many of you are members, is trying to convince the public to have a recession"
  • that the trade war he started in March of 2018 "isn't my trade war"
  • that Americans buying Chinese goods amounted to China stealing from the United States
  • that NBC News should ask him easier questions because he'd been an NBC employee when he was on The Apprentice
  • that "frankly," the shooting victims who refused to meet with him in El Paso "love their President"
  • that he could use an executive order to override the Fourteenth Amendment's provision that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States"

Trump also said something somewhat more in touch with reality during today's press gaggle: that he's the favorite to be re-nominated by the Republican Party for 2020. But his mental health is becoming a topic of increasingly open discussion among Republicans lately, including arch-conservative former Rep. Joe Walsh, who is expected to enter the race. 

What's the problem here?

  • Nobody who says any of these things, much less all of them in half an hour, is mentally healthy enough to serve as president.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said Jews who didn't vote for him were "disloyal."

Trump was asked today about his successful attempts to get his political enemies in Congress barred from visiting Israel. He claimed that he "had nothing to do with it", although immediately before Israel officially took action, Trump was on Twitter demanding that they do it

He also said this:

And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.

He then immediately dismissed reporters.

Only about one in six American Jews is a registered Republican, and about 75% voted for a Democrat in the 2018 election. That would mean that Trump thinks the vast majority of Jewish Americans are stupid or "disloyal." 

It's not the first time Trump has questioned the loyalty of American Jews. In 2015, then-candidate Trump told the Republican Jewish Coalition, "You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician."

What's the problem here?

  • Jewish Americans don't owe "loyalty" to anything other than America.
  • It's only "disloyal" to vote for the party of your choice if you don't live in a democracy.

Monday, August 19, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found another 11 million votes he's decided to count for himself.

Trump lost the popular vote in the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton by 2,764,903 votes. Even though he still won the electoral college vote, he immediately claimed that three to five million people had voted illegally for Clinton. (He didn't say how he knew how they voted, or who they were, or how they'd accomplished it. A "commission" he created after taking office to find evidence for his claims couldn't say, either.)

Today, Trump inflated that claim to sixteen million votes. This time, the culprit was Google, which supposedly "manipulated" 12% of the total votes cast. 

It didn't. As Hillary Clinton herself put it:

It's always difficult to tell if Trump believes these claims, although it's pretty clear he expects other people to. But with a series of very ominous polls coming in that show him in danger of losing re-election, Trump is rattled. Today, he spun a conspiracy theory about "something going on" at Fox News, whose poll shows him losing by wide margins in 2020 to every leading Democratic candidate. 

Trump, whose campaign knew about and—at the very least—approved of Russia's attempts to intervene in the election on his behalf, seems to be repeating his stance from 2016: that elections are only valid if he wins them.

What's wrong with this?

  • Pushing propaganda showing overwhelming support for the leader is what dictators do.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He said it was wrong to study racism in America's past, then insulted yet another person of color.

Trump once again spent his (official) vacation day on Twitter. In particular, he was upset by the New York Times new feature, The 1619 Project. It looks at the 400 years of American history following the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the present-day United States.

Trump, who yesterday threatened to designate people protesting white supremacists as terrorists, called the project a "racism witch hunt." It's not clear what he meant or if he'd read it.

Later in the day, Trump attacked Fox News contributor Juan Williams, who is black, calling him "pathetic" and "nasty and wrong." It's not clear what if anything provoked Trump's anger at Williams this time.

Besides Williams, a partial list of the non-white Americans Trump has attacked—just on Twitter alone—since he started running for president includes:

Why does this matter?

  • Racism is as racism does.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He warned people protesting white supremacists that he was watching them.

The Proud Boys, an all-male white nationalist group that has enthusiastically supported Trump, held a rally in Portland, Oregon today. The group advocates violence in the name of protecting "white culture," and has been trying to incite violence at its demonstrations by baiting their counter-protestors. The group did draw huge crowds of people opposed to their neo-fascist ideas. Thirteen arrests were made and six people were injured.

As the Proud Boy rally unfolded, Trump went on Twitter and warned that he was considering designating the counter-protestors as a terrorist organization.

Specifically, Trump said he was giving "major consideration" to designating Antifa as a terrorist organization. Antifa, short for "anti-fascist," isn't really a specific group of people so much as an organizing strategy that arose in the 1980s to stop neo-Nazi groups from recruiting. 

The Proud Boys were thrilled by Trump's tweet, and immediately celebrated his support.
Trump did not mention the white nationalist groups in Portland today. He's often shied away from even mild criticism of racist or right-wing militant groups, for fear that he needs their political support to stay in office.

Why should I care about this?

  • A president too cowardly to offend violent white nationalists is unfit for office.
  • A president who just doesn't care about violent white nationalists is also unfit for office.

Friday, August 16, 2019

What did Trump do today?

He got defensive about crowd sizes... again.

Trump tweeted four times today about the crowd he drew at a New Hampshire rally. While he's always been obsessed with the number of people who turn out to see him, he hasn't always called this much attention to it. But a trending Twitter hashtag—#EmptySeatMAGATour—seems to have gotten under his skin. Posts with that hashtag mocked Trump for the obvious bare patches in the small arena. (Trump blamed fire codes—a trick he's tried in the past to explain away empty seats.) 

Even seats immediately behind Trump were empty. The nearly-empty sections near the top of the arena were cropped out of campaign photographs.

Crowd size has been even more on Trump's mind than usual lately—which is saying something for a man who hijacked his own first day in office to insist that his poorly attended inaugural had the biggest crowds ever. Last week, left with time on his hands at an El Paso hospital because no shooting victims were willing to speak to him, Trump bragged to hospital staff about the comparative size of his El Paso rally vs. one held by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke. (He lied about the size of the crowd during his speech at that rally and blamed the fire department, which was forced to correct him.)

Another bit of Trump crowd-related news also broke today: that most of the people in the audience at a bizarre hybrid campaign rally/policy speech he gave this week in Pennsylvania were paid to be there. Union workers in the energy industry were given a choice between attending the Trump speech or going without pay for the day—but only if they promised to stay quiet and do nothing that might suggest they disagreed with Trump. 

It's hardly the first time Trump has relied on paid attendees at his rallies: many of the people at his 2015 campaign kickoff event were actors being paid $50 apiece to cheer for him.

Who cares?

  • It's not a big deal if a president doesn't fill every seat at a campaign event, but it is a big deal if he's still obsessing over it the next day.
  • If you have to pay people to applaud your speeches, there's a problem with what you're saying in your speeches.
  • Ideally the president is brave enough to speak in front of workers who *haven't* been threatened with losing their jobs if they show any "resistance."

Thursday, August 15, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He reminded everyone it's never his fault, specifically about the economy.

Faced with an economy slowed by his trade war, and fears of recession that have sent the stock markets plummeting, Trump took action today: he got on Twitter and said it was the media's fault.

While this was good for a few laughs online, there's a theme emerging in Trump's comments on the economy, besides the idea that nothing bad is ever his fault. Trump seems to believe that the world economy is a zero-sum game, where every transaction has a winner and a loser. He also tweeted this today:

In the real world, "as others falter," the United States economy gets weaker—which is exactly why even his own advisors were against launching unprovoked trade wars on countries the United States does a lot of business with. Individual business compete, but the overall economy tends to get stronger and weaker in unison. 

For example, when Trump managed to bankrupt four Atlantic City casinos at the height of that city's economic boom, it wasn't a windfall for his competitors. Instead, the debts he never paid and the vacant shells he left behind hurt the local economy

Trump has made a version of this basic mistake before. When he launched his trade wars more than a year and a half ago, he frequently talked about how the United States was somehow losing money when it had a trade deficit with another country. Of course, all it really means is that American consumers could afford to buy things from other countries.

Why should I care about this?

  • The United States economy is way too important for the president to be this ignorant about it.
  • Not every problem Donald Trump has can be blamed on the media.
  • Having responsibility means taking responsibility.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He found something to like in the Chinese government.

Hong Kong is a "special administrative region" of China that has enjoyed a degree of local self-rule from the Beijing government since British rule ended in 1997. This summer, and especially in the past week, there have been massive pro-democracy and anti-Beijing protests and labor strikes aimed at keeping that independence from the rest of the nation. 

The government of Xi Jinping has called the protestors terrorists and rioters, and is massing military forces at the edge of the region.

There is almost unanimous bipartisan sympathy in the United States for the protestors. Unlikely allies like John Bolton and Nancy Pelosi both expressed their support, and warned Xi to tread carefully. 

Asked about the situation by reporters yesterday—which made American news because the protests shut down the Hong Kong airport for two days—Trump seemed uncertain what the questions referred to, and answered evasively.

Today, however, Trump has caught up, and responded—by praising Xi Jinping

Trump tweeted that Xi was a "good man" and a "great leader." Trump called the overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy protests a "tough business" that Xi could "humanely solve."

While Trump has often demonized the nation of China, comparing its trade with the United States to rape, it's hardly the first time he's expressed admiration for Xi personally. When Xi succeeded in changing internal rules so that he could serve as President indefinitely, Trump openly praised the move. Trump rarely praises people other than himself, but seems to be unable to contain himself around "strong" leaders—or dictators—like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi of Egypt, and many others.

Why is this a problem?

  • Presidents shouldn't be caught completely unaware by major world news stories.
  • It's bad if the President of the United States can't find the courage to side with pro-democracy protests against a repressive government.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He got a little confused about energy during a speech about energy.

Addressing a crowd of oil and gas company managers today, Trump said this:

And when the wind stops blowing, it doesn’t make any difference, does it? Unlike those big windmills that destroy everybody’s property values, kill all the birds. Someday, the environmentalists are going to tell us what’s going on with that. And then, all of a sudden, it stops; the wind and the televisions go off. And your wives and husbands say, “Darling, I want to watch Donald Trump on television tonight. But the wind stopped blowing and I can’t watch. There’s no electricity in the house, darling.” No, we love natural gas and we love a lot of other things, too.

That got a laugh from the crowd, which knew better. It's genuinely not clear if Trump did, too.

Trump's tone was light, but he's been weirdly hostile to wind power for as long as he's known about it. He told a crowd this past April that "they say" that the sound from wind turbines causes cancer. (It, uh, doesn't.) He's also fond of saying that a nearby wind turbine will drive down property values by "75 percent." In the real world, turbines are almost never built near houses, but when they are, they don't drive down property values. (They do provide rental income for the farms and rangelands where they're often built, though.)

As for birds, it's true that wind turbines kill about 234,000 birds per year. That's about 0.04% as many as are killed by collisions with buildings, 0.1% as many as are killed by cars, and 0.009% as many as are killed by cats. (In other news, Trump rolled back big parts of the Endangered Species Act yesterday, the centerpiece of legislation that protects endangered birds, including the bald eagle.)

Trump's strange anger towards wind isn't just a joke, though. Yesterday, he moved to shut down an offshore wind farm near Martha's Vineyard that would have met 3% of the total electricity demand for all of New England.

Who cares?

  • It's bad if you can't tell if the president is genuinely dumb, or pretending to be dumb.
  • Someone who tells you that windmills cause cancer because "they say" so is either very gullible or thinks you are.

Monday, August 12, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He proposed yet more immigration restrictions that would have kept his family out of the United States.

Today, Trump unveiled sweeping new restrictions designed to narrow the path to citizenship for legal immigrants—unless they are very wealthy. (Or, rather, his administration did. Trump once again spent the day at the golf course, tweeting.) The proposed rule would create a new interpretation of the "public charge" provision in existing law. In effect, it would bar any legal immigrant from getting a green card if an immigration official thought they might, at any point, use a public assistance program.

In practice, what this means is that legal residents of the United States would need to demonstrate  that they had income of 250% the poverty line. For a family of four, that would be $64,375. The median household income in the United States is about $59,000.

In other words, Trump is saying that more than half of American households are "a strain on public resources" who "abuse our nation's public benefit."

As is often the case with Trump, his own family history would be very different if his immigration policies had been in place. His grandfather came to the United States with little more than a change of clothes, no fluency in English, and no immediate prospect of a job. His mother, too, had no money when she came to the United States intending to work as a household servant. (Both relatives came to live with family already established in the U.S., which Trump now calls "chain migration" and is trying to ban.)

Neither of Trump's two foreign-born wives, Ivana Trump and Melania Trump, would have been able to get a green card under these rules either—except for the fact that they married Trump. There's no evidence that during the brief time that they worked as models in the United States, either would have been able to demonstrate a sufficiently secure income. Melania Trump in particular would have had difficulty, since she appears to have worked illegally in the United States.

Why does this matter?

  • It's wrong to hold other people's families to higher standards than you hold your own.
  • Working- and middle-class Americans might not like Trump suggesting they wouldn't be good enough for the United States if they hadn't been born here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He gave North Korea an excuse to keep threatening South Korea and Japan.

Trump's inexplicable "love" affair (as he himself described it) with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un blossomed again this past week when Kim sent Trump another "very beautiful letter." Trump's seemingly genuine enthusiasm for the letter's characteristics ("beautiful") and length ("three pages, top to bottom") stood in awkward contrast to the fact that North Korea was once again violating U.N. mandates by conducting missile tests that doubled as obvious threats to Japan and South Korea.

Yesterday, possibly remembering that Kim is not quite as popular outside the Oval Office, Trump backtracked slightly. He belatedly insisted that the "very beautiful letter" contained "a small apology" for the missile tests. There's no way to know if that's actually true, as Trump has refused to share the contents of the letter with the public.

At the same time that Trump was tacking on part about the "apology," North Korea conducted yet another test.

Today, North Korean officials approvingly—and accurately—cited Trump's pro-Kim comments as justifying their missile tests. "With regard to our test for developing the conventional weapons, even the US president made a remark which in effect recognizes the self-defensive rights of a sovereign state, saying that it is a small missile test which a lot of countries do," read a statement attacking the South Korean government released through North Korean state media.

The United States is, at least as far as most other Americans are concerned, allied with Japan and South Korea and in a de facto state of war with North Korea.

Why does this matter?

  • It's extremely bad if a nuclear-armed dictator can honestly say that the President of the United States is on his side in a conflict with America's allies.
  • However Kim Jong-un has managed to do this to Trump—and it's not at all clear—it should not be possible to manipulate the President of the United States this completely.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He made sure that people thinking about Jeffrey Epstein were thinking about him, too.

Trump spent the first day of his (official) 2019 vacation on Twitter the way he spends many other days: at the golf course, tweeting. In what appears to be his first and so far only public comment on the death in federal custody of his former friend, the notorious pedophile and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, Trump... blamed it on the Clintons.

In reality, Trump is the president and head of the executive branch that controls federal prisons and how inmates are handled—not Bill or Hillary Clinton.

Trump has not come within earshot of a reporter since Epstein was found dead.

Trump and Epstein were longtime friends who once threw themselves a party in which they and 28 "calendar girls" were the only attendees. (The two later had a falling out over a real estate deal in 2004.) In a 2002 profile for New York Magazine, Trump joked about Epstein's attraction to young women. According to court documents unsealed yesterday, Epstein used Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort as a hunting ground for victims.

Epstein's sweetheart plea deal for earlier charges related to sex with minors was brokered by then-US Attorney Alex Acosta, who later became Trump's secretary of labor. (A federal court this year found that Acosta had broken the law by trying to hide the details of that deal from Epstein's many victims.) Trump's attorney general, William Barr, promised Congress that he would recuse himself from any Epstein-related matters, since he worked for the law firm that defended Epstein, and had an odd family connection to Epstein. But when Epstein was once again indicted by a federal grand jury, Barr reneged on that promise and has stayed involved in the case.

Of course, there's no evidence that Trump was personally, directly involved in Epstein's horrific crimes—although at least one of Epstein's victims has alleged that he was in a lawsuit. Nor is there yet any direct evidence that Trump somehow engineered Epstein's death—although there are angry and bipartisan calls in Congress for an independent investigation as to how Epstein died on Trump's watch. 

That said, Trump routinely accuses other people of doing things he himself has done.

So what?

  • Not every problem Trump has can be blamed on the Clintons.

Friday, August 9, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He was very impressed, once again, with Kim Jong-un's letters.

Trump boasted to reporters today about yet another "very beautiful letter" he'd received from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. He described it as "a beautiful three-page — I mean right from top to bottom — a really beautiful letter."

Talking about the letter led Trump to bash South Korea's government for wanting joint military exercises with the United States. Trump, who tends to view military cooperation with allies as a protection racket, shares Kim Jong-un's preference that they not happen. In fact, Kim has already persuaded Trump to cancel them once, during their ultra-secret, one-on-one summit meeting last year. (China found out, via Kim, that Trump had agreed to it before American military commanders did.)

It's not clear when Trump got the letter, but earlier this week he tweeted a boast that he'd forced South Korea to pay money to have American troops and equipment stationed there. (It's not at all clear that this is true.)

Trump's swoon over the letter comes during a busy few weeks for North Korea: it test-fired missiles five times since July 25, with the most recent test happening today. According to North Korea itself, the missile tests were intended as a warning to the United States and South Korea. 

At this point, it's not clear whether Trump fully understands what side of the conflict the United States is on. In his remarks today, he seemed confused about who had ordered the missile tests, defending Kim on that point before backing down when reporters followed up.

TRUMP: It was a great letter. He talked about what he’s doing. He’s not happy with the testing. It’s a very small testing that we did. But he wasn’t happy with the testing; he put that in the letter. But he also sees a great future for North Korea. And so we’ll see how it all works out. 
Q: Mr. President, what do you mean that he wasn’t happy with the missile tests? He carried them out. He ordered them. 
TRUMP: No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t happy with the tests — the war games. The war games on the other side, with the United States. And as you know, I’ve never liked it either. I’ve never liked it. I’ve never been a fan. 

Why should I care about this? 

  • It shouldn't be possible for an enemy nation to manipulate the President of the United States this much just by sending nice letters.
  • No one this easily confused about matters this important can serve as commander-in-chief.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He threatened to expand his trade war into a currency war.

Trump, who has spent the last 18 months learning the hard way that trade wars are not "good and easy to win," is now threatening to start a currency war with China. This morning, he tweeted:

As your President, one would think that I would be thrilled with our very strong dollar. I am not! The Fed’s high interest rate level, in comparison to other countries, is keeping the dollar high, making it more difficult for our great manufacturers like Caterpillar, Boeing,.........John Deere, our car companies, & others, to compete on a level playing field. With substantial Fed Cuts (there is no inflation) and no quantitative tightening, the dollar will make it possible for our companies to win against any competition. We have the greatest the world, there is nobody even close, but unfortunately the same cannot be said about our Federal Reserve. They have called it wrong at every step of the way, and we are still winning. Can you imagine what would happen if they actually called it right?

(Side notes: Trump appointed all but one member of the current Fed leadership who he thinks "have called it wrong." There is inflation for the moment, which is a good thing. Interest rates are very low, and dropped last week because the Fed knows that there are serious indications of a recession on the horizon. Trump personally saves millions of dollars in servicing his enormous personal debt when interest rates fall.)

The tweet reflects Trump's recent flirtation with the idea of taking action to weaken the dollar, which would help U.S. exporters but make foreign goods more expensive for American consumers.

The problem is that China has an even bigger advantage in a currency war than it does in the trade war. The value of the yuan is essentially dictated by Beijing on a nightly basis; no such control is possible with the much more widely held dollar. When China allowed the value of its currency to drop below a certain benchmark on Monday, it triggered massive disruption in American markets—and the fair market value of the yuan is much lower than that. All China has to do is stop manipulating its currency in order to provoke catastrophic short-term damage to the U.S. economy. The more barriers to trade Trump piles up in the form of tariffs and currency manipulation, the less incentive there is for China to refrain from doing that.

Trump once called his national security advisor in the middle of the night because he couldn't remember whether he was supposed to be for a strong or weak dollar.

So what?

  • It is very bad if the president can't or won't learn the basics of how the economy works.
  • Presidents are supposed to act in the best interest of the country, not just their own personal interests.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

What did Donald Trump do today?

He consoled people, as only he can.

This morning, before brief visits to El Paso and Dayton, where gunmen have recently committed mass murder, Trump said that his words "bring people together." He also said that he would "stay above the political fray."

Also today, Trump insulted Beto O'Rourke, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Dayton mayor Nan Whaley, former Vice-President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Korea (but not North Korea). He attacked the "fake news" media, Rep. Joaquin Castro and his brother, presidential candidate Julian Castro, CNN, Fox News anchor Shepherd Smith, the Federal Reserve (all but one of whose governors he appointed), the New York Times and "Radical Left Democrats" in general. Trump also equated the so-called "antifa," or anti-fascist movement, with the white supremacist ideology that motivated the El Paso terrorist attack. 

(This is a partial list, as full transcripts of Trump's public speeches are not always immediately available.)

Trump's visits outraged many in both cities, especially in El Paso, where last Sunday's terrorist attack was committed by a white supremacist who used Trump's own language as a justification for murdering Latinos. Trump last visited El Paso in February for a campaign rally—he still owes the city's police department more than half a million dollars as a result—and denounced Mexicans as the reason for the city's supposedly high crime rate. Before the terrorist attack committed against Latinos, El Paso was one of the safest cities in the United States.

Why should I care about this?

  • Donald Trump was not actually the victim of these attacks.
  • Not being able to control your temper, or behave appropriately in social situations, is a sign of mental illness.